It was a runt of a kitten, a fluff of rusty fur. Faramir had found it in the storerooms, wedged behind a barrel of grain. By instinct he took it under his shirt and smuggled the kit to his rooms.
Gaunt sides, wispy fur, a round head that seemed too large for the scrawny body. Warm little paws that were softer than silk. Wide blue eyes – Faramir had read somewhere that all babies were born with blue eyes, which later changed color. But for now, the kitten reminded him of himself.
"Farron," he named it in a whisper.
The little creature curled against his chest.
"Hold position," Faramir commanded quietly. "Hold…"
He dragged the end of his quill – carefully cleaned and dried – over his bed covers. Farron followed it with lethal concentration. Its small hips began churning.
"Hold…" Faramir wriggled the quill. "Charge!"
The kitten shot out. It touched his paw to the tip of the quill, spooked, jumped aside and tangled in the sheets, then quickly sat up and licked its flank with smooth, long strokes.
When the kitten shot him an indignant look, he composed himself and struck a Drill Sergeant's pose. "Your launch is passable," he informed the kit, "but your engagement technique is deplorable. We shall have to work on that, young Farron."
But first… He picked up a reading book, propped himself against the pillows. The kitten, needing neither training nor prompting, curled up on his lap. Its fur smelled of milk and dust and summer. Faramir began to read out loud
"The Firstborn are said to be the chosen of Ilúvatar…"
A Captain of Men took care of his troops. Faramir was only eight, and not even a soldier yet, but one day he would be a captain. For now he would take care of his single feline trooper.
It took cunning and stealth to provide for the kit. All-out cavalry charges on the kitchens were out of the question. The situation called for a lighter touch, like that of the southern Rangers. Reconnoiter. Infiltrate. Work behind kitchen-maid lines. Retreat…
The Lord Steward's voice made the boy freeze in the middle of the hallway. He clutched the butter dish to his stomach and wished he didn't have to turn around.
He turned around.
Lord Denethor, in his official robes, stood as tall as the Tower of Ecthelion. His face was shuttered, locked, guarded.
"Sir?" said Faramir.
"You're late for sword practice."
"My apologies, sir." Faramir conquered the urge to shuffle his feet. "I'll report immediately. I need only put this in my room –"
"You can't keep it, Faramir."
Faramir's heart faltered. "The – the butter?" he said.
Father's eyes narrowed to arrow-slits, and Faramir immediately regretted his words. Foolish words. Cowardly words. He wished he could fold in on himself, become as small as a kitten, far beneath Man's regard.
"My Lord Father," he started. "If I may –"
"Get rid of it, or I will," Denethor said, already leaving.
Faramir knew an official verdict when he heard one. Still – "Boromir keeps a pet!"
"One hardly calls a hound his pet!" Denethor whirled back, anger flying from the battlements of his face. "In the hands of a man, a hound is a valuable tool!"
Unlike a cat, Faramir thought. Unlike in his own hands.
He looked down. "But I'm teaching it to fight," he said softly.
Strong fingers took his chin and tilted his head up. His neck protested the awkward angle. Denethor's eyes mastered the field between them.
"Do you expect all your enemies to be mice, son?"
Faramir bit his lower to stop its trembling. Son. Even in contempt, even in reproach, his father hadn't repudiated him. Mercy for the vanquished troops, or an offer to surrender?
"No, sir," he said quietly. "I will fight all of Gondor's enemies, whoever they may be."
A curt nod, and the fingers released his chin. Faramir bowed his head again. If his father was like unto the Tower of Ecthelion, was he then the Tree of Gondor, standing in its shadow, broken and wilted?
The Steward's hand, facing up, entered his field of vision. Faramir carefully placed the butter dish on the calloused palm. From the corner of his eye he saw Father's other hand hover above his shoulder, as if debating whether to land there. But no, it only brushed some lint from his shirt.
"Off to your lessons," Denethor said in a voice that was measured and calm.
Faramir bowed and turned to leave.
He froze. Clenched his empty hands. Turned around. "Sir?"
Denethor's face was shuttered and locked again. "When you prove yourself with the practice sword, you may choose a pup," he said. "One trusts one's son to train it well."
Faramir nodded. A week ago, the news would have lit up his skies like Gandalf's fireworks. Now the words only rained down on the debris of his lost battle.
When he returned from practice, there were signs of struggle on his bed, and the kitten was gone from his rooms. He sat on the twisted sheets and caressed the scattered ginger hairs. His breath hitched in his chest as his fingers came back moist with blood.
"Farron," he whispered.
His first command.
He stacked his reading books and put them away, angrily wiping tears from his eyes.
He would not lose another.
Denethor strode through the rain, huddled in a heavy cloak. Around him, the streets were empty. Night and storm conspired to keep the people of Minas Tirith at home; would that their Steward could do the same.
He reached a bakery and banged his fist on its door, and again, ignoring the curses from the upper floor. Its denizens should be rising soon, either way.
"Do you think me cruel?" he said quietly.
From within the folds of his cloak, the ginger kitten looked at him with wide blue eyes. It reminded him of Faramir.
"The times are harsh, little one. Faramir cannot afford to stay a child. That I must push him too soon to become a man…"
Footsteps thumped down a staircase inside.
Denethor bowed his head. "The world would be a different place for all three of us, if we could have our wishes," he whispered into a furry ear.
The bakery door flew open, and in the doorway stood a thickset man with a lantern and a cudgel. "What?"
The Steward waited until the man recognized him, then he grabbed the kitten by its scruff and held it out. "A ratter for you, and well trained." He grimaced at his thumb, which sported two small but deep puncture wounds.
The man, looking bewildered, took the little feline.
Denethor let the grimace slide off his face. Softly, awkwardly, he reached out and rubbed the kitten's head. His throat tightened with the words he couldn't say to someone who wasn't there, anyway. Instead, his eyes pinned the kit's new owner. "Take good care of him."
Author's note: Farron is a homage to Evendim's "Sworn to Service". The title is a homage to Yeats.
In memory of Joje.