Mablung and NargÃªl, the captain of KhorazÃ®râ€™s household guard, had chosen the campâ€™s location wisely. It was situated on a wooded hillside overlooking the valley the aqueduct took its beginning in. The watercourse was fed by a narrow stream that had been partly dammed to create a small lake of clear water. From below, and even from the surrounding hills there was no indication of the temporary settlement: men, tents, horses, all were hidden in the dense underbrush. Not even a fire was discernable, a fact Faramir noticed with approval when together with the two captains he ascended the opposite slope in order to survey the countryside to the north and west, where Ihimbra was situated, and to exchange tidings.
It was evening, and the westering sun was setting the campâ€™s hillside aglow, gilding the pines, junipers and kermes-oaks, and very briefly glinting on a blade or hauberk of one of the soldiers ere the metal was covered again. The three men had climbed the narrow path winding up from the lake, accompanied by the scent of herbs and aromatic shrubs, small grasshoppers springing up at every step. Crickets were chirping in the sun-bleached grass, and many butterflies were about, and beetles glittering like coloured metal.
Next to a heap of rocks near the top of the hill the three men halted, and Mablung passed round a waterskin. The lower slope was already cast in shadow, but the stones were still illuminated by the sun. Chasing away some ants, Faramir leaned against the warm, craggy surface. He was weary and longed for sleep. Their journey to the camp had been slow because of MezlÃ¢râ€™s condition and the fact they had to avoid the open roads. After Dorgil had tended the injured Southron as best he could under the circumstances, they had sent DÃrhael ahead to announce their arrival, and to muster aid. But even with the additional helpers their progress through the rugged countryside had been arduously slow, and for MezlÃ¢r increasingly painful. The Haradan had persevered with an enormous effort of will, had even insisted on walking when Dorgil had ordered the others to build a stretcher, yet Faramir feared that the journey had taken its toll on the proud Southron. Dorgil had looked grave and worried after his last visit to the now sleeping Haradan.
â€œHe is as tough as old leather,â€ he had told an anxious LÃ´khÃ®, â€œyet I fear he has been overdoing it. Stupid Southron pride. Oh yes, he will live, never fear. But his recovery may take longer than what would otherwise have been the case, had he heeded my advice. And he may have done some lasting damage to that leg of his. Well, at least he seemed cheered by our reception in the camp.â€
This reception had been so hearty and enthusiastic that Faramir, after having been embraced by most of his rangers and many of KhorazÃ®râ€™s men, still felt his ribs ache. They had been welcomed like conquering heroes, with overwhelming warmth and genuine relief. Whatever young DÃrhael had told the men, it had kindled their curiosity and raised expectations of a thrilling tale. Gladly, Faramir had yielded the task of recounting their recent adventure to LÃ´khÃ®, who had clearly relished the opportunity to exercise his considerable narrative skills. The DÃºnadan hoped that by now, however, the small man had finally been allowed to retire and rest as well, after having been asked to repeat the tale for those returning from picket duty.
Like LÃ´khÃ®, Faramir had partaken of the meal prepared by men from the two companies, assisted by HanÃ®je and her children who had also relocated to this campsite. It had given him some brief respite, yet apart from that he had had no opportunity to rest. Even throughout the meal, Faramir had been accosted continually by a great number of men who wished to express their relief about his recovery, and who inquired about his wife and the current state of things. Touched by their sympathy, he understood their yearning for news and even tried to indulge them. Yet due to the fact he had not slept the previous night and very little the night before, and also because he had not yet had time to truly consider last nightâ€™s events, he found their questions, well-wishes and expressions of relief and wonder increasingly exhausting. So much, in fact, that eventually he had fled the bustle of the camp to this calmer place.
Feeling Mablungâ€™s worried gaze upon him as he drew a deep breath, he turned to the captain, giving him a weary yet encouraging smile. He had noticed how at their arrival the ranger had restrained himself from rushing at his lord with the rest of the men. His face, however, had clearly betrayed his relief. Faramir knew of the otherâ€™s conscientiousness, and also the high regard he held his former captain in. â€œItâ€™s good to have you back, sir,â€ Mablung had stated plainly, his voice awkward with suppressed emotion, and then he had chided some of the more boisterous rangers to â€œbloody keep your voices down, or else we might as well raise a banner to announce weâ€™re here.â€
â€œYou should have rested first, captain,â€ the ranger now stated, somewhat reproachfully, â€œbefore coming up here. You look spent.â€
â€œI am alright, Mablung, do not worry,â€ Faramir assured him, taking another sip from the waterskin. â€œMuch has happened these past days, especially last night, and I fear my mind is still too occupied to let me rest properly.â€
Captain NargÃªl, a lean, clever-looking man with the brown skin and curly hair of the desert-tribes slightly shook his head, setting his golden earrings tinkling faintly. â€œI can hardly believe LÃ´khÃ®â€™s tale,â€ he said, giving Faramir a long measuring glance from his dark eyes. â€œYou truly suffered to be dressed up like a woman, and in this guise met the Snake himself?â€
Faramir smiled. â€œIndeed I did, although I would not call it â€˜sufferâ€™ â€“ unless you refer to the tight bodice I had to wear. I daresay it was about the only disguise I could have worn for him not to recognise me, and therefore it served me well.â€
â€œBut your reputation, sir,â€ fell in Mablung indignantly. â€œThe damage to it should it become known.â€
â€œI will become known, rely on that, Mablung,â€ replied Faramir, amused by the otherâ€™s consternation on his behalf. â€œLÃ´khÃ® will see to that, and he is more than welcome to. I am not worried about my reputation, in fact, I am confident it will improve.â€
â€œBut, but a dress, lord? And a bodice and â€¦ padding â€¦,â€ Mablung muttered, looking so distraught that Faramir laughed.
â€œI have it on good authority that the dress suited me very well, and that the padding looked quite â€¦ natural. Why should wearing a dress be more damaging to a manâ€™s reputation than donning menâ€™s guise to a womanâ€™s? You all hold my wife in highest regard for what she achieved on the Pelennor, and you look up to Lady Narejde for her leadership and courage. They were forced to wear menâ€™s clothes in order to be taken seriously by men. It should not be like this. Only last night I again encountered ample proof of the ladiesâ€™ strength and resolve â€“ without them having to disguise. So do not worry about my reputation only because I wore a dress for a while. Rejoice, rather, about someone elseâ€™s reputation having suffered a severe blow.â€
NargÃªlâ€™s dark face split into a wolfish grin. â€œHad he any notion of honour, the foul Snake would cast himself from his own battlements upon learning who he spoke to and did not recognise. What humiliation! There is no excuse for such stupidity.â€
Mablung nodded vigorously, obviously having overcome his concern for his lordâ€™s good name. â€œUnfortunately, he is a bloody coward. He would never end his life thus, I daresay.â€
â€œIndeed he would not,â€ agreed Faramir. â€œI fear he will vent the anger about his humiliation on others. I only hope he is not going to choose Ã‰owyn,â€ he added softly.
â€œSurely he will not harm her, sir,â€ said Mablung reassuringly. â€œHe needs her. She is his only protection. She and the baby, of course. Oh captain, the lads and me, we were delighted by the news. Two thirds of the company say itâ€™s bound to be a girl this time.â€
Faramir smiled warmly, cheered by the rangerâ€™s genuine joy. â€œThank you, Mablung. How high are the stakes?â€ he asked.
Mablung blushed faintly, apparently recalling his superiorâ€™s view on gambling. But seeing Faramirâ€™s smile, he shrugged, smiling as well. â€œAh, there you must ask Edrahil as he is usually in charge of these things. Brandir even claimed it is going to be twin girls but I think he was rather alone with the assumption.â€
â€œÃ‰owyn did not hint at twins, so I fear Brandir may lose whatever he put in.â€ Faramir sighed softly. â€œI only hope the child â€“ or children in case he is right â€“ may be born in safety, far out of the Snakeâ€™s reach. And time is running out. She is so far along already, and so well protected.â€
â€œBut the lady is well, is she not?â€ asked Mablung. â€œGiven the circumstances,â€ he added, seeing Faramirâ€™s eyes narrow.
â€œShe is fairly unhurt, if that is what you mean, but she has had to endure a spell in the dungeons. Her accommodation has improved by now, yet she is closely guarded. And she is afraid, Mablung, afraid of her unpredictably cruel captor. I have never seen her so frightened, she who stood her own against the Dark Lordâ€™s most terrible servant. The Snake threatened to kill our baby and so forced her into revealing what information she had about me. I could see how this troubled her, although she did not really have a choice. I would rather have her save herself and the child instead of trying to cover me. But Mablung, who can tell what Al-JahmÃ®r will do should we truly lay siege to his castle?â€
â€œHe will try to save his own neck, the bloody coward,â€ hissed NargÃªl contemptuously and spat. â€œHe will try and run, like before.â€
â€œAnd he may avenge himself upon his enemies first,â€ added Mablung quietly, not looking at his lord but voicing Faramirâ€™s fears. â€œThis is what you are concerned about, is it not, sir?â€ He raised his eyes to the otherâ€™s.
Faramir nodded faintly. â€œI know there must be a way of freeing her and the baby, but right now â€¦,â€ he swallowed when the graveness of their plight in combination with his fatigue came over him like a heavy, suffocating blanket, â€œâ€¦ right now I cannot see it. We had a narrow escape. Security is going to increase now that the fleet has arrived in Umbar. And the more her pregnancy advances, the less she will be able to move.â€
His two companions exchanged a worried glance as he drew a deep breath, fighting down the despair welling up in him.
â€œYou need to rest, captain,â€ said Mablung soothingly. â€œThings will look brighter after you have slept. Itâ€™s not like you to lose hope.â€
But Faramir had barely listened to his words. â€œAt least she has a friend now in that dreadful place,â€ he went on quietly. â€œBut what indeed can InzilbÃªth do, with a small child of her own to look after?â€ Feeling the othersâ€™ gazes upon him, he gave them an apologetic glance. â€œForgive my dark mood,â€ he said, â€œI think I expected rather too much of our meeting last night. We were lucky to have met at all, so I should be grateful for that. But having to leave her to her predicament once more, not knowing if â€“ when â€“ we shall see each other again â€¦ But enough of that. Tell me what befell after we parted ways near Kadall.â€
â€œAye, sir, that we shall,â€ said Mablung, obviously relieved that his superior seemed to have recovered somewhat from the spell of despair. â€œAnd we have tidings that are bound to cheer you up somewhat, for it seems that Lord KhorazÃ®r and his family have many friends and allies who are stout enemies of the Al-JahmÃ®rs, and who have rallied to our course. Several of the desert tribes are astir. NargÃªl will be able to tell you more about them. It seems they have long waited for an opportunity to strike against the Snake. Also, we have heard reports from Umbar and beyond. There has been a constant coming and going of errand-riders and messengers. Poor Lord AravÃ´r hardly had time to recover from his injuries, and I daresay without the help of his valiant wife he would scarcely have managed to deal with all the preparations.â€
â€œKhiblat PharazÃ´n is well defended now,â€ continued NargÃªl. â€œSo much so that several companies are on their way to Umbar even as we speak. Others are patrolling the lands, looking out for Marekâ€™s troops. They will not be allowed to stray far from Ihimbra. We are also looking out for his messengers and informants, for the less he learns about our and our friendsâ€™ doings, the better.â€
â€œHave there been many fights yet?â€ asked Faramir.
â€œNot yet. Only some smaller skirmishes at the borders, like usual. The bloodiest encounter has been the fight near Ihimbra, when we battled the Snakeâ€™s son and his men. But I daresay there are going to be more serious handstrokes soon,â€ NargÃªl ended, with a fell and eager glint in his eyes.
â€œThe lads cannot wait to pay back Al-JahmÃ®r for what he has done to you and Lady Ã‰owyn, captain,â€ said Mablung. â€œAlso, they want to avenge their fallen companions. But sir, you do not look pleased,â€ he observed, giving Faramir a surprised glance. â€œDo you not approve of the Snakeâ€™s men receiving their come-uppance?â€
â€œMy feud is not with Marekâ€™s men, but himself,â€ said Faramir quietly. â€œOf course I rejoice in his plans being forestalled and his lines of information cut. But even so, I do not approve of unnecessary bloodshed.â€
â€œI would not call it unnecessary,â€ fell in NargÃªl.
â€œThere may be times when battle cannot be avoided,â€ went on Faramir, â€œyet we must tread extremely cautiously lest we appear as aggressors in this country. We must only defend ourselves, and at all costs we must not risk open war.â€
â€œCaptain, do you really believe we shall manage without, at this stage?â€ asked Mablung doubtfully. â€œThere are many who call for hard and swift retribution, and rightly so, I daresay. And you who have suffered the most wrong by the foul Umbarian, it surprises me that you should not be foremost into the fray, and cry for revenge the loudest. It is a war we can actually win, do you not think so?â€
Faramir shook his head. â€œThere are no winners in a war,â€ he returned. â€œThe past ten years and more, ever since the fall of the Dark Lord, I spent trying to achieve peace with the Harad. Through diplomacy and much, much effort and time and strength invested in building up mutual respect, in overcoming prejudice and realising our dependence on the other â€“ and indeed our similarities above our differences â€“ finally something close to stability and prosperity had been acquired. If we break loose another war now, all this will have been for naught. Ten years of hard work and many a personal sacrifice, wasted. And for what? For an upstart like Al-JahmÃ®r? Nay, Mablung, he is not worth it, he is not worth a single arrow loosed, or a single blade unsheathed, and least of all a life lost. War and strife with Gondor is what he wants. Only some hours ago I heard him declare so, egging on his countrymen against us, against me. Therefore, we must not indulge him or play into his hands. I will not let a personal matter ruin many peopleâ€™s lives.â€
â€œBut is this personal any longer?â€ asked Mablung. â€œDid he not also slant Gondor and Rohan by abducting our Lady?â€
â€œMany think so, and it touches me that we should have so much support in the population,â€ replied Faramir gravely. â€œStill, it remains a personal insult foremost, and the more I consider the possible consequences, the more I am determined to keep it so.â€
â€œBut what does that mean?â€ asked NargÃªl. â€œA personal, indeed an honourable way for settling the matter would be to challenge the Snake to a duel over the ladyâ€™s fate. But, alas, he has not got the tiniest spark of honour in him. He would never accept.â€
â€œNay, he would not,â€ agreed Faramir. â€œAnd even if he did, he would contrive ways of securing against her return to me, and of organising his escape in case he should lose. A duel would be no solution. I think the only way to beat him is not through battle or a display of personal bravery, but through cleverness and guile. He is vain, and arrogant, and overly confident. All three traits may offer ways for getting at him. His downfall must be wrought by himself. And he is becoming more and more anxious, for he knows that should we decide to strike, â€˜twould be a blow so fell he is unlike to weather it. Ere long he is bound to make mistakes, entangle himself in his own web. We must wait for this.â€
â€œWait,â€ sighed Mablung. â€œThat is going to be a sore test for us, and for you most of all, captain.â€
Faramir gave him a wry smile. â€œI know, Mablung, and I do not look forward to it.â€
They fell silent, each lost in thought. NargÃªl looked grim as he gazed over to the campsite. Faramir knew the Southron had not been convinced by his words cautioning against war. He longed for it, and a part of Faramir could understand it. Mablung seemed tense and worried, stealing glances at his superior as if to try and read his thoughts.
Actually, Faramir thought, this was hardly necessary. He had just voiced his opinion and indeed his fears clearly and with a readiness that surprised him. He put it down to weariness and a general sense of defeat. So, all their efforts of the past week had sufficed to get them inside the castle and out again. Not a mean feat, true, but what had they really gained by it? He had experienced a few precious moments with Ã‰owyn. Arguably those would have warranted even greater hardship. Yet, they had not managed to improve her predicament, perhaps even worsened it. They had not come one step closer to freeing her. Most likely some of his friends were in mortal danger still, hunted by the Snakeâ€™s men. And for what? Was he not being extremely selfish, risking the lives of so many just to win back his wife? Would it not be kinder, better for all involved to leave her where she was, housed in luxury, and return home, without causing any more bloodshed and the deaths of innocents? She would understand, would she not?
Absently he brushed an ant from his arm. With the small insects his troubling thoughts seemed to disappear as well. He was not being selfish. He was not the only one who longed for her return. Three little boys back in Gondor were missing her deeply, so were her brother and his family, and countless others. And could he really condemn her to a life at Ihimbra? Luxury she had there, true, but also the Snakeâ€™s company to endure. Having been Al-JahmÃ®râ€™s â€œguestâ€ himself for several months, he knew of the possible unpleasantries this implied â€“ to put things mildly. For Ã‰owyn things were much worse. For the moment she might be fairly safe from the Snakeâ€™s malice, but who knew when he would tire of her, or when she might become too troublesome to keep?
â€œWe expect a message from King Elessar any day now,â€ Mablungâ€™s words interrupted Faramirâ€™s thoughts. â€œAnd what about your companions, sir? Lord KhorazÃ®r and his wife, and Master Azrahil and our lads?â€
â€œI know naught about KhorazÃ®r,â€ replied Faramir. â€œI hope he managed to flee the castle in time before the gates were shut. As for the others, I am confident they managed to get away, but they are bound to be hunted relentlessly. They are going to avoid leading their pursuers here, therefore I doubt we shall hear from them any time soon.â€
â€œThe lord and lady know these lands,â€ fell in NargÃªl confidently. â€œThey will not be caught.â€
â€œWhat is your plan now, captain?â€ inquired Mablung.
â€œSleep,â€ prompted Faramir with a wry smile, before turning serious again. â€œAs for everything beyond that, I need to wait for tidings. I should like to meet with the King, yet we must survey the countryside closely ere we move on to Umbar. After the feast many people will be on the roads.â€
â€œIndeed they will â€“ in fact many are already â€“, and not just on the way to Umbar, but also northward, towards Ihimbra,â€ said NargÃªl. â€œOur men have been watching a large company these past days, a stately retinue with many horses in colourful trappings, and camels, and even a small oliphaunt.â€
â€œWe do not know much more about these travellers,â€ added Mablung, â€œbut they appear to be important. Some southern lord late for the party, perhaps.â€
â€œRumour has it itâ€™s not a lord travelling, but a lady,â€ said NargÃªl mysteriously, indicating he had snatched up more gossip and was relishing the opportunity to relate it to Faramir, who did not have to feign interest.
â€œSo, what else does rumour say, NargÃªl?â€ he inquired.
â€œWell, the best story our scouts picked up is that of the Snakeâ€™s wife journeying to Ihimbra to â€˜set matters right thereâ€™, whatever that implies. I like this idea. If truly Lady ZoraÃ®de is still alive, Al-JahmÃ®r is in for a nasty surprise. She wonâ€™t like how he treated their firstborn. She wonâ€™t like a great many things at Ihimbra. And sheâ€™ll be wanting to change them to her liking.â€
Faramir nodded thoughtfully, recalling what KhorazÃ®r and Narejde had mentioned about the mysterious Lady ZoraÃ®de. â€œWe must learn more about these travellers,â€ he said. â€œAccording to what I heard about her, I am not sure I want her as an ally, but every disturbance of the Snakeâ€™s plans can only benefit us.â€
â€œWe have men trailing the caravan,â€ confirmed Mablung. â€œIn fact, little passes in these lands now we do not know about, except for Ihimbra proper. Itâ€™s difficult to get spies established there.â€
â€œIf all went well, we have people there as well now, even in the castle,â€ said Faramir. â€œBut you have done excellent work, you two and all the men,â€ he went on, giving both a warm smile. â€œThis is the first time I feel fairly safe ever since I left Gondor. And therefore I shall surrender the organisation of the night watches into your competent hands, and retire.â€
Mablung laughed softly, looking pleased by the compliment. â€œGood,â€ he commented, â€œfor, captain, had you not suggested just now to finally get some sleep, I would have called some strong lads to convey you down into camp. Good night.â€
Faramir had expected sleep to evade him considering the events of the past days. However, it found him as soon as he had settled down on some blankets in a sheltered corner of the camp, before it was even fully dark. He woke at sunrise, when the camp was already astir. No tidings from his companions had arrived over night, although there were some reports from scouts about travellers setting out from Ihimbra by road and sea â€“ most likely those of Al-JahmÃ®râ€™s guests who had been most unsettled about the arrival of the Gondorian fleet, or those not interested in any further cooperation with the Snake.
After breakfast, to ease his growing anxiety about the lack of news from KhorazÃ®r and the others, Faramir began to write down the events of the past days in order to preserve what details he still remembered. Particular attention he devoted to drawing a new set of maps and floorplans, including the information they had obtained during their stay inside the castle. LÃ´khÃ® joined him, looking tense and ill at ease, obviously in need of distraction and thus glad to be called into service. Together they also visited MezlÃ¢r who had recovered a little, but was still weak and weary. Dorgil forbid him to rise, and to everybodyâ€™s astonishment he did not even try to object, indicating that he was truly not feeling well. He only took some food and drink and returned to sleep.
Faramir, too, welcomed the opportunity to rest after the continuous strain of the previous days. He actually dozed off in the early afternoon, in the shade of a large, sweet-smelling juniper, lulled to sleep by the chirping of cicadas and the warmth of the rocks he was sitting on. He was woken by something prodding his legs. Opening his eyes reluctantly, he blinked in the sunlight, realising that he must have slept two hours at least and that the sun and thus the bushâ€™s shade had wandered on.
â€œAmmÃª said youâ€™ll get burnt, sleeping in the sun,â€ a high voice told him gravely. Once his eyes had become accustomed to the brightness, he recognised little Gimil. The boy was sitting on a large stone, the small bow in one hand and a toy arrow in the other.
Sitting up fully, Faramir gazed at his bare arms, feet and lower legs, which had indeed started to turn red. â€œYour ammÃª is quite right,â€ he said to the boy. â€œThank you for waking me.â€ He stretched, still somewhat groggy, before gathering up the bag with his writing utensils and his boots and slowly rising to his feet.
â€œCan you fetch my other arrow?â€ asked Gimil, looking up at him. â€œItâ€™s up in that tree.â€ He pointed into an old kermes-oak not far away.
â€œWhat did you try to hit up there?â€ the DÃºnadan inquired as together they walked over to the oak.
â€œThe nest,â€ said Gimil, pointing again. â€œBut I missed it. Edrahil said if I can hit the nest, he will make a larger bow for me.â€
â€œActually, I think this bow is quite large enough for you,â€ Faramir told him with a smile, while at the same time feeling a deep sting in his heart. Longing for his own children surged into it with painful intensity. During the anxiety and excitement of the past days he had hardly thought of them. Now he felt guilty about this neglect and saddened by their absence. â€œAnd you must be careful where you shoot it. I hope Edrahil told you not to use it anywhere around people. You would not like to hit one of them, would you?â€
Gimil shook his head. â€œEdrahil said heâ€™ll take the bow away again if I shoot it near people. When will Pharzi come back?â€
â€œThe lion?â€ asked Faramir, surprised by the sudden change of topic. â€œI do not know.â€ Seeing Gimilâ€™s disappointed expression, he added, â€œYou like her, do you not?â€
The boy nodded fervently, his eyes shining. â€œVery much. She is so wild. But when you stroke her, she is like a little kitten.â€
Faramir raised an eyebrow. â€œYou stroked her?â€
Gimil, obviously noticing the change in Faramirâ€™s voice, blushed and gazed up at the DÃºnadan furtively. â€œYou wonâ€™t tell ammÃª, will you?â€ he pleaded in a small voice. â€œSheâ€™ll be angry.â€
â€œAnd rightly so,â€ the DÃºnadan said sternly, kneeling down to be of equal height with the boy. â€œGimil, Pharzi may seem nice and docile most of the time, but she is no kitten. She could tear you apart in an instant. You must not go near her, especially not alone.â€
â€œBut Azrahil goes near her all the time,â€ the boy objected.
Faramir sighed. â€œYes, he does. But Pharzi knows him since she was a cub, and he knows her. But even for him, she might become dangerous one day. So please promise me not to approach her again.â€
Gimli gazed at him, biting his lip. â€œWill you tell ammÃª?â€ he asked softly.
â€œIf you promise, I will not.â€
The boy thought for a moment, apparently weighing the advantages and disadvantages. â€œI promise. Can you get the arrow now? Itâ€™s up there?â€
Faramir waited, gazing at him expectantly. Gimil looked puzzled for a moment, before adding, â€œPlease.â€
Retrieving the missile proved trickier than Faramir had anticipated. Since he could not reach it from below, not even by throwing stones at it, he had to climb into the tree and shake it loose from where the arrow stuck between the branches, showering little Gimil in dry leaves as he waited underneath. Together they returned to where HanÃ®je sat near the outskirts of the camp, combing her daughterâ€™s hair and looking relieved when she spotted her son appearing together with Faramir, the latter still plucking twigs and leaves out of his hair and shirt.
â€œHe got my arrow,â€ the boy declared proudly, waving the missile. Then spotting Edrahil with a group of rangers returning from picket duty, he darted off towards him, obviously to inform him about his attempts at hitting the nest.
HanÃ®je gave a small sigh. â€œI hope he did not bother you, lord,â€ she said apologetically.
Faramir smiled, settling on a rock and letting down his rolled-up sleeves and trouser-legs. â€œHe saved me from sunburn.â€ Gazing up to watch the boy, he went on, â€œHe seems to be feeling well amongst the men.â€
She nodded. â€œBoth children do. Everybody treats them kindly, and even plays with them whenever there is time. One of Lord KhorazÃ®râ€™s men made little wooden animals for ZÃ®raphel, and another gave her and Gimil small clay flutes that hoot like owls. And your rangers won Gimilâ€™s heart by making him a bow and arrows, and by teaching him some words of the Common Speech and that strange language they sometimes use amongst themselves.â€
â€œI wonder what kind of words,â€ muttered Faramir to himself, but upon her questioning glance, he asked, â€œYou mean Sindarin, the Elvish tongue?â€
She shrugged. â€œIt sounds beautiful, almost like singing, so yes, perhaps it is Elvish. I would not know. But I am pleased that the children should know many different tongues. How is it with your children? Do they learn your wifeâ€™s language, too?â€
He nodded. â€œThey are still very small, the twins just beginning to talk at all, but we take care to talk to them both in Sindarin and Rohirric, and in the Common Speech. In the past months they are bound to have picked up quite a lot of Rohirric, actually, as they have been staying with my wifeâ€™s kin.â€ He drew a deep breath, recalling Elboronâ€™s vivid account of his and his brothersâ€™ adventures in Edoras. HanÃ®je gave him a sympathetic glance before resuming her combing.
â€œThe men seem delighted by the little ones, too,â€ she observed after a momentâ€™s silence during which both had been watching Gimli getting instructed about how to string and unstring his bow properly by Edrahil. â€œIt is touching to behold them, so warlike and dangerous as they look, yet with the children they are kind and cautious.â€
â€œMany have families of their own, who in my rangersâ€™ case they have not seen for several months,â€ explained Faramir. â€œYour children remind them of home. They remind me,â€ he admitted softly.
â€œThe soldiers make me think of my husband,â€ said HanÃ®je quietly, and a shadow of grief passed over her face. â€œOf how he was before all the trouble started with the Snake.â€ She sighed again. â€œIt seems a long time ago now.â€ Bending down, she kissed little ZÃ®raphelâ€™s hair. The girl had fallen asleep in her lap.
To lighten both her troubled mood and distract himself from his own homesickness and longing for his family, Faramir said, â€œI have not told you that you have gained an avid admirer of your dressmaking skills, have I?â€ She shook her head, looking surprised. He smiled. â€œLady InzilbÃªth was very taken with the gown you made for the fortune teller.â€
HanÃ®je looked touched and pleased. â€œShe was?
â€œShe asked me about it twice. I could not mention your name, but I shall, once all this is over.
â€œThank you, lord,â€ she said. â€œOnce all this is over â€¦â€ she then repeated quietly.
â€œHave you considered whither to go?â€ asked Faramir. â€œWith the companies about you are as well protected as possible under the circumstances, nevertheless we may need to relocate repeatedly, and may even be involved in skirmishes or worse. I have no doubt that you would mind neither these inconveniences nor the danger, but â€˜tis another matter with the children. Might it not be wise to move to Umbar, to there take refuge with the Kingâ€™s people?â€
â€œI have thought about it, yes. And it may seem prudent, were it not for the dangerous journey and the fact that I do not like the City. I have distant relatives there, and there is also my husbandâ€™s kin, but they hate your people, and I do not know where their current loyalties lie with regards to the Snake. I would not feel safe there, and would not gladly bestow my children into their care. And would your King take us in? I do not wish to be a bother.â€
â€œYou would be very welcome,â€ Faramir assured her, â€œand all but a bother. But it seems to me you have already made up your mind.â€
She gave a slight nod. â€œDo not think me careless or selfish, lord, but I feel I can be of more use here. And the children are happy, and well looked after. Down in Umbar, I would only sit about and fret and feel my grief more strongly. Here, there is much work to do, not just cooking and darning garments for the men. I have been helping to fletch arrows and mend chainmail these past days, and make new strings for your rangersâ€™ longbows. I wish to play a part in the downfall of the man who has robbed me of my beloved, and our children of their father.â€
â€œYou do not have to justify your decision,â€ Faramir told her gently. â€œI understand you perfectly.â€
â€œWill you leave for Umbar, to meet the King?â€ she inquired.
â€œI await his message. It may be wise to leave the vicinity of Ihimbra for a short while, until things there have calmed down a little.â€
â€œWill they calm down?â€
He shrugged. â€œI do not expect any serious confrontations soon. Al-JahmÃ®r needs to gather information about his enemiesâ€™ strength and purpose first, and he has to sort out his allies, determine who is going to support him in what way and to what extend. That is going to take time, which we shall use in much the same manner. He is going to be all but pleased when he learns he actually spoke with me during the feast, and is going to hunt for me even more relentlessly. For this reason, I think I shall indeed journey to Umbar.â€
â€œSurely the journey is going to be dangerous,â€ she observed.
â€œCertainly. I do not believe my presence in the city will remain unnoticed. But perhaps â€˜tis advantageous to draw his attention thither, and thus away from his own surroundings, to give those close by a better chance of working against him in secrecy. I shall act as a bait, for undoubtedly he will attempt to strike at me, now even more than before, after the blow we dealt his reputation.â€
She gave him a long glance. â€œIt is said he has many spies and assassins in Umbar,â€ she stated quietly.
â€œThere and elsewhere. There is no safe place for me in these lands â€“ nor indeed for anybody on my side. But so far the Snake has failed miserably at killing me, and I shall endeavour to keep it that way.â€
She nodded slightly, obviously worried and not entirely sharing the confidence he displayed. â€œYou should put some ointment from the vera-plant on your arms and legs,â€ she then said, â€œto cool your skin should it trouble you.â€
â€œâ€™Tis not too bad, just a little tense,â€ replied Faramir, rolling up his sleeves and examining the traces of his extended involuntary sun-bath. After this spell in the shade the redness had receded somewhat. â€œYet I thank you for your advice.â€
â€œSeveral of your rangers have come with more severe burns. You Northerners cannot take much of our southern sun, it seems.â€
â€œYes, we are hardly accustomed to it, despite our country being warm and sunny enough in summer.â€ He changed topic since a thought had struck him at her words. â€œI hope the men have not been bothering you, for ointments and else. In general the rangers are a fairly disciplined company, thanks to Mablung and a number of level-headed men who hold them in check, yet they have been away from home for a long time, and, well, since you know a bit about soldiers you can imagine what they might be like around women, when they have not seen their own for a while.â€
She smiled and shook her head. â€œI heard several had sweethearts at Lord KhorazÃ®râ€™s place, so they would not be as â€¦ wild as they might otherwise. I have no complaints about their conduct. They have always treated me with perfect courtesy and even kept certain remarks or stares to a minimum. Do not worry about me, lord. Should they become too boisterous, I shall make sure to remind them of propriety. And now please excuse me. I shall bring this little one to bed.â€
Despite his nap in the afternoon Faramir fell asleep quite early at night, having been excused from picket duty despite his insistence to take his share. He was roused again by Mablung, about three hours past midnight. â€œMessengers from Umbar have arrived, sir,â€ the ranger told him as he sat up in alarm, at once wide awake. â€œAlso, we have word from Ihimbra.â€
â€œHas KhorazÃ®r returned?â€ asked Faramir quickly as he rose and dressed.
â€œNay, not him. But one of Lady Narejdeâ€™s spies from town contacted the lads that lie close and reported that your friend joined those responsible for the distraction. They split up and are on the run, closely pursued by the Snakeâ€™s men. Lord KhorazÃ®r and Lady Narejde are leading their pursuit away from the location of our camp. As far as we know some received injuries when they staged the distraction, but nothing serious. NargÃªl and I have put together a company that is about to set out and come to their aid. I hope you approve.â€
â€œI do. I was about to suggest the very thing. Good work, Mablung. Who are the messengers from Umbar?â€ Faramir inquired as he followed Mablung out of the tent he had slept in towards the centre of the camp. There was no fire, nevertheless Faramir could make out several dark shapes standing in the small clearing around which the camp had been erected. Horses could be heard snorting and fidgeting, as if they had been ridden sharply. â€œI hope you made sure of their identity.â€
Mablungâ€™s teeth showed in the darkness as he smiled. â€œMost certainly, lord. There was no mistaking them.â€
As they approached, one of the shapes stepped forward. Faramir heard the tinkle of chain-mail and the creak of leather, and a swish of cloth as the man reached up to lower the hood of the wide burnous he was wearing over his armour. Even in the dim starlight his hair showed to be of lighter hue than that of the rangers, causing Faramir to laugh softly in surprise and joy.
â€œShould I be prepared to ward off another blow?â€ he asked in Rohirric when the other had almost reached him.
â€œThat depends on your tidings, I reckon,â€ came the reply, followed by a laugh, a quick step forward and a hearty hug. â€œGood to see you alive and unhurt, brother,â€ stated Ã‰omer as he released Faramir again. â€œIs it true you met Ã‰owyn? Where and when? How has she fared? Tell, tell, leave out nothing!â€
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate