“I won’t be left behind, to be called for on return!” said Merry. “I won’t be left, I won’t.” And repeating this over and over again to himself he fell asleep at last in his tent.
—The Muster of Rohan, ROTK
And so Merry was sent to Faramir, and while that day lasted they talked long together, and Faramir learned much, more even than Merry put into words; and he thought he understood now something of the grief and unrest of Eowyn of Rohan. And in the fair evening Faramir and Merry walked in the garden, but she did not come.
—The Steward and the King, ROTK
Peregrin shall go and represent the Shirefolk, and do not grudge him his chance of peril…
Do not grudge him—!
Oh, and not so soon as this—!
He turned from the wall. Pippin stood just inside the doorway, dressed for battle in the black hauberk and surcoat of Gondor, the Tree worked in silver on his breast. His helm was in his hand, and his small sword sheathed upon his belt.
Merry smiled, despite himself. “You do look fine upon the heights, Peregrin Took,” he said sincerely, casting a wistful thought toward the trunk where his own Rohirrim leathers lay waiting against the day he had the strength to put them on again. “It’s a pity the folk at home can’t see you, standing for them so among the great.”
Pippin smiled too. “They will one day,” he said lightly, “when we go back again—and mind, they shall hear many times over the proud story of Meriadoc—Holdwine of Rohan and the Doom of Angmar, too!” He set the helm on the table beside the door, drew off his gloves and came forward to stand before his cousin-friend.
“For now, though,” he said softly, “I guess I am away, Merry.”
Merry shook his head against the tears that sprang to his eyes, too ragged with illness and despair for the jests required of the moment. “I wish you did not go alone, Pippin,” he whispered. “I wish I could go with you….”
“Merry.” Pippin took his shoulders gently and looked into his eyes. “This has all gone beyond us,” he said. “There are no choices left. You know I'd never leave you, save I must?”
Merry turned his head to look at the shadow lying sullen over the horizon in the east. “It is so dark,” he whispered.
Pippin followed his gaze with clear green eyes, his fingers tightening a little in the fabric of Merry’s shirt. “How have these people lived here,” he wondered, “ever in the shadow of that horror?” He sighed. “ I’m glad we had the chance to do our parts in this war, Merry—for it was just, and I would have saved the Shire that overreaching dark at any cost. But Aragorn says we are come to the brink now and all that is left to us is a little time, and whatever strength Frodo and Sam have between them, and this one last stand before Sauron’s gate.”
Merry gave a low, wordless cry.
Pippin put his arms around him, careful that the hauberk did not press too close against him or bruise his injured arm. “You have done your part,” he said fiercely, “striking at that deadly thing and suffering this sickness on account.” There were tears in his voice. “You must get well again, Merry,” he pleaded. “It may be that the Dark will overtake us all in the end, but Frodo and Sam may yet win through and then will we all be together again and free to go home. This is all the hope we have, you know, but against that hope, you must get well! Promise me that I will see you strong again and hear you laugh to welcome my return.”
“I will sing your return if it come!” Merry thought it must sound as if he laughed and cried both in the same breath. “But, I want to ride with you; I don't want to stay here alone. What can I do here, helpless and unmanned as I am?”
Pippin drew back and now Merry could see that his face had gone pale, as if some dark vision rose before his tear-bright eyes and dimmed them gray with horrifying purpose. “Hold my hopes, Merry,” he said softly. “For if my courage or my life fails before the Black Gate—and I confess I fear it could!—I would feel better knowing that you are waiting here, keeping watch and holding fast to all we hoped could be.” He sighed and bent his forehead to Merry’s shoulder. “I mean to do well,” he whispered, “but perhaps I shall fail all the same.”
And Merry hugged him fiercely, forgetting his own hurts and the fact that all his hope had burned away to ashes in the darkness of his dreams, mindful only of sending Pippin comforted against his dreadful errand. “I will hold your hopes,” he promised. “Not until darkness covers all the world will they fail in my keeping.”
From far down on the plain, a great horn called the gathering, and then, with one last urgent embrace, Pippin was away. Merry stood in the street and watched him hurry down. He did not look back, but more than once Merry saw him raise his hand to his cheek, a mirror of his own, to brush away the tears.
Leaning on the garden wall, he watched them ride into the shadow in the east, seven thousand men in all, and among them too many that he loved. “Do not fear!” said Bergil, who stood beside him. “They will come back.” But Merry’s heart was emptied, and once again his sword arm was cold with pain. They led him back to bed and he wandered for a day in dream and fevered misery, and through it all he knew only that he must shelter Pippin’s hopes against the raging dark.
He sighed, watching the banners of the Tower Guard and Dol Amroth vanish into the blur that was the army on the eastern horizon, and then he turned away and went into his chamber in the Houses of Healing and flung himself down on the bed. Long he lay, void of feeling, and then, exhausted by emptiness, he slept and for many long hours knew nothing save that even against the dark veils of nightmare his mind and heart were leaden.
Then before daybreak the black visions faded into the pale shadows of the night and he dreamed of his father and woke to find his face wet with tears, his body curled around a hard knot of expanding grief and his mind echoing with voices:
If I should return, think well of me, Father!…That depends on the manner of your return… Stir not the bitterness in the cup I mixed for myself….Alas, alas for Boromir!
Sorrow cut him through; and feeling at last the full measure of his losses, he put his hands over his face and wept for his father and for all that was gone and all that had never been and never would be now, and for love acknowledged too late to set anything right, that last desperate realization living only in the hushed narratives of other men who had borne witness: My life is broken….Do not take my son from me!
Hard upon this came a finer thrust, and just as cruel, for out of the overwhelming tangle of his grief rose the memory of a small boat of wondrous design, gliding low upon the Anduin just beyond the shallows, where in lucent water and starlight and heartbreak he had looked to behold his brother lying dead of many wounds.
Boromir! O Boromir!
The hard snarl of grief twisted now and tore and burst asunder, and he sobbed aloud in pain, for Boromir had ever been the mirror and defender of his heart: his brother, friend and safest refuge. For long weeks Faramir had deferred his anguish against the needs of his father and mounting war, and then against the cold shock of Boromir’s seduction under the Ring, and then, too, against the Black Breath, but now his cries would not be stopped and neither would his torment; the tide thundered over him, dark and violent, and with a moan he let go and surrendered to it, and let it take him where it would, and cared not if he was utterly destroyed.
Without the door, the Warden quietly gainsaid the young Healer who would have gone in to Faramir. “Stay,” he said. “I have looked for this. Leave him be for now, for he bears a burden of terrible loss, and until this morning I think he could not comprehend it. Let him make his peace alone.” And they went away and left him and he wept until he had no more tears and the tide carried him senseless for a little way and then ebbed and dwindled and delivered him gently to a stormless shore.
Then did he lie still and breathing softly, exhausted of grief but alive again in mind and heart and hopeful, though he knew not why, with so much in ruin about the city and in his own house. For now was the line of the Stewards finished, and Denethor was departed in madness and Boromir dead in the shadow of treachery, and it had come to him to lay down the burden of the long years over which all their fathers had presided with honour, and which now had come to an ignoble end.
He had but one regret: that he knew not the circumstances of Boromir’s death—whether he had died in honour or in sedition—but such was the legacy of his house and so with grave dignity did he accept his dark fortunes and take up his duty. He resolved that in the short time left to him—be it light or darkness that reigned after—the Last Steward of Gondor would make right the wrongs of his family. And so he had already begun—having allowed Frodo to go on with the Ring into Mordor—and so he would continue, by standing first for the White City until the King’s return. It was time, then, to go to work.
He sent for the Warden and inquired if the King and his uncle of Dol Amroth had any expectations of him in their absence, and the Warden replied, “Yes, my lord. They hoped that if you were well enough, you would meet with the captains of the city and make sure that all is in readiness for the King’s return….” The Warden paused uncertainly, as if he did not want to repeat the rest. “Or conversely that you would stand for the city if things go ill.”
“That will I do,” Faramir said solemnly. “In hope shall we make ready the King’s seat, for surely after a thousand years, he has not come simply to bow before the Lord of Mordor.” He caught the Warden’s eye, and raised his chin. “And if he does not return, then the King’s Steward will meet the Dark Lord. We cannot hope to stay the host of Mordor for long, but we can defy Sauron to the end, and I shall defy him, in the names of my father and my brother whom he ruined, for as long as I am allowed to live.”
“Until that day,” said the Warden, “I will guard your fortunes.” And Faramir smiled his thanks and gazing out the window he looked on the Tower of Ecthelion flashing in the morning sun as a man released at last from a long and painful trial.
“There is something else,” said the Warden now with efficient confidence. “Since the Steward of Gondor has assumed his place this morning, there is a young woman without who would speak with him.”
“On what matter?” asked Faramir, turning from the window. “And who is she?”
“She is the Lady Eowyn of Rohan, my lord. She would speak to you on the matter of her confinement here. She would leave us if she could, but she is not yet mended, and I cannot allow it. Still, she would make her grievance with the highest authority.” The Warden inclined his head with respect.
Faramir smiled. “She overestimates my influence, I think,” he observed wryly, “since you will on no account release me, either. But I know something of the grief of confinement, and perhaps I can comfort her. This is the Lady who slew the Witch King?”
“Yes, my lord. A beautiful and spirited young woman, but she is most unhappy.”
He realized he had slept in his clothes, and a look into the mirror showed the long night had not been kind, however blessed the dawn. “I think the Steward should be more presentable than this,” he said. “I shall meet you in the garden in an hour.”
And so did he meet and walk with the Lady Eowyn, and in the hour of their speech the well of his loneliness was sweetened by her company, and his heart was moved by her sorrow, and he made her promise to come again. And when she had left him, he called for the Warden, and begged to know more of her. The Warden did not know any more, but seeing the colour that the companionable turn in the garden had brought to the Steward’s pale cheek, he thought for a moment and said, “I doubt not you would learn more from the Halfling that is with us; for he was in the riding of the king of Rohan, and with the Lady at the end, they say.”
Faramir frowned in dismay. “I had all but forgotten the last Halfling!” he murmured. “And I am remiss in my duty to him, for he is deserving of any comfort or relief we can provide. Is he well? Say I beg his company, if he is able, and we shall take the midday meal in the garden and see what we might do for one another.”
The Warden departed on his errand, and silently he hoped that these three, on whom he looked with special care, would effect a cure for one another, for each was pure of heart, and deep of mind, and needful of friends, since each was alone without kin and had been left behind.
The Warden came softly to his side. “Your pardon, master perian,” he said, “I hope I do not intrude?”
Merry looked up. “You are welcome to,” he said with polite relief. “I need company, I think, to distract me from such visions as no hobbit should have, saving the end of the world.”
The Warden nodded, his eyes flicking eastward despite his best intentions. “I understand,” he said. “These are hard days, and you have heavy hurts to bear. Perhaps this will serve. The Lord Faramir, who is here in these Houses against the healing of his own hurts, has asked to know something of the Lady Eowyn of Rohan, who is under our protection as well. I have suggested that you would know more than any other in the city, as you knew her in Rohan and were with her on the Pelennor. Will you come and speak with him?”
Merry frowned. “Lord Faramir?”
“Aye,” replied the Warden, and remembering the perian was new to the city, he said, “Captain Faramir is much beloved in the White City and of the men who were fighting in Osgiliath and on the eastern borders. He was gravely injured trying to protect his men on the retreat to the Pelennor. He is the last of the Stewards, fate willing the new King return from his desperate errand.”
“The Stewards….” With a start Merry realized that this was Boromir’s brother, the same Faramir of whom Pippin had spoken warmly once or twice in the little time they had been able to share outside of illness and duty and reunions with other faithful friends. With a twist of his heart he thought of Boromir lying pierced with many arrows at Parth Galen. “You say Lord Faramir has hurts?” he asked.
“Yes, but he is mending now.”
A great sorrow closed suddenly on Merry’s heart, long deferred by events that had come hard and fast upon the murder of Boromir, but gripping urgent now, and anguished. Not since the early hours of their capture at Parth Galen, when he and Pippin had been flung terrified and beaten and bereft on the broad backs of the Uruk-Hai, had he found time to grieve for Boromir. His thoughtless treachery left him breathless with shame, and his face paled. “Are you feeling ill?” asked the Warden anxiously.
“No more than usual,” he admitted, “But I have just remembered that I owe a duty of some importance to the Steward of the city. I will be happy to answer Lord Faramir,” and he rose abruptly and deliberately he turned his back on the creeping shadow in the east.
The pale pink stone of the garden wall was trellised with a lush tangle of vines and the path they walked was enclosed and shaded by an arbor thickening with new spring leaves. Quietly they passed beneath it in soft green light and coming to the end of the passageway stepped into a jewel-like water garden, a bower of reeds and pale lilies bordered with mosses and fern and tender shoots that promised delicate and exotic blooms. Upon the wall was carved a field of waving water weeds and in the center two strange and exquisite verdigris fishes twined and from their mouths two streams of clear water fell down into a beautiful fluted verdigris basin and then overflowed into a dark pool cut into the mossy rock below. The warm, damp fragrances of earth and water and growing things lay rich and heavy on the air, and Merry smiled a little, for it reminded him of secret places along the Brandywine where he and Pippin had played as children on sultry summer days.
To the left of the fountain, set three steps up and into a vine-bordered recess in the garden wall, was an arched and weathered wooden door with a handle and latch, the door sturdy and worn to silver-gray beneath a pale rose lintel. This was crowned by a delicately wrought and vaulted arch of pink-blushed marble, carved across the curve with runes in a language Merry did not know.
“What does it say?” he asked, peering upward through the leaves, and the Warden replied gravely, “Peace to all who enter here upon the Gladness of Finduilas.” And he opened the door and they stepped through.
For an instant Merry felt as though he had come home to the Shire, for here, between the Houses of Healing and the Closed Door where the stairs went down to the Silent Street, had been wrought, as if in defiance of the hard white stone of Mindolluin, a wondrous garden. Many trees there were, shading gentle pathways that wove away to enigmatic endings, and beds of new spring herbs and flowers, and a watercourse, and a cool expanse of dappled lawn. Here the crenellated terrace wall looked mostly to the south, and the sooty fingers of Mordor did not loom so much, and a breeze, warm and redolent with spring played over their faces. Merry took a quick, eager breath and then let it out in a long sigh, for while at first his heart leapt with gladness to look upon the garden, he had no strength and no hope to sustain his delight; it was as if he had caught a bright butterfly that fluttered softly in his fingers and then died, and lifeless turned to ashes in his hands. Suddenly the sunlight seemed too bright to bear. He bent his head and followed the Warden into the garden.
The Warden of the Houses said, “Here is Master Meriadoc come to speak with you, my lord,” and Faramir looked up eagerly at the sound of his voice, and the Warden bowed and withdrew.
Merry gazed for a long moment upon Faramir. He could see that there was a good deal about him that spoke to his kinship to Boromir—humor and kindness and courage and the grace of noble birth. But much there was diverse, also, for in Faramir’s pale face was gravity and sturdy patience and haunting loneliness. Illness, too, had marked the young lord; shadows of grief and hard dreams smudged the hollows beneath his eyes, and a tiredness was on him that Merry knew only too well. But his eyes were quiet and steady, with none of the anguished confusion of purpose that had sometimes shadowed Boromir, and despite his aching heart Merry felt warmed and welcomed and he bowed low.
Faramir regarded Merry with equal interest and not a little wonder in his dark grey eyes. He smiled as one who looked upon a companion in arms. Then with a courtesy that belied his injuries, he set the book aside and prepared to rise.
“Please, stay yourself, my lord,” Merry said quickly, holding his hand against Faramir’s rising. “I am only Merry Brandybuck, a hobbit of the Shire—a farmer’s son and latecomer to the courts of Middle Earth. I am no lord that you need rise for me. I shall be happy to sit at your feet, if you like, for I confess that I cannot stay long upon my own these days. I am too often weary.”
“I see you do not stand on ceremony,” smiled Faramir, taking Merry’s hand in a friendly grip. “I like this of your people. I have met it before now, this easy courtesy of the Shire. And in truth, I share much the same affliction as yourself, and I appreciate your honesty. It relieves us both of protocol.” He waved his hand at the grass. “Sit then, and call me Faramir.”
“Then I would speak honestly once again,” Merry said doggedly, mindful of his personal errand and anxious to discharge it. “I know you would hear something of the Lady of Rohan, and I am come to oblige you, and happily, but afterwards, with your permission, I should like to speak of something else besides. I am at great needs to make amends to Gondor for a duty long delayed.”
“Then so you shall,” said Faramir gravely. “Sit down now, if it please you, and we shall speak of whatever you like. You are a hero here, you know, for all the city has heard of your brave deed upon the field. I would see you eased in any way that suits you, Merry Brandybuck, for Gondor owes you much. Indeed, you and your courageous folk have given me much to think on in recent days—for rarely have I met men braver and sturdier than the Halflings of the Shire.”
Merry settled himself on the lawn near Faramir, tangling his fingers and toes in the grass. It felt good to have earth again beneath his feet. He had no memory of walking the Pelennor, save only grief and terror and darkness overwhelming, and his last conscious memories of grass were of Parth Galen and all that had happened there. With a sigh he leaned forward and brushed the soft green blades with his hands. “I am not a hero,” he said a little sadly, “It was the Lady Eowyn who struck the Wraith King dead upon the field.”
“But not without your keen distraction,” Faramir returned with a smile, and Merry said by way of explanation, “She was…so desperate…so torn with grief and reckless gladness…I don’t know what I thought to do, save perhaps to die with her so that she did not fall alone beneath his brutal hand.”
“’Twas bravely done,” Faramir said firmly, “And nobly, too, with no thought to yourself. But I think that nobility must be a trait of the Shirefolk, for each of you that I have met has set the good of someone else before himself with a clarity of purpose that is remarkable. Come now, tell me your errand, for I sense it is urgent, and mine can wait until we have come to know each other better.”
Merry sat up, clasping his hands. “It is urgent,” he admitted, “but I am reluctant, for I would not cause you pain.”
Faramir shook his head. “You cannot bring me any more pain than I have already met in the darkness of this week, Merry. And I see this burden causes you pain, which I would dispel at any cost. Share it, then, and we shall make of it what we will.”
Merry said unhappily, “I must beg your forgiveness in the matter of Boromir’s death. My duty is long delayed in this, though Pippin gave his sword in service to your father to make amends himself.”
“Boromir’s death!” Faramir’s face paled slightly and he seemed to catch his breath. “You were there? You and Pippin were with him?”
“Yes. Pippin did not tell you?”
Faramir shook his head wonderingly. “Alas, no, he and I had little time for private speech and what we had we turned to the matter of my father….I suspect Pippin held a great deal back. I was still quite ill and he was very kind….” He smiled at Merry with his clear gray eyes.
“Pippin is ever kind.” A hard lump rose in Merry’s throat.
“And daring,” added Faramir. “I owe him my life. But what do you mean? Why should either you or Pippin make amends for Boromir’s death?”
Suddenly, as if he were there again, he remembered stumbling half-backwards down the slope at Parth Galen. Pippin was at his hip, each of them holding fast to the other, for always did they come together so in danger, reaching out to comfort one another and to confirm the protective devotion that had stood them all their lives. Boromir was with them, fierce and urgent, and they flew the distance to the bottom of the slope where a force that had broken away from the main came now into view, barring their further escape. Trapped, they had no choice but to face the fearful horde that came shouting and pounding after them. The larger party came up over the rise, looked down on the scene and slowed for orders, and their leader smiled with a slow, horrid pleasure to see his quarry neatly snared. “Get back,” Boromir said tightly. “Do the best you can.” And he looked hard at them and there was desperate love in his face, and terrible sorrow. They drew their swords but their eyes locked in anguished acknowledgment, for this Enemy was huge in stature and only Boromir could hope to best any. And there were many of them, and they strode forward now with brutal efficiency. Setting his jaw in hard defiance, Boromir smiled grimly and raised his sword and turned to meet them….
Merry’s eyes reddened and he swallowed hard. “He died for us,” he said low, “for Pippin and me. We were…” he shook his head, biting back the tears. “We were the three of us outnumbered in battle, and Pippin and I…we were not big enough…or strong enough…to help him.” He looked at Faramir miserably. “Boromir came to help us because we were in trouble, and he was overrun and murdered before his time.”
“We cannot choose the time or the manner of our death in battle,” Faramir said low, but tears rose also in his eyes. “No,” he remonstrated, as Merry turned scarlet with remorse. “It is not pain you bring me, but deliverance. This did I wish to know more than anything: what befell in my brother’s last hour. I thought there was no one left who knew, save Mithrandir, and that he had put the best face on it to ease my father’s grief. He died well; may he sleep in peace, he said, but I would know what happened. I beg you tell me, even if it score my heart: how did he come to die in this battle at your sides? And will you tell me this, too—did you count him friend or foe to the Fellowship of the Ring?”
“Friend or foe?” Merry sat back in surprise. “Why, friend, of course! Why would you think otherwise?”
“Mithrandir and Lord Aragorn have explained to me that Boromir had doubts as to the wisdom of the quest to destroy the Ring,” Faramir said carefully. “I loved my brother and I knew him well; I doubt he let the matter go?”
“Not altogether,” said Merry, frowning slightly. “But Boromir was loyal to the promise he made at the Council of Elrond, and to the Company. Often he argued with Aragorn, that Gondor should have the Ring, but there was no hope for it. Frodo was charged to carry it, and Gandalf was implacable, and Aragorn was sworn to Frodo’s protection and Lord Elrond’s command. But Boromir carried the hopes of Gondor, and I think he believed he could not answer loyally to his people save he make every effort to explain to Aragorn why the Ring should be used to aid them.”
“I daresay you are right,” said Faramir softly and he sighed a little. “You seem to have had a great fondness for my brother. How did that come about?”
Merry said, remembering, “From the start of the Fellowship, Boromir looked out for Pippin and me. We were the youngest, you know, and I think he always saw us more as lads—as children—and in truth, so we were when first we set out in the world, in experience if not in years. We were quite innocent of the world beyond the Shire and not at all prepared to defend ourselves as need would require.”
“He took not the same interest in Frodo and Sam?” Faramir wondered, frowning as though this was something he did not understand. “Were they not also unready, and in greater danger, since Frodo carried the Ring?”
“Oh, Frodo and Sam were ill-equipped as well, but from the beginning Gandalf spent much time with them, and after he was lost in Moria, Aragorn stayed very close with Frodo and of course Sam never left his side. But Boromir stayed close to us, and Pippin will agree that we owe him our lives probably many times over. I’m sure we would have died but for all he did for us.”
Suddenly he wanted Faramir to know how good Boromir had been to them—how strong and broad and comforting—before the mean end they had brought upon him. “He carried us through snowdrifts higher than our heads at Mt. Caradhras,” he told Faramir earnestly, his eyes alight with admiration. “He slew many wolves and orcs that would have killed us in Moria, and it was he who rowed us for many days on the Anduin, in the little boat that Pippin says came later to you by the stars in Osgiliath. We had much to learn to stay alive, and very little time, and Boromir took to himself without complaint the task of teaching us. And ever was he helpful and playful and kind. He was as a brother to us.”
Faramir smiled, though Merry could see that grief lay very close against his heart. “He was ever good with children, my brother,” he said with sad regret. “He should have had his own by now, save his life was forfeit to obligation and ambition—and never just his own….” His voice fell, and he murmured, “In truth, I wonder if he knew his own… so tangled were we always….”
Merry said, hoping to stay his sorrow, “It seemed to me that always he meant well, Faramir.”
Faramir shook his head, and his eyes were soft. “It is nothing,” he said. “Boromir was my elder brother and you speak the truth—ever was his hand there to steady mine when I needed it, ever was he there to stay my back….” He rubbed his forehead sadly. “You say he came to help you? How were you in trouble?”
“We fell into a party of Uruk-Hai at Parth Galen.” Merry shuddered, remembering their brutal hands and sharp nails, their hard yellow eyes and the howls of feral pleasure and pain that issued from their hateful faces. “An army of them, it seemed at the time; Pippin and I were no match for them, but we were far from the others and could not call for help.”
“Uruks? At Amon Henn? How did Sauron’s goblin-men cross the marshes and the Emyn Muil to fall upon you there?”
Merry shook his head and frowned. “They were not of Mordor, but a foul creation of Isengard, of Saruman, the White Wizard, who is a traitor. They were sent to bring the Halflings of the Fellowship back to Orthanc, for Saruman knew that one of us had the Ring and he wanted it for himself, ahead of Sauron. We did not know they were come. Frodo had gone missing in that hour and Pippin and I had run off stupidly to look for him when we stumbled upon the party by accident, and straightaway they came for us.” He shivered despite the bright sunlight. “Save us, what a memory! We ran, but they are very swift, as you must know, and soon closed in on us. There was no way out….”
He remembered with sickening clarity the horror of that moment, Pippin’s face flooding with terrified comprehension, groping for him with shaking hands. Merry! Even now it hurt to think of it. “We thought we were going to die,” he said softly.
He squinted across the garden as the events unfolded again before his eyes. “Boromir came suddenly out of the trees with a great shout and caught us up, thrusting us behind him. We ran down the slope, but we were surrounded, and there was nothing for it but to face them down. Boromir took the full charge upon him, and killed many. Those who came behind, Pippin and I fought as best we could. ’Twas Boromir himself who taught us to fight with swords—and well enough, too!—but though we did as well as we might, it was not enough.” He ducked his head and said, low and ashamed, “We were too small, and too few to make a difference.”
“Noble, though, as I have said before,” Faramir said. “You did not fail his back.”
Merry set his teeth now. Once again the horn of Gondor sounded, and once again every warrior on the hillside checked himself to listen, and once again the sweet, incongruous pastoral silence meant there was no help on the way. “Boromir blew the horn of Gondor,” he whispered, “but Aragorn and the others were too far away. So, alone he lay about him with his sword, and even with his strength failing, the Uruk-Hai were mindful and careful of him. He killed any who came near to us. But then came more with bows and they shot him from the rise…and we…we….” Merry’s voice failed him; he bent his head and put a hand over his eyes and Faramir sat beside him, silent and sorrowful.
They had never felt so helpless, or so responsible in their lives. The horrid whistle of the arrows as they tore through the air and dropped Boromir gasping to his knees would never leave them entirely, and even now Merry’s heart contracted with pain, as if he had taken the shock of the arrows himself. And Boromir had looked on them with such sorrow when at last he could not get up again…. He never failed us. He never gave up....He took up the narrative again, though memory at moments stilled his thoughts.
“When Boromir fell at last,” he said, his shoulders shaking as though he had a chill, “the Uruk-Hai swarmed over us.” His stomach tightened as he remembered Pippin’s face, white and sick, as one of the huge warriors kicked him into the ground and then dragged him up again by the scruff of his neck like a frightened puppy, cuffing him roughly into dazed submission. He remembered Boromir rolling onto his side as if he meant to help, and he himself launching with a mad cry at Pippin’s assailant—but after that his memories were hazy, for he had taken delivery of a nasty blow and a bloody slash across the forehead for his pains. Tearfully he said,
“We fought to get to Boromir but they kicked us aside and then they took us up, and in the end we had no chance to help him, or thank him, or even say goodbye. They carried us away, and such have been events since then—relentless one upon the other!—that only today I remembered that I have wept but once in all this time, and that time alone in the first hours, in the dark, alongside those who slew him and laughed to remember it.”
His voice broke but he struggled on, looking up at Faramir, tears glistening on his cheeks. “I am sorry,” he said determined, his face flushed with shame. “He deserved better than to die for such a cause—meaning two useless hobbits of the Shire. His great life should not have been forfeit to such an errand as we provided.”
There was a silence. Faramir laid a gentle hand on Merry’s head. “Think,” he said. “Those two ‘useless hobbits’ helped to turn the tide here—you without the gate, and Pippin within to stay my father’s final despair and save what remained of the House of Stewards against the coming of the King. In the end, Boromir did indeed send a mighty gift to Gondor.”
“But they never meant to kill us, at least not then, and Boromir is dead!” cried Merry, and his tears fell afresh.
Faramir pushed himself to his feet, wincing a little as his shoulder pained him. “Come,” he said. “Let us walk.” He held out a hand to Merry and pulled him up beside him. “You are grieved and overborne with guilt,” he gestured, indicating one of the paths across the lawn. “And I share your grief, but hear me, Merry: I absolve your guilt and so would Boromir, if he were here. I know something of this business that you do not, and I hope that it will ease your pain to hear it.”
He led Merry through the trees and along a path bordered in fading heathers that ended in the far corner of the garden at the terrace wall. Here before them was the Pelennor stretching into the east, and on the horizon the black cloud of Mordor, and at their backs was a high hedge of holly and beyond it Rath Dinen, the Silent Street. Faramir drew Merry up onto the stone bench that ran beneath the ledge of the wall and there they stood together, shoulder to shoulder, facing the Shadow. Faramir was silent for a moment. Merry brushed a hand across his eyes.
“This do you need to know,” Faramir said with resignation, looking down upon the city. “Boromir had need to atone for deeds you knew not of, and I think in some strange way that you and Pippin released him from a debt that would in the end have haunted him to death. This did I learn from Sam Gamgee, who let slip the truth by accident—and a good thing, too, for Frodo would have kept it from me, and Aragorn as well, for kindness’ sake, even though Boromir confessed it to him as he lay dying. I would have you know the truth as well, Merry, so that you do not think your accident lured him to a meaningless death.” He paused. “Boromir tried to take the Ring from Frodo.”
“What—?” Merry’s face drained of colour; for a moment his mind seemed overwhelmed once again with the grey despair that had swallowed all his hopes. He swayed and put his hands on the wall to steady himself. “No!” he whispered. “Surely he would not—?” He sank down, shocked, upon the bench. “How can that be? He was our friend!”
Faramir said sadly, “The Ring seeks its own ends—it sensed Boromir’s consuming need and his discontent, and it reached out and took his mind. It twisted his dreams and his loyalty to Gondor to its own purposes and laid upon him a madness he could not discern until it was too late. Such was the price of his pride of duty to Gondor and our father’s bitter ambition, for in the end the Ring played these, one upon the other, to his ruin.”
Pity and love tore through his disbelief. “Ah, no!” he breathed against his aching heart.” Poor Boromir!” He touched Faramir’s hand. “This is why you asked if he was friend or foe? I swear to you, Faramir, I never marked him less than friend in all the days we spent together! Do not think badly of him; surely he was no match for such evil!”
“Indeed he was not.” Faramir sat down beside him on the bench. He let out his breath in a long sigh. “Thank you,” he said softly. “You have restored to me the memory of the brother that I loved. I confess I was afraid, Merry. When first I saw him on the Anduin his aspect was so beautiful I believed he had died well. But doubt grew in me later, when I was ill. Ever in the wake of that Ring go treachery and shame and destruction, and knowing Boromir had fallen once to it, I was sore afraid that he had died in yet another act of betrayal. I would that he had met a kinder fate, but do not blame yourself any longer for his passing. I wager the Ring broke his heart long before any arrow from an Uruk-Hai tore it asunder.”
“The Ring would have destroyed us all, then,” Merry said wonderingly. “I see now how the Fellowship was broken—Frodo saw he must go alone to spare the rest of us the same.” He shook his head, frowning. “It is almost too big to take in, how much evil is contained in that little piece of gold, how far-reaching it is, and how many lives it will bring to destruction.” He clutched at Faramir’s arm. “Faith! How will Frodo manage it? And Sam? I was glad that Sam had contrived to go with him somehow, but now that I understand the Ring a little better, I am terrified for both of them. How will they ever withstand it?”
“I know not. It is a terrible burden,” said Faramir and then he was silent. Merry remembered Frodo’s face growing more and more pensive and withdrawn as further they went down the Anduin toward the Falls of Rauros and he thought, He knew the danger then and the way it must fall out….
Despair brushed past him once again, a grey echo of his dreams, and he bent his head into his hands. “Save us!” he said low and his voice broke over the words. “Will this never end? Boromir is dead, and Frodo and Sam are in thrall to the Ring, and Pippin…Pip….” He began to cry. “Please!” he whispered. “I cannot lose them all!”
Faramir laid a light hand upon his shoulder. “Your wait upon the wall is as hard as mine, I see,” he said, and looking up, Merry saw his young face was lined with sympathy. “There is nothing worse for any man who loves his friends than to be kept back like this, to have all your folk gone beyond you, and to know nothing of what fate intends for them. I have already lost my closest kin, and the lives of all my friends lie heavily on that memory while I sit helpless here. Do not think you are alone in this, Merry, or that you will be. We wait together now, on light or darkness as it comes.
“As for Frodo, there is still hope that he will destroy the Ring and deliver us. Do not despair! He and Sam were strong and whole in Osgiliath and they went forth resolutely, and with their purpose intact. Mithrandir chose well; if anyone can win through, Frodo can, and Sam is strong behind him and well aware of the dangers that both the Ring and the creature Gollum present his master. He will not fail Frodo.”
“Gollum!” shuddered Merry. “As if the road was not perilous enough!”
“That is their road,” said Faramir. “This is ours. I know you feel the weight of yonder darkness as I do, and the fear of it, as well, with all your friends and kindred yet in peril. But do not forget: every hour that cursed cloud lies brooding there unmoving is another hour that says we have not yet lost the fight. We still have hope!”
But Merry shook his head. “Not I. I cannot best the dreams,” he confessed miserably. “I am not getting well. I don’t understand it; it is not like a hobbit to be shackled to the dark like this. And the worst of it is, I feel no hope, and have none, saving Pippin’s that he begged me hold for him.”
“Then hold Pippin’s hopes and stand fast,” said Faramir. “You are ill; this despair is a trick and a temptation of the Black Breath and we will stand against it. Our griefs are real, and we will long remember them, but despair is a deception. We cannot give our hearts up to the Shadow, or our hopes, or we are lost.” He paused and added sadly, “Such was my father’s error, and it proved worse than treason in the end.”
Merry looked up, wondering at the tone of his voice, but Faramir’s face was raised to the White Tower, flashing pearl and silver in the noonday sun far above them, and his eyes were narrowed against its brilliance and his jaw was set against his grief. I have already lost my closest kin….
Merry closed his eyes, his throat aching with tears. “What hope is left to us, if all we love is gone?”
With a start Faramir came back to himself. He stared at Merry for a long moment and then he slipped off the bench and knelt before him, taking his hands and looking hard into his eyes. “We can hope that those we love do not die without cause,” he said with conviction, “or without honour, or without friends! We can hope that we who live—even if only for a little while longer—can withstand despair long enough to honour what is true and good—the people and the places we have loved.”
Merry’s heart lurched; he felt as though he had forgotten something, or lost it in the shifting black veils of his dreams. With a sudden stab of panic he thought of Pippin’s hopes; he knew he did not hold them in his heart, but only in his hands—and how long could he expect to defend them there, his hopeless grasp slashed and torn by such relentless, gnawing darkness as hovered near him always now since the Black Breath had come upon him? He gasped—a small, strangled cry of distress—and with stricken eyes he looked to Faramir, and Faramir returned his gaze with quiet, searching intensity.
“Great trust must Pippin place in you, to bid you guard his dearest hopes,” he said gravely. “Do not listen to the voices in the dark that tempt you to despair, for none has greater power than your own. You have stood already in defiance of the Shadow; it is enough for now. You will find your hope again.”
“I would die for Pippin!” Merry pledged fiercely, and Faramir pressed tight his hands. “I know you would,” he said. “So would I have done for Boromir.” And in the warmth of his gaze, Merry’s mind was eased and his breath came easily again and he was somewhat comforted, if still bereft of hope.
A footfall whispered on the path and they turned toward it. Faramir rose as a servant of the Houses approached. “My lords,” he said, bowing, “The table is laid in the pavilion and I am to say that the Warden commands you both to eat and gather back your strength.”
Faramir looked at Merry and flashed a wink. “Then we shall obey, and with grateful thanks,” he said easily to the messenger. “Your summons has come at just the right time, for we have worn ourselves out with talk.” And to Merry he said, “Come. It is time to eat. Such difficult converse demands sustenance. I hope there is wine.”
Merry came to his feet. “No,” he said, smiling a little in anticipation despite his heavy mood. “Ale. Pints of it!” And Faramir clapped him on the back and chuckled and said, “Ah, here is something that can bring a real smile to your face! So this is the secret of you doughty Shirelings; I shall have to remember to keep you well fortified, then, my friend!”
hey walked slowly down the path into the hidden center of the garden and for the first time since Pippin had been whisked away to Gondor, Merry felt that he had a real companion in the wide world. He liked Faramir; in him he felt he had found a counterpart in the world of men, a mind that mirrored his own in keen perception, and a heart that knew also the weight of confusion and indifference and intolerable compassion.
Presently they arrived at a warm, shady glade where stood an elegant pavilion, carven of dark wood and chased with stone, and lunch was set out upon the table— breads and meats and cheeses and dried fruits and small cakes, and golden wine for Faramir, and two pints, at least, of rich, dark ale for Merry. Gratefully they set to and for a little time ate in silence, while the cool scents of spring rose up from the earth around them and warmed in the dappled sunlight into a hopeful promise of summer.
Despite the weary weight of the wafting dark that seemed ever at his back, Merry felt his heart stir again at the fresh loveliness of the garden. “How beautiful this is!” he murmured over the rim of his cup, and Faramir nodded, “Aye. It always lifts my spirits to come here. I have many good memories of this garden. I will place a stone here for Boromir someday.”
“What is this place?” Merry asked. “The Warden read the runes over the door to me: The Gladness of Finduilas. What does it mean?”
Faramir took up a cup of yellow wine, “Finduilas was my mother. She made this garden in memory of her home in Dol Amroth, whence she came to marry my father. In the southlands they do not build cities such as this; my mother wished to endow the hard stone of Mount Mindolluin with the living strength of growing things. Do you think she succeeded?”
Merry smiled. “I do! I know nothing of the southlands, but this reminds me of the Shire, and what little gladness is left to me cannot help but leap up at the sight of it. I am grateful to her.”
Faramir said in answer, “For this reason did my mother make it next to the Houses of Healing, that those who walked in any shadow could feel better in the time they spent here. I have always felt peace here, in my mother’s place.” His gaze swept over the lawns and his eyes kindled with memory. “The nobles of Dol Amroth have an ancient claim to Elvish blood; my mother was used to the tides and the seasons and cycles of the earth and she could see and feel them here.”
“So too are my people at one with these things,” said Merry. “Though for us it is the land and the rivers and the things that grow; we do not know the sea.” He thought suddenly of the marvelous fishes on the fountain wall without the garden door, and he knew they must be of the sea that opened before Dol Amroth, and his heart ached for Finduilas who must build this beautiful garden against her longing for the home she would never know again. He wondered if it would be so for him, as well, that he would see the end here, instead of in the Shire, and he thought he would like to thank her for bringing this measure of peace to his own exile. “Where is your mother now?” he asked. “Has she gone to safety with the wains of women and children?”
The bruising beneath Faramir’s eyes seemed to darken. He pondered his wine before looking up at Merry. “Alas,” he said. “My mother walked in shadow herself. She was in many ways too gentle and perceptive for the White City, and for my father, who was a stern and guarded man. And she was fey—the Sight came upon her now and again—a gift my father cherished in her, and one that must have mocked him in the end.”
Faramir seemed troubled now, and he stood up and walked to the rail that surrounded the pavilion and leaned against it, gazing out upon the shaded paths and the new leaves that brightened the trees and sheltered the delicate spring blooms beneath. “Perhaps she saw in her heart in those years what my father saw later in the seeing stone,” he reflected, “or perhaps she saw his doom, and Boromir’s; or perhaps the Shadow crept into her dreams and bled away her joy of life. I do not know, exactly, but she was pursued by visions. My uncle of Dol Amroth told me once that my mother was uncanny, that knowledge came upon her without she looked for it.”
Merry’s mind stilled. He was not prescient, but there were times when he understood things without knowing how, as if he absorbed them through his senses like light and fragrance, and all at once he knew that Faramir’s gentle mother had fought a battle with the Shadow that was very like his own, that despair had relentlessly darkened the pathways of her mind, regardless of the healers. “What happened to her?” he whispered.
Faramir eyes were deep with longing. “I do not have so many recollections of my mother as Boromir did,” he said. “I was very small. But Boromir remembered when her spirit dimmed and her fears grew, and after I was born, he noted she was ever pale and sad, though always fond and tender with us both. My father, I do remember, was often dark with displeasure, for he liked not that she feared her visions, and there were tearful arguments. He was blind to the truth of what she saw, of course, his loyalty to Gondor and the lost kings was complete. What matter that she saw his death, or Boromir’s, or her own? He could give her no comfort, only remembrance of duty. I remember his black looks and Boromir’s anxious face as he stood between them, trying not to choose between his peril and his duty, and but a child….”
Merry could see it, feel it, the quiet war of cross-purposes that had marked this house of Stewards and the sons born to it, one fated to choose his duty and the other his peril, and ruin hovering always on the dark horizon, and fear in the mind of Finduilas. How has Gondor lived, ever in the shadow of that horror?, Pippin had wondered, and indeed the Men of Gondor seemed inured to the Shadow and the long business of war, and stood like their stone fortress, ever at the ready. But Finduilas had been different; she had nurtured a garden, and was at one with living things as were the Shirefolk, and she knew also things she did not seek to know, just as he did, absorbing from the very air she breathed the whispers of the world…her very life drawing upon all the forces that touched the earth….
Save us! Merry exhaled sharply, the air in his lungs forced out by a hard fist of rising panic. It is not a sickness, but the taste of that evil fog…! She was too close—and so am I! He tried to think what it could mean, what he must do, but so alarmed was he that the struggle made his mind a tangle. What about the others? What of Pippin and Frodo and Sam? Why don’t they feel it like this? His heart beat painfully. In quiet fear he asked of Faramir, “What became of your mother?”
Faramir bit his lip. “It was her habit every day to walk in this garden and along yonder wall,” he said, indicating vaguely the direction of the terrace wall. “Boromir and I would walk with her and sometimes we played at swords and heroes on the grass. She looked ever to the south, for she liked not the sight of the Mountains of Shadow and more and more she longed for her homeland and the sea. But one day she heard a voice whispering and she turned and there in the east she beheld the black cloud of Mordor, and the fire of the Mountain, and she knew that out of these came the voice that she heard. She fell…” he faltered. “And then she called to my father, but he could not come; and so she went to him, but he…knew not what to do, I suppose; and with that she came to the end of her endurance.”
Merry caught his breath. It was the Sight that brought the Shadow to Finduilas, and the Black Breath that brought it to me, as if it had opened a sluice gate on the river and laid down a channel that we might draw upon it….
Faramir looked at him in his quiet, searching way. “My mother broke beneath the curse of her foresight and abandoned hope,” he said softly, and his face closed as if overborne by remembrance of things cherished for long years in solitude. He hesitated for amoment. “With gentle words and many tears among the three of us, she gave me into the arms of my brother, and him into mine, and then she went away into the Houses of Healing.” He let his breath out in a long sigh. “She lingered but a little space of days there, and then she faded and died.”
She died! Merry fell back in silent dismay. No…! Surely there must have been some way to close the gate?
A tear crept down Faramir’s cheek. Wonderingly, he lifted his hand to it and brushed it into his palm. He closed his fingers round it and pressed his lips against them. “That was many years ago,” he said and his voice seemed to come from far away. “I have never forgotten the expression in her eyes. I could hardly bear to look on it, to see such desolation.” He turned from the rail, his fair face, had he known it, a mirror of Merry’s anguished, urgent heart. “Merry,” he said, “ I saw something like it again this morning in the eyes of Eowyn of Rohan. She is in such pain! You must tell me, if you know: what has hurt her so? ”
Eowyn! Merry blinked. Eowyn! He started and his heart went out to Faramir, who had been so kind to him even as he must be reeling from the loss of all his folk, now drawn in pity and kindness to Eowyn because of what he saw in her eyes…. Merry took a deep breath and tore his mind from the clinging grey veils of doubt that shifted and settled around him. Later…I will think on it later…for now I would ease his fears….
Looking up, he said to Faramir, “Rest easy on one score: ’twas not the Shadow, for Eowyn was broken long ere we took the road to Gondor. I will try to tell you how it was.”
Faramir breathed a sigh and returned to his chair at the table, taking up his cup again. “I am grateful. I would know more of her,” he said, a faint flush staining his pale cheek. “Mind, I hardly know her; I met her for the first time only this morning. She wanted to leave the Houses of Healing, but the Warden deemed that she was not well enough to go. She brought her grievance to me. She would have joined her brother and the Rohirrim at the Black Gate.”
Merry nodded. “So she would,” he murmured. “You denied her?”
“I had to,” Faramir spread his hands. “She is too weak and broken still.” He leaned his chin upon his hand. “It is almost beyond imagining, how beautiful she is,” he said frowning. “But she is locked away in some strange, cold darkness, joyless beyond any expectation of the Black Breath. What ails her? I feel such pity for her, and such…liking. I would help her, Merry. What so grieves a shieldmaiden of Rohan after such a triumph as hers?”
Merry looked curiously at Faramir, caught by something in his voice. The quiet loneliness that never left his eyes was augmented now by a shy and eager interest, his pale face warmed by the flush across his cheekbones. It pleased Merry to see this, for he knew that sadness overlaid Faramir’s gentle nature, and that his losses had been cruel and deeply felt. He tried to think how he might best tell the story of the Lady of Rohan, whom he knew well and then again, not at all. Shadow niggled at the edges of his senses, but he brushed it back without thinking, for he would answer Faramir’s distress.
“I have known her for little more than nine days,” he began slowly, thinking as he went. “But people can learn much of each other when they are locked together in silence and in exile, and so were Eowyn and I on the long ride to Minas Tirith. Much I learned of her then that I did not understand until she faced the Witch-King.”
“How so?” asked Faramir, and Merry said, remembering, “Much about a person can be hidden until he or she must make a desperate stand.”
Faramir frowned, nodding. “But why do you say you were you in exile?” he asked. “For was she not sister-daughter to King Théoden, and were you not his esquire?”
“Aye,” nodded Merry, “but the King had refused us both a place in the company.” He sighed, remembering with grief Théoden, King of Rohan, whom he had loved and who had died before his eyes on the Pelennor. “I cannot fault him. He wanted to protect us. He said himself that his duty to us lay in safekeeping and there would be none such in Gondor. He was right. Now that I think of it, I suppose he sensed somehow the darkness that lay in wait for us and feared it; he had only just lost his son to Saruman’s treachery. In any case, he meant to send us to Edoras.”
Faramir cocked an eyebrow. “And yet, I think you did not go.”
Merry’s dark blue eyes flickered above a rueful smile. “We slipped past him,” he admitted. “You must understand, we were a hobbit and a woman and deemed unfit for battle.” He looked away, humiliated even now that he was accounted a hero of Gondor. “I was ashamed to be left behind—alone of all the Fellowship unable to fight this war—and Eowyn would not be bound by any gentle protections devised by men, especially those who loved her. We rode together in secrecy and in silence and in the end we came so to the Pelennor.” He lapsed into silence, the long ride playing in his mind.
An odd look passed Faramir’s face. He sat back, frowning at first, and then he laughed. “You have come too quickly to the Pelennor, Merry,” he chided gently, “and cheated me of all the story! Start again, at the beginning!” He reached for Merry’s hand, and his face grew serious and thoughtful. “I have told you, you folk of the Shire have given me much to think on. You are wise to the ways of the heart, and even the most innocent among you is not long deceived by artifice. Rumor has it that I can read minds, but I think hobbits can read the very nature of men, and women, too. What did you think of Eowyn when first you saw her?”
Merry set his elbows on the table and steepled his fingers; he squinted across the garden, thinking back across many days and miles and strange paths to the valley of Harrowdale beneath the White Mountains, and the Firienfeld and Eowyn riding out of the camp in the purple twilight to greet the King.
“I first saw her at Dunharrow, when we arrived from Isengard,” he said softly, remembering the crushing weight of the mountains and the long, lonely Stair of the Hold. “She met Théoden in the road. You’re right, Faramir: she is very beautiful, and this night she was like a song—a maiden from a tale of ancient times—for she was in battle dress and girt with a sword, and her golden hair was in a long plait that shone even as the light was fading into dusk. She was very stern and watchful, for she had the ordering of all the folk who had fled to Helm’s Deep and then must go home again; but she seemed also sad to me, and desperate in some strange, defeated way.”
Faramir nodded. “Even then,” he murmured, frowning, and Merry hesitated for a moment, wondering. “Yes,” he said. “Even then—from the first moment I saw her. She had many cares, and I recall she brought hard tidings to the King: Aragorn and his company had departed from Dunharrow on the Paths of the Dead the night before. She was grieved and sorry.” He took up his mug of ale.
“Are not the women of Rohan used to seeing men away to battle?” Faramir asked doubtfully, and then he sat back abruptly. “Oh…” he said uncertainly. “Was there an alliance between the Lady and the King, then?”
Merry look up sharply. Faramir had looked away, but Merry could see in the cant of his shoulders that he had absorbed an unexpected blow. He loves her! he thought suddenly in surprise. Already he loves her, and he is afraid, and rightly so, that she has given her heart into Aragorn’s keeping….I will have to skip over it, then, for I won’t hurt him, and there’s no telling how it will end; the world may be dead under the Shadow tomorrow…And don’t I know that there was much in Rohan that must have grieved Eowyn before ever Aragorn came there…? For while Merry knew what grieved Eowyn in this regard, he knew also the way of the court at Edoras, and what had transpired there.
Aloud he said with deliberate misapprehension, “I shouldn’t think so, Faramir. They had never met before the battle of Helm’s Deep. But you must understand: the very thought of the Paths of the Dead was a calamity to the Riders of the Mark—it held a special dread for them. I could hardly get anyone to explain it to me for the longest time, though now Pippin tells me the story of that march is fast becoming the stuff of legends. But in Dunharrow that night the Rohirrim did not believe that Aragorn or his company would ever come out of the Haunted Mountain again. Eowyn and the King and all the Riders were deeply grieved, for Aragorn had made himself a favorite among them in the short time he was there, and his confidence had given them something to cheer in their black battle with Mordor.”
Faramir sighed and lowered his eyes. If he doubted Merry’s feint, he did not say so. Instead he spoke firmly, as if to a duty he gladly gave love and respect, “In riding that Path did Lord Aragorn prove he would lay down his life for Gondor. The King attends a special destiny, but he has been long in coming. I think his path has ever been difficult and full of peril.”
“Yes, that’s so,” said Merry thoughtfully, and Faramir’s quiet honour wrung his heart a little. “When I first met him he was called Strider, and he cut a very different figure—a Ranger of the North, he was, and as hard and rough and mysterious a man as you are ever likely to see. I confess I did not trust him overmuch to begin with.”
“Yet he proved himself genuine over time, I vow,” said Faramir, smiling, and Merry smiled back with some relief, for he could see that Faramir’s love for Aragorn was genuine and as heartfelt as his own.
“Oh, yes,” he nodded. “We came quickly to love him and depend upon him, and any one of us would gladly trust our lives to him now—” He stumbled to a stop, a cold wave of dread looming up unlooked for out of his muted despair, new and unexpected tears tightening his throat and stinging his eyes. He ducked his head into his hands with a growl. “I’m sorry,” he gritted. “It seems the Shadow will not rest until I am altogether unmanned. If I but think of them, I am afraid….”
Faramir said gently, “I know; I am, too. It is a hard thing to be left behind, Merry, harder than riding to battle, for in this waiting we have too much time to think, and so to doubt our courage and our hopes.” But a hard shudder ran unchecked through Merry’s frame at these words that were meant kindly, and he was grateful that Faramir saw and quickly turned the subject from his hopes. “Was Eowyn so fragile then, at Dunharrow, so cold and bitter?”
Merry squared himself and brushed the tears from his eyes with a determined sigh. “She was fragile, yes, and cold in some ways,” he said, considering carefully what he had seen in Rohan. “I thought she seemed unhappy. It was clear she did not like being confined to ordering the household, though she loved the King as a father and served him willingly. But in truth, she was a shieldmaiden and she seemed happiest with a sword beneath her hand.” He paused, frowning, thinking suddenly of the strange nature of his own despair. “And there was the spell cast from Isengard,” he said thoughtfully.
“A spell!” exclaimed Faramir. “What kind of spell?”
“There was talk among the Riders that Saruman had bewitched the King and some of the court at Edoras,” Merry tried to explain. “—that Wormtongue, the King’s councilor, had poisoned their minds and that they had suffered in consequence a creeping sickness of spirit, and a long despair. Eomer spoke to it once. He said it had nearly killed the King and laid a pall over much they held precious, and there was no question that he liked not Wormtongue’s attentions to his sister. Perhaps Eowyn came under the spell.”
Faramir’s eyes went hard. “Poor girl,” he murmured. “Was she spared no provocation then?”
“Perhaps not,” Merry returned, thinking sadly that Eowyn was suffering still. “But I think her grief and bitterness grew in the days that followed, when the red arrow came and all the Riders of the Mark were outfitted for battle and the King assigned the road, and she was not included. Then it seemed to me that she grew wild and dangerous.”
He coloured now, shook his head slightly and looked away. “On that score I knew her grief nearly as well as my own,” he confessed, his voice soft with shame. “I did not want to be left behind, Faramir. You can understand. I was, of all the Fellowship, the only one left without a purpose. They had all gone ahead, to one doom or another, and I felt as if I had been set aside in the confusion like excess baggage, and must wait along the road for someone to come back and pick me up when it was all over….”
Faramir shot him a sympathetic glance. “Hard thoughts, Merry,” he agreed thoughtfully. “I think like me you have been left behind more than once. It breeds strong feelings, does it not?” He smiled a little bitterly. “And also character, I am told….But perhaps in Dunharrow you and the Lady felt also the pull of your destiny?”
Merry looked surprised. “Perhaps so,” he said with a slow smile. “I had not thought of that. Do you think we were meant to be there?”
Faramir smiled back. “Yes, I think you were,” he nodded. “But how did you come to the battle?”
Merry resumed his narrative. “On the day the Riders of the Mark departed, I stood at the side of the road watching. I was wretchedly unhappy. One of the Riders appeared at my side, a young soldier, Dernhelm by name.” Merry searched his memory for the words. ‘Where will wants not, a way opens,’ he said to me. ‘You wish to go wither the Lord of the Mark goes…. Yes! I whispered. 'Then come', he said, and he put me before him on his horse and all of his company pretended not to see me and we rode out with the rest.”
Faramir frowned. “I thought—“
Merry said quietly, “It was she! Disguised in every way save the nature of her heart. Understand, Faramir, she knew what it was to be disregarded, and despite her own plans, she took me up when every other way was closed to me.”
‘Not so very cold, then,” Faramir murmured, considering, and Merry said, “No, not at heart. I was grateful, of course, and I tried not to be a burden, which is why I did not learn her secret then. We rode together over the hills for four days, but we spoke very little and all I knew was that I rode with a young man who knew that very likely he went to his death and was making ready for it.”
Faramir’s eyebrows drew together. “You did not speak in four days?”
“Very little. She was grim and fell and wrapped in her own thoughts, and I was anxious to come to Gondor. I—I sorely missed Pippin and the others and I was desperate to be of some use. We exchanged the necessary courtesies, but nothing more. She went aside in camp, probably to keep her secret, and I ate and slept alone.’
Faramir shook his head. “You should not have done so, Merry, either of you. No man should face the night before a battle alone without comrades, without the comfort of a fire and quiet talk. It is too bleak.”
Merry nodded. “Aye, you are right, and I know it now. Loneliness weighed heavy on me, and guilt. And when we heard Minas Tirith was burning, I was afraid for Pippin, and for myself, that I would never see him again. It was an anxious time. I began to see the King’s reason.”
“No doubt the Lady felt the same,” said Faramir.
“No,” said Merry quietly and as Faramir frowned and leaned forward on his elbows, he went on: “Eowyn had wrapped herself in darkness before ever we took to the road….I said before there was much I did not understand at the time. But I know that darkness now; she felt nothing save emptiness.”
Faramir closed his eyes and bent his head with a lingering sigh. “I know it too,” he said low. “So still, as if I were apart from all the world, neither seeing nor hearing nor caring anymore, and blind to every hand stretched out to me…. I suppose it was so with my mother, as well.”
“Aye,” whispered Merry, Finduilas yet close upon his mind. “So it was.” And Faramir opened his eyes and looked curiously at him, but Merry said nothing more and Faramir, though he wondered, did not press him.
“How did you come to the Pelennor?” he asked instead. “What brought you and Eowyn face to face with the Lord of the Nazgul, of all the Enemies on the field?”
A spasm of pain spread through Merry’s chest; the memory of Théoden’s death and the horror of the Nazgul rose out of his mind like a poisonous black fog. He took a ragged breath and set his teeth and suddenly unable to keep still, surged to his feet and paced restlessly to the rail. There he leaned, clutching the post with trembling hands. Faramir was silent behind him, his face drawn with sympathy.
A birch tree grew next the pavilion there and its lithe branches with their small flat leaves, like pale green tears, hung quivering within his reach. Merry took them gently into his hands, images of the Shire warm against his dreadful thoughts. The leaves tumbled through his fingers, their borders flickering in the sunlight. Wondering, he brought them close and saw with a sinking heart that every bit of foliage was thinly edged with brown. The Shadow creeps into their dreams as well, he thought and sadly he turned away and took up again the story of the Nazgul.
“Eowyn had determined to follow the King,” he said faintly, and he shivered as the horrid play began to unfold again before his eyes. “We rode right through the charge to Théoden’s side…and then everything happened at once.”
He tried to blot out the vision, but it consumed him, all his senses awakened once again to that shattering, pitiless moment in time. “We were all of us unhorsed,” he began, “and Eowyn and I scrambled to find a footing on the field…Théoden looked to be dead, and the Nazgul….” He leaned his head against the post, a wave of nausea and dread catching up his breath, the sense of it suddenly so vivid that it seemed he could yet detect the breath of ash and carrion that followed the wraiths. He covered his eyes, waiting for it to pass. Bitterly he confessed, “Twice I have met the Nazgul, and twice I have been sick with fright…” He took another breath and tried to steady himself. “I am sorry.”
“Twice?!” Faramir said sharply. “You met the Nazgul before this?”
“Aye.” Merry nodded wretchedly as the nightmare visions filtered like toxic vapours through his mind. “They trapped us at Weathertop in the lands west of the Misty Mountains—Frodo and Sam and Pippin and me—while Aragorn was away from camp. There were five of them and Frodo was stabbed with a morgul blade and nearly died.”
“A morgul blade!” Faramir repeated wonderingly. “He said nothing of this, and indeed I saw nothing to suggest it…. But those wounds are fatal. How is it he lives? Did Lord Aragorn—did the King heal that wound as well?”
“No,” said Merry. “It was beyond his power then. Elrond of Rivendell restored Frodo.” He hung his head. “But he might not have been injured at all if we had not been so frightened we could not protect him.”
But Faramir only whistled softly. “No,” he said, getting up and coming to stand beside Merry at the rail. “It is the nature of the Nazgul to spread terror wherever they go.” But Merry shook his head, ashamed, and Faramir said frankly, “Very few have ever faced them and lived to speak of it, Merry. I do not disbelieve your terror, but you have nothing to be sorry of. There is no more monstrous foe, saving Sauron himself. And in any case, you landed a blow this second time, and gave Eowyn the moment to bring him down. You did more than any of us could have hoped to do.”
Merry leaned tiredly against the rail. It seemed to him that the Nazgul had somehow stirred his dreams as well, for now there drifted in and out of his thoughts an ominous emptiness, a niggling sense of peril. He shrugged it away and looked to Faramir who had been silent for a long moment, as if he weighed his next words carefully.
“And what of her?” Faramir asked finally, and reluctantly Merry knew he must give answer. “I have told you, she was broken,” he said low and hesitantly, and Faramir said, “Please. I would hear the whole of it. But let us walk, for it hard to speak of these things and be still.”
Merry was quiet on the path beneath the trees, thinking of Eowyn on her knees before the Witch-King, of her grim face and hard eyes, her beautiful bright hair tumbling over her shoulders. He had no doubt now as to her purpose, and no reason that he could think of to keep it from Faramir, who knew too much already, but still he walked in silence for awhile, doggedly trying to remember every detail and to steady and accustom his mind to horrors that would no doubt live with him to the end of his days.
“Faramir,” he said at last and as gently as he could, “she came to the Pelennor to die.”
Faramir breathed a ragged sigh of distress, and Merry saw Eowyn again in his mind’s eye, battered and beautiful in the shadow of the Wraith. His hands trembled beneath the memory of what they had wrought in her defense, the thudding shock of recoil when his blade touched the terrible King and the brutal cold and black despair that followed close behind; the hateful scream of the wraith and Eowyn rising up beneath him, all her strength thrown into one last effort to unmake Théoden’s assassin and, she hoped, herself. He shivered. Faramir shook his head, tears standing in his eyes.
They came once again to the wall and there in the east was the Shadow yet, a filthy smog coiling thick about the mountaintops as if it fed like some questing maggot on the desolation there; Merry turned his head and looked instead to the south, and there was a shimmering haze. He hoped it was the sea and that it was filled with marvelous fishes such as twined on the wall without the garden door, and that the land beside it was green as Finduilas had remembered it. He stepped up on the bench and Faramir stood beside him.
“For five days Eowyn set her mind to death,” Merry said carefully, and the southern sky glimmered iridescent on the horizon. “I saw it. I did not wonder at it in the beginning, for I thought she was Dernhelm, a soldier, and as frightened and inexperienced as I—though I wished I was so prepared for what I knew must come. But when I saw who she really was, I was struck with such wonder to see her, but more so with pity, Faramir, for I knew then that it was not fealty that drove her, but an agony of despair, the same that I had seen in Dunharrow. Théoden’s house was failing. Helm’s Deep was but a first skirmish—and they could taste it, the Riders of the Mark, a bittersweet victory before a wretched end—for Mordor could not be stopped. They knew they rode to ruin here.”
But Faramir, pale now at Merry’s side, stayed him with a hand upon his shoulder. “No,” he said. “As long as we live, we must go on. Is such killing grief as hers born of these things— that she must look after the keep? that an ill wind from Isengard whispered treason in her ear? that her uncle grew too old for battle and so rode doomed unto his last? No…. You know as well as I what set her heart to death.” He raised his hands to scrub wearily at his eyes, and when he had done he let them drop and met Merry’s open distress with quiet resignation. “You know what she had lost,” he said. Merry’s mind went back to the first evening he had lain ill in the Houses of Healing, Pippin perched beside him on the coverlet, smoking thoughtfully and quietly recounting what had transpired there during the siege of Minas Tirith, and what Aragorn had done to bring them back from the Shadow, Merry and Faramir and Eowyn.
“Strider did not stay long beside the Lady of Rohan once she was freed of the dark,” Pippin had confided, “for he was grieved that she loved him and he could not return her feelings. …In me she loves only a shadow and a thought, he said to Eomer, her brother, and he stole away so that she would not be pained to see him when she woke. She is very beautiful, Merry; I can’t think why he doesn’t care for her. What can be the reason, do you suppose?” And Merry remembered suddenly the great feast at Rivendell and the beautiful daughter of Elrond Half-elven and Aragorn’s face in candlelight and shadow as he bent to speak to her, and he had smiled at Pippin and shaken his head and said “I expect we should let the King keep his own counsel, Pippin, until he deems it time for us to know his business.”
Merry turned back to the south. He could not look at the pain that dimmed Faramir’s eyes. For the first time he had seen what attended the loneliness there, the haunting shadows of rejection and abandonment, the gentle, battered spirit, ever graceful in the face of relentless insult.
“She wants a king, Merry,” Faramir said behind him, and even though his voice was steady and soft, Merry could hear the hard, hollow echoes of grief and loss, and Faramir’s acceptance of unrelenting fortune.
“No!” He whirled in protest, fierce and sorry, and his hot blue eyes met Faramir’s, shuttered grey, and his heart wept to see the struggle there, where as ever love was peril if duty be denied. Save us! I won’t let this happen! He has no one left in the world and Eowyn has so touched his heart…!
Over Faramir’s shoulder, a flicker of movement caught his eye. On the horizon, the Shadow seemed to stir and stretch lazily toward the west. Startled, Merry looked from Faramir to the sooty pall over Mordor and abruptly, a cold fist of dread closed on his heart. Black fear flashed through his mind, and gasping, he groped for the wall as a dark current surged up out of the land and all his senses, unsuspecting, reached to draw it in…. No! His knees buckled and he stumbled backward. No! I don’t know how to close the gate! But even as he fell, he knew it was too late.
“Merry!” Faramir caught him from behind. “What is wrong? Are you ill?” But Merry found he could not speak for the acrid cloud of horror that exploded with a roar upon his mind, and from beneath Faramir’s restraining arm, he stared wide-eyed as from out of the east the Shadow stabbed at him through the dimming world. With a cry of disbelief he raised his hands to cover his head, and crumpled over Faramir’s arm.
Faramir spun around. Bewildered—for to his sight the black stain had not moved or changed at all—he looked down at Merry, first in wonder and then in growing alarm, and then he snatched him up and carried him to the grass beneath a nearby tree and knelt beside him. “Look at me,” he said urgently. “Merry, look at me!”
Merry writhed, shocked and nearly blinded, shuddering beneath the assault. But Faramir’s attention had not wavered and, roughly now, with a coarse and callused sword hand he scrubbed the curls back from Merry’s face and gripped them hard, his voice cutting through the deadening shroud, sharp and demanding against Merry’s ear, giving him a sudden, startling handhold. With a jolt Merry came to himself, as on an island of clarity in the center of a roaring grey tempest, and he whispered weakly, “Faramir!”
A strangled answer came. “Yes! Open your eyes!”
Merry loosed his hands from over his face, surprised to find it wet with tears beneath. The world was sweet and full of color and desperately he breathed it in.
Faramir looked searchingly into his eyes. “I’ll fetch the Warden,” he said in a shocked voice, and started to rise.
“No!” Merry clutched at him. Faramir turned back and Merry took his hands, holding them close against his chest with all his small strength and will. Somewhere within him he could feel a shudder and instinctively he knew this moment of sanctuary was short-lived. He curled over his hold on Faramir’s hands. “Please—don’t go!”
Faramir laid him gently back and withdrew one hand to stroke his tangled curls, damp now with sweat. “It is the Shadow, Merry,” he whispered. “I can see it in you. It hunts you just as it did my mother. Perhaps the Warden will know what to do; perhaps the King left instructions….”
“No!” The storm had become a swirling vortex now, the whispering cloud coiled and searching, filling up his mind, swift and fell, shuddering, cruel, closing in on him again. “It is not hunting... only settling in a place that opened to it…It seeks its own in my despair…I…somehow I opened the gate…I-I don’t know how to close it….”
Faramir drew back his hand. “What are you saying?”
Fear crept up Merry’s backbone: time was short. He fought now to catch his breath. “Finduilas and I…” he began, gasping as panic closed his throat. “We took it in unknowing…You said yourself…uncanny…we were too close, you see? I don’t know how…to stop it….” He struggled uselessly as the leaden void began to fill the space between them.
Faramir slipped his free arm beneath Merry’s back and lifted him into his lap, settling Merry’s head against his shoulder. He set his own back against the tree, all the while clasping Merry’s hand tightly. “The Shirefolk are quick to know the nature of things,” he said quickly, quietly. “Tell me what this is.”
Merry knew it for what it was, the desolation of ruin and malignant will that rose from the east and was carried on the winds of war—not the Eye, but the death of hope beneath it. “Emptiness,” he answered, blind again, the world dimming now as if he were in a dream of some phantasmal barrow tomb, breathing desolation. “It is emptiness.” He set his teeth; the choking tide swirled around him, smelling of iron and ashes.
But Faramir seemed then to come close again, and with him came a transient stream of consolation. He whispered urgently. “Listen to me, Merry. Loose not your hold on Pippin’s hopes, and know that mine will stay your back,” and Merry shifted, pale and quivering in Faramir’s arms, to say he understood. But deep within, he shrank from the thought of those dear scraps of hope that lay hidden next his heart—that trust, brightened with tears and sweet with longing, that one day it would all be over and they would go home to the Green Hill Country and the amber Brandywine, and the fields and flowers of the Shire. Save us! he thought, What if I can’t keep them safe? My hold is not strong—what if I lose them in this place?
For an instant Pippin’s hopes glimmered, misty, like dancing motes of light, but then they winked and dimmed, and Merry’s skin prickled as the swarming current, darker now and swift, caught him once again. He tightened his grip on Faramir’s hand as it took him.
But Faramir had more to tell, and silenced now, his fingers closed like iron on Merry’s shoulder. With the pain of it, Merry saw with surprise that the stinging grey shroud shifted slightly in its claustrophobic path and settled back at a remove, and suddenly he understood that Faramir did indeed stay his back, that as long as he knew he could yet touch the world, he would remain there. He threw all his heart and yet-living mind into the struggle within and was rewarded to find himself secure in what seemed to be the eye of the storm. He did not try again to wake upon the world beyond his mind, but only gripped Faramir’s hand tightly in trust and set himself to searching for a way to turn the roiling tide away from him and from the tiny, defenseless incandescence of Pippin’s hopes.
Think! he thought. Think of the Shire! Think of something worth living for….and he filled his mind with places that he loved. But then did fear gore him once again, for the harsh current rose and whispered in a vile tongue, and with horrid certainty he realized that it lived and knew his thoughts, for images rose up on the seething grey walls, and they were the harrowing visions of his dreams: the Shire a fouled and blasted ruin and hobbit-kind corrupted and run amok under the Black Hand; the Brandywine sunk to sludge and clogged pitifully with the remains of his folk who had withstood the Shadow; the plains of Rohan ablaze beneath a black sky and the Riders fallen everywhere to smoke and battle and madness. His involuntary cry brought a sharp prompt from Faramir; his mind cleared and once again he could consider what he must do now. But not for long; before he could decide, his mind was yet alive with images and he shuddered fearfully. It knows me now, he thought and it means to take me….
Now did he see again the people that he loved, and it was hard to stay his grief. Here was Théoden, crushed beneath Snowmane on the Pelennor, his fine, kind eyes warm with blessing and farewell…and Boromir on his knees in Parth Galen, his face broken with fear and sorrow and shame… and Eowyn riding with eyes already dead across the grasslands and through the mountains of Rohan, the fierce wind whipping at her back…here were the warriors of Gondor slaughtered in the new spring grass…and the Nazgul overshadowing the field and settling like night before them….
Pain wrenched him back from paths he did not even know he was following. Faramir gripped his arm harshly, and in quick response, Merry looked up, alarmed and chastened, to see the storm looming heavy with intent, and in an instant of blessed relief, watched it begin to retreat again, Keep your wits about you! Hold on…! And silently he blessed Faramir’s fidelity and his hope and fought to concentrate.
Now the landscape of his mind dimmed, muttering, and he trembled, for he knew that whatever was coming was meant to stagger him, and quickly. He braced himself and felt Faramir tensing somehow, too, but the image that arose was a place he did not know, and bewildered, he gazed upon a vast black expanse upon which a ghastly light, pale red, lay sullen. A devastated mockery of nature, it stretched lifeless to a far horizon where blazed two fiery beacons, a dark mountain that ran with liquid flame and a tall black tower capped with a burning Eye.
Save us! It’s Mordor! he realized. And worse than any thought I ever had of it….And suddenly he realized what he must see and he went cold and sick with dread. No…no! Surely it could never come to this!
On the scabrous and pitiless Plain of Gorgoroth, something small and nearly dead was stirring feebly. Merry drew a ragged breath, for he saw clearly that it was Frodo, filthy, emaciated and twitching, lying in a wretched hollow of slag and ashes that was scarcely more than a dent on an incredible field of destruction. Frodo’s mind was blind, bowed beneath the Ring, and Merry knew that he was dying. He watched, anguished, as a sinewy breath of despair, some vaporous part of the same current that laid now its claim to him, rose out of the blasted pocket and wound about Frodo. It stabbed suddenly at his breast; the small body quivered but submitted, defiled, and the only sound that came was a soft sigh of resignation.
Pity nearly broke him. Frodo's agony beneath the Ring shocked him beyond anything even dread had conjured, and in his distress he stumbled badly, resolve swallowed up in horror. The Shadow whispered and brushed close, a caustic score upon his senses, and then did a shattered moan tear from out his body to bring Faramir with desperate determination to his aid. Agony lanced through him, real and enduring; somewhere his body twisted and convulsed, and then his mind was free again and shuddering he drew himself up to face the image yet again. With some relief he saw that Sam was there, sadly battered and weakened, but holding Frodo’s hand in a hard, safe grip like Faramir’s, bending close, his voice at once soft and encouraging. It’s time to go on, Mr. Frodo… Don’t worry, we’ll manage it….
No! Merry stared, incredulous. The blackened fields stretched for miles before the foot of the mountain, days of journeying, and then they must climb up, flung upon the dreadful teeth of Orodruin and helpless under the Eye. And Frodo barely drew breath! Relief died and Merry’s heart stirred with anger. Are you mad? You’ll never make it! For pity’s sake, just lie down and hold him and let him die in peace!
But Frodo opened his eyes and looked up with a wondering smile, and if there was no hope in his eyes, neither was there protest. Alright Sam, we’ll go on….and Sam nodded, smiling, and then he turned his gaze quickly to the mountain to hide his grief. Merry moaned softly. Frodo raised trembling hands and laid them trustingly around Sam’s neck and, whispering gently, Sam drew him up and steadied him and held him, tottering, until he gained his feet. There now, Mr. Frodo, we’ll be fine …. They turned toward the journey and Merry saw that Sam’s once gentle face was set like iron and he saw in it a determination that was deadly. He shivered and hot tears welled up within him and he knew somewhere they spilled over onto Faramir’s hands. And he was troubled at what he had seen, for something had passed here quite apart from horror and pity and he knew he should have marked it, and he could not think what it was….
The vision faded and now the whispers rose again and the space between Merry and the pounding torrent narrowed threateningly again. Of his own will Merry squeezed Faramir’s hand, but Faramir’s response, though quick and willing, was, strangely, too weak to brace and focus any wavering resolve. Merry remembered suddenly the last stabbing rebuke that Faramir had sent through the link. Eyeing the rising current with a tremor of fear, he thought, he can do no less than break my arm now to get through, and he won’t, saving I beg him do it… No, I won’t—it was at best a stopgap. I am meant to face this on my own….
The odd juxtaposition of images tugged at him…if the Shadow knew his mind, it also knew its own, and had its own memories—for he had not seen Boromir’s face at just that moment, nor Eowyn’s as they rode together across the rough and windy holdings of Rohan, and he had not seen Frodo and Sam in Mordor at all. A cold wave of awareness slipped suddenly over him, confusion upending his objective, as abruptly he understood in part how the darkness wove itself within him. These were not his memories, but some Other’s. Uneasily, he wondered what else might be brought to bear upon him, and then suddenly it occurred to him he might call upon his own griefs and the darkness might be made to serve….
Deliberately, he filled his thoughts with everything he knew of Finduilas and straightaway upon the living mind of the world’s despair she came. His heart rose in gladness to look on her, a lovely woman with long dark hair and deeply intelligent grey eyes, her pensive face alight with joy as she looked upon the little boys who played beside her in the garden. She stood at the wall, as ever she had, and she was wrapped in an exquisite blue cloak embroidered with silver stars, and he knew he would never forget the sight of her. Breathless Merry watched her, recognized her kindred spirit, grieved her mischance as he did his own; too late he minded his keeper. The beautiful young mother turned unwitting to meet her doom and broke suddenly before him, just as he had done, racked on the Shadow, hopeless and weary beyond imagining, and frightened and desperate and ruined….
He caught himself before he gave way this time, dimly aware that he was panting with distress, and that Faramir was near in some intangible way. With deadly purpose he willed himself to steady calm and watched with as much dispassion as he could muster as Finduilas beseeched her Lord Denethor for help, and then for pity, and then grievously for death. He watched her swoon before the Steward’s Chair, saw her little sons throw themselves upon her, stunned with grief—small Faramir weeping, and Boromir, yet a child but ever-protective and wrung with pity, kneeling to shield and then to comfort his little brother from the pain of wounds that would always cut too deep to heal.
His calm was to no purpose; he knew he wept; he felt Faramir’s callused hand, vague and somehow distracted, upon his face. It should not have been, he thought, She was alone, with no hand to keep her safe or friend to stay her back… Still, he had learned what he wished to know: I have Faramir; perhaps I have a chance…
It had not yet occurred to him that the Shadow had teeth.
Now he discovered it, for the vortex darkened and shuddered and spit in anger as it read his discovery. It bore down with shocking speed upon his understanding, pitiless and intent; he felt now as if it were hunting, as the wargs had done on the way to Moria long months before, their fangs and claws flashing in the darkness. But now he was alone and so he chose to stand forth in open defiance for the first time, sure in himself and his belief that Faramir stood by. His mind filled with foul whispers but he stood grim and fast and so did the fuming shroud withdraw to the given remove once again, and his eyes seemed washed in some acrid vapour, and images began to form as war on a new front was opened.
A low rumble sounded in his mind and the swirling bedlam turned from grey to inky black, and thrust upon his vision was the great vanguard of the King, hard upon the road to the Black Gate. And it came to him that this alone of all he had seen was no memory but a moment in real time, and his breath left him, for there he saw riding the two Kings, Aragorn and Eomer, together with Gandalf and Imrahil of Dol Amroth who had been brother to Finduilas, and the sons of Elrond, and also Legolas and Gimli and—there, at last!—Pippin.
He froze, for suddenly it seemed as if some fell beast had snicked a twig to reveal his silent prowling in the darkness, and instantly he was alert and terrified beyond any experience of poisoned dream he had ever had. If he had wished to look away before to ease the pain of these assaults upon his heart, he could not do so now, so stark was his foreboding, and so he watched in mounting panic as the kings and princes passed, and then the army, that long and stalwart legion of seven thousands, and even as the dust rose behind them he yet held his breath and waited. And from the land at the foot of the Mountains of Shadow he saw it rise, a tendril of black mist that followed silently after the army and slipped within and wove its way through the ranks, a shadow only, leaving in its wake troubled thoughts, and restless horses, and an unnamed fear that lingered and fed upon the uncertainties buried in the long line. Merry’s heart beat hard and painfully; his breathing quickened, rising and falling now in harsh, shredded gasps.
Pippin rode behind Gandalf and Aragorn, small but sure upon a handsome mount, easy in the saddle and short in the stirrups. His shoulders were slightly hunched, a sure sign that he was anxious, but so too were all the men around him, riding as they were for the Last Battle. It was a quiet group, these old and new friends who rode together, for they knew well what passed in these moments in each other’s minds and what lay at the end of the long ride. Pippin’s small face was steady with determination, and his quick fingers plied the leather reins with ease, but his sunny green eyes were yet dimmed grey with this lonely and overwhelming duty, his cheerful nature all but extinguished beneath the unavoidable shadow of the Black Gate and the absence of his own dear folk—for in this respect, he was very much alone, though Gimli glanced now and again toward him with a sympathetic eye. Merry’s frightened heart hurt to see him so, and he winced beneath his continued failure to attend the burden of the last, sweet request: Hold my hopes, Merry….
But now like a snake did the sleek black shadow dart to the front and close upon the vanguard, winding and seeking with malevolent intent until at last it focused the target and glided forward, and horror severed Merry from all his thoughts save one.
Pippin! Oh, save us, no!
The black wisp wound toward its prey. The horse jerked aside in alarm and startled out of his lonely reverie, Pippin dug in to steady himself and leaned to whisper a comforting word. He met Gimli’s sharp appraisal with a smile and a careless shrug, but he eased back into the saddle with a puzzled frown and a hard twitch between his shoulder blades. The vaporous ribbon drifted pointedly at his back.
No…. The intention was clear to Merry: all that stood between Pippin and this wasting hopelessness was himself. As surely as Frodo lay gasping out his life in the bitter devastation of Mordor, so too could Pippin be taken in an instant and cast innocent and unsuspecting into this place if Merry did not—as signaled when first he drew upon the current—throw himself now upon the world’s despair. Sam’s grim countenance rose suddenly in Merry’s battered consciousness, and what he had not understood before in the devastation he had seen there he understood now—that Sam had made a bargain out of hope and love and when the time came, he would lay down all he had in exchange for Frodo’s peace. Gently Merry drew forth and set close against his heart the promise he had sworn to Faramir when it seemed he had no part to play. I would die for Pippin!
The poisoned strand advanced upon his seeming hesitation, a hair’s breadth only left now. And Merry made his bargain in a flash and then as if he must in these last awful moments yet grind out his defiance in addition to his love, he marshaled all that was left of his mind and willed from some part of him he could not name a single, furious cry of surrender.
And then did Pippin still and straighten; slowly he turned in the saddle to look back with startled eyes, his cheeks flushed with astonishment, his lips parted in uncertainty.
Impossibly, their eyes met and held. Merry stared, so profoundly shocked that for one infinitesimal moment he knew and owned himself again and could touch the world. Against the flat black surge of despair looming up behind, Pippin’s eyes were like spring leaves drenched in sunlight, radiant with tenderness.
Don’t let go, Merry, he said.
The thunderous current, released at last, took Merry pitiless in a black and rasping fury. He did not struggle as it swept him up, or heed its caustic scores upon his mind, but neither did he take his gaze from Pippin’s steady, sunlit eyes, for there in that shimmering green was home and friendship and all that was true and good, and these he would honour, no matter what irrevocable horror bore down upon him now. With his last conscious thought he made sure that Faramir’s hand was clasped in his and he kissed it and laid it close upon his heart, and then he let go all his cares, and forgot his fears, and swallowed up in emptiness, drowned himself in Pippin’s hopes.
She wants a king. Why should this mean so much? He hardly knew Eowyn, whose pale and poignant beauty had stirred in him such a grave tenderness, and there was no question that he owed the King not only his duty as the Last Steward of the realm, but also his life, for it was Aragorn who had ransomed it at the last hour, and redeemed it of the Black Breath when there was no more hope among the healers.
“No!” Merry’s fierce, fond protest was immediate, and his eyes blazed with compassion borne of the friendship they had forged in the bright afternoon, a blend of empathy and shared experience that opened up their battered hearts and made of them allies, as if they had known each other for long years and through many trials. Faramir was a man who won friends easily, but Merry was among the few who had won Faramir’s friendship while yet he stood before him a stranger.
The hobbits of the Shire were a marvel to Faramir, living legends of old, and so arresting in form and character that he was seized with a kind of enchantment on every occasion he had to spend with them. Small they were, as children, but nonetheless lithe and sturdy and fair, and possessed of such surprising depths that he wondered if, far back in shrouded time, they knew rather more of Elves than now they knew to admit. For each of them had an air of unconscious wisdom and canniness about them that seemed almost otherworldly set upon their ingenuous faces and deep in their eyes, so alight with sensibility. But as in the world of men, each was different in his own way, and so Faramir had observed with wonder what these small and straightforward folk had made of the strange and dangerous world in which they found themselves, and how they had responded—Frodo and Sam, steady as the evening star, carefully and quietly resigned and grimly determined, with fathomless courage in the face of the appalling task ahead; Pippin, sunlight incarnate, pure of purpose and bright of gaze, with quicksilver reflexes and a startling streak of daring that was as hard and brilliant as diamonds; Merry, changeable as the moon, a deep, quiet pool of empathy and compassion from which flowed a keen and demanding sense of honour and loyalty and obligation, and a disquieting clarity of perception that Faramir recognized as very nearly equal to his own.
Small wonder it was that Boromir had taken so to the Shirefolk, and especially to Merry and Pippin. These two—so mindful of each other—must have reminded him of the boys he and Faramir had been once, and of the love that had bound them all of their lives. And lacking his own brother in his troubled wayfaring, quite naturally would Boromir have taken to being theirs for a time, just as it seemed now that Faramir and Merry had taken each other, so unused they were to being alone, and needful of brothers.
Faramir had to smile, despite himself, at Merry’s seeming understanding of his confusion with regard to Eowyn. I wager he knew this before I did, he thought ruefully, and he reached for Merry’s shoulder with a friendly hand. “Stay, Merry,” he began, thinking to soothe his dismay, and then he stopped, for his friend’s deep blue gaze flickered suddenly, and his attention snapped with a hard intake of breath to the eastern border over Faramir’s shoulder. His face paled and his eyes widened, and with a short cry he staggered suddenly and fell.
It was many minutes before Faramir thought to wonder how he had come to know what he must do, for in the beginning he did simply what any man would. He caught Merry in his arms as he fell backward off the bench, bracing him against his shoulder, grimacing as his injury, healing now but tender still, absorbed the sudden strain. Merry was white to the lips, his eyes staring sightlessly into the east.
“Merry!” he exclaimed urgently, but Merry did not answer and it was clear something was brutally amiss. Small, incoherent sounds struggled in his throat and when at last he sobbed aloud and cried “No!” as if some lethal enemy bore down on him relentless, Faramir’s blood was already churning. He turned swiftly to see if the end was come sooner than they expected, but no heart-stopping vapour of evil boiled toward them from Mordor; the black cloud lay as ever brooding over the mountains and all was still between. Yet, as he turned, he had a sudden sense of something, and there stirred suddenly in his mind some deep fear he could not name, and a painful sense of urgency overtook him and his hands began to tremble. Quickly, he lifted Merry and carried him the little way to the grass and there beneath a tree he laid him down and searched to see if he was injured in some way, for he seemed to be in pain and breathed quickly and raggedly as though he had taken a mortal wound.
There were no wounds, but still Merry lay pale and shuddering, shocked out of countenance, his hands rigid and flattened over his face. Faramir could not displace them; for a moment he knew not what to do and then he did: he scrubbed Merry’s fair curls back from his forehead and tugged at them a little, and at the same time he spoke Merry’s name close against his ear and suddenly Merry came back to himself with a quick, shocked breath. “Faramir,” he whispered, panicked but alert, and he held tight to Faramir’s hands, as if he feared he might be dragged away against his will. Faramir thought suddenly How did I know that would bring him back? And then he thought, Bring him back from where?
Then did he look into Merry’s eyes and learn what had come upon him, and now his nameless fear and urgency were answered, not only by name but also by painful memory of his mother, stricken in this place of the same enemy when he was very small. His memories were few but his trauma went deep, and so it was that he knew he could not leave Merry, but must fight for him and with him, and in that moment he also knew with certainty he had only two weapons that might serve—his mind and his hands, How he knew this, he did not know, but he gave no more thought to it, settling himself beneath the tree and taking Merry, who was small enough, into his arms to consider closely what might be done.
The descendents of Númenor in Gondor were dwindling, and their gifts as well, but to Faramir had come the ability to read the minds of men, to see all the colours and textures of their impressions and affections and concerns. Like glimmering dark-water reflections were the minds of other men when he opened his own to look upon them, and their thoughts were as voices, soft upon his inner ear. But never before this had he sought to know anything but need or motivation when he watched and listened; never had he gone hunting an enemy in another man’s mind.
He bent to the task of it now, a vague impression of his mother’s suffering plaguing and urging him on. He thought uneasily that he must see this thing, and know what threatened Merry now as it had once done his mother, and so gently did he seek Merry’s thoughts, and carefully, for he knew not what he might find and he wished to cause no more harm than had yet been done. Merry lay pale and still against his shoulder, his breathing quick and shallow, and Faramir resettled Merry’s hand in his.
He opened his mind and straightaway reeled back, his heart banging painfully, for there in Merry’s mind was a surging presence, dark and powerful and pitiless—a force of such crushing hopelessness that Faramir knew not how Merry’s already ravaged senses could withstand it, save that the little Shirefolk seemed surprisingly hardy and determined in the face of all the horrors that had been brought to bear on them. Carefully he drew upon such knowledge and impression and emotion as flashed in Merry’s consciousness, and so came a stream of images into his own, and he saw and felt what Merry must, and his heart shuddered then with pity and helplessness. For the first time since Merry had mourned his lack of hope, Faramir was afraid for him, for this was no place to make a stand without it.
He could not speak in Merry’s mind for such was not part of his gift, but here he thought his hands could help, for through them could Merry be called back into himself if the grey tempest bemused and tricked him away again. Faramir called him now with a firm pressure on his small hand, anxious that he should have some hope, if not his own. “Loose not your hold on Pippin’s hopes,” he murmured close, as Merry fought to stay conscious, “and know that mine will stay your back.” And Merry heard and shifted a little in his arms to say so, and then sank back again, holding tightly to his hand.
Now did the Shadow treacherously set upon Merry’s mind the images of places and people that he loved, and so cunningly demoralizing were these that more than once Faramir had to grip hard Merry’s hand or shoulder, so that he would not be lost in anguish. You could weep for beauty in such despair, he thought as he watched in sorrow the devastating images passing from Merry’s mind into his own. And more than once tears came fast and unbidden to his own eyes when certain images lingered; Eowyn’s beautiful face, cold as death as she rode to war; Boromir on his knees at Parth Galen, desperate and broken and struggling up, again and again until he couldn’t any longer and, unresisting, accepted his doom with heartbreaking grace. Faramir wept to look on him, and Merry’s own painful grief shimmered upwards in his thoughts.
Frodo’s stoic ruin on the black plain of Mordor tore from Merry such a cry of agony that Faramir did not need to read his thoughts to know that both his mind and heart were nearly overborne. He seized Merry’s hand in rescue but was dismayed to find that the strength of the vortex was growing; the pressure did not penetrate to Merry. With a mental grimace, he threw all the force he could muster into a carefully placed grip above Merry’s knee, and shocked with pain and reflex, Merry fought his way back once more, tears bright beneath the lashes of his shuttered eyes. But Faramir, watching from without, marked the torment reflected in the sturdy little body, damp now with sweat and flushed with pain, and tears of remorse rose in his eyes. I am sorry! He leaned forward, gently shifting the small burden in his arms so that he could speak close against his ear. His shoulder flared but he ignored it; small price for inflicting such pain upon a friend, he thought.
Merry stirred and gave a little shiver together with a distant sigh. His small hand struggled to find Faramir’s and drawing on his thoughts, Faramir could see the great dark invader, and Merry like a small, steady light on a dwindling shore. “On my life,” he whispered penitently, “I will find another way! I will never give you up to this enemy, but neither will I hurt you so again! Forgive me!” And floating upward on Merry’s thoughts, steady now and determined, came Merry’s own conclusion, made in the silence of his isolation and in darkness: I am meant to face this on my own….
Faramir disentangled his hand from Merry’s then, and laid it against the small face, gently thumbing away the tears that fell there, and trying to think what he might do now. In truth he felt not much different than he had in Osgiliath as he followed the retreat to the Pelennor. Save I throw myself into this maelstrom, he thought, and that will avail me nothing, what is left for me to do to save him? Faith, Merry, remember Boromir! Keep trying! And he took up Merry’s hand again and gazed out across the garden and upward to the White Tower, and there a sudden flare of sunlight, reflecting on the silver spire, flashed and dazzled him and he squeezed his eyes shut against the stabbing brightness. Merry’s thoughts shimmered up around him in the fractured darkness and with a jolt he realized they were borne on images of Finduilas.
But then did the Shadow whisper in her ear, and she turned, and all was lost. His own hollow cry followed close on hers; he watched with numbing misery events he could barely remember and, in the course of many years, had even begun to forget. They came back very quickly. He closed his eyes when his mother fell, for he felt the terror of it as if it were only yesterday. In his arms he felt Merry twist with grief and regret as well and sensed that he steeled himself anew against the lashing torrent, frightened but steady: I have Faramir; perhaps I have a chance… And he pulled Merry a little closer. I’m here….
But he followed his heart back to his mother—a moment only!—for he could not let her go so soon, not when he had one last chance to look on her. Eagerly he opened his inner eye again but startled back, surprised, for it was his father’s face he saw now, and he froze like a fawn that knows he is in range of bowshot—small and exposed and uncertain—for in his father’s eye was fury.
The child’s voice, loosed from some secret vault of nightmare held close against his dreams, shot upward out of the dark and exploded like lightning upon Faramir’s consciousness. Had it been the heel of a boot to his chest it could not have stunned him more, for the panicked, forsaken little voice was his, and he understood instantly that the unknown memories rising hard upon it were his as well, though they were unfamiliar to him, and dread began to linger next his heart as they unfolded.
He and Boromir stood with their mother before the Steward’s Chair in the Tower Hall and the Steward strode toward them, frowning darkly. The captains of the eastern frontier with whom he had been meeting had graciously bowed their way out upon the untoward intrusion of the Steward’s wife and sons, all three of whom were visibly distressed, but the Steward had turned from their civil departure in anger. “What are you thinking? How dare you disturb the councils of the Tower?”
Boromir was tall for his eleven years, and capable, and he stood his father’s wrath with the self-possession of a favoured son. Faramir knew his brother was frightened—their anxious eyes had met more than once as Boromir led them home—but he stood now composed before their father, prepared to tell his tale. Finduilas, stumbling a little, leaned heavily on his arm. She was pale and sick, and her beautiful warm eyes were threaded with odd streaks of grey. Boromir supported her carefully with an arm about her shoulder.
“Mother was taken very ill in the garden, Father, and she bade us bring her home. We have been quick, but I think she is worse! Look! We must do something!” The imperative betrayed his fear and their father’s fire banked slightly, replaced by a hard and searching look at his wife. Faramir clung tight to her skirt. He was only six and Finduilas rested her free hand on his slender shoulder where it pressed close against her hip, her fingers running restlessly through his silky hair as though she took some comfort from the feel of it. Where her fingers brushed against him he could feel them trembling; he caught her hand in pity and she gasped as if she had been asleep and waked suddenly. “Faramir?” she whispered. “What did you, love? What passed just now?”
Something like suspicion flickered in their father’s watchful eyes. “Finduilas?” he said sharply. He reached for her with hard authority, and Boromir gave her into his hands, gently but determinedly disentangling Faramir from her skirts. Faramir protested the breaking of his handhold with a little cry but Boromir’s strong fingers prevailed, and in any case he was reassuring: “Mother will be safe now. Don’t be afraid….”
But she swooned, half-conscious and muttering to herself, and Denethor caught her as she fell. “What is it ails you, wife?” he asked. “I think ‘tis but the Sight you fear yet again. What visions of your gift call you ‘grief’ and ‘phantom’ now?”
“This is no gift of Sight, husband,” she murmured, as he eased her into the Chair, “and no phantom, but a sending of some Other —a storm that drives before it such despair….” She began to cry. “What shall I do? What shall I do?”
Faramir started anxiously and Boromir took his hand. Catching the movement, the Steward turned from Finduilas and addressed his eldest son. “You did well in this, Boromir. You were right to bring her here. But this is no place for you, now, or for your brother. Go down to the stables for your lessons, and I will see to this.”
Tears sprang to Faramir’s eyes. Boromir hesitated; he cast an openly anguished glance at Finduilas. “But, Father, she is….”
The Steward’s forbidding features hardened slightly. “Boromir, do as I bid you. Take your brother and go— now!”
Boromir quailed desperately. “But…” He spread his hands in a placating gesture, sorry and fearful. “We can’t leave if…. Father, what is wrong with her?”
Finduilas gave a low cry, as if she wept now in some dark dream. Denethor turned back to her, but Faramir darted forward, too, taking up her hand again and laying his head on her shoulder. And once again she seemed to wake, and she lifted his small fingers to her lips. “I am so sorry, little one…. But what do you here, so suddenly? I was wandering, I thought….”
Denethor bent to his wife. “What passes here?” he murmured. He took her face in one hand and turned it so that he could look upon it. “Finduilas,” he began, and then he caught his breath, and snatched his hand away, as if it burned. “Whence came this thing?” he breathed, his eyes narrowing, and she said, trembling, “Out of the east, my lord, all unlooked for, and swift as wind and grey….” And he turned away with a hiss of alarm.
“What is it?” Boromir’s voice was openly frightened.
Faramir looked up. “Poor Mama!” he murmured, peering at the dark image that came suddenly to his mind. “She is afraid. The Shadow is growling at her!”
Denethor started; he fixed Faramir with a sudden, incredulous stare and Finduilas gasped. “No,” she whispered in alarm. “Oh, no…sweet-heart! You cannot see it?” Urgently she tried to withdraw her hand from Faramir’s, but he struggled to stay his grasp. “No, Mama, I would comfort you!” he declared. But Denethor caught his wrist in a grip so like to cold iron it seemed to freeze his heart as well. “Let go,” he said with frigid authority, and Faramir, frightened, loosed his hand.
Finduilas looked from Faramir to Boromir with tears in her eyes, and then she ran her hands, distracted, over her face and through her hair as if she must try to think clearly, and in haste. Denethor stood rigid next her, silent and preoccupied. But Boromir came now to stand at Finduilas’ knee, and he was grave and gentle.
“What would you, Mother?” he asked softly, and she whispered, “Take your little brother,” and he drew Faramir away from her and close to his side, wrapping his arm tight about his shoulders.
Finduilas clenched her small hands tightly in the fabric of her skirts and fisted them hard, as though she sought through pain to stay the moment. Her hair hung dark and tangled around her shoulders and her shadowed eyes brimmed with tears. With aching need she looked to Denethor, but he was grim and set still upon the paths of ever-darker thought, and so she turned alone to the task she set before her now, and looked upon her sons and strove to say quickly all that lay upon her heart and must be said too soon.
“My little sons,” she whispered, and then she faltered and her tears fell, both for anguish born of leaving them and terror of the enemy ravening within. They started forward but she held them back, and Denethor raised his head at Faramir’s fearful cry.
“Love you one another, always, and take care of each other,” she said, quick against her desperation. “So like you are in many ways, but so very different, too! Promise me you will never let it never come between you—that you will not forsake one another, but stand always together for Gondor! Promise me!”
They did, tears of fear and confusion and pain standing in their eyes, and then did Boromir pull Faramir close to comfort him, for he was trembling and could not stop. And their mother drew them to her and kissed them, and then gently she bade them go. “No, don’t cry, lamb! But go with Boromir, for I must speak now to your father.”
They looked uncertainly at Denethor and he nodded stonily, his wintry gaze lingering for a moment on Faramir’s frightened face. “Go,” he said, “Now.” And they fled into the shadows of the Hall, hand in hand toward the door.
In the hallway they knew not what to do or where to go. Finduilas’ dark blue cloak, soft and warm and bordered of stars, lay in a heap near the outer door where it had fallen as they passed in haste; Boromir picked it up and folded it over his arm. Faramir blinked to stay his tears and they wandered out of earshot of the curious guard and sank down finally in a little alcove. Faramir sniffed and wiped his eyes. “I am afraid for Mama,” he said in a small voice. “Papa does not care for me, I think….”
“Father has many cares,” said Boromir absently, spreading the cloak over the two of them. “I do not understand this sickness….”
Faramir stroked the soft mantle and sighed and leaned against Boromir’s arm. “Why did he bid me let go her hand? Was he angry? It made her feel better, when I held her hand.”
Boromir frowned. “I think…,” he began and then he looked curiously at his brother. “What did you mean when you said the Shadow growled and frightened Mother? Could you see the Shadow, and hear it so?”
Faramir nodded. “Aye, ‘twas twisting all about her, grey and horrid….” He shivered, and Boromir with him.
But then Boromir said pensively, “’Twas no small thing to see that, little brother. I deem you are gifted of Númenor as Father is…that you are able to read the minds of other men and women.’Tis rare, this gift, and fearsome, somewhat. I am glad it came to you and not to me.”
Faramir said, puzzled, “You cannot do this?”
“I cannot,” said Boromir with a solemn smile, “And you are but six years yet. Was this the first time, then, that you saw into some mind other than your own?”
“Nay,” said Faramir, smiling a little. “Often I look at yours. But you are not so fearsome as the Shadow.”
Boromir drew up in dismay. “That is not permitted!” he protested, giving Faramir a push. “Not without leave! You are supposed to ask!”
Faramir hung his head. “Nobody told me,” he said.
“Nobody knew to tell you.” Boromir ruffled his hair. “Father was very surprised when you spoke of the Shadow, and much alarmed. Mother was frightened, for she did not know you could see it and did not want you to.” He added solicitously, “Because you are little. That is why they made you let go her hand—so that you could not see the Shadow anymore.” His voice dropped. “It is an awful thing?”
Faramir’s nodded, tears rising hot and fast and spilling over. “It is hurting her, Boromir,” he whispered. “She does not know what to do and it is growing ever darker. I am afraid.”
Boromir grimaced. “Father will fight it.”
“Think you so?”
“Yes! He will not let the Shadow take our Mother!”
“I wish we could see him fight it….”
Boromir was silent for a minute and then he got up and pulled Faramir to his feet. “Come on,” he said. “Perhaps we can see Father fight the Shadow.” And he took up the blue mantle and folded it carefully and laid it down, and then he took Faramir’s hand, and silently they stole down the hallway and around the curve of the Tower. There Boromir looked about, and seeing that there were no guards passing, he took hold of the edge of a large tapestry that covered the wall and slipped behind it, pulling Faramir after.
There was a little passageway behind the tapestry, lit by a small shaft of light sifting down from high above, and now did Boromir pull Faramir quickly along and through a strangely angled stone doorway and into the shadows, once again, of the Great Hall. He put a finger to his lips and crept forward and Faramir followed after, and then did he realize they were behind the dais of the Throne and the Chair and that his mother and father were speaking without. He looked back and was surprised to see only a shadow where the doorway had been, such was the trick of the angle and the light, and he thought it must be a secret then, this vanishing door, and it worried him.
They slipped into a darkened corner close by the Chair, and frightened now at their boldness as well as their mother’s peril, and unwilling to let go of each other so soon after she had given them into each other’s keeping, they huddled close together in the hollow shadows of the Hall. Faramir sat trembling in Boromir’s arms, watching Finduilas intently and stifling tiny cries of misery whenever it seemed she would collapse beneath the Shadow. “Be still!” Boromir whispered, a breath against his ear, “or Father will find us and send us away!” And so they waited, silent and trembling and watchful.
Finduilas fought the Shadow still, seeming wilder now, and Denethor paced restlessly beside her. “What is this thing?” he gritted through his teeth. “What reach does it command? Did it touch the boy, do you think?”
“The Shadow pass my little son!” Finduilas shuddered violently. “What horror that this gift should come upon him in such an hour as this!”
“It is the gift of kings,” Denethor replied. “I would it had been Boromir, but as it is not, we must be sure Faramir’s tenderness does not imperil us in this. But that can wait. Now we must think what to do, Finduilas. Can you not fight this thing? It is dark, I know….”
She wept a little. “It is cruel, husband, and empty as ashes, and moves like a flood through my thoughts, as though it would grind them clean of everything save hopelessness. I cannot find a foothold and it grows stronger every minute….”
The Steward looked then upon his wife and something like anguish crept across his hardened face and into his black eyes. He turned with longing as though he would take her up and hold her, then faltered and lowered his hands. “Is it truly the Shadow,” he asked low, “as you and the boy have said? Might it not be those phantoms that come to you of the Sight?” He looked as though he held his breath.
“You saw it of my mind,” she whispered, “and drew away, as well you might. You know the truth of it. It lives of the Shadow.” She moaned suddenly and put her hand to her eyes as though she struggled and was for a moment overborne, and then she raised her eyes to his. “It is the death of hope beneath the Eye. All the land is dying.”
He looked on her, aghast. “Finduilas! What am I to do?”
He paced, clenching his fists. “Does my enemy know me so well that he would come into my house and take what is mine from out my hands, just for the pleasure of increasing my ordeal? Or does he bait a trap for me with phantoms? What am I to think? I beg you, Finduilas. Tell me you can fight this thing, that you can bid it gone!”
She shook her head. In the shadows, Faramir and Boromir clutched each other’s hands.
“I cannot bid it go, husband. I have no voice or will to throw against it. Seemingly, it feeds on what sorrows dim my life, and they are of the Sight too many of late, as you know.” She swooned a little yet again, and Denethor made another aborted move toward her, accompanied by a low growl of frustration. But she twisted her fists in her gown as she had done before and opened her eyes, breathing quickly.
“There is perhaps a way,” she said, with what little strength she had. “When someone holds my hand—as Faramir did—I can right myself again and the great river draws back and lets me breathe, and think. I cannot hope to best this thing alone, husband, but what mind is left to me says your hand might stay me long enough to save me, so strong are you in spirit. You need only make a bridge for me between this world and the Shadow, so that I do not forget where I am. It is a simple thing and might serve….”
But he gave a low cry and, tormented, dropped his face into his hands. “Finduilas! I cannot!”
She stared in dismay. “What are you saying?”
“Think! This thing is of Mordor. You said yourself it lives of the Shadow beneath the Eye. I cannot raise my hand to it—I cannot commit an act of open defiance against the power growing in the Black Lands! What chance would Gondor have if Mordor should choose to attack us now? We are not ready! We have not the means to protect our people against the hordes that will pour from out that poisoned place if I answer to a ploy. It is a trap!”
She sat for a moment, hardly breathing, her face a shuttered mirror of the shock and ash-laden surge that gripped her mind. Slowly, she put her hands flat on the arms of the Chair and pushed herself to her feet.
“Some other hand then, perhaps,” she said carefully. “Faramir’s. Boromir’s.”
He winced, his face darkening. “They are but children, Finduilas, and the heirs of this house and this land. We cannot sacrifice our sons to Sauron.” He closed his eyes. “In faith, there is no hand in all of Gondor that can be set against that Shadow….”
She gave a little cry and swayed, catching herself before she fell, panic rising on every breath she took. “Husband, your pity! I will fight this battle; I ask only this little comfort—that you will hold me through this! Surely the Dark Lord cares not who or what is ground beneath his heel in such wise as this! It is no trap, only an accident of ruined nature—!”
“I cannot be sure!” he whispered miserably. “I cannot put Gondor at such a risk as this may prove. A thousand years of my forefathers will turn upon their biers if I deliver this land so easily unto such a doom as may be promised by this trick.”
There was a silence. Then she said softly, “Your duty is ever to Gondor?”
Stunned, he swayed and stumbled to his knees next the Chair. “It is,” he whispered, incredulous. “I am sworn to it….”
But then he looked on her and groaned and put his head into his hands. “What am I to do?” he asked wildly. “ Finduilas, what curse is come upon us? Did any king ever give to Gondor as much as I am asked to give? Please! You are strong in the Sight! Bid this evil go from you, or stay and live despite it!”
She stood beside him, holding tight to the Chair, crying a little as the Shadow surged within her, gathering what strength she had to hold it back a little longer. In the shadows, Boromir ground his teeth, hard and alert, and Faramir wept soundlessly in his arms. Mama!
Holding herself, Finduilas looked down at Denethor. “Do you love me, husband?” she asked quietly.
“Yes!” his voice was harsh and bitter. “So does my enemy discern.”
“And you would stay his hand from Gondor?”
“I am sworn, Finduilas!”
She closed her eyes and stood for a moment, breathing carefully and steadily, as if she gathered herself one last time. Her soft voice fell with terrible dignity upon the silence. “Then I bid you take up your sword,” she said, “and wield it now—for Gondor, and for mercy’s sake. Kill me! Quickly, I beg of you—but deliver me of this torment!”
“Finduilas!” Angry and appalled he surged to his feet. “I could not—!”
The Shadow took her in a second then, in this her last despair, and she fell, in ravage and torment beyond all her strength, to the floor of the Hall of Kings. “I beg you, husband! Be quick!” she gasped, weeping helplessly. “You cannot know what it is like! Do not let me wander in this horror till I die!”
Denethor’s own cry was piteous, but still he could not touch her, and only watched in desolation as she curled up at the foot of the Chair and the sight went out of her eyes, and the strength from her limbs and all that could be heard was the whisper of her silent screams.
It was Boromir who cried out first, but Faramir who tore himself from his brother’s arms and launched him out of the shadows, skittering across the cold marble floor to throw himself upon his mother. Boromir followed close behind, stumbling into the light, his stricken face lifted to his father’s horrified eyes. “Father, no—!” He could barely speak.
Faramir seized his mother’s hands, and straightaway he felt the thick grey storm, and heard it howling and saw her, torn and tangled, lifted on its caustic fury. “Mama!” he screamed. “Come back!”
Finduilas cried out and struggled up weakly, twisting for fear in his small embrace. “No, Faramir! No—you are too little, and Gondor is in danger! Let go, my love! Look not on this!” But he held on, little cries of desperation rising and falling on his sobbing breath. “I can do it, Mama! I am not afraid! Bid them gone and I will stay your back!” He kissed her hands and laid his forehead down upon them, weeping, begging her return.
Behind him Boromir stood shocked and exposed before their father who stared at him, cold and dark with anger. “What can we do, Father?” he whispered. “We must do something!”
“What are you doing here?” Denethor hissed, low and dangerous, drawing himself up now with sudden, dreadful purpose, while yet his grief stood open in his eyes.
Boromir shook his head helplessly. “We…she is our mother!”
“She is taken of the enemy….There is nothing we can do.”
“No!” His voice broke. “That can’t be….”
“Mama,” Faramir held tight, and he could see the Shadow drawing back now, waiting, waiting, while yet Finduilas hesitated. “Be strong, Mama. Come back. I am here with you!” But Finduilas only wept. “Let me go, sweet-heart! I cannot give my sons to Sauron, or our people over to war…let me go!”
“Mama!” he cried. “Do not listen to the Shadow!”
Denethor turned now and his black gaze rested for a long moment on Faramir, weeping and whispering urgently to Finduilas. “Faramir!” he ordered. “Let go of her.”
“No!” Faramir looked up, distraught, as Finduilas swooned beneath his small, determined hand. “You would let her die! I will not let you kill my mother!”
Denethor’s eyes narrowed and his face grew grim as death. Boromir said hastily, “Father, he is but little…” and the Steward looked round at him askance and then he nodded slowly. “Aye,” he said. “But he must be stayed. Break his hold, Boromir.”
“You heard me. Break his hold on her! Every minute this continues are we more imperiled. Are you heir to Gondor’s glory or defeat? He will ruin us!”
Boromir looked at Faramir, pleading with their mother, who lay ravaged and beaten in the embrace of the enemy, and then he looked back at his father, who stood beside the Chair, tall and so like to the kings of old. His gaze flicked back to his mother’s pale face and then he seemed to lose both heart and breath. He bent his head and his shoulders shook with sobs.
“Are you my SON or some mewling maid like HIM? Break his hold—NOW!”
Boromir went dumbly to his knees. Closing his eyes so that he could not see his mother’s face, he slid his arms around his brother’s narrow ribcage and hauled him back and upwards, tugging free his fingers from their desperate grip upon their mother’s hands, and through them, her fading life. Faramir came struggling and screaming in defiance and Boromir fell lengthwise on the floor, holding tight to him and weeping hard against his back. Finduilas sighed and lay still. For a long moment Denethor stood with one hand covering his eyes and when at last he dropped it, his face was changed, and never again did it bear any open sign of need or tenderness or care.
Fighting his way out of Boromir’s arms, Faramir came to his feet like a wild animal. He scrambled over to Finduilas and dropped beside her, but one look told him that though she lived, he would never again find her in the vast malignant shroud that smothered now her mind and all she was and had been. His keening cry of anguish echoed through the Hall and in and out among the statues of the dead kings who watched in silence and without sympathy, and in the deadly quiet that came back to him, a terrible anger exploded in his mind and tore through his heart. In snarling disgust he looked on Boromir, lying wretched with misery on the floor, and then hurt beyond all understanding of his child’s mind and body, he turned on his father in mutinous challenge and laid down over his mother’s body the curse that would brand him an exile in the halls of his fathers until the coming of the King.
“You killed her! You killed my mother!” He rose, savage and feral, from his hands and knees, panting with hysteria and white-hot with wrath, all his mind and body focused to a keen, quivering blade of accusation, perilous and pitiless and avenging. “You killed my mother!”
His father drew back, coldly appraising. “Do not speak of what you do not understand, young lord,” he said with austerity. “Bear yourself in grief more seemly to your loss. This was your mother, who had great courage.”
His tiny fists showed white over the bones. From the back of his throat came the only response he was capable of making, a low and hideous growl, ancient and wordless and carnal with fury, that rose in volume and violence with his anguish.
The Hall of Kings echoed, defiled.
The back of Denethor’s powerful hand sent him sprawling across the stone floor and shocked him to a sudden, breathless silence. The blow brought tears to his eyes and the taste of blood to his mouth but he came to his feet yet shaking with defiance as the Lord of Minas Tirith advanced upon him, brutal with intent. “How dare you?” His father’s every breath was menace. “How dare you dishonour my house?”
But he was small and mad with grief and insistent on his peril. “You killed my mother because you were afraid!” he spat through his blood and tears. “I saw your mind—you could not even touch her for fear that the Shadow would mark you and come after!”
Denethor’s face went white with rage. His hand came up and drew back in a mighty arc and Faramir watched it, wild and uncaring, but as it descended there came a splintered cry and Boromir thrust himself suddenly between them. “No!” He threw up his hands to stay his father’s arm. “Father! Hold! I beg you!”
“Boromir, get out of my way.” The Steward’s voice was deadly.
Boromir reached behind him and pushed Faramir back a pace while holding still his father’s angry arm. “Father, please!” he said, his voice edged with fear. “He is but little, and lost beyond his mind. He does not know what he is saying. Do not beat him…please…our mother lies just there …” He turned toward Finduilas who lay lost and dreaming next them, suffocating in sorrow. “Please, Father,” he said, white-faced now, and trembling. “Let me take him. He is not himself.”
Denethor stepped back and dropped his hand but not his angry gaze, which turned again with black suspicion to Faramir’s furious face. “Is he not?” he mused, considering. “Is he not himself? I am not so sure…But very well, I shall wait, and watch.”
Denethor did not look again at Faramir or speak to him, but turned instead to look at Finduilas. His face was unreadable. “Make your goodbyes to your mother before you go,” he said shortly. “She lives yet; I shall ask the Houses of Healing to see what they can do to help her….”
Boromir knelt beside Finduilas beneath his father’s pitiless gaze. For a long moment he looked on her face and watched the shallow rise and fall of her breathing, and then he took up a lock of her fine dark hair, like to his and Faramir’s, smooth and shining, and ran it slowly through his fingers. Shivering, he bent his head low and shut tight his eyes, but no sound of grief was heard from him. He took her hand in his, wonderingly, as if he did not know it anymore and then he kissed it and bent to kiss her cheek. He looked up then to meet his father’s eyes, and then he stood, silent and ashen to the lips. Beside him Faramir sank down in his place.
He did not look long on Finduilas, or touch her face or hold her hand. Simply, he threw his arms around her and kissed her lips and then he laid his head in the warm hollow of her throat and cried as if his heart would break. Under their father’s dreadful eye, Boromir at last touched his shoulder, and so he parted from her and came to his feet. His face was red and swollen, both of his tears and of his father’s hand, and he bowed his head, sobbing still a little, but indifferent, waiting for his doom.
“By your leave, Father?” Boromir whispered, as if he did not trust his voice, and Denethor nodded briefly. “One last word,” he said abruptly as they moved to go. “The story of what has passed here will not pass without. You will conduct yourselves with brevity, and with honour.”
Faramir nodded, mute and exhausted, and turned away into the long avenue between the statues of the kings. Behind him, Boromir exchanged some whispered words with Denethor and then hurried after him. They made the length of the Hall in painful, isolated silence; twice Boromir tried to take his brother’s hand and twice Faramir pulled away. Passing through the door, Boromir said to the guard, “My father asks that you bring a Healer; my mother is sick within,” and the guard moved with alacrity toward the outer doors and they were left alone in the hallway.
“Come.” Boromir reached yet again for his hand and Faramir snatched it away. “Leave me be,” he said harshly. “I am no babe that you must lead me everywhere.”
Pain flickered in Boromir’s eyes. He dropped his head. “Faramir,” he said, his voice edged with grief and strain. “I am your brother.”
“You did not love our mother. You do not care that she is dead.”
“She is not dead!” Boromir cried desperately, catching his arm, imploring. “She lives yet! Surely we might have some hope in that?”
Faramir tore himself away. “I was her hope! She had none in you! She is dying. I hate you now!”
Boromir’s face flushed dark with shame and tears rose up in his eyes. But he seized Faramir by the shoulders and spun him around, thrusting him back against the wall and holding him there, ignoring his furious struggle.
“No,” he whispered fiercely. “No! She said…she…she said….” His face crumpled with distress. “Our mother said to us: love you one another…and take care of each other! Promise me!” He faltered, easing his restraints. “I would not forsake you, Faramir,” he said softly. “Or our mother’s wish. We are brothers, first and always. I stayed Father’s hand, didn’t I?”
Faramir turned away, his hair falling like a curtain across his face.
The outer doors opened and they separated as two new guards arrived to secure the Tower against the arrival of the Healers. They were young men and they looked with curious sympathy on the sons of their lord, so obviously tried with grief. “Wait you on your mother here?” asked the younger kindly. “Nay,” said Boromir, his voice breaking. “Our father told us to go for now.”
The guard nodded sadly. “’Tis a bright day,” he suggested. “Perhaps you would go down to the gardens, where it is more pleasant, to wait upon this news.”
Boromir nodded. “Thank you,” he said, and taking Faramir firmly by the hand, he exited the Tower. Once outside, Faramir tried to tug away, but Boromir tightened his grip and quickened his pace. “Come on,” he said, and he began to run, and Faramir found he could do nothing but follow, or drag upon the ground.
They crossed the Place of the Fountain, where drooped the Tree, at a dead run, and passed into the tunnel and thence downward in the cool darkness to the stables and out again past the Houses of Healing and the gardens. And Boromir did not let up, but plunged still further downward and deeper into the city, and Faramir, flying so fast his feet barely touched the ground, had at last to cry, “Stop, I cannot run so fast!” or fall upon his face, and then Boromir slowed a little, so that his feet might touch the ground, but still he dragged him on. Then at last, upon the fourth level of the city he turned aside from the downward road and into the city streets, and because it was late in the day, they were mostly deserted as folk were at home and at board. And so they fled unnoticed further and further from the Tower and into the hidden places of the capital, and at last they came to a shuddering halt in a dead end, a little cul-de-sac of dust and gravel, and here, where it butted up against the great stone prow of Mount Mindolluin, there was a low cave with an entrance of broken rock and a few desperate bushes. Here Boromir entered in with his brother in tow and finally let go his hand.
Faramir fell his length upon the hard floor, panting and dizzy, his arms and legs cramping with exhaustion. He lay for long minutes in a kind of faint, and then his head cleared and he rolled over onto his back to look about. It was a small cave, and a blind alley, for it ended not too far behind him, a shallow den that was too small to house the stores of the city, but large and intriguing enough to beckon boys. The low ceiling would have bent and confined a full-grown man, but Boromir had not yet reached such a height and he could stand yet beneath it. He did so now, leaning against one wall, his head down between his arms, gasping for breath.
Faramir said suddenly, “I remember this place,” and Boromir nodded, coughing.
“We played at smugglers. You hurt your leg and we couldn’t get home till after dark. Mama was frightened and Father said we could never come here again.”
Boromir began suddenly to cry. There was a queer choking sound in his throat and then a clutch of quiet sobs began to shake his shoulders. Turning his face from Faramir’s startled eyes, he tried to master himself, but his strength was spent, and finally he collapsed against the rocky wall, broken by a sudden strangled cry of anguish that seemed to mark the end of a heart-wrenching combat and defeat. He sank to his knees and then to the floor and was overcome with weeping.
Faramir came painfully to his feet. Making his way across the cavern on cramped and shaking legs, he stood uncertainly beside his brother. His eyes stung, scoured raw with dust and sweat and tears. Boromir's face was hidden beneath his arm and the silky sweep of his long black hair. Timidly, Faramir touched his shoulder.
Boromir turned over with a gasp. His eyes were wild with pain and sorrow, and Faramir felt suddenly afraid. Boromir was older and stronger and braver than he. Who would take care of him if Boromir could not?
“She’s going to die,” Boromir sobbed. “Our mother is going to die!”
He nodded silently, his chin quivering.
“No…please…please….” Boromir twisted, moaning, and thrashed his hand hard against the wall, and then he struggled up in misery. “No…that can’t be true…not my mother…not my mother…!” He put his head down and sobbed.
“I did not fight for her!”
Faramir closed his stinging eyes. Boromir wept, helpless and broken, slumped on his knees, and Faramir’s heart swelled and ached with pity. He thought of his mother’s desperate, desolate eyes and of the promise they had made to her, and with a rush of hot tears the last embers of his savage anger burned away completely. With a sigh, he knelt and put his arms around Boromir’s neck and pulled him close, and Boromir, with a sob of relief, collapsed upon his shoulder, and for long they held to each other and wept until at last their hearts were emptied out and they could draw breath again without tears.
Exhausted, they dragged themselves into the back of the cave and lay down to rest in the quiet darkness. Faramir lay in the curve of Boromir’s arm, his back warm against his brother’s chest, and they spoke a little as the light faded without.
“Should we go home soon?” asked Faramir doubtfully, thinking of the long walk up, but also of before. “It is nice here, but they will be looking for us, won’t they?”
“I think they will not miss us tonight,” Boromir said thoughtfully. “Father will not ask for us again today, and if anyone else does, he will tell them we are safe and alone together.”
“Are you sure?”
Boromir mused. “Aye. He will sit with Mother tonight and expect us to do as he bid.”
Faramir murmured, “Brevity and honour….”
“Very good, little brother,” Boromir nodded. “Are you sleepy?”
“Well, sleep then. I am, too, and I think we shall be warm enough together.”
A sudden breath of danger slipped into his mind. “There won’t be any wargs?”
Boromir breathed a quiet smile against the top of his head. “None.”
“Alright.” He nestled close and folded the hand that drooped over his shoulder tight into his own. “Boromir?” he murmured.
“Don’t let go.”
Boromir squeezed his hand. “Don’t you either,” he whispered.
And so he lay alongside his brother in warm and fading reverie and even his piercing grief seemed to soften a little in this exhausted aftermath; a few tears dripped down and then he sighed and drifted, dreaming. And a greenish-golden light began to filter down around him, as if the sun were shining through the leaves in the garden, or on some sweet green land far away, and he watched in wonder as everywhere a fine golden mist began to rise from the shadows and sparkle in the darkness. And suddenly with lilting tenderness a voice from out another dream said deliberately, Don’t let go, Merry….
Frantically, he turned inward, blundering into the darkness to discern what new terror now aligned their minds, outrageously awash in misted green and gold.
He could not fathom it at first, the bitter darkness and Merry’s attention fixed with both desperation and wonder on a rising wash of spring that was materializing out of nowhere, a dream of forests and gardens and green hills thrown up like a canopy of verdant stars against the despair of black lands and black skies and the sunless depths of lost love. Don’t let go, Merry, the voice echoed, floating on the mist, and he felt Merry tense suddenly in his arms, and he looked up to see a vast black wave break over the top of Merry’s mind and begin its thunderous, obliterating descent.
He pulled back in time to know that Merry fumbled for and took his hand, that he kissed it and held it tight against his fluttering heart, that now had come for both of them the moment when hope and despair were akin, and all that mattered was that they stood together against the tide. Merry relaxed suddenly and in his mind all that remained was the warm green and gold of sunlit leaves and on these Faramir fixed all his attention, for he was resolved now that this time he would not be left behind.
That I should be so helpless not once but twice upon a lifetime! he thought with anguish, and he threw himself over Merry and toppled forward, hugging him to the ground as if somehow the storm might break against his own body first and so not sunder them, at least; and the great leaden wave crashed down, and he knew no more.
Drowsy and bemused, he lay still for long minutes, sorting vaguely through his dreams, and slowly he began to remember what had passed and how and why, and a gentle pain came upon his heart, sorrow born of love and softened with memory. The mist played over his consciousness, sparkling, and his mind began to fill with images. He drew a breath, fresh and sharp and astonishing.
A sudden shade fell across his face and he flinched, in fearful expectation of the Shadow. His eyes snapped open and his body tensed, trembling, but only Merry stood above him, a slow smile spreading across his tired face, his tangled curls framing gold in the sunlight shimmering at his back.
“You’re awake,” he declared, seemingly relieved, and Faramir nodded, shifting slightly, noting beneath his back the soft thickness of the grass where he lay, some distance from the tree trunk that had stayed his back before. Above Merry’s head, the green leaves rustled in the breeze and the sunlight flashed and danced among them, hard bright sparks that hurt his eyes.
He said cautiously. “Are we alive?”
Merry nodded, kneeling next to him. “We are,” he said.
He blinked away a memory of thundering darkness. “How? I saw that thing—it was monstrous!” He tried to sit up and fell back with a hiss of pain, his shoulder hot and sore and stinging. He put a hand to it; his fingers came away damp and sticky. “Ahhh….”
Merry produced a thick white fold of linen, “I brought a napkin to staunch the blood,” he said, nodding at the shoulder. “I don’t think it’s badly torn but the wound has opened up a little. I’m sorry, Faramir. I expect I must have had something to do with that.” His blue eyes were dark with concern. “You came with me, didn’t you?” he said incredulously. “You stayed my back, all the way to the end.”
Faramir took the cloth, wondering vaguely where it had come from, and with a grimace tucked it between shirt and shoulder, pressing it carefully against the wound. “Just following your example,” he said with a wry smile. “So you did for Boromir, remember?” He lay back for a moment. “Was it the mist?” He could still see it, sparkling somewhere, either in the air or in his eyes. “What…what happened?”
Merry shrugged helplessly. “I think…” A puzzled smile flickered across his face. “I think it was Pippin’s hopes, if you will believe it. I can’t see how, but….”
He shook his head, perplexed. “You told me to hold tight to you, and to Pippin’s hopes, and I did, though I was very much afraid I should lose them somehow in that thing and he might come to harm because of it. And in truth, Faramir, that moment did come in the end, and I meant to give up, to save him, but he wouldn’t have it—Pippin, I mean, though I can’t begin to explain that, either. Somehow his hopes just leapt up of their own accord—just as he might, full of light and bursting with impatience! I can’t say how he came to be there, but he was….” There was a smile in his eyes; it matched the hollow in Faramir’s heart, soft with love.
“I heard him,” said Faramir, realizing suddenly the source of the voice that had drawn him back just in time. “Don’t let go, Merry.”
Merry nodded. “Yes! And so I fastened my eyes on him and held on to you and let go everything else, and when I woke up I was here and alive—though I hadn’t expected to be.”
A formality came upon him then, and his pale face was drawn in earnest intent. “Thank you for your hand, Faramir,” he said gravely. “You saw me through. I should never have won free to Pippin’s hope if you had not kept me in this world as long as you did.”
He rose and solemnly put forth his own hand, and Faramir took it, once again warmed by the charming courtesy of the Shire. He let Merry pull him up so that he could sit and then he turned Merry’s hand over in his and frowned at the dark bruise that stained the sun-browned skin there. “I am sorry,” he said, looking up contritely. “I did not know how much force it would take to reach you. Please believe that it grieved me to cause you such pain; almost I was glad when the way was closed to us, for I knew I could not watch you suffer under my hand one more time.”
“I think a few bruises are small inconvenience for my life,” said Merry lightly, turning away to pick up a bulky white linen bundle from the grass and then dropping down cross-legged beside him with a sigh. “Do you know, I knew you would not try again after that last time, even if I had told you very plainly to break my arm! But I knew you were still there, Faramir, and that was enough in the end.”
He didn’t trust himself to speak. I nearly lost you… He turned his attention to the bundle. “What is this?” he asked.
Merry squinted up at the trees and then at the shadows on the grass. “I think…” he said, appearing to consider the matter. “Yes, I think…it’s Tea. Definitely, time for Tea.”
“Ah,” smiled Faramir, enlightened. “I have some experience of hungry hobbits. I thought you seemed a little off the mark earlier. I saw Frodo and Sam tuck away a good deal more when I supped with them, I can tell you.”
A shadow crossed Merry’s face at the mention of Frodo and Sam, but he met Faramir’s regretful eye with a smile of understanding. He untied the bundle, spreading the cloth and organizing the contents with some attention. “Just so,” he agreed. “A hobbit needs to eat rather more often than not, and after such an afternoon as this, I can tell you he needs to eat again! And to answer your question, these are the leftovers from lunch. I went back to get them while you slept. There’s quite a lot here, and very tasty it looks, too!”
He set to with a quick thoroughness and filled one hand with bread and boiled ham, and another with a chunk of rich red cheese. “I’m famished,” he declared. “I haven’t eaten properly since I left the Shire.” He sighed, chewing happily, but suddenly Faramir could see the exhaustion in his face, left of the Black Breath and the long battle with dwindling hope. He frowned to see it, but Merry looked up and flashed a teasing smile. “See here, Faramir. You’d do well to be quick if you want your share of this!”
Faramir laughed softly and poured a cup of wine, taking up a hunk of bread as well. “An excellent idea,” he said. “In truth, I am a little unsteady. And you look weary, though certainly with good reason. Are you not well, Merry?”
Merry chewed thoughtfully. “Not entirely,” he decided. “I am too tired, especially after the little stroll I took to secure this feast, but I am freed of the Shadow at last, and I have Pippin’s hopes secure, and yours, and mine stirring again somewhere about. I am content for now.” But he looked searchingly at Faramir across the tea things.
“What has happened to you, Faramir?” he asked worriedly. “Were you hurt in what just passed? You slept longer than I, and fitfully, and I can see in your eyes that some part of this business has touched you as well. I thought you were without, in the world and safe. I should have refused your hand, you know, if I thought I was bringing you to any harm.”
It was no longer hidden deep, nor ever would be again, the memory that must, ahead of all the others, account for the sorrow next his heart. No, love, you are too little! I cannot give my sons to Sauron! Let me go!
He sighed. “Then would you have broken my heart,” he said quite honestly, “for, like you, I had a duty long delayed.”
Merry met his eyes. “Finduilas,” he murmured.
“Aye,” said Faramir softly, longing tugging at his heart. “I saw her upon your mind, in her cloak with silver stars…”
Merry stopped chewing. He frowned.
Faramir guessed the question. “I told you, I can read minds,” he said gently, and Merry looked on him with mingled wonder and consternation.
“Do not fear,” he said earnestly. “I would not intrude without permission, save you were in danger, or an enemy. There are rules, This I did without your consent only because I wished to find a way to help you when I could no longer reach you through our hands. But the Shadow guessed my intent, I think.”
Merry drew back in dismay. “It trapped you?”
“No, I think it meant only to delay me when it learned my heart’s desire, but the sight of my mother, who was so early lost to me, called from my own mind memories I had lost, and sick with longing, I followed them. I wandered far…I scarcely made it back in time, and only then to shield you as I could against the end. Forgive me, Merry…truly, I was lost in shocking sorrows, long hidden from my sight. I did not mean to leave you on your own….”
But Merry’s eyes were dark with sympathy. “Of all that I looked on in the vortex, saving Pippin’s eyes, Finduilas was the only thing that was fair,” he said softly. “You could not have done any more for me than you did by giving me the promise of your hand. I shall never begrudge you any lost memory you had of your mother—though from the look of you, it was not an easy remembering. Eat something—you have been ill, too.”
Faramir hesitated for a moment, filling the silence by filling his lap with food, but his heart craved the reassurance of a confidant and a friend, and haltingly, he recounted in some detail the events that he realized now had rocked his father’s house to its foundations.
“Poor Boromir!” he sighed. “ He never once spoke to me of it again, though he must have realized soon after that somehow my child’s mind could not bear to remember what had passed and so had hidden it away. All his life he protected me, from the memories that I had lost, and from our father who never for one day forgot what I had seen him do, and cursed him for—child though I was. But I had forgotten, and so completely that I never feared to disagree or state my opinion whenever we met in council or without, and ever was my father wary of me….”
He rubbed his eyes wearily. “How much do I understand too late! I see now that his contempt for me was not because I was weak or somehow undeserving of his love—which it seemed to me I must be—but because he mistrusted me, because I chose my mother’s life over Gondor’s reprieve, and would have made the same choice again and again, no matter how much time had passed. An enemy of Gondor, he must have thought me, and felt needful of keeping me ever at arm’s length. And perhaps, too, he feared that I would use the gift of Númenor to undermine him if ever he let down his guard. He understood me no more than I understood him. He was very harsh, and Boromir so often stepped between us. It must have been a lonely trial for my brother, for he loved us both, and Gondor.”
Merry ate thoughtfully and steadily. “You told me that Boromir’s mischance with Frodo and the Ring would have haunted him to death in the end,” he mused. “Such a man as that is crafted of conscience as unrelenting as his duty, I should think; perhaps his loyalty to you was also his way of making amends for Finduilas. Such a duty as he paid your father in that awful moment would surely haunt him after.”
“It did,” Faramir remembered sadly Borormir’s anguished cry: I did not fight for her! Perhaps he, too, had forgotten some of that searing pain as they slept away their sorrows in the cave. “He wept long. And well he might, and I as well, for she had no hand and no hope in her most desperate hours. I could weep to think of it now.”
“I am sorry.” Merry sighed, and looked out across the garden where the shadows were beginning now to lengthen as the sun arced toward the mountain. “Yet she gave me hope,” he murmured, “and from the moment I laid eyes upon her! For good or ill, because of her, I resolved to go on, even though I could not feel your hand and knew myself alone in darkness.”
Faramir felt a stir of solace. “Then was her trial not entirely in vain, Merry,” he said, his mood brightening, “if it served to strengthen you.”
“Aye….” Merry said wistfully, his head bowed, “though I wish her story had ended differently.”
He looked up suddenly. “Do you know, in each place that I have come to on this strange journey, I have seen a woman who seemed to me to be the treasure of her people…. Arwen, called the Evenstar, who is the daughter of Elrond in Rivendell and called the image of Luthien is one such. And Galadriel, who rules Lothlorien, and I dare not think what other realms of mind and power, is another. So is Eowyn, who is Rohan’s most precious jewel. Even in Fangorn Forest were there once such, for there the Ent called Treebeard told me of his missing Entwife, Fimbrethil, whose loss is an age-old sorrow to him. And among these treasures I count Finduilas, for when I saw her, I knew her for what she was. She was incomparable, and I will never forget her. I cannot think for one minute that giving her up did not cost your father everything he sought to save in the end, for surely she was the glory of Gondor.”
Faramir pondered this with pleasure, and also with sorrow for his father’s unwitting turn to ruin. He thought he must for good and always come to terms with it now and swallow such grief as he must so that he might go on in peace. At length he said, “How fallen was my father in fear and pride to think her torment fair exchange for Gondor’s! Yet can I see that he was tricked and blinded in his trysting with the Shadow and knew it not, just as was Boromir with the Ring. Poor man! Pippin was very careful, but I sensed that he did not tell me everything about my father’s death. Shall I find it was even more grievous than I imagined? I expect so, but I think I shall not ask until after the Shadow is departed. For I have grief enough to set aside for now, and we must face the days ahead with hope undimmed.”
“If Pippin did not tell you,” Merry said, his eyes deep with compassion, “then he had reason. Set it aside for now, Faramir. A better day will come.”
Faramir nodded. “So it will,” he said, “and today I have had my fill of sorrow. And see, you have given me fair diversion! You do not know this, but I am a scholar when I am not at war and your story of treasures is a wonder to me. Rare have been your opportunities to set eyes on living legends, my friend! Such stories as you have! I know nothing of Fangorn Forest and would learn more if you would tell me, for this sounds a history not recorded in the archives of this land or any other, and it should not be lost.” He leaned forward. “And this other of Arwen Evenstar is intriguing. I know nothing of the daughter of Rivendell, but of Luthien I do know something, and I should long to see her image, should I ever have the chance!”
“So you may,” murmured Merry, “if hope allows us a new day,” and Faramir wondered but did not ask, for he was learning that Merry’s mind often sensed the truth of things without any clear path to knowledge and he thought perhaps this was one such occasion.
“As for the Lady of Lorien,” he said, smiling at his memory of Sam’s high praise, “It may interest you to know that I received a report of her from Samwise, who waxed poetic, if I may say so, and made me think she must be not only terrifying in her power, but also perilously fair. You stood before her, I am told, and spoke to her, and then came out the magic wood without hurt. This I would deem a marvel, for we are taught it is a dangerous place for mortal men.”
“In truth,” said Merry, “I think the Lady’s grace has protected all of us since we departed that land. Whatever has befallen me, it would have been far worse without her. Lorien is strange, but full of solace.”
“I am glad to hear this,” said Faramir, “for ever have I had a fondness for the Elves, and sought to know more of them, and hoped the stories of Men’s peril were not what they seemed. I met Legolas, son of Thranduil, before he departed with the King. Fair and skillful is he; I should like to shoot with him one day. I think I could learn much!”
Merry laughed. “I should think so,” he said. “Two Ages of Men at least has Legolas walked in Middle Earth. For all his youthful form, he has been honing his skills for a good long time!” Faramir raised his eyebrows. “It is easy to forget the age of the Elves when looking on their faces,” he admitted, “for time and sorrow seem not to print themselves upon them as they do upon us.”
“No,” said Merry, considering. “If anything, such things as sorrow make them all the more beautiful. They shimmer, ever so slightly, in the dark, as if they cannot contain it all and so it trembles forth in light.”
Faramir sighed. “Beauty and sorrow are ever twined, it would seem ….”
Merry plucked an apple from a basket on the linen cloth and took a bite. He chewed reflectively for a moment, and then he said, “Faramir, she does not want a king.”
“What?” He looked up sharply and then down again, colouring a little. Well, he knew before I did….
“Eowyn. She doesn’t want a king….”
He ducked his head to hide the feelings he knew were desperate upon his face. I have known her but an hour! This is but a fantasy!
“She is sorrowing for Aragorn!” he said flatly, and he wondered how many times he would have to say this, and how ungently, before his heart did not flinch from the thought of it.
Merry set the apple core aside. “So it seems now,” he said, “but think!” He drew a breath to speak, and then he caught sight of Faramir’s face and hesitated. Softly he said, “Your pardon, Faramir, perhaps I should not be so forward. I have not been so long upon these heights that I should presume to know more of Men than they know of themselves.”
But Faramir shook his head and took Merry’s bruised hand gently in his own. “Deemed I not the Shirefolk a better judge of nature than anyone I knew?” he asked fondly. “I most certainly welcome your wisdom in this matter, Merry, for I confess I am more tangled than I would have thought possible from one short hour—and I wager you have known it all along!”
Merry laughed softly and pressed his hand in return. “Well, then,” he said, “ here it is: it seems to me that it is not so complicated as wanting a king. What Eowyn wants is love, as we all do, from as many hearts and in as many ways as possible, and she’s had precious little experience of it. Rohan is wild and isolated, and she would have had few choices. Her hopes would have been narrow at best for leading a life that pleased her, and with a companion that pleased her as well, so fierce a shieldmaiden is she and so wild and yet tender a heart. And what hopes she had were overshadowed yet by war, and Theodred’s death, and Théodon’s fond safekeeping, as well as the treason of Wormtongue. That Aragorn fit what girlish dreams sustained her there is no wonder; but in truth, so desperate and needful as she was, would she have known her feelings for love or any other when first she looked on him?”
“Does he love her?” Faramir whispered, holding his breath.
Merry shook his head. “I think not,” he said. “And she knows it, and grieves. Though if Eowyn were such a maiden as only wanted the power and glory of a king, as you say, whether or not she had his heart, then she would go after him regardless, and see—she does not! She came to the Pelennor bereft. What she truly wants, Aragorn cannot give her, and for reasons of his own we have no cause to doubt.” He looked hard at Faramir. “And so she has no hope and looks upon the world as Finduilas did upon the Shadow storm, and I, and life tastes of ashes, and she thinks it would be better over and sacrificed to some just cause.”
“Yet would love have convinced my mother to come back had it been tendered her without restraint,” Faramir said, understanding all at once, “and had my father’s hand—or mine—restored her hopes.”
“Just so,” nodded Merry. “She does not want a king, Faramir, this one or any other, though she knows it not as yet. What she wants is someone who loves her as his life, who will give her his hand when hope or courage fails, so that she need not bear the sorrows of her life alone, nor he his own, ever after….”
Faramir traced the circle of his wine cup in the grass, looking sideways at Merry. “So does a Shireling come again to the heart of the matter,” he said. “Have you a wife at home, then, Meriadoc?
“Heavens, no!” said Merry, laughing suddenly. “In my country, I am deemed too young and foolish yet to have anything worth offering a wife, and my father is not sure I have anything worth offering his holdings, either! But hobbits are very fond by nature, and our affections run deep, as no doubt you have observed. I have learned much this day of love and hope, in many guises. Further, I have the benefit of clarity here, for my own heart is not besieged in this matter.” He picked up another apple, winked and took a bite.
Faramir ‘s face warmed faintly, and it seemed to him that the golden mist sparkled yet again before his eyes. “Then do I hope she comes again, and soon,” he said fervently, “and that fate grants me at least one gift before the end, if it must come, that I might be allowed to know her and ease her sorrows as I can.” And Merry smiled and said, “She will come, Faramir.”
Faramir sighed and emptied his cup. “Till then I live in hope,” he said. “But now I am curious, Merry, and you must explain yourself. I cannot think why your father has reason to be so harsh in his view of you, saving you have a brother who stands higher in his esteem?”
“No,” said Merry, thoughtfully. “I am an only son, and a truant, if you will. My father deems me something of an ass, and now that I come to consider it, I think he has cause.”
Faramir shook his head, laughing a little, and then he said seriously, “Such mischief as this must be the work of some other Merry Brandybuck altogether, for the one I know is a fine fellow and a noble warrior and a trusted friend. But when you go home again, you shall carry a letter to your father from the Steward of Gondor, attesting to our great affection here for the sons of the Shire.”
“Do you know?” said Merry, as if he were suddenly surprised. “I believe we will go home someday—all of us! That’s hope, isn’t it? I wonder if it’s mine, or Pippin’s?”
“It is yours,” declared Faramir gravely. “Won in desperate battle with despair. I bear witness to it; I was there.”
“It feels quite a good thing,” said Merry, smiling a little. “Quite a good thing. I am still frightened when I think of them all at the Black Gate, but I am hopeful, too. If Pippin’s hopes could stay us here, then perhaps mine will do the same for him.”
“All of Gondor hopes now,” said Faramir quietly. “If hope can sustain them, they shall be upheld. We must stand fast.”
“I wish we could do more,” Merry sighed. “It is hard to wait.”
Faramir was quiet for a moment, pondering a sudden thought that pleased him. “I must meet with the captains of the city each day now,” he said at length, “to oversee the needs of our people and commence plans for the welcome and return of the King. Will you come with me?”
Merry’s face flushed with delight. “Yes! Oh, give me something to do, Faramir! Anything—I have been idle long enough. Surely there is something I can do to be of use here!”
“Well,” said Faramir, “Here is what I am thinking. Hope willing, soon Minas Tirith will have in residence four hobbits of the Shire—heroes all—who will need special accommodation, and such familiar comforts as we can provide, and a special larder all their own.” He smiled at Merry’s shining eyes. “I can think of no one better to oversee these concerns than you, Merry, who are the sole ambassador of the Shire in residence now. What think you?”
“I think it wonderful!” Merry exclaimed, but then he faltered suddenly. “Faramir,” he said low, “with all my hope I still must say to you, there is a chance they will not come back…not any of them.”
Faramir nodded grimly. “There is,” he said. “And then will we with our last hope and defiance meet our end with honour. But until such time as that happens, we will move ahead with all speed and hopefulness to make ready this city for its returning heroes. We must be fierce in hope; it is all we have now.”
He looked back over his shoulder toward the wall. “Today we set our hopes against the Shadow and prevailed, Merry,” he said, “Now we must do our duty and wait upon the wall until such time as events begin to move. This in itself is defiance of the Shadow. I think I must know that I can face it once again.” He looked at Merry. “Can you?”
Merry looked at the wall and closed his eyes. “Such hopes as mine, newly found and forged of battle, cannot really be trusted if they cannot be tried,” he said slowly. “If I am to get well, I must believe our battle is won. Have I your hand again?”
“You have,” said Faramir, getting painfully to his feet and settling his shoulder as Merry got up. “And I will be glad of yours.” And they crossed the lawn to the wall and there Merry climbed up on the bench and stood once again shoulder to shoulder with Faramir and at first they looked into the south, where the horizon shimmered with a veil of many colors.
“It will be quick,” said Faramir, “and then it will be well or it will not.” And he took Merry’s arm, and Merry thought of Pippin and how they always did so when they were uncertain or in trouble, and he reached for Faramir in the same way, and gathered Pippin’s hopes and his own, and breathed hard against the fear that gripped his mind.
They turned their faces to the east, then, and there were the Mountains of Shadow and above them suspended the dark reflection of the world’s despair. And they looked upon it and held their hopes and their breath, and for long minutes they watched and nothing moved, and the land was still, and in their minds grew quiet certainty that the gate was closed for now. And Faramir sighed deeply and tears of relief rose in Merry’s eyes. And from the Mountains of Shadow he looked north, where somewhere in the murk lay the Gate to all the land of Mordor.
“I will hold your hopes,” he whispered, and then with a sigh he sank wearily against the wall, pale and spent of his sickness and his dark captivity and release.
“You are ill yet,” said Faramir, steadying him. “You should rest now.”
“I am ill,” said Merry softly, looking down upon the White City and content for the moment to lean on Faramir’s arm, “ but now I must get better. It will be over soon, and I promised Pippin I would be well on his return.”
“He’s not here,” said the Rider in a puzzled voice, looking up at the wizard with anxious eyes.
The wizard eyed the cot and his lips twitched. Lifting his staff, he prodded the laundry gently.
The bundle twitched. “Mmphf!” came a querulous protest roused from somewhere deep within the blankets. “Leave off!”
“Get up, you young lout! You’ve spent quite enough time in bed. It’s time you were up and about the King’s business.”
“Hoy, Gandalf!” came the strangled voice, sounding now awake but very much put out. “Can’t you let a poor broken hobbit sleep? I’ve grievous injuries, you know.”
“You have not!” declared the wizard. “Well, not any more. I have it on the best of authority from the sons of Elrond that you are nearly mended. It’s time to get up!”
The bedclothes spasmed and moaned.
The wizard cast a sardonic eye at the Rider and said implacably, “The very fact that you can roll yourself up like a hedgehog speaks to your recovery. You will live to tell the story of your meeting with the Troll of Udun, Peregrin Took, and in the meantime Elladan says you should have no trouble at all walking about and making yourself useful. There is much to do today, and you are needed, my boy.” He paused. “I’ve brought a little something that may cheer you up.”
“Aaargh!” A faint and despairing growl of disgust, almost as ferocious as a hedgehog, issued forth from the blankets, which untwisted and flailed and resettled in a longish tangle. A snarl of cinnamon curls appeared briefly as the pillow resettled above them. There was an injured sigh. “Is there any hope it might be Second Breakfast?”
A peal of laughter, clear as sunlight, rang out above the cot. “So this is how you play the hero, you fraud!” cried the small Rider of the Mark. “And after I spent a week on the wall praying for your deliverance!”
“Merry!” Pippin exploded from the sheets, or rather tried to, being somewhat hampered by the fearful twists and tangles he had made; and Merry, laughing still, set to work and freed him at last, only to find himself tipped into the confusion of the bedclothes as Pippin swept him into a warm and overbalancing embrace. “Whoa!” Merry exclaimed, and Pippin laughed happily, “Merry! And look! You are well at last!”
“Careful, now,” Gandalf admonished, smiling and setting the two of them to rights. “You are a hardy breed, to be sure, but both of you have had your share of hurts, and all manner of medicine will not make up for foolishness. Go easy now, or you shan’t be any use to me at all.”
“Thank you!” said Pippin a little breathlessly, sitting up and looking with delight at Merry and with undisguised affection at Gandalf. “You can’t know how much this means to me.”
“I certainly can,” said the wizard. “I discerned several days ago that the only thing likely to pry you from your pathetic malingering was Meriadoc. And as he was also summoned to the King’s service, and more than anxious to see for himself that you were mending, it all worked out very nicely.”
“A troll, Pippin!” cried Merry. “You slew a troll!”
“I did,” said Pippin with some satisfaction. “Though I think it was quite rude of him to fall over on me like that. After all, I was the victor!”
“I can’t see how you weren’t squashed flat!”
“Oh, thank Gimli for that,” said Pippin generously. “He set himself my warder a soon as we set out for the Black Gate, and glad I am of it, too! I think he commandeered half the army to move that troll before I expired of it.”
“Gimli will never admit it, but he suffered a great deal of distress when the two of you went missing with the Uruk-Hai,” mused Gandalf. “He feels a great responsibility for you. I think you hobbits have a protector for life in Gimli, son of Gloin.”
“And a good friend, too,” Merry smiled. “How I have missed you all! But come, Pippin, let’s get you up. You don’t seem broken to me. Can you walk?”
“Yes,” said Pippin, a little shamefacedly, glancing at the wizard as he slid off the cot and onto his feet. Gandalf maintained an air of polite attention as Pippin paced experimentally back and forth in his over-long nightshirt, grimacing a little as he squared his torso, but otherwise seemingly sound.
“Do you think you could do a few gentle errands today for the King and the Steward of Gondor?” Gandalf asked. “Meriadoc will go with you; I believe he also brings greetings and a little task or two from Lord Faramir, who has remained in Gondor to oversee the business of the Homecoming.”
“Faramir!” said Pippin with shining eyes. “Do you know him, Merry? Has he got well, too?”
“I do know him, Pippin,” said Merry smiling at Gandalf, “And he is well now, and happy, too. And no, I shan’t tell you any more until you’ve washed and dressed yourself for the King. Where are your clothes?”
Pippin pointed to a trunk at the foot of the cot and immersed his face and then his curly head in a large wooden bowl of water conveniently placed on a stool in one corner. “Ugh!” he spluttered, shuddering and groping for the soap. “How I long for a tub of hot water! I sometimes fear I shall never see one again!”
Merry looked up from the trunk where he was rummaging for Pippin’s things. “You will indeed, Ernil i Pheriannath,” he said. “The Steward of Gondor is at this minute securing four lovely copper bathing tubs, one of which is expressly for you.”
“Is he!” said Pippin, splashing and shivering and reddening beneath his hands at the mention of the extravagant rank he had acquired when first he came to Gondor. “Bless the man! Oh, but this is your doing somehow, isn’t it? How did it happen?”
“Meriadoc has been appointed quartermaster to the hobbits in Minas Tirith,” said Gandalf, as Merry sorted out the various articles of Pippin’s kit and placed what was needed on the cot. “It has been his task in the last week to secure as many of the comforts of the Shire as are possible for the four of you. I expect you will find all your needs anticipated when you return to the heights, as you say.”
“Merry! How splendid!” cried Pippin. His head disappeared beneath a large towel, emerging after some brisk exertions in a rakish halo of copper-glinted curls. “Then I should have no difficulty in getting Second Breakfast now and again, I hope?”
“Just so,” Merry allowed solemnly, “and anything else you fancy, too. It seems both Faramir and the King are rather fond of hobbits these days…though you and I are bound to Rohan and the Tower for now, and so must provide duty as we’re ordered. But, Pippin, what’s kept you from getting up and going about? A bit of squashing would never have kept you from the table before.”
Pippin began slowly to pull on his clothes. “In truth I had no heart for it,” he said, quite honestly, “Gandalf has been desperately afraid for Frodo and Sam, though he won’t say why, and there has been no word of you, and I was overborne by fears that you were sick again under the Black Breath and I should never see any of you again.”
“Oh, I know it’s foolishness,” he continued with a crooked smile, in response to Merry’s look of puzzlement and Gandalf’s sudden frown, “but, truly, I had reason! I had a sort of waking dream one day as we rode to the battle, a strange, grey feeling, rather like being trapped in the black heart of Old Man Willow—do you remember that? Anyway, I dreamed—I suppose—that you were ill again and in terrible danger. And it seemed I heard you calling me, if you will believe it!”
Merry blinked and opened his mouth to speak but Pippin, struggling with his hauberk, did not notice and went on with his account.
“Very real, it was…” he mused, as Gandalf, with a thoughtful expression, helped to settle the maille, “and do you know, I actually turned in the saddle to see if you were there, and it seemed almost that you were, and that you reached for me, and me for you, as we always do….Oh, but, I suppose that was actually Gimli, who saw me swooning and trotted over to save me from falling on my head! At any rate, when I came to myself I was anxious for you and couldn’t shake it, and as no one has seen fit to tell me anything,” —here he looked with wounded severity at Gandalf—“so I have remained until I heard you laugh just now.”
Merry sank down on the cot. “Pippin….” His voice trailed away and Pippin, reaching for his surcoat, turned and hesitated. “Merry?” he said, and seeing Merry’s expression he set the surcoat aside and sat down beside him. “What is it?” he said, his face suddenly absorbed with attention, and his hand reached for Merry’s, and Merry gripped it hard. For a long moment they looked at each other, and it seemed as if they shared the same dream, and what passed then in astonishment and pain and understanding between their eyes and hearts was profound and irreversible, and yet never was it spoken between them in all the long years of their lives, nor ever forgotten.
The wizard, watching sharply, perceived what the long, unexpected journey had wrought in these two wayward children of the Shire and what it had kindled: the deep, unassailable compassion that had been born of Merry’s keen awareness and impatient heart; the oddly calm determination and gentle new perception that lay alongside Pippin’s blithe spirit and sunny optimism. He smiled sadly.
Pippin seemed to wake first, if in fact they were dreaming. “Hoy!” he said, squeezing Merry’s hand with a quicksilver smile and clambering to his feet. “Let’s see to this surcoat. You’ll have to help me, Merry. It’s too much of a stoop for Gandalf, I think, and too much of a twist for me.” And he took it up and pulled it on while Gandalf watched with seemingly imperturbable disinterest.
“Where are Frodo and Sam, Gandalf?” Merry asked, helping Pippin slip into the leather tunic and bending to the buckles on the sides.
The wizard scotched a reaction and resettled his staff. “With the King,” he said pleasantly. “You shall see them soon, and very anxious they are to see you, too.”
Merry straightened while Pippin turned around to the other side. “Do we have reason to fear for them, Gandalf?” His gaze was deep and considering.
“Please Gandalf,” said Pippin, settling his vambraces. “I know you have been worrying over them, and you haven’t told me a thing.”
“They’re our friends,” Merry said quietly. “We need to know what to expect.”
“Oh…well…yes, of course.“ Gandalf turned, his face clouded with reluctance. He looked on their upturned faces and sighed.
“I cannot think of anything that will make Frodo happier right now than to meet the two of you again,” he said by way of beginning. “Know when you go that you will bring him—and Sam—great joy.” Again he hesitated and then he seemed to make up his mind; he went on:
“Frodo and Sam are quite worn and injured,” he said. “Much they have endured to live and see this day. If you think you are nigh on to perishing for lack of six meals a day, Peregrin Took, I will leave you to imagine no meals at all.” And Merry’s hand trembled on the buckles of Pippin’s surcoat and Pippin looked gravely into Gandalf’s eyes.
Now the wizard pulled forth a stool and set it before them and sat down, and over the next few minutes he told them briefly (“so as not to spoil their own telling of it!”) of Frodo and Sam’s journey, and what they had seen and done and what had befallen them in general and how they had come out of Mordor at the end of all things. And Merry and Pippin listened in silence and in trepidation, and anxiety mounted in their eyes, fastened on the wizard’s face, waiting.
Gandalf nodded, as if to acknowledge their fears. “Our Sam is much the same as ever,” he said with a fond smile. “The Samwise Gamgees of this earth are few, but they are true and steady to the end. He and Frodo are mending well from their long trial and once Sam gets a hobbit’s share of food beneath his belt he will be right with the world, I think.”
“What about Frodo?” Merry asked low, and suddenly in his eyes was the light of painful memory.
“Frodo is….” The wizard looked hard at Merry then and shook his head. “I fear he has hurts that will never heal…,” he sighed, and in a low voice, against their now stricken faces, he gently bade them remember Weathertop, and he told them a little of a dreadful creature that lurked in the reaches of Cirith Ungol, and then he told them what had befallen of the Ring at the Crack of Doom.
They stood before him riven to the heart. Pippin shuddered, and tears of pity rose full in his eyes and fell unchecked on his pale cheek, his young face awash in the pain of life and war and loss. But in Merry’s eyes opened a deep well, dark and shining and still, and these tears did not fall, but burned and scored him deep within. Gandalf saw this and nodded gently, and laying his hands in blessing on both their heads, he said kindly, “Do not let it grieve you overmuch. You cannot but do the right thing for Frodo if such a need arises. Rarely have I witnessed such a gift for friendship as you two possess.”
“There is no hope for him?” Merry whispered, shaken, and Gandalf said, “There is always hope, Meriadoc, as well you know. But you know also the scars that can be left of darkness. He is alive and well for now, but his dreams are shadowed, and will be.” And Merry nodded, and Pippin clasped his shoulder for comfort.
Quietly now they began to pack Pippin’s things and set the place to rights. Pippin looked into the trunk, searching, and then he prowled around the little room, looking behind the screen and the water stool, his hand resting uneasily on the scabbard that hung empty at his belt. “Where is my sword, Gandalf?” he asked at last. “It wasn’t broken, was it?”
“No indeed,” said the wizard. “You will find it stowed in the small forward armory, down the corridor there.” He nodded toward the hallway. “Gimli took it away for awhile; he cleaned and polished it and gave it to the Healers to hold for you.”
“I’ll be back,” said Pippin, and he stepped smartly into the hall and disappeared.
Gandalf looked after him with what might have been a tender eye, and then he turned back to Merry who stood bemused, as if he could not think what to say or do. “I know how you feel,” the wizard said. “I shall miss the little fool of a Took myself. How he has grown! I believe he is nearly as wise as you now, Meriadoc. Does that please you?”
And then did Merry’s tears rise and overflow, and bewildered—for he found himself both laughing and crying—he threw himself into the wizard’s startled embrace, hard against his tall, fatherly frame, and hugged him tightly. “Yes, I’m pleased,” he muttered, wiping his eyes while Gandalf patted his back with a smile, “but it breaks my heart as well.”
”Ah,” said Gandalf quietly. “I quite understand.”
Merry picked up Pippin’s Elvish cloak then and touched gently the little leaf brooch that Pippin had once cast away in hope and that in faith and love had been restored to him, and he and Gandalf went out from the Healer’s tent and into the bright day. There they met the small Guard of the Citadel, sheathing a gleaming sword at his belt and raising his face in gladness to the sunlight, and they stood looking out upon the Field of Cormallen, where no shadow lay nor would come again in all the days that were left to them. And deep in the secret well that Merry knew would ever be the legacy—both curse and blessing—of his days in darkness, there stirred a memory of being broken without hope against the bright light of day and the beauty of the good, green earth, and his eyes sparkled with grief for Frodo, whose every day now must be dimmed by wound and regret and sorrow and whose every dream was a storm of shadow, and waking small relief.
Then did Gandalf point to a far pavilion, where flew the standard of the White Tree and Seven Stars and Crown, and there before it, waiting, stood two small figures together with three taller ones—Frodo and Sam, and Legolas and Gimli, and Aragorn, who had been Strider and was now King Elessar. And Pippin let loose a whoop of delight and Gandalf laughed, and they set out across the grounds as quickly as they might. And suddenly it seemed to Merry that all about them sprang up a pale golden mist on the bright green field, and that it threaded through the grass and shone upon the flowers, and, drifting, led the way, and it was in all their eyes when at last they came together in joy and sorrow and love, and it would not be diminished.