29. The price of Sacrifice
The Price of Sacrifice
Every year as the anniversary approached Beregond's thoughts would return to that fateful March day that had changed his destiny forever.
His life as a member of the Tower Guard had been a good one and he had worked long and hard to obtain the coveted position. He had a fine house in the third circle where he lived happily with his wife and children. At that time, Bergil his eldest had cherished hopes of following in his father's footsteps and becoming a Tower Guard. The boy loved to run errands for his father's comrades, and when the Dark Lord's forces had threatened Minas Tirith, he had begged to remain behind with his father rather than accompany his mother and sister to the safety of their grandsire's in Lossarnach.
Beregond had approved; if the boy were to be a good soldier and have any chance of joining the prestigious guards it would be good for him to gain what experience he could in relative safety. In any case, Beregond had thought, if the Dark Lord's forces triumphed, Lossarnach would be no safer than Minas Tirith. He had been certain, though, that Sauron would not prevail, not while a single stout-hearted guard remained standing and the Steward and his brave sons were in charge.
The first great blow had been the death of Lord Boromir. It had seemed impossible that such a great warrior, the survivor of so many seemingly hopeless battles, should have been slain.
But Lord Faramir still lived and fought for them, and led his men to victory. Truth to tell, Beregond had always admired Lord Boromir, but he loved Lord Faramir. There was just something about him that inspired hope in his men. He was known too, for his kindness and compassion, and could tame both man and beast, not by force, but by love.
Then the blows began to fall thick and fast. When Mithrandir had arrived in Minas Tirith together with a friendly young Halfling, it seemed to Beregond to be a good sign. But despite the Wizard, Osgiliath fell and Lord Faramir was wounded trying to retake it while the enemy had reached the very gates of Minas Tirith. Prince Imrahil had rescued his nephew from the battlefield, though, and brought him back to the City. Beregond was certain that he would recover, for Minas Tirith's healers were surely the finest to be had anywhere, and Faramir was a healthy young man.
Beregond had begun to get worried when Lord Denethor was nowhere to be seen though he should have been directing the battle. Rumours started to fly that the healers had been sent away and that Lord Denethor had shut himself in his room with his wounded son. Beregond didn't know what to make of it all. Lord Denethor was a hard man, respected rather than loved, but surely only a mad man or a coward would lock themselves away when the enemy was besieging the City. Why even young Bergil was doing his bit! Their Lord was no coward. Maybe the Lord Denethor had indeed lost his wits?
Beregond had thought no more of it and concentrated on his duty. He had just taken up his post when the young Halfling had approached him in a state of great agitation.
At first he thought that Captain Faramir was dead. For the first time he despaired and he had wept. What hope did they have without Faramir? In a way, Pippin's tidings were even worse for it seemed that the Lord Denethor had lost his wits and planned to immolate himself and his still- living son. Pippin begged him to do what he could to save Faramir, before hastening off to find Mithrandir.
Beregond had hesitated at first. It was unthinkable for a guard to abandon his post. To do so meant dismissal from the guards and most likely a flogging. But he could not leave Faramir to die. Not the brave Captain! He recalled how Faramir would greet even the lowliest soldier with a smile and always had a kind word for the children. He was certain that, had their positions been reversed, Captain Faramir would endeavour to save any of his men.
Beregond had hastened to the Silent Street only to find his way barred by the porter, who refused to give him the keys to admit him to the House of Stewards. The foolish man kept repeating that he could not disobey Lord Denethor's orders and drew his sword to bar the guard's way. Did he neither know nor care that the lord planned to burn his son alive? Beregond tried to tell him, but he refused to listen. Fearful that he would arrive too late Beregond's patience had snapped. He had drawn his own sword and cut the man down.
When he reached the steps, he had seen Lord Denethor's servants approaching with torches and oil. They were no more willing to listen to reason and berated him soundly for his treason to their Lord. Beregond had been determined not to let them pass and slew two of them. All that mattered to him was that Faramir should not be burned alive. Their blood ran scarlet down the steps of the Hallows. He never forgot the sight.
Mithrandir had arrived, just as Beregond had been pushed aside by Lord Denethor, who was determined that none should thwart his purpose. By the sheer power of Mithrandir's will, the Lord's sword had flown out of his hand. Beregond had quailed before the might of the wizard. He half expected that he would be flung to the bottom of the steps simply by a wave of his hand.
Mithrandir had snatched Faramir away, but Lord Denethor fulfilled his deadly purpose. Beregond had expected to be thrown into the dungeons for his actions, but Mithrandir, more in sorrow than in anger, had told him to report what had happened to his captain and then go with Lord Faramir to the Houses of Healing.
It was only when Beregond sat down outside Lord Faramir's room that the full horror of his actions had struck him. He found he was shaking. What had he done? He had killed three good men of Gondor and in a hallowed place to boot. He fully expected death as punishment for his actions. What would become of his family? They would share his disgrace and be forced to rely on the charity of their kinsfolk. He had asked a healer how Faramir was and the man told him there was little hope of his recovery. It seemed Beregond had killed his fellows and destroyed his own life for nothing, unless it was to grant Faramir a more peaceful death.
As the day wore on, tidings came from the battlefield that reinforcements had come, and by sunset the battle was over and Gondor was saved; at least for now.
Beregond was relieved to find that at least Bergil was safe and running errands for the healers. The boy was puzzled by his father's presence at the Houses. Beregond simply said that he was there to guard Lord Faramir.
There was little rejoicing over the victory in the Houses of Healing, simply a weary sense of relief. Beregond was told Faramir's death was expected at any time. He had been about to ask if he might see him when Mithrandir returned, accompanied by Faramir's Uncle, Prince Imrahil and two strangers, a fair- haired man and a very tall dark- haired one, who oddly enough had reminded him somewhat of Lord Faramir.
It seemed that the dark haired stranger had some healing knowledge, and Mithrandir had brought him to see if he could aid Faramir. Quite a crowd had gathered and Beregond followed them to Faramir's room. He stood at the back of the group. The sight of the Captain shocked him. Faramir was deathly pale and hardly seemed to be breathing. Beregond felt like weeping anew for such a noble life drawing to its end so soon.
The stranger declared that he needed athelas. Beregond turned to Bergil, who was beside him and told him to run to his aunt and uncle's house. His sister- in- law was prone to suffering from headaches and claimed athelas eased them. She always kept some in the house. She had left together with the other women, but he knew she had been out gathering athelas leaves two weeks ago and kept them in the kitchen wrapped in a cloth.
Bergil sped away and he was left wondering at the stranger who had knelt beside Lord Faramir and grown as pale as he! He looked more of a soldier than a healer and what he was doing made no sense at all!
Then Bergil returned with some athelas. He looked crestfallen that Lord Faramir appeared no better. When he gave the leaves to the man he was rewarded by a most lovely smile, which made Beregond warm to the stranger. He had such warm eyes, filled with compassion and wisdom.
Then a miracle happened. Lord Faramir opened his eyes and gazed at his healer as if he recognised him. There was such love in that gaze; it was how a son looks at his father when he returns home after a long absence. He then hailed the stranger as his King!
Beregond looked on amazed. What manner of man was this stranger who could cure Faramir when the best healers in Gondor had been helpless against his malady? He knew then that Lord Faramir would recover and that whatever the consequences of his actions, they would not have been for nothing,
When Beregond had heard that Mithrandir and the Captains of Gondor planned to lead a force into Mordor, he swiftly volunteered to go. It seemed a crazy fool's errand, but that way he would die an honourable death upon the battlefield rather than be executed as a felon. His wife and children would be able to hold their heads up in public. War widows received a small allowance from the Steward, which would help them survive.
He would never forget the look in Bergil's eyes, though, when they marched away. He loved his boy, yet to leave him was Bergil's only chance to grow up without being taunted as the son of a murderer. There was no other choice. Maybe if Faramir were to be his judge, he would have been merciful, but it seemed that if by some marvel any of them survived the war, that the mysterious healer, a captain from Arnor, would be king and rule Gondor. Beregond was uncertain what to make of that apart from his own plight. The Stewards had ruled well enough for generations, so why should some unknown northerner take over, great healer though he might be!
As the days passed, though, he realised that the Lord Aragorn was a great leader in the same mould as Lord Faramir, who knew how to inspire his men and could see into their hearts. His compassion towards those men who were too fearful to go forward amazed Beregond, who imagined that was just the sort of thing Lord Faramir would have wished to do.
The men had not understood exactly what was happening, but it turned out that the march into Mordor was but a ploy to distract the Dark Lord while two Halflings crept into his land to destroy a magic ring, which held his power. Against all the odds they succeeded, and Beregond did not die in battle after all, but came home to his wife. His captain told him that he was to await the judgement of the new king once he was crowned.
Beregond's wife had been extremely unhappy about the situation. She asked repeatedly why he had thrown away his prospects and those of his family. When he explained he had acted for the love of the Lord Faramir, she asked why had he not loved his family more than the Captain, or if he had to defy Lord Denethor, could he not have wounded his servants rather than killed them? Beregond had asked himself that question many times. It seemed that some madness had come over him. How could a woman understand the love a soldier has for a great Captain who cares for and inspires his men?
He had told her that the King appeared to be a compassionate man. Maybe he would punish him by exile rather than death? The law allowed that mercy. The King of Rohan seemed a decent man; maybe he could dwell in his lands?
His wife had retorted that it was far from likely as Beregond, though he loved horses, was not a skilled rider; and who would want to live in a place where it was rumoured the stables were better than the houses and no one could read or write? Then she had wept bitterly. He had tried vainly to comfort her, but could think of no words to ease her pain.
On the day he was to be judged, he had bid her and his children farewell, resigned to his fate, little thinking that he would see them again. He would die consoled by the knowledge that Lord Faramir was alive and had found happiness with a lady from Rohan he had met in the Houses of Healing. He had tried not to show his fear when his captain brought him before the King
Beregond had been amazed when the King had not only spared his life, but made him a Captain and sent him to dwell with Lord Faramir in his new home in Ithilien and take charge of his personal guard, the White Company. The King had made Lord Faramir a prince, too, and Beregond had thoroughly approved.
Beregond's lady had been delighted that she was now the wife of a captain, but less than happy at the prospect of moving to Ithilien, though she was cheered when told she could have a fine house and servants. She had decided to take a recently widowed neighbour as housekeeper, who was also a good friend.
All that had happened 10 years ago now. Beregond and his wife had prospered in their new home and been blessed with three more children, but still he felt haunted at times by what he had done. There were nights when he dreamed of the porter's death cry and of the steps of the Hallows stained with blood. He would awake shaking and covered in cold sweat. Then there were other dreams, even darker when he saw Lord Faramir burning on a pyre, crying in agony and looking at Beregond reproachfully through a wall of flame.
That year he felt the familiar sense of heaviness when the fifteenth day of March approached. He knew he was not the only one who recalled the day with an odd mixture of joy and sorrow. So many had lost their lives that day, but it was also the day that marked the turning of the tide. Lord Faramir's life had been saved and the King had come.
For a while, Beregond had held mixed emotions on that count. King Elessar was a great man, but he had still felt that Lord Faramir was the rightful ruler of Gondor. He had mentioned those feelings to Faramir one day who had gently chided him saying, "I was never born to rule, nor would I wish to. The King is the greatest man who now lives, and is as far above me as an eagle soars above a sparrow."
With that, Beregond had to be content. It was enough for him that Faramir ruled Ithilien; moreover, he and his lady thrived there, happily sharing their lives with the children born to them.
Beregond knew that the fifteenth day of March was also a difficult day for Lord Faramir and his lady. His father had tried to burn him that day, while Lady Éowyn's much-loved uncle had fallen in battle and she had been wounded. He knew the Steward and his lady always marked the date. This year King Elessar happened to be visiting them. No doubt he had memories of his own. Beregond had heard that a beloved kinsman of the King's had also perished in the battle.
Beregond had tried to avoid Faramir on the anniversary of his father's death, knowing that it held painful memories. He usually contrived to be away with his men on some mission or other.
This year, though, was different. He was about to set off with a patrol when Bergil, now grown into a fine young man and trusted member of the White Company, brought a message that the King required his attendance.
Feeling a little apprehensive Beregond complied. A servant told him that the King was with the Prince and Princess of Ithilien in their private chambers and that Beregond was to join them there.
He bowed low to the King and then glanced around the room. A table was decorated with spring flowers and amidst them stood candles in tall holders.
"Faramir thought you should join us here today as we honour the dead," said the King.
Beregond felt most uncomfortable. "Pardon me, sire," he said, " but I did not lose loved ones upon this day, unlike Lord Faramir and his lady."
"I know you mourn your deeds, Beregond," said Faramir gently. "That can be every bit as hard as mourning a person. It grieves my heart that you suffer on account of me."
"I am glad that I helped to save you, my lord," said Beregond. Years of feelings he had tried to suppress came rising to the surface. How could he repent of his actions while being glad of their results? He did not want to think about it. He wished he could flee. He swallowed hard and the colour drained from his face.
"Beregond!" The King's tone was kind yet forceful. "You are an honourable man, though you spilled innocent blood. Yet, you acted out of love and without your actions I would not have my Steward and dear friend here today. Gondor would be bereft of his wisdom and Ithilien of her Prince."
Beregond sank to his knees and bowed his head, hoping that none would see the tears in his eyes.
The King placed both hands upon his head and said softly, "Today, remember, and then be free of guilt!" He then gripped both of Beregond's hands and raised him to his feet.
Beregond felt the man's power surge through him. He felt pain like one feels when a wound is cleansed and then a strange sense that he too was being purified.
The King lit a candle. "For Halbarad and all who died upon the field," Elessar said.
Lord Faramir then lit a second candle and said, "For my poor father, destroyed by the Dark Lord, and for my brother lost in fighting against the darkness."
Then Lady Éowyn lit a third and said, "I honour and remember my Uncle, who cast off the shadow to die a great hero."
Faramir then handed a lighted taper to Beregond.
Beregond took a deep breath before using it to light the final candle on the table. "May those I slew find peace," he said.
"And you too, my friend," said Faramir.
"The past cannot be undone, but we are granted hope for the future," said the King. "We who live remember those who died, friend and foe. May the dead and the living find peace!"
Beregond felt suddenly as if a weight were lifted from his shoulders after long years of bearing it. He would ever regret his deeds, but never the results. All that mattered was that Lord Faramir lived and thrived, as did Gondor under her most worthy King.