There were few in Gondor who on once visiting Ithilien would not want to return there. But there were few in Gondor now who had cause to visit it. In days long gone, perhaps they did. When the fair land was still considered the garden of Gondor, she might have charmed many a visitor and made him want to return to her. She could still charm one who walked through her desolate wooded lands but it was a charm underlain by the shadows of the mountains to the East. None walked through the glades now save with leave from the Lord of the land.
Those who had that leave were a select few, one of Gondor’s oldest companies, the Rangers of Ithilien - a band of men who knew the lay of the land as they might know the back of their hand. A Ranger from Ithilien, it was said, might get lost in the mazes of the first circle of Minas Tirith but a Ranger who could stray his path in the dryad land was unheard of, be it night or day, be the skies clear and blue or filled with grey clouds.
Their young Captain had spent his childhood in the Guarded City. But he always felt he had truly grown up in what the poets and minstrels termed fair Ithilien, the land across the River Anduin that acted as that guardian. It was where he had entered what men considered the real world as he watched the lessons he had learnt till then take fruition. It was there that he had first sent his sword through a foe and watched him die. It was there that he had learnt from his old Captain what it meant when one pledged his services to his country. And, it was there that he had truly realised that there were times when the purpose of one’s action mattered more than that action.
It was where he liked to be; something he realised each time he rode back from his city.
“How do you find matters in Ithilien?” his brother had asked him many months prior, in one of their infrequent meetings. They did not meet as often as they might have liked, and when they did, by virtue of their posts and the state of the land, matters military were never far from discussion.
“Warmer than our city,” he had said as a cold north wind had brushed his hair across his face, and then in acknowledgment of his brother’s resigned smile, “We hold out as we always have.”
“So few the men, and so large their care,” his brother had murmured.
They were mostly men whose people had lived there in more glorious days. It was hard work to guard silently an outpost so close to that which they feared so much that even to give it a name was unthinkable. It left an ache in the hearts of these men that they whose people had once dwelt in this fair land should now hide themselves in it, blending their green and brown garb with the woods as though they were but intruders with no right to walk through.
But work silently they did, for Captain and country.
So did the men who sat in the shelter of a now decrepit outpost by the river, speaking softly to the soldiers of another company, infantrymen sent to help them strengthen the defence of the passage. They talked among themselves with the ease that men who strive together achieve.
They spoke of what may have seemed to another to be simple things – of the baker in the third circle of the city, whose efforts manifested themselves through an aroma that carried all the way around the circle, of a woman in the third level whose voice could put a singing bird to shame, of a son who had just learned to walk. They spoke of seemingly little things but the young Captain knew such things could mean much more than they seemed for the times were grim. He sat twiddling a quill intending to complete some writing work, while around him the men waited to take their turn at the watch. But he found it easier to listen to the others than to pen down a few words.
He had been with these men many years now. He had tracked the glades so often he felt he knew every inch of woodland. He had seen the seasons come and go in this fair land and lived through it all in the company of these men. The city they spoke of was the one he had lived in, the people they spoke of were people he knew or knew of. And the dreams that they had deep in their hearts were, he knew, the dreams he himself had.
He had once had dreams and aspiration as all boys do; of winning wars, of covering himself in glory, of a proud father beaming upon him as he brought home a victorious troop of soldiers to tell his father they had won the war. But he had other dreams too that not many other lads seemed to these days; of days of peace and prosperity, of returning to this land the garden they had known it as, of a day when his father would laugh and smile with he and his brother, while the gardens basked under a glorious sun and the realm flourished and the underlying fear and tension vanished. A day when people could look upon the east as the land where the sun rose behind the mountains, and not as the land from where dread and despair would set forth.
He still held onto such dreams, out of hope. And while he aspired to see the glory return to his city, he wondered too, if he might get to see that.
“They are good men,” he had said to his brother in response, “Few but good.”
“And there is more to strength than size and hardiness,” his brother had murmured.
He had smiled at that. They were words he remembered well, not just for what they said but also for the one who had taught them that many years ago.
They had stood by a high parapet looking south, watching the Anduin snake its way down, a mother and her two young sons, playing a game that the elder one had just learnt. Most adults would have deemed it silly.
He had been just about tall enough for his hands to reach the edge of the wall so that he could look over. His mother had offered to pick him up but he had declined. He was no longer a child, he had decided. Children did not get to travel outside the City much.
“I should like to be a horse,” his brother had said in all earnestness, “What would you like to be, mother?”
She had smiled, “I am what I will be,” she had said quietly. And then gazing sadly upon the two uncomprehending faces had smiled brightly and said, “I once wanted to be a bird, and to fly.”
“Faramir, it is your turn now. What do you want to be?”
“Big and tall like you,” he had replied, and his brother had laughed.
“That you will be,” his mother had replied, smiling at him. He liked to see her smile.
“What else do you want to be?” his brother had asked impatiently, “A horse? Or a bird? Or that big animal that uncle says they have in Harad.”
"It must be nice to be a river.” he had replied, unsure what they were speaking of, “To go on and on without stopping till you reach the sea.” The river went to the sea, he knew. He liked the sea. They had been there a month ago, to visit his grandfather. He had liked it very much. They had built little fortresses in the sand and had gone on a boat with his uncle, rocking over churlish waves. His mother had laughed aloud when a wave had spilled into the boat and drenched all of them in salt water.
"Without stopping? I do not think it travels unhindered. It turns where there are obstacles in its way,” his brother had said, “A very pliant one is a river.”
“Nay, not pliant, but patient,” came their mother’s reply, “True, it turns around the rocks in its path for now. But such is the strength of water that it can go as the tide requires, yet leave its mark. It will yield patiently now, but there will come a time when the hardest stone will give way to its tirelessness. There is more to strength than size and hardiness.”
He wondered if one day he might sit by the river, out in the open, and talk to his brother, as they had often done secure in the battlements of Minas Tirith. From the tall white walls where they could see it curving around the fields. They were much like the river, his brother and he. Travelling the paths they were required to by elements outside their power.
His men were speaking of the river now, he realised, as he paused in his writing. They spoke of their youth, of days spent in the quays at Harlond watching the boats come upriver and of fishing expeditions. It was as though they had returned to the inns and taverns of the city. He smiled as he heard tales of their catch, each larger than the previous one.
“But none has yet caught the big one in the Anduin, north of here where we sit,” Mablung was declaring to the infantrymen.
He smiled again. It was a tale his rangers had told so often in the taverns of Minas Tirith, he wondered if they might not believe in it.
“Aye, you are disbelieving, my friend, but it is there,” that was Damrod, “A big, black fish, so large, they say, if it wished it could turn over a craft in the water.”
“It comes from Mirkwood. They have strange beasts there. Big, black squirrels and big, black fish,” Anborn intoned.
“And you have seen this one in the water?”
“Aye. That we have.”
“Then why do you not catch it and let us behold this wonder?”
“The Captain will not have us slay wild beasts for no purpose,” Anborn shrugged eloquently.
He shook his head, still smiling and laid down the half-written work. It was time for his watch on the water. The moon was young, barely lighting the dark, grey sky when he walked out into the quiet night, fastening down his cloak as a stiff northerly wind swept along the river.
He had learnt much in his years in Ithilien and Minas Tirith and it comforted him to see his lessons had value. His orders to cease needless hunting were old and once disputed. Perhaps there was more to strength. And the hardest stone would indeed give way.
He would follow the given path, for now. And when the time came for it to yield, it would.
As he told the tale of the halflings he had encountered in Ithilien, it was not his father’s face that he watched. It was not even Mithrandir’s face that he saw although his eyes rested upon him. His mind dwelt rather upon a scene set long ago on the walls of his city. And upon the fragmented memory of the one who had shown him where his true strength lay.
Huge thanks to Nol and Sphinx for all their help and suggestions.