The sight of his brother's face struck Faramir like a blow to the stomach, leaving him stunned and gasping for air. One of the guards seized his arm before he could fall to his knees, and he leaned gratefully against this Man as he stumbled toward the council chamber. He forced himself to breathe slowly. Breathe slowly and try to think. Reason said that this must be some cruel deceit, though his heart told him what he longed to hear—that his brother had returned. He needed Aragorn's counsel for he dared not trust his own judgment, but it would be weeks if not months ere the fleet returned from Umbar.
The council chamber faced south, and the iron shutters were open to let in the thin winter sunlight. The councilors' chairs of richly carved wood sat in a half circle that faced the King's seat on its raised dais. At the foot of the dais sat a plain black chair for the Steward. Faramir sank into it and thanked the guard for his aid.
"Fetch a healer to attend to the messenger," Faramir told him. "And tell the warden of the Houses that I would speak with him as soon as he can be spared from his duties."
"Forgive me for speaking so boldly, lord, but your face is as white as a winding-sheet. I would rather not leave you alone."
Faramir shook his head. "For a moment, I felt lightheaded, but the dizziness has passed."
With a doubtful "As you wish, lord," the guard bowed to Faramir then left on his errand to the Houses.
Two soldiers led the messenger into the council chamber then halted him before the Steward's seat. The likeness to Boromir was even more striking in the chill winter sunlight. The Man was broad across the shoulders and taller than either of his guards. Though he came as a captive with his hands bound, his bearing was easy and he wore the plain grey cloak like a princely mantle. There was no mistaking his brother's beloved face, though Boromir's once proud glance now seemed weary and sad, and an unhealed gash marred one cheekbone. That Man is not my brother, Faramir reminded himself. Rather he is an imposter or a semblance raised by dark arts.
The messenger bowed low to the King's empty seat; then he knelt before Faramir. He looked on the verge of fainting for under the streaks of dirt, his skin was stark white. At Faramir's command, the men brought a low chair, and the messenger was seated, the rush seat creaking under his weight.
"Leave us now," Faramir told the guards. The door closed behind them, and the chamber was suddenly still. Outside in the courtyard, a sparrow chirped and trilled. Sunlight streamed through the windows, leaving trails of golden dust. Could some unlucky stranger been forced to play this role? Could a Man who resembled Boromir have been drugged or tormented until he would do whatever was asked? The use of such cruel schemes was not unknown to the Enemy.
"Who are you?" Faramir asked. "Be not afraid to speak the truth."
"I cannot blame you for doubting me, but I swear on what little honor I have left that I am Boromir, son of Denethor, High Warden of the White Tower and your older brother."
"That Man has been dead for months. Elessar King was with him when he died, and with my own eyes, I saw his lifeless body in a boat adrift on the Anduin."
"I did not deny that I am dead. Unwind these bandages and you will see clear proof. I took three arrows to the heart and six at least in my back, though after a time I lost count."
Rising from his seat, Faramir went to the windows and stood with his back to the messenger. He felt sick with horror and grief. The words, the voice, the forthright manner—all were too perfect to bear. If this was a deceit, the planning had been masterful. He gazed into the courtyard, staring blindly through tears. "If you are in truth Lord Boromir, how is it that you came to return from the dead?"
For a long moment, the other Man was silent. "You know the manner of my death if you saw my body and you spoke with Aragorn son of Arathorn. He treated me with great mercy, far greater than I deserved, and tried to ease my last moments. After that…after that I remember little. A long sleep I called it when I spoke to you just now, but I deem it more like the blind awareness of a worm that crawls in the earth. I knew when the Shadow was lifted. And also I knew when our father had gone beyond the circles of the world."
Faramir looked up from the window. "What else do you know of Lord Denethor's fate?"
Bowing his head, the messenger winced as if stabbed with pain. "Only that he has died and gone to the Halls of Waiting. The Valar help me, Faramir, I understand this no better than you do."
"Rest a moment. You look unwell," Faramir told him curtly, though he wanted to bury his face in his hands and weep. He poured some wine from the bottle on the sideboard and carried it to the messenger. Since his hands were still bound behind his back, Faramir had to hold the cup so he could drink.
"My thanks, but you need not worry for I am long past fainting," the messenger said with a wry smile when he had emptied the cup. "Why I did not join our father in the Halls of Waiting, I do not know. Instead, I lay in a daze, seeing the stars as through a veil of water-until a vision recalled me to myself." Then he told of the same vision that Faramir had seen, with the cistern and the rustling darkness and the mangled young White Tree. "And when I awoke," he said, "I stood on the ramparts of Minas Tirith."
"For the past three nights, I have had the same dream," Faramir replied. "That you shared it is some token that you speak the truth."
"It would not be the first time that the Valar bestowed the same vision upon us. And what better way to gain your notice than to send your dead brother as the messenger?" The other Man looked up at him with Boromir's clear grey eyes.
"Yet you have no memory of how you came to Minas Tirith?"
The messenger shook his head. "None whatsoever. I found myself on the ramparts in the middle of the night. As chance would have it, Eldahil's company had the watch, and his men told their commander that a ghost was walking the ramparts. He joined them in their vigil, and never was I so happy to see an old friend." With a worried scowl, he added, "Though he may now regret being drawn into my troubles."
With an echoing thud, the tall doors swung open, and the Queen of Arnor and Gondor rushed into the chamber. The crown had slid to one side of her dark head, and her hair fell to her waist in a tangle of braids and pins. "Prince Faramir, I must speak with you! Something not of this world-" Then she halted abruptly, her eyes wide. "Lord Boromir!"
"Your Grace," the messenger said with an uneasy look as he rose from the seat and bowed low.
Silk skirts rustling, Arwen hurried across the chamber. "What brings you from the Halls of Mandos?" she asked. "Why have you left your appointed place?" Strangely, she seemed more concerned than afraid.
"Lady, I know not, unless my treachery has bound me to this world."
"The waters of the Anduin have long since washed away any guilt. Let go of the past, son of Denethor." As she spoke, she reached out her hand and gently touched his shoulder.
He bowed his head, his dark hair falling across his face. "Lady, I cannot," he replied, and it sounded as if he wept.
"Leave him be," Faramir told her, his voice sounding harsher than he had intended. "He should not be questioned further until a healer has seen to his wounds."
"Of course. Forgive me, Lord Boromir. I meant you no harm. Prince Faramir, I would speak with you alone."
Faramir led her into the adjoining chamber, a small library used by the scribes. There they could speak in private, and he could watch the messenger through the door.
"You called him 'Lord Boromir.' Do you truly believe that Man is my brother?" Faramir asked the queen. "I fear my judgment is blinded by a grief that is still very near."
"Then let me tell you my judgment, for I am not swayed by a brother's love. I met Lord Boromir in Imladris, and this is the same Man, in spirit and in flesh. Every Elf in my household sensed the presence of one who is not of this world."
"He cannot say how he came here. Was some foul sorcery used to return him from the grave?" Through the door, he could see the messenger standing quietly before the Steward's seat as if awaiting his doom.
"In the north, the dead of Cardolan were laid to rest in Tyrn Gorthad, called by the Halflings the Barrowdowns. Spirits came from Angmar and possessed the bodies of the slain, but this Man is not such a creature. I can sense no taint of evil in his mind."
Though her face was unmarred by age, she had seen the fall of the Northern Kingdom a thousand years before, and to her people, the barrow-wights were more than just a fireside tale. She shivered a little as she spoke, though whether from old memory or the cold of the empty library, Faramir did not know. He offered her his cloak, and she drew it closely about her shoulders, then she walked to the window and stood in the warmth of the sunlight.
"But if not raised by dark arts, then how was he brought back?" she asked. "His comrades gave his body into the care of the Anduin. Perhaps his return is the work of Lord Ulmo. He has ever been a friend to your people."
Ulmo, lord of all waters flowing under and over the earth, armored for battle with glittering scales, sounding his great horn in the deep. Faramir thought of his waking dream of the funeral boat. The water around his slain brother had gleamed as if lit from within. Had that also been the work of the Valar? "The past three nights, I dreamt that I saw the great lake in the City cistern," Faramir said slowly. "This errandrider says he beheld the same vision."
"Prince, you are wise to question your judgment in a matter so close to your heart, but it would be a grave mistake to doubt a messenger who was clearly sent by the Valar."
He looked into her eyes that shone with the ancient light of the stars, and he knew that she spoke the truth.