Throughout that long night, Éowyn stood by the walls looking out and waiting for the sign. And her mind returned often to earlier that evening, when Merry came to her chamber and told her, in quick whispers, of the madness of Denethor, and the fire, and the captivity of Húrin – and of his own watch upon the Tower, padding softly into places where no tall Man or grand Lord could take himself.
"Húrin told me the safest way out," Merry said. "An unguarded way. But they won't let me near Faramir! Only his father sees him now – and you."
Éowyn took the Halfling's hand. "Dear Merry," she said. "So it falls to us again."
Taking herself to the Lord Faramir's chamber, she asked for him to come forth and his guards, standing aside, let him pass, as if it did not occur to them that she might have some other purpose. And they stole through the city, coming at last to some dark cellar with water dripping down the walls.
"This is the way," she whispered.
"I know it."
"But we must wait for Merry..." Gently, she rested her hand upon his cheek. "A year shall I endure for every moment until your return."
He started. "You must not remain here—!"
She placed her finger upon his lips. "I slew the monster," she said. "You must never forget that. Never." And she took him in her arms and kissed him under the mantle of darkness, where not even the farsighted could spy upon them.
And a few hours later, the night still dark, Éowyn watched as the sign lit up the sky – the scream and blaze of an Eagle, red and gold, wrought with all the art of Gandalf – and she knew that her beloved was safe. Turning, she went up into the Tower – daughter of kings, and now their emissary.
From the cover of the tent, Faramir watched as four small and doughty figures hurried to meet one another, embrace one another, their company restored against all hope. Then he turned to speak to his king.
Water was brought, and wine. Faramir washed his hands and face, and drank deeply. Aragorn sat upon his left and Gandalf on his right. "We descended the circles," Faramir said. "We took a hidden way. Húrin had commanded it unwatched and those of the guards that were loyal to him – that are loyal to me – have it that way. The Lady Éowyn remains in the Tower."
"As hostage?" Aragorn asked, fearing what he might have to tell her brother.
Faramir's expression, hitherto stony, softened. "No man can hold the Lady Éowyn against her will," he said. "Not even my father." His face tautened again, and silence fell. Aragorn looked to Gandalf, but the old man sat in a haze of smoke, and watched the ground.
With effort, Faramir began to speak again. "My father," he said. "His heart has darkened. Beyond all that I have seen across the years..." He replenished his cup. "He will not accept your claim. There would have been war, strife, father against son, brother against brother..."
"In this matter, you need give no account to me, Faramir," Aragorn told him, gently. But Faramir was not consoled. Rising from his chair, he paced about the tent, coming to uneasy rest with his back to the ranger and the wizard. When at last he spoke, his voice was so low, that even Strider had to strain to hear it.
"In my dreams," he said, "there is a fire, and I am cast upon it. The burning... Ah! But in the very moment of my immolation, the fire dampens, and I find myself in a stony land. Rain comes, but no flood, and the drops of water seem to be lit green, as if made from emeralds. This light I follow, back to the source, to safety." He turned as last to Aragorn, eyes grey as the sea. "A fire," he said. "Can you solve this riddle? I cannot."
Softly, now, Gandalf spoke, and told him – of his father's despair, and his madness, and of the pyre. And all the while, Faramir kept his eyes upon the man who would be king. What at last Gandalf finished, Faramir said, "And did you think to use this knowledge? To bring me to you?"
"But chose not."
"I did not doubt you, Faramir."
Grey watched grey: studied, measured, weighed. "The wiser choice, both just and shrewd. Did I not call you king?"
"You did," Aragorn replied.
Again, Faramir paced the room. "Indeed, when I wandered that rocky place, I heard my father calling me. But I could not follow. Your voice, however – that I must obey." Turning, he placed his hand upon his chest. "Arandur," he said, eyes still bright and febrile. "King's servant. No true choice existed."
They talked only a little longer, until Faramir left to take what rest he could. Soon after, Gandalf too departed, for the Lady Éowyn still kept her vigil, and waited for the sign that he must send. Bitterly, Aragorn said, "A great lord and captain, strong and resolute in his defence of the West! What payment have I given him? To steal the love of both father and son!"
"Nay, lord," the wizard said. "Old friend. You have taken naught that was not given freely. Nor can you give what will not be taken."
And at last Éowyn came to the White Tower, and to the Hall of Kings, and her firm footsteps resonated in that great empty chamber. Quickly, surely, she walked towards the old man sitting alone in his lowly chair, the rod of his office upon his lap.
"Sir," she said. "He has gone. He is with the King." Coming to a halt before him, she knelt and grasped his hand. It tremored. Pity filled her heart. "Sir," she said again, softly. "Hear me. Do you think I do not understand the shape of your thoughts? Thrice now I have wrestled with death, and each time the contest was more evil and clawed from me a portion of my soul. The Worm I fought, and then the monster, but the last and greatest battle was with myself. Sir," she begged, "earnestly I beseech you – put death behind you."
The Steward lifted his eyes and, seeing her face, smiled, with a little warmth. "Lady, do you seek to sway me, or to sway yourself?"
"Both," she said. "And what does it matter, either way?" Urgently, she said, "Come with me now. Walk with us under the sun. Walk into the green world."
"As jester? As slave? His claim is false, lady, and no crown can alter that. Yet a choice does remain. To go at my own will. To give back the gift." Setting down the symbol of his office, he reached out to set both hands upon her face. And she saw the likeness again – the love of Gondor, the resolve – and she glimpsed the younger man once he had been, the Steward's son, second to the stranger. He stooped to kiss her brow. "Fair lady of Rohan," he said. "Daughter. Yes. You will love him well."
Dawn broke upon the city, a wave of pale grey light rolling in from the east. The horns heralded the new day. The king's party passed through the makeshift gate and ascended the levels, as the people watched from behind half-open windows and half-closed doors. At the entry to the uppermost circle, the lady Éowyn met them, her face bloodless under the flicker of the lamps that lit the way ahead.
In the Court of the Fountain, an old man hung from the dead tree, his shadow black against the white stone of the tower. Dawn light touched his proud and ruined face, and glanced off the dark globe of glass that lay at his feet.
They stood for a while in silence – kings, princes, servants. Some wept, but the Steward was still as stone, suspended between motion and act. At last the King of Gondor came forth. He bowed his head before the dead man, and then bent to claim the palantír as his own. He held it aloft, and it seemed to those gathered that the glass smouldered for a moment, as if filled with bright embers which were quickly quenched. Light poured in from the East, and shone upon Elessar and the green stone that he bore.
"This has been a place of darkness," he said. "But now I am come."
This is the Way
Barahir could never bear to watch another read his work.
Slowly he paced the chamber, tidied the desk, picked up scrolls and set them down again, worried his pen – all the while with his back to the old man, who sat in his chair and read. No sound came from him beyond a rustle now and again as, one by one, he set leaf after leaf upon each other.
"A fine account," said his grandsire at last. "Very fine."
Barahir turned. The Steward stacked the papers tidily between his gnarled old hands, hand that had wielded swords, signed warrants, written history.
"Of course," Faramir said, "it cannot leave this room."
The old man placed the papers down upon the desk. "Tell me, Barahir, what purpose does your history serve? What purpose, do you think, that any history serve?"
"'Tis a true account, sir—"
"True? And to what end?"
To that, Barahir had no answer. Helplessly, he held out his hands. The old man watched; fierce, judging, kindly.
"Look around you," the Steward said. "Look at the records held here. Who comes to this room?"
"Only you and I, sir." That was why they used it, for the peace.
"Only you and I. And what is there to draw men here, Barahir?" He gestured around them at the shelves and the scrolls that lay upon them. "What can be gleaned from all of this? The pay of the masons that built the White Tower? The cost of a loaf of bread in the days before the Kin-Strife? These may be truths, Barahir, but they are not history."
Slowly, Barahir took up his papers. He held them lightly between both hands. Written now. Should it be unmade? Haltingly, but loyal, he said, "What would you have me do with it, sir? Ought I to cast it on the fire?"
"That would be a drastic measure."
"Was I wrong to set it down?"
"I think not."
"Then what is to be done with it?"
Again the old man gestured around them. "Let it be. Leave it. Leave them their kings and captains, the faithful and the faithless. Let them believe the old world burned and a new one rose from the ashes. Let it rest, Barahir. For now. Other men will want the tale – in time."
And thus it was – although Barahir wondered, as he set a seal upon the work and consigned it to the shelf – what kind of men they would be, who did not desire heroes, who would see only the faults and flaws of others and not their virtue, as if this were some greater truth. For surely the way lies in between. Men are neither good nor evil, but are at once faithless and faithful, hopeless and hopeful, pitiless and pitiful.
Appendix A: The Sources – The Red Book of Westmarch and the Descent of the Great Smials Book
"...the libraries at Bucklebury and Tuckborough contained much that did not appear in the Red Book...
None of [the books at Great Smials] was written by Peregrin, but he and his successors collected many manuscripts written by scribes of Gondor: mainly copies or summaries of histories or legends relating to Elendil or his heirs"
[All quotations sourced from Note on the Shire Records, Prologue, LotR].
For further information on the sources, see here.