We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we'll not fail.

William Shakespeare, Macbeth (1605), Act I, scene 7, line 59


"That will depend on the manner of your return."

My uncle of Dol Amroth, a man of heart and valiant soldier, alone among the still and silent councillors, flinched at my father's hurtful words. Grey-faced and afeared, I saw him start toward the dias, but with sorrow I shook my head; for though I loved him fiercely for this act, I knew it to be futile. He wished to speak but Father raised his hand and would not suffer his approach. My Lord had spoken. All that remained was for me to go and do his bidding, to spend my men like coin, upon a desperate throw of dice.

Weary in my soul and sick at heart, I turned and looked down the hall I had known for all my life. As children we had played there, Boromir and I, a joy on rainy days to have the space to run and shout and dream of dragons. We had paced it many times in delight of competition, each exactly counting how many of our steps it would take: my brother, once grown, aggrieved to find mine was one fewer. Many times I had paced it in apprehension for my father's mood and counsel. Never before had I walked it so sorrowed, so afraid for what lay beyond.

I stepped and my footfalls echoed to the heights, the only sound within that shocked and silent space. I did not hear them. To my ear the only sound was that without: the now incessant keening of a hot and writhing eastern wind. A wind that cried and moaned, promising black wings and blacker hearts aloft upon its stinking airs.

I was so very tired. Almost I could imagine the bliss it would be to lie down upon that cold and bone-white marble floor, to sink onto its foundation and become an effigy of myself. Lying down, I knew that I would weep and shout and cry; a dam would burst of all that I had held inside these three weeks past, since I had dreamed my brother dead. It could not be. Too many pairs of eyes had followed me down and bored, dismayed, into my back. Those eyes and Father's words became a goad; they drove me forward. Struggling to keep my shoulders high, fatigue and fear fought with reason for control, as fractured thoughts and questions swarmed inside. To steady my breath I began the count the paces.

Ten…..

"Is there is a captain here who has still the courage to do his lord's will?" How, how could he, knowing the horror of our retreat scant days before, question even that? What have I left but my courage and my dignity to do with resolution what duty asks, to serve my Lord and kingdom until released by death? He believes me forsworn, that by keeping my own counsel I have judged and found his wanting. He does not understand my first oath was to her, to be True,. I know it in my heart I could have done aught else. Our only hope lies now, not in strength of arms, but the strength of one small Halfling's will. It never lay in the keeping of a weapon until the end of need. The pain of this is only sharper for that he did not keep his oath. My fealty has never been returned with love.

Twenty…

I have no time to plan. How can we charge so large a force? How can I keep them whole? We are ten times outnumbered and they will sweep across us like a black and heartless wave, vomited from the breach we left behind just days ago. The fear of Him will drive them ever forward before the fear of us makes them pause at all. How can we do this, we hundreds of hearts, man and horse, tight in? Can we make up in spirit what we lack in numbers? Can we blunt and break their wave? The Enemy knows we are weak. Crumbling we have been for near an age, held fast to the remembrance of glory, seeing always that Minas Tirith is fairer in her decay than her broken sister astride the river. I pray that Father has seen something more. That with this feint relief will come while we are yet upon our knees, not prone and bleeding in the mire. How narrow is the needle of time that we now thread before Rohan can fulfill her oath?

Thirty:

O Boromir, I hear again your laughter down the hall as we gazed upon the stern and silent kings. You held me on your shoulders and raised me up, so that I climbed to one and set cap upon his head. How we laughed and stilled and laughed again, helpless with it and caring not a fig for the hiding we received. It hurts so that I will not know your laugh again. Tell me what would you have done, here in my place, striving to take the city once again without you? Osgiliath we retook once. The bridge we broke, when at the last that evil thing feared only crossing water. With fire above and dread in our hearts we swam together, one last time, cold Anduin, the river where we played as boys. Boys no more, washed of our last innocence; the mighty river has taken your broken body down to the sea. Will I now add my blood to her, as I did my tears, the night I dreamed you floating in her embrace?

Thirty-two:

The doorway had seemed so far away and yet now it is here and holds no light to guide me. Out of the shrouded hall and into the grey and twilight of that false day I walk. To the east the red and roiling fume of the land's deep fire hovers over the Enemy's infernal vent. My heart quails at the sight and I stand certain that by the end of this horrendous day I will walk, with those I have lost and love the most, another hall beyond our shores.

I bow my head and shake hard these clouded thoughts. How can I ask others to ride onto that field of certain ruin if I lack courage for the task? How can I lead them if I ride without hope within my heart? Reaching back, before the unkind words and unkinder silences, I touch a precious memory, wreathed in soft words, as soft hands stroked my troubled brow. "I saw a king, my little love, do not forget. I saw a king."


At last, with sweat of horror in his hair,
He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,
Unloading hell behind him step by step.''

Siegfried Sassoon, The Rear Guard


Author's note:

For Rob Gilson, Lieutenant, Cambridgeshire Rifles, one of Tolkien's closest friends. Against horrific odds he and his men charged into near total annihilation the first morning of the Somme offensive. A painter and poet, adored by his troops, this sensitive young man, quailing inside at what he had to do, by eyewitness account led his men with unflinching calm and courage across No Man's Land to just over the German Line. The machine guns merciless, the barrage failed, he did not make it back. To me it seems there is much of him in Faramir.

'A bitter winnowing' were JRR's words in a letter to his friend GB Smith on hearing of Gilson's death.

With many thanks to John Garth for his encouragement and his wonderful book about Tolkien, Gilson, Smith and Wiseman…'Tolkien and the Great War'.

Not least with grateful thanks to the reviewers who voted "A bitter winnowing' to first place. I am deeply appreciative.