To say that I was weary was to say that Arwen was pleasant to look upon, or that Pippin was a curious hobbit. In eight short days, I had brought the army of the Dead to Pelargir, taken the Umbari ships and sailed them to the Harlond, where, with a force of a few thousand men of Gondor, thirty Dúnedain, two Peredhil, an Elf and a Dwarf, we surprised the assembled might of Mordor and turned the tide of battle. I had cleaved my way through hosts of orcs, trolls, Southrons and Easterlings to Éomer's side and we clasped hands amidst the carnage, as I had promised him we would. After the battle-rage had faded from my blood, and after I had rejoiced in the saving of Minas Tirith, my heart had been stricken by the numbers of the dead. Our victory was bitterly won. Théoden King had fallen, fighting bravely, I was told; rumors heralded that he, or another Rider, had slain the Witch-King. The air was filled with the smell of smoke. The blood of too many men had been shed, including my own kin.
After sunset, I could finally leave the care of the living and the dead to others and seek solitude in my tent. Before they left to aid in the burning of orc-corpses, my foster-brothers had planted the banner of the Dúnedain at the entry. The other banner, that announced my kingship of this war-torn realm, would be unfurled again only when Sauron was overthrown. I wanted nothing more than to cast myself down on my bedroll and sleep through the night. My hands shook so hard that I could barely hold the tin cup into which I poured what little miruvor I still had. I did not feel like a king returning in triumph to his lost kingdom, or even Captain Thorongil coming back to the City that had acclaimed him. I was simply a tired soldier who knew that this great battle brought the forces of Light only a momentary reprieve from the Darkness that threatened us all.
I am not unused to war. But that night it seemed like my long life had been but a series of battles and losses: of comrades, friends, kindred. My father, whom I could not even remember. My mother, faded and gone before her time, worn by my constant peril. Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor, who treated me like a son. Boromir, whom I did not reach in time to save. He should have been here in this tent, drinking with me to celebrate the deliverance of his beloved White City. And Halbarad, my valiant cousin, my friend since childhood, who journeyed South for my sake and fell on the Pelennor while bearing the standard proclaiming me king. O, but I was tired of the battles, the deaths! And there would be more to come.
I yearned for Imladris, that green and fair valley never stained by blood or darkened by the Shadow. And Arwen. I wanted to see her, to hear her voice. I wished that Elrond, who had soothed so many of my youthful cares, were here. Hot tears burned unshed in my eyes. Could I spare the time for the respite of sleep? Perhaps I would dream of my lady, so far from me. At least, being far from me, she was far from strife and therefore safe.
As I rubbed my tired eyes, Gandalf entered the tent. He too must have seen hardship of late. His fair white robes were tattered at the edges and dulled by the residue of smoke. His face was shadowed and his staff was gone, yet his eyes brightened when he saw me.
"Gandalf; I am glad to see you unhurt." I greeted my old friend. "Please, take a seat." I rose so he could rest his older bones on the stool, then sat down on the ground.
"Alas, there is no time for sitting or taking of ease." Gandalf said gravely.
No time? Surely a mere hour's rest could be allowed! But when I looked up at the wizard’s face and saw the burden of care etched upon it, I was ashamed to have thought first of my own comfort.
"What is amiss?"
"Great grief has come to pass within the City as well as without. The Steward of Gondor lies in the Houses of Healing, close to death."
"Denethor is dying?" It had been nigh on forty years since I had last laid eyes upon Ecthelion‘s son. Our parting, like most of our dealings together, had been respectful yet sharpened by his veiled rancor like the tingling in the air before a storm. I had not looked forward to the prospect of meeting him again when I returned as Isildur's Heir. Still, Denethor was steward in the king's absence, and long a bulwark of Gondor. I had always hoped that we might one day find a way to make our peace. He deserved the courtesy due his rank, and the goodwill I owed any son of Gondor. If he was soon to die, I should at least speak to him, assure him that we would hold the City.
"No," answered Gandalf, to my surprise. His head was bowed. For a moment I saw more distress than my ancient and more than mortal friend usually revealed. "Denethor fell earlier this day. I speak of his younger son, Faramir, who is Steward now."
Having left Gondor before Faramir’s birth, I knew only what our lost comrade had told us of his brother, which was little. While the hobbits had merrily chattered of their parents, siblings, grandparents and second cousins twice removed during the days of our Fellowship, Boromir had guarded his own family memories like secret treasure. He had spoken only briefly of his younger brother, with an almost wistful longing unusual in so stern a warrior. I had my own recollection of Boromir’s kin, from the days when Ecthelion had generously welcomed Thorongil to the steward‘s own home and hearth. Now Ecthelion’s line was sadly diminished. Faramir, whom I knew not, was the last of that proud house.
“This is grievous news for Gondor,“ I said. Suddenly I felt every one of my eighty-eight years. So many brave men had fallen, while I lived on, growing old and gnarled like a yew tree! I sighed and bent my head.
I heard Gandalf speak again: “Other lands will grieve this day. Meriadoc and the Lady Éowyn also lie near to death in the Houses of Healing.”
The fell tidings dispelled my self-regard. “Merry is wounded?” I asked. “And how did the Lady of Rohan come to harm?”
"She was found on the Pelennor, attired as a Rider of Rohan. To shorten a longer tale, the Lady and Merry were both wounded by the Witch-King ere he fell. They lie in a swoon, chilled and weakened, sinking into nightmare. The Healers call it the Black Shadow."
"Merry and Éowyn should never have come to the field of battle, much less have fallen on it!” I exclaimed. Ill was this day’s harvest indeed! The Black Shadow, which we in the North oft called the Black Breath, was an evil pestilence, usually deadly for those in whom it took hold. I thought of the cheerful hobbit and Éomer’s fair sister, shriveling and dying like flowers in winter’s first frost. My heart began to pound. I prayed that the healers were wrong, that Merry and Éowyn suffered from some lesser ailment. Recalling Gandalf’s concern for Denethor’s son, I asked: “And the young Steward, Boromir's brother? Was he hurt in the day's battle as well?"
My old friend sighed deeply. “Nay. Faramir fell to an arrow two days ago, leading the retreat from the outer defenses after they were over-run. Now he burns with a fever that does not abate. I fear that his sickness comes also from the Shadow.” Gandalf’s voice dropped. “The Healers say that there is no hope for him, or Éowyn or Merry, save perhaps one."
"I will come,” I vowed, feeling my aching muscles protest as I rose, "I am not a master of the healing arts, but I have some knowledge and will do what I can for them. What is this one hope the healers mention?"
Gandalf finally smiled again. "Why, you, of course. They say that the hands of a king are the hands of a healer."
"I would hear whatever news you might have,” I countered. I sensed that Gandalf had not told me the entire truth of this tale, or much else that had passed while I had taken the Paths of the Dead. And I was in no mood to speak of kingship.
“First, you should hear the word that Faramir brought us from Ithilien: Frodo and Sam are alive, and nearing Mordor; with luck they have reached it by now.“
“That is good news indeed!” I was newly grateful to Denethor‘s son for the hopeful tidings he had brought us. “Gandalf, tell me all.”
I found my cloak and hastily fastened it with the Elfstone brooch. We left the tent and made good speed through the City’s broken gates and up her winding circles. As we walked, Gandalf gave the full account of Faramir’s message: how he had succored the hobbits in Ithilien and sent them away provisioned, knowing that Frodo carried the Ring.
Gandalf also told me the sorry tale of Denethor’s last days and his fateful use of the Stone of Anor. I had borne the searing touch of Sauron’s mind but once, when I had challenged him through the Orthanc-stone. It had taken all my power, and a glimpse of Elendil’s sword, to rout that vast and hideous strength. Had Denethor’s pride led him to grapple with our Enemy through the Stone over the long years, and believe he would prevail unscathed? That shameful death, the blood spilled in the Hallows - more trophies for Sauron, curse him! Remembering the proud and strong lord I had once known, thinking of him now reduced to a mess of charred bones, I kicked out in vexation at lifeless pebbles in my path.
I expelled my ire with a sigh. There would be time later to mark Denethor’s passing, to mourn what had been, and what might have been. Denethor was beyond my help, but there were others whom I might yet aid.
We reached the door of the Houses of Healing at the same time as Éomer and Imrahil. The sea lord wondered who now ruled the City. As did I. Not until our Enemy was cast down would I think of any lordship beyond the Captaincy of the Dúnedain of Arnor. The prince’s notion that I should take up the City’s rule this very night was unwelcome. I felt no more or less a king than I had before the battle. For many long years I had awaited the right time to reclaim the throne of my distant fathers. It would not be well done to seize lordship here so soon after the death of the man who should have been my steward, while his heir lay wounded and fevered. Too many hearts were heavy with death and sorrow. Since my counsel was asked, I advised that Imrahil should rule the City until Faramir awoke; and that we should all defer to Gandalf‘s counsel.
I entered the House. There I saw, to my joy, an old - or rather a young and well-met - friend. Pippin stood inside the door, clad as a guard of the Citadel. He was hale and unmarked; though I thought I saw new sorrow in his face. Ever curious, he asked “Strider” to stay and exchange travelers’ tales. I would indeed grant his wish in the days to come - if we still lived! Imrahil suddenly challenged Pippin‘s use of that name, as if we all had nothing else to do than bicker about details. Imrahil had certainly cared little for rank when he had hailed me as Thorongil at battle’s end not so many hours past. But perhaps it was easier for him to talk of titles than dwell on the changes this day had brought. Whatever his reasons, the prince’s words demanded an answer. My hand strayed toward the brooch that held the Elessar. I remembered that the Lady of a house far older than Dol Amroth had given me the stone and bound it to my own destiny. I closed my hand around the Elfstone and turned back to Imrahil.
“Truly said, for in the high tongue of old I am Elessar, the Elfstone, and the Renewer,” I told the prince. If he wanted titles and names, I had more than enough to spare! I unfastened the brooch so that Imrahil could see the brilliant green stone in the lamplight. “But Strider shall be the name of my house, if that ever be established. In the high tongue it will not sound so ill, and Telcontar I will be and all the heirs of my body.” There! It was said. I would keep the name of Strider, as a sign of my long travels, for better or ill.
“Let me see these wounded folk,” I entreated, and refastened the brooch to my cloak. Gandalf guided me toward the rooms of the three whom I had come to attend. As we walked, he spoke of the Lady Éowyn and Merry’s matchless deed on the Pelennor. I was amazed! That sorrowful scrap of a girl, aided by the small hobbit, had laid low the terrible lord of the Nazgûl himself? And yet, the unlikelihood of the deed eased my heart. Many songs would be sung of the shieldmaiden and the halfling who had slain the Witch-King. I hoped that they would live to hear such well-earned praise.
I prepared to judge my charges’ hurts, to better determine the strength of their will and learn if they could assist in their own healing. I must find athelas, fresh or recently culled. It was the only herb strong enough to counter the Shadow. I would have gone first to Merry, remembering Frodo‘s torment from his morgul-wound. But Gandalf insisted I come to the chamber of the Lord Faramir.
I approached the wounded man. Then I paused, shocked as I looked upon the new Steward of Gondor. For it was as if I beheld Denethor lying there: Denethor as he had appeared long ago, when we were both Captains of Gondor. Boromir had possessed his father’s lordly bearing, but he had been more sturdily built and somewhat broader of face. This younger son of Denethor seemed the very image of his father. He had the same black hair now lying lank on the pillow, similar dark-winged brows, along with Denethor’s high-bridged nose and strong chin. There was a look, even in his illness, of a proud falcon in that angular and familiar visage. I could imagine him waking to ask in Denethor’s peremptory voice what I was doing at his bedside.
Pulling back the coverlets and robe, I examined him. He was indeed fevered, his skin warm and soaked with sweat. He had taken an arrow wound to the left shoulder. I lifted the bandages and inspected the injury. The arrow had mercifully missed the heart and struck the collarbone. I carefully passed my hand along that bone, feeling for changes in the Elven-fashion, with my mind as well as my fingers. As I’d thought, there was a break. It was a simple fracture; but would curtail the use of Lord Faramir’s left arm for several weeks while the bone healed. He would have pain for many days, and must be made to keep his arm in a sling for many more, if he survived this night. The wound itself emitted neither the foul odor of infection nor the telltale chill of a Morgul weapon, and seemed to be mending well enough.
What then was the source of this fever? His body bore the usual lesser marks of battle, cuts and scrapes, all healing properly. I searched his head for any sign of damage and found none. Both his right arm and hip were sorely bruised, though not broken, probably from a fall. Throughout my examination, the son of Denethor lay still and silent. It seemed to take all his strength to breathe; and his breathing was very faint indeed. The Black Shadow usually chilled its victims. The fever’s presence could signify that he was fighting the blight’s advance. But he was failing fast, and I could not yet tell why.
Looking again on the young lord’s face, I noticed deep circles beneath his closed eyes. Gandalf had spoken of assault by the Nazgûl. Had he suffered some other hardship?
”Very well then, Captain” I spoke softly. “Let me see your quality.” Taking his hand in mine, I initiated a healer’s trance and opened the recent memories of Faramir of Gondor to my own mind:
I felt his grief for Boromir, like a wound that could not close, and the grim knowledge that all the hopes of his realm and his father were now vested in him alone.
I knew his certainty that there was little hope ahead, that the storm was coming, that his plans could only delay rather than prevent their fall. And I heard his silent vow to fight on, save as many of his people as he could.
I saw him find three strange wanderers in Ithilien - Frodo, Sam, and Sméagol! I trembled as the Ring called to him, and then I sighed with weary relief as he cast the temptation from his heart. His pity for Frodo’s dire mission moved me, and I was glad at the kindness he showed them in his friendship, as he renewed their spirits along with their provisions.
And then the darkness engulfed him on the Pelennor, with a terrible onslaught of Fell Riders swooping down on him and his party as they rode to Minas Tirith. My own body shivered as one of them dived for him, the screams piercing his heart, as a chill worse than any winter wind blasted forth from the shadowed Rider, freezing limbs and slowing heart. He gasped out the name of Elbereth then, again and again, each cry louder and braver. The very name of the Lady of the Stars lightened his limbs, and made the Rider recoil…Despite the remaining cold lingering within him, he turned his frightened horse back to his scattered men, sounding his horn and rallying them. He shot an arrow that wounded one of the Riders’ great flying beasts, but it was not enough to turn back the hideous flock. Then I exulted with his joy unlooked-for, as the winged shadows were repelled by a white rider on a silver horse, and the white rider was one he thought dead.
And I quivered with his sudden weariness, the coldness that abated but did not leave him, the numbness in his hands, the chill that seemed to strike behind his eyes like drops of freezing rain. He craved rest, and quiet, to try to rid his mind of the echo of that knife-edge scream, but he must first see to his men and then bring news to his lord. He hoped to snatch some food, perhaps a few hours’ rest.
A fainter memory lingered, of such coldness striking him before … in the long night at Osgiliath last summer, an evil, unseen presence lurking in the dark, a touch of this same frost.
The recollections flowed on like the bitter waters of the Morgulduin….
Though Faramir took refreshment in the White Tower, he found no rest there, only his father’s scorn over his release of the Ring-bearer. Denethor clung to his old mistrust of Gandalf and his new grief for Boromir’s death--and used both like whips to scourge his surviving son. The next morning Faramir left again, sent by his father on an ill-starred mission. Denethor had given his son neither a father’s blessing nor a commander’s encouragement. My heart grieved with Faramir’s sorrow. That parting was as bitter a wound as any to be dealt in battle.
Then he put aside his anguish and rode proudly to the Anduin. His last days’ memories were grim: watching his men die as they bravely resisted an enemy ten times their number at the Forts; striving to hold the retreat together as more and more of the foe poured through the breached Rammas; battling pace by pace across the Pelennor, cutting down all that came against him; praying he could last long enough to see his men reach the City Gates…But he grew ever more weary, the deathly cold sapping his strength. The sunless, sullen sky, all the time, night without dawn, wearied them all. And the Nazgûl had come again, their shrieks maddening the horses and men around him. Faramir had only a dim memory of the arrow that finally felled him; his rage at being so taken from his beleaguered men had loomed uppermost in his dimming perception.
I had shared enough of it.
Faramir had indeed been beset by the duress of long battle, well before the arrow had felled him. Through all the memories of this wayworn captain, a rare courage shone clearly, like a vein of mithril under dark waters. Few men would have had the strength to even think clearly amidst the Riders’ assault, much less shepherd others under the Ringwraiths’ attack. Faramir of Gondor had held a grim and steadfast resolve, even when facing hopeless odds. Yet fortitude would not suffice to save him now. The Black Breath had too deep a foothold in the wounded and weary man. It had touched him first but lightly, like a cold ghostly claw, during the battle of Osgiliath so many months ago. Then, in these last days, the Wraiths had blasted him again. Faramir already carried the blight when his father’s cold words drove him forth again the next morning. I could see Sauron’s evil at work here. Unable to overthrow Denethor’s will through the Anor-stone, the Enemy had struck at the steward’s only remaining son, to break what remained of Denethor’s heart and the City’s hope. And now Faramir’s spirit, the mind I should be able to touch in the present was gone from here, dragged deep into Shadow by the Enemy’s spite.
I rose. I must know if Merry and Éowyn could wait for healing, for the Steward lay in the gravest peril. At least I now knew that Faramir was not a man to surrender easily. But he was already close to death, and I knew not how long it would take to even find his captive soul, much less free him.
I found the Lady Éowyn’s memories burdened with despair. How could this young and fair daughter of kings have driven herself so hard in the pursuit of death? I regretted that her misplaced affection for me had added to her misery. Still, for all Éowyn’s sorrow, she had fought the fearsome Lord of the Nazgûl for love of Théoden King. Perhaps her embittered heart might yet be warmed, like an ice-covered tree that thaws and blooms in the spring. But first, her wounds must be mended, and her spirit drawn from the Shadow’s grip.
The hobbit’s recollections were of less somber a nature than the others; at least until Théoden fell and the Witch-king’s unleashed his evil breath upon Merry even as the hobbit bravely struck the wraith. Hobbits fall not easily into despair. This particular hobbit was well-named. His merry soul would heal easily, if I could but free him from the Enemy’s hold.
I had seen Elrond heal those tainted by the Enemy‘s minions and weapons. I remembered his delving deep into the shadow-world to retrieve Frodo, even while he used his hands to bring forth the splinter of the Morgul-blade from the hobbit’s body. I had felt the wraiths’ deathly touch myself, though I had moved too fast for their sickness to take hold. The Black Breath seized its victims with far greater speed here, so close to Sauron’s foul lair, than in the windswept wilds of the North. Now it had overtaken the Lady of Rohan, my brave friend Merry, and Denethor’s son. If unchecked, the Shadow’s accursed poison would harrow their souls as it killed their bodies.
I looked up to see Éomer, Gandalf, Imrahil, Pippin, and an elderly nurse eagerly awaiting my news. I wished I had more reassuring tidings for them. “Here I must put forth all such power and skill as is given to me,” I said. “Would that Elrond were here, for he is the eldest of all our race, and has the greater power.” I sorely missed my foster-father’s presence. Elrond might be able to save these three valiant souls, but could I? I was tired. And never before had I gone so deep into the healing trance as would be needed to free them from the Shadow. I sighed softly. They must be saved; and it fell to me to do it. For I had the power, they had the need. And there was no duty I hated more, as captain, chieftain or healer, than giving tidings of death to folk whose loved ones had died in my charge.
Éomer must have heard me; for he quickly threw me a comradely glance. “First you must rest, surely, and at the least eat a little?” he suggested.
I would gladly follow his suggestion, since the healer's trance would soon leech even more of my strength! But the wounded ones could not wait on my taking rest or food. “Nay, for these three, and most soon for Faramir, time is running out. All speed is needed,” I answered. I deemed their Steward had at most two hours left to him. Éowyn would probably perish by midnight, followed soon after by poor Merry. But some time was better than none at all. Now, by the hope for which I was named, I knew there was a chance to save all three of them!
Despite my stated need for haste, it took precious minutes to impress the importance of procuring athelas upon the gabby old wise-woman. With some surprise, I realized that it was Ioreth, who had been a matron of the Houses in Ecthelion‘s time. Age had not slowed her tongue, nor her willingness to use it. After she had left at last, I returned to Faramir’s room and bade the other attendants heat some water in preparation for the herb’s usage. I sat again by the steward’s bedside and brushed his hair aside to feel his forehead. The heat of his skin had risen since last I touched him. But what was this? The man’s hair held a trace of something wet and slick. Then I remembered Gandalf’s account of Denethor’s madness. He had set his helpless son upon the pyre, poured oil on him and summoned a torch to set them both afire. I could not suppress a shiver. I have seen much of cruelty in my travels, from orcs, goblins, and even Men; yet this tale of Denethor’s fall troubled me greatly. I hoped indeed that Faramir had been too fevered to know of his father’s deeds.
Gandalf and Imrahil approached as well, their eyes fixed on the sick man. They both knew that Faramir was failing. Why had the nurse not returned with the athelas? Would the healers let their Steward die for want of it? Nay, that was over-harsh; the herb’s value was little known here. Some City-folk had kept the kingsfoil plant in their own homes, but only to freshen the air.
Gandalf sighed heavily, looking very old. There was one question I had not asked. Turning to the wizard, I said, “He is nearly spent, but this comes not from the wound.” I showed him and Imrahil the gash. “See! That is healing. Had he been smitten by some dart of the Nazgûl, as you thought, he would have died that night. This hurt was given by some Southron arrow, I would guess. Who drew it forth? Was it kept?”
As I refastened the bandage over the wound, the Prince recalled how he had drawn forth the arrow. He had thought the dart sent by one of the Nazgûl who had harried Faramir’s force from above. “How then do you read the matter?” Imrahil finished, his grey eyes beseeching me for hope I could not yet give.
“Weariness, grief for his father’s mood, a wound, and over all the Black Breath,” I answered. “He is a man of staunch will, for already he had come close under the Shadow before ever he rode to battle under the out-walls. Slowly the dark must have crept on him, even as he fought and strove to hold his outpost. Would that I had been here sooner!”
The herb-master appeared, only to announce that they kept no kingsfoil in the Houses of Healing. He sputtered on about the herb’s divers names, and recited the old rhyme about the strength of athelas in the king’s hand. Four pairs of eyes now regarded me expectantly: those of Gandalf, Imrahil, Pippin, and the dour City Guardsman who had apparently attached himself to Faramir’s side. I knew what the rhyme implied. Did they expect me to doff my cloak and reveal the shade of Isildur himself? I had not come here to be anyone’s king this night. I had come to heal these three stricken warriors. Without the athelas’ special virtue, my chances of saving them worsened with every moment! Yet the longer I waited, the more my own weariness increased, dulling my wits when I needed them most. Soon I would have to go out and seek the kingsfoil myself! And I was needed here! Gandalf must have heard me hiss in frustration, for he turned on the herb-master and cried: “Then in the name of the king, go and find some old man of less lore and more wisdom who keeps some in his house!”
The herb-master departed. I looked once more upon Faramir’s face. It seemed to have greyed even more in the last few minutes, despite the feverish color in his cheeks. I could wait no longer to begin. I went to the basin and washed my hands with soap, noting that the water had cooled. I instructed Gandalf that the water must be boiled again; and that he should go out and fetch the athelas if it was not brought within an hour’s time.
I took several calming breaths, marshalling all my will and powers in quiet meditation as Elrond had taught me long ago.
Hail Estë, Healer of Hurts; to you I dedicate this work.
Thank you, Master Elrond, for fostering me, giving me your knowledge, and teaching me the skill to use it.
My thanks, Ecthelion, for treating me more like a son than a captain.
Denethor, would that I had come in time to save thee from despair! I could not heal thee; but I will heal thy son.
I am coming for you, Faramir, I gave one more silent vow. I will find you and bring you home.
As I bowed my head, I glimpsed the sparkle of the Elessar stone. Perhaps the Elven heirloom, borne long by my own lady and her wise foremother, would help, at least as a light in the darkness I must enter. Now was the time. I placed my hand once more on the brow of Faramir of Gondor, and began to call him, slowly loosing myself from the bounds of the Middle-earth, and drifting toward the place where he had been taken.