Of Stewards and Rangers
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Phrygian Flute, The: 4. A Dream and a Journey - Part 1
Like the dew on the mountain,
Like the foam on the river,
Like the bubble on the fountain,
Thou art gone, and for ever!
~The Lady of the Lake~
Canto III, verse xvi
FLAME AND DARKNESS. A boy’s face falling away into a whirlpool of blood and fire; a cry like the shrieking of the dead, and a shadow blacker than night. The beating wings of a thousand ravens, then white water rearing and crashing as the waves of a great sea.
Seek for the sword that was broken…in Imaldris it dwells…do you admit then, that the blame for this defeat lies with you?… if you wish it, I will go out tonight and fall on my sword. Thus blood will be repaid with blood…
A man and woman, and behind them, a candle burning.
Heart of my heart, let you come away, for you are weary. There are others here who will take your place. There is no need for this endless vigil.
Who but I should keep it? For I am his mother.
A man stands over him. He is tall and dark, and on his hand is a ring that glitters with a pale flame. The boy looks up, white with defiance and grief, his fair hair gleaming in the sun. Then, the stroke falls. Silver and stone crushes skin, flesh and bone. The boy drops without a sound, and there is blood; blood and tears on his father’s fingers.
Strong hands, seizing his hair and the neck of his tunic; and again and again his head dashes against stone. Blood everywhere, and now he can keep silent no longer. In his agony, he cries out her name.
Hands, hands on his shoulders.
Pain, like a spear-thrust.
He wakes in darkness, gasping like a man drowning. Then the darkness grows into light; a taper, a beloved voice calm and soothing, and behind it, his brother’s anxious gaze. Gentle hands on either side of his face, but he flinches away from them.
So it was only a dream.
His heart’s pounding slows, and he shuts his eyes, listening to quiet words in the half-dark. At first the words are meaningless, mere sounds lost in a dissolving storm of horror; then little by little, they become memories of a time before sorrow; a time of spring and summer. His face is damp and slowly, his fingers find and trace a deep trough beneath his right eye; it is there still, though the blood and tears are long gone.
He opens his eyes again. He sits shivering, hunched over his knees on his narrow cot, and the bed-clothes are knotted and churned about him. His brother, silent now, holds his hand; the small brown light flickers over his dark tunic, and the bands of silver embroidery at its hems warm to bronze.
Slowly he lets go, his cramped fingers trembling; by and by he even brings himself to smile a little. Their eyes meet for a long moment; and his brother, slipping away into the shadows, returns with strong wine. The long draught burns his throat and brings tears to his eyes, but he drains the cup to its dredges. His brother looks on, his grave grey eyes luminous in the brown dusk. But he says nothing.
For a time, they sit shoulder to shoulder, watching the shadows leaping on the wall. Tentatively, his brother reaches out to smooth his tumbled hair, and with loving fingers draws a long strand, dark with dampness behind his ear.
When Boromir speaks at last, his voice is low and warm in the night. “It was the old dream again.”
“Aye, that, amongst others. It has been a while and a while since it came to me.” The old smile flickering, full of self-mockery. “Though it seems to have lost none of its power.”
“And the other dream I had?”
A deep sigh. “Yes, that too. You’ll tell him, will you not? He will turn me away, as always.” Faramir looked down at the empty cup, then at his own hands and saw the faded lines of old scars, and the pale healing skin of the new, scoring deeply from fore-arm to wrist and across the back of his hand.
“I shall, if you wish it.”
“I do.” Then his eyes closed, and under them were shadows the colour of bruises. Darkness. If only he could sleep without dreaming; better perhaps, if he could sleep without waking ever again. “I cannot stay, Boromir. Not any more, not like this!”
He understood at once. How could he not? From youth to manhood, his brother had grown from strength to strength; but now, he was close to breaking, just as a supple willow wand that had been bent once too often. She would have been grieved, she who had loved this child, more perhaps, than any other. Two halves of an almond she had called them. Her twins; how strange it was that one had had to wait five years for the other. Yet, had his young brother looked up, he would have seen that Boromir’s face was inscrutable, as though he too, hid a dark secret in his heart.
Gently, Boromir said, “There will be time enough for that later. Up now, little brother and get yourself dressed. The sun has set, and it will not do to keep him waiting.”
“No, it will not do indeed. Not today, of all days.”
* * *
THEY MADE THEIR way down to the River in the shrouding shadows, three dark-clad horsemen with the Tower Guard following behind. They bore no torches, nor was there any moon or star to light their path. There was only the song of the Anduin and the wind in the rushes to guide them.
Yet, they found their way easily enough in the dark, through long waving grass, from hard earth to the soft river-ground where their horses’ hooves sank soundless into mud. Leaving the Tower Guard behind, they came alone to the secret place by the River, a place where rush and alder and weeping willow grew thickly along the crumbling bank. Here, even the watchful eyes of the Enemy would see nothing but shadow and the slow dance of drooping branches in the night wind.
So they had done every year on her death-day. Thirty years since she was howe-laid by the sea, and each year like yesterday. In silence, they dismounted; the sons following their father, three tall shadows against the lighter dark of the night sky. The wind ceased, and all was still, save for the rushing River and the long grass that swayed and parted for them.
Without speaking, they stood beneath a willow tree, whose black boughs trailed in the water like a woman’s long hair, whilst the Great River, lapping against the low bank swirled darkly away over long knotted alder roots.
Each man bore a water lily in his hand, freshly cut from a green pond in the Houses of Healing. In the day, if a man looked hard enough, he would see small silver fish darting in the shadows between the round flat leaves, and above them the sharp-petalled flowers blushing rose against the brilliant summer sky.
Then, their father turned, his face a pale blur in the night. “Boromir.”
A small feeble flame grew between his sheltering hands, then became a leaping spear-head of light. In silence, Boromir lit the lamp at the heart of each blossom; they caught at once, glowing brightly, and the leaf-veins grew dark, as though the sun was behind them. The Great River would carry them down to Belfalas, three yellow stars in the sea, and perhaps she would see them from her high and lonely grave and know that they remembered her still.
Then, their father turned once more to the Great River, and spoke in low measured tones, carefully stripped of all emotion, words that were older even than the kings of Numenor, words born in the dawn-days of the world:
I am as a branch carried away on a stream
I am as the snow driven in a storm
You are going where I cannot follow
You are going beyond the circles of the world
Let this light be your guide
Through the long night, to the sun’s rising.
With bowed heads, they set the flowers adrift, father, son and last of all, the one who had her fair hair and slender hands. The River caught and spun them away, whirling into the night the three rose-coloured flowers with golden flame at their hearts, until they vanished suddenly, as though the bent world had fallen away under them.
“Let us go,” said Boromir heavily. “We cannot tarry here.”
All the long road back, they did not speak; not in the dark, and not even when they reached the torch-lit ways that led to the Steward’s House. At the threshold, their father checked and drew aside his dark hooded cloak. And under it his face was sharp and white and his eyes were sloe-black in the whiteness of it.
“I bid you good-night then. We will speak tomorrow, Boromir, of the thing we talked of this afternoon.”
“Father.” And again, he saw his sons turn to each other, a moment of silent communion.
“I … we would speak with you, father, tonight.”
He looked keenly from one to the other, from the closed, shadowed face of the elder to the younger, and it was on his wide fathomless eyes that Denethor’s gaze lingered the longest. How pale he was, for even the shifting saffron torch-light failed to colour his cheeks. How still he was, in his plain, dark tunic, so still that he scarcely seemed to breathe at all. The sweet smell of wine came to him on the thin night air; then anger and scorn grew like thorns in his heart. “Very well. You can both come with me, and I will call for some bread and wine, though I think that one of you has started the night’s revelry somewhat early.”
And he saw then, with satisfaction, the painful flush in his son’s cheek.
Quietly, Boromir laid a hand on his arm. A hand heavy with grief. “Oh father, not tonight! For our mother’s sake, leave him be.”
* * *
“SO, WHAT IS this thing that will not keep till tomorrow?”
The Steward’s study was a small high-ceilinged room with long narrow windows that opened east. Outside, the black hills of Ithilien rose into a wine-dark sky. Boromir had almost forgotten the books; there were so many of them, on the long ornate desk with eagle’s talons for feet, and on the tall shadowed shelves. So it had been for as long as he could remember. He found himself a low, hard stool in a corner and waved his brother to the seat nearest the brazier. How bright his eyes were in the dark; they were the eyes of a man who thirsts, and finds water. For a moment, Boromir could have smiled; his little brother, the warrior-poet still. Odd, how some things never changed.
“It is a dream, father.”
“A dream? Your dream, Boromir?” The Steward looked sharply from the swirling wine in his cup to his elder son. “How strange.”
“No, our dream.”
A pause, long enough for a man’s heart to beat seven times. Across the brazier, Faramir put out his hands; they glowed, red as coals, and he saw in their redness, dark branches of bone. His fingers were warm now, but presently, they would be hot beyond bearing. They were a fence, a safe fence between himself and the man who was his father. Had it always been like this? No, it had not, for once, long ago…
“It is as I thought.” The Steward leaned forward in his deep chair. “So. I see that he has put you up to this. Faramir, what is the meaning of this chicanery? Speak, and cease this foolishness at once.”
A sudden movement across the fire, swiftly checked. “Father, the dream came to both of us!”
“Be quiet. Your brother has a tongue, so let him speak for himself!”
With carefully controlled grace, Faramir drew back his hands, and linked them to still their shaking. So it begins. He did not take his eyes from the flames. “Boromir speaks truly. We had the same dream.”
Denethor set his cup down with a crash. “Faramir, look at me.”
“Look at me!”
Faramir flung up his chin, and in his face was the old defiance, and something more. Anger perhaps, or self-mockery, it did not matter. “Tell me then, what was this dream that you shared with your brother.”
Here he was, forever caught between them; his father, so subtle and merciless in his endless grief, and the gentle young brother who did not know how to wound with words to protect himself. He reached for the wine and drank deeply. If only she had lived. If only, if only… Empty now. He filled it again, and the silver flagon, catching the ruddy brazier light showed him their faces. One dark and stony, the other, quite unreadable. And his own?
What did it matter? One does not make the Anduin flow backwards by tossing a pebble in it. He heard a deep breath, and his brother’s quiet voice, steady and toneless, as though he were learning a hard lesson by heart.
“In that dream, I thought the eastern sky grew dark, and there was a growing thunder, but in the West, a pale light lingered, and out of it I heard a voice, remote but clear, crying:
Seek for the Sword that was broken:
In Imaldris it dwells;
There shall counsels be taken
Stronger than Morgul-spells.
There shall be shown a token
That Doom is near at hand,
For Isildur’s Bane shall waken,
And the Halfling forth shall stand.”
Then, his voice faded. “ The dream has come to me many times, and once to Boromir. We know not what it meant, and so thought to seek my Lord’s counsel.”
For the space of a single heartbeat, the Steward’s black eyes flashed and his hands, a warrior’s hands still, tightened. Isildur’s Bane. Had he not seen it? In his dreams, had he not reached for it with his own hand? So small a thing, and yet so potent. And the Sword. Isildur’s Heir. Yet he knew so little, so little. Would that he knew more! Then the spark sank. His sons. Good, honest Boromir; and the other, whose pale gaze now met his own. What had he seen, with those sombre eyes of his?
And so, he said carefully, “I know not the meaning of this dream of yours. I know only that Imaldris is the dwelling-place of Master Elrond, a great Lord of the Elves. It is called Rivendell in our tongue. Far to the north it lies, beyond even the realm of Theoden of the Rohirrim; in Arnor which is now lost to us. It will be a long and perilous journey of many days across strange country. If ever once our people knew the road to Rivendell, there is none alive now who remembers it.”
“Perhaps Mithrandir -”
A sudden anger kindled in his heart. “Mithrandir! Mithrandir indeed! Do you esteem the Grey Fool’s wisdom so much more than your own father’s? I am not unlearned, my son. Let you remember that I am of the House of Hurin, and it is I who am keeper of the wisdom of Gondor! Does not Mithrandir himself come to me as a supplicant?”
“I did but -”
“Nay, say no more!” Swiftly he rose, towering over his sons. “Always you look to him, Faramir. Tell me, where was he when the east bank fell? Where was he when our people died for the cause he calls his own?”
In the crimson half-dark, Faramir said very quietly, “And where were you?”
Neither of his sons knew how fast he could move. He crossed the little space between them, and his trembling hand had begun its downward arc when another caught his own and held it; an iron grip.
“You will not touch him, father.”
He turned in disbelief, then read in Boromir the signs of weariness and grief. “Not you too, my son. Not you too!”
Shaking his head, Boromir did not speak. And slowly, Denethor lowered his hand, and somehow, found his way to his seat. For a long while, he sat, blind, with his face in his hands, and tasting not for the first time, the bitterness of betrayal on his tongue. This was his betrayer, his beloved son, kneeling now by his side.
Yet, he composed himself at last; and when he looked up again, he found that he could speak after all, quite steadily, and without flinching. “So it seems that we must learn the meaning of this riddle. I will send a messenger to seek the road to Rivendell, and there perhaps he may find the answers we desire. And so too, may he bring to Rivendell word of our peril and our great need.”
“I will go,” said Faramir.
“Yes, my Lord, for you do not need me here. You have my brother.”
For a long moment, they stared at him. There was a hotness in his eyes, an uncharacteristic recklessness. But he was sober, painfully sober, for neither bread nor wine had passed his lips. The words hung in the air, a challenge waiting to be answered.
“How true. He is worth two of you.”
Silence, and in that silence, devastation. When would it all end? Suddenly, Boromir could bear no more. In an instant, he was on his feet. “That is enough, both of you! Let me go, father. Let me seek Elrond of Rivendell and you shall have your answer to this riddle!”
His breath came in great gasps; then he saw for the first time, wine pooling darkly at his feet, running into the stones, and somewhere on the floor, the silver flagon gleaming in the shadows. And he stopped breathing when he saw his brother’s eyes.
“Sit, Boromir,” said Denethor sternly. “You are not yourself. ”
He did not move.
“I cannot spare you, Boromir. Gondor cannot spare you! If there is any need at all to send either of my sons, I will send Faramir.”
“Father, he is hurt!”
“He was well enough to ride with us tonight,” said Denethor dryly. “Were you not, Captain Faramir?”
“I am well enough, my Lord.” If there was irony in his voice, neither father nor brother marked it. “As the dream first came to me, let you send me, for I would not have another man hazard his life in my place.”
He rose, and with a curious grace and dignity, bowed his head and dropped on one knee before his father’s chair. “Do so, my Lord, and I will not fail you.”
Then Faramir looked up to the brother who stood so tall and stern beside him, and for the briefest of moments, their eyes met.
I beg of you my brother, do not deny me in this thing.
Slowly, Boromir shook his head.
So, he had betrayed both father and brother this night. No need then to look into his brother’s face to know what the dull ache in in his breast had already told him; and so, he turned away.
And Denethor, watching his sons as a falcon watches its prey, said nothing.
Then Boromir said, “I will go father, as I am the elder and stronger of us both.” There was a strange resonance in his low voice; it filled the little room and echoed faintly from wall to wall, as though a greater power spoke through him. “And did you not say that Master Elrond is a mighty Lord among the Eldar? It is only fitting then that I, your heir should go on this errand, since the White City cannot do without its Lord.”
In the brown shadows, the Steward drew a great signet ring from his finger and turned it from palm to palm, so that the light in the ancient stone that was its heart woke and slept. He had made many choices in his long life, but none quite like this. Only once in his life had he listened to the soft whisperings of his heart; and now, now as it had so often done, it was the cold day-light reasoning of the mind that won out. Deliberately, he slipped the ring onto his finger.
They were watching him, one taut as a drawn bowstring, and the other, motionless as stone.
“Go, Boromir and do not fail me. Go swiftly and return swiftly, for neither I nor the White City can spare you for long.”
Relief, joy, and a strange regret swept over him all at once. “Thank you father. You have my word,” and stooping, he raised his father’s hand, with its great signet ring to his lips. It was glowing faintly now, and in its heart of stone, his own dark, shadowed face looked back at him.
Briefly, Denethor smiled. “Rise then, both of you. The hour is late, and I am weary. Boromir, we will speak tomorrow on this errand of yours. There are a great many matters to be dealt with ere you leave us.”
So, the heavy door closed behind them, and together, they walked, neither looking at the other till they passed out of the great-nail studded door of the Steward’s House, and into the cool summer night.
He could not endure the silence under the lightless sky; the sudden loneliness of a man who knows he has broken faith.
“Little brother, listen to me,” Boromir said awkwardly at last, “I did what I thought best. Try to forgive me, if you can.” And when Faramir made no answer, he cried, "You are not well. The journey will kill you! Do you not see that?" And he seized his brother's hand, a bear's grip.
"Boromir, you must let me go," he said quietly.
There was no anger now in Faramir’s eyes, only a profound sorrow. And together, they looked down; slowly, Boromir’s fingers came away, leaving red welts behind. Soon, there would be bruises.
For a long while, neither man spoke. Then, Faramir said, with the odd half-smile he had so often seen before. “It is near midnight, and I doubt the Warden will be pleased that I have been gone so long. I bid you good night, brother.”
“Let me come with you,” he said impulsively.
“There is no need,” said Faramir as he turned away into the dark. “It is only a short way to the Houses of Healing.”
* * *
The words I have attributed to Faramir in relation to the dream were actually spoken by Boromir in Fellowship of the Ring.
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