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A Kind of Valediction
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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1
In A Secluded Chapel

A mist had settled on the city overnight. Waiting in front of the gates and looking out, the Steward allowed his bearings to slip and, for a moment, all was turned about. Rather than standing before a wall, it seemed instead as if he faced one, and that it was at once both solid and insubstantial. He drew in a silent breath of cold air, and the sensation subsided. Then, peering ahead, he caught it - the first trickling of the watery dawn light. Behind him and above him, somewhere on the walls, a cock crew -

And the horns answered it, as they had done ten years ago; and the singing rose and washed over the assembled company, and then filled the circles of the City - as it had done ten years ago - the sound of oaths fulfilled, and promises kept, of deliverance instead of destruction. He thought he heard a soft noise behind him, but when he turned his head slightly to glance down the line of lords and captains, they were all still and set.

The Riders were naming their dead, he realized, singing their names and their deeds in the slow rolling tongue his wife used to soothe their children. Singing of men that had ridden south to defend and die for the homes of other men, and then sleep in that strange land; and singing of their old king (and here he set his hand upon her arm) whose death had been glorious. 'The dead walk with us,' she had said to him once. 'They are a part of what we are.' Gazing at the wall of mist again - which was no longer as dark but still as thick - it seemed to be moving and shifting; something was advancing. Shadows were gathering - and then were resolved, as the King of the Mark and his marshals came forth. The King of Gondor and his steward went to greet them, and then they passed through the gates into the City.

The day stayed cold, and thin. They went up through the levels slowly, halting at each gateway to remember those that had once lived on each circle and who had died, at Osgiliath, at the Forts, on the Fields. The houses around them were shrouded by the mist, but as they passed by, their owners would slip out from hidden courts and doorways to meet the procession, to hear the names spoken, to say their farewells.

The dead walk with us... Not here in Minas Tirith, he thought. Not any more. Once, perhaps, when old men had sat in crumbling halls and could not see their sons for tombs. As a boy, on winter nights, he would sit by the fire in the servants' hall and listen wide-eyed and rapt to their tales of all the empty houses in the city and their long dead masters that occupied them still. Now men who had once wept as winged terrors flew above them, who had seen evil embodied break down their very gates, whose southern lands had been delivered by the Dead - these men now laughed at tales of hauntings, called them the fancies of old women, and turned instead to talk of more important matters; of commerce, of business, of the doings of their friends - and their enemies. They opened up the long-sealed halls and filled them with their families. How quickly they had forgotten! Ten years, and the world was changed beyond all recognition. The dead walked the streets of the White City no more.

And he regretted their passing, for all it meant peace, for all it meant that the city looked now to the years ahead and not to the years that were gone. He regretted it, even as it was a validation of his own forefathers, who had not forgotten that men need sons as well as tombs, and who had, in their waiting, kept alive the hope that there would be years ahead. The world was changed. Men were no longer enchanted. The dead walked no more. And he regretted it.

They had reached the citadel now. Looking down, he could see here and there a rooftop or a spire, but the rest lay under wraps yet. All about him the company was dispersing. In the evening they would meet again in Merethrond, for while they had now remembered their dead, they had not yet celebrated their victory.

'Shall we go?'

He turned to look at his wife.

'You go,' he said, coming to the decision at last. 'There is something I wish to do first.'

She frowned, and he thought for a moment she might try to dissuade him - which would be useless, or offer to accompany him - which would not be accepted; but instead she sighed a little, and then they kissed. As they parted she brushed her lips against his cheek. 'You must not stay too long in the past,' she murmured. The dead are a part of what we are, he chided her silently, but just smiled, and nodded, and left.

***

The year that Faramir had turned twelve, summer had lasted from the middle of May to the end of September. The city had baked. The streets became dustier and shabbier, and the gardens burnt yellow. Abandoning his usual haunts in search of somewhere cooler, Faramir had spent day after day among the dead. Fenadan, the old porter, had been his conspirator in this, unlocking the gate and letting him through, all the time shaking his head and saying how there would be trouble if ever the Steward came to hear of this - although since it was their shared secret somehow his father never had. Faramir smiled at the memory of the old man now, grasping perhaps for the first time just how much he and his brother had been indulged by many of those around them, and how - without really knowing what they did - they had played without shame on the sympathy granted two motherless boys.

The old man's grandson Fenatir guarded the door now, and greeted the steward with barely hidden surprise, for Faramir had not been here once in the ten years since he had come to retrieve the crown. Fenatir took out the key and unlocked the door, swinging it open on his lord's behalf. A part of what we are, Faramir thought guiltily, as he went through. The young man was here in place of his own father, who had died on this day ten years ago. The gate was closed behind him, and Faramir looked down the winding road. The mist was not so heavy here, but enough that the far end and his destination were obscured.

That long, hot summer, Faramir had wandered the whole of Rath Dínen, but it was the House of the Stewards he had explored the most, and he came to know it as well as his home in the citadel above. Even now he could picture it vividly - the pillared front through which you passed up the steps to the porch, the heavy double doors you had to push hard; and then all the treasures within - the huge and mercifully shady chamber, the high dome of the ceiling, and line after line of marble tables. They were set in rows of four, with their ladies lying beside them, and a long aisle running through the middle; and if you began at the far left-hand corner you could name them one by one - Mardil, Eradan, Herion, Belegorn; then on to the second row - Húrin, Túrin, Hador, Barahir; the third row, with his father's and his brother's names - Dior, Denethor, Boromir, Cirion; and then past three more rows until you reached the almost empty one. There lay his grandfather and his grandmother, and then there was a gap, and then there lay his mother, and next to her was the table where his brother would lie.

At the start of the summer, Faramir had, of course, known already the names of all the stewards and their dates, but by the time October brought rain and relief, he knew the names of all their wives too, and how long they had lived and - although he suspected this was something of interest to him alone - he had learnt also from the inscriptions on the sides of each table which of his ancestors had had two sons, and what their names had been. And he came to know the faces of each carven man and woman as well as he knew those of his family that lived still. Mardil looked wise, Cirion watchful; the captain for whom his brother had been named was shown in the days of his vigour and not blighted by the wound that the books said had shrunken him. His grandsire was so like his brother that when he first looked upon him it had made him gasp - the sound echoing round the vaulted hall - and he stared at him for a long time; but he did not like to look at his mother's image, for the bleached stone bore little resemblance to the painting that hung in his father's chambers, and yet seemed to call forth memories of her more readily.

They were all gone now. Ahead of him stood the new building, which he had not seen before and, while it was built to look the same and to match the others that lined the Silent Street, the stone was newer by centuries, and it stood out. To Faramir's eye, the Street looked disfigured. He stood thoughtfully for a while at the foot of the steps, and then went up towards the porch. Each step seemed as yet untrodden. The old ones had been worn away by the passing years. He halted again at the double doors, chewing at a nail and wondering if he was doing no more than tormenting himself coming here. But the dead are part of what we are, and he knew in his heart that he could torment himself just as easily back in the citadel or even as far away as Emyn Arnen. And so it was rather wryly that he finally pushed hard at the door and went inside.

The chamber was lit by lanterns, but still it took a moment for his eyes to adjust. And then he saw to his astonishment that the place was completely empty. There was nothing here.

Faramir stood on the threshold and tried to think what it was he had been expecting. A row of tables at least, he thought, his features screwing into a frown. Only a single one, with the spaces where he and Éowyn would one day lie, and then where his little boy would be set to rest in time. He had steeled himself for this and now the absence upset him. Why are they not here? he wondered, taking a step or two forward. Had someone perhaps thought that if ever the Steward did make a pilgrimage here he would not want even more reminders of his mortality?

It was hardly as if the place was filled with them, he thought, and was surprised to find how bitter he was at this, at how much he felt... cheated. What had he been expecting, he asked himself as he walked on across the bare chamber. To see the dead? To talk to them? To see... him? Again and again, as a boy - and, now and then, as a man - he had been told he had too much imagination. But the emptiness of this place confounded him. Had he hoped for some resolution, for some kind of ending to the fear which even so long afterwards could still catch him suddenly, and beset him with doubts about himself and his place? If he had hoped for this, he would have to find it elsewhere. For here he was face to face with a blank wall.

At the far end of the hall he turned, leaned against the stone, and looked back the way he had just come. And then he put his hand to his brow and, very quietly, he began to laugh. He had spent so long avoiding this place and all it meant, and now it turned out to be something completely different. He should have come here years ago, he thought, shaking his head. Too much imagination. The dead did not walk the streets of Minas Tirith any more. How Éowyn would laugh too when he told her, and he smiled in anticipation.

A noise made him look up. At the far end of the chamber, the door was slowly closing. I did not hear the wind pick up. Then a mist began to fill the hall, swirling towards him. And I did not think the windows in these houses opened.

The mist drifted ever closer and, he realized now, it seemed to be picking up speed. All the lanterns went out. Faramir pushed himself away from the wall -

And then the mist resolved itself into something wholly familiar.

'Well,' said the Steward of Gondor faintly, as the grey fingers took him, 'I was not expecting all of you.'


To be continued...



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