38. Bearing Witness
"Master Pippin! You have a visitor, my young friend," Meneldil cried. "Hurry, lad—it won't do to keep this one waiting!"
"Coming," Pippin said with a sigh as he reached on tiptoes to place a stack of folded blankets on a makeshift shelf. He already felt tired, and the day had hardly begun. He thought he'd grown used to short rations on the march with the Nine Walkers, and to trying to catch a fitful nap by daylight after carrying on thorugh darkness. But the last several days as Helper-At-Large to the Healers of a great city of Men on the brink of war made a good part of the journey with the Fellowship seem like a Midsummer Hobbit outing. He'd never been busier, hungrier, or more in need of a full night of uninterrupted sleep.
As invasion approached, Master Meneldil's small workshop adjacent to the Houses in the Sixth Circle had been commandeered for stockpiling herbs and potions. Meneldil himself was placed in charge of setting up the new healing "houses" that the Captain-General and Master Turin had decided would be necessary. Yesterday, workers erected six large tents in what was, in times of peace, the biggest market square of Minas Tirith. The square was in the First Circle, southwest of the Courtyard of the Gate, and sheltered in part by the sheer pinnacle of stone that rose from the bottom to the very peak of the City. Meneldil's assistants were to help prepare the tents for the many casualties they soon expected—and Peregrin Took was his newest assistant.
Pippin turned away from his current assignment—to bring order to an enormous pile of blankets in the storage tent—and hurried through the flapping fabric passages between pavilions. As he came round the corner he saw Meneldil, a smile on his narrow, high-browed face, and a tall soldier in the sable and silver livery of the Citadel standing just behind him.
The Hobbit's face lit up. Then he saw that it wasn't Boromir, as he'd first thought. But someone who looks an awful lot like him…Could this be the brother I've heard so much about? Pippin had not had a chance to join the crowd of welcome when the Ithilien patrol rode by last evening, and so he'd not seen the returning Commander. But the talk of the healing tents was of nothing but Captain Faramir and the remarkable archery prowess of the Steward Denethor.
He stood before the younger version of his friend Boromir and bowed.
"Peregrin Took, at your service and your family's," he said. "To what do I owe the honor of a visit from the famous Captain Faramir, brother of the illustrious Captain-General, and son of the Steward?"
Faramir inclined his head. "The honor is mine, Master Took. My brother has told me a few tales of your travels with him from Imladris, and of the aid you so kindly gave him as he recovered from his wound…"
Pippin rolled his eyes. "Oh my goodness, I didn't do anything, just some silly songs and ridiculous stories, anything to keep his mind off his troubles…"
"Just so," said Faramir with a warm smile. "Services rendered by a friend, and one with a keen sense of what would be most helpful under the circumstances. My thanks, on Boromir's behalf. It was he who requested I come here, ere he left the City in the night. My brother said you might appreciate certain news that I bring from beyond the Great River…"
Pippin's grin melted as he stared up at the tall Captain. Any lingering thought of fatigue vanished. His voice was suddenly hoarse.
"News! Do you mean… Have you seen…?"
Faramir interrupted. "Might there be a place where we could speak privately, Master Took?"
"Please, call me Pippin, and yes, of course… This way…"
The tall Captain and the young Hobbit retreated to the rear tent, a chaotic tumble of unfolded blankets, baskets of bandage rolls, lanterns and casks of oil, basins for washing and cakes of soap, and heaps of other unorganized supplies. He led Faramir to the far corner, behind a stack of cots that had yet to be assembled, and turned.
"Tell me everything," he said, his face a mixture of trepidation and eagerness.
The Captain nodded. "Five nights ago, while on patrol in the forest of Ithilien, I met three travelers. One was known to me—he whom we call Mithrandir, in Elvish fashion, and you name Gandalf the Grey. But the other two were not only strangers to me, but I had never before met any of their race…"
Pippin clutched his hand to his chest as he felt his heart racing. "Are they all right? Did they say anything to you? How far had they gotten…"
"They were well, when I parted from them," Faramir said. "Our meeting took place approximately half the distance between Anduin and the foothills of the Mountains of Shadow. Our conversation lasted but a few minutes, just long enough for me to hear their names—Master Frodo Baggins and his servant, Samwise Gamgee—and to be rebuffed by Mithrandir when I sought to learn the reason for their obviously secret journey by darkness..."
Pippin flushed and looked nervously at the Captain, who noted his discomfort and held up a hand. "Fear not. My brother has explained all." He eyed the young Hobbit with solemn curiosity. "For myself, and for Gondor, I wish to thank you—on behalf of your cousin, whose fateful errand on all our behalf is now known to me. The responsibility your kinsman has taken upon himself is awesome, and unimaginably perilous..."
"Yes," Pippin said in a low voice. "I don't think any of us—even Frodo—really understood just how perilous his task would be. I know I didn't." He looked up at the soldier of Gondor. "We all intended to go with him, to the very end, you know… At least that's what I thought I'd do, way back at home in the Shire, and then in Rivendell, when Merry—he's another cousin of ours, who was a part of the Fellowship—and I all but insisted that we be allowed to come…" Pippin's gaze drifted down; he stared at his hands. "But along the way we all got a bit of an education, you might call it, in just how daunting and dangerous the wide world can be… And I saw that I wasn't cut out for such things. I realized I'd only hinder Frodo, not help him." He looked up again. "It's odd, really, given all the terrible and frightening things that happened, and all the awful things I had to do… But the hardest thing I've ever done was to admit that I shouldn't go with Frodo, that I might well make things worse for him…"
Faramir gazed at him with keen interest. "No small courage is required to see oneself with such honesty. Insight into one's strengths and weaknesses is the first step toward wisdom…"
Pippin sniffed. "I'm the least wise person you shall ever meet, Captain. Why, I'm not even of age, in my own country… But I am truly grateful, for your thoughtfulness in taking time from what I imagine must be a frightfully busy day, to come down here and give me this welcome tidbit of news. Just to know that they are yet safe and free…! You can't know how horribly worried I've been… Well, perhaps you can imagine, seeing as how you'd been separated from your brother for so many months…" He sighed and smiled wanly. "Captain Faramir, I also appreciate your kind words of thanks. I'll make sure that Frodo hears them when he returns, if you haven't had a chance to speak to him yourself."
Faramir gave Pippin an odd look; then his eyes fell and he nodded. Pippin frowned in curiosity, then seemed to dismiss the thought and went on.
"And if it isn't too much of a bother, if you hear anything else, anything at all—good news or bad—I would be so very grateful if you could send word, even a note…"
"I will endeavor to do so, Master Peregrin," said Faramir.
But at that moment their conversation was interrupted by the appearance of Mablung standing near the stack of cots. He took a step forward.
"Captain, you must come at once, sire…"
"What is it?" Faramir said.
"Cair Andros has fallen," Mablung said quietly. "The first survivors have reached the Rammas…"
Faramir turned and opened his mouth; but Pippin spoke first.
"Don't worry about me!" he said as he shooed the tall Men away with a gesture. "You've far more important things to do…" He bowed again. "Be safe, Captain Faramir…"
Faramir's returning look was stern. "I go to do my duty, and where that shall take me—into safety or otherwise—I cannot say. But I appreciate the sentiment." He nodded once. "I hope we meet again, Master Took. I understand now well enough why my brother considers you a friend…"
Pippin reddened. "I'd be honored if you would do the same, sire…"
Faramir smiled wanly. "I shall. Farewell, for today."
* * *
Faramir's brief detour, first to the Houses in the Sixth Circle and then to the tents erected in the First, in search of the Perian, had delayed him half an hour--minutes he did not have to spare. No time to properly speak to the boy… The Captain had been alarmed at the Perian's naiveté in thinking that his older cousin could possibly return from his fateful journey—and moved by the lad's stalwart belief that the impossible task could actually be carried out. But now was not the time to bluntly confront young Master Took. No need to strip all hope from him… Siege-war would do that, soon enough.
As for himself, he wasn't certain what to think of Master Baggins and his loyal servant. The Captain could not conceive of how such a daunting task could be done. Yet his brother seemed convinced that the Halflings could do the unthinkable. And I suppose Mithrandir must feel the same… He would never allow such a venture if he had no hope of its success… But it was the stubborn skepticism and scorn expressed by his father that most greatly influenced the Steward's younger son to side with Boromir. When Father insists, I resist… Whether I can comprehend how they might do it or not, if Bori and Mithrandir believe in them, so must I… However, he was also a realist. He had no illusions that the Pheriannath could survive their errand.
Faramir's head was awhirl with a clamor of thoughts as he hurried away, Mablung at his side. At the first glimmer of dull grey in the gloomy skies, Baranor had taken him on a whirlwind tour from the lowest Circle to the highest, from Gate to Citadel, pleased to display Boromir's rapidly implemented, clever improvements in the City's defences. Fari was proud of his brother's remarkable accomplishments in so little time. Just like Bori, to think of all this… The younger son of the Steward knew that the elder was the more knowledgeable military strategist and the superior general. He is the true solder. He was born for war…
Faramir was aware that he could add little to what had already been done, and to attempt to make his own suggestions for minor alterations to the weaponry or the defensive artifices would be merely conceit. No, his skills were different than the Captain-General's. Instead, he spent his tour of the City speaking, however briefly, with nearly every officer and foot soldier he met. He probed their thoughts, the steadiness of their resolve, the depth of their unspoken fears. He did what he did best: sparked a fire of hope where it had died, gently fanned the dying flames where it merely smoldered, and encouraged it where it bravely flickered. He found the defenders of Minas Tirith in high spirits—but delicate ones. Their hopes have been renewed since Boromir's return, but it shall take all too little to quash them again…
Imrahil was waiting on horseback at the Gate as the Captain strode up from the direction of the Healing Tents. Faramir and Mablung mounted quickly. A party of a dozen riders joined them and they soon rode beneath the archway of the open Gate and onto the Pelennor, several wains for the wounded lumbering in their wake.
"Any news from Osgiliath?" Imrahil inquired as they cantered from left to right, weaving between the now completely concealed trenches.
"A messenger dove, at what would be first light, if light there was in these grey fumes," Faramir replied, frowning into the low haze. "He speaks of an oppressive sense of waiting for the hammer to fall. But no foes have shown themselves—not yet. Tis strange; they felt the presence of the Winged Beasts and their fell Riders all last evening… But no longer. Just as Bori arrived, in the midst of night, the Wraiths retreated eastward, and all sense of their chill has gone. Much as I am glad of it, I wonder why…"
"Mayhap they go to seek a replacement for the monster that Denethor injured," Imrahil said. "Or they restrain themselves, waiting for true darkness to doubly weigh down men's hearts…"
Faramir felt strangely uneasy with this turn of events. He was relieved for the lack of the Nazgûl's icy presence, to be sure; but he wished he knew more clearly the reason. He could not shake the thought that something worse lay hid behind their sudden disappearance from the field of battle. The Nameless One's greatest weapon had always been fear, and his foulest servants had blown terror forward unceasingly since their reappearance in mid-winter. They have never felt the need to hold themselves back before… And Imrahil's reasoning that they were in need of a replacement for the Winged Beast wounded by his father's arrow was little comfort. For, surely they have bred dozens of the fell creatures, harnessed and ready for flight…
It was a mystery without a solution, and undoubtedly the Wraiths would appear again all too soon. The shadow of the Black Breath still clung to him; he felt a sickening knot in his gut, and his mouth was suddenly all of cotton. The dim day grew even darker for a moment as his sight seemed to fade. A shudder passed through him at the memory of those dark wings swooping low. His Uncle noticed at once.
"Enough talk of Wraiths," the Prince murmured in a low tone meant only for his nephew riding near. "We have a few hours of relief from their evil chill. Let us not dwell on worse to come, and attend to our momentary respite instead."
"Well said, Uncle," Faramir breathed, as he shook off the shadows.
They aimed for the western extent of the Rammas, expecting at any moment to encounter the retreat from Cair Andros. As the dark wall loomed out of the haze they caught sight of the first group of men hurrying toward the Gate.
Mablung and several others dismounted among the retreating men to give them aid. He stood near the young lieutenant, Hargam, the sole officer among the survivors. The pale young man saluted and gave his report to Captain Faramir as his fellows continued on toward the City.
"My Lord, it was as if the Great Sea had engulfed us," he gasped. "The Isle was overrun, and the fort was surrounded in but an hour…"
"How many escaped?" Faramir asked.
"Not more than half the garrison…"
"Nay, my lord, he… He fell…"
The lieutenant's eyes closed for a moment as he swayed with fatigue.
"Lean on me, lad," Mablung said as he reached for the young man.
"The wains will be here in minutes," Faramir said. "Get to the Healers, Hargam…"
"Nay, my Lord, I am unhurt, merely weary," he said. "All too soon the battle shall come here…"
"The more reason you should rest now, lieutenant," Faramir said firmly. "Mablung, Ephedril: stay here and direct the retreat. See to it that all who are in need of the Healers find aid. Aratan will guide the rest to their quarters as soon as possible…"
The Prince and the Captain stayed long enough at the Rammas to learn what news they could. Hargam's words had proved true; fewer than half of the garrison of Cair Andros had escaped to fall back to the City. The sheer vastness of the numbers of invaders defied description. Even hardened soldiers had difficulty overcoming their awestruck terror to give an accurate assessment. The men of Minas Tirith on duty on the Rammas listened in solemn silence; the Captain noted too many wide eyes, too much barely contained terror.
* * *
After the Captain and his officer left the tent, Pippin did his best to continue his task of folding and stacking; but his mind was racing. Cair Andros, fallen… He had learned enough in his time in the City to have a grasp of the island's location and strategic importance. Then it's really here: War… The wounded will be arriving any moment, and the enemy will be on the heels of the retreat... His heart thumped within him at the thought. Orcs, as likely as not…
He had never felt so entirely alone. What was he to do, one lonely Hobbit in this great City, about to be besieged by thousands of blood-thirsty goblins and who knew what other hideous fiends? He was, in truth, utterly terrified, and only shame, and the hard fact that he had no idea where he could possibly flee kept him from running away as fast as his legs could carry him.
As immediate as those fears seemed, soon his thoughts strayed farther afield. Frodo and Sam! Captain Faramir saw them—they're all right, they're on their way, and Gandalf too… It was thrilling news, of course, and awful at the same time. For every step they take brings them closer to… He closed his eyes for a moment as he gripped the blanket. But as terrible as their destination was, he also knew it was the only way forward. His dearest friends must go into the worst possible darkness for hope to stay alive for anyone.
Pippin hardly knew what he was doing as he picked up the next blanket and shook it out, lined up the corners and began folding. His mind wandered eastward. Where are they now? Have they reached the mountains yet? What did Faramir call them: the Mountains of Shadow? How high are those peaks? I don't suppose they'll encounter snow, as we did on Caradhras, too far south for that… And after the mountains, I wonder what horrible things they'll find… Take care of him, Sam… Please be safe, Frodo…
He stared unseeing at the blanket draped over his arm. What am I saying, be safe! You ninny, Pip. Frodo isn't safe—hasn't been for a good long time, and won't be safe for longer still…
The fleeting look of surprise on Captain Faramir's face came back to him at that moment, the look he'd given him just after Pippin said that Frodo would return... That look, in his eyes: stern and full of pity… He knows, doesn't he… He knows what you've been unable—or unwilling--to see… Pippin's eyes smarted as the horrible reality broke through for the first time. Frodo isn't coming back! He can't come back… The quest, or whatever it was, would almost certainly end, for him, in the heart of the worst place on earth.
Hot tears rolled down Pippin's cheeks as he stood in silence. Frodo knew, of course; he'd have understood all this, long ago… And Gandalf… How could he take them there, knowing that Frodo and Sam cannot possibly live through it…
He closed his eyes. Of course. It wouldn't really matter—couldn't matter--to Gandalf, would it? It isn't that he doesn't care about Frodo, but… From what Pippin had come to understand, Gandalf's entire life was devoted to figuring out some way to end the reign of the Enemy. Not just Gandalf… It wouldn't matter to Lord Elrond, or even to Strider, would it… And really, it shouldn't matter to them, should it? Because someone's got to do this awful thing, no matter the consequences to them, otherwise it's all over, and He's won… But it wasn't fair! Why did all this have to happen to his favorite cousin, to dear, sweet, gentle Frodo? To the best of us…
And maybe that's exactly why it's happening to dear Frodo, he said to himself. Because he was the best of them, because he was the only one of them who was really brave enough to even think of doing such a tremendous thing. With Sam's help, of course… and Gandalf's protection…
Pippin wiped his hand across his eyes. Yes, Sam and Gandalf will bring Frodo home, once he's done what he must… Samwise Gamgee was about the stubbornest Hobbit in the Shire, and Gandalf had amply demonstrated that he was stronger and more powerful than any of them had ever realized. It was thin and weak—but it was something. There was truly hope, despite the darkness. There has to be...
He reached for the next blanket and shook away his tiredness. Back to it, Pip—help these healers get ready for the onslaught about to hit us… He had no reason to complain, he told himself. He had a warm bed and food and plenty to keep himself occupied and out of trouble, no matter if every Orc in Mordor was marching toward Minas Tirith. Pippin swallowed his fear, his face set with determination. He would keep doing what he must, no matter what… Like Frodo. If dear cousin Frodo can keep going, so can I....
* * *
Faramir's jaw was clenched as he and Imrahil dismounted and strode to the Citadel to bring the long-dreaded news of the first outpost to fall to the encroaching enemy forces. Commander Baranor and the outlands' commanders joined them in the Council Chamber. They sat at the great table, Denethor at the head, while the Captain of Ithilien stood near the east-facing windows and spoke of all that he had learned.
"Those survivors fit for service shall be reassigned to positions above the Third Circle," he said. "They have sacrificed enough—for the time being."
Baranor nodded. "Only fair. Yet all too soon every able man in Gondor will have sacrificed in equal measure…"
The lords discussed the news quietly; the room was filled with tension as they spoke of the long expected invasion. Curiously, the Captain noted, the Steward seemed distracted, almost inattentive as Baranor reviewed the City's defences and the numbers gathered at arms. It was most unusual; in Faramir's experience, his father always paid close attention to the most mundane details of every council meeting. The son studied his father closely. He seems completely spent. But why? The Lord of Pinnath Galen was speaking when Denethor seemed to become aware of his son's eyes upon him. He looked up. Faramir felt himself pierced by the intensity of his father's gaze—and shocked by the look of utter desolation Denethor momentarily revealed.
Faramir gazed at his father with growing alarm. He is filled with turmoil, and his eyes… such anguish, and yet remorse as well... What has happened? What has his sight told him? His breath suddenly caught as he drew what seemed the only logical conclusion: the Steward Denethor, whose far sight was legendary, had seen Boromir's fall! That must be the explanation… He sent Bori away last night with words of anger, and now his eldest son—my dear brother—has been slain, and he is filled with regret for his harsh words…
The remaining minutes of the council meeting were a torment for the Captain. He forced himself to remain calm, to give nothing away. The others dispersed rapidly when the stern-faced Steward dismissed them, Imrahil walking out at Baranor's side. Faramir lingered, waiting until the chamber was empty but for his father and himself. He closed the door and turned to Denethor.
"Father," he said hoarsely. "What is it? What is wrong?"
Denethor flushed and scowled. "Wrong? What sort of fool question is that? This City is about to be besieged…"
"That's not what I mean," the Captain said urgently as he crossed the room to stand near the Steward. "You have the far sight of those in whom the blood of Númenor runs true—you always have. You have seen something, haven't you?"
"I have no idea what you are talking about," his father said irritably, refusing to meet his gaze.
Faramir fell to one knee at Denethor's side. He looked up into his father's face. "My Lord," he whispered. "Please tell me, I beg you! Is it… Is it Boromir? Has he…"
The Steward's scowl relaxed somewhat. "I have no news—good or ill--of your brother..."
Faramir sighed as relief washed through him. Then he looked up again, his features filled with concern. "Then what, Father? What troubles you? I see it in your eyes, on your face—you appear distraught, and wearier than you appeared even yestereve. You know something terrible, something unexpected… Will you tell me?"
Denethor gazed at his younger son for a long moment before he replied. "I have nothing to tell you… Not at present!" he added sharply, as his son began to protest. "The time will come to reveal…certain facts."
Faramir's brows drew together in a frown that, if he had known it, mirrored his father's in a display of determination. "Yet time may well be what we least have remaining to us. If something of import has occurred, and you have news of if, would it not be better to pass on such information now, before the hordes of the Black Land swarm our very walls?"
The Steward gave him a stony look. "You think I am unaware of that? Show me respect enough to at least pretend to believe that I have sufficient wits left to judge the proper timing of such a thing!" he said harshly.
Faramir flushed as he rose to his feet and bowed stiffly. "My apologies, Lord Steward," he said, his tone formal and cool. "I meant no disrespect…"
Denethor snapped. "Yes, so you always protest: you never mean disrespect, no matter how you apparently behave disrespectfully." He glared at his younger son. "I have said all that I intend to say."
The Captain met his father's eyes, his hurt and confused anger written on his face. "Very well, sire," he said quietly. "By your leave, I go now to my duties." He turned at the door. "Yet know that I shall return at a word from you, Father. Summon me at any time, day or night."
Denethor said nothing as his son left him alone in the chamber. His eyes closed; he bowed his head. For several minutes, the Steward cradled his face in his hands as he rested his elbows on the table. Then his head rose, and he sighed deeply. He rang a small bell, and shortly a servant appeared at the door.
"Fetch me fresh parchment and a pen," the Steward said sharply. "And find Lord Húrin… I have need of him…"
In ten minutes Denethor had completed a letter, sealed it with his personal seal and placed it in an envelope, which he also sealed. He inscribed both his sons' names on the envelope. He gazed at it, and after a moment's hesitation, he wrote again. His hand trembled as he formed the letters of a third name; he cursed himself for his weakness. Then, as if an afterthought, he added the words, if no other choice remains.
Húrin opened the door. "Lord Steward?"
Denethor's face revealed nothing of the tumult within him. "This envelope contains certain information known only to the Steward—things of vital import passed from father to son over centuries. As soon as we are finished here, I will place this upon the third shelf of the bookcase in my private study. It is necessary that you—and one other, whomever you choose, someone that you trust implicitly--know its location, in case…"
Húrin's eyes widened, and he opened his mouth to speak, but Denethor continued. "In the event that I am prevented from speaking to my sons of its contents—worry not, they will know if such a conversation has taken place; you need but inquire—tell them both where to find it… or whichever one lives… or, if absolutely necessary, inform the other named here."
The Master of the Keys studied the envelope lying on the table. His aged voice shook slightly. "Sire, I do not recognize this third name…"
Denethor stared at the letters stonily. "But no doubt the archaic naming conventions are familiar to you." He glanced up. Húrin stared, astonished, and nodded. The Steward snorted. "Not entirely complimentary, is it?*" he went on quietly. "I sincerely hope you never have opportunity to meet the individual named here. But I do not control all fates, and if he is all that is left to the realm, he should be informed of this…" He tapped the envelope with his fingertip.
Húrin gazed out the windows at the thickening gloom and frowned. "And if none of the three named survive, my Lord?" he asked in a hoarse voice.
He turned to see that the Steward had already risen to his feet and was striding purposefully toward the door, envelope in hand. He was halfway out the door when he replied.
"Then it matters not, for Gondor herself shall not then survive…at least not Gondor as we have known her."
*Aragorn: one way to translate the name could be 'impetuous king'.
* * *
Captain Faramir had myriad problems to take his mind from his heated and unsatisfying meeting with the Steward. Baranor required his advice about a conflict between the Lords of Ringlo Vale and Lossarnach, concerning the quality of barracks for their troops; the Quartermaster pleaded for his opinion regarding a suitable sustitute for oats for the much-increased numbers of horses stabled in the City; and Master Turin of the Houses of Healing wished an urgent audience with him to request additional guards at the healing tents in the First Circle. Water rations; stockpiles of oil and projectiles; the disposition of quarrelling outlands' Lords: it was a confounding mess. Only Prince Imrahil seemed capable of standing by him in calm silence, expressing nothing but steady support.
Yet Faramir was glad of the chaos and bustle. The needs of the City distracted him from the dull ache in his chest, from the sting of the Steward's harsh words that still rang in his ears. In the whirlwind of preparation he had less time to chide himself inwardly. I should have known better than to hope he might confide in me... He has not changed at all. He still feels the same: I am naught to him but another useful officer. To him I will never be a son in whom trust can be placed…
He felt foolish and ashamed at his failed attempt, as he had when just a boy when he struggled to please his father, only to be haughtily rebuked. Boromir had tried his best to console him, but he was hardly more than a child himself. His uncle's grief had kept Imrahil from staying in Minas Tirith for more than absolutely necessary following his sister's death, and he journeyed from Dol Amroth rarely for years afterward.
Only Mithrandir seemed able to lighten the heavy sorrow that hung over Faramir's childhood. I lived in anticipation of his visits… He could see, looking back, that the Grey Wanderer had visited the White City more often during Faramir's childhood and youth than he had before or after. Perhaps he knew how much I needed him… His thoughts went east to those stealthily creeping toward the Black Land. Surely they have reached the foothills of the Ephel Duath by now, if not farther… He frowned as he considered again the nature of the Halflings' journey. And Mithrandir… A shudder of dread passed through him; he wondered at its source.
But the Captain, standing with his Uncle next to Commander Baranor upon the outer rampart above the First Circle, had no more time for such musings when a young messenger arrived.
"Sire, the dove-keeper said to find you and give you this at once," he said breathlessly. "It is from Osgiliath…"
Baranor nodded curtly to the boy. "That will be all, lad. On your way." The messenger boy blushed and bowed before speeding away.
Faramir took the carefully folded parchment, running his fingertip over Bori's seal: a curved horn, like the one he wore on his belt, imprinted in silver wax. The symbol of the horn had a subtle chip on the edge, where his brother had flung the seal against the wall and cracked it, just last summer, in a rage at some particularly icy pronouncement their father had made. They'd laughed about it afterward. At least my seal shall now be impossible to forge, Bori had said. The Captain smiled slightly and broke the seal.
He studied the encrypted words; then he handed it to Baranor. The Commander's eyes flitted back and forth across the parchment as Faramir glanced about, ensuring no others were in earshot before speaking in low tones.
"He has withdrawn the last man from the east bank and concentrates now upon deploying the traps and snares in the ruins. His scouts report three armies amassing: in the south, Haradrim, with two dozen mûmakil; Easterings, between the Crossroads and the bridge of the Annûn-stream; and a host of Orcs bearing banners of the Eye bearing steadily westward in the center…"
"Has he an estimate of the forces?" Imrahil said.
Faramir paused. His eyes flicked to his commander and back to his uncle.
"At least fifteen for every one we have here," he said softly.
"And not a sign as yet of the Morgul Army," Baranor muttered.
Imrahil looked out over the Pelennor below them, his gaze eastward into the dark haze that hid the walls of the Causeway Forts and the partially rebuilt fortress at Osgiliath that stood amidst the ruined city. Five hundred foot soldiers and two score cavalry, barring any more recent casualties, were stationed at the Great River.
Imrahil looked at his younger nephew. "Let us fervently hope that the Wraiths continue their peculiar absence for a while longer."
All that day the City prepared for the coming onslaught. Every last minute contingency was seen to. Messages sped on horseback to and from the Causeway Forts, and by carrier-dove east to the River and south to the troops stationed to guard the quays at the Harlond. Twice more the former Captain of Ithilien climbed to the Citadel to personally report to the Steward. Each time, Faramir thought, his father's face appeared even wearier, his eyes more sunken. He did not ask the Steward to confide in him again, and Denethor did not offer.
The hour of sunset approached with little change in the sky to mark it, save for a deepening of the already heavy darkness. Once again Faramir strode down the wide hallway of the Citadel in search of his father. Boromir's latest message was in a pocket of his tunic. It said nothing new, save to hint in phrases that perhaps only his brother could decipher that he planned little more than a feint, intended to draw the hordes into the snares and traps designed to delay their forward march. A wise stratagem in the face of such odds, thought Faramir. The blind sacrifice of half a thousand troops—men dearly needed for defense of the walls--would be less than useless. But he intended to simply allow his father to read the message and draw his own conclusions. If the Steward sees not the hidden meaning, there is no need for me to draw his eye to it…
But strangely, Denethor was not to be found, and none of the guardsmen knew where he might be. The Council Chamber was empty, as was the Steward's stark black chair in the Great Hall, standing vacant at the bottom of the stairway that led to the throne, unused for centuries. Two Citadel guards stood at attention in the shadows at the base of the stately Tree carved in relief upon a wall of pure white stone and set with glimmering gems. His father's private sitting room was unoccupied as well, though the brazier still glowed.
Faramir made his way through the passageways of the Citadel to the southernmost portions. He entered the otherwise long-abandoned suites that were by tradition reserved for the Kings and Queens of Gondor. It was here, through an arch and down a winding hall that, he knew, the Stewards had always maintained a private study. It had never before occurred to the Captain to wonder at it—why all else in the royal chambers was left empty, save for the Steward's study—but today he marked the oddness of it.
He stood at the closed doorway, and taking a breath, he tried the polished knob. It was locked. He rapped upon the dark wood; there was no answer. Faramir gazed up at the lintel. He had seen it so many times, had memorized the carvings: tiny stars, a rayed Sun, and a Crescent Moon. And in the center, a mysterious pair of open eyes—stone eyes, gazing calmly into the distance. He frowned. Strange, he had never marked it before. Given the orientation of the room in the Citadel, the eyes apparently gazed directly eastward. A slight shiver, as of a chilling breath, traced down his neck and back. He swallowed, and rapped again, louder this time.
But apparently his father was not in his study either—or he was refusing to answer to his knock. The Captain sighed, turned on his heel and left. The delivery of Boromir's message would have to wait.
* * *
Denethor had not heard his son knock, would not have answered if he had. More accurately, the Steward would not have been capable, in that moment, of rousing himself from where he lay slumped on the floor of the small upper chamber, his head throbbing and his heart racing.
Though no one in Minas Tirith—save the Steward himself—had seen it, the Sun had just set. Only Denethor caught a glimpse of the last ray to fall before golden Anor slipped behind the western peaks. He had uncovered the Palantír seconds before the final moment of the day's light streamed through a momentary gap in the gloom, in time to see a grey figure, surrounded by foes, lying sprawled upon a field littered with the debris of battle. Then darkness fell—but the Seeing Stone was yet able to reveal what came next. He watched as they fastened shackles and tightened chains, as a heavy cart rumbled over the smoldering field, moving eastward, and as a black-robed figure on a great horse led an armed escort.
Denethor squeezed his eyes shut and jerked back and away from the Palantír. He had felt the eager presence of the Nameless One—and heard an echo of triumphant, cruel laughter that had stung like fiery whips. What he had always feared most had now befallen another—someone he had long disliked, had certainly mistrusted—but not one he considered an enemy. Not one for whom he would ever desire such a fate. He was filled with horror—and regret.
The Steward turned away from the pedestal where the Stone lay in its circular recess, faintly flickering with inner fire. He reached out to cover it with the cloth, lying nearby on the table—and then, it happened. The dim upper room faded, and he fell to the floor. Spinning nausea clutched him, and he clamped his eyes shut again.
As he had in the Houses of Healing, as upon the battlement of the Seventh Circle—he felt again a gentle, familiar touch. A hand was laid upon his shoulder, and the other wrapped over the crook of his elbow. He felt warmth—an embrace. He gasped as even with eyes closed, sight came to him—dim at first, then with increasing clarity. He felt himself soaring, high above the Citadel, then swiftly moving over the Pelennor. The Rammas sped by, and the ruins of Osgiliath. Anduin flowed beneath him, and the forests of Ithilien rolled below. In seconds he was above a tumbled grey landscape of rising peaks.
Far below and to his left, Minas Morgul appeared—her once fair towers, gleaming with a disturbing greenish light, the field before the walls aflame and smoking. Then he saw a broad bridge, its western end partially crumbled. The bridge spanned a black stream and a road climbed from it, up and up, winding eastward through the mountains toward a steep cleft. But he veered to the right, and with a lurch Denethor began to fall. Though he cried out faintly in alarm, he did not crash into the sharp stony peaks, but remained above them, swerving to and fro. As if I…as if we are searching… He found himself slowing to a stop, then hovering, gently drifting downward.
And there they were: two small figures, all but invisible in their grey cloaks that blended perfectly with the color of the stones save for their furtive movements. Floating above them, he watched, fascinated, as they scrambled up to the top of a ridge, followed it cautiously but surprisingly quickly, and slipped down the other side. Their progress was slow but steady as they moved toward the peaks that marked the pass. As they left the ridgetop and slid into the shadows, he lost sight of them.
In the recesses of his heart he heard a tender, whispering voice. Look no more into the shimmering but lifeless Stone, dear one. Turn your face toward the living—toward the White City… toward our sons, who need you... Gaze not again eastward. Draw not the Eye to them, even in chance—for those two, small as they are, now bear our only hope for true victory…
The touch lifted; he was alone once more. Denethor opened his eyes to the familiar sight of the chamber hidden above the study. He lay on his side, breathing deeply, waiting for his galloping heart to slow. Five long minutes passed before he felt sure enough of his strength to rise to his feet. He retrieved the black silk cloth from where it had fluttered to the floor and replaced it upon the Stone. Leaning heavily on the wall, Denethor slowly and carefully made his way down the narrow stairway that led back to his study… Nay, to the ancient antechamber of the King's Palantír…
Turgon had shown him this room, presented him with the keys, and revealed the door to the upper chamber and what lay hidden there. But one of Denethor's first acts as Steward was to claim this space within the empty royal suites as his private study, and order the concealing bookcase built, so that he could use the Palantir at need, without any thought to discovery. Had he erred? The Stone rightfully belongs to the Kings… Did it fail to serve me truly? Did it know that I am Steward, not King? The sheer strength required to defend himself against the mental assault of the Nameless One, again and again… Was I more vulnerable to his attacks, because I was not entitled to use it? Perhaps, he even wondered, the sights he had gleaned in the depths of the Palantír had somehow thwarted what Sight might have been his by blood. True Sight, as he had just now experienced—as he had not known since his grandfather's death. Since before I began to gaze into...
Trembling, he pushed the shelves back into place until he heard the soft click of the locking mechanism. His fingers brushed against the sealed envelope that lay between books. He dragged himself to the high window, leaned onto the deep sill and stared into the increasing darkness.
He had been given a gift—a priceless, if fleeting treasure. Finduilas had always been the one with true foresight—plagued by it, she would have said. And she has given this to me… To us… She was near, he was certain of it. But why? Why now, when the doom of Gondor must soon fall, when the very survival of the realm was in doubt? Why come when time was so desperately short? But why not now, when time is of the essence? Perhaps she comes to stand by, to wait…
The Steward Denethor stood tall, turned from the east window and walked slowly from the study. If true-sighted Finduilas could have faith in the impossible… If the Grey Pilgrim could choose the unthinkable… Perhaps he could listen to his sons. Maybe—just maybe—he could revive his own lost hope. And hope was not to be found in the shadows and flickers of that ancient crystalline sphere.
As he closed the door behind him, the thought came that he might never return to this room, his private sanctuary for so long, the wellspring of hidden knowledge that had guided him through the decades of his rule—but also the source of pain and doubt, of black dread. What would it be like, to be Ruling Steward, and never gaze into the Palantír again? Had he enough wisdom, enough courage without it to wield the Rod and sit upon the Chair?
An old, deeply buried doubt reared up—that he was unworthy to be Steward, that he was not true-blooded enough, that he was more his imprudent father's son than his wise grandfather's heir. But those who have never felt doubt also have no cause to hope…
A grim smile played on Denethor's face. The time may be short, but time enough remains for the Steward of Gondor to prove his worth…
* * *
Captain Faramir laid claim to the ramparts of the great wall of the First Circle, nearest the Gate. He commanded Baranor to see to the higher parapets, and begged his Uncle to march through the streets.
"We must divide our strength, for now, we three," he said. "Keep moving among them. Keep up their spirits, as high as can be, for as long as we can."
The three leaders roamed ceaselessly among the soldiers on duty, on the walls, in the streets of the lower Circles, in the Citadel, encouraging those whose spritis flagged, answering questions, offering reassurance.
"Of course the Captain-General will return," Faramir said to an all too young lieutenant as he clapped him on his shoulder. "But not until he has made the Enemy pay for the crossing of the River, you can be sure of that…"
On he paced, ever gazing to the East. Night fell, marked by a deepening of the oppressive gloom. No stars shone and the Moon was hidden behind the thick brown stormclouds out of the Black Land. Still, here and there he spied, far in the distance, glimmers of fire—torches, moving to and fro. At times the lights appeared to mass together, then they broke apart and vanished, to pop up again elsewhere. The Causeway Forts were marked by a dim line of lights—the lanterns of the guards stationed atop those lower walls. Osgiliath he could not see, and no more word had come from Boromir.
Faramir stood above and to the right of the Gate when he heard a disturbance. The murmuring voices of men, a shout, then the rapid drumming of feet running in the passageways below. At a nod from Faramir, Mablung turned and hurried toward the stair to investigate. He was gone for just a short time.
The unflappable lieutenant of the Ithilien Rangers reappeared at the head of the stair and approached his Captain, his eyes wide.
"Sire, the Steward…"
Mablung snapped to attention and bowed as Denethor's silver head and broad, black-cloaked shoulders emerged from the stairwell. The Steward's gaze went immediately to his son. He did not drop his eyes from Faramir's face as he came to the top stair and paced toward him on the broad wall. The Captain waited at attention, silent, until his father stood near.
"My Lord," he said with a bow, maintaining his formal stance.
Denethor nodded once, and a corner of his mouth curled upward. "Be at ease…" He leaned forward onto the chest-high parapet. "What news from your brother?"
Faramir relaxed only slightly as he joined his father at the parapet. He reached into his pocket and brought out the folded parchment.
"This is his last message. It arrived some four hours ago, near sunset. I could not find you, sire, to deliver this in a more timely manner. I suspect there shall be no other, until we see him again--the Valar willing."
The Captain stole a sideways glance at his father, studying his features as he read the encrypted note suggesting Boromir's plan. If Denethor comprehended the meaning, he gave no indication of it. He looked up and handed the message back to his younger son. His eyes flicked to Mablung and back to Faramir's.
"Might we have a word…"
The Captain nodded to his loyal officer, who bowed and swiftly moved fifty feet down the wall, well out of earshot.
The Steward gazed forward once more, staring far off, high up toward the shadowy mountains that fenced the Black Land.
"When your brother returns, you shall learn all—both of you." At last he turned to him. "And if, by terrible chance, Boromir returns not, you and I shall speak at length. There is much you should know… Much I have to say…" His voice dropped, and to his son's surprise, grew hoarse. "You were right, Faramir… That is all I can say now. But you were right, and I… I was horribly wrong."
* * *
The retreat from Cair Andros flowed in, followed all too quickly by other men in flight from smaller outposts along Anduin, or from forts in Anorien. By day's end, through proximity more than by plan, the tents in the First Circle became the stopping point for the injured as they passed into the City.
Túrin assigned his most experienced healer—Lathron, a veteran of long duty in the surgery at the fort of Osgiliath--to the front lines, as it were. His task was a grim one: to sort living men. Those able to walk were sent to the four rooming houses along the main thoroughfare leading to the Second Gate that had been recommissioned as makeshift surgeries. Those whose wounds were more serious or required more skilled care were carried by cart up through the Circles to the Sixth. A few were bandaged quickly and sent on, to report to the duty officer for assignment.
But Lathron was forced to sort other men in to another category. Thus is came to be that the middle tents—the second through the fifth—were the final destination for those maimed too greviously to survive. Succor they would have, and tender care—yet, there would be no attempt at healing for them.
Meneldil was not a surgeon adept at stitching wounds, or finding and staunching the hidden source of bleeding, or amputations of limbs too mutilated to salvage. Neither was he knowledgeable in the uses of herbs or potions. He was a craftsman, with a specific skill—a skill unneeded during the immediacy of war. But he had a gentle manner and compassion, and no one else was available. So Meneldil took over the care of the men in the middle tents; and Peregrin son of Paladin of the Shire stood at his side.
Pippin watched his first man die that day, a young soldier whose gaping chest wound hissed and bubbled with each rasping breath he took. The man clutched the Hobbit's hand, his eyes wide and running over with tears as he whispered in Sindarin.
"It's all right," Pippin whispered helplessly as he stroked the young man's sweat-dampened brow. "Don't worry, lad, we'll take care of you… It's all right…"
But it wasn't all right, and Pippin's throat felt as though it was caught in a vise, and his face was wet with his own tears. He stayed at the cot as the man's breathing grew more labored, then changed to erratic gurgling, until it finally ceased. The Thain's Heir bowed his head and clasped the man's cold hand tightly. I don't know the proper words to say… Frodo would know, or Strider…
"Hi, you, the Halfling—Peregrin! Give us a hand, over here…"
Pippin wiped away his tears and tore his eyes from the dead man's face as he jumped up and ran to the opposite corner of the tent. Candir, Lathron's sharp-tongued, no-nonsense assistant, peered down at him.
"No dallying once the task is done, Master Perian," he snapped. "The living need you more than the dead. Here, this one could use an extra bolster, his neck… Well, you can see for yourself…"
Candir strode away to his next duty, leaving Pippin to search for another bolster for the soldier whose neck was broken and who could not move a muscle below his collarbone. The Hobbit couldn't find one, so he rolled a blanket compactly and tucked it beneath the man's head to steady it. The soldier smiled feebly.
"What's your name, youngster?" he whispered.
"Call me Pip… and I'm not as young as I look. I'm the Perian," he said with a tentative grin. "And your name, sir?"
"Faeron, and I'm honored to meet you," he replied, his voice faint. "I've heard about you."
Pippin fiddled with the man's wrinkled clothes, attempting to straighten them and help him find more comfort. "Anything I can do, Faeron? Do you hurt anywhere, can I fetch you some of the poppy?"
The soldier shook his head slightly. "Can't feel anything. Nothing hurts, just a dull ache…" He frowned as he looked down and to his left. Pippin leaned in and saw a makeshift bandage at the base of the man's neck. The blood-soaked fabric was bunched up and filthy—the healers had apparently not seen the point of wasting supplies on replacing it. "Master Lathron was honest with me. I won't move again, but at least there is no pain…"
"Pippin, I need you, lad!" Another shout came, this time from Meneldil. Pippin looked and saw his master gesturing at the entrance to the next tent. He stared into Faeron's face. The man met his gaze steadily.
"Go on, I'm fine…"
"I'll come back again soon..."
"Don't worry about me, Pip…"
The Hobbit squeezed his hand, then hesitantly, he reached up and placed a few fingers on the man's cheek. Faeron smiled and nodded, and Pippin jumped up and sped to where Meneldil waited.
"How are you holding up, lad?" the craftsman-turned-healer said softly as he leaned down toward the Hobbit.
Pippin nodded and smiled by way of reply; he did not think he could trust his voice to speak at that moment. Meneldil's eyes narrowed.
"Would you prefer another assignment, Pip?"
"No—no, I'm fine," Pippin said softly. "At least I can do some good here. No special healing skills required…"
Meneldil shook his head solemnly. "I would not say that. It may well be that the men in these tents require the rarest skills of all…and the bravest hearts." He laid a hand on Pippin's shoulder. "You won't do anybody any good if you let yourself get too weary. Let me know when you need some rest."
"I'll do that."
But as night fell and more wounded men returned to Minas Tirith, Pippin forgot how tired he was. More men were assigned to the middle tents, and more men died with the Perian holding their hands, bathing their brows, or whispering softly to them. He tried to keep count—a dozen, at least, by some black hour that seemed outside of time—but after a while it didn't really matter anymore. All the frightened, suffering faces began to look the same. All but one.
Faeron lay utterly still and uncomplaining on his cot in the fourth tent. Pippin came by at odd intervals, bringing water and helping him sip, or bread that he broke into chunks and fed to him. He ignored the surly glares of Candir as he stole a few moments to keep the paralyzed soldier company.
Finally, Pippin sought out Meneldil.
"He shouldn't be here," he said, his voice pleading. "We can't just let him lie there and see all those others come and go… He isn't going to die, not right away, at least…"
Meneldil nodded. "Wait here, Pip."
In ten minutes the two men returned from their visit to Faeron's cot. Lathron gazed intently at the Hobbit.
"I have arranged a cart. Faeron will need someone to ensure his ride to the Sixth Circle is as smooth as can be," he said.
Meneldil smiled. "I am ordering you to stay put in the Sixth Circle until sundown, Master Took."
"Sundown?" Pippin said, confused. "But, didn't the sun just go down?"
Lathron laughed. "Nay, Master Perian, the dawn bell sounded two hours ago. A day and a night have come and gone since your duty in the Middle Tents began. Meneldil is right—it is past time you slept. I do not want to see your face again here until after sunset today."
After seeing to it that Faeron was settled in the Houses of the Sixth Circle, Pippin sank onto the small cot in the healers' quarters, a winding maze of makeshift sleeping barracks and common rooms adjacent to the Houses. His pack was right where he'd left it, tucked underneath on the floor.
He was exhausted, but his thoughts wouldn't quite let go. I feel older than my Da… I've seen more than he has in an entire lifetime back in the Shire in just a few weeks in this great City… Has it been weeks? or is it less? He couldn't clearly recall how long it had been since he and Boromir rode through the Gate, not without concentrating hard and numbering each day with care. And added to that, more than a week since we parted from Frodo and Sam, and many more days since I last saw Merry…
Without opening his eyes he tapped fingertip on thumb. We left Lothlorien on February the 16th… It was the 28th when I last saw Frodo, floating away on that enormous lake… March the 6th when Boromir and I arrived here…and how many days since? He had to admit it, he had lost track. And no one here could help him, for he could make no sense of the peculiar calendar these tall Men used, no matter how many times Meneldil tried to teach him the Gondorian adaptation of the Elvish one.
Pippin sighed. I think it isn't quite a week yet since I came here… and what does it matter, after all? Time might as well be marked by what's really important, and not just by some silly system of months and dates…
And what was important, he realized, was facing every moment as it came. That's how Gandalf, Frodo and Sam are getting through, one hard step at a time, closer and closer to the Black Land every minute… He had no idea where Merry was, but he was certain that he, too, was facing his own difficult choices and finding his own courage. And the rest—Strider, Legolas and Gimli… And Boromir, out there on the River, waiting for the armies of Mordor to attack…
Pippin tried his best not to dwell on the dreadful realities of this dark day and the dangers he and all his dearest friends faced. As he settled to sleep he thought of their feast of farewell to the Shire back at Crickhollow, of mugs of brown ale, and of Mrs. Maggot's mushrooms. But as sleep took him, Faeron's sad, resigned face floated above him, and the faces of all the men whose lives had been cut short—and for whom he had offered nothing but his witness.
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.