Web of Treason


Tree and Flower Awards, Novel, Second Place
2013 Tree and Flower Awards


Web of Treason


These characters (with the exception of those of my own creation) are the property of the Tolkien Estate. This story has been written purely for pleasure and no profit has been nor will be made from it.

 

With grateful thanks to Raksha, without whose help; I fear this story would have turned out very badly. She advised me to take it in an entirely different direction and offered unlimited support and advice. Were this story, a baby, Raksha is the midwife who safely delivered it.

  

 

 

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

 Chapter One - Growing Dissent

January, Year 2 F.A

It was an exceptionally cold winter’s night. The men milled around the door waiting for the inn to open and a chance to sip a warming mug of ale, while huddled around a blazing fire.

The door opened but instead of admitting his customers, the innkeeper came out on to the lane.

“Sorry lads, the inn’s closed,” he told the waiting throng.

“We’ll have to go to the next one then,” one of the men said grumpily. “On a night like this too!”

“You’ll find all the inns closed by order of the King,” the innkeeper informed them. ”You’d be better off going home.”

“What? Why?” The wave of anger was almost palpable. ”He can’t do that!”

“Yes, he can and he has done," the innkeeper replied, “because of the fever, I was told. Some hare brained notion about it being more catching in crowded places!”

“What nonsense!” The speaker was obviously a casualty of the recent war. He had only one leg and walked with a crutch. “I’ve seen many lands while I was in the army and anyone could tell you that fevers are caused by the influence of the moon. Why, even a child knows that!”

“Things were never like this in the Steward’s day!” his companion, a fat man with a red face, remarked. “He had his faults did Lord Denethor, but he’d have never closed the taverns!"

“Why doesn’t his son do something then?” the man with the crutch demanded. “He’s the Steward now, Lord Faramir, isn’t he?”

“He dare not,” The red-faced man said gloomily. “I’ve heard the King beats him, and even had him put in prison!”

“I thought that was Lord Denethor?” the one legged man said, sounding puzzled.

“No, he was the one who tried to burn him alive!” the red-faced man replied impatiently. “He would never have sent him to prison, though, not his own son!”

The others joined in, each eagerly voicing their own opinions on the matter.

“Now be off with you!” the innkeeper shouted above the rising murmur of voices. “I’ll hear naught against the King. He is providing me with enough to live on while my tavern is closed and he cured my wife of the fever.”

Still muttering, the crowd slowly dispersed into the frosty night.

***

The mood in the Council Chamber was grim.  Faramir, Steward of Gondor and Prince of Ithilien read out a report, which reported no progress in controlling the spread of the fever. Mercifully, it was still confined to the city and surrounding villages, and there were no reports of it having spread to other parts of the country.

King Aragorn Elessar Telcontar rose to his feet.  “I am hoping that the new measures I have implemented will help to control the spread of the contagion,” he announced. “As from yesterday, I have ordered the closure of the taverns, indoor markets and all other crowded assemblies."

Fontos, Lord of Lossarnach, rose to his feet. “My Lord King, I fear that by so doing, you will have a rebellion on your hands!”

“That is a lesser risk than half the populace stricken with fever,” Aragorn said calmly. “I am recompensing all those who will have their livelihoods threatened as result.”

“And what of us?” The Lord of Lamedon sprang to his feet, bristling with anger. “Many of the inns are owned by the nobility. We rent them to the tavern keepers who give us a share of their profits.”

“They might starve, my lord, though you most certainly would not!” Aragorn retorted. Starvation looked to be the least likely cause of death for the portly noble.

“I must protest, sire!” the Lord of Lebennin said angrily. “All the new laws you have passed favour the poor. We are now forced to allow them to glean in our fields and gather firewood from our forests, as well as permitting them to take our rabbits to stuff their bellies with!”

“The taxes you have levied to pay for the City reconstruction are most unfair,” the Lord of Ringlo Vale added. “Lord Denethor would never have done such a thing!”

“You must be in dire straits indeed then, my lord,” commented the Prince of Dol Amroth wryly. ”It is but a small percentage of your vast revenues.”

“I will not be a king who lets my people starve, while the nobles grow fat off the land.” Aragorn said coldly. He sat down again. To those who knew him, he looked drawn and weary. “It is an exceptionally hard winter this year and the poor are suffering because of it.”

“It was said in olden times that if plague and famine fell upon the land it was because of some fault in the king,” the Lord of Lamedon said in meaningful tone.

Aragorn’s eyes flashed dangerously. “I hope you do not mean what I think you do, my lord, or you come close to speaking treason!”

“I was merely recalling the old lore, sire. I did not say there was any truth in it," the Lord of Lamedon said smoothly. He quickly lowered his eyes, unable to meet Aragorn’s flint like gaze.

“Is there any other business before the Council is dismissed?” Faramir asked, eager to change the subject.

“I have news of grave import to all,” the Lord of Lamedon began. He paused for dramatic effect. “The Steward’s heir has been found!”

“I was not aware that Lady Elestelle was lost,” Faramir said dryly.

“I meant Lord Boromir’s heir," the Lord of Lamedon announced. “As the elder son, his heir takes precedence. The late Lord Boromir’s widow, Lady Hanna and her daughter Lady Elbeth are under my protection. They came to me in dire need and asked for my help.”

Aragorn and Faramir shot started glances at each other at this unexpected turn of events.

“My nephew had an heir?” the Prince of Dol Amroth exclaimed in wonder. “But why should she appeal to you for protection, rather than the King?”

“King Elessar does not have a good record with his Stewards. Or maybe, you have forgotten that Lord Denethor committed suicide on the day King Elessar arrived, while his successor, Lord Faramir was unjustly beaten and imprisoned but a few months past? Our Lord King did not even punish the miscreants with the full weight of the law,” the Lord of Lossarnach remarked acidly.

“That is most unreasonable, I must protest!” the Prince of Dol Amroth interjected.

Aragorn glared and looked uncomfortable. Faramir was about to open his mouth to protest. The Lord of Lamedon continued before either of them regained their composure.

“I see that these tidings disturb you, my lords,” the Lord of Lamedon continued. “I thought they might, as I have heard a most tragic story of injustice done to the widow and her daughter. Most gravely, it concerned you, my Lord Elessar! Lady Hanna claims that you took her child from her and had her locked away in the lunatic asylum.”

A collective murmur of shock echoed round the Council Chamber.

“I had the lady confined there after she tried to kill me and my Steward.” Aragorn said icily. “As for her child, she appeared to be illegitimate. My Steward and I found a good woman and her husband to care for her. We have paid for her upkeep until her mother escaped from the asylum and vanished with her.”

“Why was she not tried for treason if she attacked you, sire?” the Lord of Lebennin enquired.

“Because the poor woman had obviously lost her wits and I had no desire to see her executed.” Aragorn replied.

“Or maybe there was another reason?” The Lord of Lamedon handed a document to Aragorn with a flourish.

Aragorn studied it then handed it to Faramir. It was certificate of marriage.

“I beg to differ, sire,” the Lord of Lamedon continued. ”Lady Hanna appears as sane as you or I. You wanted her silenced, since it was well known that Lord Boromir had no wish for the return of a King from the North any more than Lord Denethor did.”

“Mind your words, my lord, for I may not be as lenient with you as I was with Hanna!” Aragorn was white with fury.

“The King saved Elbeth’s life. That is not the action of a man who considered her a threat. As for myself, I was mindful of protecting my late brother’s reputation.  I suspected Elbeth might be his child born outside wedlock. Hanna was a serving maid, hardly a suitable bride for the heir to the Stewardship, as my poor brother then was.” Faramir looked even more furious than the King, were that possible.

“My apologies, it not my desire to offend your most esteemed lordships. I spoke only out of my desire to protect this most unfortunate widow and her child,"said the Lord of Lamedon, a hint of sarcasm breaking through the false contrition in his voice. ”This marriage document proves that Lady Elbeth is Lord Boromir’s legitimate heir. Lady Hanna told me that Lord Boromir was a frequent guest of Lord Duilin of Morthond and they met at his Hunting Lodge and fell in love. One night after the men had been drinking, overcome with desire, Lord Boromir wished to lie with her and consummate the union. However, the lady was mindful of her virtue and refused him, saying she would lie with no man out of wedlock. Lord Boromir promptly said he would marry her and did so then and there in front of witnesses.”

“I could not imagine my brother acting thus,” Faramir said coldly, “Both witnesses, Forlong of Lossarnach and Duilin of Morthond are conveniently dead. Therefore, there is no way of proving this marriage. Both fell in the war you well know.”

“As did many good men,” Dervorin, Lord of Ringlo Vale commented sounding more annoyed than grieved.

“I have a suggestion,” the Lord of Lebennin announced. “You have a son, King Elessar, Lord Boromir left a daughter. If they were to marry, the Houses of Húrin and Telcontar would be united and Lord Boromir’s daughter would then receive the honour due to her.”

 Chapter Two

 

To sleep, perchance to dream - Shakespeare -Hamlet.3.1

“Surely you jest, my lords?” Aragorn replied. “Prince Eldarion is not yet six months old and Lady Elbeth is still but a child. The suggestion of their marriage is quite absurd.”

“Where are Prince Eldarion and the Queen, by the way?” the Lord of Lossarnach enquired. “They have not been seen in public for weeks now.”

A murmur of agreement echoed round the chamber.

“I shall not expose my wife and heir to the dangers of the fever,” Aragorn answered. “You may rest assured, my lords, that they are safe and well.”

“To marry Prince Eldarion to Lady Elbeth would secure the future of the Royal Line by restoring the House of Húrin to a station worthy of their lineage,” the Lord of Lamedon persisted.

Faramir frowned, wondering why the Council would recognise succession through female lines when it suited them. A long ago Steward had died childless and they had appointed his sister’s grandson to succeed him. Yet Arvedui’s claim to the throne had been rejected even though he was married to King Ondoher’s sole surviving heir. He concluded it was best to remain silent, lest these impudent lords start to next question Aragorn’s legitimacy to rule!

“The idea is outrageous, to marry children to each other! Neither my wife nor myself would ever permit such a marriage,” Aragorn protested. He was beginning to lose patience.

“Infant marriages are not unheard of,” said Dervorin, the Lord of Ringlo Vale, “Consider how it would please the people, my lord. An heir from such a union would actually be a child of Gondor. And you my Lord Steward, would you not see your brother’s memory honoured?”

“Naturally I would have Boromir’s child treated with all due respect,” said Faramir. ”It gladdens my heart she is safe and well but…”

“Such a marriage is completely out of the question!” Aragorn finally erupted in anger. “It is not an easy task being King, so my son should at least choose his own Queen and helpmeet. Would you, my Lord of Lossarnach, have your infant son locked in a loveless marriage? Would you, my Lords see your grandchildren thus bound? I would never countenance a union for my son with a girl from a family of such instability either. I will see the child is well provided for and treated with due respect, but that is all she is entitled to. As for Hanna, she must return to the asylum. That is my final word on the subject.”

Faramir flushed with anger. “My father lost his wits in the service of Gondor,” he raged. “Do you, my lord, consider me unstable too?”

“Your mother was the sister of the esteemed Prince of Dol Amroth, as sane a man as I have ever known,” Aragorn replied. “I will have no more talk of this matter. The Council is dismissed.”

“But, sire, will you not at least consider the advantages of the marriage?” the Lord of Lossarnach ventured to suggest.

Aragorn rose to his feet, his hand gripping the hilt of Andúril. “I have told you my decision. I never wish to hear this matter raised again!” he roared. “You do not fool me, my lords! I know full well that you resent the extra burden of taxation to help the poor survive the winter, but that you should stoop so low, as to attempt to use my infant son as your tool, beggars all belief! Now be gone!”

One by one, the lords filed out of the Council Chamber until only Aragorn and Faramir remained. Grey with weariness, Aragorn slumped in his seat now that there was none save his Steward to see him.

Faramir anxiously hastened to his lord’s side. “You were up most of the night again, tending the sick,” he chided. “You cannot go on like this! You will damage your health.”

“I am so sorry, Faramir I did not mean to hurt your feelings earlier,” Aragorn said softly, all too aware that his Steward was still smarting from the earlier exchange. “I am so weary today. The lords were past bearing in their conduct.”

”You should arrest them for their insolence,” Faramir said sternly. “My father would not have hesitated. If only Angbor, the old Lord of Lamedon were still alive and Furlong of Lossarnach. Alas, that the flower of Gondor’s nobility were lost in the war!”

“The rebellious nobles will pay for their scheming, once this contagion is over and I can concentrate on something other than healing the sick, “ Aragorn assured his friend. “I shall insist then that Elbeth is removed from the clutches of that snake. Please do not hold your anger against me. I did not for a moment mean that you were unstable, only that Hanna’s child could be. More than that, Eldarion needs to choose a bride he knows will love and support him as Arwen does me. I will tell you this, though, should it come to pass that he and your daughter were to love each other, they would have my blessing. I would be most happy if our children were to wed.”

Faramir bent over to kiss his King on the brow in token of reconciliation. “You do me great honour!” he said. “I could never be angry with you for long, mellon nîn.”

“I am truly blessed to have both you as my Steward and Arwen as my Queen,” Aragorn mused, thinking of the first time he had met Faramir and been immediately hailed as King by him. He had sensed even then that they were kindred souls. “The Valar smiled on me to grant me such a Steward to ease my burden as King.”

“No less than they blessed me by replacing my father with you as my liege lord!” Faramir replied, helping Aragorn rise to his feet. “Come, my friend, you need to rest and eat. The heavy burdens you bear will seem less onerous then.

Taking his Steward’s proffered arm, Aragorn made his way out of the Council Chamber. Once they were in public view, he straightened up and walked tall and noble as ever, so that none might guess his weariness and despondency.

***

Faramir had been one of the first to be stricken with the fever, perhaps because he was still regaining his strength after his ordeal in prison. Aragorn had devotedly nursed his Steward back to health. This time he made a swift recovery, the only sign now that he had ever suffered from it, being a slight cough in the early mornings. He was now working harder than ever, so that Aragorn would have more time to tend the sick. The King brushed aside fears for his own danger of infection. He remembered catching this kind of fever while he was in the North and knew it very rarely infected the same person twice.

The contagion had begun a few days after the execution of Mahrod, who was responsible for Faramir’s severe injuries when imprisoned. Crowds had flocked to see him hanged, amongst them, his wife Alis and her child. Alis and several others from the Pelennor townlands were the first to fall ill. They had been fortunate and recovered, but others were not so lucky. More and more cases were reported in the City, until the Houses of Healing could hardly cope with all the sick and dying.

This fever was especially unpleasant causing fevers and chills, sneezing, loss of appetite, a severe cough and sometimes breathing difficulties. It all too often proved fatal, especially for the elderly and very young.

Faramir and Éowyn had moved to their new home in Ithilien the week before Faramir fell ill. He had sent a message that she should remain there with Elestelle until the danger of infection had passed. Aragorn and Arwen also decided that Arwen and Eldarion should stay with Éowyn while the contagion raged. While Arwen, born Peredhel and still stronger than most mortals, was immune from such dangers, Eldarion was not. The heir to the throne was far too precious to be put at risk. Much as Aragorn and Arwen hated to be apart, they considered the greater good and the welfare of their child before any personal feelings.

Aragorn decided to keep the Queen's location secret to protect her from visitors who might carry the infection to his son. He was mindful also of the panic it might cause, if it were widely known that the situation was bad enough to warrant sending the Queen and the heir to safety. So far, no cases of the fever had been reported beyond Minas Tirith and the outlying villages. Aragorn was desperately trying to keep it from spreading throughout Gondor.

Before she left, taking with her many loving messages from Faramir to Éowyn and a promise to look after her, Arwen had asked Faramir to share Aragorn’s room and take care of him, lest he overtax himself and neglect his own health. He was insisting on daily using his healing gifts to help care for the sick in the Houses of Healing.

The Queen had confided to him, that after so many years in the wilds, Aragorn found it difficult to sleep alone within the stone walls of the Citadel and would even have preferred to be under a hedge with the stars overhead for company.

Although comfortable enough in his own rooms, Faramir was happy to oblige. He enjoyed Aragorn’s companionship. He was even willing to endure his snoring while they shared the King’s room, the same room, where Aragorn had cared for his Steward only a few months before.

To begin with, Faramir had found the task allocated to him far from arduous as both men had simple tastes, preferring to disperse with a valet unless required to wear elaborate robes for state occasions. Both too were sound sleepers and at ease in each other’s company.

Most of the time, Faramir was hardly aware of the King’s presence at all. When Faramir went to sleep, Aragorn would still be at the Houses of Healing. Often he would have left again at dawn the next day.

However, as the weeks went by and the fever raged unabated, Aragorn became increasingly exhausted and withdrawn. Faramir’s companionship became his main source of support. He was grateful to Arwen for suggesting he avail himself of the comfort of having his friend at his side while she could not be.

One morning Faramir had awoken to find the King still wearing his boots, having fallen asleep on top of the covers of the vast bed, too exhausted to undress, eat, or drink.

Chapter Three – So much to be consoled as to console

O Master, grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love with all my soul –

Prayer of Saint Francis

From that day on, Faramir had stayed awake until Aragorn returned to ensure that he was properly cared for. The Steward now insisted that a supply of the restorative Elven cordial, miruvor, was always kept in the room.

He ordered the servants to keep a supply of nourishing broth and warm water constantly at hand, as well as laying out a nightshirt and clean underwear for their lord.

Aragorn suffered from nightmares, in which he would awaken in a state of obvious distress, recalling the faces of children he could not save. Faramir soothed his lord as best he could, telling him that no one could have done more.

Last night had been especially distressing. Aragorn had returned in the small hours exhausted and distraught over the death of a baby boy of about Eldarion's age. He had arrived just two or three minutes before the infant had breathed his last in his mother’s arms.

“I could do nothing to help him. He looked so like my son,” the King sighed, slumping dejectedly across the vast bed.

“You need to rest,” Faramir soothed. “You cannot save everyone, alas. Think of the hundreds you have cured these past weeks! Come, have some broth! Food will make you feel better.”

“I cannot eat,” Aragorn protested. “Let me be!”

“Come on now,” coaxed Faramir. “You need to keep your strength up. I can see you are losing weight. You must eat or I shall spoon feed you!”

“You sound just like Éowyn!” Aragorn replied, managing a weak smile.

Faramir eventually cajoled him to eat him the nourishing broth of venison and vegetables, which the kitchens had sent up. Aragorn just lay there limp and drained, making no move to help himself, when Faramir unlaced his boots and outer tunic.

“Come on,” the Steward coaxed. “I promised your lady that I would not let you fall asleep before you had bathed and changed into your nightshirt. She was most insistent that you should not revert to your ranger ways.” 

He had hoped that mentioning the Queen would cheer his lord, but it proved to no avail.

“I am so weary,” Aragorn whispered. He kicked off his boots, but made no move to finish undressing. Instead, he sat with his face buried in his hands.

Faramir had impulsively reached out and drawn his friend close, knowing he was in need of comfort but would never ask for any. Aragorn considered that he should always be the one to offer solace and never seek to ask for any in return. Tonight, he welcomed Faramir’s comforting presence.

“I failed,” Aragorn murmured, burying his head against the Steward's shoulder. “It could have been my son lying there dying, I should have tried harder and I…” Completely exhausted, he could say no more.

“You have not failed! You are the noblest of men, who does your best and cares for your people deeply, sometimes so much so that you neglect yourself. You miss Arwen and your child, but you were unselfish enough to send them out of danger. That you tried to save that baby is proof enough of just how much you care! You cannot, must not risk yourself, when all your people have need of you,” Faramir said, all the while rubbing soothing circles across Aragorn’s back, wishing as he did so, that he had his King’s healing powers. Nevertheless, his touch seemed to soothe his friend.

“What would I do without you?” Aragorn mused, slowly starting to relax. “If you had not already had the fever, I should have had to send you away too. You are such a solace to me! I have neglected you, I fear. I cannot even remember when I last treated your arm.”

“I am glad that I had the contagion. Not that you would have persuaded me to go.  I am not the heir and I am needed here!” Faramir replied, raising a glass of the restorative cordial, miruvor, to the King’s lips. “As for my arm, it is better. I only continued with the treatments as I enjoyed the Elven healing so much!”

“You would inherit were Eldarion and I to die,” Aragorn reminded him, smiling faintly at Faramir’s confession, although he had guessed the truth already.

“I hope you live a very long time and have many more children. A few weeks as ruling Steward were quite enough for me,” Faramir said firmly.

He sat silently with his arm still around his friend’s shoulders. Aragorn laid his head against his Steward’s, allowing their thoughts to mingle. Their similar Númenorean lineage and strong friendship greatly enhanced the mental gifts they both possessed. Both found their Thought Bond a great source of comfort through which they could strengthen and support each other. The strong spiritual connection they shared, had grown even closer during these weeks spent together.

What had begun as a desperate final attempt on Aragorn’s part to save Faramir’s life, had now become mutually beneficial and the more they shared thoughts, the deeper the bond became. Sometimes, Faramir could sense Aragorn’s thoughts when he was in another room, or even another part of the City. He had more than once surprised the King, by meeting him, clutching the very document he was returning to collect.

Faramir could clearly perceive the sorrow and despondency that Aragorn felt, while the King could sense the genuine compassion and concern emanating from Faramir. It was deeply comforting to be so close to another in thought; that was, until Faramir started to sense some sort of danger surrounding the King. He tried to dismiss his fears as no more than his concern over Aragorn’s despondent mood.

“I sense such darkness!” Aragorn sighed, uncertain whether the visions came from his own mind or Faramir’s.

“Try to rest. I am here beside you. You should go out into the countryside for a few days to refresh yourself, maybe visit Arwen and Eldarion?” Faramir counselled, smoothing back the King’s mane of unruly dark hair. He tried to contain his own sense of foreboding. He told himself that it was just the shadow of the contagion hanging over the City. This winter had been the coldest and harshest he could ever remember.

“Maybe I will ride outside the City gates for a while tomorrow. I dare not go near my wife and child lest I carry the contagion on my clothing, much as I yearn to see them.”

“I miss Éowyn and Elestelle too. She was just starting to smile at me when they said goodbye,” Faramir sighed, while all the time trying to share encouraging thoughts with Aragorn. The King had driven himself relentlessly for weeks now, spending hours every day engaged in draining healing sessions.

Even one of his Númenorean lineage did not have unlimited reserves of energy. Faramir tried to help him by taking on double his share of paperwork, poring for hours over State documents until his head ached.  

He knew from personal experience, that every time Aragorn gave of himself when healing, it left him weakened and drained. Such a gift was never meant to be used day after day without rest. Maybe that was what was alarming him so, the terrible fear that Aragorn would go too far in trying to help others, to the extent of sacrificing his own life. Faramir shuddered, recalling how near the King had come to death in saving his own life but a few months ago.

“I would only go that far to save you, Arwen or my son,” Aragorn reassured him, reading his thoughts.

“A king’s life is worth more than a steward’s!” Faramir chided gently. Aragorn’s self sacrificing goodness never failed to overwhelm him.

“A loyal friend’s life is a prize beyond all measure,” Aragorn replied.

“You have my loyalty without needing to take such risks!” the Steward protested.

“I know and that knowledge that makes any risk worthwhile,” Aragorn replied. “If only the rest of my Council were as trustworthy as you!”

“They dislike change, but I am certain they will come to love and respect you in time,” Faramir replied. “They feared my father and that guaranteed their obedience, though at what cost, I know not. Now we should both try to rest, it will be dawn soon.”

He blew out the candle and lay back against the pillows, his hand still resting on Aragorn’s shoulder.

Faramir forced himself to stay awake until he could hear Aragorn snoring. For once, the sound did not annoy him.

The Steward had once thought Aragorn invulnerable until their ordeal at the Hunting Lodge had shown him that he was not. It pained him to see such a strong man drained by total exhaustion.

**

The next morning Aragorn had attended the Council Meeting, the fact his features were grey with weariness the only sign that anything was amiss. Otherwise, he appeared to be his kingly, confident self.

Faramir insisted that the King rest afterwards. After only a few hours, though the Warden had summoned him again to help the severely ill in the Houses of Healing.

The King’s spirits seemed much restored. He had parted from Faramir with a smile on his face, determined that today he would succour more of his people.

When night fell, Faramir prepared for bed as usual, shedding his formal clothing in favour of a linen nightshirt and drawers. He sat up, reading State documents by candlelight, determined to stay awake until Aragorn returned.

The events of the day ran through his mind, while he debated how best the insolent lords could be disciplined. Unfortunately, they were cunning enough, to stop short of speaking outright treason. It was outrageous enough that any should dare suggest marrying Eldarion to Elbeth. How Faramir wished that he had adopted his niece when he had had the chance! On that thought, the rigours of the day, preceded by a near sleepless night overcame him, and he knew no more.

The Steward’s slumber was restless and filled with dark dreams. He awoke just before dawn, chiding himself angrily for sleeping when he should be ensuring the King had was provided with food and drink and whatever support he could offer.

To his alarm, when he glanced across the bed, Aragorn was not there.  Faramir immediately checked the dressing room, thinking that rather than risk disturbing his Steward, the King had slept there, but the room was empty.

Immediately, he sent a message to Tarostar, the Warden of the Houses of Healing.

Tarostar sent a messenger with the reply that Aragorn had left at about two o’clock in the morning after a prolonged and successful battle to save the life of a young brother and sister.

Faramir was by now greatly alarmed. He feared that Aragorn had collapsed with exhaustion and was lying unconscious in some alleyway. The King had always refused his Steward’s pleas to take a guard with him, saying he was perfectly safe in his own City. He believed it was unreasonable to expect the guard to wait around for him, maybe all night long, when he could be better employed elsewhere.

Immediately, Faramir sent out the guard to carry out a through search of the City. The King was nowhere to be found.

After spending hours organising a Search, Faramir summoned the Council to inform them of Aragorn’s disappearance. Power automatically reverted to the Steward at such times.

He watched the faces of the lords carefully when he made the announcement. Apart from a look of concern flitting across his Uncle Imrahil's face, the nobles remained impassive.

Faramir spent the evening signing a pile of official documents. When he finally went to bed, he was certain he would be unable to sleep, being so anxious for his lord’s safety.

Instead, he immediately fell into an exhausted slumber, where he dreamed vividly of Aragorn calling out to him for help.

Faramir sat up, drenched in a cold sweat and wincing at the pain in his back, which had not hurt so much since he had been flogged.

This was most strange, as thanks to the elven treatments that Aragorn had persuaded him to undergo, his stripes were completely healed, with not even any painful scar tissue remaining.

Puzzled, he pulled down his nightshirt and felt the painful area carefully only to discover his skin was smooth and unblemished. Within minutes, the throbbing had subsided to a more bearable dull ache.

Faramir found himself reaching for the miruvor and taking a large gulp. Eventually he fell asleep again, hoping that the dawn would bring some tidings of his friend.

Chapter Four – The Foreboding of Evil

I would far rather be ignorant than wise in the foreboding of evil.  –                        

Aeschylus (525–456 B.C.)

When Faramir awoke, his back felt more stiff and painful than ever. Yet, that was as nothing, compared to how worried and helpless he felt.

Aragorn was missing and most likely in grave danger. He, Faramir should have been able to prevent it. Why had he not been more insistent about Aragorn being accompanied by a guard? If the King had refused to listen, he could always have ordered one to follow him unobserved, difficult though that would have been, to remain unseen by a former ranger like Aragorn. Faramir felt so angry with himself. Maybe he should have insisted that Aragorn rest for a few days? Yet, the King had seemed much restored in health and spirits by the time he had left for the Houses of Healing again.

Displaying the iron self control he had mastered over the years spent dealing with his father's moods, Faramir insisted the search continue, while he dealt with affairs of state. He wished he could search every nook and cranny himself. Instead, he ordered the guards to enquire at every house on the route to the Houses of Healing, search every level of the City, paying especial attention to deserted buildings and alleyways. He was determined to leave no stone unturned in the hunt to find Aragorn.

His task was made all the harder by the contagion. He dared not risk causing a panic that might cause people to congregate together and spread the contagion. With this in mind, the guards were ordered to be extremely careful in their dealings with the populace and tell them as little as possible.

Several days passed with no sign of the King. Aragorn appeared to have vanished from the face of Arda, though he continued to haunt Faramir’s dreams nightly.

Faramir kept suffering too from mysterious pains, so severe he struggled not to cry out. He could find no bruise or wound and they would abate as suddenly as they came. He found himself more than once, feeling for wounds that were not there. He kept applying Aragorn’s salves to perfectly healthy skin. They failed to work their magic without the King’s healing touch. He actually began to feel grateful that he was so accustomed to pain that it hindered him very little in dealing with daily tasks.

The Steward knew that Arwen should be told of her husband’s disappearance; yet he hesitated. Aragorn had forbidden anyone to go near her and Eldarion, while there was still danger of infection. He would not take kindly to having his order disobeyed, an order Faramir respected even more, as it also concerned Éowyn and Elestelle’s safety.

Although he, like Aragorn himself, posed no threat of infection, he would not be expected to travel without an escort. Aragorn had also told him that infections could be carried on clothing, so he was unwilling to take so great a risk.

Given the strong mental bond between himself and Aragorn, he felt certain that if Aragorn were dead, he would know immediately. Aragorn had warned him that it would be like losing part of his own soul.

Faramir still cherished the fragile hope that Aragorn would be found safe and well. Maybe, he had impulsively gone to recuperate in the wilds for a few days, or been consumed with a longing he could not contain to visit Arwen and Eldarion. He could after all, change his clothing before seeing them to minimise risk of infection. It was very strange, though that he had not told Faramir of his plan. Most worryingly of all, Roheryn was still in his stable. However, Aragorn might have taken another, less easily recognised horse, if he had wanted to ride out incognito. No horses of any description had been reported missing, though it was well nigh impossible to account for every horse wintering in the fields outside the City.

The Council were becoming restless and demanding explanations for the King’s absence, explanations that Faramir was unable to provide them with.

If the servants’ chatter were to be relied upon, it seemed that all manner of rumours were sweeping the City: that the King had abandoned them all to go and live with the Elves, he had gone hunting, the Dark Lord had returned and kidnapped him, or that he had grown weary of Gondor and returned North whence he came.

Sternly, Faramir bade them desist from such gossip and slander, only wishing that he had some truthful explanation to offer in their stead.

On the fifth day, Faramir was trying to work in his study. He was finding it harder to concentrate with every day that passed since Aragorn’s disappearance. He became painfully aware how much Aragorn’s presence had lightened each and every day and made the workload so much easier to bear. It were as if the sun had disappeared behind a permanent cloud, leaving only grey gloom in its wake.

He was startled by a knock on the door. “Enter!” he called, expecting it to be his secretary with more documents for him to sign.

Instead, it was one of the apprentice healers from the Houses. “The Warden requests your presence at the Houses immediately, my Lord Steward,” the young man said.

“Did he say why?” Faramir’s heart was in his mouth. Did this mean Aragorn had been found, but that he was injured? He prayed desperately that it was nothing too serious.

“He did not say, my lord. Only that it is imperative that you come at once.”

A cold feeling of dread assailed the Steward. If Aragorn had been found with some minor injury, Tarostar would most surely say so. Maybe it was nothing to do with Aragorn at all, but merely some fresh news of the progress of the fever?

Faramir pulled on his cloak; lingering for an instant to touch the fastening brooch, that Aragorn had given him only a few weeks before. It featured the entwined arms of their houses to signify their close friendship.  Faramir prized it as amongst the dearest of his possessions. Since the King’s disappearance, he had clung to it like a talisman to connect him with his lord.

The journey although short, seemed to Faramir one of the longest he had ever taken.

A grim faced Tarostar greeted him together with an uncharacteristically silent Ioreth. The expressions on their faces almost made speech superfluous.

“This is a sad day for us all, my lord,” a red eyed Tarostar told Faramir. “A farmer, whose fields adjoin the Anduin, was mending his fences this morning and discovered a body floating in the river. He called for the guards who brought it here. From the general appearance, clothing and jewellery. There seems to be little doubt that it is King Elessar’s. We need you, my lord, to make a formal identification.”

Faramir felt as if a dagger made of ice had been plunged through his heart. Only his supreme self-control prevented him from swooning.

Tarostar placed a comforting hand on Faramir’s arm. “I know this must be distressing for you, my lord,” he said. “It is for me too, though I did not have the privilege of knowing him as well as you did. Not only was he a good King, but the greatest and most compassionate healer I have ever known.”

“Take me to him, please.” Faramir’s tone was expressionless. He felt numb and was hardly aware of where Tarostar was leading him. In the background, he could hear Ioreth weeping

The Healer led him to a room at the back of the Houses, well away from where patients were treated. It was sparsely furnished apart from a chair and a table, on which reposed a sheet-shrouded object.  

The room was liberally scented with herbs, but they did little to disguise the overwhelming stench of decomposition.

Tarostar led the unresisting Faramir over to the table and hesitated for a moment, his hand on the sheet.

Faramir nodded, unable to trust himself to speak.

The Healer slowly pulled back the sheet to reveal the bloated and disfigured corpse. The head was battered almost beyond recognition, but the strands of matted and tangled hair were black streaked with silver, just like Aragorn’s, as was the size and shape of the body.

The clothes were unmistakably those Aragorn was wearing when he disappeared, one of the tunics he favoured embroidered with the white tree, black breeches and fine leather boots. The Ring of Barahir adorned one bloated finger, as did the elven pledge ring, identical to one Faramir wore to mark his true union with Éowyn.

The stench in the room had become well nigh unbearable and Faramir felt increasingly faint as he looked down at the hideous sight.

Although he had seen many disfigured corpses during his time as a soldier, this was his King and more than that; his best friend who had become the loving father he had never been blessed with. How could he have died like some common vagrant? It was too much to bear.

Overwhelmed by grief, Faramir found himself struggling to breathe. His legs went from under him and everything went black as he sank to the ground.

Chapter Five – All my life’s bliss

No other Sun has lightened up my heaven;
No other star has ever shone for me:
All my life's bliss from thy dear life was given -
All my life's bliss is in the grave with thee. - Emily Bronte

“Easy, my lord, lie still!”

Faramir slowly opened his eyes to find Tarostar bending over him. He was lying on a bed and his tunic and shirt had been loosened. For a brief instant, he felt confused.

Where was Aragorn? The King had tended him every time he was ill during the past three years. Then he remembered. The King was dead. Never again, would he see his compassionate grey eyes, feel Aragorn’s healing touch, spend hours deep in conversation or companionable silence with him.

The one who had been father, brother, friend, healer, mentor, and King to him was dead. Faramir choked back a sob and struggled to maintain his composure in front of Tarostar. Were Aragorn here, he would have wept unashamedly, but Aragorn was no more.

However could he continue to exist without him? Surely too, the Queen would most likely die of grief? Arwen would have to be told that her beloved husband was dead.  Faramir's duty as Steward demanded that he to be the one to tell her. Or or maybe she already sensed the grim tidings?

His head swam alarmingly. He wished desperately that Éowyn were here. But could she, or anyone else understand the utter desolation he was feeling? He forced himself to sit up, propping himself on his elbows. Tarostar steadied him and held a cup of water to his lips.

“Alas for Gondor, her Hope is lost!” Faramir said bleakly. His iron composure belied his inner anguish.

“He was indeed a great man and will be much missed,” Tarostar said quietly. He was aware, unlike many, of how deep the friendship between the King and Steward had been, having seen the King’s distress when Faramir was near to death a few months before.

“I must go and inform the Queen,” Faramir struggled to rise from the bed. He became fully aware of his surroundings for the first time. This was the very room where Aragorn had revived him from the Black Breath. He ought not to have been surprised, since it was the best room in the Houses, set aside for those of high birth when they were unwell.

Tarostar shook his head; “You are in no fit state to go anywhere today, Lord Faramir, especially as the Queen does not appear to be within the confines of the City.”

“She is at my home with Lady Éowyn,” Faramir told him.

“Travelling so far is out the question, my lord,” Tarostar told him firmly, “You could not undertake such a journey after sustaining so great a shock. You need to rest. Would you prefer to stay here, or return to your own apartments?”

Just then, a servant tapped on the door and entered. He was bearing a steaming mug in his hand.

Tarostar held the cup to Faramir’s lips, urging the Steward to sip the hot, sweet medicinal tea inside.

Faramir felt stronger once he had drained it, but there was no herb on Arda that could ease the grief in his heart. “How did the King die?” he asked. “I assume he must have fallen in the river somehow? Would he have suffered greatly?”

“I fear, I cannot tell you that, Lord Faramir,” Tarostar replied. “Dead bodies often reveal very little, especially, after being in the river for several days. It will even be difficult to embalm, given the condition it is in, and cannot be put on display for a lying in state, I fear.”

“The ceremonies will have to wait,” Faramir said firmly, “The King does not, I mean, did not want any public gatherings for fear of spreading the fever. I must obey his wishes.  I am sure the Queen will agree. I must inform the Council, but shall make no other announcement until the contagion has waned. We do not want crowds to gather and spread contagion.”

Tarostar nodded his approval, had the decision been his to make, he would have made the same choices.

Faramir swung his legs off the bed, then rather unsteadily rose to his feet.

“Will you rest in your apartments, my lord?” Tarostar asked.

“The Council must be informed and then I will take your advice,” Faramir replied, brushing aside the Chief Warden’s objections and offer to accompany him.

***

The Steward summoned those of Council who could easily be found, and informed them of the King’s death in a calm manner, firmly resisting their calls for an immediate public announcement followed by a state funeral.

Unable to trust himself to continue to maintain his composure at present, he curtly dismissed the Councillors, after what must have been, one of the shortest meetings in Gondor’s long history.

Desperate to be alone, he then made his way back to the privacy of the room that he had shared with Aragorn over the last few weeks.

He supposed he should have returned to his own apartments, but his rooms were cold and damp, no fires having been lit there for some time. Also, his personal possessions were all in the King’s room and he felt too drained to organise their removal.

Fanciful though it might be, Faramir could still sense Aragorn’s presence here; and wanted to experience it while it yet lingered.

Alone at last, he threw himself on the bed and finally gave way to his grief. It was all too like that dreadful day three years ago, when he had finally wept for his father and brother. Only this time, there were no comforting arms around him. How ashamed he had been then at mistaking Aragorn for his uncle and weeping in his arms! Now he would give the whole world to have him beside him again, if only for a brief moment to say a last farewell.

Aragorn had died long before his rightful time; alone with none even to bestow a farewell kiss of blessing, as the King had done for Boromir. Faramir found this last thought too much to bear and howled like a wounded animal. He buried his face in the pillow so that none might hear his raw anguish over the loss of one he loved so dearly.

He had no idea how much time elapsed, being too distraught to notice the gathering darkness outside. When a servant knocked to ask if she should light the candles, he bade her go away.

Eventually, worn out by grief, he fell into an uneasy sleep. Again he dreamed of the King. This dream was more disturbing for he saw Aragorn’s face more clearly. It was contorted with agony with many bruises disfiguring the noble features. Faramir stared in horror: only for the vision to be replaced by one yet more hideous, though less vivid, of the disfigured and bloated corpse he had seen earlier that day. Then he clearly heard Aragorn’s voice calling to him, ‘Faramir, help me, ion nîn!’

The Steward awoke in a cold sweat. Not only had his nightmare been distressing, but it was also unusually vivid. He had many fey gifts. However, communing with the dead had never been amongst them, and even if it were, would not Aragorn be happy and peaceful in the afterlife? His own brushes with death had shown him there was nothing to fear beyond the circles of the world. A good man, such as the King had been, would most surely be rewarded with eternal bliss by the One.

Hovering between uneasy sleep and wakefulness, he was relieved when a gleam of light in the eastern horizon heralded the approaching dawn at last. Even so, he viewed the rising sun with bitterness. With Aragorn’s death, the sun had set forever in his life and over the future of Gondor. The return of the King had heralded such hope for so many, which would now never come to fruition. Eldarion was but a babe in arms: any hopes for him achieving his father’s greatness had been meant for a distant future.

Having fallen asleep fully dressed, Faramir forced himself to change and wash the tear stains from his face. He felt worse even, than when he had learned of his brother’s death. Then, his visions had at least shown him his brother at peace. The encroaching enemy had left him little time for thought.

He began the day with a task he dreaded, fetching the Star of Elendil and Andúril from where Aragorn kept them. If the King still lived, he would never have dreamed of touching the legendary sword. He had once been given leave to hold it, which had more than sufficed to fulfil a dream. Now, as part of the King’s regalia, he must take it to Arwen to keep for Eldarion along with the jewel, which had adorned Aragorn’s noble brow.

At his request, Aedred, one of the most experienced Healers, came to his apartments early that morning. Born in Rohan, Aedred had come to Gondor after the War of the Ring and proved himself exceptionally skilled in the healing arts.

When Aedred was shown in to the Steward’s study, he too looked distressed. He uneasily shuffled his feet as he handed a large parcel to Faramir. “You will need to take the your King’s clothes and rings to show to your Queen to identify him by; so gentle a lady could not view his body thus disfigured,” Aedred informed the Steward grimly. “I fear I have grave tidings for you, my lord. Master Tarostar and I believe that King Elessar was hit over the head before he entered the water and battered about the face. His jaw, nose and cheekbones are shattered. He must have been set upon by footpads intent on robbing him, but fallen in the river before they could take his two valuable rings. Either that, or they recognised them and knew trying to sell them would betray their guilt.”

Faramir looked at the healer aghast. “You mean that he did not drown then?” It sounded a foolish question even as he voiced it aloud; yet, it seemed unthinkable that the greatest warrior of the age should have died at the hands of common robbers.

Aedred shook his head sadly. “There was no water in his lungs, so I fear that means that King Elessar was almost certainly murdered,” he replied.

Chapter Six – Sad stories of the death of kings

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings!
How some have been deposed, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed—
All murdered; for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples
of a king
Keeps Death his court,

William Shakespeare (1564–1616), King Richard II (III, ii).

Faramir gave a sharp intake of breath. Cold fury was kindled in his grief dulled eyes. ”Those who did this monstrous deed must be caught and punished,” he said in a tone of voice that Aedred had never heard the gentle natured Steward use before.

“To kill a king is indeed the most monstrous of crimes!” Aedred agreed. “Not only is Prince Eldarion bereft of his father, but the whole of Gondor is left without her rightful sire.”

The healer’s well meant comment brought a lump to the Steward’s throat. Aragorn had indeed been as a true father to him, the most caring of sires, who had freely given him all the love that his own father had lavished solely upon Boromir.

”Did the King suffer much do you think?” Fearful that his emotions would overwhelm him, Faramir abruptly changed the subject. He was unable to prevent his tone from sounding almost pleading.

Aedred hesitated for a moment. “If the blow to the head caused him to lose consciousness at once, he would not have felt anything,” he said at last. “We can only hope it happened thus.”

Faramir closed his eyes for a moment, but gave no other sign of emotion. “Did you learn anything else from the body?” he enquired.

“Only that it belonged to healthy male who was about forty years old. I know the King’s Númenorean heritage would make him only appear to be that age,” Aedred replied, stroking his blonde beard thoughtfully. “He was well nourished and healthy. The body was too badly damaged to show any scars, or even if he were bruised while still alive. Of the King’s state of health, I knew very little. There was once when he collapsed, I tried to tend to him, but he recovered before I had much chance to examine him.

Knowing that could only have been when Aragorn had saved his life, after he was beaten in prison but a few months before, Faramir gripped the edge of the desk tightly. He wondered bleakly if Aragorn would have been stronger to resist attack if he had expended less of his precious life energy on him.

“Now, my lord, if you would excuse me, I have many fever victims needing my help in the Houses of Healing,” Aedred remarked, sensing Faramir’s wish to be alone.

“Of course, the King would not have wished otherwise,” Faramir replied, grateful for the healer’s tact. “I must be on my way too, to tell the Queen that her husband is dead.”

“I offer my condolences to the poor lady and pledge my support to King Eldarion. Éomer King will be most distressed when he hears these grievous tidings. He thought very highly of King Elessar, I know.” Aedred said gravely. Dipping his head, as a sign of respect to the effective ruler of Gondor, he then turned and left the room.

Knowing he should examine the King's effects before giving them to Aragorn's widow, Faramir pulled the parcels towards him. The jewellery was in a separate smaller parcel on top of the clothing. He opened that first, tipping the Ring of Barahir, and Aragorn’s Elven pledge ring out on to the palm of his hand.

Of Aragorn’s Ring of State, there was no sign. It was a most unusual ring, which bore an ingenious Elvish device to prevent any but the King from using it. The stone had to be turned in a certain way before the seal was usable. Maybe Aragorn had taken it off before going to the Houses of Healing? If so, where was it? There was no sign of it in Aragorn’s rooms. On the other hand, perhaps the thieves had taken it, not knowing its significance? The Elessar was missing too, but that was hardly surprising, as any thief would realise how valuable it was, though its true worth was revealed only in the hands of the King.

Faramir turned his attention to the clothes with a shudder. He could hardly bear to handle them. Only a few days before, they had covered his King, who was now reduced to a bloated corpse, currently undergoing the grisly attentions of the embalmers.

The familiar garments were badly stained and torn but still instantly recognisable, the black velvet tunic, embroidered with the White Tree of Gondor. Aragorn had several of these, which he always wore in public. Each had a slightly different design, which was embroidered by Arwen’s skilful hands. The linen shirt was also embroidered with a tiny white tree over the left breast. The plain black breeches were made of fine quality wool, while the drawers were of plain white linen.

The boots still dripped water over Faramir’s desk, though attempts had obviously been made to dry them out without causing them to disintegrate.

For safekeeping, and maybe also as an attempt to feel closer to the man he had both loved and revered, Faramir placed the two rings on a chain he wore round his neck, adding them to the gold charm of a horse Éowyn had given him on his last birthday.

Wrapping the pathetic remnants of clothing again, Faramir started to weep afresh. Blowing his nose determinedly, he bade a servant summon an escort to ride out with him. He slowly made his way to the stables.

As he had done ever since the day Aragorn disappeared, he paused at Roheryn’s stall to give him a titbit and rub his soft muzzle while whispering soft words to him.

The proud stallion would need exercising soon and he would have to ask the Queen if should he ride him or not. If only Éowyn were here, for she was truly gifted with horses. He could tell that Roheryn was missing his master and wondered if he somehow knew he was dead, and that soon he would walk riderless in his funeral procession.

Sighing, he gave Roheryn a final pat and then told the stable boy to move him to the more spacious stables outside the city gates, hoping that maybe he would pine less for his master there.

He then saddled Iavas, who occupied the next stall, waving aside the stable boy. He preferred to do it himself. The beautiful chestnut mare, that Éomer had gifted him on his wedding day, was his pride and joy. He found it soothing to perform such everyday tasks on her. Once mounted, he rode out into the yard to await the escort who were already gathering.

Since the battle that had almost killed him, Faramir had not ridden to battle, though he remained as third in command of Gondor’s forces after the King and his Uncle. He liked to keep a keen eye on the men who served the King and himself. These soldiers were young, little more than lads, who had taken the places of their elders slain in the war. That was, apart from the one, who was their Captain, Anborn, who had been one of his rangers in Ithilien.

The group set off, the cheerful winter sunshine seeming to mock their melancholy errand. Faramir was surprised at how his spirits lifted once they left the City behind and began the gallop across the Pelennor.

Such was the mental bond between the King and himself; he had always assumed that if anything happened to Aragorn, he would know at the very instant it did. He felt deeply ashamed that he had not known the King was dead, until he was shown the corpse of his beloved friend.

How he had cherished the gift of being able to share thoughts with Aragorn! He had been denied the opportunity to enjoy the gift of his Race for so long. Now he would never again the beauty of that unique closeness. Even if Elestelle had the ability, it would require a unique bond, as well as him remaining alive until she reached maturity. Faramir felt certain that once the full impact of Aragorn’s loss sunk in, surely his heart would break. He had been warned that Thought Bonding was perilous, for unless those who shared it had formed several such bonds, the soul of the survivor would be damaged beyond repair, should the bond be broken

Already, Faramir felt desperately lonely without the King. Much as he loved and desired Éowyn, they had very little in common, apart their deep love for each other and their daughter. Faramir had loved both his wife and Aragorn equally, albeit in very different ways. He had felt complete with Éowyn as his cherished wife and the mother of his child, while Aragorn had become both father and brother to him. Éowyn and Aragorn had made him feel whole for the first time in his life.

Faramir loved books, Elvish lore, Númenorean history, and Gondor, while Éowyn was interested in none of those, whereas Aragorn was. She was as outgoing, as her husband was shy and reserved. Éowyn preferred to go riding while Faramir sat reading. She found books boring and would much rather practise sword fighting, which he only did out of duty.

They had learned to tolerate and even celebrate their differences. Éowyn too had loved and respected the King. She had been delighted that Aragorn had given her husband the intellectual companionship that she could not, whereas Aragorn had delighted in the way that Éowyn encouraged her husband to take more exercise and not keep brooding until he tied himself in knots over obscure problems with no answers. Éowyn’s keen tongue and sense of humour had kept Faramir from retreating inside his shell.

Éowyn had always found the Númenorean mental gifts somewhat disconcerting. Although it was only chance, that had prevented her inheriting the same gifts from her grandmother, she was extremely thankful she had not and already told Faramir that she wondered how she would react if Elestelle grew up to have visions, see the future and read thoughts. She was content enough for Faramir to exercise his mental powers with Aragorn, but hoped their daughter would not have what her mother regarded as a dubious ability.

Faramir was jolted out of his reverie by a strong sensation that they were being followed. He sensed danger, much as he had done the last night of Aragorn’s life when he had held his exhausted friend in his arms.

He knew the lords of the Council were curious concerning the whereabouts of the Queen and Eldarion. When he had left the Council Chamber after announcing Aragorn’s death, they had clamoured after him with questions, to which he had replied that the Queen must be left to grieve in peace, and that she would return for the funeral. He had no wish for half the Council to turn up on his doorstep.

They were now approaching a thickly wooded copse. Faramir led his men into the dense woodland, following the path though the skeletal winter foliage, until they came to a thicket of evergreens.

He called Anborn to one side, while evaluating the horses the men rode, looking for a similar chestnut to Iavas. These were all fairly docile horses from the Royal Mews, available to any soldier who needed a mount. To his relief, he recognised Chessie amongst them, a mare of far less breeding but near identical colouring to his mare.

“I think we are being followed,” he told Anborn. “I need you to change your cloak and tunic for mine, for we are of similar build and colouring. Exchange mounts with the man riding Chessie, as she could pass for Iavas. You take your men in another direction to throw off the pursuers."

“Yes sir, I fear for the poor Queen and her babe, or the new King, as I should say.” Anborn was already divesting himself of his outer garments.

“The fever is a grave threat to us all,” Faramir replied evasively, doing likewise but first removing the brooch Aragorn had given him, which he used as fasten for his cloak. He gave Anborn back his own pin.

“I wasn’t thinking of the fever, begging your pardon, sir,” Anborn replied. ”These are dangerous times for a young babe to hold the throne, though I pledge my loyalty to King Eldarion unreservedly. Be careful, Lord Faramir, since you obviously plan to go on alone. You are the actual ruler of our beloved land until the young King comes of age.”

“That is for the Council to decide.” Faramir said shortly, “Now ride out of here in a close group. If we truly have pursuers, they will not notice one missing for a while.”

Waiting, concealed in the thicket for a few minutes while they left, a sudden and terrible thought struck Faramir. What if Aragorn's death had not been the work of mindless thugs but a carefully targeted assassination? Why had he not thought of it before? It seemed even the lowliest soldiers who knew nothing of the facts were fearful for Eldarion’s safety.

He had been so wrapped in his own grief that he had failed to realise that Arwen and Eldarion could be in grave danger. How long would it take before the assassins, if such they were, realised that they were staying at his home? That would mean Éowyn and Elestelle were in danger too!

Satisfying himself that there were no pursuers currently in sight, he rode like the wind for Emyn Arnen.

Chapter Seven –I would not live halved

For I wondered that others, subject to death did live, since he whom I loved, as if he should never die, was dead; and I wondered yet more that myself, who was to him a second self, could live, he being dead. Well said one of his friend, “Thou half of my soul;” for I felt that my soul and his soul were “one soul in two bodies:” and therefore was my life a horror to me, because I would not live halved - St Augustine.

On arriving at his home, Faramir went straight to the stables. He handed Iavas’ reins to a stable boy, telling him to rub down the exhausted mare.

Keeping his distance from the servants, he despatched a groom to the house to fetch him a complete change of clothing, telling him to speak to the Housekeeper rather than Lady Éowyn. He knew his wife would come rushing out to greet him. Much as he yearned to see her, he dared not risk spreading the infection by touching her before he bathed and changed.

The man quickly returned, clutching a bundle of clean garments Faramir then requested a pail of water. He went into the stables and closed the door behind him. Finding a deserted stall, he removed all his clothes and sponged himself down with the icy water and rinsed his jewellery. Shivering, he quickly donned the fresh garments.

The Steward wondered however he could find the words, to tell Arwen that her husband was dead. It had always been hard enough, to tell the wife or mother of one of his rangers, that their kinsman was dead.  However, they were not Elves, liable to fade from grief, neither were their loved ones men of the quality of Aragorn, nor had he loved any of his men as father, brother and king.

Éowyn was outside tending her herb garden, when Faramir strode into sight. She ran at once to meet him. From the expression on his face, she realised at once that something was wrong.

“Faramir, whatever has happened?” she exclaimed, “I wondered if you might come.  Arwen has sensed something was wrong. Dark dreams have troubled her these past nights.”

“It is Aragorn,” Faramir said bleakly, drawing his wife close.

Éowyn paled. “Has he caught the fever? Is he very ill? Maybe I could help him or the Queen could?”

Sadly, Faramir shook his head.

“No, he cannot be …” Éowyn could not bring herself to say the words.

Faramir nodded, biting back the lump that was forming in his throat. Éowyn held him tightly. Faramir allowed himself to weep in the comfort of her loving embrace. He sobbed for a few moments before continuing, “I fear so. His corpse was taken from the Anduin yesterday morning,”

“No!” Éowyn exclaimed, ”It cannot be!”

Faramir nodded, too overcome to speak. He clutched Éowyn so tightly that she could hardly breathe. “I fear it is all too true, I saw his body,” he said at last. “He had been set upon by footpads and battered about the face until he could only be recognised from his clothing and rings. That such a man should die like this! It is too cruel!”

It was Éowyn ’s turn to weep now. “If only I had recognised his true worth sooner, and been nicer to him,” she sobbed. “He was the noblest and greatest of men. Poor, poor Arwen!”

Just then, the Queen emerged from the house, carrying Eldarion in her arms.

Faramir reluctantly pulled away from Éowyn’s embrace and struggled valiantly to compose himself. He swiftly fell on one knee before the beautiful Elf.

“What is wrong?” she asked, noting Faramir’s reddened eyes and tear stained cheeks.

“My lady, my lord,” He kissed her hand and did the same to Eldarion’s infant fingers, “I think it best that we go inside, if you will permit?”

Arwen shuddered at his tone and the formality of his address. She led the way indoors to Faramir and Éowyn’s comfortably furnished sitting room. Still holding Eldarion in her arms, she settled herself on the couch, gesturing Faramir to do likewise.

“My lady, I fear I bring ill tidings I scarcely know how to tell you.” Instead of sitting, Faramir again knelt at her feet.

“It concerns Estel does it not? Has he been injured?”

“Far worse I fear, my lady. It breaks my heart to tell you this, but he is dead.”

Arwen turned pale and almost dropped Eldarion. Éowyn hastily caught the baby with one hand and steadied the Queen with the other. She sat down beside her.

“No, I do not believe it!” Arwen protested.

“I fear it is the truth. I saw his body with mine own eyes and bring these tokens for you to identify him by.” Faramir rose to his feet and placed the parcel containing Aragorn’s clothes on a table in the centre of the room. He then unfastened the chain from his neck and placed Aragorn’s rings and the Star of Elendil in her hands and laid Andúril at her feet.

She turned the rings over, hardly seeming to see them and gave a small cry, shaking her head. “No, despite this, it cannot be! He has been calling to me in my dreams. I was about to send a trusted man to Minas Tirith to find out what was wrong.”

A shiver ran down Faramir’s spine. “The same thing has befallen me, my lady, I fear after such an untimely death, our poor lord cannot rest easy in the circles beyond the world. I pledge myself to your service and King Eldarion’s as I did to his. If by my life or death I can serve you, I will.” Again he knelt.

Arwen placed her hand under Faramir’s chin, jerking his head to meet her eyes. “I do not doubt your loyalty. Tell me though, Faramir, the body you saw, are you certain it was Estel. Did you see his face clearly?”

Faramir swallowed hard, “No my Lady I did not. It pains me to tell you this, but the King’s features were unrecognisable after being in the river. Master Aedred, from the Houses of Healing, told me he was battered about the face, most likely whoever robbed him. However, there is no doubt that it is Aragorn’s body. Here are the clothes that he was wearing and his rings that he would never willingly surrender to another.”

“Do you feel as if half of your soul has been torn away?” Arwen asked suddenly.

“No, which surprises me, but my heart is heavy with grief. Maybe as his wife, only you will know that sorrow?”

“And yet I do not!” Arwen gestured Faramir to rise. “We were both thought bonded to him and we would both feel our souls in torment if he were dead. You shared thoughts with him alone, you not?”

“Yes, my lady. I did not even know for certain if I had the ability until the King showed me how to use it.”

“Then if he were dead, you most likely would be too!” Arwen retorted, “Unless your protestations of devotion to him were nothing but a lie!”

“Indeed no, my lady, I loved him most dearly. He was father, brother and lord to me. He saved my life and I owed him everything.” Faramir looked deeply hurt by the accusation.

“You may sit down. Faramir. I tell you that Estel is still alive!”

Faramir sat, shaking his head sadly.  He had expected a terrible outpouring of grief from the Queen, or even that she might swoon, but not this stubborn refusal to face the truth.

“What happened? When did you last see him?” the Queen demanded.

 “The King worked so hard to help the fever victims that he became exhausted and distressed.  I believe that was how ruffians could have overpowered so great a warrior. If only, I had insisted that he take a guard with him!” Faramir began, “As you asked me to share his room, I tried as best I could to care for him.” He glanced uneasily at Éowyn, wondering if how vulnerable Aragorn had become should be for Arwen’s ears alone.

She moved from her place beside the Queen and nodded to Faramir. “I ought to see if Elestelle needs feeding. Her nurse sometimes neglects to call me until she becomes upset. I will be back in a moment,” she said leaving the room.

Faramir continued “It was just a week ago now when the King was sorely distressed. He had been unable to save a baby from the fever and it grieved his heart. He could hardly eat and was too weary to prepare for bed. I could only hold him and try to speak encouraging words. I had never seen him so sorrowful before. We shared thoughts and I tried to raise his spirits by suggesting that he visit you. I begged him to rest the next day, but he would not listen. He left to tend the sick once more and I never saw him again. I know I should have come to you before, but I feared to carry the infection. I kept vainly hoping, that he had gone to recuperate in the wilds. If only, he could have been with you that last night, he was missing you greatly.”

“I am glad he had your comfort before he was taken,” Arwen replied, making Faramir hope that the dreadful truth had finally sunk in. ”But how could you have shared thoughts the night before he died yet feel your soul is torn asunder? It cannot be; unless he meant nothing to you at all! Do you not know why Aragorn waited so long, before creating the Thought Bond with you? Because he knew, you would most likely die before him, and hesitated to risk feeling such pain as he did when Gilraen and Halbarad died. Only his bond with me saved his heart from breaking. He also knew, should your souls bond strongly, if he were to die first, before you could bond with your daughter, you would die with him.”

Arwen’s eyes flashed. Faramir took a step backward, uncertain how to react.

“My lady, I swear to you that I loved and admired Aragorn more than any other man that lives. I would most gladly have given my own life to save his. I miss him more than any words can describe. Every night, I dream about him. I expect that my heart will break once the numbness and shock I feel now abate.”

Arwen suddenly swept to her feet. Faramir realised at that moment, how little he knew her. This was the first time he had been alone with her for more than a moment. He had always liked and respected her, and never quite lost his awe of her as one of the Eldar. Yet, he had regarded her merely as Aragorn’s wife, and his Queen, a beautiful, wise and gentle being, but at times almost insipid in character, especially compared with Éowyn.

Now, as she advanced towards him and placed her hands either side of his face, she seemed to suddenly grow taller. He was reminded that she was daughter and granddaughter of the most powerful Elves that had dwelt on Middle- earth in the latter Ages.

He could feel her sifting through his thoughts, a painful and unpleasant sensation, which made his head throb. It was nothing like the gentle and mutual thought sharing he had experienced with Aragorn. He felt as if she was literally tearing thoughts from his brain.

Chapter Eight – Look friends, don’t you see it?

Mild und leise wie er lächelt,
wie das Auge
hold er öffnet
seht ihr's Freunde?
Seht ihr's nicht?

(Softly and gently, how he smiles, as sweetly he opens his eyes, look friends, don’t you see it?)

Wagner – Tristan and Isolde.

Finally, Arwen released Faramir. He staggered to the couch, collapsing there hunched; his throbbing head between his hands. He could not have felt more uncomfortably exposed had she torn all the clothing from his body and left him naked to her gaze.

Almost immediately, the Queen came to sit beside him, again the gentle Elf that he thought he knew.

“I am sorry,” Arwen reached out her hand and lightly touched his forehead, causing the pain to vanish as suddenly as it had appeared. “I know now how much you love him, differently, of course than I do, but just as deeply and sincerely. You told me no lie. I have seen the depths of Estel’s love and grief towards you. I needed to know, if your devotion is equal to that he bears you, since you truly believe that he is dead.”

“Please look at his clothes, my lady,” Faramir said wearily, hoping she would finally realise the cruel truth, once she had inspected the parcel’s pathetic contents. What the Queen was saying made little sense to him. He could only surmise that she had hoped to somehow prove that he was lying to her.

He unwrapped the parcel for her and sat with his head bowed while she touched each tattered garment. Arwen showed no sign of emotion until she came to the linen drawers. “These are not Estel’s,” she said firmly. “They are the same size and quality that he wears, but there is no white tree embroidered upon them.”

Faramir remembered when he had gone swimming with Aragorn and Legolas. Some goats had eaten their clothing and had taken a bite out of the King’s drawers while he was actually wearing them, much to Aragorn’s indignation. He had complained about ‘his White Tree’ being eaten.

“Was the embroidery just above the knee?” the Steward asked Arwen.

“Yes, I have stitched the device on all his linens. These are not Estel’s, but must have belonged to the poor wretch whose body you saw! It was not footpads to blame, I fear, but someone who covets the throne of Gondor and who wants us to think that Estel is dead.”

“It might well be true, my lady, that the murderers planned to kill the King, but I fear it was his body that I saw,” Faramir insisted, with increasing desperation, wondering how he could convince her to accept the harsh truth.

Tell me what did you see in your dreams, Faramir?” Arwen asked, in abrupt change of subject.

“They were but phantoms of a troubled mind, my lady,” Faramir replied, not wishing to further encourage her stubborn refusal to accept Aragorn’s death.

“Tell me!”

He had little choice but to comply when she lifted her hands as if she planned to wrest more thoughts from his brain.

“I saw Aragorn’s face. He was bloodied and bruised and was begging me to aid him,” Faramir replied. “He was in some dark place which I could not see. Obviously, I was seeing him just before he died. It preys on my mind that I was not there to aid him when he needed me.”

Arwen shook her head vehemently “That is no dream, but a vision! Listen to what your heart tells you. I have seen exactly the same, night after night, every day for almost a week. These are no mere dreams. Now tell me everything that has been happening since I left Minas Tirith.”

Feeling on somewhat safer ground here, Faramir did as he was bidden, telling her of the people grumbling at Aragorn’s methods to prevent the fever spreading. He told her too of the Council, some of whose members had never accepted the King and  complained ceaselessly about his reforms He explained how some lords had been trying to bring the old regime back in one form or another, by every means possible, ranging from questioning whether an Elf could truly bear a mortal’s child, to most recently trying to contrive a marriage between Eldarion and Elbeth.

Arwen knew some of these facts but her expression darkened.

The Steward concluded by saying, “I fear now, my lady, that you too, might be in danger. There was an attempt to follow me here. I fortunately succeeded in throwing off the pursuers. At first I thought them simply curious about your whereabouts, but it seems that something more sinister may be at work.”

“That is precisely what I suspected,” said Arwen grimly. ”They have captured my husband and are planning to use this Elbeth to gain power through a marriage to my son!”

Faramir rubbed his eyes, trying hard to concentrate on what to say or do next, but found grief and weariness were making it difficult to do so, or indeed to even take in all the implications of what Arwen was saying. Could it be possible that his King still lived? Was there some sinister plot against the Royal Family or was it just wishful thinking, rather than the cruel reality that the man they both loved was no more, killed in the same random fashion that any beggar might be?

Arwen laid a cool hand on his brow, “You need to rest,” she said gently. “Go now to your lady and lie down. We will talk again later.”

“Do you not need Éowyn with you tonight to comfort you?” he asked, much as he desired the solace of his wife’s presence, duty always had to come first.

“I am not in need of comfort, but rather of counsel how best to aid my husband! I would be alone now.” Arwen replied in a tone that brokered no argument.

Faramir inclined his head and left the room, going first in search of his loyal captain Beregond, who guarded his household here at Emyn Arnen. He bade him to be especially vigilant. He then went in search of Éowyn and his daughter.

He found his wife sitting on the bed, watching over Elestelle in her cradle and crying quietly.

Faramir picked up his daughter. He held her tightly, as if fearing that some evil might tear her from him too.

A fresh wave of grief overwhelmed him at the realisation; she would grow up without knowing the one who had saved her life after her untimely birth. Young though she was, she appeared to have already developed a bond with the King. Often Aragorn had been able to soothe her, with a single word or touch when Faramir and Éowyn’s best efforts failed. Sensing his distress, the baby began to cry. Faramir sat rocking her until she quietened. His wife wordlessly took the infant, put her to her breast, and soothed her until she began to suckle contentedly. Faramir watched his daughter with something approaching envy that her cares could so easily be remedied.

“You look exhausted,” Éowyn said at last, replacing her daughter in the cradle. “Why not prepare for bed? It is growing late and you will have to return to the City tomorrow. I will go and see how the Queen fares.”

Faramir nodded and retired to his dressing room to prepare for bed.

The Steward must have dozed slightly as the next thing he was aware of, was Éowyn climbing into bed beside him. She pulled him close. They lay there tightly clasped in each other’s arms. They clung to each other as desperately as shipwrecked mariners to a plank of driftwood.

“How is the Queen?” Faramir asked. ”I fear the poor lady refuses to accept that her husband is dead.. She believes she sees some clever scheming to feign the King’s death, but I still think he was the victim of robbers. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“She could be right, you should not underestimate her,” Éowyn replied, giving Arwen’s suspicious more credence than Faramir would have expected. “Remember how Wormtongue almost destroyed my Uncle with his plotting. And my cousin Théodred’s death was no random orc attack but a carefully planned ambush. Something similar could have happened to Aragorn.”

“I had hoped now Sauron was destroyed that such evils were in the past,” Faramir said sadly. “The way some of our own Council Members behave appals me, they seem to have hated the King worse than the Dark Lord himself!”

Éowyn thought sadly about her own past hatred of Aragorn. ”He inspires strong emotions,” she said thoughtfully. “Once you truly knew him, though, you cannot help but to have loved him. He did so much for us. Without him, we would have died as well as losing our baby.” She glanced fondly to where Elestelle was sleeping peacefully in her crib at the foot of the bed.

“So you think the Queen could be right?” Faramir enquired.

“About the conspiracy, yes, but I fear it is just wishful thinking that her husband is still alive. After all, you saw the body. She probably forgot to embroider one pair of his drawers.  I cannot make any sense of all these premonitions and mental bonds! I think you both are just being troubled by evil dreams, which is natural given the circumstances.”

“Aragorn would know what it all meant,” Faramir said without thinking and promptly burst into tears. "Alas, Éowyn, his poor body was so mutilated that I could not even give him a farewell kiss in blessing!” he sobbed.

Éowyn kissed him tenderly and stroked her husband’s dark hair. They clung together tightly for mutual comfort until sleep finally claimed them.

As the night progressed, Faramir dreamed again of the King, this time more bloodied and haggard than before; he was gazing at his Steward with those remarkable eyes of his, while calling out, ’Faramir, help me I beg! Dark forces surround you, have a care!

Faramir cried out and awoke covered in a cold sweat.

“What is the matter, are you unwell?” Éowyn asked in alarm.

“It was Aragorn again, I saw him again calling me,” Faramir replied, clutching at her wildly.

Before she could say anything, they heard screams from the Queen’s bedchamber.

Not even pausing to don a robe over her nightgown, Éowyn hurried to investigate what ailed her friend.

Chapter Nine  - I know not seems

Seems, madam! nay, it is; I know not “seems.”
’T is not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black.

Hamlet. Act i. Sc. 2 William Shakespeare (1564–1616)

Faramir sat up in bed trying to regain his composure and make sense of what was happening. His heart thumped wildly. The dream had been so very real, almost as if Aragorn were in the room.

Arwen’s cries suggested, she had finally comprehended the cruel truth that she was a widow. Most likely, Éowyn would need to stay with her for the remainder of the night and offer what comfort she could.

Much as Faramir yearned for his wife’s presence, he could not begrudge the Queen her company. He, too, would have greatly welcomed the presence of a loved one when he had first been told the dreadful tidings and seen Aragorn’s body.

These dreams were so vivid, it seemed that Aragorn might indeed be trying to communicate with him from the afterlife. He believed what the Queen had told him about the perils of a Thought Bond. Why was his soul still not destroyed at the loss of one to whom he was so closely attuned and loved so dearly. Perhaps, he was just not yet able to fully face up the dreadful finality of his loss and the dreams were the result?

 

Éowyn re-entered the room accompanied by Arwen. Clad only in his crumpled nightshirt, Faramir flushed with embarrassment. He dared not rise from the bed, given his state of undress, yet felt uncomfortable that she was standing while he was not. “My lady are you well?” he enquired, trying to act as politely as he could under the circumstances.

He noticed then that the Queen looked almost radiant, while his wife was pale and looked to be in a state of shock. “rwen has just had an identical dream to yours!” Éowyn exclaimed, “Every detail was the same, except that Aragorn called her name.”

“Do you believe me now?” Arwen asked, ignoring Faramir’s consternation. “We must save him! He is calling to us both through our shared Thought Bond.  He is not dead! He needs us to rescue him from his captors!”

I must save him if he still lives.” Faramir replied. ”You, my lady, are needed to care for and protect Prince Eldarion.” He pulled the blankets up to his chin as he spoke.

“Could you not feel him speaking to you inside your head?” Arwen demanded.

Faramir nodded. Much as he feared to let himself hope, it beggared belief that it was mere coincidence, that both he and Arwen should have such vivid and identical dreams. “If you would permit me to dress, my lady, we will discuss this fully,” he said quietly.

“Come, Arwen,” said Éowyn. “It will be warmer in the kitchens, the stove is kept burning all night. Let us go and wait for Faramir there.”

Still feeling shaken from the aftermath of the dream - or vision, which now seemed more likely, Faramir swiftly pulled on his clothes and went to join the two women. He found them sipping tea and gladly accepted a cup, liberally sweetened with honey. Arwen bade him to sit down.

“I believe that Estel has been kidnapped, probably by those who wish to restore rule to the House of Húrin,” Arwen announced, “I sense they want something from him, maybe a signed deed of abdication, and are only keeping him alive until they get it. This would be an ideal time for miscreants to stage a coup, while the City is ravaged by fever.”

“I would die before I betrayed my King!” Faramir protested, spilling hot tea on his lap in his agitation. “I would not take the crown, nor proclaim myself ruler of Gondor, not even if the whole council and the people begged me to. Nor would I serve as Steward to any, save Aragorn and his rightful heirs.”

“You are no longer the only heir of Denethor,” Éowyn pointed out, mopping up the spilled tea off her grimacing husband.” There is Elbeth and also our own daughter, both too young to wield power, but vulnerable to be used as puppets in the hands of others.”

“You must find out who has taken Aragorn and rescue him,” Arwen said determinedly, her eyes alight with fervour.

“But how?” asked Faramir. “I have no proof. I cannot just arrest the Lord of Lamedon, demand custody of my niece and rescue Aragorn, assuming that sad excuse for a noble, actually holds him! It could be any of them. All too many of the lords were openly hostile to the King. I can only be certain of my Uncle Imrahil’s loyalty, and even he too, is closely related to all Denethor’s heirs.” He buried his face in his hands, desperate to save Aragorn if he yet lived, yet overwhelmed at the enormity of the task ahead.

“Aragorn told me that you were often at loggerheads in Council Meetings,” Arwen remarked, a plan beginning to form in her mind.

“Yes, most of the time, it was feigned, as a ruse to get our own way against the stubborn nobles, though, alas, we did truly quarrel at the last Session, for he called my family unstable. If I had known what was going to happen, he could have called us the worse villains that ever lived, and I would not have minded!” Faramir groaned.

“That is wonderful!” Arwen smiled for the first time since Faramir had arrived. “You can pretend that you are delighted Estel is dead, and that you would like to see the Stewards return to power.”

“What?” Faramir protested, “I have always sworn never to tell a falsehood even to trap an orc! I cannot dissemble! How can one achieve good by doing evil?”

“Usually one cannot,” Arwen said sadly, “Yet, was not the one Ring destroyed, when Gollum took it from the Ring bearer by force? The ways of the Valar are beyond even the knowledge of the Eldar.”

“I would do anything to save my King if he yet lives. Even if it were to cost me both life and soul!” Faramir conceded. “Yet, how can I show my loyally by seeming betrayal?”

Arwen advanced towards him, as she had done the previous night, and again placed her hands on his face. Once more, he felt the disconcerting sensation of having his innermost thoughts probed.

Her inscrutable expression suddenly softened to a smile, “You would rather die than betray Estel,” she stated, looking him in the eye. “Whatever may happen, I know that in your heart you will always love and revere him. I believe that will give you the strength to do as I ask. You wonder why I am testing you like this, do you not?”

Faramir nodded slightly, his head aching too much to move it much. “I inherited my ability from my Grandmother, who used it to see into the hearts of men. I have tested you, as she tested your brother, but unlike him, you have passed. Now take this!” She slid the ring of Barahir off her thumb where she had placed it earlier and handed it to Faramir. ”Wear his ring!” she commanded.

“My lady! ” the Steward protested. “How can I take this? It is one of the heirlooms of the line of Elendil!”

“If you openly wear it, it will signal to those who oppose Elendil’s line, that you think the House of Húrin should have taken the crown. I hope it will encourage them to approach you. Maybe then, you might learn of Estel’s whereabouts? I know that with your sense of honour, you would rather take troops and search the homes of everyone who has opposed the King in Council. However, such a move would probably be fruitless, only stir up resentment, and further endanger Estel’s life. A more subtle method should bring about better results.”

Faramir hesitated for a moment, his thoughts in turmoil. To pretend to be a traitor was alien to everything in his nature. Yet, if he resolutely stayed true to his own principles, he could be abandoning his King, the one he given his sworn oath to serve until death. He owed everything to Aragorn and in return loved him dearly. How could he not hazard all to save him, or at the very least, secure the throne for his son?

These last few hours, had taught Faramir far more about the Queen than the previous three years had done. Before, she had appeared to him, solely as Aragorn’s wife, beautiful, gentle and placid. He had known only that she had a kind heart, which had won his wife's deep devotion to her. He supposed too, that an only an exceptional woman, would have won Aragorn’s heart and only a good one suckled Elestelle and cared for Éowyn day and night, after the baby’s premature birth. Then, it was most unlikely too, that Aragorn would have spent so much time restoring him to health, without at least the approval of his wife. He realised he had gravely underestimated his Queen.

The powers she processed combined with her wisdom and cunning amazed him. He understood now, why so many feared the Eldar. He wondered whatever it must be like to be married to one.

Reluctantly, he slipped the ring on his finger, remembering with a pang as he did so, the occasion on which he had attempted to kiss that same ring, and how he had inadvertently bumped his nose against the King’s. He had been mortified at the time, but it had later become a source of amusement between himself and Aragorn.

“I wear this only until I can return it to its rightful owner,” he said decisively, rubbing his throbbing head.

“If anyone can save Aragorn, you can!”  Éowyn said encouragingly. “What have you done to him? He is in pain!” she asked Arwen indignantly.

“It was necessary, as I did not know his heart well, like you and Estel do, much as it grieved me to cause him pain,” Arwen replied. “You have my word, Faramir, I shall not do it again."

Her cool fingers felt his forehead in what felt almost like a caress. Immediately, the pain lessened. The Queen gave a low musical laugh, “I have not sifted Estel’s thoughts like this, since before our betrothal, since you are wondering how he endures it!” she smiled, “Do not look so surprised, I can see that question in your eyes, it took no special skills. I pity you mortals with your limited abilities. My powers waned while I was expecting Aragorn’s child, so I have some small idea of what it must be like. You, Faramir must learn to dissemble better, for Estel’s life is now in your hands! I trust you to restore him to me!”

“You must trust my guidance too, my lady,” Faramir replied. “If the dark forces we suspect are at work, it is not safe for you, Éowyn, and the children to remain here. I was thinking of entrusting you to Beregond’s keeping, but everyone knows him to be my man. Damrod is loyal to me too, and it is not so widely known. When I return, I will send him to take you to safety. I will then put it about, that I have you and Prince Eldarion in my keeping, either that or you have disappeared without trace to follow some mourning rituals of your people.”

“Excellent!” smiled Arwen. “You are learning quickly.”

Just then, Eldarion started to cry and Arwen went to soothe him, leaving Faramir and Éowyn alone.

“I fear for you, my love,“ Éowyn fretted. “If only Elestelle were not still dependant on my milk, I would come with you. I can wield a sword as well as any man.”

“I know you can, beloved, and would have you at my side, but the Queen needs you, as well as our child.” Faramir told her. “Does she ever sift your thoughts?” he enquired, rubbing his still slightly aching head.

Éowyn shook her head. ”No, she does not, I have never seen her in a mood like this before.”

“She is distraught, loving Aragorn so much. I can understand that.” Faramir replied, “I want above all else, to save my King, should he still live, but I do not know if I can play the traitor!”

“You have greater strength than you know of,” Éowyn reassured him. She placed her arms around him and their lips met in a tender kiss.

He relaxed into her embrace for a few moments. Then a sudden pain pierced him and he clutched his shoulder with a cry.

Chapter Ten -  False face must hide.

Away, and mock the time with fairest show;
False face must hide what the false heart doth know. -William Shakespeare (1564–1616), Macbeth, act 1, sc. 7, l. 81-2.

“Whatever is the matter?” Éowyn’s grey eyes were wide with concern.

“I felt a sudden pain here," Faramir grimaced and rubbed his shoulder. "It is easing now, so there is no cause for concern. I have had similar pains in my back a few days ago, it must be grief and worry causing it.”

“Let me see!” Éowyn insisted.

“It is nothing, I am well now. There is no need.”

Ignoring his objections, Éowyn pulled aside her husband’s clothing and bared his shoulder. To her consternation, an angry red mark disfigured the flesh. Most curiously, it grew fainter, even as she looked at it.

“Take your tunic and shirt off!” she demanded. “I want to see if you have any more these marks on your body.”

“But the Queen might come in!” Faramir protested.

“I am sure she has seen a shirtless man before, whatever your Gondorian rules of etiquette state!” Éowyn said firmly.

Realising further objections were futile, Faramir reluctantly obeyed.

“What did you feel?” Éowyn asked. “Hold your arms out so I can see them.”

“It were if I had been flogged,” he explained, casting an anxious glance towards the doorway, “I woke up feeling very stiff and sore all down my back.”

Éowyn carefully examined him. There was nothing to see. His skin was unblemished; thanks to the Elvish treatments Aragorn had given him.

“Maybe your back was sore from riding and it could have been an insect bite on your shoulder?”  Éowyn frowned, hating to admit she was baffled.

“But it does not itch and what insect bite fades so quickly?” Faramir shook his head in bewilderment. “And the pain, it was truly excruciating!”

Éowyn looked worried. “You should stay here a while then, rather than go rushing back to Minas Tirith,” she said.

Before he could answer his wife, Faramir heard footsteps approaching. He grabbed his shirt and pulled it back on just in time before Arwen entered the room.

“What is wrong?” the Queen asked, noticing their expressions.

“Faramir is experiencing strange pains in his back and shoulder. I am worried about him, though I cannot find any injury on him,” Éowyn explained.

“Maybe he is feeling Estel’s pain?” Arwen suggested.

Faramir looked horrified and then shook his head. ”How could such a thing be possible?”

“When my brothers are apart they always know if one is injured or in pain,” Arwen replied.

“They are twins, though my lady. The King and I are not. Then were such a thing possible, would you not feel it too as his wife?”

“You and Estel have an exceptionally strong Thought Bond, due to the circumstances in which it was formed,” Arwen replied. “Such a bond cannot ever be formed without love, but in your case, Estel gave a good deal of himself, in saving your life at the same time. That, together with the gratitude you felt, would have deepened the bond you formed that day. Estel told me it was a truly remarkable spiritual experience for you both. My bond with my husband is deep and true, but it was formed at the happy time of our betrothal, not as a way of saving my life.”

“It was,” Faramir said wistfully.” I very much hope you are wrong, though, about my feeling the King’s pain. I am sure it must be because I am distressed. Maybe, I never grieved properly for Boromir, as we were in the middle of a war and this could have brought all that back to me as well.” He desperately wanted this explanation to be true, for he could not bear to think of Aragorn being beaten and tortured, nor that his wife should have to dwell on such unspeakable thoughts. He tried to dismiss the images from his dreams of the King’s bloodied and bruised face.

“You should stay another day at least!” Éowyn pleaded, “You are not well. Your sorrow hangs heavy on your soul.”

Faramir shook his head, “I cannot, my love, we both know how important our duty is. I assure you the pain has gone now. I must be on my way after I have breakfasted. I intend to send Damrod to take you and the Queen somewhere safer until I have discovered what has happened to Aragorn. Should I not return, you must try to make your way to Rohan and seek aid from your brother. I would tell you to go now, but the journey is too perilous at this time of year for mothers with young babies.”

“Do not speak of such things!” Éowyn pleaded. Arwen tactfully withdrew, sensing their need for a few moments privacy.

Faramir gripped his wife’s hands tightly. “I fear that I must, beloved. I know you have the courage and strength to face whatever lies ahead. I know it will not be easy. Damrod will take you into hiding. I expect you and Arwen will have to disguise yourselves as peasants. You will need to dye your hair to pass as a Gondorian, I fear. Take care of the Queen; try to keep her attention on Eldarion’s need for her. She must not be allowed to fade.”

Éowyn nodded gravely, “I will do as you say, but how I wish I could come with you. I know, though, that my duty lies here!”

Faramir drew her close and they shared a lingering kiss.

Breakfast seemed to pass all too quickly. An hour later Faramir was ready to return to Minas Tirith. He respectfully knelt before his Queen to take his leave.

Arwen placed both hands on his head. Faramir felt a sense of great power and strength surge through his body.

“May the blessing of the Valar go with you and their protection be upon you!” she said gravely. “I await your safe return with my husband.”

“If he yet lives, I will gladly give my all to restore him to you, whatever the cost!” Faramir vowed, clasping the hilt of his sword.

“I hope only that cost is not more than either you or Estel can bear!” Arwen replied. “Your heart, though, Faramir, is pure and true, while the great love that you bear for my husband will guide you.”

Faramir rose to his feet and kissed his Queen’s hand. Arwen excused herself to care for Eldarion leaving the Steward to bid a sad and loving farewell to his wife and daughter.

Faramir returned to the City via little known paths. He was constantly on the look out for any sign of pursuit. Despite the ever-present threat of danger, his heart was far lighter than it had been the day before, lifted by even this mere thread of a possibility that Aragorn was still alive. Faramir was no stranger to intrigue. There had always been factions within the Council that opposed his father’s rule. In Denethor’s day, voicing such thoughts aloud would have been construed as treason, and punished by banishment or even death. Maybe Aragorn was too good-natured by allowing such free debate and treating his enemies leniently? Yet, that was part of what was made the man so lovable? Like his Steward, he hated to use violence and cruelty. Despite murmurs to the contrary, none had been more relieved than Faramir, when Mahrod had been granted a swift and merciful execution, rather than the slow and agonising one the law allowed.

Faramir glanced at Aragorn’s ring now on his finger and wondered how he could pretend convincingly to hate its rightful owner. Yet, he knew if there a chance, however slight to save his lord, he would take it or die in the attempt. He twisted the ring thoughtfully; comforted when it made him feel closer to the King. He hoped that wearing it would somehow endow him with Aragorn’s strength and courage. He no longer dared to wear the brooch that Aragorn had given him openly on his cloak, but instead had it pinned inside his shirt. From this day onwards, all signs of his friendship with the King must be hidden.

The Steward managed to enter the City almost unnoticed. He knew the guard on the gate. Aragorn had recently abolished the custom of sounding the trumpets when the lords of Gondor returned, except on state occasions. Together with Faramir, they had agreed it was unnecessary pomp, and often robbed the good citizens of much needed sleep.

Before anyone could notice he had returned, and inform the lords on the Council, he made his way to the Barracks and enquired if Anborn and his men had come back. They had not, which only added to his worry. He then sought out Damrod.

Under the pretext of reprimanding the young Captain that his boots were not polished sufficiently, Faramir drew Damrod aside and explained that a message would be delivered to him later that day, supposedly summoning him to the bedside of his sick mother. He was to depart immediately, but instead make his way to Emyn Arnen and take the Queen, Éowyn and the babies to a safe hiding place and return the next day, saying that his mother was feeling much better.

“I will take them to my sister’s home, she lives near Osgiliath.” Damrod replied without hesitation, quickly summing up the situation. “I fear it is not an abode fitting for the Queen or Lady Éowyn, but my sister will make them most welcome. Many of us Rangers settled there after the war and built homes after King Elessar made it safe to dwell there again. He was a good man and will be sorely missed. I will gladly do all I can for his Queen, poor lady! ”

“Thank you, Damrod,” Faramir said quietly, “You must tell no one and guard the secret with your life. Get those boots polished!” he yelled for the benefit of anyone who might be listening. He then went to stables to see that Iavas was being properly tended after the long ride.

Faramir went quickly to his own apartments and bathed and changed, taking care to choose apparel that was not at all funereal in appearance. The deception had to begin as soon as possible, if there were to be any chance of saving Aragorn.

His secretary approached, carrying a sheaf of papers. “These require your urgent attention, my lord,” the man said.

“Thank you, Delos. I wish to summon the Lords of the Realm to an important meeting.”

“It shall be done, my lord.”

Faramir smiled cheerfully and whistled as he walked through the stone corridors of the Royal Apartments.

***

“My lords,” he announced next morning to the Council, “I have informed the Queen of the late King’s death, but she refused to return with me and instead has set out to perform a mourning ritual, which is the custom of her people. She has assured me that she, together with the new King, will return for the funeral, which will be held as soon as the fever abates. Until then, I propose that the Council rule Gondor with Prince Imrahil and myself in charge. We will met again in five days time.”

He raised his hand to dismiss them. A collective gasp echoed round the chamber when the assembled lords saw that he was wearing the Ring of Barahir.

“You wear King Elessar’s Ring!” Imrahil gasped in shock.

Faramir was unable to meet his eye as he replied, ”Why should I not wear it?” he demanded belligerently. “Prince Eldarion is far too young to appreciate such a valuable heirloom, and the Stewards have borne the weight of Gondor’s rule far longer than the heirs of Isildur. You are all dismissed.”

He could only wait now until the next meeting, hoping that flaunting the Ring of Barahir so openly would cause tongues to wag carelessly enough for him to learn what had befallen his King.

He strode from the Chamber, the first to leave, in order to avoid any questions, most especially from his Uncle.

The Prince came to his apartments later, requesting an audience. Faramir sent a message saying that he was indisposed. Much as he wished, that he could take his Uncle into his confidence, he knew that to do so now, would jeopardise his whole plan. If Imrahil’s shock and disapproval were genuine, it would make it far easier to convince the other lords of his seeming treachery

He had decided to claim the King’s chambers as his own, to underline his apparent seizure of power. He had been loth to return to his own rooms before, feeling that having the doors sealed was somehow akin to abandoning Aragorn. He searched through Aragorn’s clothing as soon as he returned and found Arwen was correct. Every single pair of the King’s drawers was indeed embroidered with the white tree, as were all his linens.

Faramir spent the next few days mainly within his chambers while he tried to plan what to next. So far, he had learned nothing. He was sorely tempted to take a sizable troop of guards and search the houses of the lords he suspected. What, though if they saw his approach and killed Aragorn? Then, there was the added complication that the Lord of Lamedon, as did all his fellows, owned several residences as well as isolated hunting lodges, scattered throughout the country. It was like seeking a needle in a haystack. All Faramir could do was hope he could draw them out.

Chapter Eleven - For what shall it profit a man?

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? - The Bible. Mark 8.36

The Steward had never felt so alone in his life before. He missed Aragorn more than ever now. They had seldom been apart for more than a few days at a time, except during the military campaigns against the incursions by the Southrons and Easterlings that Aragorn had successfully led.

Even before they had become close friends, Faramir had always found the King a reassuring presence and a joy to work for. He had always been much easier to please than Denethor. Aragorn had known how to achieve the best from those who served him through love rather than fear. Each day he had greeted his Steward with a kind word and a smile. He had made Faramir feel that his counsel was both wanted and valued. On sad days such as the anniversary of Boromir’s death, or the same day of the year that Denethor had tried to burn his son alive; the King had always reached out with some affectionate and kindly gesture, to ease Faramir’s aching heart.

Although the Steward dealt with the smooth running of the realm, Aragorn always made the final decisions concerning the government of Gondor and the ordering of the Council. Just how heavy a burden that had been; Faramir was quickly learning. Ruling a country was very different than being Captain of the Ithilien Rangers or even Aragorn’s Steward.

How he regretted it now, that it had taken him two years to accept Aragorn’s friendship. Precious years that he had squandered because of his own fears from the past and awe of his new lord. How many times he must have hurt his King, by pushing him away, using the defensive mental barriers he had erected. Yet, Aragorn had never given up trying to befriend and heal him.

 Now he must prove that he would not abandon Aragorn either.

***

Faramir both dreaded and desired the Council Meeting. Today, he would have to speak and act in a way that was totally alien to his nature and true feelings.

For the first time since Aragorn had become King, he felt grateful to Denethor, for bringing him up to contain his emotions and hide his true feelings. Without such an upbringing, he would not have even dared to attempt his plan.

Dressed in his most elaborate robes, the Steward stood up in the Council Chamber and faced the assembly. He spoke confidently. Inwardly his heart was pounding and his mouth felt like parchment. “Now that the King is dead, my lords, I intend to see the fortunes of my House restored, after being pushed aside after more than a thousand years of loyal service! I once thought that I could work with Elessar, but after being imprisoned at his whim and almost losing my life, my patience has worn thin!”

He hoped he was managing to sound convincing and sent a silent prayer of thanks to the Valar, that Aragorn had encouraged him to often appear hostile in Council.  Few even suspected the depth of friendship, which existed between them; that was apart from Imrahil, who now sat with a look of sheer horror on his face throughout Faramir’s speech.

“I had little choice until today, but to appear to obey our late King. My sojourn in prison showed all too well what he is capable of! But now, I assure you, things are going to be very different!” Faramir announced, with a sweeping gesture of his hand, so all could see the Ring of Barahir on his finger.

He paused as if for dramatic effect and murmurs both of approval and censure echoed round the chamber. His hearing was highly trained, after many years as a Ranger. He was certain the former were voiced by the Lords of Ringlo Vale, Lebennin, Lossarnach and Lamedon while the latter included Imrahil and the Lords of Pinnath Gellin and Anfalas, though in this great echoing chamber, it was impossible to be certain.

“I shall serve King Eldarion,” he continued, “ but I have not, as have many of you here have, forgotten that the House of Húrin ruled Gondor since the days of our longfathers, not the House of Telcontar, which has ruled here but for three short years of our history. My brother, the Lord Boromir, would never have stood by and seen us relegated to the role of lowly servants. Think not, that I have forgotten that the only witness to his death was our late King Elessar.”

Faramir finally sat down, wiping the sweat from his brow. He waited for the impact of his words to sink in, hoping the lords would think his agitation caused by long suppressed fury, rather than the effort of speaking such foul slanders against one so dear to him.

Imrahil, white with fury, sprang to his feet. “I would have all assembled here remember,” he said, “that the House of Húrin were appointed as caretakers only, to hold Gondor until the King return, as indeed he did, though sadly but for a short time. I, as have all here present, sworn a solemn oath to uphold his rule and that of his heirs, and I for one shall hold true to my word.”

“As I am sure, shall we all,” Faramir replied smoothly. “In future, though, the Stewards will get their proper due rather than remain mere lackeys for the King. The Council is dismissed until next week.”

Muttering amongst themselves, the lords filed out of the Council Chamber. Imrahil remained behind. He seized Faramir’s arm as the Steward turned to leave. “How far have you forgotten yourself, nephew, to speak thus of our late King?” Imrahil demanded. “I thought that he could be certain of your love and loyalty, above all others, after all he did for you. I wish you could have seen him after he snatched you from the prison, I thought his noble heart would break with anguish when he believed you were dying. You shame my house and your mother’s memory by slandering the memory of such a man!”

Faramir could have wept. He yearned more than ever to tell his uncle the truth, but, if his plan were to succeed, secrecy was essential. Imrahil’s dismay could only serve to make his act look more convincing.

“I accept your right to be angry, uncle,” he said quietly. “I trust you to give your loyalty to the rightful ruler of this Realm.” With that somewhat ambiguous comment, he turned and left the Hall.

Stony faced, Faramir returned to his apartments. Once within, he turned the key in his chamber and picked up his looking glass. The same familiar features were reflected in it, but now they no longer belonged to Faramir, loyal Steward to the King, who would not even entrap an Orc with a falsehood, but to a stranger.

He was now a traitor to his sworn liege lord in the eyes of the world, if not in his heart. He had taken an irrevocable step, which would forever besmirch his honour. He dared not think of the consequences, only that his actions might give him a chance, however slim, of saving his King.

He began to weep quietly, recalling Aragorn’s many kindnesses towards him. If he were indeed dead, what must his spirit feel when it heard such false and cruel words? Faramir hoped against hope that his and Arwen’s instincts were correct.

He summoned a servant and ordered that the large sunken bath be filled, hoping he would feel less tainted if he were to bathe. Faramir tore off his clothes almost frenziedly and climbed into the water. He then scrubbed himself so vigorously that his skin started to bleed in places. It brought him no relief, for his mind was filled with images of when Aragorn had shared that tub with him and treated his wounds with such compassion. Who could have foreseen that a day would dawn when he would denounce him?

A sudden stab of excruciating pain hit him, this time in the belly. He glanced down and perceived a red mark, which faded even as he gazed at it. This was now the fifth time this had happened, adding physical pain to the constant mental anguish we was suffering.

The nightmares had been getting worse too, sometimes they occurred two or three times each night. It was always the same, he would see Aragorn crying out to him for aid, and then, just as he reached out to him, he would awaken, shaking and sweating and often with either his back or ribs aching.

He was almost certain now that these were visions. Aragorn was in torment and needed him to help him, but how could he save his King, as he had no idea where he was?

Faramir wondered just how long he would have to wait and play a part so distasteful to him. Adding to his worries was the fact, that neither Anborn, nor the rest of the Escort he had taken with him on the day he went to see the Queen, had had been seen again since that day.

He wondered if there were any way he could place spies in the households of the lords he suspected of treason, but dismissed the idea as too dangerous. The fewer who knew of his plan, the better its chance of success.

***

A few weeks passed, with Faramir playing his part in the web of treason in which he was now enmeshed. He found it helped by remembering what his father would have done in any given situation and acting likewise. He became much more haughty and demanding towards his servants, and tried to act like a Ruling Steward should when he took his place in Council, or petitions were brought to him to be heard.

He deferred as many verdicts as possible, citing the fever as the reason. The exceptions were some instances of trespassing, where the offenders could not be found, which allowed him to appear to side with the nobles rather than the King over harsh penalties for gathering firewood and taking a rabbit for the pot, without actually punishing anyone who had done so.

He spent much of his time working and appearing in public as much as possible. He sensed the disapproval of many of those around him. Others treated him with a newfound respect, which made him wonder if even his own household were full of spies and traitors. He was desperately lonely, though it was a source of comfort that at least his family were safe.

He had not dared to deliberately seek out Damrod. However, one day had bumped into the young captain who had told him that’ the parcels were safely delivered’ which had raised his spirits.

When the day of the next Council Meeting dawned. Faramir again took every opportunity to slander Aragorn and complain how badly his family had been treated. For a man who hated speaking falsehoods, every false accusation was still a torment for him.

He observed some of the lords agreeing with his every word, which could either be an indication of their true sympathies or an attempt to curry his favour.

Fosco, Lord of Lamedon again brought up the suggestion that Eldarion should marry Elbeth, which Faramir pretended to view far more favourably than Aragorn had. He told Fosco he would consult the Queen over the proposal as soon as she emerged from her mourning rituals.

“And how long might that take?” the Lord of Lamedon asked sneeringly.

“Several weeks at least, but who knows what the Elven witch will decide,” Faramir replied, provoking gasps at his insult of the Queen. “However, I shall see that Eldarion will not drink in her influence with his mother’s milk. Elessar was no more than her lapdog, though praise the Valar I am no longer his!”

Imrahil sprang to his feet and roared. “How can you slander our Queen and our late King so, when he is not even yet laid in his tomb, and after he treated you with so much honour?”

“You seem to forget, my lord, that the late King made me walk through the streets clad only in sackcloth and had me wrongfully imprisoned to please his best friend,” Faramir replied coldly.

Dervorin of Ringlo Vale, Fontos of Lossarnach and Fosco of Lamedon all nodded approvingly.

“You bring shame on the name of your family!” Imrahil blazed,” I am glad that my poor sister did not live to this day! I disown you! You are no longer my nephew!”

Chapter Twelve – Bait of falsehood

Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth,
And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
With windlasses and with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out.
- William Shakespeare (1564–1616 Hamlet, act 2, sc. 1

For a moment, Faramir’s carefully maintained composure was shaken. He was forced to turn away for a moment to collect himself. How he wished he could take Imrahil into his confidence! The Steward struggled to appear equally furious, though inwardly, his heart was breaking. He had loved his uncle dearly for as long as he could remember. He swallowed hard before replying coldly, “Be glad that we are blood kindred, my lord prince, or you would be shorter by a head ere morning!”

“You are no kindred of mine!” Imrahil retorted. He swept from the Council chamber without a second glance.

Faramir nodded to the guards to permit Imrahil to leave before announcing the session was over and dismissing the Council. He carefully noted which of them looked shocked and which looked gleeful at the exchange.

How he detested politics now! He had welcomed the chance to serve Gondor before. Now, he was being dragged into a maelstrom of corruption and hated every moment of it. It seemed too, that it was all for nothing, as he was still none the wiser about what had befallen the King. He had thrown away his honour and his reputation in a gamble that appeared to have failed miserably.

Faramir returned to his apartments and ordered that the bath be filled. He had taken to bathing twice daily, as well as after sessions of the Council. Although, he scrubbed himself so hard that it made his skin bleed in places, he felt no better. He could still hear his Uncle’s voice disowning him echoing in his head. Frenziedly, Faramir rubbed himself with the towel, and tried to calm his racing thoughts.

Pacing his study, he pondered what else he could do. For the first time, he wondered if he should have asked Aragorn to instruct him to use the palantír. He knew it was safe now Sauron was defeated, but after seeing what it had done to his father, he had shuddered at the very thought of even touching the Seeing Stone. Even Aragorn had only ever used it sparingly, being loth to spy on his people. He had mainly limited its use to observing how his friends in the Shire fared. The Steward was desperate enough now to overcome his aversion to the Stone. Taking a deep breath, he went to the room where it was kept. With trembling hands, he removed the cloth that covered it.

Hesitantly, he placed his hands on either side of the palantír. To his surprise, it appeared to feel no different than any other crystal he had touched, cold to the hands and producing a slight tingling sensation in his fingers.

Suddenly the tingling grew stronger. Faramir resisted the overwhelming urge to loose his hold and flee the room. A vortex of light and colour appeared in the opaque globe. Frantically, the Steward tried to focus his thoughts and concentrate on Aragorn’s location. Alas, however hard he tried; he could see nothing but jumbled images and colours, which made his head swim and throb. Faramir could have wept with misery and frustration. Again, he had sacrificed an ideal for nothing! Maybe the Stone would only respond to the King, as he was no longer Ruling Steward? On the other hand, it could be, because he knew nothing of the art of using it. His father would never have shown him, as he was not the heir, and he had felt no inclination to ask Aragorn. Faramir covered the palantír again, locked the door, and returned to his study to nurse his aching head and even more painful soul. He was trying to force himself to eat some lunch, for which he had no appetite, when his Secretary knocked and asked if he might speak with him.

Sighing, Faramir bade him enter; for some instinctive reason he disliked the man, despite Delos being an efficient and hard worker, giving him no logical reason to dismiss him. The Steward had never quite trusted the man since he had sent Éowyn’s ill-fated letter to her brother. He felt Delos to be obsequious in his manner, always seeming to imply that Faramir was somehow ill-used.

“I have a message from the Lord of Lamedon,” Delos informed Faramir. ”He invites you to visit his country mansion and experience his hospitality. His servant is waiting outside for your reply.”

Faramir remained calm, though his heart leapt within him. Perhaps his uncle’s very public denunciation of his conduct had served to make the rebels trust him? Maybe, he would at last, gain some clue as to what had really happened to Aragorn?

“Lord Fosco is holding a house party at his country estate and will send a servant to escort you there in three days time, if you will do him the honour of accepting the invitation,” Delos continued. “He says there is no need for you to trouble to take servants with you, as his lordship will provide you with whatever staff you need.”

“Tell Lord Fosco that I accept,” Faramir replied, with what was perhaps indecent haste.

“Very good, my lord, I will deliver the message,” Delos replied, looking far more pleased than the occasion warranted.

“I am eager to renew my acquaintance with the Lord of Lamedon, a strengthening of our friendship would benefit both of us.” Faramir added for good measure.

As soon as his Secretary had left, he locked his study door and took out a detailed map showing the ownership of land in Gondor. It showed that the Lord of Lamedon’s Country Estate was several hours ride from Minas Tirith. It comprised a sizable manor house as well as a variety of small hunting lodges and cottages for the servants to live in.

Faramir sighed.  He had thought of ordering a troop of White Guards to follow him at a distance so that they could storm the building if he found the King, but there were just too many locations where Aragorn might be held.  He could not search them all with trusted men at his back.  To further complicate matters, the Lord of Lamedon’s lodge was surrounded by holdings owned by the lords of Lossarnach, Ringlo Vale and Lebennin. The wealth and influence of these lords was considerable. There was no means by which, Faramir would not have enough time to have every property searched before any resistance could be raised or worse, Aragorn killed or moved elsewhere. If only there were someone he could turn to for aid! But Faramir could think of no one else whose help could be brought within days or a week rather than months.

He dared not involve Imrahil. The Prince was needed to keep safe the City, nor would Faramir willingly endanger his kinsman. Better he remain in the dark to add credence to Faramir’s deception. The distance was too great to summon aid from the North, where loyalty to Aragorn was strongest. Legolas and Gimli were travelling; presumably in Eryn Lasgalen, but they could be anywhere. Then, even if Éomer could be summoned in time, using foreign troops against Lords of Gondor could provoke a bloody civil war. He had long debated this point and even wondered if Éomer would suddenly arrive, should news of Aragorn’s death somehow reach him. The regular messages to Rohan had been suspended at the King’s command when the contagion began.

Faramir would have to go alone, and if he could find Aragorn, rescue him unaided. That plan might work if the King were able to ride. That seemed unlikely, if the pains Faramir had been suffering, truly reflected Aragorn’s. Even if his lord were not being tortured, he would most likely have been injured when captured. Otherwise, the rebels would never have succeeded in overpowering so mighty a warrior. Faramir frowned again; then his features relaxed when he remembered his days of active service.  His Rangers had worked by stealth, rather than brute force and endeavoured to remain invisible to the enemy, which often meant hiding out in caves. Most of those Faramir had stayed in were in Ithilien; but similar networks of caves were scattered throughout the country, unknown to most. As both a Ranger, and son of the last Ruling Steward, Faramir was aware of all the locations. If he recalled rightly, there was a large and well-concealed cave network just outside the boundaries of the lands owned by the suspect lords. It would be well within riding distance even with a wounded man.

Ignoring his still aching head, Faramir began to make plans. He would collect supplies of food, bedding, clothing and medicines then ride out with them in the dead of night, conceal them within the caves, and make his way back to the Citadel before daybreak. As it was winter, there were many hours of darkness to provide cover, though it would not be easy to get past the guards undetected.

Though the City gates were locked at night, they were no obstacle for one brought up amongst the ruling elite of Minas Tirith. Faramir had known of secret routes since childhood. To make matters even easier, since the war, horses when not required were moved to more spacious stables situated in a large field just outside the gates. There would be a watchman, but he could be dealt with. Iavas was stabled within the city, but he could find another horse to ride.

Faramir would at the same time, turn Roheryn loose, hoping he would know to follow him and wait in the vicinity of the caves. Even if he did not, it seemed kindest to free him as he pined greatly for his master, if the servants' gossip was to be believed. He had not dared visit the stallion, in case that simple act implied where his true loyalties lay.

Faramir was just compiling a mental list of what he needed, when a servant knocked on his door and announced that the Warden of the Houses of Healing was waiting to see him.

Annoyed at the interruption, Faramir nevertheless decided to see what the Healer wanted. Tarostar was as stubborn as Ioreth when it came to getting his own way. The Steward often wondered if that was a trait taught to apprentices in the Houses of Healing or just something Healers acquired over the years.

“How may I help you, Master Tarostar?” Faramir asked, once the Healer was shown into his study.

“I think the question is, how may I help you, Lord Faramir,” Tarostar replied. “Your Uncle called at the Houses of Healing on his way home from a meeting of the Council and told me he was worried about you. He asked me to attend you.”

Faramir wondered what it was about Healers, which made them so forward in their manner. With this particular one, he was at an especial disadvantage, for he was Faramir's cousin on his father's side and considered himself as one of the Steward's elders and betters.

“I am well. My uncle has no cause for concern,” Faramir replied, trying to meet the keen grey eyes undimmed by age. Tarostar's history was a tragic one. Denethor’s much older sister had been seduced by one of the Citadel Guards and eloped with him while still under the age when women were permitted to marry. Ecthelion had had the marriage pronounced null and void, but too late to avoid tragedy. The young would be bride was already with child and had died eight months later giving birth to a healthy son. Bereft of both parents, as his father was now in prison, the baby had been named Tarostar and raised by the Warden of the Houses of Healing and had grown up to follow his trade. Despite their kinship never being officially acknowledged, he had been appointed as one of the personal Healers to Denethor and his sons and was held in high esteem by all.

“I think some fresh air would benefit your lordship’s health,” Tarostar suggested, taking Faramir’s pulse, despite his efforts to pull his hand away.

“I told you, I am quite well.” Faramir insisted irately.

“I think not, your pulse is racing. I believe you have an infection of the ears. A walk in the gardens will be beneficial. As your personal physician, I order it!” Tarostar replied in a tone that brokered no argument, raising a finger to his lips before the Steward could question him.

Faramir called for a servant to fetch his cloak before allowing the elderly Healer to shepherd him outside.

“I really do not have the time for this,” he protested, as they made their way under an arch of leafless trees. “And I have not appointed you or anyone else as my personal healer!”

“I know that being our beloved late King always tended your ills these past four years, which seems curious now, given what your uncle has told me,” Tarostar said calmly. They walked along a cheerless path. In a few weeks time, the garden would burst into life again with the spring blossom, but now it was dreary and barren apart from a few holly bushes and conifers.

Faramir stiffened slightly at the comment before demanding, “Why have you brought me out here? There is nothing wrong with my ears!”

“Nor with the ears of those who might overhear us indoors!” Tarostar replied. “Your uncle came to see me and told me that he fears you have lost your wits. He says you denounce the late King at every opportunity.”

“I detested him, I am glad he is dead!” Faramir said wildly, hating himself for having to repeat the cruel lies yet again.

“I find that very hard to believe, for although the mouth can lie, the heart cannot. When you collapsed on seeing the corpse in the Houses of Healing, your grief was genuine. I feared your heart would fail you, so great was your anguish. I know you loved him as much as he did you. You were as a loving father and son to each other. Now your Uncle tells me, you claim to have feigned that affection. Either grief has driven you mad, which I doubt, though you are obviously unwell, or there is more here than meets the eye!”

Chapter Thirteen – love all, trust a few.

Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none.
- William Shakespeare (1564–1616), All’s Well That Ends Well, act 1, sc. 1.

“And what is that to you?” Faramir sounded both harsh and defensive. In his heart, though, he yearned to share the truth with someone who could be trusted. Tarostar was close kin to his family and might have been expected to support any move to return them to power. Yet, it had been obvious that the healer had struggled to maintain a professional calm on seeing the mutilated corpse, which suggested he had cared deeply for Aragorn too.

“The good of Gondor is any loyal subject’s concern. And how can Gondor thrive if her King is dead and her Steward has lost his wits, when Prince Eldarion is but a babe in arms?”

“I am as sane as you, Master Tarostar,” Faramir replied firmly. ”Surely you can see that? Alas, that the Prince is not yet of age!” They had reached a holly bush and the thorny leaves snagged Faramir’s cloak, imprisoning him in its web of branches. Tarostar helped him free himself and then caught the Steward’s wrist. “Does a sane man denounce one who treated him with great honour and kindness?”

“He stole my birthright!” Faramir protested, not looking the Healer in the eye.

“Repeat after me then, - King Elessar was a tyrant who brought misfortune to Gondor - The Return of the King was a blessing from the Valar!”

Unsure why Tarostar was asking this of him, Faramir impatiently repeated the words.

“You did not hate him,” Tarostar pronounced triumphantly, releasing his hand. “You will never convince me otherwise.”

“You dare to accuse me of speaking falsehoods?” Faramir’s fury was against his own inability to convince, rather than over what was an acute observation.

“I told you that the heart cannot lie,” Tarostar said gravely, ”I noticed how your pulse raced when you spoke against the late King, yet remained steady, when I told you to say that which you truly believed. Much as it grieves me to say so, Lord Faramir, King Elessar treated me far better than your House ever did! My father died in prison for no greater crime than that of having fallen in love. I was pronounced illegitimate and raised by the Warden of the Houses rather than my kin. King Elessar became a friend to me, through his helping to care for the sick here. He never treated me with other than respect.”

They had reached the end of the path. Faramir paced the lawn while he debated, whether or not to confide in Tarostar. He was sorely tempted to. Nevertheless, could he dare to take such a risk? Yet, the Healer was bound by an oath of confidentiality in his dealings with his patients. Never once, had he been known to break it. In addition, he was not involved in the complicated politics of the Council. It would affect him very little who ruled Gondor. Healers would always be needed, whether kings or stewards ruled. Tarostar had welcomed Aragorn’s healing abilities as a blessing and never resented being eclipsed by him.

“Tell me,” asked Faramir, "Are the Lords of Lamedon, Lossarnach and Ringlo Vale amongst your patients?”

Tarostar shook his head, “No, I know of them only by sight. Men such as they, despise me for my birth.”

“If I were to tell you what I believe, do I have your sworn vow that you will tell no other, including my uncle?”

“I swear it and may I be forever accursed, should I break my word!”

Faramir reached a decision. “Then tell me, would you think it proof that I had lost my wits, if I were to say that I believe our King might yet live?”

Tarostar started slightly, then collected himself and thoughtfully stroked his grey beard. “You saw the body and the tokens it bore, one of which, I see you now wearing,” he replied, looking meaningfully at the ring on Faramir’s finger. “Yet, had it not been for those same tokens, it could have been any poor wretch that had been dragged from the river; so no, I would not think you mad. Grief though, can make us believe what we want to, rather than what is actually true, much as we would both like to believe that he yet lives.”

Faramir took a deep breath and decided to trust his companion. “King Elessar shared a Thought Bond with both his Queen and with me,” he began, “I did not know what would happen if that were broken, but the Queen told me I would feel as if my soul were torn asunder. As that has happened to neither of us, she believes and I dare hope that the King still lives. Also, we both dream nightly that he is calling for help.”

Tarostar listened intently, his head cocked to one side, “That is indeed a consequence of Thought Bonds, as I have experienced them personally,” he told Faramir, somewhat to the Steward’s surprise. “However, it does not always affect the survivors too badly, it depends on the closeness they had before death. If their friendship had waned and they had not seen each other for some time they would suffer few ill effects.”

“Our friendship had grown closer over the past months and we shared thoughts the night before he disappeared.I was holding him, for he was distressed over the death of a baby boy,” Faramir admitted, reluctant to let any other than Arwen know how distraught Aragorn had been.

Tarostar’s eyes widened, “Then your bond would be strong indeed, you could be right!” he conceded. “I remember that night all too well. I had hesitated to summon the King sooner, for I could see how much the healing drained him. Afterwards, I wished I had done so, for maybe then the baby would have survived. So what do you propose to do about your suspicions?”

“I plan to infiltrate the traitors then go and seek my King!” Faramir replied, his voice now afire with conviction. “I fear I have upset my uncle greatly these past weeks. I have been pretending to be in sympathy those I believe may be holding him. One of them has now invited me to visit him. I go in the hope of finding the King’s whereabouts and bringing him safe home. I am planning to ride out tonight to store supplies in a nearby cave in case Aragorn is wounded and we need to take shelter for a time. If only I can slip out undetected!”

Tarostar regarded the Steward with a mixture of alarm and awe. “You are taking great risks, Lord Faramir,” he said. “I suppose I should counsel you against such a reckless action. Yet, for such an exceptional man as the King, I understand why you must. As for slipping out undetected, I believe I can help you. It is my professional advice that you be admitted to the Houses of Healing at once to treat your earache!” He now raised his voice and spoke in a tone loud enough to be heard by any in the vicinity.

“What?” Faramir exclaimed, alarmed that he had misjudged his ability to see into the hearts of men. “I am not ill, I told you there is nothing wrong with my ears!”

“But your walls may have many ears that ache to catch you unawares! You can leave the Houses of Healing undetected much more easily than your apartments, especially if I am watching over you!” Tarostar now spoke in a whisper and smiled, “Now go and pack what clothing you need. I can provide bedding and healing supplies.”

Faramir found himself blinking back tears of gratitude. It was good no longer to be alone in his undertaking.

***

An hour later, Faramir left his apartments accompanied by Tarostar. He rubbed his ear and groaned softly as he leaned against the Healer’s arm for support. A servant from the Houses of Healing had been summoned to carry his bulging bags, which contained a mixture of his own, and Aragorn’s clothing.

“Does your lordship require me to cancel the invitation from the Lord of Lamedon?” Delos enquired a trifle too anxiously, when they reached the door.

“You should have more faith in me, my good man!” Tarostar said breezily, “After a day of rest and treatments, I am certain Lord Faramir will be quite recovered. I have only suggested he brings plenty of clothing just in case he requires surgery and a lengthy stay, but do not cancel the invitation just yet!”

***

Faramir soon found himself clad in a nightshirt and tucked up in bed in the Houses of Healing. He was housed in the same comfortable private room that he had been taken to on the day the body was discovered.

A bandage was wound round his head, to emphasise his supposed ear complaint. A variety of Healers buzzed in and out, asking endless questions. Apart from one taking his pulse, none had attempted to examine him since he was under the Warden’s personal care.

Being in this position, make Faramir all the more painfully aware of just how fortunate he had been to have had the gentle and considerate Aragorn to take care of him. The endless questions made him certain his earache, or a headache at the least, would soon no longer be a charade. After a while, Tarostar came to him and told him he needed to get some sleep.

“But I am not ill!” Faramir protested.

“No, but you soon will be, if you intend to undertake a gruelling journey without rest!” Tarostar said firmly. “I shall pack all the bedding and healing supplies you need; bandages, herbs, salves, splints, a needle with which to stitch wounds and a small, sharp knife. I have labelled all the herbs and salves with their dosage and what they should be used for.”

“Thank you, that will help greatly,” Faramir replied courteously, groaning inwardly at the mention of some of these items, hoping fervently he would not need to use them.

Tarostar added gently, “He could be badly injured. I fear to confine a man of King Elessar’s strength would take considerable force. How much knowledge of tending the sick and wounded do you have?”

“Only a little alas, though I have observed both my wife and Damrod treating a variety of hurts and occasionally assisted them.”

“I fear that will have to suffice, for I dare not send a Healer with you. They would quickly be missed and it would also place them in grave danger,” Tarostar said regretfully.

“Will you give me your word, you will tell none of my plan, unless I have not returned in three months time to the City after I set out to visit Fosco of Lamedon? I would not endanger my uncle nor risk my scheme being uncovered should I be lost.”

“Three months is too long!” Tarostar protested, “What if you are captured and in need of help?”

“It could take a while to win the Lord of Lamedon’s trust. Then, I will need time to escape with the King and take him to a place of safety. Those I suspect, have far reaching tentacles. They must not know they are suspected, until I have found a means to uproot them. Should I not return, or the Queen and Prince Eldarion be brought to Minas Tirith by force, I beg you to send word to King Éomer of Rohan.”

“Very well,” said Tarostar reluctantly.

“There is one more thing, I must ask you, Master Tarostar, before I leave. How much poppy juice would it take to kill a man?”

Chapter Fourteen - For deepest woe, for utmost grief

Für Weh und Wunden
gab sie Balsam,
für böse Gifte
Gegengift.
Für tiefstes Weh,
für höchstes Leid
gab sie den Todestrank.
(For woes and wounds, she gave me salves, for evil poisons, antidotes, for deepest woe, for utmost grief, she gave me the drink of death.) Wagner – Tristan and Isolde

Tarostar frowned; “Why do you ask such a question?” he asked. “The juice should be used to ease pain, not to kill. I would not abet such treason against our liege lord whatever your motive might be!”

“I would never harm the King! How could you believe thus of me? However, what if I should be unmasked and put to torment? I hope I would have the strength to endure it. I fear, though I might somehow forced to betray the whereabouts of the Queen and my own wife and child. I need a means to ensure that does not happen! Maybe you have something more potent then, than the juice of poppies?”

“Do not ask such a thing!” Tarostar chided. “You are of pure enough Númenorean lineage to give back the Gift should dire need drive you to it. We keep no poisons in these Houses!”

“It could take hours to give up my own life, by which time, the Queen, the Crown Prince and my own wife and child could have been sent to their deaths by my weakness! I beg of you, kinsman, to provide me with something to ensure their safety.”

“I will return,” Tarostar turned and left the room without another word.

Faramir sighed, it seemed that he had offended his only available ally. Or worse still, had he made a mistake in trusting him? The more he thought now about his plan, the less likely it seemed to succeed. Pretending to be a traitor, discovering the King’s whereabouts and rescuing him; all without being caught, seemed a very difficult, if not impossible aim to achieve. Maybe, he should just try to discover the King’s whereabouts, make his escape and then return with soldiers, but by then would Aragorn have again disappeared? On the other hand, perhaps, he could just leave at the end of his visit and then rescue Aragorn later, or would they then move or kill him? Would they even let him leave once he knew their secrets? He was developing a headache now! The only thing he was certain of - was that he would gladly give his life to save his King. Aragorn would have done no less.

A few minutes later, Tarostar returned, clutching a vial in his hand. “The oaths I took, when I became a healer, prevent me from giving you anything to take life with,” he said. “But this should suffice as well, or better. Though, whether it might be more lethal as any opiate I cannot say.”

“What is it?” asked Faramir, intrigued.

“Spider venom. Thinking of your ability to return the Gift, which you could utilise if anything went wrong, made me think of it,” Tarostar told him.

“The same venom Shelob used to attack the Ring bearer?” Faramir asked.

“Yes, but with no permanent effects, or so I am told.” Tarostar explained, “Lord Legolas brought it some time ago from his homeland. He was thinking on developing a weapon, which would incapacitate rather than kill the enemy. A dart coated with this, would render the victim completely immobile for many hours. They would appear lifeless to any save the most skilled of healers. That is the theory; but whether the paralysis would wear off on its own, as it does when these spiders strike their victims, or whether it would permanently maim or kill, I do not know. I was going to research it, but the fever has left me little time. However, think carefully, I beg of you, Lord Faramir, you could be risking your life on a fool’s errand. If Gondor has lost her King, she has even more need of her Steward! Do not risk using it, save in the direst need! Are you certain you wish to take such a risk?”

Faramir reached out his hand for the vial. “I will take it, Master Tarostar, and I thank you,” he said, “I have already seemingly betrayed by King; the truth is; I would gladly risk my own death, and even if I had only the smallest chance to save him!”

Tarostar nodded his head resignedly. “Take it then! You administer it by coating a needle with a very tiny amount and piercing the skin. I beg of you though, do not use it unless there is no other way to spare innocent lives.”

“You have my word,” Faramir said gravely, looking the Healer in the eye as he spoke.

“Very well, then,” Tarostar sighed. ”I advise you to try to sleep until nightfall, Lord Faramir. I will come for you then. There are secret ways to leave the city from here. They are not too dusty either. We prepared them in case we had to leave in a hurry during the Ring War. Well, I must return to those who need me. There have been six new fever cases today already.”

Faramir sank back against the pillows then suddenly sat bolt upright again. “Weapons and tack for the horses!” he exclaimed, I forgot to pack any. I can take my sword and a concealed dagger or two to the Lord of Lamedon’s, but hardly a bow.”

Tarostar laughed. “We have a supply of everything you need here, as well as healing supplies! Living under the shadow of Mordor for so long, has made us prepared for anything. My wife and daughters even kept their valuables here during the War. I will place a bow with the other supplies.”

Faramir managed to smile at him. ”You are full of surprises, Master Healer!” he said, lying back to pretend to rest, in order to placate Tarostar. To his surprise, he quickly fell asleep. He dreamed again of Aragorn, the same nightmare in which the King was calling his name. He woke after only a few hours with an excruciating pain in his arm, just under the elbow. He bit his lip, not wanting any of the healers to be aroused and come to examine him. The now familiar red mark blemished his skin, which faded even as he looked.

He dozed again but was still tormented by nightmares. He felt relieved when Tarostar roused him a few hours later. “What time is it?” Faramir whispered.

“Almost midnight and you, my lord, should be asleep with a nasty ear infection like that!” Tarostar said loudly enough for any passers by to hear, before adding in an undertone. “Get dressed now and go quickly. Aedred is waiting to show you where the tunnel is. You can trust him. He is very loyal to King Éomer and to King Elessar too too. I will place a pillow in your bed to make it look as if you are still asleep. In the morning, I will make it known that I have given you a sleeping draught and you are not to be disturbed. Here are the herbs you wanted, keep them safe! Do you have the venom? Aedred has the rest of the supplies.”

Faramir nodded as sat on the side of the bed and pulled on his breeches under his nightshirt. He was never comfortable dressing or undressing in front of anyone else, even Healers. He always feared they would notice something to make them want to painfully poke and prod him again. He was all too aware, that his constant washing and scrubbing had left his skin red and raw, especially across his chest. He decided to pull on his tunic over the nightshirt and ignore the bulkiness of the garment.

Tarostar coughed pointedly, “I need that nightshirt to dress the pillow in!” he said.

Sighing, Faramir picked up his shirt, and with his back to Tarostar, pulled off the nightshirt, and swiftly donned his shirt and a thick woollen tunic over the top.

“How strange!” Even whispering, the surprise in the Healer’s voice was tangible.

“What is?” Faramir whispered in reply.

“Your back!”

“There is no more wrong with my back than my ears!” the Steward retorted.

“You were heavily scarred, I have never seen scars heal so well. There only seems to be some slight redness there now! I did not get a very good look though, if I may examine you more closely on the morrow?”

Faramir groaned, he had spent years trying to avoid letting anyone see the scars on his back.  Now it seemed that the lack of scars produced an identical result! “The King gave me an Elven remedy and there is nothing to see!” Faramir whispered with a tone of finality, which brokered no argument. He remembered some painful treatment sessions with Tarostar in the past. Despite being one of the most skilled Healers in Gondor, his methods had seemed both painful and primitive compared with Aragorn’s Elven skills.

Tarostar gave a low chuckle. “The means by which he persuaded you to try it would be even more interesting to hear about than the treatment. I seem to recall you shunned all the salves I gave you.”

“They stung like fire!” Faramir retorted, pulling on his boots. “I am ready to leave now,” he said.

“Drink your sleeping draught quickly! I bid you a peaceful night, Lord Faramir,” the Healer said loudly, then to the Steward’s surprise opened a door at the far side of the room, which Faramir had assumed led to a storage chamber.

“Through there,” Tarostar whispered, handing him his bundle, “May the Valar go with you!” He pressed a panel, just inside what appeared to be nothing but a closet for mops and brooms, to reveal a passageway.  Aedred was waiting at the entrance, his arms full of supplies. More bundles were at his feet.

“That is why we always accommodate members of the ruling family in this room, just in case they need to escape quickly,” Tarostar explained. The door swung closed behind him.

Torches, hung in sconces to the wall, lighted the passageway, which Aedred had obviously made ready. He beckoned Faramir to pick up the bundles and follow. He led the Steward though a narrow winding passageway carved out of solid rock, which sloped sharply downwards. They descended the City via a secret route, which must have been as ancient as Minas Tirith herself.

Chapter Fifteen – Borrower of the Night

I must become a borrower of the night
For a dark hour or twain.
- Macbeth. Act iii. Sc. 1 Shakespeare

Much to Faramir’s relief, the air inside the tunnel felt quite fresh. This passage was narrower and steeper than any naturally occurring phenomena he had encountered. Aedred seemed familiar with the rocky passage. Every now and then, he softly warned his companion to be careful whenever the passage narrowed, or the floor became uneven underfoot.

Faramir became steadily colder, the clinging damp seeming to penetrate his clothing. He wished he had thought to put on extra clothing. Shivering, he pulled his cloak more tightly around his body.

At regular intervals, they paused to rest and lay down their heavy bundles of supplies, not daring to exchange more than a brief word, lest any outside should hear. It was impossible to tell where they were going, save that they were winding steadily downhill.

Faramir felt grateful for Aedred’s company. He was all too aware that one slip within such a passageway could lead to it becoming his tomb. He hardly knew the Healer; though he was aware that he had helped care for him after he was beaten in prison, also that Aragorn thought highly of him.

After walking for what felt like hours, they emerged just outside the City, not far from the field and outhouses where the horses were stabled. The horses had adequate shelter, but had not been confined inside since a tragic incident where several had perished in a fire, unable to flee their stable.

Faramir paused and took a deep breath of the fresh night air. “What a convenient place to emerge!” he exclaimed.

Beside him, Aedred chuckled softly. “Those who built it obviously knew what they were doing.”

The watchman could be seen patrolling the field, a lantern in his hand. Horse thieves were a constant problem, especially during a hard winter. A good horse could fetch a sufficient price to buy adequate provisions to last several months. “I will have to creep up behind him and stun him,” Faramir whispered. ”Will you see that he is tended once I have left?” Such brutality was alien to the Steward’s nature. It seemed now that he could not afford any scruples, at least not until he had either rescued Aragorn or secured his son on the throne.

“Shame on you, Lord Faramir!” Aedred hissed. “I know of a better way.” The Rohirric Healer put his thumbs to his lips and gave a whistle, which sounded like a horse neighing. As if by magic, the horses appeared out of their shelter and rushed towards the gate. “Open the gate while the watchman is distracted!” Aedred ordered.

Silent as a cat, Faramir did as he was bidden. Fortunately, there was no moon that night, though the stars provided a faint light. Long years spent as a Ranger had taught him how to operate under cover of virtual darkness. While he swiftly and almost silently unlatched the gate, Faramir could hear the watchman shouting to the horses from the far side of the field. He could only hope Roheryn would sense he was nearby and come to him. However, was uncertain of the stallion’s reaction since he was not his master. He hastened back to where Aedred was waiting, standing well clear of the escaping horses.

“A little trick of the Horse Lords!” Aedred whispered, “My father was Master of the King’s Horses and taught me a few skills in my youth.”

“I am surprised you chose to be a Healer then,” Faramir commented.

Aedred chuckled softly, “Do not tell Éomer King, but I am afraid of horses! I fell off one and broke my collarbone when I was a young lad.  Since then I have been afraid to ride any save the gentlest and quietest of mounts.”

“I never thought to hear a native of Rohan say that!” Faramir chuckled before exclaiming in dismay, “Oh, no, I forgot about tack!”

“A good job you are with a man of the Riddermark then,” Aedred replied, his smile almost audible, “I have hidden what you need under the hedge.”

“May the Valar smile on you!”  Faramir cried thankfully. A gentle whinnying at the Steward's side made him start. He turned round and realised that Roheryn was beside him, eying him expectantly. He reached into his pocket for an apple he had thought to bring. The stallion eagerly munched the treat and permitted Faramir to bridle him and fix two bulging bags to the saddle. Meanwhile Aedred whistled again, this time on a different note. A single, heavily built horse ambled away from the others and joined them. The Healer had also brought a juicy apple.

“This is Hjordnis,” Aedred said by way of introduction, “I rode here from the Mark on her back. Nowadays, she serves mostly as a packhorse for the Houses of Healing.