Under the Shadow of a Sword
Author's Note: Oddly enough, this story started with the title, and the title was prompted by a completely unrelated situation in a completely unrelated movie. As I re-watched Jodhaa Akbar the other day, a phrase from it caught my attention. It was "Why do my close ones have to fall under the shadow of my sword?" It stuck it my head stubbornly until it attracted this plot bunny, just as I was hunting for one for Cressida's birthday. I hope you enjoyed the present, Cress, and thank you for the beta job, as usual!
Six-year-old Boromir placed the last wooden block on the top of the tower he was building and turned to his mother with a decisive look on his face.
"Mother," he said, "what are we going to give Faramir for his first birthday?"
Finduilas smiled at him, taking her eyes away from her needlework.
"His birthday gift is precisely what I am working on, dear," she replied.
"Oh?" Boromir perked up, standing up and walking carefully around his tower to have a better look. "What is it?"
"A new toy for him, love," Finduilas said, demonstrating a very good stuffed likeness of a duck about half the size of a real one, made of colourful scraps of fabric helpfully provided by her seamstress. The duck still looked unfinished, and Boromir did not fail to comment on that.
"But it doesn't have eyes. Or feet!"
"True. I am about to sew on buttons for eyes, and as for the feet…well, instead, I will attach four small wheels, and then a string to the front of the duck, and Faramir will be able to pull it around. You know how your brother loves toy wagons, so I think this will please him too," she explained.
Boromir gave a quiet snort. "A duck," he grumbled. "Just when will he learn to really play?"
Finduilas chuckled and said, "The day will come sooner than you think, Boromir. Remember, just three weeks ago Faramir was barely trying to stand up, and look how well he can walk now."
"That's because I made him practice," Boromir pointed out proudly. "Maybe if someone taught him to play with real toys and made him practice that too, he'd learn more quickly!"
Finduilas smiled and pulled her older son into her lap.
"Remember what I told you, Boromir? Children need to take their time to learn new things. No little boy will learn anything before his time; you can certainly help your brother, but you also have to be very patient."
"I know…" Boromir sighed. "I just wish I didn't have to be patient for so long!"
When the day finally came, little Faramir was the person the least perturbed by the importance of it. He started it by sleeping longer than usual, which annoyed Boromir to no end. Finduilas could not fail to notice how excited her eldest was; Boromir had never been a very calm child, but now he was nearly bursting with anticipation, running in and out of the nursery to see if his little brother was awake. Finduilas had guessed the reason for this, and was becoming more and more curious as to what gift Boromir had prepared. Of the fact that it was a birthday gift he had in mind, she had no doubt at all.
Then, when Faramir finally was awake, word came from the Steward that he would be unable to join his family until luncheon and advised his lady and his heir to start their little feast without him. Finduilas sighed quietly in sympathy when she heard this. Her husband had only recently received the White Rod, as Faramir's first birthday was preceded closely by the death of the little boy's grandsire, Ecthelion. If not for that sad event, the Steward's family would certainly have had more than just their private family celebration for their younger son.
Finduilas did not mind it – indeed, she preferred to spend her day with her son rather than to receive dozens of important guests. However, she was determined to wait until Denethor finished his duties for the day, and that meant more torture for Boromir.
"And you don't even know it's your birthday," the latter grumbled, watching his little brother pushing a bright green toy wagon back and forth. "It's as if I was the one who needed it most!"
He did not have to wait too long, though, for Denethor appeared just before luncheon was brought (Finduilas had asked for it to be served in the nursery). The Steward gave a slightly apologetic smile and took his youngest in his arms, wagon and all.
"Happy first birthday, son," he said, kissing the dark head and earning a long and serious gaze followed by a grin and a heartfelt embrace. An instant later, he winced, for one of his son's small hands was still clutching the green wagon, and the embrace caused it to come into contact with the back of the Steward's head. Boromir giggled, and when Denethor looked at his wife, he saw that her eyes were dancing too.
"Never mind these two," he said to Faramir, winking at him. Finduilas smiled and took a hand from behind her back, revealing the finished duck on wheels.
"Happy birthday, my dear," she said, kissing the child too, and handed him the toy, exchanging it with the wagon. Faramir squealed in delight. "Duck" was one of the few words he could say, and he repeated it at least half a dozen times; then, he noticed the wheels and immediately started to wiggle in Denethor's arms, wanting to try the new toy on the floor.
As they watched him play, Denethor sighed.
"I wish I had a gift for him too, but…it seems I have time for everyone except my own children these days!"
Finduilas stroked his arm lightly. "'Tis no matter," she said. "You can make your sons happy even without gifts."
"Aye," he said, nodding, and smiled at her.
Just then, they both realized they had hardly heard a sound from their eldest. Denethor turned around to where Boromir was standing, about to comment on this highly unusual fact, to see his heir looking rather smug.
Before his parents could utter a word, Boromir stepped forward, hands behind his back, and announced, "Look here, Faramir! I have the best gift ever."
Upon hearing his name, Faramir looked up from his duck, a question in his large grey eyes. His older brother took another step and proudly produced his own gift.
It was a wooden sword, small and light, and made not without skill. Upon closer examination, it was clear that the toy had been used before; however, someone had made the effort to conceal tiny cracks and scratches with polish and paint, and the sword could still serve another young owner. Finduilas shook her head, amused.
"He must have gotten it from a servant who has children," she whispered to Denethor. "I think I heard him talking to several of them about looking for a…proper gift for his brother."
Faramir looked interested in the new toy. He first tried to put it onto his wagon, then onto the duck, after which Boromir, shocked by such irreverence and impropriety, took the sword away and busied himself with showing his little brother exactly how to play with it correctly. The Steward and his lady looked at the children with smiles on their faces, and sat down to their meal and a quiet conversation, interrupted now and then by an exclamation from their sons.
The day was already drawing to its close when Finduilas, distracted from the pleasant duties of the day by a visit from the chief archivist, returned to the nursery.
After the luncheon Denethor and Finduilas had both stayed with Boromir and Faramir awhile, sometimes taking part in their play, sometimes content merely to watch the two. During that time, several other people, both nobles and common servants, had found a moment to bring a word of greeting and often a gift for the youngest member of the Steward's family. Finduilas could see that Boromir felt a little excluded; however, she was also impressed with how he tried to set his slight resentment aside. Denethor noticed it too, so he suggested to his heir a game of chess, to which Boromir agreed most eagerly. Father and son spent a good hour and a half over the tiny likeness of a battle, until it was time for the Steward to return to his duties.
As Finduilas approached the door, she was surprised by the complete silence that greeted her in the nursery. Like almost every mother, her first thought was about some mischief that the boys were probably busy with. However, she need not have worried, for they were both lying on the carpet in the middle of the room, both sound asleep. The Steward's lady chuckled as her eyes fell onto the stuffed duck with wheels, its string clutched in Boromir'shand. Faramir lay snuggled against his brother's side, his face half-hidden in the folds of Boromir's red tunic. The birthday gifts – toys, books, pencils – lay scattered around the sleeping children.
Finduilas's eyes searched for the sword and were not able to see it. Puzzled, she looked around the nursery and spotted it: someone, most probably Boromir, for reasons known only to him, had tied its hilt to the top of the window frame, and it was hanging there, immobile.
Suddenly, something bothered Finduilas. She looked at the sword for a long moment, and then slowly moved her gaze to the children, seeing something that had escaped her notice before.
The still-bright rays of early evening poured into the window, surrounding the two brothers with a pool of the reddening light; and across their bodies lay a shadow of the toy sword, lengthened and sharpened by the setting sun, frighteningly black against the circle of light. Finduilas froze, her heart suddenly giving a panicked leap.
Slowly, she backed towards the door, her widened eyes never leaving the children; as she closed it, she felt her legs shaking under her. She continued backing away from the nursery door until her body felt the opposite wall; pressing her open palms against it, she slid down into a crouch, still staring in front of herself.
And even though there were several inches of dark oak between her and her children, the image refused to leave her panicked mind; the image of her two sons lying in the middle of a red pool, with an ominous shadow of a sword across their little bodies.
She knew not how much time she spent in that stupor; it was as if all around her froze, and there was no movement or sound in the entire Citadel. Then she became aware of people walking and running around her; some detached part of her mind registered a touch to her shoulder and a gentle pull that soon had her back on her feet. Her lips felt dry; she licked them, and then someone put something cold to them. Mechanically, she opened her mouth and took a sip of some liquid, but no sooner had it reached her stomach than she bent double in sharp pain.
Faces drifted by, faces she could not even discern through the fog that her fear had filled her mind with. Then, one of them stopped right before her, and someone's warm palms were pressed to her cheeks. She blinked as her eyes focused on her husband's face, pale and concerned.
Denethor did not say a word, but she suddenly felt the black panic recede a little. She reached up and took his hands in hers, then lowered her head to hide her face on his shoulder.
"Don't go," she whispered hoarsely.
Still without a word, he scooped her up and carried her to her bedchamber. She was silent as he lowered her into a large chair and called for her maid. The girl came and helped her change into her nightgown; with Denethor's help, she climbed under the covers and lay there still, looking at her husband with dark troubled eyes.
Denethor looked down at her, a thousand questions written on his face. "I think I should send for a healer," he said quietly, bending down to stroke her head.
Finduilas shook her head vehemently, pushing herself up to a sitting position. "No," she said. "Please, do not. I am better now, and I shall be well by the morning. Just…stay with me?"
The Steward sat on the bed, pulling her into his lap.
"I will," he said quietly. "Will you tell me what troubled you so much – because 'tis plain it was not a mere bodily pain that startled you so?"
She nodded several times against his shoulder and started her story in a low, halting voice, gradually relaxing in his arms, tightened protectively around her.
Finduilas had expected to feel ill and broken by the morning, and was taken by surprise by a slight headache being the only reminder of the incident of the day before. She rose early to see her husband sitting by the window with a book in his hands; however, he did not seem too involved in it, as he put it down the very instant she stirred in bed.
"How are you feeling, love?" he asked, walking over and bending down to kiss her. There was still concern in his eyes, and he supported her as she sat up, as if afraid that she might fall.
"Only a little lightheaded," she said, smiling at him reassuringly. "Do not look so worried; I am well, and you can go to your duties."
He looked at her with hesitation. "First you have to promise me to eat something…and to send for me immediately, should you feel indisposed in any way."
After she reassured him multiple times that she would do both things, he embraced her tightly, pressed a kiss to the top of her head and left with obvious reluctance. Finduilas smiled and turned her attention to dressing and washing.
She knew she had better indeed take some breakfast, but her stomach still seemed to be making little leaps and lurches, so she decided to postpone it. Instead, she walked out of the bedchamber and proceeded determinedly towards the nursery.
As she approached it, she felt the remnants of the panic return, tugging nastily at her mind and making her even more lightheaded. Finduilas stopped and took several deep breaths, trying to force her heart to stop beating so wildly. Her hand shook when she put it on the knob, and she could swear she heard the thumping of her own pulse in her ears.
When she opened the door, though, she realized with surprise that the origin of the thumping was not her racing pulse at all.
Inside, her younger son was standing before the fireplace, which was surrounded by a strong fender of thick iron bars, specially installed to keep the children from getting too close to the fire and hurting themselves. Little Faramir was now involved in a very noisy, but obviously very enjoyable game. Holding his new sword firmly by the tip of its wooden blade, he was dragging the hilt across the bars, making the whole structure resonate with a deep booming sound and laughing delightedly every time the wood hit another bar.
Boromir stood several paces behind him, hands on hips, with an expression of extreme frustration.
"Good morning, Mother!" he said. "This is hopeless! I spend all evening and morning teaching him how to handle a sword, and this is what he does! I think you were right, and little children really can't learn anything before it's time…and it isn't time yet for Faramir."
Finduilas looked at him in wonder; then suddenly, she felt as if a great weight was lifted off her shoulders. She reached for both her sons and pulled them to her. As she was doing so, her foot caught on the edge of the carpet, and all of them went down in a tangled heap, bursting into peals of laughter.
As she untangled Faramir's sword from her skirts and then succumbed to the children's enthusiastic embraces, she could hear Boromir's words resound in her head again and again.
"It isn't time yet."
And the fearsome shadow of the sword slowly withdrew from her mind, receding, for a time, to a black speck in the distance and leaving behind only a memory of two children's peaceful slumber in a pool of sunlight.
It is not time yet.