It was early in the morning of mettarë itself when I reached Minas Tirith. I had ridden fast from Dol Amroth, journeying well into each night and sleeping under the stars, to reach the city before the year's end. I went to my chamber more than ready to rest, for my father had left word that he expected me to attend him at sunrise, and I still held out a faint hope that the next day I would be making another journey.
Yet I did not know until late morning if my father would release me or hold me in the city in place of my brother for the evening's ceremonies. We broke our fast together, but he ate little, and even at this early hour he seemed already weary. But his mind had lost none of its sharpness in the weeks I had been away, and he questioned me long and hard about the errands I had lately carried out on his behalf across the southern fiefdoms. War had burst upon us the previous summer and, while we still held the fords and the western shores of the river, we knew this quiet would not last. The darkness was gathering, and the storm would soon break, and we would need all the strength that we could muster.
And so I had journeyed throughout the realm, and my errands had often been testing for, while they would not have said it to my face, it seemed to me that each lord I dealt with doubted that Minas Tirith could stand, and they were minded more to keep much of their strength to protect their homes to the last. The bargains I had driven had often not come cheaply, and I related the news to my father with growing unease. It was fortunate, I thought, that I could end with an account of my dealings in Dol Amroth, for our kinsman remained as true as ever, and when the Enemy did at last cross the river, the banners of the Swan Lord would fly before the gates of Minas Tirith. My uncle would not stint in giving us aid.
At last I finished speaking, and waited for my father's judgement. The little clock beside us struck the hour before noon with a silvery chime, and I risked a quick glance out of the long windows at the eastern end of the hall. The sky had been grey all morning and, even if I were to leave straightaway, it would almost be dark before I reached my destination, for this was the shortest day. And as yet I did not have my father's leave to go. I looked at him from the corner of my eye. Still he sat silently, in thought, and as I watched, the lines upon his face deepened, and he became grimmer in aspect, and more forbidding.
At length he stirred, and as he spoke, he too looked out of the windows eastward.
'This was much as I had foreseen. Your news from Morthond is perhaps better than I had guessed, but that must be set against the losses from the Langstrand, whence I had thought we might draw greater strength.'
He stopped, and then his eyes fell upon me at last, with a cold glitter.
'I had thought to keep you in the city to carry out your brother's duties this evening, but the occasion will, I think, be quiet, and I see no need for you.'
His eyes became merely cool. 'News from Ithilien is scarce these days, and becomes scarcer. In any event, I think you would prefer to hear it first-hand. Be back by noon of yestarë. I would have you in attendance for those ceremonies at least.'
He rose, and I stood and bowed my farewell, and then hastened towards the door before he might change his mind. In truth, I had not expected his consent to leave the city on such a day, and not without having to make my case. At the door I turned to look straight back at him, stern and still in his chair.
'Thank you, sir.'
He waved his hand in dismissal.
As I made my way down to the stables, I felt joy rise in my heart that soon I would be back among the company. Nigh on six months had passed since my brother had set out in search of Imladris and I had been called back to the city to fill his place. In all that time I had spent no more than a scant few days here or there in Ithilien, and my recent travels had kept me away from much news of my command. I longed to be in Ithilien once more, for even in midwinter the land did not fail to raise my spirits. The air would be crisp and its streams and rivers clear, and I would see the company again, and hear how they had fared in my absence. And I knew that it would gladden my own heart to see them for indeed these past months had been a trial, as we waited for news of Boromir which did not come, as I watched my father grow grimmer, as I looked in the faces of men who owed us allegiance, and saw that they doubted us. The grey day lengthened and grew colder as I rode east, but I felt a warm pride at the thought of the company. In Ithilien, we lived each day closer to the Shadow than most men in Gondor would dare even to think upon, and yet we did not yield.
The wall of darkness hit me the moment I set foot upon the eastern bank. Has it always been thus? I wondered to myself. I turned my face to look up at the mountains lowering before me. Have they always stood so close? I rode eastward, murmuring to my steed to soothe her as we went on upstream, in the direction of the Ephel Dúath. A red haze lay behind them, but it brought no warmth. Winter, it seemed, had come at last to Ithilien; and it was dark, and it was bitter, and it seeped through my bones.
To be a Ranger in Ithilien was to learn quickly to be quiet, for our lives depended on stealth and secrecy. Even in our most secure refuges we could not risk noise. But the silence that met me at Henneth Annûn was unnatural. Almost the whole company was there, but it seemed not a word was being spoken. Men were sitting in small groups or alone, mending gear or checking weapons - but there was none of the quiet hum of talk that always accompanied these tasks. With only a few torches yet lit, the darkness seemed heavier in the enclosed chamber than even it had outside, and it was cold.
I stood for a moment at the entrance to the refuge, aware of my long absence, which I had mostly spent in the comfort of the citadel, while the company had been wintering here.
'Captain.' A familiar voice broke my thoughts, and at last I entered the chamber, to meet the speaker.
'Mablung,' I said, clasping his gloved hand in my own. A rare smile had come to his face, but he looked tired, I thought.
'Are you here long?' His breath misted in the air.
'For the night only,' I answered, as we went through the cave towards the Window. Many of the men greeted me as I passed, and I nodded and smiled back. There would be time for talk later, but for now I had to speak in private to my lieutenants. I would see no sunset tonight, of course, but Damrod was out there, looking west. He turned at our approach and, once again, I was given a weary smile in greeting.
Then I wrapped my cloak tightly about me, and said what was at the forefront of my mind.
'It is freezing here!'
They exchanged looks, and then Damrod gave the ghost of a smile. 'You may have been in the city too long, captain.'
'I have spent the past week sleeping out of doors, and wintered twenty years in Ithilien. This is like nothing I have ever known!' I looked inside. 'Why are the braziers not lit?'
'We never light them before the turn of the year, captain,' Mablung said. The new year always brought the coldest weather to Ithilien and this was the only time we risked fires in our refuge.
'We do today.' I clicked my fingers to attract the attention of the man standing nearby, and issued some quick orders. Then I turned back to my lieutenants. 'Had you not felt how cold it had become?'
It was plain from their faces they had not and, indeed, day by day they might well not have noticed. Perhaps they did not see either how strangely dark it was, even for this time of year. But it was plain to me from their mood - and that of the rest of the company - that they had at least felt these changes in their bones. It was not only the weather sapping the strength of the company, I thought, as I heard their news of the past months.
Supplying Ithilien had always been a struggle for me - for if Rangers are successful, our efforts should go unnoticed - and for long now none had seen Ithilien as anything other than a lost cause. Pleading that cause at a distance had proven an impossibility, and I had felt the failure bitterly. And then there were our losses. The battle for the bridge in the summer had ravaged the company, and with the eastern banks now held by the Enemy, the autumn had brought no respite.
'The young men are untested and unready,' Mablung said. 'And they die first,' he added quietly, thinking, no doubt, of his sister's younger boy.
I was painfully aware of how little I could do. If we still had a foothold in Ithilien three months hence, it would be little short of a miracle. I knew it, the men knew it - and the Steward himself knew it. Men and supplies would not be wasted on Ithilien. In my absence these two men would bear the brunt of it, and I did not insult them now with false hopes. My frankness seemed almost to come as a relief. An end, perhaps, was now more clearly in sight.
By this time, the tables had been put up inside and the food was being set out, and we rejoined the company. It was not now so cold inside the refuge, and we could remove our gloves, although none of us abandoned our cloaks. Now that there was a fire, the food was hot, and the wine too was warming. As I ate, I went around the men - hearing their stories, glad of their welcomes, guessing their fears, and mourning our losses. The next day I would be back in Minas Tirith - warm and well-fed, listening to lords and ladies - and uncertain of my father's new purpose for me. I knew not when I would return to Ithilien - and so we talked and we drank well into the night. Midnight had long gone when at last I ordered the torches to be put out and called the whole company together. I can leave before sunrise, I thought, looking hazily at the lit taper Damrod had handed me, and ride through the morning. It was so cold that I would surely be awake - and sober - long before I reached the city, to play the part of the son of the Steward at the yestarë festival.
All the torches in the cave had now been put out, and a quiet fell over the company. I shielded the taper with my left hand and waited for that moment of silence that felt like crystal; as pure and clear, and as fragile. Then I began to speak, saying words that would be heard this night throughout all the lands of Gondor, whether doubtful or defiant still; words that my uncle would be saying to the family in Dol Amroth; that my father would be saying in the stone halls of the Citadel; that I prayed my brother would be saying somewhere - in good company, I hoped, or safe beneath the stars, or on his way home to me.
'This was the day which was shortest, and this is the night which is longest. But the stars shine upon us, and the year turns now. The darkness passes, and the light shall return.' And as I said this last, I lit the candle before me, and its flame pierced through the dark. I let it stand alone for a moment and then, at my sign, the men beside me lit the candles before them, and then the light was passed around.
I waited until all the candles were lit before I spoke again. This time the words were my own, and I had said nothing like them before; not in all my time as captain, not once in the twenty years I had stood alongside these men and others now lost to us, or lit the first candle in the dark of the longest night, or ordered the Standing Silence.
'Look eastwards,' I commanded.
I felt the rustle of surprise pass through the ranks, but these were Rangers of Ithilien, and I scarcely heard it. But they obeyed, and turned as I had ordered. I looked around at them in the candlelight - the faces of the older men, wearied by the years of struggle; and the faces of the youths, their fears as yet only half-hidden - and all living each day in a cold and a dark most men in Gondor would not dare even think upon.
'This is where the light begins,' I said. 'And not just the turn of the year. The light stretches out behind us; past the river, across the Pelennor to where the White Tower shines in sunlight... It goes on through the whole of Gondor, to the Sea where it glitters on the water... And then it passes further, on into the West, to Valinor, where it is brightest and does not die. But this is where it begins. The light starts here, with us, in Ithilien.'