“Hi there! Hi there, you young scoundrels!”
With a sigh, Faramir Took set down his pen and waited.
“Hi there! Get down from there!”
Some young lads and lasses swinging from the branches of the tree, no doubt. A generation of Tuckborough hobbit children had done so, and had been shouted at by the Thain for their insubordination. Faramir had done it himself – the once. Pa was particular about this tree.
“Get down there! Hi!” A roar that would have made his (here Faramir scratched his nose thoughtfully) great-great-great-great (and scratched again) great-uncle proud. Looking back at his father, Faramir saw with alarm that the Thain was now leaning halfway out of the window, waving his arms about.
“Pa! You’ll fall!”
“What?” The Thain turned to peer at his son.
“Come and sit down again. They’ve been climbing on that tree since before I was born, and they’ll be climbing on it when I’m gone.”
“Villains,” the Thain muttered, straightening his broad waistcoat and coming back to sit in his chair opposite his son. “No respect. Don’t they know where it came from? A grain of dust from the Lady of Lórien, and all they can do is dangle from it.”
Faramir sighed again.
“They don’t care for the trees,” his father said. “And worse – they don’t care for the tales. And I don’t just mean about the tree,” he said, wagging a finger at his son. “All of the tales – they don’t care for them.” He sagged into his chair. His lined face fell and his eyes lost their customary sparkle. “Poor cousin Frodo,” he murmured. “No-one cared to hear his tale.”
“You shouldn’t blame them, Pa,” Faramir said gently. “What’s a tree for if not for children to climb in?” He picked up his pen. “I want to hear the tales, Pa,” he said firmly.
His father gave him a sad smile. “You’re a good lad, Fa,” he said. “You’ll make a good Thain when I leave.”
Sorrow welled up in Faramir’s breast. He did not want to think about that, not on a fair summer’s day in the Shire, with the sun shining and the bees humming, and the village children unafraid to clamber on the slender white branches of the tree that stood by the Thain’s very window.
“Come on, Pa,” he said. “We’re near the end now. The last days.”
“The last days...” The Thain’s eyes turned back to the window and a silence fell.
Still he did not answer, and Faramir was about to call his name again, when Peregrin Took at last began to speak, in a voice that started low, but gained in strength as he went on.
“There are three things to remember about those last days, Faramir,” he said. “The sound of horns blowing at daybreak. The sight of Eagles wheeling high above.” He stopped again and stared into the garden.
“The third thing, Pa?”
The Thain turned back to his son. “An old man,” he said, “with tears on a face that should have been stern, bent on a staff when he should have been proud, standing before a withered tree.”
Pippin dared not breathe as he followed Gandalf out of the House of the Stewards. One false step, he thought, and the whole place will come tumbling down.
Gandalf carried Faramir to the bier that stood upon the porch of the House, and gently laid him there to rest. Beregond drew a coverlet – still drenched with oil – over the fevered man. The movement disturbed Faramir and, from the depths of his dreaming, he called out for his father.
Slow footsteps sounded on the stone. Pippin gazed up at the Lord of the City. Denethor was looking with longing upon his son, with eyes dark from weeping. He took a step closer to the bier. Beregond twisted the hilt of his sword in his grasp, and then all about – servant and wizard and hobbit – were still, as they watched the struggle on the Steward’s face.
Pippin could hardly bear to look upon that ruin. He was so proud, so strong! Pity for the old man filled his heart. If only there was something I could say! He looked anxiously at Gandalf and saw, with dismay, that he was making ready to speak.
But that will do no good! Pippin groaned to himself. And worse, even! Like as not if Gandalf speaks that will send Denethor even further into madness! Well, Pippin, he thought, looking at the terror on the faces of all the servants gathered around, there’s no-one else here...
Oh, Merry, I hope this is the right thing to do...
“Please!” he said, and thought how shrill and thin his small voice sounded in this sombre place. “Please! I don’t want you to die!”
The dark and ancient eyes fell upon him. Pippin shuddered to look at them, to feel the weight of them upon him.
“Our deaths are certain, Master Peregrin,” Denethor whispered. “All the East moves upon us, and from the south, too, doom approaches. Why should we not rule our own ends? Ash and smoke! There is naught else.”
“But your son!” Pippin pleaded. “He may still live! Is that not something?”
Denethor looked once more upon Faramir – and, again, it seemed to all who stood by that the Lord’s face was at war with itself. He reached out and set a trembling hand on his son’s brow and, at the touch, Faramir whispered his father’s name.
“He’s calling for you,” Pippin said. “Is that not something? Is that not enough? Is he not enough?”
Grey dawn crept across all the domes and the columns of Rath Dínen. And, as the hesitant light touched his face, the Steward of Gondor waved one hand at the servants standing nearby, waiting for their Lord’s command.
“Bear him to the Houses of Healing,” he said.
Softly, obediently, the servants picked up the bier and began their slow procession back along the Silent Street. Denethor followed, with Beregond close behind. As Pippin moved to fall in step, he felt a touch upon his shoulder. He looked up. Gandalf was smiling down at him, fierce, judging, kindly.
For a moment, all was still, inside and out. The children had moved on to another game, and Faramir’s pen had stopped its scratching some time ago. His hand hovered above the page, and he stared doubtfully at his father. The Thain had shut his eyes, and his head had sunk down almost to his chest. But he was not asleep. One gnarled forefinger was tapping steadily against his chin.
“Pa?” Faramir said again, uncertainly. “Pa, this isn’t how you’ve told this tale before...”
The Thain’s eyes shot open and his head snapped up. “No,” he said. “No, it isn’t.” A queer gleam came into his eyes. “We walked only a little way, Fa, and then – all of a sudden! – Lord Denethor grabbed a torch from one of his servants, and he turned and ran back to the House of the Stewards. And he threw that torch in through the open door and, quick as flash the fire leapt up! And I thought he was going to go in himself, but he just stood and watched the flames take hold, and then he turned back and ordered us to carry on to the Houses of Healing. And we did, and we all walked back down that Silent Street, and above the noise of the battle below, I could hear that old stone House cracking and burning and breaking—”
He stopped, suddenly, and gave his son a long look. Faramir stared back at him.
“You’re not writing, Fa,” the Thain remarked.
Faramir looked down at the pen in his hand, and then up again at his father.
“Write it down, Fa!”
“Are you sure, father?” Faramir whispered.
“I’m sure,” the Thain said. “Set it down. Set it all down.”