“Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are far, far better things ahead than any we should leave behind.”
New Year’s Day, 3019
His son had returned, after quiet deeds. He was also late. The last stroke of noon was falling away when the door to Denethor’s office opened, and Faramir strode inside. His dark hair was untidy, and he was twisting at the fastening at the throat of his formal tunic. His eyes were dark, shadows in a pale face, and he was breathing quickly, as a man might who had been hurrying.
“My lord—” he said.
“You’re late,” said his father.
Faramir’s eyes closed, briefly. Denethor walked towards him. His son’s bearing became tauter, defensive, preparing for an attack.
“Let me,” Denethor said, more gently, reaching out to straighten the fastening that had gone askew. From his pocket, he drew out a comb, which he handed to his son. Faramir dragged the comb quickly through his hair. “Better,” said Denethor. “A little.” As a child, Faramir had always had a distracted air, his mind straying easily from the world around him. Denethor had watched for any sign of this in order to correct it, and quickly.
“Thank you,” Faramir said, returning the comb. “I’m sorry I’m late. I left Ithilien at dawn…” He sounded tired, and subdued.
Denethor moved on, towards the door. “Come,” he said. “Let us complete the formalities. Then perhaps we may all take some rest.”
The festival of yestarë, the first day of the New Year, was customarily a quiet affair throughout Gondor. Festivities took place the night before, on mettarë, although such gaiety rarely pierced the rarefied upper circle of the Citadel of Minas Tirith. With the celebrations finished, the first day of the New Year was a more reflective time. Here in the Citadel a handful of lords and nobles gathered in the Hall of the White Tower, to hear some formal words thanking the Valar for the new year to come. Yet what was there to be thankful for? Their continued survival? In many ways, that seemed increasingly a burden.
Denethor led the way across the Court of the Fountain; Faramir followed dutifully behind. The Tower Guard saluted them as they passed, hands clenched into fists and placed against their hearts. When they entered the Hall, the gathered nobles rose from their seats to greet the Lord Steward. Denethor took his seat at the foot of the dais, and the lords sat again, but Faramir remained standing, behind the lectern, the book open ready for him to read.
Denethor watched him with interest. Boromir had always performed this function in the past, to great success. Boromir, who turned the mood of any room he entered, imposed himself upon a space, filling men’s hearts with courage as he passed by. Faramir… Well, thought his father. Let us see what this one can do.
The room became quiet. Faramir stilled himself, removing himself somewhat from the rest of the room. His whole bearing altered. Subtly, but profoundly, he changed, from second son to Lord of Gondor – soldier, councillor, captain of men. He was tall, and stern, dark of hair and grey of eye – a Númenorean, like his father before him, and on, back through all the years, to the tall ships and the foundered land from which they came. He began to speak. Boromir’s voice was loud, filling the space and compelling admiration. Faramir spoke more softly, but, somehow, with greater authority. He did not read from the book, Denethor saw. He knew the words, but he spoke them as if they were fresh, as if they were coming to him new. He spoke, from the heart, about Elendil’s arrival on the shores of Middle-earth, great loss behind him, long struggle ahead. As he spoke, the tragedy of Númenor became a living thing, present, a grief still to be grappled with by men and women weary with long years of sorrow and pain.
Denethor turned his attention to the room. Some of the women were crying, softly, and he thought he saw, on the faces of some of the men, the glitter of water.
Faramir finished speaking. The room was silent for a long moment, as the Lords of Gondor gathered themselves for the struggle ahead. Faramir closed the book. He rested his hand upon it for a moment, and then he turned to his father and saluted him, hand to heart, captain to lord. Standing down, he went quietly to his seat, where he sat head bowed, lost in private thought and reflection.
Denethor rose. He said a few words of his own, calm and orderly, and then he led the party out of the hall into a smaller room where refreshments had been laid out. Denethor watched his son move around the room, speaking to each noble in turn. Their wives, in particular, paid him great attention. He handled them with sweet courtesy, asking about their families, and particularly their sons. There was a kindliness about him, Denethor observed, a giving of himself that attracted intimacies. Boromir could not have charmed them better, nor consoled them so well.
Outside, the bells of the city pealed the first hour after noon, the signal for the gathering to end. They would go now, these lords and ladies, back to their homes, tall and stately town houses in the upper circles, and gather the remnants of their families around them, holding them close for what remained of the holiday. And so, too, must the Steward and his son withdraw, back to the solitary house on the upper level, defined as much by the absences and losses as by those who were still present. When the room was empty, and only the two of them remained, Denethor watched as his son allowed fatigue to show at last: the shoulders slumping, the eyes dark and heavy, a hand passed across his brow and through his hair. Softly, Denethor came over to him, and put his hand upon his son’s shoulder.
“Come,” he said. “Let us go home.”
The house was quiet. The door had barely closed behind them before Faramir began tugging at the fastenings on his stiff tunic, shucking it off and rolling it up. Not a Lord of Gondor now, but a Ranger of Ithilien returning from the field, a man wearied from long exertions and ready for rest. The boots went next; Faramir fell into the wooden chair that stood in the hall and kicked them off. One of the servants came and handed him a cup of warm wine. Faramir sat back and drank deeply. Then he closed his eyes.
“I hope you do not intend to sit in the hall for the rest of the day,” said Denethor.
“No, but for the moment even the thought of moving seems beyond my powers.”
“There is a fire in the library. You will be more comfortable there.”
Faramir nodded. He put his hands down flat upon his knees, as if to gather his strength. Then, with a sigh, he pushed himself up to his feet. He walked down the hall to the library, swaying slightly as he went. Denethor quietly issued instructions for bread and more wine to be brought. In the library, the fire crackled quietly in the hearth. Faramir wandered the room, peering at the shelves, before selecting a slim yellow volume. Poetry, thought Denethor, always poetry.
His son sat down on a low couch by the fire. He put the book upon his lap but didn’t open it. Denethor suspected it was there more for comfort than for pleasure. His eyes closed; head fell back. His breathing softened. A servant entering crept across the room and left his tray as the Steward directed on a table by his son’s side. Denethor put a blanket over his son. He stood for a moment to watch him sleep, observed the lines that were etching ever more into the younger man’s face. Stooping, he kissed his son quickly upon his brow, and left. Faramir did not stir.
They met again at supper. Faramir had washed and changed. His hair was damp, slicked back, and his grey eyes sharp and alert. There was no sign of his formal clothes now. Instead, he wore a pair of breeches that had seen better days, and a comfortable old shirt, loose around his lean frame and open at the neck. The shirt had little swans embroidered around the cuffs. His aunt had made it for him, long ago, in Belfalas.
“You look rested,” said his father.
Faramir took his seat at his father’s left hand. “I am, thank you.”
The food came, simple but good. Faramir fell on it, despatching it with swiftness and efficiency.
“When did you last eat?” said his father.
“I forget… We had breakfast together yesterday, did we not?”
“You have ridden to Ithilien and back since then.”
“Did you not eat there?”
“But you drank.”
“Father,” his son said softly. “I was with the company. It was mettarë.”
“No excuse for indulgence,” his father said, more for form’s sake than to make any genuine complaint. Faramir was famous for moderation.
“Please carry on talking,” his son said. “I’ll carry on eating, if I may.” And he did, although not before drinking deeply from a cup of clear yellow wine, which he promptly replenished. At length, he had eaten his fill. They sat and picked over cheese and fruit.
“Would you like a game of chess?” said Denethor.
“All right,” said Faramir. “I won’t be much of a match.”
“I’ll enjoy winning.”
“And I’ll start the new year as I mean to go on,” said Faramir.
They went back to the library, cups in hand, Faramir carrying the bottle of wine. A servant brought bread and the rest of the cheese. The board was already laid out for them. It was Faramir’s turn for black.
Their opening moves were swift. They were very familiar with each other’s games and it was a little while before this match struck off upon its own path, whereupon they both became deeply absorbed. About halfway through, Denethor sat back and watched as Faramir studied the board and planned his move. They had played all the time when Faramir was a boy. He had been obsessed with the game, and only his father was good enough. Watching his son now, the Steward realised that he was completely at ease, sealed in his warm home with his boy, untroubled for once by the outside world and the darkness gathering. His son was an excellent opponent, when his mind was fully on the game. This evening he was tired, of course, and chiefly interested in the cheese. Still, he blocked his father’s main assaults, moves that would have easily defeated Boromir, and once brought his father to check.
“I think,” said Denethor, at last, “that we have reached stalemate.”
His son leaned back in his chair and surveyed the board. “I think we have.”
“You played well – for a tired man.”
Faramir laughed. “You, sir, just played well.”
They smiled at each other across the board. Together, they set the pieces back in order, and then rose, and moved over to the seats. Faramir brought the tray with him, placing it on the low table by the couch, where he lay down, stretched out flat. His father sat in an armchair on the other side of the table. Faramir flicked through his book from earlier.
“Read to me,” said Denethor. “Please.”
“You don’t like this poet,” said his son.
“No, but I like to hear you read. And it will give me a chance with the cheese.”
His son smiled, vividly, and began to read. Love poetry. No, it was not much to Denethor’s taste; it was the poetry of a man who had not yet found his love, never mind lost her, but his son did indeed read beautifully. Denethor listened for a while to his quiet and passionate conviction.
“I liked that one,” he said.
“It’s probably my favourite,” said his son.
“That was clear from the reading,” Denethor said.
Faramir put the book aside. “Something else now? Something more to your taste?”
“Let’s have another of your poets,” said Denethor. “Educate me.”
“Very well,” said his son, and stood up to scour the shelves. He came back with another slender volume. “This might be more to your liking.”
He began to read. Denethor smiled. It was a book from childhood. He had read it to his sons many times, at bedtime, before they settled. A tale told in verse, half-nonsense, but with great humour. Faramir read it well, of course. One day he might read it to children of his own. Or not, as the case may be.
Denethor chose something next. History; good, solid history; an account of Mardil’s attempts to prevent Eärnur from accepting the Witch-King’s challenge. Futile, in the end, like so many endeavours. Faramir listened attentively. When Denethor was done, Faramir stretched out his arms, and then put his hands behind his head. “I think often of Mardil,” he said. “His temperance. His moderation. I wonder – had he been Steward in Pelendur’s place, whether he would have accepted the claim from the North.”
“So speaks the poet and not the historian,” said Denethor. “We can never know.” He put the book down. “What next?”
Faramir chose something from Harad next. “Forgive my pronunciation,” he said, although Denethor thought it was rather good. After that they wandered North, Denethor reading an account of a visitor from the South Kingdom to Annúminas, comparing it to Osgiliath. Long lost cities; long since gone. Faramir moved to Rohan; horse-beats and heroes.
“Your accent is atrocious,” said Denethor.
“I know,” said Faramir. “I have no chance to practice.”
The evening was wearing on. Their wine glasses were now empty, and the bottle, and the food was gone. Faramir was looking sleepy. “Last choice,” said Denethor. “My choice.”
He wandered around the shelves for a little while, returning eventually with an old, old book. Faramir’s eyes were closed, and he wondered if his son had fallen asleep, but when his father sat down, he stirred himself. “What have you brought us?”
“Old words,” said Denethor, and began to recite them. The boy’s face softened at once. Childhood prayers, learned in the nursery and almost forgotten, until now. Denethor started one for which he did not need the book. It sat upon his lap, and as he spoke he looked at his son. Partway through, Faramir recognized the words, and smiled, and joined in.
“Visit we beseech you, O Powers, this home and family, and drive far from it all the snares of the Enemy. Let your spirits dwell herein, to guard us in peace, and may your blessings be upon us forever.”
The fire crackled. Faramir sighed. “We said that every night when we were small,” he said. “Mother used to say it with us.”
“I know,” said his father. He closed the book. “Time for bed, Faramir,” he said.
They parted company at the top of the stairs, Faramir heading towards his own quiet rooms at the back of the house, whistling as he went. Denethor retired to his own great bedroom and lay down on his side of the bed. He heard, from further in the house, soft chords strummed upon an instrument, and then a few scales, stiff and inaccurate. This went on for a few minutes, and then stopped, Faramir having clearly given up the cause as lost. How long since there had been time to practice? When would there ever be time again? Tomorrow his son would return to the front, and Denethor would return to his task of pondering the Enemy’s designs.
For such a long time, now, it had seemed to Denethor that there could be only one end to their struggles. They would fight, and strive, and suffer, but to what use? And yet, tonight, some ember of hope flickered in the old man’s breast. Perhaps the turning of the year does this to us all, reminds us that time passes, and brings healing. Perhaps it was simply the sight of his son, present, wearied but undefeated, and alive. Proof of life beyond his own life. Perhaps, after all, that would be enough. Who knew, indeed, what this new year would bring?