05 February 2006 | 52192 words
Author: Bubbles (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Pairing: Faramir / Aragorn
Warnings: AU; discipline
Disclaimer: The following fan fiction utilizes characters, locations, and plot elements that remain the sole property of the Tolkien estate and other vested parties. The author of this work has received, and will receive, no monetary or material compensation.
~You spoke a name earlier, as though it had meaning. Tell me why~
~I owe you naught!~
~Need I remind you of who I —~
~Nay. I know all too well~
~The truth, then~
~You are foul and you will wish this gone~
~He is... ~
Aragorn woke, his heart beating a strange staccato rhythm against his ribs. Groggy for a moment, he sucked in a breath and shook his head. He rose, swayed, and padded to the window, pointedly ignoring Arwen’s side of the bed. She visited her Lórien kin; he begrudged her not the time but found the sheets barren without her.
The sun was about to lumber up over the horizon, its first glance heatless and full of promise. It held false promise, though, for winter still owned Gondor and occasionally liked to shake it the way a child shakes a beloved toy. The winds would come; the snows would come. The sun could do little but smile toothlessly.
Below his towering citadel, Minas Tirith was stirring. The streets did not buzz with merchants and messengers; no horses’ hooves clattered over stone. But light shone warmly through frosted shop windows and down the way, in front of the stables, the boys prepared buckets of steaming mash for their charges. Smoke rose from the smithy, where old Deninghil was doubtless already hours into a long day. Aragorn ran his eyes down the lanes. There were no children about, yet.
Turning from the window, he drew another deep breath, drawing King Elessar back into his lungs and his heart. Night was a strange and unfettered time: he could cocoon himself in the king’s bed yet be a ranger once more. His dreams could run across the plains and drag him into battle against orcs, uruk-hai, dragons with shining green armour and fiery breath. His dreams could climb into the lonely hills and let him breathe of solitude.
And then the morning would come, as it did. Naught could stop it. He would rise, pad naked to the rimy glass, gaze out over that which they claimed was his, and he would at once feel love and loathing. He loved the people of Gondor — his people, part of the great future of Middle Earth. They stared at him through eyes mortal like his own. They knew he thought strange elven thoughts and dreamed strange elven dreams, but they still looked to him with hope. They were the truer promise, though, despite what all the voices said. They hurried to work, to mate, to be born and to grow. Even to die. Their lives were immediate, immanent, infused with purpose. When he watched them his breast swelled at the sight. Aye, love them he did. But he loathed the endless diplomatic dances and the curried favours that accompanied his station, and how in the streets even the oldest men bowed their skeletal frames to hard labour. The midwifery of it all, the pulling of rocks from the cradling earth, the straining and pushing and pain, belonged to every citizen of the White City. Rebuilding was a monumental task; none who could work was spared. Often the king had stopped, though, upon seeing some aged wisp of a soul struggling to lever heavy stone, and had stepped up to assist.
They were always so reluctant to let him toil.
He sighed and drifted out into the sitting room, his feet soundless against luxuriant rugs. In the adjacent bathing chamber the stone hearth had been lit, and over dancing flames a pot of water boiled. Aragorn emptied it carefully into the cooler water of the tub, then lowered himself in. His day stretched ahead, heavy with meetings. His mind was firmly in the past.
Elessar blinked and met Faramir’s gaze. The young steward — brother to dead Boromir, son of... Denethor — regarded him curiously. He’d drifted off again, lost focus, and now a pair of sensitive blue-grey eyes was watching his every move. “Aye, Captain,” he returned carefully. “What is it?”
“I was to discuss the guard reports with you?”
“Indeed. Continue.” He watched as Faramir nodded and looked to said reports. The young man’s long fingers held the papers loosely; Elessar found himself staring at those hands. They seemed so soft, yet they belonged to a warrior of great courage and skill and nobility. The fellowship had known naught of him, early on, but for Boromir’s occasional mentions. The love in their friend’s voice had spoken to them, though. It had convinced them: when Faramir had finally come to fight by their side, Boromir’s pride had hacked down all the obstacles to their trust. And now there were surely few who did not feel that same sense of pride, who did not know the Steward of Gondor to be a most honourable and valuable soul.
“ ... thus, it would seem that a transfer is in order for the good of the unit. Would you agree, Sire?”
Faramir was watching him again, waiting. “Aye,” Elessar replied. “Whatever you think is best. Thank you.” He watched as Faramir nodded again and bowed. Light curls fell in front of those sharp eyes — those ranger eyes. Faramir swept the locks absently aside and turned to leave.
Alone, Aragorn edged back in. He stared at the door through which young Faramir had gone, and he listened to the lonely sparrows outside his study window. The citadel was suffocating this day. He rose and moved around the desk. One of his guards would be receiving notice of a transfer — he had no idea who or why, or to where.
The air outside welcomed him, and he moved into the gardens. The streets were filled with people who knew his face and wished to clamour. The main paths around the citadel were walked by servants and guards who knew his face and wished to serve. The gardens were quiet and asked naught. He settled on a stone bench and breathed of the greenery, of the snow’s clear bite and of cold itself, such cold that it could turn grass into crystalline spears and shiver in frosted leaves. He ran his eyes over trees that sparkled, over ground that seemed laid with innumerable jewels, up toward a high gasp of blue sky. He listened to the silence of the stream, frozen in its bed, and recalled how the water had trickled over smooth pebbles. Legolas had once told him that the sound was a form of laughter, and that if one listened to it closely enough one could hear the voices of Middle Earth. But Middle Earth had fallen into what seemed an eternal quiet. ‘twas as though every wild thing, every green thing held its breath, closed its eyes against the bitter wind, huddled like green shoots in hard soil and waited. All of Middle Earth waited for the coming of life, for the sun’s kindness and the rain that would stir dull roots, for the vanquishing of ice. Aragorn sat muted, and felt the deadness of it all.
Legolas was gone back to South Ithilien. Back to Lord Legolas, ruler, rebuilder. Back to elven court and council, back to trade agreements and alliances and the delicate languages of peace. Aye, the ranger mused, his friend was about as content as he within diplomacy’s gilded halls. A sudden ache overtook him and he slid down to kneel by the bench, breathless. They were gone; they were all gone. The elf back to deep soft forests still tinged with Sauron’s black. The dwarf back to glittering caves. Gandalf off to the high lonely plains, somewhere. Merry and Pippin to visit Frodo and Sam in distant Hobbiton. His mate, not due back for several weeks. He was alone, all alone, and now this.
Legolas and Gimli were a mere day’s ride away. Both would come at speed if he called. He needed not suffer to be alone. But... Nay. Nay he was not quite alone. Faramir—
Staggering to his feet, one palm cold against the bench, Aragorn squeezed his eyes shut and recalled the trip his fellows had encouraged him to take. Ensconced in the deep comfortable chairs of his den, warmed by a crackling fire and contemplating their drinks, they had told him to go...
“Estel! You have worked yourself into exhaustion with the rebuilding and preparations for the Winter Festival. I understood your diligence, but the Festival is all done now. Your men can handle things for a couple of weeks while you rest!”
Aragorn smiled at the elf. “I do trust my people implicitly, Mellon-nin,” he conceded. “But my duties here remain.”
“So?” Gimli took a swig of ale and placed the heavy tankard on a nearby table. “Your meetings can as easily be attended by an elf with leadership experience as they can by you!”
“An elf, you say!” Legolas laughed. “What about a dwarf with leadership experience? I do not fail to notice how you volunteer me first, Elvellon.”
“I was just being helpful.”
“Indeed.” Legolas sobered and turned to Aragorn once more. “Gimli is right, Estel. I can easily attend your meetings. The trade negotiations have been completed, so what remains requires simple day-to-day diplomacy. And you will agree that I — if not Gimli — do possess that?”
Aragorn nigh dissolved back into laughter at the glare with which Gimli speared Legolas, but found himself nodding instead. “I am weary to the bone,” he sighed, “and I trust the both of you with everything that is of value to me. With any task or trouble. If this is not too great a burden... ”
“Nonsense!” Gimli interrupted. “Although we each face great trials in our realms, your White City’s rebuilding has been naught short of monumental! I have reserves, as does our pointy-eared friend. Aglarond can do with one less dwarf for a spell.”
“As can South Ithilien. Do with one less dwarf, that is.” Legolas smirked at Gimli, then turned to wink at Aragorn. Will you heed our advice?”
“Aye,” Aragorn smiled, feeling like he’d finally arrived home and shrugged off a burdensome cloak. “I shall take myself out to the lonely reaches of Gondor, spend my days hunting and riding, my nights gazing at the stars and breathing of fresh air. I wish that you both could be there with me, though.”
“We will be,” Legolas asserted quietly. “Of course we will, as you will be here with us.”
Elessar opened his eyes, the garden coalescing around him. Minas Tirith, the familiar stone walls to which he had returned. And the one therein, the person he had never known...
Sighing, he turned back toward the citadel. His office waited, smug in the knowledge that he would always return to it if it sat and expected him long enough. There were reports to read and meetings to attend, things to fill his day that he not think.
Faramir would be there.
Captain Faramir strode to the main guard post on the lowest level. The great gates of the White City towered above him, testament to months of struggle. Those gates had been sundered, lying in twisted impotence on the hard ground. One had, it seemed, been literally flung so that it lay some fifty paces outside the city wall. And the housings had themselves been so badly damaged as to be irreparable. Minas Tirith had stood with a gaping hole in her, a ragged wound of war. But dozens of engineers and builders — men and dwarves and often a single elf as well — had set their minds and bodies to the task, and victory had been gained. Now the gates hung with dignity, their arrogance restored along with their shape. They sighted, sorted, accepted or rejected according to their city’s codes. Aye, they were slaves, but they were slaves with a definite purpose, and in that purpose they found their power. Faramir eyed them.
“My lord,” the master guard greeted.
Faramir nodded. “Well met, Master Lendimir. I have viewed your report on the sighting.”
“Aye, Captain. ‘twas most interesting to see a single uruk-hai, and so close to the city as well. Many of the younger lads had no idea what it was, at first.”
“Did you spy evidence that indicated it might not have been alone?” Faramir let his eyes wander toward the gates as he spoke. He knew that that beyond them Gondor stretched away, flat and snow-wombed, until it met with the nearby Anduin, and from there cloaked itself with trees. Perfect haven for any manner of fell beast.
“Nay, my lord, I saw none,” the guard replied. But I shall shortly ride out there and see if the creature’s tracks tell a different tale.”
Faramir nodded. “And I shall ride with you and your men.” As the guard began to form what he assumed was a protest, he raised his hand. “Master Guard, I insist.” He turned on one heel and headed for the palace stables. “We depart in a quarter hour!” he called over his shoulder. “And we shall see what the tracks tell us!”
And the uruk-hai had indeed been alone, at least when ‘twas spied by the city guard. With the Anduin a muted roar behind him, Faramir crouched to peer at seemingly aimless spoor. The beast had been digging, perhaps seeking food. Voles and other small animals were common in the region, although they would be deep in their warm nests for a time yet. “It must be fairly bad off,” he mused.
Faramir glanced up at Lendimir’s voice. “The uruk-hai. They do not normally dig for food — such is more the habit of orcs, and desperate ones at that. Uruks typically hunt, skilfully. If this one is reduced to digging like a wild boar digs for tubers, it must be without weapon to do otherwise.”
“Shall we track it, Captain, or leave it and return to the city?”
“I am curious,” Faramir replied, noting what might have been disapproval in the guards’ eyes. Accustomed, he mounted his steed and turned to the others. “We shall ride but a short distance into the wood, far enough only to assure ourselves that it is not lingering nearby. If it is near and if it has company, we shall soon find evidence of such. The king will need sufficient information before deciding whether or not to dispatch a troop.”
“Aye, Captain,” Lendimir replied, then urged his mount forward to take the lead. He did not have to look back to know that his men would position themselves on either side of the young steward.
The trees closed mutely about them, and they rode in sombre pairs. The path narrowed quickly, sugared with snow and still showing the uruk-hai’s sign plain upon it, and they rode single-file. The snow disappeared and twilight advanced, mocking the day that they knew still shone brightly outside — even mere paces into a forest the light could go and the shadows could seem bottomless. The air was chill, but tinged faintly with musk.
When the gates of hell opened, the riders had just fanned out upon entering a small clearing. Faramir’s steed, ever trustworthy, had been ill-at-ease since reaching the wood; now the animal snorted and laid its ears back, pawing at black soil. Its brethren reacted in similar fashion; Faramir and the guards hesitated but an instant before turning to retreat, and what had been nigh preternatural silence shattered into noise. A dozen uruk-hai charged from the nearby brush. Orcs followed, black and snarling.
The horses were of warrior stock, well versed in combat, and stood their ground as men battled beasts. The clearing became a whirling, flashing, blood-spattered arena, swords clanging one against another. The beasts fell; the men fell from their horses and lay still or moaned dreadfully and tried to drag themselves out from under tramping hooves; the shouts and snarls rang forth as both sides took their toll—
Faramir felled another orc and the uruk that came lunging behind it. He swung ‘round and his faithful mount followed, but even as he felled yet another beast he felt a blow to his upper back and was thrown forward. Above him, suddenly, was Callee, grey hide and hair and hooves that struck the ground to either side of his body. The horse kicked, downed a club-wielding uruk, then stood splay-legged over his fallen master. Faramir resisted the pull of darkness long enough to breathe his thanks, and faintly heard a whickered reply.
“Well, I believe ‘tis most important to set such regulation!”
“Bah! ‘tis but a chain.”
“A chain? Sauron was a chain! This is merely a law!”
“Councillors,” Elessar soothed, his voice belying none of the pounding in his head. “I believe that we can calmly discuss this proposed ‘law’ and come to an equitable decision.” He eyed the two combatants, who risked one final scowl at each other before yielding the floor. “Now,” he continued, “shall we weigh the benefits and drawbacks of such a measure?” Silencing the rest of the council with a look, he motioned to Garamar, initiator of the controversy, to speak.
“Well, Sire,” Garamar began, “this law would ensure that horses do not startle in the streets, by preventing... ”
The king strained to focus on the councillor’s words, but they were slippery and kept sliding away. Around him the chamber faded until he was no longer in Minas Tirith but in a small town, a small dusty stretch of leaning houses and shops and a single inn with its requisite tavern. He glanced up the street...
“Can I take your horse, m’lord?”
Aragorn smiled down at a young boy, perhaps twelve years of age. “Indeed you may, with my thanks.” He dismounted, feeling a muscle pull in his lower back, and unburdened Hasufel of his pack before handing the reins to the lad, who offered a quick grin and a jerky bow and then turned toward the stables.
Stretching, he turned in the other direction, toward the inn. His evenings had been spent as planned, under the stars, with only the whispers of night creatures to keep him company, but this night he longed for a cold ale and a softer bed. Three weeks had passed as though only a few hours. With the sunrise he would head for home and relieve his beloved friends of their toil. He smiled at the setting sun and stepped into the tavern’s dimness.
“An ale?” the innkeeper greeted. Small eyes peered out from between folds of quivering flesh, measuring him.
“Aye, and a room.” Aragorn let his gaze wander over tables laden with drink, surrounded by locals. Smoke drifted lazily; every corner held a deep shadow and within each shadow there could be seen the occasional movement, a hand reaching out for a tankard, the glow of a freshly lit pipe.
“Right ye are. I’ll ‘ave the wife show ye there.”
Aragorn nodded his thanks and tossed a coin onto the bar. Faster than most eyes could likely follow, a meaty paw rose to catch it as it bounced, and it disappeared into the innkeeper’s pocket.
The ale was cool and welcome and he took his time with it, leaning on the bar’s worn edge. Another? Nay, he would seek his rest and be off early. He rose and turned.
Aragorn startled. Before him stood a tiny, bent man, not much more than a collection of bones with papery skin hung over them. Rheumy eyes that had likely once been ice-blue narrowed as they looked him over. A beak-like nose wrinkled at him, revealing tufts of steel-grey hair that peeked from each nostril; thin lips curled into a damp scowl. Aragorn held his tongue, feeling strangely opened up, his private thoughts and words all spilled out onto the tables to be sifted, sorted, judged.
“I see ye have naught to say, after all this time,” the relic hissed.
“My apologies,” Aragorn replied, recovering himself. “I did not run into you... ”
“Nay, but ye wouldn’t have cared if ye did, would ye? That’s yer way — run roughshod over folks and then forget all about them.”
Aragorn’s temper rose, forcing his unease out of its way. “I beg your pardon, Sir,” he said quietly, “but I am certain I have no idea of what you speak. And your slander offends me.” He made to leave the tavern, to find the fat innkeeper’s wife and be shown to his room.
“Don’t ye now?” the man pressed. “I thought ye were too young to be losing yer facilities, Thorongil.”
“What did you say?” His steps halted, Aragorn wheeled to study his accuser. Something did seem... aye — something was definitely familiar. He peered at the wizened face, catching a gleam of what could have been triumph in its vitreous stare. Aye... “Ferenhil,” he breathed. “Old Ferenhil, servant of Denethor. I remember you.”
“So ye do,” Ferenhil sneered. “Ye also remember the Lady of the house, and her two sons, I am sure.”
“Aye,” Aragorn replied. “Boromir and—”
“Faramir. That’s his name.”
Aragorn blinked. “I know full well his name, and his brother’s. I travelled many miles with Boromir, and Faramir is now my steward.”
Ferenhil uttered a short, sharp bark of a laugh. “Yer steward! Ha! Vile creature, ye are.” Without another word, he spun and hobbled from the tavern.
For several moments, Aragorn stared at the door through which the old servant had gone. Ferenhil. Indeed, the young Ferenhil had gazed at the world through crystal-blue eyes, had raised an indignant brow at every perceived impropriety, had guarded Denethor’s house well. Or reasonably so. The laugh and the last words still ringing in his ears, the faint unease finding its balance once more, he turned again toward the stairs...
“Sire, my apologies!” A young page, flushed and panting, hurried into the chamber. “I was told to alert you without delay.”
The king stiffened as his council materialized around him. “What is it?” he asked, turning to the page.
“A troop of the guards was attacked while patrolling in the nearby wood, my lord.”
“By uruk-hai and orcs. The guards and Captain Faramir were out—”
Aragorn was on his feet then, feeling a band tighten around his chest. “Gentlemen,” he breathed, “this meeting is at an end.” He moved past the startled youngster and was out the door before another word could reach his ears.
“I do swear it, my lord: you’re a determined one!”
Aragorn heard the words of Illewyn, the aged nurse, as he approached the House of Healing. Something told him those words were directed toward—
“I assure you, Dear Lady, that I am well. And my duties yet wait.”
Indeed. Aragorn rounded the corner, strode into the sharp-aired chamber with its attentive stone walls and the beds, now filled, which lined them. His eyes raced — skipped — over the still forms of soldiers, bereft of their weapons and their pride, and came to rest on his steward. His Faramir. The young man was upright, at least, and ‘twas a good sign. But not that good. “I suggest you listen to your nurse, Captain,” he advised, noting how Faramir startled slightly at his voice.
“Sire,” Faramir replied, straightening. “I — I did not hear you enter.”
“Apparently. You’ve been injured, the Valar knows how, and yet here you are, quite dishevelled and muddy and seemingly intent on disobeying sound advice from the healers.”
Faramir shifted in place. “My apologies, Sire. I was simply eager to see to the horses, among other things. I am concerned for Callee’s condition: whilst shielding me from the enemy he was apparently struck a glancing blow by an uruk-hai club. And there were other injuries sustained, although none fatal. Thankfully,” he added, eyeing the row of beds, “we’ve lost not a single brave soul this day. I have been assured by the healer that they will all recover fully.”
“Thank the gods for that,” Aragorn murmured. “My Lady,” he said, turning to the nurse. “Is it your considered opinion that Captain Faramir should take to his bed for rest?”
“Aye, Sire,” Illewyn nodded, a smile dimpling her round face. Her opinion was asked oft enough and she knew it, flashing Faramir a silent ‘told ye’ before turning back to Aragorn. “He took a blow to the head, and is not quite steady on his legs as yet. He should be down for this day and this night, at least. Sleep’ll only do him good in spite o’ what he says.”
“Then it has been decided. Faramir?”
Faramir fired a glare at the nurse. “Sire, there were at least two dozen orcs, and half as many uruk-hai. I need to—”
“You need to trust in the stable hands and the city guard, and listen to your nurse,” Aragorn soothed. “If she believes that you require rest... ”
“But Sire — we did not kill all of—”
“Captain! Are you arguing with me?”
Faramir’s eyes widened a touch; a touch of colour crept across his fair cheekbones. “Nay, Sire,” he murmured. “I shall comply, of course.”
“Good.” Aragorn watched as the old woman guided her charge to the nearest bed, pulling the blankets over the way a mother will tuck in a small child. The steward frowned briefly and stared at the ceiling, and Aragorn felt the urge to go tuck those blankets just a bit more securely. There was a draft.
He could feel it.
The sky through the leaded window had sunk from light blue into dark, then down finally to black. Stars had pricked themselves awake; the trees and distant hills had become smooth and subtle, their truths hidden.
He had lain awake until that damnable tyrant-ess of a nurse had come and clucked at him. Go to sleep. Cluck cluck. You need your rest. Cluck, cluck cluck. She had bustled about, bubbling with her own importance, for within the House of Healing she was Nurse. Cluck cluck. Powerless to do more than humour her, he had closed his eyes and feigned a sleep he had not believed would come. A moment later, when he had opened his eyes to see if she’d left, he’d found the sky lightening, the sun rising triumphantly.
Now he peered about the chamber. She was nowhere to be seen, thank the gods. Even a daemonic healing assistant, it appeared, did require some rest. Faramir smirked. The old crone was probably tucked in her narrow bed dreaming of the agonies she could inflict on unfortunate invalids — well, she would not get the chance to mistreat him another day!
Rising carefully, he padded to the door and peeked out. The corridor was empty both ways. It beckoned him.
He returned to his bed and retrieved the clothing that lay neatly folded on the low shelf beside. The scent of soap clung to it; he breathed deeply as he shoved his arms into the shirtsleeves and shrugged into his tunic. ‘twas still a bit surprising to him that he could peel off dirty clothes and have them reappear later, laundered. It had not always been that way. Truthfully, he had taken some time getting used to the idea of not carrying his own clothes down to the washing rooms. But King Elessar’s servants seemed uncomfortable with that sort of behaviour, so he had forced himself to adjust. He took another deep breath, feeling strong. The day peered in at him, sun-filled, glorious. Aye, he would quit this place and be on with his duties.
At the threshold, Faramir paused and let his eyes wander over the sleeping soldiers. Colour had risen in their cheeks and they breathed easily. The king’s men were of superior stock — aye. More intensely mortal, lacking the Dunedain heritage that would extend his life, his king’s life, that had failed in its duty to extend his brother’s life, they somehow seemed to heal quickly out of an urgent sense of their own limited time. But they, like most men he knew, also seemed at ease within themselves. They did not drift as rangers so often drifted. They did not wait to live.
Down the corridor the captain slipped, nigh giddy with a sense of promise. There were days when life rose steeply, and the only thing to do was ride with it.
“I understand that, Sir. There was no way for it to be avoided.”
The head of the guard relaxed and nodded. “’twas a difficult situation, Sire.”
“Indeed. The patients are doing well.”
“Aye, I did check in on them last night, and will be again shortly.”
“I dropped by early this morn. The sun was not yet risen, so I satisfied myself with a brief look and disturbed none of them.” Elessar allowed himself a faint smile at memory of the aged nurse trundling Captain Faramir into bed as one would a toddler. He turned back to the guard. “When will you be riding out to track down the rest of the beasts?”
“In about an hour, my lord. The men are making ready their steeds as we speak. I shall be taking two dozen, and heavily armed.”
“I am more tempted than I can say.”
“Aye, Sire.” The guard offered a smile of his own. “But I would say that—”
“—that the king should not be chasing orcs.”
“I was not going to say it so bluntly, Sire.”
“Ah, but you were thinking it, Lendimir!” Turning on his heel, Aragorn chuckled at the commander’s embarrassment. “And don’t deny it,” he called, striding back toward the citadel.
Inside, his mirth fell away so quickly that he could not recall what had been funny to begin with. Aragorn intruded on Elessar once more. The ranger was stronger than the king, or at least more determined. Before him there yawned a great darkness. It was nebulous and everywhere, like a black cloud. Of what? Or of naught, for it seemed at once there and not there, filled with meaning and devoid of all. He felt a rising nausea and turned in place. Anywhere to look — away, away.
Turning again, he focussed on the solid stone wall and drifted away from his office. His mind was not on his work this day. His legs carried him he knew not where.
But of course, whatever path he might choose, he would go to the House of Healing first. Before he went anywhere else, before he allowed himself time to think, to brood, he would go look in one more time and make sure.
Even half a day away from his office had cost him. Faramir sighed at the stack of papers on his desk. As the king’s steward he dealt with details, often the most tedious of details that Elessar simply had no time to handle. He answered correspondence and scanned requests. He arranged guard leaves and transfers and accommodations for visiting dignitaries. He oversaw schedules and functions and the minutiae in which Minas Tirith humbly cloaked herself. Aye, he was a gatherer of small things, a weaver of threads into the rich tapestry of daily life.
And truly this was important work. Every little detail lent itself to the whole, giving more chance and more credence to the rebuilding. Every time a plea was granted there was another person — another family — in Minas Tirith that saw the smooth functioning of Gondor’s leadership. Even the denials, many and hard, were evidence of a new day, for people had lived too long with no clear leadership at all. And they wanted it, to be sure. Where years had passed under archaic feudal law, now citizens wanted a voice. Where years had passed under the shadows of Sauron, now they wanted light. Aragorn — King Elessar Telcontar — was that light. ‘Estel,’ the elves breathed, and meant ‘hope.’ One man’s legacy was simply that — hope for a future brighter than any they could recall envisioning. The king of Gondor would lead them into the future, like a father leads his children. He, Faramir, would do all in his power to help.
The chamber was musty, lacking the soap-sharp scent of the healing rooms. Pushing the window open, Faramir allowed himself a moment to breathe of freshness. The distant grassy plains were there in that wind. The hills that hunched like sleeping beasts under the sky. The sky itself, blue that could be tasted on the air. He withdrew, settled at his desk, lit the lamp.
He lay awake in the narrow bed, the sun rising heatless outside a grimy window. How long had he stared at the dark wood beams overhead? How long had those words echoed in him?
~Vile creature, ye are~
It pricked at him, the sense of... something. Like a wraith that whispered from beyond the bounds of his memory, it at once intrigued him and made him want to shy away. There was a thing he had missed, some piece of information that he could not see, and now ‘twas at his heels and plaguing him. What was it? With a sigh, he rose and dressed.
Downstairs, he passed the innkeeper. Nay, no time to break fast. He would needs be off. But first... first—
Did he know of the old being? Ferenhil, the name was. Aged, stooped, had been in a day prior. Made a scene, waved a bony arm about before rattling off.
He did? Where? Aye, with thanks. Aragorn passed the stolid man another coin, and in return a meaty arm pointed up the street. The lodging house at the very end. He went.
‘twas a rather sad and small wood building when viewed against memories of the house of Denethor. The castle of Denethor had been stone and parapets, balconies that overlooked gardens where ivy clashed with pink larkspur. Its moss had crept silently over willing ground, soft, pleading, green. And the walls had watched everything but never spilled a secret.
Aragorn blinked, forcing himself back to the town, the building. He paused in the meagre tavern and asked the barmaid for her say. Ferenhil was just up the stairs, aye. He ascended slowly — did he want to know what the old relic had meant? Did he want whatever answer Ferenhil had?
Aye, he wanted. A lifetime he had spent chasing justice, chasing truth. Isildur’s blood slithered through his veins, but Elrond’s teachings fired his heart and his mind. He stepped to the door, rapped on the heavy dark wood. He wanted more than aught; there was never solace to be found in not knowing. A man was not a man if he hid from his own shadows. The door opened into shadow.
“Why do ye come ‘ere?” the old man hissed. “As if I hadn’t seen enough o’ ye to last me.”
“I want to know of what you spoke yesterday, Good Sir,” Aragorn answered. He gathered the reins of his temper and held them close. “I want to know what all of that was about.”
Ferenhil sneered. “Do ye? I wonder that ye show interest now, so long after!”
“Interest in what, I ask?”
“Begone!” The wizened figure retreated and began to close the door.
“Nay!” Aragorn spat, bracing a hand against the wood. “Not until you tell me what I want to know.”
“Ha, so it’s always what YOU want, isn’t ‘t? Always what the mighty Thorongil wants, and damned be all others!”
“Let us not forget that you approached me,” Aragorn seethed, his jaw clenched so tightly it was beginning to ache. “Your obvious hatred made me suspicious from the start; your words now only confirm that you know something I should know. Give me the truth, old man.”
Ferenhil eyed him, still sneering. “I’d not think ye’d want the truth if ye knew what it were.”
Aragorn blinked and shivered as the citadel returned to him, as he returned to it. He was standing in the House of Healing, in a long stone corridor, on his way to the healing rooms. Aye, he had just come from speaking to Lendimir, just come from laughing at his discomfited head guard. Rubbing a hand over his face, feeling the echo of an ache in his jaw, he pushed away from the wall and continued. Damn — he was going back there so often. His mind never saw fit to warn him. It just closed up like a lid on a box, shut out everything in the present and took him back to that damnable little town with the damnable little lodging house. And all those damnable secrets. Why in the name of Arda had he ever—
He reached the doorway and looked in, his gaze immediately landing on Faramir’s bed. ‘twas empty. Empty? Where was Faramir? Where was the young man if not at rest as ordered? Aragorn scanned the chamber — nay, naught. The injured soldiers slept or lay quietly staring at the ceiling. A young nurse drifted from one bed to the next. She did not seem to notice — she did not seem to care about — the cot that sat abandoned, its rumpled sheets testament to the one who had lain there.
The requests just would not stop, Faramir decided. Should an army of giant spiders invade Minas Tirith and eat most of the citizenry, those left would still put quill to parchment and scratch out their wants. ‘I know, Sire, that your council was devoured by an arachnid yesterday morn, but could you address this ever so vital legal matter between my neighbour and me?’ And so on, and so on, and so on.
He sighed, rubbing his temple. An ache had set in. He had been to his work for only a few hours — ai. What a shame ‘twould be were he forced to admit that the abominable nurse, the stuff of children’s nightmares, was right about him needing rest. He imagined her glee, the grim happiness she hid whenever an escaped patient collapsed back into her care.
Rising, he moved to the window once more. The day shone brightly outside and called to him. Oh, to wander down curving paths in the verdant gardens, silent now with winter but still so much more alive than stone walls. Silver and green mingled out there, waiting for the sun’s gaze to become strong enough, and then all would burst forth, rush forth as though in a frenzy of motion — the shoots would push upward from their beds, the leaves uncurl to clothe naked trees. The birds, now subdued, would sing out the glory of it all. Minas Tirith, the White City, rebuilt! Her gardens replanted and grown lush again. Her weary and worn people finally at rest, at peace under their king.
The door creaked and he startled. “Sire!” he gasped, having turned quickly enough to induce a wave of vertigo. He clutched at the desk.
“Captain,” King Elessar greeted, stepping into the room. “I went to the House of Healing to check on your condition, and you were not there. ‘twas a mystery to me, as I clearly recall the esteemed nurse telling me that you needed at the very least a night’s rest.” The monarch’s gaze seemed to measure him.
“My lord,” he replied, “I did get a night’s rest. And this morning I felt so vastly improved that I rose. There were duties awaiting me.”
“The nurse let you out?”
“She was not present, my lord.”
“You did not wait for her, or seek her out to obtain permission?”
“Ah, well, my lord... nay.”
Faramir resisted the urge to squirm under the king’s gaze. King Elessar truly had a gift in that countenance. The man could likely bore a hole through solid rock, given a little time. He forced himself to meet those grey eyes, steepling the fingers of his right hand on the desk and leaning on them. Just a bit.
“You are dizzy, Captain.” It did not appear to be a question.
“Aye,” Faramir conceded. “I find myself flagging somewhat more quickly than I had anticipated.”
“Then perhaps the good nurse was correct in her assessment?”
“Perhaps.” The word stung.
The king moved to Faramir’s side. “Then perhaps, Captain, we should get you back to the healing rooms.”
Faramir sighed. There would obviously be no discussion. He refused to lean too heavily on Elessar as they quit the office, but his steps dragged and he found the support reassuring.
‘My dearest friend,’ Aragorn wrote. His quill hovered over the parchment, at once eager and afraid. He mouthed the words to follow: ‘Will you come?’
Will you come tell me what I should do in the face of this? Will you, despite your inexperience, tell me how to be a—
A knock shattered his focus before he could reveal too much. “Come,” Elessar called. Ai, though the ranger fought for dominance, so easily did he slip back to king.
“Sire, I beg pardon for my interruption,” Lendimir said, bowing and closing the office door. “But ’tis a matter of security.”
“The orc band that Lord Faramir and my lads and I met. We had at first estimated ‘twas a small group, no more than two score of the beasts, and half that many of uruk-hai.”
Elessar stiffened. “You have reassessed?”
“Aye. Indications, tracks further into the woods, suggest that the group we battled was but a small scouting party, and that... ”
“Sire, I have to admit I’ve wondered why a single uruk-hai appeared so near the city, within such easy sight of our guard. We had assumed ‘twas unarmed and grubbing for food, but those beasts in the wood were heavily equipped to hunt. And even had they not been, there were equally fertile grounds elsewhere, where the thing could have fed itself without being seen by us. I’ve come to believe that the lone uruk was probably a lure designed to bring us forth.”
“You believe they wanted to engage us? But you called that group a mere scouting party.”
“Aye, Sire. A party intended to scout our defensive abilities, to see how quickly and powerfully we might react to its presence. I am certain the battle was a testing ground, and our readiness was at issue.”
“So the survivors,” Elessar mused, “were likely reporting to a larger main group, taking word of our response.”
“I believe so, Sire. The fight lasted for but a short time, although ‘twas vicious, and then the remainder of the creatures simply fled. We had assumed they were cowardly, without heart — but if they were under orders to study our tactics and then end the battle... ”
“Aye, Master Guard,” Elessar murmured. “Then there is something far greater at work here.”
Minas Tirith had been through it before. Sauron had trained her well in those early days of darkness, back when her citizenry had been soft. They had never been soft to the harshness of life, nay. Daily they had struggled and scrabbled for their bread and shelter. They had coaxed water out of the rocky soil. They had coaxed shoots that became crops that went into their children’s bellies. Grim, they had stored their seeds for long winters, never imagining the ages of winter that loomed. Before the Tears, before the Dark Lord’s rise, they had known feuds, skirmishes, battles.
But they had not known War, and when War loped in it did so with the hungry smile of a predator. Then they knew death with each sunrise, constant crushing repression from above, the huddling of thin hungry bodies around poor fires. They knew days of unravelling hope that turned into fortnights with no progress, seasons of concession that turned into years that turned into decades, all the niceties stripped away as wild dogs will strip the flesh from a corpse. Sauron had taught them all, his marauding minions tearing at walls, at flesh. Little more than bones had come through it. The Ring finally gone, at such massive cost gone, little more than bones had rattled up to greet a new day.
Now the training showed. Minas Tirith swung easily into her own defence. The soldiery embarked on patrols, never less than a score of men. The walls were heavily guarded. Behind those walls, blacksmiths pounded out piles of armour shielding and strong, sharp swords that would cut through the enemy hordes and bring them honour. The clang of hammer and anvil, the smoke from tempering fires, could surely be seen from Valinor, from Mandos. Across Middle Earth, across Arda their battle cries would ring. Victory! Victory.
Messengers were, with caution, dispatched to South Ithilien and Aglarond, and were ordered to take shelter there once the missives had been delivered. Neither Legolas nor Gimli was to attempt the ride, for no place was so perilous as the open plain, no soul so vulnerable as the traveller. They would stay put, fortify their defences, guard their own realms, and wait.
King Elessar strode the inside wall, glancing occasionally at grey skies. Down through the seven levels had he descended, feeling like he moved ever down toward a hell. All was quiet beyond their walls. Down there, out there, something neared.
“Sire,” Lendimir greeted, trotting to meet him and sketching a cursory bow.
“Master Guard. How go the preparations?”
“Well, my lord. The lads are as ready as they’ll be, and I’ve stationed them in pairs every score of paces around the outer wall. We have sentries in each of the high towers,” he flicked a hand upward, toward the blue sky and the stone that clawed upward into it, “and archers in every gate-tower. ‘twould be nice were we to have a contingent of elves...”
Elessar smiled faintly at the guard’s pointed hint. The time had been when Lendimir, like most of the soldiery, had scoffed at the idea of elves ever aiding their ranks. Their pride had stung at the very idea, and the archers among them had redoubled training schedules in silent umbrage. No elven archer would show the men of Minas Tirith how ‘twas done! But of course, one single elven archer had done just that, and the men for all their grumbling had been also awed, also impressed, and had come to respect (love?) that elf almost as much as he did. “I agree, Master Guard,” he nodded. “But our elf is a day away and has been instructed not to come.”
“On pain of your wrath, Sire?”
“On pain of my wrath.” Elessar winked. “Prince Legolas bristles when I see fit to scold him. He is aware that if he were to come, I would — how does he put it? — ‘cluck like an old hen’ until his pointed ears were ready to fall from his head.” Flashing the guard another smile, he let his eyes wander up the high wall. ‘twas thick, solid, reassuring. And yet it blinded him — oh how he would have wished for a pair of elven eyes up in one of those towers, bolstering the sentries.
They waited. The day slowed and sank. A moon rose, thankfully, gilding the land. The nearby woods were a huddled gloom that defied the moon’s heroic attempts, and a mind could easily imagine monsters within. Cloud closed the sky shortly after, and all grew quieter. The air thickened.
Only hours until the sunrise. Two hours until dawn, and then another day they would pass in waiting. Elessar — Aragorn — nay, the king he was, the king; he waited. His guards had protested his presence, but what could they say? He waited, his sword ready. His mount nearby, ready. If the beasts came, he would fight them on city ground. If the beasts fled, he would pursue—
A signal came down from the tower. Lendimir stiffened and turned to Elessar. “They come, Sire.”
“Aye,” Elessar murmured. “I can feel them.” They were coming, the ground trembling so faintly beneath their feet, the air thickening even more. How many?
Lendimir whispered briefly with another guard. “The sentries describe them as a sea, their heads the wave crests. Hundreds, Sire. Many hundreds.” The unspoken question had at once been answered and not.
“Aye,” he muttered. Then: “We shall show them how it is done — correct, Master Guard?”
In his dream, Faramir was running. He knew that he dreamed, for the world around him had no colour to it, and he had once heard that dreams are but shades of grey. Was that true? He ran, his feet skimming the grass, and chasing after him came a daemon that pounded the hard ground. It was black and massive, its breath a foetid wind. He wanted it to be gone, to be banished by a great knight, a great hero — he called over and over again for Boromir. He called for... someone! His legs failed him and he was falling as he had fallen every time before. He was staggering drunkenly, then he was going down, so endlessly down. How far was the ground that he could never reach it? How far? He risked a glance back, over his shoulder, and there it still was. Wings curled at its sides; it never flew when chasing prey (why not?), but pounded its clawed feet into grey grass, the sky grey above. Its tail flicked; its tongue flicked out and was steel, clashing steel—
He woke. The clanging followed him — ‘twas real. Voices were raised. Chaos. Battle! Wrenching himself free of the tangled sheets, he lunged for the window. Aye, below. The gates were beset by fell beasts. The walls were lined with soldiers fighting, fighting in a rain of arrows...
The healing chamber was empty but for him and a few of the more seriously injured guards. The rest had been sent to their homes. Faramir seized his clothing from the shelves, pulled on his boots. His sword? Oh, there, against the wall. Aye, he would need his sword—
He sprinted from the chamber, down the curving stone stairs and through long stone corridors until a clouded night sky replaced the ceilings and a chill wind bit at his skin. There was smoke in the air — burning arrows were being fired. Beasts!
Indeed. The soldiers were beset; they fought bravely and hard. Faramir charged into the courtyard inside the massive main gates; he saw his people straining at the enemy; he saw the enemy breaking through, violating, surging like a black tide. The gates had been breached and there was once more only a gaping wound between Minas Tirith and the evil dark things outside.
He rushed forth. A sudden bleed through the hole in their defences. Dozens more uruk-hai had entered, the vicious orcs fawning and slashing beside them. Arrows whirred overhead. His sword warm and heavy, Faramir threw himself into the mass of them. Their smell whirled about, rotted, distracting. The sound of their ragged breathing was chaos, and it added to the chaos in his mind. Their limbs were thick and everywhere. Another swing, another strike, another, another... another. They fell and Faramir staggered.
What? He turned, reeled, sought the source of the call. Who had shouted so? Another orc came at him and he deflected it, the sword sluggish now. His arms would not obey. He whirled, slashed at the next and the next after. ‘twas cacophony, the sound of them. Their breath was cooked meat and blood and their bodies were stale hide and leather and sweat; they weighted the air with their scent; they pressed down on him. Blood rushed in his ears.
Another came, and Faramir swung to meet its heavy advance. He clipped it with his blade, felt the shock run through him. His balance failed and the weight of his sword began to carry him over. The beast recovered quickly... too quickly—
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The following people read the story, enjoyed it, and would like to thank the author: Cleefa , Susana