The night sky is veiled by Mordor's fumes, half the houses of the City have lost sons since summer, and still the folk of Minas Tirith come out, candles in hand, to greet the new year in this midnight ritual.
Their pale faces smile at me as I pass. I bear the torch of Year's End and lead a procession through the City. 'Tis the duty of the Steward or his heir to take this part, but my brother is far from home. The usual line follows me toward the Citadel, the City Fathers and lords, a score of children, and a group of laughing maids and youths. They sing as they walk. I alone am silent, as custom demands. The people watching from street-side and balcony call out my name, wishing me well for the coming year. It breaks my heart to nod and smile; for I believe the new year shall bring death, not light; but I will not quench their hope when hope is all they have.
I have perhaps a flicker of hope left in this dark time, and that flicker is dim and far away indeed, with my brother on his errand to the Elf-lord in the North. The return of Elendil's sword would light more than a year-fire; but I would rather have Boromir come back safe and whole.
Will Boromir walk this way here in one year's time? Shall there be anyone left to sing the old songs and greet the Steward's son? Or will mean folk scurry through the halls of our fathers, while scattered bands of our own people shiver in hidden refuges or even in the Enemy's thrall? Nay, I cannot afford the ease of despair. Some remnant of Gondor must survive, somewhere, even if my own House falls and me with it. For I stand in Boromir's place now, the shield and hope of these men, women and children who sing as I pass.
My brow is girded with a wreath of dried wheat, to betoken the waning year. The watchers strew my path with garlands and sprigs of greenery. These customs come down to us from the time before the first ships of Númenor sailed up the Anduin: In those ancient days, 'tis said, the kings of the folk of what is now Gondor, bound closely to the earth and its seasons, sometimes spilled their own blood, or the blood of their sons, in sacrifice this night, to reverse a pestilence or the course of a war. The slain prince, always a man in his youth or his prime, would burn in the year-fire with his wheaten crown. It was an evil, wasteful custom, mercifully discarded with the coming of the Faithful.
If the lives of one man, ten, twenty or two hundred, could safeguard Gondor for a year, I would lead them out myself and be the first to bare my throat for the knife. But such wanton slaughter would serve no purpose save to delight our Enemy. When we die, our end must be made for some better reason.
I come to the gate of the Citadel, the guard touching his torch to spur mine to renewed flame. And we walk on, the singing softening at my back. Finally we come to the High Court. We pass the White Tree in its place by the fountain, and approach the far end of the Court. There, the bonfire has been laid and my father waits, ready to light it.
The procession stops a few paces behind me, and quiets altogether. I stride toward my father and kneel before him, torch upraised. Never have I done so before, always have I stayed back, respectfully, with the other lords in the procession. This night, my blood sings within me and I am proud to perform this office for our House and our people, proud to give my loyalty to my lord along with the torch.
And a moment of pride is all I am granted. I feel him take the torch from my hand, and so, as the custom dictates, I may look up at the Lord of Gondor. I do, and, as on many occasions, find his hard gaze sweep over me and find me wanting. His eyes look through me as if to my very soul, and despite the pride I feel as his son, give back none of the same.
"Almost as well as Boromir would have done," he says quietly. "Come, let us finish the rite. It is cold out here this night."
The Steward takes the garland from my head in the hand with which he grips the torch. He signs me to rise, and I follow him to the stacked pile of wood. As Boromir has done so many times, I bow my head.
My lord touches my forehead with the merest brushing of dry lips. Through my half-closed eyes, I watch him place the garland that had adorned my head on top of the woodpile, raise the torch high and bring it down to kindle the wreath and the sticks piled beneath it. A hiss, a crackle, and the faggots, coated with oil, easily catch fire. A sigh breaks from the assembled people, as if from one throat; as they lift high their candles.
The City's bells toll out the strokes of midnight. Another year, gone.
"The year-fire is raised, so ends the old year!" The Steward proclaims, adding the torch itself to the pile of burning wood. He brings forth a wreath of fragrant holly and presses it on my head. Then he takes my hand. We raise linked hands together, face the crowd, and I call out the ritual words with all my strength and yearning: "Let the new year begin, and bring new life! Health, peace and prosperity to all at Yestarë!".
"Hail to the lord of the new year! Hail to the Year-king," the people cry, for the first time, to me. I cannot help but hearten at their greeting. Much as I miss my brother, and hope that he at least bides with friendly folk this night, the love that those in the White City bear me is as warming as the year-fire.
As the flames rise, my lord releases me. I turn to give him Yestarë greetings, but the Steward has left my side and speaks to Húrin and other elders. They make a closed circle, into which I know better than to intrude. Cakes and spiced wine are brought forth on many trays. I can see bonfires spring up on the Pelennor, as far as the Rammas, now that the first year-fire burns here.
The children and youths sing with increasing enthusiasm and somewhat less tune. Minstrels bring viols and flutes to start the dancing. I must lead the dancers, which in truth is scant hardship, for I have always enjoyed this art. I toast the Steward, the City Fathers and the children, the Tower Guard, my brother, and of course, the Ithilien Rangers and the soldiers of Cair Andros. I made sure to send wagons full of wine barrels and beeswax candles to the camps and outposts, so our brave men afield could also revel. I would have gladly brought all my Rangers home with me if I could; but I alone was summoned and they could not be spared.
Yestarë's first hour goes by in song and good cheer. I am decorously, though far from fully, drunk. It eases the business of giving cheerful greeting, when I fear what will befall the children and their parents, the wise old folk and the lads and maids, before the next year-fire is lit.
The dance ends, and I wave off the pleas to join another; for I see my father is now alone. He watches me, the fire burning between us. There is such sadness in his face!
I circle the fire and come to him. Close now, I sorrow to see that my father trembles. "Father, are you cold?" I ask, for he is older than many here, and now he looks it. It is long since he ventured outside in the dark cold of a winter's night for hours, I pray he has taken no chill. Where are the servants, they must bring him a thicker cloak! "Here, lord, take my cloak." I start to remove the ivory mantle of the Year-king.
"No, keep it on, I am warm enough, and the Year-king's cloak suits you," he answers, stalling my action with a firm hand. Then, to my surprise, he reaches for me, grazes my cheek with cool fingers. "The days grow so dark," he says, in almost a whisper. "He has gone and you are left to carry on in his place."
For a moment, I burn with anger. Boromir. Always he sees my brother first and foremost - maybe by Boromir's right as his heir - but can he not even see me when Boromir is far from home?
But 'tis only a moment. Such resentment has oft flickered within me, and oft have I subdued the notion, childish and unworthy as it is. I look closely at my father, return his gaze. I have rarely been able to fully understand him, but sometimes I can glean something of his desires and mood.. Now I see only a lord burdened with sorrow and danger nearly beyond mortal flesh to bear, and wracked anew these many months by fear for his missing son. I will not increase his burden by pressing a claim on his heart in the absence of the one who has always owned it.
"I miss him too, my lord," I say truthfully. "And I am honored to stand in Boromir's place until he returns to us. Yet if the days be dark, it is the fault of the season as much as what danger faces us. At least there is fire and good cheer to warm us as we begin the new year."
My father's face twists, the grooves that time and hardship have cut into that proud visage deepen. The flames now burn quite brightly, their glow reflecting in his dark eyes. Then he seems to soften, and look, for once, on me alone. "The old ones knew the value of fire in the year's darkest times," he declares. "The year-fire burns away all the sorrow and dregs of the days that are gone. And when doom awaits, when doom comes..."
"Father, I pray you, speak not of doom, not this night!" I speak out of turn, perhaps emboldened by the wine. But I would not have Yestarë darkened by despair. There will be time enough on the morrow for more counsel; the Enemy makes no move this night. "Surely something of Gondor will last, no matter what the Enemy brings to bear upon us. We must keep our hearts high."
"Hail to the Year-king indeed," my father said, not unkindly, patting my garlanded head as he had done, long ago, when I was small. I suppose it is a trick of the nature of families, that he can still make me feel like a child, though I am slightly taller than he is. "You are stayed for," he says, indicating the crowd of determined revelers still drinking to the new year and its "king". "I shall go up now, wait no further upon me."
"Very well, sire," I accede. "A fair new year to you, my lord."
His face sets back into stone; and he stares hard at me, eyes glinting. I hold his gaze, though probably not for long, feeling oddly trapped between the fire in his eyes and the heat of the fire at my back. Surprisingly, he breaks off first, with a chuckling sound that is half bitter, half painful. The Steward of Gondor turns and leaves, and I barely catch the last words he speaks, which may not be to me:
"When doom comes, fire will cleanse the final sacrifice."
'Better to burn sooner than late, for burn we must. Go back to your bonfire! And I? I will go now to my pyre. To my pyre! No tomb for Denethor and Faramir. No tomb! No long slow sleep of death embalmed. We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West.'
-Denethor, The Siege of Gondor, The Return of the King
Author's Note: Mettarë, Last Day of the Year, is the equivalent, in the Stewards' Reckoning calendar, of our Winter Solstice, on December 21, and is the last day of the year in the Gondorian Calendar; followed by Yestarë - First Day of the Year. The customs depicted in this story are of my own invention, extrapolated from Denethor's remark about "heathen kings" and certain actual traditions and legends of 'real life' history.