Shards of Time
6. Chapter Six
Mazikeen had been resting an elbow unceremoniously on the stand where the shield and sword lay as he told the story, fingers twirling a tip of her head-scarf absent-mindedly. Presently she blinked slowly and drew herself up.
“That is it?” she asked.
There was a pause, as uncomfortable as jagged glass.
“Will you write that?” she asked at last.
“Of her treason,” she explained painstakingly, “and its consequences. Of her… abjuring the oath she took.”
He said nothing. How could he translate that knowledge of his, the ever-shifting winds of his grandmother? Like the sea, like sand, like a drifting cloud. She was vast like a mountain, contradictory like feathers and steel. She was not like the others, whose essence he had deciphered throughout his increasingly cynical youth. She had died when he was eleven, a legend he could not pin down, flying like one of those great Haradrim kites, drifting away from him forever.
He almost shook his head at this. Such fanciful nonsense!
“I understand,” she said smoothly. “It would not be politic, to depict your grandmother as… as no better than a common deserter. Well, worse, as a common deserter is no more than a lowly soldier, in truth owing nothing to no one but himself, but she had been entrusted with the many and left them to pursue the desires of the few. But of course you cannot write that, at least now with Rohan tied to your tails like the poor relative at a wedding. They have long since been your allies, at least for far longer than Harad,” she said with a meaningful sharpness. “Rohan is your lady wife, Harad the painted concubine of the moment. I understand.”
He took in her glib self-congratulation.
“Your powers are failing you, Mazikeen,” he said wryly. “I do not care for what those uncouth horse-riders think of my book. They may have acquired a veneer of civilisation, but I find it highly unlikely that they will be interested in poring over so many pages about the beginnings of our glorious age, particularly as my book is entirely devoid of verse and touches very little upon horses.”
“Oh, of course, the Rohirrim don’t like books, do they?”
“I believe they like books with thin pages,” he answered sharply. A muscle twitched in Mazikeen’s cheek. “But enough of this nonsense. It is not for a question of politics that I hesitate. Politics is the art of the possible and my book concerns matters that took place either long ago or in places shrouded too deeply by the veils of legend or distance or majesty. And most people do not care much about either politics or histories, because they are too busy dealing with the vagaries of the mundane, working, buying, worrying, selling, loving, rushing, lying, falling asleep and waking for another day of the same.” He paused for a moment.
“Do you find that distasteful?” The eyebrow rising again.
“I find it, above all, necessary. But I am straying; I meant to say that I fear no one’s opinion.”
“What, then?” she said impatiently.
His gaze slid up, into the beam of light that fell upon them both like a ghost river. “When I discovered the truth about Dunharrow,” he began slowly, “I though I had discovered the hidden truth about my grandmother, and that when I wrote my book I would reveal my damning great discovery, and then the reality behind that dreadful versification would not be forgotten. You do not quite understand the significance of this, but let me tell you that the prospect of doing that to her, who had been my grandmother, and in the days of my youth, was almost… pleasurable. Dreadful, yet pleasurable. Luckily, or unluckily, depending on how you view it, I had even then the habit of not committing myself irrevocably to one position, and so I kept on searching about her, and discovered that she was also, undeniably, every bit the hero legend claims her to be. Who would have thought those dreary songs were right after all?”
Mazikeen had resumed her thoughtful play with her bracelet as he neared the end of his explanation. “She was both deserter and heroine? What an intriguing notion.”
“Come here, Mazikeen,” he said forcefully. She did not hesitate to step up to him, so close he could see her dress rising and falling ever so slightly with each breath. She had a spicy, soapy smell about her. It was not that she trusted him, or he her; quite simply, there was, and there had been for some time, a sort of perennial truce between them. She could have damned him ten times with what she knew, and he could have accomplished her destruction even more thoroughly and effectively. But neither of them did, because neither of them would. She had a saying that the higher you went, the heavier your weaknesses felt.
He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and turned her towards the tapestry. “Tell me, Mazikeen, what do you see?”
He felt her body sighing, deep and physical and uncaring. “Look carefully, Mazikeen.”
“I see…” In the light, the threads of the hanging seemed to shift, and in that frozen moment the wings of the Beast moved once again, and it screeched its black hunger of carrion. “I see shadow, and fear.”
He reached around her for the sword hilt, and placed it in her right hand. She received it unprotesting, and held it up silently as he took her left hand in his.
“Can you imagine it?” he whispered in her ear, sewing himself to her like a shadow. “Just a sword in your hand.” He took her right hand, and made her thrust the fragment of sword, the glittering blade ending incongruously mere inches away from the hilt. “And a shield in the other.” He lifted her left hand as though she were holding an invisible buckler. “And you are unhorsed, and you are alone with your dying King, the man who was like a father to you, and a Halfling who has fallen in the mud. There is so very little mud in songs and so much of it in battlefields, you know? Mud and blood and tears. You love that fallen man, and yet you hate him, hate him because he brought you up to be something he then denies you, because you were born in the body of a maiden. They all deny it to you, expect you to sit still as your house burns and crumbles around you. And there is another, the thought of whom you cannot even bear, because you thought he would carve a path for you, shine a light for you, tear the bars of your cage down for you, and yet all he does is lock your chains tighter as he offers you his pity. His pity!” He endowed the word with all the meanings of scorn. “What will you do? What can you do? There is only one thing you have learned to do, only one thing you know how to do, and it is the one thing they will not let you do. Where will you run to now?”
She took one half-step back and her held her still, her back pressing against his body. He could almost feel her heart beating through the fabric of their adjoining clothes, beating like a bird tossing itself against the bars of its cage in desperation. “You cannot go that way,” he said, pressing his cheek against the thin scarf and the thick mass of hair underneath. “There are no other ways. There is only one way left, and it’s covered with thorns, thick brambles to tear your flesh. And in the end, there is Death. It will stop for you. It always does. It will give you glory. It will give you rest. It will give you peace. And maybe you will not die in vain, trying to put out the fire in your house. But riding before Death comes that.” He raised her sword arm, and the broken blade sliced the air with a sickening whistle. He spoke with his cold cheek almost pressed against hers, and his voice sounded like an echo out of a great dark cavern of time. “Devourer of souls. Lord of carrion. Prince of Foulness. Do you not know the one you call…Destiny?”
She spun around fiercely like a cornered cat, pushing him back with unaccustomed curtness. Her black eyes glistened with the fury of a lightened furnace. “Enough! Enough.” She collected herself with a deep breath, languid and cool once more, and realised she was still holding the sword-hilt in one outstretched hand. She turned to replace it, and it dropped on the stand with a strident clatter. When she faced him once more she bore a thin smile, smooth and imperious. He noticed, however, that her chest was still rising and falling rapidly, in disguised panting. “That is enough, Barahir. I think I understand what you mean,” she said coolly, and then added, “though I do not know how you learned it.”
He shrugged and looked at her calmly, the quiet, unnoticed scrivener once more. “Oh, I spoke to old soldiers who had felt the Witch-King, who saw him flying over them on his Beast like a messenger of their doom. Even in their old age they trembled at the memory. They said that when he was near a despair so great fell upon you in such a manner you felt as though it would never lift, ever again. You just felt like crawling in the dirt like the worm you were and shrivelling and dying under that mortal gaze. As for the rest… well, my family has always been… perceptive.” He lowered his eyes, as though betraying some inner, secret thorn. “And I know very well what it is like to have forbidden paths.”
She joined her hands underneath her chin, her face hinting at an ache that was ancient and hidden. “Only because you want to.”
“Mazikeen, listen to me.” She opened her mouth as if to protest and he pressed on. “No, listen. I am the son of a Steward, and you are the daughter of an envoy, and from the wrong side of the Bay of Belfalas.”
“I would be from the right side if I were the daughter of the Jade Throne,” she spat, but with no real venom, a phrase said so often it was worn threadbare.
He sighed, and the sound was laden with tiredness. “We have talked of this before. And I have told you many times that Minas Tirith will need me. And Minas Tirith needs me to choose a wife of suitable rank. She is an unkind mistress, that White City; she thinks first and foremost of herself. Do you understand? I know you do.”
Her face was still and unbeatable once again. “You can just leave, you know,” she said. “Let someone else sacrifice for her.”
He looked at the floor and seemed to sag curiously, like a reed bending in the wind. “No. I cannot.”
She stepped up to him silently and placed a hand on his shoulder. “No. Of course you cannot,” she said, with unfamiliar sweetness.
And she knew what she had known so often before, that some part of her was glad at these games, these encounters stolen in the underside of a moment, glad that they would never know staleness, that he would not abandon his burden for her sake like a player leaving an unfinished game of chess, and then brood because of that and taste the bitter honey of regret and resentment, and then know the dark decades of a long widowhood. Ever since she was old enough to listen, she had listened to politics, brought up in the shifting mirrors and panels of the Veiled City, beneath the spidery gaze of the Jade Throne. She understood, and she approved, and in the secret fencing that had brought them together as firmly and inexplicably as a storm and its path, she knew that he knew of it, and she was satisfied.
“Now, what will you write?” she asked, business-like, crossing her arms aloofly beneath her breasts.
“I was rather hoping that you could tell me.”
She appeared to ponder the question, one hand raised to stroke her chin pensively. “Well, you can write of the traitor, but she was a traitor who slew the Rider of Shadow, who had killed so many, thus saving many more, or you can write of a heroine, but she was a heroine who abandoned her sworn people to terror and death. I don’t suppose there is any chance of you being able to write both? Oh, of course not, this is history; it has an unfortunate tendency to solidify the moment the ink on its pages is dry, don’t you agree?”
This time he had a pleased, clipped smile for her. “I am ever so glad you understand, Mazikeen. I really cannot abide foolish women,” he said with some distaste.
“So now you will have to choose one,” she went on, “and I do not envy that choice. I think – yes – that it all comes down to one thing: you will have to weigh those two bands of nameless people in your scales and decide which can vanish into the backpages of history.”
“A masterful summation,” he said flatly.
“One must do one’s best.”
He had not meant it in mockery, he realised. Mazikeen had pierced the heart of the matter with an uncaring spear. His grandmother was like the shards of a broken mirror, each piece full of the sharp light of a different memory: slayer, mother, Healer, Princess, wife, traitor. All the others he had written about had been so easy to pin down, a single easy attribute, a single memorable self. He knew that what he had written or had decided to write about them might not be necessarily true, but it was a truth. Not an endless gallery of mirrors bearing thousands of different reflections.
“So now I have to choose,” he said calmly, his voice a drawl that moved like a slow breeze passing over a leaves-strewn ground. “Do you know, I think I have a great deal of work to do on the Red Book of the Periannath. In a charitable sense, that is. They have a passion for the melodramatic and the niggling detail, not to mention the labyrinthine branches of their family trees. It would greatly benefit from a corrective hand, and one that does not shrink from an arduous task. But still, after it’s worked upon, it may turn out to be useful.”
“You are avoiding the matter,” Mazikeen said frostily.
“I suppose I am, at that. It is not completely straightforward, as I think I had chance to demonstrate.”
“When you are Steward,” she said, chin raised proudly, “you will have to make decisions like that every day.”
“That,” he answered evenly, “will not make them any easier. You know, I think my grandsire – the Prince Faramir, that is – was right.”
Her eyebrows raised very slightly, and she seemed to shift underhandedly, like a hawk who has detected a stir of motion in a patch of grass.
“Yes. I asked him about her once, you see. He wanted to make sure I would not ask him again, for reasons I took a little while to understand, so he told me that his memories of her were his memories, after all, and not for sharing, no more than she would share her memories of him, were she living, were he dead.”
“A most appropriate answer.” There was a hint of gloating to her voice.
“Possibly. But I can sometimes be persuasive, and he said another thing. He said that she did what she had to do, and would tell me no more.”
He felt silent, and her eyes were peculiarly widened, as though in disappointment at a drab conclusion. “Is that all? Don’t we all do what we have to do?”
He had a weak, knowing smile for that. “I think it is quite the opposite, Mazikeen. Most of us do what they can, some do what they must, and a very few do what they have to.”
He contemplated the spectral light of the chamber, its alcoves redolent of years, the tapestry framing Mazikeen, hanging like an austere messenger of the past. He believed he understood it very clearly now. Somehow, it had all come to make sense, like the carving that turns out to be a button, a button you press to flip a lid open. There were times so clear it seemed Eternity itself stretched before you, and he could almost feel the rustle of the wings of Destiny, full of a touch that was blessed, and without regret or eagerness.
I am not important. I was there, and so were many others. But we didn’t kill it. She did. She and the Halfling were the ones who slew the Fell Captain. No one who wasn’t there knows what that means. But that’s important, my lord. That was what mattered.
“So, you will write her as the heroine after all?” she asked.
“I will write of her as the woman who found the will to go on in the darkest pit of her despair. I will write of her as the woman who slew the Lord of the Nazgûl with the aid of a Halfling. I will write of her as an example for others to see and follow, even if they can only follow in an insignificant way.”
“And when it is not insignificant? Would you have them throw away the lives of others? What of things hanging by a thread, do you think it does well to cut them lose? They may fall instead of flying.”
He smiled, certain that she could perceive the steely knowledge in his eyes, and that she did not know what to make of his realisation.
“Have you ever thought of how many had to sacrifice so greatly, unwillingly or hopelessly, so that we could inherit the world? And those who are already willing to waste others’ lives like twigs thrown to a fire will not be salvaged by any word I write. Everything hangs by a thread - this peace, with all its traps and trappings, this glory, but a dead leaf to be swept away by the wind. Not because of some new Shadow, but because it is in the nature of things to diminish and die. Not while we live, and maybe not for many lives, but there will be a night for Men as surely as the sun sets. And in that hour I would like to think that there will be a truth in my words, or in an echo of my words, or in an echo of an echo of my words. A truth for those who dared against all odds to spite the darkness in the darkest hour. There once was a dream that was the Light. It would not be worth the death of a good man if it could not be dreamt again.” He ran an unaware hand through his hair, a habit Mazikeen had come to know meant nervousness or embarrassment. “You do not think it is so.”
She gathered herself silently and stepped up to him, in the sinuous fashion of her people, until they were close as lovers. She lay her hands on his shoulders, and though he flinched as he always did, unbeknownst to himself, he accepted her touch unwavering.
“My great-great-uncle died in the Pelennor Fields,” she said smoothly, “though of course he was in the… other side. What you told me about your grandmother is so tremendous, and yet from the moment you told me of your dilemma, I was hoping that you would write of her as the Wraithslayer, even though, or perhaps because, we have both long ago destroyed and mocked the legends of out childhood, and this was a legend that lived, and whose blood runs in your veins. Perhaps we are at that age in which we can find a certain… pertinence in those legends we mocked in our glib youth, but I did not truly know why I wanted her to be a heroine, and I detest being at a loss, so I decided it was best to forsake the Rider and play with the Captain. He has such an interesting movement, don’t you think? So… oblique. Now that you’ve laid your game bare, I understand that those were my reasons all along. I think she did wrong, and yet maybe she could be forgiven. Ay, I suspect I am not as proficient in this Uncommon Tongue as I had hoped for,” she finished, with an expression of mock sadness.
He looked at her as though he was weighing her craftiness and finding it most satisfactory. “I think you are right,” he said. “I think that was what I wanted to write all along. That that was the shard of glass that mattered, and I just fooled myself with the others. I, too, detest being at a loss.”
“Then why the dilemma?”
“Maybe because, like you said, she did wrong. Maybe because I said I cared, and I do. Maybe because I was so pleased with my own discovery that I wanted her to have acknowledged it, somehow. I wanted her to have regretted the consequences of her desertion. Maybe she did, but I did not learn of it, and when you do not know of a thing, it did not happen. Or perhaps it is because I accept the glory of the guilty in life, but could not accept it in a legend. I write my stories clear, be them sad or mirthful, and she was unclear. So many different memories. Maybe if I had had more time with her… sometimes I think I was born too late.”
“And those in Dunharrow who went missing? Will they be missing forever, with no one to mourn them or to remember?"
He placed his hands slowly upon her back. “I do not write happy little tales. I will write of the woman who became a Rider and the Rider who became a hero, and I will tell of Dunharrow. I will tell of Dunharrow until she left, and I will tell of her oath, and then speak no more of it. While there is darkness, all thoughts will go to her courage and her despair, and how she vanquished the later, and how she was rewarded. She rode to meet Death, yet it was not Death who stopped for her. It was my grandsire, and honour and renown, and this palace, and my father and my aunts and uncle, and a long and glorious life. But then the darkness will give way to a new dawn, as surely as the night gives way to the day, and maybe there will be a peace so long or so deep that some will have time to pore over these old tales and ponder their hidden meanings. Maybe some will think of her oath, and realise she broke it, and think about the untold consequences. And maybe someone, or none, or a few, or all, will reach the truth in their speculation. It does not really matter; what matters is that someone will think of it, and of her not as an unchangeable idol, but as a woman who lived, with the triumphs and failings that implies.”
“Do you think that will be enough?” she asked. “To mention Dunharrow and leave it, unwritten? Don’t you think that all who read about it will give it no more than a thought? Do you believe that someone may truly give it more than a moment’s consideration?”
“Someone might.” He turned his eyes down, and gave an embarrassed chuckle. “Or, at least, that is what I hope will happen.”
She raised one hand to pat his cheek playfully. “Be at ease. The present is jurisdiction enough without your having to oversee the future as well. ‘She did what she had to do.’ Yes. I do see it.”
“A worthy epitaph, don’t you agree? Both the good and the bad – maybe.” He shook his head slightly. “Théoden should not have chosen her. She was no politician. Nor was he, for that matter.”
Whatever answer she might have had, it remained unspoken forever, cut by the clear ringing of a silver bell, slicing the silence in the chamber like a blade. They disassembled their embrace.
“Time to go,” he said.
“Will the other guests leave tomorrow?” she asked, as they started walking slowly towards the door.
“Yes, and you must go with them.”
“Of course,” she sniffed.
There was something in her tone that made him halt and take her hand in his.
“Mazikeen, my father has been dropping none too subtle hints about possible unions for me, and I am at an age in which I cannot invent many more excuses. Eldarion married for love but he did not marry well, and now my own marriage needs to gather all the support we lost and more. This will be a matter of politics, and as it is for the sake of the City and the realm, I cannot say no. I am afraid I do as I must, not as I have to.” There was a tinge of sadness to his voice.
“I know that. I have my burdens too, or have you forgotten that? I understand. I always have. I know how things are. And besides, we cannot all be good wives.”
He took her slick dismissal impassively. “I want you to know, though, that you were and are the one who mattered.”
She smiled wanly. Even though she lacked his family’s perception she could already anticipate the heavy folds of the future. They would keep up their pretence of a vague, nodding acquaintance, and exchange anxious whispers that said things like “tomorrow - same time, same place,” and enjoy some few painful, precious moments snatched in the bowels of some clandestine room. And one day she would return to the Land, to Harad and the Veiled City to perform her duty to serve and follow the path she had been taught almost from birth. Maybe she would return, and they would catch glimpses of each other in a crowd like prickles of light in a dark sky, the tug of a vaguely familiar face in a foreign city. Or maybe they would tire of each other and their trials before she left, and start that soon the task of forgetting each other, their memories devoid of meaning like a leaf pressed between the pages of a book is devoid of sap. They had both known from the tentative start that the end would come.
And yet, it would not come today.
“And I want you to know that I will be with you forever,” she said haughtily. “I must.”
“Well, if you absolutely must.”
They both had a genteel laugh for that, and went away from the realm of the dead. In his mind, Barahir was already composing in his sober prose the tale of the woman who lost and found herself and the heroine with a secret, who had found out that it takes more effort to live than to die. As for Mazikeen, she looked at his focused face and knew that what she had told him wasn’t the entire truth – but that was not really important. Nothing was ever the entire truth – it only had to be the truth for long enough.
Disclaimer: “April was the most pointless month” is a parody of sorts of T S Eliot’s The Waste-Land (which is why April is used instead of Víressë). “He had literary pretensions” is paraphrased from Frank Herbert’s Dune. “The world and all within it were like a house of leaves moments before the wind” comes from Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. “You were wrought in a time of war, and so you had to learn courage and hope for the future. But I was wrought in a time of peace, and so I learn mistrust and caution” is very liberally paraphrased from T E Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. “No one ever came to ease our pain, because no one ever does” comes from Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. “What man needs nothing?” is paraphrased from Robert Bolt’s screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia. “… and little by little, we went insane” is pretty much what Francis Ford Copolla said about the making of Apocalypse Now. Mazikeen owes her name to the legendary “mazikeen,” a synonym of “djinn.” It seemed appropriate to her particular cultural origins. She also owes a line to her name-sake in Neil Gaiman’s The Kindly Ones. Faramir’s description of his memories of Éowyn comes from Neil Gaiman once more, this time from The Wake. “She did what she had to do” comes from Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch. Once again, no money is being made, and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author’s Note: This story owes – unabashedly – quite a bit to Citizen Kane, and quite a bit to my meta-fic impulses. There were no attempts made to "write forsoothly". Old-fashioned delivery is all very well, pseudo-mediaevalism isn't. Barahir’s personality was partially gleamed from his authorship of The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen (App A in LotR), the rest is my own speculation. The “woman” he sees in his dream is the Vala Vairë (Weaver of the stories of Arda, hence, Destiny). I hope you have enjoyed this story and that you find the time to review it. Thank you!
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.