The view from the window was of a seemingly quiet and peaceful city. So quiet did it appear, that for a few brief seconds one could be deluded into forgetting that war might descend upon them any day. But then, Faramir knew quite well that a storm was invariably preceded by calm weather. He did, after all, come from a long line of sailors on his mother’s side. And it seemed strangely fitting that he now awaited an audience with his father. If not actually stormy, the proceedings could certainly leave a cloud over any who met the Steward these days.
It was cold in his father’s study. The window was open and the grate, unlit. Minas Tirith could get quite chilly even when the winter was dying out for the winds from the north blew across it unfettered and the icy coldness they carried seemed, to him, to seep into everything.
A raucous screeching interrupted such sombre, disjointed musings. It rose out of the trees in the garden below. Magpies, he deduced, and was more than a little surprised, for spring was as yet approaching. They flew out of the branches, still screeching, and landed on a parapet below the window. He could see a cat clawing at the trunk of the tree. Then his eyes settled on the magpies once again. There were three of them.
“Three for a letter,” the squeaky, young voice of his brother spoke up in his head. A long forgotten rhyme came back to him as the noisy birds scattered and flew off elsewhere. The cat slinked off quietly.
“One for sorrow, Two for Joy, Three for a letter, Four for a boy,” the words tripped out involuntarily, making him smile as much for the memory from his childhood as for the hope that the words might come true.
His brother had heard it many years ago from Ioreth, in the houses of healing, and had chanted it all through the warm summer days; the first line accompanied with a deliberately wide smile and the second with a comical frown, much to their parents’ amusement. Faramir had learnt it too, but then the winters came, and the magpies left and the rhyme lay forgotten. Until this day - it came back now with startling clarity.
“Three for a letter…” he repeated softly to himself.
The cloud seemed to lift and his mood lightened. He shook his head, smiling a little at how the childish notion had suddenly gripped him, and continued pacing up and down the room as he waited. But the next time his steps carried him near the window, his eyes strayed towards the great gates of the city; looking for a carrier, an errand rider, or anyone who might carry the news all of them had awaited for months; he, more than most. His brother was not much of a letter writer, and more so on a long journey, but he might have passed some word along in some manner.
“I would have you return to Ithilien soon. There are reports of movement along Harad Road. Men marching north, I am told.” Denethor’s mood, when he arrived, was much as he had expected it to be. But he found he didn’t mind it as much as he had thought he might have.
The screeching sounded out again even as Faramir nodded and glanced down at the map on the table. He could sense a frown on his father’s face as his head swivelled instinctively towards the window.
“Three for a letter…”
Perhaps today they might hear some news of him, any news. A dry cough interrupted his reverie and he immediately shut out thoughts of magpies and rhymes. A look of barely suppressed impatience flashed across his father’s face.
The screeching continued even as Denethor recommenced speaking. Wind rustled through dry leaves. Each sound seemed to get amplified in the small, cold room. A draught of icy cold air swept in, causing one edge of the map to fold over. Denethor brought his hand down to hold it in place. Outside, the magpies seemed to have subdued a little.
“May I shut the window, Father?”
It was an unnecessary question and his father obviously seemed to think as much. The screeching had stopped by the time he reached the window.
“Three for a letter…”
On the parapet below sat a single magpie, silently preening its feathers.
The faint sound came from the north, and he knew at once that it was not that of the wind; it was too deep. Deep enough to be the mighty bellow of his brother’s war-horn. But it was dim, so dim that he wondered if he was merely hearing more from the past. The shiver that ran up his spine was not due to the stiff breeze alone.
A shadow fell over him and he turned to see his father standing by his shoulder. One glance at his face was enough for Faramir to know that what he had heard was not imagination, but reality.
On the parapet the magpie hopped impatiently from one foot to another.
“One for sorrow,” the squeaky voice from his childhood spoke up. The cloud that had lifted briefly, fell back in place.
‘Five days ere I set out on this venture, eleven days ago at about this hour of the day, I heard the blowing of that horn: from the northward it seemed, but dim, as if it were but an echo in the mind. A boding of ill we thought it, my father and I, for no tidings had we heard of Boromir since he went away, and no watcher on our borders had seen him pass.’ – Faramir; The Window on the West, Book Four.
The verse used here is from one version of a fairly common rhyme, possibly of Scottish origin. It is applied to magpies or mynahs, which were often associated, in folklore, with foretelling the future.