Of Stewards and Rangers
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Captain of Gondor, A: 5. An Old Man's Song
“Yes, you foolish little wretch!” the Old Man smiled, striding in and catching his sister up in a rough bear hug. He was filthy, covered with way-dust and his tunic and breeches were streaked with dirt. “How does that battered young cub of mine?”
“Sleeping as soundly as a babe in arms, for I gave him a black draught to speed the healing,” Nienna answered laughingly as he freed her. Standing in the pool of light streaming through the window beside her brother, she was as radiant as a rose in bloom, and as she bound up her hair, the Old Man, watching with indulgent eyes, gave it a playful tug. There was a likeness between them, not one that would strike a man immediately – yet there was something about the nobility of their bearing, the level brows and the sharp, determined chin that spoke of their kinship.
“And you?” the Captain asked, and with a searching gaze, laid a light hand on Faramir’s shoulder.
“Very well indeed, sir,” Faramir said, flushing with pleasure.
“Did I not say that my sister has some small skill in the art of healing?” and without waiting for an answer, he cried, “But I am as hungry as ten men. Nienna, be so good as to bid Morwen ready a bowl of stew … I did not see her as I came in. Where is Morwen?” the Captain demanded suddenly, looking about him, “Is she not in the house?”
“She is not, for Rían was taken ill yesterday. It was I who sent her home.”
“She should not be leaving you alone thus - ”
“It matters not,” Nienna said firmly. “You know I am quite capable of looking after myself for a day or so.”
With some asperity, he cried, “You little wretch, you are too wilful for your own good!”
“Oh Haldor, please let us not quarrel over trifles when you are home again after such peril.” Smiling so that the dimples came and went in her cheeks, Nienna held out her hands to him. “I shall come to no harm with two doughty warriors of yours in the house. I am afraid we have no stew, but you shall have bread, cheese and a tankard of mead for a peace offering.”
“Doughty warriors indeed! What with Faramir as weak as a kitten and young Mablung snoring in his sleep like Glaurung himself?” Nevertheless, the Old Man took her slender hands briefly in his own before he released them. “Now go and make ready that peace offering of yours, and do try, for the love of the Valar not to break anything.”
She turned, her pretty face full of scorn, “Have you forgotten that it is not I but Morwen who has butter on her fingers?”
The Old Man shook his head, his gaze following her as she slipped into the corridor. “She is such a stubborn child. I hardly know what to do with her. And that fishwife Morwen who dares calls herself her companion – the greatest shrew in all of Anorien – is like clay in her hands.”
“My brother says that I am the most mule-headed of men,” Faramir confessed, grinning.
“Well, perhaps the pair of you shall suit very well, but I’ll wager that Nienna will drive you to distraction before the week is out,” the Captain retorted. But his sharp eyes missed neither the note of longing in Faramir’s voice nor the familiar half-smile that spoke so eloquently of his disappointment. “But come with me to the kitchen. I know that you have a thousand questions to ask, and they shall all be answered by and by. I have some news for you - and a message from your brother.”
* * *
They looked in on Mablung long enough for the Old Man to twitch the blanket the boy had flung off in his sleep up to his chin again; then, the Captain, commanded by the urges of his growling stomach, led the way to the kitchen where Nienna had set up a small, low table by the fire-place and was now busy slicing a large hunk of bread for her brother’s simple repast.
Haldor wasted no time in helping himself to the mead and was soon devouring his meal with the alacrity of a ravenous wolf. Innate good manners and the formidable habit of discipline acquired after three years in Ithilien absolutely forbade Faramir from harassing the Old Man with questions, but such was the eagerness in his eyes that Haldor felt compelled to abandon a half-eaten morsel of cheese, laughing, “What an impatient brat you are. Don’t you know that your face is an open book that any man may read if he so chooses?”
“But, sir –“
“Oh very well! My Lord Boromir’s man arrived last night and bade me tell you that your brother is setting off post-haste from Lossarnach tomorrow, and that he shall be with you within two days, at the most. He could not come before, because our storm had washed away the roads between Minas Tirith and Lossarnach, so that the tidings of your injury came late to him.”
“That is good news indeed,” Nienna smiled.
Faramir had done his best to contain the joy that was setting his heart ablaze, but Haldor knew from the brightness in the young man’s eyes how much Boromir’s coming meant to him. The brothers had seldom seen each other during the last three years, for their duties had kept them apart, and those few precious meetings were almost always overshadowed by the presence of their formidable father.
“Yes,” he said simply, “I shall be glad to see Boromir again.”
The sharp edge of his hunger blunted at last, the Old Man nursed his tankard of mead and began to tell, in his laconic way of his own escape from the Haradrim. He had slipped away – the Valar only knew how - after playing a game of hide-and-seek with the Haradrim among the rushes. The moon vanishing behind a bank of cloud, had left predator and prey in utter darkness for a few moments, and Old Man, having little choice now but to abandon Arvegil to his fate, had taken the opportunity to slip into the river, keeping under water and only coming up to breathe whenever his lungs had been near to bursting. After struggling upstream against the current, he had somehow hauled himself ashore a league or so from the ford, convinced that he had lost his pursuers. It had been easy enough to hunt down his two flagging comrades, for they had left tracks so clear that even a babe in arms could read them.
His two young listeners were silent, for Faramir was by turns too grieved or too furious to speak, and Nienna, moving quietly behind them, continued to tend the potion she had been brewing since dawn in a glazed pot of brown river clay without a word.
“And Arvegil? What news of him?” asked Faramir.
The Captain did not answer at once – instead, he set down the tankard and drew a weary hand across his mouth, and it seemed to Faramir that he had suddenly grown into a tired old man. “What of him? I do not know – for two days we’ve been searching – we, and some of the lads from Osgiliath - up and down the river banks and the country all around, but found neither hide nor hair of him. And nary a trace of those cursed Haradrim too – they might just as well have been moonshine.” Bitterly, the Old man spat, “I very much doubt that what I have to report will please my Lord Boromir, or my Lord Denethor.”
He paused for a long moment, then began again, slowly, for his mind had wended its way back to the missing cub, “It is entirely possible of course that Arvegil survived and is lying up somewhere, wounded, and will find his way back to us in time, but my heart misgives me. Only Mablung can tell us what happened – once he is well enough.”
“I cannot believe that Arvegil is dead,” Faramir shook his head in disbelief.
“They are only cubs after all,” the Old Man shrugged. “That is the way of it – the strong survive and the weak die. Arvegil was not the first, nor will he be the last. That is what the Hunt is for.” The words were callous, but Faramir, looking up in shock, saw the unspoken grief on his Captain’s face.
For a time, neither man spoke, each consumed by his own thoughts, and only the sound of the crackling flames under the small earthenware pot interrupted the silence. The loss of Arvegil weighed heavily on them both; although Faramir was no stranger to the sorrow of death, he knew that the aching void left behind by a fallen comrade was one that could never be filled, even one as young as Arvegil.
Behind them, Nienna lifted the lid of her simmering pot, and at once a familiar scent filled the kitchen – a scent as sweet as roses blooming in summer, a fragrance so sharp and fresh that it reminded Faramir of dew-drops shining on a leaf on a pale spring morning.
“What scent is this, my lady? There is a whiff of athelas in it, but also something else that I do not know.”
“It is athelas, as the ancients named it, woundwort and honey,” answered Nienna, “But common folk like us call it kingsfoil now.” A ladle in one hand and a wooden bowl in the other, she measured out a dose of the potion with great care. “You have been drinking this brew for two days now, do you not know?” she teased gently. “I would have thought that the fragrance was quite unforgettable.”
“It was all a dream to me,” he answered so earnestly that Haldor crowed with laughter.
The Captain folded his arms. “I never knew that kingsfoil was of any use as a curing herb, sister. I do not think that Father ever used it in his medicines.”
Nienna laid the steaming bowl down on the table, and drawing up a low stool, she answered, “No, he did not. The true virtue of kingsfoil is yet unknown to the healers of Gondor.”
“Two moons ago, I was collecting herbs in the meadows, and a wise man – I know not whom for he would not tell me his name, told me that the humble kingsfoil was a plant of great virtue, and that he had journeyed long and through great peril to find this herb. I did not believe him then, and retorted that we in Gondor only esteem the kingsfoil for its scent. He laughed merrily and said that far indeed had the Men of Westernesse fallen if such was the limit of our wisdom. He told me a little about its properties before Morwen came skirling up waving that small herbing knife of hers in the air, chattering like hen about how I should not be talking to strange men.”
“I must say that for once, Morwen was right,” the Old Man interrupted.
She shook her head, smiling. “Yet, I have often longed to meet this man again, for I know now that I should have asked a thousand more questions on the lore of herbs, for he must have been a healer of great learning.” Thoughtfully, she said, “I have used kingsfoil since on foxes, birds and such other animals the village children bring me that are sick or hurt, but never on a man, and never for a wound such as this. It is this little herb that has cured you, Lord Faramir – kingsfoil, woundwort and a little honey, all of which have great healing virtues of their own.”
“Well then, say no more and drink up,” the Old Man commanded. “The lads miss you. That young scamp Damrod and your worthless friend Maeglin have been clamouring no end for your return; even Mardil is heartily sick of them already. Get back on your feet and help me keep those two out of the dragon’s den.”
“Aye, sir!” he cried, grinning, and promptly scalded his tongue on the hot soup.
* * *
The Old Man woke long after sunset, prising himself reluctantly from the makeshift pallet on the floor of his room. The days without sleep, days of worry, vexation and terror had left him utterly exhausted, but now – blessed by the Valar with the iron constitution of the born soldier - he felt almost like himself again. A glance at Faramir’s cot told him that the boy was not there, so he wandered into the long corridor that led to the kitchen. He halted in the shadows, watching them – two young people in the fire-lit hearth-place, bent over the stove, engaged in an animated, low-voiced argument punctuated with much laughter. The warm spicy scent of mulled wine hung in the air, and Haldor recalled with a sudden pang how he had as a child, spied on his father and mother huddling over the very same stove, talking and smiling at jests known only to them. But he was no longer a boy, and those were not his parents.
It was not often that Nienna had an equal to talk to in the house, for her patients were for the most part simple country men and women who came to her from the villages around Oiolairë and the larger townships in Anorien. And now and then, one or two of the grander folk would journey from Minas Tirith itself to see her – it made him proud, immensely proud that his young sister’s fame was steadily growing, and he cherished a great hope in his heart that one day she might become as famous as their father had been. Yet, it was a lonely life she must have led during the long months he was away in Ithilien, for she had only Morwen for company, and no matter how much Morwen nagged and bullied Nienna whenever she was allowed to, Morwen was after all, a village woman.
Indeed, he had seldom seen her so happy – for once, Nienna was not getting her own way, for Faramir was far too clever to let her talk circles around him as Morwen did. He lingered in the dark a little longer, an odd feeling between contentment and foreboding in his heart.
Then, he stepped out into the light, “Do I smell mulled wine, little sister?”
Laughing, Nienna said, “Of course it is. Do you need to be fed? It’s long past supper time.”
“I think not,” Haldor sniffed, “but some of that wine would not go amiss.” He settled himself in one of the chairs by the fire, and picking up the harp that lay on the table, idly began to tune it.
The two young people joined him, listening intently to each flight of notes he coaxed from the strings, each as clear and shining as a tear-drop. “It is a harp fit for Maglor himself,” Faramir said softly, and it seemed to Haldor that a shadow had settled on the boy’s brow.
“The harp is nothing without the harper. A great harper might charm men and dragons to sleep.”
“I do not wish to sleep!” Faramir exclaimed with sudden violence. And seeing the shock in the faces of brother and sister, he flushed. “I am sorry… it was only that I dreamt… I dreamt of my father.”
The Old Man laid a warning hand on his sister’s arm and said, his voice purposefully light, “My Lord the Steward came two nights ago. He desired us to remove you at once to the White City, into the care of his own healers, but my little sister would not have it – not when the smallest movement would have cast your life into even graver peril. And when he saw that Nienna would not be moved, he said nothing more but sat by your cot, watching her every step with those hawk eyes of his.” He struck a small flourish of notes from his harp, laughing, “At dawn, the fever broke at last, and my Lord departed, entrusting you to my sister’s care.”
“So it was no dream!” Faramir said wistfully, so softly that it seemed almost that he was speaking to himself. He was silent a while, a faraway look in his eyes. “Would that I had woken.” Then, with a sudden painful eagerness, he searched the faces of brother and sister. “Did… did my father leave any word for me?”
The flames crackled, and he watched the Old Man reaching for poker, stirring the red heart of the fire until a shower of sparks crimson and gold flew about the hearth. Of a sudden, Faramir remembered a long-ago tale of his boyhood told by a father less stern and more loving, the story of Turin Turambar and Glaurung and how, in his childish imagination, the leaping fire-sparks in brazier and hearth were fragments of the dying dragon’s wings…
Looking up, he read the answer in the Captain’s shadowed face, so carefully averted. Faramir said nothing more, but merely linked his hands to steady them, a little trick he had learned long ago as a boy, a trick that was to become a habit in moments of unbearable strain. Three summers ago, he had sworn his oath of fealty to his Lord and father:
“Here do I swear fealty and service to Gondor, and to the Lord and Steward of the realm, to speak and be silent, to do and let be, to come and to go, in need or in plenty, in peace or in war, in living or dying, from this hour henceforth, until my lord release me, or death take me, or the world end. So say I Faramir, son of Denethor Lord Steward of Gondor.”
And the Steward had answered:
“And this do I hear, Denethor son of Ecthelion, Lord of Gondor, Steward of the High King, and I will not forget it, nor fail to reward that which is given: fealty with love, valour with honour, oath breaking with vengeance.”
Fealty he had given; he had offered too with his whole being, and with a supplicant’s utter humility the simple, natural and unconditional love of a son for his father. Must he only be content with the love of the Lord and not the father? Was it wrong then, for him as a son, to desire a little more, a so very little more in return? Why had his father come in the night, why had had he gone again with the dawn without leaving even the merest word of kindness, a word to be treasured, turned over and read again and again in the loneliness of his heart like the sweetest phrases of a beloved book?
A handful of memories he had of his father, during those golden years before his mother’s untimely death, now dimmed by manhood and the passage of time. Smiles, laughter, embraces, small gifts that are so infinitely precious to a child - he hoarded each like a tiny flawed gem, to be shared with none save Boromir who also remembered and had reminiscences of his own that he told to no other man.
After the day she died, the father had withdrawn from his younger son – as though a part of him had died with her. He had not understood this at first, and in his childish grief, he reached for the comfort of his father’s arms, only to be repelled again and again, by word and gesture until one day, he ceased altogether to knock at his father’s door and sought sanctuary instead in books and in secret, the music that his mother had once adored. And so, it fell to Boromir, five years older, to give with his noble and generous heart all that his young brother demanded.
Yet, the years of his boyhood had passed inexorably and with every new summer, he grew more and more like her. He needed no mirror to tell him so; no witnesses were more faithful than the tearful joy of his uncle Imrahil at finding in his young nephew the very image of his lost sister, the bitter anguish in his father’s eyes, the shadow of pain in Boromir’s own. He had the same fair waving hair, the same clear blue gaze, the same grace that she had shared with Imrahil, and even his low musical voice seemed to hold a distant echo of her own. He had known for a long time now that his very presence opened afresh for his father the wound of his mother’s death and many were the times that he had woken in the darkest hour of the night wishing that the hand of fate had chosen the child and not the mother. What, after all, was the meaning of his life without absolution?
Then Nienna’s gentle voice rose out of the brown shifting light. “Sometimes, we who are blind – we see things that are invisible to the eye. What my Lord Steward did not say in words he said with his deeds.”
“You are kind, lady.”
She raised her pretty face to the light, her disconcerting gaze seemingly fixed on his own, and although Faramir knew that she was blind, he almost believed that she saw clearly, not perhaps with her eyes, but with some another sense the Valar had bestowed upon her in place of that which they had taken away.
“No, my Lord – I am only telling the truth,” Nienna smiled. “Haldor will tell you that I always speak my mind; I am no great lady, and so have no need to coat my words with honey to sweeten the ears of my listeners.” She turned to her brother, “Is that not so?”
The Old Man raised his hands in mock-capitulation, “If I say you nay, my dear child, I shall never have a day of peace again!”
And with that, they all laughed merrily. But at last Nienna said, “Haldor, it is long since I have heard music in this house. Do you play a song for us – but nothing loud enough to wake Mablung if you please!”
“Your wish is my command, but let the choice of song be mine, for there is an old song of the Elder people on the tips of my fingers that I think you will like very well,” the Captain said, making a great show of tuning his harp. His long fingers, much marked by sword and bow, strung together a skein of shining notes, and he began:
I have a young sister far beyond the sea
Many be the dowries that she sent me
She sent me the cherry withouten any stone
And so she did dove withouten any bone
She sent me the briar withouten any rind
She bade me love my leman withoute longing
How could any cherry be without stone
And how could any dove be without bone?
How could any briar be without rind?
And how could I love my leman without longing?
The hearth fire sank and leapt up again, momentarily casting their faces into shadow, and the Captain’s voice dropped to no more than a whisper, yet deep, full of sorrow and yearning.
When the cherry was in flower: then it had no stone
When the briar was unbred: then it had no rind
When the dove was an egg, then it had no bone
When the soul has what it loves: it is without longing.
For a long moment the magic of the dying music lingered in the air and the two young people were so still that at length the Captain began to wonder if he had unwittingly set an Elvish spell over them. Without a word, he laid a light hand over the thrumming harp strings of white bronze to still them, watching the flush slowly fading from his sister’s cheeks, the brightness growing in his comrade’s eyes.
So, his little Nienna had been weaving an enchantment of her own. Without knowing why, he felt for the second time that evening, as though a shadow had fallen upon his heart.
“When the soul has what it loves: it is without longing. Wise words,” he said dryly into the silence.
The two young statues came alive again, and the Old Man observed the small tell-tale signs of embarrassment; Nienna hurriedly busying herself with the mulled wine, Faramir awkwardly tending with his one good hand the hearth-fire that was in no need of attention.
“I have heard this song only once at my uncle’s Hall in Dol Amroth,” Faramir said hastily. “It is a very ancient one, and the verses are well known in his country, but not beyond its borders. I never thought to hear it in Anorien of all places.” Suddenly he grinned, and his eye sparkled. “Sir, you should have been a minstrel.”
The Old Man snorted, “And sing for my supper, you impertinent boy?” Lovingly, he ran a finger over the smooth black wood, rubbing gently at a long white scar on the cross-piece. “Truth to tell, I learnt it from an old friend many years ago – a man from Belfalas. His mother was of the Haradrim, and the Desert People have the music in them, for all that they follow the Dark Lord.” He paused a while, remembering. “His name was Ragnor.”
“A sad thing it must be, to be the child of two peoples who are such great enemies,” said Nienna softly. “To feel the tug of both halves of one’s blood, and having to choose one over the other.”
The Captain stared at her, a strange spark in his eye. “Perhaps.” Sliding the harp back into its bag, he pulled the draw-string shut. Gruffly, he answered, “Yet, the claim of the blood of Westernesse was stronger, for Ragnor became one of the Brotherhood, and leader of the troop that is now Mardil’s.” Looking up, he ended, “No, Faramir, you would not have met him, for five winters ago at Mettarë he went on a patrol and did not return.”
“His body was never found.”
Apologies for not updating in a while. Travel and work did it for me (yes, I’m back at work)! But I hope the longer chapter makes up for the wait.
Thanks to Raksha for suggesting that it’d be unrealistic for Nienna to live on her own, being handicapped as she is. So, I’ve made up Morwen the fishwife – who will make her appearance quite soon.
The “ancient song” used in this story is an old poem from the Middle Ages which I first read in Dorothy Dunnett’s “Pawn In Frankincense.” Always happy to get feedback – tell me if Nienna works for you so far! Hope she’s not too much of a Mary Sue!!
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