Of Stewards and Rangers
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Phrygian Flute, The: 10. A Grey Dawn
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”
~The Charge of the Light Brigade~
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
BUT IF I SHOULD return, think better of me.
That depends on the manner of your return.
The words had become a thorn in his heart; it grew like a poison-tree, spreading its sharp barbed branches in his soul. Stung by sudden pain, the Steward opened his hand. A branch of the White Tree fell from his nerveless grasp, and three dark drops of blood splashed on the grey stone.
Three drops, for the three loves he had lost.
He stood alone in the courtyard, a tall forbidding figure in sable fur, and above him was the pale glimmer of the Tree’s bare branches against the lightless sky. Denethor no longer looked to the north for the coming of Theoden and his Rohirrim, for what hope lay there? What hope now, that the red arrow had gone and not returned? His gaze, straying east saw only night and the growing storm. And beyond the storm, a great and nameless terror.
“Why do we fight still? Why do we not lie down and let the dark close over us?” And he did not know that he had spoken aloud, until a voice came to him out of the brown dusk.
“For a dream. For the Light that burns still in the Uttermost West.”
With the swiftness of a warrior, Denethor swung round; surprise and anger kindled in his eyes. “I have not summoned you Mithrandir. Why do you come to me thus unbidden and unannounced, like a thief in the night?”
“Because I would speak with you.”
“Then let you say what you must before the Council!”
“It is a thing that need not be said before other men,” said Mithrandir. “I came to speak of your son, Denethor.” He stood, a tall, pale figure in the dark, glowing faintly as though a light burned within him.
“My son is dead.”
“I speak of the one who yet lives.”
And the Steward answered, his eyes were black and bitter. “So, what of him? He has merely gone to do his duty. After all, is it not his part to protect his people, now that Boromir is dead?”
“So he did. And so it is.” His long fingers ran over the broken bough above, with the same gentleness he had given to all living things. But this was a hurt that even Olorin of the Maiar could not mend, for who but the One could bestow the gift of life? A flicker of pain crossed his face. “Yet, he is your son. Could you not have spared a kind word for him ere he rode away?”
“I have said to him all that is needful. He is my son, my own! And I will deal with him as I deem fit! Always, Mithrandir, always you come between us! Has it not been so since he was a child?”
Denethor’s sword leapt out of its sheath, a bright tongue of flame in the dark. Quivering with edge-hate, it shattered the grey stone and cleaved deep into the earth between them. Sparks of fire-gold woke and died in the gloom.
But the wizard was still. The wind rose, and his long white hair streamed out behind him, and it seemed to Denethor in his rage, that it was as the web-threads of a great spider.
“There was no need for that, Denethor, son of Ecthelion. A Steward you are, and Lord of Gondor, yet you are a fool! A hard head you have, and a harder heart. Faramir would not have come to me, had you ever been more than half a father to him! But let you know this, Lord Steward, Faramir’s heart has never turned from you. Why else would he have gone forth at such a hazard, save for love and obedience to your will?”
“So, the wrong is now my own?” Denethor’s voice came quietly, as though from a great distance, but his hands in their deep sleeves trembled. “Half a father you say, yet tell me this, Mithrandir the wise, has he ever been more than half a son to me? Always he follows his own will; oath breaker, I name him, for he speaks when I bid him be silent; he comes not when I summon; and he lets go the one thing that I would have for the succour of this realm!”
For a long time, Mithrandir made no answer. Slowly, his fury faded. Perhaps, in another time, another place, another life, the Steward and his son might have loved each other as father and son should. Perhaps death and a shared grief should have united them at last, but he saw now that it was not to be; for such were the hearts of men.
“Does the fault lie with Faramir then, that he lives and Boromir is dead? That it was he who had the Ring of Power within his grasp, and found the grace to surrender it?”
“Yes!” cried Denethor. “Was it not his dream that drew my Boromir away to his death? I would that it had never come to him. A false son he is, and a false brother!” His voice rose in the dark, harsh and plaintive as a seagull’s cry. “And you, Mithrandir, bringer of ill fortune, an ill guide you were, to lead your charges to death and ruin. A plague, a plague upon you both!”
“Why have you come to this City at this dark hour? My Boromir is dead; must you rob me of Faramir also?”
For a moment, Mithrandir closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, there was sorrow in them, and a deep pity. “That was never my intent. Boromir is dead, but Faramir lives, and it is not I who have stolen him from you. It was your blessing that he desired ere he went into the dark; yet it was I, and not his father who gave it to him.”
“Denethor,” he said with great gentleness, “It is not by my will that men of nobility and honour should pass from this world with despair in their hearts. It is you, who have sent your son, unthanked and unblessed into needless peril. It is you, who have taken him from yourself.”
For a long while, the Steward was silent; his gaze turned to the east, where the sky was now the colour of blood, and slowly, lowered his face into trembling hands. Then, suddenly he threw up his head and laughed long and hard, as a man laughs when his heart is full of grief. And when he met the wizard‘s gaze, he said, very softly into the gloom:
“So. If I cannot have him, no man shall!”
ALL THAT LONG day, the longer night, and the grey dawn after, men fought and died on the shores of the Anduin. The river ran red, and the fire of many burnings lit the dusky sky. It was in Osgiliath that the battle raged now, and within its crumbling walls, the men of Gondor grimly held the hosts of Morgul at bay. But still the Enemy came in their boats - orcs of Mordor, tall Easterlings and men of Harad with their sharp curved swords.
More and more often, men began to look with hope and desperation across the Pelennor to the White City for the succour that did not come. But the great gates remained closed, and even the faint light that lingered still in the west seemed to dim in their eyes. But there was one among them who turned no longer to the west. He alone among the men of Gondor seemed to glow with a pale flame, and in the thickest of the fighting, he drove the Enemy before him, back and back towards the river with the heedless courage of his brother.
Dawn came at last, and Osgiliath blazed like a jewel of fire, the defenders fleeing before Enemy back into the Causeway Forts; and scarcely had the gates swung shut, that the loud war-cries of the men of Harad echoed before the Rammas wall, and the pounding of their arms shivered the grey stone. So the battle raged without respite, and in the high places of Osgiliath, above the flames, the black standards of Morgul fluttered in the wind.
But the time came that the Rammas was itself breached and the Enemy poured through in many places, yelling and crushing the green grass beneath their fouled feet. Fire and more fire, and in the smoke and struggle, a hunting horn sang, clear and high above the battle-din. And voices of the Captains of Gondor, crying, “Fall back! Fall back!”
Obedient to their command, the defenders streamed out in good order, and company by company, they began the long, perilous march across the Pelennor to the safety of the White City. Behind them, only the rearguard was left to hold back the Enemy. Again and again, the yelling Haradrim on their swift horses scythed by; dark arrows thrummed into the long retreating column, and men fell. Again and again, valiant rearguard swept up to meet them, and warriors of red and gold went down into the dust. But for each fallen enemy there lay too, a man in the green-brown of a ranger, or one clad in the livery of the White Tower.
They were not far from the City, when a black shadow swung out of the stormy east. A terrible cry, high and piercing shattered their courage, and the orderly column broke, as men wide eyed with horror, flung down their weapons and fled.
Yet the rearguard turning at bay, and fewer now, fought on. Still, the Enemy swept in, swarming darkly; red and black standards billowing in the wind of their charging; and orcs and swarthy Southland men, and Easterlings came crashing like a river over the fleeing defenders.
The ground shook, and in the desperate struggle, orcs and swarthy men fell before Faramir’s blade. Then out of the tempest-dark, a giant, tall and reeking with the blood of many, bore down upon him, and the meeting of their swords was as the flashing of lightning in the gloom. A red sword rose, and his shield shivered on his arm. The long curved blade came swooping down again, and in the instant that Faramir swerved away, the wind of black wings passed over him; a crash, like a hammer blow in his shoulder sent him reeling.
Then, a red haze rising, and the fire of agony unbearable.
So, he had come to the end at last. To perish as his brother had done, hewn down by many foes. Yet for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, there would be no slow journey out into the western sea under the stars, only the butchery of Southland swords, red churned earth and the ravens circling.
Shame not your brother’s memory.
He knew no fear, only a great quietness; the silence in the eye of a storm. And he could lay down at last, without shame the burden of his life.
Then strength left him, and his blade fell from his hand. Not long more.
His horse, maddened with fear, reared, legs flailing. Then above the thundering dark and the beating of blood in his ears came a faint cry in the distance, like the call of a silver trumpet “Amroth for Gondor! Amroth to Faramir!” In the moment before he fell, he saw a light shining out of the west, and the black clouds fleeing; and in its wake, the bright swan banners of Dol Amroth rippling in the wind.
Then he fell, down and down, but not into the dark.
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