Fantasy of Manners
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Walk No More in the Shadows: 1. Walk No More in the Shadows
'Walk no more in the shadows, but awake!' said Aragorn.
(ROTK: The Houses of Healing)
Faramir squeezed his eyes shut against their burning, the figures lying atop the desk swimming behind his closed lids in an inky blur. The Steward jabbed his quill back into the well over which it hovered and dropped his shoulders to his father's tall-backed chair, blinking and rubbing his face.
'For pity's sake, enough!'
Lowering his hand, he surveyed the room impatiently from his spare and angled seat. Before him, sheaves of paper, rolls of parchment, and unsteady towers of wax slates jostled among each other for his attention, spilling over the Steward's black marble slab of a desk and drifting to the floor. Behind him, the westering sun trailed thin shadows into the corners of his father's study and the flames imprisoned in the braziers beside his seat snapped at the soft air floating in from the window.
May had settled in a mist of green among the folds of the Pellenor Fields, but the people cannot eat the grass nor the wildflowers that sprang up among its many mounds and ditches. Hunger prowled the city as a thief creeping in on silent feet intent on stripping his people of their closely guarded peace. Lists of widowed and fatherless families lay upon the table that he had inherited, bereft without his care. Spring brought hope, but not relief from privation.
Yet, Gondor would care for its own. Grain from Lebennin flowed into the city and awaited his word for distribution among the fiefs of Gondor. Prince Imrahil sent dried fish for Minas Tirith's troops with his regards for their newly installed King. All necessities they, but, at this moment, trapped in the confines of the Steward's private study in the Seventh Circle, Faramir almost envied the King his stream of penitents. Palantiri and what they revealed aside, perhaps the endless minutia of his station had been the true cause of his father's ill-temper before his passing.
The Steward's fingers tapped restlessly on the unread parchment awaiting his signature. His father's effects scattered about the room peered back at him in reproach at the inefficiency of the delay. Faramir slammed his palm against the marble surface and launched to his feet. The heavy chair skittered back over the floor under the force and papers floated off the edges of the desk, ending their flight upon the winter rug that graced the room.
But, the second son of Denethor had his back to it all and he heeded them not. Instead, his eyes and thoughts were absorbed in the march of the walls of the city down the mountain from out the room's casement. His arms rigidly extended, Faramir leaned into the sill and gazed across the expanse with a critical eye, letting the edge of the stone bite into the flesh of his palms.
He had fallen to the Black Breath before the siege and awoken only in its aftermath. For him, in memory one moment his city was whole, in the next, sadly wracked. Work proceeded apace, but the ranks of tumbled stone and hollow windows stared up at the Steward with a shocking urgency. He scowled back at them.
Faramir released a distant breath and scanned the city's streets for the bright flicker of sun off helm and plate. So much to do and so few hands with which it was to be done. How many men had they said were left? No doubt the full report lay buried somewhere on his desk. His eyes restlessly tracked the paths of wains as they trundled through the first gate and into the city, neck and back stiff with resolve.
But once his gaze lit upon an expanse of green to the south and the white wall against which it abutted, the Steward's face and shoulders gentled. The Houses of Healing glowed in pastels of pinks, creams and blues, touched warmly by the setting sun. Small dark specks of birds darted from beneath the eaves of that kindly structure to skim the ground in a search for twigs and fiber, as anxious to shore up their homes as he.
He smiled, recalling the blur of wings and scrape of tiny talons from a spring long ago when a small drab wren battled with the bits of shredded cloth at his nursery window. His mother had tied them there to amuse her son when sickness confined him indoors. Such small graces had lit his young days, and so soon gone. His duties forgotten for the moment, Faramir's chest sank into the sill as if he needed the support or would else willingly fall from the opening and land gently in the gardens below.
She was to leave soon, the White Lady of Rohan. With her, she would take the days of quiet company in the dappled shade of the Healer's arbor and leave naught behind. No troth had been plighted, no blessing sought from her kin. Tamed, the wild shieldmaiden from the North may have allowed herself to be, but such, in Faramir's estimation, was far too tenuous a thread to tie her heart to his with the permanency he desired. The chances of the world and the obligations of a royal house gnawed at his hope. He was no elf and fading memories would provide his heart with little balm to ease the wound he would take at their parting.
Faramir stepped back from the sight of the city and countryside with a sharp sigh. In vain he might search for shimmering hair or a mantle as dark as the night and as bedecked with stars, for she was not there. The lady had returned to her brother and now kept his house elsewhere in the vast city that spread its skirts across the feet of the mountain. So soon gone.
A salute of steel against stone outside his door turned the Steward about on his heel, his lips compressing to a thin pale line at the sound.
Feeling the need for fortification, Faramir turned his back to the window, facing the one clear corner of the crowded desk and the light wine waiting him there. He was pouring the straw-colored vintage into one goblet of a pair when the door opened.
With his wool headpiece tied below his chin and his hands hidden deep within the long sleeves crossing his chest, the man's pale oval of a face floated over the dark fabric as his robes fluttered about his slippered feet. He bowed precisely to his lord and waited his acknowledgment.
The fruity smell of wine wafted through the room. Faramir set the vessel to the desk, amused by the man's eyes when they darted from untidy piles of missives upon the floor to tangles of dispatches upon his desk.
"What is it, Willelmus?"
The man sniffed to clear his throat and recall himself to his task. "A nobleman from Rohan to see you, my lord," the chamberlain announced somberly and bowed his head at just the correct angle to communicate both his humble but deep regret for the petitioner's intrusion on his lord's precious time and absolute subservience to his lord's will on the matter.
"Very well," Faramir said and lifted his goblet from the desk.
The chamberlain's hands wrung the elbows within his sleeves. He could not seem to keep his eyes off the mess of papers about the room.
"Willelmus!" the Steward commanded, the goblet hovering in the space between man and desk.
The man twitched and blinked back up to his prince.
"Now, Willelmus," Faramir prompted, "if you please."
The chamberlain drew himself up and bowed rigidly. "Of course, my lord, this very instant."
The man whirled about, leaving the whisper of his feet and a slight chill in the air behind him as the door clanked shut.
Faramir laughed softly into his cup. He had inherited the man who served as his chamberlain along with the long, dark, and cold marble table that served as his desk and the straight-backed ebony chair that served as his seat. All of correct and austere design, they eminently fulfilled their purpose but fit him as ill as second-hand boots stretched to fit another's feet.
'The wine, however,' he reflected and toyed with the corner of a letter, turning it about to look over its contents while he waited, 'was excellent.'
The door opened onto Willelmus and a figure behind him that overshadowed both the chamberlain and the doorway through which they entered. Had the Rohirrim's shoulders but a hair's more breadth, they would have brushed the door's frame as he passed.
"This way, my lord," the chamberlain urged his charge.
With a mouth still full of wine, the Steward inhaled abruptly and stared. Not just any Rohirrim who might claim noble birth, Willelmus was ushering in Éomer, brother to the absent White Lady.
From behind his guide, the Rider scowled at the bright rectangle of the window, the lush rug and the dry, unlit hearth. His gaze shuffled through the papers littering the marble desk that dominated the room before lighting upon the man standing at its corner. There his eyes halted and brooded darkly.
Under the Rohirrim's scrutiny, Faramir became acutely aware of the ink that stained his fingers and the obsequious manner of his chamberlain who now gestured broadly for the man to proceed him. Perhaps this was not the first impression the Steward had wished to engender in the brother of his hoped-for bride.
Éomer shouldered his way past Willelmus, the bulk of his body dwarfing the slightly built chamberlain as he strode into the room, directly and deliberately taking the measure of the man who fronted the end of his advance. Shafts of flame from the room's braziers danced restlessly in the man's flaxen mane and darted off the twisted threads of metal broidery that lay as stiff as an armored plate upon his breast. The very walls, Faramir reflected, seemed to shrink upon themselves under the bright force of the Rider's approach. He found himself suddenly, and inexplicably, aware of the missing weight of the sword that should have been pulling at his hip.
"My lord," Willelmus intoned, bowing solemnly from the door, "the Lord Éomer, son of Éomund, First Marshal of Riddermark, sister-son to the late Théoden King, son of --"
At the recitation behind his back, a spasm of vexation flashed across the Rider of Rohan's features, arresting his intent study of the man who awaited him.
Only now realizing that he had forgotten to swallow, Faramir cleared his tongue quickly before the chamberlain could proceed further.
"Yes! Thank you, Willelmus. That will be all." He set his goblet upon the marble with a sharp click.
The chamberlain halted mid bow and, with a dryly chastened sniff, backed his way out the door. He closed it on a glimpse of pine-colored wool edged with writhing knots of gold, men of the Rider's éored who cooled their heels in the Steward's hall. The First Marshal came well reinforced, it seemed.
"Welcome, Lord Éomer." Faramir inclined his head.
Leather rasped on tile and scuffed against wool in the silence as the First Marshall of Rohan strode to the center of the study. Pausing briefly, the Rider acknowledged the greeting with a stiff bow and an unrelenting frown.
"Lord Steward," Éomer allowed, his fingers skimming the wood of the petitioner's chair between the men.
Rejecting an invitation, before it was offered, to seat himself when it was obvious that the Lord Steward would remain standing, the Rider abruptly turned, dropping his hand to clasp his fingers behind his back. His glance flickered from the mess of papers and back to his host.
"My thanks to you for putting aside urgent matters at such short notice," Éomer said and then turned, his eyes surveying the walls as if considering possible points of egress and sources of assault.
Faramir, watching from behind a mask of polite welcome, replied formally, "Rohan has traveled over one hundred leagues to Minas Tirith's relief, it is Gondor's pleasure to serve in whatever means you may require."
The Rider grunted a soft acknowledgement. Taking a silent step, Éomer leaned into the light to indifferently scan the gilded titles on the tomes lining the far wall. "When legends arise from the grass at your feet, it is perhaps best to answer their call."
Recalling the sound of his own name on the lips of a battle-weary ranger from the north, and the obligations he assumed when giving answer, the Steward stirred from his guarded stance.
"Would you care to join me in some wine?" he offered, breaking the silence.
Light eyes considered the flagon, and then nodded his acquiescence.
"I trust you find your accommodations to your satisfaction?" Faramir asked as he poured.
"Yes, they are," the Rohirrim glanced at the shadows that clung to the walls and paused as if considering carefully, "comfortable."
"But not as pleasing as the open grasslands you left behind," Faramir wryly finished the Rider's thought and lifted the full cup for his guest.
Their eyes met over the exchange.
"No," Éomer acknowledged, rousing from his sudden stillness to take the wine. "But we of the Mark find it no great thing to set aside pleasure when a sacred trust demands we defend that which we love." The Rider's light eyes coolly defied the Steward over the rim of his cup.
Faramir broke the scrutiny to refill his own glass and then raise it.
"Then let us drink to the hope that our victory has been complete, and you may set aside your labors and yet again ride the broad horizons of Rohan at your ease."
But it seemed he had only given offense, for the Rider did not join him. The man's face settled into grim lines and the fingers of his free hand clenched its palm as if searching for the feel of the leather-wrapped pommel that bore its imprint.
"There will be little ease," he asserted tightly and lowered his cup, "when the men cut down at the Fords of Isen and Helm's Deep will not return. The Deeping Wall has fallen, the Westfold vale has burned and its people put to the sword."
Dropping the Steward's gaze, Éomer scanned the room impatiently, as if the walls confined the largeness of his heart. Lighting upon the casement, the Rider strode swiftly to the open air, blinking at the thin crescent of sun that winked from the heights of the Mindolluin after the darkness of the Steward's chambers.
"There will be much to put to rights upon our return," he stated flatly and then fell dumb, resting his wine and elbows upon the hard, high sill.
With his back to the man, the Steward had naught to say in reply, but rotated his vessel on the axis of its stem, spinning the wine in its bowl. The only sound to reach his ears was the crackle of flames quickened by the rising night breeze.
'What does the Rider see?' Faramir wondered when his guest's silence lengthened behind him.
Did the empty eyes of the city stare at him in a wretched plea? Did he watch the long mounds that threw their stark shadows across the Pellenor, hoping that the men of Gondor and Rohan would throw off their blanket of turf and rise from their bed to ease the hollow pang in their loved one's arms?
"Aye, perhaps you are right," Éomer considered. "My heart will be at ease again when I and all my folk are safe in the homes that await them."
Faramir sighed without sound, staring into the silver disk that rolled about on the surface of his wine. 'Aye,' he mused, 'and then bar the door to Meduseld so that you may ne'er fear your sister's loss again.'
Taking a long breath, the Steward chanted softly.
"Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day's rising
He rode singing in the sun, sword unsheathing."
"Aye," the Rider acknowledged after a frozen heartbeat of time, "we must leave the son of Éorl among your honored dead." He sipped cautiously from his cup, the chill breath of the mountain stirring fine flaxen strands over eyes that were now more grieved than grim.
"I am sorry for Rohan's loss."
At that, Éomer regarded the man's back and the stern lines and cold, unforgiving surfaces of the chamber that gave lie to the gentleness of his voice.
"And I yours," he said finally and returned to his study of the Steward's city. "We will leave for Rohan ere two nights have passed," he offered.
"So soon?" Faramir blurted and turned, his surprise unmasking the feeling that hid behind his composed façade.
That earned him a swift, but brief glance and a quickly suppressed smile.
"Do you ride?" Éomer asked over his shoulder, shifting his weight on his feet comfortably.
"Ride?" the Steward echoed and blinked at the sudden turn in the conversation.
"You do ride, do you not?" The Rohirrim raised his cup, awaiting a reply from the man. "Horseback, that is."
As he drank, the pale eyes that flicked from the mess of papers and back to his host glittered with mischief.
Faramir eased his hips back to the edge of the marble desk, resting there and crossing a negligent ankle. "I believe I have found occasion to, now and again."
"My sister, the Lady Éowyn," Éomer explained lightly as if the Steward would have no acquaintance with the lady. He returned to squint at Gondor's landscape, leaning into the window. "- requests the pleasure of your company in the morning." "She…" he paused. "We," he amended, "would like to see more of the mountains of your land before we depart for our own. She begs your guidance."
"Indeed?" Faramir asked distantly, his eyes, at his guest's movement, captured by a niggling irregularity in the Rider's formal attire. Instead of lying flat, the man's belt twisted uncomfortably at the small of his back. No squire worth the honor of the care of the presumed King of Rohan's effects would have allowed his lord to pass into public without inspection.
The Steward hid a slow smile behind his cup, warming to this impetuous young man who had, no doubt, brushed aside his man's assistance, dressed himself in haste and stormed through the circles of the city to discover just who this Gondorian was who his sister had announced over their evening meal she could not depart without seeing once again.
"But I can convey your apologies if other duties demand your attention," Éomer turned and gestured dismissively at the laden desk with his wine, breaking into his host's thoughts.
"No," Faramir denied with a mild smile, "I would be most honored."
In the absence of the sun, the swiftness of the Rider's smile lit the room. Striding from the darkening window, Éomer drained his cup, tilting his head back to quicken the flow of wine.
"We are decided, then," he said and offered the empty goblet to his host, who took it, fine lines crinkling the corners of his eyes.
The Steward inclined his head in acknowledgement. "Trust it to be arranged."
"My sister will be most pleased," Éomer said and nodded briskly. "As will I," he added, sharing in his host's amusement.
"Upon the morrow," the Rider said by way of taking leave. But before he crossed the wool rug, he turned about and called, "You do know where to find the stables?"
"If I become lost, no doubt someone will be kind enough to show me the way," the Steward replied smoothly, standing.
The First Marshall's sudden grin was a thing of radiant wonder.
Faramir watched the twisted slip of leather, almost fondly now, recede from the room, the Rohirrim's powerful stride making short work of crossing the chamber. When the door closed behind the man, he left the room much diminished.
Faramir huffed a small laugh and raised his cup to a corner where the shadow of Denethor's firstborn would have watched the horse lord's pacing from beneath deceptively half-lidded eyes, bristled at the implied insult to his younger brother, and now eased his shoulder casually against the wall and grinned his encouragement.
"It seems you have met your measure as elder brother, Boromir," he said and swallowed the last of the wine. He turned to contemplate the mess atop his desk.
So, he was to go a-riding with the Rohirrim king and his lady sister. Faramir chuckled and wondered whether the lady was seeking gentle revenge for his recent preoccupation with matters of state or her brother wished to test his mettle. It was certain that the Rohirrim could outmatch him in both mounts and technique, but the land over which they were to travel was none but his own. It promised to be an interesting morning.
Setting down the cups, Faramir clapped his palms together and rubbed them briskly, smiling.
"Willelmus!" he bellowed, seating himself and snatching up the quill he had abandoned. Squinting at the paper, he realized twilight had settled deeply into the corners of the room. Pinpoints of light pricked the sapphire sky beyond the room's casements.
"Willelmus!" he called again and launched himself upright, dropping the quill and setting to herding the unruly papers on the floor.
Light chased across the rug, briefly setting aflame the edges of parchment littered about. Faramir leaned over from where he knelt and twitched a dispatch from under the desk.
"Yes, my lord!" the chamberlain replied breathlessly and paused at the sight of his prince on hands and knees on the floor.
"Come in, man, come in!" Faramir urged and waved him toward the wall sconces. "Light the lamps and let us force some order on this chaos!" He tossed a handful of documents onto the desk. "Where is my clerk?" he called from under the table.
"I know not, my lord," the man answered and blinked slow, wide eyes in his pale face, dumbfounded. His Lord Denethor had never acted such.
"Well, find him, Willelmus!" came the Steward's muffled voice from beneath the marble table.
When the chamberlain backed a step and the whisper of slippers interrupted Faramir's attempt to yank an unfortunate parchment from under the table's clawed feet, he looked up. Willelmus stared at the narrow alley left between the Steward's boots and the hearth.
"The lamps, Willelmus," he urged the alarmed man.
Finding his voice, the chamberlain stiffened his spine. "Aye, my lord."
Clearing his throat to strengthen his resolve, the chamberlain quickly slung his long sleeves about his wrists and delicately kilted his heavy robes about his knees. With mincing steps he navigated about and over his lord's feet with utmost care.
Faramir rose from the floor, neatly avoiding striking his head on the edge of the desk, and shuffled the papers in his hands, turning them about to align their contents.
"And a fire," the Steward commanded, nodding to the dark hearth and striding swiftly to his seat, absorbed in the topmost letter.
"Aye, my lord."
Willelmus twisted about and glanced from Steward to empty andirons, starting forward and then, seeming startled by the streaming flame from the taper in his hand, recalled himself.
Faramir peered at the dim lines before him. "And call for food!" he ordered, abruptly aware of the protests of an empty stomach.
"Aye, my lord," the chamberlain puffed, reaching high to tip the taper into one of the many oil lamps lining the chamber. At the hiss and catch of flame, he scurried to the next. The spitting of the oil softened to a whisper and the chamber brightened slowly.
The Steward reached for his quill and, after a quick dip in the inkwell, scratched his approval upon the form, only to frown at the blank space his nib left in its wake.
"Ah! Willelmus, bring me ink! There!" He gestured peremptorily over the stack of slates to a cabinet on the opposite wall.
The chamberlain followed the Steward's arm to the far side of the chamber. The man gave a slight sigh and, carefully holding the taper away from his robes, darted across the floor, trailing thin smoke behind him. He rummaged in the shelves before twisting about and careening to the table. Coming to an abrupt halt behind his prince's right elbow, Willelmus gently placed the silver well precisely within Faramir's reach.
"There you are, my lord," he wheezed, pink spots rising to the surface of his fine cheeks. The chamberlain bowed, tilting the lit taper in his hand over the marble. The man's eyebrows shot up in alarm and he snaked out a thin hand to catch the stream of melted wax before it spilled upon the documents his lord was shuffling on his desk, grimacing at the slight pain.
Oblivious, Faramir tipped a letter to the light the better to see its contents. He reached absently for the cup at the corner of his desk and lifted it to his lips. "Thank you, Willelmus."
"My pleasure, my lord." The chamberlain bowed, wincing.
The Steward looked up in surprise at the wan, moon-like features that hovered over him.
"Willelmus! My clerk!" he prompted, setting the cup aside. "Where is he?"
The chamberlain blinked, at a loss for a more coherent reply.
"Come, man!" Faramir urged his chamberlain as the man scurried to the wall to finish at least one of the tasks set for him, straining upon the tips of his toes to reach the oil lamp. "We will not know fear! We will not know pain! Whether by sword or by pen, we will thrash the hordes into submission! We have 'til daybreak and no more!"
"Move, man, move!" Faramir barked and the chamberlain picked up his robes with his free hand and frankly ran to the last lamp.
Done, Willelmus pinched at the taper's wick and glanced at the man behind the marble desk. The Steward glared back and forth between two sets of lists but remained silent. With his relief evident upon his face, Willelmus turned for the door and freedom from his lord's demands.
"Wait!" Faramir called to the chamberlain's back, struck by the meaning of the missive beneath his gaze. The man froze in place.
"Get me the Captain of the Guard! Never mind if he's at his meat, have him bring it with!"
The chamberlain whirled about, his skirts twisting around his knees, and puffed out a great gust of air.
"My lord Faramir!" Willelmus exclaimed. "Will that be all?"
Faramir looked upon the man with a preoccupied scowl. "Yes, of course, Willelmus," he said mildly and waved him out before picking up his quill. "Thank you, carry on."
The man turned and fairly fled, the door clanking shut behind him. But his prince paid him no heed. With a satisfied thud, Faramir flattened the signed letter upon a blank of marble and turned his gaze to the piles to search out the next.
And thus the Steward charged through the ranks of his foes with good and clear purpose. For the dawn promised a victory sweeter than all those that had gone before, its only victim, fear, and its prize, the human heart.
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