'I have never much enjoyed entering the precincts of this place,' my younger brother said bluntly, as was his wont.
'Rothos!' I exclaimed. 'He might hear you! We are his guests, and it is his home.'
'Oh, do stop being so pompous, Chiron,' my baby sister said.
'Thiri, it's not kind - '
'He's only saying what you're thinking.'
She was quite right. For as children we had loathed coming to this house, but since the Steward was both our lord and our kinsman, the duty could hardly be avoided. 'Be brave,' our father would whisper to us as we waited to be admitted to The August Presence, 'and so will I.'
It was heartening to know that father shared some of our opinion of our uncle (although we never quite dared, in return, to share the nickname), and we bore it on account of our father - although each of us tried our best to avoid falling under the scrutiny of our uncle's terrible eyes. The two little ones would sit struck dumb - something of an achievement as far as Thiri was concerned, I have to say, and towards anyone else we would have felt indebted. Elphir and I did not have the excuse of youth to fall back on, but still we preferred only to speak when addressed directly, rather than attract our uncle's attention unduly. Father would be polite but, I always thought, a little distant; and as for the Steward's sons, the younger seemed to have adopted much the same policy as Elphir and I, but the older talked confidently and easily. It was only now, thinking back on those days, that I found myself wondering how much of that was to fill the gaps ere ever they had a chance to crack open.
Even now, as a grown man, I still felt a shudder go down my spine as we entered the house. The hall and the main passageway were panelled with dark wood, giving the house a gloomy aspect, even now in early summer. Not even below deck on the Foam-Flyer felt so enclosed. The thick red carpet deadened the sound of our footsteps and as we walked along my heart sank as it always used to. Naught, it seemed, had changed since last I had visited, nigh on ten years ago, and entrusted with an errand from my father. That had been an occasion; with both his sons at the front, there had been only myself and the Steward... I shuddered again.
At the far end of the hall a long bookcase ran along the wall, half its height, and here at last were signs of change. Books had been pulled out and stood in piles here and there, where before they had always been most orderly. It looked as if someone had been sorting through them, and I glanced down at the one on the top of the nearest pile - an old, thin, black volume. The Descent of the Line of Isildur and the Law of Accession in Gondor, Being the Account of the Steward Pelendur.
I supposed these matters would be at the forefront of his mind. Rather dry for my tastes, but knowing the Steward as I did he had most likely read it already, years ago, and for pleasure. Next my eye fell upon the dark blue binding of a much newer book. I ran my finger over the pattern of silver swans that edged the title - The Lay of Nimrodel. I opened the cover, and was surprised to see my father's graceful script. On the occasion of her marriage, to my beloved sister, that she will never forget her home by the Sea... I closed the book quickly, for the door ahead of us was opening, and we were brought at last before the Steward of Gondor.
And there he was, tall and thin, and dressed in black, and smiling to see us. My sister launched herself across the room at him.
'Thiri!' he said in delight. 'I won't say that you've grown, you would only hate me for it. So I shall just say that you are beautiful.' She wrapped her arms around him. He winced, and covered it quickly. I said naught, for if I reminded her now that he had been wounded, she would only be mortified at forgetting. 'Put him down, Thiri,' I said instead. 'You don't know where he's been.'
'Ithilien, mostly,' he murmured, bending down to kiss my sister on the cheek.
'That's what I mean - mostly.' He gave me a sharp, amused look. Another exchange in the ongoing feud between army and navy.
Thiri kissed him back and let him go, but he soon found himself firmly embraced once more. My younger brother's devotion to his cousin was legendary in our family, almost as much as our cousin's devotion to his own brother. I bit the inside of my lip. As we had journeyed to Minas Tirith we had received the news of the passing of both our uncle and our cousin, and since our arrival in the city we had heard more of how Denethor had met his end... How we would broach these matters with our cousin I had no idea. Each moment of each hour I longed for our father to be home again, safe with us, and I wished for him again more than ever now. He always knew what was best to say, at any time, and to our cousin in particular.
Faramir and I embraced at last, and those unspoken words passed between us, as they do between all who have fought since last they met, whether soldier or sailor. I am glad that you are safe. I am glad that you are still here for us to meet again. Then we held each other at arm's length, and looked each other over. He was smiling at me, but he looked tired and not, I thought, entirely happy. No real surprise in that, given the losses of the past few weeks, and he had also been ill. Then all of a sudden he grinned unreservedly, and looked much more like the man I knew him to be.
'What is this supposed to be?' he said, tugging at my beard.
'He says it's for convenience on board ship,' my sister reported gleefully, 'but we know that secretly he thinks it makes him look dashing.'
'You do realize you are in danger of becoming self-parody?' Faramir said, grinning even more. I rolled my eyes.
'You think I haven't heard all this already?'
'It's a hopeless case, cousin.' Rothos affected despair. 'We've tried everything. He won't be swayed. Maybe you will have more success.'
'Boromir tried one once,' he said. 'Between us, it took Father and I...' he stopped and thought for a moment, glancing around the room, 'Eight weeks, I think, before he got rid of it. We were quite without mercy...! How long are you here for, Chiron?' He smiled back at me, then caught our expressions, and the smile faded. 'It is all right,' he said sadly. 'I do not mind speaking of them... both of them.'
Thiri took his arm again, and he pressed his hand against it. But not one of us, it seemed, could think of anything to say. He frowned.
'Please,' he said, 'you are my first guests as master of this house, and there has already been so much grief... There is so much about which we can be glad... I would rather we were happy together this evening.'
And so for his sake we did what he had asked us. Our cousin fretted a little about the quality of the food, until we assured him that we were all aware that the city had until recently been under seige, but the wine was outstanding. For although the last steward had seemed to make a virtue of his austerity, his own father's wine cellar had been fabled; indeed, our grandfather had spoken of it wistfully on many occasions. I suspected our cousin was enjoying being master of more than just the house. So we ate and drank, and talked and laughed - and I listened to my sister's lively chatter, and my brother's careful pronouncements, and my cousin's quiet wisdom, and sometimes I even found the space to put in a word or two or tell a tale myself - one learns to seize whatever chances to speak come one's way in a family of our size, and of so many opinions. And we were indeed glad to be together again, but now and again our cheer seemed to me rather brittle. This house does not help; we none of us were ever at our ease here. And not one of us, including the Steward, mentioned his father or his brother again.
After we had eaten, our cousin retrieved even more wine, and we wandered outside. The night was clear and warm, and there was enough light from the house to see a little of the beauty of the gardens. My cousin stretched out on the grass, put his hands behind his head, and closed his eyes. Beside him, Rothos lay whistling something, quietly and rather tunelessly; he had had rather a lot to drink. Thiri wandered off further into the darkness of the garden, singing to herself. I stretched out alongside my cousin and looked up at the familiar stars, and through half-closed eyes and more wine than I should have had, I allowed myself to believe that I was looking at the stars from on deck, and not from the fastness of this city. Father would often say how our aunt had longed for the sea instead of the stone, and how I could believe that! My cousin loved the sea too, but I knew his heart lay more with this city, or with the hidden lands of that green country beyond the river that had been his true home for so many years now. It was something I would never fully grasp about him. He had always been, I thought, both part of our family, and yet at the same time something else.
I gazed up at the stars, and they gazed back at me, and my thoughts turned to an evening much like this, albeit in wintertime, near a score of years ago, just after our mother had died. Our cousin had spent a few weeks with us then, as the bearer of burdens, and we had been glad that he had stayed. By far the greatest of his burdens had been my little brother, who had not much liked to let Faramir out of his sight and, as the day of our cousin's departure drew nearer, Rothos stuck to him even more. Then, the night before our cousin left, Rothos became distraught, and it took a great deal of effort to coax out of him what was causing his distress.
Rothos having bribed several favours large and small from my father, told us at last what the matter was. All throughout Faramir's stay, we had needed something about which we could laugh, and had joked about how poor a ranger he made. But we had forgotten that my little brother was by far sharp-witted enough to link this story to the loss of our mother, and he had convinced himself that Faramir was going away never to return. And so our poor cousin, the night before a long journey back to his home and then on almost at once to his post in Ithilien, had to give my little brother a demonstration of his skill with a bow, so that Rothos would believe he would indeed come back. He turned out, of course, to be perfectly competent - he would not have survived even the few short years he had spent in Ithilien had he not been - but still Rothos would not be placated. He clung to our cousin. He wept. He did not want Faramir to leave. He would forget Faramir. Faramir would forget him.
By now my father was running short of both bribes and patience. Finally, in desperation, I think, Faramir grabbed Rothos' hand, and then my hand, and pulled us both into the garden. It was a cold and clear winter's night.
'Look, Rothos,' he said, kneeling down next to him. 'Look up at the sky. Do you know that star?' He pointed up at the brightest one.
'Of course I do,' Rothos said indignantly. 'Chiron taught me their names last summer, when mamma was ill again.' At that, his eyes began to fill up once more.
'Don't cry again, Rothos, please - tell me the name of the star, instead.'
'Helluin,' he gulped, unable to resist proving that he knew something.
'And you know it too, don't you, Chiron?'
'Of course I do!' Every sailor needed to know the stars, to find his way home.
'Rothos, that star is the brightest one in the sky. It's so bright that I can see it too - not just in Minas Tirith, but as far away as Ithilien. And whenever I look at it, I shall remember that you can see it too, and so I shall remember you. Will you look at it and remember me?'
Rothos swallowed, and nodded, and then opened his mouth to speak. Faramir spoke first. 'And Chiron knows the stars so well, that if you are never sure which one to look at, he can tell you. Will you do that, Chiron?' He cast me a pleading look.
'Of course I will,' I said, my voice a little more subdued.
'Do you think that will help, Rothos?'
For a moment, my brother looked unsure, and then he nodded again, and we were able to take him back inside, and settle him in bed. A little later that night, I crept in to make sure that he slept still, and then I went to look for my father and my cousin for, although I would not say it in so many words, the events of the evening had upset me too and I wished for their comfort. I heard their voices coming from the library, where the door was partly open. It was not in my nature nor my habit to eavesdrop, but something stopped me before I went running in, and I listened instead. My cousin was speaking.
'...could I truly say to him? You know as well as I that I might indeed never return...' He broke off, and I peered through the crack in the doorway. There they both were, sitting together on one of the large couches and, to my great surprise, my father had his arms around my cousin as if he were holding Rothos or even Thiri, and my cousin seemed to be weeping.
My father said nothing in response, just sat and stroked my cousin's hair.
Why doesn't he tell him that of course he'll come back? I thought, angry with my father all of a sudden. Shouldn't he be saying something to make it better?
Then, with a few deep, shuddering sighs, my cousin controlled himself. He disentangled himself from my father's grasp, straightened up, and wiped at his face. 'Well,' he said, with a laugh, 'At least you didn't insult me by telling me I'd be back for sure!'
'I would never lie to you. You're not a child.' My father smiled. 'Anyway, you could always tell when I lied to you, even when you were a child.'
My cousin smiled back at him, and then my father took his hand.
'I cannot make this war go away for you, son, much as I wish I could. But I do at least understand why it is you wish for it to go away.'
'And that is more than enough. More than I can thank you for.' He dropped his head. 'I fear I have been a poor bearer of burdens this evening...'
'Nonsense! You stopped that appalling racket that was being inflicted upon us. I tell you, son, I had come to the end of my tether with that child tonight. He was on the verge of being sold into slavery.' He pressed my cousin's hand hard and became serious again. 'And I could not have done without you this past month. You have kept me afloat, Faramir. I am very grateful.'
There is a moment, I think, when we each of us learn that those wise and all-knowing creatures around us - who protect us, and wipe away our tears, and give answers to all our questions - themselves need protection, and their tears smoothed away, and have doubts of their own. And so it was, in that instant, that I understood why my older brother had been so quiet and pale in recent months, why my cousin had become even graver since going to Ithilien, why my father had put away the bottles that used to stand around the house. And I left them to each other's company, and slipped away, back to my bed.
And this night, in early summer, a score of years later, I picked out Helluin, and then I looked sideways, at my cousin, lying beside me, his eyes shut. He still looked tired, but there was a slight smile upon his lips. Perhaps we had helped this evening after all. On his other side, Rothos had stopped whistling and was now experimenting to see whether he could balance his wine glass on his chest. I grinned, and looked back up at the stars.
'Oh...' said my baby sister, coming to sit down before us, and interrupting my thoughts completely with such a deep-felt cry of woe. 'I am so horribly drunk.' She dropped her head forlornly into her hands for a moment, and then reached for her wine glass.
'You are a disgrace to the family,' I told her amiably.
'And you are intolerable when father and Elphir are not here,' she informed me in return.
My cousin tapped her arm with the side of his boot. 'You have become quite unladylike since last I saw you, Thiri. You had best be careful, or no man will be willing to wed you.'
She snorted. 'As if that were my only concern in life!'
'Our poor sister,' said Rothos pensively, setting down his glass, 'is doomed to be an old maid. I believe that she will without doubt become just like our Aunt Tirathiel.'
I laughed out loud and our cousin laughed too.
'You are all wretched,' Thiri said. 'Each one of you. Anyway,' she added, 'there are others here who are far more marriageable...' She looked at our cousin with a mercenary gleam in her eye.
'Thiri,' I groaned, 'you promised - '
'He will have to become used to the attention of many far less sympathetic than I,' she retorted, and then turned back to Faramir. 'There must be someone in the city who has caught your eye.'
He stared down at the wine glass next to him. 'Perhaps,' he said at length.
She almost clapped her hands together in delight. 'This must be serious, since that is the most you have ever admitted! Have you spoken to her yet?'
He frowned at the glass.
'Leave him be, Thiri!' I said.
'She has not refused you, has she?' The girl was incorrigible.
'No!' he said, looking up her indignantly.
'Ah! So there is someone, and you do wish to speak but something prevents you. What could it be, I wonder? Is she in love with someone else?' She pulled a face. 'Really, Faramir, that would be just like you, to suffer the torment of unrequited love. I should imagine you are dreadfully despondent about the whole affair - '
'Thiri!' Even Rothos' sense of what was appropriate had been offended.
'Never mind,' she continued, quite unabashed. 'We are all here now to put a stop to your brooding.'
Faramir burst out laughing. 'This is entirely your own fancy, Thiri!' he said, unconvincingly. 'I have admitted nothing! And,' he added, waving a finger at her, 'I believe I am owed more respect than this. I am the Steward now... For a little while longer, at least,' he concluded.
'Do you believe that might change?' I said, startled.
He gave me a cool, grey stare, very much like his father's. 'As yet I know little of the King's intentions for his new realm.' Then his mouth twitched and I smiled back. 'We are not all princes. But there will, I hope, be a place for the last of the house of Mardil, lowly servant though I am...'
'But you met the King, did you not, ere he left?' Rothos leaned up on his elbow, his interest piqued.
Faramir laughed. 'I did, although I believe I may not have been entirely at my best.' His face took on a distant look. 'I was lost, and then I heard his voice. He called me back...' Then he seemed to remember himself and his eyes sharpened. 'We spoke... only once more afterwards, about the defence of the city. You can make your own judgements, soon enough.' He closed his eyes.
'Do you know yet for sure when they will arrive?' I asked.
'The end of the month.'
'That is good news,' Rothos said quietly. 'The best. I am glad indeed that we are here together now, but I shall not be wholly happy until our father and our brother are restored to us.'
Beside me, I heard my cousin draw in a sharp breath, as if in pain. Then he sat up, and folded his arms about him.
'Ah,' he said.
Thiri and I looked at each other in dismay. I glanced over at Rothos, who had sat up too and was staring at our cousin in great distress. 'Faramir,' he whispered, his hands fluttering nervously, 'I did not mean...' And then we all fell silent.
After a moment, our cousin began to speak. 'Fate can play some cruel tricks,' he murmured. 'How often my brother and I would quarrel! You saw us... we could each be impossible! Yet we always made our peace... But for years, with father, I restrained myself... I said naught, not even when I saw... we both saw it, that he was altering, hardening... When last I spoke to my brother, my heart was full of fear for him, but we parted with words of love. But when last I saw my father...' His head dropped. 'We parted in anger. Worse than anger.' He gave a bitter laugh. 'You have heard the end of this tale already, I should think. And you have all shown such delicacy this evening! I did not think you had it in you...'
He stopped himself dead, and then put his head into his hands. I looked around, at my brother and my sister, but they were looking back at me, as if I, as the eldest there, would find some words to say - but these were deep and uncharted waters for me. Say something, Thiri mouthed at me desperately, and I held up my hands. What can I say? For although we loved him as if he were indeed one of our family, he had had his own family, and now they were gone... I looked again at my brother and my sister. What would it be like to be left alone - and what could be said to make it better? Cast adrift, I did what came naturally, and I looked up at the stars.
'We none of us,' I began, uncertainly, and wishing with all my heart I had my father's expressiveness, or my elder brother's gracefulness, 'have forgotten... when our mother died... all that you did.' I looked over at him, and my voice seemed to gain a little strength. 'And we each of us... we cannot know in full... but we will do whatever we can... each one of us...'
I trailed off, and looked anxiously at Thiri, and she smiled at me and nodded, and then she reached out and carefully took one of his hands in her own. He sighed a little, and then turned his head slightly to look at me. 'Well,' he said quietly, at last, 'I doubt not that you did not expect to have to stand in as bearer this evening.'
'I thought he was very eloquent,' Thiri said softly. 'For Chiron.'
'Yes,' agreed my cousin, looking straight at me. 'Yes, he was.' I dropped my eyes, but not before I saw Rothos reach to touch his other hand, my cousin clasp his briefly in return, and the words pass between them in their own silent language: Forgive me; and, There is naught to forgive.
'And he speaks the truth, of course,' Thiri was talking freely again now, I noticed. 'We would each do anything to help you.'
'You are all very good to me,' our cousin said, 'Although... I believe I know already what would truly heal my heart.'
Thiri smiled at him. 'Is she very beautiful?'
He smiled back, just a little, and nodded. 'Very.'
She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. 'Then let us hope that she soon comes to her senses. The sweetest man in the realm, and she does not yield! Someone must speak to her - '
I caught the gleam in her eye again. 'Well, it most certainly shall not be you!'
Our cousin spoke at the same time. 'Sweet...?' he said, in horror.
We left not long afterwards, since it was clear that it was long past time for Thiri to be in bed. She rose a little unsteadily to her feet, anchored herself to mine and our cousin's arms, and we made our way - rather slowly - back inside.
The house was half-lit, half in shadow. As we bade our farewells, and Faramir surrendered Thiri to my brother's care, I wondered for a moment if I should ask him to come back with us, to our own home on the circle below, but I did not. Much as he loved us all, and particularly father, I knew he had felt torn in the past, disloyal even, because he found us so much easier to love. This was his home and, as he had said earlier, he was now master of it, ghosts and all.
Still, as we left him limned in the doorway, waving a slightly unsteady farewell, I worried for him, and was moved to make a silent prayer to the beautiful mystery woman, whoever she was.
Come soon, lady. Don't keep him waiting too long.
A/N: The last few paragraphs were co-written with Isabeau of Greenlea, despite it being intended as a birthday fiction for her. I'm sure it's not in the spirit of such for her to end up writing a satisfactory conclusion for her own birthday present, but that's what happened!