Once Upon A Time In Ithilien

by Varda

‘Are Boromir and Faramir not yet returned?’ demanded Denethor.

The black-clad attendants glanced nervously at each other. In the great hall of the Stewards the winter evening was drawing in and outside the first stars were gleaming in a frosty sky. Braziers set close to Denethor’s chair barely took the chill off the great hall, but the Steward never complained of cold…

‘Well?’ he said sharply ‘Have my sons returned from their sortie beyond the Rammas Echor?’
‘No, my lord…’ replied a silver-haired courtier at last. Denethor let out a long sigh and ordered;
‘Let a lookout be set on the highest point of the Citadel to watch for them, in case they return pursued by the enemy…..’

The attendants bowed and hurried gratefully out of the Steward’s presence. Denethor gripped the cold ivory of his staff, angry with himself that he had acceded to his sons’ request to reconnoitre beyond the defensive dike of Minas Tirith. But he had detected some debate between the two young men, and some instinct prompted him to let them go and settle it between themselves, without his interference.

But an hour previously their guard of cavalry had returned to the city without them. Being questioned, the men said that near one of the abandoned forts on the outer dike they had been shot at by orcs with arrows and had retreated. They had lost sight of Boromir and Faramir but thought the princes had returned to the city before them…

Denethor hid his anger, and did not punish the men. His sons had obviously shaken off their guards for some reason….

An arrow whined down from the ruined fort. Boromir ducked and Faramir, using a short hunting bow, returned fire. There was a yelp and an orc tumbled over the broken battlements and fell into the stagnant moat that surrounded the old castle.

Boromir grinned at his brother and said;
‘Well aimed, little brother! Once again I owe you my life….’
Faramir managed a nervous smile; he had always been a better archer than Boromir, whose great strength lent itself to the broadsword.

Boromir looked up at the fort. It was a strange castle, built ages before with castellations that gave it a distinctive outline and the name the Giant’s Footstool. Even before it had been deserted it had an eerie haunted air. Now it loomed black and forbidding in the darkening winter sky. Boromir’s smile faded and he said;

‘But we did not come out here to shoot orcs, did we, Faramir? What do you want to tell me that cannot be told in Minas Tirith? This is a long and perilous way to come to guard a secret…’
‘Come, follow me…’ said Faramir, dismounting and leading his bay through the ruined archway of the fort.

The fort had not long been abandoned, nor had it yet been defiled by orcs. An open stable ran along one wall and a flight of broken steps led up to the battlements. Faramir tied Rua to a post and glancing over his shoulder at Boromir he walked up the steps and stood in the shadow of the burned- out tower, gazing over the Pelennor, spread out under the early evening stars. Lights were beginning to twinkle in the city. Boromir came and stood beside him.
‘What ails you, little brother?’

Faramir turned to Boromir and to the dismay of his older brother there were tears on his face.
‘Read this’ he said.

He handed Boromir a long sheet of parchment, folded in three. Boromir opened it carefully and stared at it in astonishment, for a moment not understanding what it was he held. Then he recognised the seal at the bottom of the letter; the wax was imprinted with the shape of a swan. It was the seal of his mother, Finduilas.

‘What is this?’ he demanded of Faramir. His brother drew a deep breath and replied;
‘Our mother had a nurse, she cared for us both when we were little….’
‘Daonna!’ interrupted Boromir. ‘I know her, yes, what of her?’
‘You have been away at war, brother’ said Faramir. ‘You do not know, she is dead..’
‘Well’ said Boromir ‘I am very sad to hear it. She cared for us both when we were young. But why do I have to learn such news out here within range of the bows of the enemy….?’
‘I did not want anyone to know of this letter’
Boromir looked down at the paper. Faramir went on;
‘Should our father learn we have it and have not shown it to him he would be furious….’
‘How did you come by it, then?’ asked Boromir, puzzled.
‘Before she died, Daonna asked me to come to her. On her deathbed she handed me this.’
Realisation was dawning in Boromir’s eyes. He held up the letter. Faramir turned away and gazed across the Pelennor towards the lights of the city.
‘Read it, Boromir…’

“The year 2988 of the Second Age of Middle Earth.
Minas Tirith

To my sons, Boromir and Faramir.

When you read these words I will no longer be counted among the living. This letter I have entrusted to my faithful nurse Daonna, to be given to you only when she departs this life. I have no wish for my husband, your father, Denethor, to know of this letter or to read it, which is why I give it into the keeping of a serving woman, for none of the court would dare defy your father by keeping this from him.

My dear boys, I grieve to leave you, for you are both so young. But my spirit is quenched and my heart yearns to leave this dark and cruel realm. Do not when you are grown reproach me for my feeble spirit that I could no longer abide a world of war…”

It was late in the year that Finduilas first fell ill. The leeches were summoned and pronounced it a late summer fever, but the Steward’s delicate and pale-skinned lady did not recover, but fell into a deepening malady that before midwinter laid her permanently in bed. Her breath was short and she developed a racking cough. Her flesh fell away and by the coming of the new year her life was despaired of….

Finduilas lay dreaming in a fever much of the time, hardly seeming to know even her family. But in her heart she felt glad; she heard the leeches whispering of her death and she rejoiced;
‘At last..’ she thought. ‘I will be free….’

She had once been happy, but it had been a long time ago. When Denethor had first wed her they had journeyed in Ithilien. Even in her illness, Finduilas could remember the smell of the groves of summer laurel and ilex and the brightly coloured tents pitched by the river so long ago. And Denethor had been different then too, he had laughed and sung songs as they rode through the wooded vales. In the evening they had heard harpists, or Finduilas herself had played the harp and sung for her husband.

But she had not played the harp for over twenty years. For when Ithilien was attacked by orcs and Gondor became further encircled by the forces of Mordor Denethor took no interest in peaceful pursuits. He wore armour day and night and turned his attention to war….

Finduilas spent her time rearing her two sons, Boromir and Faramir. Her heart was especially given to her youngest, Faramir, for he was gentle and kind. But as soon as both of them could wield a wooden sword they were taken from her and put to learn warfare. Finduilas was left alone, in a city where all song and poetry had ceased and only soldiering, alarms, drills, raids, campaigns and sad wakes for fallen warriors occupied the days. At the bitter end of a dry summer where orcs had slain many noble champions of Gondor, Finduilas’s spirit failed and she sickened.

Boromir looked up at Faramir in anguish. Faramir said in a quiet voice with a slight tremor
‘Read on, brother….’

“My sons, I speak no treason of your father the Steward of Gondor when I say, he is a fool. In seeking to make Gondor strong he has robbed her of her heart and turned her into a fortress. Minas Tirith, the Tower of Guard, is just a garrison. But let not this poison of your father’s pride also affect you.

My sons, I have borne you, nursed you and dearly loved you, but between you twain lies a great sea. You, Boromir, my oldest, will cheer your father’s heart, for you are like to grow into a mighty warrior. But you, Faramir, my youngest, are the child of my beloved Ithilien, and despite what the world and your father thinks, you are the strongest….”

‘What!’ said Boromir with a forced laugh. Faramir did not smile; his face was pale in the starlight. He nodded at the paper.
‘Finish it, Boromir….’.

“In your heart lies all that Gondor has lost, Faramir my son. It is said we are of the blood of Numenor, and once were of Elven race. In Gondor there are great warriors, but Numenor was not great by war alone. If any great trial should be laid upon you, my sons, let Faramir take the lead in it, for his is the wisest heart….

Remember me, my sons, and have hope…..”

Boromir let the letter fall from his hand. He stared at his brother and in the dusk Faramir saw the gleam of a tear in his eye. Then, slowly and deliberately, he picked up the letter and tore it into many fragments, and scattered the pieces into the dark water which had collected in the old moat. Faramir watched the tiny white segments vanish like stars in a black sky, then said;
‘Our mother could not know what we would become, Boromir…’
‘She was wrong.’ said his brother. ‘not by harping or by lore will our city be saved, but by arms! Nothing shall be beyond us, no trial, no sacrifice! Whatever Gondor needs, I will take it for her!’

And Boromir turned and ran down the steps and almost without a backward glance to see if his younger brother was following he vaulted into the saddle and spurred his black horse Seabhac out of the castle yard and down the dike onto the Pelennor towards Minas Tirith. Faramir hurried to follow…..

For March it was hot, and the sun streamed down on Faramir making him sweat in his heavy armour. Flies, attracted by the dark blood seeping out of the join in his cuirass buzzed in his ears with a deafening sound and settled on his face, increasing his misery. The uneven gait of his horse jarred his wounds and every step brought him worse pain, a fire in his chest and side. He wanted to stop, to rest, to slip into darkness away from this bright sun and fiery pain. A few arrows whined past him but then the orc archers forgot about him as their army began its great advance across the Pelennor. At last his wounded horse stopped, still a long way from the city.

There was a thundering in his ears. It was the chanting of thousands of orcs as they marched from the river. But over their voices Faramir could hear another; it was someone singing to the harp; it was his mother’s voice. It stopped and he heard Finduilas say ;
‘Remember me, Faramir, and have hope. Prince of Ithilien….’

Something must have struck the horse then because it whinnied and leaped forward. Faramir could hardly keep in the saddle as it broke into a ragged canter and covered the last few hundred yards to the city. It was too much for Faramir, who felt himself begin to slide off his mount…

Shielding his eyes against the sun the guard could not at first believe what he saw, but then the smoke haze cleared and he cried in alarm to the sentinels of the Great Gate…

‘Open the Gate, quickly…!.’