The bell tolled the first hour. Denethor was ready, when the hammering came at the door. He drew back the bolts, and looked out.
“So, Grey Wanderer,” he said, with a curl to his lips, “has death caught up with you at last?”
The wizard’s ancient eyes flickered beneath his brows. “Not yet,” he replied.
“And what do you wish to show me?”
“How things are, of course. What else? Will you come with me?”
“Of course,” he said, and took the hand that was offered, in challenge.
It seemed to him that they were soaring, like eagles, above the land, heading north. The plains of Rohan flew beneath, and then the mountains rose before them, sheer and ruthless. They passed over them, into lands that were dreary and empty. And then he saw, hidden behind a thicket of thorn-bushes, a group of travellers. It was late afternoon and most were sleeping; their faces were turned away and he could not see them. But the man that was sitting on watch he saw, and knew, and the pain of this vision was visceral. It was his son.
Boromir was sitting looking out intently across the bare lands ahead. Between his hands he was twisting a single piece of wood, as if he meant to make a fire. After a moment or two, he drew in a deep sigh. Then a twig snapped. He looked up and round, and then shook his head. Denethor watched in astonishment as a small figure, like a child, stepped out.
“Master Peregrin,” Boromir said, with a twist of his lips. “Not sleeping while you may?”
“It must be time to eat soon,” the Halfling answered, for Halfling it was. His voice had a wistful tone.
Boromir smiled at him. “Soon enough,” he agreed, “but I wouldn’t raise your hopes too high.” He waved the stick at him. “For we have no fire.”
“To think,” said Pippin mournfully, sitting down beside him, “that today is the first day of Yule. At home, we would preparing a feast...” And then he began to list all the food he might expect at such feast.
“Enough!” said Boromir, at length, lifting his hand, and laughing. “Have some pity! You are not the only one eager to eat well!”
Pippin laughed back, good-naturedly. “Do you celebrate Yule too, in your city?” he asked.
“We mark the year’s end, yes. We call the day mettarë.”
“And how do you celebrate it?”
“When it goes dark, we say some words, and light a candle,” Boromir replied, “and then we pass the light around, and light other candles from it.”
“That doesn’t seem much of a celebration!” Pippin looked horrified. “No feasting? No dancing?”
“In some places, yes,” Boromir replied. “Less so, in the Citadel of Minas Tirith.”
“But it’s a fine time of year to make merry! Why don’t you?”
Boromir shifted forwards slightly, and rubbed the stick again between his palms. “My mother died at around this time,” he said, at last, “and we buried her on mettarë. It’s seemed a sad time of year ever since.”
“I’m sorry,” Pippin stammered. “I didn’t mean... Still, you have other family, don’t you? A brother, didn’t you say? Is he like you?” Pippin paused to take a breath. “Your brother, I mean?”
A smile crept across Boromir’s lips. “He’s shorter,” he said.
“And your father? What’s he like?”
Boromir looked past him and frowned, almost as if this was a matter he had never before considered. Denethor listened closely.
“He’s like Faramir,” his heir replied at last. “But older.”
“Will they be together today?” Pippin asked. “Lighting candles?”
Boromir gazed out across the empty lands. “Perhaps,” he said. “Perhaps my father will keep him in Minas Tirith. Although, if I know my brother, he would rather be with his men in Ithilien.”
“I would have liked a brother. And instead, I got three sisters. Maybe I’ll meet your brother one day.”
“Maybe,” murmured Boromir. “Although my home is very far from here.”
“There and back again,” said Pippin, cheerfully. “That’s what a journey’s all about. I have that on good authority!”
Boromir began to laugh, and Denethor smiled at the sight. And then he felt the wizard touch his arm.
“Do not take me away from him!” It came out before he could stop it, and he turned to see Mithrandir gazing at him. Is that pity? Denethor wondered, and the thought was bitter.
“I must,” Mithrandir said, gently. “There is something else to see.” He raised his staff, and the world shimmered and shifted...
...and Denethor watched as three cloaked men walked together down some narrow rock steps. There was a sound of water falling close at hand. The steps opened upon a great chamber of rock, and the men passed through it, and into a little recess at the back. The air was cold and damp. The tallest of the men gestured to the others to sit, lit a candle in an alcove in the wall, and then sat down himself.
“How long are you here, captain?” the younger of the three said.
“I must be back in the city by noon tomorrow.”
“Short trip,” the third man observed.
“Duty calls, Mablung,” Faramir murmured, taking off his gloves, and reaching into his pack to draw out a bottle. “My cousin gave me this; he brought it back from some voyage or other.” He pulled out the stopper, sniffed at the contents, and winced.
“Shall I handle that for you, captain?” the youngest man asked.
“No, Damrod – but you can stop smirking and pass me those cups.”
Damrod grinned and did what he was told. Faramir poured out the liquid and handed out the cups. They all drank. Damrod coughed. Faramir gasped. Mablung eyed his cup with a new respect. “I’m tempted to say we should save this for medicinal purposes,” he said, “but it’s the warmest I’ve been in weeks.” He waved his cup at Faramir, who filled all three of them again.
“Which leads me to ask, captain,” Mablung carried on, quietly, “when can we expect new men?”
Faramir stared down into his cup. “There will be nothing more for Ithilien, neither men nor supplies,” he said, then raised the cup and drank the contents. “The company will not be this side of the river beyond tuilérë.”
“None of us?”
“None of us.”
Damrod sighed, slumped forward in the chair, and set his chin upon his hand. Mablung’s eyes glinted in the dim light.
“All our effort,” he said, shaking his head. “All for naught. We should have stayed across the river when the bridge went down.” His tone became resentful. “All that blood spilt. All those young men... and this blasted cold! If the Steward ever cared to leave his comfortable fireside he might feel a little differently about Ithilien—”
“Remember, lieutenant,” Faramir cut through, “of whom you speak.”
There was a chilly pause. Mablung stared down at the ground. Faramir sighed, his breath curling in the air, and then reached out with the bottle again. As he filled Mablung’s cup, their eyes met, and they looked at each other regretfully.
“I’m sorry, captain.”
Faramir nodded, then picked up his own cup and swirled the liquid around. “At least,” he said, “it means an end to hiding in caves in the middle of winter.”
“Will we even see another winter, I wonder?” Mablung muttered under his breath.
“Of course we will,” Damrod said, doggedly. Mablung and Faramir exchanged glances.
“Confidence of youth,” Mablung said.
“Don’t begrudge him either,” Faramir replied. He stood up – the other two following suit – and then raised his cup. “Well,” he sighed, “to the company, gentlemen – however long we have left.”
They raised their cups back. “The Rangers of Ithilien,” Mablung agreed. “First in and last out,” Damrod added.
And so they were all smiling as they downed their drinks, and then Faramir looked sharply at both his lieutenants. Behind him the candle guttered and then flared up again.
“Not a word of this to the men,” he said.
“Of course not, captain.”
“Then... let’s go and light the candles and drink to the Steward’s health.”
And not even Denethor, who had taken the trouble over the years to become more attuned to his son than any other man alive, could catch a note of bitterness in his voice.
“They are good men, your sons,” Mithrandir said, from beside him. “Sons to fill a man with pride.”
“It is a pity,” the wizard finished, “that you sent them both away.” And then he vanished.