The End of Dark Days, Part Three
Supper was finished and cleared away, the kitchen finally quiet. I had set aside a tureen of soup, warm scones in a napkin-lined basket, a bit of cheese and sausage, and was just getting the teapot when Nanny came storming in, her face like a thundercloud. What on earth --
“Mag.” She was so angry she was shaking. “What is this about Faramir?”
I should have known, I should have expected that she would have heard something - and did I not all but promise to tell her the sorry tale? But that did not make things any easier now that the time had come. I set the teapot aside, and went for the brandy instead.
“What have you heard?” I asked. “What did Durvain tell you?”
“I can scarce believe what he said! I know they are giving him herbs for pain, but he seemed so lucid as he spoke. Yet the tale he told me...” She was pacing like a wild thing, wringing her hands. I had never seen her so overwrought. “Mag, he said – he said that Denethor had tried to burn Faramir alive! You know I did not particularly care for Lord Denethor, but I can not believe such a thing! I don't understand how such a ridiculous rumour could have.....Mag?”
To even hear the words describing the horrible events of that night made my heart pound; I could scarcely breathe. Fighting to control myself, I reached for the brandy, carefully pouring two tumblers full, hoping she would not notice the trembling of my hands. I had to be strong to tell her, as I had promised.
“What Durvain told you ... what he told you is true. Lord Denethor went mad with despair, those last days, and sought to end his life, and Faramir's with him.”
Nanny's mouth dropped open. She looked, for a moment, like a fish; I pushed the brandy towards her and she surprised me by taking a long, slow swallow. “Tell me everything, Mag.”
I took a sip, letting the heartening warmth wash over me before I spoke. “There were so few of us left. Why did we not see the Lord Denethor was going mad? Perhaps we were all going mad as well. There were some who said that he sat night and day in his tower, never sleeping, wrestling with the Dark One by means of sorcery, keeping us all alive by the strength of his will.”
“Sorcery? I heard something about a wizard; did he have anything at all to do with this?”
“No, no, it was the wizard, Mithrandir, and the halfling, Pippin, who saved Faramir's life. Lord Denethor took the halfling to be his page – we thought he was a prince, but he was not, merely a chieftain's son, from their land far to the north. Pippin called for servants at my lord’s orders, but only a few would come – all the rest had run away. Do you remember Raengur the groom? He was one of the ones to carry the litter. He sat for days afterward, drinking and telling anyone who would listen that he was merely following his lord's command, as he always had. Raengur loved Faramir, but how were we to keep faith, when our lord had lost his? Perhaps he believed Lord Denethor, that it would be better to die quick than slow, thinking it would be a mercy to Faramir. Who is to say?” I almost gasped, wondering suddenly what had become of Raengur – it had been weeks since anyone had seen him. Reviled and shunned, had he left the City? Or was he lying low somewhere, sick at heart, or worse?
“A mercy? A mercy to set him afire while he was still alive? What fool would think that? Had they taken him to the healers, were they certain that Faramir was near death with no hope?” Nanny was shouting and weeping all at once. “How could any of this be? Even beset by madness, how could Lord Denethor seek to ... murder, his son, his only son?”
“He would not call for the healers.” I felt for a moment like a scribe, reading from an ancient text; it was so much less painful than to try to remember it all as it was. “Faramir was leading the last of the retreat from Osgiliath, when he was struck down by one of the Nazgul, riding from the sky on a fell beast. From the moment they brought him in, his father stayed by his side. They had had harsh words, or so I've heard, before he left; now the Lord Denethor could not bear to be parted from him, and had him brought up to the Tower.”
Nanny stopped her pacing, just for a moment, and fixed a hard glare on me. “Why would his own father and men of the household, men who had known him for many years, think that death by fire would be easier? Tell me, Mag!”
I took a long swig of brandy, feeling the heat of Nanny's fury. “The fighting had been going on for hours. Everywhere was screaming, and smoke, the horrible shrieking of the fell beasts, the siege machines pounding endlessly. We had no one to turn to. Who among us could go to him and say 'Your son must go to the healers, now, my lord', with any sort of authority?
“If you were not here, you cannot imagine what it was like. What power decides who will live, and who will die? I crossed that courtyard a half-dozen times that day, but it was Donal the cobbler’s nephew, one of our messenger boys, that was snatched up by a fell beast before my very eyes. I knew he was afraid, we all were, but when I finished writing the note to the Healers, he grabbed it and was gone like a bird. They found his body down on the second level. They would not have known it was him, but for the fine boots he wore.” I squeezed my eyes shut against the image of the freckle-faced boy, so proud of those boots – 'I can run faster than anyone in these! I'll be your best messenger!' he had said, that first day; and so he always was.
Oh, Mag. I heard her shocked whisper as though from a thousand leagues away.
“Mormegil was there in the Tower the whole time, waiting outside the door of the chamber, my lord’s faithful hound. When he heard Lord Denethor speaking of wood, and oil, he tried to stop him but Lord Denethor struck him. Can you imagine such a thing? He struck him on the head with the Steward's rod. Hours later Mormegil came stumbling in a daze to my kitchen, the blood already matted in his hair. By then, of course, Lord Denethor was dead.”
"But... if no-one dared say anything or try and stop the Steward, except for poor Mormegil, how does Faramir live?”
“'Twas the halfling's doing, may he be forever blessed. He ran for Mithrandir, and brought him from the thick of battle. Together with Beregond, they broke down the door and dragged Faramir from the pyre. The halfling, small as he is, beat out the flames on Faramir's clothing with his own hands, but it was too late for Lord Denethor. Evil contrived by the Enemy, so Mithrandir said, and so it must be true, for who in his right mind would seek such a death, for himself and his child?” I took another gulp of the fiery liquour, to wash back the choking tears I still had not shed over that night.
“My poor little rabbit.” Nanny whispered. “He did not...he did not see his father's end?” She downed the last of her brandy; good. She needed that strength.
“No, he was not conscious for any of it, poor lamb. They brought him straight to the Houses, where the healers did what they could for his burns and bruises, but it was not until the King came and laid his hands upon him, and breathed into his mouth with healing herbs, that we knew he would be spared. Nanny, it was the most wondrous thing! They say Faramir opened his eyes, and sat right up, and spoke to him!”
“So he is well? He is not....crippled, nor scarred? And the king has returned, you say? I thought that only a wild rumour, thought surely that it could not be true.... “
“It is most wonderfully true. 'The hands of the king are the hands of a healer,' so has Ioreth said, about a thousand times since that day, but for once, she's right. After tending to Faramir, the king went about the city healing the hurt and sick. He had two mighty elf-princes with him, who he called his brothers, but how this could be possible I do not know. He was a Man, our king, and came to my kitchen that very morning, standing in line for hot bread and cheese and a mug of tea, just like any other man. It's very odd; he reminds me of someone, but I can't think of who.” As I had so many times since that morning, I paused; the face and voice and slow, cadenced speech lingering just beyond the edge of my memory. Who...?
Nanny looked confused, and no wonder. “He must be a very strange king indeed, no offense to you, Mag, to come and sit in the kitchen like a common man...but Faramir, he is well? He is...I suppose he is Steward now?” She gasped. “He..does he know? What his father's madness would have done?”
“Prince Imrahil told him, the poor dear; I would not have wanted that sorry task for all gold in Harad. But he is well, neither crippled nor scarred, just a bit of a cough still. We are plying him with lemon and ginger tea until he complains that he is floating on a sea of it. But oh! I have forgotten the best part!”
“Best part? What good could possibly have come of this?” She was skeptical, and I could not blame her, not after all I had just told her.
“Signs and wonders! There was a warrior among the Rohirrim, the one who killed the witch-king with a single blow, have you heard the tale? The one they said no living man can kill. And so....”
“I have heard many things, but I've no idea what to believe as true! I have seen the Rohirrim, though...I believe Dínen is quite taken with those men.” She rolled her eyes, seeming amused at her daughter's distraction. “But please tell me what wonderful thing has come of all this tragedy, Mag, for I cannot imagine what it would be.”
“And so...,” I teased, happy to finally have some cheerful news, after all our tales of woe. “And so, that warrior who killed the witch-king turned out to be a woman! The king's niece, of all things, a shieldmaiden who would not be left behind when all her kin went to war. She killed the witch-king, she and another halfling who was with her! But she was sore hurt, and the king healed her too. She was in the Houses with Faramir, and the two of them have fallen in love; so says Ioreth, great chittering wag-tongue that she is.”
“A woman, on the Pelennor? I had not heard that rumour. And ....but that is wonderful news, indeed! Are they to wed? Have you met this woman? Is she well-suited for him? A woman who would go to battle.....” She shook her head in disbelief; I chuckled, happy to see her a bit more like her old self again.
“I do not believe they are courting formally, poor King Theoden not yet laid in his grave, but I do not doubt they have spoken between the two of them. I've seen the lady, but not met her. If you spend any time in gardens, I'm sure you'll come across one or both of them, wandering about all starry-eyed.”
Nanny began to get a sort of plotting look on her face, just as she always had when she was seeking to be two steps ahead of the boys. “Hmmmm, I'm sure she's the only woman of the Rohirrim in the City, is she not? If she's still in the Houses, surely I'll have the chance to meet her. I do so want to see Faramir, especially after all that you've told me....has he much free time, do you know? I suppose I could simply go to his rooms...it is not as if I do not know these halls like the back of my own hand.”
“Well, he's allowed to work a few hours each day, and the rest he spends in the garden, or reading and studying in his chamber. But you know that he'll be happy to see you again, no matter what! And you can ask him about Lady Éowyn yourself - he was never able to keep anything from you.”
“He has never been very secretive, that is for certain. So he is well enough to do some work...that is good, I suppose, as long as he is not tiring himself out, working when he should not be.”
I laughed. “He is not nine years old any longer, you know, Nanny!”
“True, true....But I am sure that he is working away by lamplight, when he should be resting. So he is to be Steward, or is King ...the King does not plan to use someone else in that station?" She seemed a bit offended at the notion that our new King might push Faramir aside in favour of another man.
“No, he is to be Steward, and his sons after him, so he'd best get to begetting some, shouldn't he?”
Nanny choked, then started to laugh. “I suppose you are right, Mag!”
I was relieved to see that she was calmer now, though I didn’t think that she’d truly lost much of her outrage. I couldn’t blame her. At times Lord Denethor’s tragic demise seemed a bit like a dream; at others it was all too real in my memories. That seemed the way of it with all of those dark days during the Siege, before the return of the King.
“Now,” I said, once again turning my attentions to the tea kettle, “I’ve some lovely scones and a nice soup here – I’m sure you haven’t had a decent meal since leaving Dol Amroth, have you? Where are those daughters of yours? And how are your men faring?”
At last Nanny took a seat at the table, and began telling me of her family, of the losses they’d sustained and of her worries for her husband and son. It was like so many of the conversations we’d had when she lived in Minas Tirith that it almost felt like no time had passed since we’d last had a chat in this kitchen. We talked more of Faramir; of course we could not avoid speaking Boromir, and finally, in my dear friend’s company, I was able to shed some of those tears I had been hoarding. Together we wept bitter tears over his untimely death, and happy tears of shared remembrance of him, until we were weeping and laughing at the same time.
I don’t know how late it was when Nanny finally rose. “I must go see how my daughters are faring; I left them sleeping on an empty bed in the Houses… ”
I threw up my hands in disbelief. “How could I have forgotten! I have a place for you, two big beds in the common room where the maids and wenches sleep. We sent most of them out of the City; they'll be straggling back over the next few weeks, but for now there's plenty of room. Bring your girls tonight, or tomorrow if they're too settled; and anytime they're hungry send them to me. I can probably send something over for your husband and son as well – I don't trust those cooks. Always bland, bland, bland food, clear broth and porridge, when what men need are red meat and ale to build their strength.”
“I will,” she assured me, trying to stifle both a laugh and a yawn at the same time. “Tomorrow, however, I am going to see if I can track that rabbit of mine to his lair. Thank you for everything, Mag,” she said, giving me a quick hug. “I am so glad to see you – and thank you for telling me the truth of what happened to Faramir and Lord Denethor.”
She left, and I set about clearing the remains of her late meal. I wondered what she and Faramir were going to say to one another; I also wondered what Nanny was going to make of the Lady Éowyn. I hoped Faramir would give the lady fair warning before Nanny had a chance to ambush her.