A/N: Written after reading one too many Evil!Denethor fics, this story explores the possibility that Denethor's words, so often used to portray him as an uncaring and abusive father, may have had a different meaning.
"But now we come to strange matters," Faramir said. "For this is not the first halfling that I have seen walking out of northern legends into the Southlands."
Denethor straightened in his chair. He nodded, as all was made clear to him. The Ruling Ring! It would be a mighty thing indeed, if turned against the Enemy.
"--and its hour had already been determined before ever the travellers left my keeping," Faramir said.
"What--" Denethor began, but Mithrandir overrode him.
"The morning of two days ago, nigh on three days of journey! How far is the place where you parted?"
Faramir answered Mithrandir, and Denethor felt a fleeting flash of envy at the respect and love that his son showed for the wizard. Have I been such an ill father? He wondered bitterly, as his son told Mithrandir all that had occurred.
"I hope that I have not done ill?" Faramir finished, glancing at Denethor.
Something snapped in him. "Ill? Why do you ask? The men were under your command. Or do you ask for my judgement on all your deeds? Your bearing is lowly in my presence, yet it is long now since you turned from your own way at my counsel. See, you have spoken skilfully, as ever; but I, have I not seen your eye fixed on Mithrandir, seeking whether you said well or too much? He has long had your heart in his keeping.
"My son, your father is old but not yet dotard. I can see and hear, as was my wont; and little of what you have half said or left unsaid is now hidden from me. I know the answer to many riddles. Alas, alas for Boromir!" And grief renewed flowed back, as it had engulfed him fourteen days ago.
"If what I have done displeases you, my father, I wish I had known your counsel before the burden of so weighty a judgement was thrust on me," Faramir said softly.
Denethor sighed, running a hand through his hair. A plague upon his son's courtliness! War was no time to be gracious. "Would that have availed to change your judgement? You would still have done just so, I deem. I know you well. Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle. That may well befit one of high race, if he sits in power and peace. But in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death."
Faramir's raised his face and met his father's eyes squarely. "So be it," he said stubbornly.
"So be it!" Denethor repeated. Aye, he would-- Denethor knew his son. Then his long buried frustration rose. "But not with your death only, Lord Faramir: with the death also of your father, and of all your people, whom it is your part to protect now that Boromir is gone."
A long silence followed. Faramir looked away. "Do you wish then," he said, so quietly that Denethor almost missed it, "that our places had been exchanged?"
"Yes, I wish that indeed," said Denethor hotly. "For Boromir was loyal to me and no wizard's pupil. He would have remembered his father's need, and would not have squandered what fortune gave. He would have brought me a mighty gift." Ai, Boromir! Hadst thou been at Henneth-Annun, thou wouldst have remembered the need of thy people! Thy brother is all too courteous, when such courtesy would be madness.
Faramir took a small step back, and he paled as if stricken to the heart. He swallowed and bowed his head. Belatedly, Denethor realized that he had phrased his words in the worst way possible. They could easily be interpreted in another way. His blood chilled, knowing that that was how Faramir had interpreted them. My son, dost thou indeed think so ill of thy father? He wanted to amend his words, to embrace his son, but he would not do so before Mithrandir and the halfling. This was a matter between father and son.
Faramir now raised his head once more, and a flame burned in his eyes. "I would ask you, my father, to remember why it was that I, not he, was in Ithilien. On one occasion at least your counsel has prevailed, not long ago. It was the Lord of the City that gave the errand to him."
Denethor sighed again. Truly, he thought, this sorrow is of my own devising. "Stir not the bitterness in the cup that I mixed for myself! Have I not tasted it now many nights upon my tongue foreboding that worse yet lay in the dregs? As now indeed I find. Would it were not so! Would that this thing had come to me!"
Here Mithrandir cut in again. For some reason, his very voice irritated Denethor. "Comfort yourself! In no case would Boromir have brought it to you. He is dead, and died well; may he sleep in peace! Yet you deceive yourself. He would have stretched out his hand to this thing, and taking it he would have fallen. He would have kept it for his own, and when he returned you would not have known your son."
Denethor felt his face harden. Who was this wizard, to judge his son? "You found Boromir less apt to your hand, did you not?" he said coldly. "But I who was his father say that he would have brought it to me."
The discussion turned again to the Ring, and Denethor and Mithrandir clashed more than once. At last Denethor shrugged. "If I had! If you had! Such words and ifs are vain. It has gone into the Shadow, and only time will show what doom awaits it and us. The time will not be long. In what is left, let all who fight the Enemy in their fashion be at one, and keep hope while they may, and after hope still the hardihood to die free." He looked at Faramir. "What think you of the garrison at Osgiliath?"
"It is not strong," said Faramir slowly. "I have sent the company of Ithilien to strengthen it, as I have said."
"Not enough, I deem," said Denethor, shaking his head. "It is there that the first blow will fall. They will have need of some stout captain there."
"There and elsewhere in many places," said Faramir, and sighed. "Alas for my brother, whom I too loved!" He rose from his seat. "May I have your leave, father?" he asked, then swayed slightly and caught Denethor's chair to regain his balance.
"You are weary, I see," said Denethor, as gently as he could. "You have ridden fast and far, and under shadows of evil in the air, I am told." It was as much of an apology as he could bring himself to make under the circumstances.
"Let us not speak of that!" said Faramir, shivering as the memory of terror assailed him once more.
"Then we will not," Denethor agreed. "Go now and rest as you may. Tomorrow's need will be sterner."
Faramir bowed and left, and Mithrandir and the Halfling did so as well. Denethor sighed again.
Restless, Denethor wandered in the Citadel, thinking of the defence of the crossings. Boromir could no longer command the garrison, and Faramir-- Faramir would not, if he knew anything about his son. He hated losing men. He would certainly prefer to fight from behind the walls.
Denethor would not have sent him in any case. He well knew that such an endeavour would be of little use at best, yet it would be better than yielding the Pelennor and the crossings un–fought. However, it would mean death for most of the men sent there, and Denethor would not throw his son's life away thus.
Yet a voice whispered in his mind, "Shall then the Steward's son receive different treatment because of who he is? Men shall murmur of injustice and favouritism." He shook his head. He would not endanger his son's life for his own pride.
With a start, he realized that he was standing before the door to Faramir's apartments. The chamberlain bowed to him, then left as he waved his hand in dismissal. Denethor hesitated for a moment, then opened the door and entered, intending to make amends for his words in the hall.
Faramir was sprawled upon his bed, his cloak and boots still on. Denethor drew up a chair and sat beside the bed, content merely to watch him sleep.
Ever since Faramir's childhood, Denethor had been demanding, exacting, cold, never giving a word of praise even when he knew it was due. Faramir had always been mild, more of a scholar than a warrior. He had meant to harden Faramir, to make him stronger, to shape him into a leader of men who could carry his nation's burdens upon his shoulders. It had worked in part, for Faramir had become a remarkable captain-- though Denethor had made a point of never saying so aloud-- but his nature could not be changed. He was as gentle as ever, weeping over the enemy that he had slain when the battle was over.
Faramir stirred, and murmured in his sleep. "Boromir..." he said softly. Denethor stiffened. Faramir continued to murmur. "Not you... shouldn't have been you... father..." -- Denethor barely caught the last words -- "needs you. Boromir..."
Denethor blinked, and swallowed. Softly, he stood and walked out of the door, telling himself stubbornly that the prickling in his eyes was due to lack of sleep.
After a while, he peered into the room again. Faramir still slept. He needs his rest, thought Denethor, closing the door. There will be time for speech on the morrow.
Early the next morning, Denethor summoned the Council and proposed his plan for the defence of Osgiliath and the Crossings. "We should not lightly abandon the outer defences, the Rammas made with so great a labour. And the Enemy must pay dearly for the crossing of the River. That he cannot do, in force to assail the City, either north of Cair Andros because of the marshes, or southwards towards Lebennin because of the breadth of the River, that needs many boats. It is at Osgiliath that he will put his weight, as before when Boromir denied him the passage."
"That was but a trial," said Faramir, shaking his head. "Today we may make the Enemy pay ten times our loss at the passage and yet rue the exchange, for he can afford to lose a host better than we to lose a company. And the retreat of those that we put out far afield will be perilous, if he wins across in force."
Ah, thought Denethor, ever he thinks of peril to the soldiers. Yet cowering behind these walls, as some suggest, will do us no good.
"And what of Cair Andros?" said Imrahil, stepping forth. He was clad not in the robes of a prince today, but in glittering mail, as was Denethor himself, though Denethor wore it beneath his clothes. He wondered sometimes if it was but another manifestation of the difference in their natures. Denethor believed that knowing things that others did not was power. Imrahil believed that hiding one's strength would only provoke more attacks. "That, too, must be held, if Osgiliath is defended. Let us not forget the danger on our left. The Rohirrim may come, and they may not. But Faramir has told us of great strength drawing ever to the Black Gate. More than one host may issue from it, and strike for more than one passage."
Denethor sighed. The shortage of soldiers was a dire problem, and one that could not be helped. He had sent the Red Arrow; whether Rohan would answer was another matter. "Much must be risked in war," he said wearily. "Cair Andros is manned and no more can be sent so far. But I will not yield the River and the Pelennor unfought -- not if there is a captain here who has still the courage to do his lord's will." His words were sharp, as was his voice. More than one of his captains looked stung, but none spoke. Denethor felt bitter laughter rising in him. Had the courage of Gondor come to this at last?
Then a clear voice spoke, ringing in the silence. "I do not oppose your will, sire. Since you are robbed of Boromir, I will go and do what I can in his stead - if you command it." Faramir looked up at Denethor, his eyes blazing with pride and a certain amount of grim satisfaction. If his thoughts had been clearer, Denethor was sure they would have been written on his forehead in silver ink-- You wished me dead-- then I shall die.
Denethor closed his eyes. And thus my hand is forced, he thought. I cannot now deny him this task, when he has spoken thus before the council. Is there no other? But even as he looked at his other captains, they looked away. Denethor felt a hot flash of anger. Cowards, all of them. Is Gondor not their home? Is Minas Tirith not their city? Am I not their lord? Yet if I commanded them to go upon this task, and Faramir to stay, they would speak of favouritism. Then he sighed in resignation. And they would speak true.
"I do so," he said at last. They were the hardest words he had said in his life. When Boromir had left, his heart had ached, but this was different. Boromir had not been riding to almost certain death.
"Then farewell! But if I should return, think better of me!" said Faramir, with a wry smile. Thus had he spoken on his first mission, when he was still but a boy on the verge of manhood, still eager to please his father; and thus had he spoken on every departure since, so that it had become almost a jest between them, albeit a grim one.
Denethor replied as he always had. "That depends on the manner of your return."
The Council discussed various other matters, but Denethor's heart was not in it, and he chafed to go and seek out his son ere he left. At last, after what seemed an eternity, the Council was silent. "Is there aught more?" inquired Denethor. "Very well, the Council is ended."
The captains took their leave, as did Imrahil, after giving Denethor a searching stare. Denethor waited until they had left, then swiftly made his way to Faramir's quarters. "Where is Faramir?" he demanded of the chamberlain, who wrung his hands and stammered. "I-- I-- do not know, milord."
"I do, my lord," said a voice from behind him. Denethor turned to find a lad of fifteen or sixteen winters.
"And who might you be?" he asked.
The lad bowed. "Tirindil, my lord," he said. "I am esquire to Captain Faramir. He would not let me go with him, saying that I was too young." He looked up at Denethor. "He asked me to give you this." He handed Denethor a sealed letter. Denethor did not need to look at the envelope to know what it read. To be opened in the event of the demise of Faramir son of Denethor.
"He is gone, then," said Denethor, unsure of whether it was a statement or a question. He turned, looking eastward out of the window in the hallway. He could see naught in the darkness of the cloud of Mordor.
"Fare well, my son," he said softly. And may you return safely.
In the distance, he thought he heard the faint call of a horn. He smiled sadly to himself, feeling suddenly weary.
A son to be proud of, indeed.