“Is your Master at home?”

I had ridden into the courtyard of Ithil Hall and hitched Bess to the hitching pole. An elderly servant had answered the door, a man of Gondor whom I took to be an old soldier, no doubt one of Faramir’s trusty rangers of old. Bowing deferentially but uttering not a word he ushered me in and closed the door. I had the feeling I was expected, although I’d sent no word on ahead. Old habits die hard. Even in these days of peace doubtless Faramir still kept watch on the boundaries of his country seat and on the roads leading south to Minas Ithil and north to Udûn.

We mounted wide wooden stairs, past walls hung with banners depicting scenes of the hunt, not to mention echoes of Faramir’s more adventurous days. The servant opened the door of the library and announced me correctly, although I’d never met the fellow before and he had not asked my name.

Faramir was sitting at his writing desk, clad in a glistening green cloak with velvet reveres. He let the scroll he was reading snap together in a double roll and rose to his feet.

“My dear Goss! How splendid to see you again!” He grasped my elbows and looked me up and down. “My! But how you’ve grown!” We laughed at that—I had fond memories of Faramir when I was a boy at court. He was one of my favourite uncles and I used to love playing in the orchards and in the autumn leaves behind the hothouses of Ithil Hall.

He let go my arms and gave me a quick pat on the shoulder. “You’re looking more and more like your father—but I’m sure everyone tells you that.”

“You’re looking in good health yourself, my lord,” I said deferentially. Faramir huffed. “Just call me Faramir,” he said, “like you used to. You’d be a lord yourself if you had stayed at court.”

To the servant, still standing at the door, he gave orders to bring afternoon tea to the library. “Make it something substantial, Sternhelm. I’m sure the son of Gandalf is feeling hungry after his ride down from Udûn. And I’m feeling rather peckish myself.”

Since the afternoon was warm, Faramir flung open the double doors leading onto the balcony and brought up two chairs. We sat and gazed out over his lovely garden and my eyes strayed over the tops of pine and maple to the sunny hillside beyond.

“Éowyn tells me she saw you in Minas Tirith the other day.”

“Yes—in stressful circumstances. I wish it had been otherwise. But she very kindly gave me some of her precious time. Did she tell you what it was about?”

Faramir’s eyes were frank and open. “No… unusual for her. She doesn’t usually withhold confidences from me. But this time all she would say was that I’d have to ask you myself, since she was sure you were going to turn up here sooner or later.” He got up to take a deep breath at the window. “I was delighted to hear it, as it happens. I’ve got some new plants growing in the garden. I wanted to ask you about them—they’re from the distant south and I thought you might have come across them in your travels. But here’s me talking as if you have all the time in the world… Éowyn says you’re a busy man these days.”

“King’s business, I’m afraid. But nothing so pressing that I can’t enjoy the countryside of Ithilien for a day. I have to think about some of the things I’ve seen and heard.”

Two servants arrived with tea, a man and a maid, and without a word they swiftly set up the repast on five small tables around us. Faramir was as good as his word. The meal was substantial—one could almost have said the hobbit influence was gaining ground in Ithilien these days. Legs of chicken, game pie, fresh baked bread in simple rolls marked with a cross on top, fresh root vegetables cut into strips, pickles and relishes—nothing hot, but only what could be drawn from a well stocked pantry in the twinkling of an eye.

“They tell me you are much-travelled man.”

“Yes…” I sighed. “I came back to Osgiliath hoping for a rest, but it has been anything but restful recently. Most of my leisure hours I’ve been spending with Legolas and Gimli.”

“Ah yes, we last saw the pair of them here at Yule. They seem to be keeping in good spirits. Legolas’s people have done some wonderful things here in Ithilien. Cleared up all the orc mess. It’s a matter of pride among the wood elves that the place is growing to be as beautiful as Lórien—or should I say, as Lórien was. And hasn’t Gimli done marvels with the Great Gate of Minas Tirith? The inhabitants of Udûn are quite jealous…”

“The cheeky devils! You don’t mean to tell me…?”

“Yes,” laughed Faramir. “They want a gate just like it, in a rampart across the Morannon once more. And they’re threatening to build a gate of iron if we don’t give them a mithril one. Or at least with a bit of mithril on it, here and there. Well—you can imagine what the dwarves say about that!”

“Gimli hasn’t mentioned anything about that to me. I’ll have to get him going about it, next time we go out for a drink together. Talking about that, I went out for a drink with the head of GUB last night.”

“Commissary Grishnakh?” Faramir laughed. “A capital fellow, there. A rare specimen—a good orc. And when you recall what a fiend his father was…!”

“Have you met Grishnakh, then?”

“Yes. He actually accepts invitations. Éowyn and I hand out these things at Yule to all the Mandate people we feel we have to. Just to be polite. Not really expecting them to be taken up. But Grishnakh came along. He was the life and soul of the party too.”

“He’ll accept anything you offer him. He’ll smoke all your pipe-weed, if you let him.”

“Ha-ha! And you ought to see the inroads he makes on your wine cellar too! It doesn’t alter him, though.”

“No. He’s always just the same.”

Over his chicken leg, Faramir gave me a frank stare. “Talking of that, I gather you’ve been to see Tom.”

“Yes. Isn’t that a funny business. What d’you make of it?”

Faramir sucked the last of the meat off the bone before replying. “I don’t know what to think. Personally I’m saddened. I’ve had quite a few chats with old Tom since he’d been here with us. He’s very resentful about the way he’s been treated, as you can imagine. What did he say to you?”

“Just that. But I don’t think he’s as senile as he cares to make out.”

We both avoided mentioning Goldberry by name and I said nothing of my encounter with her in Minas Ithil. Whether Faramir was expecting me to talk about her I don’t know. Since it was Éowyn who had put me on to her, perhaps he might have been!

After tea had been cleared away Faramir invited me for a stroll in the garden. He was right about his new plants—they were aloes of some sort. I was of the opinion they wouldn’t take in this northern clime unless we had a really good summer that year. Which however we both agreed was an even chance.

Faramir straightened up from his plants. “I take it you’re going to stay for supper? An excellent haunch of venison is all ready for tonight and if Éowyn is not going to come home today or tomorrow I’m going to have to eat it all myself.”

I said I’d be delighted to stay. Quite apart from the fact that I’m very partial to venison, there were one or two things which Faramir might know the answers to.

“What is more, if you are in no hurry to rush off early tomorrow, how about us riding out together for a morning’s hunting?”

The idea pleased me immensely. I needed time to think and I saw no point in going back home to Osgiliath just yet. And Bergil had been right—the less I saw of Minas Tirith for the present the better.

…to be continued.