4. Growing Pains
Forest-clad slopes showed dusky green and red in the afternoon, and a wet, musty scent of damp leaves and grass suffused the valley. The air shimmered with a haze that had lingered throughout the day, though now sun beams pierced the mists and shone gold-white upon the land, glinting off Anduin in the west. Moist and enigmatic, the trees swayed coyly in the light breeze, seeming to hide a mystery beneath their branches, promising to reveal it if only one would venture down into their midst. Peace, they seemed to promise, and forgetfulness were for the taking if a Man would dare their twisting green-grown trails. An enchanting fantasy, but Faramir, now captain of Ithilien, knew it for a lie, for he had walked under the eaves of the forest and seen the carnage that lay hidden under the leaf-laden branches. Indeed, he had wrought it: there lay now in that valley Orcs aplenty, and their dark blood was mingled with the scarlet of human blood.
It needed a strong force to pry those horses from the Rohirrim, Faramir thought wearily, gingerly probing his ribs which ached from a particularly strong blow. He would be sore for weeks but the bones were not cracked, fortunately. And truly, I was fortunate: we have not had such a hard-fought battle since I came here, five years ago. The Rohirrim must have taken heavy losses from this band! At least we recovered some of the horses. It was, perhaps, cold comfort compared to the number of steeds that the Orcs had butchered rather than allowing them to fall back into enemy hands, but at least those that were lost would never be slaves in Durthang. And though Faramir had never been one to believe too firmly in the notion that death was always preferable to dishonor, he had never doubted that death was a blessing if it meant escaping the rape of ones very essence at the hands of Mordors foul brood. To be twisted and changed, alienated so thoroughly from oneself as to be unrecognizablethat he feared as he feared little else, and his hatred of Mordor was intimately rooted in his horrified loathing of its ruined creatures.
Ironic, is it not? For would I be so very certain in this matter had I not some experience with such twisting? He thought, and a hard smile played at the corners of his mouth. No one who had lovingly read the history of Minas Tirith and of Gondor could escape the cruel fact that any contact with the Enemy, even in the form of resistance, carried a certain taint. The glory of that tall, proud city had become firmly linked with battle and slaying, rather than with the wisdom and beauty that its founders had sought to embody in its white walls. And of course, he was intimately familiar with the manner in which his father had been twisted by the burden of defense against Mordor, to the point that for Denethor son of Ecthelion, there was very little of worth beyond that mortal struggle for the protection of Gondor. It was an inhuman effort in the service of an abstraction, and if it kept the boundaries of Gondor intact, it begat also the cruelty, intentional or otherwise, that had poisoned the stewards family.
With a sigh, Faramir gazed down at trees and drew in a deep breath 'til his lungs felt ready to burst, then he exhaled slowly. Fair Ithilien, jewel in the crown of Gondor! Despite his earlier judgment of the forest, he had fallen instantly under its spell from the moment he had set foot under its shadow five years ago. Ithilien was for him a haven, be it peopled with monsters. It was not simply that Ithilien was a beautiful country, or that the land had a long and noble history; it had literally been his salvation as well. In five years, he had learned at last to trust himself, and to serve Gondor as befit his station in life. He had gained a measure of independence here, and a new perspective, and most importantly he had gained the trust of his men, and even friendship. Behind him, and below, on the leeward side of the shelf came a cry, and Faramir closed his eyes, counting heartbeats, wondering what brutality had just been inflicted on some poor man in the name of healing. The battle had ended early this morning, and the surgeons had for the most part done what they could for those most in need and were now occupied by injuries which required more careful labor and occasionally a hard decision, such as whether to amputate or hope that their repairs were sufficient. Worse still was the need to decide whether poisoned cuts could be cured, or whether the coup-de-grâce was the only "cure" left to a man whose agony had but one end.
"My lord." Faramir recognized the tenors owner without needing to turn. Galdon, originally captain of the regiment and, for the past three years now, his lieutenant, had come silently up to his side. Denethor had wanted to transfer him to Osgiliath once Faramir had been promoted, but Galdon had requested to remain at Faramirs side, and with some carefully worded arguments, Faramir had managed to retain his services. And he was glad of that, for Galdon, though fourteen years his senior, was a good man, and a wise counselor who had looked beyond the untried boy and seen the man he could become with the proper guidance. Discreet and loyal, Faramir counted him as a friend in spite of the gap of rank and age that stood between them, for he was one of few with whom he could speak in confidence.
"What matter brings you here, Galdon?" he asked in a low voice, bracing himself.
"Captain," Galdon said and there was grief in his voice, "Hirandar just died." Hirandar. The messenger with whom he had set out that fateful day, and whom he had grown to like in spite of his morose humor. Hirandar, who had lost his left arm today. The surgeons had thought he might survive, since he had not died of shock immediately. But now he will go never more to Minas Tirith, nor return to my comfort! Faramir bowed his head, and wondered when he forgotten how to cry. It must have been early on, perhaps after the second battle he had commanded. Before, he had always managed to hide his tears, but at some point, they had simply refused to come anymore.
"I see. Thank you for telling me," Faramir replied in a low voice. Once I wished never to weep again, and now I find I envy those who can. There are many things that I have lost, and that I looked to lose, which I miss now. Chief among them, to his great surprise, was the old relationship that he and his father had enjoyed, if such a word could be used without doing it undue violence. Though, of course, what we had was violent, and remains so, under its cloak! Denethor no longer flayed him with his scorn as he once had, granted, and he treated Faramir as simply another officer; but if Faramir could never truly satisfy his father, no matter how expertly he carried out his orders, there was an element of dissociation in the stewards appraisal of his performance. It was not a cavalier dismissal of himself as captain, for Denethor was too cold an analyst for such nonsense, but it was clear that he looked no further into Faramirs deeds than was necessary. And if there was never praise, there was often some minute fault that Denethor would gravely point out to him, and Faramir could only accept the remonstrance in silence. Almost, I wish we could arguetruly argue, as we once did, though it was mostly father berating, while I said yea or nay as needed when he paused. It hurt, yes, but at least it was personal, something that attached solely to me because I was his son. Now we have nothing, it seems, and when I say Father the word tastes foul upon my tongue. How strange, to miss what once I cursed! But I cannot return to the past, any more than Father can!
"It is hard to go back," Galdon said evenly, and Faramir blinked, surprised by the sudden intrusion into his most private thoughts. "I would often come to a place like this afterwards, and I would loathe the thought of returning to make myself look upon the misery I had wrought, and all in the name of Gondor." He speaks of war he speaks of war, not of family! Faramir felt an almost painful relief at that, and so swiftly did terror release him from its grip that he nearly laughed at himself. Of course, Galdon could not know how things stood between the Steward and his captain, any more than he could sail into the harbor of Valinor.
"It is indeed," Faramir replied softly, careful to reveal nothing of his preoccupied reflections. Galdon must have sensed his omission, but he seemed to take it for the invitation of one still new to the burden of command, for he continued: "Tis the price one pays for the title one bears: unlike others, a captain or a lord must always look on the pain he has wrought, and accept that he had no choice but to cause it. It never grows easier, and I am glad it does not. There are some things to which no Man should be able to accustom himself."
Faramir drew a deep breath and nodded. "You speak wisely, as always, Galdon. And I thank you for all your many kind words. Tomorrow," he continued, broaching the subject that had been eating at him all day, "I must return to Minas Tirith, with such men as are swift riders, to return the horses to the city, and thence to Rohan. I know not how long I shall be gone, for I think the lord of the city may have words for me, but I entrust the men to your care and leadership while I am gone."
"I shall keep them for you until you come again to fair Ithilien. And if you will, I can alert some of the men to ready themselves to accompany you," the older man replied. Then he paused, "One always misses home on a long deployment." Faramir smiled inwardly at the unvoiced question, namely: why do you never speak of it, when every other man in the company does? It was, perhaps, the one topic that Galdon pressed him about, however gently, suspecting something must be amiss in a young man who never seemed homesick. At the same time, his lieutenant could not, perhaps, imagine that this secret was tied to something harmful.
"I do miss Minas Tirith, but one cannot dwell upon that, can one?" Faramir replied, making himself seem determinedly noncommital, and was glad when Galdon, after a minute hestitation, accepted his answer and asked no more. And in truth, he did miss the city to which he had been born: he missed her grace, and the history of her streets, and the beauty that she sought to embody and preserve, the symbol of all that Númenor had to offer in contrast to the "gifts" of the Dark Lord. But he did not wish to return to the Tower of the Guard to report to his father. For though Galdon had meant only to comfort him with advice in matters of war, his words struck close to Faramirs heart, only too accurate in their blind flight. For even Denethors coldness held less dread for him than seeing the scars that he had wrought on his fathers soul. There were those, he knew, who would excuse him even those injuries that had been drawn with intent in the heat of anger, but Faramir knew better. Whatever his intentions, he was the author responsible for the existence of those wounds; in that light, he was little better than his father. Worse still, in their own way, were his infrequent meetings with his brother, who had laid himself open to such wounds as only family could deal for the sake of the brother he loved because his love and a noble spirit demanded no less, no matter that Faramir had never asked for such a sacrifice. At least those scars were gained willfully, he thought sadly, wondering whether the pain would ever cease.
What matters it if it does? I still could not undo what has been done already, and I would be foolish indeed to set my heart on such a hope! Faramir sighed. With a certain reluctance, he turned from the view over Ithilien, and laying a hand on Galdons shoulder in silent thanks, he descended from that high place and went to face his men. Tomorrow he would leave, and he owed them his presence and what comfort he could give in the time that he had. In the end, he did not really resent this duty, painful though it be. How could he, when they had already given him so much? And truly, it would do neither him nor his father nor anyone good to continue brooding on matters that he could not change.
But when they had nearly reached the base of the shelf, Galdon paused, and touched Faramirs arm, staying him. Galdons dark eyes searched his face, and Faramir could see the concern in them, and a most unusual indecision. Finally, he cleared his throat and said in a low voice meant only for his captains ears, "I am always at your service, my lordsince the first day you arrived, I knew I could not leave you, and later, I realized that I would not. As your lieutenant, such concerns as you choose to confide in me become mine, and I hope that I have never disappointed you as such. But if you will excuse my forwardness, as a man who would be a friend and no more than that, if there is something that troubles you, I am at your disposal." Those deep, dark eyes caught and held Faramirs gaze, and the hand on his arm tightened briefly, then relaxed as it dropped away. Faramir swallowed (unobtrusively, he hoped) and after a moment, he nodded.
"That means much to me, Galdon." Faramir paused a moment, then continued earnestly, "Think not that I lack confidence in you, or that I do not wish your friendship, but there are some concerns that are not mine to tell. You understand." Galdons lips tightened, but then they quirked into a slight, sad grin, and he nodded.
"Of course." They continued on in silence, and Faramir felt his heart pounding, but in a joyous rhythm for having found such a friend who, out of concern and in defiance of Gondors stratified ranks, would risk his commanders ire to broach a topic that Faramir clearly wished to ignore. So it was that it was with a good heart that he returned to the camp, and to the men he called his own.