Withered Tree

by Altariel

A penny for the Old Guy...


Between the acting of a dreadful thing

And the first motion, all the interim is

Like a phantasma or a hideous dream:

The genius and the mortal instruments

Are then in council; and the state of man,

Like to a little kingdom, suffers then

The nature of an insurrection.

Julius Caesar, II, i


Foreword

History has many cunning passages, and we must choose our way with caution.

The summer after I completed my first major work of fiction, I found myself lost, with no clear path ahead. A conversation with an old friend restored to me some sense of purpose. A great-uncle of his, who had recently died, had left to him his papers, in great disarray, and my friend required someone to bring order to them. So I went to the old man's study, hid myself away from the sun, and wandered the ways of his library. I found much of interest, and had a great deal to do, but there, beneath a complete set of Wisden, I discovered an old manuscript, of indeterminate but certainly great age; yellowing, but not crumbling. The weight of all those centuries had preserved the papers well.

Translating the text was not an easy task. The language was ancient, and one with which I had only a passing familiarity. But this was not the chief source of my difficulties. When I began work, I was certain I knew the tale already – knew the players, the scenery, the path the story took. But in this I was mistaken: consequently, I was waylaid and kept off track for a long time. For the story the manuscript contained was in fact very different from the one I already knew so well. I do not know whether the other, better craftsman had these sources at his disposal and chose to tell instead the version we all know so well. It cannot be doubted it suits his epic best. In this translation, I aim not to dispute that better telling, only to suggest another tradition, to adumbrate the lines of another branch of the tree.

In all of these endeavours, I have been the fortunate recipient of much help. My thanks and gratitude go to Alawa, Isabeau of Greenlea, and Dwimordene, without whose assistance the manuscript would have been neither deciphered nor interpreted. Tanaqui assisted greatly in the ordering of the sources, the fruit of which labour can be seen in Appendix A. Thank you also to Denise, who remained steadfast in her belief that this tale would eventually be told, when the editor herself despaired.

June 2003 – September 2010


Prologue

Concerning Hobbits

"Hi there! Hi there, you young scoundrels!"

With a sigh, Faramir Took set down his pen and waited.

"Hi there! Get down from there!"

Some young lads and lasses swinging from the branches of the tree, no doubt. A generation of Tuckborough hobbit children had done so, and had been shouted at by the Thain for their insubordination. Faramir had done it himself – the once. Pa was particular about this tree.

"Get down there! Hi!" A roar that would have made his (here Faramir scratched his nose thoughtfully) great-great-great-great (and scratched again) great-uncle proud. Looking back at his father, Faramir saw with alarm that the Thain was now leaning halfway out of the window, waving his arms about.

"Pa! You'll fall!"

"What?" The Thain turned to peer at his son.

"Come and sit down again. They've been climbing on that tree since before I was born, and they'll be climbing on it when I'm gone."

"Villains," the Thain muttered, straightening his broad waistcoat and coming back to sit in his chair opposite his son. "No respect. Don't they know where it came from? A grain of dust from the Lady of Lórien, and all they can do is dangle from it."

Faramir sighed again.

"They don't care for the trees," his father said. "And worse – they don't care for the tales. And I don't just mean about the tree," he said, wagging a finger at his son. "All of the tales – they don't care for them." He sagged into his chair. His lined face fell and his eyes lost their customary sparkle. "Poor cousin Frodo," he murmured. "No-one cared to hear his tale."

"You shouldn't blame them, Pa," Faramir said gently. "What's a tree for if not for children to climb in?" He picked up his pen. "I want to hear the tales, Pa," he said firmly.

His father gave him a sad smile. "You're a good lad, Fa," he said. "You'll make a good Thain when I leave."

Sorrow welled up in Faramir's breast. He did not want to think about that, not on a fair summer's day in the Shire, with the sun shining and the bees humming, and the village children unafraid to clamber on the slender white branches of the tree that stood by the Thain's very window.

"Come on, Pa," he said. "We're near the end now. The last days."

"The last days..." The Thain's eyes turned back to the window and a silence fell.

"Pa?"

Still he did not answer, and Faramir was about to call his name again, when Peregrin Took at last began to speak, in a voice that started low, but gained in strength as he went on.

"There are three things to remember about those last days, Faramir," he said. "The sound of horns blowing at daybreak. The sight of Eagles wheeling high above." He stopped again and stared into the garden.

"The third thing, Pa?"

The Thain turned back to his son. "An old man," he said, "with tears on a face that should have been stern, bent on a staff when he should have been proud, standing before a withered tree."

o0o

Pippin dared not breathe as he followed Gandalf out of the House of the Stewards. One false step, he thought, and the whole place will come tumbling down.

Gandalf carried Faramir to the bier that stood upon the porch of the House, and gently laid him there to rest. Beregond drew a coverlet – still drenched with oil – over the fevered man. The movement disturbed Faramir and, from the depths of his dreaming, he called out for his father.

Slow footsteps sounded on the stone. Pippin gazed up at the Lord of the City. Denethor was looking with longing upon his son, with eyes dark from weeping. He took a step closer to the bier. Beregond twisted the hilt of his sword in his grasp, and then all about – servant and wizard and hobbit – were still, as they watched the struggle on the Steward's face.

Pippin could hardly bear to look upon that ruin. He was so proud, so strong! Pity for the old man filled his heart. If only there was something I could say! He looked anxiously at Gandalf and saw, with dismay, that he was making ready to speak.

But that will do no good! Pippin groaned to himself. And worse, even! Like as not if Gandalf speaks that will send Denethor even further into madness! Well, Pippin, he thought, looking at the terror on the faces of all the servants gathered around, there's no-one else here...

Oh, Merry, I hope this is the right thing to do...

"Please!" he said, and thought how shrill and thin his small voice sounded in this sombre place. "Please! I don't want you to die!"

The dark and ancient eyes fell upon him. Pippin shuddered to look at them, to feel the weight of them upon him.

"Our deaths are certain, Master Peregrin," Denethor whispered. "All the East moves upon us, and from the south, too, doom approaches. Why should we not rule our own ends? Ash and smoke! There is naught else."

"But your son!" Pippin pleaded. "He may still live! Is that not something?"

Denethor looked once more upon Faramir – and, again, it seemed to all who stood by that the Lord's face was at war with itself. He reached out and set a trembling hand on his son's brow and, at the touch, Faramir whispered his father's name.

"He's calling for you," Pippin said. "Is that not something? Is that not enough? Is he not enough?"

Grey dawn crept across all the domes and the columns of Rath Dínen. And, as the hesitant light touched his face, the Steward of Gondor waved one hand at the servants standing nearby, waiting for their Lord's command.

"Bear him to the Houses of Healing," he said.

Softly, obediently, the servants picked up the bier and began their slow procession back along the Silent Street. Denethor followed, with Beregond close behind. As Pippin moved to fall in step, he felt a touch upon his shoulder. He looked up. Gandalf was smiling down at him, fierce, judging, kindly.

o0o

"Pa?"

For a moment, all was still, inside and out. The children had moved on to another game, and Faramir's pen had stopped its scratching some time ago. His hand hovered above the page, and he stared doubtfully at his father. The Thain had shut his eyes, and his head had sunk down almost to his chest. But he was not asleep. One gnarled forefinger was tapping steadily against his chin.

"Pa?" Faramir said again, uncertainly. "Pa, this isn't how you've told this tale before..."

The Thain's eyes shot open and his head snapped up. "No," he said. "No, it isn't." A queer gleam came into his eyes. "We walked only a little way, Fa, and then – all of a sudden! – Lord Denethor grabbed a torch from one of his servants, and he turned and ran back to the House of the Stewards. And he threw that torch in through the open door and, quick as flash the fire leapt up! And I thought he was going to go in himself, but he just stood and watched the flames take hold, and then he turned back and ordered us to carry on to the Houses of Healing. And we did, and we all walked back down that Silent Street, and above the noise of the battle below, I could hear that old stone House cracking and burning and breaking—"

He stopped, suddenly, and gave his son a long look. Faramir stared back at him.

"You're not writing, Fa," the Thain remarked.

Faramir looked down at the pen in his hand, and then up again at his father.

"Write it down, Fa!"

"Are you sure, father?" Faramir whispered.

"I'm sure," the Thain said. "Set it down. Set it all down."


Chapter I

Hands of a Healer

The sun was setting, and all the field of Gondor was aflame. The river ran red, but the day was won. High above, in the sixth circle of the City of the Kings, the rays of the dying sun fell upon the faces of its steward and his heir. For a moment it seemed as if a flush of health had returned to Faramir's face – then the sun departed from the sky and he went deeper into darkness.

Beside him sat his father, his son's hand in his keeping, paying no heed to the women who rumoured around him, caring nothing for the wizard that came at times to stand and watch. The last of the sunlight falling on Denethor's face brought no change. He remained the colour and the set of stone.

Grey shadows lengthened in the sickroom. Faramir was now barely breathing. Then the door clicked open, and a floorboard creaked as someone passed across the room. Slowly, Denethor raised his head. Across the sickbed, a figure was standing, silhouetted black against the window, yet silvered in light. Their eyes met, and the steward greeted the king.

"Get out."

o0o

"He sent you forth like a servant?"

Éomer's voice had risen, and there were people hurrying past down the corridor, giving them curious looks. Aragorn raised his hand, gestured to him to soften his speech.

"He was quite clear that I am not welcome here."

As if the forty years past had been but days. But, in truth, Aragorn had seen already how time had worn the White City. As he had passed, cloaked and hidden, up through the levels, he had seen more empty houses, more crumbling stone, had seen how all the streets were silent, stripped of their children, of their life.

"Did he remember you?" Imrahil asked, evenly.

Aragorn narrowed his eyes. The Prince was staring at a point in the hallway slightly beyond him. Imrahil had been a young man when he had left Gondor, and Thorongil had had no cause to visit Dol Amroth, but his reputation had been great.

"Yes," Aragorn replied softly. "Yes, he remembered me."

Imrahil gave him a slight smile. "Then little am I surprised at your welcome, my liege."

"But at the cost of his son's life?" said Éomer.

Aragorn and Gandalf exchanged a look.

"Maybe," said Aragorn, and stared down the long corridor. A servant was making his slow way past them, lighting the lamps as he went. Aragorn curbed a sigh. The evening was drawing on, and there were others still in need of his attention. "Do we know what caused the hurt to the steward's heir?" he said.

"A Southron dart," Imrahil answered. "I drew it forth, but did not keep it – the wound was not deep. And that does not explain his fever—"

"No," Aragorn agreed, "that would not be enough."

"He had already ridden far under the Shadow before he rode out to battle," Gandalf said. "And he and the steward did not part well."

"His father's mood has been most strange..." Imrahil murmured.

"And it worsened," Gandalf said, and told him and Éomer of all that had passed in Rath Dínen.

There was a silence as they both took in the news. The servant had reached the end of the hallway now, Aragorn saw, but did not check his pace as he turned the corner, and disappeared out of sight. Someone walked past, on an errand to a nearby room. They shifted in a little closer, leaning together.

"We cannot leave him in there!" Imrahil said at last. "What might he yet do?"

"Beregond is there," Gandalf murmured, putting out a hand to comfort him.

"And since the steward's mood is dangerous, we have to move with caution," Aragorn said, and then raised a hand to his brow. "But if, as seems likely, Faramir has succumbed to the Black Breath, then he will not heal without my aid, and even then it is not certain." He stared once more at the lamps, as if they might offer him an answer.

At last, Éomer spoke, his voice urgent but low this time. "Lord, my sister waits... I beg you – go back in there and do what you must, or leave the steward to whatever madness it is that consumes him. For while we delay, Éowyn is dying."

Seven lamps along the passage, and the shadows crowding in the spaces between. "Then my path is chosen," Aragorn replied.

o0o

The curtains had been drawn, sealing out the end of the day. The steward was still sitting by the bed, holding his son's hand. There was a fire in the hearth and on a side table a lamp now stood, casting a thin, pale light onto Faramir's ashen face. In the corner of the room, slumped forward, sat Beregond, eyes still firmly fixed on the steward and his son. The air in the room was thick and close, and beneath it lay a sour smell – of sickness, of decay.

Aragorn turned to the women that stood by, speaking to them in a low voice.

"Bring me hot water, and quick."

Denethor's head snapped up. He rose from his chair and turned to face the men that had entered the room. His eyes fell briefly and bitterly upon Imrahil, and then settled on Aragorn.

"You were told to leave," he breathed. "I will not have you in this room!"

Éomer stepped forward, hands clenched by his side, but at a sign from Aragorn he halted.

"It may be that I can heal your son," Aragorn said, quietly.

"I want naught from you—"

"It is not your choice to make!" Éomer shot back. Imrahil set a hand upon his arm.

The air in the little room was heavy. Denethor looked down at Faramir and something in him seemed to give.

"Take it all," he whispered, raising his hands to his head, "but do not take my son."

"I will take naught that is not given freely," Aragorn replied. "There is a faint hope yet! But if you do not let me call him, then he will surely die."

Denethor sat back down in his chair and closed his eyes for a moment. "Then you may call him," he said at last, wearily. He reached out to set his hand back upon his son's brow – and it brushed against Aragorn's, already in place.

Their eyes met. The fire crackled. Denethor drew back.

Aragorn knelt down beside the bed, and it seemed to those watching that he grew grey and weary. As he called Faramir's name, his voice became fainter and fainter, as if he too were now wandering in some dark place far beneath the shadow.

"He is lost," Denethor whispered. "It was a fool's hope."

Imrahil came to stand behind him, setting his hand on the back of the steward's chair. "Patience," he said, gently. "This is beyond our understanding. The paths of our lives are not set and the way ahead may still be open."

Barely had he finished speaking when the door was thrown open, and Bergil ran in, clutching to his chest a handful of leaves in a cloth. Aragorn took some from the boy, and comforted him, and then went back to the bedside. He breathed upon the leaves, and then he crushed them and threw them into the water the women had brought. A clean sharp scent stole through the air.

"Faramir," Aragorn said and, although his voice was still soft, it had the clear force of command, "Awake."

The fragrance of athelas filled the room, banishing the stale odour of despair. Denethor's head remained bowed.

"Awake."

Faramir stirred and woke. Looking up, he saw Aragorn, and his eyes sparked and shone.

"My lord," he said hoarsely, like a man near dead of thirst. "You called me. I come—"

"Faramir..."

Slowly, regretfully, Faramir turned away from Aragorn and towards the figure sitting, head lowered, at his side. And to those watching, it seemed that a fire of longing flickered in his eyes.

"Father," he said. "I heard you... I heard you call. I could not follow. Forgive me."

Their fingers met and clasped. Denethor raised his son's hand to his lips, and kissed it.

"I am so weary..." Faramir whispered to him.

"Sleep," his father answered. "I shall stay at your side. I shall be here when you wake."

Faramir turned his head back again – almost, it seemed, as if he sought permission. "Rest a while, as your father has said," Aragorn told him. "Take food – and be ready."

"I will, lord," said Faramir, and his eyes began to close. "For who would lie idle," he murmured, and only those near to him heard, "when the king has returned?"

o0o

Aragorn closed the door behind him and looked again along the lamplit hall. Everything had aged. But beyond repair?

Beside him, Imrahil set his hand upon the doorframe, and he stood staring at the carving of the tree upon the door, as if by will alone he might peer into the chamber and see what passed within. Then he sighed and drew the hand wearily across his eyes.

"I must wonder at the wisdom of leaving them together," he murmured.

"Beregond will remain on guard," Gandalf replied. "He will let no harm befall his captain."

Imrahil shook his head. "But he tried to kill him. His own son, and he tried to kill him."

"There are many in the city in need of healing," Aragorn said, running a finger over the plaster on the wall. "And not all are confined to their beds." He picked at the plaster with his nail. It crumbled away.

"But this is the steward—!" Imrahil struggled to restrain himself. "This is not simply anger on account of my nephew, sire. This cannot be brushed aside."

"And it will not be," Aragorn replied. "But other matters are more pressing. We have enemies enough without strife amongst ourselves."

"And the tale should not carry further," Gandalf added. "Faramir at least should not hear until he is healed. There is enough doubt in the city without uncertainty about its Lord. For now, it should appear that the steward commands still in Minas Tirith."

Aragorn laid his hand upon Éomer's arm. "You have waited long enough," he said. "Let us go to the Lady Éowyn."

o0o

All that night Aragorn and his brothers went about the city, and the rumours spread of the lord who bore a green stone – an Elfstone – and whose hands brought healing. But in the morning, when the heralds sounded the new day that none had thought would come, the white banner of the stewards was flying in place of the swan ship at the top of the Tower, and it seemed to men that they had woken from a dream. A dream of peace and restoration that moment by moment slipped away, as the waking world washed over them.