Of Stewards and Rangers
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Captain of Gondor, A: 4. The Woman By The Well
He shut his eyes against the sun and willed himself to sleep again, for he was weary, so weary, and his right arm ached to the very bone. He shifted a little, yearning to stretch himself, but shoulder, elbow and wrist would not obey his command. With a small shock of terror, his eyes flew open and he wondered if he had lost his arm after all. A twitch of the thin striped blanket, then a quick glance brought relief – it was there, neatly bound in a linen sling across his shoulder. Sighing, he lay back on his pillow.
What had happened? He remembered the hunt, the river, the red moon. He had been shaken like a child caught stealing sweetmeats, a man’s voice in the blackness crying his name, and then nothing more. No… there had been dreams, a whirlpool of dreams. Dreams of agony and fire and a wild creature’s death rattle; a dark chamber lit by a single taper, his father’s stern shadow beside him. He heard his own fevered voice speaking, a desperate meaningless babble of sound, felt a warm hand clasp his own in answer. Yet when the light flung back the brown dark, he saw that the face was not his father’s. The world had dissolved then, strong hands holding down his thrashing body, a vague memory of a woman’s voice, the sharp refreshing scent of a herb he could not name, and a cool drink, sweet and bitter at the same time pouring down his parched throat.
Had that vision of his father only been a dream? Surely it had been no more than that - a trick of his own fevered mind, his deluded desires? Why after all, should the Lord Steward come to his son after the manner of their last parting? Sick at heart, he drew his one good hand across his eyes. Perhaps his father had thwarted even Boromir’s attempts to visit him. Why else had Boromir not come in his hour of need? A voice spoke in his mind, so reasonable, so cold that he hardly knew it for his own. “Thus you reap what you sowed three summers ago. And a bitter harvest it is too.”
Once, he had stirred from his uneasy slumber at sunset, and the flaming glow of the evening had shown him a man’s harsh profile - a man older than his six and thirty years, with a galley’s prow of a nose, his face worn by weather, creased with lines of laugher and care. His visitor was sleeping the light sleep of a hunter in the hard wooden chair beside his cot. His mane of red hair, streaked with grey near the temples had been burnished at the tips to gold by the sun, and his fever-addled mind told him that this was surely Fëanor reborn to the world of the living. He must have moved, for the man awoke at once, laying an anxious hand on his brow. Such eyes he had – green and warm as forest leaves when the dawn touches them. Then he saw that it was not Fëanor after all, but the Captain himself – and he smiled his joy, muttering in his weakness something so unintelligible that the Captain laughed and bade him not to waste his breath. Then he fell once more into a deep slumber.
This morning, the sun had at last driven away sleep. Although the comfort of his cot was a sore temptation, he was suddenly eager to move, to raise his face to the sun and feel the prickling warmth of daylight on his cheeks. Slowly, he rose, every sinew stiff and aching like those of an old man. Certain that he was alone, he muttered a few choice oaths as he swung his feet to the ground. One in particular had an undeniably satisfying ring to it. Egged on by Damrod, the younger rangers had set up a Word Chest, and this, the Word of the Week, had been contributed by Maeglin, a dark-eyed lad from Lebennin. He stifled a laugh. Well, the sooner he got out of bed, the sooner he would be back at Henneth Annûn.
His room was small, bright and airy, unlike the damp caves of Henneth Annûn or even his old chamber in the Steward’s House with its chill shadowy corners and high ceiling. The air was heavy with the aroma of herbs – honeysuckle, thyme, rosemary, sage, athelas and other stranger scents that he knew not. And the clothes he wore were no longer his own sodden and filthy uniform, but a loose well-worn tunic and breeches a little too large for him, scented with lavender. For a time, he watched the golden square of sunlight creep across the whitewashed wall, rejoicing at being warm and clean again.
He stood up. “Weak as a new-born puppy,” he said to no one in particular. It was the first time he had strung a sentence together in a while, his voice deep, calm and lucid to his ears. He was himself again.
Then Faramir remembered with a tightening in his breast, another voice that had echoed dimly in his long slumber. A young voice crying in the night, reaching him even through the storm of his own unquiet dreams. Yet, his silent room contained only his cot, a battered bookshelf whose boards were bending beneath the weight of their burden, an ink-stained desk, and in the far corner an ancient clothes chest bound with bronze.
Mablung. Where was the boy?
Out he stumbled, pausing at the doorway to steady himself, for the flag-stoned floor was bucking beneath his feet like an unruly horse. How could he have forgotten Mablung? Lashed by shame and anger, tears of fury stung his eyes. Boromir would never have neglected one of his own men. Nor would the Captain.
He lurched into another chamber, then checked in surprise. In a narrow bed by the open window lay a still form. Mablung. The cub seemed asleep, yet so pale that for an instant Faramir’s heart ceased its beating. Slowly he dropped to one knee at Mablung’s side, laying a trembling hand on the white brow, and at his touch, the boy’s black lashes fluttered, then stilled again. He was alive. He bowed his head, filled with silent gratitude.
He remained in the little chamber for some time listening to Mablung’s quiet breathing, in part to assure himself that the boy was indeed alive, and because his small exertions had tired him beyond his expectations. Yet his strength returned before long as did his desire for the sun’s warmth, and he rose, leaving Mablung to his rest.
Like a tired old hound, Faramir wandered barefooted down a short passageway that emerged into a large sunlit room. At the threshold he halted in wonder. Above the kitchen range and hearth, row upon row of dried herbs hung in neat bunches from the smoke-blackened beams of the low ceiling. Marjoram, rue, vervain, hawthorn, wormwood, white horehound and scores of other healing herbs there were, each exuding its unique scent. He took a deep breath. Crossing the flagstones, he paused to marvel at the tall shelves laden with bottles of myriad colours and sizes, and chests of drawers made of sturdy lebethron wood shiny with age; and each shelf, each drawer labelled in a bold black hand, peculiarly decorated with patterns of raised dots. He paused at the crowded kitchen table, avoiding a number of silver spoons coated with drying brown stuff, but gingerly reaching out to touch a strange wooden stand that held a dozen narrow vials of glass, each filled with powders of varying colours; peering at a funnel of saffron liquid bubbling merrily over a candle flame, supported by a fantastical glass contraption. Reluctantly, he stopped himself from running a wistful hand over the leather-bound covers of Rúmil’s Anatomy, likewise decorated with the same curious dots, reminding himself that he was a man grown, and not a inquisitive child.
Passing the empty hearth Faramir came to a door that opened into a small courtyard. Following the sun, he stepped out into the light, revelling in its warmth. Here he found a vine trellis, and upon it, spiralling tendrils shivered in the breeze, the delicate leaves shining and translucent as green jewels. Beside it was a stone bench on which shallow trays filled with dandelion roots, juniper berries, willow and poplar bark had been set out to dry.
And in the centre of the courtyard, a woman was drawing water from a well; a young woman tall and slender as a willow, her long hair brown as a sparrow’s breast feathers knotted away with a crimson ribband. But when the wind caught up the stray strands and lifted them, they warmed to honey-gold in the summer sun. She took the filled pitcher in her arms with the sureness of long practise and turned towards the house, the hems of her long green gown dark where the well-water had soaked it.
He stood in the doorway watching her, quite unable to move or look away in spite of himself, for she was fairer than any girl in the White City and all her movements were as graceful as that of a swan in flight.
They were no more than three steps apart when she stopped, looking up at him with a smile. It was then that he saw that her eyes were not bright, but dull as a pond glazed over with grey winter-ice.
“Is it young Mablung or my Lord Faramir who stands there?”
His voice stuck in his throat. “I am Faramir, lady,” and belatedly remembering his manners, added huskily, “Peace be with you, lady of the house.”
“And with you, my Lord. I am Nienna, sister to your Captain.” She halted, and with disarming honesty smiled, “Yes, I am blind. It was the sweating sickness that stole my sight when I was five years old.”
She stepped over the threshold, and he followed her into the shade of the kitchen. There, Nienna set down the pitcher on the range and bade him sit at the table. Every step she made, every little thing she did with her hands she accomplished without the slightest pause, and even when she came to sit beside him, Faramir could not quite bring himself to believe that the world she lived in was darker than the blackest of nights.
“So, how is it with you today, my Lord?”
Among the Brotherhood he was simply Faramir son of Denethor, and it was so long since any man or woman had addressed him by his proper title that he squirmed with embarrassment. It was as though the Lord Faramir the Steward’s younger son was a stranger and not himself. Yet Nienna was the Captain’s sister – would it be too great an impudence to ask her to address him by name? Then he saw that she was awaiting his answer, her head tilted a little to one side, her strange walled-up eyes fixed on his own.
“I am well, only that my right arm is a little stiff,” he confessed hastily.
“Move your fingers,” she commanded.
Obediently, he waved his fingers in the air. A moment later, Nienna laughed, “Oh no my Lord, not like that – did you forget that I cannot see you? Take my hand if you please and tap your fingers on my palm like this.”
He hesitated, momentarily stunned by the thought of actually touching the hand of the Captain’s sister. He dared not think of what the Old Man would have to say.
“I do not bite,” Nienna said solemnly.
He laughed and took her outstretched hand. It was warm and dry, slim and graceful as the wing of a bird. Yet in their own way, they were as scarred as his own, scratched by bramble thorns, herb-stained and scalded red at the fingertips by the boiling potions that she brewed.
“Yes, that is good. Now close your fist. Open it – yes, well done.” She sat back, smiling. “A remarkable recovery, my Lord. It will not be long before your arm mends, and all will be as it was. For now, there will be a little pain in the joints of your elbow and shoulder, for the venom lingers there still; bide here for but a fortnight more, and your cure will be complete.”
“And what of Mablung, lady?” he asked.
Frowning a little, Nienna folded her hands in her lap, “He was very ill, for the wound became bad, but Mablung is young, and with the grace of the Valar, he will recover swiftly enough. The fever broke yesterday, and I think the worst is over - for now.” A pause, and then she said kindly, “Do not worry, my Lord, for I shall do my best for him. My brother tells me that you brought him off in great danger and despite your own wound. It is by your courage that he lives still.”
He looked down. “It is your skill and our Captain’s strength that saved us both. I do not know how to thank you.”
“There is no need,” Nienna answered simply. “That you live is reward enough for me.” And taking his hand, she said, “Come. Now that you are better, I will show you a means to while away the tedious hours till you are well enough to leave us.”
In his own chamber, she pointed out to him the rare old books of poetry, history and herblore, and other stranger tomes with tiny raised dots for words on their leather spines, their pages filled with nothing but the same indentations - surely a strange new language. “Those are mine,” Nienna said, running her fingers over the cracked leather spines with great tenderness. “When I was a child, my father devised this manner of writing so that I might learn to read with my fingertips alone. My father came of an ancient family, and although we have fallen on hard times and our lineage is not exalted he set great store on learning and all noble arts. He was determined that no child of his should be unschooled and unlettered.” Like children sharing a secret, they bent their heads over a large volume. “Look, each pattern of dots forms a word,” and as she read aloud in her quiet voice a passage on the virtues of woundwort, Faramir’s eyes shone with the eagerness of a child at the discovery of this new word-magic.
And then she showed him the Old Man’s greatest treasure. “Do you play the harp, my Lord” she asked.
And he remembered all at once his mother, and the harp of silver wood she had brought out of Dol Amroth. He had never forgotten the beauty of it, the flowing lines of swans and ships on its slender stem – never again would it be seen in Gondor, for it had gone to the grave with her, its song stilled forever.
“Yes,” he replied, “But not as well as I should like.”
“You may play it if you wish. My brother will not mind in the least – he says that the damp at Henneth Annûn ruins the strings, so he keeps it here, folorn and neglected. He told me once that a friend from Belfalas fashioned it for him with his own hands, and that all the best craftsmen come from Dol Amroth.”
“Indeed,” Faramir laughed. “So do all the best harpers and all the best people. My mother could sing the very stars down from the sky.”
It was harp of black bog oak inlaid with mother-of-pearl and strung with shining strings of white bronze. With reverence, Faramir settled it clumsily on his knee and one handed, struck a few tentative notes that lingered in the silence, pure silmarils of sound. In wonder, he exclaimed, “I have never heard its like! Do you also play the harp, my lady?”
“Oh no! I have not Maglor’s gift. My talent is of another kind altogether.”
“But no lesser a one,” he smiled.
What Nienna would have said he never knew, for the ribband in her hair had come undone, fluttering to the ground like a string of crimson rose petals. At once, he set the precious harp aside and stooped to retrieve it, but at the same instant she too, bent to do the same. Her questing fingers met his, and a long strand of brown hair brushed his cheek.
“Here it is, my lady,” he said gravely.
She took the ribband, and as she turned away, he saw a faint colour rising in her cheeks. “I shall leave you now, my Lord. There is much to be done this morning. My brother has burnished your sword for you, but there is a rent in your tunic that I have yet to mend.”
Before Faramir could answer, a long shadow fell across them both and a cheerful voice rang out.
“Will you indeed? How could you leave us my dear sister, when I have only just arrived?”
Just as there is no canonical record of a red-headed Captain of the Rangers in Faramir’s youth, Nienna and Maeglin are characters invented by me. Nienna first appeared in my imagination some two years ago, but at the time she went by a different name, she was not a healer, nor was she blind. She was simply the Captain’s beautiful young sister who kept house for him – that was all.
I haven’t come across any references to Braille or its equivalent in Middle Earth, but it answers the question of how Nienna came by her learning despite her affliction. Her copy of Rúmil’s Anatomy is of course, the Middle Earth version of our Grey’s Anatomy.
The Maglor referred to was the second son of the mighty Fëanor – one of the greatest of all Elven minstrels.
Damrod’s Word Chest is also imaginary – but this might just be the sort of entertainment that spirited young men might make for themselves to while away the long and tedious hours on patrol.
One last note – I’ll be out of town for the next three weeks, so this story won’t be updated for a while. But I’ll be back!
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