It was late in the afternoon of my fourteenth birthday before I was able at last to escape my family. I went to sit by myself at the far end of the garden, under the shade of a tree. From where I sat I could still watch the others - and see if anyone approached.
My younger brother was, as usual, utterly engrossed in a project of his own devising. I did not intend to get involved. Earlier in the month, to say goodbye to him, I had introduced him to fireworks. It had for a fortnight or so been our obsession - until the fire, whereupon the pursuit was banned by our mother. Father had been so angry he had not mentioned the affair once - but mother's wrath was enough for me. Had today not been my birthday, and if I were not due to leave for a year in Rohan the following morning, I suspected I might still be in disgrace. As the older brother, I was held entirely to blame for the whole episode, and judged most irresponsible. Léof, eight years old and small for his age, had only to raise his huge blue eyes from beneath his blond hair to look solemnly and remorsefully at mother to be excused all fault in the matter. Given his earlier whole-hearted enthusiasm for the project, I felt this was most unfair - but mother was not in the mood to hear my opinion, and I had enough sense not to offer it.
I looked around now for my mother, but she had, it seemed, gone indoors. Father was still outside. His attention was, as ever, on my sister Morwen who was - as ever - talking. And I thought again, as I had often in the past, how my father and Morwen seemed to have a special bond. They both liked reading books, and talking about books, and she was much cleverer than me. She even looked like him. And she never failed to make him laugh.
But with me he always seemed just a little distant, a little remote. It was as if I could never quite forget that not only was he my father, he was also the Steward of Gondor. That made him awe-inspiring enough, but when I thought at length about what it meant, and saw him standing beside the King and the Prince of Dol Amroth, he became almost terrifying. And then he would suddenly smile, at my mother, or my sister, or even at me - and he would become my father again, who had taught me to read, who had stopped me crying when I was small, who could sometimes be caught napping around the house and garden with an open book on his chest. And the difference between these two men confused me. Nothing about my father, it seemed, was straightforward.
For as long as I could remember I knew that he would, now and again, be taken ill. From very early on my sister and I, and then my brother in his turn, knew that sometimes we had to be very quiet, or that there were occasions when father should not be disturbed. And by the time I was six or seven, I could see that there were ways in which my father was different from other men. I was pleased that he remained at home while the others went to war, since that meant he was always nearby. But I did not like the fact that, unlike my cousins and my friends, someone other than my father had taught me how to hold and use a sword, since he would never touch one - although he would often come to watch me as I was learning.
But it was still a year or two before I made the connection between all these things, and when at last I did, it turned out that Morwen already understood. She is so much cleverer than me. My friends had spent the day talking about what their fathers had done during the war, and I had spoken about mother but, as we talked, I realized that I had no idea what father had done at this time, and neither did any of my friends. I knew he had not fought in the big battle on the Pelennor, but I did know that he had been a soldier once. I wondered if he would tell me if I asked.
That evening, throughout dinner, Morwen was reading as usual - mother and father had given up making her put her books away over dinner when she had proven she could eat, read, and take part in the conversation all at once. And I was trying to work up the courage to ask him my questions, but he spoke first.
'You're very quiet, Bron. What have you been up to today?'
I hesitated, but he looked at me encouragingly.
'We were talking about the war, sir, and none of us were sure what part you played in it,' I said, a little nervously.
'Oh, Bron,' my sister said, looking up from her book and rolling her eyes impatiently, 'everyone knows what father did during the war. He protected Minas Tirith just long enough that mother could come and save it.'
My mother seemed to be choking on her wine and my father's mouth was twitching.
'I rather think the King of Gondor might have something to say about that,' my father said mildly.
'And the King of Rohan,' my mother murmured.
My sister waved her hand to dismiss their thoughts on the subject. 'And father spent so long doing that and it was so terrible that it made him too ill to fight any more. Which means he stays at home instead.' She turned back to her book. 'Which I think is good,' she added cheerfully.
I looked uncertainly at father.
He shrugged. 'It's almost exactly as your sister says,' he said, with a short laugh.
It would be, of course. But I had not thought before that his being ill and his not fighting were linked, and I sat and thought for the rest of dinner, with a frown on my face.
The next evening, father called me into his study. He had cleared some space on the floor and spread out some maps. I joined him there, sitting on the floor, and he told me about the retreat from the river, which was the last time he had fought. I asked him how it was that fighting had made him ill and he said again that it was very much as Morwen had described it.
'It took so long to get back here, and it was so hard, that I was exhausted,' he said. 'And the thought of doing that again leaves me feeling exhausted again. And not just in my body, Bron, but in my heart.' He patted his chest.
He looked a little sad, so I turned back to the maps and asked him more about the war and his whole time in the army. And he answered all my questions and seemed very pleased that I was interested. But later in the week he was ill, and I thought that perhaps talking about it was what had caused it. My mother, when I asked, said that it was more likely that it was close to the anniversary of him first becoming ill, but I thought it was probably better not to make him talk about it again.
But I often wished that it was he who had taught me how to use a sword, or that he fought with the rest rather than stayed behind, or that he was, perhaps, a little more like my uncle. I even spoke to my uncle about it once, when we were visiting Edoras, and had gone riding together, for I could not think of anyone I admired more than my uncle. If he could make sense of my father, I thought, then so might I.
'Your father's not the most obvious man I know,' my uncle said after listening to me speak, 'but he is one of the bravest. You can be very proud of your heritage there, you know.' And then he grinned at me. 'But not as proud as you should be of your mother's line!' And we both laughed. My uncle was so easy to understand. I could hardly wait to be back in Rohan.
I closed my eyes and sighed, and it was a few minutes before I realized someone was there. I opened my eyes and looked up at my father, standing with his arms folded, gazing down at me.
'May I join you?' he said gravely.
'Of course, sir,' I said politely, shifting a little to one side, so that he could sit entirely in the shade.
'Thank you,' he murmured, as he settled down beside me, leaning back against the tree trunk, resting his forearms on his knees and linking his hands. I looked at him surreptitiously, taking in his sharp features, the grey at his temples, his cool gaze shifting about the garden.
'I imagine you're looking forward to tomorrow,' he said at last, his grey eyes settling on me. 'I know how much you like being in Rohan.'
I shifted where I was sitting, feeling a little guilty. Sometimes he seemed to know exactly what I was thinking, but I could never judge as easily whether he minded or not. 'You make it sound like I hate being here,' I said, suddenly angry, my face flushing. 'Well, that's not true.'
'I'm sorry, Bron,' he said soberly, and frowning. 'It wasn't meant as a criticism.'
I flushed a little more red.
After a moment, he cleared his throat. 'I did want to spend more time with you today,' he said. 'But you know what your sister's like once she starts talking.' He gave me a faint smile. 'Hard to escape.'
I didn't smile back. It was my birthday, after all, and I was about to go away for a year. He could, I thought, have made more of an effort. But I was not about to say this to the Steward of Gondor.
The silence lengthened. He rubbed his temple. 'We are both going to miss you very much,' he offered at last, 'your mother and I.'
'Mother might,' I muttered, but I knew how good his hearing was.
He sighed. 'Despite my best intentions, I appear to have become the heartless father after all,' he murmured. 'Is there something in particular I have done to upset you, Bron?'
I rubbed the back of my neck, uncomfortable at the question. There wasn't anything particular, and now I felt foolish, and then angry with him again for making me feel that way. 'I'll be glad to get to Rohan, that's all,' I said, after a moment, and then could not stop myself bursting out, 'Things are less complicated there!'
I thought for a moment that he might get angry with me, but he just frowned again, and then asked quietly, 'How so, Bron?'
I screwed up my face in frustration. I did not much want to say what I meant.
'There's nothing you can say that would make me want to be angry with you,' he said, so softly that I almost believed him. 'Why is it less complicated there?'
I chewed at my thumb for a while. 'Because there it doesn't matter that one day I will be Steward,' I said at last.
'Oh, I see,' he said. He stretched out his legs and folded his arms, and then turned his head to look at me. 'Is that really such a terrible prospect?' he asked.
'It's not that bad, you know. I quite like it.'
'Yes, but that's because it's what you are,' I said, with a slight tone of exasperation.
'And yet, Bron,' he said gently, 'I never expected it.'
I had not thought of that. It was hard to picture anyone else in the role. But it would, of course, have been his older brother's part, if he had lived - and his brother and his father had died within a month. It would have been very different for him when he was my age.
'If it's any consolation,' he added, with a wry smile, 'I did all my panicking about what kind of Steward I would make after I took on the office. At least you get to avoid that!' He grinned at me for a moment, and then became serious again. 'But I can see that living with all the expectation could be worse. I know it weighed heavily on Boromir at times.'
'What was expected of you, then?' I said, looking at Léof, and thinking how I had always envied him having the easier part.
'Well, you have to remember that we were at war, Bron, which made circumstances a little different. But my purpose was...' he stopped, and slowly pushed his hand through his hair. 'Now I come to think of it, I'm not entirely sure what my purpose was. Stand there, keep quiet and do what I was told, I think!' He laughed and I smiled at him tentatively. 'Which made getting used to making decisions when I did become Steward something of a shock at first. No wonder I panicked.'
I looked at him curiously. 'Is that really true? Did you really panic?'
He nodded. 'Oh yes. I'm younger than the King and my uncle, remember - much younger. I felt very inexperienced alongside them. Then I found out I was ill, and they both went off to war, and I was left with a kingdom to run. I was petrified!'
This was a revelation to me. He carried out the job with such easy grace that it was almost impossible to imagine there might have been a time when he was as scared as I was at the thought.
'What happened?' I said.
He rubbed a finger along his nose. 'Well, at first I made myself even more ill - rather foolishly. But then I came to the conclusion that I didn't have to do the job perfectly, just as well as I could. It got easier with practice. And here I am.'
He looked at me gravely, and then gave me a slight smile.
'I don't want to disappoint you,' I said, in a small voice.
'You never have yet,' he said. 'And I can't see how you would.'
I stared at the grass. 'I'm sorry about the fire,' I said at length, looking up at him.
His eyes widened.
'I know you're furious about it. I'm sorry I was so irresponsible.'
'What made you think I was so angry?' He looked genuinely puzzled.
'You haven't mentioned it once. You're always especially angry about something if you won't speak about it.'
After a moment staring at me, he rubbed his hand across his mouth. I had the strangest suspicion that he was laughing. 'The next time my cousin Amrothos is here, ask him to tell you who it was showed him how to make fireworks.' He raised an eyebrow. 'I assume it was he who taught you?'
I gave an inconclusive shrug.
'Admirably loyal of you,' he murmured. 'Perhaps it's best for all concerned if I am kept in blissful ignorance.' He looked away, and I was certain now that he was trying not to laugh. 'I couldn't possibly have reprimanded you for that,' he admitted at last. 'I would have laughed too much. I suspect that might have spoiled the effect somewhat.' He gave me a sideways glance. 'But your mother was so upset it seemed a shame not to let her say her piece.'
He looked away down the garden, a quite open grin now plastered across his face. I felt a slow smile creep across my own face. Mother talked a lot about growing up in Rohan, but father hardly ever mentioned his childhood, except to speak about his brother. I had not really considered much before what he might have been like as a boy. I had no doubt now who was the source of his cousin's expertise with fireworks, but I had to wonder where my father had learnt it in turn. From what I knew about my grandfather, I doubted it was from him.
'Here's your mother now,' he murmured. 'I've put my life in your hands, Bron. Don't tell her what I just told you.'
I laughed and looked up. Mother was carrying something, what seemed to be a sword.
'I imagine it took some time to shift the dust from that, Éowyn,' father said dryly, as she approached.
'It was not so bad, my lord,' she said, sitting down beside him and opposite me. 'I have taken good care of it - as it deserves.'
She set the sword down in front of me and then spoke to me. 'This is a gift for you, Elboron,' she said. 'From your father and me. On our wedding day, he gave me his sword, to look after until our first son was old enough to bear it. We thought you should receive it today.'
I remembered seeing such an exchange take place at a wedding we had attended in Edoras. I did not know that my mother and father had done the same. In truth, I had not really considered that my father would once have owned a sword but, now that I thought about it, it was obvious. He had once been Captain of the White Tower.
The sheath was rather battered and almost plain, overlaid only with tracery in the shape of the White Tree. I ran my finger along it.
'Does it have a history?' I said, for I knew the question would please him - and I wanted to know more about it.
'Not really,' he said softly. 'No, my brother received all the heirlooms of the house. This was made for me. For Ithilien.' By which he intended, I am sure, no more than that it was made when he had joined the company, but now, I thought, it could mean something else.
'And it defended Gondor and Minas Tirith for more than twenty years, and in their greatest need,' my mother added firmly. 'That is its history.'
I very carefully unsheathed it, gripped it, and then twisted it in my hand. The blade glinted in the sunlight and I admired it. And then, quite unexpectedly, my father reached out and set his hand upon mine, holding it tightly and, through it, the handle of what had once been his sword. His hand was warm and rough, and his grip was firm. And as we moved the sword beneath our grasp, I was not wholly sure if he was guiding me or I was leading him.
After a moment he withdrew his hand and set it down flat on the grass. I sheathed the sword and laid it down before me carefully. Then he put his hands on my shoulders, and gently twisted me round so that we were facing each other; whereupon he leaned in and kissed my brow. When he drew back, he sat for a moment with his hands still on my shoulders, and looked over my face. And not even I could deny the love that was there in his eyes.
'Each day,' he said quietly, 'you make me so very proud.'
I looked back at him, and glimpsed, for the first time, not just my father, or the Prince, or the Steward, but the man himself; reserved - even shy, perhaps - thoughtful, honourable, admirable. I was going to miss him terribly. I smiled at him. 'Thank you,' I said, gazing down at the sword and touching the handle, and meaning much more. And I looked up at my mother then, who had kept the sword for me for all these years, and her eyes were shining at me. 'Thank you both.'
Then I looked at my father again. 'So,' I said, not quite able to stop my lips from twitching, 'if this sword was once yours and is now mine, does this mean we have a new family heirloom today, sir?'
My mother gave a low laugh, and my father's face creased into a wide smile. 'And I thought it was your sister who knew best how to flatter me!' he laughed.
'We would not do such a thing, my lord,' said my mother. 'We are none of us so obvious. And we all hold you in far too much respect.'
He offered her his hand, drew her to her feet as he rose, then slipped his arm about her waist, kissing her very lightly on the cheek.
'I am well aware you all just give me the illusion that I have authority in my own home,' he complained amiably, as he did all the time, and watched me as I stood up and belted the sword around my waist. 'You will each of you do precisely what you want, regardless of my wishes.'
Mother did not protest, so neither did I. We began to walk back towards the house, and as we walked, I put my hand on my sword, and he settled his arm about my shoulder.
A/N: So this was written following a demand for 'something about the kids'. It's not meant to be anything spectacular, but I thought people might enjoy it. Thank you to Kshar, Isabeau and Dwimordene for giving me the courage to post it.
Come and talk at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Henneth_Annun/