2. Chapter Two
I was at Dunharrow at that time. I was twelve, but I remember it very clearly. As though it was yesterday. No. No, that is not true. I have forgotten yesterday. But I remember Dunharrow.
When Barahir was very young, he realised the world was shifty. Not in a prosaic sense of dangerousness, although that came soon afterwards. It was not the mundane nature of sin that make him toss and turn in the silver edge of dream. There was nothing remarkable about most wrong-doing; evil was something of almost stultifying dullness. Even the depravity of the great sinners was not particularly… noteworthy. There was something almost comfortingly solid about sin; the murderer’s blade, the thug’s fists, the slanderer’s poison, all were the predictable product of the baser passions, like the beating of a great diseased heart. He would learn all he needed to learn about humanity in his beloved and hated Minas Tirith.
Memory is the strangest thing.
They say it is a haunted place.
Do they? Well, I suppose they are right.
He had been seven, and a wooden shelf in the smaller solar had broken and its contents had come crashing down. It had been of no importance; a serving maid had hurried to clean up the debris, a string of muttered imprecations trailing behind her like ungainly pearls. He had looked in mute horror at the shards of a vase, strewn like sharp jewels around fallen pewter cups and bronze platters. The cups and the platters would go somewhere else, but the broken vase was efficiently swept away, and his child’s mind had somehow endowed that with an enormity he barely perceived, as though in the collapse of that previously solid shelf, the breaking and discarding of that seemingly eternal vase, he had seen glimpses of something whose significance he felt only as a dim cloud above him.
The Wraiths? No, of course I did not see the Wraiths. You’ll have to ask someone else.
Yes, I remember then, my lord. I would better like not to, but I remember them. They made you feel… as though you’d never feel happy and whole ever again. Worse than the fear. Worse than the despair.
It was a sharp skerry on the very edge of his awareness, where the waters were cold and deep. The world was balanced on a subtle blade, and as he burrowed deep into the warm nest of his bed in a vain search for solidity, it felt as though the world and all within it were like a house of leaves moments before the wind. He found himself looking flatly at the proud, admired faces of his parents, and the red arms of maids churning butter, and bright pennants caught high in a clear breeze. He wondered who would sweep up the shards of all those things, if they could be crossed out like a misspelled word.
But in here, he could almost reach out and touch the cold slopes of Eternity.
Nobody tells this story. But I remember.
He stood in the place he had come to think of as the Chamber of the Dead. The name had just come, one day, immovable and complete, and it became inevitable.
He stood in a half-darkened chamber in the palace at Emyn Arnen, and the air was sweet and fragrant of the mustiness of Time. He had gathered many of the things preserved in this place, like a magpie picking up glittering trinkets of the past. But this, the centrepiece, had been here long before his birth. Like a savage idol, motionless and full of a hidden power. He reached forward and picked up a piece of shield, heavy and cold, held it up in a beam of light; motes danced all around it.
What was it like?, he wondered. What was it like to ride into battle? Did you feel Fear gnawing at your insides and see the white face of Death, with his hourglass and scythe? Or was it all reduced to some animal simplicity, a red fog that drove your through the dirt and the blood and the screams? He had often tried to imagine what it must have been like, to ride deliberately into the eye of the storm, to face that terror of wings and darkness with an ordinary shield and sword – this shield and sword.
There was a tapestry behind the pieces: the White Lady and Holdwine the Halfling facing the Witch-King. There was a pale-haired woman holding up a sword against a monstrosity of shadow and terror. She seemed to stir in a ghostly draft.
“Tell me what it was like,” he whispered. “Tell me why.”
He sighed, and he was no longer swept up in her wake. Maybe the problem was with courage and despair – he understood the essence of neither. He had never felt despair because he knew with a dry-eyed practicality that there was always a way, and he had never felt courage because that had been merely the way of a dying world.
His grandsire had tried to tell him about courage once.
“I have evaded your questions too long, my child,” the old Steward said, as they sat together on a bench in the gardens of Emyn Arnen. Barahir was twenty, and he approved of the gardens. They were orderly, and the colourful flowers lay sleepily on their perfectly symmetrical beds. Above them, a tree swayed softly in the scented June breeze, and in the West the sun was beginning to sink into a lake of pink clouds, towards the White City.
“If you say so, sir,” the young man answered calmly.
Faramir’s face showed no more emotion than the wearied sadness that had hung about him since the Lady Éowyn’s death. It was a drab sort of sadness – grey, dull, walking hunched in the rain. Barahir contemplated his father’s father dispassionately; the Steward had been ill for most of the past year, and so he had delegated many of his tasks upon his son Elboron. And he was old and widowed and unhappy. Barahir’s cool, quick mind spun a number – five more years, it said, five more years on the outside – and wrote it down in the ledgers of his memory; eventually, he would find out whether or not he was right. It always made for interesting speculation.
“Yes, I do.” It was Faramir’s turn to look at him, his steel-grey eyes undulled for a moment, sharpening as though Time was spinning back. Barahir almost felt an urge to lower his own eyes. So there is still life in the old bird, he thought coolly, and then found himself holding a bauble that could have been pity. He stored it away in the vaults of his mind; you never knew when things might be useful. “I always felt, somehow, that you should have been born sooner. Grandchildren give many of the pleasures and few of the worries of children. But all my children married late and I do not have many days left, and it’s too late for regrets not my own. I still wish I had known you longer, though: all of you, but yourself and Míriel especially. Parents should have no favourites, but when grandparents play at that game, they are judged less harshly.”
Barahir nodded in silence.
“It is of no importance now,” his grandsire continued. “You cannot change the past.”
Barahir, who knew the truth, remained silent.
“You want to know what I did in the War of the Ring.”
Barahir nodded again. He had heard this story before, from other lips. But there were not many now who could remember, not many memories apart from the songs and the legends. He had heard this story before, but he would not say so. He would keep silent and welcome it. And the old Steward would do like all of those who told Barahir their stories; for a moment, they felt treasured, the young man’s eyes receiving their words like a patch of parched land receiving rain. His silence had a way of giving them importance, even if it was just while they spoke. He gave them meaning.
“I did nothing.”
Barahir did not pretend surprise. They always wanted to fill his silences.
“And then again, that is not entirely truthful. My father brought up the matter of the garrison at Osgiliath, and I, because I was eager to prove myself, took the bait. What were his intentions in the matter, I do not know, and as it comes to guessing, I’d prefer not to. I know my intentions, and they were not particularly flattering, as they were mostly of a selfish nature, which is something a Captain of Men should not harbour in his heart, and if he finds it, he should take great care to root it out. I, however, considered myself above such things, and believed I strained for loftiness in all decisions. And when I accepted the command at Osgiliath, I feigned to myself that I was not doing so out of slighted pride. I pretended that there was no urge to prove to my father, the world and myself that I was a match in courage for my brother, that they should love me as they had loved him. Mithrandir, of course, saw through me, as always, and gave some advice I should have heeded. It is truly a great pity that the Grey Pilgrim had to sail into the West. You, for one, would have liked him.”
Barahir remained as still as a sleeping cat. He had long since started to salvage the past in ink and he would have given his right arm for a chance at a few words with the old wizard, even though he scarcely could believe there had ever been such a thing as a wizard.
“Maybe you think I am being too harsh on myself,” Faramir went on, “and that I had not much choice in the matter. But truth is no enemy of compassion, and falsehood no friend. I could have told my father that such an enterprise was madness, that the enemy could well afford to lose a host there but we certainly could not afford to lose good men in a venture that was doomed to fail. I could have said that. It might not have made much of a difference, but remaining unsaid, it made none. There is always a choice. Remember that, for it will help you greatly in the world. Even when your pride does not let you see it, there is always a choice.” He stood quiet for a moment, his face drawn, as though contemplating a sad, pale memory. Then he looked at his grandson once more. “Be as it may, I went. I was convinced, in my folly, that I could hold Osgiliath, and I could not accept the fact that, by not objecting, I had made a bad decision. I was never able to do that, you know. I still cannot.” He smiled. It was not a pleasant smile.
“It was slaughter. I cannot describe it and you cannot conceive of it, so we’d best leave it at that. I ended up losing almost one third of my men, and none of those deaths was clean and quick. Some of them died to take a blade or an arrow meant for me, as it is always the weak who pay for the foolishness of the strong, you see. We had to retreat, eventually, and that is what we did.”
Faramir felt silent, staring at the ground as though something fascinating laid there, a solitary ant, a pebble bright upon the grass. The silence troubled Barahir; too-still waters that made him feel as though the hunter was the prey, as though his trusty instrument had been turned against him.
The Steward turned to face him. “I’m sorry, child, I am not finished yet. There is a little more to this story. It turns out I did not do only ill. We had to retreat, as I have said, for the strength of our enemy could not be withstood, and there was the Fell Captain, who came bearing fear, and despair.” Barahir was almost certain his grandsire shivered ever so slightly at some memory riding unbidden upon his own words. “But as we were falling back into the Causeway Forts, it all changed. It was no longer a matter of pride, of letting others die to hold to already dearly paid possessions. It became a simpler matter of saving my men. I could not, would not let them be slaughtered by the Shadow in a panic. I believe it was only then I acted with true courage. I say so not in vanity, for there can be nothing vain about it, as courage does not bear such trappings. It is no more and no less than to do what you know is right, and know that it is the only thing you can do. This none can teach you, Barahir, but you must learn it, for you will need it in days yet to come.”
Barahir found himself wishing to buckle under that steel-stare once more. And he wondered how it was possible that a man who was old and ill could yield such power. He did not hear his voice whispering in his blood, and would have paid no heed if he did; already he dealt in words, in figures, in solid things that could be pinned down with black ink like so many butterflies pinned down on cork. He wished to say: sir, your words are fair and wise, but they are for a time that is not my own. You were wrought in a time of war, and so you had to learn courage and hope for the future. But I was wrought in a time of peace, and so I learn mistrust and caution. Yours were the days of heroes and fighting men; but your world has changed, and new days are at hand: those of politicians and treaty-makers and scriveners. Now you can rest deservedly in glory, but you must let us make our peace. And the peace we make may not be the peace you fought for.
He kept silent, though, an unfamiliar lump in his throat. He knew not why, but for the first time the essence of those words made him sad. They were like the news of a death, made bitter for their truth.
Now he swept the past away. Did it matter now? That had been long ago, and the first Prince of Ithilien had long since gone to his grave, replaced with almost indecent haste by Barahir’s father, and no pondering on that unreachable courage would help him untangle this knot that was his grandmother. His brows furrowing, he picked up the piece of shield again, and stared absent-mindedly into it.
“You can come out now, Mazikeen,” he said calmly.
There was a rustle from a shadowed alcove.
“And I thought I was doing so well,” a voice said.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.