The nineteenth of March, and the Steward of Gondor paces the walls of the Houses of Healing. He counts the hours since the host headed east, marks in his mind their progress through Ithilien, tries to predict when the news will arrive, and wonders how well he will die.
He had thought to fill the hours in conference with the Warden of the City and the Marshal of the Riders, but was somehow circumvented in this purpose - how, he is not quite sure - but it leaves his days empty, and he has learnt now that there are some enormities from which even reading cannot distract. The hours crawl past him, and if he sleeps he dreams of fire.
His rational mind suggests that he is grieving, and with nothing better to do, he gives this notion full consideration. He concedes that there may be something to it, but this conclusion leads to no shift in perception and still the only real sensation is the slow pulse of pain in his shoulder. So he watches himself sit and think as if through dark glass, or else he sits and thinks about how he is watching himself. He could be another man.
The twentieth of March. He woke from a nightmare just before dawn and now is tired and on edge. Tonight he will swallow both his pride and the sleeping draught he has so far refused, until now unwilling to risk again the perils that - even with Beregond guarding the door - may beset a man who is not completely alert.
This morning he sits outside on a bench and, rather than reading, considers instead recent events, examining his motives, determining the nature of his guilt. A habit formed to save his father's time - although there are still occasions when, bewildered, he cannot see his fault without assistance.
He sets aside the petty crimes - of being the wrong man, of living - attempting instead to predict what will earn particular opprobrium. His absence from the field during the final battle is surely a failing on the part of the Captain-General. The loss of more than a third of his men... he squeezes shut his eyes quickly; quickly enough, and shifts his thoughts with a jerk of the head.
But they settle inevitably on what he knows is his real crime - how in that last moment, after he felt the dart hit him, he had looked up at the sky and thought not of his duty, nor of his men, nor whether the West would survive, but only that he was glad that at last he was going to die, and so he had surrendered. This was the moment when all the comforts and conceits of a lifetime became transparent, and he saw that he was not the man he had perceived himself to be. And he knows too that because this is what matters to him most - and because he has not once concealed from his father that which father really wants to know - it is this that will somehow be used to punish him.
He stands abruptly and walks towards the walls, and it is only when he hears the Warden speak his new name that he recalls that this conference will not in fact happen. The wave of relief that engulfs him, as powerful as the one he dreams of, is replaced almost instantly by a rush of revulsion at the kind of man that can think gladly of the death of his father.
He barely hears the Warden, but the woman's voice catches his attention, and he listens with rising impatience to her list of complaints. A courteous response is necessary to the sister of the King of Rohan, and he produces one, if a little archly. And then he looks at her, and it is as if he is staring into a mirror, or has pressed his palm against a piece of broken glass.
The twenty-first of March. He marks time in a number of ways. It is six days since he became Steward, three days since the host went east, the world will end sometime next week, and this morning he has company.
When he came out earlier he saw that she was standing in his usual spot at the wall. He thought fleetingly of white flowers, and then of all he had said to her at their first meeting the day before, and how he had spent the rest of that day asking questions about her - and he nearly turned and went back inside. But his voice called out to her, and she turned and greeted him - but as he went towards her he swore that today he would exercise self-restraint. So here they sit in silence under a tree, and she plays idly with the knot on her sling, and he chews listlessly at his thumbnail.
And then suddenly he begins to speak, and he listens to his voice telling her about his brother and about his father; then - and he doubts that she is interested - about his mother; and then - and this, he thinks, has to be trying her patience to its limits - he even talks for a few moments about himself, and what is uppermost in his thoughts: that he should not be here, that he should be with the host, that he has in a multitude of ways failed in his duty. And he wonders what happened to that promised self-restraint, and he stops himself, very suddenly.
He is so lost in this confusion that it is a moment before he realizes that she is now speaking, and another moment before he grasps - in horror - that she is returning the favour. She is talking of Edoras, and fear and despair and loneliness, and he feels a sudden anger towards her that she is forcing this story upon him when he has enough to trouble him, when he has heard most of it already from the Halfling, and has guessed the rest. And when she reaches the climax of her story, she stands and stares out at the Pelennor and, with the taste for the dramatic which he will only later realize is one of the reasons why he already loves her, she declaims:
'I deserted my post. I abandoned my people.'
And then she turns and glares at him, defiance tinged with despair, and he wonders what it is she is looking for from him. Anger? Disgust? Judgement? They remain so for a moment, still as statues as the world turns about them and he watches as despair starts to win the war against defiance.
What is it that you want from me, dear lady? I am not your King, nor your conscience, nor even the man that you love.
There is nothing of defiance left there now. And the sight of that kindles in the ashes of his heart something which feels familiar, which reminds him - if indistinctly - of a man that he once was. He reaches up his hand, she reaches back, and their fingertips meet, like when you put your hand up to a mirror. The world tilts into focus.
'I know,' I reply gently, thinking your touch is like absolution. 'I know. It does not matter.'