A/N: The book passage that inspired this is at the bottom. Odd choice, but the plot bunny wouldn't leave me alone. The title, obviously, is a little more movie-inspired. And I couldn't figure out a way to fit it in "An Act of Desperation", so it'll just have to be its own story. Hope you enjoy.
Until the Stars Are All Alight
"My lord, are you certain that this is a good idea?"
Húrin, the Warden of the Keys, regarded Faramir with a concerned furrow in his brow as he stood before him. Faramir frowned in response, unable to help feeling a little annoyed. "Húrin, you have told me yourself that all the other preparations have been made for the King's return," he said. "All that remains is to get the crown. Lord Aragorn and his company will be arriving any day now, and I cannot delay any longer."
"But Rath Dínen? Surely you can send someone else to retrieve it, my lord," Húrin persisted.
Faramir's face darkened; though he did not realize it, his expression was quite similar to the one his father had often worn, when he would not be argued with on a certain matter. "Whatever happens when the King returns, Húrin, I am still the Steward for now. And as such, it is my duty."
"Very well, my lord." Húrin finally retreated, and Faramir breathed a sigh of relief. Truth be told, he was feeling rather hesitant to walk the Silent Street, knowing that the final moments of his father's madness and death had taken place there. But he had spoken truly, he reminded himself; as the Steward, it was his duty to get the King's crown, and his alone. And the afternoon was drawing to a close; he had to go before nightfall. With his resolve firmly set, he left the Citadel.
The road leading to the door of Fen Hollen was deserted, as he had expected; the majority of those who had returned to Minas Tirith were staying in the lower circles, for the most part, as they worked to get the city in order before the King's arrival. Finally, at the westward end of the sixth circle, he reached the door and pulled out the key that Beregond had given him before leaving for the Black Gate. Under normal circumstances, a porter would have been waiting to allow him to enter, but now there was too much to do in order to care for the living to be able to spare a man to guard the dead.
In spite of his Ranger training, his footsteps seemed to echo loudly off of the dead stone surrounding him as he wound his way down the path and under the shadow of Mindolluin to where the houses of the dead were. He had not walked these streets since he was a child and his father would take him and Boromir to pay their respects to their mother once a year, but he knew well his destination: the buildings housing the tombs of the Kings were at the very end of Rath Dínen.
He was not far from the Kings' houses when he rounded a bend in the road and froze. Before him stood the remains of what had once housed the tombs of the Stewards; all that remained was a pile of charred stone and rubble. It appeared that the ruins had been untouched since the tragedy; a fine layer of dust and soot still covered the stones, and the smell of ash lingered faintly in the air. All Faramir could do was stand there in shock. Though he had managed to learn the truth behind his father's death, at least in part, it had been insufficient to prepare him for such a sight.
Once he had recovered enough from his initial shock, Faramir began surveying the wreckage with a Ranger's eye. In the failing light, he caught a glimpse of something gleaming darkly amidst the ruins. Though his curiosity was aroused, he stood there for a moment in indecision. He finally stepped towards the ruins cautiously, almost as if he were being drawn against his will, carefully picking his way through the rubble.
It was half-buried by the charred wood and stone, but as he drew closer, he could see a sphere that looked as if it had been cut from jet-black crystal. Despite the ruin around it, it appeared to be completely undamaged. Faramir instantly realized what it was, and involuntarily drew back as the memory of the last time he had seen the palantír returned, as clearly as if he were viewing it in the Seeing Stone itself.
He had been little more than a child on that day when he and Boromir had entered the Steward's study. Boromir's wooden practice sword had been taken from him until his tutor decided he was paying enough attention to his studies, and he was hoping to find it among his father's things. Faramir had merely tagged along to spend the time with his brother, though he was also hoping to find an interesting book among the ones in his father's study.
They had found the palantír by accident; Boromir, trying to look behind a small table, lost his balance slightly and bumped the pillar where it had sat, half-hidden behind a pile of documents. Both boys had stood in frozen horror as the crystal sphere fell from its stand and onto the floor, certain that it would shatter. When it did not, Faramir, not knowing what it was, had moved to pick it up so they could return it to its place. Something about the dark ball both repulsed and enthralled the young boy, and he stared at it as he picked it up. Then it seemed to Faramir that it began to glow darkly from within, like the last dying embers of a fire.
An alarmed look crossed Boromir's face, as if he suddenly realized what his brother was holding. "Put it down, Faramir!" he shouted, but it was too late. The light within the palantír seemed to shift and change until it formed images; pleasant at first, of his city and the surrounding lands. Then they suddenly grew darker, horrible images that he had only seen in his worst nightmares, and, above all, a great Eye that seemed to be made of fire, searching for something. Faramir had tried to close his eyes, to pull away from the palantír, but he could not. And then that horrible gaze had found him.
The next thing he could clearly remember was lying on the cold stone floor of the Steward's study, with his father frantically calling his name and Boromir exclaiming between gasping sobs that it had been his fault, that it was his idea to enter the study, and he had been the one to knock the palantír over. Faramir had never forgotten the look of relief in Denethor's eyes when he was finally able to open his eyes and focus on his father's face, nor the horror of the images he had seen. He had not seen the palantír itself since; it had been removed from his father's study, and though he suspected in later years that it had been moved to the small room at the top of the Tower of Ecthelion, his duties had always prevented him from investigating further.
And now was his chance to do so. Faramir knelt down on the ground, reaching down to pick up the palantír. Then he paused. It was likely that this had been the source of the madness and despair that had consumed his father in the end; did he—could he—dare attempt to use it himself?
If nothing else, he reasoned, the Seeing Stone rightfully belonged to the King. It could not remain in Rath Dínen. And, truth be told, he needed to know the truth. With his mind firmly made up, he picked up the palantír and set it on his knee, looking into the dark sphere.
Just as before, nothing happened at first. Then the palantír began to glow from within, as if lit by fire. The image grew sharper and clearer, filling his entire vision until he realized that it was a pair of hands, clutching at the globe as if to tear it from his own hands, all the while being consumed by the flames within the globe. Paralyzed by horror as he realized that this truly was how his father's life had ended, Faramir was unable to do anything other than stare. Then, just as it seemed that the vision would consume him as well, he wrenched his thoughts away from the palantír's control and sat back, gasping for breath.
It was several minutes before he gathered the courage to try again. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he looked into the palantír once more. Once more, the hands were there, reaching out as if trying to pull him in. But he knew what to expect now, and firmly turned his thoughts away from the horrific sight. After what seemed like an eternity, the vision shifted. A multitude of dark, dream-like images passed before his eyes, fighting to dominate his sight; swarms of orcs and Haradrim running free over the Pelennor, fire in the lower levels of Minas Tirith, black ships sailing up the Anduin, and, to his surprise, himself being carried, unconscious and feverish, up to the Citadel. Then the vision shifted, as suddenly as the images had changed when he had looked into the palantír; he saw himself, tossing and turning deliriously on his bed, while a Halfling in the livery of Gondor looked on, seemingly forgotten. Despair, like the black wave that had so often haunted his dreams, welled up, and he knew it would not be long before it overtook him completely…
An alarmed cry cut through the darkness in his mind, bringing him back to himself. Faramir lifted his head and turned to look over his shoulder, blinking to try to clear his vision. All he could see at first was a light shimmering in the darkness, like a star suddenly breaking through the clouds on a dark night. Then his sight cleared, and he saw Éowyn standing there behind him, with the early twilight shining on her fair hair and white dress. For a moment she stood and watched him, seemingly frozen. Then the spell was broken, and she ran over and fell to her knees beside him, throwing her arms around him.
"Éowyn," he managed to choke out as the palantír fell from his hands. Then all he could do was cling to her tightly, burying his face in her golden hair as if to assure himself that she was truly there and not just another vision. He did not realize that he was weeping until she finally pulled back a little, brushing her hand against his cheek.
"How…how did you know where to find me?" he finally finished, his voice breaking.
"Húrin came and told me where you were going," she answered. "He was deeply concerned for you, and so I came to look for you. He was going to come too, but then we thought it might be best for you if I came alone. But when I realized where you were…" There was a note of panic in her voice as it trailed off. She was the only one whom he had told the entire story of his father's madness to, as far as he knew it, and so she was the only one who could fully understand what this place meant for him now.
"Oh, Faramir, I was so worried!" she continued. "And then I called you, but you did not answer. What was that…that thing you were holding? And did you not hear me?" Faramir could see fear in her steel-grey eyes as her gaze searched his face for assurance that he was well.
"No, I did not," Faramir confessed. "And it is one of the Seeing Stones of Númenor." He hesitated before answering further, unsure how or even if he should tell her what he had seen. "I know not how to explain it, Éowyn," he finally said. "But I think I understand now. He was not trying to harm me; he was trying to…to spare me."
Éowyn's brow furrowed. "I do not understand," she said.
Faramir glanced over at the Seeing Stone, still lying on the ground, then picked it up and wrapped it in his cloak so that he might turn it over to Aragorn when he returned. "He could see no hope that the city would stand. I think that he truly believed that this was a kinder fate than what I would meet at the hands of the orcs, if they were to have the victory."
He knew that she was unconvinced; the expression on her face told him that she was horrified at the thought of Denethor's pyre as an act of mercy, nor could she understand how Faramir could conclude such a thing. He hoped that someday, when he could explain more fully, perhaps he could help her see how. But Éowyn finally nodded, realizing that whether she agreed with him or not, he needed to believe that it had been his father's love that had led him to such an end. All he could do now was hope that somehow, Denethor had found some peace in spite of it.
Faramir stood up and helped Eowyn to her feet, then looked up at the sky. Night had completely fallen, and the darkness caused the stars overhead to burn all the more brightly. The sight filled him with hope, as did the woman standing next to him as she slipped her hand into his. "Are you ready to go back?" she asked after a moment.
He was about to answer that he was, until he remembered. "The crown! I had nearly forgotten! Éowyn, if you could give me a moment…"
"No," she interrupted. "We will go together."
He could tell by the stubborn look in her eyes that she would not allow him to leave her behind, and so he conceded. Her hand stayed firmly in his as they continued towards the tombs of the Kings, and Faramir could not help smiling faintly, knowing that he would not have to walk this dark path alone.
"…it was the custom of old that the king should receive the crown from his father ere he died; or if that might not be, that he should go alone and take it from the hands of his father in the tomb where he was laid. But since things must now be done otherwise, using the authority of the Steward, I have today brought hither from Rath Dínen the crown of Eärnur the last king, whose days passed in the time of our longfathers of old." –Return of the King, Book 6 Chapter V, "The Steward and the King"