Chapter 8: Of Farewells and a Promise Kept
"Away with you child, and cease your meddling!"
"Oh Morwen, I was only trying to help." The bowl of sugar she had been holding was whisked away and a pair of determined hands steered her into the courtyard.
"Sweeting, did your mother never tell you that no kitchen is big enough for two women? Get you gone and leave me to my baking, or in Yavanna's name there shall be no cake for our lordly guests!"
At the doorway, Nienna lingered in the shadow of the broken eave tiles that Haldor had been too busy to mend, poised between passionate argument and submission. Then with a small sigh, she stepped into the warmth of the mid-morning sun and yielded to Morwen the reign of her chosen realm. From within came the clash of pans, the wood-smoke smell of the range being fired, and above it all, Morwen's loud muttering about mule-headed young ladies and weevils in the flour.
Nienna was not used to idleness; like her brother, there was something restless in her nature, and banished as she was from the kitchen, she was miserable. The house was in turmoil, as it always was before Haldor's departures but never before had she been made to feel so shut out from his world, and through him, the world beyond the quiet undemanding life that was her own. For the past hour, Haldor and the two young lords who were their guests had sealed themselves in his study, and the grave hushed voices that carried into the corridor as she passed on her way to do battle with Morwen in the kitchen told her nothing of the matters that they spoke of within. Even Mablung had no need of her, for the fever had left him at last, and he had flung himself with all the energy of impatient convalescence into burnishing the weapons of his comrades to a parade ground shine.
She skirted the walled garden, her nimble feet following an ancient paved path round the house, past the thorny wild rose bushes and foxgloves at the height of their summer blooming; she needed no guide, for she knew every step, having trodden it in darkness since she was five years old.
It was a place imprisoned forever in her unchanging memory, the lichened statue of a child in its livery of green and gold bearing a water jug whose trickling fountain had dried long before her grandfather's day, small silver fish darting and rippling in a round stone basin of dark fathomless water. To her, it would always be summer here, for this was one of her last sighted memories and as the years passed, it did not grow dull as tapestries faded with time, but with each remembrance, it became brighter and more beautiful until she could no longer be sure what was real and what her mind's eye had embellished.
The weathered stone bench was rough and sun-warm under her fingers, and Nienna never knew how long she sat there lost in birdsong and the strange heaviness of her heart, until steps startled her and she turned, half rising from her seat.
"Little sister, what are you doing here?"
The sound of his voice brought a smile to her lips and she came to him with a child's unfeigned eagerness. "Sunning myself like a lazy cat since your medicine chest is full again and Morwen has driven me from the kitchen. She is becoming tyrannical in her old age."
As Nienna made room for her brother, he said drily, "Aye, Morwen is giving us enough supplies for a small army on a month-long march. How we shall fit all that food into two miserly saddlebags apiece is quite beyond me."
"Oh, Morwen will manage somehow," she laughed. "Are you sure that you will not stay for dinner? There is some of yesterday's pie left and Morwen is baking a seed cake."
"Dearest child, I cannot. It is nearly noon and my journey is a long one. I ride with Faramir and his noble brother as far as the nearest ford, before our paths divide. I shall go north for two days, while they take the old road towards Osgiliath and then to the White City. With Morwen's ministrations, you need not fear that dinner will be anything less than a movable feast."
He had thought to make her smile again, but she did not, and he saw the sudden misery in her face, the whiteness of her fingers clenched against the russet wool of her dress.
With grave gentleness, he asked, "Little sister, what is the matter?"
"Oh it is nothing! Only… it is only that I shall miss –" she reddened, and after a pause, "having someone to talk to."
"You have Morwen, and that young scamp Mablung until he is well again."
And when she did not answer, Haldor said at last, "You mean Faramir do you not?"
She was silent until he took her hand and squeezed it. In the shifting dappled shade of the mulberry tree that sheltered them, Nienna was as still as one caught in a waking dream.
"He will forget me."
"He is not the forgetful sort, nor ungrateful," and even as he strove for her sake to keep the deep dismay from his voice, Nienna drew from the pocket of her apron a small flat package that she held out in a slim trembling hand.
With painful eagerness, she said, "I made this for him," and waited breathless, for her brother's judgment.
Haldor took it, and after a few moments of agony, said with great care, "A thoughtful gift, and one I think that Faramir will hold close to his heart, for he sets great store by all his friends."
"A friend…" she said wistfully, "Aye, perhaps he is that," and took the gift back into her keeping.
He said nothing for a time, turning her words over and over again in his mind, for what he knew now woke the guilt that had long slumbered in his heart. "Tell me Nienna – in truth – have you been very lonely these two summers since father died?"
"Only a little, but it matters not," she answered a little too quickly, then turned to him so that he saw all the fiery passion of youth kindled in her face. "Oh Haldor, how I wish I were a man and not blind so that I could ride away with you. It is hard sometimes to stay here with Morwen always and always. It is as though I have spent all my life in waiting, for you to come home, for things - anything at all - to happen."
"There were times when I was young and foolish that I wished the same, but Nienna, do you not know that you are all I have? You are my dearest sister, and not for any treasure on Middle Earth, not even for the king of Gondor himself, if he returned, would I exchange you for any brother however whole or valiant." Tenderly, he reached out and tucked a long strand of brown hair behind her ear, "Ithilien is no place for a chit like you, and by the Halls of Mandos I am glad that nothing ever happens here – home should always remain as it is, with you and Morwen to keep it so for me."
She was smiling now, "Then you had best come home sooner and sell me to the highest bidder."
"Aye if that is your wish," he answered, more soberly than she thought he would, "But I would not see you unhappy Nienna, and you know that the great and lordly often are."
"Yes, I do," she said with gentle irony. "But you need not fear for me Haldor; you must not. After all, one cannot live without sorrow, and neither you nor Morwen can keep me safe forever. That is a lesson I learned long ago."
He felt a stab of grief, all the sharper for being unexpected; by force of habit he let none of it show in his face though with her there was no need for dissembling. And in that moment, he saw her as he had never done – no longer the child she had always been in his eyes - but a young woman, strong and slender and beautiful as a finely tempered blade. She would never be invulnerable, for it was not so that the younger children of Illuvatar were made, but it was from her very weakness that strength and courage sprang. For that he loved her, she who was at once his burden and his life's joy.
Taking her hands, Haldor pulled her to her feet and led her to the path that would bring them back to the house, "How wise you have become, Nienna. Very well, but I would have you remember one thing."
"And what is that?"
"Where there is great love, there is also great sorrow. Never forget that, little sister."
Nienna followed them for some distance, alone on foot among three horsemen. In the green shade of the weeping willow trees that grew by the wayside, the brown dirt path straggled its way to a bridge that was old even in King Eärnur's day. There was no need for it now, for the stream it once straddled had turned from its course and left nothing in its wake but a brook so narrow that an intrepid boy could leap it without wetting his feet.
Silence too had followed them most of the way, and when they crested the bridge the Old Man swung his horse round. "Goodbye my little dragonling," he said, and stooping from the saddle, he kissed her cheek.
Boromir, reining in, bowed with solemn unsmiling grace. "Thank you my lady for your hospitality. We owe you a great debt, and I shall see that it is repaid. For my brother and myself, I wish you health and good fortune."
Nienna said nothing at first, a small flame of anger growing in her heart, but even as she quenched it, she made her obeisance. "There is no debt for a service freely given, no payment due where none is sought. I wish you safe journey my Lord."
She would have gone then, back into her old life, willing herself to forget that her small peaceful world had once collided with another far brighter and infinitely boundless in its possibilities. She would have remembered also that the one person in that world who mattered had not spoken on her behalf, his lustre tarnished forever.
Of the three men he was the youngest, and from the time they left the Captain's house he had begun to slip quietly back into the mould that had been cast for him, and every fibre of his being fought against it. That it was his place to stand always in Boromir's shadow he knew and accepted without resentment, but the part of him that belonged to only himself, the part that Gondor, his father and Boromir could lay no claim to shuddered and cried for liberty. But he knew also that the last of his freedom lay within his power, and what little he had he must give to her now before it was taken from him. When he raised his fair head and saw the pride glowing in the Old Man's eyes and the reluctant admiration in Boromir's he said, "Do you go ahead brother while I make my farewell."
A fleeting frown crossed Boromir's brow. "Very well, but do not tarry. We shall wait by the milestone outside the village."
"Aye. I shall not be long."
Faramir watched them for a long while, each man riding a little apart from the other, before he slid from the saddle and came to her. She could not see how pale he was, nor could she see the smile that he mustered for her sake. Greatly daring, he took her hand and closed her slender work-reddened fingers over a smooth round thing that sat perfectly in her palm.
With a tremor in his voice, he began, "My lady, I should like you to have this. It is nothing much I'm afraid, but it will keep your hands cool in summer. I found this pebble prowling the strands of Dol Amroth when I was a small boy and I have kept it by me ever since. My uncle told me that it is as old as Arda itself, worn and tossed about by the sea; it is as grey as the sky in winter, with a white shape in the middle of it like a seagull in flight. It has been to me a memory of – of happier times, and it is my hope that you will remember with kindness the one who gave it to you."
The tumble of words ceased; he let her go, suddenly afraid that he had offended her with his forwardness or the meagerness of his gift, but he saw with relief that he need not have worried, for she was smiling and there was a radiance about her that had not been there before.
"I shall keep it as carefully as you have, my Lord," she said quietly, "But I need no gift to remember you with kindness." From the satchel she carried, Nienna drew a wallet of white linen fastened with a ribbon of black silk, and he saw with wonder that at the centre of it, a small tree and its crown of seven stars had been embroidered in black and silver thread. "This is my gift to you," and as he took it, she flushed, "I ask only that you open it at your journey's end."
"You have my promise."
They stood for a time without speaking. Farewells did not come easily to either of them, and Faramir was loathe to begin his journey, for he might never pass her way again. Yet, the time for parting had come, and as he reached for the reins and looped them around his wrist, he turned to look upon her for the last time.
"Will you send me word of your safe return? It will gladden my heart to know that all is well with you."
In the small silence that followed, he took her hand and kissed it. "Yes, I will. Farewell my lady, and may the sun and stars shine upon you."
"And may the Valar keep you," she replied softly, "till we meet again."
She stood on the bridge listening, long after horse and rider had passed from her hearing, and for the first time in many years, she felt the bitterness of her affliction. She would have given much for the sight of him, to look her fill and remember for ever afterwards, the sun on his hair, the brightness of his eyes, but she had to be content instead, with the sound of his voice and the shape of his hand in hers. Then she remembered that she had more than that; the smooth, cool stone that she held now in her own had been to him a precious symbol of a childhood joy long vanished. He had entrusted to her his happiness, and that she would guard with her life.
The door swung open, and Faramir paused at the threshold of the unhappy boyhood he had left behind. All was as it had been when he closed this very same door on a warm summer's morning three years before. He remembered the rawness of his boyish grief, the golden window- square on the worn carpet as he crossed the chamber to touch for the very last time, the books he had loved.
They were there still, in their tall ornate bookcase by the casement that opened to the green, beloved hills of Ithilien. They had waited for him faithfully, these his books, and as he slid a slim volume of poetry from its place, he closed his eyes as the familiar words, long ago committed to memory sprang to life, for they had been spoken a score of times to hungry listeners across camp fires in Ithilien. But neither the sun-faded spines under his fingers nor the scent of paper browned by years and long use could take from him the sense of belonging to another world; it was as though he had crossed the Sundering Seas and now, there was no way back.
For a while he stood surveying the room that had been his refuge; these whitewashed walls had witnessed his joys and sorrows and kept his childish secrets. He had returned, a stranger in a home no longer his, and as he cast himself onto the bed, a shocking thought came to him: that perhaps home was anywhere but here, that the ruined splendour of Ithilien, his uncle's Hall with its laughter and music, even the Old Man's crumbling villa in wilds of Anorien had been more home than this…
I ask only that you open it at your journey's end.
How could he have forgotten? Muttering an oath, Faramir propped himself up on one elbow, reached for his satchel and with the impatience of the very young, shook out its contents onto the rough woollen blanket. The last thing that tumbled out he snatched with a jealous hand, an embroidered wallet of white linen fastened with a knot of black silk. For three days he had burned with curiosity and not even when he took his turn alone at the watch, with his sword across his knees while Boromir slept across the banked fire, did he open it. She would never have known, but he had always been fastidious about keeping his word.
Now he unfastened it with reverence, and as the cloth unfolded, he found to his surprise and delight a strange ivory-handled implement with a tip very much like a blunt needle and two sheets of parchment. Eagerly, he flattened both and saw that one was filled with nothing more than raised dots that he could trace with his fingertips, and the other was the key to the puzzle she had set, for each alphabet had been written in a firm black hand, and below it, a pattern of dots.
He rose at once, brimming with happiness, half-running to the battered writing desk by the window and before long, he had copied in his own small careful script, the very letter she had written, in the secret language that he now shared with her.
To my Lord Faramir of Gondor, I Nienna daughter of Daeron, send greetings and the bonds of friendship and affection.
I pray that you will not think me too audacious to write thus to you, for I desire only to be assured that you have returned to your father's house unharmed and in better health than you left mine.
My Lord, you asked me not many days ago if you could learn the writing that my father devised for me. I beg you therefore, to keep the enclosure to this letter and the pen that I send with it as tokens of my esteem and the means for your study.
May the grace of the Valar be upon you. Farewell.
"No, Nienna, the audacity and the esteem are mine, and you shall have proof of them by my own hand," he whispered, and the warm glow of pleasure still coloured his cheeks when Boromir came striding in.
"Brother, I see that you have had good tidings?"
"Aye, from a friend." With deliberate nonchalance, he slipped his treasure trove into a drawer and turned the key.
Boromir, whose keen eyes missed nothing said lightly, "A secret friend? Nay I shall not pry, but I have news for you."
"As you see, I am waiting with scarce-concealed enthusiasm. Make haste and tell me before you burst."
Laughing, Boromir said, "Our uncle arrived this morning," and as Faramir leapt to his feet, "You needn't be in such a hurry. Father hauled him into the Council Chamber the moment he set foot here and neither of them has been seen since, but Nahar says that we will meet him at supper, or so our father has decreed."
A sudden stillness had come over his brother and for a moment Faramir seemed unreachable, as though he had put up his shield between himself and the world. When he spoke again, his voice held only a quiet desolation, "Did Nahar say that father – did he send for me?"
Boromir flung an arm over his young brother's shoulder, "No, he did not, but when he does, I shall stand with you, as will our uncle."
Thanks to everyone who read and reviewed the last chapter! Unfortunately this one has been a long time coming because real life work got in the way.
Denethor and Imrahil were meant to appear here, but as I wrote, it grew far longer than I expected and had to be split in two. But they will definitely be starring in the next one!
For Nienna's letter, I did a little research on mediaeval letter writing and borrowed the style from this source:
I hope this chapter has been an enjoyable one!