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 Post subject: The Snake's Checkmate
PostPosted: Sun 01 Oct , 2006 7:25 pm 
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A sequel to Reunion. What happened in the time between these two stories can be read at http://www.anke.edoras-art.de/anke_fanfiction_letters.html.

Also, there is an aside-thread for the new story.




Cermië 2nd, Fourth Age 12


A strong gale was blowing from the hills that mounted in blue and brown folds to the north, swirling dust and fine sand along a rather well-kept road that wound its way through the foothills of the downs and up to a rocky pass, leaving the more gentle and fertile valley of the river Harnen behind to wander through wild and sparsely inhabited lands until it reached the river Poros, a week’s ride to the North, and the border to the great realm of Gondor. Harondor had always been a debatable land, and even now, when officially there was a treaty of peace between Gondor and its southern neighbours, the borderlands remained an inhospitable, dangerous place, the refuge of bandits, outlaws and enemies of the King, despite attempts on both sides of the border to keep these trade-inhibiting activities at a minimum. After the war with the Dark Lord the Harad Road, as it was called, had undergone great repairs, and was now increasingly used by merchants from North and South, all of whom were glad when they were able to leave the rugged hillcountry between the two rivers behind and descend into more civilised reaches. The company travelling along the road now was heading northward, towards the pass that marked the border to Harondor, and thus the horsemen had the most difficult part of their journey before them still. They did not look frightened by the prospect, though, riding at a good speed. They were well equipped with arms and provisions, and their steeds looked fresh.

Another gust of wind sighed in the branches of the ancient olive-trees that lined the road on one side, turning their leaves all to shimmering silver and flattening the already parched and sun-bleached grass underneath their gnarled boughs. It went on twisting knots into the white mane and tail of a chestnut-coloured horse in the van of the company, whose rider reined in and held up a hand to halt the company. He was clad like a Haradan in long, flowing garments of light, dark-blue, black and white wool as protection against sun and wind. But when he withdrew the veil he had pulled across nose and mouth in order to speak to the man riding next to him, he revealed stern, and despite a light tan rather pale features, contrasted with dark winged eyebrows and bright grey eyes. These, as well as his tall, lean stature spoke of a Númenorean ancestry.

Turning in the saddle, he cast a searching glance over the company as one by one the riders halted, reaching for water-bottles or their saddle-bags to fish out some food. His gaze lingered on a rider clad also in shades of blue who was talking animatedly to another who wore robes of brown and gold, and rode with a gloved hand resting on the hilt of an ornate scimitar.

“She has been talking to Narejde this past hour, Dúnadan,” his companion informed him. He spoke Adûnaic in the manner of the noble families resident in the North of Haradwaith and the vicinity of Umbar, but without the slight drawl commonly associated with the dialect of the Umbarians. The speaker was clad in rich garments of red and black adorned with embroidery in red silk- and goldthread. He had only partly shielded his face against the elements: it was of bronzish hue and strongly tanned, a pair of dark brown eyes burning under his brows. His long wavy dark hair was streaked with grey, as was his short beard, yet he looked agile and resolute despite his somewhat advanced age. “You have not spoken much since we set out, neither with her nor with anybody else. Is anything the matter with you?”

The rider in blue shrugged. “The imminent parting,” he replied absently, still watching the two others converse. This was not the entire truth, and he was sure his companion knew that, but he was in no mood right now to enlighten the other on the details, some of which were shady to him as well. But fact was, ever since their setting out from Khorazîr’s home in the early morning, Faramir had hardly spoken with his wife, and she had likewise been avoiding him.

“Aye,” agreed the Haradan, indeed not picking up on the matter – whether because it really did not interest him or out of tact Faramir did not know. Still, he was grateful Khorazîr chose not to dwell on it. “Up there is the pass. If all goes well – which I very much hope for you – you will be seeing your boys again in a fortnight.”

“Well, ‘tis going to take a little longer than that,” replied Faramir a little wistfully, glancing towards the mountains. “They are with my brother-in-law, in Rohan. From Dol Arandur ‘tis another week hence. But we shall ride as speedily as possible, be assured of that. I really miss them, and Éowyn does so, too.”

“Of course you do,” said Khorazîr sympathetically. “I should like to see them again, too. They must have grown a lot since my last visit, and I am sure Elboron can converse almost as fluently as his father by now, and the twins should be running around like merry foals.” He sighed softly, also looking toward the North. “You know we would accompany you further than the border of my realm, yet I do not trust this peace. It has lasted too long already, and I fear I shall be required back home sooner than I please. Not that I do not trust Aravôr to run the realm, but he has his own family to mind now, and I should like to provide him with as much time for that as possible. ”

Faramir smiled slightly. “Well, you should not forget your own family, Khorazîr,” he remarked gently. “You have a wife to mind again now, and the way I know Narejde, she is not one to suffer neglect lightly.”

Khorazîr laughed, his eyes lighting up as he gazed towards the rider in brown and gold. “Alas, that she is not. But not much has changed, really, with Narejde. After all, we have been living together for some time before. Still, I have heard she has been chasing the servants about more than she used to. So I reckon she is enjoying her new official status as lady of the realm.”

“Lady of the realm indeed,” Faramir replied, smiling. “If you are not careful, she will take over the rule in no time.”

“And she is welcome,” Khorazîr said with a grin. “Maintaining it has become even harder work recently than before. So many attacks on our borders. Ambushes. Errand-riders waylaid and slain. It reminds me of the time just after the War, when the remnants of the Dark Lord’s forces returned and troubled the lands. Some things have improved, of course, but as long as the lords cannot stop fighting each other over trifles, there will never be peace down here.”

Faramir nodded thoughtfully. “Aye,” he agreed with a grim smile. “Not until some people finally disappear and cease to trouble us.”

“Some people,” said Khorazîr fiercely and it sounded almost like a curse, his dark eyes glinting. “I wonder where he has been hiding these past months. There are signs that many of the troubles have issued from the Snake, but we have no proof whatsover. I almost wish he would finally show himself again, so that we can strike at him, and finish him once and for all.”

“That would indeed be helpful, although when he resurfaces again, he is likely to strike first,” observed Faramir thoughtfully, his expression stern.

“Lord Faramir, sir,” a voice suddenly addressed him in Westron.

He turned towards the speaker. One of the men of the rearguard had ridden up to the head of the company and now gave him a smart salute. He was clad, like most of the men of the company, in green and brown garments, the garb of the Rangers of Ithilien. It was only partly covered by a long light-brown burnous in the shade of the parched ground. A longbow and a quiver with green-feathered arrows was slung over his shoulder, and there was a sword visible at his side.

“Captain Mablung sent me ahead, my lords, to inform you that there is a rider coming towards us, at great speed. You can see the cloud of dust over there.” He pointed to where a rider was approaching at a desperate pace. He had already reached the rearguard, and was now advancing along the line of the company who was trying to make room for him as best as possible. “We first thought it was a common errand-rider,” went on the ranger, “but the lads at the rear said he looks like one of your household guards, Lord Khorazîr.”

“And so he does,” said Khorazîr with a deep frown as he watched the rider's approach. “This does not bode well.”

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Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


Last edited by Khorazîr on Sat 13 Sep , 2008 3:34 pm, edited 3 times in total.

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PostPosted: Tue 03 Oct , 2006 3:50 am 
A maiden young and sad
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Several lengths back, Éowyn pushed her hood and veil back, letting the sun glint off her golden hair. For a moment the air felt cool, but soon the oppressive heat reminded her it was still very present. She knew she could journey to the South many more times and never get used to the heat. A sudden longing for the cool shadows of Ithilien hit her. Home. It would be the better part of a month before she was back in her garden, scolding Elboron for trying to jump into the frog pond and telling the twins that the flowers were pretty to look at but not good to eat.

And yet another part of her did not want to leave this wild land, or rather, the friends here. They had come for the much talked about wedding of Khorazîr, a formidable lord, and Narejde, also known as Naeramarth, the Dreadful Doom. She had an equally, if not more, colorful past as her new husband. Kidnapped from Gondor as a lass, she had lived much of her life in slavery in Umbar, but escaped and became a leader of a band of outlaws with the sole purpose of destroying any Southron who crossed her path. She had caused more than a little trouble in Gondor, at one point holding the Steward hostage, and was now exiled from that land. She had known much suffering and hardship in her life, but now, now she was a glowing bride, a startling change for those who knew her well. “I am happy now,” she had told Éowyn on the ride to the border.

“If you are not careful, that tame Southron of yours will turn you into a woman,” the other cautioned.

Narejde giggled – another new development. “He can try his luck,” she said, patting the hilt of her scimitar, “but I think he will find that I will tire of silks and perfumes after a few days. And I do not think he cares much for those on me as it is.” She flushed, the redness creeping close to her blue eyes. “I mean…”

Éowyn smiled assuringly, but not without a hint of amusement. “I am sure he prefers the outlaw to the lady.”

Their conversation drifted casually, sometimes resting on talk of family, sometimes touching lightly on politics, sometimes commenting on the surrounding countryside. Their host’s escort would take them to the border, then they would travel to the village of Kadall, still several hours ahead in Harondor, where they would rest for the night. Éowyn had started near the front of the line when they had set out, but gradually she had drifted toward the back of the line. Now, during this halt, she was back far enough to be content.

“Are you angry with him?” Narejde nodded toward Faramir as Éowyn took a drink from her water bottle.

“Yes. No.” She sighed. “We do not always see things the same way.” Narejde raised an eyebrow. “Oh, do not look at me like that. Yes, I am angry with him, but now it is out of stubbornness more than any real irritation.” Her voice faded as she noticed that Narejde had shifted her interest to the rider nearing them. The two women shuffled their horses to the side as he passed them. His own mount was heavy with sweat, its nostrils red and flared. Éowyn’s blue roan whickered and tossed its head as the other sped by. She would have preferred her grey, but the roan was better suited for a hot climate.

Narejde frowned at the rider. “Why is he…” She let her question fall to silence. Then, finally realizing those were blood stains on his garments, she cursed under her breath and nudged her horse into a trot. Éowyn hesitated a moment, then followed. This looked more important than her rift with Faramir. She arrived to find a scowling Khorazîr and an anxious husband.

“Five of the guards were slain,” the rider said in quick Adûnaic around his gasps for breath. “Seven more are injured, as is Aravôr. Another company, and your son, N—, my lady, are searching for them.”

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PostPosted: Tue 03 Oct , 2006 10:49 am 
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“What of Melike and Hanneh?” asked Khorazîr sharply, anxiety obvious in his voice.

“Your daughter-in-law and your granddaughter are unhurt, my lord,” assured him the guard swiftly, wiping sweat from his brow with his blood-stained sleeve and leaving dark red stripes on his forehead. “Although Lady Melike joined the fight and killed two of the attackers once she saw your son was wounded – not a bad wound,” he added quickly, seeing his lord’s gaze. “Just a scratch along his side. We were taken completely by surprise. They must have spied on us for weeks. Captain Wazîl reckons they smuggled in some of their informants during the preparations for the wedding, when there was much coming and going of servants and messengers and merchants. They knew exactly where the rat was being kept, and how many men were watching him and whatnot.”

“So they came to free Akarshân?” asked Faramir, noticing that Narejde and Éowyn as well as Mablung had ridden up to them to overhear the conversation.

“Yes, that seems to have been their chief purpose,” nodded the guardsman with a grim expression. “Master Azrahil has taken some men and is pursuing them. He even took his lioness with him, so if he catches up with them they are going to be in bad trouble.”

“Serves them right,” interjected Narejde with a fell glint in her eyes. “I should have slain the rat when I had the chance. I told you it was dangerous keeping him prisoner,” she added accusingly towards her husband.

Khorazîr scowled. “We will catch him again,” he said, more confidently, Faramir thought, that by his troubled looks he felt. He glanced at Faramir. “We must leave you here, Dúnadan, I fear. This matter needs to be dealt with immediately.”

“Of course,” said Faramir, saddened by the prospect that their parting was even more imminent now than he had feared. Khorazîr looked troubled as well, but even more anxious about what had befallen at his home, and the wellfare of his family. “If you want us to accompany you and help you in the hunt, we shall. The rangers are very good at tracking fugitives.”

Khorazîr put a hand to his shoulder. “Your offer is very much appreciated,” he said earnestly, “but I shall have to refuse. You yearn for home, I know very well, and moreover I would not want to endanger you and Lady Éowyn. There is more behind this attack than simply an attempt to free the son of Zohrân Al-Jahmîr from captivity. I fear, as I am sure do you, that his thrice-cursed uncle is behind all this. Marek is not accounted for, as well you know, and I should like to keep you as far out of his reach as possible. You had to endure enough of him last year.”

“Yes, I did,” agreed Faramir quietly. He had spent about four months as the Umbarian’s prisoner on Tolfalas, and had suffered much hardship at Al-Jahmîr’s hands, only narrowly escaping a cruel death by venom. This severe poisoning had left traces, weakening his otherwise formidable constitution so that even now, many months after his return to Ithilien, he had not fully regained his strength of old, contracting illnesses that formerly had not troubled him more easily. According to the healers, there was a chance he never would make a full recovery. Ever since his escape, his enemy had managed to evade pursuit even by King Elessar himself, and yet he had managed to now and again remind his opponents that he was still around, waiting for another opportunity to strike at them again. After all, he was not called the Snake for nothing. Only a few months ago the son of his late half-brother Zohrân, Akarshân, had taken Narejde’s son Azrahil prisoner. Azrahil had been rescued by his mother and Khorazîr, and in turn Akarshân had been captured. And now he had been freed by some ingenious plan and a bold, desperate stroke.

“We have to leave immediately, Khorazîr,” said Narejde urgently. Faramir knew she was worried about her son, about whose existence she had only recently learned. He was in fact the half-brother of Akarshân Al-Jahmîr. For a while his father Zohrân had chosen the slave-girl Narejde as his favourite, rejecting her when he learned of her pregnancy. She had been parted from her newborn child and had been told it had perished. Only to learn about Azrahil’s existence twenty-five years later, when he was a grown man, and had spent most of his adolescence working as his half-uncle’s most dangerous killer. He it had been who had captured Faramir and brought him to Tolfalas, where after some time his contact with the Gondorian had made him question his allegiance to the Al-Jahmîrs, until finally he opposed his former master openly, and aided Faramir’s escape at great personal risk.

Upon learning of his existence, Narejde had at first been reluctant to meet him, not wanting to be reminded of his father Zohrân who she had come to hate, but upon actually encountering him, she had soon begun to look upon him with a mother’s pride. During their stay at Khorazîr’s castle, Faramir had witnessed how now she doted on the young man, as if trying to make up for the missed years.

Khorazîr now turned to Éowyn. “My apologies for this rather abrupt departure, dear lady,” he said with a slight bow in the saddle, reaching for her hand to kiss it. “Thank you for journeying all the way to grace our feast. I hope our next meeting will not be too long delayed. The next time we shall bring little Hanneh to visit your boys.”

Then he turned to Faramir and they shook hands. “Look after her well on the journey, Dúnadan. I wish to hear no complaints lateron. I shall write to you of what befell here. Our regards to your little ones, and to your friend Túrin and his family, your brother-in-law, and to your King.”

“Thank you for your hospitality, Khorazîr” replied Faramir. “It was good to see all of you again, and may the next meeting be not too much delayed indeed. Be careful, too, when you hunt for Akarshân.”

Khorazîr squeezed his hands briefly, and nodded. “We shall.”

Faramir took leave of Narejde as well, then Khorazîr, his wife and their company of guards turned their horses and with last waves of farewell, they urged on their steeds, and vanished in a cloud of dust as they sped along the road toward the South.

Faramir watched them until they had dwindled to tiny specks in the distance, his expression grave. He was deeply troubled by what had befallen, and he knew Khorazîr and his wife were feeling likewise. Strange, he thought, that now our fates should be so twined with theirs, and we should care deeply about the others, despite having been deadly enemies some years ago. His acquaintance with Khorazîr had actually come from the Southron’s desire to kill him to avenge his first wife’s death which he had blamed, unjustly and do to lack of proper information, on Faramir. In the year after the War he had even challenged the Gondorian to a deadly duel to end their feud. Khorazîr had won this fight, seriously wounding the other, but decided to spare Faramir’s life – and thus had laid the foundation for a lasting and ever deepening friendship. Things had befallen similarly with Narejde. And now these two, former enemies both of the Gondorians and indeed each other, were married happily, and Faramir and Éowyn could wish for no truer friends.

“Captain, we should not linger here,” Mablung’s voice startled Faramir out of his contemplations. He turned to the captain of his rangers, a slight smile tugging at the corners of his mouth despite his heavy heart at the parting. Despite being now captain himself, Mablung and indeed many of the older rangers who had served with Faramir even before the War, had never ceased to refer to his lord with that title, and Faramir appreciated this. It showed he was still considered part of this close-knit company, despite his now somewhat more elevated status as Steward of Gondor and Prince of Ithilien.

“You are right, Mablung,” he agreed, forcing his mind back to the present. “‘Tis still some leagues until we reach our quarters for the night. I want you to send out some scouts to ride ahead. We have been journeying rather carelessly so far, but now our company is considerably smaller, and I should not like to take any chances. Up in the mountains there will be many places fit for ambushes until we reach the village.”

“Do you expect an attack, sir?” asked Mablung, his eyes narrowing as he gazed towards the mountains.

“The tidings Khorazîr’s guard brought were all but heartening. It looks like Al-Jahmîr is stirring again. Their rescue-attempt was executed with immaculate timing. I do not believe it to have been a coincidence.”

“You believe it was also meant to split our company?” said Mablung thoughtfully.

Faramir shrugged, pulling the veil over his nose and mouth again. “Perhaps. I do not know. But I do not wish to take any chances until we are safely across Poros. The journey down South was unnaturally swift and safe. I somehow have the feeling the backward road is going to be harder. So, whatever nasty surprises we can avoid with extra vigilance, we will.”

Mablung saluted, and set to informing the rangers. Faramir turned to Éowyn who had been listening to their exchange with a thoughtful expression. He saw her eyes narrow slightly when their gazes met, and he could tell she was still harbouring some resentment against him, after their rather heated discussion this morning prior to their departure. Briefly, he thought of something to say to her, as the silence that now was spreading between them seemed even more unhealthy than an argument, but he could not think of anything appropriate. The company set in motion again, with Mablung chasing off the scouts, and for the moment he was spared having to make conversation. Most likely they would get an opportunity to talk things through once they had reached their lodgings for the night.

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PostPosted: Fri 06 Oct , 2006 3:22 am 
A maiden young and sad
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So they go, Éowyn thought, nudging her horse into motion with her heels. She glanced over her shoulder again at the clouds of dust still visible from their friends’ hasty departure. The wind picked up once more, blowing bits of dirt and sand into her face. She quickly pulled the cloth over her mouth and nose and tugged at the top to shade her eyes. But it was not just the dust that was making her eyes water. Even at the best of times, this goodbye was difficult, and this certainly was not the best. She felt cheated out of a few more leagues with good company. And for them to have to go back home to find pain and destruction, when they should be celebrating the recent marriage… She shook her head. To say it was not right would be an understatement.

Ahead, she saw Faramir look over his shoulder, his gaze starting at the back of the company and working forward until it rested on her. Yes, I am still here. I have not tried to run off and find my own way home. She snorted behind her veil. My health, indeed. ‘Tis your own health you should be worried about, you fool man. It had not been that long ago when Elessar had banished him from a meeting of the Council due to illness and faintness. The letter he had written describing the events had left her shaken, especially his description of falling asleep in the early afternoon and waking up the next morning to find the king and Imrahil holding vigil by his bedside. She had never really had to worry about his health before. He was rarely sick, and when he was, it was never serious enough to put him to bed. But things had changed. I know what I can handle. You need to worry about your own fool health.

Her thoughts quickly returned to the present as her horse danced and sidestepped. A rabbit had jumped out of a scraggly shrub by the side of the road, attempted to leap across the path, then thought better of it and darted back into the brush. The sudden movement was enough to startle her horse into misbehaving. It was strange how so large a beast could be spooked by so small a creature. “You know, if you stepped on him, he wouldn’t stand a chance,” she told her horse, smoothing out his mane with one hand. The horse snorted and shook its head as if in response. Éowyn chuckled.

After journeying another hour, they came upon a small spring a little distance from the road. A well-worn trail branched off toward the fresh water, and various found objects – what looked like a broken plank from a wagon, a large twisted tree branch, part of a wheel axle – were strung together to create a place to tie the horses. They rested here briefly, allowing the horses to drink and filling up their own water bottles. The pass lay not much farther ahead. Its shadows would be welcome after the long hours in the sun.

Éowyn rolled her shoulders while she waited by her horse for the signal to move on. Hopefully she would not be too sunburnt after today. On the journey down her skin had regularly turned pink by sunset, relieved only by the stay at Khorazîr’s castle. Now she thought she could feel the tightening again. She heard footsteps behind her and then felt a touch on her arm. She looked to find Faramir studying her closely, his face still obscured by his own veil. “Are you alright?” he asked quietly.

“Of course I am,” she snapped, turning away to fidget with a stirrup leather. “A few days in the open air is not going to ruin my health, so be assured.” He took a breath as if to say something, but remained silent. She glanced in time to catch the hurt mixed with indignation in his eyes but just as quickly averted her gaze. Sheer stubbornness was what was keeping her angry with him now. Faramir murmured something and walked back to where Narâk was busy pawing a hole.

“’Tis not like you two to be at odds with one another,” Mablung said quietly, leading his horse aside hers. “I must say I do not like it.”

“He is the one at fault,” Éowyn replied. She paused, then continued more softly. “It will pass. Given time, it will pass.”

“These lands rarely give enough time,” Mablung muttered. Éowyn glanced at him sharply. She knew the dangers involved in traveling in this part of the world as well as the rest of them. But they were traveling wisely, not taking any more risks than needed, and so far things had gone well for them. Perhaps the raid to liberate Akarshân would be all that would come of this. Perhaps all the anxiety and extra glances over shoulders would be for nothing, and they could shrug it off once they crossed the Poros.

Some of the others were remounting, and Éowyn was soon atop her frisky steed, refreshed from the halt and the water. She could feel him trying to take the bit in his teeth, testing her control. She kept a firm grip on the reins and soon got him back in order as they set out once again.

It was not long before the land started to rise slightly, nothing more than a hint of an incline here and there, but surely leading up to the mountains looming ahead. Kadall lay on the other side of the twisting pass. They had stayed the night there the first time through, and found it quite hospitable. It was a lively town as it was a frequent stop for merchants journeying with their wares on the Harad Road. The inn there was good, and the innkeeper, a quick-footed fellow with a beard that hung almost to his waist, had nearly fallen over himself when he realized who he was housing for the night. Éowyn was sure the supper had exceeded the usual fare, as had the price.

The sun had begun casting shadows from the peaks when one of the scouts was spied returning. The company reined in as he drew near. “We have gone as far as the Old Man and found nothing amiss,” he reported. The Old Man was one of the more amusing features in the pass: a pile of fallen rocks that looked like an old man walking out of the mountain side, though many times larger than any real man. “We spied several deer and some goats on the ledges, but they are the only things stirring, and surely they would not be so free if an ambush was lurking in the valley.”

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Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.

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PostPosted: Fri 06 Oct , 2006 8:43 pm 
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“Be careful nonetheless,” cautioned Faramir, shielding his eyes with one hand to overlook the road as it mounted towards the pass in ever narrowing serpentines, until it wound round the shoulder of a steep hillside and was lost to view. “Tell the other scouts to advance beyond the pass, until they have sight of Kadall, and to wait for us there.”

The man saluted and rode off again. The company followed more slowly, as the ascent began to steepen now. The road’s condition was still fairly good, although in some places there were deep gutters filled with loose pebbles and larger pieces of rock – reminders of the strong spring-rains that had sometimes washed away the surface of the track. In some places the road had been reinforced with low stonewalls, and boulders had been placed along the steepest drops, set narrowly enough to prevent a cart or wagon to slip through between them and plummet into the deeps. Soon the horses were obviously labouring up the slope, their riders leading them by the longest way round the narrow bends so that they did not exert themselves overmuch. But at least there was some shade now. Although at this time of the year, so close to midsummer the sun would not set for many hours, even down here in the South, still it had begun its journey to the West, and thus the steep hillside that was bordering the road in this direction was casting a welcome shadow on the parched ground and the sweating beasts and their riders.

They had left the fields and olive-groves and vinyards of the Harnen-valley far behind already. The land now was one of rock and small, stunted trees and a tangle of hardy shrubs and herbs. Due to the strong wind their smell was not as prominent as on windless days, but still their resinous, aromatic scents wafted through the air. In deep gullies and crevices where the sun did not reach there was still a hint of green, around pools of rainwater, but over the course of the summer these ponds would dry out, too. Upon the slopes there were small herds of wild goats and the sure-footed, slender deer that were so tricky to hunt, and high overhead circled birds of prey on the warm currents rising up in front of the sun-heated hillsides. Their piercing, lonely cries added to the impression of wilderness and desertion that this forsaken countryside inspired. Faramir found himself observing them wistfully. They were able to pass over this lonely and yet dangerous stretch of land in a short while, and were not forced to plod on over stony roads, towards yet unknown perils.

Under the shadow and lee of the hillside he removed his veil and hood, running a hand through his raven hair which over the past year had aquired some hint of grey, and risking another brief glance over his shoulder towards Éowyn. She was almost at the rear of the company now, having trouble with her horse, apparently. It was frisky, snorting and tossing its head, obviously refusing to pass a large rock next to the road. He recalled having seen a large flat lizard lazing about there in the sun. He moved his hand to shorten the reins in order to force Narâk back down to aid her, but thought better of it. If she could not handle the horse, he would not manage to, either. And in her present mood, his offer of assistance might have quite the opposite effect than intented by him. Her former remark about her health – or his health, rather, for he knew quite well what she had been referring to – still stung. He was also quite certain she did not harbour any real resentments against him anymore; most likely stubbornness prevented her from calming down again. Bloody strawheads, he thought, but without anger, even smiling faintly. Their youngest son Peregrin, fair-haired like his mother and his twin-brother Meriadoc, was developing quite the same tendencies already, despite him being only little more than a year old. And from time to time Elboron, too, revelled in fits of utter stubbornness which reminded Faramir not only of Éowyn, but also of his own brother. Boromir had been unrivalled master when it came to that, and at one point had spent half a day in front of a half-eaten bowl of porridge because he had been told to eat up before he would be allowed to do anything else, and he had refused to do so and would not be swayed.

Rounding another shoulder of the hillside and leaving the shade and windscreen of the rocky wall, the road straightened again, the ascent lessening and the slopes to both sides receeding and levelling slightly. Ragged peaks and ridges could be descried to both sides. The last trees had given up in this merciless country, so that only low, windswept shrubs were left amid barren stretches of fallen rocks. The Old Man came into view, a curious goat perched on its shoulder like a lookout. As the riders neared the formation, suddenly there were hoarse cries startling the horses, and from behind a pile of rocks a few jackdaws and a large vulture rose into the air. One of the scouts was waiting nearby, his horse nibbling at a thorny bush.

“A dead goat,” he explained as he mounted again to rejoin the company. “Must have broken a leg while scampering about. They climb to the most impossible places,” he added, studying the goat on top the Old Man with obvious fascination.

“Nothing else of interest?” asked Faramir. The ranger shook his head. “The others have moved on to the pass. Most likely they’re having a chat and a cool drink with the borders while they wait for us.”

Mablung riding behind them snorted. “I shall have a word with them if that is indeed the case,” he said. “They were told to ride on further.”

Faramir gave him a slight grin when the scout had ridden on ahead again and was out of earshot. “I seem to remember a time when you, Captain, were foremost when it came to organising cool drinks and the like, and moreover used every possible and impossible opportunity to ... well, let me say volunteer for light duty.”

Mablung looked indignant, but only for a moment, then he laughed. “You must confuse me with somebody else, captain. Mostly it was Damrod doing these things.” His mirth faded a little, and his expression turned grave and a little wistful. “Good old Damrod,” he went on softly. “He should be in this company as well. I do miss him.”

Faramir nodded. Like Mablung, Damrod had been his guard in the time before the War and throughout it, and more than once the two rangers had saved his life. Damrod had been slain during the hunt for Narejde – Naeramarth then – and her band of outlaws, more than a decade ago. Nevertheless, even after so many years, his cheerfulness and friendly, easygoing manner were still sorely missed by those rangers as had served with him, and Mablung foremost who had come into service together with him. Together with him, and together with Faramir, too. They were all of like age, and together had joined the rangers in the autumn of Faramir’s eighteenth year.

“There is the pass,” announced one of the rangers in the van. Cutting through the lowest point of the ridge, the pass was marked by a low stone building a little underneath it which served as shelter for the borders that were stationed there to overlook the traffic. A stable was there also, and fresh horses were being kept at the ready should an errand-rider require to exchange a mount. And there was a deep well which for some strange but very fortunate reason contained fresh water even in the hottest and driest summers. On top of the largest building, its device already visible because of the stiff breeze that made it stream out, a dark-red flag with a golden sun emblazoned on it waved to them – Khorazîr’s standard, marking the northern border of his realm.

There was another kind of flag, of a more curious kind, too. Along both sides of the road as it climbed the highest point of the pass and began to descend again on the other side, were long ropes, fastened to bushes or weighed down with stones upon small heaps of rock. Upon these ropes, colourful ribbons, pieces of cloth and string and leather had been fastened. Faramir had once asked Khorazîr about them, and had been told that according to an old custom, people when they had reached the pass added a piece of their own, to assure further good luck for their journey. Some of the ribbons were tattered and bleached already, and some had been torn off by the relentless wind – so old were they. Notorious for their superstition, the rangers had taken no chances and donated strips of cloth as well when they had passed the place on the journey to the South. And even though he did not really believe in these things, Faramir had to admit that apparently the charm had worked, and their journey had been smooth and without difficulties.

Even now, as they were nearing the pass and the ropes with their colourful decorations could be seen moving in the wind, he noted the men search for suitable materials in their pouches and saddlebags, a few even cutting strips of cloth from their burnouses. Mablung leaned forward and untied a plaited ribbon from his horse’s bridle – most of the steeds’ gear in the company had acquired a lot of decoration during their stay in the Harad. There seemed to be people selling these things wherever one went, and upon their return home, many a wife or lass in Gondor would be wearing Haradaic craftsmanship of some kind upon her because her husband or lover had not been able to chase the vendors away.

When he noticed his lord watching him, Mablung gave Faramir a sheepish grin. “You are not going to tie a ribbon, captain?” he asked.

Faramir smiled. “With all of you doing so, I doubt ‘tis necessary.”

Mablung shrugged. “I say we shall need all the luck we can get. But, well, I guess it does not help if one does not believe in it.”

+

The borders had obviously been bored, and had embraced the opportunity for a chat with the rangers, although this conversation had been somewhat hampered by barriers of language. Only one of the men spoke some halting Westron, and even though all of the scouts knew some Adûnaic, or even words from the Haradaic dialects, the Gondorians had had some difficulties explaining to the borders why their lord had been prevented from coming himself.

Upon reaching the building, Faramir dismounted to speak with the commander of the small garrison himself (he had only five men under him). He gave him a short account of what he knew. The Haradan, a fierce-looking man in his fifties with a long scar down his cheek and clad in helm and mail underneath his long burnous, cursed loudly when Akarshân was mentioned, and looked ready to ride off immediately to aid his lord in the chase, had not his present duty prevented it. He gave Faramir a thorough account of what traffic had climbed the pass in the past three days – nothing out of the ordinary. Less, much less, indeed, as was to be expected at this time of the year, when the summer had not yet reached its full force and the weather was fairly stable.

“Things have been rather quiet recently,” the man said, his Adûnaic so thickly accented and interspersed with words of a strange local dialect that even Faramir, who due to his many contacts and frequents stays in the South had gained an excellent knowledge of the tongue and was able to converse in it almost without accent, had difficulties understanding him. “Fewer merchants coming through than in recent years. Fear the cursed bandits, it seems,” said the soldier, and spat.

“Has there been trouble with bandits recently?” inquired Faramir.

The man shrugged. “There is always trouble with bandits. But it is further to the North, mostly, where there are fewer villages. They will tell you a few tales down in Kadall, I reckon.”

+

In the meantime, after watering their horses and feeding them some grain or dates after the exertion of the climb, the rangers set to tying their ribbons, then scouts rode off again, and soon after the company took leave of the borders and indeed Khorazîr’s realm, and leaving the pass behind began their descent into Harondor. The wind was even stronger on this side of the pass, making the ropes with their colourful adornments flap as they passed them by.

Kadall was still hidden behind a shoulder of the hills and remained so for the next hour, being situated in a valley underneath the pass where a small river that in winter was swift and strong and now in summer only a trickling creek had carved a vale out of the reddish stone. The shadows had lengthened, and by now the sun, although still warm, was no longer unwelcome. Most of the rangers cast back their hoods and protective veils and let it shine on their faces, and the wind play with their hair.

Casting a glance over his shoulder again, Faramir caught a glimpse of gold as Éowyn brushed back her hair to tie it up with a ribbon, lest it get all tangled and knotted by the wind. She does look beautiful, he thought, feeling again the familiar stab when he saw her like this – even after all those years of marriage, there were still moments when he was utterly amazed by her beauty. Suddenly their quarrel this morning and the shadow it cast on this day seemed petty and irrelevant, a complete waste of time and effort. Surely there was a way to settle the matter. How could he have invited her anger like this, anyway? He must have been out of his mind. Then again, things were not that easy. He could put the blame all upon himself, but there were always two to a quarrel, and had she not refused to see his points in the debate – for valid points there were? Still, perhaps he should try and make peace now, and not wait for the evening.

Reining his horse, he let the rangers pass by in order to wait for his wife. Narâk was eager to move on, it seemed, because he pawed the groung impatiently and snorted, then suddenly raised up his head and stood still, as if trying to catch an elusive scent. Faramir saw that some of the other horses were doing so likewise. And then he smelled it, too. Carried on the wind, there was a faint odour of smoke and burning wood.

Hoofbeat came up from below, and presently one of the scouts rode into view. “Captain Mablung, Lord Faramir,” he called anxiously before he even reached the vanguard, where he drew his horse to an abrupt halt. “We have ridden in sight of the village, and there’s a cloud of smoke rising from it,” he went on when both Faramir and Mablung had ridden down to him. “We’ve encountered two flocks of sheep, too, astray next to the road, their shepherd and his dogs lay nearby, all shot. They have been dead for at least a day, if not longer. It looks like the village has been attacked. The others have dismounted and are advancing cautiously on foot now, to have a closer look at what happened.”

“Good,” said Mablung, then he turned to look at his lord. His face underneath its strong tan looked pale and anxious. “If the village was attacked a day ago, or more, why have those borders not taken note?” he asked, frowning deeply.

“We do not yet know what befell there,” replied Faramir slowly, despite sharing Mablung’s bewilderment. “After all, they are not allowed to leave their posts, and their replacements arrive from the South. And their commander told me the only travellers they encountered during the past days were two errand-riders, and they, too, came thence.”

Mablung bit his lip, gazing ahead to where Kadall was still screened from view. Not even the smoke was visible, although its reek could plainly be discerned on the wind. “As far as I know, there is no way around the village,” he said, his expression grim. “At least none fit for the horses. That is why it is so prosperous: the valley is so narrow that everybody has to pass through the settlement, on the road.”

Knowing what the ranger had been thinking, Faramir nodded thoughtfully. “Let us wait for the scouts and their report,” he said. “If there is the slightest indication of danger still lingering, we shall indeed seek a way round – if we have to walk and lead the horses, so be it. Then again, the villagers if hard pressed might welcome any help we can give. They have hosted us graciously a few weeks ago, and thus I feel obliged to them.” He stared ahead, his expression troubled. First the raid to free Akarshân, and now this. Coincidence? Unlikely. Is that your doing, Al-Jahmîr? You would strike at peaceful shepherds and villagers to achieve your evil designs, snake! Turning in the saddle, he cast a glance back toward the pass, but by now it was hidden from view. Perhaps I should have tied a ribbon after all.

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PostPosted: Sat 07 Oct , 2006 6:31 pm 
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Éowyn did not need to hear the ranger's report to know that trouble lay ahead. The heavy scent of smoke in the air was not lost on her, nor were the anxious, concerned expressions on her husband and Mablung's faces. The others in the company had begun talking amongst themselves, speculating on what they may find in the valley below. Éowyn shivered despite the sunbeams playing on her hair and shoulders. Doubtless it would not be the same village they had passed through not long ago. I wonder how our merry innkeeper fared, she thought of a sudden, but her thoughts were broken as Faramir and Mablung came back to join the rest of the company.

“The scouts have ridden within sight of the village and say that there is smoke rising from it,” Faramir announced.” They have also encountered a dead shepherd and his dogs, and this may be just a taste of what they will find once they reach the village.” The murmurs that rose from the others meant this announcement had confirmed some suspicions. “We will wait here until the scouts return with more news.”

“Do you think it is a trap, Captain?” one of the men called. Faramir and Mablung exchanged glances. “Raids are not uncommon in Harandor,” Faramir started slowly, then shook his head. “But with what has happened already today, I cannot say without a doubt that this was a random attack. If there is a hint of danger, we will move on, even if that means taking a less hospitable route around the village.” She saw his gaze rest on her for a moment. “But for now, we wait.” He dismounted as Narâk swished his tail impatiently. Narâk hated waiting.

Éowyn slipped off her horse as well, loosening the girth-strap once she was on the ground. Her mind was troubled. They could very well be walking into a trap, and a bold one too. The situation seemed much like one of Al-Jahmîr’s taunts. He was fond of showing off his cleverness, and it would be clever to distract the lord of a nearby realm with trouble at his own home and lure his true prize into a different trap. Though it would appear he had sprung part of his trap a bit early. But they could always come back, Éowyn told herself. She shivered again.

Looking around, she saw Faramir, Mablung, and several other rangers gathered in a circle, talking animatedly. No doubt they were discussing the various eventualities and how to work around those. She thought about joining the discussion, but decided against it. If he wants my help, he can ask for it. She jumped slightly as her horse nudged her shoulder with its wet nose. It had found a shallow pool of water that had not evaporated yet on top of a large rock slab and had tested it out. “Alright, you want water, I understand,” she said, pushing the damp muzzle away from her face. She lead the roan over to a nearby pool where several of the other horses were drinking or grazing lightly on the scrub grass.

She sat on the ground with her back against another slab and rested her head against the cool rock. Taking a drink from her own watter bottle, she sighed and tried to relax. She briefly closed her eyes, then opened them just as quickly. Surely she could not be tired already? A horse squealed, and she looked over to see where one horse had gotten too close to another’s patch of scrub grass and had been told to move on.
An hour passed, as did a second. Then one of the scouts returned bearing bad tidings. He was breathless. “We came across some of the village guards a ways outside of town. They say the village was sacked yesterday, late afternoon. From what I gathered, a band of raiders started at one end of the village and worked their way through, burning and killing as they went. Several houses and sables were burned, and some of the larger are still burning, but too far away from other structures to be a danger. Water is too precious to put the fire out, they say, especially with heavy summer coming up. Anyway, the raiders stole many horses, and several vendors had their wares looted. There are many injuries and many others beyond our aid.” He paused, still trying to catch his breath. “But they beg for our help, whatever we can give.”

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PostPosted: Sun 08 Oct , 2006 6:52 pm 
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Faramir nodded, his expression grim. “‘Tis what I expected.” During their discussion about possible courses of how to proceed, he had always reminded them that if this was indeed a trap, it would be so construed that they would have little chance to avoid it. Appealing to their compassion would be a sure way to lead them into the village. And yet, how could they pass round it and leave the people to suffer and perish? Looking into the round, he could see the same fears and thoughts reflected on his rangers’ faces.

“I does reek of a trap,” said Mablung, his arms crossed in front of his chest.

Iorlas, his young lieutenant, bit his lip. “But should we just leave them to fend on their own? It’s not their fault they were raided.”

“Nay, surely it is not, but still, better them than us,” interjected an older ranger. “We are not so many as to put up with a large and well-armed company.”

“I say, better meet them in the village where there is cover and other people to assist us should it come to a fight than on the road, in the wilderness,” observed yet another.

Mablung looked to Faramir. “In the end the decision rests with you, captain,” he said, plainly showing that he did not envy his superior for the difficult situation he was in.

Faramir sighed. “I know,” he muttered, his gaze lingering on the road as it wound down into shadow and was lost to view when it rounded the shoulder of hill behind which Kadall lay. At length the drew a deep breath and raised his eyes to meet those of the rangers who were watching him expectantly and with no little anxiety.

“We shall ride into the village, and see what we can do to help the people,” he decided. “However,” he turned to the scout who had emptied half his waterbottle over his head and was now pushing his wet hair out of his eyes, “I want you, Hirgon, to ride up to the pass and inform the borders of what befell. They are to send a messenger to Khorazîr. Kadall is outside his realm, still he should know what happened here, and, if possible, send aid – water, provisions, men. Then I want our best trackers to make their way round the village to look for traces of the attackers. See if you can find out whither they came and whence they vanished again, and if there are signs of them hiding nearby. They would need a well or creek or at least a waterhole for their steeds, and a sheltered and well-hidden spot from where they can overlook the road and what passes there – so see if you can find them. But be careful, lest they spot you. Report back at the village. All others, have extra care once we are down there. Most likely we are to encounter much hardship and suffering. Let this not blunt your caution. Should you encounter anything suspicious, inform me or Captain Mablung at once. ‘Tis possible that there are still some of the raiders hidden in the village, disguised as travellers or similar. Look out for those.”

There were still some questions from the younger rangers which Mablung took upon answering himself. Faramir left it to him also to decide who should be ordained for which task, as well as this could be decided without having actually seen the situation in the village. The mood was grim but determined now as the circle split up and the men returned to their horses, checking their weapons before they mounted. Faramir signed to Iorlas as he walked over to Narâk to join him. The lieutenant, despite his youth (his coming of age only two years ago), had proven himself a very capable man, proficient not only at arms, but also farsighted and cautious. The men trusted and accepted him in his responsible position, and Mablung, otherwise rather sparing in praise, had uttered some glowing remarks about him, and personally requested him as his lieutenant. Faramir so far had not regretted the decision.

“For you I have a special task,” he told Iorlas quietly. The lieutenant frowned, and Faramir nodded in Éowyn’s direction. “I want you to guard her especially. Do not leave her side, even if she tells you to. At the slightest sign of trouble, see to it that she gets out of the way.”

Iorlas’ bright blue eyes grew wide with surprise. “Aye, lord,” he acknowledged, his cheeks flushed. He looked like he wanted to add something, but apparently could not think of fitting words. So he just saluted, and dashed off to his mount, both pleased by the trust his lord was bestowing on him, and a little scared by the great responsibility that had been placed upon him also.

Leading Narâk by the reins, Faramir walked over to where Éowyn was busy refastening the saddle-girth of her steed, more forcefully, he thought, than necessary. Briefly, he told her what had been decided. “I share Mablung’s view of this looking like a trap,” he said. “But what indeed can we do? I do not think I could settle with my conscience to simply leave these people to suffering and hardship. We can only exercise extra caution while aiding them as best we can. So please, stay with the men and do not wander off on your own.” He quickly raised a hand when she drew breath to utter a reply, by the light in her eyes and her expression a fierce one. “Éowyn, I know there are things unsettled between us, but they must wait. You are angry with me, and perhaps rightly so, yet try and forget that for the time being. There are more pressing matters at hand. This is serious, and I do not want you to endanger yourself out of stubbornness and a desire to avoid me. So please, do not give me any more reason to worry than there are already.”

He had spoken imploringly, gazing at her intently. She returned his gaze steadily, her eyes still glinting, but at length she gave a slight nod. “Thank you,” said Faramir. After an instant’s hesitation, he reached for her hand and squeezed it briefly, then turning to his horse, he mounted, and with a last glance at her rode to the head of the company.

+
The descent into the village was slow. On this side of the pass, the road was steeper and its surface in a worse condition, moreover the company now proceeded with great caution. Upon rounding the hillside, Kadall came into view: a settlement of reddish-brown or whitewashed houses built of stone or bricks that sprawled to both sides of the small river which had created a wide, shallow bed strewn with rocks and pebbles, and had to be crossed via a ford. Plainly the fires raging in some of the more outlying barns or storehouses could be seen, dark smoke curling up from them, small particles of ash settling on the rangers’ hair and garments as they were brought on by the wind. People were moving about on the main road, obviously trying to help others or to clear away wreckage and what looked like bodies.

Soon the company neared the spot where the dead shepherd had been found. Two of the rangers had taken it upon them to round up his flocks and to chase them down into the village. Still further towards Kadall, the Gondorians encountered two of the village guards, together with a ranger. Both were clad in light leather armour over their woollen garments, and had neckguards of light chainmail attached to their helmets. Armed with spears and scimitars and small round shields slung onto their backs, they looked more warlike than many comparable guards Faramir had encountered, yet obviously they had not managed to hold off the determined attack of the raiders for long. One of the men, no more than a boy, wore a bandage round his arm, and the other looked rather shaken, too. They looked up hopefully when they heard the company approach – obviously the ranger had told them help was coming.

Faramir listened to their account with a stern expression. As they had been stationed to the South of the village they had not witnessed how everything had started. The raiders had come upon them from the North and swept away the guards there with brute force, shooting flaming arrows at houses and people. By the time the townsfolk had become aware of the danger and was running to their arms, they had already reached the market square and begun pillaging and burning and slaying from there, on foot or horseback. Concerning their numbers, the guards were not certain. One said they were not so many, but had moved about swiftly and efficiently, almost like soldiers, making their numbers difficult to ascertain. The other was convinced their company had at least consisted of four or five score men. Both agreed that they had been well-armed and equipped – better than what one was used to from common bandits.

“They struck as swiftly and deadly as if they had been trained to the task,” said the older of the guardsmen, shaking his head in dismay. Faramir exchanged a meaningful glance with Mablung, both finding their suspicions confirmed. “At first we thought they were interested in goods, for they stole many of the horses and looted some of the vendors, but why then all this killing? Kadall has been raided before, and mostly we just surrender what the bandits want, in order to avoid bloodshed. But these wolves, they came to slay as much as loot. They killed whoever they encountered outside, even women and children, and wounded many more. And they posioned the well with a dead cat, so that now we have to fetch water from the river – and you can see yourself how little there is left in there, and how muddy it is. Normally we only use it to water the fields or perhaps for the beasts, but we do not drink it.” He hung his head and ran a hand over his eyes.

“We shall help as best we can,” Faramir assured him gently, his expression sad and deeply troubled, and angry at the same time. “We have come well-provisioned, and have some food and medicine to spare. Also, I have caused word to be sent to Lord Khorazîr, who I am certain will send aid as well. Now, would you accompany me down to the village and lead me to the elders? Two of my rangers will take over your posts. Your companion should be resting with his injury, and not stand guard in the sun.”

“Alas, lord, nobody has rested since yesterday, however grievous their injuries. But I shall lead you to the elders – those who are still alive. Our wise-woman is now the highest authority.” He signed to the boy, and together they made their way down to the village.

Obviously the rangers had already spoken with some of the people busy clearing away wreckage or seeing to the fallen, thus the villagers were not surprised when the company passed into Kadall. Many looked up hopefully from their grievous tasks, their faces speaking only too clearly of their misery and despair. An eery silence reigned in the village, broken only by the bleating of livestock that needed to be watered or fed, and soft wailing from some of the houses. Faramir heard some of the rangers gasp in horror at some of the sights – the raiders had indeed slain whoever had dared to step into their path, or who had not been swift enough to hide. And even some who had hidden in houses close to the main road had perished in them when they had been set on fire.

When his eyes fell on a man carrying a small form wrapped in a blood-stained and badly scorched blanket, with a small hand hanging limply from the wreath to the large pyre that had been set up a little way from the village, he felt his throat tighten, and his hand clench round the hilt of his scimitar (a gift from Khorazîr, as his own scimitar had been taken from him when he had been captured by the Umbarian’s men last year). The man did not look at the riders, but Faramir had seen his expression, his face grey and devoid of emotion as if hewn of stone, all light gone from his eyes, and for a brief moment he wondered what he would do if he had to carry one of his children to the pyre.

Behind him, “How can they do that?” he heard Dírhael, one of the youngsters of the company whisper hoarsely to one of his companions. “This is worse than anything I have ever seen before,” he admitted, and when Faramir turned to him he saw that the young man had turned almost as pale as the villager with the dead child, and that his face had taken on an expression of utter horror.

In front of the inn where they had spent a night on their journey to the South they halted. Two old men clad in long dark robes and an elderly woman with tousled grey hair and tattooed cheeks, dressed in robes the colour of the surrounding hills and hung all over with amulets were awaiting them with a ranger standing next to them – obviously he had already informed them of the company’s arrival. They were introduced to Faramir as the surviving elders (the other three had been slain as they tried to muster a defence against the raiders), and the woman as the wise-woman and healer of the village. While the men seemed too shocked and grieved still to even speak much, she was positively nervous and impatient to be gone – understandably, as she was in charge of all the wounded, with the help of two apprentices and a servant only. Faramir asked her to give him a short account of how many were wounded and in need of treatment, and what was lacking foremost. She did so, whereupon he commanded Dorgil, the company’s healer, and his aide Brandir to accompany her, and to see what they could do for the wounded. Then he listened to what the elders were able to tell of the attack and the identity of the raiders. Since most of them had worn veils to cover their features, and moreover no devices on their garments or armour, it was difficult to tell whither they came.

“Some looked like desert-raiders,” said one of the old men, “with fell eyes and brown skin, shooting with great skill from the backs of their horses as they galopped down the road. Others were tall and well-armed, and clad in mail or even fishmail- or plate-armour. They dismounted to kill, with sword and club and spear. They reminded us of those who are called Black Númenoreans, from Umbar. They did not speak, or else we might have recognised their dialects. We do not believe they were common raiders. They were too many, too well equipped, and too cruel and deadly. You must know, lord, that we have some experience with raiders. Kadall is very attractive for them, especially in winter when there is little food in the wilderness. Usually they pass through, take what they lack, and leave us in peace again for a while. They do not kill – and why should they, for who they slay they cannot rob again. And they always leave us enough to get by. There used to be a band, even, who took care to chase off all other bandits in order to be the only one to “resupply” in Kadall. But the devils who came yesterday ... they killed like they were enjoying it. Worse than soldiers. Their cruelty reminded us of the orcs who harassed these lands after the Great War.”

There were grim nods from those of the rangers who had indeed seen the work of orcs, and fought them.

“Did you manage to slay any of them?” asked Faramir.

The elder shook his head sadly. “We wounded a few, seriously, too, but they managed to flee with their companions. I do not think they would have left even the dead behind. Not out of piety, but rather to prevent us from finding out their identity.”

Faramir nodded thoughtfully, looking more troubled than ever. “All this does indeed point towards them having attacked your village for a purpose other than loot.” He did not confess what he thought the true reason was. If this was indeed Al-Jahmîr’s doing, part of a trap set for the Steward and his retinue, it spoke of an excess of cruelty and viciousness which called for the strictest punishment, should the snake ever be caught. “We shall stay here, for the night at least, or if required, until Lord Khorazîr’s reinforcements arrive. What we can do to aid you, we shall.”

The elders and those who stood by bowed deeply, for many townsfolk had gathered round since the company’s arrival, and expressed their gratitude in the most flowery terms. By now the company had all dismounted. Two men were left in charge of the horses which were brought to a paddock close to the river, the others had dispersed to look round the village to search for traces of the raiders, or to lend a hand whereever it was required. Faramir commanded two of them to see to the well, to try and clean it, for a sufficient supply of water would be needed more than anything.

Making sure that Iorlas was indeed staying close to Éowyn, Faramir soon found himself discarding his flowing garments, to, clad only in shirt and trowsers and without the hindrance of long sleeves and dangling seams help a number of villagers and rangers to clear away the wreckage of a collapsed house near the northern entrance of the village. Some people were feared to have been buried underneath the rubble. It was hard work, and gruelling, when the first body was found to the wailing of the only inhabitant of the house who had been outside when the supporting walls had caved in and the roof had come crashing down. The young woman had spotted a piece of cloth among the rubble, part of the garment of her sister. The little girl had been buried underneath a roof-beam which had broken her neck. Faramir felt his hands tremble as carefully he lifted the last pieces of rubble and splintered wood from the small form and beheld a still face covered in fine dust. You are going to pay for this, Al-Jahmîr, he found himself think vengefully, with an intensity of hate boiling up in him he had never felt before, and which surprised and even shocked him. He had seen the destruction of orcs back in the War, and had always believed men were not able to stoop to their levels of cruelty. But obviously they were.

He felt himself pushed aside roughly as the young woman dashed forward to throw herself down next to her sister, crying her name over and over again. “Bring her away from here,” he commanded the men about him, indicating the crying woman, his voice only audible at his second attempt, and even then it was hoarse and did not sound like him at all. “We cannot work properly with her around, and there may be survivors still.”

One of the villagers stepped up and speaking to the woman quietly for a long time, at length she suffered to be lead to the side, with the body of her sister wrapped in a blanket placed beside her. Another body was found soon after, that of a man – the girls’ father, who still clasped a scimitar in his blood-stained hand. Obviously he had been watching the door, to defend his family should any of the raiders dare to step inside. Then, to everybody’s great relief, the sound of knocking was heard from underneath the remaining rubble, and, when the sun was setting and torches were being kindled to dispell the bluish dusk that had begun to spread between the houses, three more people were found: a woman and two children who had sheltered against the rear wall, and had thus been spared by the heavy beams and stone tiles of the roof.

Knowing that they were being looked after well by the other villagers, Faramir finally allowed himself and the rangers who had been working with him a short rest. They had taken over all the heavy work because the people of Kadall were simply too exhausted already to be of much help to them. Now they were sitting on or leaning against the remains of a small building that had burnt down, drinking from their waterbottles and eating from what the villagers had brought them – they had suffered no discussion when it came to providing the company with food, a matter of honour, obviously, as they considered them their guests, and moreover felt deeply obliged because of their willingness to help.

As he took a bite from a piece of the flat, spiced bread he had come to like during his stays in the Harad, Faramir suddenly remembered with a stab of guilty conscience mixed with some anxiety that he had not checked on Éowyn for a while. Not that he did not trust Iorlas to take his duty seriously – it was rather that Éowyn would make sure to add his neglect to the long list of his faults which surely she was going to spread out before him later, when finally they were alone in their quarters. With a slight sigh, he pushed himself from the wall he had been leaning against – only to lay his hand to it again immediately. Was this his weariness speaking, or had he felt a slight tremor? There were footsteps approaching at a run, and presently a ranger emerged out of the deepening dusk, sweaty and breathless from a swift run.

“Captain,” he gasped, coming to a swaying halt in front of Faramir, “we must prepare against attack. We have spotted a large company of horsemen approaching from the North. We fear they are the raiders again, but with the growing darkness we cannot be certain.”

The other rangers had sprung to their feet the instant the scout had arrived, and some had already set out to fetch their dreaded longbows. There was hardly need for Faramir to issue commands: as was their wont, the rangers had studied the place well ere they set to work, and knew how to best position themselves in case of an attack. “Inform the others,” he thus told the scout. “I shall warn the villagers. How long until they reach the village?” he asked, already quickening his pace as he headed towards the village square.

“Fifteen minutes, with luck,” the scout replied grimly.

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PostPosted: Tue 10 Oct , 2006 6:05 am 
A maiden young and sad
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Faramir’s words echoed in Éowyn’s mind as they rode down to the valley. This is serious, and I do not want you to endanger yourself out of stubbornness and a desire to avoid me. Well, those certainly would not be reasons why she would find herself in danger, if she ever did. She may not have always had the best reasons for what she did, but right now she did not feel like risking her life just to prove a point or to avoid him, as he put it. The nerve! She was not avoiding him; she was just waiting for him to apologize and refusing his company until he did so.

It was not long before she noticed that Iorlas had fallen back from his position near the front of the company to ride a little way behind her. She recalled seeing Faramir talking to him before they had set out again, and it did not take her long to suspect his move. So I need a nursemaid now to watch over me, do I? she thought. Apparently her husband did not trust her to keep her word to stay out of trouble. He just wants you to be safe, and you know this, another part of her scolded. Stop trying to convince yourself that he is horrible. You know how he could not live with himself if something happened to you. She shook her head and pushed forward. The little voice was right; even her stubbornness could not make her deny that. Still, she knew very well what they may be getting themselves into once they reached the village, and she was not going to risk more than necessary. There would be injured to tend to and survivors to comfort, and these she knew how to do well. She cast a glance over her shoulder to where Iorlas was patiently following in line. Let’s hope he has some skill with a bandage.

When the first ash from the still-burning fires reached the company, Éowyn pulled the veil back over her nose and mouth. Even at this distance, it was plain to see that the village was in distress, and once they were inside, things only grew worse. The stench of blood and smoke and death hung in the air, and the wails of bereaved family members lingered among the houses. It would be a long time before the village recovered from this disaster.

Éowyn dismounted at the inn and accompanied Dorgil and Brandil as they followed the wise woman into the inn, which had been the gathering point for many of the more seriously wounded villagers. Iorlas trailed behind them. The inn remained marvelously intact, though it had not entirely escaped damage. Part of the roof had burned and several windows had been broken, but it was still usable as a refuge. The innkeeper came over to the Gondorians as they entered, bowing and wringing his hands. His beard was singed at the tips.

“I am sorry, lady, that you have to see us like this,” he spoke quickly and nervously, glancing around the common room. Many of the injured were wrapped in blankets on the floor or raised up on the tables. Those who could, sat up in chairs. Among the moans and weeping, Éowyn realized with a stab, she could hear the higher cries of the children who had not been left out of this butchery. The innkeeper continued, “I will myself go to prepare rooms for you—”

Éowyn shook her head fiercely. “No. There are others here who need those beds more than we do,” she said. “Let the wounded have some comfort.” The innkeeper hesitated, then nodded. “As you wish, lady,” he said, bowing again and moving off to see to other needs.

With a sign to the rangers, Éowyn found the wise woman tending the injured and asked her how she and the rangers could help. The woman looked each of them up and down seriously, as though questioning whether they were capable of handling her charges. She especially studied Éowyn and her rich clothing. “What do you have for medicines?” she asked finally, her voice clipping each word. Dorgil explained what he had in stock in his satchels, and after a brief quiz on the uses of various herbs, the woman nodded slightly, acknowledging that these foreigners could indeed be of use. “See to the burns and the lesser injuries,” she said, motioning toward a corner of the room where probably twenty people of all ages waited for care. Some wept openly, others bore their pain in silence. Children clung to mothers or older siblings wearing burned or blood-stained clothes, their dark eyes peering out of dusty, terrified faces.

They found one of the apprentices, looking quite overwhelmed, cleansing a stab wound on a young man’s arm. She brushed the sweaty hair from her eyes and looked relieved that she would now have help with her charges. She showed them where there was water and fresh bandages, and which ointments to use on the burns, then left them to work. Éowyn looked around, surveying the scene, then pushed back her sleeves and set to the task at hand.

Many of the injured should have been treated the day before, but either out of stubbornness or impossibility, had not been seen to. Burns could wait, smaller wounds could wait, when there were nearly fatally wounded folk to care for first. Some of the people had been dug out of the rubble only today, or had been found wandering in a dazed stupor, not believing what had happened nor that they were even hurt.

Éowyn saw to one girl, hardly more than thirteen, who had patchy burns on her arms and face. Her family’s home was one that had burned, and she had rushed back into the flaming building to try to get others from her family out. She managed to rescue her little brother, but her younger sister could not get out in time. That was the story Éowyn put together from her sobs and broken sentences. Her father and mother had been away from Kadall for three days before the attack, and she was not sure if they would return, or how they would react if they did. “I tried, I tried,” she sobbed.

“You did everything you could,” Éowyn told her soothingly, her own voice quivering, as she gently put ointment on the raw, red burns. The girl did not even flinch at her touch, but only shook her head and continued her sobbing.

The injuries blurred together until they became one long line of burns and wounds and bruises. Young children became old women who turned into boys trying desperately to keep straight faces despite their pain. These boys tugged at Éowyn’s heart more than others. Most likely they were now the men of the household, their fathers slain in the attack. They had to grow up fast, within the course of days, and the sudden, brutal transition was almost too much to bear. Éowyn recalled one lad, maybe sixteen years of age, bravely attempting to his face impassive while she dabbed at his burns with ointment and bandaged a cut on his leg, but his red-rimmed eyes and trembling lips betrayed his stoicism.

At one point in the late afternoon, Éowyn went outside for fresher air and a drink of water. So many people milling about the inn made the building so hot that the out-of-doors felt remarkably cool. She brushed the hair that had plastered itself to her face back behind her ears. She ignored the blood stains on her clothes and sat off to one side on a bench that had survived the destruction.

The town square bustled with activity. Men were leading horse-carts filled with rubble to a heap on the other side of town, and others rushed those who had been found in collapsed buildings to the healers at the inn. Family members huddled in groups and moved en masse around the village, looking for friends and neighbors, shouting for joy when the unaccounted-for were found and weeping when worst fears were confirmed. She noticed a very small boy, hardly more than five or six, running across the square, clutching a stone pitcher to his chest, pursued by a much older boy. In a few strides the older boy caught up to him and grabbed at the pitcher. He caught it on his second attempt, knocking the smaller boy to the ground. “For my mami,” the little one yelled, beginning to cry. He desperately tried to snatch the pitcher back, but the older boy was gone before he could lift himself from the dust. He sat up, still rubbing his eyes and crying. Small stones clung to his curly black hair.

Éowyn was by his side in a moment. “What happened, mîk?” she asked tenderly, smoothing back some of his hair. He looked up at her, frightened, and shook his head. He tried to get away, but she held him still. “What did the bad boy steal from you?”

The small boy looked at her for a moment, uncertainty clear in his eyes, then he answered softly, “Water, for my mami. She got hurt.”

Éowyn felt her heart ache for him, as it had done many times already that afternoon. “What is your name?”

“Sarleem,” he answered cautiously.

“I have water for your mami,” she said, helping him to his feet and leading him to the bench where she had left her water bottle. “Take me to her.”

The boy stared at the bottle for a moment, then grabbed her hand and started hurrying toward a side street. “This way,” he told her. “This way.” They had just turned on to the street when a figure dashed from the inn, following them.

Éowyn looked over her shoulder when she heard running feet slow behind her. “Who will make more bandages now?” she asked.

“They’ll find someone,” the ranger answered. Iorlas had done excellent work tearing spare cloaks and robes into bandage lengths.

The boy led them along the twisting street and on to other paths until Éowyn believed they were near the southern edge of the village. The boy paused for a moment and looked around, and in that time she wondered if he had managed to get himself lost. Then, apparently spying something satisfactory, he once again led them on confidently. This part of the village was not as damaged at the area around the north entrance and the square, but it had not escaped injury. Men and boys were on top of houses, repairing roofs that had burned and checking for other structural damage. The streets were mostly empty here, with the occasional person hurrying along with their own worries. Though the sight of a boy leading a foreign lady and ranger must have surely been strange, nobody paid them heed.

Finally, the boy led them toward a small house nestled among the other small houses. As they went in, Éowyn did not miss seeing the stained dirt in front of the doorstep and up along the frame. She suddenly did not want to know what she would find inside.

“Leem!” a high, small voice squealed.

As Éowyn’s eyes adjusted to the dimmer light inside the house, she saw a very little girl scamper from a corner of the room. The same age as my Elboron, Éowyn realized, suddenly yearning to see her son again. The girl abruptly halted in the middle of the room, staring at the newcomers fearfully. Her red and yellow dress was dirty, as was her tear-stained face. The dark hair that hung to her shoulders looked like it hadn’t been washed in days. She clutched an equally dirty rag doll under one arm.

This room appeared to make up the entire house. Beneath the window stood a low table with large and tattered cushions on the floor where the family sat to eat. Shelves with various pitchers, bowls, and cups rested against one wall, near the fireplace. The fire itself had burned down to little more than coals. A curtain partitioned off the back corner of the room.

“Nasilla,” a weak voice called from behind the curtain. The girl trotted over to it and peeked around the corner.

Éowyn did not need Sarleem to tell her who was back there. In fact, he did not seem too eager to follow his sister, instead looking down and twisting one heel into the floor. “Mami hurt,” he said timidly, his voice barely above a whisper. Éowyn let go of his hand and walked to the back of the room. She knelt, pulled back the curtain, and immediately looked away. She saw Iorlas crouch beside her and knew his grim expression must match hers.

This woman would not live through the night. Her body was clearly wracked by fever, her face gray and sunken. Sweat glistened on her forehead and checks, and her breath rattled in her chest. A large gash in her sweat- and blood-soaked dress showed blackened, infected flesh. Though she was fairly sure what she would find, Éowyn carefully pulled back part of the cloth to check the wound, but quickly replaced it. That the woman had lived this long was astounding. But why had she not gone to the inn? Or, rather, why had nobody taken her there?

A sniffle beside her made Éowyn turn to see Sarleem staring at his mother, fear and dismay covering his features. “Help her,” he whispered, his lower lip trembling. Nasilla sat by her mother’s knee, still clutching her rag doll.

“I will try,” Éowyn said, desperately trying to keep her own emotions under control. This woman was no older than she, with children hardly older than her own. Her hands shaking slightly, Éowyn opened the water bottle and poured some of the liquid onto the dying woman’s lips. It would do no good, she knew, but at least the boy could see that she had tried. The woman murmured something unintelligible and shuddered. Éowyn tried to say something, but found she had no voice. Trying again, she managed, “We should let her rest for awhile.” Sarleem partly nodded, but followed her when she stood and went to sit on one of the cushions by the table. She brushed a hand across her eyes, trying to regain her composure.

When she could speak again, she asked, “Where is your dadi?”

Sarleem shrugged. “With the sheep. He takes the dogs.” Éowyn shivered, recalling the gruesome sight outside the village as they entered. Maybe that had been a different shepherd. Maybe this boy’s father had taken his sheep farther into the mountains and had been gone when the attack started. Maybe…

Her thoughts were interrupted as Nasilla ran out from behind the curtain and stood in the center of the room, watching her and Iorlas, who stood looking out the window, warily. “Come here, mîka, she called, holding out a hand. The girl watched her a few more seconds, then ran over and climbed into her lap. Éowyn wrapped her arms around the little one and rested her check on her hair. She heard the girl sigh and felt her shift slightly to get more comfortable. It was not right that this little one would be orphaned in a matter of hours. When Nasilla whimpered slightly, she felt anger, hate, flare in her. Whoever did this, whether it was a plot of Al-Jahmîr or someone else, whoever it was, they would pay dearly for the pain and despair they had caused.

“When was the last time you ate?” Éowyn asked Sarleem suddenly. The boy did not know. “Iorlas, find something for them to eat.” The ranger raised one eyebrow, but did not question her glare.

He began investigating the shelves and the containers there, then moved over to the stew-pot resting on the coals. What must have been yesterday’s meal had not kept through the night, as evidenced by the twisted look on the man’s face when he tentatively tasted the broth. He returned to the shelves and brought back a partial loaf of stale bread, some dried meat, and some ripe figs. Sarleem sat up and watched curiously as the ranger took his knife from his belt and started cutting the bread. He handed the first slice to Nasilla, who ate it greedily. Sarleem did the same with his.

The children seemed to be in better moods after the meager meal. Nasilla fell asleep in Éowyn’s arms, and Sarleem taught Iorlas how to play a game with various-sized hoops and a stick. When this grew boring, Iorlas showed him how to get the fire started again from the coals. The boy seemed quite taken with the ranger, asking him what was in his various pockets and what the objects did. When Nasilla woke, she began playing with her rag doll, babbling merrily, using words Éowyn could not decipher. From time to time Éowyn looked over to the curtained area, wondering whether the mother still lived, and how she would tell the children if she was not. From their exchanged glances, she knew Iorlas was thinking similarly, but neither wanted to end the blissful distraction they had given the children. Unfortunately, the distraction ended by someone else’s doing.

Dusk had settled in over the village, and Iorlas had suggested several times that they start back for the inn, but Éowyn found she could not bear to leave the children alone in the house. She had asked them if they had any friends or relatives in the village, but their answers had not been helpful. Nobody had stopped by the house while they had been there to check on them, either. Éowyn wondered how they could be so isolated in a village this close-knit.

The first hint of danger came by way of a pair of women running down the street, wailing, “They are coming! The raiders are coming back to kill us all!”

Iorlas leaped to his feet and ran to the doorway, peering up and down the street. In the distance, other shouts, indistinguishable for now, could be heard echoing among the houses. Éowyn felt Nasilla clutch her robes and saw fear jump back into Sarleem’s face. “We have to leave,” Iorlas said, turning back from the door. The urgency in his voice was undeniable.

Éowyn rose slowly, careful to keep Nasilla in her arms. “We cannot leave them here,” she said.

Iorlas clearly indicated he did not like this dilemma. “But,” he started slowly, “they are too much a risk to take with us.” He ignored the warning flash in Éowyn’s eyes and pressed on. “They may be safer here, anyway, if they stay hidden. The raiders may pass this house by if the believe nobody is here.” Éowyn stared at him, defiance written on her features. Outside, the shouts grew louder, nearer, and more desperate.

“We must leave, now,” Iorlas said sharply, reaching for Nasilla. Éowyn stepped back, but he was too quick for her. With one easy motion he caught the girl, pulled her from her cocoon, and gently set her on a cushion. Nasilla looked at him for a moment, wide-eyed, then began wailing. Iorlas ignored Éowyn’s enraged expression, putting himself between her and the girl. He told Sarleem firmly, “Find a place for you and your sister to hide, and be quiet.” Sarleem nodded solemnly, then rushed forward to hug the ranger’s knees. Iorlas at first looked startled, then touched by the gesture. Then Sarleem turned around and started trying to hush his sister.

Éowyn stared at the ranger, her fury plain to see. “You have no right to—” she lashed at him as he caught her arm and started pulling her to the door.

“With all respect, my lady,” he said sternly, “my orders from Lord Faramir are to make sure you remain safe.” They were out in the street now, and Éowyn managed to steal one last glance at the house before they rounded a corner and it vanished from sight.

“When we get back to Ithilien, I will see to it you never know a day of rest again,” Éowyn promised. “That you could leave those children to certain death...” Her rantings became fewer the farther north they progressed. Villagers passed them, screaming and wailing that the raiders were coming. Soon, they heard harsh cries, horse screams, and metal clashing against metal. They stuck to the side streets, and it was not long before Iorlas did not need to hold onto his charge to make sure she stayed close. At one point they had barely ducked into an alley when a pair of horsemen came crashing down the lane they had left, yelling and cursing as they rode. Apparently the flaming arrows had returned with this round, as several roofs erupted into flame throughout town.

The closer they came to the village square, or where they thought the square should be (the twisting streets were quite confusing), the harder it became to avoid raiders. Several times Iorlas and Éowyn had to duck into hopefully empty houses or other buildings to avoid being seen. Once while waiting for the street to clear, they noticed that though some of the raiders were clearly intent on slaughtering and burning, others were moving from building to building, looking inside for several moments, then moving on to the next without doing damage. It was as though they were searching for something.

Their luck nearly ended when, as they were scuttling across a street to another gap between buildings, a raider on foot spotted them and gave chase. He cried something repeatedly, but because his face was masked, muffling the words, Éowyn could not be sure what he had said. Iorlas, who had drawn his sword long ago, pushed her to the side and stood poised to fight. The ranger was quick with his sword, and soon the raider lay still on the ground. Éowyn silently retracted her promise to make him work forever. Perhaps it was because of what the raider had yelled, or perhaps they had not been as observant before, but now it seemed as they slinked away that there were more raiders swarming this area of the village.

They knew they were getting close to the square when they passed a building with a large hawk carved above the doorframe. Éowyn followed Iorlas as he chose a path around the rear of the building, which fed into a narrow alleyway. Well, not so much follow as walk by his side; he would not let her get too far ahead or fall too many steps behind him. There was no doubt that he was taking his orders seriously. Éowyn could vaguely make out part of the square at the end of the alley, and from the flickering shadows, something was on fire there. Now that they were close to the heart of the village, Iorlas crept along, always making sure the way ahead was clear, and often checking behind to be certain no unsavory characters dogged their steps.

They stopped at the end of the alley, sticking close to the shadows, pressed against the building’s wall. Iorlas stood closer to the alley entrance, and Éowyn noticed in the firelight that he had sometime received a cut along his forehead. A thin line of blood ran down his cheek, but he made no move to wipe it away. Instead, he was concentrating on watching what was happening in the square. The sounds of sword-fighting reverberated in the night air, mixed with men’s shouts and horses’ hoofbeats.

Éowyn peered around Iorlas’s shoulder for a moment, and froze. It appeared that the most intense fighting was in front of the inn, with smaller skirmishes scattered throughout the square. She ignored these, and focused her attention on one figure fighting to the right of the inn’s door. Though the square was large, and the light was not good, and he was no longer wearing the outer garments he had worn into the village, she still knew that form, that shape. Faramir, she thought, suddenly afraid. Their petty quarrel seemed just that now, and as she watched him fighting she would have given anything for a chance to apologize and tell him she loved him. She noticed that after he felled whatever foe he was matched against, he scanned the area, ignoring the fighting until it an enemy came too close. He is looking for me, she realized.

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PostPosted: Tue 10 Oct , 2006 5:35 pm 
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Where was she? Faramir dealt yet another raider a fell sweep with his scimitar, and glanced about, silently praising the fact that Khorazîr had given him the weapon. His own curved blade, once also gotten from Khorazîr in exchange for his sword after their fateful duel had been taken from him by Al-Jahmîr the previous year, and he had missed the lightness of the curved blades and their deadly edge when having been obliged to resort to the straight broadswords of Gondor. He was glad he had not been idle ever since he had recovered from the worst effects of the poisoning, and had exercised regularly with sword and bow. And his longbow, too, had been in use tonight when, together with a handful of rangers he had awaited the raiders at the northern entrance of the village. They had managed to kill a considerable number, and even more horses, nevertheless the raiders had managed to reach the square in front of the inn where they had met a bloody welcome from the rest of his company, and those villagers who still were in a condition to fight.

Actually, their courage had surprised him. He had expected that after all the suffering most would have lost all will to face yet another battle. But nobody able to bear arms had shirked the fight, even those slightly wounded, and women or even girls had run to fetch weapons and joined the defence. And they were fighting not only with surprising, desperate ferocity, but wisely and with deadly calculation, too. The weaker and less skilled of the villagers had hidden themselves in the alleys they knew so well, to wait for the raiders as they swarmed through the streets and take them by surprise.

Indeed, whereas the larger part of the attackers concentrated on fighting the defenders in front of the inn, many others, on foot or horseback had vanished in the maze of alleys and small streets. Faramir hoped the villagers hidden there would manage to kill or at least avoid them. He wondered what purpose lay behind this behaviour. Were they intend on slaying everybody in the village? Or were they not rather looking for something? Or someone?

This thought hit him like a bolt of lightning. Had he not suspected this all along? Had he not feared the raiders had in truth come for them, Éowyn and him? What had been that strange cry a short while ago – he had not been able to catch the words, but it had sounded like a rallying call, or an alarm. And surely, some of their attackers had left the square promptly, as if summoned, and had disappeared between the houses. Well, he was clearly visible as he tried to repell the bandits from the door of the inn which had been bolted and heavily barred from inside. They were welcome to try and get him, and tried they had, and those men were now scattered to his feet. But Éowyn? What about her? What if they were after her now? He had not seen her ever since their arrival. And why, he scolded himself, had he not looked for her earlier?

Iorlas will have seen to her safety, he tried to convince himself, jumping aside and with his weapon parrying yet another blade slashing at him and dealing the attacker a forceful stroke in return. He is a sharp, skilled and moreover dutiful lad, and not easily daunted, not even by her should she try to cross his will. And yet, what if they got trapped somewhere? What if ... There were so many ‘what ifs’. He knew he should stop worrying like this, instead stop thinking at all and concentrate on the fight, or else he stood a good chance of receiving a painful or even fatal injury ere long. But he could not. If anything happened to her, ‘tis going to be my fault. It was my decision to enter the village. I may have doomed her ...

A sharp pain broke his stream of thought. Another raider had sprung at him from his right, his blade nicking his calf. Luckily the greater force of the stroke had been received by his boot, where a large gash opened in the leather. He dealt the man a savage kick against one knee, sending him tumbling backwards against the wall of the inn, and his other opponent a slash to the shoulder upon which he gave a hoarse scream and staggered back, dropping his weapon and clutching at the wound from where blood was streaming darkly – he had been one of those raiders wearing only leather armour underneath their robes. A ranger came from behind and finished him, and Faramir recognised Mablung. He was yet unscathed, but looked fierce and threatening with his blood-splattered face and even more the fell light burning in his eyes.

“We are doing well, captain, better than we hoped,” he informed his superior quickly, trying to catch his breath. And indeed, the fighting on the square had subsided, with many of the raiders lying dead or seriously wounded, while only few of the defenders seemed among the wounded or fallen.

“I have sent the men to pursue those that have moved on between the houses,” went on Mablung. “Bet they did not expect us to fight back so valiantly.”

Faramir nodded, then grasped Mablung and pushed him back, welcoming a raider that had crept on the captain with his blade. “Thanks,” muttered the ranger, looking a little shaken – actually it was his job to protect his lord, not the other way round.

“Have you seen Éowyn?” asked Faramir sharply, letting go of Mablung’s burnous – more sharply, in fact, than he had intended. He had cast yet another look around, but with the dim, flickering illumination of the scattered fires it was nearly impossibly to see very far. Mablung shook his head, likewise looking about searchingly. “She was at the inn after our arrival, but not inside anymore when we locked the doors.”

Faramir drew a deep breath, his anxiety turning to slight panic now. Leaving the door of the inn, he walked a few paced onto the square, straining his eyes to pierce the gloom of the house-fronts and alley-entrances bordering on it. Had he not just spotted movement there, at the mouth of one of the narrow passageways? A tall figure and slender, slightly smaller one who seemed to be staring onto the square? He increased his pace.

“Captain, behind you!” came a cry from Mablung who had remained at the door, fighting two raiders at once. Faramir spun round and just in time brought up his scimitar to parry a cunning blow aimed at his neck. He kicked at the attacker, but the fellow was wary and moreover highly skilled with his long and strangly curved blade. When he brought it up again and the firelight glinted on it briefly, Faramir saw it wound like the body of a snake, and was damascened with green. Al-Jahmîr! he thought fiercely, and such a wave of hate and anger rushed through him that his next stroke was dealt with so much brutal force that the raider’s head was cloven cleanly of his shoulders, and the tip of the twisting blade he had brought up too slowly to defend himself was snatched off.

He crashed to the ground behind Faramir, his sword hitting the ground with a high, ringing sound, but Faramir did not heed him anymore. The two figures had now left the shadow of the alley, and for a brief moment red flickering light gleamed on golden hair. She was alive, and unhurt, seemingly! Drawing a deep, somewhat shaky breath as utter, wonderful relief washed through him, Faramir ran an arm across his forehead to wipe away sweat and grime and blood and started towards her.

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PostPosted: Tue 10 Oct , 2006 6:37 pm 
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Éowyn had to hold back a scream as she saw a raider creep behind Faramir and try to hack his neck. Relief filled her when he won and started across the square. Iorlas checked behind them in the alley, then slowly crept out and looked either way across the buildings. “Come on,” he said, motioning to her.

+

She is so close. I could touch her. The tall, heavily-masked raider peered through a small gap in the window slats in the building opposite the one Éowyn and Iorlas sheltered against. His hands trembled with excitement, and he had to grip the window ledge to maintain control. She is more beautiful than I dared to imagine. The darkness, sweat, and blood could not hide that. Despite the caution, her every move was still graceful. He realized he had been holding his breath and inhaled quickly.

“Now, sir?” his companion asked. He too wore a mask tied around his face and forehead, leaving only a narrow slit for the eyes. Though they were clad as raiders, the quality of the garments hinted they were more than that.

The other shook his head slightly. “Not yet. I want him to see her.”

Though the building’s interior was darkened, windows opened out onto the square, and they could clearly see, or rather monitor, the fighting there without being seen themselves. This spot had been chosen because, if need be, the other raiders could encircle the village and drive their quarry to the center, like wolves driving sheep. He was surprised and pleased to find that they would not need to do a bloody drive, that their quarry was coming to the center by free will. Not that this was entirely unexpected, either.

“Let them think they are out of danger,” he said, one hand now resting on the hilt of an ornate scimitar. “I want them to know that they walked straight to us.”

+

Éowyn straightened and walked into the light, stepping aside to avoid a loose horse running wild around the square, its terrified eyes rolling white. Iorlas still held his sword out, knowing that the danger was far from past. She thought she heard a sound behind them, but when she glanced back, she saw only the emptiness they had left behind. Turning back, she could now make out Faramir’s features and saw clear relief on his face.

She opened her mouth to call to him, and instead felt a gloved hand clamp over it. An arm encircled her chest, pinning her arms to her side. At the same time, she saw the flash of a blade as a second person plunged a narrow, sharp dagger into the back of Iorlas’s neck. The man fell without a sound, knowing only that he had brought his charge within sight of safety. Meanwhile, Éowyn twisted and kicked, trying desperately to free herself. She tried biting the hand over her mouth, but to no avail. In the midst of this, she realized that Faramir had broken into a run, his face contorted with rage.

The hand left her mouth for a moment, but before she could draw a breath to scream, it was back, this time holding a wet cloth over her mouth and nose as well. When she inhaled, she was overwhelmed by a sickly sweet smell, like flowers on the verge of being completely wilted. She smelled something else, something sinister about whatever it was that had been rubbed into the cloth. She continued to fight, but soon it seemed like her body would not respond to her commands. Her movements were growing sluggish and awkward.

Faramir was halfway across the square now. Suddenly, Éowyn heard a bowstring twang beside her and saw a short, green-plumed arrow strike him in the shoulder, spinning him around and nearly sending him to the ground. He dropped his scimitar, his sword-arm practically useless. Éowyn screamed into the cloth and renewed her struggle, but though she tried not to breathe deeply, she still needed air, and with every breath she inhaled more of the strange odor.

She saw Faramir regain his balance, slowly reach down for the scimitar with his other hand, and begin walking toward them again. His face clearly reflected the pain and effort it took him to continue. “Another,” her captor said, though it sounded like his voice was coming from far away.

“For the kill?” the archer asked, fitting an arrow to the string.

“Not quite. I want him to remember this moment for the rest of his life, however short that is.”

Éowyn heard the bow sing again, and cried weakly as she saw the arrow hit her beloved husband in the right side of his chest. Her sight was growing dim, and it was getting harder to keep on her feet. She vaguely saw Faramir fall to his knees. Then the world spun. She felt her own knees buckle and again smelled the sweet odor. Then all was black.

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The first arrow had come as a complete surprise, the second he had quite expected. Like a raw recruit, he had simply run toward a dark building, without thought and caution, without cover, outlined against the fires behind him – as perfect a target as a hidden archer could possibly wish for. But what choice had there been? Someone had caught her, stunned her, most likely, for else surely she would have fought back, or at least screamed. Someone – he was convinced he knew who the dark figure looming behind her was, anger still surging through him, yet despite its force unavailing to keep him on his feet. The second dart had conquered it.

He sank to his knees, unable to do another step, to hold on to the scimitar, to even muster strength to curse the weakness that was keeping him from coming to her aid. Keeping his eyes open to behold the gruesome sight of his wife sinking limply back into the arms of the masked stranger – if stranger he was – had become nearly impossible. Dimly, he felt something warm run down his right arm and soak the cloth of his shirt on his chest.

“Captain, no!” a shrill, horrified voice rang in his ears, and faintly, he heard running footsteps approach. Mablung, Faramir thought through the thickening haze that rose to engulf him. Help her, help her! She is there, right ahead. She is in danger. Hurry, do not stop for me!. He tried to utter these words, to yell them out to the ranger who had almost reached him now, but as he drew breath to a deep stinging in his chest, suddenly there was blood in his throat and mouth, and no sound would come.

A dark mist seemed to obscure his sight as one last time he raised his eyes to where Éowyn had stood. She was there no more. She was gone. He had lost her. His eyes closed, and he sank wholly to the ground and knew no more.

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The raider swiftly lifted Éowyn into his arms and carried her back into the empty building. The archer glanced around the alley to make sure no eyes had seen them, then ducked inside as well. He saw his master standing toward the back wall, staring at his unconscious captive’s face in awe. Then he laughed suddenly, a giddy, incredulous laugh, and spun in a circle, causing Éowyn’s hair to float lightly in the air. “It was easy,” he breathed. “It was as though she knew to find me.”

He glanced out the front window, and the mirth faded from his eyes. “We should go,” he stated, serious once more after spying a pair of rangers coming to the aid of their fallen lord. The archer nodded and led the way toward the back of the building. The place had been used as a warehouse for some time, and boxes and crates of all sorts were piled throughout the back rooms. Perhaps the place was an indoor market or some merchant’s new shop. Whatever it was in the daylight did not matter. It had served a useful purpose this night.

The archer slowly opened the door at the very back of the building and peered out carefully, searching for any unwanted disturbance. Satisfied, he motioned for his companion to follow. Outside waited a pair of horses, oddly calm compared to the havoc that raged in the rest of the village. Then again, it was fairly quiet back here, and the horses only tossed their heads and shifted their feet nervously.

“Take her.”

Lifting Éowyn from his companion’s arms, he waited for the other to mount, then the pair worked to get her on the horse as well. “Careful,” the first snapped when he thought the archer handled her too roughly. The archer bit his lip behind his mask. He was not thrilled with the prospect of carrying a prisoner across country, and a woman at that. But, orders were orders, and if his master wanted a pretty prize, who was he to argue? Anticipating his next order, he took a cord and tied her hands in front of her.

“Excellent,” his companion said, shifting slightly in the saddle and reaching forward to take the reins. She is mine, he thought. Her warmth and weight against him sent a thrill down his spine. Her head would likely rest in the crook of his neck as they traveled, her hair floating on the breeze… Concentrate, man, you are not out of this yet, he warned himself. As the archer mounted, he turned his own horse and started down the lane at a walk. He knew the way well enough in the dark. The days spent scouting here a month or so before had not gone to waste. They passed other raiders, who paused to salute, then ran ahead to clear a path for their conquering master.

The master turned to his archer and said, “Sound the call. Our business is done here.” With a nod, the archer took a small horn from his saddle bag and sounded two long, high, clear notes. Both horses took a few quick steps at the call, then broke into a trot as their riders gave them rein. When they came to the main street, they broke into a gallop, surprising the villagers and raiders who stood in their path. The horn-call sounded again, and the rest of the raiders in the village scattered, gathering what loot they could before finding horses and riding out.

The pair reached the north gate of the village and fled into the night, a partial line of raiders following behind. They were finished with Kadall.

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This was worse than anything he had ever experienced, decided Mablung as he sank against a crumbling wall near the northern entrance of the village. Not even during the War had he lived through a time so dark, and, even though it hardly seemed possible, he feared it would turn even blacker during the night. In his reckoning, the night must have ended hours, days, years ago. The attack and their desperate defence had lasted for ages, or so they had felt, although in truth only about four hours had passed since the raiders had come upon the village. Now they were gone, those that had survived, and even the sound of their horses had vanished in the darkness. He had sent some men after them, not really to give chase – they were too few for that –, but to find out where they were headed. He wondered if he should ever see those men again, for their errand was a deadly dangerous one. And yet they had been eager to go,
despite their weariness and anguish, perhaps to make certain the venture would not be considered a failure entirely.

Resting his head against the wall, Mablung shut his eyes which had begun to sting with weariness, but even more with tears of grief and anger and despair. He knew that as captain, and indeed as the one in charge now, he should keep a tight grip on his emotions. But right now he did not care. He was alone, and that was well. He needed the solitude to try and come to terms with what had happened. Seen objectively, the rangers and the villagers had fared rather well. Of his company, only four men had fallen, although many more were wounded. The villagers, too, had lost few more men, all of whom had died in the fights. Nobody had perished in the burning houses where the fires had mostly been put out by now, or had died for lack of fuel. So, he thought, one could think we have been lucky. Certainly the villagers were relieved, and had set to searching the settlement for survivors as well as more dead and wounded, to ascertain their losses overall, and to see who was in most urgent need of help. The people seemed much bolder and more encouraged now, after they had not only stood their own against the ferocious attackers, but even managed to make them pay dearly for their renewed assault, and in the end repell them.

But in truth they left of their own accord, thought Mablung bitterly, running a slightly shaking hand over his eyes. After they had accomplished what they had come for. We may have lost only four men, and yet paid more dearly than I thought possible. Iorlas was dead, stabbed from behind. Mablung knew what his lieutenant’s task had been, and he felt his heart squirm in him with anguish and fear and hate and utter self-reproach. The lady had been taken by the enemy! No trace of her body had been found, nevertheless it was a deadly blow to them. He had too few unwounded men left to try and free her. If she was still alive. He fervently hoped so, trying to convince herself that if they had wanted to kill her, she would have lain dead next to poor Iorlas. Yet there was no certainty.

It would tear out the Captain’s heart if he knew, he thought, and the trembling of his hand increased. His Captain, the man he had been commanded to protect, many years ago, by the Steward Denethor himself. His lord, and his friend. He had been shot down before his very eyes. He could see the scene clearly, and knew it would never fade again from his memory. Nor would the desperate moments afterwards when he had dashed to Faramir’s side, barely managing to catch him and ease his fall to the ground. There had been blood everywhere, the Captain’s shirt soaked with it, and for a horrible moment Mablung had been convinced the other had died. He did not recall what he had used to try and staunch the bleeding, crying for help, fearing that his lord might die in his arms any moment. Finally two men had come out of the darkness, Brandir one of them, wounded himself but not heeding the injury when his eyes fell on the stricken Steward. Somehow, they had managed to bring Faramir to an empty house not far from where he had fallen, finding the murdered Iorlas in the process. This house had been converted into a sickroom when the fight had ended, and the other wounded rangers had been gathered together there. Brandir had stayed with the Captain, attempting to stop the flow of blood from the wounds. Mablung had been loath to leave his side, but at length had yielded to the many summons that called for his attention, or decisions in an avalanche of matters. He had only just finished his inspection of the defence of the northern entrance, where he had positioned those rangers still fit to fight, and had not yet dared to return to his lord immediately, for fear of what he might see there. If he should die, I will never forgive myself, he thought darkly. Death is too gentle a punishment for my failure to protect him and the lady. And what should he tell his King, and the lady’s brother – for he had to inform them ere long. And word had to be sent to Khorazîr, again. And to Beregond. And to the families of the fallen rangers ... He sighed deeply, feeling completely overwhelmed by the situation.

“Captain, are you wounded?” asked an anxious voice, and forcing his eyes open and swiftly running his hand over them to brush away the tears, in the dim light of the dying fires Mablung beheld the pale face of young Dírhael, looking more boyish than ever despite the blood and soot smearing his features. The lad was one of the few rangers who, miraculously, had remained completely unscathed. Consequently, Mablung had charged him with running errands between the healers, the elders that had taken over organising the gathering of all villagers, the remaining unwounded rangers, and himself.

Upon the lad’s question, he shook his head slightly and with an effort pulled himself to his feet again. “What news from the men?” he asked hoarsely, only now realising how thirsty he was.

“The elders said the villagers are still looking for some people, but most are gathered in front of the inn, even those that had been hiding or had fled up the hillsides. There have been a few more with injuries, but not as many as in the first attack, they said. Those raiders as were wounded the villagers slew.”

“I told them to keep them alive, for questioning,” snapped Mablung angrily, causing Dírhael to jump slightly, but then he subsided, shrugged and sighed. “Just as well, I guess,” he muttered dejectedly. “Most likely they wanted to avenge their own slain and wounded, and nobody can condemn them for that, after what they have gone through since yesterday.” Although he felt greatest reluctance to ask, out of fear of the possible answer, “What else?” he inquired quietly. “What news of the Captain?”

If possible, Dírhael paled even more and hung his head, wringing his hands. Mablung felt his eyes begin to sting again as he gazed at the young man steadily. “Dorgil and Brandir told me to fetch you, captain,” the young man said softly, his voice barely above a whisper. It ... it does not look good, they said. He’s lost so much blood, they said, and ... and,” his voice began to quiver, and he drew a shuddery breath. “Oh, captain, if ... if he should die ...,” he then wailed, and tears shot into his bright eyes.

Mablung felt like bursting into tears himself, but with great effort he pulled himself together, and stepping over to the shaking lad, he put his arms round him and patted his shoulder soothingly.

“He is not going to die,” he said, trying to force his voice to sound firm and full of confidence, but realising how hoarse and shaky it sounded. But the boy did not seem to notice. “He has been through worse, much worse. Do know what we used to say, back in the War, when times were even darker than they are now?” Dírhael shook his head, clutching the other desperately. Drawing a deep breath to keep his voice steady, “We said his life was charmed,” went on Mablung. “He led in the most perilous ventures, and hardly got as much as a scratch. And when he did, he was back on his feet in a matter of days. Not even the fell Nazgûl and their Black Breath were able to kill him. And this Al-Jahmîr, has he not tried before, and failed? He is not going to die, kid, you will see. He will wake again, and recover, and then he will hunt down this thrice-cursed Umbarian and finish him once and for all. And he will free his lady, and together they will return to Ithilien and their children. And they are going to need our help, so pull yourself together, lad.”

Dírhael nodded slightly. Sniffing and wiping his eyes, he let go of his captain and stepped back. “Forgive me, captain,” he muttered, still looking miserable but somewhat encouraged. “Still, you should come.”

“I will,” said Mablung, wishing, as he followed the young ranger back into the village, that he could believe what he had just said as readily.

+

There was still commotion on the village square. Obviously the elders were holding a speech to the people. Mablung and Dírhael managed to slip past without being noticed and accosted. The rangers’ house was quiet and only dimly lit by small oil-lamps – it had formerly belonged to one of the elders who had perished in the attack and his wife had graciously allowed them to use it. Most of the wounded were sleeping, their exhaustion conquering their anguish over what had befallen. In a small room next to the hall the dead had been laid on the floor, covered with cloaks. Mablung felt a deep stab in his chest as he walked past and caught a glimpse of Iorlas’ still form. Such a promising young man ... murdered.

He drew a deep breath and walked on into the large parlour where the wounded were resting on pillows and blankets and low mattresses on the floor. The elder’s wife was walking about quietly, looking to those in pain and or in need of water or simply an encouraging word. Mablung was deeply grateful for her aid. Near the rear end of the room a little space had been screened off by long curtains. As he approached, Mablung heard soft voices talk, and shadows move behind the curtain.

He had almost reached it when Dorgil shot out. The healer’s cheeks were flushed and his brow streaked with bloody marks where obviously he had run his hands over his forehead. Underneath, his face was grey with exhaustion. Only his eyes were burning with a strange fire. “Captain, thank goodness,” he said hurriedly, and with obvious relief.

“What is it?” asked Mablung anxiously. “Any change of his condition?”

Dorgil shook his head slowly, then shrugged. “We have got the bleeding under control, at last,” he said. “But he has lost much, very much. The shoulder-wound I closed and sealed, and should he live, ‘tis not going to trouble him: only the muscles were pierced, and the bones and major tendons are undamaged. But the chest-wound ...” He beckoned to Mablung to follow him behind the curtains.

In the sheen of three small lamps Mablung saw Brandir, a blanket over his shoulders and a bandage round his middle, sit beside Faramir who had been laid on a low bed. The young healer pressed a blood-stained bandage to his chest from which the arrow still portruded eerily. Mablung was shocked how little it seemed to move when the captain breathed. Faramir’s face, even in the warm orange light of the lamps, was deadly pale, his raven hair and eyebrows and the traces of blood at the corner of his mouth a harsh contrast to his white skin. He had been stripped of his blook-soaked shirt, and warmly covered in blankets safe for where Brandir pressed the bandage. The shoulder had been bandaged, too, as well as that was possible with the other wound still in need of further treatment.


Tearing his eyes away from the grievous sight, Mablung gazed at Dorgil. “What of his chest-wound?” he asked, not hiding his anxiety.

Dorgil’s jaw clenched. “It is possible his lung has been punctured. I am not entirely sure. But he has difficulties breathing, and there was blood in his mouth. Then again, if his lung had really been pierced, I doubt he would have survived these last hours. And I fear that if I remove the arrow now, more damage will be done, and he will lose even more blood. I am doubtful that he could take that.”

Mablung eyed Faramir worriedly. “But it cannot simply stay in the wound, for surely it would cause infection.”

Dorgil nodded. “‘Tis a hard choice. That is why I had Dírhael fetch you. I wanted to listen to your counsel.”

Mablung shook his head, feeling once more overwhelmed by the situation. “I am no healer, Dorgil” he said. “How can I decide in this situation when you cannot? But if you really want my counsel, I say remove the arrow. It does not look right. And honestly, I do not think his condition would improve much with it still in the wound.” He sighed.

Dorgil made a strange gesture between a nod and a shrug. “Let us set to it, then,” he said, looking resolute of a sudden. “I shall need another pair of steady hands.”

Mablung let out a short, humourless laugh. “If you are referring to me, I must disappoint you. My hands are all but steady right now.”

Dorgil gave him a faint smile, and putting a hand to his shoulder, he squeezed it reassuringly. “They will do, captain. They will do.”

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Dawn broke over Harondor. Rows of gray clouds blanketed the sky in layers. Their looks promised rain, but, like most things in this desolate country, they lied. There would not be rain today, or the next, or the next. Summer was here, but though the days were hot, the nights grew exceedingly cold, especially in open country, and the chill lingered in the morning air. The wind was still active, blowing dustwhirls across the trails and roads, spooking horses and peppering travellers’ eyes.

The mountains sloped until they ran into the wide floodplain of the River Harnen. Three horsed riders were approaching the river, the last of the raiders. The rest had split off from the regathered company throughout the night, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs, but always going another direction to confuse the trails as much as possible. Some had doubled back to repel any pursuers determined to scout their passing. They had a week to wander Harondor and the surrounding lands, with safe passage through nearly any lord’s realm. The raid had been successful, and they knew the way home. But the three riders approaching the river would take a more roundabout way back. They had left the road long ago and cut across country. The farther they were from popular bridges and fords, the better.

In the grey light, they could discern a small, swift schooner anchored close to the near bank. As they approached, a rowboat lowered and steered toward the shore. Two men hauled at the oars, and a third stood in the prow, scimitar drawn. The craftsmanship of his chainmail and leather said enough about him, but the glimpses of fine green and black robes beneath his armor clearly indicated his status. Keen, dark eyes peered out of a heavily-tanned and lined face that had known youth long ago. He was a lord, and he was not pleased about this business. As soon as the boat bumped against the shore he leapt onto the solid ground and stalked toward the horsemen.

The rider in the center waited for one of his flanking companions to spring from his horse and help him with his prisoner before he too dismounted. He stretched slightly once he hit the ground grateful to have free use of his arms and legs again. Cradling his prisoner had not been the most comfortable of positions after awhile. He tugged his mask away and started toward the approaching lord, his arms held out. “It has been auspicious night, Rhudakhôr,” he announced jovially.

Rhudakhôr was not impressed. “If that is merely one of your lads wrapped in a blanket, Marek, you will find this a favorable morning to die.”

Marek al-Jahmîr’s face hardened. He spat on the ground, then walked over to his first companion. He pulled the cloak back, revealing golden hair and a pale, still face. She breathed as though asleep, but this was far from a natural sleep. Al-Jahmîr had wrapped a cloak around her during the night, not wanting her to catch a chill, and hiding her features from anyone who may cross paths with them in the night. “Does she look like one of my lads?” al-Jahmîr hissed. “Surely you can guess who she is.”

Rhudakhôr remained silent, studying Éowyn carefully. Finally, he nodded. “Indeed, I can guess,” he said softly, as if conceding a point. “Very well, you have bought your passage on my ship.” He sheathed his scimitar, then gave a raspy chuckle. “Leave it you to find a pretty bauble in the sand.”

Al-Jahmîr slapped him on the back as they turned to the river. “The mountains, my friend. The best jewels are found in the mountains.”

+

The schooner skittered across the water, propelled by a strong easterly wind. Though it was past mid-morning, the day had not gotten much lighter thanks to the heavy cloudcover. Al-Jahmîr sat in a cushioned chair in the captain’s cabin, thumbing through a red leather-bound book. Despite the schooner’s small size, the cabin was spacious, with room for a full-sized bed, several chairs, a small table, and various traveling trunks and cases. A pair of windows lined the starboard side, the country beyond them passing swiftly.

When a knock came at the door, he put the book down and crossed over to open it. The archer from the night before entered, carrying a tray with a soup bowl and spoon, some bread slices, and a few dried figs. “Put it over there, Fuiner,” al-Jahmîr said, indicating the small table next to the bed. “She will be waking soon, and hungry.” Fuiner set the tray down, took a water bottle from under his arm, and placed it alongside.

“The tack is in the double-crescent trunk on deck,” Fuiner said, glancing at Éowyn before sitting in a plain straightback chair. “It is locked and lashed, so none of the crew can accidentally lose it.” They had left their horses with their third companion, taking the tack with them on board. A lone rider leading two horses wearing rope halters did not raise questions. A lone rider leading two horses with well-crafted but blood-stained tack did. He would find time later to wash the steeds and rub out the sweat stains that outlined where the tack rested. “She is safe?” he asked, nodding toward the unconscious woman.

Al-Jahmîr nodded, taking his seat again. “Only one good dagger and a smaller knife,” he said, rather disappointed. Though he was sure she knew how to use them well, it was a shame that she was not better armed.

As if reading his thoughts, Fuiner said, “Of course they did not intend to do any fighting.”

“One must always intend on doing some fighting in this land,” al-Jahmîr answered, opening his book. A soft moan from the bed caught his attention before he even turned a page. “Ah, she wakes.”

Still fighting unconsciousness, Éowyn whimpered and tossed under the blankets. Her head ached as though she had been thrown from a horse and landed on rock. She opened her eyes slightly, and shut them just as quickly. Though the cabin was not brightly lit, it was still bright enough to aggravate her already pounding head. She did not notice much else at first. Her throat was dry and cracked, and she felt nauseated and famished in turn. She risked opening her eyes again and managed to keep them open slightly. Her vision was cloudy. She could make out shapes and forms, but they were not distinct. She was not sure where she was, and moreover, she was unsure whether she should be afraid. Her thoughts were as muddled as her vision, and for now she did not remember the events from Kadall.


She heard voices, but they sounded muffled, as though they were talking behind layers of cloth. “Should we give her this?”

“No, I do not want her fully aware until we are back at Ihimbra.”

Éowyn groaned again. She wanted them to be quiet, to leave her alone. She hurt, and when she tried to move, her body would not respond properly.

“You need to eat,” a quiet but firm voice told her. She tried to recognize the voice, but the pain in her head made concentration impossible. Through her hazy eyes she saw someone moving beside her. She gasped and closed her eyes tightly as she felt herself lifted somewhat, and then something was put behind her back to prop her up. Her head protested even this slight change in position. She murmured something unintelligible as a tear trickled from one eye.

“Fuiner, you made her cry, you insensitive lout.” Al-Jahmîr wiped the droplet from Éowyn’s face with his thumb. He regretted having to cause her this pain, but there was no other way to get her safely to his home. He knew she would fight if fully conscious, and once she was in her new home, she could fight all she wanted and not get far. From his seat beside her on the bed, he reached for the soup bowl and stirred its contents once. This would be interesting.

Éowyn nearly choked on the first spoonful of soup before she realized what was happening. It tasted like a very salty chicken broth, with a few other spices thrown in for good measure. She had hardly swallowed it before she knew she wanted more. The thought of poison never crossed her mind, and if it had, she need not have worried about it. Al-Jahmîr may not have had second thoughts about using venom on her husband, but he could not bring himself to do the same to her. Well, the sleeping fumes aside – they only lasted for a time before the body fought them off and recovered.

It was not long ere she had finished most of the soup and some of the bread pieces that had been soaked in the broth. Her headache had subsided somewhat after she had gotten food in her belly, though she was still quite confused. In fact, she almost felt strong enough to try opening her eyes entirely. Before she could, she thought she smelled flowers again and suddenly decided that sleep would be a better option.

As Fuiner took the pillows from behind her back, al-Jahmîr capped the small brown glass bottle and slipped it back inside a leather pouch, along with a small folded cloth. She would not be a problem until sunset, he knew, and then a little more food and a few more fumes would keep her quiet through the night. Three more days -- with every sail available in use, and as long as the wind held -- and they would be at Ihimbra. She would have a raging hunger and a nastier temper, but fine meals and good care would put an end to that.

After making sure the blankets were tucked around her, al-Jahmîr returned to his chair and resumed reading his book, The Laws of Succession in Gondor.

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PostPosted: Sun 15 Oct , 2006 7:45 pm 
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During the long years as a ranger and a soldier in the service of Gondor, Mablung had seen and received (and indeed dealt out) a fair number of grievous injuries. He had also aided in the tending of many. Nevertheless, in the hour that followed he more than once wished to be able to leave like Dírhael and get some fresh air – or a strong drink. He attributed this to his overall state, a highly troubled mind and mental and physical fatigue. Nonetheless, it was plain to see that the two healers were handling the situation far better than he, even young Brandir, and he was injured as well.

His own task had been to constantly supervise Faramir’s pulse and breathing, while Dorgil with Brandir’s help first checked the wound thoroughly again, to determine what internal damage the arrow might have wrought. They had kept the other dart, hoping that the second one was of like make: short and stout of shaft, with a broad point to cleave wounds that bled much. Which had been the Captain’s luck, explained Dorgil, despite the extensive loss of blood. The arrow had hit at short distance, with great force, yet it had not gone in very deep because it had struck a rib which had snapped, and had thus been turned off course slightly.

“Otherwise it would have pierced his lung completely,” said Dorgil wearily as he washed his hands in a wide copper bowl the elder’s wife had brought him. “So would a different arrow-head have done, a narrower one as to pierce mail. I would have gone right through the bone.” He cast a glance to his charge to whose chest Brandir was applying the last bandages. “Nevertheless ...,” he sighed, running his wet hands through his hair, “I am not sure he will survive the night. It is a marvel he is still with us as it is. I hope the wound is closed entirely, especially the vein I sealed. Otherwise he will bleed to death internally, and we shall not notice until it is too late.”

Mablung glanced at his captain from his seat next to the bed, close to his head. Throughout the operation he had lain unmovingly. He had not even stirred when Dorgil had drawn forth the arrow, and now but for the faint sign of his breath on the blade of Mablung’s dagger as he held it in front of his nose and mouth, and the slow beat of his heart underneath the ranger’s fingertips as he pressed them to his neck, he looked liked he had perished indeed. Nevertheless, there was a glimmer of hope. Quite contrary to his expectations, as he had admitted freely, Dorgil had found that both Faramir’s pulse though faint and his breathing though sometimes laboured were stronger and more regular than he had feared.

In regard of that, scowling at Dorgil, “How can you speak about his death so evenly?” Mablung scolded the healer with an angry glint in his grey eyes.

“Mablung,” sighed Dorgil as he reached for a cup with water also provided by the woman, and collapsed into a chair next to the bedside, “you know how my heart aches to see him lie here so, and even more at the possibility that he might die. But neither of us is in need of soft words right now. ‘Tis a desperate situation, as well you know. Like you, I want to be confident, and there are small signs that would indeed inspire confidence – had I not seen too many injuries like his before ...” He drained his cup in one long draught, then shook his head, and running both hands over his eyes, he sank down lower into the chair to be able to rest his head against the back, and closed his eyes.

“He has been through worse,” declared Mablung obstinately.

Dorgil nodded slowly without opening his eyes. “Aye, perhaps. If the Lady were here, I would say he stood a better chance. But like this ...”

Feeling a deep stab in his chest at the mention of Éowyn, Mablung hung his head. “What shall we tell him when he wakes, and finds she is gone?” he asked miserably.

“If he wakes,” Dorgil muttered dejectedly. Then with obvious effort, he opened his eyes and sat up straight again. “There are only two possibilities. Either you try and deceive him, to spare him the shock which in his weakened state might kill him. Or else you stick to the truth, and hope he can weather it.”

Mablung looked down on his captain’s still face. “I think he would prefer the truth,” he said softly. “Moreover, mostly he can tell when somebody is lying to him. And I am not sure if he had not seen what happened to his lady, ere he was shot. Otherwise I doubt he would have run towards the archer without even seeking cover.”

Dorgil’s reply was only a low murmur. His head had sunk upon his chest and he was nodding. When Mablung stopped talking, he stirred, and gazed at his captain blearily.

“Forgive me, captain”, he muttered, running a hand over his eyes again.

“Get some sleep, Dorgil,” Mablung told him gently. “I will keep watch at his side. I could not sleep, anyway.”

Dorgil looked at him doubtfully for a moment, then reaching for his burnous, “Thank you, captain,” he said. “Wake me should there be any change of his condition.”

“I will.”

Brandir had retired as well, lying stretched out on a blanket against the rear wall of the recess, sleeping soundly. Dorgil lay down next to him, and not long and he was asleep as well. Silence now descended wholly on the house. The noise on the village square had died down as well. Outside, only some cicadas were chirping, and from far away there was the soft hooting of an owl. In the house, the only sounds were the breathing or soft snoring of the sleepers, and the fluttering of moths and other night-insects that had come in through the half-open window-shutters lured by the light of the small oil-lamps on the windowsill. Mablung watched them and the shadows their swiftly beating wings were casting on the tiled walls and the low ceiling. Shifting into a more comfortable position on his chair, he rested one hand lightly on the side of Faramir’s neck where his pulse was best discernable and reached for his waterbottle.

It was difficult to not to think about what had befallen, now when there was little distraction. First his eyes followed the fluttering insects – strange, large moths with intricate patterns on their grey and brown wings –, then he became interested in the patterns of the colourful tiles that covered the wall up to the window, and the floor. Among complicated geometrical patterns there were stylised forms of birds and beasts. He was most struck by an image of a large bird of prey – an eagle, perhaps – devouring what looked like a worm, or a serpent. This is what is going to happen to you, Al-Jahmîr, he thought grimly. You cannot win. The Captain, or the King himself are going to finish you for good this time.

Shifting his gaze on Faramir’s still features again, his grim, vengeful mood subsided, leaving only weariness and deep grief and self-reproach. Only a few yards, and he could have – should have – pushed him out of the flight of that arrow. Or thrown himself in front of him. He had utterly failed as his Lord’s and Lady’s guard. And he expected no leniency, as there was no excuse.

His mood got darker and darker the longer the night and his silent vigil lasted, and the light of the oil-lamps lessened. When the last finally died, Mablung did not notice – his exhaustion had finally conquered his troubled mind and sent him to sleep.


He woke with a start. The room was dark, and there was the smell of cold smoke lingering on the air. Through the shutters a dim, grey light filtered – the light of early morning, ere sunrise. Dorgil and Brandir were still sound asleep. And the Captain? Realising to his dismay that like a bloody recruit he had fallen asleep on watch, and moreover neglected his charge, he sat up straight and pressed a hand to Faramir’s neck. Warm relief washed through him when he detected a pulse. Indeed, it felt stronger than before. And his breathing was discernable now without the aid of the dagger, when he placed his hand in front of his mouth.

“Oh Captain,” he said softly, and almost jumped with surprise when he felt the addressed stir slightly under the fingertips still resting at his neck.

“Lord Faramir,” Mablung repeated, louder this time, and waited. For sure, there was some reaction. The right hand that lay on top of the blankets twitched, and Faramir sighed softly. It almost seemed like he was coming round. Hastily, Mablung sprang from his chair and refilled one of the lamps from the bottle of oil the elder’s wife had provided, and rekindled it. Then he roused Dorgil who was on his feet in a matter of seconds and almost stumbled over his burnous that had wrapped itself round his legs as he leapt up to dash to Faramir’s bedside.

+

The first thing Faramir realised when he woke from the depths of unconsciousness was pain. The right side of his chest felt as on fire, and every breath fueled it and sent sparks of anguish through his body. There was the metallic taste of blood in his mouth and throat, and his entire body felt heavy as if cast of lead. He doubted he could even lift a finger, or open his eyes. A murmur of voices came to his ears. They sounded vaguely familiar, and he strained to hear what was being said.

“There, he stirs again. Hand me the lamp, Mablung,” said one, and suddenly he felt something warm and bright approach his face. He could discern the light through his closed eyelids. “Lord Faramir,” the voice said, and he felt someone stroke back the hair from his forehead. The name sounded familiar, and after a moment Faramir realised that he was being addressed thus, and that he should reply.

With an effort of will, he forced his eyelids to lift slightly, only to close again almost immediately – the light was so bright. It was withdrawn slightly, and he tried again. At first his vision was bleary and unfocused, then two faces swam into view, dimly illuminated by the warm glow of a lamp. He studied them confusedly, until slowly recognition set in. Both were gazing down at him with eyes shining with what looked like tears, and bit by bit, his memory set to reconstructing the past events. The journey home, the pass, colourful ribbons along the road, the village, dead children. Then the attack at nightfall. The fight. Èowyn, where was she? There she stepped out of the alley. But there was somebody behind her. The arrow. No, more than one. The pain in his chest. And Éowyn, she had vanished. She was gone. His eyes opened wide in shock as full realisation set in, and he drew a deep, raspy breath – or at least tried to, for the pain was so great that he gasped with it and coughed, which hurt even more.

A hand on his shoulder, pressing him down into the pillows with gentle force. “Easy, captain, easy,” soothed a voice. “Try not to breathe too deeply. You received an arrow in your chest. Lie still, and do not move too much for the time being.”

He nodded slightly when the pain subsided again, breathing swiftly but shallowly and trying to focus on the two men leaning over him. “Dorgil?” he breathed. His throat was parched, and speaking painful. The addressed nodded, squeezing his shoulder gently.

“Aye, captain, ‘tis me. And here is Mablung, who has hardly left your side ever since you were hurt. We hardly dared hope you would wake again.”

Faramir’s eyes wandered from Dorgil’s smiling face to Mablung’s. The captain smiled as well, but there were tears in his eyes. “Welcome back, captain,” he muttered hoarsely, before his voice broke and he clapped a hand before his eyes and withdrew a little.

Faramir glanced back at Dorgil who gave Mablung a sympathetic glance, then he strained his eyes to see beyond him. “Éowyn,” he whispered, “has ... she been found? Where is she?”

Dorgil’s relieved expression changed to a worried one. He looked to Mablung who, wiping his eyes, returned to the bedside. There was silent exchange of glances between the two rangers. At length Mablung reached for Faramir’s hand.

“Captain,” he began slowly, as if pained, “she is not here. She –” another glance at Dorgil, filled with grief and despair. Mablung took a shaky breath, then squeezed Faramir’s hand. “She has been taken by the enemy,” he said, his voice grim and steely as if he had put great effort into uttering this sentence. “We think she is still alive, and men are following the raiders ...”

“Yet we cannot be sure,” Dorgil finished, all the time watching Faramir with great concern.

So it was true, and not just a trick of his memory. They had taken her! And he had not been able to prevent it. Indeed, they had snatched her away before his very eyes, as if to taunt him. Why had he not sent more men to watch her, or stayed at her side himself? Why had he not kept her out of this cursed village at all, sending her round by a safe route? Why had they journeyed to the South at all, with all these threats about, and Al-Jahmîr on the loose? Why, why, why? ’Tis my fault! he thought desperately. And this injury is not punishment enough for my blunder. If she was indeed taken by Al-Jahmîr, and I let it happen or even aided it with my carelessness, I deserve worse, much worse!

“Captain? Lord Faramir?” Mablung’s desperate voice penetrated his stream of utter misery and despair, and he felt a hand shaking his shoulder carefully. Only then he realised he had shut his eyes, and clenched his hand round a fold of his blanket, despite the stabbing pain in his shoulder. He relaxed his hand, and the pain eased.

+++

“Captain,” pleaded Mablung, when he saw Faramir’s hand release the fold it had gripped, fearing that now had happened what Dorgil had foretold as a possibility, and that they had dealt Faramir a deadly wound worse than that of the arrow. “Forgive us to have caused you so much pain. ‘Tis our fault. We should have protected her better, we –” He drew a quick breath. “Captain, we will find and rescue her, I swear. We will bring her back. Only stay with us! Please, do not give up, Faramir.”

To his utter surprise and great relief, Faramir stirred again and opened his eyes. “Captain,” whispered Mablung, then he fell silent as his gaze met that of his captain. There was a light in it now that had not been there before. Indeed, Mablung could not recall having ever seen a look of this burning intensity before. Not even Denethor’s eyes had ever flamed like that, and his gaze had been burning enough to kindle a torch with at times. There was no sign of pain and weakness anymore, only a cold determination. Involuntarily, Mablung shrank back a little.

“Get me back up on my feet, Dorgil, without delay!” said Faramir, his voice though soft and hoarse was stern as steel, and his request was not a gentle plea, but a firm command. “Send word to Elessar and Khorazîr, Mablung. We shall need their help. And find out where that snake hides. And if she is with him. This time, he is finished!”

Mablung exchanged a glance with Dorgil who stared at his captain open-mouthed, then nodded faintly. “Aye, lord,” he managed. Then his expression changed, and he began to smile grimly, while his eyes lit with a fell, vengeful light not unlike the one burning in Faramir’s. “Aye, captain,” he repeated, almost joyfully now. “Let me fetch you something to drink. You must be parched.” Faramir nodded slightly.

Leaving the Steward’s side and beckoning to Mablung to follow him, he stepped behind the curtain, where he let out a laugh. “What is happening there?” asked Mablung increduously as he joined him. “How can he recover so soon?”

“He is not through it yet,” replied Dorgil, sobering up a little. “But his chances have improved a lot. He wants to live, and if anybody has a will strong enough to achieve his desires, ‘tis the Captain. As long as no infection befalls the wound, I am confident he will make it. Who would have thought that yesterday, eh? Mablung, see if you can find me some fresh meat, a chicken or something. We need to make some broth, to get something nourishing into him, as well as fluids, to compensate for the blood-loss. And bring me my saddle-bags.”

Mablung ackknowledged the order and left the building. Outside, the light had grown, although a thick layer of clouds still darkened the sky in the east. They were already tinged with red underneath – sunrise was not far off. Drawing a deep breath in the cool air that still carried the stench of cold smoke, Mablung set out in search of a chicken.

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PostPosted: Thu 19 Oct , 2006 8:05 am 
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Faramir had striven to remain conscious, knowing he must drink, and almost lost the fight but for Dorgil’s timely return. He drew a sharp breath and winced when he felt the healer lift his head and put another pillow and what felt like a folded blanket behind his back to prop him up slightly. Both his shoulder and the wound in his chest protested at the movement, slight though it was, and he barely managed to suppress a cough.

“Here is some water, captain,” said Dorgil softly. Faramir forced his eyes open again when he felt a smooth earthenware cup touch his lips. “You may wish to rinse your mouth first, to get rid of the old blood.”

Slowly, Faramir took a small sip. The water was neither warm nor cold – just the right temperature. Despite his burning thirst, he did not swallow at first. Only when finally the taste of blood had been diluted sufficiently, he drank indeed. Soon Dorgil had to refill the cup.

“I have sent Mablung to fetch some meat so that we shall have something more substantial for you soon,” he told his captain as Faramir finally shook his head at the proffered cup. “How are you?” the healer inquired when he set aside the pitcher with water and the cup. “Can you breathe alright? ‘Tis obvious it hurts you, and no wonder with such an injury. Do tell me should it get worse, or should there be blood again in your throat.”

Faramir nodded faintly. As long as he breathed only shallowly, he did not feel the pain too much, although there was still the awkward and disturbing sensation of a heavy weight resting on his chest, and of something in his lungs which did not belong there. Turning his head so as to be able to look toward the window, he studied the light filtering through the lace-like woodwork of the shutters. By its colour, it was either sunset or sunrise. He realised he had lost all reckoning of time. “How long?” he asked softly.

“We arrived at the village yesterday,” explained Dorgil, drawing the blankets more snugly around Faramir. The air coming from the window was cool. “Just the night has passed since you were wounded.”

Not much time lost, then, thought Faramir, relieved. If only they have found the right trail, for surely the raiders split up. “How ... did we fare?” he then inquired.

“We were lucky,” answered Dorgil, then bit his lip. “Considering the circumstances, I mean. We lost four men: Tarostar and Hallas fell in battle, and Mallor was wounded so badly I could not save him.” He sighed. “And Iorlas was slain – stabbed from behind.” Faramir closed his eyes. Dimly, he thought he remembered seeing a dark form sink to the ground in front of Éowyn. I doomed him, he thought bitterly. He died for nothing, for he could not save her.

As if reading his thoughts, Dorgil said softly. “You charged him with protecting Lady Éowyn, did you not? Captain, we found no trace of her, and also no indication that she was injured. We think they wanted her alive. And surely they will not harm their precious prisoner, after taking so much care and efforts to get her?”

Faramir nodded slowly. Dorgil’s words sounded plausible, and he would gladly have believed them but for the many “ifs” pestering him. “The villagers?” he thus asked, to divert his mind from contemplating the many possibilities how his beloved wife might yet be harmed and tormented.

“They fought bravely, lord,” said Dorgil. “Much better than we gave them credit for upon seeing them. They also have more fallen to mourn, but less than we feared. And they managed to slay a great deal of the attackers. Unfortunately, they killed the wounded also, so there is nobody left for questioning, unless our scouts catch someone. I have not been able to get out much – many of our men have been wounded, although nobody as gravely as you – and I have been busy tending to them. But Mablung told me a little of what befell in the village after the raiders had left. Water and provisions are somewhat scarce, I gathered, and thus we hope Lord Khorazîr is going to arrive soon with reinforcements. But so far the villagers seem to make do with what is left, and they stick together and try and help each other. And this should suffice for now. Mablung has been doing a good job of organising things, so do not worry, lord. We are doing all we can. Try not to think about what befell too much. You must use all your strength now to get well, so for now you should rest. I know you yearn for information, but as you see, I have to gather some myself first ere I can forward it to you. So try and sleep. I know you are impatient to get well again, yet I need not tell you that ‘tis a long way hence. You will not be able to help your lady if you are not fully recovered.”

He removed the extra pillow and blanket in Faramir’s back so that he could stretch out more comfortably and without aggravating his injuries. As Dorgil tugged the blankets round his captain, Faramir felt weariness creep on him, battling the grievous images his memory was flashing at him. One kept reappearing over and over again, refusing to let him surrender to sleep and forgetfulness: Éowyn staring at him in utter horror and dismay, a dark form pinning her arms to her side and clapping something over her lower face. But her eyes ... – he knew he would never forget that gaze. It had been the moment the second arrow had hit him. And suddenly he knew why this image was troubling him so much. She does not know I am alive, he thought, and felt a stab of pain in his chest that had nothing to do with the wound. She must think I perished from that dart. And we were parted without an opportunity to solve our disagreement first. Why, why did I not simply apologise and get the argument out of the world? Stubbornness and pride I accused her of, and then I am no better myself. And now, if she is still alive, she must think I was slain, and the thought must torment her almost beyond endurance.

His memory replayed the scene over and over again until he thought he would lose his mind because of it. The remembered pain of the arrow piercing him seemed light and insubstantial in comparison to that which her horrified gaze had caused him. For her, I am dead, he thought. And most likely she will mourn me as slain. If only I could spare her this anguish, and let her know I am alive, more or less.

Just when he thought he could bear the pain of these thoughts no longer, not for another moment, another thought crossed his mind. She must think I am dead, but so must her captor! Despair and anguish switched to cold resolution and even a faint, minute triumph. He shall remain mistaken, he vowed grimly. And pay dearly for his blunder. If he is indeed Al-Jahmîr, he should have learned by now that it is useless to only half kill me. Useless, and extremely dangerous!

+

Somehow his weariness must have defeated the worries trying to keep him awake, for when Faramir woke next, it was to a chatter of voices outside the curtain, and to a raving hunger and thirst. Outside, there was bright sunlight, broken by the wooden lace into a pattern of bright flecks that swayed slightly on the colourful tiles on the wall with the movement of the shutters in the breeze. Straining to hear the voices, Faramir recognised Mablung’s and Dorgil’s. There was also a woman, old, by the sound of her voice, speaking only Adûnaic, and the deep rumble of someone using a heavily accented Westron. A strong smell of herbs lingered in the air, and shifting his head slightly, he beheld a partly covered bowl with a spoon portruding from it on a chair next to his bedside. His hunger, if possible, increased.

“Captain, you are awake,” exclaimed a rather youthful voice, and the next thing he realised was Brandir bending over him, beaming. “How splendid, splendid. Just when your soup is ready. I shall fetch Dorgil immediately.” And he leapt up and vanished behind the curtain. Not long, and he returned accompanied by the healer and the old woman. Faramir recognised the wise-woman of the village. She looked aged by years – most likely she had had no sleep since the first attack. Dorgil bade her take a seat.

“She wished to see you, lord,” he explained, “after hearing you were wounded. The villagers are aware that we paid a dear price for aiding them, with the Lady captured and you gravely wounded, and four men slain. So, in the name of the elders and all villagers she wanted to express her gratitude, and has offered what help she can give to speed your recovery, and that of our men.”

Faramir inclined his head slightly to the woman. “I wish we could have done more,” he told her earnestly, his voice faint and hoarse again because of his dry throat. The woman rummaged in her long robes and produced a small parcel wrapped in waxed paper which she handed to Dorgil. “Against the fever,” she said, nodding toward Faramir. Dorgil exchanged a swift glance with Brandir who shook his head. Obviously, the woman had understood their wordless exchange. “It will come, and the herbs will help you through it, lord. You are in good hands,” he added, indicating Dorgil whose pale, drawn face flushed at the compliment – Faramir suspected he had come to respect the wise-woman’s skills as a healer during their joint care of the wounded. “I am sorry about your lady. But she will be found. I have asked the Stones, and they told me you will meet her again, and together you will return to your children. So do not despair.”

She rose and briefly placing a gnarled, tattooed hand on his unhurt shoulder, she left the recess to a rush of skirts and the clattering of her many amulets. “How did she know about the Captain’s children?” asked Brandir in astonishment. Dorgil shrugged, eyeing the small packet with curiosity. “Perhaps the “Stones” told her – yesterday, she threw a handful of coloured pebbles for every patient and seemed to read things from this cast. She is a strange old crone, but I cannot deny she is a good healer. Some of her remedies are ... well, rather unusual. Some we would account as poisons. But apparently they work. And the people here trust her completely, and believe in her magic, if magic it is.”

Stowing the parcel in the pouch on his belt, he turned to Faramir. “I am afraid she is right about the fever, too. So far there are no signs of it, but I fear that ere long your temperature is going to rise. I only hope her medicine will indeed keep it down, as my own stores of herbs have been nearly annihilated yesterday. But you must be hungry, captain. And thirsty again, most like. Here is some broth for you.”

The soup was salty and tasted not so much of meat but an assortment of herbs. There was thyme in it, and other spices which reminded Faramir of the glades and uplands of Ithilien with their many herbs and shrubs. Now in summer, when the sun warmed the stones those plants gave forth the most aromatic smells. Suddenly he felt a strong longing to be there.

“I hope ‘tis edible,” said Mablung who poked his head round the curtain, after having taken leave of the wise-woman and her companion. “Seeing how little lifestock the villagers have left, as much was either killed or scattered and driven away during the raids, I was loath to steal one of their chickens, and instead set some of the unhurt lads of Kadall to go and hunt for meat. They caught some coneys, and a handful of fat lizards.”

Faramir raised his eyebrows at that and hesitated in swallowing the next spoonful of the broth. Mablung’s weary face split into a grin, like sunlight breaking through a thick layer of cloud. “I told them to keep the lizards for themselves, however, although they assured me they make good eating.”

“Very selfless of you, Mablung,” remarked Faramir with a faint smile after he had his mouth free again.

Mablung gazed at him, his eyes shining. “‘Tis good to see you smile again, captain,” he said gravely. “A sign you are getting better, is it not?”

“I have to,” muttered Faramir, “ere you run out of coneys and begin to feed me lizards.”

“If that is no motivation, then,” put in Dorgil, also looking far more cheerful than he had this past day.

“I have heard they also eat worms and beetles in these parts,” contributed Brandir, eyeing the soup with some slight suspicion, “and snakes.”

Faramir’s eyes narrowed at the reminder. Looking at Mablung with a frown, he asked, “Have the scouts returned?”

Mablung shook his head. “Only Hirgon. He came back last night. Apparently he had a hard time convincing the borders that they had to leave their post and ride to Lord Khorazîr immediately. But in the end they did, after he had somehow dragged their captain within earshot of the village, and had him witness part of the second attack first hand. They also took care of those raiders who tried to escape over the pass. If all goes well, your Southron friend should be here tomorrow evening, captain.”

Faramir nodded his approval as Mablung took a seat. “As for the messages to King Elessar and Beregond, I have not sent them off yet. In fact, I have not managed to write them. Surely Lady Éowyn’s brother must learn of what has befallen, too. But I thought that perhaps we should wait until we know more about the situation, both the Lady’s and your own ...” His voice trailed off, and he looked to Dorgil for support.

“The thing is,” explained the healer, “that we have only few men left who are unhurt and fit to undertake so long and swift and moreover dangerous a journey, and most of those are out pursuing the raiders right now.”

“So perhaps ‘tis best to at least wait for Lord Khorazîr until we spare yet another couple of men to bring word to Gondor.”

Faramir listened to their talk with a thoughtful but also troubled expression. He completely understood their dilemma. There would be uproar in Gondor and Rohan at the tidings: the Steward badly, perhaps even fatally injured, and his wife kidnapped by some yet unknown but not unsuspected foe. He did not want to imagine how his enemies in council would react. Surely this was a disaster his greatest adversary in politics, his neighbour Falastur the Lord of Pelargir would embrace with glee, demanding of the King to finally declare the Steward unfit to continue in his office, and to choose a worthier candidate. And Éomer – to learn that his beloved sister had been captured and perhaps even murdered by some Southron would enrage him beyond all reason, and most likely cause him to muster the entire Riddermark to storm the Harad and free or at least avenge her. And Elessar would not sit idle, either.

Have you really considered how painfully the ants can bite after you have stirred their hive with a stick, Al-Jahmîr? Faramir thought grimly. You may end up finding your chessboard overrun by pieces you did not have in your reckoning in the first place.

+

Dorgil announced himself very pleased with the process of his lord’s recovery when, after another deep, dreamless sleep Faramir woke again in the late evening, ate another two bowls of soups, this time with some bread soaked in it, and drank three cups of tea. The changing of the bandages showed that apparently the stitches held, and the bleeding had finally ceased completely. The wound on the shoulder had begun to heal, and there was no sign of infection in both cases. Nevertheless, Faramir still had troubles breathing. It remained extremely painful, and despite feeling somewhat strengthened by water and food, he was still too weak to lift a filled cup. He was aware that throughout the changing of the bandages and the examination, Dorgil was studying him with a slight frown.

“This may sound strange now, but you are almost doing too well, captain,” he at length admitted quietly. “Do not drive yourself too hard. I know that your worry for the Lady is burning in you, but have a care that it does not consume you entirely.”

Just when Faramir was about to reply, there was a draught when the curtain was being moved, making the flames of the oil-lamps flicker, and Mablung stepped in. “Still no tidings from the scouts,” he said swiftly when Faramir raised his head and gave him a keen, questioning glance. “But there are some villagers outside, asking to see you, captain. One is the innkeeper, Konak by name. And there are his wife and two small children with him. I told them they should wait another day or two, until you were better, but Konak said it might be important as it is about the Lady, and that surely you wished to know everything which concerned her. Apparently the children spoke with her, before ... How is it, Dorgil? Could they come in for a moment?”

Dorgil looked doubtful and about to object, but Faramir forestalled him. “Let them come,” he said. The healer sighed and shrugged. “But only for a few minutes.”

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PostPosted: Fri 20 Oct , 2006 4:00 am 
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The sun sank toward the mouth of the River Harnen. The Schooner might reach it by dawn, if the captain ordered his oarmen to their positions again. Though the wind had stayed steady throughout the day, Al-Jahmîr had demanded more speed, ever more speed, and Lord Rhudakhôr grudgingly obliged. Now he leaned against the railing, watching the red sun sink into the clouds, pondering. Usually passengers were not allowed to demand such fancies, but this was no ordinary passenger, and Rhudakôr knew Al-Jahmîr could easily buy the ship out from under him, crew and all, if he so desired. Actually, that was not such a terrible idea. Rhudakhôr had been wanting a new ship anyway. Perhaps he would have to drop a hint over supper.

Right now Al-Jahmîr was in the captain’s cabin, giving his new prize her supper. Rhudakhôr snorted. He had heard the stories from the War, and he knew very well who his additional passenger was and that Al-Jahmîr would have a furious lady when she finally took back control of her mind. Despite Al-Jahmîr’s boasts, he was not likely going to control this one easily. She may be quiet now, just after waking up from the sleeping fumes, but such tranquility would not last, at least, not with the potions Al-Jahmîr had. And he will not receive any more from me, Rhudakhôr thought darkly.

Rhudakhôr had built his fortune partly on the sale of potions. His wares ranged from poisons that could cause minor inflammations and discomfort to more serious matters, such as death (guaranteed.) He had recipes for liquids that would give an insomniac a good night’s rest, or relieve a strong headache, or ease pain (all guaranteed.) At one time, he had been rumored to create concoctions that would even make a person fall in love, ward off bad luck, bring good luck, or turn stones into gold (none guaranteed.) Another part of his fortune had been built on the sale of antidotes. Snake bites, spider bites, scorpion stings – these were simple antitoxins. He also made antidotes to his own potions, and it was not uncommon to sell a poison to one buyer and have a second come in shortly thereafter to buy the specific antidote. Some antidotes he did not sell but kept for his own use. A potionsmaster had to be wary, especially when one of his frequent patrons was Marek Al-Jahmîr. He was half-tempted sometimes to slip a unique mixture in among the other’s bottles and be rid of the annoyance for good. Everyone else’s gold was as good as Al-Jahmîr’s, though his certainly came more often and in greater quantities.

While he had been thinking, Rhudakhôr’s gaze drifted to the south. He straightened suddenly and watched the clouds intently. Though darkness was drawing near, he could still clearly define the patterns. His schooner’s captain came to stand beside him. “Shirrikahn?” he asked the weathered sailor.

The captain spat over the rail. “Looks to be, but still days out on the open water.”

Rhudakhôr’s brow furrowed. “How long until the winds change?”

The captain squinted at the sky. “Another day? Depends on how the storm moves. If it be coming north, the winds will change by the time we reach the delta. If it be moving south, and the direction be true, and the waves not be rough, we could port at the red rock in a day and a half.”

Rhudakhôr glanced over his shoulder at a cabin window aglow. Al-Jahmîr would not be pleased if there were any delays in this voyage, but Rhudakhôr was not willing to wager his vessel against a storm that could sink an entire fleet of ships and destroy whole coastal villages. “All right,” Rhudakhôr said, “we will keep sailing until we reach port or the storm draws near.”

The captain nodded and returned to his post. Rhudakhôr looked at the cabin window again and shook his head. Maybe he would slip something into Al-Jahmîr’s drink later on, just to keep things interesting.

+

The next morning the schooner skipped across the waves, glad to be back out on open water once more. Though the River Harnen was deep enough and held a good current, the craft had been built for sea travel. The sky remained overcast, with thick, heavy bands of clouds moving quickly along. The sun remained hidden, and the winds pushed the craft farther south. It would have been a nice day for sailing had the waves not been so rough. Though the schooner took most of them with ease, there was the occasional surge that washed up over the deck, soaking crew and rigging alike.

Toward noon, when the sea was a bit steadier, Al-Jahmîr brought Éowyn on deck for the first time. She had just woken up again, and had a little more to eat, when Al-Jahmîr suggested she get some fresh air.

Fuiner looked at him like he was insane. “You really want to take her on deck?” he asked.

Al-Jahmîr shrugged. “I see no harm in it. She could use fresher air after being in this cabin for almost two days, and besides, now that we are at sea, there are no prying eyes on the shorelines watching for anything newsworthy.” Fuiner shook his head, but did not make any further attempts to persuade his lord to the contrary.

+

Had Éowyn been thinking properly, she would have protested every move. First she was not steady on her feet enough as it was, but to add the ship’s rolling movement made moving without help practically impossible. Thus, she had to cling to Al-Jahmîr’s arm, both for support and to make sure that the world did not spin completely out of control. Once she was outside, she winced at the brighter light. Though the sun was hidden, she felt as though its full light were shining on her eyes. She groaned and hid her face in Al-Jahmîr’s shoulder. “It will get easier,” he told her quietly, leading her over to the railing. “In a day or so, we will be home, and you will start to feel better then.”

Éowyn suddenly leaned over the rail and made herself feel better in the only way she could.

+

An hour later she lay curled up on the bed, a blanket tucked around her. She was awake of her own accord still, but the pounding headache made any attempt at thinking nearly impossible. She knew now that she was on a ship, and more importantly, it was a ship that she did not want to be on. Mustering what strength she had, she tried to search her memory for how she had gotten here.

Nothing.

Exhausted from the effort of trying to work around the headache, and from the tedious walk around the deck that had her leaning over the rail more than on it, she sank into a deep, natural sleep.

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PostPosted: Fri 20 Oct , 2006 9:13 pm 
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While Mablung went to fetch the announced, Dorgil helped Faramir into an almost sitting position which, despite the pain the movement caused, was a welcome change. The healer was just drawing up the blankets again when Mablung returned, accompanied by the innkeeper, a small boy clasping his large hand firmly in his small brown one, half hiding behind the bulky man; and his wife with an even smaller girl on her arm. The latter looked half asleep, resting her head on the woman’s shoulder, but with both hands she was clutching a dirty ragdoll to herself. Both children looked very tired, and there were signs they had not been fed well recently. Dark marks were underneath their eyes so that they looked even larger in the dim light of the lamps. The little girl had wept not long ago.

Faramir felt a deep stab in his heart as he watched the children approach. He did not know their story, but feared it was a grievous one. If the innkeepers were looking after them, most likely they had lost their parents, and maybe even witnessed their deaths. He recalled the many dead he had seen upon entering the village, men, women and children alike. And then, with an even deeper stab, he was reminded of his own sons, far away in Rohan. Surely, they were safe and being looked after well, but they also were parted from their real parents, and he was certain that despite all the distraction Éomer and Lothíriel and little Elfwine provided, at times they would miss their mother and father. And what, he thought suddenly, what if I do not make it, if I should really die from this wound? And what if Éowyn does not return? They are going to be orphans. The thought had not really occured to him before, and now it struck him with full force.

“Captain, are you alright? Shall I tell them to leave again?” Mablung’s anxious voice interrupted his thoughts. He knew he must have paled visibly, and even now was feeling weaker than before, the shock still lingering. But he shook his head slightly. “I am alright,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. Inclining his head to the others, he went on, forcing his voice to sound strong and steady, “My apologies for my reaction, Master Konak. Seeing these two, I was reminded of my own children, and that I have been parted from them for too long, and worse, that I may not see them again in a long while.”

The innkeeper took on a sympathetic expression. “It must be very hard for you, lord, with the lady captured and you wounded and everything. We are deeply indebted to you and your men, and are willing to do all we can to help you, to recover your wife. That is why I brought these little ones here. They were found in the aftermath of the battle, wandering through the streets. Their mother has died, and from what I gathered, their father went away to look after his sheep and has not returned.”

“We found a slain shepherd upon entering the village,” said Mablung softly, upon which Konak sighed deeply and his wife drew the little girl closer to herself.

“I feared they had been orphaned during the raids,” said Konak thickly, exchanging a glance with his wife.

“Who will look after them?” asked Faramir quietly, noticing how the small boy’s coal-black, eyes were studying him intently from behind the innkeeper’s legs.

Konak shrugged. “We shall, for now. We have yet to find out if they have any relatives abroad. Their parents had only recently moved to Kadall, and have not had much contact with us. But do not fear, lord, they will be cared for. Nirike and I also have children, a little older, so we shall take them in for a while, until someone else has been found.”

“Or forever,” added his wife with a stern gaze – obviously they had had some talk about this subject before, and the matter had remained unresolved

Konak sighed. “Anyway, let me introduce you. This,” he indicated the boy and gently pushed him forward a little, “is Sarleem. And this his sister Nasilla.” Bending down to the boy, he said gently in a Haradaic dialect Faramir understood fairly well, “And this is Lord Faramir, the husband of the nice lady you told me about, who looked after you and gave you bread.”

Sarleem looked at Faramir curiously, then whispered something to the innkeeper. “You can speak to him directly, Sarleem,” said the man. “I think he understands us.” Faramir nodded.

Plucking up courage, the small boy faced up to Faramir with an expression that reminded him of Elboron, and made him smile sadly. “She has golden hair,” he piped up.

“Aye, that she has,” replied Faramir, hoping his pronounciation of the tongue was fairly correct – obviously Sarleem spoke only little or no Adûnaic. “And she looked after you?”

He nodded, still somewhat shy, but obviously growing easier upon noticing that he had everybody’s full attention. “There was a man, too. Like him.” He pointed at Mablung who over his ranger-garments wore his light-brown burnous again, to ward off the night chill. “Iorlas,” muttered the captain, looking grieved.

“He was nice, and played with me,” went on Sarleem. “The lady was nice, too. She helped Mami because she is very ill. She sleeps now.” Faramir exchanged a glance with Konak who shook his head sadly. “She must have died while your wife was still there,” he said quietly in Westron. “The children do not know yet as we did not have a quiet moment to tell them. Perhaps the lady eased her passing.”

“You are hurt?” asked Sarleem suddenly, pointing at the bandages round Faramir’s chest and shoulder which had been interesting him for some time, judging from his curious glances. Faramir nodded. “Yes.”

“Like mami,” said the boy sadly. “But the lady can make you well again.”

“I am convinced she could,” replied Faramir gravely, meaning it, “but, Sarleem, she is not here. Bad men came and took her away.”

Sarleem bit his lip and seemed to be fighting some small internal battle. He gazed up at Konak, then back at Faramir. “On horses?” he asked timidly.

“I think so. Why? Did you see them?” asked Faramir. A thought struck him. “Did you follow the lady and the man?”

Sarleem shot another glance at Konak who was smiling down at him encouragingly, then very faintly, he nodded. “The lady said we must hide, but Nasilla, she did not want to keep quiet and wept and wept, and so I took her and we went after the lady. There was fire, and horses, and shouting, and dead people. Many dead people. And then a man came with the lady in his arms, and they put her on a horse, and they rode away and blew a horn.”

Faramir exchanged a swift glance with Mablung and Dorgil. He had asked them about what had happened after he had lost consciousness; if any of them had followed Éowyn and her captors, but neither of them had actually seen her, they had said, and moreover they had been more concerned about him and his survival in that moment. So this was the first real information about by whom and whither Éowyn had been taken.

His anxiety must have shown in his voice for Sarleem eyed him cautiously when he asked, “Sarleem, did you see how many men there were? And was she put on a horse for herself, or did one of the men mount behind her?”

Sarleem thought for a moment. “Two men,” he said at length. “And two horses. One was all black. One man had bow and arrows.” He gave Mablung a startled glance when the captain uttered a fell curse, and Dorgil despite his profession as a healer looked murderous as he sent a gaze towards Faramir’s injuries.

Sarleem looked at Faramir questioningly. “Where did the men bring the lady?” he asked worriedly.

Faramir sighed. “I do not know, Sarleem. We have to go and search for her.”

The boy looked even more troubled after this answer. Gazing at Faramir’s injuries again, he asked very softly. “Did they hurt her, too? Like you and mami?”

Faramir swallowed. The weight on his chest seemed to increase tenfold. “I do not know,” he replied just as quietly. “I hope not.” For if I did not try to convince myself thus, I would go crazy for worry. Drawing a shaky breath, with great effort he said, quite calmly, “Sarleem, I thank you very much for your help. Now we have a better idea who the bad men were who took the lady, and can go and look for them, and her. Without you, we would not have known. You are a very brave boy, and you must be even braver now, and look after your sister Nasilla.”

Sarleem nodded dutifully. “She is tired,” he observed. And indeed, the little girl had fallen asleep in Nirike’s arms. Konak ruffled the boy’s hair gently. “And so must you be, young man. And the lord, too. So say farewell to him now, and then it is bed for both of you.”

Sarleem waved a hand, then reached for Konak’s again, and after the innkeepers had taken their leave of Faramir, Mablung escorted them out again. Faramir drew a breath when the curtain ceased to sway after their departure. “Their tracks must be all confused,” he said hoarsely. “And on ground this stony, and with the wind this strong there are not going to be many traces, anyway. And if the raiders split up ...”

And hand on his shoulder ceased his speach. “Easy, captain, easy. Some of our best trackers are out there, captain,” soothed Dorgil. “Sharp lads. If anybody can pick up a trail, ‘tis them.”

“But how can they know which trail to follow?” asked Faramir, a trace of despair in his voice. The confidence he had tried to uphold this past day was crumbling fast. Here he lay, barely able to move, still only a step away from the brink of death, and his wife was suffering in the hands of someone cruel enought to annihilate an entire village to get her – and to have the man she loved shot down before her very eyes. How could he not worry and despair when there seemed no chance of finding out whither she had been brought, and if she was unhurt, or even alive.

“They are not stupid, sir,” said Dorgil, looking increasingly worried as he watched his captain. “They will follow those who were riding double. Captain, you must not trouble yourself over much with these matters. Trust me, they rest in capable hands. Trust your men. If you worry too much, you will not recover.”

Faramir let out a grim laugh. “What makes you so sure I will recover at all?” he asked scathingly. “You have not told me all about the injury, have you? ‘Tis far more serious than you have me believe, is it not?”

Now Dorgil grew angry in his turn. “Do you really think I would lie to you in a matter this grave? Sir, this is most unfair! I never denied to you the fact that this injury is indeed grievous, and that you are bloody lucky to be alive still. When Mablung brought you in, I thought you had perished because your garments were drenched with your blood, and your face was white as chalk. And ask him and Brandir how we fared when we removed this cursed arrow? I know you yearn to be on your feet again, and to ride after Lady Éowyn, and I know you hate the word patience right now, but captain, if you do not take your time to heal, you will die, and I will not be able to prevent it. And also, if you do not pull yourself together and really want to live, well, then you will not. And do tell me, what help would that be to the Lady? And your children?”

“The children,” Faramir repeated softly, his anger subsiding as swiftly as it had come, leaving behind a great pain and emptiness. “What if they never see their mother again, like Sarleem and Nasilla? How should they cope, the twins that small still?” And how should I cope, without her?” he ended in a whisper.

Dorgil sighed, nodding slightly. “Oh captain,” he said sadly, “I so wish I could promise you we will find her and rescue her and everything will be alright, but I cannot. Nobody can. I can only encourage you not to give up hope. And should it come to the worst, I am convinced that you all will cope, somehow.”

Before Faramir’s inner eye, an image of his father appeared suddenly: Denethor as he had stood stone-faced and silent at his wife’s death-bed. Faramir had been only five years old at that time, yet the image had graven itself into his memory. His father had been changed forever afterwards. And Faramir remembered too well how difficult it had been having to grow up without a mother and with a grief-stricken father. To think that his own sons might have to suffer the same fate ...

He closed his eyes which had begun to sting painfully. “Captain?” asked Dorgil cautiously, then fell silent again as Faramir shook his head slightly. Right now, it felt only right that he should be that miserable. After all, had it not been his fault that Éowyn had been thus endangered and in the end captured in the first place? Guilt flared up again in him, and anger about his own carelessness. ’Tis I who doomed her to what she is suffering now. Even if she was freed and we met again, how could she ever forgive me this? How could things ever be the same between us after I forsook her thus? One way or the other, I have lost her, and no Al-Jahmîr or nameless raider is to blame. Only I am.

And another thought had lodged itself in his mind with unwelcome persistence, inspired by the image of little Nasilla. The small girl, despite being some years older, had the same dark eyes and curly raven hair like Khorazîr’s granddaughter Hanneh, her parent’s and grandfather’s greatest love and pride. During their stay at Khorazîr’s castle, the lively one-year-old had soon grown very fond of the northern visitors, and especially of Faramir, delighting to perch on his shoulders and gaze down upon the others benevolently, or to show him her favourite place near the fountain in the central courtyard, babbling all the time in her own language, as merrily as the moving waters. Both he and Éowyn had been loath to part from her, despite their longing to see their own children again. And indeed, in a way little Hanneh had been the reason for the quarrel that had overshadowed their setting out on the return journey – or rather, she had inspired that quarrel.

Dorgil had removed the blankets and pillows in Faramir’s back and blown out the lights save one, reminding his captain he really needed to sleep before leaving to prepare tea. Faramir suspected he would add some herbs which would ensure a sound nightrest, and he almost welcomed the idea, knowing that otherwise despite his exhaustion he would find little sleep that night due to his emotional turmoil.

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Éowyn slept the rest of the afternoon and through the night, thanks to another dose of the sleeping fumes. At least this way she would not be aware of the constant rocking of the ship, which had always given her problems. Though she had been on such vessels before, she had never really become accustomed to the motion of the water, and she always welcomed the chance to return to solid land. But now, now she did not have to worry.

+

By the next morning, the sea had grown rougher. The schooner now labored over the heavy waves instead of skittering along them like it had done previously. Some of the sails had been shortened to give the captain a little more control over his ship. Al-Jahmîr protested the change. “The sea is not so rough,” he said.

Rhudakhôr scowled and shook his head. “You know as well as I do that catching one of these swells wrong could founder the ship,” he snapped, “and I will not risk it just to get your prize home a minute sooner.”

Now it was Al-Jahmîr’s turn to glare. “I paid you well enough for this,” he growled, “they least you could do is—”

Rhudakhôr held up his hands. “If you want to purchase the ship and order the captain as you see fit, I am quite willing to sell it for fifteen Tallian spice jars. You’ve given me enough of your gold.”

Al-Jahmîr spat. “You sold your daughter for five.”

+

Though progress slowed, progress they did, and by early afternoon they approached a rocky coastline. High cliffs rose from the sea, red and sheer. Waves crashed against them, sending plumes of white foam and mist into the air. Normally they would have glittered in the early afternoon sun, but like the days past, the sun was hidden behind a thick bank of clouds. They followed the coastline for awhile, then turned sharply into a broad bay beneath the shadow of the towering cliffs. Here the water was noticeably calmer, though still rougher than usual. On other days, the ship would have been greeted with chattering dolphins and squawking seabirds, but today those creatures were in hiding, well aware of the storm brewing out at sea. The schooner steered for the harbor and the town that had grown up around it.

Above the town, as though carved from the red cliffs itself, stood the Ihimbra al-Soor, the Red Rock of the Sea, commonly known as Marek Al-Jahmîr’s residence. A proud castle it was, and a fortress, with many towers and high walls. Few attacking armies had breached it and none had conquered it. Legend had it in the harbor town that the rocks had turned red from the blood shed to secure the fortress. Whether the story was true was up for debate at the local taverns, but none could deny that its defenses had held since before Al-Jahmîr’s father’s father. During the great War, Corsair ships had occasionally worried the harbor area, but they had been driven off easily by the fleet hidden in the large cracks in the cliffs along the eastern side of the bay.

On the highest tower of the fortress, a banner was stretched full length in the strong breeze, a silver serpent on emerald green. Had the wind been lesser, it would have wound in the air like a real snake. Below the banner, guards patrolled the battlements as others kept watch for the master to return to the house.

The vessel had been spied the moment it entered the harbor, and by the time it had moored at one of the many quays a rich carriage decorated in green and silver and black waited at the head. Four men on horseback, their horses decorated in silver and green, themselves in dark fishmail, black cloaks, and helmets, waited alongside the carriage. For arms their carried sable spears and scimitars, and countless knives stashed elsewhere on their persons, and round shields of green and silver completed the ensemble. These were Al-Jahmîr’s personal guard. They were bold and dangerous, and deadly more often than not.

From the cabin window, Al-Jahmîr saw his entourage arrive and sighed. They had made it. Now would those who had scoffed be silent. Now would those who had doubted believe. Now would those who had called him coward be set aright. He had personally seen to the destruction of the Steward of Gondor and had taken the man’s wife as a fair prize. At 67 years, he was still as formidable as he had been at 37. Let those can see take note, he thought, turning to stride over to where Éowyn lay, still unconscious.

As Al-Jahmîr bent to lift her, she murmured something in her sleep. “Yes, we are home,” he told her, stroking back some of her hair. “And you will learn to appreciate it,” he said after a moment

Fuiner stepped up and draped a cloak over her. “It has begun to rain lightly,” he said, nodding toward the window.

“Let the storm come,” Al-Jahmîr said, still gazing down at the woman in his arms.

+

The carriage rattled up the winding road that led to Al-Jahmîr’s grand fortress. The wheels kicked up small clouds of dust despite the light rain still coming down. Then, the driver turned onto a lane of crushed white stone that led to the main gate. Palm trees lined either side of the lane, their large fronds arching over the path below. The wind whistled as it blew through the jagged fronds and made them sway.

The carriage passed through one black gate set in the red walls, which shut immediately after it had passed, and through a second not many paces beyond. The lane ended in a loop, and the carriage stopped before the great black doors. Servants scurried about outside, moving anything that was not fastened down indoors and out of the way lest the wind take them. As soon as the wheels had stopped turning, Al-Jahmîr leapt from the carriage, muttering to himself, “This should have been taken care of already.” He surveyed the scene for a moment, then turned back to the carriage, carefully taking Éowyn from its dim interior. He shifted her in his arms, then stalked inside, still noting things that should have been done sooner or were being done improperly.

The black doors opened to a great hall, spacious, with passages and corridors leading off to various locations. The floor was laid with alternating black and white square tiles, and colorful tapestries lined the walls. Al-Jahmîr continued muttering to himself as he saw a manservant wheeling several large clay vases of potted ferns that had been outside across the hall toward a corridor. “Those do not belong down there,” he muttered. “When I find Bataye she will—”

“I am here, and you do not need to imagine such things,” a smooth voice said. Al-Jahmîr turned to his right. There stood a slender, hard woman, of medium height and build. Her hair was dark and braided, her skin the color of rich sand. Her eyes were deep brown, and sharp, keen. They seemed to see everything that was going on all at once. Her face was stern, yet at one time she surely had been pretty, though now she was nearly as old as Al-Jahmîr. Her clothes were that of a high-ranking servant, fully cut, clean, with various tones of green and silver abounding. Now her arms were crossed, and a long-handled wooden spoon hung from a leather loop slipped over one wrist. “I have secured this house through fifteen shirrikans, Master,” she said coolly, “and simply because you were not here to manage every detail does not mean anything about the process has changed.”

Al-Jahmîr looked as though he were about to say something vicious, but then changed his mind. “I have brought back what I said I would,” he said, nodding to Éowyn.

Bataye stepped forward and looked down at the woman. “She is filthy,” she said at length. “And you are filthy. I should make you stand outside in the rain before you track such footprints across my clean floors.” There was a noticeable slowing of work among the servants who had errands that crossed the great hall, and even some who had no business there. The exchange between Al-Jahmîr and his housekeeper was guaranteed entertainment, and already the whispers were starting. Bataye whirled around, her skirts flaring, and slapped the wooden spoon against her other palm. Instantly, the servants scurried back to work, not daring to look at the woman lest her spoon find their skin.

“Just take me to her rooms,” Al-Jahmîr said wearily. “You have set up rooms for her?”

Bataye turned around again, satisfied that everyone was doing their jobs accordingly. “Indeed. I saw to it personally,” she said, this time in a softer tone. “Come with me.”

She led them through a series of corridors and passageways. They passed large windows that were getting creaking shutters fastened shut in preparation for the shirrikan. They crossed one small courtyard and started up a flight of stairs. On this level, the servants scurried a bit less, as most of the securing against the storm had been finished already. The natural stone in this area took on a pinkish-orange hue, depending on how the light hit it, and seemed to give the area a softer feel. Tile and marble gave way to soft, thick rugs with many tassels. Bataye pushed open a set of double doors carved with complicated patterns and led the men into a large room filled with various chairs, cushions, low tables, and other soft textiles. Fuiner looked around carefully, hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the women who lived here, but to his disappointment, none of them seemed to be around. Several doors branched out of the room, and Bataye chose the westernmost one.

This door led to another smaller sitting room, which in turn led to a sleeping chamber. The chamber was split into two levels, with a small staircase of a half dozen steps carved into the rock joining the levels. The bed was on the lower, a plain wooden frame with a thick mattress and a cream-colored canopy. Bataye pulled back the green bedspread, revealing white sheets and various blue and cream pillows. As Al-Jahmîr gently lay Éowyn on the mattress, she muttered something about “dirtying good sheets,” but at a sharp glance from him, she grew quiet.

“There,” Al-Jahmîr said, tucking a sheet around the still form, “she is here, and no one can change that.” He sat beside her, again brushing a few stray strands of hair from her face. For several moments he watched her, then said, “You have the vial, Fuiner?” The man nodded and took a slender vial from his pocket, handing it to his master. “Good. Now go find Rhudakhôr. We should at least try and be hospitable today.” Fuiner nodded and left the room.

+

Fuiner had hardly set foot in the large common room when five girls seemed to appear out of the air. They were dressed in rather revealing clothing, accentuating their arms and torso, before slipping down to split skirts that showed more than enough leg to be scandalous in decent company. Each had her hair in a different style, some braided, some loose, some twisted up with pins, but at his point they all looked to be in various stages of completion. Dark paint rimmed their eyes, and their lips were painted in shades of red, though one had chosen a shade of lilac today. None of them could have been of age yet, and they all peppered Fuiner with questions.

“Who is she?”

“Where did she come from?”

“Is she pretty?”

“Why is she here?”

“Is she replacing one of us?”

“What was she wearing?”

“Why was the master carrying her? She’s not dead, is she?”

“A lot of good that will do him.”

One of the girls stepped forward and crossed her arms. She was tall and deeply tanned. She knew how and when to seduce men, and when to be stern and forceful with them. Now was a time for firmness. “Who is she?” she asked, her voice sharp. She tapped the painted nails of one hand on her arm.

Fuiner held up his hands. A moment ago he had wanted to see the harem girls, but now he feared he would become a victim of their collective wrath. They did not enjoy having their balance of life upset in any way, and they certainly had not been forewarned about this. “I am not the one to tell you, ladies,” he said, trying not to notice how the five glares had intensified. “I… I have to go find someone,” he finished helplessly, backing away. He slipped out the door and narrowly avoided a pillow hurled at him as it clicked shut.

+

“So, this is your great prize,” Bataye said, standing next to the sleeping Éowyn.

“Yes, she is,” Al-Jahmîr said softly, uncorking the vial and pouring the thick, red liquid into Éowyn’s mouth. The liquid would help her wake fully once the effects of the fumes wore off. She would still have the massive headache and disorientation, but once those passed she would be herself once gain.

“I have heard the stories. She will fight you,” Bataye remarked, eyeing Al-Jahmîr carefully.

His eyes narrowed. “She will, at first, but when she realizes that her struggle is in vain, she will have to admit defeat.” He glanced up at the window that was now shuttered, but which normally would have looked over the bay. “She is too far from her native lands to make it back alone and alive, and we will surely repel any attempts to free her.”

“You are willing to risk much to keep her here.” It was a statement, not a question.

“I am.”

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PostPosted: Mon 23 Oct , 2006 7:21 pm 
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We did not even part well, Faramir thought miserably as he watched the shadows of night-insects flicker on the ceiling. If only I had apologised to her, or described my point more considerately, to prevent it from being contrued into a hurtful comment. Ah Éowyn, I simply wished to protect you from harm and danger. And now you are in far greater than another pregancy could ever have caused.

For this had been the true reason for their disagreement. The subject had come up before, back home in Ithilien, but they had never discussed it in great length. The twins had been very small still and demanded most of their attention, and afterwards he had been increasingly busy with his office as Steward and the affairs both of Gondor and his princedom. Several times he had been away from home when required to attend meetings of the Council in Minas Tirith or in Pelargir. Or he had been ill. Of course, there had been rather jestful remarks from Éowyn that after three boys, a little girl would be a nice change, but he had taken them for just that. Which did not mean he was opposed to the idea of another child, and a daughter at that. On the contrary. He delighted in their children, and would gladly see another join their family.

But fact was, Éowyn’s last pregnancy with the twins had been all but unproblematic: she had been confined into bedrest for a long time, and even though she had complained little, he had noted how much patience this had cost her – her especially, as someone who felt caged easily, and who needed to be out and about on her horse, or at least in the gardens, and able to move freely. He was not sure if she would endure yet another long confinement so easily. And she was not getting younger, too – another pregnancy might be even more problematic and dangerous for her and the child.

All of these thoughts had filled his mind subconsciously when, on the morning of their departure, they had woken early enough to still laze in bed for a while before having to rise, and their talk had dwelled on the impending journey, their urge to return home to their children, but also on the time they had spent with their Haradaic friends, and that, after all, it had been the right decision to face danger and hardship and attend the wedding.

The journey south had been unexpectedly smooth and, despite the usual hardship of long hours in the saddle in a hot clime, increasingly enjoyable. Both of them had missed their children painfully, more than once considering to simply turn about and ride back to Edoras to fetch them and forget about the journey to the Harad. Nevertheless, Faramir had noted how the further they had travelled from Ithilien, the easier and more relaxed Éowyn had become. Ever since the twins had been born, she had not been away from home much, and during the days on the road bit by bit the wild shieldmaiden he had fallen in love with so many years ago had come forth again, and he had marvelled at the change.

During their stay at Khorazîr’s and the wedding celebrations (which had lasted for three days, with dances and a hunt and various games and competitions on horseback and in other disciplines), their friends and even complete strangers had noted their obvious love and devotion for the other. Khorazîr’s old teacher Irkhâim had remarked jestfully they were behaving more like newly weds than the lord and his lady.

The quarrel, then, had come as something of a surprise after all this bliss. As their talk shifted from the new couple to Khorazîr’s family, it came to rest on little Hanneh, and how sad it would be to part from her. Faramir recalled mentioning something about hiding her underneath the long travel-garments they had been equipped with, and thus smuggle her back home to Ithilien to the delight of their entire family. From Éowyn’s replies and remarks, he had soon realised that obviously she had given the idea of another playmate for their boys much deeper and more earnest thought than he had anticipated, and that, plainly, she wished to have another child.

And then the problems had started. In retrospect he knew he should have been more careful with how he put things – strange that the fitting words should have failed him in a situation this important, when usually he was accounted an excellent speaker and even feared for his eloquence by certain members of the Council. But this morning, despite his deep and obvious care for her and his good intentions, he seemed to have used a language she did not want to understand. Somehow, she must have thought he considered her to frail and too old for another pregnancy, and even made her doubt he wanted another child at all – which, of course, was utter nonsense as he had tried to explain to her. He had simply been worried about her welfare. But all his concerns had come to be misunderstood, and earned him remarks that he should worry about his own state of health rather than hers. His reaction, not entirely adequate or clever, perhaps, had been to get up, to let her cool down a little and wait for an opportunity when the discussion could be continued in a less heated and unreasoning way.

As a result, they had hardly spoken throughout the entire day up to its disastrous close. The opportunity to make peace had never come – or maybe, he thought, his eyes stinging from his fixed gaze at the low ceiling with its flickering shadows, their disagreement had been resolved the moment he had been hit by that arrow. Éowyn’s horrified gaze in that instant had told him more than a long conversation would have done – it had shown him how much she truly loved him, and that no petty quarrel would ever end that. Not that he had doubted her devotion to him even during their disagreement.

If only I could have shown her my own deep care for her more clearly, he thought desperately. Did she think I rejected or shunned her when I spoke against another pregnancy? That I did not love or desire her anymore? These past days should have convinced her of the opposite. Or was there something else troubling her which I did not notice? This thought lingered, and refused to be pushed aside. What if something else had been wong? It could have been worry about the impending journey, worry justified and proven true in the end. Whatever it was, now I shall never know, he thought, and the ceiling blurred as his eyes finally filled with tears he had long held back. It was time to accept the truth: she was gone. Perhaps she was dead already, or if not, her life in the company of her captors would be so that she might wish for death soon.

His left hand felt heavy as lead and yet trembled slightly as slowly he lifted it to his face and clapped it over his eyes. A feeling of guilt and despair rose up in him of such overwhelming strength that he could not fight it down with rational, confident arguments anymore. Why did he try and deceive himself with false hope, anyway? His Éowyn, the woman he loved more he could describe, he would not meet again. If ever he might see her once more in the living world which in itself was highly improbable, she would be changed beyond recall. He had heard enough accounts from women who had been captured by outlaws or corsairs. Perhaps she would even end up befriending her captors, and choose to stay with them. And why should she not, when her own husband cannot protect her?

While these thoughts flailed him like whips, a tiny, weak voice told him not to listen to these fell voices of utter despair. They were lying to him, trying to draw on his last resources of strength to fell him completely, and ultimately kill him. But this voice of reason was too weak to compete with the others. Not even during his captivity at Al-Jahmîr’s hiding-hole on Tolfalas had he known a time so dark and desperate. On the contrary, despite moments of utter misery, his love for Éowyn and his desire to return to her and the children had strengthened him beyond what he had considered possible, and had enabled him to survive hunger and poison and injuries and inhuman pain. Right now, he did not have this will to survive anymore. The tiny voice was drowned by the roar of the others, and he did not care if it should weather this onslaught or not.

+

After escorting Konak, his wife and the children back to the inn which was still occupied by the wounded of the village, Mablung made his round past the pickets for the night. When he passed the northern entrance, he could not help halting and staring into the darkness ahead, straining his ears for the sound of hooves and the whistled signal of the rangers. Surely, the scouts would need some time to make out the trails and choose which to follow. The wind had veered to the East during the course of the day, and now it had once more changed direction and increased in intensity, moaning in the withered trees and shrubs up the hillslopes, tearing at his hair and making his wide burnous wrap itself round his legs. Dust and sand and ash were swirled into his eyes when finally he turned and went back into the village. Only in few houses there was still light, falling through the lace-like shutters in fine patterns.

On his way back to the rangers’ house his eyes inevitably fell on a low mound some way up on the hillside, just beyond the last houses and within the reach of the soft lights from their windows. In the early evening, they had buried the fallen rangers there. It had been a rather hurried funeral, and some of the men had expressed their disappointment about not waiting for the full company to be assembled as some of the scouts did not even know who had perished in the fight, having left immediately after the raiders had withdrawn. He was aware of their dilemma, but had argued that in the heat it was impossible to have the dead lie in the open any longer, and in the end the men had seen his point, and sung their dirges over their fallen comrades. Now it would be his duty as captain to inform the slain men’s families and wives or sweethearts. A grievous duty, yet it had to be done. Tonight he was too tired, but tomorrow he would have to sit down and write some letters to Gondor, to explain the situation. He only hoped Lord Faramir would be better by then, to help him with this difficult task.

Drawing a deep breath, he turned his back to the dark barrow and stalked toward their accommodation. Some of the men had recovered well after a day’s rest and were looking up expectantly when he entered. He had spoken with the company after the burial, and had told them not to pester Dorgil too much with questions concerning the Steward’s state of health, but to leave him to his work. They had so far heeded this, but had taken to squeezing out poor Brandir for information instead. Even now a small group of those only lightly wounded was gathered round the young man, talking animatedly and pointing or nodding toward the curtains.

“What is the matter, Brandir?” asked Mablung sternly when he approached. The conversation subsided.

“They are worried about the lord,” replied Brandir. “But I cannot tell you much. Dorgil told me to get my blanket and stuff and sent me out to sleep here. He looked worried. From what I could see, Lord Faramir appeared to be asleep.” He shrugged.

“Dorgil is plainly overworked,” commented an older ranger, Edrahil by name. “He needs to sleep. He has been tending the Captain and us almost without pause.”

Mablung nodded gravely. “I shall see to that,” he promised. “And you, gentlemen, lower your voices now. Not only Dorgil and the Captain need to rest, but so does everybody here. So lie down and get some sleep. Who knows for how long we shall be able to rest so. For as soon as we know more about who took the Lady, the hunt is going to be up, and I doubt there is going to be respite for any of us for a long while. So sleep while you can.”

“Well said, captain,” stated another ranger, and the small group dispersed. Mablung walked over to the curtain and cautiously peered round the edge. He found Dorgil sitting in the chair at Faramir’s bedside, a steaming cup of tea in his hands, watching the other anxiously. Faramir appeared to be asleep, his eyes closed, but Mablung could not help noticing that the lord’s face looked all but relaxed. He seemed to be wandering in a dark dream, his left hand clenched around a fold of his blanket. In the dim light there were deep shadows under his eyes, and his face appeared even more pale and drawn than before, when food and drink had returned some faint tinge of colour to his features.

Softly stepping over to Dorgil, Mablung asked worriedly, “What happened? He looks worse than before.”

The healer nodded darkly. “I am not sure what befell. I fear something about the visitors must have upset him, or else it was the worry about Lady Éowyn which brought about this change. But you are right, his condition has worsened. I fear he is beginning to fever. I have some tea here to keep that down, but I cannot get any into him as long as he is asleep, or worse, unconscious.”

Mablung drew a deep breath, studying his lord’s lean face anxiously. “Are those marks of tears on his cheeks?” he asked of a sudden.

Dorgil had just stifled a yawn and run a hand over his weary eyes. Now he shrugged. “I think so. Strange,” he then mused, “I cannot recall a single opportunity when I have ever seen the Captain weep before.”

“Aye,” agreed Mablung quietly, leaning forward to gently push away an eyelash from Faramir’s cheek. “usually he is very good at controlling his feelings. This matter, too, must be much harder for him than he displays outwardly, despite his weakened state. He loves Lady Éowyn more than his own life, so much I know, and I do not wish to imagine how the thought of her suffering at the hands of some thrice-cursed Haradan must torment him. And he blames himself for what happened, despite it not being his fault.”

“I know,” said Dorgil thickly. “But if he does not stop these destructive contemplations, we will lose him.” He raised his weary, blood-shot eyes to his captain. “Mablung, there is not much I can do for him if he loses his will to live. I am afraid to fall asleep, out of fear of what I might find when I wake up.”

“I know,” nodded Mablung, his expression full of pity as he gazed down at the weary healer. “But sleep you must nonetheless, Dorgil. There are others who need you, too. Like you said, ‘tis up to him now. And I refuse to believe he is going to surrender. He will live.”

Dorgil nodded faintly, absently taking a sip from the teacup before realising that the drink was not meant for him. “Get some sleep, Mablung,” he then told the other quietly. “I shall keep watch at his side as long as I can keep my eyes open. I shall rouse you then. When the fever sets in in all earnest, there are some things we can do to try and keep it down.”

+

It seemed to Mablung he had only closed his eyes for a short moment when he felt a hand jerk him gently but persistently. “What’s it?” he murmured groggily when he surfaced from under his burnous which he had used as a blanket.

“I need your help,” came Dorgil’s soft but strangely sharp voice. “Wake two more men and fetch me water from the river. As cool as possible. And swiftly.”

+

Upon stepping outside the house accompanied by two rangers, Mablung noted that it was morning already. The light was still dim, but behind the bank of dark clouds in the East the sun had already risen. The wind had increased, too, hissing through the narrow alleys and forcing the three men to cover their mouths and noses with folds of their garments as they set out towards the river, each carrying a large earthenware ewer.

When they returned with the water Dorgil awaited them in front of the curtains, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up and his face grey and unshaven, only his cheeks were flushed and blotted with red marks. Over his arm he carried some strips of cloth – bandages. “He is burning with fever,” he told Mablung in a low voice, beckoning to the captain to accompany him. “We need to cool him. I need your help. Brandir is with me already. You others,” he addressed the men assembled in the common room, most of whom had been roused by the commotion, “those who are fit see if you can help the villagers. I do not need you to laze about. I know you worry about the lord, but right now you cannot do anything for him, so try and help the people as this is something he would have you do as well. And someone get that wise-woman of the village.”

Stepping behind the curtains, Mablung saw that Dorgil and Brandir had rolled back the blankets and stripped Faramir of his trowsers as well. He was indeed drenched in sweat, strands of his dark hair clinging to his forehead which Brandir was wiping with a wet cloth. There was a sharp, fresh smell of herbs in the air – apparently Dorgil had used some of those the wise-woman had given him and added them to the water Brandir had soaked his cloth in. Mablung only recognised mint but not the rest of the herbs, and wondered if they were helping at all. Unlike a day ago when he had lain utterly still during their tending of his wounds, now Faramir was moving as if plagued by a dark dream – which most likely he was indeed. Mablung saw him move his lips, but he could not understand any words. He was stricken how small and vulnerable his captain looked now. It was hard to believe upon seeing him so that even among the rangers, most of whom measured well over six feet he was accounted tall, and that there were few who could handle his longbow with the same efficiency as the Steward due to its enormous draw weight. ’Tis going to be a long time ere he will shoot that bow again, thought Mablung sadly, gazing at the bandages covering Faramir's chest and shoulder. Then his eyes flashed dangerously. But when he does, I hope the arrow will hit that bloody Al-Jahmîr or whoever took the lady where it hurts most!

“We need to soak these bandages in the water and wind them round his calves,” said Dorgil sharply, pushing some strips of cloth into Mablung’s hands and startling him out of his vengeful contemplations. “Come on, pull yourself together. There is work to be done.”

Taking a deep breath, Mablung bent over the ewer and saw to his task.

_________________
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