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A Bird in the Hand

Chapter 1: A Bird in the Hand

by Marta

The rain seemed somber to Barahir. It was almost as if Gondor's clouds were crying; as well they should, with the king dead and all. Barahir would be tempted to call the raindrops the tears of the Queen, were he a man more given to flowery turns of phrase. He was not, though, so he could not say it; a historian dealt in cold facts. Still, it seemed there was something in the air today. Did Gondor's very air mourn the old king's passing?

It struck Barahir as odd that he should be so palpably affected. He had not known the king overly well, for all that his work had benefited from the royal household's patronage. Perhaps he had seen more of him than many did, and in smaller gatherings, but Barahir was the younger son of a lesser line, even if his grandfather could name the king as one of his oldest friends. Barahir knew there were some lines he could not cross, and so he had always held himself at a respectful remove where the king was concerned.

Did that explain why he felt so driven to get away from the festivities? The new king had been crowned that morning and all Minas Tirith seemed either beside themselves with ostentatious displays of grief or else half in their cups from toasting their new lord, but somehow. Yet Barahir had never been a drinking man, or one comfortable with such public displays, come to that. When at last the crowds bore on his last nerve he remembered the aviary: he'd gone there, as a child, when the bustling city grew too much for him and he longed for solitude. Few people ever came here except for servants bearing messages, and they were unobtrusive enough. What he needed most today was thought and quiet, so he had dragged his aging legs up the long flight of stairs, wineskin and messenger's case in hand.

At last he reached the aviary and walked over to the windows. Should he look out over the Citadel? It was humbling, somehow, to see the City from this height and know that those tiny men below could just as easily be him. Or should he look beyond, down on the academy just on the other side of the Citadel's wall? The school's buildings were remarkable in their banality, free from the finer touches that usually marked buildings in these upper reaches of the City, for it was little more than a trade school in truth. Some rained there to serve in the Houses of Healing, others as archivists or clerks of the royal court. A quiet place, given to hard work and respectability.

As a lad Barahir had often wondered what it would be like to live in its walls, where he might give himself over to his books. He'd longed for their fraternity, growing up cloistered away with his tutors. Their futures were not yet assured; if they did poorly, there were many tradesmen who would pay good coin to earn their own sons a place inside those walls. For Barahir, privilege had always been guaranteed by virtue of his birth, and even if lack of talent had consigned him to live out his life on the victories won by the heroes of legend that surrounded him, he knew he'd never go hungry or even unnoticed. Those boys in the academy could hardly say as much.

Still, Barahir had always had a powerful drive to make a name for himself. He was the child of his grandfather's old age, the one fated to stay by the prince's side and keep him company while his uncles and cousins busied themselves with the business of the realm. And this was a quieter age for all Gondor, with fewer dragons to slay and orcs to route even if he'd had the freedom to go after them. Whatever glory he might find, it would have to be of a different sort than the ones enjoyed by those who'd come before him. As a child he'd devoured the tidy accounts of past quests, great deeds he knew could never have been quite so bloodless or as neatly divided between good and evil as the minstrels made them seen. And there he'd found his greatest adversary. For Barahir, to find the truth in such accounts had always been the only adventure left for him.

He wanted to lose himself gazing down out the window, on those boys whose world was defined by its sturdy, simple walls, but somehow he knew he shouldn't let himself be so carried away. Yes, he had come up here to escape the throngs below, but he also had a task that needed doing. Taking a deep sip from his wineskin, he lowered himself against the cool stone wall. A messenger-pigeon flew down from her perch high above him and rested on his shoulder, looking at him inquiringly. It reminded him of his cats back home, the way they cocked their heads to the side when he'd pestered them with questions no man wanted to hear.

"Can you guess, Master Bird, why the old king left me this work?" He tapped the messenger-case and cocked his head to copy the pigeon, smiling to himself. He was far beyond the stage of life when he expected answers in earnest, but it was still soothing to ask the question and not be thought odd. Outside, a boom of thunder rolled throughout the city, bouncing against the buildings, and Barahir did not need to look out to know the people would be scurrying for covers in doorways of nearby buildings and under the merchants' canopies. It always seemed more ominous here than it did in Ithilien.

"Very well, then. I'll tell you, shall I? The Elessar" – the pigeon cooed, and Barahir guessed she recognized the name – "he left me something in his will. He said I'm the most learned man he knew, if you'll believe that, and that perhaps I'd picked up a measure of wisdom along the way." Barahir waved the messenger's case knowingly, a leather canister sealed with wax and bearing the old king's mark. "But such compliments never come cheaply, do they? He willed me this, without so much as a word of explanation of what I might find inside." Barahir felt himself blush a little, for all that he only had a pigeon for company. "I haven't even worked up the nerve to open it."

The pigeon clicked his beak disapprovingly, and Barahir lowered his head in what he hoped was sufficient chagrin. Then he shook his head at his own folly. As if the bird thought anything of him at all, and as if he – Barahir of the House of Húrin, distinguished scholar of the Order of Ereinion – should care what a pigeon thought. Yet Barahir thought anyone would be flustered in his place. The king had entrusted him with this artifact, and he'd done it through a will rather than speaking to him directly. What could it be? For all his talk of battling metaphorical beasts, truth and history and the like, at the end of the day Barahir was no hero. He was, however, a king's man through and through. Perhaps that would be enough.

Before he could talk himself out of it, he broke the seal and twisted off the canister's lid, coughing at the musty air and driving the pigeon to fly away at the sound. A fleeting thought crossed his mind at that, a parable his grandfather had once told him. Truth, so the story went, was like so many birds in an aviary: sometimes near at hand and known with certainty, and sometimes fluttering about the rafters so you could hardly be sure of what you knew; but it was always there. He chuckled at the memory, for it called him back to simpler times, but he also wondered how much truth there was in it. More than he often gave the credit for, he supposed, if not as much as his grandfather had thought. "Come back!" he called up at the pigeon good-naturedly, as if having a pigeon nearby would anchor his thoughts; but no answer came.

Turning his attention back to the case, he felt his face grow serious once more. He upended it so its papers fell into his palm and, holding it carefully, he began to read. There was of course the usual archivist's insignia, declaring the contents authentic. Rohan then? But no; his Rohirric kin had made some progress in literacy since the war, but these pages were far too old for that. Reading more carefully, he saw some names he had seen before. There was Thorontur of Imladris, a name he had seen in many of the old manuscripts brought south by the old queen. And there was a Mithrandir, who had seemingly carried the text east across the sea –

The case fell from his hands, its metal studs clacking loudly as it rolled across the stone floor. Barahir looked down, surprised. He had not even realized he still held it, let alone that he'd let it go. He'd never put much stock in fairy-tales of a mythical land beyond the world, chalked it up to Elvish mischief to puff up their own claims to greatness or perhaps mannish fantasies in the barbarous North-kingdoms. Surely? But Thorontur was a name Barahir had come to trust; he'd hardly have expected to find such fanciful tales under his imprimatur. And his grandfather had always spoken of Mithrandir as being honest and trustworthy. Could Thorontur be so deceived? And had his grandfather spoken falsely of Mithrandir? Or was it more likely…

Barahir read on. The pages were not written by that Mithrandir; he had only carried them back to Middle-earth. The true author's name was marked out, worn away by time or perhaps erased by the author, but the "of the Vanyar" was still legible enough. For a moment Barahir wrinkled his nose at that – all of the Vanyar he had heard of were poets, and so not to be trusted with history – but then he caught himself. There was sometimes more truth in the ballads and odes than in the histories sanctioned by kingdoms, as songs could use fancy as a shield against official sanction. And why should Barahir assume the Vanyar were all of one sort anyway? That was hardly true of Gondorians.

Whoever this author was, he knew things that suggested the treatise was old, whatever might be said of its truth. He spoke of a great Armada of ships, their sails dyed scarlet and gleaming with gold. He recognized that descriptions from accounts unearthed in Annúminas since the war, tales of the last great stand of Númenor that was. And the number of ships, the sign of Pharazôn he'd seen in relics carried by Dúnedain to Middle-earth before the Fall – this text did not match perfectly with what Barahir had read elsewhere, but he couldn't explain the shared points through simple chance. On that count, at least, the treatise seemed genuine.

Would that the account had stopped there. Barahir could have stood the truth that there truly was a Furthest West and that, once upon a time, his people had lived on an island that had sank beneath the sea. But there was more. The Vanya wrote of how the Mighty Ones, those the Elves called the Valar, had laid aside their power, and how that fabled Eru Ilúvatar had broke his ancestors' world and sent great waves out from the deeps to drown the isle that had been given to men as a gift. Of course he had heard of the Akallabêth – who among the Dúnedain hadn't? – but he had long comforted himself with the thought that the floods just happened without being sent. Blights might ruin Pelennor's crops one year and not the next, and Rohan's winter might last an extra two months without reason; why should Númenor's floods be any different?

That thought was the only one that had kept the nightmares at bay. For years he had dreamed of being trapped in this very tower, with the stairs flooding and the waters rising steadily. The pigeons had all flown away, and the owls and eagles as well; but Barahir could not fly, nor would they carry him away on their backs. It was a wave dream of sorts, not unlike the ones that troubled many men of his line, but where his father had spoken of seeing a wave crash down on the countryside, he'd never seen himself as part of that horror. His sister had run from the room crying, at that story, but Barahir had sat calmly, listening intently. The world was a violent place, he knew, but it wasn't after him particularly. Somehow that thought had made him feel safer, when he could still cling to it.

Outside, the bell tolled announcing the day's last hour, and before long Barahir would hear the faint song of the boys' voices wafting up toward the aviary. Whatever else they sang, he was sure to hear "A Elbereth Gilthoniel." They taught it as a way to learn proportion and harmony and as practice in a long-dead languages that archivists might yet need to know, and the boys always sang it at sunset. It struck Barahir for the first time that it must have been a prayer, once upon a time. It was a call for help. But who had those original supplicants – elves, he supposed, in ages long passed – have hoped would hear it? Not the One, for His mind never seemed to change. To the mighty ones, then? Did their Valar love elves better than men? And the Faithful, his forefathers, who might have once sung it out of piety – were they blind to what Barahir now knew? How else could they still pray?

Almost against his will, Barahir imagined Manwë sitting atop his mountain. Had he seen the shepherds scrambling up the mountain in a vain attempt to escape? Had Varda turned her lord's ears so he could hear their cries? Could they have seized up their power, even at that late hour, or were they also beyond having a choice in the matter? Or had they heard? Such knowledge was beyond him, a bird fluttering so high in the aviary he could never even hope to grasp it.

For his part, though, Barahir had seen, he knew what he'd read, and he knew just as surely that he could never forget. He would write the Vanya's story, translate it into words that men of his own age could understand. And he would bury his rage deep within him, wear his scholar's mask so tightly that none could mistake history's truth for invective.

Down below, the boys began their song and the birds above took up the tune. They would soon sing of strangers beyond the seas and – what was that last line? It came to him quite naturally, then, a pattern long ingrained on his mind from hearing this verse so often, and he smiled. We still remember, we who dwell.

May it ever be so.