Of Stewards and Rangers
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Phrygian Flute, The: 8. Captain of the White Tower
“But one that was my comfort and my joy,
Hector, the very pride and prop of Troy,
One that the bulwark of his brethren was,
Him thou has slain, and I am left alone!”
Homer: Translated by Andrew Lang
Minas Tirith, 30 February 3019
ALL NIGHT HE rode as though the very hosts of Mordor were on his trail, and when grey dawn came at last, he stood alone in his father’s study, damp, weary and liberally splashed with mud. A servant had set a fire going. Gratefully he warmed his hands over the brazier, swaying a little with hunger and fatigue, yet not daring to sit, filthy and reeking as he was.
Little by little, the pale silvered light came slanting in through the clouded window-glass, creeping over the neat ordered desk with eagles’ talons for feet and the tall familiar shelves that rose from floor to ceiling. Light it was, yet it brought no warmth with it; and he shivered in spite of himself. So little had changed since that long-ago night that he and his brother… Instinctively, his mind flinched away from the thought. He must neither think nor feel, he told himself. Not now, when each memory was a dagger-thrust to the heart. There would be time enough later. Yet how could he, when he saw always before him the writhing mist, the spectre of that strange high-prowed boat drifting on dark water, and the face of the man within?
What would his father say? That other men slew with sword and bow, whilst he - he had killed his brother with… No, it was not so. Yet in his heart he knew the truth.
Suddenly the fire swam before his eyes, and he heard the high thin wailing in his ears that was the herald of darkness; and desperately, flung out his hands hoping to clutch at anything - anything at all before he fell. It would not do, to be found thus on the study-floor by the Lord Steward himself, who disdained weakness of all things.
He would have fallen into the flames, had someone not caught him. Strong hands lifted him into the Steward’s own chair, and far away, he heard a bell ringing, low urgent whispers and footsteps fading. Then he woke to fire streaking down his throat, and a quiet voice calling his name; a voice he remembered only in half-forgotten dreams - there, it spoke always with love - in life, only with anger and contempt.
And well did he deserve it.
Choking, he opened his eyes at last and met his father’s gaze. And for an instant, he saw in the grey eyes, so like his brother’s, neither fury nor scorn, only sorrow and care.
“You are hurt,” the Steward said, setting aside the wine cup. And looking down at down at his hands, his son saw that the soiled linen bindings had fallen away, and in the early morning light a deep angry wound across each palm stared up at him.
“It is nothing,” he said, folding his hands. “I have come with ill news, father.”
The Steward rose from his seat and strode swiftly to the window. Without turning, he said, “If it is about your brother, I know it. I heard his Horn but four days ago in the afternoon. It bodes ill indeed. You must have heard it too. But surely you have not come all this way, through the night to tell me of this thing?”
“No, father. I have not.” With a deep breath, he closed his eyes and said evenly, “There is other news of Boromir, though it grieves me much to bear it.”
“Well, what is it then? Speak!”
“Look, my Lord.” Slowly, he drew the two pieces of the Horn from the pack he had brought with him from Ithilien. He never forgot the way his father came and took the shards in his hands. Like one stricken, the Steward sank into the low seat beside his own, the stern lines of his face dissolving into grief, no longer inscrutable, no longer invulnerable. And for a long time the shards, so carefully burnished by Mablung, lay untouched in his lap.
“Tell me, how came you by your brother’s Horn?”
And so he told the tale exactly as he had heard it, without breaking, in a voice that was not his own.
“But there is more, is there not? I see it in your eyes.”
“Yes,” Faramir said, and stilled the tremor in his voice. “I - I saw him last night - whilst I and two others kept watch by the River. He lay in a small boat with a high prow, drifting on the water, and there was no man to row or steer it. I waded out into the water; it turned to me, lingering a little, and I saw him…”
The words died in his throat, and quietly, he bent his face into his hands.
“Why do you stop? Speak, for your father is listening.” Hard fingers, seizing his hands, tore them away from his face. “Speak! What did you see?” His father’s eyes were black - with hatred perhaps, or anguish, he could not tell. It did not matter, he thought dully - not any more.
“I saw that he was pierced with many wounds, and a broken sword was on his knee. There was a belt too, about his waist, whose make I knew not, yet his Horn was not by his side; and all about him was clear water glimmering with light. It came close to me, that strange boat, but I dared not touch it, then it passed away into the dark, and I saw it no more.”
“It was only a dream! Boromir is not dead. It cannot be! And yet… Tell me, Faramir, tell me that it was only a dream!”
“Oh, father, it was no dream, for there was no waking. Would that it was!”
His father turned away and Faramir heard the great broken sobs that was the voice of grief without words. And the merciless light showed him how his own hands, twisting in his lap, were smeared with blood. Neither spoke, but when the Steward looked up again, there were no tears; it was as though they were shed long ago for another, and there were no more now, not even for his son.
His old warrior’s fingers traced the lines of ancient script worked in silver, glittering coldly in the cruel morning. Long ago, in the high and far-off days of Vorondil, a man wise in the ways of lore had set the marks for protection upon the Horn to ward danger from its wearer. What good were they now, these words that rang so hollow in his heart?
Then the Steward remembered that he had another son. How weary he seemed, and how sorrowful. What other ties had bound them, these children of his? Love and kinship there had always been; yet he knew there was more. And he felt a strange and sudden pity stirring within him.
“So you too have done your grieving for Boromir.” And slowly, he reached out to brush the wetness from his son’s face.
Faramir did not flinch, but only said, “I knew it in my heart, father. I knew that he was dead when I saw the Horn.” Clumsily he rose, and taking courage, tried to reach his father in the only way he knew how. Dropping to his knees, he laid a hand on his father’s arm. “Boromir was a dear friend to me, and even dearer brother. “I will stay a while and ease your grief a little, if you wish. Sorrows’ burden may be borne more lightly if there are two to bear it. O father, do not turn me away!”
I will stay a while and ease your grief a little, if you wish.
No, there would never be grief such as this - this anguish that burned like a white flame in his breast. There would be no easing, no comfort, for hope had perished at last, leaving only the grey ashes of despair. And across the years, he heard a woman’s fading voice, whispering like the sea-wind, “Heart of my heart, I shall wait for you beyond the circles of the world.”
Boromir, Boromir, why have you gone before me?
Suddenly, Denethor came to his feet and shook off the hand of his son and clutched the horn of Boromir to his breast, as though he would not be parted from it again. “Leave me. My woes are my own. What do you know of sorrow? You could not have loved him as I did. You and your dreams - have they brought anything but ill to us all? Alas, alas for Boromir. My one true son is dead!”
Faramir made a small movement toward his father, then violently checked himself. After a time, he said in a voice made hoarse and toneless with grief, “How wrong you are. I loved him and I would gladly have gone in his place - to whatever end. Why, why did you not send me in his stead?”
“And do you think that you would have fared any better than your brother?”
“No,” he said bitterly. “But you would have had my brother to comfort you now, if there was any need of it.”
“Say no more, I beg you.” And he moved to the window and flung it wide, so that the pale daylight came flooding in. Far to the east, the brown hills of Ithilien loomed against a hard grey sky, and his gaze followed the black wavering line of the Anduin north and north until the gathering mist swallowed it. Snow… the first fine drifts came eddying down, melting on the window-sill and settling on the harsh hairs of his bear-skin cloak, yet he did not feel the cold. Soon, there would be more, and the very fields and forests would be white. Did the snow fall too, on the stilled breast of Boromir as he passed down the Great River to the sea? Odd, how the world went on, even when one’s beloved son was dead.
“Leave me,” he said at last. “I wish to be alone.”
Faramir rose, leaning a little on his father’s chair before he stepped over to the door. Quietly, he said, “You have another son, my Lord Steward, unworthy though he is. And whilst he has life in him, he will do his duty to Gondor and his father, as once Boromir had done.”
Denethor turned on him like a serpent. “Do not seek to take your brother’s place! There is none now living that is his equal.” Then his gaze dropped to the horn of Boromir in his hands. “This was once mine, before it ever was his. It will never be yours now - and I am glad of it!”
Leaning against the door, Faramir only shook his head, for what answer was there to words such as these? He was ashen, and his hand trembled on the latch. “I have always known Boromir’s place in your heart.” A pause. “You kept me from the flames - it only remains that I should thank you.”
“I will leave now, father, for I see that I am not needed here. Have I your blessing?”
For a long while Denethor said nothing; so long that his son despaired at last and would have turned away. Then at the last moment the Steward said as coldly, “You are my heir now, such as you are. Go forth and do your duty.”
Then it seemed that there was no more to be said. Faramir touched his hand to his forehead, and then to his heart in obeisance. The door swung open.
Slowly, he turned. “Yes, my Lord?”
The Steward had not moved. “Shame not your brother’s memory.”
Without another word, Faramir, Captain of Gondor, now Captain of the White Tower closed the door on his father.
* * *
“To sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause…”
~Hamlet, Act III Scene 1~
Osgiliath, 30 February 3019
It fell in grey drifts across the open window, onto hard broken flagstones to be trampled into brown churned ice. But snow did not wash away sorrow, nor did it numb the agony of grief. Seven times the moon had waxed and waned since he had made himself a guest in this room, this room that was his brother’s. Now it was his own in truth.
He knew every nook and cranny of it; he remembered the battered kist Boromir once used as a window seat - there it was still, glistening with melted snow; he remembered too the loose flag under the writing desk where they had laughingly hidden a bottle of Umbar wine, long ago; and now he touched with a trembling hand the brightly burnished armour on its stand in the corner patiently awaiting its owner’s return. He felt its burning chill creeping through his fingers, spreading with his heart’s blood. Was this the chill of death?
Slowly, he withdrew his hand.
His room, his desk, burdened with a dozen despatches to be read and answered. And so many other things, so many duties were now his that were not before. The fire was sinking, and soon, the light would go too - but there would be no stars tonight, only snow. Carefully, he set an apple log on the brazier, then made his way back to the desk and took up his pen again.
Two he opened and read, frowning. For a long while, there was no sound but the soft dry scratching of quill on paper, and he stopped once only, to seal a letter before he reached for the next. It was a familiar hand, the small careful script not unlike his own. With trepidation, he broke the seal and read its sparse contents twice, before he flung it into the fire. Curling, glowing amidst tongues of flame, the words wavered, leapt, and then, they were no more than grey ash.
Yet reply he must. And he sat staring into the brazier’s red heart until the answer came to him. “To my Lord Steward, greetings -”
A knock on the door. With a sigh, he laid down his pen.
The door opened on a slight young man, snow-damp and shivering with cold. With awkward grace, the boy made his obeisance. “Sir.”
With an effort, Faramir rose, smiling. “Cub. What brings you here? Surely it is foul weather to be abroad.”
“I - I would speak with you, sir for a moment, if you please.”
Had it been any other day, he would have laughed, for the cub was pale and solemn and there was an odd uneasiness on his face - the look of a boy caught stealing sweetmeats. But he did not feel like laughing today, and only said, “Come and sit by the fire then - you may help yourself to the wine - there, on that chest - whilst I shut the window. Bregolas will have my head if you catch a chill. He has enough fevers and chilblains on his hands already, or so he tells me. I hope the journey from Oiolairë was not over-tiring? And how does the wound?”
“The journey was well enough, sir, and the wound itches now and then, but Bregolas says that it is mending.”
He felt the dark eyes following him in silence, and when the window had been made fast and he was back in his own seat by the brazier, the boy drew a deep breath and said in a rush, “I wanted to thank you, sir - for bringing me away - I should be dead, else. I would have come before, only I could not find you.” A deep flush, rising in his cheeks. “You - you have my sword and my life at your service.”
In spite of himself, Faramir smiled. For the first time that day, the cold receded a little and he felt a warmth that came not from the wine nor the brazier flames. “Are you not pledged to my father the Lord Steward already? No - sit, Edrahil - it was only a jest.” Gently, he added, “I only did for you as I would for any of my men - did I not say that we are brothers?” And reaching for the wine, he drank deeply. “It is to Gondor that you owe fealty and service, cub. I am only one of her Captains, a servant of the Steward whom I serve as faithfully I may. Yet, your loyalty does you honour, and I shall remember it.”
“But sir -”
“No more now, cub. Come - let us drink to the Steward’s health, and to your own.”
Quietly, the boy lowered his dark eyes. “And to yours, sir.” It was sweet, with the taste of heather honey in it. For a time, they did not speak, and thrice Faramir filled the wine cups with a steady hand, still bound with linen. Yet, it seemed to Edrahil that the Captain’s gaze was turned inwards, and in the yellow pooled light of the candle he had lit, he had the weary look of a man labouring under the burden of many cares. And he, Edrahil knew well the leaden weight of grief, for had it not lain heavy in his heart these many moons past?
At last, he could bear the silence no more. “You do not look well, sir.”
With a start, the Captain looked up. “No - no, I am very well indeed.” A pause. “You told me, not two nights ago that your father sent you away, to take your brother’s place.”
“Aye,” the boy said, a frown growing between his brows.
“I will release you from your oath of service - you may return to Belfalas if you wish it.”
“Are… are you sending me away?”
“No,” Faramir said wearily. “It is for you to go - or stay as your heart bids you. I would not have your father lose another son; nor, I think, should I keep you here if you did not come to us of your own will. You may go home, cub and keep your father company in his old age.”
For a long while, Edrahil gazed into the flames. Free - free to go, or stay, as he chose. But he was bound now to them as surely as they were to him, by ties forged in the blood and fire of battle. All his life he would remember his own village by the sea, and the father who waited there for one who would not return. But he could no more go back to it and become again the child he was before, than a man could rise from the dead. When he met the Captain’s eyes, he understood at last the thing that Beleg had spoken of so long ago. Nobility there was, sadness also - and an air of belonging to another time, another place.
“But why, sir - why are you doing this?”
“Edrahil, my cub,” Faramir said gently, “Do you not understand my purpose in this thing?”
“Think, cub,” he said, watching the boy with shadowed eyes.
“I - I think that you are giving us back to each other. To make amends while we may.”
“So, you do understand after all.”
Boldly, Edrahil answered, “I swore my oath to the Lord of Gondor - is it not for the Steward himself to release me?”
“You are under my command, for am I not Captain of Ithilien and of the White Tower?” How strangely the words sounded in his ears; painfully his heart skipped a beat. “And so, as your Captain it is within my power to unbind you from your oath if I wished it. As for the rest, that is between the Lord Steward and myself. You need only remember that it was by my order that you took the coast-road home; and that it was your part to obey without question.”
“It is very kind of you, sir. But I will stay. My place is here now, with you - with my brothers, and if ever I had one by my father’s hearth, I have left it, and there is no going back now. My father is a proud man, sir and I know that he would not have me return to him in this fashion- not when so many others fight on, spending their heart’s blood to turn back the dark. He told me to do my duty as my brother had; but I knew that it was his grief speaking. I knew too, though he did not say it, that he would fain have me stay.”
What do you know of sorrow? You could not have loved him as I did. You and your dreams - have they brought anything but ill to us all?
It was his grief speaking. It was, after all, the kindest thing to think.
He looked long into the boy’s shadowed face - black eyes he had, and narrow hands; eyes that had beheld death, hands that had spilt blood. He had a child’s face, a child’s hands no longer, for something had been lost beyond all calling back. Courage, kindness, nobility he had too. One day, perhaps, the cub would be a captain worth the following.
“I have chosen, sir,” Edrahil said, very softly. “There is nothing you can say that will turn me from my purpose.”
“You are a son to make any father proud,” Faramir answered, smiling.
Flushing, the boy looked down at his feet. “I’ve done no more than is my duty, sir.”
“Well, now that your future is settled, you’d best be getting back. Bregolas must be beside himself by now.”
Grinning, Edrahil bowed low. “He’s always beside himself, sir - fusses like a hen, he does.”
“So. Now, on your way out, be a good cub and pass this to Anborn. It is a despatch from the White City - we leave tomorrow for Ithilien. Anborn will know what to do.”
“Ithilien? But we’ve hardly -”
He laid a hand on the boy‘s shoulder. “Ithilien. But not you - not the wounded.”
“There will be other times, Edrahil. There are upward of two hundred of us here - give the others their chance at glory,” he said lightly. It was a tone that brooked no argument.
The boy’s light footsteps faded away, and before the door closed on the outside world, he heard a man’s cheerful whistling and another’s laughter. Then he was alone again with the letter he must now write.
“To my Lord Steward, greetings -”
Four lines of small careful script followed; another three. Then he saw what he had written, and very deliberately, scored through each. Turning the sheet over, he started again. And at the end of it, he counted twenty lines, written close - one for each of the years he had lived and fought in Ithilien. What a pity it was that his hand was so unlike Boromir’s generous, open one - Boromir who could fill three sheets where he filled only one. But he could no more write in Boromir’s hand than he could become Boromir himself.
The lines were beginning to run and blur before him, and he closed his weary eyes, cradling his aching head in his hands. How long could a man go without sleep? Two days? Three? He was tired, so very tired - yet he must not sleep. To sleep was to dream - and now, his dreams were of death. Odd, that a man grown should be so afraid of dreams… and he laughed, a soft rasping sound that was strange to his ears; more he thought, like a child coughing…
He never knew how long he sat there, his head in his arms, a great blot on the paper where he had let drop the quill in his sleep. And Damrod, bursting in three hours later, stopped short at the door.
“Sir, have you heard -”
There was no one to see the compassion and relief on his face. With the silence that the years in Ithilien had taught him, Damrod gathered up a cloak from the hard narrow cot by the wall and draped it over the other’s shoulders. And with infinite care, he set a new log on the fire, and watched as the flames caught, waking to blue and gold. He was about to pinch out the dying candle when he checked - no, let him have the light but a little longer.
Outside, a guard stood shivering and stamping his feet in the shelter of the broad lintel stone. Their eyes met, briefly. "He is asleep at last. For the love of the Valar, let no man disturb him till morning."
And Damrod, striding out into the night, stopped and turned his face to the lightless sky. Pale as apple blossoms, snow swirled around him - a chill, soundless dance. And he saw again the last straggling line of the letter that would later find its way into the brazier’s red heart.
You are alive - so live.
* * *
It is only fair to the reader to say that I’ve departed from canon here. In Appendix B to Return of the King, it is said that Faramir departs from Minas Tirith on 1 March 3019 on an errand to Ithilien. Here, I’ve made him set off from Osgiliath instead - it wouldn‘t of course make sense to have him ride back to Minas Tirith on 1 March and then set off for Ithilien.
This only happened because I very much wanted to slip in here the conversation that he had with Edrahil. It is of course Faramir’s chance to “make amends” of his own and to do for Edrahil and his father what he could not do for himself and Denethor. It was also a tempting opportunity to develop the parallels between the two father/son relationships in this story, and to examine a little the effects of war on a personal level. And since it would have been too much of a stretch to bring Edrahil to Minas Tirith, I’ve made poor Faramir dash back to Osgiliath.
I chose Osgiliath as a setting for that very long conversation for several reasons. Faramir’s troops were unlikely to remain at the ruined village for more than a day. I’d imagine that guerilla fighters move fast and far, and Oiolairë, being unfortified was not the most secure of places. The west bank of Osgiliath would most likely be their base camp, apart from Henneth Annûn (and possibly a few other hidden places) in Ithilien. Osgiliath would also be the nearest place for the wounded to recuperate, and for the rangers to pick up supplies.
The last line I admit, was ripped off Dream’s speech to Orpheus in Neil Gaiman’s Fables and Reflections, the relevant extract of which follows:
“You are mortal: it is the mortal way. You attend the funeral, you bid the dead farewell. You grieve. Then you continue with your life. And at times, the fact of her absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep. But this will happen less and less as time goes on. She is dead.
You are alive. So live.”
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