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Withered Tree
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Chapter 4: The Next Debate

On a green field circled with trees, the Ringbearers were brought before the King of the West, and their names entered into song. There, beneath dark leaves and blossom of red and gold, many stories were told, and many tears fell, like spring rain, and laughter welled up sweet as wine.

And there, in a city of tents raised beneath the trees and the stars, the Heir of Elendil gathered around him his counsellors for the next debate. There met the Prince of Dol Amroth, and the Sons of Elrond, and the King of the Mark, and two also from Aragorn’s northern kin. And Gandalf too joined them, although now he sat apart, smoking his pipe, and listening.

“Beyond all hope the day is won,” Aragorn said, “but that victory may yet fall from our grasp. What, then, do we know of the mind of the Steward? What do we know of his purpose?”

“Of his mind,” said Imrahil, “I do not care to guess. But of his purpose? He will not accept your claim, I think.”

“Refuse?” Éomer said. “He would not dare—!“

“Tyranny, he called it,” Imrahil said, watching his liege-lord closely, “to raise an army, bring it to the gates of the City, and so demand the throne. But, Mithrandir,” and here the Prince turned to look at the wizard, silent and wreathed in smoke, “you spoke with him also, and saw him in Rath Dínen. Did the Steward allow you a glimpse of his thought?”

Gandalf replied reluctantly. “Too much, perhaps, he might think now. And while he may have said much in that madness which he would now have unsaid, he named himself the Steward of Anárion’s House, not of Isildur’s. A ragged house, he called it, long bereft of lordship and dignity.”

“Such subtleties may matter to one such as Denethor,” Éomer said, “But do they carry weight in law?”

“The Stewards once before rejected a claim from the northern line,” Aragorn replied, glancing at his kinsmen, sitting grim-faced and silent at his right hand. “Arvedui was refused – as both heir of Isildur and husband of the daughter of King Ondoher – and so the North Kingdom perished.”

“And yet,” said Elladan, “it is the devices of Elendil that we brought to you from the North, which you have displayed upon the field, and under which your victory was won. The signs of the High King. Therein lies your claim.”

“And what, in truth,” Éomer said, “could the Steward do to enforce his rejection of your claim? The House of Eorl greets you as the rightful king of Gondor, and there are Riders in the City still—”

“Yet I am loath,” Aragorn replied, “either to win or to hold fast my throne by the threat of forces drawn from another kingdom.”

“And such would give more weight to the Steward’s assertion that your claim had been secured unlawfully,” Imrahil said. “For such a reason too, sire,” and here he bowed his head gracefully to the Sons of Elrond and to the Dúnedain, sitting watchful nearby, “I would counsel that our chief concern must be with the lords of Gondor themselves.” He lowered his head again, this time to Aragorn, and spoke softly. “For myself, as I said to you in our last debate, I hold you my liege-lord, and your wish is to me command.”

“But what of the lords of the fiefs?” Éomer said. “They have sat in council with Denethor for many years. Where do you believe their allegiances might fall?”

“The word of the Prince of Dol Amroth carries weight throughout Belfalas and beyond, into the southern fiefs,” Imrahil replied. “From Anfalas, Golasgil will stand with us. And surely not all in the south,” the Prince looked once again straight at Aragorn, “have forgotten Thorongil, who delivered them from the threat of Umbar.”

“I do not doubt that Thorongil is remembered in Gondor,” Aragorn replied. “And let us remember too that not four weeks have passed since I freed many in the south from their slavery. In Angbor of Lamedon I have put my faith, and in all the people of those lands.”

“And yet for all their fair vales and fairer folk,” Elrohir said, bowing his head in turn to the Prince, “the southern lands are not the whole of the kingdom, nor even its most vital part. What of Lossarnach? More – what of Minas Tirith itself? Without it, I deem, Gondor cannot be held.”

“Then let us speak of the City,” said Éomer. “Elfhelm commands the Riders there, but on them, it seems, we must not rely unless in direst need. In the Lord Denethor we have no faith. But what of the men of the city?”

“The Lord Húrin is Warden, and commands the Guard,” Imrahil replied. “Without the Guard, Minas Tirith cannot be ours – or not without force. And the Guard have shown themselves loyal to the Steward... even in his madness.”

“But beyond?” Éomer asked. “Not beyond, surely!”

“Húrin is kinsman by marriage to the Lord Denethor,” Imrahil said. “And little of what passes in the city escapes him. It is in part through his faithfulness, his watchfulness, that the city has remained steady throughout many years of war. Obedience, above all, is what Denethor commands—”

“But love?” Aragorn asked. “That, I think, was the privilege of his sons.”

An uneasy silence fell. Imrahil broke it first, his voice uncertain. “If I know aught of my nephew, sire,” he said, “then he will hear your claim, and fairly. But... obedience, you say, is what Denethor commands. And in all the years of his service, Faramir has obeyed his father’s will in all things. He rode to the river against his own counsel.”

“Like the swift sons of Eorl, we said of Boromir in the Mark,” Éomer said. “Of his brother I know less, save it was said by some amongst us that he was his father’s son.” The silence fell again, and Aragorn did not speak his own mind, that in all his dealings with the House of the Stewards, he seemed ever fated to fall between father and son.

At last, into the quiet, Gandalf spoke. “Once,” he said. “He went against Denethor’s will once. He knew his father’s mind, and he did not bring the Ringbearer before him – nor the Ring.”

The council broke. Little more, it seemed to them, could be done now until they drew closer to Minas Tirith and learnt from messengers more of the disposition of the Tower Guard, and of the minds of Húrin, Faramir – and Denethor himself. The world had changed, Aragorn thought; and all their counsels of the evening rested upon one foundation – that Denethor would not accept his claim. These forty years had been but days; days since they had stood together as captains of Gondor, with Ecthelion between them. And yet, despite all that had passed, it seemed to Aragorn that a choice remained to the Steward of Gondor, and that not all hope had been extinguished.

At length, only Gandalf remained of his counsellors. They went outside together to stand beneath the trees.

It was night. “A bitter jest it would be, indeed,” Aragorn said, at last, “to have broken one siege of Gondor only to set another.” And when the other did not reply, he said, “You keep your counsel closer than ever you did, old friend!”

Gandalf’s soft breath of laughter could be seen in the night air. “My enemy has departed; my task is complete! This,” he gestured around him, “this is your charge now, lord. Make of it what you will.”

And when Aragorn looked around him, he saw all of the West cloaked in darkness, and through the thickness of the trees, only a hint of stars.


Upon the city of Gondor doubt hung; doubt, mingled with muted joy. Dead lay the King of Rohan in their citadel, their lords lay hidden in the circles above – and another had come in the night, then ridden forth, and now a great darkness had lifted. At times, singing would break out in the streets. But rumours rustled through all the circles of a great burning in Rath Dínen, and from the citadel came nothing but silence. All of the city seemed to be waiting for a sign, for a move to be made.

As the afternoon lengthened, the Lord Faramir wearied of circling the garden and, taking the Lady Éowyn’s counsel, bade her a good evening and retired to his chamber. Inside, he found that a fire had been lit in the hearth despite the warmth of the day. He opened the window, breathed in the fresh air, and removed his surcoat, casting it upon the bed. Then he sat down in the chair by the fire, and strove to hold off sleep. Soon enough there was a knock at the door. He took a moment to check and to gather himself before answering.


The door opened. Denethor stood for a moment upon the threshold, looking in, and then: “You will freeze,” he said, and, passing across the room to the window, he shut it, and drew the curtains. He went to the bed, picking up the surcoat that lay there, folding it, and placing it down once more. Then he took the seat opposite his son, and came to rest looking into the fire. Throughout, Faramir sat, waiting, and trying to ascertain something of his father’s state of mind.

At length, Denethor roused himself. “Work has already begun clearing away the damage on the Pelennor,” he said. “It is worse even than the year that the river broke its banks.” He looked up from the fire, at his son. “Do you remember that year, Faramir? Boro...” He stopped himself. “Your brother had made me promise to take you fishing, but it was not safe. Do you remember?”

Faramir did not remember, nor did he care to make himself a liar. “I must have been very young,” he said.

“Young?” His father looked back at the fire. “Young. Yes. Yes, you must have been.”

The room was becoming very close. Faramir loosened the fastenings on his shirt, and then leaned forwards to begin work on his boots. He moved too quickly, and drew in a sharp breath as his shoulder baulked at the movement. His father reached out to aid him, but Faramir held up his hand. “No need!” he said, and Denethor withdrew.

He worked on, keeping his head bent down towards the task. After a little while, Denethor began to speak again. “The river...” he said. “When the bridge was broken, I thought that I had lost you. Both of you, at once. And then you returned, victorious—”

For himself, Faramir could not speak of it as a victory. “That was Boromir’s doing.”

“After you rode to the river... I thought that I... And then your uncle brought you... brought you back to me. He said that you had done great deeds.”

Faramir kept his head lowered. So here they were again, at last. What path would his father choose this time? When he did look up, his father was staring back into the fire. “Great deeds,” Denethor said, softly – and it seemed to Faramir that once more he could taste the bitterness of those dark hours, and of the many that had led to it; could see again how it was always the acts of obedience that had won his father’s favour and wasted his spirit.

“It was a rout,” he replied, bending back down. “There was no distinction to it. None.” He pulled off his boots, with force, and kicked them away, towards the bed. They fell in a heap. Denethor began to make a move towards them, and then checked himself, and stayed in the chair. A silence fell across the room, in which Faramir could hear only the sound of the fire crackling, and his own breathing, which became, in time, quieter and steadier. There was sweat upon the palms of his hands. He wiped them on his shirt.

“You have spent much time with the Lady Éowyn.”

His father’s close guard had precluded Faramir from speaking to that lady as much as he desired, yet he seized his chances when he could, and he watched her in turn as she walked in the garden. When he looked at her, it seemed to him that she was mantled in grief; but when he spoke to her, some of that sorrow would lift, he thought. It served to lighten his own heart. When they spoke together, Faramir caught a glimpse of a life that might lie beyond the walls of the House, tasted a little how sweet it might be if duty and love were not ever set at war with one another. “I have,” he answered.

“Such a match would be welcome to all, I am certain,” his father said. “The alliance between our houses is an old one, as Théoden remembered. Our forefathers – his, ours – swore an oath such that none have made since Elendil himself. The Stewards of the City and the Kings of the Golden Hall. It would be well done to strengthen that tie, Faramir.”

Strengthen it against whom? From where did the Enemy now press? Not East. North, then, from Arnor? South, from Belfalas? West? “We have by no means spoken of marriage!”

But Denethor was no longer listening. He had leaned forwards in his chair, towards his son, and an odd, eager light had come to his eyes. “You do not remember your grandsire, do you?


“My father.”

Ecthelion had died the year after Faramir’s birth. He had no memory of him, although he had at one time wondered if it would have made a difference to have known his father as something other than the Steward, to have seen him as servant as well as lord. “I was very young,” he answered.

“Ah!” Denethor smiled, and clasped his hands together. “He delighted in his grandsons – both of you – but you in particular. A second son is a rarity, in these late days of our house.”

This tale was new – And why, Faramir wondered, had it not been told sooner? His anger flared afresh.

“He was a man given to giving his love,” Denethor said. “In that he was much like... like Boromir.”

The anger wavered, and passed. For who had there been to tell such a tale? Boromir would not have remembered; Finduilas was gone. And – so far as Faramir could recall – Denethor had never spoken of Ecthelion as anything other than the Steward before him. A vague and insubstantial figure to the child that Faramir had been (for who else could be Steward but Denethor himself?) but now, it seemed, a man as vital as Boromir.

Denethor was still speaking, very softly. “No man should outlive his sons,” he was saying, “and all men, perhaps, should live to see their sons’ sons.” His eye fell upon Faramir once more. “It would be a good match, and well done.”

And that, Faramir guessed, would be the only call he would hear for pardon, for all the dark hours and the hard words, and the last the darkest and hardest of all. You would rather they were Boromir’s sons, he thought; and only through effort and practice did he leave it unsaid. They sat facing each other, still, with the fire and the silence between them, until: “I think I shall sleep now,” Faramir said, and Denethor nodded, and rose. Coming over to where Faramir was sitting, he brushed at his son’s hair, bringing his hand briefly to rest upon his brow. It was strong, and gentle, the hand of a great lord, and unexpectedly cool. And as Denethor began to move away, Faramir reached out, putting his own hand upon his father’s arm, holding him. He searched, for some sign, for something.

“Father,” he said, softly, “did you wish to say something? Tell me something?”

For a moment, Denethor’s face seemed to alter, to be at war with itself; half-hope and half-despair. And then the Steward mastered himself. He shook his head. “Only that tomorrow I shall leave this House and resume my authority in the City.” He set his hand upon Faramir’s, resting it there for a moment, then gently letting go. “We have a great deal of work to do, you and I. Our City is indomitable! It will arise anew.” Then he bent, and set a kiss upon the top of his son’s head, and left, closing the door with care behind him.

Faramir sat for a while longer watching the fire. At length, he rose and crossed to the window and drew back the curtains. It was evening, and the light had a last, passing glow that ebbed slowly under his watch, turning the trees in the garden from green to black. In time, the red sun set. The room darkened, and Faramir lay down upon his bed, falling into a deep sleep.

In that sleep, he wandered long down cold corridors of stone, the echo of his own footsteps the only sound. Then, all of a sudden, the passages ended, and he found himself in the forest; a confusion of trees whose leaves were heavy with blossom bright as blood. He walked on, half-hope and half-despair; but if there was a way through, he could not discern it, either in the path ahead or in his own purpose.

He woke before the dawn. He rose to greet it, watching from his window as it came in from the East. Young light revealed to him the half-restored homesteads of the Pelennor, as his father had described them. Beyond, the river cut like a blade through the field of his vision and, upon it, he caught a sudden glimpse of broken stone. And then, by some gift of far sight, aided perhaps by the memory of the falling bridge, Faramir beheld in full the ruin of Osgiliath. And as this hideous dream unfolded, it seemed to him that he could hear Frodo’s voice, speaking again the words he had said in the forest, beneath the Shadow and the news of Boromir’s fall: Shall there be two cities grinning at each other across a dead land?

And yet, when that vision departed, and there was only the cold light of day, what remained with Faramir was the change he had watched pass over his father’s face, as if, amidst the bitterness, Denethor too had tasted something new; cool clear wine – or perhaps an apple, sharp and sweet.


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