Burden of Guilt




 

 

The events in this story take place a few months after the events in “Shadow and Thought”. Aragorn and Faramir have become close friends, Faramir and Éowyn are now happily married and Aragorn and Arwen are expecting a child.
The story concentrates mainly on Aragorn and Faramir but also features Arwen, Éowyn and Eomer and to a lesser degree Legolas, Gimli, Ioreth, Imrahil and Damrod.

Warning - This story is rated R and not suitable for children.


The King and the Steward

August Year 1 of the Fourth Age

The Council chamber in Minas Tirith.

The Council Chamber had recently become known for heated debates. King Aragorn Elessar, though firm in his decisions, always encouraged his Council to have their say before pronouncing his final judgement upon a matter.

It had taken the Lords of Gondor some time to become accustomed to the new regime. Lord Denethor; the Last Ruling Steward had strongly discouraged discussion, especially in the latter years of his rule.

Today, the debate had become surprisingly heated when Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth had raised the matter of the celebrations to follow the impending birth of a child and heir to the King and Queen

“How do we even know that a human and an elf are able to produce offspring?” argued the young Lord of Lossarnach.

Aragorn’s eyes flashed dangerously although he remained outwardly calm. “My own existence is proof, as Lúthien the Fair was my ancestress,” he replied.

“But that is so long ago, the story could be but a myth!”The Lord of Lossarnach refused to be silenced.

“I trust you are not making accusations against my Queen’s virtue?” Aragorn’s voice was icy.

“None of us would, my Lord King, but how could   we know that the child is your true heir and not some foundling that has not been smuggled into the Queen’s bedchamber?" The Lord of Lamedon rose to his feet and joined in the argument.

“That is absurd!“ Prince Imrahil said sternly. "Not only are you questioning the honour of our Sovereign, but you also forget that under the ancient laws of Gondor, during the Queen’s confinement, no one may enter her apartments on pain of death!”

“We know that.” This time, the Lord of Lebennin was on his feet. “Yet a babe could still be smuggled in, prior to the confinement.”

The other Lords all started to argue loudly about this possibility.

Aragorn, usually good-natured, was by now white with barely suppressed fury, his hand reaching for his sword hilt.

Faramir, Prince of Ilithien and Steward of Gondor, leapt to his feet. “Silence, my lords!” he thundered.

They immediately fell silent. Faramir, once the most quiet and self effacing of the Council, had grown increasingly in confidence over the last few months and now was a force to be reckoned with, second only to the King himself.

“Cease this bickering over what should be a joyous event! ” Faramir said sternly. “The birth of the heir to the throne should be witnessed, then no man might question the babe’s legitimacy.”

The Council murmured their assent.

“Well, spoken, Lord Faramir. I would ask no further questions were that so,” the Lord of Lossarnach said. "I am certain the other Lords would be of the same mind.”

“How dare you make such a suggestion, Lord Faramir, I would not have my Queen subjected to such humiliation! No man save myself shall ever enter her bedchamber at any time. The birth of our child shall be attended solely by her ladies and midwives! The dignity of my wife is sacrosanct.” Aragorn advanced towards Faramir, his eyes blazing, his voice like thunder.

A lesser man than Faramir would have quailed, yet the Steward calmly held his ground.“I completely agree my liege,” he said, meeting Aragorn’s eyes without flinching. “I therefore propose that my wife, the Lady Éowyn, Princess of Ilithien, be present at the birth.”

Aragorn’s tense features relaxed into a smile. "I believe that would be acceptable to both the Queen and myself,” he said. “Does the Council agree?”

“That is a good choice,” said the Lord of Lossarnach. "We all know, that should the King die without an heir, that the rule of Gondor would revert to Lord Faramir and his heirs, so who better to bear witness than the Steward’s wife?”

No voice was raised in dissent, and as no one raised any other matters to be dealt with, the Council was dismissed.

Faramir and Aragorn left the Council Chamber and together walked back to the Citadel for luncheon.

Faramir had never been as contented, as during these last few months. For the first time in his life he felt confident, loved and secure, in both his public and private life. In public, he bore his responsibilities well and had the respect of his peers, while in private he basked in the love and approval of his wife and his King. Now to make his happiness complete, so it seemed, Éowyn was with child, and he hoped to become a father sometime in mid winter. The King had over the past months healed his old hurts. Aragorn had become as a father, giving him in abundance, the love and approval that Denethor had always denied.

Aragorn was happy too; Gondor was finally at peace, he was happily married to the woman of his dreams and looking forward to the birth of his heir. He was enjoying seeing Faramir blossom, from the almost broken man he had first met, into a confident Steward of Gondor and much loved friend.

The ordeal they had both suffered a few months before had served to forge a very deep and loving bond of true friendship between them. Faramir had always loved his King, but had been too nervous to truly enjoy his company before.

"I surprised you then, Aragorn, did I not? I wish you could have seen the look on your face!” Faramir laughed.

Aragorn jostled him playfully. “Were you not afraid I would cut off your head, my wily Steward?”

“I had to be convincing. You should know that by now!” Faramir retorted in mock indignation. ”We had no idea the Council would have such strange notions about the baby’s parentage. As they had no idea that Arwen had requested Éowyn to be present, that seemed a good way to appear to satisfy them.”

“You were born to be a politician, Faramir,” Aragorn said; delighted at the confidence his Steward now displayed. “Whatever would I do without you?”

“I have no plans to go anywhere,” Faramir replied. “I promised at the Hunting Lodge not to leave you and I keep my word.”

“I am glad to hear that,” Aragorn replied, cuffing him playfully. “You and I we need each other, if the Council is not to addle our wits!”

The two men worked together well. They would often appear to oppose each other in order to get what they needed from the sometimes stubborn lords who sat on the Council. As few knew the depth of their friendship, the tactic usually worked to their mutual advantage.

They had now reached the Royal Apartments. Faramir was about to leave him to go to his own rooms when the King enquired, "Would you like to go swimming this afternoon with Legolas, Gimli, and myself while the weather is so fine?”

Faramir hesitated; he enjoyed swimming, but had only ever done so  with close friends or kin. Although he felt much more confident, now that his scars had faded, he was uncomfortable at the idea of removing all his clothing in front of others.

Aragorn, guessing the reason for his hesitation, added. "I know of a pleasant secluded spot, and there is no need to disrobe completely. Given the positions we hold we have to be careful how we are seen.”

Faramir smiled, amused that the other could read him so well. “I think I will then, thank you. It will be pleasant to relax for a while, away from all the paperwork. My new secretary insists on tidying everything away, which means it takes twice as long to find whatever I am working on.”

Aragorn smiled ruefully. “Why are good secretaries, or rather secretaries that suit us, so hard to find?" he mused. "I am glad you will come with us this afternoon. The water should be most refreshing at this time of year.” The King clapped Faramir on the shoulder, adding "Later, Arwen and I would be delighted if you and Éowyn would dine with us? ”

“We will be pleased to, ” Faramir replied, taking leave of the King. He hummed contentedly to himself as he went in search of his wife.

 Chapter Two - Messing about on the river

Legolas and Gimli were paying a brief visit to Minas Tirith before returning to to the Elf’s home in Eryn Lasgalen. As they was due to depart on the morrow; Aragorn had invited them to join the swimming party, so they could spend the last day of their visit together.

Legolas was eager to go but the Dwarf declined the invitation saying, “Swimming was all very well for fishes but not for Dwarves.”

They rode down the levels of the city and across the Pelennor to the River Anduin at a leisurely pace, enjoying the summer sunshine. The people going about their business in the streets cheered their King, his Steward and the handsome Elven prince as they passed by.

Aragorn smiled and waved as the people cried “Hail to the King and his Steward!” Faramir smiled shyly in response to their adoration. Even after almost two and a half years, it still felt strange to him to hold his father’s title.

He often wondered what Denethor would think if he could see him now. He knew Boromir would be proud of his success. His father though, had always been impossible to please and he was certain he would just be waiting for him to make some dreadful mistake. Faramir inwardly vowed that was not going to happen. He was conscientious in performing his duties, and he was determined never to disappoint his King, who had given him so much.

When they reached a pleasant, secluded spot by the river, Aragorn dismissed the guards, telling them to enjoy a free afternoon. After so many years in the wild, Minas Tirith, fair though it was, sometimes it felt like a cage to him, and he needed to escape into the open countryside. Often he would go riding, usually with Faramir at his side now that Arwen was pregnant. The Steward, having spent most of his life in the City, would tease his King about his ambivalent attitude towards it. Aragorn took it all in good part.

The three dismounted and tethered the horses. As soon as the guards had gone, they sought the cover of some bushes and started to undress, shedding their tunics, shirts and breeches. They placed them in a heap by the side of the river with their towels on top.

Legolas, with the supreme confidence of the Eldar, swiftly removed all his garments. He reclined under a tree as he waited for the others. The dappled sunlight only served to emphasise the lean contours of his body and perfect skin. He laughed when Aragorn and Faramir, both naturally modest and rather shy, made their way to the water’s edge, still clad in their drawers. They cautiously dipped their toes in the water, testing the temperature. The Elf ran past them and dived in, graceful as a seabird, seemingly oblivious to the chill of the water. “The water is pleasant today. Hurry up undressing and come on in!” he cried.

“We are undressed,” Aragorn replied as he slid into the water. He was closely followed by Faramir, who was relieved not to be the sole brunt of Legolas’ teasing.

“You mortals are so shy!” the Elf teased. "Maybe it is because you lack our perfection?”

Aragorn’s only reply was to duck him under the surface. Having grown up with Elves, he was accustomed to their flawless skin, and perfectly proportioned bodies, and felt no envy, even though his own shyness had developed from being compared with such perfection and found wanting.

He should still remember being mocked when sunbathing by some  of Master Elrond's visitors when he was a boy, and teased over a spot on his nose when he was about fourteen. No Elf ever suffered from such an unsightly affliction. Much as he loved Elves, it had not been easy being so different from those around him, as he grew to maturity. The day he had started to grow a beard, had been the most traumatic of his young life, when it marked him out as irrevocably different from his foster family.

Faramir kicked out from the shallows. He was fine swimmer and had used to enjoy swimming here near the same spot with his brother. He still missed Boromir, and always would. Yet, he had found happiness again now in the brotherly companionship of his King and his marriage to Éowyn. He wondered if Boromir were watching from the afterlife and smiling at how well his little brother had done.

Legolas emerged spluttering and met Aragorn’s laughing eyes.

“We mortals can hardly bear to see your brilliance!” the King teased. "I, meanwhile, must maintain my dignity as King. What if a subject were to bow to me? They would not know where to look!”

Legolas tossed his now sodden golden locks and dived under again, pulling the King down with him. Faramir swam towards them and joined in the fun.

Wearying faster than the immortal Elf, Aragorn and Faramir clambered on the bank for a short rest, while Legolas circled round, as at home in the water as a fish.

Faramir was unable to resist watching him. All his life, he had been curious about the Eldar and had never in his wildest dreams have ever expected to be in such close proximity to them. He realised that their perfection was no myth, though to a human eye, the smooth hairlessness of their skin appeared somewhat strange. Not for the first time, Faramir wondered how Aragorn must have felt growing up amongst such as these. He decided to ask him when he had the chance.

Tiring of watching Legolas’ acrobatics, Faramir leaned back against a tree stretching out his arms. He playfully chased the dragonflies with his fingers as they whirled overhead. It was a perfect summer’s afternoon. It was hard to believe they were only a short distance from the city. The only sign of civilisation was a herd of goats grazing nearby. Of the goatherd, there was no sign. The King wondered if he were playing truant by swimming too, further downstream from them.

Aragorn sighed with contentment. 

Faramir got up and stood at the water’s edge, his back to the King, his skin almost as flawless as Legolas’ thanks to the Elven treatment, that Aragorn had persuaded him to use a few months ago. It seemed that once Aragorn had healed the physical scars of Faramir’s old life, the mental scars had faded too. The Steward had finally come into his own, much to his King’s joy. At long last, Faramir was relaxed, healthy and enjoying the happiness he had long deserved.

Faramir dived in again, calling, “Come on in,   again unless you are too worn out!”

“Youth have no respect for their elders nowadays!” Aragorn teased as he dived in beside him. Although he was now ninety years old, a passer by would have taken the two men to be much of an age.

“I will race you to the far bank,” Legolas challenged, setting off at a fast pace. The others followed, though they had no chance of catching the swift Elf.

They clambered out on the other bank and saw the sun was starting to sink.

“I think it is time we returned to the city,” said Aragorn. The others agreed, but loth to leave the refreshing water, all three swam back slowly.

The goats had now come down almost to the water’s edge.

“They must be thirsty,” Legolas commented.

“Or hungry," Faramir added. "They seem to be grazing.”

Aragorn was the first to leave the water. He reached for his towel. It had vanished, as had his clothes.

 Chapter Three - Grin and bare it

Aragorn looked more closely at the goats and suddenly realised what they were eating. “You are not having these too!” he yelled, as a bearded Billy goat made a grab for the leg of his drawers. The animal retreated, carrying a piece of the fabric in his mouth.

“What is happening?” Faramir asked anxiously, scrambling out of the water.

“The goats appear to have eaten our clothes and towels,” the King replied grimly. "It even took my white tree!” He gestured towards the torn leg of his drawers, where there had been an embroidered White Tree of Gondor, one of his few vanities.

“No!” Legolas cried, scampering after a goat, which had a piece of his tunic hanging from its mouth. By the time he had reached the animal it had devoured the cloth completely.

“They have bitten through the ropes and the horses have strayed!” Faramir announced, unable to conceal the rising panic in his voice.

“They cannot have gone far,” Aragorn replied, trying to sound calmer than he felt.

Legolas returned from his futile chase, looking totally dejected. "Whatever am I going to do? ” he groaned. "I suppose one of you wouldn’t lend me… ”

Faramir blanched. He had a great admiration and respect for the Eldar, but the prospect of walking back to Minas Tirith stark naked was the stuff of his worse nightmares.

“The King and the Steward of Gondor have their dignity to maintain. Maybe the goatherd will return and be able to help us,” Aragorn said firmly, placing a protective hand on Faramir’s shoulder. Despite the warmth of the late afternoon, the Steward’s skin felt icy to the touch. He felt irked with Legolas, for making such a request. The Elf could have kept some of his own clothing on,   instead of boasting Elven perfection.

“Very well,” Legolas sighed. He wandered back to the bank to look for something to cover himself with and alighted upon some gigantic leaves, which he started to gather.

“Do not touch those!” Aragorn warned. "They are poisonous and cause a painful rash.”

“For mortals maybe, but surely not for Elves?” Legolas dismissed the concerns airily.

”I have not seen an Elf affected, but then these plants do not grow in the Elven realms,” Aragorn conceded.

Legolas walked back up the bank, clutching a bouquet of the giant leaves around his waist. He brushed his long golden hair back from his face with his free hand.

“You worry too much, Aragorn,” he said. "These leaves will serve as covering until we find something better.”

“Bad goats come back!” A shout heralded the belated appearance of the goatherd, a young boy of about eleven summers. He was roughly, but more than adequately clad in rough breeches, a tunic and a cloak. The boy stopped when he saw them and stared with eyes wide as saucers.

“Please could you help us? ” Aragorn asked politely. "We need some of your clothes from you, we will pay of course.”

The boy looked him up and down for a mere second, then with a piercing scream, he fled.

Aragorn sighed with dismay. "I fear he misunderstood our predicament and takes us for thieves or lunatics. Either that, or he took some of the clothing himself. It was a great deal for goats to devour,” he said. “Come, we had better try and find our horses and some garments.”

The three started to run across the Pelennor. The meadows were green again after the carnage of the battle fought there; maybe made even lusher, now they were nourished with the blood of so many. The only reminder of what had occurred was a bare patch where the remains of the fell beast had been burned where nothing would grow.

Aragorn and Faramir soon found themselves tiring, for although both had spent many years wandering in the wilds, they had little such exercise since Aragorn had become King. Their pace slackened and they walked in dejected silence. Legolas beought up the rear. Although the Elf was tireless, he preferred to stay close to his human companions in his current predicament.

Much to their relief, they eventually reached a farmhouse where a plump young woman was hanging some washing out on a clothesline. Their eyes brightened at the sight of several shirts, a pair of breeches, and some bed sheets.

“Stay behind us! ” Aragorn instructed Legolas as they approached the woman. Despite being partially concealed by some bushes, he was blushing scarlet at the prospect of letting a lady see him so inadequately clad. Faramir’s expression suggested, that were he not so loyal to Aragorn, he would have turned and fled. The Steward stood huddled miserably, trying to cover himself with his arms.

“Your pardon, my lady, we wondered if you could help us, we are in dire need of your clothing." Aragorn said, gesturing towards the washing line.

The woman’s only reply was to deal him a resounding slap across the face. “How dare you, you impudent knave!” she shrieked. “Be gone, or I’ll set the dogs on you! I hoped now the King has returned that things would get better, but we never had lunatics wandering around like this in Lord Denethor’s day.“

“I am the King,” Aragorn replied with as much dignity as he could muster, He rubbed his reddening cheek before crossing his arms defensively across his bare chest.

“King indeed, a madman more like!” she snapped. “ Obviously the three of you have escaped from the asylum. You need locking up forever!”

Much to their dismay, she snatched her washing from the line and hurried inside, slamming the door behind her.

“We should have waited and helped ourselves to the washing once she had gone," Faramir said glumly. “We could have paid for it later. Has she injured you?”

Aragorn rubbed his face ruefully. “It could have been worse, she could have punched me in the eye! Whatever did I say to upset her so?”

“You asked for her clothes,” Faramir answered with a mirthless laugh, I think she thought you meant what she wore, not the washing!”

Aragorn flushed slightly at the implication.

“What can we do now?” asked Legolas.

Aragorn looked around him and espied a mill a short distance away. “Let us try that mill," He suggested.

They set off at a fair pace, Legolas having to slow down to keep up with the two men. He had now positioned himself between Aragorn and Faramir, as the leaves were starting to wilt and he had lost several of them on the way. Both men were wary and did their best not to get close enough for the leaves to touch their skin.

The mill door was open. Much to Aragorn and Faramir’s delight, a pile of flour sacks were neatly folded behind the door. They picked them up and started tearing holes in them to make makeshift clothing.

“Just what we need!” Faramir sighed with relief. He was cold, as well as miserable and discomfited by their plight.

“What use are flour sacks? ” asked Legolas. “We need clothing!”

“We can wear them." Aragorn was already pulling one over his head. Like Faramir, he was starting to feel cold and his flesh was covered with goose bumps.

“These?” the Elf was horrified. “But the material is so coarse!”

Aragorn had already torn a strip off a second sack. He then made a hole in the bottom of it, stepped into it, and secured it round his waist. The outfit was far from being either elegant or comfortable, but it was at least decent.

Faramir had likewise fashioned similar rough attire for himself.

“Will one of you let me borrow your drawers now?” Legolas pleaded.

“We itch as much as you, maybe more so, being mere mortals! “ Aragorn retorted. “You had better put on a sack or remain naked and treat the citizens of Minas Tirith to a glimpse of your Elven perfection.”

“Mortals would be unable to appreciate Elven beauty,” Legolas retorted, reluctantly following the others’ example. “It itches,” he complained, when the sackcloth irritated his fair flesh.

“And just what do you think you are doing? ” A middle-aged man, with greying hair and beard entered the mill, his face flushed with anger. “Stealing my flour sacks? I’ll report you to the King’s justices!”

Chapter Four - Sackcloth and ashes

“We will recompense you fully, Master Miller,“ Aragorn said. “I am the King.”

The Miller threw back his head and laughed.

“King indeed!” he snorted. “How can you be the King? If you were, you would be wearing fine silks and velvets not sackcloth stolen from me!” He gestured towards Faramir. ”I suppose you’ll be claiming next that this ragamuffin is the Lord Steward?”

”I am he.” Faramir looked as if he wished the ground would open and swallow him.” We were swimming and some goats …”

“Be off with you!” The Miller snapped, quickly suppressing his laugher.” If I catch you still here when my wife returns from market, you will be very sorry! I’m not listening to any more lies or slandering the good name of our King!”

The three sackcloth clad companions fled sheepishly from the mill, leaving the Miller staring after them. They were obviously lunatics and yet there was something about the eldest man that intrigued him. It were as if he had an almost regal air about him, despite his appearance, a something, which had stopped him from giving the impudent fellow a sound thrashing. Shaking his head at such thoughts, the Miller tidied up the scattered pile of sacks.

Aragorn and Faramir felt slightly more relaxed now they had acquired some clothing, however makeshift, while Legolas complained incessantly about how the rough sacking chafed his fair skin. It seemed a very long way back to the city.

“Look! “ cried Legolas suddenly. “There are our horses.”

They craned their necks in the direction the Elf pointed and could just make out three specks on the horizon.

“They’ve strayed into a hayfield,” Legolas explained, his keen Elven eyesight noting the details.

“Iavas loves fresh hay! It will be difficult to retrieve them,” Faramir groaned.

Aragorn gave his companions an enigmatic smile. He then raised two fingers to his lips and gave a piercing whistle, paused for a moment and then whistled again.

Legolas regarded Aragorn doubtfully. Surely losing his clothes had not caused him to lose his wits as well? By contrast; Faramir, having unlimited faith in the King’s abilities, waited hopefully, certain that Aragorn knew what he was doing, however odd it might appear.

“They are coming!” Faramir exclaimed joyfully, when the horses started galloping towards them.

“However did you do that? ” Legolas asked.

“I still remember a few tricks I learned as a Ranger. “ Aragorn grinned, swinging himself up upon Roheryn’s broad back.

“We never learned that in Ilithien” Faramir told him, as he mounted Iavas, patting the chestnut’s neck as he settled himself in the saddle.

Meanwhile, Legolas had realised there was no way he could ride astride, without incurring the mirth of the populace, not to mention breaking several laws regarding public decency and breaching the peace. He was obliged to mount sidesaddle and ride like a lady, a feat he found took some mastering. He had never sat on a horse in such a manner before. It took all his Elven agility just to keep his balance.

Faramir and Aragorn struggled to contain their mirth. “Your golden locks are even fairer than my wife’s!” Faramir chortled.

“Don’t let your lady hear you saying that, Faramir, or you will be wearing sackcloth for a long time to come!” Aragorn teased, ignoring the Elf’s furious expression.

They urged the horses towards the city gates and reached them within minutes only to be halted by the stern faced Guard.

“What have we here?” he asked. “Vagabonds on stolen horses?”

“We own these horses.” Aragorn said coldly. He was weary, cold and itching from wearing the sackcloth. All he wanted now was a hot bath and some comfortable clothing.

The Guard shook his head. ”Those are fine beasts, fit for the King and his Nobles, not for the likes of you!” He drew his sword and levelled it at Aragorn’s chest. “I’m arresting you in the name of the King!”

“I am the King.” Aragorn’s tone was at its most commanding as he glared at the Guard. ”Release us this instant!”

The Guard flinched at the authority in Aragorn’s voice but continued undeterred. “I’ve no time for your impudence, you rascal! You cannot be the King, not dressed like that! I saw him at his coronation and he wore finery that a ragamuffin like you couldn’t imagine in your dreams!”

Aragorn groaned inwardly. He was in no mood for a lengthy argument. The prospect of being locked in a cell and hoping someone would be allowed to identify him was growing alarming. They could overpower the Guard, but the King was reluctant to harm someone who was only doing their job.

He was about to urge Roheryn into a gallop and hope the others had the wits to follow, when he remembered he was wearing the Ring of Barahir, the heirloom of the Heirs of Isildur.

“Do you recognise this ring?” he asked the man.

The Guard shook his head. “It looks as if you stole that too!” he said grimly.

“Send for the Captain of the Tower Guard!” Aragorn ordered. “He will know this ring and its owner!” He could only hope that whoever was on duty would recognise him or Faramir in such unorthodox attire.

He was becoming increasingly worried, especially about Faramir. The Steward had endured so much in the past that Aragorn feared being locked in the dungeons could badly damage his newly acquired self-confidence. Then there was Legolas, a Silvian Elf, one of a species attuned to Nature, who might react very badly if confined in a stone walled cell.

The man hesitated, he had a good mind to march these ruffians through the street to the dungeons, but it was a long walk and he was due to be relieved soon. Then what was to be done with the horses?

Aragorn, Faramir and Legolas could only wait and endure the stares and titters of the passers by. A queue was building up behind them impatiently waiting to enter the city.

“Whatever do you think you are doing?”

Aragorn heard a familiar and querulous voice, shouting almost in his ear. “Dame Ioreth!” He was so relieved to see her that he could have kissed her!

“If that is your idea of the latest fashion, Lord Elfstone, I am not impressed!” Ioreth said tartly.” You look like beggars and ought to be ashamed of yourself for encouraging Lord Faramir to dress like that to go out riding!” She turned to Faramir, ”As for you, young man, your father would be ashamed of you to see you looking like this! He had his faults, did Lord Denethor, but he did at least see his sons were properly dressed!”

Faramir opened his mouth to protest, but before he could do so, Ioreth continued,

“I just don’t know what this city is coming to! Highborn Lords riding around wearing sackcloth! I don’t care if it’s some new fashion or even a new fangled religion, but it is not at all seemly. Maybe it’s the fault of the Elf, I never could abide them, you cannot tell what gender they are! I thought this one was male, but as it rides like a maid, it must be a she!

Legolas turned the colour of a beetroot.

“Dame Ioreth, I assure you that.” Aragorn began but was promptly interrupted.

“And why is there such a queue at the city gates, I would like to know? It was never like this in Lord Denethor’s time! I’ve spent a long tiring day visiting my cousin from Lossarnach, who is staying at a farm near here. And I want to get home and put my feet up not stand here talking. Why my cousin was telling me…”

Aragorn gently but firmly placed his hand over her mouth to stem the ceaseless flow. She glared at him with a look, which would have proved fatal if looks could kill. “ My pardon, Dame Ioreth, but I want to put to put my feet up too but cannot get a word in edgeways!”

Seeing the Guard advancing menacingly, he removed his hand, only just in time to avoid being bitten, he surmised. “Please, Dame Ioreth, tell the Guard, who were are, then we can all be on our way!” he pleaded.

“Is that ruffian annoying you, good lady?” asked the Guard.

Aragorn held his breath.

“Yes, he is.” she replied.”

Aragorn sighed. It looked as if the prospect of shedding the sackcloth followed by a warm bath and a meal were receding into a distant prospect.

Elven Blushes

"But he is no ruffian and should know better!” Ioreth continued. “That is the King himself, Lord Elfstone, and the Steward, Lord Faramir together with one of those Elves that the Lord Elfstone seems to favour!”

A look of horror spread over the Guard’s face. He dropped to his knees. “My Lord King, forgive me, I did not know!” he cried.

“ Rise! You were only doing your duty.” Aragorn said without rancour. ”Now, will you be so kind as to lend me your cloak? I will see that it is returned to you.”

The man rose to his feet, and with trembling fingers, unfastened his cloak and handed it to the King.

Aragorn immediately passed it to Faramir. “You had better take this, as you have been known far longer than I in this city!” he said, aware that Faramir was probably the most upset by the day’s events.

“There is no need, he can have my cloak!” Ioreth volunteered surprisingly, handing the garment to the Steward.

“Why, thank you!” Faramir was touched by the usually fierce old woman’s kindness.

“It is a warm day, I will get home all the faster without!” she said briskly.” Now don’t you dare ride around the streets like this again, whatever that Lord Elfstone says! You will catch cold, and then who will have to tend you?”

“I promise I will dress properly in future,” Faramir said meekly, wrapping the grey woollen cloak closely round him.

“Has no one a cloak for the Elf?” Ioreth demanded loudly.” Decent folks like us, don’t want to see it riding through the streets like that!”

A man, who looked like a rich merchant, came forward and offered Legolas his fur trimmed garment much to the Elf’s relief.

“All the cloaks will be returned.” Aragorn promised in a voice all could hear, as the Guard opened the city gates and let them through.

They urged the horses to a trot and rode without stopping through the city streets. To their great relief, the citizens failed to recognise them.

Aragorn and his companions managed to enter the royal apartments unnoticed, using a secret way that Faramir knew from his childhood. They were anxious to avoid their wives until they looked presentable, knowing the ladies would tease them mercilessly if they were spotted sporting sackcloth. They parted and went their several ways, promising to meet for dinner once bathed and changed.

After a hot bath and now dressed in fine woollen breeches and a velvet tunic, Aragorn was about to enquire whether Arwen and his guests were ready for dinner, when Gimli hurried up to him, an expression of great anxiety on his face.

“Please come quickly, Legolas feels most unwell and is unable to even dress for dinner! I have never seen him like this before! What if the poor Elf is dying?”

Pausing only to snatch up his healing supplies, Aragorn raced to Legolas’ room, closely followed by the panting Dwarf. He knocked on the door and on getting no reply, entered and approached the bed, where he discovered the Elf lying on top of the covers, dressed only in a loose nightshirt.

A painful and unsightly looking red blotch across his cheek disfigured Legolas’ fair features. The Elf struggled to sit up when his friend approached but fell back against the pillows with a groan.

“What ails you, mellon nîn?” Aragorn asked, although he already knew the answer.” I was told you were unable to dress to come to dinner.”

“Those leaves, I fear you were right!” Legolas replied.” I feel as if my skin is on fire, it is too painful to endure my garments rubbing against it!”

“Why didn’t you tell me about the leaves, Legolas?” Gimli exclaimed, “I thought you were dying from some dreadful poison!”

Aragorn placed his hand on the Elf’s forehead. ”You do not have a fever,” he pronounced. “The leaves produce a painful burning sensation, though it affects humans slightly differently. Their symptoms take a few hours longer to develop. Luckily, I have a salve, which should help. Where is the rash?”

Legolas flushed slightly and held out his hands without much conviction. ”Here, where I touched them,” he replied, ”and on my face too.”

Aragorn carefully applied the salve to the Elf’s reddened palms and fingers, trying to suppress a wry smile. He then waited patiently for Legolas to elaborate further. A long, uncomfortable silence followed, during which, Legolas shifted uneasily on the bed and winched

“And where else?” the King asked finally, eager to end the Elf’s torment.

“It is rather embarrassing,” Legolas muttered.

“Unless you will show me, I cannot tend you, so if you would prefer I take my leave?” Aragorn gathered up the jar of salve and pretended to make for the door.

“If you don’t tell him, I will!” Gimli exclaimed, placing himself in front of the door. “I have noticed where you have been scratching, Master Elf!”

“Maybe if you were to take a little walk?” Aragorn suggested to Gimli. ”The gardens are pleasant at this time of year.”

“And of what interest are flowers to Dwarfs?” Gimli huffed indignantly, “We don’t go around smelling them like Elves. A fine mess plants and flowers have left him in!”

“I meant that I need to ….” Aragorn bent to whisper in Gimli’s ear. The Dwarf laughed out loud.

“I hardly think so. The Elf has no hesitation in taking off all his clothes and jumping in the river to bathe in front of me when we are journeying together. He even suggests I should join him, just think of the damage it would do to my beard, not to mention anything else! A Dwarf and his garments are not easily parted. We have a more sense than going diving in freezing cold rivers and getting a nasty rash as result!”

“The river was not the cause of it. It was some poisonous leaves.” Aragorn explained patiently.

“Well it would never have happened it he had kept his clothes on. A Dwarf would never …”

The chatter was making Legolas aching head feel worse “Stay, please!” he interjected, halting Gimli’s endless chatter.

With surprising tact, Gimli smiled at his friend then went across the room to look out of the window, where he remained standing as Aragorn approached the bed.

Blushing scarlet, Legolas reluctantly pulled his nightshirt up to above his waist, revealing large areas of red and blistered skin between waist and thigh marring the otherwise perfect Elven skin.

With the calm detachment of an experienced healer, Aragorn applied the salve in liberal amounts, plastering it thickly over the affected areas.

Legolas sighed as the cooling ointment took effect.

“Turn over!” Aragorn instructed him.

This is so mortifying! “ Legolas wailed, as his friend continued to tend him.

Glad that Legolas could not see the expression of barely suppressed mirth on his face Aragorn asked with mock gravity.” I thought Elves were so perfect they had no need for shyness and delighted in revealing their perfection? You implied only this afternoon, modesty was a trait only mortals shared!”

Unable to think of a good answer, Legolas changed the subject. ”Why do mortals cultivate such plants?” he asked

“They do not, but it grows wild in the lands of the Harad.” Aragorn told him. “Most likely, their soldiers brought the seeds here on their boots during the war.

He finished applying the salve, smoothed down the Elf’s nightshirt, then went over to where a basin and ewer stood on a table near the bed and poured some water into the basin to wash his hands.

“Is the poison deadly? My skin feels as if it is about to fall off! Am I going to die?” Legolas groaned.

The Merry Wives of Gondor

Aragorn calmly dried his hands and started to mix some herbs in a goblet of wine.

“I have been stung with it many times and I live still!” he told the Elf. ”You should be much better by morning and be able to return to Eryn Lasgalen as you planned. You have the fast healing abilities of the Eldar.”

“I will never be able to sit on a horse!” Legolas lamented. ”How can I let anyone see me thus, my looks are ruined!”

“You can of course stay longer, if you wish.” Aragorn replied, handing him the goblet. ”Drink this; it will help you get some rest. I think though, you will find you are fully recovered by morning. I will have to go now, the others are waiting for me to begin dinner. I will have some food sent to you later when you are rested.”

“Don’t leave me, I feel very ill!” Legolas pleaded.

“That is something we imperfect mortals often feel!” Aragorn said dryly.” You have no cause to fear; you will live! Be comforted.”

“I will stay with him.” Gimli offered, finally losing interest in the view from the window and moving to Legolas’ side.” Please give your lady my apologies that I cannot come to dinner as the Elf needs a nursemaid.”

Legolas opened his mouth to retort, but only a yawn emerged as the sleeping draught started to take effect.

Gimli settled himself by the bedside and patted his friend’s hand, the gesture belying his somewhat scathing comments.

Aragorn drew the coverlet over the unhappy Elf and left to join his wife and friends for dinner. He was going to enjoy relating the latest turn of events to his Steward.

When Aragorn entered the dining room of his private apartments, he found his wife, together with Faramir and Éowyn already there and waiting for him.

Arwen was now so large; she had difficulty sitting at the table. She was, however, in good spirits and chattering to Éowyn in an animated fashion, while Faramir looked on uneasily.

“Éowyn and I have heard such tales from the city today!” she exclaimed. ”Three naked madmen are on the loose! It is said they attacked a boy and then a woman, stealing all her clothes before helping themselves to some horses from the Royal stables and beating up and robbing a miller!”

“Well, I heard they merely stole some sacks from the miller.” Éowyn added,” Then, the latest rumour was they escaped wearing stolen cloaks!”

“How are you going to punish these villains when you catch them?” Arwen asked with a gleam in her eye.

“Surely the King won’t let them run amok in the city?” Éowyn commented earnestly.

Aragorn opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again while Faramir blushed scarlet.

“The most interesting thing I heard was the description of the lunatics.” Arwen’s tone was like honey.” I was told two were dark haired with grey eyes, one older and slightly taller than the other, while the third was fair to look upon with long golden locks that any maid would envy. That sounds somewhat familiar.

“How strange my husband should go swimming this afternoon with two that fitted that description!” Éowyn could now barely contain her mirth.

Arwen burst out laughing, not the usual musical laugher of Elves but very human guffaws, which she had obviously learned from Éowyn. The two women shook with helpless mirth.

“If only we could have seen the three of you!” Éowyn roared. “What a sight that would have been!”

“We were not naked, we were wearing our drawers, that is Aragorn and myself were.” Faramir said with as much dignity as he could muster, somewhat ill at ease to be even mentioning underwear in the presence the Queen. He was fond of Arwen and admired her greatly, but always felt slightly awestruck in the presence of one of the Eldar, even at the best of times.

“How did you find out?” Aragorn asked. He had hoped for some sympathy from his wife, but realised that to an observer, their plight must have seemed hilarious. It was good to see Arwen so cheerful. As spirits as the delivery time drew nearer, she had become somewhat apprehensive and her bulk made her uncomfortable.

“Ioreth came to see me and told me most of the story.” Arwen explained, once she could control her mirth. ”The rest I heard from my maid, whose brother’s wife is the miller’s sister. He had come to report the theft of the flour sacks to the guard and also had spoken to his neighbours. The tale seems to have been embroidered in the telling, though.”

“We never attacked anyone, only asked for some clothing and were forced into stealing some flour sacks when no one would give us any.” Aragorn explained. ”They failed to understand our motives, I think.”

“Your adventures have certainly entertained us!” Éowyn chortled.

“The bruise on your cheek looks painful.” Arwen added.” Though, maybe you deserved it from what I have heard!”

“He did not!” Faramir said indignantly.” We did nothing wrong!”

“Where are Legolas and Gimli?” Arwen asked. “I thought they were joining us.”

“Legolas is weary after all that happened this afternoon and decided to eat in his room and Gimli wanted to stay to keep him company.” Aragorn said diplomatically, to spare the Elf the ladies’ teasing. He intended to tell Faramir the full story, once they were alone.

“It has been quite an unusual day starting with the Council Meeting this morning,” Aragorn told her, anxious to change the subject. He proceeded to tell them about Faramir’s intervention in the debate over a witness to the impending royal birth.

“There are dozens of regulations on the subject.” Faramir informed them as they began their meal.

“Surely not any more than those we discussed this morning?” Aragorn groaned.

“I think there are about fifty pages of regulations.” Faramir informed him.” It is a month or two since I last looked at them.”

”Fifty pages?” Arwen was incredulous.

“It seems that each Queen in the past, or her family demanded that new ones be added.” Faramir explained. “For example, the ruling that the Queen may not be disturbed during her confinement was made after one King burst into the bedroom and kept shouting at the Queen, that he would divorce her, if the baby were not a boy, that also led to the rule that the King may only spend an hour a day with the Queen for the first days after the birth. The same monarch harangued his wife after the birth of their daughter, so the poor lady had no rest. She was the Queen who added the rule that the midwifes must remain in constant attendance of the Queen for a week after the delivery. I think it was her father who insisted on adding the separate bedchambers clause too.” Faramir flushed slightly.

“Whatever is that?” Aragorn demanded.

“The King may not share the Queen’s bedchamber for two weeks after the delivery, nor have um, intimate relations for six weeks,” Faramir mumbled uncomfortably, staring down at the tablecloth.

“What sort of monster am I supposed to be?” Aragorn said testily.

“The angry father of over a thousand years ago was only concerned about the health of his daughter.” Faramir said hastily. ”I do think some of these ancient laws need revising, though.”

”They will be before we have any more children,” Aragorn said grimly.

“I think I should have some say in the matter,” Arwen interrupted.

“Of course, my love, you shall rewrite them yourself if you wish,” Aragorn soothed.

“And I shall help you!” Éowyn added. ”I assume there are rules about the birth of the Steward’s heirs too?”

“Forty pages of them.” Faramir informed her.

Éowyn blanched.

“Well if you need a witness, I will be happy to assist.” Arwen offered. ”I did learn some healing arts from my father, so I might be useful.”

“I would be honoured to accept,” Éowyn smiled, while Faramir gave a sigh of relief as he had dreaded approaching the subject, given that Éowyn insisted that ladies of Rohan took giving birth for granted and were back on their horses the next day!

The conversation took a lighter tone as the servants brought dessert. Arwen was starting to yawn, As soon as she had finished, she excused herself and prepared to call for her maid to help her prepare for bed.

“Shall I help you?” Éowyn asked, feeling anxious for her friend.

Arwen thanked her and the two women left the room, leaving the men to their wine.

Arwen and Éowyn

Éowyn unfastened the Queen’s heavy gown and let it slide to the floor. A maid had already brought hot water and towels with which Éowyn helped Arwen bathe, noticing as she did so how much larger her belly had grown.

“I think the baby will come fairly soon,” Eowyn commented.

“I wish I knew how long I have to wait,“ Arwen groaned, “It could be as soon as next month or not until the Mid Winter festival when your own child is due!”

“I hope it is born ere winter, as I cannot be in two places at once!” Éowyn jested, though secretly she felt anxious, as she did not think the Queen could safely grow much larger.

“I do not know what happens when the mother is of the Eldar and the father human,” Arwen mused, shifting uncomfortably as the babe inside her kicked. Impulsively, she grasped Éowyn’s hand and guided it to where the child was kicking.

“This babe is strong!” Éowyn smiled.

“You are sure everything is going as it should?” Arwen fretted.

Éowyn took the opportunity to carry out a brief examination. Arwen had become increasingly shy as her body swelled, though in her friend’s opinion she was a vision of fecund beauty, the curves of her swelling body framed by her mane of shining raven hair and the silvery stretch marks on the ivory skin appearing more of an adornment than a disfigurement.

“The babe’s head is in the correct position and it moves strongly.” Éowyn assured the Queen. ”You should have plenty of milk for it, though I assume, you will have a wet nurse?”

“Indeed, I will not!” Arwen replied. “Who but myself, would have the right milk for my child?”

Éowyn agreed and applauded her decision. She intended to feed her own babe too; such was the custom of Rohan.

“I think this babe is getting eager to be born!” Éowyn smiled as she helped the Queen get on to the bed, no easy task given her considerable bulk.

“I am eager as well!” Arwen replied, rubbing her aching back. ”Aragorn yearns to see his child as well. He tells me he does not mind whether it be a boy or girl, for in the past the women of Númenor have worn the crown. He wants the eldest to succeed him regardless of gender.”

“Faramir says he doesn’t mind either what our child is,” Éowyn replied. ”We are fortunate in our husbands.”

“Oh, my back!” Arwen groaned, trying to make herself comfortable.

“Shall I massage it for you?” Éowyn asked tentatively, for although both the King and Queen had taught her the Elven massage techniques, she was far from skilful in them. “Or, would you rather I fetch Aragorn?”

“It works best when a friend does it since it is meant to be relaxing rather than exciting!” Arwen replied, turning awkwardly on to her side. “ Let Aragorn and Faramir enjoy themselves together. It makes me happy that they are now such good friends. Aragorn was like a bear with a sore head before they became close. He was so lacking in male companionship. Men need each others’ company and friendship as much as we women do.”

“Faramir is much happier now too.” Éowyn commented, as she tried to use her fingertips as she had been taught, hoping she was easing the Queen’s discomfort rather than adding to it. “It pleases me how at ease he is now with Aragorn, instead of jumping at the sound of his voice and flinching away from his touch.”

“It used to grieve Aragorn that Faramir was so afraid of him. He always wanted to befriend him. Now they are inseparable and I could not imagine it ever being otherwise, which gladdens me.” Arwen commented, stretching herself as the pain in her back eased. ”That is much more comfortable,” the Queen said at last. ”Thank you. I will gladly do the same for you, once my child is born.”

Éowyn sighed with relief. ”I feared I lack the correct technique to ease you. And thank you, I would like that.”

“If it is done lovingly, Elven massage always works,” Arwen said with a smile. “That is what true magic is!”

“I often wondered!” Éowyn replied as she helped Arwen don her nightgown, plumped up the Queen’s pillows and arranged the covers in place.

“You return to the men folk now,” Arwen said once she was settled. ”I am comfortable now and will sleep soon.

Éowyn bent to kiss her friend goodnight then turned to leave. Arwen surprised her by suddenly starting to laugh.

“I was just thinking of what our husbands must have looked like skulking through the city this afternoon!” she tittered.” How I wish I had been there!”

”So do I!” Éowyn replied, hastily leaving before she too was overcome with mirth. She desired to put some serious questions to Aragorn while she had the chance to speak to him alone.

Faramir and Aragorn were seated side by side on the couch when she returned, sipping goblets of wine in companionable silence, while Aragorn with his free hand, eased the knots from his Steward’s neck caused by the stressful events of the day.

“I could do that for you!” Éowyn said in mock indignation. Actually, it pleased her that her husband was now so at ease with the King.

“I know, but this is the expert!” Faramir replied, “In any case, you would only tease me about my ordeal this afternoon!”

“I had an ordeal too, my cook burned the stew intended or lunch!” Éowyn retorted.

“I will massage your neck next then.” Aragorn grinned at her.

“Thank you but a strong woman like myself is already quite recovered,” Éowyn replied, secretly wishing her pride did not demand she turn down the offer. Aragorn had a truly magical touch.

Aragorn finished his ministrations to Faramir and then picked up a letter from the table.

“I thought you would be interested to know that I have decided to have Duilin of Morthond’s Hunting Lodge converted to a refuge for war orphans.” the King told them. ”I thought that would be the best use for it. We can always visit if we wish, for although our time there was not exactly pleasant, it did serve to bring us together!

“That is an excellent plan!” Faramir enthused.  "There must, alas, be many more children like Elbeth.”

Aragorn’s tone became sombre. "There is something else, I must tell you, the Housekeeper writes that Elbeth has vanished from her sister’s home. She has heard Hanna had escaped from the asylum too. I do wish we had brought the child back with us!”

“So do I,” Faramir said sadly. “It just seemed best at the time to leave her with the Housekeeper’s sister.”

“I doubt Hanna would harm her daughter,” Aragorn said reassuringly. "I would just rather that she were safe with us. She was such a beautiful child."

Éowyn cleared her throat; "Talking of children, there is something important I need to ask you.”

“What is it? Is Arwen well?” Aragorn asked apprehensively.

Éowyn came straight to the point. "Aragorn, how much do you know about Elven pregnancy and childbirth?” she asked bluntly, causing Faramir to blush at her outspokenness and nervously twist the wedding band he wore round his finger.

“Very little, I fear about any sort of pregnancy,” he answered her as one healer to another.  "There were no births at Rivendell during my time there. As a ranger and a soldier, I was rarely amongst women. In any case, childbirth is a matter for midwives. The healing arts I know are for wounds and other maladies, not to treat the natural lot of women. Why do you ask?”

“I am concerned for Arwen,” Éowyn said bluntly.  Seeing the look of alarm cross Aragorn’s handsome features, she added quickly. "She is well, but growing so large, I do not think it can be more than six weeks at most before the babe is born, yet she tells me it might not be due for another four months yet. Then, neither Ioreth nor myself have any idea what an Elven delivery is like. I have asked Arwen, but she has no experience of childbirth amongst her own kind either."

“I have heard a child of a mixed union such as ours could be born after nine months if it favours the father, or twelve if it favours the mother, or somewhere in between. Arwen is unique too, with both human and Elven ancestry. I have no idea if an Elven delivery is different than a human one,” Aragorn told her.

“That is very helpful!” Éowyn said rather sarcastically. “Could we send a message to Rivendell?” she added.

“It is a long journey. They might not get there in time before Elrond and most of his household sail for Valinor,” the King replied. ”If only I had thought to ask Lord Elrond before we parted, or even Lady Galadriel!”

“A somewhat difficult topic to discuss with your father in law,” Faramir remarked sympathetically.

Aragorn frowned and rubbed his hand worriedly across his brow as he sat lost in thought.

Gathering Clouds

Éowyn sighed in frustration.

“I know, Elrond’s books!” Aragorn said suddenly.  "Arwen’s brothers brought his texts about healing to Minas Tirith when they visited at the New Year.”

“You have Master Elrond’s books?” Faramir was awestruck.

“I am sorry, I should have mentioned it before. There has just been so much to do these past months,” Aragorn sighed. "Let us see now what we can learn from them about childbirth.”

Faramir was naturally familiar with the main library of Minas Tirith, which had always been one of his favourite places. As a boy, he would escape the grief of being motherless and the scorn in his father’s eyes whenever he looked at his younger son, by immersing himself in Gondorian history and tales of the Eldar.

The vast knowledge he had gained had often proved invaluable to Aragorn. Although the King was well educated, he paled beside his Steward when it came to the obscure details of history, law and customs of the southern part of his Reunited Kingdom.

Faramir had never been in Aragorn’s private library before. Aragorn had always brought any books that were needed to his study. He stood staring in amazement at the sight of all the Elvish volumes lining the shelves.

“Given your love of learning, I should have brought you here long ago,” Aragorn said apologetically, as he lit the lamps. "You are welcome to come and enjoy my library any time you wish.”

Faramir thanked him, while the King searched the shelves for the volumes Lord Elrond had given him.

“This might help,” he said at last, selecting a large dusty volume and placing it before Éowyn. "It explains how best to avoid complications during childbirth.”

“I fear I don’t read the language,” Éowyn said, a touch of regret in her voice.

Aragorn opened the book at a page illustrated with a diagram of an Elvish woman giving birth. ”I can translate,” he said. “That is, if you are not too tired being with child yourself as it is growing late?”

Éowyn shook her head. “The women of the Mark are strong. We are usually on horseback almost until the birth whereas I have been sitting in a comfortable chair for most of the day.”

Aragorn placed the tome on a table and drew up three chairs. “This chapter is about the first stage of labour,” he began. ”Is that what you want to know? Apparently labour is more emotionally draining for an Elf than for a human, though as a male, I would not know,” he added hastily, seeing Éowyn’s expression. “Of course, with Arwen’s mixed heritage there is no way of knowing how she will react.”

Eowyn nodded and the King began to read, translating the ancient words into the common tongue.

“When the waters break it usually indicates the first stage of labour has begun. At this point contractions will be about thirty minutes apart and the midwife should ascertain by careful visual examination that there is no bleeding and that dilation is at least …” He broke off and turned to Faramir. ”You understand Quenya too, so why not translate for your wife and see one of Elrond’s books for yourself?”

Faramir had first blushed when Aragorn had started to read, but had now turned a sickly greenish hue. ”No, thank you!” he gulped. ”In fact, I think I will go to bed now and leave you to discuss, um delicate matters.”

“You look tired, my friend, go and get some rest.” Aragorn said sympathetically patting Faramir’s arm. “Maybe this is a subject best left to women and Healers. It is a tradition of the Eldar that the father be present. I am heartily thankful, Arwen has not asked me to observe it.”

I will bid you goodnight then.” Faramir turned even paler at the thought of the father witnessing the birth. He was anxious to leave before any more of the book could be read. He had seen animals give birth often enough, but his wife was quite a different matter entirely!

“Wait!” Aragorn got up and reached another volume down from the shelves. ”I think this, also from Elrond’s library, might be more to your liking. It is a history of the First Age. Why not borrow it for a while, then maybe we could discuss it together?”

Faramir’s eyes lit up as Aragorn handed him the precious volume. “You would let me handle this?”

“Why not? It ought to be read by someone who will appreciate it!”

Faramir impulsively embraced Aragorn. Only recently had he felt comfortable enough to express the deep affection he felt towards his King, for he would never have dared behave so freely towards his father.

Aragorn warmly returned the gesture and placed his hand on the dark head in blessing. He truly did feel blessed to have a friend like Faramir. Never had he dared hope that the Valar would grant him both the wife and the grown son or little brother he had always longed for.

Suddenly his hands felt wet and when he hooked down he saw they were covered in blood, Faramir’s blood! He paled and swayed slightly at the horror and clarity of the vision.

“Are you unwell?” Faramir and Éowyn’s concerned voices roused him from the trance. Aragorn forced himself to smile reassuringly at his friends. The vision had to be false, as he would no more harm his friend and Steward than cut off his own right arm!

“I am just a little tired after everything that happened today,” Aragorn replied certain that this must be the correct explanation, though he found himself glancing anxiously again at his hands, which now appeared perfectly clean.

“You ought to go to bed too then. I shall bid you goodnight,” Faramir chided gently.

Aragorn smiled and then exchanged a kiss on the brow with his Steward. This time the contact passed without triggering a further vision, much to Aragorn’s relief.

Being of high Númenorean lineage carried the advantage of long life and vitality, but also the dubious privileges of foresight. Visions were often kindled when two thus gifted with similar bloodlines were in close proximity.

“You would make a good mother hen!” Aragorn teased.

Faramir departed to his bedchamber, clutching the precious volume under his arm.

Not for the first time, Aragorn wondered if he should invite Faramir to form a Thought-sharing Bond with him to further cement their friendship. It was always a hard choice to make, for so doing made any future loss of the other person like having part of one’s soul torn away, as Aragorn already knew to his cost.

Although Faramir much younger, he would most likely die long before his King. The Southern descendents of the Númenoreans had intermarried far more than those of the North. Yet, he felt that that they should share the Thought Bond one day, whatever the cost, for how could he not when he loved Faramir dearly as a brother or son?

**

Éowyn’s discussion with Aragorn continued late into the night. Her old feelings for the King long having been put aside, she now regarded him with the comfortable affection that a sister feels for a brother. Tonight though, they were simply two Healers, studying an ancient text to benefit a patient.

When she finally went to bed, she found her husband already asleep, the history tome still open on the coverlet. Obviously he had been reading until he could keep his eyes open no longer. Taking care not to wake him, she placed the book on the table, before turning down the lamp, changing into her nightgown and settling down beside him.

Affectionately, she smoothed back his hair, which had fallen over his brow, noting how peacefully he slept, a smile hovering on his lips. He finally seemed to have escaped his old demons, which had plagued his sleep with nightmares. Smiling at their present good fortune, Éowyn sank into a dreamless slumber.

**

Arwen was still awake when her husband tiptoed into the chamber. It was very late for after Éowyn had left, he had gone to see how Legolas was faring. To his relief, the Elf was sound asleep, with Gimli snoring loudly beside him. The Dwarf had obviously nodded off while watching over his friend.

Aragorn felt Legolas’ forehead and pulse without waking him and noted the rash visible on his face already visibly fading. The Elf appeared to be quickly regaining his usual robust health. He had crept out again as silently as he had entered.

Swordplay

The King made his way silently to Arwen’s chamber and crept into his dressing room. He swiftly changed into his nightshirt, having no need of a light after long years in the wild had left him able to find his way in the dark almost as easily as a cat. He padded barefoot across the floor and climbed into bed beside his wife.

Arwen stirred as he settled beside her.

“Did I wake you, beloved?” Aragorn asked contritely. “Maybe I should have slept in my own rooms tonight?”

“No, please stay here, my love, I like to have you beside me, especially at the moment,” Arwen replied. “I was just lying here wondering, which of us our child would most look like when it arrives. Did you have a pleasant evening, Estel?”

“Much more pleasant than this afternoon!” Aragorn chuckled. After a good supper, he was able to see the funny side of it. “You were right about Éowyn all those months ago, she does indeed have a good heart. And Faramir has grown so very dear to me.”

He nestled his head against Arwen’s huge belly, marvelling yet again at the miracle of new life moving within her. Her child, his child, the precious fruit of their love, was growing larger by the day, and was almost ready to enter the world if Éowyn’s instincts were correct.

“I know our child will be the most beautiful, adorable babe ever to be born!” Aragorn said, fervently placing a kiss over where he assumed the baby’s heart was, before moving up the bed to kiss Arwen on the lips. “It cannot be as fair as its mother, though!”

“Wait until you have met the babe!” Arwen laughed, returning the kiss and running her fingers through her husband’s unruly tresses. “I hope it has your hair!” The waviness never ceased to fascinate her and the fact the dark locks were now flecked with grey, something which she had never seen amongst her own kind.

Aragorn did not reply, as he was already snoring gently. Arwen smiled indulgently, thinking she would be weary too, if she had had such an adventurous day. Before many minutes had passed, she too was asleep, nestled against her husband.

***

The next morning, Legolas appeared completely recovered, just as Aragorn had predicted. No sign of the rash could be seen on his face or hands, and as he was sitting comfortably upon his horse, it had presumably disappeared from everywhere else as well.

His health and spirits restored, he cheerfully bade Aragorn and Faramir farewell and set off for Yves Lasgalen with Gimli where they were planning to remain for several months.

After they had gone, Aragorn told Faramir of the Elf’s misadventures of the previous evening.

Faramir was surprisingly sympathetic. “Poor Legolas!” he exclaimed, “I can think of nothing worse than having any injury in such an embarrassing region!”

“He is recovered now, though I gave him a jar of salve just in case the itching lingered,” Aragorn replied. “It takes a great deal to make an Elf blush, unlike we humans. It was the fact his skin was blemished, rather than where the rash was that so distressed him!”

“It cannot have been easy growing up amongst the Eldar,” Faramir said, finally bringing up a subject, which had long intrigued him.

“I enjoyed it as a child and was as uninhibited as Legolas then,” Aragorn confided, "but when I reached adolescence, I became far more self aware. First I developed spots on my nose, and worse was to come when I grew hairs on my chest and a beard! I have been self conscious ever since! Some of the Elves would tease me about how different and imperfect I was. I doubt they meant to be cruel, but for a sensitive youth it was very painful. Some even tried to tweak my beard and pull off my clothing to gratify their curiosity! My mother did her best to reassure me and even scolded the Elves that teased me, but I still find those memories painful to recall. I often wish I could have grown up with other human children as well as Elves. It was because of my own experiences that I was so anxious to treat your scars when I realised how much they distressed you.”

“I always felt inferior when compared with my brother.” Faramir said, a hint of melancholy in his voice. “He developed early and was very tall, muscular and strong whereas I was just tall and skinny. Boromir never made fun of me but the other boys and my father did. No one could compare with my brother.”

“You are a fine man in your own right and you are loved and valued now!” Aragorn replied, placing a comforting hand on his Steward’s shoulder. “You have my word that I shall protect you as your brother would have done. ”

Faramir smiled.” It is bliss to know I will never be beaten again and be free of my scars. I shall always endeavour to be worthy of all the kindness you have shown me, my friend. I will never let you down.”

“I know you would not and you richly deserve what little have given you. I count myself blessed to have you at my side.” Aragorn reassured him, patting his shoulder. “I hope you did not find yesterday’s events too distressing.”

“I enjoyed our swim until the goats came,” Faramir assured him. “And even afterwards I was sure you would think of something to spare our blushes!”

“We will leave a Guard with our clothes next time!” Aragorn grinned, touched by Faramir’s faith in him. “I will see you later at the Council Meeting, as I promised Arwen I would breakfast with her. I had better hurry if I want any, she is eating for two at present!”

“Éowyn said she would stay with the Queen later while we are in Council. I shall look forward to our next swim together, without the goats that is!” Faramir replied, grinning broadly.

“We are fortunate indeed to have you both.” Aragorn smiled, before they went their separate ways.

Early September

Steel clashed against steel as the King and his Steward honed their skills on the practise yard.

Aragorn was the better swordsman by far, while Faramir had the advantage of youth. The bout seemed destined to last all morning when the sound of a maidservant’s crying child distracted the Steward.

Aragorn took advantage of the lowered guard and swiftly levelled his sword tip at Faramir’s throat. A bead of blood appeared where the sword pricked the skin. “You are hurt!” Aragorn’s voice was full of concern. ”Come let me see!”

“It is nothing, I did not even feel it. You win,” Faramir said calmly, not batting an eyelid.

“You dropped your guard!” Aragorn chided, examining Faramir’s throat and wiping away the spot of blood. The Steward was right. It was a mere pinprick

Faramir shrugged. ”I would be more careful on a real battlefield, but I trust you in practise. Rematch?”

Aragorn nodded.

This time Faramir fought with renewed vigour and threw himself wholly into the bout.

The swords rang while the two experts each tried to surpass the other. This time Faramir won, by virtue both of making the older man tire to match his swift strokes and Aragorn being somewhat distracted. He held the point of his sword to Aragorn’s heart,

“I yield!” Aragorn threw up his hands in surrender and laughed. ”I made the mistake of underestimating you! With anyone else I would be more wary!”

“That is one match each!” Faramir exclaimed jubilantly. It was rare that he could best Aragorn with a sword, which made his occasional victories all the sweeter. “Shall we return to the ladies now?” he suggested.

“They are waiting for us.” Aragorn’s keen eyes had spotted his wife and Éowyn watching from an upstairs window.

He waved and Faramir did likewise before they sheathed their swords. Aragorn heaved a inward sigh of relief. After his vision, part of him had feared to spar with his Steward. It seemed the ‘vision’ had just been the jumbled workings of an overtired mind.

Cushions and Contractions

A tiny spot of Faramir’s blood on his fingertip could hardly be termed a catastrophe! Aragorn could have laughed out loud at his foolishness at taking his ‘vision’ so seriously.

“We had better change before joining the ladies,” Faramir, ever mindful of court etiquette suggested. He glanced ruefully at his sweat soaked shirt. The sparring had been especially energetic that morning. “I will go to my apartments and meet you later.”

“My rooms are much nearer,” Aragorn replied, “You can borrow a clean shirt of mine. It will be quicker if we change together.”

“Thank you,” Faramir replied, following the King into his room and pulling the sweat soaked shirt over his head and casting it aside.

“There is water and a towel on the washstand.” Aragorn told him, as he did likewise, thinking as he did so what a change had come over Faramir these last few months. Before undergoing the Elven scar treatment, the Steward would have gone to almost any lengths to avoid changing his shirt in front of anyone else, most especially his King.

He found himself surreptitiously looking at Faramir’s throat again; still anxious that he was injured, but nothing at all was visible now. The incident had shaken him, but he resolved to put it from his mind. Sword practise was vital for them both to keep their skills finely honed.

It gladdened his heart that his Steward was so relaxed and comfortable in his company and in such good health and spirits. Faramir now moved with grace and ease, when once he had struggled even to raise his arms above his head without pain. Now, he glowed with health and vigour, the effect heightened by the slight tan he had acquired the day they went swimming.

“Can I borrow a blue shirt?” Faramir asked, as he towelled himself vigorously.” That is Éowyn’s favourite colour.”

“Of course, here you are! We are so grateful to Éowyn,” Aragorn said, tossing the garment to him and choosing a red shirt for himself as that was his own wife’s favourite shade. “Arwen is feeling nervous now the birth approaches and it helps her to have Éowyn constantly at her side.”

“We will all be glad when the baby is safely born,” Faramir replied, his voice muffled as he drew the borrowed shirt over his head. “You will make a wonderful father!” Smoothing down the garment, he proceeded to borrow a comb to tidy his glossy mane of black hair.

“As will you, my friend.” Aragorn replied. ”You will give your child all the love it deserves. I will be relieved when our baby is here; poor Arwen is so large she can hardly move. It cannot be much longer! Come on, we should hurry, Arwen is somewhat impatient at present!”

“You had better tidy your hair too or she will go into premature labour with fright at the sight of you!” Faramir teased, handing his friend the comb.

Aragorn’s unruly locks looked wilder than ever, having survived sword practice, washing and drying and the change of clothing and now resembled the shaggy coat of a dog, of the kind that has to be combed in order for it to see where it is going. “No one cared how I looked when I was a Ranger!” he groaned.

Sighing, Aragorn struggled to tame the wild locks; ignoring his Steward’s smirking. Brought up within the rigours of Denethor’s court, Faramir would consider it unthinkable to appear other than perfectly groomed in the presence of ladies or his superiors.

Éowyn was helping the Queen waddle back to the couch. ”That was a fine display of swordsmanship!” she complimented the men, as they entered. ”You only see that when the combatants trust each other completely.”

Aragorn grinned as he gave his wife an affectionate kiss.

“I am lucky Faramir is here, so we can practise with real blades sometimes, as there is none other save Éomer that I could trust with my life like that.” he said.

“What about my brothers?” Arwen asked with a frown.

“I trust them too, but being Elves, they are too quick for me,” the King replied, dodging the cushion his wife threw at him in mock indignation.

“So we mere mortals are slow then?” Faramir followed the Queen’s example, only with better aim, hitting the King on the chest.

“Show some respect for your King! I will have your head!” Aragorn chortled as he hurled the cushion back aiming for his Steward’s head, only to be hit by two more thrown by the women.

Laughing the two men collapsed on the heap of scattered cushions as they continued their mock fight. Éowyn and the Queen laughed till tears rolled down their cheeks at their husbands’ antics.

Mid September

He was weeping over the prone form on the bed, but he could not see their face, as they were shrouded in blankets. All he knew was, it was someone he loved dearly. He bent forward to pull the blankets aside.

“Estel, wake up!”

Aragorn slowly opened his eyes and tried to force himself to full consciousness and away from the blackness of his nightmare. While he was living in the wilds as a Ranger, it had been easy for him to wake instantly alert, but during these last three years, he had grown accustomed to a life of ease and learned to sleep deeply. For a moment, he felt he was back in the wilds, lying on damp grass.

“Wake up!” Arwen’s voice was more insistent.

“What?” he mumbled, blinking at her.” It is still dark!”

“ I am having contractions and my waters have just broken! The baby is coming!”

Aragorn was now fully alert and leapt out of bed. Grabbing his breeches, he pulled them on over his nightshirt.

“I will fetch Éowyn.” He knew he should think of something profound to say at this moment, but the words would not come as he hurried out of the room to fetch help. For the last week or two, either Ioreth or Éowyn had slept in a bedroom adjoining the Queen’s chambers in case they were needed.

Éowyn, a robe pulled over her nightgown, answered the King’s knock quickly. Always a light sleeper, she was quickly alert and seeing the look on Aragorn’s face, guessed at once what was happening.

“Go back to Arwen!” she instructed him. “I will send a servant to summon Ioreth and will be with you in a moment.

Aragorn rushed back to his wife who moaned as a contraction came. Aragorn concentrated and held his hand over her belly, using his healing powers to ease her pain.

“I am afraid!” Arwen gasped. ”It is too soon!”

Aragorn gently stroked her hair. “Hush, my love, the babe could take after me, remember! Éowyn said she thought you would give birth around now, so the time must be right.”

Just then Éowyn entered the room, and quickly grasped the situation.

“She is having contractions, I think,” Aragorn said helplessly.

“I need to examine her to make sure, if you would leave us?” Éowyn said, quickly taking charge of the situation.

Anxious about his wife, the King hesitated.

“Shoo!” Éowyn said impatiently, propelling him towards the door. “Go and ask Faramir to stay with you, while your wife and I deliver your heir! You can look after each other as I must stay constantly by Arwen’s side for at least three days!”

“A good idea, if he can endure my company! ” Aragorn replied, as he obediently retired to his dressing room, closing the door behind him.

A brief examination confirmed what they suspected.

“You are in labour and everything is happening just as it should be,” Éowyn soothed. She slid a dry shift over the Queen’s swollen body and called Aragorn back into the room.

“The babe is on its way. Now stay calm!” Éowyn instructed. “Ioreth is coming and we will take Arwen to the rooms prepared for her confinement I will help her to dress first. If you feel another contraction, Arwen, don’t panic just take deep breaths. Now which of your ladies will be attending you?”

“Lady Meril and Lady Morwen. Several maids are coming too, to assist with fetching and carrying. They can be handed buckets of water at the chamber’s entrance or pass messages to the guards when need be.”

Arwen allowed Éowyn to lead her to her dressing room and clothe her in a loose gown.

Meanwhile, Aragorn moving restlessly to the door, lingered anxiously on the threshold, looking for Ioreth.

Arwen was already dressed and ready by the time the elderly midwife appeared.

“You are late!” Aragorn reproached her.

“And you, Lord Elfstone, know nothing of first babies!” she retorted. “They take their time in coming, it could take two days or more!”

Warning – This chapter contains violence and from now on the story takes a dark turn with violence, injuries and angst, so please read with caution.

Fall from Grace

Arwen grasped her husband’s hand. “If anything should go wrong,” she faltered, ”I want our baby to be saved.”

“Much as I want our child, my love, it is you I adore! I regret now that I ever got you in this condition to risk your life by giving me an heir!” Aragorn protested, his nightmare returning with a frightening clarity. ”Your life comes first, but do not think of such things and distress yourself!”

“It was my choice. I want a child as much as you do, you need an heir, Gondor needs the line of Kings to continue,” the Queen said firmly. “I love you so much, Estel!” They exchanged a lingering kiss and only broke apart when another contraction hit Arwen.

“Come, Lady Elfstone,” Ioreth ordered, “we need to prepare you for the birth.”

Aragorn took Éowyn aside. ”Take good care of her please,” he begged, “I am so worried.”

Éowyn gently patted his arm; it was rare she saw the usually self-assured King in this mood ”Please, try not to worry, we are taking every precaution,” she said quietly. ”However, I believe that you have no need to fear, your wife is strong, broad hipped, and I know the babe’s head is in the right position. You will soon be holding your first child in your arms and telling Arwen, how proud you are of her!”

“Thank you, Éowyn, I know she is in good hands.” Aragorn tried to force a smile, but there were tears in his eyes as Arwen was led away. He feared he would never see his beloved wife again in this life.

“You need to keep yourself busy today, all expectant fathers feel the same,” Ioreth chuckled knowingly.

“Farewell, my love!“ Arwen called as she disappeared down the stone corridor.

Aragorn returned to bed and tried to go back to sleep for a few more hours, but found it impossible to rest. He could have sent for Faramir to keep him company. It seemed unfair, though, to disturb his Steward just yet when he could still have a few more hours of restful sleep in his own apartments.

He intended to keep Faramir at his side throughout the coming days. Since their ordeal at the Hunting Lodge, they had become close friends and apart from Arwen, Faramir was the only other person that Aragorn felt he could share his innermost hopes and fears with.

At daybreak, Aragorn abandoned any further attempt at sleeping. He was just too concerned about his wife. He supposed he should eat breakfast, though he had little appetite. Afterwards he had to attend that day’s Council Meeting. Duty must always come first, however he was feeling, as Elrond had taught him all his life. Faramir would understand this; he too had been well schooled in duty, albeit more harshly, by his late father

The King’s hands shook as he fastened his elaborate tunic. Maybe, he should have sent for a servant to help him dress, but he disliked having others clothe him. He usually dispensed with their services, unless it was some state function, for which a second pair of hands was essential to secure all the finery in place.

He paced the room restlessly, knowing he could not spend most of the day like this .It was so hard to concentrate when his every thought was with Arwen, wishing he could ease her pain. A servant brought him some food on a tray and he picked at it before pushing it aside and making his way to the Council Chamber.

It was a beautiful sunny morning. Minas Tirith was alive with citizens bustling through the streets. Across the courtyard, he could see Faramir already mounting the steps to the Hall of Kings. The Steward paused when one of the lords came to speak to him. Everything in the entire city seemed at ease with the sole exception of her King.

Suddenly, loud shouting and the clatter of hoof beats on stone shattered the peaceful atmosphere.

“Horses are not permitted in the Citadel! You are not allowed here!” a hapless guard protested, only to be pushed aside as Éomer King of Rohan and his personal Éored stormed into the courtyard, scattering alarmed guards and citizens in their wake. Women and children screamed while the horses neighed wildly in the unaccustomed environment.

Aragorn raced outside to try and calm the commotion.

Éomer, a grim expression on his face, dismounted, and after handing his horse’s reins to one of his Éored, looked around him, as if searching for someone. He suddenly espied Faramir amongst the Counsellors and strode menacingly towards him. “Come here, worthless scoundrel, how dare you insult and dishonour my sister!” Éomer raged, waving a sheet of parchment under Faramir’s nose

“I know not of what you speak, brother!” Faramir replied. Utterly bewildered, he backed up the steps towards the entrance of the Council Chamber. “There must be some misunderstanding. Come inside and let us discuss this calmly.”

“How dare you call me ‘brother’, when you treat my sister without honour! How many times have you beaten her? What cruel humiliations have you forced upon her, a Princess of Rohan? How many of your friends have you forced her to lie with? ”

“Only one. She was not forced and there was no impropriety, as he was near death,” Faramir replied, blushing as he recalled the events of six months before.

“From your own lips you admit it!” Éomer looked more outraged than ever.

“I have never abused nor ill-treated my wife! I have no idea why you accuse me,” Faramir protested.

“Send for her then and let her speak!” Éomer snapped.

“I cannot, as she is attending the Queen during her confinement,” Faramir said quietly.

“Will not or can not? Or is this some new insult to her, forcing her to act as the Queen of Gondor’s maid?” Éomer snapped, drawing his broadsword and advancing on Faramir. ”I demand satisfaction, arm yourself! Worthless cur though you are, I would not kill you in cold blood!” He threw the crumpled parchment down at Faramir’s feet.

Faramir hesitated, unsure of whether or not to pick it up. He decided not to when Éomer advanced menacingly. Slowly and reluctantly he drew his sword.

“Stop this at once!” Aragorn, having arrived on the scene, shouted in a commanding tone. He was somewhat out of breath in his haste to get there.

“This is none of your affair, save that you should have not let your Steward abuse my sister, Aragorn Arathornsson!” Éomer retorted. ”I will avenge Éowyn’s honour, whether you like it or not!”

Aragorn tried to rush forward but found himself restrained by his own guards. “Let me pass!” he ordered.

“Your life could be in danger, sire, and we are sworn to protect you,” the Captain of the Guard replied. “You can punish us as you will, but we are not letting you face over a hundred heavily armed men, unarmed, and protected by only four guards!”

“I order you, as your King, let me pass!” Aragorn roared.

Éomer rushed forward up the steps towards Faramir and lashed out with his sword, catching the Steward a glancing blow across the arm and side. Trying to defend himself, Faramir lunged at his opponent, aiming to disable his sword arm.

Éomer spun away from the blow, while Faramir was thrown slightly off balance and as result landed Éomer a blow to the chest.

The King of Rohan, standing precariously on the top step, overbalanced as Faramir’s sword pierced him. He fell down the stone steps backwards; landing with a sickening thud, then lay there motionless, blood pouring from his head and chest.

His followers leapt from their horses, drew their swords and milled round him, loudly demanding justice.

Aragorn finally broke free from his guards and rushed to Éomer’s side. The King of Rohan appeared lifeless and Aragorn bit back a cry of anguish as he bent over his stricken friend.

He held his hand over Éomer’s nose and mouth and thought he detected a faint breath. Speed was the essence if he were to have any chance of survival.

“Take him to my apartments!” Aragorn ordered. “Carry him carefully.”

The Rohirrim pressed round Faramir, lances raised, demanding vengeance, while the Gondorian guards, who had come rushing from their various posts round the city, tried to hold them at bay.

A large crowd of citizens had also pressed into the courtyard on hearing the commotion. The horses, unused to the city, stirred restlessly, threatening to unseat their riders and stampede.

“Death!” chanted Éomer’s men.

“For the White Tree in the name of the King!” cried the Gondorians

Aragorn realised he must act quickly if war was to be averted. “Take Faramir, Steward of Gondor into my custody!” he ordered. He bent and stuffed the crumpled parchment into his tunic.

White with shock, the unresisting Steward was led away.

“He must die, he killed our King!” demanded the Rohirrim.

Aragorn raced to the top of the steps, oblivious to his own safety.

“Put down your weapons!” he roared. ”Guards, arrest anyone who desists! Good citizens of Gondor, return to your homes, you are under curfew for the rest of the day.”

He then called in Rohirric “Men of Rohan, I myself, Aragorn Arathornsson will care for Éomer King and see justice done. Put down your weapons, your horses could easily be harmed in this confined space!”

Aragorn held his breath, hoping that war could yet be averted.

Grievous wounds

Several spacious rooms and a bathing chamber had been prepared for the Queen’s confinement. The largest overlooked a secluded garden and was furnished with comfortable low chairs and a couch. The adjoining chamber was furnished with a large bed and several smaller rooms for the attendants were nearby.

While the two ladies in waiting took the Queen to bathe, Ioreth and Éowyn unpacked everything they might need; a supply of clean shifts, towels and clean cloths, herbs, ice kept packed in straw to staunch bleeding if it occurred, a needle and thread and tongs, which they might need but hoped they would not. A sharp knife also lay on the table, used to cut the cord. Kept hidden, was a larger knife, a hideous final option to try and cut a living child from the dying body of its mother.

Éowyn shuddered as Ioreth concealed the weapon. She was certain Arwen and the babe were healthy at the moment, but could Arwen, with an Elven mother and half Elven father safely give birth to Aragorn’s child? She had delivered several babies in the past, but always to sturdy Rohirric women who usually had several children already. This confinement was unlike anything she had known before and even Ioreth, veteran of more births than she could count, was looking apprehensive.

Arwen returned from her bath looking refreshed. She started to pace round the largest of the rooms, restless as a caged animal.

“Would you like some music?” Éowyn asked, aware of the Queen's liking for sweet melodies and desiring to soothe her friend.

Arwen nodded, hoping it would distract her from the pain.

Ioreth looked rather shocked at such a novelty in a birthing chamber.

Lady Meril produced her harp and started to play while Lady Morwen sang in an attempt to soothe the Queen.

Arwen continued to pace but gradually became calmer.

**

Slowly, the mob started to disperse, moved both by Aragorn’s words and his commanding presence.

Swiftly, he moved back to Éomer’s side, where two of his Guards hovered with a stretcher. Kneeling beside him, he weighed up the risks of moving his friend. From what he could determine from a swift examination, Éomer’s neck and spine appeared undamaged. He could hardly be treated lying outside in the open, so Aragorn carefully eased the King of Rohan on the stretcher, aided by the guards.

Aragorn brushed the sweat from his face with the back of his hand. He took a deep breath. This was a situation he could never have imagined in his worse nightmares; one of his closest friends severely injured, the distinct possibility of war with Rohan, and being bereft of the support and guidance of his Queen and his Steward just when he needed them the most.

He summoned every ounce of composure that he possessed, directing the bearers to carry the King of Rohan to the nearest bedchamber and lay him carefully on the bed.

Éomer was a much-loved friend, as was Faramir. However could this have happened? He pushed his feelings aside, knowing he must concentrate on trying to save the King of Rohan’s life and thereby avert a bloody conflict. A group of Rohirrim and Palace guards followed close behind, muttering angrily amongst themselves.

As soon as he entered the room, Aragorn grabbed a mirror, and held it in front of Éomer’s lips. A fine mist appeared on the glass and Aragorn could have wept with relief.

“Éomer, King of the Riddermark yet lives!” he announced in a loud voice. “Now everyone leave this chamber, save the Captain of the Guard and his Lieutenant. Éomer King’s wounds must be tended with all haste if he is to have any hope of surviving! I want guards posted outside this room at all times.”

The Gondorians left the obediently but the Rohirrim lingered.

“Go!” Aragorn ordered in Rohirric.” You endanger your King’s life by remaining! I give you my word to do everything I can for my brother of Rohan.”

They filed out, muttering amongst themselves all save one, whom Aragorn recognised as Eothain, a faithful but surly companion of Eomer’s since his days as Third Marshal in Théoden’s court.

“I am not leaving my Lord with him whose Steward struck him down!” Eothain said angrily.

“Very well!” Aragorn bit back the rebuke he wanted to utter. ”But sit over there and do not interfere or I will throw you out myself!” He gestured to a chair in the corner of the room and then turned to his two remaining guards. ”I want the swiftest of you to go and fetch the two most experienced healers from the Houses of Healing and tell them to bring everything needed to treat wounds,” he ordered. “Ask the Warden whom he recommends, but be swift!”

He had the skills to treat Éomer himself, but wanted two assistants, both to help him and to serve as witnesses that everything possible had been done, should Éomer die. He was aware that he could be seen as less than impartial, not being one of the Rohirrim and that his Steward had wounded Éomer.

The young Lieutenant sped away. Aragorn then turned to the Captain. “I need you to go to the Council Chamber and inform Prince Imrahil what has happened and ask him to lead today’s debates.”

If the Captain replied, Aragorn did not hear, as he was already at Eomer’s bedside engrossed in trying to save his friend.

At a glance Aragorn could see that Éomer was bleeding profusely from wounds in his head and chest, while his right shoulder, on which he had landed heavily, was at an odd angle.

Aragorn staunched the bleeding as best he could, with a sheet snatched up from the bed and then took Éomer’s pulse, which felt alarmingly weak and rapid.

He shouted to a passing servant to fetch some athelas from the gardens. He feared he was going to need it.

Lifting Éomer in his arms, he started unfastening the armour he wore.

“I should be doing that!” Eothain protested, approaching the bedside.

“I told you to stay over there!” Aragorn snapped.

“How can I when my lord requires my aid?” the Rohir replied. “I fastened his armour on him but this morning!”

“Very well.” Aragorn conceded, inwardly realising the man would be more adept with the fastenings than he was. It was long before Eothain was even born, since he had last wrestled with the intricate clasps the Rohirrim used, the chain mail Théoden had lent him, being of a different design.

The armour Éomer wore was more ceremonial than functional, and had been all too easy for Faramir’s blade to pierce.

Together, they lifted off the elaborate leather breastplate revealing the torn and blood soaked tunic beneath. Aragorn’s heart sank even more, especially as Eomer showed no sign of life when they moved him.

He carefully cut the ruined tunic away and sighed when the gash that Faramir had cut across the broad chest was finally revealed.

The wound was deep, bleeding heavily and had only missed his heart by mere inches. The jagged edges of the injury suggested the blade and gone awry and not hit its intended target cleanly.

Eothain was now purple with rage. “Your Steward did this to my Lord!” he snarled. “He will pay, I swear it!”

“Justice will be done!” Aragorn said in a voice that brokered no argument, pressing a cloth against the wound, attempting to staunch the bleeding.

He bent and pressed an ear against Éomer’s chest. He suspected the damage included a collapsed lung, though the colour of the blood issuing forth led him to hope it had not been pierced. He gently prodded the bruised ribs, and found that several were broken, much as he had feared.

He then examined Éomer’s shoulder, which proved to be dislocated rather than broken. He pressed it back in place. To his alarm, the painful procedure produced no reaction whatsoever as Éomer lay motionless beneath his hands. Aragorn feared more than ever for the life of his friend.

The healers, clad in the black robes of their calling, arrived accompanied by a servant, who was carrying the supplies they needed. Aragorn recognised them as Tarostar, the Warden himself, who had been Denethor’s personal physician and Aedred, a younger healer, who originally hailed from Rohan.

Aragorn made a mental note to thank whoever had been responsible for this piece of diplomacy, for Eothain visibly softened on seeing one of his fellow countrymen enter. Aragorn was hopeful these two Healers were amongst the most skilled available, especially Tarostar, who had been a Healer almost as long as Aragorn himself.

Aragorn quickly greeted them and explained the situation. Even as he spoke, they moved over to the bed. Tarostar took over applying pressure to the chest wound, while Aedred, speaking softly in Rohirric to Eothain, helped him to remove his King’s leg armour and boots.

Aragorn turned his attention to the head injury. The King frowned as Éomer’s head was starting to swell at an alarming speed. He had seen wounds like this before and very few survived them. He had once assisted Elrond with a dangerous but effective procedure, from which the patient had made a full recovery. He hoped he could remember the exact details. He feared he might have to try it on Éomer if the King of Rohan was to have any chance of survival.

Aedred was preparing to finish undressing Eomer and unfastened the leather breeches.

“What are you doing?” Eothain asked suspiciously. “Show some respect for our King!”

“We need to see if he has any more injuries.” Aedred explained.

“You are one of those Gondorians now as you follow their foreign ways!” Eothain grumbled. "In Rohan, you never part a man from his breeches in case he needs to mount a horse in a hurry!”

Aragorn glared, knowing the man just wanted to cause trouble, as the Rohirrim were generally totally unconcerned about nakedness. He wondered whether he should throw the man out, but instead gestured towards a folded blanket lying on the table.” I do not think your King will go riding for some time yet,” he said. “Fetch that blanket to keep him warm with.”

Aedred uncovered a badly bruised hip and twisted knee once the clothing was removed. He set to work bathing the hurts and applying salves of arnica and marigold before taking the blanket from Eothain and covering Éomer’s lower body with it. Only then did they notice that the man’s breath reeked of ale.

Aragorn caught Aedred’s eye and transmitted a silent message. They began cleaning the chest wound, which had finally stopped bleeding.

Aedred took Eothain to one side. ”I have an important errand for you,” he said. “I wish you to go and tell the rest of your King’s men what is happening. I am certain they will be as concerned as you are.”

“I don’t want to leave him.” Eothain said stubbornly, “not with these Gondorians!”

“I am of the Mark and will care for him, I give you my word,” Aedred said firmly, guiding Eothain towards the doorway. “It is best that news of Éomer King should come from one of his own men!”

Aragorn and Tarostar now examined the chest wound carefully and debated how best to treat it. They decided on washing it out with an infusion of meadowsweet ,before stitching it and then smearing it with honey and garlic to prevent infection from setting in.

”It looks as if the edge of the sword caught him,” Tarostar remarked. “I have seen many wounds like this, but only after a battle!”

Aragorn sighed as he threaded a needle. “ King Éomer overbalanced and fell on to the blade, most unfortunate, though I am hopeful that it is not a mortal injury. While I do this, could you shave the hair surrounding his head wound? ”

Tarostar took up a razor and began to carefully shave off part the matted and bloodied blonde mane surrounding the injury.

“You are skilled with a needle, my Lord,” Aedred commented admiringly, as he bandaged the damaged knee.

“Lord Elrond of Rivendell taught me.” Aragorn replied without looking up. “My skills are nothing compared with those of the Elven healers, I fear. I see you are a diplomat as well as a healer, Master Aedred, you dealt well with Eothain. I did not want him to witness it when I cut open the King of Rohan’s skull!”

Warning- This chapter may upset readers of a squeamish disposition.

A Dangerous Procedure

Aedred blanched and even Tarostar looked alarmed, He tugged nervously at his white beard.

“My lord, that is very dangerous!” the elderly healer protested. “I have heard of the procedure, but not of any surviving it! Would it not be better to wait and see if the swelling subsides?”

Aragorn looked troubled but said nothing. He finished the stitching and turned his attention to Éomer’s injured ribs, feeling them gently before applying a salve of comfrey and arnica. He motioned to Aedred to lift the King of Rohan while he bandaged his chest wound and strapped the damaged ribs.

He then moved up the bed and stood for a moment studying Éomer. “See how his head is swollen!” Aragorn pointed out. “It has grown worse, even since you came in this room. I well know the procedure is dangerous but not to try it, would be more so. I do not like doing it, but fear I have no choice.” He gently probed the head wound with his long sensitive fingertips, while he spoke. “I will need you to hold him while I make the incisions.”

The Healers still looked doubtful but did not wish to contradict the King.

“Have you any better suggestions?” Aragorn asked, determined to leave no stone unturned in his efforts to save his friend.

“I fear I cannot think of any other treatment except cold compresses, which I doubt would work.” Tarostar sighed. “We will assist you as best we may, sire.”

Aragorn wrapped blankets round Éomer to keep him warm and to try to prevent him going into shock, then draped a towel round the young King’s shoulders.

Carefully, he washed his hands and steeled himself for one of the most difficult tasks of his life. He knew it was unwise to carry out such a procedure on a loved one and it turned his stomach to think of what he must do. He was all too aware that Éomer’s life lay in his hands. He alone had the skill and knowledge to save his friend and could not allow himself to give way to his natural revulsion.

He studied Éomer’s pale face, trying to see him merely as a man in need of his help rather than his brother in arms; his first and most faithful ally in the struggle to defeat Sauron and a loyal friend who had shown him many kindnesses and always held his welfare close to his heart.

Éomer lay as still, as one already dead and Aragorn knew that unless he acted quickly, his friend would soon be beyond all mortal aid.

“Hold him upright!” Aragorn instructed the Healers. He took a knife they had brought from the Houses of Healing and held it in the flames of the fire to cleanse it.

Taking a deep breath to steady his hand, he made three incisions round the wound on Éomer’s head, each about three inches in length.

Tarostar, while supporting Éomer’s upper body with one hand, used the other to mop away the blood oozing from the fresh cuts, to allow Aragorn a clear view of Éomer’s skull when the scalp was pealed back to expose the shattered skull beneath.

Aragorn carefully picked out the fragments of bone, all the while taking care not to pierce the membrane surrounding the brain, as that would cause a most likely fatal infection.

It was deliberate and painstaking work as one slip would be fatal, as would leaving any fragments of bone inside. When he was satisfied the wound was clean, he folded back the skin flap and carefully stitched it, before applying a salve of garlic and honey to fight off infection.

Aragorn finally dared to relax a little. He found that he was shaking.

“You should rest a while, my liege,” Tarostar counselled, “I will bandage King Éomer’s head.”

Aragorn nodded and permitted Aedred to assist him to a chair. The Rohirric healer brought him a restorative drink and a cloth to wipe his hands; hands stained red with his close friend’s blood.

“That cannot have been easy for you, my lord, I know you hold Éomer King in high esteem.” Aedred sympathised, holding the cup for him to drink from.

Aragorn briefly closed his eyes and for once, allowed himself to be aided. He felt drained with the strain of fighting for his friend’s life combined with guilt about not being able to prevent this catastrophe. Then, before all this had happened, he was worried about Arwen and the child she was bringing into the world.

Tarostar paused in his almost completed bandaging, uneasy about Éomer’s condition. The King of Rohan seemed to be turning paler by the moment and his breathing grew more erratic. Tarostar checked his heartbeat.

“He grows weaker!” he exclaimed in alarm, “His heart is slowing!” He pulled down the blankets and made to massage the failing heart.

His momentary weakness forgotten, Aragorn leapt to his feet. “Leave him to me. Bring hot water, quickly!” he demanded.

The Healers looked baffled, but did as they were bidden and brought a bowl of steaming water to the King, into which he cast two leaves of athelas.

“Hold the bowl under King Éomer’s face!” he commanded Tarostar.

“But my liege, we should be trying to revive him!” the elderly Healer protested.

“I am trying to, do as I say!” Aragorn’s tone brokered no argument. “Hold the bowl!”

The King went on his knees by his friend’s bedside and clasped round Éomer’s cold hands.

“Éomer, Éomer!” he called, as if in a trance.

The Healers looked on in bewilderment. “Whatever is he doing?” whispered Aedred.

“I know not, but Dame Ioreth told me he used some strange Elvish arts to cure the Lord Faramir of the Black Breath, maybe this is akin to it?” Tarostar replied in a low voice. He looked with some alarm at Aragorn, who had turned almost as pale as the King of Rohan.

Éomer suddenly started to breathe more deeply and some colour returned to his pale features much to the amazement of the watching Healers.

Aragorn swayed and would have fallen, had Aedred not steadied him. He helped the King to his feet and led him to a chair.

“His heart beats strongly now!” Tarostar, who was examining Éomer, announced.

“My lord, you are unwell, let me aid you!” Aedred fretted.

Aragorn gradually regained his composure. “I am well, just give me a moment.” he replied, gently but firmly batting the Healer’s hands away.

“This type of healing is very draining, I believe, though I have never seen it done before. That is, if it is not just some sort of illusion. It could be the athelas acts as a restorative,” Tarostar commented, secretly impressed but not wishing to acknowledge something, which broke every rule of healing he knew of, in front of his young colleague. “Dame Ioreth told me the King’s friends feared for his well being when he healed the Lord Faramir, but that he quickly recovered.”

“Faramir!” Aragorn, all weariness forgotten, leapt to his feet, remembering that he had ordered his Steward to be taken into custody.

The Mystery of the Missing Steward

“My lord?” Tarostar asked in bewilderment.

“I must go to my Steward as soon as I can safely leave Lord Éomer.” Aragorn explained, inwardly cursing himself for not sending someone to check on Faramir’s welfare sooner, but the seriousness of Éomer’s condition had pushed all other considerations from his mind.

“I was told that Lord Faramir was injured as well as King Éomer.” Tarostar remarked. ”I hope his hurts are not serious. He is very dear to me for I have known him since he was a child.”

“He is very dear to me too,” Aragorn replied, wondering however he could have forgotten all about his closest friend.

Returning to Éomer’s bedside, he carefully examined him. The athelas treatment appeared to have worked. His dreadful pallor had been replaced by a healthier colour, the previously weak and fluttering heartbeat was now stronger and steadier, and his skin no longer felt cold and clammy to the touch. However, he was still deeply unconscious and failed to respond when Aragorn softly called his name.

“He is seriously ill, but I believe he has a good chance of survival if he regains consciousness within the next day or two and is able to take food and water then,” Aragorn pronounced, allowing himself to heave a small sigh of relief. “We should make him as comfortable as possible now.”

The healers agreed and together with Aragorn they bathed Éomer in the water in which athelas had been steeped and clothed the King of Rohan in a soft linen nightshirt, one of Aragorn’s own. They placed pillows under his head and shoulders to ease his breathing, hampered as he was by a collapsed lung and damaged ribs.

Aragorn gently wiped Éomer’s face and moistened his dry lips with a cloth soaked in cool water.

“Get well, dear friend!” he murmured, so softly that Éomer alone might hear. He bent and gently kissed his brow.

Éomer lay there unaware of his friend’s concern. It tore Aragorn’s heart to see the vibrant King of Rohan, looking so vulnerable and much younger than his thirty years.

“Stay at his side, keep him comfortable and inform me of any changes at once!” he instructed the Healers. He thanked them for their help and prepared to leave.

“I believe you have saved his life.” Aedred informed him, considerable warmth in his voice. “Now you should rest yourself, my lord. We will care for King Éomer.”

Aragorn wished he could take the advice, but first he had to find out what had caused Éomer to attack Faramir and see how his Steward was faring. He believed Faramir had suffered a gash to his arm in the fight, not a severe wound, but one that needed properly tending. He hoped a skilled Healer had stitched it for him.

Imrahil was waiting for him outside the door, pacing the corridor anxiously.

“How fares my son in law?” the Prince of Dol Amroth asked anxiously. ”I need to send word to my poor daughter!”

“He lives and I hope he may yet recover, but he is unconscious,” Aragorn told him. “Have you heard any tidings of my Queen?”

Imrahil shook his head. “No more than in the message, you sent, my lord. And what of my nephew? Matters have gone very ill this day! The Council are calling for war to avenge the attack on Gondor’s Steward. I told them they must await your decision. The Rohirrim are confined in the barracks for the time being, both for our safety and for theirs.”

“You did well, I sincerely hope conflict may yet be averted, as long as Éomer survives and we can learn the reason for his actions.” Aragorn clapped the Prince on the shoulder as a gesture of gratitude. “I am going to speak to Faramir now to try and find out why Éomer attacked him. War must be averted at all costs with our friends and allies in Rohan. I need to know what was behind Éomer’s strange accusations.”

Imrahil coughed. “Should you not bathe and change first, my lord? You look, um, somewhat alarming!”

Aragorn glanced down and noticed for the first time that his tunic was stained with copious amounts of Éomer’s blood, as were his hands and arms. His sweat soaked clothing clung damply to his skin. The strain of trying to save his friend had exerted him heavily.

“You have a point,” he said ruefully. “I could alarm the servants like this! Luckily we are near my apartments.”

Imrahil followed Aragorn into his spacious rooms and sat down to wait while the King changed.

Aragorn pulled off the blood stained outer tunic in the main room and flung it aside. He was not squeamish but found being soaked with the blood of his friend a highly unpleasant experience. A piece of parchment fell to the ground as he tugged the garment over his head.

Imrahil stooped and picked it up as Aragorn disappeared into his dressing room.

“Whatever is this?” he exclaimed.

“Éomer was waving it around just before he attacked Faramir,” Aragorn replied, emerging from the room with a handful of clean garments. ”I had forgotten about it until now. I have been so preoccupied.” He took the now blood splattered parchment from Imrahil, unfolded it and read aloud; “Dearest brother, I beg you to come and take me home. Faramir does not love me and cares nothing for my honour. I can endure it no longer. Your loving sister, Éowyn.”

“Éowyn!” Aragorn groaned as he let the parchment slide on the table “I should have guessed Éomer was angry on behalf of his sister! But why? Faramir would never ill treat his wife .He is the most honourable of men!”

“I thought my nephew and Lady Éowyn were happy, they seemed overjoyed to be expecting a child!” Imrahil looked bewildered.

Aragorn disappeared into his bathing chamber and carried on the conversation through the door, which he had left slightly ajar.

“They are very happy now, but it was different when they were first married. I suspect Éowyn switched her affections to Faramir rather too quickly,” Aragorn replied, pouring water from a pitcher into a bowl, untroubled that it was cold. “Do you remember when I took them to Duilin of Morthond’s hunting lodge last spring?”

“Of course, you left me in charge of the City while you were away. Faramir seemed much more happy and confident when you returned, but he never told me why.”

“A great deal happened during that time, which would take me all day to tell you.” Aragorn explained, as he bathed his upper body vigorously. ”Suffice to say that a misunderstanding about the reasons for their marriage was making them both unhappy, especially Éowyn, who was furious about being invited to the lodge. I invited her, rather than commanded, but Faramir taking it to be an order, insisted that she come. I would guess the letter dates from that time but why Éomer has suddenly acted on it, I have no idea.”

“You had better ask the lady,” Imrahil replied, as the King emerged, clad in a clean linen shirt and woollen breeches. He pulled a tunic, lavishly embroidered with the White Tree, over his head.

“You forget, she is attending Arwen during her confinement and may not be disturbed on pain of death!” Aragorn replied grimly. “All we can do is ask Faramir if he knows anything about it and keep the Rohirrim apart from him until Éowyn can speak.”

“Where is Faramir?” Imrahil asked as they prepared to leave.

“I had him taken into my custody for his own safety, so he will be in ‘The Hospitality room’,” Aragorn explained.” I fear I may have seemed harsh, but Éomer’s men would have torn him limb from limb had I not appeared to punish him. The situation was very ugly.”

“You did your best and I am sure he will understand,” Imrahil replied. ”You had no other choice.”

Aragorn still looked worried. “He was wounded too, though only slightly it seemed. I would like to tend him myself, though I expect the Guards will have sent for a Healer. I fear though, he may be upset or believe that he really has incurred my wrath and some dire punishment might await him. I should have gone to him before, but Éomer was dying and it took all my skills to revive him.”

“I fear my late brother in law has a lot to answer for,” Imrahil said bitterly.” He almost destroyed Faramir’s confidence but he has regained it since you came to the throne.”

“It has gladdened my heart to see him blossom.” Aragorn said sincerely, as they made their way to the euphemistically labelled ‘Hospitality Room’ room, used to detain everyone who caused trouble to the Royal Household, be it foreign diplomats suspected of spying, lords drunk at banquets or disruptive dignitaries.

To Aragorn’s surprise, there was no guard outside the door of the detention chamber, which was customary when it was occupied. As the key was in the lock, Aragorn turned it and went inside, closely followed by Imrahil.

It was a small room, furnished simply but comfortably with a bed, table and chair, illuminated by light from a single high window. At the far side of the room, a door led into a bathing room and privy. Of Faramir though, there was no sign.

Aragorn looked puzzled as he called ”Faramir, where are you? I apologise for taking so long to fetch you!”

Imrahil looked carefully round the room as if to assure himself that Faramir was not concealed somewhere as Aragorn rattled the door of the bathing chamber.

“Are you in there, Faramir?” Aragorn called.

There was still no answer and Aragorn pushed open the door, expecting to reveal a embarrassed and maybe unwell Steward within, but the room was empty.

Aragorn looked anxious. “I was sure he would be here,” he said, shaking his head slightly in bewilderment.

“Maybe he is in the Guardroom?” Imrahil suggested. ”He will know many of the men there from his days as a Ranger. Maybe they disliked the idea of locking him up and took him to have a drink with them and remember old times? They would know you would not be angry if they did that.”

The King looked relieved. “Let us go and find out if you are right,” he said with a smile. “Not that they will thank us for interrupting their reminiscences!”

They walked together down to the bustle of the Guardroom, where the soldiers were milling to and fro, some talking, some drinking, others sitting and polishing their weapons. Half of the Citadel Guard seemed to be there. Faramir was not amongst them.

Aragorn espied the men who had held him back that morning and made a mental note to see they were demoted. If he had only been able to reach the combatants and throw himself in front of them, he was sure that bloodshed could have been averted.

The level of noise gradually lessened as the men realised the King was amongst them and they stood to attention.

“Has anyone seen the Lord Steward?” Aragorn enquired in a loud voice.

“You told us to arrest him, sire.” A young guard, whom Aragorn now recognised from earlier that day, replied nervously.

“I did, so why is he not in the Hospitality Room?” Aragorn replied. There was a hard edge in his voice.

The men stiffened. The King did not often use that tone.

“We took him to the prison, my lord” the young guard said, gulping hard.

“You did what?” Aragorn’s tone was like ice.

“We took him into custody like you told us to,” the young man stammered, flushing scarlet.

“I told you to take him into my custody, which meant the Hospitality Room, not the city prison!” Aragorn roared, his eyes flashing. He raised his hand as if to strike the offender and then thought better of it. Instead he said coldly. ”You and your companion from this morning are suspended from duty while I decide what to do with you! Do not expect to escape lightly!”

The guard looked as if he wished the floor would open and swallow him. Aragorn turned away from him dismissively much to the man’s relief. He did not think he could endure the King’s fierce gaze for much longer.

“I need two men to accompany me to the prison!” Aragorn snapped, as he selected two burly guards.” You will do, Captain, and you too, Sergeant!”

Followed closely by Imrahil and the Guards, Aragorn all but raced through the deserted city streets, his features set in a grim line.

He did not know whom to be angrier with, the Guards who took Faramir to prison, or himself for not making the order clearer. Now he had had a moment to think he realised that ‘my custody’ could have easily been misheard for ‘custody’ during the commotion.

He was assailed by a sense of dread, for the prison housed dangerous criminals. A man of Faramir’s gentle breeding could be in grave danger there.

Warning – This chapter contains violence and disturbing material and is maybe one of the darkest in the story. It was not easy to write so please only read if you are not easily disturbed.

The Dark night of the soul

My life will be justly forfeit, if I now choose a course that proves ill for my city.” Faramir- The Two Towers

Faramir sat hunched on the hard prison bed, which apart from a bucket for nature’s calls and some filthy straw, was all the dungeon contained.

The damp, grime encrusted walls were very different from what the Steward had become accustomed to since his elevation to high office. He was far too anguished to pay much heed to his surroundings, though.

All he could think of was the memory of Éomer, slain by his hand, lying dead at the bottom of the steps, followed by Aragorn’s stern voice telling the Guards to arrest him.

He wondered if he had been able to see Aragorn’s face, if he could have endured the disappointment and anger in his eyes. His King would now regard him with the same scorn that his father had.

The guards had told the jailor, that the King himself had ordered him brought here for killing the King of Rohan before bringing him to this cell. One of the men, pitying him, had then roughly bandaged his wounds before they both left, securing the door behind them.

Faramir buried his face in his hands. He had sometimes feared that the happiness of the last few months could never last. He had wondered if one day he would awaken and find it had melted away like a dream, but this hideous turn of events, he could never have imagined in his worse nightmares.

He could hear his father’s voice in his head, mocking him for believing he could enjoy the esteem of the King and the People and basking in the warmth of the love that Éowyn and Aragorn showed towards him. It seemed he was doomed to be a failure, Hanna, crazy though she was, was right, it would have been better had he perished with his father. Her curse was coming true.

He had lost everything within the space of a few brief moments, when he drawn his sword to defend himself and killed the King of Rohan, Gondor’s chief ally, close friend of Aragorn and his own brother in law.

He was bewildered why Éomer was so angry, but nothing could extenuate the fact he had killed him, a King and his wife’s only brother. He had only meant to deal him a light blow on the arm to force him to his sword, hoping he could then use words rather than weapons to settle whatever the dispute might be.

He shuddered to recall the angry soldiers of both sides milling round the courtyard. War would come soon and it would all be his, Faramir’s fault. He had committed regicide and treason as well as several other heinous crimes by endangering his King and Country.

He accepted he must pay the ultimate price and expected no mercy, nor desired it for all the grief he had brought to his King, his wife and his beloved Gondor.

He could not help though, but fear the punishment that he was certain would await him; the death of a traitor, which involved the pain and humiliation of being dragged through the streets dressed only in his shirt, hung but taken down while still alive. Then stripped naked before being castrated and disembowelled, while still breathing before his heart was torn from his body. Even after death, the punishment did not end, for his body would be cut into four quarters and displayed throughout the kingdom as a warning to others.

He had seen several such executions during his father’s time as Steward and was sickened and haunted by them. He had hoped the people’s love for Aragorn would have consigned such grisly spectacles to the past, he had never dreamt that he would die in such a manner, as he was loyal to the King, body and soul.

He only hoped that the Rohirrim had not harmed Aragorn in the initial battle. The King would be needed during the coming war. Though he knew he had lost Aragorn’s friendship, he would always love his King until he drew his last breath.

He wondered how his family would welcome him into the afterlife. He supposed his mother and Boromir would accept him come what may, though it would shame them that the family had produced a traitor. Denethor would delight in telling him how often he had predicted he was good for nothing. He shuddered at the thought, as he had dared to hope he was finally free of his father’s cruel taunts.

He trusted Aragorn would be merciful to Éowyn and not punish her, though the law demanded a traitor’s wife should lose all lands and titles and be exiled in disgrace. She would be needed in Rohan now, to rule as Queen, unless his cousin Lothiriel, Éomer’s bride of only a few weeks, was already with child.

He longed to see his beloved Éowyn for one last time, but how could he face her, having killed the brother she adored? He knew he would see the King again, presiding over his trial for treason. He dreaded the prospect of seeing the contempt he knew would be in his eyes.

He loved the King with a deep and enduring love, far exceeding that which was merely owed to his Liege Lord. Aragorn had given him his life and health back and with it, honours, lands and titles, and above all love, everything that his father had denied him. He would have sooner have died than willingly betray Aragorn, whom he loved so dearly and had become father, brother, mentor, healer and friend to him.

The knowledge that he had let Aragorn down and betrayed all the trust the King had placed in him, hurt him the most deeply, he had sworn that would never happen. Denethor had always the expected worse of him and he had never lived up to his father’s expectations. With Aragorn it had been so very different, for the King demanded so little and given so much in return.

He knew the King to be a merciful man, but how could he show mercy again as he had already pardoned Éowyn for trying to kill him once? It would make him appear weak and seem like a signal that the Steward’s family were above the law. Eowyn’s misguided actions of six months ago had been kept secret until now, but were bound to be revealed at his trial.

Faramir’s musings were interrupted by the sound of footsteps and raucous shouting.

Faramir heard footsteps approaching. He assumed it was the jailor He had only caught a fleeting glimpse of the man, who had looked familiar to him, but he could not recall his name. The cell door opened and another prisoner was brought inside. The man was obviously drunk and in a foul mood from being separated from whatever it was he was drinking.

“Well, I never did, if isn’t our oh so virtuous Captain, or should I say my Lord Steward now,” the jailor exclaimed, studying Faramir in a manner which made his blood freeze.

Faramir’s spirits sank even lower. He remembered the man now. He was Mahrod, who had once been in his company of Rangers. Faramir ordered him to be flogged and dismissed from the army after he had been caught committing rape. Had the enemy not been advancing, his punishment would have been far harsher. Faramir had needed to act quickly to dispense justice. Many men had served under Faramir’s Captaincy, but Mahrod was the only to bring disgrace upon the Ithilien Rangers.

“I remember the day you had me beaten like yesterday. Not so high and mighty now, are we?” Mahrod jeered, spitting in Faramir’s face.

“You deserved your punishment.” Faramir said quietly, wiping his face with his sleeve. He thought how ironic it was that this criminal had survived the war, when so many good men in his company had died. He felt nauseous as he remembered the events of that time, both the crime and having to order the punishment, as it was the first and only time he had ever needed to order the lash to be used.

“As you’ll deserve yours! We’ll have something special in store for a fine gentleman such as you, your fine airs and graces won’t help you here, quite the contrary!” Mahrod retorted, eying Faramir gleefully.” I did nothing compared with you, you might well call me a rogue, but I was never a traitor!”

The words stung like a blow and Faramir hung his head.

“I’ll be back soon as I have something very special planned for you!” Mahrod laughed unpleasantly as he left the cell, barring the door behind him.

The drunk went straight to the bucket to relieve himself, and then moved towards Faramir.

“Got a drink, ’ave you?” he asked.

“No.” replied Faramir, alarmed at the look in the man’s eyes.” I have nothing.”

“But thought ‘e said you was the Steward?” the drunk persisted.

Faramir said nothing as he rose uneasily to his feet and backed into a corner.

“You not trying to make fun or me, I ‘ope or did I ‘ear ‘im wrong? Did ‘e say you a traitor? I don’t ‘old with no traitors, a loyal soldier the King’s, that’s me!”

Without warning, the drunk punched him in the ribs. Winded and caught off balance, Faramir fell to the ground, twisting his ankle as he fell.

“Get up you!” snarled the drunk.

Hindered by his injured ankle, Faramir was unable to comply. The drunk prodded him with his booted foot and kicked him viciously in the belly.

As the man raised his foot to strike again, Faramir tried to grab it but the drunkard was nimbler than he looked. Enraged, he kicked Faramir again, this time in the ribs, then in the groin and again in the belly.

Again and again the booted foot descended as the Steward vainly tried to curl in a ball to protect himself. He screamed in agony as the boot made contact with his wounds. He felt the warm blood trickle down his side. A sickening crack told him his ribs were being broken. Then the cell started to spin and he knew no more.

A/N

The execution method that Faramir dreads is unfortunately no mere figment of my imagination .It was introduced in 1241by Edward I and not abolished until 1821. Famous victims were William Wallace and Guy Fawkes. Often members of the nobility were beheaded instead and women were burned at the stake. Such grisly executions attracted vast crowds of spectators! Killing a King was considered the most heinous of crimes

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Warning – This chapter contains violence and disturbing material unsuitable for children, and is maybe one of the darkest in the story. It was not easy to write so please only read if you are not easily disturbed.

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones. Shakespeare - Julius Caeser 3.ii

“On your feet, you lazy scoundrel!”

Faramir blinked as he slowly regained consciousness. His whole body throbbed with pain and the stench assailing his nostrils.

For a moment, he wondered where he was. Then he remembered. What had happened while he was unconscious? Panic seized him.

He looked around anxiously for his drunken assailant, but there was no sign of the man. Instead, Mahrod stood looking down at him, grinning at his obvious discomfort.

Faramir groaned and tried to sit up, but the pain in his chest and belly was too great. Even breathing was agony. The sweat poured from his face at the effort of trying to move.

“I told you to get up, you scum!” Mahrod snapped, tipping a bucket of cold and filthy water over the helpless Steward.

Faramir, with a supreme effort of will, managed to drag himself to a sitting position. He tried to stand but his many injuries made it impossible. Coughing and retching, when bile rose in his throat, he collapsed again in agony

“Time you were taught a long overdue lesson, Lord uppity Steward!” Mahrod sneered. He roughly dragged Faramir out through the door and along a narrow dark corridor. He flung open a door to reveal a small windowless room, dimly lit with oil lamps. The room was bare apart the manacles, which hung from the blood spattered walls.

“Strip!” Mahrod ordered, leering at Faramir, "We are going to have some fun together, you and I!”

“No!” Faramir protested in horror, clutching at his clothing with what little strength he had left. It seemed that the unspeakable was about to happen.

When Mahrod began to pull at his clothing, resisting his weak struggles, he lapsed into unconsciousness again.

**

Aragorn strode into the prison and demanded the keys from the startled head Jailor. Ignoring the man’s feeble protests, he marched through the corridors, unlocking each cell and glancing inside, hoping he could find Faramir before he was harmed. His expression became even sterner as he took in the grim conditions and wondered however his sensitive and gentle natured Steward was faring. He made a mental note to improve prison conditions in future. He had had no idea that things were so bad.

The head jailer, a short tubby man, ran after the King and his escort, catching up with them just as they were looking inside the final cell. A man who had obviously lost his wit occupied it. He was screaming that the walls were trying to eat him.

“Where is the Lord Steward?” Aragorn demanded.

“I don’t know, my liege!” the man stammered. “ I wasn’t here when he was brought in. He should be in one of the cells, though!”

Aragorn towered over him, his expression grim. “Well he is not. I have looked in them all and I demand to be taken to him, wherever he is!”

**

Mahrod stood up when a second, younger man entered the room, carrying a cat o’ nine tails.

Faramir, gradually regaining consciousness was writhing in agony and moaning softly.

“A hundred lashes for the traitor, Lamrung!” the older Jailor ordered, looking somewhat furtive. He appeared disappointed that the other had arrived.

Lamrung hesitated. ”I haven’t seen the order sentencing the Lord Steward yet. And the maximum allowed by the law is twenty-five. Less than forty can kill a man!”

“The order will come soon enough. The man is a traitor of the worse kind! He killed the King of Rohan, our chief ally!”

Faramir was hauled roughly to his feet.

“Traitors deserve punishment!” Mahrod said, a note of grim relish in his voice. He secured Faramir’s wrists in the manacles, so that the Steward was forced to stand with his arms painfully supporting his weight.

Faramir was unable to prevent himself crying out at this rough treatment metered out to his already severely wounded body. He felt nauseous and giddy with the pain. He struggled not to shame himself by losing his breakfast or fainting again, as it would appear to the bystanders to be from fear

His heart ached even more, as he remembered how Aragorn had promised him; he would never know ill treatment again. What he had done was bad enough to force even one as honourable as the King break his oath.

“I hope this hurts you as much as you deserve!” Mahrod sneered, greatly enjoying the prospect of seeing his former Captain treated in a far crueller fashion than he ever was. It was a perfect chance for revenge, for who would care what happened to a traitor in prison, Steward or not?

“I’m not flogging anyone without an official order,” Lamrung protested. “The King is meticulous about proper procedure being observed and the Steward is a good man. In any case, I can see he is wounded and regulations forbid flogging an injured man.”

Faramir felt a flash of unexpected joy. Aragorn had not ordered the flogging!

“And who heeds what some bleeding heart behind a desk comes up with? And since when were you a Healer?” Mahrod retorted, ”If we refused to flog them just because they appeared unwell, no one would get what’s coming to them. They’d just keep injuring themselves to avoid punishment! Get on with it, one hundred lashes!”

“I cannot, not without an order.” Lamrung said firmly, “And even if there were one, I would not touch a man in his condition. He needs a Healer!”

Mahrod grabbed the whip from the other’s hand and for a moment looked as if he might strike him. Then he laughed. “It’s not every day you get to give your former Captain a taste of his own medicine!” he roared, “Off with you then, I’d rather flog this one myself. I shall enjoy every stroke! Now we can see what he is made of!”

“You will find yourself in trouble, Mahrod,” Lamrung warned, “you cannot get away with this!”

“And what do I care if they do hang me?” Mahrod retorted, “My life was ruined by our oh so virtuous Steward! He had me thrown out of the army just for having a bit of fun! Not that anyone understood, as my wife left me and my parents disowned me because of it. The only way I could even earn a crust was to work at this place dealing with the scum of Arda! Now be off with you or I might practise on you first!”

Lamrung shuddered as the vengeful gleam in the other’s eyes and fled.

Mahrod grabbed Faramir’s collar and tried to tear open his tunic and shirt but the material, being of good quality, refused to yield. He took a knife from his belt and advanced upon the Steward.

Faramir felt cold steel against his back as his tunic and shirt were sliced open and roughly ripped apart. A piece of wood was then jammed into his mouth to bite on and stifle his cries. He tried vainly to brace himself as he heard the crack of the whip before it could bite into his flesh.

“One!” Mahrod called, lashing out with the whip.

Faramir would have screamed had the wood in his mouth not prevented it, when the cruel knotted strands came into contact with his bared back

Mahrod raised the whip again and struck Faramir with even greater force, this time drawing blood.

“Two, three, four, five!”

Faramir was now struggling to breathe. He felt as if he were choking. His whole body felt as if it were on fire now. The pain in his lungs was even worse than that in his back and he felt as if his insides would burst He could feel death approaching and welcomed it as an end to all the pain.

“Long live the King!” he tried to whisper with what he was certain would be his final conscious breath.

A vision beyond all nightmares

Warning - This chapter contains gory images and some violence

“Where is my Steward?” Aragorn demanded again with rising fury, vainly trying to conceal his fears for Faramir’s welfare. He instinctively disliked the Jailor and noted with disgust how his breath stank of liquor.

“He must be in the cells,” the Head Jailor insisted. ”He can’t have escaped and the only other room is the punishment room and no punishments have been authorised as I have been indisposed all morning.”

Lamrung appeared from the opposite direction, somewhat out of breath, as if he had been running. He addressed the Head Jailor, seemingly oblivious to the presence of the King and his Escort. “Sir, there is an unauthorised flogging taking place, I thought you should know!”

“It happens, lad, don’t you go worrying about it,” the Head Jailor replied without much interest. “Can’t you see I have important visitors?”

Lamrung suddenly noticed the King was there and fell to his knees. “My lord, I am sorry!” he exclaimed. “I did not realise it was you!”

Ignoring the man’s apology Aragorn snapped, “Take me the punishment room and quickly!”

Dumbfounded, Lamrung just stared at the King.

Aragorn impatiently dragged him to his feet. “I fear my Steward is there,” he explained. “Now show me where it is!

Lamrung gulped “Yes, sire!” He led the way down the gloomy stone corridor and flung open the door at the end.

A dreadful sight greeted Aragorn. There, suspended from the wall in chains, was his closest and dearest friend.

Faramir’s shirt and tunic had been torn open to expose his back, which looked virtually flayed and resembled a chunk of raw meat in appearance.

A man with a whip stood over him ”Thirty nine!” he cried and raised it to strike the helpless Steward. Before the cruel throngs could again bite into his torn and bloodied flesh again, Aragorn grabbed the whip from his hand and struck him with it.

Mahrod screamed in pain as Aragorn caught Faramir is his arms, supporting his weight. The Steward was unconscious, cold, wet and covered in blood.

“How dare you strike my Steward?” the King roared in a tone, which made all the listeners shudder to hear it. “You deserve a stronger taste of your own medicine. You are fortunate I have better things to do at present! I swear you will pay for this atrocity, though!”

Imrahil had thought he knew the King well, but he had never seen him so angry before. It was chilling to behold.

Mahrod’s reaction was to spit in Aragorn’s direction without looking him in the eye. “He deserved more of it, the likes of him!” he mumbled, seeming to care more about being interrupted than getting caught

Aragorn beckoned the Head Jailor and Lamrung towards him. “Free the Lord Steward and lock his assailant in the cells. I will deal with him later.”

Lamrung produced the keys from his belt and unlocked the chains securing Faramir’s arms to the wall. Once the manacles were removed, Faramir slumped forward and would have fallen to the floor, were not Aragorn’s strong arms holding him.

The Steward’s complexion was bluish tinged and his features were contorted with agony. Gently Aragorn removed the piece of wood from his bloodied mouth, slightly easing his laboured breathing. Imrahil rushed to his side to assist.

Faramir’s eyes flickered open and saw the King bending over him. His eyes briefly lit up, for despite the enormity of his crimes, he was glad to see his beloved King for one last time. He knew now he would die of his injuries before he could be brought to trial. “So sorry, my King. Thank you...kept your promise...be thou blessed!” he murmured, before much to his shame finally losing his breakfast. The retching and coughing sent such waves of agony through his tortured frame that almost immediately he lost consciousness again

Aragorn’s Healer’s eye quickly realised that Faramir was very badly hurt.

“Hold him!” he ordered Imrahil, unfastening his own cloak to wrap round the shivering Steward. “I need something to staunch the bleeding.” He started to pull off his tunic.

“I’ll fetch some towels,” Lamrung offered.

“Quickly!” Aragorn ordered. “He is losing a lot of blood!” He placed his hands over Faramir’s arm and side in an attempt to staunch the worst bleeding. A chill of recognition swept over him when he realised his vision was true. He now had Faramir’s blood on his hands both literally and figuratively.

Lamrung returned quickly with the towels, which were at least fairly clean, and handed them to Aragorn, who swiftly fashioned them into makeshift bandages as best he could over Faramir’s torn clothing.

“Can I do anything else to help?” Lamrung enquired, “I am sorry I wasn’t able to stop Mahrod beating him, but he refused to listen to reason.”

Aragorn managed to smile faintly at the young jailor, who seemed a pleasant contrast to the others who worked in this grim place. “Could you find us something to carry him on, please?” he asked, expecting the request to be too difficult to fulfil.

“Of course, sire, we have the stretcher we use to carry those who had been tortured to execution.”

Aragorn shuddered, yet it seemed the perfect solution. He would gladly carry Faramir but it would be much quicker and less likely to cause him further injury if the guards carried him on a stretcher.

“Bring it here, please. I then require your assistance to help carry the Lord Steward to the Citadel!” Aragorn decided that he had no wish to leave Lamrung here. He hoped that away from the prison, the young man might be able to tell him exactly what had happened to Faramir.

While Lamrung was gone, Aragorn took Faramir from Imrahil and tried to determine how badly his Steward was injured. The bleeding seemed to have slowed but his pulse was weak and rapid and his skin felt clammy to the touch.

Ominously, blood still trickled from the corner of his mouth, though whether from having the piece of wood roughly forced in or from some injury inside, it was hard to tell. Faramir’s clothes were torn and filthy and he was soaked to the skin with some odious smelling liquid.

Most distressing to Aragorn, was the damage caused to Faramir’s back by the flogging, as he had sworn to protect him. Now his back was so covered with bleeding stripes, that no unmarked flesh was visible. The cat o’ nine tails was a horrific method of punishment and only used to punish the very worse offences, committed by hardened criminals. Had he not been in a public place and needing to maintain the dignity of his office, Aragorn would have wept both for the obvious agony Faramir was in and his own folly in letting this happen to him.

Imrahil said nothing, but watched grim faced as Lamrung brought the stretcher. Together they gently laid Faramir on it.

The Prince added his cloak to Aragorn’s in an attempt to keep his nephew warm. Then the melancholy procession set off through the streets of Minas Tirith, mercifully deserted because of the curfew Aragorn had imposed earlier that day.

The soldiers carried the stretcher while Aragorn and Imrahil steadied Faramir and held him on the stretcher, as the path grew steeper.

At the same time, Aragorn tried to learn from Lamrung what had happened to his Steward, but all the young man knew was that Faramir had been placed in a cell earlier that day, but the first time he had set eyes on him, was when Mahrod had told him to administer a hundred lashes.

Aragorn and Imrahil stared at him in horror.

“The maximum penalty is twenty five lashes, have you ever been asked to administer so many before?” Aragorn enquired.

Lamrung shook his head. “No my lord,” he replied, “But Mahrod told me that the Steward dismissed him from being in the army and that he held a grudge against him.”

“He will pay dearly.” Aragorn’s voice was grim.

They finally reached the Citadel.

Aragorn gently lifted Faramir from the stretcher and dismissed the soldiers, while telling Lamrung to wait in the kitchens. He had already decided to offer the young man alternative employment if he wished it.

While Imrahil went on ahead to tell the Servants to make up the fire and bring hot water, fresh bedding and bandages, he carefully carried Faramir into his own private apartments. He kept these rooms for when he needed to be alone, for much as he loved Arwen, after spending so much of his life alone in the wilds, there were times when he needed solitude. He kept his healing supplies there as well and could treat Faramir in the most comfortable surroundings that Minas Tirith afforded.

He first ordered guards to be kept outside the door until further notice, in case any angry Rohirrim thought of seeking revenge on the helpless Steward.

He did not immediately place Faramir on the huge bed, but instead sat on the couch near the now blazing fire, holding Faramir in his arms, carefully positioned as not to aggravate his injuries.

The Steward’s wounds needed tending and his wet and filthy clothes removing, but he was in such a state of deep shock, Aragorn feared doing anything that could cause any more stress to his damaged body until he was in a more stable condition.

Feeling under the cloak for a heartbeat, only confirmed his fears. Faramir’s heart fluttered feebly, like that of a trapped bird in its final death throes.

TBC

These characters all belong to the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien and New Line Cinema

Grim discoveries

Imrahil sat down beside him, noting his grave expression.

“I am sorry, I should never have allowed this to happen to your nephew.” Aragorn said bleakly.

“You could not have known,” Imrahil replied with equal bleakness. “How could anyone ever imagine that he would be treated so brutally? Do you want me to summon some assistance from the Houses of Healing? This must be very difficult for you?”

“I would rather tend him myself, if you approve? He is my friend and I would do this for love of him.” Aragorn replied, anxiously wiping the blood from Faramir’s mouth. At least it appeared a normal colour, which was a small hopeful sign. It was obvious Faramir was seriously injured, but just how badly was impossible to tell until they could properly investigate.

“Of course, you are the most skilled healer I know and the most likely to be able to help my nephew. I will be happy to assist you, for as you know, I have some small knowledge of tending wounds,” Imrahil replied.

“Thank you, I would appreciate that. As soon as he is a little more settled, we will tend him as best we may.” Aragorn settled Faramir’s limp head against his shoulder, ignoring the stench of the jail, which clung to his Steward. He started gently massaging his Steward’s head and neck, singing softly in Sindarin, while using his healing powers at the same time.

Faramir remained semi conscious and they had no idea if he even knew them or was aware of his surroundings. However, he relaxed a little. When Aragorn next checked his heartbeat it was stronger and his skin felt a little warmer to the touch.

“We had better begin now,” Aragorn sighed.

Imrahil held on his nephew, while the King rose to his feet. Together they carried Faramir over to the bed and gently laid him down, with a pillow under his injured back, until they could turn him on his side. Aragorn put a blanket ready to cover his Steward as soon as he was disrobed, not wanting him to become chilled or distressed at the lack of coverings.

He unwrapped the cloak and cast it to one side before starting to carefully remove the makeshift bandages, while Imrahil pulled off his nephew’s boots.

“I need to see how badly you are hurt, so we will have to undress you, I fear,” he told Faramir, in case he understood, “I promise to be as gentle as I can.”

The remains of Faramir’s tunic and shirt had stuck to the flesh. Aragorn gently soaked them off with warm water. From what he could see, Éomer’s broadsword had cut deeply into Faramir’s upper arm, tearing the muscle and then left a series of diagonal smaller cuts starting on his side and tapering down his chest and belly.

At the same moment that Aragorn finally loosed the remnants of the tunic and shirt, Imrahil removed Faramir’s breeches and drawers.

King and Prince both stared in horror when the extensive bruising concentrated round Faramir’s ribs, belly and groin area were revealed.

“No!” Aragorn’s exclamation was a cry of anguish. “Who can have done this to him?” The flogging alone was enough to cause serious or even fatal damage to the heart and kidneys of a healthy man, but combined with these other injuries how could Faramir possibly survive? He was already gently, but thoroughly prodding the bruised areas, trying to contain his rising sense of panic as to what lay beneath. He knew from long years of experience, that such severe bruising often indicated crushed or damaged organs, or severe bleeding inside, both of which were usually fatal.

He first carefully felt Faramir’s damaged chest and discovered several cracked and broken ribs. Frantically he bent and pressed his ear against the bruised flesh and let out a sigh of relief that at least the lungs seemed to have escaped damage, though the fluttering, rapid heartbeat was worrying.

He then gently prodded the abdominal area, which was so badly swollen; it was difficult to determine the extent of the damage. To his relief, there did not seem to be any hardness, but with so much swelling it was impossible to tell.

At the gentlest touch, Faramir flinched under his probing fingertips. He beckoned Imrahil to help turn him as he felt it was sadly necessary to investigate, if the ultimate degradation had befallen his Steward.

It was a relief that Faramir was unconscious at present, as Aragorn did not know how such a modest and private man could endure the humiliation of what would surely seem like a further violation.

His eyes met Imrahil’s in mutual understanding. Such things were known to happen in prisons, especially when sadists like Mahrod were involved. They needed to know the truth, however dreadful if they were to help Faramir and bring his attackers to justice.

“I am so sorry, my friend.” he murmured soothingly to Faramir who shivered and moaned in distress, although still unconscious. “I like this no better than you do. It will all be over soon, I promise.”

The distressing examination concluded, he gently covered his Steward with first a linen sheet, and then blankets, while he pondered what to do next. Usually in a case like this, he would use ice and cold compresses. He wondered if salves would be better, given Faramir’s weakened condition. Or was he letting his love for his friend cloud his judgement? The ice could cause a painful burning sensation as well as sending a patient deeper into shock. “Will you fetch Tarostar, if Éomer can be safely left with one healer?” he asked Imrahil.

Left alone with Faramir, Aragorn covered his face with his hands, fighting back the tears. He knew that whoever had inflicted his Steward’s injuries; he alone was to blame, for not making his instructions clearer and thereby exposing him to danger.

Feeling he should continue tending Faramir as best he could, he brought clean water to the bedside and started to bathe his Steward, trying unsuccessfully to cleanse him of the prison stench. He worked a few inches at a time, carefully trying to keep Faramir warmly covered with the blankets. All the while, he softly reassured him in case he were somehow aware of his presence.

Imrahil finally returned accompanied by a reluctant Tarostar.

“I thought you told me not to leave King Éomer, my liege!” the healer protested.

“I did but my Steward requires your urgent attention too,” Aragorn replied. "How is King Éomer faring?”

“Much the same, though I believe he rests more easily now, sire.” Tarostar approached the bed and started to pull down the blankets covering Faramir.

“I would value your opinion on how to treat the bruising,” Aragorn said. “I would like to use salves but wonder whether ice would be better.”

Tarostar stood for a moment with a look of great sorrow in his eyes before starting to examine the bruises, causing Faramir to yelp with pain. Skilled healer though he was, he lacked the gentle touch of the Elven trained Aragorn.

“Ice is the only option that might work,” he said at last. ”Impossible though, to tell how great the damage might be, unless you cut him open and cauterised any bleeding you uncovered. That would most likely cause him to die from shock, though.“

“I cannot!” Aragorn said brokenly, “He has suffered too much already.”

“How did he come by such hurts if I may be so bold as to ask?” Tarostar enquired. “I cannot see how any man could survive such mistreatment!”

“In the City prison. He was beaten and flogged.” Aragorn replied sadly.

“The City prison is no place for the son of our late Lord Steward! Whatever was he doing there? Tarostar said angrily. “Whoever is responsible for such an outrage should be punished!”

“The blame is mine alone. The guards misinterpreted my orders.” Aragorn said wretchedly.” I have done Lord Faramir a most grievous wrong!”

“Yes, you have, as most likely he will die!” Tarostar replied acidly.

“I am sorry. My actions were unforgivable.” Aragorn’s usually stoic reserve was starting to crumble under the enormity of his feelings of guilt.

At least you never tried to burn him alive!” Tarostar retorted dryly, finishing his examination of the bruises. Then to Aragorn’s surprise, he brushed a hand against his shoulder in comfort.

Although the elderly healer had been close to the old regime, he had witnessed how Aragorn had battled to save the life of Faramir, his only possible rival the first time they met, which had given him a great deal of respect for the new King.

“Stop blaming yourself, my lord and concentrate of the Steward or send for a healer who can!” he said briskly. “What’s done cannot be undone and I very much doubt you intended anything like this to befall Lord Faramir. I fear he will not last the night, poor young man. The sword wounds and the flogging combined alone are likely to prove fatal. Maybe the powers beyond my knowledge that you are said to possess will help him? Would you like me to assist you?”

Aragorn shook his head. “Thank you, but King Éomer still has need of you. Prince Imrahil assisted me before with Lord Faramir, so he knows how I work.”

“Very well then," With a last sad glance at Faramir, and without waiting for dismissal, he turned and left.

“He is quite a character!” Imrahil said ruefully, too distressed about his nephew to complain of the Healer’s isolence. “He even stood up to Faramir’s father! They were cousins as Denethor's elder sister was his mother.”

“I suppose we had better send for the ice,” sighed Aragorn. ”Though I have an uneasy feeling about it.” He called for a passing servant to do his bidding while prepared a tincture of hawthorn berries and rosehips to try to strengthen Faramir’s heart and help him fight infection.

The King’s despair

“I only hope Tarostar is right and ice will be the correct treatment,” Aragorn fretted, “It will take time to fetch it, so we had better bathe him thoroughly while we wait.”

The Prince of Dol Amroth called for servants to fill the tub in the bathing chamber with lukewarm water.

Usually, sponging an injured man on the bed would suffice, but the grime from the jail still clung to Faramir and bits of filthy straw and worse had adhered to his hair and his wounds. Without a through cleansing, infection was bound to set in and Aragorn feared they might already be too late to prevent it.

Calling the servants in and instructing them to lay clean linens on the bed while they were gone, Aragorn and Imrahil rolled up their sleeves and carefully carried Faramir into the bathing chamber. They unwrapped him and gently lowered him into the water, to which Aragorn added a little salt.

While Imrahil supported his nephew’s head above the water, Aragorn washed away the prison grime as gently and thoroughly as he could. The water soon turned dark with a mixture of blood and filth.

Imrahil shook his head slightly, for much as he loved his nephew, it amazed him that the High King would himself bathe him himself, instead of leaving such a menial task to his servants.

Noticing his expression, Aragorn commented, “Is what has already happened, not humiliation enough for a man like Faramir, without servants gaping at him and gossiping? I have no idea if I can save his life, but I can at least grant him a little dignity.”

Imrahil could have wept.

Apart from the occasional low moan as the water stung his raw wounds, Faramir still seemed unaware of what was happening.

Swathed in the softest towels available, they carried Faramir back to the King’s bedchamber and laid him on the bed again, turning him on his uninjured side as not to put pressure on his raw back. The wounds appeared worse than ever, now the stripes were cleaned. In places the flesh was so badly torn, that it could hardly have looked much worse if some wild beast had savaged it.

Aragorn swiftly changed his damp and grimy clothes and washed his hands before touching his injured Steward again.

The water had caused the wounds to bleed afresh and Aragorn staunched them as best he could, applying a bandage to the deep wound caused by Éomer’s sword.

While Imrahil was changing his clothes, a servant knocked on the door and Aragorn went himself to see if the ice had arrived. The man handed Aragorn a large chunk of ice, carefully wrapped in the straw, which was used to keep it from melting.

“The cook brought it straight from the ice house, my lord,” he said. “She’d already been in there once today to get some for the Queen!”

“The Queen?” Aragorn’s heart was in his mouth. If Arwen was in need of ice, her life must be in danger. “Tell me, what news of her? When was the ice sent for?”

The man shrugged. “At dawn, I think. One of the midwives came to get it, told the cook it was a precaution, when she asked why, not that she was very pleased as she wanted to be certain she had enough left for the State Banquet for the Ambassador from Rhun, not that she begrudges the Queen anything my lord, she just doesn’t want her scarce reserves of ice going to waste!”

Aragorn’s sigh of relief was even audible to the garrulous servant.

“You can go now!” Aragorn said curtly, dismissing him. He feared this was going to be the worse day he could remember in his long life.

As he carried the ice to Faramir’s bedside, he silently prayed to the Valar that the lives of all his loved ones would be spared.

Slowly and with reluctance he unwrapped the ice. He then sharpened his knife and used it to cut the block into smaller pieces. He wished he could explain to Faramir what he planned to do, but the Steward remained only semi conscious, moaning softly at intervals.

The treatment in itself was not dangerous, but he feared it could lead to Faramir going into shock again at the sudden coldness. He also disliked having to turn him on to his raw back again, in order to position it correctly against the bruised areas.

Imrahil helped him turn Faramir and Aragorn found himself grimacing in sympathy at the younger man’s obvious pain.

“I fear you may find this unpleasant, mellon nîn, but it should help you,” he murmured pulling aside the towels, and slowly placing the pieces of ice across Faramir’s injured belly, concentrating on the areas where he was most likely to be bleeding inside.

He pressed it with his bare hands against the bruises, gasping as it burned and froze his hands, all the while wondering how it must feel against Faramir's much more tender and damaged skin.

He still felt instinctively that he should have shunned this treatment, yet to only use salves and his healing abilities seemed to be indulging his emotions rather than following accepted wisdom.

Feverish visions flittered through Faramir’s semi conscious brain. The last thing he could remember was seeing the King. Was that at his trial?

They had come at last to fetch him for his execution. He could feel himself being carried through the streets and jostled over the rough cobblestones He wondered why the streets were so silent .He had expected the jeering mob, but maybe his crime had shocked them to silence.

They had stopped. Now he could feel hands removing his clothing, somewhat more gently than he had expected. Maybe the executioner remembered him from when he had been forced to watch such spectacles as a child, and felt pity, though he would not dare spare him by hanging him until he was dead.

He thought he could make out Aragorn’s voice and a fleeting hope stirred within him that maybe his King and friend would commute the sentence to a quick death, before dismissing it as quickly as it arose. He could hope for no special treatment nor desire it, after what he had done.

Stripped naked to the gaze of the mob, he shivered with a mixture of shame and fear. He heard a vaguely familiar voice discussing cutting him open and then the ominous sound of a knife being sharpened.

Then he felt it, the cold steel against his belly, pressing into his defenceless flesh. The pain grew worse. He panicked, remembering that a skilled executioner could ensure that it took a long time for the victim to die, as they disembowelled them inch by agonising inch.

There was only one thing left to him, if he were not to die like a coward, screaming in agony. He could use the gift his people processed of giving up his life freely. He surrendered and let the darkness take him.

Faramir had twitched and moaned while Aragorn applied the ice to his bruises but now he lay still and suddenly went completely limp. He hardly seemed to be breathing. Alarmed, Aragorn felt for a heartbeat but his hands were too numb to feel anything at all.

Imrahil took over and exclaimed in alarm. “His heartbeat is weakening, I can barely detect it! I think my nephew is dying!”

Aragorn swept the ice aside and desperately tried to get his own hands warm enough to tend his Steward. He tried to control his rising sense of panic.

His Healer’s knowledge and intuition strongly indicated that Faramir’s injuries were not now the cause of his worsening condition, but rather a desire to end his own life. Though, that might well be, because his spirit knew his body was too damaged to survive.

“We need to resuscitate him!” Imrahil said urgently.

Aragorn shook his head.” With his ribs broken already, it would most certainly prove fatal. He is giving back the Gift, so it is his mind not his body I need to reach. I will try to call him back.”

He knelt beside Faramir, fighting to keep his emotions under control, wondering if he were only prolonging his friend’s agony by trying to save him. He clasped Faramir’s hand in his own, the other he placed on his brow as he called. “Faramir, come back into the light. Do not leave me, my friend!”

The Steward did not stir and his eyes remained closed. He hardly seemed to be breathing and Aragorn could only detect the faintest of heartbeats by pressing his ear close against his chest.

Aragorn continued to call him, though now he was weeping so hard that he could only choke his name brokenly as he fought desperately for his friend’s life.

Imrahil steadied Aragorn as the King almost swooned.

“I cannot reach him, there is nothing but darkness,” he whispered. “He has determined to die and is beyond my reach! I have failed him!”

.

The valley of the shadow of death

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Psalm.23.4

Choking back his own grief, Imrahil tried to comfort his distraught liege lord. “Were it not for you, my lord, he would have died three years ago, never having known what true fatherly love was like, never been given his rightful status, never having married, never having had the chance to father an heir. You have given him all these things and more.”

Unheeding, Aragorn stumbled to his feet, aided by the Prince of Dol Amroth. He stood for a moment looking down at the still figure on the bed.

Suddenly reaching a decision, he pulled off his heavy brocaded over tunic, so he was left clad in a thin shirt and breeches.

Opening the chest where he kept his clean linens, the King took out one of his nightshirts, noticing as he did so, the blue shirt that Faramir had borrowed but a month ago, lying folded beside it. They had been so happy that day!

Aragorn started to ease the garment over Faramir’s head. Imrahil assisted him, though unsure why his Sovereign was doing this.

“He would wish to be clothed for his last journey,” the King murmured, more to himself than his companion. He smoothed the linen garment down to his Steward’s ankles and proceeded to wrap a blanket round Faramir and lift him from the bed.

“I want to hold him in his last moments. It is the least I can do for him!“ Aragorn said brokenly, gazing down at the still form in his arms. He could hardly bear to contemplate life without this man at his side. Faramir was everything he had ever wished for in a friend, loving, loyal and intelligent.

His Steward held a very large part of his heart; they were kindred souls, often even able to sense what each other were thinking. Faramir’s self-effacing manner and shyness had only served to make him all the more endearing. His friendship and trust had taken Aragorn a long time to win, which made him prize it all the more. Like most of their people, neither formed friendships lightly, as a bond once formed was rarely broken.

There was so much he had hoped to share with his Steward. He had planned to one day to show him the Northern Kingdom and take him on camping trips, so they could relive the days when they were Rangers. He had hoped that over the years they would continue their lively discussions on their shared Númenórean heritage and enjoy seeing their children grow up and play together. Now all those simple pleasures would be denied to them.

Now that Faramir was dying, the King was overwhelmed by the realisation of just how much he loved him and how much he had always owed to him. Without his support, he could never have become King, married his beloved Arwen or managed to rule Gondor.

Without Faramir’s devoted care during their sojourn at the Hunting Lodge, it was doubtful he would even be alive now. Faramir had been a mixture of brother, son, friend and advisor to the King.

It was a bitter irony that the son of the man, who had always been a thorn in Aragorn’s side, should have become so dear to him. Yet it seemed that Aragorn had succeeded in causing his death when Denethor had failed to burn him alive.

Engrossed in his thoughts, he carried Faramir to the spacious seat by the window and sat there, clutching the unconscious man tightly in his arms. Faramir was beyond even feeling pain now. He tenderly cradled the dark head against his heart as one might soothe a babe.

Imrahil knelt beside them taking his nephew’s cold hands; even they were bruised from where he had tried to protect himself. He tried vainly to chafe some life into the limp fingers.

His heart close to breaking, Aragorn absently massaged Faramir’s head and shoulders, using the Elven technique, which had so often soothed him in the past. “I cannot even fetch Éowyn to him!” he lamented. “He should at least spend his last moments with someone he loves.“

Still chafing the icy hands, Imrahil bent to bestow the farewell kiss of blessing on his nephew’s brow. “Faramir loves you too, my lord,” he pointed out gently, “Differently than his wife, naturally, but no less so. He was so proud that the Queen chose Éowyn to attend her in her confinement.”

Aragorn was weeping bitterly now. ”I shall kiss you farewell as I did Boromir,” he sobbed, pressing a kiss on Faramir’s pale brow,” unlike your valiant brother, you are not dying as a hero in battle but because in my folly! ”

He turned away from Faramir and looked directly at Imrahil. “I have killed him, as surely as if I ran my sword through him! I broke the vow I made to him to protect him from ever being harmed again. A death in battle or through disease, though hard, is the will of the Valar to be accepted, but how could I have killed him through my own thoughtlessness? How can I ever tell Éowyn or even my Queen? How I can look you, his kinsman, in the eye again? I have robbed Gondor of her noblest son!”

Imrahil briefly loosed one of Faramir’s hands to place a hand on the King’s shoulder. “You sought only to protect him and never meant to break your vow,” he soothed. “I beg of you, do not reproach yourself so. I, his close kinsman hold you guiltless of blame. You must not give way to despair. ”

Aragorn in his grief clutched Faramir closer and hot tears fell on the Steward’s brow. “Faramir, my Faramir, I love you, do not leave me! You are so very dear to me! Come back into the light, my friend, my son, my little brother!” he sobbed in anguish.

Stirring ever so slightly, Faramir nuzzled his head against the King’s heart, as if seeking some last comfort as he faded from the circles of the world.

The trusting gesture, however feeble, restored Aragorn’s resolve.

Gently easing Faramir’s limp body down to rest on the couch, he slid to the ground and knelt beside his Steward. “Bring me some athelas and hot water, and the jewel casket from the table. I shall try again to reach him!” he instructed Imrahil.” I was wrong to lose hope while he yet breathes.”

He unlocked the casket and took out the Elfstone and pinned it on his breast. It glowed with a mysterious green light.

Imrahil went and called to the servant waiting outside. A few moments later he returned with a bowl of steaming water, which he held under Faramir’s face, as Aragorn breathed on the athelas leaves, crushed them and cast them into the water.

“Be careful, my lord!” Imrahil warned, torn between love for his nephew and his duty to protect the King “It could kill you too, trying to reach one as far gone as he is!”

Ignoring the warning, Aragorn clasped Faramir’s hand with one of his, while laying the other on his cold brow. Urgently, he called his name.

Immediately, he felt as if he were falling into a strange, clouded realm filled with an overwhelming sense of pain and despair. This place reminded him of where he had sought Faramir when he was in the grip of the Black Breath.

He searched until he could see a chink of light; little more than a weak candle flame spluttering in the darkness that engulfed Faramir. He followed the flickering flame until he came to a precipice where his Steward was standing, mere inches from the abyss.

“Come home, Faramir, I beg of you!” he said, “I will heal you. Remember the time you promised not to leave me? I hold you now to that vow!”

“There is too much pain and guilt,” Faramir replied, “How can I? Leave me or you will fall with me, brother of my soul!”

“I cannot let you go, I love you too much!” Aragorn grasped Faramir’s arms, knowing that if the other leapt, he would be pulled into the darkness with him.

Faramir staggered backwards and fell into the abyss. Refusing to let him go, Aragorn fell with him.

They seemed to be travelling at vast speed through a tunnel, at the end of which a bright light and a sense of overwhelming peace and joy awaited.

You cannot enter here, it is not yet your time!” a voice commanded, Aragorn knew not whether he had spoken or some higher power. Suddenly he was floating rather than falling and Faramir was still clasped tightly in his arms.

“My lord!” Imrahil exclaimed in alarm, as the colour drained from Aragorn’s face, while Faramir appeared to grow stronger. It seemed as if he pouring all his life energy into Faramir and growing weaker by the minute until he slid senseless to the floor.

Imrahil ran to the door and shouted desperately for a healer to come.

Pain and Confusion

Warning – This chapter contains gory descriptions of injuries. Please only read if you are unlikely to be upset.

Aedred rushed into the room to find the King of Gondor and Arnor apparently lifeless on the floor beside his Steward. Feeling for a pulse, he could detect none. Frantically he tore open Aragorn’s shirt, trying vainly to detect a heartbeat.

Imrahil watched ashen faced while the Rohirric healer attempted to resuscitate the King. Remembering how the athelas had revitalising effect on Aragorn before, he thrust the still steaming bowl in front of his face.

Aedred took an involuntary step backwards as Aragorn suddenly began to convulse as if in agony, then almost as suddenly, he appeared almost to glow with some transcendent inner beauty. It seemed as if a star adorned his brow, which faded even as Imrahil and Aedred gazed in wonder.

Aedred cautiously approached the King again. “His life signs are almost completely normal now and yet I could have sworn he was dead a moment ago!” he exclaimed, stooping to examine Aragorn. “I have never seen anything like this before and he displays none of the usual symptoms after such a collapse!

“My liege, drink this!” Aragorn opened his eyes to find himself lying on the floor. Imrahil was bending over him, holding a glass, while Aedred knelt beside him feeling his pulse. He sipped the drink tentatively, finding it contained the restorative Elven cordial, miruvor.

“Faramir?” he whispered, draining the glass.

“He lives. But whatever happened to you? We feared for your life!” Imrahil’s usually ruddy features were as white as a sheet.

“The Valar be praised!” Aragorn exclaimed, looking at Imrahil and Aedred in bewilderment. “What happened? I cannot remember anything after calling Faramir in the darkness. Where is he?”

“You were in some sort of trance and then you collapsed,” Imrahil explained, “Faramir is here, lying on the couch!”

“I must get up and tend his wounds!” Aragorn pronounced, trying to stand only to discover that his legs felt like jelly.

“My lord, you should rest!” Aedred protested, “You should lie down!”

“I cannot as Faramir needs me! Help me get up, I will be well in a moment,” Aragorn demanded, in a tone that brokered no argument. Part of him wished that he could take Aedred’s advice, as he felt overcome with weariness mingled with grief and guilt at Faramir’s condition. Yet, he knew that he alone might be able to save his Steward. There was none other available; either with his natural abilities, or trained in Elven healing techniques, which were far less painful for the patient. It had hurt Faramir far more when Tarostar had touched him and he was the most experienced Gondorian Healer.

Imrahil and Aedred helped Aragorn to his feet, so that he could see for himself that Faramir was now conscious and awake, an expression of total confusion in his haunted grey eyes. His wounds were bleeding again and the blood had seeped through his nightshirt and the blanket covering him.

“My lord, will you not sit down?” Aedred asked anxiously, when the King swayed slightly on his feet.

Ignoring him, Aragorn turned to Faramir. ”How could you do that to me?” he demanded. “And have you no thought of Éowyn?” His tone was harsh for the shock and distress of the past few hours had affected him deeply.

“You have caused us great distress!” Imrahil added. “The King, he almost…”

Aragorn shot him a warning glance.

“I am sorry.” Faramir whispered. As consciousness returned to him, so did the pain, and the memory of the past few hours. No wonder Aragorn was angry; he had killed the King of Rohan!

His arm throbbed painfully, he could hardly breathe for the pain in his chest and belly and he felt as if his back had been flayed open. A jumble of confused images crowded his brain. Éomer falling lifeless, the mob demanding war, Mahrod leering at him and then a wonderful dream that the King was snatching him from the very clutches of the executioner’s knife, then holding him in his arms and telling him how much he was loved. Then he had been floating and could hear his mother and Boromir calling to him. But that was just a dream, from which he had awoken to the harsh reality of the pain of his injuries and his betrayal of his King.

“We need to put you back on the bed now. Your wounds need tending.” Aragorn said more gently, now the shock was starting to subside. He bent to lift Faramir from the couch but Aedred stopped him.

“My lord, I accept your concern for your Steward, but you are in no fit state to lift him!”

Imrahil had already grasped Faramir’s legs and Aedred took hold of his arms and together they carried him back to bed.

“Lay him on his uninjured side,” Aragorn ordered, conceding defeat as he moved over to join them. I must tend his wounds and quickly!”

“No!” Faramir moaned.

“I am sorry as I know you are in great pain.” Aragorn replied. “I cannot just let you lie there and bleed, though. Your arm must be stitched, as the wound is deep. I will try not to hurt you too much.”

“No, please!” Faramir writhed in agitation.

“My lord, you should rest!” Aedred fretted, “We feared for your life just then. Any further exertion could damage your health.”

Aragorn shot an anxious glance at Imrahil and then sat down on the bed and took Faramir’s hand. He was taken aback when Faramir tried to pull away.

“Would you rather someone else did it for you, Aedred perhaps?” The King said gently, accepting it was small wonder that Faramir recoiled from him after all that had happened.

Faramir shook his head. “No, no one.”

“Well just let me look then.” Aragorn coaxed as he started easing the nightshirt from Faramir’s battered frame. “I will be as gentle as I can.”

Faramir struggled feebly. ”Mercy, my liege!” he cried, trying to evade Aragorn’s hands.

“Peace, Faramir! I just need to see your hurts.” Aragorn tried vainly to soothe him.

Aedred then joined him and tried to gently remove Faramir’s nightshirt, only for the semi conscious Steward to become increasingly agitated as he slipped in and out of consciousness. He stepped back, at a sign from Aragorn, knowing that in Faramir’s weakened condition, any exertion could prove fatal.

Baffled by his Steward’s reactions and not knowing what else to do, Aragorn gently massaged his head and neck with the Elven relaxation technique which usually calmed Faramir.

Aedred still hovered, looking anxious.

“Could I not at least mix whatever medicines you need?” he offered, “I would show Lord Faramir that not all Rohirrim mean him harm!”

Aragorn smiled weakly, “I very much doubt that he thinks that, Master Aedred. It is just he is very uncomfortable to be unclothed when others are present and then there are some treatments I plan to use, which work only in the hands of the King!”

Aedred laughed, though not unkindly, “A typical man of Gondor then! We Rohirrim have no such inhibitions, yet there is something rather endearing about the people here! Now may I mix some herbs for you?”

“I am treating him with rosehips and hawthorn berries, and also some poppy juice for the pain and liquorice for the shock, if you could mix them into a tea, please. The ingredients are on the table over there.” Aragorn explained, finally excepting some help would be welcome. “Also bring me water and a towel so I can wash my hands between treating each injury.”

Aedred set to work, keeping his back turned to Faramir.

Faramir finally lay limp and unresisting, allowing Aragorn to remove his nightshirt and replace it with a towel to preserve his modesty. Imrahil, still looking rather pale, sat beside his nephew and clasped his hand for comfort.

Amazingly, although Faramir’s wounds still looked very serious, it appeared that bruising had faded a little and the flesh on his back seemed less brutally torn.

Faramir opened his eyes and saw how tired and drained the King looked. He was increasingly puzzled as to why so much trouble was being taken merely to keep him alive for his execution.

He could not understand why Aragorn would not just let him die, for he had never considered him to be cruel. He could only suppose that the King was bound to see the punishment carried out, as the law demanded, but his healer’s instincts made him tend his wounds. But why was the King tending him himself when he was a traitor and a criminal? He wanted to ask but talking was as painful as everything else.

“Here is the herbal tea, my lord,” Aedred said, handing it to him.

Turning towards the bed, the Rohirric Healer had to bite back a gasp of horror now that the Steward’s injuries were bared to his gaze. Even on a battlefield, it was rare to see so many hurts that hardly any undamaged flesh was visible

“Open your mouth!” Aragorn instructed, as he tried to see where the earlier bleeding had been coming from and greatly pitying his Steward. He now seemed to be the one taking his last shreds of dignity, as he lay with his mouth agape like a horse at a market.

Faramir’s lips were badly bitten and a splinter of wood had pierced his tongue, which could account for the blood. Aragorn could only hope that he could still swallow.

The King supported his Steward’s head with one hand and with the other held the cup of herbal tea. He was dreadfully thirsty and swallowed it obediently, followed by a cup of boiled water.

Meanwhile Aedred prepared a needle by lighting a candle and passing it through the flame to sterilize it.

“Why?” Faramir managed to croak, as Aragorn threaded the needle and began stitching the gaping wound in the muscle of his upper arm.

“Keep still!” Imrahil cautioned, still holding his hand, while Aedred held him still.

“ Shush, do not try to talk now, save your strength!” Aragorn sounded choked and Faramir wondered why the compassionate grey eyes were moist as he carefully stitched the diagonal line of cuts tapering across Faramir’s arm and side. The beatings had greatly worsened the injuries caused by Éomer’s sword.

The King then steeped more athelas in water and bathed Faramir from head to toe in the mixture, hoping it would ease his pain and the scent refresh his wounded spirit.

Aragorn carefully bandaged the gashes after smearing them with honey to ward off infection before turning his attention to the other injuries, which necessitated turning the Steward on to his back to examine and treat him properly.

Faramir was by now weeping silent tears of pain and it took every ounce of Aragorn’s self control not to weep too and concentrate exclusively on the task at hand.

He first laid a hand over Faramir’s heart and was relieved that by some miracle the beat was slightly stronger than before.

Turning his attention to his Steward’s ribs, he detected at least two broken and a further three cracked. Asking Aedred to prepare a poultice of comfrey, he gently applied it to the injuries. Faramir tensed with pain beneath his hands.

Moving downwards he gently probed and pressed the bruises disfiguring his Steward’s belly, desperately trying to discover the true extent of the damage. As Faramir still lived, he dared to hope that no internal organ was crushed or bleeding heavily, but he almost certainly was badly bruised inside. The swelling was still too bad to properly judge how much damage was done, though he knew from experience that even ‘mere’ bruising when inside, could mean weeks or even months of severe pain.

Faramir followed Aragorn’s every moment with sad haunted eyes. He cried out with pain at the slightest touch and Aragorn had to look away to concentrate on what he was doing. He knew much as he wanted to comfort his Steward, first he must heal him. He wished he were not so weary, as he would have liked to use his abilities to ease Faramir’s pain, but he was totally drained.

As gently as he could, he applied a salve of arnica, comfrey and sweet clover to the bruised belly. Faramir still seemed barely aware of what was happening to him, but when Aragorn tried to move the towel aside to examine the bruises to the groin area, he clutched at it frantically.

Aragorn gestured for his helpers to stand back as he tried to reason with his semi conscious friend.

“Peace, mellon nîn, I am sorry but I need to see your hurts.” Aragorn said gently, hating himself for all he was having to do.

Faramir finally let go, resigning himself as far worse awaited when he was taken to the scaffold.

Not wanting to agitate him further and remembering how he had reacted to hearing of Legolas’ rash in a similar region, Aragorn applied the salve as quickly and discreetly as he could, moving the towel just a few inches at a time.

He also applied goose grease to Faramir’s hip, where he would be lying, to keep the skin supple and prevent pressure sores. This whole procedure must be a cruel torture to one as shy and modest as Faramir and he was all too aware how deeply humiliated he must be feeling.

Washing his hands again, Aragorn beckoned his helpers. “We are just going to turn you on your side to treat your back now.” he explained to Faramir, “ I will try to be gentle but I fear this will hurt.” If Mahrod had stood before him now, exhausted though he was, the King would have killed him with his bare hands for the damage he had inflicted with the cruel whip.

All Aragorn could do was apply a special mixture of calendula, honey and garlic to the raw stripes on his back, which would hopefully prevent infection and aid healing.

By the way in which he clenched his fists and bit his teeth hard down on his lip while silent tears ran down his cheeks, it was obvious Faramir found the process excruciating as the mixture painfully stung his raw back.

After Aragorn had done all he could to ease Faramir, painfully little though it seemed, the Steward lay sleeping fitfully on his side, heavily dosed with poppy juice and surrounded by pillows to cushion every movement. Even in sleep, pain and despair contorted his pallid features

A soft linen sheet was draped around him, on top of which were light but warm blankets. It would have been pointless to clothe or bandage him just yet as he would need further examinations and more salve applying at frequent intervals. Instead a fresh towel was draped over his hips to give him some semblance of dignity.

Imrahil looked at the King questioningly

“His fate lies with the Valar now,” Aragorn sighed. ”He seems a little stronger. However, after such severe injuries combined with shock and blood loss we can only wait and hope.”

Labour and Strife

Warning- This chapter contains violence

“No one could have done more than you have to try and help Faramir,” Imrahil reassured the King, whose drawn and stricken features betrayed the depth of his grief.

”Thank you, my friend. I must see how Éomer fares now,” Aragorn swayed on his feet and almost fell.

Imrahil and Aedred rushed to his side, just in time to prevent him from falling.

“I will go to Éomer King, “ Aedred said firmly “You should rest now, my lord. You are too weary to help anyone else at present. Let us assist you to lie down.”

Too exhausted to protest, Aragorn allowed Aedred and Imrahil to help him on to the far side of the bed. Aedred pulled off his boots, while Imrahil fetched a clean shirt for the King. Aragorn was too exhausted even to change into it without assistance.

“I will leave you to rest now, my lord, please call me at once if you require my further assistance,” Aedred said, tucking a blanket around the Aragorn, who was already half asleep.

“Thank you, Master Aedred.” Aragorn, smiled wanly. The healer bowed and left.

“I will keep watch over Faramir.” Imrahil promised, settling himself down on the couch, his eyes never leaving the still form of his nephew, even heavily sedated, Faramir moaned softly in his sleep.

**

Back and forth, back and forth, Arwen paced like a caged animal, refusing to be soothed, despite the best efforts of her companions.

“Will this babe take forever to be born?” she groaned wearily.

“It could take many hours yet, Lady Elfstone,” Ioreth informed her. “Babies come when they are ready.

“It is not meant to be like this for Elves!” Arwen retorted.

“Your baby is half human, it could take after its father!” Éowyn replied. “You too can count men amongst your ancestors.”

“I will kill Estel!” Arwen snapped through gritted teeth as another contraction struck her.” How dare he get me in this condition!”

“If I had a coin for every woman who has told me that, I would be the wealthiest woman on Arda!” Ioreth informed her wryly, a smile ghosting her usually grim features.

“I want to go outside!” Arwen announced suddenly.

“My lady, that is not seemly!” Ioreth protested in horror.

“I am of the Eldar, it is unnatural for us to be confined within walls of stone!” The Queen insisted. “I need some fresh air and grass under my feet!”

“My lady, you must not become agitated, it is bad for the child,” Ioreth chided.

“How can I not be agitated by these stone walls? This room is like a prison!” Arwen lamented, ignoring the scandalised expression on Ioreth’s face. “If I were at my home at Imladis, I would have my bed under the trees and be soothed by the sounds of the river while I waited for my child to be born.”

Éowyn felt a rush of sympathy for the Queen. She too hated the stone walls of Minas Tirith and longed for the day she could move to Ilithien. Faramir would have to live apart from her for a few days each week, while he performed his duties as Steward. She would miss him, but was willing to pay the price for the feel of fresh grass under her feet. Not that it would not have been much different, had she married a Lord of Rohan, as the men were often away for weeks on end riding with the Éoreds. As a result the Rohirric women valued their independence and enjoyed managing their households with little interference from their husbands. She would miss Arwen too in Ithilien, but this city was like the cage she had always feared. “I see no reason, why we cannot go out in the garden for a while,” she announced. “It is enclosed, so the Queen will have complete privacy. “I will send one of the ladies at the door with a message that none must look out of the windows.”

“This is outrageous!” Ioreth complained, “The next thing will be that you will encourage the Lady Elfstone to give birth up a tree!”

“We like to do that.” Arwen replied. ”My mother was born high up in Lothlórien, though, for myself I would rather feel the grass under my feet!

“Elves! It just isn’t right or proper to behave like that!” Ioreth snorted, as Éowyn took the Queen’s arm and helped down the steps into the enclosed garden.

Arwen was soon walking barefoot on the grass. As another contraction hit her, she sank down amongst the flowers.

“How quiet it is in the city today!” she remarked once the pain has passed.

Éowyn listened carefully, as a mortal her hearing, although sharp was far less acute than the Queen’s. All she could hear were the sounds of birds singing and insects buzzing around the flowers, which was very unusual. Usually Minas Tirith rang with the shouts of traders, the chatter of passers by and the cries of children, while her favourite sound, the hoof beats of the many horses, could be heard echoing from the lower levels.

“How strange!” she exclaimed. “Obviously it shows how much the people love their Queen, as they must be keeping quiet to honour you! Or maybe the King requested them to be silent today?”

Arwen shook her head. “Estel would not do that, it would be abusing his authority. I hope everything is well with him?” she said anxiously.

“I am sure it is, our husbands can take good care of themselves,” Éowyn soothed.

“I wish they were more careful about getting us with child! They ought to be the ones who give birth!” Arwen snarled as another contraction came. She lay back on the grass panting and looking up at the branches of a mighty oak tree and watching a flock of geese fly overhead.

“Please, my lady, come inside now!” Ioreth pleaded. “You cannot have your baby under a tree!”

“Why not have another bath and I will massage you?” Éowyn suggested.

Groaning, Arwen allowed herself to be led back to her chambers.

**

Despite his desire to remain alert, Aragorn fell almost immediately into a deep sleep, but his troubled mind would give him no rest. He dreamed that Arwen had given birth and Éowyn brought the child to him to take to show to the populace.

He climbed the Tower of Ecthelion with the baby in his arms and looked down over the City. All the people had turned into wolves, furiously baying for blood, and at their behest he cast the child into their midst.

As the baby fell, it turned into Faramir who screamed in agony as the hungry beasts devoured his flesh. One of the wolves then turned into Éomer and barked ’My sister is avenged!’ as he bit off Faramir’s head!

He woke with a start to find Imrahil trying to soothe Faramir, who was crying out in pain. Instantly alert, Aragorn bent over his stricken Steward, his heart still pounding after his nightmare.

“I will try to ease you,” he murmured, feeling now he was rested a little, he could use his healing abilities.

Faramir could only moan in distress as Aragorn pulled back the covers.

Aragorn’s hands hovered a few inches over Faramir’s ribs and belly and then moved round to his back, trying to numb his Steward’s pain with his healing powers.

Eventually, the cries subsided to whimpers, though Faramir’s eyes continued to gaze at him with a look of haunted terror in their grey depths.

Aragorn gently rubbed more salve onto the bruises and flayed back, replaced the covers and then coaxed Faramir to sip some water to help counteract the blood loss and shock he had suffered. His ministrations were interrupted by cries outside the door.

“Let us have justice for our King!” The voice had a strong Rohirric accent.

“We’ve heard he is lying here in luxury while our King lies dying!” shouted another.

“The King of Gondor promised justice but what justice is it to take the miscreant to his own room to pamper!” Aragorn recognised this voice as Eothain’s.

“You cannot pass!” The Guard standing by the door sounded panicked.

“And you cannot stop us!”

The sounds of swords being drawn succeeded the sickening thud of a blow being struck.

“Halt in the name of the King!” Obviously, the second Guard was trying to stop the intruders. There was a loud scream and then fists pounded against the door.

“We’re coming for you, coward, we demand vengeance!” screamed the Rohirrim.

Aragorn and Imrahil drew their swords as the lock on the door splintered and some twenty or more heavily armed men of Éomer’s Éored burst into the room.

“What is the meaning of this?” Aragorn demanded, brandishing Andúril.

“Your Steward killed our King, this means war!” Aragorn recognised the speaker as Aelfred, the Captain of Éomer’s Personal Guard.

“Your King has a good chance of recovery.” Aragorn said coolly. “Have you not heard? I would remind you, that you have stormed our borders, not the other way round!”

“We heard that you confounded your Steward’s infamy by cutting our King’s head open!” Aefred retorted.

“A perfectly sound surgical procedure needed to save his life!” Aragorn said firmly, “Leave this room and return to your lodgings!” Too much blood has been shed today already.”

“We will not leave until you surrender your Steward!” Aelfred replied.

Behold the man!

Faramir felt a great sense of relief when Aelfred’s words permeated his semi conscious brain. It would soon be over now; a far swifter and more honourable death than the one he had been destined for. Why did Aragorn not swiftly surrender him to the Rohirrim? He could not bear to see his King harmed because of his acts.

He tried to say, “I am here and submit to your justice,” but the words emerged as an incoherent squeak.

“Aragorn Arathornsson, yield him to us!” Aefred demanded, advancing towards the bed.

Aragorn stood defiantly in front of Faramir, defending him with his sword. ”You must kill me to reach him!” he told them. “I surrender him to no man. Remember that I am the King of this Realm!”

Imrahil stood beside him. “No one touches my nephew!” he told the Rohirrim. ”He has suffered far too much already.”

“Suffered from the scratches he received when he struck down our Lord?” Eothain sniffed. ”Not nearly as much as Éomer King has suffered!”

Aragorn took a calculated risk. Still holding Andúril in one hand, with the other he pulled back the bedcovers as far as decency allowed, exposing Faramir’s battered upper body to the gaze of the angry Rohirrim.

He deplored displaying his Steward’s injuries like this. Yet it seemed the only alternative to shedding more blood. He could now hear the clamour of his own armed guards approaching.

“There, behold the man! All this has been done to him since he was arrested!” he said fiercely.

Drifting in and out of consciousness, Faramir awaited the fatal blow, feeling relief combined with humiliation at being uncovered in front of so many.

Éomer’s men gasped then immediately sheathed their weapons, muttering amongst themselves as they backed away.

“You have had him tortured almost to death!” Aelfred said, aghast. ”That is not our way. We do not like the way you dispense justice, Aragorn Arathornsson.”

“He deserved a swift and honourable death by the sword!” Eothain added. ”Éomer King would have wished that!”

Aragorn heaved an inward sigh of relief. The men of Rohan were fierce, but not cruel by nature. As he had hoped, they were deeply shocked by Faramir’s injuries.

“He has been punished enough.” Aelfred said, One by one the Rohirrim slunk from the room straight into the custody of Aragorn’s guards, who awaited them just outside the threshold.

“As will you be for attacking my guards!” Aragorn said under his breath, covering Faramir again. ”I am sorry, my friend,” he murmured, not for the first time that day. Faramir had already sunk back into unconsciousness.

Aragorn went to the door as more soldiers arrived. Frightened servants started to emerge from the surrounding rooms and alcoves now the danger was over. The prone bodies of the two guards who had been stationed outside the room were sprawled over the threshold. The King knelt beside them. Much to his relief, the men were still breathing. One appeared to have merely been knocked out, while his companion was bleeding from a deep cut to the sword arm.

Aragorn swiftly staunched the bleeding and ordered a servant to fetch a healer. Another was despatched to fetch workmen to mend the door.

Once the two injured guards were placed on stretchers and carried to the Houses of Healing, Aragorn tried to discover exactly what had happened from the servants and Royal Guards.

It seemed that the most hot-headed of Éomer’s men had left the barracks where they were being confined while their guards were occupied eating their midday meal. When Aragorn had sent Eothain back to them, they had learned where Faramir was. After a further report about Éomer’s skull fracture and Aragorn’s treatment of it reached their ears, they had waited for a chance to avenge their King. Unaware how badly Faramir was injured, they had decided to storm his room. The few guards that stood in their way had been taken by surprise and easily overpowered.

In times of peace, Aragorn liked to have as few bodyguards as possible in attendance. Although he knew the Rohirrim were angry, he had never in his wildest dreams thought they would be enraged and foolish enough storm his apartments.

The King gave orders that the guilty Rohirrim were to be escorted towards the Border ere nightfall and forbidden to ever again set foot in Gondor. He then ordered a through search to ensure there were no more intruders and that all the injured had been found. He took the added precaution of placing six heavily armed men outside the door while a locksmith and a carpenter repaired the damage.

Returning to Faramir’s bedside, Aragorn again tried to ease his friend’s pain and strengthen his heart. Though Faramir moaned and moved restlessly, he seemed unaware of his surroundings and oblivious to the soft words of comfort and apology the King spoke to him. He thirstily drank another cup of the herbal tea the King mixed for him during one of his more lucid moments. Eventually, he fell into an uneasy sleep and Aragorn settled down to rest beside him. Scarcely had he settled back against the pillows, though, when a loud knock came on the newly mended door.

Imrahil went to answer it.

“Master Tarostar requests the presence of King Elessar,” the servant announced, “He and Master Aedred are most concerned about King Éomer.”

Aragorn swiftly got up and pulled on his boots, wondering how much more could go amiss this day and praying that Valar would at least spare his wife and the child she was bringing into the world. He had dared hope that Éomer would recover, for he had seemed to be improving when he left him. As for poor Faramir, he was very seriously ill indeed. How could he bear it if he lost everyone he loved on this one dreadful day?

Hastening to where his other injured friend lay, Aragorn was filled with dread. If Éomer died, not only would he lose a treasured friend, but also it would most likely mean a bloody war between former close friends and allies, so close that even civil war within Gondor was one dreadful possibility. Especially if Faramir were to die too; there were still many who only supported the King because Faramir himself would never have agreed to be used as a figurehead against him. Then, there had been many marriages between citizens of Gondor and Rohan since the Ring War, which would lead to divided loyalties within every part of society.

Éomer was still lying exactly as Aragorn had left him a few hours ago, but whereas before he had been breathing fairly well, now his lips had bluish tinge and he was fighting for every breath.

Tarostar was examining his patient and barely looked up as the King entered; however an agitated looking Aedred exclaimed, “It grieves me to trouble you when I know you are weary, my lord, but a few moments ago Éomer King tried to cough in his sleep and then started to fight for breath.”

Tarostar stood aside as Aragorn approached his friend’s bedside.

Motioning to Aedred, together they unlaced Eomer’s nightshirt and slid it down to his waist. While Aedred, assisted by Tarostar, unwrapped the bandages at Aragorn’s command, the King stood for a moment gathering himself, then crushed a leaf of athelas before placing both hands a few inches above Éomer’s damaged chest.

Aragorn chanted something that neither Tarostar nor Aedred could understand, he then appeared to fall into a trance. The green gem he wore on his breast started to glow as if of its own volition.

Éomer gave a strangled cough as both sides of his chest began to rise and fall. Aragorn then clasped both the injured man’s hands. Slowly the colour began to return to the King of Rohan’s features, while his breathing grew stronger.

Aragorn sat down heavily on the bedside chair while Tarostar hastened to Éomer’s side.

“Well, I have never seen anything like this before in a lifetime spent as a healer!” Tarostar exclaimed. ”The collapsed lung is working again after only a few hours, quite remarkable! What powers do you possess my Lord King?” He looked at Aragorn with something approaching reverence.

“I hardly know myself until they are put to the test!” Aragorn said wearily. “Will you replace the bandages, and his nightshirt please?“

After they had done his bidding and Aragorn had somewhat recovered, he took Éomer’s hand again and placed his other hand lightly on his brow. “Éomer, my friend, awake!” he commanded.

Éomer coughed again and then opened his eyes.

“Aragorn?” Éomer murmured through dry lips. “Thirsty.”

Aragorn help a cup of water to his lips.

Éomer swallowed the water in the proffered cup and closed his eyes again.

“He sleeps naturally, he will recover now," Aragorn said, his voice trembling slightly with the vast sense of relief he felt. “I think he will sleep now for many hours. I must return to the Lord Faramir now, call me at once if you have further need of my aid!”

“You should take food and rest first, my lord,” Aedred advised. “After what you did earlier for Lord Faramir, I fear for your own well being, you need to take care of yourself as well as your patients!”

Aragorn smiled wryly at this typical Rohirric outspokenness and promised to have some food sent up from the kitchens. Tarostar looked shocked, for in Denethor’s day such forwardness would have earned the young man a severe reprimand.

“So old Ioreth was right!” Tarostar mused once Aragorn had left. “The King does indeed have the hands of a healer. I would never have believed it, had I not seen it today for myself. I thought she was just exaggerating over some Elvish tricks he knew how to use! Maybe there is even hope for poor Lord Faramir!”

**

An hour or so later, Faramir opened his eyes again and the King coaxed him to swallow more water and herbal tea. He sipped it slowly through bruised blue tinged lips, all the while gazing at Aragorn with an expression of anguish in his expressive grey eyes. He looked away when the King uncovered him and rubbed more salves on his many injuries.

Meanwhile, Aragorn’s guilt gnawed at him. How could Faramir ever forgive him for what he had done? Even if he lived, could he ever recover from such an ordeal?

He persuaded Imrahil to rest awhile on the couch while he continued to tend Faramir.

As darkness fell, another of Aragorn’s fears was realised when Faramir became feverish; no doubt on account of having his injuries doused in filthy water, as well as being exposed to the general squalor of the prison.

It was a torment for the King to watch as every restless movement increased the Steward’s agony.

Aragorn was constantly at his side, bathing his face, neck and limbs with lukewarm water and trying to soothe him when he pleaded with some invisible tormentor for mercy.

As the fever intensified, Faramir cried out again and again. The words were often indistinguishable, but now and again they could make out, “I am sorry, forgive me, please no!”

Aragorn could only add willow bark to the rosehip, poppy, hawthorn and liquorice herbal brew he was now giving Faramir every few hours. He tried constantly to reassure him, but the Steward seemed unaware of his presence.

Faramir stared wild-eyed and unseeing at Aragorn, occasionally gripping his proffered hand for comfort while his friend and King fought for his life.

Tonight should have been so very different for them both. They should have been sitting here keeping each other company, while waiting for news of how Arwen’s labour was progressing. He could imagine how Faramir would have tried to find some topic of conversation to distract him.

A few hours later Faramir suddenly cried out clearly, “ Love me please! Why don’t you love me father? I did not mean to let you down! Please do not hurt me any more!”

Realising Faramir was reliving his childhood, and thinking a slight deception excusable, Aragorn tenderly kissed him on the brow saying, “Of course I love you, ion nîn. Your father loves you very much!”

A faint smile lit up Faramir’s features. He sighed and settled a little more easily.

Aragorn bathed his Steward’s face again. His words were no lie for he had indeed come to love this young man as a son and appreciate him, as Denethor never had been able to.

**

It had grown dark outside and the birthing chamber was now lit by candlelight.

The Queen had been in labour for over eighteen hours now and was growing exhausted. Frequent bites of lembas and sips of miruvor helped to sustain her. Ioreth and Éowyn were both satisfied everything was progressing as it should.

Arwen gave a loud scream as the contractions became fiercer. They were now so frequent; she hardly had time to recover between them.

“It is almost time.” Ioreth announced as she examined Arwen. “Bring the birthing stool here!”

Warning – this chapter describes childbirth and may distress sensitive readers.

A child is born

Arwen dismissed her ladies so that only alone with Ioreth and Éowyn remained. She positioned herself on the birthing stool, with the midwives supporting her either side.

The voluminous shift she was wearing got in the way. Between contractions, she tugged it over her head much to Ioreth’s horror.

“Lady Elfstone!” she exclaimed, “This most unseemly!”

“My people do not suffer inhibitions!” Arwen said through gritted teeth, “It is not as if you are seeing anything you have not seen before!”

“Let her be, if she feels more comfortable,” Éowyn advised, supporting the Queen. She moved behind Arwen, supporting her with one arm and massaging her back with the other, all the while murmuring soothing words of comfort. She wished fervently that she had Aragorn’s unique healing skills.

Arwen gave an ear-piercing shriek at an especially fierce contraction.

“Bear down, it is time to push now, “ Ioreth commanded. “I can tell from your breathing. You are almost there!”

Arwen screamed all the louder. She felt as if her body were being torn asunder. She clasped Éowyn’s hand in a bone-crushing grip.

“The head has emerged.” Ioreth announced. “One more big push, you can do it, Lady Elfstone!”

Arwen made a final supreme effort and felt her child slither its way into the world.

The baby slipped into Ioreth’s waiting hands. Gently she lifted it and placed it on Arwen’s chest.

Time seemed to stand still. Then the lusty cry of a newborn babe broke the silence.

“A fine healthy boy!” Ioreth announced. “Congratulations, Lady Elfstone!”

Blinking back a tear, Éowyn moved round to kiss her friend on the cheek before draping a blanket round her and the baby.

Tears of joy and relief freely coursed down Arwen’s face, now she held her firstborn in her arms. Although still covered in the detritus of birth, he seemed to her to be the most beautiful being she had ever beheld, with his tiny chubby body and fuzz of black hair.

Éowyn expertly tied the cord before cutting it with a sharp knife, while Ioreth called for water and towels to be fetched to bathe the newborn prince.

“Have you thought of a name?” Éowyn enquired while they waited for the placenta to be delivered.

“Estel and I decided on Eldarion if we had a son,” Arwen replied, tenderly cradling her child. “Could you send someone to tell him he is a father, if they have not done so already?” she asked.

“A good kingly name, though I hope it will be a very long time before he succeeds his father,” Éowyn replied. Arwen reluctantly relinquished her hold on her child and allowed Ioreth to bathe him and wrap him in a blanket while she dealt with the afterbirth.

Ancient tradition decreed that the baby could not be dressed until the King had inspected him and declared himself satisfied.

Ioreth then examined Arwen thoroughly and pronounced her healthy with no damage apart from some slight bruising caused by the birth.

“You will be able to give Lord Elfstone more children,” Ioreth informed the Queen.

“Do not mention it, this is the first and last!” Arwen snapped.

“Every woman says that,” Ioreth cackled, “Including a lady of my acquaintance who went on to have ten more!”

“I think not!” Arwen retorted. Éowyn led her over to the bed where she gently bathed her and applied a salve of arnica and marigold, before helping her don a finely embroidered linen nightgown.

“Aragorn has been sent for, so let me help you look your best for him,” Éowyn soothed, as she brushed the Queen’s long black hair. “Later you can have a bath and I will massage you and the baby after he has spent some time with you.”

“I want my baby!” Arwen fretted when Eldarion cried pitifully from the far side of the room. “I think he is hungry!”

Éowyn hesitated. The rules stated that the Queen was not advised to suckle her newborn child until after the King had acknowledged it. Given Aragorn’s nobility of character, Éowyn was certain he would never disown his child.

Taking the baby from Ioreth, she handed him to his mother and helped Arwen position him correctly. It never failed to amaze her how so soon after birth, an infant knew exactly how to obtain nourishment.

Holding the babe to her breast, Arwen gazed at him with such fierce tenderness that it brought more tears to Éowyn’s eyes. Despite all her reassurances to Aragorn, she had been terrified that something would go wrong and that she might lose her best friend to the perils of childbirth. She felt overwhelmed with joy and relief that everything had gone so well. Her guess had been correct, as Eldarion was obviously full term after the usual human term of gestation. She felt impatient now for her own child to be born.

A Lady in Waiting was despatched to summon the King as soon as the midwives were satisfied that all was well.

**

An exhausted Aragorn was still sitting beside Faramir when Lady Morwen knocked on the door.

The Steward was still very seriously ill but Aragorn was daring to hope that as he had survived so far, maybe he had a chance. His fever was now causing him grave concern, though.

When he heard the summons, he roused Imrahil, who was still dozing on the couch and then opened the door.

Lady Morwen beamed at him, her news obvious even before she opened her mouth. “My Lord Elessar!” she said, “Your are summoned to the Queen’s chambers if your lordship pleases. Your lady has been delivered of a healthy child.”

“And my wife?” Aragorn asked anxiously.

“She is well, my lord.”

Aragorn gave a deep sigh of relief. He would have wept had Lady Morwen not been present. At last something had not gone awry on this day. Arwen and their baby lived and were well. He offered a silent prayer of thanks to the Valar.

After hurriedly washing his hands and changing his shirt, Aragorn summoned Tarostar to share Imrahil’s vigil over Faramir. He commanded them to call him at once if there were any change.

His heart pounding with anticipation and relief, he made his way to the other side of the Royal Apartments. He wanted to rush inside and see his Queen. First,though, there were ancient customs to observe.

As tradition dictated, twenty nobles and members of the Council were waiting in the anteroom outside the Queen’s chamber.

On being informed of his arrival, Lady Meril brought the baby to him, wrapped only in a blanket. She unwrapped the bundle so that the King could inspect his child.

Aragorn saw a fuzz of black hair, sleepy blue grey eyes, perfectly formed limbs and ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes. He felt an overwhelming sense of love towards this baby, so small yet so perfect. This, at long last, was his son, the child he had waited for so long.

“My Lord Elessar?” Lady Meril’s enquiry jolted him back to the need of the ritual words he had to speak now, part of an obscure and ancient tradition where the King was required to publicly acknowledge his heir. If he refused to, the babe at best would be raised in obscurity, or at worse exposed on the mountainside. Aragorn shuddered, now he saw his child, the very thought made him recoil in horror.

“This is my son. The King has an heir!” Aragorn said in a loud voice for the assembled nobles to hear.

He wanted to scoop up his son and hold him securely in his arms, but first Lady Meril had to parade the infant for the assembled Council Members to inspect.

The Lord of Lebennin prodded the infant curiously, as if expecting the offspring of an Elf and a human to have four legs or some similar oddity. Indignant at such treatment, the baby started to howl.

The strain of this dreadful day was taking its toll. Aragorn suddenly found the whole procedure barbaric. This was his son, a living, breathing child, not some piece of prize horseflesh! No future child of his was going to suffer such indignities, tradition or not!

He strode over to the assembled nobles and took his son from the lady in waiting, wrapping him securely in the blanket and cradling him in his arms.

“You have seen the babe is healthy, now be gone!” he roared in a voice, which brokered no argument.

“But sire!” Lord Dervorin of Ringlo Vale protested.

“You have seen my son, now he needs the comfort of his mother and warm clothing on his skin. The demands of the law are fulfilled, you have seen the child and I tell you now to depart. I, King Elessar have spoken!”

Dumbfounded, the Nobles filed out. The Lord of Lossarnach alone remained as Aragorn made his way towards Arwen’s chamber. “Congratulations, sire!” he said, “Shall I order the bells to be rung now as custom demands?”

Aragorn nodded and managed to smile at the young man. “Yes, the citizens deserve to know they have a Prince: though whether they will welcome being awoken at nearly midnight is another matter. Thank you, my lord, I fear today has been somewhat trying.”

Still carrying his infant son, Aragorn followed Lady Meril into the large bedchamber where his Queen lay resting.

Aragorn hastened to his wife’s side, handing the baby to the hovering Éowyn, who quickly dressed him. He took Arwen’s hand. “My love, he is so beautiful, thank you,” he whispered, his voice husky with emotion. “Was the pain very bad?”

“It was worth it. Already the memory is fading. Estel, I am not made of glass!” She pulled him towards her. He took her in his arms and kissed her tenderly.

When they pulled apart, Éowyn handed the baby back to his mother and discreetly retired to the next room.

For a few moments, Arwen contentedly cuddled her son before looking up and studying her husband’s face.

“Whatever is wrong, Estel?” she asked anxiously, “You look as if you were the one who had given birth. I have never seen you look so exhausted!”

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times - Dickens -A Tale of Two Cities

Aragorn thought quickly, this was his wife’s special day and he had no desire to spoil it for her. Before Arwen had become pregnant, she had easily been able to read his thoughts. He would have usually been unable to hide the depth of his distress from her, but bearing a mortal’s child had taken her abilities away. Now that the baby was delivered, her mental abilities would most likely return within the next few days.

“I was worried about you and I had an exhausting day,” he replied evasively. “There was some trouble in the city that I had to deal with.”

“Could not Faramir have dealt with it?” she enquired, “I thought he would be with you today and offer you his support?”

Aragorn took a deep breath, realising it was impossible to avoid telling her at least some of what had happened.” I am afraid there was a fight,” he said, as calmly as he could,” Faramir and Éomer were both injured.”

Faramir fighting with Éomer?” Arwen sounded incredulous. “Are they badly hurt?”

Although Aragorn had hidden some things from his wife during her pregnancy, to spare her distress, it was contrary to both his principles and the Thought Bond they shared, for him to ever lie to her.

He sadly nodded the affirmative, though adding in an attempt to reassure. ”I am caring for them both and have treated their injuries. I have yet to learn exactly what happened to cause them to fight.”

Arwen looked distressed. “This is dreadful news! Poor Éowyn, for this to happen now! She has been so good to me today, I could never have managed without her.”

“Do not distress yourself, vanimelda,” Aragorn soothed, “I am doing all I can to heal them both.”

“And you will succeed.” Arwen reassured him, “Apart from my father, you are the greatest healer on Arda. If only he were here today to see his grandson and to aid you, but alas he is preparing to sail! I do not know even if a message to tell him of the birth will get there in time!”

“It grieves me that your family are not here with you,” Aragorn said sadly. Privately, he thought that Elrond could have at least lingered until after the baby was born. The Elf Lord was in great hurry to depart now that the power of the Elven rings was no more.

“I love my father but I love you and now our son far more now!” Arwen said fervently, kissing him again. “I have a new family now and my brothers and my grandfather are remaining on Arda for a while yet. Now, as the hour we are allowed together is almost over, you had better return to your patients and take Éowyn to see her husband and brother. Then try and get some rest, my love.”

Aragorn bade a tender farewell to his wife and promised to return on the morrow. Arwen’s eyes were already closing, when he requested the midwives to come back into the room. “First I would thank you for all your help today.” he said, “Then if you would stay with the Queen, Dame Ioreth, I should like to speak to Lady Éowyn alone.”

“I’ll be happy to sit with your lady, Lord Elfstone. She needs sleep now, that is until your son demands feeding. A fine boy you have there!”

Aragorn smiled at her with something approaching affection. Sharp tongued and garrulous, Ioreth might be, but she had looked after Arwen well. He had gained a new respect for her in recent weeks, as despite her garrulous reputation, she had apparently not told anyone outside her immediate circle about finding Faramir, Legolas and himself clad solely in sackcloth. He had feared they would be the laughing stock of Minas Tirith for months, yet no one had said a word. Now, he could weep at the memory of that carefree afternoon.

Bidding farewell to Ioreth, he left the room with Éowyn.

“I fear I have ill tidings.” Aragorn said quietly, wondering however he was going to tell her what had happened.

Éowyn looked at him in alarm. “What is wrong? Tell me!” she demanded.

There was no easy way to put it. “I am afraid Éomer challenged Faramir to a dual and they are both badly hurt,” he said bleakly, hating himself for having to tell her this and fearing its effect on her unborn child.

Éowyn paled visibly “How badly? What happened? Take me to them!” she demanded. “Can I not leave you and Faramir for less than a day without some disaster occurring?”

“It seems not,” he replied, taking Éowyn’s arm to support her “ You and Arwen have been greatly missed today. Come, I will take you to them and try to explain what happened on the way.”

Aragorn first took Éowyn to the room where her brother lay, hoping it would lessen the shock somewhat, if she saw that at least one of her loved ones was recovering. He also feared how she might react to her brother, once she saw the extent of her husband’s injuries.

Éomer was sleeping peacefully while Aedred maintained a vigil at his bedside.

Rising from the chair where he had been sitting the Rohirric Healer bowed to the King and Éowyn as they entered.

“How is he?” Aragorn asked, “I have brought Lady Éowyn to see her brother.”

“He is recovering well,” the healer replied, “he has a very strong constitution.”

Éowyn gasped at the sight of her brother, lying pale and still with his head swathed in bandages.

“Faramir did this?” she exclaimed in horror.

“He only caught him across the chest with his sword and I believe even that was an accident.” Aragorn replied, gesturing with one hand and placing the other on her shoulder in a gesture of comfort.” His worse injuries occurred when he fell down the steps outside the Council Chamber. He is healing well, though and you should have no need to worry.”

At the sound of his sister’s voice, Éomer opened his eyes.

Éowyn hastened to his bedside and clasped her brother’s hand. Her eyes were full of tears at the sight of her usually strong and vigorous brother lying so weak and helpless.

“Éowyn, sister, is that you?” Éomer asked weakly

“I am here beside you holding your hand,” she replied.

“I cannot feel your touch!” Éomer gasped in alarm, turning his head a little so that he could see her.

Éowyn squeezed his fingers tighter. “Can you feel that?”

“I cannot feel anything!” Éomer sounded afraid, for the first his sister could remember.

“Maybe you are numb from lying on it? Éowyn suggested without much conviction.

Aragorn grasped Eomer’s other hand.

“I can feel your hand, Aragorn but my sword arm is numb!” Eomer’s voice rose in sheer panic.

“Let me see!” The healer in Aragorn took over, assisted by Aedred; Aragorn eased Éomer’s arm out of his nightshirt.

It was badly bruised near the shoulder but otherwise looked undamaged. Éowyn gasped in horror as the thick bandages covering her brother’s chest were revealed.

Aragorn felt along the length of Eomer’s arm, at first gently, but on getting no reaction probed and even pinched it, in the hope Éomer would feel something. The arm remained completely numb.

Éowyn then pinched her brother’s arm really hard, as she had often done in childhood when they had fought, thinking that maybe Aragorn was being too gentle.

By now Éomer was sweating with agitation and when Aragorn checked, his heart was pounding. “I can feel nothing from my shoulder down!” he exclaimed, the fear in his eyes obvious. ”What did that husband of yours do to me, sister?

Aragorn nodded a silent instruction to Aedred to mix a sedative to calm the King of Rohan.

“It is useless, I can feel nothing, you could stick a knife in my arm and I would not know! What is wrong with me?” Éomer demanded

“I cannot say for certain,” Aragorn replied, frowning with concern, “You fell on that arm and dislocated that shoulder. It could be that the nerve is damaged. Drink this, it will make you feel better.”

Éowyn supported her brother’s head as Aragorn gave him a calming potion of herbs and poppy juice.

“Will I regain the feeling?” Éomer asked fearfully.

“I hope so. You will need time to heal. I will do everything I can for you. There are Elven massage techniques I could use which might help.”

Éomer snorted, “No thank you! Elvish tricks are for Elves, or maybe women and children, not men of the Mark!”

“As you wish,” Aragorn said resignedly, wishing Éomer were a little more open to less orthodox treatments. “You are healing well, considering the severity of your injuries and should be back on your feet within a week or two.”

“What use is a one armed King, even if I can walk?” Éomer said desperately.

“Do not say that!” Éowyn chided.” You have recovered from many hurts in the past and then you did not have the best Healer in Middle Earth as you do now! Why do you always get into such trouble?” Her eyes were wide with concern.

“I thought only to protect your honour, sister.” Éomer replied heatedly.

“My honour?” Éowyn sounded bewildered.

“You need to rest now.” Aragorn soothed, his hand on Éomer’s brow, realising he would have to use his abilities to make his friend sleep as the potion would take too long to work. He cast a warning glance at Éowyn that this was not the time for questions.

He need not have troubled himself for the King of Rohan was already asleep.

“I will take you to Faramir now,” he told Éowyn, as she rose from the bedside and planted a kiss on her brother’s cheek “I warn you, though, he is in a far worse state that Éomer. Are you certain you wish to see him just yet? I fear the shock could harm your unborn child.”

“The women of the Mark are strong, as are our children!” Éowyn said staunchly, “Take me to my husband!”

Tarostar and Imrahil were seated either side of Faramir when they entered. Both rose to bow to Aragorn, but with a wave of his hand, he bade them be seated.

“How is he?” Aragorn asked, putting a protective arm around Éowyn’s shoulders when they approached the bedside.

“There is no change, my lord,” Tarostar replied.

“Let me see how badly he is hurt!” Éowyn demanded.

“Please, Éowyn, it is best you wait a little!” Aragorn counselled, wishing at least to first examine Faramir again. The Steward had momentarily opened his eyes when they entered, but now lay there as if oblivious to their presence, moaning as he feverishly shifted in the bed.

Despite the fever, his face was almost white in sharp contrast to his raven hair while his lips still bore a bluish tinge.

Ignoring the King’s attempts to hold her back, Éowyn yanked the covers off her husband, determined to see for herself the full extent of his injuries.

She stared at him for a moment taking in the flayed back, the heavily bandaged arm and the heavy bruising, which covered him almost from shoulder to thigh.

Turning pale, she gave a cry and would have fallen had Aragorn not caught her. For a moment she let him hold her, but quickly recovered and demanded.

“How did this happen? My brother could not have inflicted all these hurts upon him! Nor would he, as he is a man of honour!”

Aragorn moved to cover his Steward, who even though only half conscious, was shivering and recoiling at the indignity of having so many pairs of eyes fixed on his naked and battered body.

“It is my fault,” he replied, unable to meet her eyes.” I gave the order for him to be taken to prison where he was beaten.”

Eowyn’s eyes blazed with fury. “How could you?” she raged. “You cruel, monstrous tyrant! How could you do this to him, my gentle loving Faramir? He loves you so much, he trusted you, he worships the very ground you walk upon! He would gladly die for you, yet you treat him worse than a drunken beggar would treat his cur! Are you going to burn him alive next?”

Incandescent with rage, she slapped Aragorn across the face. The force was so great he staggered backwards, blood pouring from his nose.

The Fateful Letter

Imrahil jumped to his feet and grabbed Éowyn’s arm when she appeared poised to strike again. “Lady, it is treason to strike the King!” he cried, outraged at her actions. “He risked his own life to save your husband!”

“Let her go, I deserve her wrath!” Aragorn said wearily, still reeling from the blow. He tried to wipe away the blood running down his face. “None could ever blame me as much as I blame myself! Leave her be!”

Released from Imrahil’s grip, Éowyn bent over her husband and pressed a kiss to the bluish tinged lips She clasped his limp hand. ”Faramir, my love!” she cried, but he had lapsed back into unconsciousness and could not hear her.

Tarostar hastened to Aragorn’s side and fussed round the King, pressing cold compresses to his bleeding nose and lip. Too weary to protest, he submitted to the ministrations patiently.

“Your nose is fortunately not broken, my lord, but I fear you will have a swollen lip for a few days.” Tarostar pronounced, glaring at Éowyn.

Éowyn knelt by Faramir’s bedside sobbing quietly and continuing to call his name.

After a few moments, she felt more composed and steeled herself to more closely examine his injuries. Uncovering him again, she prodded an especially nasty looking bruise on his belly, trying to ascertain for herself how severe his injuries were.

Although virtually insensible, Faramir moaned in agony and jerked away from her touch.

Aragorn hurried to Faramir’s side and held his hand over the spot until the Steward quieted and then tucked the covers round him again.

“Will you leave us, please?" he asked Imrahil and Tarostar. ”And Master Tarostar, you and Master Aedred should rest now, you have been here many hours. Please request two other skilled healers from the Houses of Healing to come and replace you while you get some sleep.”

“You should rest too, my lord,” Tarostar suggested.

“I will as soon as I am able.” Aragorn told him. “Now I wish to speak to the Lady Éowyn alone.”

They both looked doubtful at leaving the King with the Steward’s enraged wife, but did as they were bidden.

Aragorn led the now subdued Éowyn to a chair.

“How badly is he hurt?” she asked. “Tell me the truth! I can see for myself that he is very ill.”

“It is impossible to tell for certain.” Aragorn told her sadly. “He has sustained sword cuts, a flogging and a beating, all of which could have caused more damage inside. His lungs and limbs are sound, the only broken bones are several ribs, but I fear his heart is damaged and most likely his kidneys too. Also he has lost a great deal of blood and is in deep shock, as well as running a high fever.”

“Will he live?” she demanded in her usual direct fashion, though her eyes were full of fear.

Aragorn looked her directly in the eye. “I do not know. His fate is in the hands of the Valar. I will do everything within my power to save him, though.”

“So you ought to, as this is all your fault!” Éowyn snapped, looking as if she was considering striking him again. “Men! I turn my back for a few hours to help your wife bring new life into the world and then learn that my husband and brother have tried to kill each other! Then for some reason you send my poor husband to prison as if he and Éomer hadn’t damaged each other enough already! However could all this have happened? I demand to know everything!”

Aragorn had not intended to show her the letter and risk distressing her further at the moment. It seemed though, unless she knew the whole story she would continue to rage at him. He was too weary to argue with her any more, as well as not wanting Faramir to be disturbed by raised voices.

Sighing, he retrieved the crumbled and bloodstained letter and handed it to her to read, while began bathing Faramir’s face and neck again.

The colour drained from Éowyn’s face. Aragorn rushed to her side to prevent her from falling.

“Easy now,” he soothed, leading her to the couch and gently rubbing circles on the back of her neck, an Elven remedy to calm the patient.

“I wrote this six months ago,” she murmured brokenly. “I was angry when Faramir told me we were to go to the Hunting Lodge. I even thought you were planning to make me your mistress with his contrivance. I falsely believed ill of you both then. I placed the letter amongst Faramir’s papers, meaning to send it to Éomer later. When we returned, I was going to destroy it but I couldn’t find it. I assumed it had been thrown away.”

“The new secretary!” Aragorn said grimly, ”Faramir told me that he was always tidying papers away. He must have found this and sent it to your brother.”

“I am sorry. It is my fault Faramir is hurt you are not to blame. I should not have struck you.” Éowyn looked up at the King, her eyes brimming with tears.

“The letter only led to the fight with Éomer, not to Faramir’s serious injuries.” Aragorn replied, now understanding far more about what had happened.

Knowing Éowyn’s share of the blame, in no way lessened his own feelings of guilt, though. As King it was his responsibility to have stopped the fight and to have made his instructions clearer that Faramir was merely to be arrested for his own protection.

He placed a comforting arm around the distraught Éowyn.

“What have I done? I have killed my husband and almost killed my brother!” Éowyn wept, looking sadly at the still figure on the bed.

“They still live and may yet recover!” Aragorn tried to sound more hopeful than he felt. “I know you never meant any harm to come to either Faramir or your brother.”

“I was so unhappy a few months ago, but I only wanted Éomer to take me home.” Éowyn said more to herself than to the King. “Then everything changed and I realised how much I loved my husband after all, and that you were always a good friend to us both. I was overwhelmed at your goodness when you forgave me and told me you wished me to attend the Queen when she gave birth. Arwen! All this almost made me forget! I am supposed to be with her!”

“I am sure there must be a way around the rules so that you can be permitted to leave Arwen to be with Faramir,” Aragorn replied, “The law was never intended to keep a midwife from her sick husband!”

Leaning heavily on Aragorn’s arm Éowyn made her way back to the bedside and stood despondently looking down at Faramir.

“You are far more use to him than I am at the moment, you have healing powers beyond anything I can even understand,” Éowyn replied, “You saw how he groaned when I touched him, I know I am not gentle enough to care for him at present. It is best that I stay with Arwen, as I promised I would. I think Faramir would want that too, but I beg of you to fetch me at once if there is any change or he asks for me.” She bent and kissed Faramir tenderly, murmuring, “I am so sorry, my love!”

Aragorn nodded his agreement. Having experienced her none too gentle ministrations himself, he knew she was right and until Faramir was conscious, there was little she could do. “I will have you fetched at once if you are needed,” he promised. “Please do not tell Arwen yet how badly Faramir is hurt, though. Today should be a joyful occasion for her”

“As it should be for you and Faramir too! How can he ever forgive me for what I have done? How can anyone forgive me for my foolishness in writing that letter?” Éowyn reproached herself. She slowly moved away from the bed.

“I already have.” Aragorn said quietly, as she made her way towards the door, ”I beg of you to think now of your unborn child and try not to fret over the letter. You could not have known what would happen. Now go and take care of my wife and son, they will have need of you before Ioreth drives Arwen to distraction with her tongue!”

Éowyn turned for a final look at Faramir and then managed a wan smile before returning to the Queen.

Alone with Faramir, Aragorn buried his face in his hands and wept. This should have been the happiest day of his life; he had finally become a father after so many years of waiting. Arwen was well and the future of his line was assured; yet how could he rejoice when it seemed that Éomer might be permanently paralysed and Faramir hovered between life and death due to his folly?

Faramir started to move restlessly and moan at the pain it caused him. Wiping away the tears, Aragorn mixed up more herbs to try and ease his friend.

A crisis and divers conversations

A few minutes later Imrahil returned. He persuaded Aragorn to lie down while he watched over his nephew.

Despite wishing to remain awake, the King was soon overcome by exhaustion and fell deeply asleep. Faramir crying out roused him after little more than an hour. Most of the words were incomprehensible gibberish, although the King could make out “ Let you down,” and “please, no, forgive me!” amongst his feverish ramblings.

Aragorn quickly realised that his Steward’s fever had worsened. His whole body seemed to be burning now. Aragorn and Imrahil took away the blankets, so only a linen sheet covered Faramir. They constantly bathed his face, neck and limbs attempting to cool him. Their efforts appeared futile. Still the fever raged and Faramir's heartbeat and breathing grew ever more erratic.

At sunrise, Aragorn examined Faramir’s wounds to try and discover the source of the infection. The stripes on his back, although hideous to behold, were clean; however, when his arm was unwrapped, the wound looked swollen, red and angry.

Aragorn sighed. He knew the stitches would have to be removed and the wound drained and cleaned, which involved yet more pain for the hapless Steward. It seemed only the sheer force of the King’s will kept him clinging on to life, though some inner despair appeared to be making Aragorn’s healing powers less effective than usual. The only hopeful sign was, that it now seemed unlikely that Faramir was bleeding inside.

He decided to summon Aedred to assist him for Imrahil looked ready to drop from exhaustion. Aragorn sent the Prince to lie down in a neighbouring room.

He then sent a messenger to tell Éowyn that Faramir’s condition worsened. After her outburst of the day before, she appeared calm and resolute while Aragorn told her what was happening, though a tear glinting in her eye betrayed her inner turmoil. “Why ever did I write that letter?” she groaned.

“You could not have imagined anything like this would happen.” Aragorn reassured her. “It is I who must bear the greater blame!”

She stood looking down at Faramir sadly, hardly able to endure the pitiful sight. Then as much to herself as to the King said; “You never realise quite how much you love someone unless something dreadful like this happens, do you?”

“I fear that is true,” Aragorn replied sadly, “I know I now have a son of my own body but I look on Faramir as my own son too.”

Éowyn suddenly grasped Faramir’s hand between both of her own and said sternly, “Fight to live, Faramir, fight for your wife and your unborn child!”

After a few moments she felt a larger hand on top of her own.

“Fight Faramir, live, your King commands it!” Aragorn said. Together they willed the Steward to recover.

“I dare not risk carrying infection to the Queen and your son,” she said at last, as Aedred hovered ready to drain the wound, ”I will return later.”

Aragorn nodded agreement, “How are they both this morning?” he asked, somewhat belatedly.

“Both doing well, and Arwen is being very kind,” she replied, “ She wants to know exactly what is going on, though, I have been careful not to upset her by telling her too much.”

“Tell her I will explain everything later today.” Aragorn replied, squeezing Éowyn’s hand as she left. She returned the gesture, all too aware that he was as much in need of comfort too.

Aragorn had taken to the Rohirric healer, finding him a caring and competent man of few words, with the added advantaged of not seeming at all overawed by his presence as many of the Gondorians were.

Aedred had already prepared a sharp knife by passing it through a flame, and laid ready clean bandages, a basin of water with salt added, and an infection killing mixture of honey, garlic and vinegar.

He then held Faramir’s arm steady, as Aragorn prepared to remove the stitches and drain the infection.

To his horror, the King found his hand was trembling and he could not bring himself to cut into the infected flesh.

“You hold him and I will do it!” Aedred said calmly.

“Why can I not do it?” Aragorn asked, “ I have done this many times before!”

“You are exhausted and I can see that Lord Faramir is as dear as a son to you. “ Aedred replied matter of factly, as they changed places.

Swiftly and expertly, he removed the stitches, and drained and cleaned the wound before coating it thickly with the salve.

Faramir flinched and cried out, but no more so than when his other wounds had been tended.

Aedred then left Aragorn to bandage Faramir’s arm before saying, “Rest now, my lord” “

“Much as I would like to, I cannot, “Aragorn replied.

“You can while am here with Lord Faramir. Master Tarostar is caring for Éomer King and most importantly; what would your Lady or Lord Faramir’s wife say if you collapsed?” Aedred spoke firmly but had a slight twinkle in his eye. “Also, my lord, what if Lord Faramir needed some procedure that you alone could carry out, unlike a wound drained?”

Reluctantly, Aragorn conceded defeat and lay down on the far side of the bed. By the time Aedred had picked up a blanket to cover him with, he was already asleep.

It was gone noon when he woke again, feeling somewhat refreshed. Aedred was patiently sitting beside Faramir bathing his face, while Éowyn sat holding the Steward’s hand.

“How is he?” he asked anxiously, slowly sitting up and throwing off the blanket.

“A little better, I believe,” Aedred smiled, ”The fever is less than before and he is breathing more easily. I have taken the liberty of asking for some refreshments to be sent up from the kitchens for you.”

Éowyn rose to her feet, “ And be sure you eat it all or I shall spoon feed you!” she threatened.

“There is no need for that.” Aragorn sighed, conceding defeat, though not feeling at all hungry. Yet, when Aedred handed him a large bowl of broth followed by stewed fruit and strong tea, he found he cleared the dishes and felt stronger as result.

Éowyn satisfied herself that he was eating, then tenderly kissed her husband before returning to Arwen.

Aragorn then examined Faramir for himself and contented the Steward was a little better, went to visit Éomer to see how he was faring.

The King of Rohan was much improved in health but not so in temper. “I want to get up!” he demanded.

“You have been badly injured and need to rest for a while yet,” Aragorn replied firmly, unwrapping the bandages. To his relief, the wounds were clean and Éomer showed no sign of infection or fever.

“Curse that Steward of yours for doing this to me!” Éomer fumed, looking down at his useless arm and the livid scar across his chest.

Aragorn bit his tongue, not wishing to agitate the injured man. “He did not seek you out to fight with,” he said mildly, “ Faramir is badly injured too.”

“And so he should be for what he did to my sister!” Éomer snapped.

”If you could see him, you would think differently!” Aragorn remonstrated, the images of Faramir’s wounds all too vividly imprinted in his mind.

“I never want to see that scoundrel again!” Éomer retorted.

“He never harmed your sister.” Aragorn replied, “ Éowyn told me last night that she wrote the letter to you when she was in a bad mood and never intended to send it.”

“He must have ill treated her or she would never have written it!” Éomer insisted, “Besides, he admitted it himself that he profaned her honour by making her lie with one of his friends!”

Aragorn was somewhat taken aback by this information and wondered whatever Faramir had meant. Granted, when he had been seriously ill, Éowyn had slept in the same huge bed, but at the far side of it, with Faramir between them and from what he could recall she had always been fully clothed and beside her husband rather than he.

“Your sister will tell you herself that Faramir never abused her in any way,” Aragorn said firmly, as he secured the bandage around Éomer’s broad chest, “Now, let me massage your arm and use my healing abilities on it. When the wound is closed I can treat you to remove the scarring.”

“I told you, I want no Elvish tricks!” Éomer protested stubbornly.

“I only want to help you recover, my friend. I respect your wishes, but there is plenty of time for you to change your mind.” Aragorn replied, fearing that Éomer’s head injury had affected his judgement, as he had never known his brother King so unreasonable, ill tempered and unwilling to listen to him before. “I will return later.”

“I want to get up and be able to move my arm!” Éomer told him, “When will that be? I cannot lie abed when I have a kingdom to govern!”

“I fear I do not know.” Aragorn told him frankly, “ But I will do all I can to help you. Now I must go to others who need me!”

“I suppose you mean my sister’s worthless husband?” Éomer snarled but Aragorn had already left.

When Imrahil returned, he brought tidings that the Council was in uproar and demanding immediate retaliation against Rohan

Aragorn hastened to the Chamber while they were still in session and tried to placate them, making it quite clear that he had no intention of starting a war. This provoked a sullen response and barbed comments, some questioning if the King regarded the Steward as no longer of any worth in Gondor.

Angrily refuting them, Aragorn stormed out, only to be met by a secretary carrying a pile of state documents, which needed his signature, the situation being made far worse by Faramir not being able to share the load.

The King decided to order the curfew to be lifted as Éomer’s men were now under constant surveillance. He also issued a statement saying, that both The Steward and the King of Rohan had been injured due to a disagreement and were being cared for in an attempt to try to stem the tide of rumours, which were sweeping the city.

That evening when Aragorn visited Arwen, he faced the unpleasant task of telling her the full story of just how badly he had been injured six months previously when he had stayed at the Hunting Lodge with Faramir and Éowyn. He had always meant to enlighten her, but not a mere day after the birth of their son, when she should have been basking in the joy of new motherhood.

“Why did you not tell me before?” she asked, the colour draining from her face, while he told her that he had been too badly injured even to clearly remember all that had happened

“I feared for your safety and that of our unborn child.” he replied. “Coming so close to death made me realise just how badly Gondor needed an heir and I needed my wife. I sought only to protect you and our baby.”

She looked at him sadly, “I understand, but I still wish that you had told me. I wondered why ever you had such nightmares for months afterwards and thought more than an arrow wound was to blame. What else happened to make Faramir and Éowyn change so much?”

He poured out the whole complicated story of Éowyn’s misdirected fury, and how Faramir’s loyalty and devotion and Éowyn’s contrition had forged the bond, which had grown between them since then. He concluded the narration with a plea to her to forgive Éowyn.

“How could I not, as you obviously did so sufficiently to allow her to care for me?” she replied, “ Éowyn has become very dear to me and I could not have managed without her these past days. Estel, I ask you one thing only, to promise me never to keep anything like this from me again.”

“I promise.” he said, kissing her tenderly, just as Eldarion started crying to be fed.

“But that does not explain why Éomer should attack Faramir.” Arwen said in bewilderment, as she put the babe to her breast.

“She wrote a letter when she was angry with Faramir after he told her that they were invited to visit the Hunting Lodge with me.” Aragorn explained, “ However, it was sent to Éomer by mistake, months later.”

“How I wish I had never suggested that trip!” Arwen lamented.

“If you had not, I am certain Faramir would still be ill at ease with me and Éowyn would still be consumed with hatred.” Aragorn reassured her, “If I had not ordered Faramir to be arrested, he would not now be badly injured!”

“You should blame those who beat him, not yourself, Estel!” Arwen remonstrated, “Now go and use your healing skills on your good friend!”

Although unconvinced by her reassurances, Aragorn tenderly kissed her and his baby son, lovingly running his fingers through the infant’s fuzz of dark curly hair, murmuring how much he loved them both.

Returning to Faramir’s side, he sat mopping his Steward’s brow while the fever gradually abated and Faramir fell into an uneasy sleep. His heartbeat was stronger now and the swelling disfiguring his belly had started to go down.

Aragorn finally dared to believe that Faramir would live. It had taken all his strength to wrest Faramir from the clutches of death and healing would be a painfully slow process.

The King struggled to stay alert until his Steward awoke, wondering if he would see accusation and betrayal in the grey eyes which once had held only love and trust towards him.

A sad awakening

Warning - This Chapter contains themes which some readers may find disturbing

The pain filled eyes flickered open and focussed on Aragorn’s face. Anxiously, he tried to read the emotions reflected within them.

For a fleeting instant Faramir gazed upon him with love and trust; then an expression of great pain and fear shadowed his pale features.

The King held a cup of water to the Steward’s parched lips and waited while Faramir sipped it and moaned softly.

“Why?” Faramir whispered.

“I am so very sorry, I never meant you to be harmed,” Aragorn said contritely, grasping Faramir’s hand only for his Steward to pull away with what little strength he had.

“Why?” he repeated, “Why did you bring me back? If you ever loved me or Éowyn, or even our unborn child you would have let me die!”

“I know you are in a great deal of pain, mellon nîn, but it will pass.” Aragorn soothed, trying to conceal his dismay. “You must not think like that!”

“The pain I have now, is nothing compared with that I will suffer when I die a traitor’s death!” Faramir whispered, “I know I richly deserve it for killing Éomer, but I had hoped for the sake of the love you claim to bear me, that you would have allowed me to die of my wounds instead.”

“What?” Aragorn exclaimed in horror. “How could you even think such a thing? To believe that I would have you executed and in such a fashion too!” Dismay that Faramir should think him capable of such an act, made him sound harsh ”You did not kill Éomer, he was badly injured but is recovering well now.”

Faramir sighed, but even that was painful. Although relieved that he was to be spared the dreadful fate he had envisaged, he wondered how could he bear to live with the knowledge that he had attacked his own wife’s brother? By so doing, he had betrayed both his King and his country. The memories came flooding back; the fury of the Rohirrim, his time in the prison and the way Mahrod had leered at him and pulled at his clothing. What had happened to him while he was unconscious? How could he ever hold his wife in his arms again after such shame, or even embrace the King as a friend and brother? What right had he to live as a traitor, defiled both by his deeds and by what had most likely befallen him at Mahrod's hands?

“Come, you need your wounds tending!” Aragorn said rather curtly, feeling weary and disheartened. He had hoped so much that his friendship with Faramir would survive the appalling mistake he had made, but it seemed that Faramir thought even worse of him than he had feared. He pulled pack the blankets and draped towels around Faramir to cover him while he worked.

Faramir groaned with pain and flinched away from Aragorn’s touch while his many injuries were treated until the most embarrassing bruises were uncovered and coated with salve. Then, he wished the earth would swallow him to escape the shame of it all. The final humiliation came when he needed to answer a call of nature, which finally caused tears of pain and shame rolled down his cheeks, despite Aragorn’s best efforts to be both kind and discreet.

“Would you rather someone else tended you?” Aragorn asked, acutely aware of his friend’s discomfort and too weary to think of suitable words to calm him. ”Éowyn or Tarostar maybe?”

Faramir shook his head. It was bad enough that even his closest friend should see him thus. ‘The one who was his closest friend,’ he corrected himself, for how could Aragorn ever forgive him for what he had done? Sparing his life alone had been magnanimous beyond all measure. He felt it was somehow defiling Aragorn to even touch one such as he was now. Much though he felt he deserved punishment, he was in too much pain to bear the thought of anyone less gentle touching him and the humiliation of the far less discreet and understanding Healers from the Houses tending his wounds made him shudder.

“You need to be propped up for a while or your lungs could become congested, I will give you some dandelion root to help.“ Aragorn told him. He washed his hands and slipped several pillows behind the Steward. “Would you like a nightshirt to wear, perhaps you would feel more comfortable then?”

“Yes, please,“ Faramir, replied weakly.

Aragorn slid the garment over Faramir’s head and pulled it down. “I will have some broth sent up from the kitchens for you, now you are awake. That should make you feel stronger, since you have had nothing but water and herbal teas these past days.”

With every fibre of his being, Aragorn yearned to comfort Faramir, draw the dark head against his shoulder and tell his Steward how sorry he was and crave his pardon. Then to kiss his brow and tell him much he loved him and of his anguish when he thought he would lose him. Yet how could he when it seemed very obvious that Faramir could hardly endure his touch? He could only withdraw behind the mask of the skilled Healer and do what he could in that capacity.

Aragorn fed Faramir the broth spoonful by spoonful. The Steward swallowed obediently but without enthusiasm .His ordeal had left him unable to care whether he lived or died.

The King then sent a message to see if Éowyn could be spared from her duties with the Queen for an hour or two, before sinking into an exhausted slumber on the far side of the bed.

“Faramir, you are awake! How are you feeling? “ Éowyn asked. She hurried into the room and kissed him on the lips, before tenderly taking his hand in both her own

He barely opened his eyes when she entered and shied away from her touch. Knowing he had almost killed her beloved brother, and was most likely defiled after his time in prison, made him fear his very touch would dishonour her.

Éowyn sighed and blinked away the tears, feeling it was little wonder Faramir pulled his hand away from hers after all the pain she had caused him. Were it not for her letter to Éomer, her brother would not be facing a lifetime of disability nor her husband be lying here in agony.

It seemed now that Faramir would most likely survive, but maybe only to face a lifetime of pain, for even Aragorn was still uncertain just how severe his injuries were.

Bowing her head, Éowyn wept silently and offered a silent prayer to the Valar that both her husband and brother would be restored to her soon, sound in body and mind.

**


Two weeks had passed since Éomer and Faramir’s fateful encounter. While Éomer was well on the way to recovery, apart from still having no feeling in his arm, Aragorn was still very concerned about Faramir.

Now that his nephew was out of danger, Imrahil had returned to Dol Amroth, where he was urgently needed to sort out a complicated land dispute, in which the parties were threatening to come to blows. Aragorn greatly missed his help and support

Today, Aragorn decided that Faramir was now fit enough to return to his own apartments. Although the Steward’s body was slowly healing and the wounds were closing, he remained silent and withdrawn. His kidneys were working property again but his heartbeat was still too rapid and erratic, which worried Aragorn greatly. Also, the injuries were healing far more slowly than they should have done, given the healing and care, Aragorn had freely bestowed. It was as if something within Faramir’s troubled soul was resisting any attempt to restore him to health.

That afternoon, Aragorn carried out the now familiar ritual of tending his wounds, first removing his nightshirt and then arranging blankets round him, both for warmth and dignity, so he could examine one injury at a time.

Faramir was monosyllabic in the King’s company, which hardly surprised him. After all, he was the prime cause of his Steward’s misfortune. Aragorn had reluctantly concluded that maybe it would be best to keep some distance between them for a time, much though he would miss his friend’s company. It seemed that only time could blunt the edge of the anger and hurt Faramir must be feeling towards him.

Not only that, but the embarrassment the Steward felt when some of the injuries were treated was unpleasant for them both and Faramir doubtless needed time for the memories to fade.

Not that the Steward seemed any happier in the company of his wife, as he pulled his hand away from hers and feigned sleep when she tried to talk to him. That was hardly surprising either. They had both contributed to Faramir’s injuries, though the greater part of the blame lay undoubtedly with Aragorn.

The King longed more each day to embrace Faramir and tell him how much he loved him and plead for his forgiveness. Yet how could he just yet, when Faramir recoiled from even being in the same room as the one whose orders had caused him so much pain?

Aragorn greatly desired to spend more time with Arwen and his infant son. He had always hoped that Faramir would be able to share his joy in fatherhood by regularly visiting with Éowyn, but it seemed only time might fulfil this wish.

Arwen had even offered to bring Eldarion to show the Steward but Faramir had appeared horrified by the idea. He had seemed genuinely pleased that the birth had gone well but insisted that his sickroom was no place for an infant.

Tearing himself away from his thoughts, Aragorn concentrated on his task as he very gently felt the bruises covering Faramir’s belly and extending down into the groin area. There seemed to be no permanent damage and the swelling was gradually subsiding though Faramir would be sore, maybe for months, but he was hopeful that nothing was life threatening, though it worried him that his Steward recoiled in agony when certain areas were touched

Poor Faramir looked ready to weep with shame as he finished applying the salve, despite his best efforts to be as discreet as possible.

“I see much the same every time I take a bath, just a little less colourful, so there is nothing to be upset about! Remember only a few months ago, you had to care for me and I survived the experience!” Aragorn soothed, trying to ease his discomfiture. ”You can have the salve to apply it yourself from now on. I believe there are no worse hurts inside you apart from bruising, which I fear could cause you discomfort for some time yet. You must send for me if you are in pain.”

Faramir nodded mutely as Aragorn helped him don his drawers and breeches.

Aragorn then turned his attention to removing the stitches from the wounds inflicted by Eomer’s sword. “The cut on your arm damaged the muscle and you will need to use the salves frequently, followed by massage and healing. You also need to take the herbal teas daily, especially the hawthorn berries.” Aragorn said as he re-bandaged the wounds. Maybe I should come and treat it daily for you?”

Faramir shook his head.” You have already done a great deal for me, sire. Éowyn is trained in the healing arts. Your wife and son need you, as does Gondor. I am unable to serve her at present, alas.”

Aragorn frowned at the formality but let it pass. “Yes, I am needed in many places but Arwen would never begrudge me spending some time each day with you.” he said, thinking he would have to wait a week or two, before offering the essential healing again, not to mention the Elven remedy for the livid scars disfiguring his Steward’s back, which he was now rubbing salve into.

Faramir tensed at his touch.

’He must associate me with nothing but pain at present.’ Aragorn thought sadly as he helped Faramir into his shirt and tunic.

“Is there anything at all you would like?” he asked him, willing to offer almost any gift no matter how priceless, to try to compensate for what he had done.

“I would like to see Éomer,” Faramir replied.

Aragorn hesitated, wondering how Éomer would react to the sight of his brother in law. He still spoke of him with great hostility, despite strenuous efforts from both Éowyn and himself to convince the angry King of Rohan that his brother in law was not to blame.

Maybe though, Éomer would soften when he actually saw how pale, thin and contrite, Faramir was. As the meeting could not be postponed for much longer, it was perhaps best to get it over with.

The Gulf Widens

“Come then, I will take you to him, I fear that being injured has not improved his temper!” Aragorn supported Faramir by his good arm and led him down the corridor to Éomer’s room, hoping fervently that seeing Faramir’s obvious frailty would soften the King of Rohan.

"I can walk unaided, please let me be!" Faramir said.

Reluctantly, Aragorn released his Steward’s arm, trying to hide the hurt he felt at Faramir's very obvious rejection.

The Steward’s steps were slow and unsteady and he leaned heavily on a cane for support, continuing to refuse Aragorn’s proffered arm.

“How badly did I hurt Éomer?” Faramir enquired.

“Your sword caught him across the chest,” Aragorn replied, quickly elaborating when he saw the horror in Faramir’s eyes, “The wound touched no vital organ. It is healing well with no trace of infection. His worse injuries were sustained when he fell down the steps, which was not your fault.”

“I am so sorry,” Faramir sighed, breathing heavily with the effort of putting one foot before the other.

Éomer was sitting up in a chair. He hated lying abed and had insisted on rising and dressing a few days ago. He was still too weak to walk very far though, much to his chagrin.

His injuries were mending fast, mainly thanks to Aragorn using his healing abilities when they were first inflicted and the advantage of a robust constitution.

What troubled Éomer most, though, was the loss of sensation in his sword arm, which hung limply by his side. Neither Aragorn nor the other Healers knew what was causing the problem. They did not know either if he would ever be able to wield a sword or even ride a spirited horse again.

The King of Rohan continued to refuse Aragorn’s offers of Elven remedies. Having been brought up to associate powerful Elves with sorcery, he considered their lore too dangerous for men to meddle with.

His sister had assured him Elven treatments were quite safe. He had concurred that they probably were for women, as they did not have to worry about their virility as men did. Had he not seen with his own eyes the Lady of the Golden Wood and how her husband appeared in thrall to her? The fair Sorceress had almost caused him and Gimli to come to blows!

Many of Éomer’s men had now returned home, carrying messages to his Queen and his Marshals Elfhelm and Erkenbrand, informing them that they would have to govern in his place until he was fit to return. He feared that would not be for some time yet.

The King of Rohan refused to even consider travelling until he could sit on a horse. The prospect of a Horse Lord returning to his lands in a wagon was too great a humiliation to contemplate.

Éowyn was sitting on the chair opposite her brother, vainly trying to improve his mood by reading an account of the Greatest Battles of Gondor to him. He looked so bored; she wished she had tried to find one about horse breeding instead.

Together with Aragorn and the senior Healers, his sister was one of the few prepared to tolerate Éomer’s volatile moods, which had plagued him since his head injury. Both Healers and servants alike had been reduced almost to tears by his behaviour.

Éowyn could see only the brother who had defended her fiercely when they had first come to Edoras as two friendless orphans under the care of a kindly, yet often distracted royal Uncle and had continued as her protector ever since. The guilt gnawed at her relentlessly that her folly in writing that letter had brought both her husband and her brother so low. Éomer had always been so strong and vigorous, his skills both on horseback and with the sword and spear, easily surpassing those of all his peers. It almost broke her heart to see him struggling to lift his useless arm, which had once been so strong.

Aragorn knocked and entered the room, closely followed by Faramir.

Éomer flushed with rage at the sight of his bother in law.

“Why have you brought my attacker here, Aragorn?” he asked with biting anger. ”Does he think to finish me off now? As if he hasn’t done enough damage already by leaving me paralysed!”

“How dare you speak of my husband like that?” Éowyn snapped. She dropped the book and went to help support Faramir, who was now forced to accept her help. His legs grew unsteadier by the minute while his heart pounded, as if trying to burst from his damaged chest.

“Peace, Éomer!” Aragorn said in a warning tone.

“I wish to apologise to you for the hurts I have caused you,” Faramir said earnestly, trying unsuccessfully to kneel. “I swear, I meant only to defend myself and never intended you to suffer such injuries. I take full blame for them and freely accept judgement at your hands! I will apologise again in public.”

“No one is going to punish my Steward! He sought only to defend himself!” Aragorn interrupted in a tone so grim, that lesser men would have quailed.

“That is not all!” Éomer glowered, ignoring Aragorn’s rebuke, “You dishonoured my sister when you made her lie with another! You did not attempt to deny it before we fought!”

Faramir flushed scarlet. “There was no impropriety. The King was near death and very cold, for us both to hold him close seemed to be the only way to save him.”

Éomer turned to Aragorn.” It was you? You said nothing of this neither did Éowyn!”

It was Aragorn’s turn to blush. “I did not know, I was only dimly aware that someone held me that night, but thought it to be Faramir alone.”

“I would gladly do the same for an injured brother, but never would I be so base as to involve my wife and dishonour her thus!” Éomer snarled, “Whose idea was it to do such a thing? Did Éowyn choose freely?”

“I begged her to lie beside the King,” Faramir replied.

Aragorn and Éowyn looked at him in bewilderment. It seemed almost as if he wanted Éomer to think badly of him and made no sense.

“I freely consented and there was no dishonour as I have kept trying to tell you these past days,” Éowyn snapped. “I would not mention the King’s name before since I had no desire to embarrass him. Whatever do you think of me, brother?”

“That I made a mistake in letting you marry this man! He must have mistreated you or you would not have written to me in such distress! Obviously you are too afraid of him to tell me the truth!”

“Faramir is a good husband who loves me and has never ill treated me!” Éowyn said indignantly. “We had some misunderstandings to begin with, but he always treated me with respect. As for my honour, none questioned it before you, brother, now half of Gondor must think I have none!”

Holding on to the chair with his good arm, Éomer slowly rose to his feet. “ Lord Faramir, not only did you dishonour my sister, but you almost killed me and left Rohan without a King,” he said. “I can never pardon you for such deeds, attempting to kill a King is an offence punishable by death!”

It was Éowyn’s turn to look uncomfortable. Aragorn gave her his most compassionate smile.

“Because my misguided sister seems to love you and Aragorn is my friend, I will not demand your life,” Éomer continued, “But do not think that I can ever forgive you! I forbid you ever again to cross the borders of the Mark. I do not wish to see you ever again so long as I live! If my sister wishes to visit me, she must leave you behind. For my part, I refuse to return to Gondor, once I am well enough to leave, while it houses this miscreant! My curse be upon you!”

Faramir gave a cry and would have collapsed had not Aragorn and Éowyn supported him.

“Why was I ever born to be the cause such misery? This is all my fault!” he whispered, “King Éomer, I accept your judgement on me.”

“Éomer, remember it was you who started this fight and almost killed my Steward!” Aragorn remonstrated. “Faramir has said he is willing to make you a public apology and I expect the same of you!”

“Never! He almost killed me!” Éomer retorted. “Now leave me all you, am I not king? Must I call for my Guards?”

“Faramir has suffered a great deal too!” Éowyn remonstrated, “If he showed you his wounds, then maybe …”

”Please, no!” Faramir begged, looking very distressed.

“Get that good for nothing out of my sight before I have him thrown out!” Éomer raged.” I cannot use my sword arm because of him!”

Aragorn bit his tongue, for this was not the right moment to remind Éomer that he was the High King of Gondor with the ultimate authority here. Getting Faramir away from his angry brother in law had to be his first priority, as well as avoiding further distressing the heavily pregnant Éowyn and preventing Éomer from aggravating his wounds.

Together they made it through the door.

“Do you want to go and lie down again in my room?” Aragorn asked Faramir, who was pale and shaking visibly.

“No, I would go home if Éowyn still wants me there.”

“Of course, I do, my love!” Éowyn replied. “Do not worry about my brother, his anger will fade. He often speaks before he thinks and he is greatly distressed by his disability, for one such as he, it is a fate worse than death.”

“I am sorry if I was the cause of any shame to you, Éowyn, I cannot remember the events of that night which so distress your brother.” Aragorn said uncomfortably.

“There is nothing to remember. You were cold and in shock so Faramir and I kept you warm, that is all that happened.” Éowyn replied, “As for my brother, I have no desire to discuss the matter again with him! He seems to think I am no better than a whore!”

“I gravely wounded him. And I fear I did wrong you, Éowyn,” Faramir said miserably.

“I was forgiven for far worse conduct,” Éowyn replied, looking at Aragorn. ”If only I had never written that letter!”

“Peace my friends!” Aragorn said, trying to soothe them. “All that matters now is that Faramir gets well. Éomer’s judgement may well be clouded by the blow he took to this head. We can only wait and hope that he will soften in time.”

He summoned servants to carry Faramir to his apartments on a litter. Éowyn directed them to the martial bedchamber and then dismissed them.

The King helped Éowyn put her husband to bed. Faramir hardly said a word through the proceedings. He appeared to be in a state of shock and Aragorn mixed up a potion of hops and valerian to calm him and help him sleep.

“I am well.” Faramir insisted as they fussed round him. Eventually Aragorn left, albeit reluctantly, leaving a supply of all the herbs Faramir needed and hoping once alone with his wife, Faramir might start to recover. After all, she had not given the order to arrest him, which had led to his serious injuries.

“I am so sorry!” Faramir told Éowyn, “I understand if you wish to leave me and return to Rohan with your brother!”

“How could you say such a thing?” Éowyn replied, kissing him. She noted sadly how he flinched away from her “I will hear no more of such foolish thoughts! Much as I love my brother, I will not permit him to come between us.”

“I think it would be better if I slept in my dressing room, as I might disturb you here.” Faramir suggested.

“Indeed not, I need to be near you, so I can keep an eye on you,” Éowyn replied, “If you sleep in your dressing room, so do I!”

Faramir sighed and said no more, hoping that as it was a large bed, he would be far enough away from his wife so not to taint her with his shame.

Éowyn settled herself by her husband’s bedside and cried quietly once he fell asleep. She loved him dearly, yet she also loved her brother and did not wish to be estranged from him. To think that her own folly should have left her so torn between those she loved the most!

**

“You look distressed!” Arwen exclaimed, when Aragorn returned to their apartments.

“Faramir seems to hardly be able to bear the sight of me, Éomer refuses to forgive him and Éowyn is torn between them!” Aragorn sighed, “I just do not know what to do!”

“Go to bed!” Arwen ordered, noting with alarm how pale and haggard he had become. “You are exhausted and will be ill yourself if you do not take care!”

“I cannot, there is so much to do!” Aragorn protested, “ Faramir or Éomer might need me and I have documents to deal with and the Council…”

Arwen threw his nightshirt at him. “We have other Healers in this city and Imrahil can deal with everything else once he returns tomorrow. Get into bed now!” she ordered, “Or do you want Ioreth and I to undress you as she is coming to see me within the hour!”

Alarmed by her threat, and too weary to protest, Aragorn obediently retired to his dressing room to change while Arwen sent to the kitchens for some broth, which she sat spooning into her husband’s mouth once he was in bed.

He then fell asleep almost immediately .So great was his exhaustion that he slept for several days, only waking to eat and drink and answer nature’s calls.

Arwen spent most of those days lying or sitting beside him while she nursed Eldarion.

The Queen fretted over her husband’s condition. Prolonged healing sessions drained even her father, and Aragorn was a frail mortal, not of the Eldar. The King was also plagued by fearsome nightmares, which Arwen’s touch alone could soothe.

When he finally had slept his fill, he was, much to her relief, fully restored in body, but she could tell his soul was still deeply troubled.

**

As soon as Aragorn was up and dressed, he immediately sent a message asking if Faramir would like to see him. The servant brought back the reply that the Steward had no wish to trouble his lord.

Aragorn wept as his wife vainly tried to comfort him. “However am I to protect you and Eldarion as I could not even protect my Steward?” he sobbed, “I miss him so much! How he must hate me for having him arrested!”

“Give him time!” she counselled, ”The hurts will fade and he will seek you out again. I am certain he will for I know of the love he bears you.”

Aragorn tried to busy himself with matters of State and console himself with Arwen and Eldarion. Much as he adored them, his mind kept wandering back to the friend he missed so much and remembering all they had shared during the past years since Faramir was the first to hail him as King.

Éowyn came to visit, intending to tell Aragorn how worried she was about Faramir. He continued to shy away from her touch and hardly spoke to her. He was dragging himself out of bed each morning, only to shut himself in his study all day.

She had wanted to ask the King if he could tell her if Faramir’s wounds were healing, as he refused to let her see them. She assumed Aragorn was treating him when he saw his Steward on official business.

Éowyn was horrified when she saw just how exhausted and haggard Aragorn looked. He seemed almost to have aged overnight, which made her feel she could hardly burden him with her problems, as well as asking him to betray the confidence between Healer and patient. She confined the conversation to women’s’ matters such as how Arwen was recovering from the birth and her own pregnancy.

She avoided Aragorn after that. His obvious sorrow only emphasised her own guilt.

Crying in the Night

Four weeks later

It was now almost mid November and Aragorn was growing increasingly despondent.

Éomer’s wounds had healed well and his broken ribs and skull had knitted, but his sword arm still hung limp and useless at his side. He continued to blame Faramir for his misfortunes and became increasingly embittered, as he struggled to learn to control his spirited mount, Firefoot one handed. In battle, a rider would control his mount with his feet, but Éomer felt off balance with his useless arm. Aragorn begged him to be cautious, for a fall could have proved fatal while he was still recovering from his injuries. He refused to consider returning home by any other means than astride his warhorse.

Aragorn and Éowyn pleaded with him to try the Elven treatments, but Éomer would have none of it. By now he was attended almost exclusively by Aedred to whom he had taken a liking. It worried Aragorn that the King of Rohan’s refusal to accept his Elven treatments could leave him with a weakened skull, which would make riding hazardous forever after.

Far worse though, for the King, was the continued estrangement between himself and his Steward. He sent messages almost every day asking to see him, but back always came the reply saying; “The Steward of Gondor thanks his King Elessar for his concern but has no wish to trouble him”, which Aragorn felt bound to accept, given the wrong he had done him.

He had only seen Faramir a few times during the last weeks when they had spoken about official business and always in the presence of others. Although Faramir was not well enough to attend the Council, he still insisted on having documents sent to him to work on. Aragorn had noted that Faramir still looked far from well, but if he preferred that Éowyn should tend his wounds, who could blame him?

Aragorn was broken hearted at the loss of his friend due to his own folly. Almost every time he closed his eyes, he recalled the moment when he had ordered his Steward’s arrest and the look of anguish in Faramir’s eyes when he had been led away to prison. This vision was always followed by the even more horrific memory of discovering Faramir being beaten almost to death.

Only the loving support of Arwen and delight in his infant son, combined with the extra workload of running Gondor without Faramir’s help, kept him from crumbling under his burden of guilt.

What should have been the happiest time of his life, following the birth of the child he had longed for almost seventy years, was deeply overshadowed by the knowledge that he had all but destroyed his closest and most loyal friend’s life and the bond between them as well.

Almost every night he was plagued by nightmares in which he was holding Andúril and with it decapitating Faramir ignoring his pleas for mercy. He would awaken in a cold sweat from the dark dreams in need of Arwen’s comfort. He was grateful that Eldarion’s hungry cries often roused him from his troubled sleep.

Éowyn often visited the Queen, but almost always when she knew Aragorn would be occupied with Council meetings. She saw no improvement in Faramir’s condition and was tormented by anxiety, yet was loath to question the King. Obviously he cared very much about Faramir and she was well aware there was no finer healer to be found on Arda. As she had sent the letter which had led to her husband’s injuries, she felt she could hardly complain about Aragorn’s efforts to put right what her own folly had caused!

Arwen too, was worried about Aragorn, perceiving his increasing weariness and distress.

The King had found the duties of State almost overwhelming; Faramir was too ill to deal his usual share of the paperwork and despite Imrahil’s help, he found most of his time was spent reading official documents. He had never quite realised before just how much he relied on his Steward.

The Council had also been especially demanding, as some members, especially those who had served in Denethor’s time, were still demanding action against Rohan to avenge the attack on their Steward, demands which Aragorn staunchly resisted, ignoring their angry murmurings that the Stewardship and thus the honour of Gondor had been insulted.

By a cold night in mid November, Aragorn was so exhausted; he had fallen asleep almost as soon as his head touched the pillow.

Arwen sang to him softly, smoothing his furrowed brow with her slender fingers to keep the nightmares at bay. Once satisfied he was resting peacefully, she tiptoed out of bed to assure herself all was well with Eldarion and then settled down to sleep beside her husband.

A few hours later loud banging and shouting outside their bedroom door startled the royal couple to sudden wakefulness.

“You cannot disturb the King. It is two in the morning!” the guard outside the door protested.

“He will see me!” Arwen’s keen Elven hearing recognised Éowyn’s voice.

“It is Éowyn, something must be wrong!” she exclaimed, climbing out of bed closely followed by her husband.

Donning his robe over his nightshirt, Aragorn opened the door of the chamber and was horrified to see a distraught looking Éowyn being restrained by his Guards.

“Let the Lady Éowyn enter!” he ordered, dismayed to see her obvious distress.

Eowyn would have collapsed, had Aragorn’s strong arms not caught her. Her blonde hair hung in disarray round her shoulders. She had obviously come in haste, for she appeared to be wearing only a nightgown with a cloak flung over it.

Aragorn noted with dismay that the formidable lady of Rohan looked exhausted, vulnerable and at a loss. Despite her advanced pregnancy, she appeared to have lost weight and her beautiful features were lined with worry.

Aragorn guided her to sit beside his wife on the bed who immediately drew her close in a comforting embrace. The King lit the candles and poured a glass of Miruvor for their nocturnal visitor.

“Éowyn, whatever is wrong?” he asked. His eyes were full of concern as he held the glass to her lips.

“It’s Faramir. I’m so worried!” Eowyn answered, the words pouring from her in near incoherent haste, “I cannot awaken him from his dark dreams. He seems hardly able to breathe; he is so distressed! I’m sorry to disturb you, but I thought you were the only one who could help him. He is in constant pain. He won’t let me see how his wounds are healing. I am afraid for him; it is as if his heart is broken! I try to comfort him but he shies away from my touch, even refusing me a good night kiss! It is worse even than when we were first married! He spends each and every day shut away in his study, refusing to come out. I had to plead with him to continue to share my bed but he sleeps as far away from me as he can. If you ever loved him or me, I beg you to come!”

Having finally poured out her troubles, Éowyn burst into tears. Arwen held her close, while Aragorn soothingly rubbed the back of her neck.

“I am glad you come for me.” Aragorn said gently, moving away from Éowyn as she relaxed. He went into his dressing room, leaving the door slightly ajar. “How often has he has been like this?” he enquired.

Éowyn sighed. ” Almost every night that I’ve shared his chamber, since he had the fight with my brother,” she replied. “I thought it would wear off, but he grows worse rather than better and I am more and more afraid for him. I fear he may lose his mind as his father did! He hardly eats and his sleep is so troubled he can find no rest. He refuses to talk to me or to confide in anyone. Imrahil has been to visit him more than once, but Faramir claimed he was too tired for visitors each time. He has even lost interest in our child, when before he was so happy at the prospect of becoming a father. He would lie in my arms, then in that shy way of his, ask if he could feel it moving within me.” Sighing, she settled back against Arwen. It was such a relief to finally tell her friends everything.

Aragorn emerged from the dressing room, fastening his breeches over his nightshirt. “Why did you not tell me this before?” he asked, his expression grave. “There is yours and your child’s welfare to consider too.”

“I thought you knew much of it already. He told me he had business with you most days and I knew you were treating his injuries when you saw him,” Éowyn replied in complete bewilderment.

“He has been sending his secretary, so I have not seen him for a while. I would have liked to, but he made it very clear he had no desire to see me.” Aragorn looked aghast, as the realisation dawned.

At that moment Eldarion awoke and started crying.

“I am sorry but I will have to feed him.” Arwen said, getting to her feet, giving Éowyn a final reassuring hug. “We have hardly seen Faramir these last weeks. I thought you were caring for him, though. Aragorn has been so worried he has hardly slept.”

“He is excused from the Council until he is well and has not sought me out.” Aragorn said sadly. “It troubled me, but I thought he might be angry with me over what had happened and who could blame him? I was giving him time to recover but I realise I was wrong not to insist on seeing him. I will come with you and see him now.”

“Let us go quickly!” Éowyn begged, “He can hardly breathe and is so pale!”

“Stay with him as long as is needed,” Arwen told her husband, as she settled herself back in bed, unlacing her nightgown in preparation to feed her child. “I am here if you need me, Éowyn.”

Aragorn anxiously accompanied Eowyn to the Steward’s apartments. He blamed himself bitterly now, for not following his instincts and insisting on tending his Steward personally, yet Faramir had been so adamant that his wife could care for him. The King had felt he needed time to recover from the injustice he had involuntarily done to him. Now it seemed that Faramir instead of gradually recovering might have become seriously ill due to his neglect.

Fear and Frustration

Filled with alarm, Aragorn hastily bent over the prone form of his Steward. Reaching under Faramir’s tunic, he felt his heartbeat. Like the previous night it was far too weak and rapid. Again he massaged under the Steward’s jaw until it slowed somewhat.

“What’s wrong with him? What have I done?” Éowyn asked in horror, bending over the prone form of her husband.

“I believe he has fainted. I do not think it is anything more serious, though his weakened heart may be to blame,” the King told Éowyn, trying to reassure her. “Do not kneel on the floor in your condition. Fetch some blankets, he needs keeping warm!”

Aragorn lifted Faramir and carried him over to the couch, noting how alarmingly light he felt. Two months ago, he had been difficult to lift unaided, but now he seemed to weigh hardly anything.

Éowyn frantically instructed the servants to bring blankets and build up the fire.

After they had fulfilled their tasks and left, Éowyn moved back to her unconscious husband’s side. “At least we can look at his wounds now,” she told Aragorn. “Help me to undress him!”

Aragorn hesitated; he hated going against Faramir’s wishes, especially as he felt responsible for his current plight, but he could not let his friend fade before his eyes. “Perhaps someone from the Houses of Healing should attend him in this case?” he suggested. “He made it very clear that he objected to me touching him.”

Éowyn shook her head vehemently. “No, you are the only one skilled enough to help him! He needs you, whatever he might say, remember how he clutched at your hand last night?”

“He has little cause to trust me,” Aragorn said sadly.

“The same could be said of me,” Éowyn replied, turning her attention to undressing her husband. ”If only I had never written that letter or remembered to destroy it! We all failed him!”

Disrobing Faramir was far from easy. He was a dead weight and was wearing both his tunic and shirt tightly laced. Finally, they succeeded in unlacing his garments and eased them over his head. They both exclaimed in horror once Faramir’s hurts were finally revealed. Although the stripes on his back had closed, they still looked livid and had healed badly as had the sword cuts across his side and chest. Worst though, was where Éomer’s sword had sliced into his arm. The scar tissue looked inflamed and ugly, while the muscle in the upper arm had started to waste away. Only the bruises had faded, though bluish patches remained and The Steward’s belly was still distended and blotched in places.

Faramir had never carried much flesh, but now was little more than skin and bone, each rib clearly visible. It appeared that nothing had been done to tend the wounds since the last time Aragorn had applied salves and the neglect was having disastrous consequences.

“Why?” Aragorn groaned. “He told me that you would care for him.” He could have wept at the pitiful sight before him, as he suddenly remembered the day they went swimming. How he had rejoiced then that Faramir looked so well and happy! Now he was so frail, ill nourished and covered in scars that he was hardly recognisable as the same young man.

“And so I would have done gladly, but I believed you were tending his wounds. I thought you were treating him when he saw you about the business of the Realm.” Eowyn too was near tears. “Little wonder, he would not take off his shirt as he knew what we would uncover!”

“Obviously he does not want to heal, but why?” Aragorn’s sensitive fingers were already probing the damaged arm muscle. ”I tried to heal him weeks ago, but felt that somehow he was resisting me. I put it down to him feeling angry with me.”

“He doesn’t blame you, so I don’t know why he is so loth to accept your help,” Eowyn said. “You have skills that I do not. You must find out what ails him!”

Aragorn pressed his ear to Faramir’s chest and frowned again at his feeble and erratic heartbeat. Such damage was not uncommon after a brutal beating, but his heart should have started to recover by now.It made Aragorn’s task all the harder in treating his reluctant patient, as any agitation could prove fatal while his heart was so weak.

Although still apparently unconscious, Faramir shivered and the King swathed him in blankets, while trying to decide what he should do next.

Éowyn started to remove her husband’s breeches.

”The bruising was fading when I examined him,” Aragorn said, restraining her. ”There is little point in distressing him further and it could further damage his heart. Just loosen his belt for now so I can see. I need to examine him more thoroughly when he is awake and can tell me where the pain is worst.” He pulled the clothing aside to examine the fading bruises, before gently replacing it again.

Just then there was knock on the door and a servant announced, “The Queen is here, my lord!”

“Tell her to come in!” Éowyn bade her friend enter, while Aragorn hastily pulled the blankets up to Faramir’s chin.

Arwen hastened to the couch. “Estel told me what happened last night so I felt I must come and see if I could be of any assistance,” she said, placing a comforting arm around Eowyn.

Aragorn smiled at his wife for a moment before indicating with his eyes that he needed her help.

“What has happened to Faramir?” Arwen enquired anxiously.

“He appears to have fainted now, but I am concerned about his heart still. His injuries are not healing well,” her husband told her, uncovering Faramir’s arm to show her. “He was very distressed at the prospect of showing me his wounds and collapsed.”

Arwen bent over Faramir and laid a hand on his brow. She stood for a moment, concentrating, then straightened up, looking grave. “His body cannot heal because his mind is deeply troubled,” she said. ”I fear he will break and descend into darkness if we cannot find a way to prevent it!”

“If he would only permit me, I believe I could heal his body, but not until his spirit is calmed,” Aragorn said sadly.

“Oh, no, it is even worse than I feared!” Éowyn looked desolate. Her back ached worse than ever and now her head was beginning to throb too.

“I am certain that Estel will find some means of helping him,” Arwen said reassuringly. “And you look in need of help too, my friend. Come with me and let me care for you a while. Faramir will be safe with my husband.”

“I ought to stay with him!” Éowyn protested.

“Even without Estel having told me, I can see you are in pain! “ Arwen said firmly, taking Éowyn’s arm and steering her towards the door. “You have your unborn child that you must consider too. Come with me and leave the men alone to talk.”

“Very well, maybe you are right!” Éowyn freed herself and pressed a tender kiss on Faramir’s pallid lips before reluctantly allowing herself to be led to the Queen’s apartments.

Aragorn sighed; relieved that Arwen had removed the distressed Éowyn from the scene. He was unsure though, if Faramir would even talk to him, let alone allow him to examine and treat his hurts properly.

Since Faramir tensed as the King examined the wounds. Aragorn suspected that his Steward was awake but too distressed to open his eyes. From the way Faramir flinched at the contact; it seemed obvious that after all that had happened, Faramir found his touch highly distasteful. He deliberately made it as impersonal as he could.

He could feel the Steward’s will resisting his healing powers, so there seemed to be little he could do, apart from applying salves and administering herbal remedies.

“Please, no!” Faramir whispered though bluish tinged lips. He slowly opened his eyes and stared at Aragorn with wild agitation.

Aragorn removed his hand from the Steward's injured arm.

“Why not?” he asked gently. “It must be causing you a great deal of pain. I seek only to ease you.”

“I do not ask to be healed,” Faramir said numbly. “I can still hold a pen and carry out my duties at present. I desire nothing else, my lord.”

His obvious distress, combined with the stiff formality that Aragorn had fought long and hard to make him shed in private, tore the King’s heart. He greatly feared Arwen was right and his Steward would be lost to him if the torments that so obviously plagued his soul were not released.

Faramir’s fear of his presence reminded him of when they first met; though then there had been hope that they might learn to be comfortable with one another. Sighing again, he settled himself on the couch beside his Steward.

“I understand your anger towards me,” he said contritely, feeling Faramir would have every right to hate him now.

“No, my King, you never gave me cause,” Faramir replied listlessly.

The Steward was so tense; he looked as if he could snap at the slightest movement. His breath came in shallow ragged gasps.

“Come!” Aragorn said, raising Faramir to a sitting position and drawing him close, unable any longer to resist the impulse to comfort him. He held him, as lovingly as he had cradled his infant son earlier that day, but it was far easier to calm a crying babe than a despairing man.

For a few brief moments Faramir allowed himself to be held in those strong yet caring arms. His features relaxed as he buried his head against Aragorn’s broad shoulder. He felt loved and secure; relishing the comfort he had denied himself so long.

Then the image of Mahrod, groping at him and pulling at his clothing before he fainted, returned. This touch was so very different; but how could he allow one so pure and noble as Aragorn be tainted by one such as he?

The haunted look returned to his eyes and he pulled away. Sighing, the King laid him back against the cushions on the couch, his eyes full of pain that Faramir obviously found his touch so loathsome.

At last he dared risk taking up a pot of healing salve containing hypericum and calendula. “ May I?” he asked and began to rub the salve in the stripes disfiguring his Steward’s back in his most detached manner, devoid of any Elven techniques. Faramir recoiled still further as the touch could have been that of any gentle fingered Healer.

“I do not wish you to touch me!” he protested after enduring the ministrations with weary resignation for a few minutes.

“Why not?” Aragorn asked very gently. “I am treating you as any healer would. Though I understand your feelings towards me, yet maybe I can make amends somehow by tending your hurts? If something else burdens your heart, I would have you tell me.”

For a moment Faramir hesitated, sorely tempted to tell Aragorn everything. His suspicions of what had happened, while he was unconscious in prison and the constant nightmares that tormented him every time he closed his eyes. But how could he confess to such dishonour? Was it not shame enough to have almost killed Éomer and brought Gondor to the brink of war?

Aragorn waited patiently, all the while applying the salve. He had just started applying it to Faramir’s wounded arm when the Steward finally spoke.

O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword; Shakespeare- Hamlet 3.1

The Steward took a deep breath.” I am afraid that…” He swallowed hard, wondering how to approach such a shameful subject. Not for the first time, he wondered if there were any way in what really happened could be discovered, but even the contemplation of such a humiliating examination was beyond endurance.

Faramir thought of how lovingly the King had held him a few moments ago. After all the crimes he had committed, it bewildered him that he still would show affection towards him. But if Aragorn knew everything, he would surely shrink from him in disgust, unable any longer to maintain his façade of trying to be kind such a tainted creature as he. He would always treasure that memory of being held for the last time by the one he loved as a father, but he could never allow it to happen again. He had been shamefully weak to accept the comfort he so craved.

“What are you afraid of?” Aragorn prompted gently, his eyes full of compassion.

“That if my arm should ever heal I might use it to harm someone again,” Faramir replied, compelled by the King’s insistence to voice at least one of his fears aloud. The other could never be spoken of, for there was Éowyn to consider as well. ”I am afraid that I will only hurt someone else if I ever wield a sword again,” Faramir confided, “It is better that my arm should not heal!”

“You might need to defend yourself again,” Aragorn said firmly, continuing to apply the salve, “Gondor might have need of your sword arm too!”

“I would rather be struck down than take such a risk again.” Faramir replied firmly, knowing it was time to tell Aragorn of the decision he had reached. ”I know I should be ready to wield a sword to defend you as your Steward, so I beg your leave to render up my Office and retire from public life. I am a liability. Éomer is crippled for life and will never forgive me and Rohan is Gondor’s most valuable ally.”

Aragorn put down the pot of salve and gripped Faramir’s cold hands. “Faramir, my friend, I beg you to reconsider. What should I do without you, what would Gondor do? Your family have served well as Stewards for over a thousand years.”

“I, the last of the House of Hurin, have failed as my father always said I would,” the Steward replied bleakly.

The King cupped Faramir’s face in his hands and raised his head. “Faramir, look at me, do not turn away! “ he said earnestly. ”You have never let me down, you were the victim in all this, not the aggressor.”

“There could still be war with Rohan. Eowyn is torn between Éomer and myself. I see it affecting her health,” Faramir said sadly, trying to break free. “It is my fault that Éowyn was so unhappy that she felt the need to write to her brother to complain!”

“I love Éomer and he is my friend, but am not blind to his faults. I am certain that deep down, he knows this was mostly his fault, but is far too stubborn to admit it,” Aragorn said firmly “Éowyn understands that too and is loyal to you. You both had problems early in your marriage, but that is hardly a crime. You never ill-treated your wife. War is most unlikely, for Éomer would have to fight me, his sworn friend!”

“I no longer wish to be your Steward. Do you accept my resignation, my lord?” Faramir persisted.

“This is not the time to make such an important decision. We will discuss it again when you are fully recovered and after your child is born. A son might make you think differently, for if you resign your office he would forfeit it too,” Aragorn replied firmly. “You suffered a dreadful ordeal in prison that even the lowliest of my subjects should never have had to endure and it will take time for you to heal. I promise you, eventually the pain will fade.”

Faramir looked unconvinced, and more distressed than ever at the mention of his time in prison.

“Is there anything else that troubles you? I would have you tell me.” Aragorn said gently. It seemed that Faramir was repressing the understandable anger he must feel against him. If only he would just strike him as Éowyn had done! It would be well worth the pain to see Faramir shed this dreadful lethargy.

“I thought I heard the Queen’s voice. When did she come in? Did she see me unclothed?” was all Faramir felt he could say.

“Soon after you fainted. We had undressed you, but you were swathed in blankets by then. She is looking after Éowyn now.”

Despite the gravity of the situation, Aragorn struggled to suppress a smile that his suspicious were correct, as to when Faramir came round. It was typical of Faramir that he should be so troubled at the prospect of an almost three thousand year old Elf seeing him shirtless, though it would be considered insulting to a lady, given the custom of Gondor.

“She did not touch me?” Faramir sounded agitated.

“Why would that trouble you?” Aragorn was perplexed, for Arwen was entirely innocent of any part in Faramir’s ordeal unlike Éowyn and himself.

“I might still have some contagion from the prison,” Faramir mumbled.

“That is impossible, put such thoughts from your mind! I understand how your ordeal must haunt you. I am truly sorry you had to endure all these distressing experiences, my friend,” Aragorn said with great sincerity grasping his Steward’s hands again. ”Your Uncle and I were glad to tend you and would do so again, yet it was one of the hardest tasks I ever faced. Can you ever forgive me for my thoughtlessness?”

“You did what you must as King. It is I who must crave pardon.” Faramir replied, tensing as if he wanted to pull away.

His eyes held great depths of pain. Aragorn feared unless he could think of some remedy, his Steward’s mind would give way completely.

“No one here holds anything against you, Faramir. There is nothing for me to forgive.” Aragorn said firmly. ” Éowyn understands too ; she too has made mistakes in the past. You shall put all this behind you eventually, when you are in less pain. I shall come daily to ease your hurts and you can have the Elven remedy to heal your scars. Even Éomer will come to his senses soon, I am certain, stubborn though he is, and you will become closer than you were before this happened.”

“He will never forgive me and the Elven treatment would be wasted!” Faramir said, totally unconvinced by Aragorn’s kind words. “You healed all my scars but it seems I cannot go for long without being flogged again!”

“The miscreant who did it will pay as dearly at his trial as if I had felt the lash myself!” Aragorn promised. “I shall do all I can to make things right, you have my word as your friend and as your King!”

“I know you mean well but I am so weary!” Faramir whispered. ”I cannot serve you as I ought, I am not the man you believed me to be. My father was right after all!”

“Stop speaking like this!” Aragorn said firmly, “What would your brother say to see you, thus? He died believing it was to help create a better world, one in which you could live in peace and happiness.”

“I wish I had died with him.” was Faramir’s only reply, leaving even Aragorn at a loss for words in the face of such despair.

The King was filled with both pity and a growing sense of alarm. Faramir’s family seemed to have a predisposition towards madness; Boromir was driven mad by the ring, while Denethor had succumbed to the palantír.

Was Faramir about to suffer the same fate from the burden of his own conscience? The situation was made worse by the fact that everyone close to him, was also close to Éomer in some way too. He looked again at the skeletal frame and blue tinged complexion of his Steward and feared he might not even live long enough for his mental stability to cause concern.

Aragorn suspected that years of being told he was unworthy and second best, were finally taking their toll. He felt exasperated at Faramir’s despair and frustrated by Éomer’s stubbornness. The young King of Rohan was obdurate and probably felt that to forgive his brother in law and accept Elven remedies would seem like weakness.

“Can you walk if I aid you to bed?” Aragorn said, finally at a loss for anything else to suggest. He could only hope that Faramir would think over what he said once left alone. ”I will tend you again tomorrow.”

Faramir nodded and managed to struggle to his feet. Slowly and painfully, he pulled his shirt over his head, refusing Aragorn’s offer of help.

The King escorted to his bedchamber and mixed up the medicinal herbs he needed while Faramir prepared for bed, undressing under his nightshirt.

“Drink this!” Aragorn told him, handing him the cup, once he was settled in bed.

“No, thank you,” Faramir said firmly but politely.

Aragorn finally lost patience with him. “As your King, I order you to drink it! It should not taste too bad!” he said in a stern tone, which Faramir dared not disobey.

Obediently, Faramir drained the cup, gazing reproachfully at the King. Aragorn sighed; hating himself and concerned he was abusing his authority over a totally broken man. Yet, he despaired for his life if nothing was done to strengthen Faramir’s heart. Even with the help of the hawthorn and foxglove tinctures, he could still die.

Aragorn brushed his Steward’s eyelids with his fingertips, sending him into a light healing sleep.

The lines of strain eased from the Steward’s face in sleep but he still looked very frail and vulnerable.

Aragorn stood looking at him sadly, remembering all the times they had shared, both good and bad over the last two and a half years, He yearned to see Faramir contented and happy, eagerly awaiting the birth of his first child, using his formidable diplomatic and debating skills and most of all to see him healthy and relaxed, not shying away from his loved ones. Selfishly, he supposed, he wanted to enjoy Faramir’s friendship again, though he supposed that was too much to hope for; given the way Faramir shrunk away from his touch and addressed him with such cold formality. He so missed enjoying their shared interests together, the lively discussions and the loving, brotherly companionship of one so intelligent and sweet natured. He needed Faramir as someone who would put rank aside, call him to task when needed and engage him in mock fights and teasing which eased the burden of kingship.

An anxious frown disfiguring his noble features, Aragorn went in search of his wife and Éowyn. There was much to discuss if Faramir were to be saved and he was determined that he would be. He was certain that his Steward had not yet told him everything that troubled him nor did he believe the reassurances he had given him. Only once both these obstacles were overcome would he have any hope of recovery.

An idea was forming in his mind but first he must discuss it with Arwen and Éowyn. Then there was also the problem of getting Faramir to agree to the ‘gift’ he had in mind. If only he would though, they could both maybe find peace.

Arwen was enjoying far greater success in getting Éowyn to accept her help, than her husband was with his Steward. As soon as they reached the Queen’s apartments, she instructed her servants to fill the sunken bath with warm water, to which she added a selection of herbs, left over from her own pregnancy and known to the Elves to be beneficial to mothers to be. “That should begin to ease your aching back, ” she told Éowyn. ”Then when you have bathed you can experience Elven massage from the hands of an Elf! I know you prefer the remedies of your own people, but let me use mine on you today!”

“That sounds very tempting.” Éowyn smiled wanly. ”But should I not be with Faramir?”

“You had hardly any sleep last night and both Estel and I are concerned about you too. We can see you are in pain. Leave Estel to help your husband!” Arwen told her firmly. “You are too near your time not to take care of yourself! Now can you get in the bath by yourself or would you like me to help you?”

“I usually can manage but not while my back aches so,” Éowyn replied, readily accepting the Queen’s assistance, much to her surprise. Éowyn was fiercely independent and rarely accepted any offer of help.

Arwen could have summoned her maids it seemed better to give her personal attention to a friend in need. Eldarion was safely in the nursery with his nursemaid so she could tend to Éowyn with a clear conscience.

Éowyn had already shed all her clothing, somewhat to Arwen’s amusement. Unlike the ladies of Gondor, some of whom even bathed in their shifts, if others were present, Éowyn had no inhibitions at all and was perfectly content for Arwen to aid her into the bath and then lave her back and shoulders.

To the Queen’s relief, Éowyn’s haggardness seemed confined to her face, as her body appeared healthy and well nourished. It seemed she was sensible enough not to let her fears for husband endanger her or the unborn child.

Once the water cooled, Éowyn reluctantly left the bath and clad in a towel, went with Arwen to the adjoining bedchamber, where the Queen covered the bed with towels and assorted jars of remedies for tight skin, soreness and stretch marks.

A cheerful fire blazed in the grate and the entire room radiated an air of warmth and comfort much like the Queen herself.

Éowyn was eager to experience them all after having used them on her friend, though she had used Rohirric treatments until today for her own ills.

“I understand that the oil of primroses can ease the skin, but cactus juice?” She marvelled anew at the depth of Elven knowledge while Arwen sat beside her and applied the mixtures. The tightness across her belly was already easing.

“The Elves have had thousands of years to experiment with plants and learn their properties.” Arwen explained. ”I hope you will remember our lore and tell your children. Our time here has ended and we must try to pass on our knowledge.”

“I will,” Éowyn promised, rolling on to her side so Arwen could ease her aching back. She felt an almost indescribable sensation peace, tenderness and warmth as the pain ebbed away. “Whatever is that?” she asked, puzzled.

“Elven massage. You are familiar with it, I believe.” There was suppressed laughed in the Queen’s voice.

“Aragorn did tell me you were the expert. I thought he was skilled but compared with you he…I did not know you were a healer…”Éowyn’s voice drifted away as she fell into a deep state of relaxation.

“The more skilled you are, the more uses the massage has.” Arwen explained, “It can be used for bonding, healing, relaxation, a diagnostic technique for skilled healers or even as a beauty treatment! I have had over two thousand years to perfect the techniques.” The Queen grinned, continuing until Éowyn was sound asleep.

The Comfort of Friendship

Arwen then placed a hand on her friend’s forehead and sat for a few moments in and concentrated deeply. She could sense Éowyn’s soul was troubled, but unlike Faramir her life force was strong and she was not on the brink of falling into darkness. Moving her hands down to Éowyn’s belly, she sensed the life essence of her unborn child was as strong as that of its mother’s. The baby kicked, as if sensing her presence.

Although they would both need a great deal of love and support, which was willing to freely provide, she felt her friend was in no great danger. When Aragorn had returned to her bed just after dawn he had confided his fears, at least she could now offer him some reassurance about Éowyn.

Rising to her feet, Arwen tucked a luxurious fur wrap tenderly around her friend.

She then went to collect Eldarion from his Nurse. She found it hard to be apart from her beautiful son for more than a few minutes. He was just so perfect and the exact likeness of his father, the Queen was convinced; although Aragorn always insisted he was the image of her! Settling herself in a comfortable chair and gently rocking her son in her arms, Arwen waited for her husband to return.

Eldarion felt hungry after an hour or so and started to cry to be fed, causing Éowyn to awake to the comfortable image of the Queen sitting on a rocking chair contentedly suckling her child. A roaring fire blazed in the hearth and the walls were lined with tapestries, which Arwen had brought from Rivendell, giving the room an unusually cosy feel that set it apart from others within the cold stone walls of the Citadel.

“Did he wake you? I am sorry.” Arwen said, smiling kindly at her friend.

“Don’t worry, I didn’t mean to fall asleep. I was just going to close my eyes for a moment,” Éowyn replied, sitting up and yawning as she spoke.

“ Rest will do you good, but now you are awake, I thought you might be comfortable wearing one the robes I wore when I was expecting Eldarion. Aragorn could return at any time now, so you had better put something on,” Arwen said, gesturing towards a comfortable looking silken garment. “Would you like some raspberry tea? I had my maid bring some up.”

“Thank you.” Éowyn slipped on the loose robe and sat on top of the bed drinking the tea, her mind quickly returning to her troubles now she was awake. Not only was she very worried about Faramir, but his inability to forgive himself brought back memories of her own conduct a few months before. How easily and readily she had accepted Aragorn’s forgiveness, which maybe was unmerited. “You should not treat me with such kindness, Arwen,” she blurted out. “I do not deserve it!”

“Why not?” Arwen asked gently, placidly shifting Eldarion to her other breast.

“I once thought about killing your husband when I wrongly believed he connived to force Faramir to marry me, I had his sword in my hand ready to strike! And I spent a night when I held him in my arms, that is one reason Éomer is so angry with him!” Éowyn’s confession came out as an outspoken, albeit somewhat jumbled muddle.

“I know. Estel told me,” the Queen said calmly, turning momentarily away from her child to look Éowyn in the eye. Her gaze was compassionate and totally devoid of either anger or horror.

“You don’t hate me for it?”

“Estel forgave you and so do I,” Arwen said quietly. “We all make mistakes at times. I admit I would find it hard to forgive, if you had killed my husband .The grief would most likely have killed me too. Yet, I cannot deny, I have wanted to kill him myself on occasion, especially when I was in labour! As for holding him, Estel cannot even remember the incident and I would gladly do the same for you, if the need arose, so put your mind at ease!”

Éowyn rose from the bed to kiss her friend warmly. “I am blessed indeed to have you and Aragorn as my friends!” she said.

“We feel the same about you and Faramir,” Arwen smiled, returning the kiss. Éowyn had changed a great deal since her return from the Hunting Lodge and had become much more open and affectionate in her manner with her, much as Faramir had done with Aragorn before the tragedy which appeared to have destroyed him. “Now all we need is a cure for your husband!” Arwen continued,” He needs to put the past behind him like you have learned to do.”

“Aragorn made me promise to talk about anything that troubled me,” Éowyn confided.

“And that was sound advice,” Arwen replied, “I only wish you had confided in me when you were so unhappy!”

“I thought I was the only one who saw how ‘bad’ Aragorn was and everyone else was wrong!” Éowyn said ruefully, “I made a dreadful mistake as he is the noblest and kindest of men.”

“It took me a while to love him too,” Arwen confided. “He fell in love with me at first sight. Although I had a foreshadowing of my future, I saw only a love struck youth whom I tried to be kind to. It was not until we met again years later that I realised how much I loved him.”

They sat in companionable silence both lost in memories until a knock on the door roused them from their reverie.

“Arwen, Éowyn! May I come in?” Aragorn called.

“Enter! We are waiting for you.” Arwen called.

He came into the room and they were immediately struck by how weary and dispirited he looked.

“How is Faramir?” Éowyn asked anxiously.

Aragorn shook his head sadly. “Not well, I fear. He is sleeping now and I left a servant is with him. He will neither forgive himself nor believe that I that I do not blame him for what happened. He is convinced he let me down and now wants to resign his Office, though I told him I would not allow it. I have tried treating him, but nothing seems to work, as his will resists mine and prevents the remedies from working. He will not heal until his troubled spirit allows it and will not even permit me to examine him thoroughly. All I could do was apply a salve and give him some herbs to take. My heart cannot heal either, as I brought these woes upon him!” The King slumped dejectedly in a chair. “Éomer’s anger troubles his spirit too,” he added, “Maybe if he forgave Faramir it would ease him so that he could heal. Then why does Faramir keep saying that he is tainted and no one must touch him? He acts as if he carries some dire contagion!”

Éowyn shook her head. “I have no idea either. I can only assume that he considers injuring my bother has in some way stained him, given that Éomer is a King, though it baffles me why he is so horrified if either of us try to touch him.”

“He seemed horrified at the notion of you touching him either, Arwen.” Aragorn commented, “It is very strange. It is almost as if …”

“If what?” Éowyn asked.

“He is afraid of being shown affection since he wounded Éomer,” Aragorn concluded rather lamely, dismissing the suspicion in his mind almost as soon as it arose. There was no way Faramir could know of the examination he had carried out while he was unconscious and it was far too delicate a subject to burden him with in his current state of distress, neither was it a suitable topic to discuss with a heavily pregnant woman.

Arwen placed a now sleeping Eldarion in his cradle and placed a comforting arm round her husband.

“My brother would soften if he saw Faramir’s wounds,” Éowyn said thoughtfully, “If he but knew what cruelties had been inflicted upon him, he would be horrified!”

“That is true.” Aragorn conceded. “But as Éomer refuses to see Faramir and Faramir refuses even to let even me, his healer, see his wounds without becoming distressed.”

“There must be something we haven’t tried?” Éowyn fretted, “What about sending him away to somewhere more peaceful?”

“Maybe that would help if one of us could go with him,” Aragorn replied. “ It is impossible at present, with your condition and all the added cares of state I have to deal with at the moment. Imrahil is still preoccupied with a land dispute, which needs his diplomatic expertise. It would be both highly dangerous and cruel to send him anywhere alone. He would feel more isolated and rejected than ever. Also with his heart condition, he is far too weak to travel.

“What about herbal potions?” Arwen asked.

“He is resisting healing, so they will do little good, even when I order him to swallow them. Hypericum might lift his mood but would he take it, as he seems to want to suffer? There is one thing though I believe would help him but it is a big step to take.”

“You should try it,” Arwen said, a note of eagerness creeping into her voice.

“I had thought of gifting it to him long before this happened, but I hesitated wondering if it were fair to you to share something so emotionally intimate,” Aragorn said doubtfully. “Yet, now it seems to be the only possible way of helping him.”

“Faramir is a gentleman, he knows where not to pry. Remember, I love him too, I know not as deeply as you do, but it pains me greatly to see him thus.”

“Whatever are you talking about?” Éowyn interrupted.

“Thought Bonding.” Aragorn replied.

“Whatever is that?”

“It is the greatest gift of spiritual love that both our people and the Eldar can share.” Aragorn explained, “Though it is rarer in these times as the blood of Númenór is almost spent. It used to be the usual way a close friendship was cemented, an engagement was celebrated, or a coming of age was marked between loving parents and children. Once the bond is formed it lasts a lifetime”

Losing Hope

”But you haven’t told me what it is!” Éowyn protested.

“Thought bonding is when two minds are linked telepathically and all thoughts and feelings shared. Usually it is only wholly possible when those of the right bloodlines reach maturity and are in full accord with each other, though sometimes even young babies can sense emotions if they have the ability. You usually place your foreheads together to do it, though to those with a sufficiently strong bond, just about any touch to the head suffices.”

“But how could that help Faramir?” Éowyn was feeing thoroughly confused by now.

“Many of those with Númenórean bloodlines such as Faramir and myself have enhanced mental abilities. For example, we both have visions and premonitions,” Aragorn explained. ”Such gifts are both a blessing and a burden, as we also tend to feel especially deeply. Sharing another’s mind promotes mental stability as it clears away misconceptions and is also a great source of reassurance. Faramir would know how much he was loved and that I bore no anger towards him if he could read my thoughts.”

”It sounds like some sort of magic like the way you and Faramir often seem to know what each other are thinking!” Éowyn exclaimed.

“It is simply a natural gift of our people, for as you have noticed, it has happened to some degree between Faramir and myself many times already, though I do not think it is something he has ever done consciously,” Aragorn replied. “The first time was when he took me to task for removing the old White Tree and I showed him the sapling. He had a vision and I could see it too. That was a wonderful moment for me! I knew then we were destined to become close friends. Only those with a special affinity glimpse each other’s minds!”

Arwen smiled at her husband and son, remembering how Aragorn had told her on their wedding night of Faramir’s vision of their line blossoming like the White Tree.

“Maybe if Faramir and his father had been sufficiently close to bond their minds, Denethor would not have lost his wits?” Aragorn said thoughtfully.” But would it trouble you, Éowyn, if I linked minds with Faramir? I might see every thought, feeling and memory of your husband’s, though naturally I would not seek to pry into any personal aspects of your marriage.”

“There is nothing about our marriage that would shock you! If sharing thoughts will help Faramir, you can do it this moment!” Éowyn replied in her usual forthright manner. “If anything will give me back my husband, please try it, even if it involves being painted green and running naked through the city streets!”

Aragorn shuddered at the thought.

Arwen laughed, commenting, “There is nothing about our marriage that would shock him either!” making her husband blush scarlet.

“I believe sharing thoughts would cure Faramir,” Aragorn said. “I would learn exactly what is troubling him so much and he would know how sorry I am, which no words can express. The problem is, getting him in a suitable state of mind to agree to it! He might feel that his mind is the only thing he has managed to spare from being examined by me. I already know that he is gifted with great mental abilities. For example, he knew who I was, when I healed him of the Black Breath, though he had never met me before. Then there are those prophetic dreams and visions he is prone to.”

“I think he might be intrigued by the idea,” Éowyn said thoughtfully. “We will just have to do our best to see that he tries it.”

“Over the next few days, I will give him herbs to relax him before suggesting it, if you agree?” Aragorn said. “Meanwhile, I will continue to treat him with salves and potions to try to strengthen his heart.”

“Do whatever you think is best,” Éowyn said wearily. “This should have been such a happy time for us all!”

“You will feel better once you hold your baby in your arms,” Arwen soothed, gazing fondly at Eldarion.

“I ought to get dressed and go and see how my husband is,” Éowyn announced. Sighing, she rose from the bed and gathered up her clothing from where the maid had placed it on a chair.

“Are you in pain?” Aragorn asked her anxiously.

“No, it is just difficult for me to move around now I am so huge! Then the baby kicks so much it is hard to rest,” she replied. ”Arwen can tell you what it feels like! And I still have several weeks to wait before it is born. I think it will be a big strong boy.” She guided Arwen’s hand against her belly where the Queen could feel the movements through the thin silk of her robe.

“You have a lively baby there!” Arwen smiled, “It kicks as much as Eldarion did. That is a good sign that it is healthy.”

“It gladdens me that at least you and your child are well.” Aragorn smiled, though his eyes remained sad. “I will visit Faramir again tomorrow. However, you must call me at once if you are worried about him.”

“And you must visit me too.” Arwen added. “I will massage your back again if you wish.”

“Thank you, you are both so good to me!” Kissing them both warmly, Éowyn managed a watery smile. She retired to the dressing room to change before returning to see how Faramir was faring.

As soon as she had gone, Aragorn collapsed on the bed and buried his head in his hands; unable to maintain his façade of iron control any longer. His body shook convulsively as he fought to hold back the tears.

Arwen was immediately at his side, wrapping her arms around him and holding him close. She tried to contain her rising alarm. She could not remember ever having seen her husband so distressed before. He had been very upset when he had bid her farewell on the eve of his departure with the Ring bearer, but not in such despair. The Queen was starting to fear greatly for his future well-being. If Faramir were to die, she wondered if Aragorn would ever recover from the loss of his companionship and the part he had unwittingly played in his Steward’s decline.

She sat there beside him for some time, letting him weep, all the while cradling his head against her breast and tenderly stroking his tear stained cheeks. “My love, what is it?” she asked when the worst of his tears were spent, “Faramir will be well again soon, I am sure of it!”

“Will he? I see him dying before my eyes!” Aragorn raised a tear stained face to look at her. “How can he be, when I have almost killed him? If you had seen his injuries, his back almost flayed to ribbons and more bruises than I could count on his body! It was my command that brought him to such a state, one whom I love as if he were mine own son! I thought I could give him all that was lacking in his life before. I rejoiced to see him well and happy. Yet, one careless word from me took all that away. And much as I try to reassure Éowyn that Thought Bonding could cure him, how I can I get him to agree to it with one who wronged him so much? He claims he does not blame me, but how could he not? The wounds Éomer dealt him were but slight compared to what happened to him in prison! I should have somehow stopped the fight between him and Éomer and protected them both!"

“And what good would it have done if you had been injured or killed during their fight? Éomer and Faramir both had need of your skills that day.” Arwen told him, lovingly running her fingers through his mop of unruly hair before starting to massage the tense muscles in her husband’s neck.

“I remember the first time I met Faramir.” Aragorn said softly, “He was burning with fever and very close to death. On the journey from Rivendell, Boromir spoke of him with such love in his eyes and told me how much he hated being parted from him. One night, while we were in Lothlórien his heart was filled with foreboding and he asked me to care for his brother should he fall. I gave him my oath.”

“And you have kept your vow and cared for Faramir as a loving father would,” Arwen soothed.

“Have I? When Faramir awoke from the fever caused by the Black Breath, he looked at me with such love and respect. I hoped even then we could be friends, but he was so afraid that I would prove as harsh as his father.”

“I remember; that is why I suggested you go away from the Court with Faramir and Éowyn.”

“And there he saved my life and cared for me as a son would. He lost his fear and became the man he could be once he threw off his father’s shadow. Yet he has fared far worse with me that with Denethor! I swore to him that none should ever harm him again. I have broken my oath!”

“Do not be so foolish! You never meant for him to be beaten nor ordered it,” Arwen chided. “Did you ever try to burn him alive? I think not! What happened was just a mistake, cruel though it was. Time and care will restore Faramir to us, you will see! You both feel especially deeply because of the Elven ancestry you both have. Anyone who cares as deeply as you do breaks their heart if they feel they have let a loved one down.”

Arwen understood how her husband felt to some extent; as one of the Eldar and also because as the youngest in the family, she had always been protected, when she wanted to protect. Estel had been in a similar position, though to a much greater extent being younger by centuries and a frail mortal amongst Elves.

Aragorn was a natural protector and in Faramir had found both someone in need of his care and a man so like unto himself they could have indeed father and son as they had so much in common.

Arwen’s affection for Faramir stemmed mainly from the fact he was so like her beloved husband who had smoothed his path to the throne, thereby enabling them to marry.

“How can I manage without him if is not restored to health?” Aragorn sounded in a state of near panic. “I am a simple Ranger. Faramir has been running this country not I! All will come to ruin without him despite the best efforts of Imrahil and myself! It is all my fault!”

“Yet it was I who suggested you go away with Faramir and Éowyn, Éowyn who wrote to Éomer because she was angry, Faramir’s secretary who sent the letter, it was Éomer who demanded that Faramir fight with him, and two miscreants who beat Faramir in prison. How can it all be your fault?” Arwen demanded.

Eldarion suddenly awoke and began to cry fretfully, no doubt sensing his parents’ distress. Arwen went over to his cradle and picked him up, assuring herself he was neither hungry nor needed changing.

“Then there is Éomer,” Aragorn lamented. “I cannot heal him and being crippled is a living death to one of his race! What sort of protector am I to you and Eldarion? I bring misfortune to all I know; you will be separated from your family for all eternity because of me!”

“That was my choice to make,” Arwen replied and I do not regret it.” She carried Eldarion back to the bed and sat beside her husband again.

“I have destroyed almost everyone I love!” Aragorn lamented.

Eldarion’s fretful crying increased in volume to a loud anguished wail.

“Shame on you, Estel!” Arwen snapped in exasperation. “You have upset your son while blaming yourself for what is not your fault! Were it not for you, Faramir and Éomer would both be dead. They will be well I know it! I thought what I liked about humans and especially you, was your unquenchable hope despite your short life spans and frail bodies, but maybe I was wrong?”

“I am sorry, Arwen,” Aragorn replied humbly, kissing her tenderly on the lips. ”I know I am truly blessed to have you and no man could desire a more loving or wiser wife!”

When the bough breaks the cradle will fall,

And down will come baby, cradle and all. – Nursery rhyme

For Julia, who likes Arwen, Aragorn and Eldarion.

Arwen passionately returned his kiss.

The familiar tingle of excitement at her nearness surged through Aragorn’s weary body. How he loved his beautiful wife! He could still hardly believe that she was his after so many long years of waiting.

“I must soothe Eldarion,” Arwen said, regretfully pulling away from his embrace. She turned her attention back to her child who continued to wail despite her best efforts. “You try calming him, Estel,” she ordered, “take off your shirt!”

“What?” He looked rather taken aback, accustomed as he was to disrobing in the privacy his dressing room. “I am sorry, I did not mean to wake Eldarion and burden you with my cares.”

“I know.” Arwen said gently, her brief outburst spent. I just think it is time that you bonded more with son. Stay there on the bed.”

He pulled off his tunic and shirt, rather sheepishly complying with her request, albeit. He never felt he fared very well alongside her Elven perfection, despite Arwen’s reassurances to the contrary.

Murmuring soothing words in Elvish, Arwen undressed Eldarion down to his napkin and gently laid him across Aragorn’s bared chest next to his heart. “Hold him close to you,” she instructed.

To Aragorn’s great surprise, the baby soon stopped crying and nestled against him. His frustration and despair melted away as he gazed lovingly at his tiny son. He kissed the soft fuzz of hair and lovingly stroked the tiny limbs. A perfect tiny hand grasped one of his fingers.

“He is so perfect!” Aragorn said, his voice cracking with emotion. “To think that we made one so beautiful! I love you, I love both of you!” He nuzzled his head against Eldarion’s mass of curls, hoping even at this tender age, the infant would