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. Take her with you. She likes company, so will not stray if you leave her with Roheryn.” He began to load the supplies on the horse as he spoke. Hjordnis snorted but otherwise made no complaint while the task was swiftly accomplished. The watchman was still shouting vainly for the horses to come back. He was now fast approaching the hedge, which concealed Faramir and his companion. “I think that is everything,” Aedred said, fastening the last bundle in place.

“Thank you so much and thank Master Tarostar too.”

Somewhat to Aedred’s surprise, Faramir grasped both his shoulders and kissed him on the brow in the traditional Gondorian gesture of parting used between friends and kin.

“Go quickly now, I can hear the watchman coming,” Aedred urged.

Faramir mounted Roheryn gingerly, wondering if he would accept any save Aragorn on his back. Apart from whinnying as if surprised, the proud stallion made no objection. With Hjordnis on a leading rein alongside, the Steward urged Roheryn forward into the night.

Apart from mistaking the trail in one place, and going a mile or so in the wrong direction, before realising his mistake from the position of the stars, Faramir’s journey to where the map showed the caves to be was uneventful. The cave entrance proved somewhat harder to find. He needed to light the lamp Aedred had given him and search the face of the hillside. It was concealed behind a large thorn bush, no doubt planted there on his father or grandfather’s orders. These caves had been a vital part of the defence against Sauron, allowing troops to remain hidden while they fought off incursions from the enemy. Inside was a small chamber, which at first sight appeared to be all there was, until the far wall was reached, when it turned sharply to the left and led to a second and much larger cave. To Faramir’s delight, it was fairly dry and well ventilated. A passageway leading deeper into the hillside branched off from the larger cave, providing a possible hiding place in case of danger.

A heap of ashes showed that it had been possible to have a fire there when the soldiers had used it as a hiding place. It seemed ideal; if Faramir either needed to conceal himself, or if it were necessary, hide Aragorn. Swiftly, Faramir unloaded the packhorse and his saddlebags. He stored the clothing and medicines well out of sight, followed by the bedding. He was delighted to find two bedrolls, and a generous supply of blankets, towels, and even a pelt, which would serve either as rug or an extra warm bedcover. Nor had Aedred forgotten to pack candles, soap, pans and dried foodstuffs, as well as a sturdy bow and a supply of arrows. The man was a real treasure!

Once the supplies were safely stored, and protected from marauding rats, Faramir left the cave and examined the surrounding area. It was mainly woodland, passable only via the little known track he had used. There was also sufficient grazing to support the horses. A small but clear stream, which ran through the woods from the hillside, would provide adequate drinking and washing water.

Faramir prepared to leave Roheryn behind, whispering to him that he must await his master. He could only hope that the stallion understood. He took the saddle and bridle from Aragorn’s war horse, and placed them on Hjordnis. After a final inspection that everything was safely concealed, Faramir swung himself into the saddle and set off to ride back to Minas Tirith ere daybreak

The first glimmers of light were appearing in the sky when the Steward reached the City despite riding as fast over the rough forest terrain as his stolid and good-natured mount was capable of. Faramir realised his plan would never have worked, had he been in his own apartments, for the cock was already crowing. By now a servant would have been bringing him his morning drink. The horses had obviously been rounded up again. There was no sign of any human presence near the field. Obviously, the watchman was resting after his eventful night.

Knowing from Aedred’s description that she was unlikely to stray, Faramir took the tack off Hjordnis and left her by the gate. It was to be hoped the watchman would merely think that he had overlooked her the previous night. Patting the mare and giving her a farewell treat of an apple, Faramir looked for the tunnel entrance but could not find it. He was starting to panic when a black robed figure grabbed his arm. He started and gave a low cry of alarm.

Chapter Sixteen - He knows not to what end he rides

“He knows not to what end he rides; yet if he knew, he would still go on.” - Tolkien – ‘The Return of the King’.

“This way! I thought you might get lost with the entrance being so well hidden,” Aedred said without bothering with the preamble of greetings.

Faramir visibly sighed with relief. For one dreadful moment, he had feared that the Healers had betrayed him.

“You look exhausted, Lord Faramir," Aedred fussed. "Come, you can rest now; Tarostar has let it be known that he has given you a powerful sleeping draught that will not wear off until at least noon. Did your mission go well?”

“I have stored all the supplies that you and Tarostar so generously provided,” Faramir replied, unable to suppress a yawn.

“We are glad to be able to help you, Lord Faramir,” Aedred said, turning to indicate the entrance to the rocky passage. The way back, although uphill, seemed far shorter that it had been before. After what seemed only a few minutes, Faramir was back in his room, where a light breakfast of bread and fruit was awaiting him. While the Steward ate, Aedred took his nightshirt from the pillow and straightened the covers, then left him to undress.

Although exhausted, Faramir wondered if he would be able to rest. His mind spun with endless uncertainties, possibilities and a dreadful fear that all his efforts would ultimately be in vain. He was grateful when Aedred reappeared with a mug of chamomile tea.

Faramir almost feared to sleep now. His dreams of Aragorn calling to him were becoming ever more vivid and terrifying. He had tried to mentally reach out to him to tell him that he was coming, but in vain. He either lacked the ability or sufficient experience to do so. Even now, a corner of mind still held a nagging doubt that it was all wishful thinking on both his part and the Queen’s.

“Wake up, Lord Faramir!” Tarostar’s voice roused him from yet another dark dream.

The Steward sat up, blinking at the bright sunlight streaming into the room. “Where? What?” he asked in confusion.

“Your ear infection is quite cured, Lord Faramir. You can go home today,” Tarostar announced breezily, with a finger to his lips and a conspiratorial wink.

“Thank you so much for your help, Master Tarostar,” the Steward answered sincerely.

“May the Valar bless you and keep you in good health!” the Healer replied, wondering if he would ever see Faramir again.

***

The Steward spent the next two days trying to think of the right things to say and do, in order to ingratiate himself with the Lord of Lamedon. Such wiles were completely alien to his nature, yet he must use them in order to discover the truth. Even if Aragorn were dead, he could at least try to bring the murderers to justice. Not that there were any penalty that the law could impose, which could ever serve as recompense for the loss of  so great a man.

Faramir made a statement before the Council, announcing he would be away for a short time. He ordered Imrahil to take charge of the City in his absence. He had to force himself to look contemptuously at the man he had loved since early childhood. He was then compelled to turn away from the open disgust in his uncle’s eyes. Tarostar had promised to tell the Prince of Dol Amroth that Faramir was perfectly sane, which had surely shattered Imrahil’s last shreds of hope that his nephew was no traitor.

Faramir wondered now if he were going to his own death at the hands of those who had killed his King. It far worse than preparing for battle; then he would have been surrounded by loyal comrades and his death, were it to come, would be swift and honourable. If only he could have seen Éowyn and his daughter for one last time!

Faramir had decided against taking his beloved Iavas to the Lord of Lamedon’s mansion. He did not want to risk harm to the beautiful chestnut mare. Instead, he decided to ride Zachus, an unremarkable but sturdy and reliable bay gelding, given to him by his father.  Zachus had been sent from Rohan as a colt for Denethor, but had proved a disappointment to the late Steward. The bay was far from elegant, closely resembling a carthorse and could be skittish in crowds. Faramir had thought of selling him but decided against it, fearing the gelding might end up in the hands of someone who would ill treat him. He had a soft spot for the clumsy but good-natured horse.

Faramir set out with the servant the Lord of Lamedon had sent, claiming disappointment that Iavas had a loose shoe and he had to arrive on an inferior horse.

“Never you mind, my lord,” said the servant. “His Lordship will lend you a fine mount for your stay. He has some of the best horseflesh in all of Gondor.”

To Faramir’s relief, the man was not talkative. As part of his plan, the Steward made a few seemingly casual remarks, about how much better things had been in Denethor’s day, when they passed places still in various states of disrepair.

Although they were headed in the same direction that Faramir had taken two nights before, this time the route lay through open countryside rather than woodland. The Steward pretended complete ignorance of the area, which was plausible enough. He had rarely been invited to house parties unlike his much more gregarious older brother. Boromir had revelled in the atmosphere that usually prevailed with liberal consumption of alcohol and easy availability of women. Faramir was the more like his father in that wise, adhering strictly to the Númenorean ideals of sobriety and sexual abstinence outside marriage.

The Lord of Lamedon’s mansion turned out to be a vast structure built from white stone and decorated with ornate turrets. As he rode through the gates, Faramir wondered if he were walking into a trap. He wished fervently that he could somehow have managed to bring troops and conceal them.

“Greetings, Lord Faramir!” Fosco said effusively. “Welcome to my humble abode! I am so glad that you could come, especially as I heard tidings you were unwell.”

“The thought of your lordship’s hospitality hastened my recovery,” Faramir replied.

“You come alone?” The Lord of Lamedon’s expression was suddenly wary.

“Of course, my lord, for what have I to fear now that the Northern upstart is no more! I know you care only for the welfare of my House and to see that my brother’s heiress given her due,” Faramir exclaimed with feigned fervour.

The Lord of Lamedon stepped aside and whispered a question to Faramir’s escort. The reply obviously satisfied him, as his smile became warmer. He embraced the Steward and kissed him on the brow. Faramir fought hard to repress a shudder as he returned the greeting. That he might be embracing Aragorn’s murderer, was not a pleasant thought.

“My servant tells me that you speak the truth, Lord Faramir,” his host smiled.

Once any question over his veracity would have horrified Faramir. Now, he merely nodded politely.

“Due to the fever our company is but small," said the Lord of Lamedon. ”We are going to stay with Dervorin of Ringlo Vale in his Hunting Lodge instead. This house is rather large for entertaining just a few guests and many of my friends are sick with the contagion at present. You will be amongst good friends. Do please, call me Fosco!”

 “I would be delighted, Fosco. Maybe we will find good sport at Lord Dervorin’s Lodge,” he said warmly. “Not that I will be able to wield a bow like I used to after our late unlamented King’s ill treatment of me!”

“You shall have the best healers to attend you in future, Lord Faramir, rather than an Elven trained charlatan!” the Lord of Lamedon gushed. ”You will then, I hope, recover your former strength.”

“Indeed, I may,” Faramir replied. “As I have not had the honour of visiting your home before, I would be most grateful if you could show me its splendours?”

“I would be delighted to, Lord Faramir,” Fosco replied, proceeding to take Faramir on a lengthy and detailed tour of endless rooms.

The Steward pretended polite interest, not all of which was feigned. The architecture was truly magnificent. He kept looking for any sign of Aragorn. He found none.

When the Lord of Lamedon even showed him the cellars and boasted of his fine collection of wines, his spirits sank. There was no way in which Aragorn could be concealed here; unless it were in some secret room he had no idea how to enter.

“Send up several more bottles of my best wine!” Fosco told the servant, who showed them round the cellars, “Lord Faramir must see just what my hospitality has to offer!”

A bell was rung soon after to announce dinner.

Faramir discovered that the Lord of Lamedon’s dining hall was more in the style of Rohan than of Gondor. No cutlery was used; apart from the daggers they carried, while the dogs roamed freely, picking up scraps off the straw covered floor.

The meal was a lavish affair with enough food for double the number present, washed down with far too much wine. Faramir pretended to imbibe freely, while spilling a good deal surreptitiously on the floor, drenching the bones that the dogs scavenged for amongst the straw. Faramir looked round the table for familiar faces, wondering if Hanna would be there, or any of the other lords he suspected. However, apart from Fosco's subdued wife, the only others present appeared to be wealthy tenant farmers.

“Tell me, Lord Faramir, what caused your change of heart regarding the King?” Fosco asked, once he considered the wine would have loosened Faramir’s tongue.

“He made me do all the hard work while he took the glory for it,” Faramir replied, slurring his speech slightly. “I also disliked seeing how much influence his Elven wife and friends had over honest men of Gondor. Then the final straw came, when he had me sent to prison and beaten when his friend, Éomer of Rohan attacked me. The man he had hanged was a mere scapegoat for his perfidy! I cannot even eat properly since my dreadful ordeal as I suffered such injuries!” That lie at least gave him an excuse for his lack of appetite. He tossed another piece of meat to the dogs at his feet.

“You will rejoice then, Lord Faramir, that the scoundrel is getting what he deserves at last, as I am sure you will be pleased to know,” the Lord of Lamedon smirked.

“Indeed!” Faramir tried to look indifferent. Inwardly his heart pounded as the significance of the remark sunk in.

The meal over, everyone appeared too drunk to move, which gave Faramir a chance to ponder the situation. From what he remembered of the map, which he dared not bring with him, Dervorin’s Hunting Lodge was only a few miles away.

With only an hour or so left before sunset, the party finally set off along a rough and narrow track. It wound steeply through the forest, broken only by the occasional field where scrawny cows, marked with Dervorin’s distinctive brand, foraged for the meagre winter grazing. Two armed Guards wearing the Lord of Lamedon’s livery led the way and the party proceeded at a slow and cautious pace.

Faramir’s heart was in his mouth as they neared their destination. He could sense that the mystery of Aragorn’s disappearance was finally going to be solved. He was certain now that the invitation had been a test to see whether he would turn up unescorted as bidden. He suspected the Guards were not for the Lord of Lamedon’s protection but to stop him trying to escape.

Chapter Seventeen – Et tu, Brute

Et tu, Brute?” (Even you Brutus?) - Julius Caesar

Dervorin’s hunting lodge was situated on the edge of the forest. It was quite a well-maintained building somewhat to the Steward’s surprise. He had noticed the gatekeeper’s cottage was in ruins. The lodge was somewhat larger than Faramir had been led to believe, closely resembling the house where he had stayed with Aragorn and Éowyn the year before. He could only hope that he would not have to share a bed with several others while he was there. Embracing the Lord of Lamedon and eating at his table was quite unpleasant enough.

As soon as they had dismounted and gave the care of their horses over to the grooms, a familiar small figure came running out of the house.

“Greetings, Lady Elbeth!” the Lord of Lamedon said pompously, bending to kiss her small hand. She wrinkled her nose in distaste and then ran towards Faramir, who was a few paces behind. On reaching the Steward, she flung her arms around his waist.

“You’ve come back!” she exclaimed joyfully, “I missed you! Mummy took me away from the nice lady you said was going to look after me for always! She brought me here and I don’t like it! Take me back home, please, Uncle Faramir!”

Faramir scooped her up and hugged her. She was slightly taller and appeared better nourished now than when he had first met her. Instead of being clad in one of Aragorn’s overlarge spare shirts, she was now wearing equally unsuitable attire, a garish gown of pink silk, embroidered in gold.

“I missed you too, little one,” Faramir replied, ignoring her pleas. He knew, though, that he would have to somehow take her with him, if he escaped from this place alive.

“I’m not little now, I’m grown up and I’m going to be queen soon!” Elbeth pouted.

“Leave the Lord Steward alone, Lady Elbeth!” snapped the Lord of Lamedon.

“I do not mind. She is my niece after all,” Faramir replied.

“You! How dare you come here? Let go of my daughter at once!” cried a strident voice, “Kill him at once, you fools!” Hanna emerged from the house; her manner and demeanour much as Faramir remembered. Her appearance was as much changed as her daughter’s. She had put on a good deal of weight and was lavishly attired in a red silk gown decorated with oversized ruffles and bows.

“Peace, Lady Hanna!” the Lord of Lamedon soothed. “The Steward has seen the error of his ways and has come to join us. Is that not so, Lord Faramir?”

Faramir bent to let Elbeth climb down, hoping that might be also interpreted as a bow to her mother. “Indeed, I am most sorry for any discourtesy done to you, my lady, I acted only on the late King’s orders,” he said with feigned contrition. “I now wish only to see you and my niece given her rightful place in society.”

Hanna snorted, seemingly unimpressed. Taking Elbeth by the hand, she dragged the reluctant child back indoors.

Faramir stared after them for a moment. It was strange to think that this innocent little girl should be the course of so much turmoil. If only he had taken her to Ithilien a year ago!

Servants appeared and Faramir was led inside and shown to his room. To his great relief, it appeared to be for his sole use, despite the vast bed. He had been concerned about sharing, lest he should talk in his sleep and gave away his deception. Not that sleeping beside a traitor would be a pleasant prospect in itself. He shuddered; thinking that was exactly what he was in the eyes of the world now. He dismissed the servant and unpacked the few processions he had brought; fine tunics, shirts and breeches, clean linens, a comb, a book and a silver dish as a gift for his host. The vial containing the spider venom and a tapestry needle purloined from Arwen’s sewing room, were the only suspicious items he carried, which he knew he must keep concealed about his person The treasured brooch Aragorn had given him, he wore pinned inside his shirt.

He bathed before dinner, scrubbing himself vigorously to try to wash away the taint he was feeling. He had to take care to avoid rubbing the place upon his brow where Lord Lamedon had kissed him too conspicuously, though he would gladly have scrubbed it until it bled.

He kept his sword beside him while bathing, wishing fervently he could run the Lord of Lamedon through with its blade for his treachery. He yearned to search the Lodge and take Aragorn away to safety this instant. Alas, he could not without them both being killed or worse. Then there was Elbeth; somehow he must take her away too. Not only was she his niece, but also unwittingly one of the most dangerous individuals in the land.

Forcing himself to compose his thoughts, he dressed in a clean shirt, tunic, and breeches. He had taken care these past weeks, not wear anything bearing the emblems of the White Tree or Seven Stars, as they were too closely associated with Aragorn. Luckily, he also had clothing designed to honour Éowyn’s homeland. He trusted that a design of white horses on a green background would say nothing more about him than that he loved his wife.

A tap came on his door shortly before the hour set to dine and he heard the Lord of Lamedon’s voice calling “If you are at liberty, Lord Faramir, there is something I would show you.”

“One moment, I am just changing for dinner,” Faramir replied. He again checked the vial of spider venom was in his pocket and his dagger concealed in his boot. Some strange impulse caused him to thrust his gloves into his pocket. Forcing a smile, he went out to see what his host had planned. “My dear Fosco,” Faramir exclaimed. “I will be delighted to see whatever you desire! I am most curious.”

“This will indeed be a surprise, Lord Faramir!” Fosco gave me a smile, which reminded Faramir uncomfortably of a wolf baring its jaws before devouring its prey.

A lantern in his hand, the Lord of Lamedon led Faramir through a maze of stone corridors and down towards the basement. The Steward tried to hide his growing fear that this was a trap and he was being led like a lamb to the slaughter.

“Watch your step!” Fosco advised, leading Faramir down a flight of worn stairs to what appeared to be a wine cellar. The lantern cast eerie shadows on the mildewed walls and the Steward started to cough when the unhealthy dampness irritated his lungs.

“What you see will astound you!” his guide announced when they paused before a door, “This will be the very last person you expected to behold. I have decided that it is only right that you be taken into our full confidence.”

He threw open the door and held the lantern high, revealing a windowless cellar. It was unfurnished apart from a rough mattress and a bucket. The stench, which emanated from the small room, made Faramir feel like retching.

A man, filthy and emaciated, lay on the bed, his wrist and ankles shackled and fastened by another chain to the wall.

The captive wore filthy clothing and was partially covered by a moth eaten and stained blanket. The shrunken features were contorted with suffering; yet, the eyes and noble bearing, even in such circumstances were unmistakable. It was Aragorn.

A surge of elation welled up in Faramir’s heart, making him forget the squalid surroundings. His King was alive! He looked away fearful his eyes would betray his true feelings.

“I’ve brought you a visitor, Elessar,” Fosco sneered, “You can see now that holding out against authorising the marriage is futile. The only one who might have prevented the union has decided to join us.”

Aragorn wearily lifted his head and looked directly at Faramir. A mixture of hope and joy briefly flickered in the grey eyes before giving way to anxiety.

Faramir guessed all too well what his friend was feeling, pleasure at seeing him, swiftly superseded by concern over his safety. He forced himself to look at his King, trying to hide his joy that he lived, as well as the horror of finding him so obviously ill treated in a cold, dark cellar.

“Why, Lord Faramir, you seem quite dumbstruck,” the Lord of Lamedon commented, giving the Steward a suspicious look. “I could almost suspect that it pleased you to know that this usurper still lives?”

Faramir shuddered inwardly. It seemed that he was about to be unmasked. He would have to act quickly. He knew what he must do next, would break Aragorn’s heart and his own too. He slid his hands inside his pockets and donned the gloves.

Striding across the small room, he struck the helpless King a blow across the face. “I thought you were dead and not a moment too soon!” he snarled, “After everything you have made me suffer, I hoped I was finally rid of you!”

Aragorn barely flinched at the blow but the look of hurt, betrayal and shock in his eyes was almost more than Faramir could endure.

“Even you Faramir!” The softly voiced reproach was like a dagger through the Steward’s heart. He strode towards the door without a second glance. Fosco followed and locked it behind them.

Chapter Eighteen – Why this is hell

Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:
Think'st thou that I, that saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being depriv'd of everlasting bliss?
Marlowe -The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

“I would have expected you to strike him harder after all you have endured at his hands,” Fosco commented suspiciously, leading the Steward back up the worn steps. “Why pray, did you don your gloves?”

“After touching a man such as he, I would have needed to wash my hands again before dinner, had I not done so,” Faramir replied coldly. “There was a time when I had great strength in my arms, but that was before I was beaten up in prison on the tyrant Elessar’s orders!”

Faramir hoped his excuse would sound convincing. It was most unlikely that the Lord of Lamedon would guess that he could not touch Aragorn with his bare hands, lest the strong mental bond he shared with Aragorn give his plans away. He did not dare risk Aragorn inadvertently betraying him. The King’s shock and hurt had to be genuine, painful though it was to deceive him.

The Steward shuddered inwardly at what he had done. He has struck the King, his liege lord, whom he was sworn to protect. Not only than that, he had ill-treated a chained and defenceless man; a man whom he loved and revered as a father. He was now a traitor not only in words, but also in deeds.

“Are you quite well, Lord Faramir?" Fosco enquired solicitously.

“It is cold down here,” Faramir replied. “I am also taken aback to see that Elessar still lives. He caused me so much injury!”

Fosco seemed convinced as he laughed bitterly. “You will learn we all have good cause to hate him. He caused my beloved father’s death. He rode to Elessar’s cursed banner on his return from the Paths of the Dead. It was more than mortal man could bear! He survived the war, only to die by his own hand a few months later, unable to endure the memories of what he had seen. What man, however valiant, could endure such horrors? Mark my words, Elessar only got where he is by using dark magic!”

Faramir nodded mutely, following Fosco into the dining room, which was cleaner and better furnished than the one at the mansion had been. The meal was already in progress. He looked with interest around the table, which as expected, was presided over by Dervorin of Ringlo Vale. Also there, confirming his suspicions was the Lord of Lebennin. The only females present, apart from serving maids, were Hanna and Elbeth. Hanna was now wearing an ever more elaborate gown of orange silk, the low cleavage adorned with Aragorn’s Elfstone brooch.

“That trinket suits you well, Lady Hanna,” Fosco commented, his eyes drawn to the huge green jewel.

“It suits her eyes, do you not think?” said Dervorin, “A beautiful jewel for a beautiful woman!” He reached out to fleetingly touch the jewel before starting to fondle Hanna’s ample bosom. Hanna giggled coquettishly, half heartedly batting his hand his hand away.

Faramir struggled to hide his disgust at the disrespect given to the Elfstone from which Aragorn had taken his king-name.  To think that the fabled elven jewel that his lord had received from the Lady Galadriel herself was now bestowed upon this common trull by her traitorous lover!

Fosco, noticing that the Steward’s eyes were fixed upon Hanna, fortunately misunderstood his expression. “I see you envy Dervorin’s good fortune, Lord Faramir,” he said, chuckling indulgently. “I can find you a pretty wench to keep you entertained tonight. I have just the one, I promise you; young and lively.  She knows quite a few ways of pleasuring a man that no well-bred wife would have heard of! I can vouch for her, seeing as I trained her myself! I’ll have her sent to your room later.” 

Was there no vice to which these men would not stoop, Faramir wondered.  Forlong had been long and happily wed, widowed just three years before his own death.  To hear the son of that marriage boasting about adulterous pleasures, speaking of a young woman as if he were a whoremaster was loathsome. He swallowed hard to hide his disgust.

How could any man so belittle the wholesome and fruitful joys of a loving marriage? It was bad enough that Faramir was betraying his King. He was certainly not planning to betray his wife as well. “That sounds delightful,” he said with feigned anticipation, “I fear, though, I am too weary after my journey and recent illness to do justice to your kind offer tonight.”

“Tell me when you change you mind, you’ll not regret it,” Fosco replied, the way he licked his lips making it clear he had no reservations about betraying his own wife.

Dervorin’s hand had now found its way inside Hanna’s bodice. This time, she purred with pleasure and bent her head to kiss the exploring fingers.

Elbeth, despite her youth, looked troubled at her mother’s behaviour and scowled, distracted from eating her soup.

“Cheer up, Lady Elbeth!” Fosco said jovially, “Now that Lord Faramir is here to help us, we should soon have your marriage to Prince Eldarion arranged.”

“I don’t want to be married,” Elbeth protested. “Boys are noisy and dirty.”

“But you will be a queen then!” Fosco assured her. “You will have lots of pretty jewels, like that one your mother is wearing.”

“I hope there are better jewels in the Royal Treasury than this cheap bauble,” Hanna snorted. “Here, take it to play with and stop whining!” She unfastened the brooch and tossed it carelessly to Elbeth.

“This is pretty, but I want my favourite dolly that you wouldn’t let me bring!” Elbeth pouted. She pinned the brooch to her gown and twisted it around for a few moments so that it sparkled in the candlelight. Then, growing bored, she returned to scowling at her mother and Dervorin.

“Where is the Lord of Lossarnach?” Fosco asked, abandoning his attempts to appease Elbeth, ”If he has betrayed us, it will be the worse for him!”

“Betrayed us to whom?” Dervorin said dismissively. “The Steward is on our side now and the Prince of Dol Amroth and the few lords that support him could not hold out long against us. Have no fears of treachery! He is, after all, married to my daughter. I received news earlier that he had fallen ill with the fever. It is a setback for us, but will not affect our plans.”

Dervorin looked nervous. “The fever seems to be spreading," he fretted. “One of the maids has fallen ill after visiting her mother in the City. Lady Elbeth must be kept safe at all costs. Keep the wench away from us all as none of us have had it!”

“I have recovered from the fever,” said Faramir, hoping the information might grant him more access to Elbeth.

“At least someone here is safe from the contagion, then,” said Fosco, clapping Faramir on the back.

“We hope you can help us now that you are here, Lord Faramir,” Dervorin said, as if noticing the Steward for the first time. “We need to get Elessar’s signature or seal on a document authorising Lady Elbeth’s marriage to Prince Eldarion, before we can rid ourselves of the usurper .The Elven witch will obey her husband’s last wishes. I’ve heard the creatures are absurdly devoted to their mates. I was going to have your secretary plant it amongst Elessar’s papers, Lord Faramir, but it will be easier to fulfil the plan, now you here in person. We shall be the real power in Gondor, while Eldarion is so young. We can ensure he grows up thinking of nothing but idle pleasures. If he becomes difficult once he reaches maturity that can be dealt with easily enough too. We have tried every method of persuasion we can think of to make Elessar sign. However, the obstinate fool will not yield. Do you know how his signet ring works, my Lord Steward?”

“Only that it uses some Elvish arts to move the seal to the correct angle,” Faramir told them. “Elessar guarded its secret jealously. I was given the hard work of compiling state documents for him to sign and seal, but never trusted with his ring.” He sighed inwardly, remembering how he and Aragorn would companionably work long hours together, planning a better future for Gondor. Faramir knew exactly how the ring worked, two twists to the left, followed by one to the right and a further half twist left, which turned the emerald over to reveal the Royal Seal. Lord Elrond had designed the ingenious device and had given it as wedding present to his son in law. Faramir had greatly approved of the design. Several times during his father’s reign, unscrupulous secretaries had been bribed by those anxious for some decree or other to be passed. It would be impossible for any man to wear a heavy ring of office at all times, which meant any could use it when it was laid aside.

He found himself remembering his father with something resembling gratitude tonight. Without the practise of endless years spent hiding his true feelings; whenever his father scorned Mithrandir’s Counsel or chided him for his love of books and Elvish lore, he would be hard pressed indeed to maintain a calm demeanour in such a gathering.

“Maybe, now that Elessar knows that you have joined us, he will come to his senses and earn himself a speedy despatch, rather than something more painful and lingering.” Dervorin mused hopefully, “He may have held out some hope that you would be bringing your Rangers to free him.”

“My family ruled Gondor for almost a thousand years, then he came and took what should have been mine!” Faramir said resentfully. “The people were blinded by his military prowess, as was I at first, to my endless regret. He is on his own now without Éomer’s army to enforce his will. He should sign now and spare himself pain!”

“You are all too soft with him!” Hanna interrupted, “He still has clothing and a blanket. His body is still whole. You should let me try to persuade him!”

“And what would you do, my lady?” Dervorin asked stroking her chin and letting his fingers fondle her throat.

“Strip him naked, have a bit of fun with him, then take his manhood!” Hanna giggled gleefully, brandishing the knife she was using to cut up her venison. All the men gave an involuntary shudder at her gesture.

Faramir well remembered that mad laugh from the night she had attacked Aragorn. He was quite certain she was capable of carrying out her threat. It shocked him that an innocent child should be present during such talk. However, Elbeth merely looked bored and rearranged the vegetables on her plate into a pattern. He forced himself to try to eat, though he had little appetite in such company. There were no dogs here to surreptitiously feed.

“A good idea, my lady!” Dervorin laughed. “We will try it very soon, if Lord Faramir’s presence cannot change Elessar’s mind. Tomorrow, we will begin by taking his clothes and blanket. Few men can be proud when naked, especially not after what we shall to do to him!”

“He is growing weaker, so we cannot wait longer than three days at the most.” Fosco commented, “Even his infernal pride can be broken, if we inflict sufficient pain and humiliation upon him until he breaks. However we will see if Lord Faramir's presence has any effect upon him first.”

Chapter Nineteen – What darkness here

Gott,

welch Dunkel hier!

O grauenvolle Stille!……

In des Lebens Frühlingstagen

ist das Glück von mir geflohn.

Wahrheit wagt ich kühn zu sagen,

und die Ketten sind mein Lohn.

(God, what darkness here! O stillness filled with horror!… In the springtime of my life, my joy has fled. Bravely I dared to speak the truth and chains are my reward.) Fidelio – Beethoven/ Sonnleithner

 

Heartbroken and racked by pain, Aragorn was left alone in the darkness with his thoughts. He had long ago lost count of the days since he had been brought to this dreadful place. It had all happened so quickly. One moment, he had been walking home from the Houses of Healing, weary but light of heart after healing a young brother and sister who had been close to death from the fever. Then, he had heard footsteps behind him. Taken by surprise, he had swung around in time to see several shadowy figures emerging from a dark alley and converging upon him. He had tried to fight, but stood little chance, being unarmed and exhausted from the prolonged healing. He felt a sharp blow to the back of his head and then knew no more.

He regained his senses only to find himself moving in some sort of cart. His stomach was heaving and his throat felt like parchment. When he tried to stretch his cramped and aching limbs, he found they were securely bound. The ropes were tied around his wrists and ankles so tightly that they bit into his flesh. A dirty rag had been stuffed into his mouth, which left him hardly able to breathe and rendered crying out for aid impossible.

As the King’s eyes became accustomed to the darkness, he realised he was in a wagon loaded with grain. He could tell they had left the City from the feel of dirt tracks under the wheels and the silence broken only by the hooting of owls. As time passed, he became aware of the sound of water nearby and branches brushing across the top of the wagon.

After what felt like several hours of bumping along country roads, the wagon halted and two men entered. They were well dressed enough to suggest they were retainers of someone of wealth and status, rather than flour merchants. They roughly blindfolded him before dragging him from the wagon.

He could tell that it was daylight now from what little light penetrated the blindfold and the sound of birdsong. Aragorn was roughly dragged inside and carried through what he assumed to be a house, then hauled down some steps and into what felt like a cellar.

He could hear more men entering and felt them untying the ropes. He tried to struggle free but other hands were roughly holding him down.

“ ’e’s putting up a right fight !” one of the men complained.

“What do you expect?” said another voice. “I only ‘ope ‘is lordship pays us well for all the bruises ‘e’s given us!”

Aragorn then heard more footsteps suggesting that someone else had entered the room.

“Strip him and be quick about it!” This voice was educated and vaguely familiar.

The men pulled off Aragorn’s boots and started to remove his clothing. He struggled furiously; kicking and punching out at them, ignoring the blows they rained down on him. He was becoming truly afraid now, but determined not to show it. It was at least six against one, a struggle he was doomed to lose. Two men held him down, a further two yanked his arms over his head, while another pulled off his tunic and shirt. He could tell, though, they were taking care not to tear the garments, which slowed their progress somewhat.

Two men then roughly secured his arms to prevent him from lashing out, while two more unfastened his belt then grabbed his breeches and started pulling them off. Aragorn tried to prevent this latest indignity by lashing out wildly with his feet at the clutching hands. Eventually, now wearing only his drawers, he launched a last desperate struggle; both to protect his dignity and to try to thwart what he now guessed they were planning. He succeeded in landing a well-placed kick on the man who had hold of the leg of the material, which caused it to rip as he stumbled in pain. The man yelped while another of them kicked Aragorn’s ribs hard in retaliation. Although winded and in pain, Aragorn continued his desperate struggle against his assailants.

A voice said, “Leave it for now! Torn clothing could arouse suspicion and one pair of white linen drawers is much like another.”

The King repressed the ghost of a smile. It seemed that he had guessed rightly. He shivered as he felt cold, damp stone under his naked flesh. He could feel gooseflesh forming across his exposed skin and the cold mustiness of the air made him want to cough. He was dragged across the floor, the rough stone painfully grazing his back. He shivered again and could hear the man who had ordered him stripped laughing at his discomfort.

He then felt them pulling a pair of rough breeches over his legs and forcing his arms into a shirt of equally coarse material. This time he did not struggle. He knew he would need more clothing than his torn drawers if he were to escape his captors.

Vainly, he struggled again. He heard an ominous clanking sound, and then felt the coldness of metal when manacles were secured around his wrists and ankles. A further chain was attached to his ankle. He heard more clanking and the sound of a key being turned in a rusty lock. Only then, was the blindfold removed. Aragorn realised he was a prisoner in what appeared to be a disused wine cellar. A chain attached to his ankles secured him to a ring on the wall, leaving him only able to move a few feet.

The sparse furnishings comprised a rough, straw stuffed mattress and a metal bucket. There were only two men with him now, he recognised them all too well. One, dressed in servant’s livery was Denethor’s former chief executioner; the other was Dervorin, Lord of Ringlo Vale. The servant removed the gag and threw him down on the mattress, which provided little comfort to his aching flesh.

“What is the meaning of this outrage?” he demanded of Dervorin. ”Release me at once, if you do not wish to die as a traitor!”

Dervorin laughed again. It was not a pleasant sound. “Welcome to your new home, my lord,” he smirked. “How pleasant, or otherwise your stay will be, is entirely up to you. A pity you did not save us all this inconvenience by authorising the marriage of your son to Lady Elbeth when we asked you nicely.”

“You are wasting your time!” Aragorn retorted coldly.

“I think not,” Dervorin replied. “Even one such as you, cannot be completely immune to persuasion while your obedient wife will feel compelled to follow her husband’s last wishes! It is the nature of her kind.”

“You cannot hope to succeed,” Aragorn informed him. “You are one man against the whole Realm of Gondor!”

“You will be surprised at just how many have joined me, Elessar,” Dervorin replied smugly. “Most of the Council are now on my side. We are all weary of your highhanded ways, your measures to favour the peasant riff raff, and of how little you respect those that served faithfully in your name for generations. This plague which has struck us is most surely a punishment from the Valar for your misdeeds!”

“I have done only what is best for Gondor. You and your sympathisers are nothing more that common traitors!” Aragorn retorted, unmoved by this speech. It was beginning to make sense to him now. Dervorin was obviously the ringleader, rather than the Lord of Lamedon whom he had previously suspected. No doubt the other troublemakers in the Council were also involved.

“Enough talk, we will leave you to reflect, but first you have something we want, which I almost overlooked.”

The burly servant moved with surprising speed to pin Aragorn down, while Dervorin swooped and snatched the rings from the King’s fingers.

Beaten, chained and pinioned against the mattress, he was helpless to resist as Dervorin held up the precious items in triumph; the Ring of Barahir, the ancient heirloom of his house, with which he had first pledged himself to Arwen, the slender band he had given her on their wedding night after they had spoken their private vows of love and his Ring of State, used to place his official seal on documents with. If only he had not been wearing it, but he had been called to the Houses of Healing in haste. At least, he had turned it, so only the emerald was visible and it was unlikely they would ever guess how to use it.

Still smirking, Dervorin and his servant left him in the chill darkness. The King tried to contain his panic at being in such a small, enclosed space. At times, he felt enclosed even in his vast chamber in the Citadel, where he was free to come and go as he pleased. To be chained and imprisoned in a small, dark cellar was the stuff of his worse nightmares.

Although he was dismayed at the turn of events; initially Aragorn was able to calm himself, certain that Faramir would soon discover his absence. Whether his Steward would know where to search would be another matter, but surely his abduction could not have gone without someone seeing or hearing something. He did fear, though, that the conspirators might attempt to pass some poor soul’s corpse as his, given the care they had taken and their remarks while removing his clothing. However, they were certain to show it to Arwen, and she would realise there was no white tree embroidered on the drawers and become suspicious. The Thought Bonds he shared with both his wife and Faramir was yet another advantage he possessed, that his captors knew nothing of. His loved ones would sense that he was not dead and in need of their aid.

He tried to distract himself from the choking darkness, by studying the clothing he had been given; threadbare breeches, which felt like those a servant had discarded, and equally worn socks. The shirt however was a more curious garment. It buttoned all the way down the front, rather than being laced at the neck as was usual, making it disturbingly easy to remove from a man in chains.

He had no illusions about what they might mean by ‘persuasion’. However, he believed that he was strong enough to endure whatever pain they might inflict. Agreeing to their proposal was out of the question. Not only would he be condemning his son to a loveless marriage, but signing his own death warrant, together with that of his Queen and Faramir. He foresaw all too well what would happen after the marriage had taken place. The rebel lords surrounding Elbeth would despatch Faramir as their greatest threat. Arwen would be next, when she opposed what they were doing to Gondor, and then finally Eldarion, once he was old enough to have a will of his own. Aragorn vowed no matter what they did to him, he would never betray the ones he loved. His death would be but a small price in exchange for their safety.

He tried to rest and fell into an uneasy sleep, waking only when a servant brought a mug of water and some unappetising leftovers, barely fit for a dog to eat. He was then left alone for long hours of waiting for the inevitable. The darkness was oppressive, as was the silence, broken only by the scurrying of what sounded suspiciously like rats.

The waiting ended when Dervorin entered his prison, clutching a parchment and his Ring of State. A servant carrying a horsewhip followed him. “If you sign this marriage contract now, you will spare yourself a great deal of pain,” Dervorin announced, though not very hopefully. “We have taken care to ensure that everyone believes you to be dead, so do not hope for rescue.”

“I will never sign!” Aragorn replied determinedly.

Immediately the servant was upon him, unbuttoning the shirt and sliding it from his shoulders before thrashing him repeatedly with the whip.

Aragorn gritted his teeth, determined not to make a sound, reminding himself that his was only a horsewhip, and not a cat of nine tails such as had torn poor Faramir’s flesh to ribbons but a few months ago. In his mind, though he did cry out, pleading with his Steward to come to save him. Yet, how could Faramir help him when he did not know where he was?

Eventually, they grew weary of beating him and the coarse shirt was pulled back over his shoulders. Bruised and bleeding, he was again alone in the darkness.

If that was all they meant to do, he could endure it until rescue came. However, there was worse in store, far worse.

Chapter Twenty – My broken heart is full of heaviness

Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness: and I looked for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none Psalm 69.20The Bible.

I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting. Isaiah 50.6The Bible.

 

Aragorn came to increasingly dread the visits of the burly servant whom he had come to think of as ‘the butcher’. His captors enjoyed reminding their prisoner that the man had been the official executioner during Denethor’s time and was a master of inflicting slow, excruciating pain. The King was no coward, yet was unable to bite back his screams when such agony was inflicted on his increasingly damaged and helpless body. With his mind, he tried to reach out with his mind to Faramir, inwardly pleading with him to come and save him from his captors. If his tormentors had expected him to beg for mercy and agree to their demands; they were swiftly disappointed. Aragorn’s will remained resolute and he never gave up hope that rescue would come soon.

Between the butcher’s visits, both the Lord of Lamedon and Dervorin of Ringlo Vale took great delight in punching him in the ribs, belly or groin, never sufficiently to cause any great damage but hard enough to inflict considerable pain. They laughed and spat in his face, while their chained and helpless captive struggled to suppress his cries of pain and frustrated rage.

On one occasion, frustrated that he had yet again refused to sign the document, authorising the marriage of his son to Elbeth; Fosco had pinioned Aragorn’s left hand to the floor, while Dervorin had stamped it repeatedly, crushing several fingers. They only ceased when he lost consciousness with the searing agony.

Always, there was the lurking fear that worse pain and humiliation lay in store. So far they had not removed his clothing, other than his shirt and had taken care not to cause any potentially fatal injury, but for how long? He could only surmise that maybe some deep-seated fear of what he symbolised held them back.

Hanna often accompanied Dervorin. She was usually armed with a knife, which caused Aragorn to shudder and fear for his manhood. However, she merely brandished it, telling him in great detail what she intended eventually to do. For the time being, she contented herself with grabbing his hair and beard and painfully pulling out clumps of them.

Aragorn became increasingly disorientated, having no way of knowing day from night in this windowless cellar. He suspected that they deliberately varied the times at which they came to ‘persuade’ him either to sign or seal the document. Even his food and drink was brought at sporadic intervals. They now brought the water in a dish, rather than a cup leaving him forced to either spill half the precious liquid, or lap it like a dog, much to his tormentors’ amusement.

The confinement was especially hard to endure for a man such as Aragorn. He was accustomed to cold and hunger from his long years as a ranger, but never confinement. Even Minas Tirith, often made him feel enclosed; therefore a dark cellar was torment indeed, to one accustomed to the open sky and the feel of the wind in his face. It was only the mental disciplines Elrond had taught him that prevented him from losing his wits. Even using all his skills, he often felt he could not breathe, and would stifle without fresh air and the sight of the sky overhead.

Aragorn grew sore and stiff; not only from his wounds but also from lack of movement and the fetters binding him. It took a supreme effort even to reach the bucket when calls of nature demanded. Only his pride and sheer force of will enabled him to do so. The King grew steadily weaker from hunger, pain and cold as the days passed. They fed him barely enough to keep him alive while his lips became parched from lack of sufficient water.

Aragorn sustained himself with thoughts of the three he loved most dearly; Arwen with her tender smile, her passionate embraces, her musical laugh and her beauty both of body and soul; Eldarion, so tiny and perfect, growing by the day, who already smiled with such love at his doting father; and Faramir, the chosen son and brother of his soul, his closest and dearest friend. Faramir’s devotion towards his lord was humbling. The Steward’s love had never faltered, even after his King’s misinterpreted command had led him to be almost beaten to death. Aragorn loved him all the more dearly once he knew the true depth of his loyalty and forgiveness.

Aragorn continually reached out with his mind towards both Faramir and his wife, hoping the Thought Bonds they shared would alert them both to his plight, though Arwen alone was the most likely to understand what he was trying convey. Her Eleven heritage meant she had a far greater perception than any of the younger Children of Ilúvatar. He continually stroked the white tree, she had so lovingly embroidered on the leg of his drawers, glad that he had at least something created with love, left to cherish in this dreadful place.

He had no idea of how long he had spent in this grim cellar. At times, when he was certain that none could hear and the pain was unbearable, he would weep in agony. One day, or night, he knew not which, the door opened softly and a small figure carrying a candle came in. To his amazement, it was a child, and not just any child, but Elbeth. She started in terror at the sight of his chains and dishevelled appearance, but did not cry out, displaying iron self-control, remarkable in one so young. In her hand, she clutched a cup and a half eaten apple, together with a slice of bread from which jam oozed on to her small fingers.

“You have no need to fear me, Elbeth,” he said softly, blinking back his tears. “I will not harm you.”

Tiptoeing closer, she eyed him curiously, undecided whether to flee or remain. “You are the man who was kind to me when grandma died,” she said at last, setting the candle down. “They told me you were a bad king who wanted to hurt me and that you were being punished for that. I don’t think you’re bad now I know it’s you! I thought it was another king as there are lots in my storybook.”

“They told you a lie, Elbeth, I would never hurt you,” Aragorn replied, “I do not want you to marry my son, that is all.”

“I don’t want to get married. I don’t know why anyone does. Boys are so noisy and dirty,” Elbeth said scornfully, moving closer and wrinkling her small nose in distaste at the stench of the place.

“You should not be here. Your mother will be angry with you,” Aragorn told her, knowing he should encourage her to leave, yet loth to lose the sight of a friendly face.

“They won’t dare be cross. I’m to be the Queen and then I shall chop off their heads!” Elbeth said haughtily. “They keep telling me that I am vital to their plans.”

Aragorn felt a pang of regret. If only he and Faramir had taken her with them a year ago, then this innocent would not be entangled within the rebels’ web of treason. “Why are you down here in the cellar?” he enquired.

“I was hungry and went to find something nice to eat in the kitchen. They had venison for supper and it tastes horrid!” she explained. “They told me not to go near the cellar as ‘Lesser the Zerper’ was dangerous. Tonight I heard you crying and I was curious who ‘Lesser the Zerper’ was. I thought you must be a monster or something, but it’s only you! Monsters don’t cry!”

“I am Elessar, but I am no usurper. You can call me ‘Strider’ as that it is easier to say!” Aragorn told her gravely. He noticed she was wearing only a nightgown and surmised it must be quite late. “You will catch a chill, Elbeth,” he said in a concerned tone.  “You should return to your bed.”

“Would you like this food, Strider?” she asked with surprising insight for a child, “I don’t think I’m hungry after all. There was nothing I could find but a sour apple and bread and jam. I wanted some cakes or maybe beef jelly.”

“Yes I am hungry,” he replied quietly. He was rewarded by small fingers thrusting the food into his larger ones. He had to force himself not to gulp it down. After what they had been feeding him on, no Royal Banquet could have tasted finer. He ate every crumb including the apple core.

“Have they hurt you?” Elbeth enquired, catching sight of his maimed left hand.

“I bumped my hand,” he told her, not wanting a child to know the horrors he had endured.

“Does it hurt a lot?” she asked.

“Not really,” he lied.

Elbeth looked unconvinced.

 “Have anything to drink too?” Aragorn asked, changing the subject. How he hated having to beg from a child but he was so thirsty.

“It’s only water. I wanted some milk.” Elbeth replied, giving him the cup, which he drained greedily before handing it back to her. Her small hands felt frozen now.

“You must go now or you will catch a chill,” Aragorn insisted, “Thank you so much. Do not tell anyone you have seen me or they might punish you.”

“I will visit you again. I like you better than I like them and I won’t tell,” Elbeth promised, bending to take the cup and then to his surprise, kissing him on the brow before picking up the candle and leaving as silently as she had come.

Aragorn could have wept again at this first loving gesture since he was captured. A naturally affectionate man, he had greatly missed the love and warmth that he had grown accustomed to these past years. Even in the wilderness, there had been his horse that would nuzzle his hand in exchange for an apple or handful of hay.

Elbeth kept her word and nearly every night, she would come and bring him food and drink, ignoring Aragorn’s half hearted pleas not to come too often lest she be discovered. Though had she had not fed him, he wondered if he would still be alive. The food he was given by his captors was inedible, even for one as famished as he. He assumed their aim was to weaken him so much that he would not know what he was signing.

Much as he hated the thought of a child spending time in a damp and dismal cellar, or seeing him with his face was bruised and splattered with blood, he did not know what he would have done without both her friendly little face, and the extra food and water. He tried to hide his wounds from her under the thin blanket. Although, she asked no further questions, Aragorn suspected Elbeth had some idea of what they were doing to him. Often her small face was puckered in distress when she saw him thus.

Despite Elbeth’s visits, Aragorn grew increasingly despondent when the days passed with no sign of rescue. He was certain that the bonds he shared with Arwen and Faramir would tell them he was still alive. Even here, he could sense them both in his mind and knew they could do the same. But, how could they ever find him? As he grew weaker, though, so did the bond, and he could feel his last link with his loved ones slipping away as his strength faded.

Yet, he had clung to hope until today. When Faramir had walked in, his heart had soared with hope that his loving and faithful Steward had come to rescue him, mixed with the fear that he had been captured too.

Then all hope had died in that dreadful moment when Faramir had struck him and spewed forth his hatred. Aragorn had barely felt the blow; but his Steward’s words and actions had broken his heart.

Chapter Twenty One – Staring into the abyss

He who fights against monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster in the process. And when you stare persistently into an abyss, the abyss also stares into you. -Friedrich Nietzsche

Despite Faramir’s cruel betrayal, Aragorn could not bring himself to hate his former friend. Had not Faramir suffered dreadfully and almost died because of his folly but a few short months ago? He loved his Steward as a father loved a son and how could a parent hate his own child? In Faramir, he had believed he had found a kindred spirit and lifelong friend. His dreams had now proved to be nothing but a cruel deception. It seemed that a King could never choose a friend from amongst those who might lay claim to his throne. The crown and the power it bestowed was apparently too great a temptation for any man to resist. Aragorn had believed from their Thought Bond that Faramir bore him no malice over his time in prison. However, the rebel lords must have ignited some hidden spark of resentment that the Steward had suppressed, and then fanned the flames to entice him into their plot. Maybe if like Éowyn, Faramir had blamed him at the time and vented his fury upon him, this would never have happened?

He could hardly believe his own eyes that his once loyal and loving friend could be so fickle as to have become a traitor. If it had been any other, save Faramir, the King could have believed that they were dissembling and it were all part of some elaborate scheme to rescue him. Faramir, though, was incapable of even speaking a falsehood. No, it would be impossible for his Steward to engage in deception. Faramir could only have rescued him openly: most likely by force of arms with the King’s Guard and the White Company at his side.

Aragorn was also puzzled that since Faramir had betrayed him, he not used his King’s signet ring to seal the marriage document. Aragorn had once shown his Steward the secret of its design. He could only assume that Faramir had forgotten. It had been over a year ago since it was last mentioned.

He felt far more sorrow and hurt than anger towards his Steward. They were both now surely doomed; Faramir was as much a victim of their infamy as he was. The rebels would kill the poor deluded fool once he had served their purpose. His only hope for reconciliation with his former friend lay beyond the circles of the world now.

The King’s hopes of rescue had lain mostly with Faramir, the most well versed man alive in Gondorian politics and geography, as well as the most intelligent and loyal. Or so Aragorn had wrongly believed. It now seemed likely Faramir had even informed the rebels that he went unarmed to the Houses of Healing and was weakened after draining his strength from prolonged healing sessions over many weeks.

All that was left to Aragorn now, was to protect Arwen and Eldarion as best he could by refusing to sign the document. He hoped that Arwen would seek help from Rohan to protect her and their son and secure Eldarion’s right to the crown.

Aragorn sighed when he thought of Éomer, so hot headed and impulsive, yet a loyal and loving friend, who once healed of his head injury, had been full of contrition over his fight with Faramir. It seemed though that the young King of Rohan’s reservations about his brother in law had been all too perceptive. How ironic that Éomer, not noted for insights had suspected that Faramir was not as virtuous as he appeared to be!

The entrance of the ‘butcher’ interrupted Aragorn’s melancholy musings. Ominously tonight, the man carried a sharp knife and a brazier filled with heated coals. The Lords of Lamedon and Ringlo Vale followed together with Faramir. The Steward stared fixedly at the floor and refused to meet Aragorn’s accusing gaze. Hanna trailed behind them, giggling and clutching a knife of her own.

The burly servant placed a lighted torch in the sconce on the wall and retreated to the back of the cellar, a look of gleeful anticipation on his heavy features.

Aragorn wondered where Fontos of Lossarnach was tonight. Alone amongst the conspirators; he seemed to have little appetite for torture. He had usually looked away or suggested they leave the King more time to reflect. Aragorn almost pitied the young man. Married to Dervorin’s daughter, he seemed a reluctant rather than enthusiastic member of the group. He had never been left alone with Aragorn, as if the others feared the King might influence him to help him escape.

Dervorin was carrying a cattle brand while Fosco clutched the now familiar decree commanding the marriage of Eldarion and Elbeth, together with quill and ink and Aragorn’s signet ring. The two rebel lords reminded Aragorn of a pig and a rat in appearance. Dervorin, like most Gondorians was tall, but also very fat, with square features, a ruddy complexion and deep-set eyes. Fontos was much the same height but very lean with thin features and sharp eyes that darted nervously around him.

Aragorn tried to brace himself for the inevitable pain he knew that would follow their arrival.

The Lord of Ringlo Vale waved the parchment in front of Aragorn’s face. “Sign this tonight, Elessar and save yourself a good deal of pain. You can see that resistance is futile. Even your own Steward has turned against you!”

“I would advise you to sign,” Faramir said harshly. Still, he did not look at the King. Dervorin eyed him suspiciously. “Sign, you fool!” Faramir continued in a more menacing tone,” I would see my niece have her rightful place!” He aimed a half-hearted kick at Aragorn’s ribs.

“Shame on you, son of Denethor! I believed you once to be a man of honour, I see now that you have none!” Aragorn replied, looking directly at Faramir, noticing he was elaborately dressed in the colours of Rohan rather than of Gondor. The Steward stared fixedly at the floor.

“Why are you doing this?” Aragorn asked his Steward.

“You stole my birthright, took my rightful place, humiliated me and had me beaten in prison,” Faramir replied. “The Lord of Lamedon has offered me redress for my wrongs.”

Aragorn sighed inwardly. It was just as he had feared.

“This stubborn creature refuses to listen to reason. Words are a waste of breath with him!” said Fosco, punching the helpless prisoner in the guts as he spoke.

Aragorn flinched but made no sound. He glared defiantly at his tormentors.

Fosco nodded to the servant who came forward and snatched away the filthy blanket that covered the King. “We are taking this privilege away from you first, Elessar,” he said. “I warn you, your clothes will be next if you do not cooperate.”

“Let me try to persuade him!” Hanna said gleefully, brandishing her knife.

“Later, my dear,” Dervorin told her. “I promise you will have your turn.”

Hanna giggled.

Fosco nodded to the burly servant, who came forward, knife in hand. Without warning, he sliced it across the back of Aragorn’s injured hand. This time, the King was unable to prevent himself from crying out.

“Sign now and spare yourself further pain!” Fosco demanded.

“Never!” Aragorn replied, regaining his composure. He felt as if he could hardly breathe. His hand throbbed painfully. Never, though, would he betray his wife and child. Nor would he hand his people over to the rule of these miscreants.

“Why do you persist in your foolishness, Elessar?” Dervorin asked. “You have no more independence now than one of my cattle!” He plunged the brand into the brazier as he spoke. “As it seems you have not learned that yet, we shall have to teach you better than the Wizard and Elves who placed you over us did! Undo your shirt!  Branding you like one of my cattle should remove some of your delusions!”

“I take no orders from traitors!” Aragorn replied defiantly.

It is you who have betrayed me, by your usurpation of the Stewards' lawful rule!” Faramir snapped, ”The claim of Isildur’s heirs was rejected by my longfathers; but still you took the throne.”

“If I remember rightly, you were the first in Gondor to hail me as King, Lord Faramir,” Aragorn retorted. “You shame the ancestors of whom you speak!”

“Enough talk!” Fosco snapped, “I give you one final chance to sign, Elessar! We have treated you gently until now, but rest assured, we shall show you the true meaning of pain very soon. We will stop at nothing to make you sign the authorisation for the marriage. Proud and stubborn though you are, I promise you that we will break you.”

“Never!” Aragorn replied. “Unlike some here present, I keep my word.”

Fosco beckoned to the servant, who held Aragorn down while he bared the King’s shoulder.

“Perhaps we should brand him on the face?” Fosco mused.

“Better still on the rump, like I would any other animal that is my property,” Dervorin chortled.

“Why don’t you let me do it?” Hanna pleaded, an eager gleam in her eye. “I can think of a better place still!”

Fosco ignored her. He retrieved the now red-hot glowing brand from the brazier. Instead of advancing upon the helpless Aragorn, he turned to Faramir.

“Here is a good chance for you to begin to avenge your wrongs and show your commitment to our cause,” he said. “You shall have the pleasure of branding him.”

The King watched in horror. Surely gentle natured Faramir could never so much as torture a fly, far less one he had but a few weeks since professed his deep love for? Aragorn hoped that his Steward was at least ashamed of his cruel and treacherous actions. He noticed that he even wore the Ring of Barahir on his finger. To think that his once dearest friend was not only a traitor, but a thief as well!

"Do not destroy your soul as well as your honour, Faramir," he said quietly. If Faramir carried out this terrible deed, his sin would surely destroy them both.

Chapter Twenty Two – The unkindest cut of all.

This was the most unkindest cut of all;
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors’ arms,
Quite vanquished him.
- William Shakespeare (1564–1616), Julius Caesar, act 3, sc. 2

“Hurry! It is cooling fast!” Dervorin said impatiently. “Maybe we should let Lady Hanna try her methods of persuasion instead?”

“My arm is still weak after all the ill treatment I suffered.” Faramir said, by way of excuse, taking care to avoid Aragorn’s reproachful gaze. He could see that where his lord’s shoulder had been bared, the flesh was bruised and discoloured. Causing him further pain seemed cruel beyond measure. He dared not be overcome with compassion. He must harden his heart and focus on achieving his mission whatever the cost. The Steward struggled to remain impassive as he battled with a tumult of emotions. How could he perform such a hideous act upon a man who was his dearly loved friend as well as his King? To refuse would reveal his true intentions and condemn both Aragorn and himself to certain death. He resolutely hardened his heart. He had chosen this path and would have to follow it now to the end, however bitter. ”I have never branded an animal before,” Faramir said coldly.

“Maybe it would be better if I were to do it?” Fosco suggested. “I know you once supported the usurper so this must be hard for you, Lord Faramir.” He moved towards the Steward to take the brand from his hand.

“It needs applying for at least three seconds,” Dervorin informed them,” You do it, Fosco, if we wait for Lord Faramir to decide whom he truly supports, we will be here a very long time. It was a mistake to invite him here.”

“You dare to question my loyalty, Lord Dervorin?” Faramir snapped. In his heart, he tried to send a silent apology to his King. He raised the brand and brought it down on Aragorn’s shoulder. A stench of burning flesh combined with an agonised scream of pain from the King assailed his senses. Faramir forced himself to count to three.

Fosco snatched the brand away and flung it back into the brazier. “Careful now, you don’t want him dying on us before he signs the document,” he cautioned Faramir. “I told you Lord Faramir was loyal to us, would you insult a valuable ally?” he demanded of Dervorin.

“You have finally convinced me of your loyalty, Lord Faramir, though you should have branded his face,” Dervorin sneered, “Why not let everyone see that the once proud King Elessar is now no more than one of my bullocks!”

“Sign the paper you fool!” Fosco ordered, waving it under Aragorn’s nose. “At least put your seal on it! Or do you want us to brand you again?”

“Let’s strip him now and have some fun!” Hanna suggested gleefully.

The servant moved towards Aragorn and shook him. Getting no response, Dervorin reacted by punching the helpless man viciously in the belly.

“You are wasting your time,” Fosco shrugged. “The weakling has fainted. There is no point in trying to persuade him further tonight. Leave his clothes until he is aware of the humiliation of losing them. We will seek our beds now and try again tomorrow to beat some sense into the fool.”

He led the way out of the cellar. Faramir was the last to leave. He stole a last glance at Aragorn before the torch was extinguished. The King lay senseless, his noble features contorted with agony .His shoulder was now disfigured with the cipher of Ringlo Vale branded on his flesh.

“Are you certain I cannot change your mind about the girl I offered you, Lord Faramir?” Fosco enquired, ”I am certain you would find her a most entertaining companion to celebrate your joining us with!”

“No, thank you, not tonight. I would like time to try to think of a way to get Elessar to sign, since he is proving so stubborn. I had hoped my presence would suffice to persuade him.” Faramir replied, trying to hide his disgust that the serving girls who ought to be under their master’s protection were being thus abused.

“Maybe after your deeds of tonight, he will change his mind,” Dervorin replied. “ I am certain we will succeed tomorrow though, for no man could endure the pain we are going to inflict on him then!”

Hastily excusing himself and overcome by nausea, the Steward hardly reached the privy in time to lose his supper. Still retching slightly, Faramir made his way to his room and locked the door. Throwing himself on the bed, he buried his face in the pillow, forcing himself to control his emotions. During his years as a soldier, he had seen and done much that had sickened him. This, however, was far, far worse. He had only used violence to fight for survival when he had needed to choose between killing or being killed.

Harming an unarmed man was outside every known code of honour. It shocked him to discover that he was even capable of such a deed. Branding helpless victims was the behaviour of the minions of the Dark Lord, not an honourable soldier. Yet, if he had refused, Aragorn’s one hope of rescue would have been lost. He desperately prayed to the Valar to forgive the evil he had done in hope of achieving good. Maybe by some miracle he could free Aragorn from this place, but he could never now be free of the actions of this night. Kind and compassionate though Aragorn was, a King could not let such a deed go unpunished

Aragorn’s warning had been only too true. Tonight, he had destroyed his own soul. When he had agreed to play the traitor try to save his lord, he had expected it would be dangerous and known it would be unpleasant. However, to have to sink to such deeds of depravity as this went far beyond what he could ever have imagined in his worse nightmares.

He became aware of a terrible searing emptiness inside him. Aragorn had unsurprisingly severed the Thought Bond. He knew now what Arwen had meant about the sensation of having one’s soul torn asunder.

Faramir poured the icy water from the pitcher on his washstand into the bowl. He then pulled off all his clothing and began to wash himself. He felt as if every inch of his body were covered with some nameless filth, but however hard he scrubbed, he felt no cleaner. Eventually, he gave up his hopeless task and dressed again in clean garments.

The heartache was almost more than he could bear. How he wished he were at home with Éowyn beside him! He longed to feel her arms around him and benefit from her strength and practical common sense. Part of him envied her for not being Númenorean. She could never feel the pain of a severed thought bond, though at the same time, she could never know its beauty and joy.

He forced himself to try and rest, trying to preserve his sanity by filling his mind with images of his beautiful wife. He dared not picture her with Elestelle, though, so closely did they both associate their daughter with the King. Then, would even Éowyn ever want to set eyes on him again, after what he had done? He turned his thoughts back to Aragorn. From what the treacherous lords had said, this was his last chance to think of a way to save him before they slowly tortured him to death. Overwhelmed and exhausted, Faramir finally fell into an uneasy sleep.

***

When Aragorn regained consciousness, he was alone in the darkness; the silence broken only by the sound of his own laboured breathing.

His shoulder throbbed painfully while his ribs and belly felt bruised and sore. Sweat poured from his brow, making him suspect that he was becoming feverish. Despair seized him. Faramir had willingly joined in torturing and humiliating him.

How could a bond that was supposed to endure for a lifetime, be so heartlessly cast aside after a few short months? Those of Númenorean lineage were noted for their staunch loyalty and depth of love for their friends. However could he have been so misguided as to have loved Faramir so dearly? He regarded him as the son he had always yearned for. Yet, still he could not bring himself to either curse or hate his betrayer.

Tonight, Aragorn had done something he would not have imagined he would ever have to do, broken a Thought Bond. It was usually fatal to sever such a link, but after such a betrayal, breaking it would have little or no effect on Faramir. He had broken the bond by the force of his will, before his heart broke. Maybe that would have been better? There was nothing in store now but ever increasing pain followed by death. He would give back the Gift sooner than risk betraying his wife and child to the clutches of these monsters.

Aragorn’s thoughts turned to Arwen and the child she had born him. He could not hold back the tears. His loving, devoted and beautiful wife had given up everything for him. He had hoped in return, he could give her many years of happiness as she ruled at his side and they raised their children together. After less than four years of marriage, he would leave her a widow and in dire peril from their enemies, if she did not fade first from grief. Aragorn tried to reach out to his Queen with his mind and tell her how much he loved her. He discovered he was too weak now to reach her.

The King’s body throbbed in agony. He had unwittingly placed his wife and child in grave danger, his best friend had betrayed him and his country was at the mercy of traitors. He had tried his utmost be a good King and this was his reward.

The door opened quietly and the now familiar form of Elbeth, tiptoed into the room. Setting down her candle, she hurried to Aragorn’s side. He tried to blink back his tears, but it was too late. She came to kneel beside him and wiped away his tears with the sash of her nightgown. Tenderly, she kissed his brow. Her innocent devotion made him weep all harder. Especially, knowing as he did, that she was surely destined to be as much a victim as he was. Aware, he had not long left and not wishing her to see him in an even worse condition, he reached a decision.

“Why are you crying, Strider?” she asked, “ Has someone hurt you? Let me kiss it better!”

“You already have, Elbeth,” he assured her, “I am sad, as I will be leaving soon.”

Chapter Twenty Three - You faithless, most faithful of friends!

Du treulos treuster Freund! (You faithless, most faithful of friends!) -Wagner: Tristan und Isolde.

Elbeth burst into tears.

“Hush, Elbeth, or they will hear you,” Aragorn chided gently.

“Can I come with you?” she asked, sniffing loudly and making a valiant effort to suppress her tears.

“One day you shall, but it is not your time to follow me now,” he answered gravely. “Can you remember something for me, little one? It is important”

“I’m not little!” she retorted indignantly, her tears swiftly forgotten. “I shall be eight on my next birthday.”

“You are old enough then, to remember what I want to tell you,” Aragorn replied. He would not have thought her older than about six despite her almost adult demeanour. He supposed her harsh life with Hanna and her grandmother had made her grow up all too quickly. As for her lack of inches, he very much doubted they would have nourished her sufficiently.

“What do you want me to remember?” Elbeth asked impatiently. “I can’t, if you don’t tell me!”

“If you are taken to see Prince Eldarion, you will meet his mother, Queen Arwen,” Aragorn replied. “When no one else is listening, I want you to tell her this; that Estel loved her and Eldarion very much. Tell the Queen too she must go with her son to seek shelter with Éomer. Can you remember all that?”

“Yes,” said Elbeth, looking slightly bewildered. “I’m to give the Queen your message.”

“Will you promise me?” Aragorn said urgently. He could die comforted if he could send this last message to his beloved Arwen.

“Yes, I promise,” Elbeth, said solemnly. “I don’t want to meet Eldarion though!”

“He is a beautiful little baby with a lovely smile and black curls. He should have cut his first tooth by now,” Aragorn said wistfully, the tears starting to flow again at the thought of his son. Resolutely, he blinked them away. He was still the King and kings did not weep like infants in front of others. He would at least try to uphold what little dignity remained to him.

“I brought you some bread and honey, wine the grown ups left and even a cake,” Elbeth announced, pulling the crumbling food out of the pockets of her robe. She handed him a dented pewter goblet, which had obviously seen better days.

He forced himself to eat. However, the slowly rising fever made the food taste like sawdust. “You have the cake,” he told her.

She accepted gratefully and sat munching it while he finished the bread and honey and drank the wine.

“I’d better go now,” she said at last, stuffing the empty goblet in her pocket and picking up the candle. Goodbye, Strider, I’ll miss you.”

“I shall miss you too, Elbeth,” he replied swallowing hard. “Wait, come here!”

Although puzzled she obeyed.

With a supreme effort, the King lifted his hand and placed it on her dark head “Be thou blessed, Elbeth. May the years of thy life be long and joyous!” Aragorn intoned solemnly.

Elbeth felt a sudden surge of something she could not describe. It was like being given a nice present only far better. Her solemn grey eyes met the King’s. “I wish you were my daddy,” she sniffed tearfully. She took up her candle and with a last look at her mysterious friend; she was gone.

Alone again in the darkness, Aragorn finally allowed himself to give way to his grief. He tried to gather what little strength he had left to prepare to surrender the Gift for when the new pain they planned to inflict on him became more than he could bear.

He tried to reach out with his mind to bid Arwen farewell. However, even that effort proved too much. He sadly resigned to parting from his beloved wife without bidding her farewell. His thoughts drifted again towards Faramir wondering how one he loved so much, could have betrayed him so cruelly. The fever continued to rise within his tortured body granting him the mercy of oblivion.

**

The cock crowed, heralding dawn. Faramir was roused from a few hours of uneasy sleep filled with hideous nightmares. The waking reality though, was far worse than his darkest dreams. The stench of burning flesh and the sound of Aragorn’s agonised cry seemed to linger in the air still.  Nausea welled up again within him.

A dreadful void was within the Steward’s soul. It were as if half had been torn away leaving the remaining portion to soon shrivel and die. He had lost the most beautiful spiritual experience he had ever known. He had become the lowest of the low. He was no longer worthy to be even called a Man. Faramir was all too aware he could not waste time dwelling on his unspeakable actions. Today was his last chance to save his King if he were not to be slowly tortured to death.

Faramir inwardly cursed himself for having slept after what he had done. He should have spent the hours thinking of a way to rescue Aragorn. It did not matter how many times he digested the facts and tried to come up with a better solution. There seemed to be no way that he could rescue Aragorn from his captors. Not only, would he have to smuggle him out undetected, but he also needed to get the keys to unlock his chains. He had no idea where they might be, although he suspected they were perhaps attached to Fosco’s belt for safekeeping.

Only one way to spare Aragorn remained; and that was almost too horrible to contemplate. It seemed now the only help he could offer his friend; was to grant him a swift and merciful death. Sweating heavily, Faramir fingered his dagger and wondered; how could he bring himself to plunge it deep into his beloved King’s heart?

The Steward sat up in bed, and tried and tried to think of some other way. There was none. He could not hope to overpower them all. He was certain if he escaped and tried to fetch help, they would do their worst to Aragorn before he could return with his Rangers.

When a few months ago, he believed he had accidentally killed Éomer, that seemed to be the vilest crime imaginable, but killing Aragorn would be immeasurably worse. Not only was he the High King, but also the saviour and renewer of Gondor. More than that, he was Faramir’s best and most dearly loved friend, who had saved his life and given him everything his father had not.

The Steward got out of bed and dressed quickly, determined to do the dreadful deed before his courage failed. He had no doubt that they would first carry out Hanna’s vile suggestion. That would be followed by every cruel and slow torture they could think of until crazed by pain; Aragorn would either sign the document commanding the marriage of Eldarion and Elbeth, or more likely will his own death, to prevent endangering those he loved.

After sharpening his dagger, Faramir took up a candle and made his way to the cellar where Aragorn was imprisoned. No one challenged him. Had they done so, he would have told them that he was having another attempt at persuading the King to sign the document.

The door was unlocked, since there was no way a chained man could escape. Faramir quietly slipped inside. To his relief, Aragorn was asleep. He drew his dagger and prepared to strike, weighing up how to do it as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Instead, he found himself studying the ravaged, yet still noble features of the friend he had loved ever since their first meeting, when Aragorn had brought him back from the very brink of death. Memories flashed before him; the joyful day of the King’s coronation, when to his amazement Aragorn had returned the White Rod to him, the first of many kindnesses. He recalled the King’s many attempts to treat his injuries, which he had been too ill at ease to accept until their time at the Hunting Lodge. True friendship had sprung between them when he had had and Éowyn had saved the King’s life after Aragorn had again saved him. Faramir remembered the months after the fight with Éomer, when Aragorn had painstakingly nursed him back to health and saved the life of his baby daughter.

How could he kill the man who had done all this for him? Yet what other choice did he have?

He would plunge the dagger through Aragorn’s heart. Then, much as he desired to die with his lord, he must instead endeavour to escape. He needed to return to Arwen and submit to whatever death she decreed for him. First he must make certain that Éowyn and Elestelle were safe in Rohan and together with Eldarion, out of the clutches of their enemies.

Faramir knew he should linger no longer, or his resolve would fail. He could not, however, deal the fatal blow without a farewell kiss of blessing to one he loved as father, brother, friend, mentor and lord.

For the first time since he had come to this den of foulest evil, Faramir allowed himself to set aside the mask of deception that had gained him entry.   He had not dared give any sign of his true purpose to Aragorn when he had seen the King. He had feared that if he laid the traitor's mask aside for even one moment, he would be unable to don it once more and play the part he despised.

Careful not to rouse the King, Faramir knelt beside him and murmured, “Farewell, dear friend and noblest of Kings. I do this deed not out of malice but from the depths of the love that I bear you. I hope beyond the circles of the world that you will know just how much I loved and admired you.” Choking back his tears of grief and horror at what he was about to do, he gently kissed the King’s brow. He knew he would never see him again; not even beyond death: most surely he would be cursed to wander forever without rest, like the oath breakers who betrayed Isildur.

Aragorn’s brow was burning with fever. Faramir wavered, wondering if maybe the King were about to die swiftly and naturally from the Fever, before dismissing the thought. The blood and pus stained shirt he was wearing obviously concealed many wounds, an infection from which was causing his fever. Aragorn’s eyes and nose were not red and running, which was the main symptom of the contagion ravaging Gondor. Wound fever was serious, yet a victim might recover. Even if he did not, it took several days or longer to kill.

Grasping the dagger firmly and trying to stop his hand from shaking, Faramir prepared to strike.

“I am sorry,” he whispered, “so very sorry! Much rather would I pierce my own heart than yours!”

Chapter Twenty-Four - If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well It were done quickly-

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well It were done quickly-

Macbeth - Shakespeare

But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue - Hamlet - Shakespeare.

Faramir prepared to thrust the dagger deep into Aragorn’s heart. He wavered, his hand trembling so much that he almost dropped the blade. However could he pierce the noblest heart ever to beat in any man? Maybe it would be easier to cut his throat instead?

Again, he levelled the dagger and this time pressed it against the King’s neck. The bitter irony of it all; that he who had so ardently desired the return of the King, would be the only Steward in Gondor’s long history to murder his lord. He, Faramir, reviled by his father as ‘the wizard’s pupil’, was about to kill the very King that Mithrandir had crowned! Whatever would Gandalf thought or even his father? He gave a bitter laugh. If he truly were the wizard’s pupil, he could think of a way to save Aragorn!

The King now resembled Denethor more closely than ever. He had aged greatly and his features were so worn and haggard. Whether that made killing him harder or easier, Faramir dared not question.

Yet again, Faramir prepared to strike. A drop of crimson blood marked where he had placed the sharp point before. All he had to do was to plunge it in deeply. Thereby he could kill his friend swiftly and painlessly.

Faramir was verging on hysteria now. In his agitation, he clutched at the fabric of his tunic with his free hand. He felt the vial of spider venom that Tarostar had given him in his pocket. A sudden flash of inspiration struck him. The stirrings of a plan by which he had a slender hope of saving Aragorn began to form in his agitated brain.

Aragorn moaned softly. Faramir longed to comfort him but resolutely hardened his heart. He knew he must maintain his façade of hatred if his plan was to succeed. If he once relented, he would not have the strength to maintain his deception. If he reached out to the stricken King, he would not want to ever let him go again.

Reluctantly, he left Aragorn in his squalid surroundings and crept back up the steps and along the long stone corridor, which led to the kitchens. What he needed to put his plan into action would most surely be found there.

**

Alone again in his prison, Aragorn sank deeper into despair. He could feel himself fast growing weaker from his wounds, cold, fever and starvation. The feel of cold steel against his throat had awakened him. He sensed Faramir’s presence in the room He had managed to remain motionless, lacking the strength to confront his treacherous Steward. Just how low had Faramir fallen? Not only to have branded him but to come to gloat over his misery and torture him with a knife! Until yesterday, he had still hoped to somehow survive this ordeal. That, though, was before the heartbreak of Faramir’s treachery. Aragorn knew he was dying.

**

To Faramir’s dismay, despite the earliness of the hour, there were already several servants bustling around in the kitchens.

“You should still be in bed, Lady Elbeth!” he heard a voice saying.

“I’m used to getting up at dawn,” Elbeth’s voice replied. “Besides, I’m bored and it’s fun watching you bake the bread.”

“You can come back later, after breakfast, my lady,” the voice replied. “You could get hurt while we’re boiling the water and what would your mother say?”

“She’s wouldn’t care!” Elbeth retorted. “She minds only if Lord Dervorin thinks she looks pretty in her new dresses!”

“Well, I’d be in trouble if you were hurt, so please go away and play now my lady!”

“Will you give me a honey cake if I do?”

“Here you are, Lady Elbeth. Now please let us get on with our work or we will be in trouble!”

Elbeth scampered away with her prize, almost colliding with Faramir on her way out. “Hello, Lord Faramir!” she said brightly, pleased to see someone she liked. “Would you like some cake? It tastes good!” Breaking the cake in two, she offered him half of it.

Not wanting to upset her, he took a small bite and handed it back. “You can call me, ‘Uncle Faramir’,” he told her. “Did they not tell you that your father was my brother?”

“I think they may have done but I forgot,” Elbeth replied. “They all say they’re my uncles, though I don’t believe them. Are you my real uncle then? What about Lesser the Zerper? He told me to call him ‘Strider’ but is he my Uncle too? I don’t think he is very well, as they have hurt him. You’re his friend, aren’t you? Can’t you help him as you’re a grown up?”

Elbeth’s innocent prattle tore at Faramir’s heart. There was no doubt in his heart now that this was his niece. She had obviously inherited a kind heart from his mother and from Boromir. To think that she had somehow found and befriended Aragorn! He felt more ashamed than ever of his own actions. He had a sudden idea, as Elbeth was obviously familiar with the kitchen staff. “Did the cook give you the cake or did you take it?” he asked, although he already knew the answer.

“She gave it me, but I can take anything I want,” Elbeth boasted,” They give me horrid things to eat like venison and syllabub, so I take something nicer like bread and jam. They didn’t bring my nurse here so no one tells me what to do now!”

“I should like an onion,” said Faramir. ”Could you get me one without them catching you?”

“Of course I could!” Elbeth boasted cheerfully. “Just you see! Why do you want a nasty onion though? A cake would be much nicer.”

“I like onions and I want to play a game with it,” Faramir told her. “Do they let you play outside?”

“Of course I can go anywhere I want. I’m going to be the Queen!” Elbeth replied proudly.

“Bring it to me by the stables,” Faramir told her, “and remember it is a secret! That is an important part of the game.”

Elbeth put a finger to her lips. She then giggled and ran back to the kitchens.

**

Faramir wandered outside into the cold early morning air. There was a slight frost, which the rising sun had not yet had time to melt He shivered while he waited for Elbeth to appear. He hoped she would arrive before the rest of the household were abroad.

He slipped into the stables and patted Zachus. The gelding was watching him from over the door of his stall. Faramir then strolled carelessly around the stable yard until he came to where the sacks of oats were stored. Glancing around to see that no one was looking, he cut a piece of coarse sackcloth, which he pocketed.

As soon as he saw Elbeth coming, he sauntered towards her and was rewarded by the feel of an onion being slipped into his hand.

“Told you so!” she said triumphantly. “I got a nice juicy apple too! Wouldn’t you like that better than a horrid old onion?”

 “This game specially requires an onion,” explained Faramir. “Thank you, Elbeth.”

I’d better go back now before Mummy leaves Lord Dervorin’s room. I’m not calling him uncle, I hate him!” Elbeth said fiercely. She skipped away while Faramir, secreted his prize in his pocket.

The Steward made his way back to the cellar, walking as casually as he could. Once he was inside Aragorn’s prison, he sat down beside the motionless King and started to peel the onion in front of his face, while keeping his own head turned away.

Soon Aragorn’s eyes began to smart and run. Blinking, he opened them and gazed sadly at Faramir through streaming eyes.

Faramir forced himself not to reveal his rescue plan. As well as the danger of being distracted by his yearning to comfort his friend, someone could walk in at any moment. He hoped if they did, it would appear he had thought up a new method of torture to inflict on the helpless man.

Relentlessly, the Steward took the sackcloth from his pocket and ignoring Aragorn’s feeble struggles, rubbed it round the King’s nose until it was raw and reddened.

“Why are you doing this?” Aragorn reproached him; “I loved you as my own son!”

Not daring to reply, lest he betrayed himself, Faramir said nothing. He kept his head turned away. He could hear them moving around on the floor above now. The household was starting to go about its morning business. There was just no time to explain to the confused and feverish King. It was just too dangerous; especially now he had devised a plan of rescue.

“Where is Arwen? What have you done to her, you traitor?” Aragorn asked accusingly.

With a final vigorous rub of the sackcloth, Faramir rose to his feet, pocketed the onion skins and without a backward glance, made his way quietly back to his room.

**

A few hours later, Faramir was eating luncheon with his host and fellow guests. The burly servant, who had assisted with torturing Aragorn the previous night, entered and spoke quietly in Dervorin’s ear.

The Lord of Ringlo Vale paled and then addressed the others. “I have reason to believe that Elessar has contracted the fever,” he said grimly.“ We must stay away from him for fear of contagion. I doubt he will last long in his weakened condition. Curse the man! I was determined to get him to sign the document today.”

"How do you know it is the contagion?" Fosco enquired. “It is more likely to be wound fever that ails him."

"I am told his eyes and nose are red and watering, which is a sure sign of contagion," Dervorin replied grimly.

“Trust the stubborn idiot to cheat us!” Faramir said harshly, “I have had the infection, so if you wish, I could go and see if he still lives later today. Maybe, if we leave him to suffer for a while, he will sign in desperation!”

“I doubt it,” said Dervorin.” If you are you are certain you cannot catch the fever you could be our last hope of persuading him .We dare not even risk the servants for fear they pass on the contagion to us.”

Faramir struggled to repress his feelings of elation. His plan was working even better than he dared hope. “If Elessar dies without authorising the marriage, I shall do everything in my power to see that Lady Elbeth receives all that is due to her,” he told them earnestly. “The Elven witch will have no one other than myself to turn to for advice.”

“You are wise, Lord Faramir,” Dervorin replied with a smile which did not reach his eyes, leaving the Steward with no illusions to his eventual fate at the hands of these ruthless men.

Elbeth stared at Faramir accusingly for his failure to help her friend. “Lesser the Zerper is nice!” she exclaimed, “If he is ill, you should get him some medicine to make him better!”

“You do not understand that he is wicked and stole your rightful inheritance,” Dervorin said patting her on the head condescendingly.

Elbeth scowled.

“You should have done as I suggested to begin with!” Hanna complained. ”You men were far too soft with Elessar. Now he threatens us all with his contagion!”

After breakfast, Fosco remained at the table drinking to console himself after the setback to his plans, while Dervorin flirted with Hanna even more outrageously than the day before. The tenant farmers were all muttering anxiously amongst themselves about the risks of catching the fever. They were all terrified of it, as one had lost a brother in Minas Tirith to the infection. He blamed Aragorn for his loss because the King had been occupied tending a sick child at the time.

“If you will excuse me, I should like to exercise my horse,” Faramir told them when he left the room. Elbeth followed him.

“Why don’t you help Strider?” she asked the Steward.

“I cannot,” Faramir replied, unable to bring himself to look at her.

“Why not?” she persisted, tugging at his sleeve.

“He…he was unkind to me. He rules Gondor when I was meant to. He made me walk through the streets wearing a sack and sent me to prison,” Faramir replied, knowing he was within earshot of the others.

Elbeth frowned, trying to digest the information. “That wasn’t fair,” she pronounced. “I still think him nice though and you are being unkind!” With those parting words, she left, her imperious manner reminding Faramir very much of his late brother.

Faramir saddled Zachus and rode him around the grounds, all the time watching to see if he were being observed. It seemed though, that after yesterday’s events, he was trusted. He could still scarcely believe how he had managed to commit such a wicked act. Now, even they escaped from here would most certainly forfeit Aragorn’s friendship forever and with it his life. Yet, he could die happy just to know that his King were alive and well, and Gondor again under his wise and just rule.

Returning to his room, Faramir retrieved Arwen’s tapestry needle from where he had secreted it inside his tunic and dipped it in water. Then carefully, uncorking the vial of spider venom, he dipped the point of the needle in it, and then carefully put it aside to dry.

**

Several hours later, after another vast meal, Dervorin and his guests sat in the dining room carousing. When they became sufficiently intoxicated not to notice his absence, Faramir made his way back to the cellar where Aragorn lay.

The King was tossing and moaning with pain and fever, unable to find a comfortable place to lie because of his wounds and the shackles securing him. He was vainly trying to moisten his parched lips with his tongue.

Even human instinct that Faramir possessed cried out for him to comfort his friend and ease him by at least giving him a drink. Yet, he had no water with him and dared neither fetch any, nor offer a single word of comfort. How he wished he had been able to ask Éowyn to wait for him in the cave. He could see that Aragorn badly needed a skilled healer. He doubted his ability to save the King now, even if he could release him from his prison.

Chapter Twenty Five - I am in blood stepp’d in so far

I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
  - Shakespeare: Macbeth. Act iii.

Now the time had come to use it, Faramir feared the spider venom would prove hardly less fatal his dagger. Yet, it represented the King’s only chance of leaving this place alive, slender though it was. Knowing it was vital that no puncture wound was visible; Faramir decided the back of the King’s neck would be the most suitable spot to insert the needle. It was doubtful, given Aragorn’s condition, that another small wound would be noticeable; or even, given their terror of the fever that they would give the body even the most cursory of inspections; he dared take no risks, though.

Again, Faramir knelt beside the King, this time daring to touch him with ungloved hands. Swiftly he lifted Aragorn’s head and pushed aside the tangled and filthy hair. Although barely conscious, the King caught sight of the needle and became aware that further pain was about to be inflicted on him. He struggled feebly. He was so weak now, though, that Faramir had little trouble in restraining him.

“No, no, please, no!” Aragorn moaned.

That the strongest and noblest man on Arda should have been reduced to this pathetic condition was truly appalling. That he should have played a part in wounding him, even more so; Faramir thought sadly.

“I have to do this!” Faramir murmured. He wanted so much to tell Aragorn how much he loved him and his anguish at having to treat him so ill. He wished he could explain what his plan entailed, but he could not delay. Someone might overhear; or his resolve might weaken, should he allow his harsh mask to slip. Taking a deep breath, he plunged the needle into Aragorn’s flesh.

The King gave a cry of pain and then went limp. What little colour he had, drained from his face. His ragged breathing ceased. When Faramir felt the side of his neck for a pulse, he could detect none. The Steward’s heart lurched in fear. Tarostar had told him the venom produced this effect. What if he had used too much, though and Aragorn really was dead? Faramir pressed his ear to the King’s chest in a vain search for a heartbeat. He did not undo Aragorn’s shirt, since it appeared to have adhered to his skin due to dried blood and pus. He dreaded what wounds he might uncover should they escape from this place alive.

Forcing himself to push his dark thoughts aside, Faramir threw the needle into the filthy bucket. He now steeled himself to put the most daring part of his plan into action.

He noisily rushed up the stairs and burst into the dining room, where Fosco, Hanna and Dervorin were still drinking copious amounts of wine. Elbeth was sitting on the floor playing with Aragorn’s priceless brooch.

“Elessar is dead!” the Steward announced. “I just now went to look at him and he is not breathing.”

Hanna started to laugh wildly and raised her glass as if in a toast. “Good riddance!” she tittered.

Elbeth burst into tears.

“What are you crying for?” Hanna demanded. “That usurper murdered all my kinsfolk! I only regret I never got round to having a bit more fun with him, I was looking forward to taking his manhood!”

“I liked him. He was my friend!” Elbeth insisted.

“Go to your room and stay there!” Hanna retorted, slapping her daughter viciously across the face.

“If you must beat her, do so where none can see!” Fosco said harshly, while a servant let the protesting Elbeth away. Dervorin and Fosco started to pace the room; their wine forgotten. Hanna remained seated at the table.

“Trust the usurper to escape us!” Dervorin said grimly. “What shall we do now about the marriage contract?”

“How will we dispose of the carcass without catching the contagion?” Fosco fretted. “We can do nothing until that threat is removed.”

“I could do it,” Faramir offered. “I will take no harm from the fever. I would not have you risk yourselves, my friends.”

“It will be a difficult task for one man with an weakened arm to dig a deep enough grave,” Fosco protested.

“I saw several disused wells on the way here,” Faramir replied. “The body could be thrown down one of those and no one would ever find it. It would be better than burying it where wild animals might uncover the grave.”

“You have inherited your father’s wisdom, Lord Faramir,” Fosco enthused. “That is a wise plan indeed. It would be prudent to wait until nightfall, though. You must be careful not to be seen. Peasants are roaming these woods ever since Elessar passed his foolish laws to allow it. All that will change soon! The servants will place the body in a sack help you get it on to a horse.”

“My thanks,” said Faramir. “I will enjoy disposing of the remains of the one who caused me so much suffering. As we were unable to force him to sign the document, I will endeavour to see the marriage goes ahead and my brother’s heiress gets her rightful dues. I will have some influence over the Elven sorceress, for she knows her son’s accession depends on my goodwill.”

“It was a fortunate day indeed when you decided to join us! I will see the corpse is brought to you as soon as it gets dark,” Fosco promised, clapping Faramir on the shoulder.  “Have some wine and we will drink to your success.” He sat down again, beckoning a servant to fill his glass.

Faramir drained his glass but waved away the servant who was about to refill it. “I had better keep a clear head for later. I will make up for it when I return, though,” said Faramir. “Maybe you will have that girl you told me about taken to my room tonight?”

“You won’t regret it. She will show you more exotic delights than you will ever have experienced before,” Fosco assured him. “How do you want her prepared?”

“Just tell her to bathe and wear clean clothing.” Faramir replied, struggling to hide his disgust at the very thought of being unfaithful to his wife and sampling vile perversions of the marital act. These men were the lowest of the low to so demean their serving maids.

“Would you not like her as soon as she is ready?” Fosco enquired, glancing across to the Lord of Ringlo Vale. Dervorin had now returned to his place beside Hanna and was sliding his hand down her ample cleavage. She giggled and half-heartedly tried to nibble his roving fingertips.

I will save that pleasure for later when I return. I might not wish to leave once she starts to pleasure me! Do you wish me to collect the body myself seeing as I have had the contagion?”

“Indeed not, Lord Faramir,” Fosco protested. “You could injure yourself bringing it up the stairs. Two of the servants can be persuaded to do it. If they refuse I’ll threaten to lock them in with the rotting carcass!”

“They will need quarantining afterwards,” Faramir warned, inwardly groaning at the further rough treatment that was most likely to be meted out to the King. “I will go and change into warm clothing now. It should be dark soon.”

“A servant will tell you when all is ready,” Dervorin replied. “ I think I will retire too. Come, Hanna!” He rose to his feet, pulling a giggling and obviously tipsy Hanna with him. Her gown was now off her shoulders and almost down to her waist, displaying a large expanse of curvaceous bare flesh.

Faramir followed them from the room. He made his way to his bedchamber and sat down on the bed, debating what to do next. He could only hope that Aragorn would neither come round, nor be further injured when they moved him. If he could only succeed in escaping with him, he would ride as swiftly as he could to the cave where he had concealed his supplies. He could only hope that they could remain there undetected. He feared that it was already too late and he was indeed taking a corpse for burial, albeit a more dignified one, than the traitors had intended.

Then, there was the problem of Elbeth. As long as she remained with the rebel lords the King would never be secure, neither would Eldarion. Therefore, Faramir’s only options were to either take her with them or to kill her. Slaying her would be by far the safest and easiest option. She was too dangerous to live. How could he deal with a sick man and a demanding child who would most likely betray him, however inadvertently? With a mother like Hanna and uncle like Fennas, she was most likely to grow up as evil and deranged as they! Elbeth was his biggest obstacle now, alive or dead. Once her loss was discovered, the Steward’s deception would be uncovered. His absence could be explained by some mishap befalling him, at least for a time. She, however, was their most valuable asset. Once they discovered her body they would know that he had betrayed them.

Faramir shuddered and gave a start. To what level had he sunk that such thoughts should even cross his mind? His soul was lost indeed that he could contemplate such an act! How could he kill his own niece? What manner of a father was he to think of harming any child? Within less than twenty-four hours he had tortured, drugged and attempted to kill his liege lord and had thought of murdering an innocent child! He had become what he most despised and was no better than one of the Dark Lord’s minions!

Elbeth would have to come with him, whatever the risks. He could only hope she would come willingly. If she refused, he would have to use the spider venom on her too, and smuggle her out and hide her somewhere before Aragorn was brought to him.

If only Boromir had adhered to the Númenorean standards of chastity and fidelity! Denethor would never have let slip the high moral standards of his people or even have dreamt of taking his pleasure with such as Hanna!

Faramir cautiously opened the door of his chamber.He could now hear a mixture of giggles, grunts and groans coming from Dervorin’s nearby chamber. Faramir hoped a mixture of inebriation and lust would keep the lovers occupied for some time.

After making certain that no one was following him, he decided to try to discover where Elbeth was. She was not difficult to locate. He could hear her sobbing and banging on a door to be let out as soon as he turned into the next corridor.

“Release me!” she screamed, ”Or when I’m the queen, I’ll cut your head off!”

Faramir remembered Boromir threatening to execute his tutor for refusing to let him miss lessons to watch the soldiers parading through the city after a rare victory. The reminder that she was not of Hanna’s blood alone heartened him.

The key was in the lock so he unfastened the door and went in. It seemed that despite her youth, Elbeth had been given a huge and elaborately furnished bedroom to herself.

“Uncle Faramir!” she exclaimed,” I don’t like being shut in here. Let me out! And it’s not fair you didn’t help Strider!”

Chapter Twenty-Six - Treachery is noble when aimed at tyranny

Treachery is noble when aimed at tyranny. - Pierre Corneille (1606–1684)

Faramir placed a finger to his lips. “If you can be very quiet and keep it a secret, I will take you out riding later,” he told the child, well aware that he was taking a great risk.

“Where will you take me?” Elbeth demanded.

“For a ride in the woods,” Faramir told her. “Do you know about the ruined cottage in the grounds?”

“I play there when I’m bored. When they’re all drunk, they don’t notice that I’m not there,” Elbeth replied.

“I want you to go there and wait for me. You must not tell anyone, though, it is our secret,” Faramir said. He went over to her window and looked out. It was almost dark and the moon was rising from behind the clouds “You need to wear your warmest clothes,” he told her. “It will be very cold outside.”

“Very well but I want to go there now!” Elbeth complained, “They leave me locked in here for hours while mummy is with Lord Dervorin. I wish she would play with me sometimes. My other mummy I used to live with after grandma died, did.”

“Can you get out without anyone noticing?” Faramir asked, his heart going out to the lonely, neglected little girl. “I promise we will play a game later if you can meet me without getting caught.”

“Of course I can, it is easy!” Elbeth boasted. “I just slip out through the door by the kitchens. It is never locked.”

The Steward glanced around the room for something warm for her to put on. It already felt frosty and promised to be an exceptionally cold night. Picking up a fur cloak from a chair, he noticed the Elessar stone lying discarded on her bedside table.

He picked it up and pinned it to the cloak before handing it to her. ”You had best wear this,” he said.

Elbeth nodded her agreement. “How do horses see in the dark?” she asked excitedly. “I’ve not been out riding at night before. It should be exciting! What about my horse? How do I saddle her without anyone knowing? I can’t reach yet to do it myself.”

“Horses are clever and know how to find their way. You can sit on my horse with me,” Faramir replied, wondering however she thought up so many questions. “I will join you in the old cottage very soon. Remember it is a secret! If anyone catches you, tell them you are playing hide and seek on your own.”

He peered out of the door. Once satisfied no one was in sight, the Steward told Elbeth to go and wait for him. He then stuffed a pillow under the bedcovers to make the bed look occupied and turned the key outside again.

Thankful it seemed unlikely that he would need to use the spider venom on her, Faramir returned to his room and changed into his own travelling clothes. He took care to leave the room looking as if he intended to return. His nightshirt lay folded on the bed and his clothes for dinner were laid out. Solemnly, he buckled on his sword. At least it seemed reasonable to take it when riding out alone at night.

He paced the floor impatiently; terrified that something would go wrong. A chaos of troubled thoughts whirled round his brain. What if Aragorn really were dead? What if the venom failed to work properly? What if the King moved and betrayed the fact he still lived? What if Elbeth betrayed him? What if he were followed? Maybe he should flee now and ride to Minas Tirith for help? However, it would surely be too late to save Aragorn by the time he returned.

He was so lost in thought that he hardly noticed that it had grown dark. He was startled when the knock came finally came on his door.

***

Aragorn had felt Faramir piece his neck with the needle. Suddenly he found himself unable to move a muscle. Completely paralysed, he was more a prisoner now than ever; trapped as he was not only in the cellar, but his own body too. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he came to his senses again only to find himself being roughly bundled into a sack.

“The sooner they dispose of this one the better,” he heard a man’s voice saying.

“I think they mean to throw him down a well,” said a second man.

“Better if they burned him before he infects us all!” the first voice said. “Or buried him deep!”

With Aragorn’s horror of confined spaces, being buried alive was his worse nightmare. Faramir had known it. How could his Steward be capable of such depths of cruelty? Aragorn felt himself dragged across the floor and up the steps, the pain of his wounds becoming unbearable at such rough treatment. Then mercifully everything went black.

***

“Lord Faramir, they are awaiting you!” a servant’s voice called.

With pretended nonchalance, Faramir went downstairs where two frightened looking servants met him. Behind them, they dragged a large sack, bumping it roughly along the flagged stone floor.

Faramir struggled to remain impassive. To think that the High King, the Renewer of Gondor, was being treated with less reverence than a sack of grain! Even the corpse of a vagrant would be treated with more respect. His father had been most meticulous in such matters, as had Aragorn.

“We will tie it on a packhorse for you,” one of the servants said. “Do you want us to come with you? His lordship said we should ask if you needed our help.” The man looked terrified at the mere thought.

“I will manage well enough. I doubt the usurper’s carcass weighs very much. I was accustomed to dealing with bodies for burial when I served in Ithilien. Have my horse brought to the door,” Faramir ordered. The Steward waited as they took the sack outside, reluctant to witness the spectacle of the King being unceremoniously flung across the pack animal.

It was obvious the servants were terrified of Faramir desiring their company, which was exactly what he wanted. If anyone had come with him, he would have been obliged to kill them. Much as they deserved death for what they had done to Aragorn, he much preferred the law to mete out justice.

The men returned. “All is ready for you now, my lord," one said. “The Lord of Lamedon bade me to tell you that when you return, a bath will be prepared for you and fresh clothing laid out. He suggests you burn what you are wearing now to avoid risking bringing the infection to any here.”

“Tell you master I will do as he bids. Remind him to have a girl waiting for me to take my pleasure with on my return. Tell him it may take me some time to dispose of the body where none will find it," Faramir replied striding out through the doorway.

Mounting his horse, he took the pack animal’s rope and rode off into the night with it beside him. He forced himself to appear relaxed and not to urge the horses to a trot while he made his way towards the ruined cottage.

To his horror, he suddenly heard the sound of approaching riders. He placed his hand on his sword and wheeled round to face them. The Lord of Lamedon and the burly servant who had been there when he had branded the King rode up alongside him. Fosco reined his horse to a stop alongside him and smiled rather drunkenly, “We thought we’d come with you at least part of the way, Lord Faramir,” he said. “It seemed unfair to expect you to do this alone when you are still regaining your strength after Elessar’s ill treatment.”

“That is kind of you,” Faramir replied. “Do you not fear the contagion though?”

“The healers say it is unlikely that one can catch it out of doors,” Fosco replied. ”I thought you would welcome some company.”

“Indeed I would,” Faramir replied, trying desperately to think of a plan. He suddenly reined to a halt. ”I think the corpse is slipping from the horse,” he said. “Will you hold my mount while I secure the ropes? He is rather skittish when the moon is full.”

He slid from Zachus’ back, made his way to the packhorse, and pretended to fiddle with the ropes securing the sack, all the while waiting to draw his sword. In his other hand, he held his dagger.

The servant took hold of Zachus’ bridle.

“We’ll have a nice drink together when we get back, Lord Faramir eh?” Fosco lurched towards Faramir drunkenly and attempted to embrace him.

Swiftly, Faramir turned and rammed his sword into Fosco’s guts. The Lord of Lamedon fell backwards with a cry a look of hurt surprise in his eyes. ” Traitor! Thought you…were my friend…” he gasped. “A curse upon you!”

Faramir’s only reply was to pull out his sword and stab him through the heart with it.

The servant belatedly tried to come to his master’s aid. Faramir was too quick for him and swiftly and unhesitatingly cut his throat.

The Steward wiped his blade on the grass, then without a second glance at the two men he had killed, retrieved the pack animal’s rope, and remounted Zachus.

It was the first time in his life; Faramir had killed an unarmed man in cold blood. Instead of guilt he felt a thrill of pleasure at the deed.

He listened carefully for any sign that he was being followed but there was none. It seemed that those who were sober were all too afraid of catching the fever from a corpse! Aragorn had told him the fever was transmitted through the breath of an infected person but even the healers laughed at such a notion. He could only hope it would be some time before Fosco’s absence was noticed.

The cottage was in sight of the house, although partially shielded by trees. Fortunately, no one seemed to have noticed a flickering candle in the ruins. Elbeth ran out to meet him as he approached. “I was frightened you wouldn’t come,” she said, “It’s scary here, I don’t like it!”

“I am sorry, Elbeth.” Faramir said contritely. He dismounted and quickly slashed some holes in the sack with his dagger. He then lifted her up in front of him, wondering how much he could tell her and whether he would have to gag her to stop her crying out. “How would you like to come with me on a camping trip?” he asked. “We can play at being explorers!”

“I’d love to,” she replied, bouncing up and down in the saddle in her excitement. “Will you really take me away from them?”

“I shall take you tonight.” Faramir told her, “but you must be very good and quiet.“

“I will,” she replied, nestling closer to him. The Elfstone on her cloak shimmered in the moonlight. At least the precious gem was removed from the hands of the traitors! “What’s in the sack?” she asked, unable to contain her natural curiosity.

“Something very precious.” he told her. “Now you must be very quiet as we are playing hide and seek before we play explorers!”

“I love hide and seek!” she exclaimed delightedly.

“Quiet now, or we might be found!” he cautioned.

They rode on in silence for another mile or so until Faramir finally felt he dared to stop and release Aragorn from the confines of the sack. He dreaded what condition the King would be in now.

Chapter Twenty Seven – Frosty wind made moan

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago. - Christina Rossetti

Dismounting from Zachus, Faramir turned to Elbeth and tried to explain the situation as best he could to her. “Your friend Strider is in this sack,” he told her. “He is my friend as well and I am trying to rescue him. I gave him some special medicine to make him go to sleep.”

“I thought you weren’t friends any more and he died because you wouldn’t help him.” Elbeth unsurprisingly sounded bewildered.

“I was playing a pretending game,” Faramir told her. “I did give him some medicine after all. It made him look as if he were dead so I could help him escape.”

“Good!” Elbeth replied. “They were hurting him and he needed rescuing! Will Strider get better now?”

“I hope so,” Faramir replied gravely. ”I shall do everything I can for him.”

“I can help you look after him as he’s my friend too,” Elbeth replied.

Faramir very much doubted that she could, but had neither the time nor inclination to argue with her. To his relief, she asked no further questions.

Swiftly, the Steward cut the ropes securing the sack and lifted it gently down from the packhorse. Unfastening it, he pulled aside the sackcloth as carefully as he could to free the King’s head from its confines. He laid Aragorn on the ground. The King remained motionless and seemingly lifeless. There was no way Faramir could tell whether his lord still lived or not. He left the rest of Aragorn’s body shrouded by the sack for warmth.

The Steward was determined not to tie his lord on to the packhorse again. Fortunately, Zachus was a large, strong horse, bred to easily carry a heavy man in full armour.

Elbeth ran to Aragorn’s side and shook him. “Wake up Strider!” she called, ”Uncle Faramir has rescued you!”

Aragorn neither moved nor spoke.

“Why won’t he wake up?” Elbeth demanded.

“Because of the medicine I gave him, “ Faramir explained, hoping fervently that was the truth. “He is very ill indeed, Elbeth.”

“You should have given him some medicine sooner!” Elbeth said accusingly. “Is he going to die?”

“I do not know, but we cannot leave him here on the cold ground,” Faramir replied. He suppressed the urge to weep at the pitiful condition of his beloved friend and King. He decided to slit the sack to release Aragorn’s legs and place him in front of him on Zachus. He then told Elbeth to cling on behind him. He doubted that she would be capable of riding the packhorse bareback. He could only hope the animal would follow them.

Carefully, he lifted Aragorn up on to his horse, noting with alarm how very light he was. He sagged limply over the horse’s neck while Faramir reached up for Elbeth. “Put your arms around my waist and hold on tightly,” he told her. He secured the King with one hand and grasped the reins with the other, urged Zachus onwards towards the hidden caves.

The next hour felt like a waking nightmare. Faramir struggled to keep his precious burden from falling. Aragorn neither moved nor made any sound. The Steward wondered if all he would be able to do for him was to ensure he was entombed in the Rath Dinen with honour. Even if Aragorn yet lived, he would be seriously ill both from fever and whatever wounds his filthy clothing concealed. Faramir enfolded his cloak protectively round his lord; glad that many years of soldiering had accustomed him to the stench of a man who has not been able to wash for weeks combined with that of festering wounds. Alive or dead, he would give his King a bath once they reached their destination. He was determined to at least restore some dignity to the one he loved so dearly. After what he had done, he knew that Aragorn would never again regard him as a friend, tend his hurts or share the Thought Bond with him. However, if he could only restore him to his wife, his child and his throne, Faramir be content, however bereft he felt.

“Elbeth, wake up!” he cried, jolted out of his musings, as he felt the small arms slacken their grip.

Jolted into wakefulness, she gripped him so tightly for a moment, he could hardly breathe. “Where are we going? Will we be there soon?” she demanded.

“We are heading for a cave on the other side of the forest,” he told her.

“That sounds fun! I hope there are lots of bats,” Elbeth responded cheerfully, reminding Faramir very much of his brother who had been fascinated by the creatures flitting to and fro from the White Tower.

It was a clear frosty night and the stars shone brightly overhead. Elbeth shivered and nestled closer to Faramir. He was grateful for the warmth of her small body at his back but felt guilty that he was subjecting the child to the freezing night air. The icy wind moaned and seemed to go through them despite their thick layers of warm clothing.

Zachus had managed a brisk trot until now, but the Steward had to slow him to a walk once they reached the forest canopy. They had to pick their way along a narrow, twisting track, which wound between the trees. Faramir could see very little. The thick branches obscured the moon. He had to trust his mount to find his way and not stumble on exposed roots. It was fortunate indeed, that long years with his master in the wilds had accustomed the bay to be sure footed in such conditions. Zachus even waded through the stream without complaint or faltering. Faramir vowed that, if by some miracle, they returned to Minas Tirith alive, he would see that Zachus was provided with the best hay and most comfortable stable for the rest of his days.

When they left the shelter of the trees, Faramir realised that it was not only the branches obscuring the moon but also thick clouds. The air felt heavy with snow and a few flakes were already starting to fall.

“Why is the rain funny?” Elbeth asked in bewilderment, when a snowflake hit her on the nose.

“It is not rain but snow,” Faramir explained, realising that she must be too young to remember the last time it had snowed in Gondor, which usually had mild winters. He was now glad of her chatter to help to keep him alert. He was starting to fear that he would never find the cave in the darkness and they would all freeze to death. Then, suddenly he recognised the terrain and realised they were travelling in the right direction.

“Oh.” Elbeth lapsed into silence as she tried to digest this new information.

Faramir’s arms ached with the struggle to support Aragorn and control his horse as well as keep Elbeth awake. The bleak journey seemed endless.

It felt as if they had been travelling for hours. Already he feared that he was too late to save the King. Then, when they rounded a bend, the hill he sought rose out of the ground almost in front of them. He circled round until he found the thorn bush. “We are here,” he told Elbeth, reining Zachus to a halt. Stiffly, he dismounted and first lifted Aragorn down, briefly laying him on the cold ground and then Elbeth, who immediately tried to rouse the seemingly lifeless man.

“Wait here!” Faramir told her. He lit a torch he had brought with him and went inside the cave to light the candles he had left there. Going back outside, he scooped up Aragorn in his arms and bade Elbeth to follow him. The child gasped in wonder as he led her into the larger cave. He gently laid Aragorn down on one of the pelts he had stored there, covering him with his cloak.

“I am going to light a fire and then need to fetch some water. Can you look after the King?” he asked Elbeth.

“Is he really King?” she asked bemused, while Faramir busied himself with the kindling,” Mummy said he was ‘Lesser the Zerper’ but he said I was to call him Strider.”

“Yes, he is King Elessar and he is not a usurper,” Faramir said firmly as the fire burst into life. For a few moments, the cave was filled with smoke. It made them cough and splutter. Faramir caught hold of Elbeth; afraid she would take fright, remembering the death of her grandmother. Elbeth mercifully seemed untroubled by any memories of the past.“You will be safe here,” Faramir assured her before he went outside. He unharnessed Zachus and let him wander off in search of grazing. Faramir then went down to the stream and filled two buckets with water. The snow was starting to come down harder now. It seemed that they had only just reached their destination in time.

When he returned he found Elbeth had maintained a patient vigil but was almost asleep.

“Well done! You can rest now. I will look after the King,” he said, giving her one of the blankets he had brought, “Wrap that round you and curl up by the fire.”

She obediently did as she was told while he put water in a pan to heat and laid out the healing supplies and bedding, putting it near the fire to air. By the time he was ready to begin tending to Aragorn, she was fast asleep, much to his relief. He did not wish her either to see the King uncovered or whatever wounds he might reveal.

Faramir moved Aragorn on to one of the bedrolls and steeled himself to remove the King’s filthy clothing. He dreaded what hurts he might uncover, yet knew it had to be done and he was the only person available to carry out the task. If only a healer were here, someone with the knowledge and experience not to fear what they might find!

Faramir unbuttoned the curiously designed shirt, only to find it stuck to the skin in places, which necessitated soaking it off. When Aragorn’s hurts were finally revealed, the Steward gasped in horror and rage.

Chapter Twenty-Eight - Wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores

From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment. Isaiah 1.6

Faramir had steeled himself for the sight of the cruel mark of the brand, which he had inflicted. He had also expected Aragorn to be suffering from a variety of cuts and bruises. He was unprepared though, to behold the raw patches, where the skin had been deliberately and expertly removed to cause a great deal of pain, without causing a life-threatening wound.

There were many such patches across the King’s chest; sides, belly and inner arms, all inflicted where the skin was most tender or where the slightest movement would cause pain. Each patch looked raw and angry; several were infected and oozing an evil looking pus. Many shallow cuts had been slashed across his body. All had been skilfully inflicted to weaken Aragorn through pain and blood loss without killing him.

Faramir swallowed hard. How could any human being treat another thus? He expected such behaviour from the minions of Sauron, but how could his fellow Gondorians behave like this, torturing a good and noble man while he was bound and helpless? Worse still, how could he have joined in?

He forced himself to overcome his natural squeamishness and to concentrate. A chill ran through the Steward when he realised Aragorn had been tortured in the exact same places where he had experienced his mysterious pains. He shuddered at the thought of the agony his King must have endured. His brief spasms of pain had been hard enough to bear. Aragorn must have been in constant agony for weeks.

Faramir carefully turned the King over on to his side, noting from his near skeletal appearance that not only had he been tortured, but starved as well. He knew, even without looking, that he would find the wounds from a flogging on his back. Some of the stripes were healing, which suggested they were inflicted the very day Faramir had awoken with his back painfully throbbing. What manner of a mysterious bond had they then shared, that he should have suffered his King’s pain? Gladly would he bear it again rather than this dreadful emptiness within his soul.

Turning Aragorn to lie on his back again, Faramir next removed the tattered breeches, fairly confident now that the worse injuries were concentrated on Aragorn’s upper body. He paused to note that a tiny white tree was embroidered on the knee of the dirty and torn drawers the King wore beneath, just as Arwen had insisted.

Removing them, he uncovered a good deal of bruising to the lower belly and groin area. This was in addition to the reddened and inflamed skin, caused by being unable to either bathe or lie comfortably.

Quickly, Faramir covered the King with a towel to preserve some dignity for him. Though he had cared for Aragorn before, he still considered it a sacrilege to see his lord completely naked. It seemed that even the rebels had been constrained by some vestiges of respect until now, since they had at least kept the King clothed. Hanna’s desire to humiliate Aragorn had become insistent enough for the men to be ready to act upon it, had not their fear of the Fever intervened.

Faramir paused for a moment; studying Aragorn’s battered and abused body. This was far worse than he could ever have imagined. He was no healer. He very much doubted his ability to save his King, assuming even that he still lived.

He picked up a blanket and covered the King with it, as much to conceal the dreadful injuries, as to keep Aragorn warm.

Faramir took a deep breath and then poured the warmed water into a bowl and resolutely started to bathe Aragorn, starting with his gaunt and haggard face. Even clumps of his hair and beard had been pulled out. Aragorn’s wrists were raw from where the chains had secured him and his left hand looked as if it had been brutally stamped upon and crushed. Rage surged though the Steward; how dare anyone crush a precious hand such as this, which had been used to heal so many? The quick death he had given Fosco and his servant was far kinder than what they deserved!

Faramir had seen men who had been tortured before; never to such a degree, or over such a long period of time, though.

Aragorn lay there limp and unmoving, not even reacting when Faramir wiped away the blood and pus from his wounds, some of which had dried hard, and required vigorous cleansing despite the Steward’s wish to be gentle.

Faramir increasingly feared that all his efforts were in vain. It seemed that the spider venom had proved fatal to the already seriously ill man. Yet he continued to bathe him, blinking away tears as he did so. This was the last service he could render the one, who had not only been his liege lord, but also beloved as a father, mentor, healer and friend.

Aragorn’s flesh was still warm to the touch. Faramir had no way of knowing whether that was because he was alive, or merely because of shared body heat from himself and the horse.

Faramir continued to bathe his King, gradually working downwards until he reached Aragorn’s feet. The ankles were rubbed raw from the manacles that had encased them and the toes were covered with painful looking chilblains.

He then turned Aragorn over on to his side, in order to wash his back. Then he noticed that one of the wounds on the King’s chest was bleeding. Faramir’s heart leapt for joy. Dead men did not bleed. Aragorn must still be alive! Quickly, he dried him and covered him with another blanket in an attempt to keep him warm, wishing it were better aired. Never had Faramir wished more, that he had studied the arts of healing.

He tentatively prodded the bruised body and suspected a rib or two might be broken, though he could not be certain. Most of the older looking bruising was concentrated around Aragorn’s ribs, belly and groin, but there were fresh bruises to his back and legs, which must have been caused when he was dragged from the cellar so roughly.

Hesitantly, Faramir picked up a jar of salve, hoping he was using the right one. To his surprise and belief, he found that jar and every other bore a label saying what it was to be used for.

He selected the one labelled ‘Damaged skin and bruises’ thinking he would start with the least serious hurts. It smelled rather like a preparation Éowyn used for when Elestelle suffered from napkin rash. How he wished that his wife were by his side now to assist him! Faramir spread the ointment as gently as he could across the reddened skin and bruises disfiguring Aragorn’s body, moving the blanket aside a little at a time.

Elbeth stirred in her sleep, causing Faramir to fear she would awaken while he was still tending the King. To his relief, she merely turned over and settled again.

Not wishing to take any chances, the Steward rummaged in the bag of clothing he had brought until he found a pair of drawers embroidered by Arwen. Now the hurts on the lower half of his body were tended, he dressed Aragorn in them, both to protect the King’s modesty and Elbeth’s innocence.

Returning to his task of tending the injuries, Faramir found a jar of salve labelled ‘Burns’ and rubbed it on the hateful brand mark, which he himself had inflicted. He could hardly bear to look at it never mind touch it. He remembered that during their ordeal at the Hunting Lodge Éowyn had told him that honey was the best treatment for wounds. First though, the infected ones had to be drained, a task he dreaded.

Taking a sharp knife Tarostar had given him, Faramir plunged the blade into the fire until it glowed white-hot. While waiting for the blade to cool, he fancied that he saw Aragorn move a little. Much as he wanted him to awaken, he had hoped it would not be until after his wounds were tended and he had made him as comfortable as possible.

Faramir decided first to apply the honey and bandages to the wounds, washing his hands between touching each one. Those on Aragorn’s belly, arms and shoulders appeared clean, albeit painful looking. He then did the same to the patches rubbed raw by the manacles on the King’s wrists and ankles.

He grasped the now cooled knife in one hand and a pad of clean cloth in the other. The worse infected wound was just beneath Aragorn’s ribs; the others were under his elbow and on his chest. Trying to keep his hand steady, Faramir rather tentatively lanced the swollen patch on the King’s waist, but when he pressed the cloth down, very little pus oozed out. He steeled himself to cut more deeply. This time the cloth was soon covered by evil looking matter.

As soon as the wound was drained, Faramir cleansed it with salted water and smeared it with honey before carefully bandaging it, and then repeated the process with the chest wound. They were only small but looked extremely painful. Sighing with relief that he had almost finished, he lanced the elbow wound, drained it and started to apply the honey to the raw flesh.

***

Totally paralysed, Aragorn dreaded the brief flashes of awareness that roused him from a merciful oblivion. He had felt the sweet air on his face. That could only mean though, that he was on his way to be buried alive. Then he was back in what felt like the cellar again. To his horror, hands were removing his clothing, and with it his final shreds of dignity and link to Arwen. He was terrified now of what new horrors lay in store.

The hands were prodding every inch of his pain-racked body. There was nothing in any way indecent about the touch, but it was too hesitant and inept to be that of a healer. There was something familiar about whoever was subjecting him to such indignities.

Aragorn felt himself being covered again with something warm and soft. He wondered if they were trying to revive him in order to torture him once more. Then he was certain of their cruel intention; as he felt what appeared to be a red-hot blade piercing him. Something that stung painfully was poured over his raw wounds. At first, he could neither move nor cry out, but eventually the pain and shock must have overcome the paralysis. His eyes suddenly opened and he gave a strangled cry.

Faramir was immediately at the King’s side, clasping his uninjured hand. “Thank the Valar you are awake!” he exclaimed in a choked tone. “Easy now, you are safe. I am tending your wounds. I am sorry I am hurting you!”

Feverish and agitated, Aragorn stared at him. "Traitor!" he croaked through parched lips. “Your wiles shall not deceive me!"

Chapter Twenty Nine – When a raging fever burns

So, when a raging fever burns,
We shift from side to side by turns;
And ’t is a poor relief we gain
To change the place, but keep the pain - Isaac Watts (1674–1748)

Faramir hung his head in shame. He had indeed given Aragorn sufficient cause to mistrust him. “I acted only that I might rescue you, my lord,” he replied, holding a cup of boiled water to the King’s dry lips. “I was never false in my heart.”

Aragorn shook his head vehemently; almost swooning with the effort it took him. “No, I will not drink your poison, traitor!” he croaked.

Faramir knew that Aragorn must be desperately in need of fluids given his condition. He pinched the skin on the back of the King’s uninjured hand, something he had seen Aragorn do to him when he had been seriously ill after his ordeal in the prison. That memory was more painful than ever to recall now. Aragorn had been so kind to him then. The King had explained to him that if the pinched skin did not immediately fall back in place, it meant a person needed water very badly. The result was just as Faramir had feared. He tried offering the water again, only for Aragorn to clamp his lips tightly shut.

Sighing, Faramir was forced to put the cup to one side. He could only hope that once the King’s wounds were tended he might trust him sufficiently to drink it.

Picking up the jar of honey again, he tried to apply more to Aragorn’s elbow.

The King screamed and lashed out with what little strength he had. Faramir narrowly dodged being struck in the eye. He picked up a roll of bandage and tried to reason with the feverish man. “Please, just let me finish binding your wounds!” the Steward pleaded.

“No, no!” Aragorn replied, catching sight of the ring on Faramir’s finger. “Traitor, torturer, thief!” Starting to struggle again, this time he succeeded in landing a weak blow on Faramir’s nose.

Exhausted, heart sore and despairing at Aragorn’s words, Faramir wildly raised his arm in a threatening gesture, determined to subdue him for his own good.

“Stop it!” A small hand grabbed his arm. Alarmed, he swung around and found himself looking into Elbeth’s furious and distressed features.

“You are hurting poor Strider!” she said crossly.

“How long have you been awake?” he asked her. He shuddered at the realisation she had just prevented him from falling further into darkness.

“Since he woke up, I was scared to say anything in case you hurt me too. I won’t let you hurt him though!” she said fiercely, positioning herself in front of Aragorn.

Faramir was filled with shame at his own conduct. To think that he had sunk so low as to threaten a helpless man who was also his lord and friend. He despised himself for frightening Elbeth, let alone letting her witness such behaviour. Sweat poured from his brow. He wiped his sleeve across his face.

“I am sorry. I would not harm you, Elbeth,” he apologised, his heart going out to her. He hugged her but she only glared at him before wriggling free. “The King has been hurt and needs me to try to make him better.”

Elbeth looked far from convinced.

Laying the bandages aside, Faramir tried again to coax Aragorn to swallow some water, meeting with no greater success than before.

“Uncle Faramir?” Elbeth tugged at this sleeve.

“Not now, Elbeth. I must get him to drink or he could die!” Faramir started to feel panic when Aragorn continued to refuse to as much as sip the water he so needed.

I can give it to him,” Elbeth said calmly, taking the cup from the astonished Faramir before he could protest. Supporting Aragorn’s restless head with her small hands, she let him see her swallow a mouthful of the water and then held the water to his lips. Thirstily, he drained it.

“However did you do that?” Faramir asked in amazement.

“I‘ve been taking him drinks when they thought I was asleep. He likes me because I’m his friend. He’ll eat and drink anything I give him. He trusts me,” she replied.

Although delighted at her success, her words were like a dagger to Faramir’s aching heart. He had once held the trust of this greatest of men but had been forced to forfeit it. Stifling his emotions, he filled the cup again and handed it to Elbeth. “He needs plenty of water, so give him this too, if you can,” he begged her.

Without hesitation Aragorn swallowed the drink.

“Can you give the King his medicine now?” Faramir asked his niece.

“I expect so, if it doesn’t taste too nasty,” she replied.

Carefully the Steward mixed catnip and willow together with rosehips labelled ‘For curing infections and fevers’ together with poppy juice, which he recognised as being a remedy for pain. The Healers had carefully measured out each dose in a screw of paper or vial and written instructions about how often it should be taken. At least he did not have to worry whether he really would confirm Aragorn’s suspicions by poisoning him.

He took a tentative sip of the mixture, which tasted vile. He added a spoonful of the honey to it, which made it more palatable, if not exactly pleasant.

Elbeth again took the cup to Aragorn. ”Here is your medicine, Strider,” she said. “Drink it up, then you’ll get better and can play with me!”

Whether it was her words, the sound of her voice, or even the familiar tasting medicinal herbs, Faramir had no idea, but Aragorn swallowed it all and soon became sleepy as the poppy juice took effect.

Faramir seized his chance, and after asking Elbeth to hold the King’s uninjured hand, wound the bandage round the King’s injured elbow, and secured it. He then did his best to bind the broken fingers of  Aragorn’s left hand, using pieces of firewood for splints, which provoked whimpers of pain from Aragorn and scowls of protest from Elbeth.

“It has to be done. It will soon be over,” he soothed; uncertain whether it were Aragorn or Elbeth he most needed to placate. At last, it was done and Aragorn’s wounds were tended to the best of Faramir’s ability.

Tears of pain ran down the King’s cheeks from his prolonged ordeal. Faramir made to wipe them away but Aragorn flinched as if expecting a blow. He then tried to throw off the blanket much to Faramir’s alarm.

The Steward hastily sorted through the supplies of clothing for a loose shirt and handed it to Elbeth. ”Can you get the King to put this on?” he asked, torn between the need to keep Aragorn warm and reluctance to allow a small girl to see him partially clothed, even though his upper body was well covered by the bandages.

“Strider!” Elbeth called softly, “Put this on, it is nice and soft like the one you gave me!”

Aragorn struggled to sit up, so Faramir inched behind him without being seen and supported him, pulling the shirt down as Elbeth eased it over his head. Poor Aragorn was obviously too drowsy and ill by now to wonder whom his unseen helper might be. At Faramir’s urging, Elbeth then coaxed the King to swallow more water.

Faramir was vastly relieved that Aragorn would at least accept help from Elbeth. At the same time he felt desperately worried about what he was going to do when the King needed to answer a call of nature or be bathed and changed.

Gesturing Elbeth to stay beside Aragorn, he selected the two blankets nearest the fire and used them to cover the King. Although Aragorn burned with fever, in these cold and damp surroundings, it would be all too easy for him to take a chill. Faramir stuffed the damp and blood soaked blanket he had been using to one side He waited for Aragorn to fall into a feverish sleep and only then, did he set out his own bedding and suggest Elbeth make herself comfortable in a makeshift bed of pelts and blankets between himself and Aragorn.

“This is fun!” she exclaimed, giggling softly, “Much nicer than a bed! I’m playing at being a kitten or a puppy!”

Faramir could not help but smile at her. “Which would you rather be?” he enquired.

“A kitten!” she replied, "They are prettier and more cuddly! I wish I could have one!”

“When we get to my home, you shall, if you are a good girl,” Faramir promised, eager to reward her for her help, should they manage to escape.

“What kind of kitten?” she asked.

“Let me think, “ Faramir replied, trying to remember what colours the house cats at Emyn Arnen were. “You could have a black one, a white one a tabby with stripes, or a kitten with different coloured patches, or even a ginger one if you are very lucky!”

“I’d like a ginger one best,” Elbeth murmured. She was already falling asleep, a contented smile on her young features.

Faramir sat for a moment lost in thought and studying the ring on his finger. Stung by Aragorn’s rebuke, he felt unable to wear it a moment longer. He knelt by the King’s side and gently took his uninjured hand. He slid the Ring of Barahir from his own finger and transferred it to Aragorn’s, reuniting the precious heirloom with its rightful owner. He now wept quietly, overwhelmed with grief for the King’s pitiful condition and remorse for his own cruelty towards him. He felt so empty without the shared Thought Bond. How he yearned to hold the one in his arms who had been father, brother and friend to him and offer what comfort he could. Despite being asleep, Aragorn now recoiled even from the touch of his hand.

The Steward would have very much liked to stay awake to keep watch over Aragorn. He was not of the same undiluted Númenorean ancestry as Aragorn, though and lacked the stamina to do so. After the stresses of the day, Faramir soon fell into an uneasy slumber, his sword ready to hand.

A mixture of worry and bitter cold roused the Steward frequently. Each time, he sat up and reassured himself that Aragorn was still alive, before pulling his blankets round him again and snuggling closer to Elbeth for warmth.

***

The next morning felt even colder when Faramir awoke. After satisfying himself that Aragorn was still breathing, he hastily built up the dying fire and prepared to boil some water.

Still drugged by the poppy juice, the King shifted restlessly in his sleep muttering to himself. When Faramir gently felt his brow, it felt hotter than ever much to the Steward’s dismay.

Chapter Thirty - What is our innocence?

What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. - Marianne Moore (1887–1972)

To the Steward’s relief, Elbeth was in a deep and peaceful sleep, most likely dreaming of kittens still.

Faramir put on his cloak. He needed to answer nature’s call and to see how Zachus was faring. Stepping outside the cave, he was almost dazzled by a thick, pristine carpet of virgin snow, a rarity in Gondor. He stared at it in wonder. Initially, he was dismayed at the sight of his footprints, fearing their hiding place would be easily discovered. He then concluded that the forest would be impassable under such conditions and when the snow melted, it would wash away their tracks. The Valar appeared to be smiling on them at last. He could even spot some bewildered looking rabbits amongst the trees, which might provide fresh meat. He had just emerged from behind a tree when he was startled by a loud whinny. To his delight, Roheryn was cautiously approaching. “I have brought your master!” he told him, patting the stallion. By way of reply, Roheryn nuzzled him, no doubt in hope of some tasty morsel.

As quickly as he could, Faramir cleared a patch of snow to allow both horses to graze before going to fetch water from the stream. He then went back inside the cave to fetch his bow, hoping he could make a kill before Elbeth was abroad.

Stealthily, Faramir crept up on his prey; an ill-fated buck rabbit, tempted by the patch of snow free grass. He quickly strung the arrow, releasing it with deadly accuracy. He was pleased to find that even after several years without practise and injuries to his arm and shoulder, he had retained his old skills with the bow.

The Steward took no joy in killing; but fresh meat was more appetising and nourishing than dried. It would help too, to eke out the limited supplies he had been able to carry on a single packhorse. Picking up the dead rabbit, he took it back inside in order to prepare it for the pot.

Aragorn had awoken during his absence. The King stared at him with glassy eyes devoid of recognition. “Water!” he cried.

Faramir poured some from the bubbling pot into a cup and waited for it to cool sufficiently to drink.

“So very hot!” Aragorn whispered, his voice week and rasping. “Hurts, everywhere hurts!”

Faramir hurried back outside, grabbed a handful of snow and wrapped it in a cloth. He gently brushed back the sweat- soaked hair from the King’s brow and applied the cold compress. He held the now cooled water to the King’s lips.

“So kind.” Aragorn smiled at him weakly, reaching out to clasp Faramir’s hand, almost breaking his Steward’s heart in so doing. How could he be thought kind after what he had done? The bruise from his blow was still visible on the King’s cheek and he knew all too well that beneath his shirt, the hideous brand proclaimed his cruelty towards this man who had given him everything.

Faramir consoled himself that he had at least rescued his friend from a cruel death at the hands of his tormentors. He gave Aragorn another cup of water and then mixed up the medicines for him, which the King swallowed obediently. Aragorn clung to Faramir's hand, whimpering in pain until the poppy juice took effect.

Faramir then gently disentangled his hand and prepared to bathe his King and change his clothing and bandages, only to realise that Elbeth was awake and watching him in that disconcerting way of hers, her solemn grey eyes so like Boromir’s. “Did you sleep well?” he enquired as she climbed out of her cocoon of bedding.

“Yes, it was fun being curled up like a kitten,” she replied, jumping up and down on the spot while she spoke.

“I need you to turn and look the other way now,” he told her.

“Why?” she demanded.

“I have to change the King’s clothes,” he explained. “Men without clothes on are not nice to look at.”

She giggled all too knowingly, making Faramir wonder what horrors her life with Hanna had contained.

“They look very funny, just like skinned rabbits! Girls are made much better,” she informed him solemnly, “And kittens! Why can’t men be dressed all over in nice fur like kittens?”

“I do not know,“ Faramir told her, privately agreeing on the greater beauty of the female form. He wondered how many more questions she would ask, of which he had no idea of the correct answers, if indeed there were any? “Now will you turn around, please? You must not see the King uncovered.”

“Why?” she asked again, “I’ve seen mummy's men friends with no clothes on.”

Faramir racked his brains disparately seeking an answer, which would satisfy her. “Because he is the King and kings are special men,” he said at last.

“Oh,” Elbeth digested the information then fidgeted uncomfortably. ”I need to go,” she announced.

Faramir could only assume she meant a call of nature beckoned and felt it indelicate to enquire further. “You will have to go outside, but be careful not to slip in the snow,” he cautioned her, “ Put your cloak on as it is cold.”

“What is snow?” Elbeth asked bewildered. “I thought it was just funny rain that hits you on the nose.”

“I will show you, “ Faramir sighed, wondering how long it was going to be before he could tend Aragorn. “Come!” he said, taking her hand in one of his and holding a candle to guide them through the outer cave with the other.

When they emerged from the mouth of the cave, Elbeth gazed entranced. “Is it magic?” she asked. “It is so pretty! What is it made of?”

“It is frozen water and it comes down from the clouds when it is very cold.” Faramir told her patiently.

“What is for then?” she asked.

Faramir was about to reply that he did not know, then he remembered a day when he must have been about her age and had seen snow himself for the first time. His tutor, a wise and kindly man, had excused him from his studies that morning; informing Denethor that learning about snow would be a valuable lesson. The tutor had shown him how to build a snowman and make snowballs, which he had enjoyed throwing at his surprised brother when Boromir had emerged from his morning lessons. Smiling at the memory, he scooped up a handful of snow and threw it towards the nearest tree, hitting it with a resounding splat. “Snow is for playing with,” he told Elbeth. “Now do not go any further than those trees over there. I will call you in a few minutes and you can show me the snowballs you have made.”

He hastened back to Aragorn’s side. The King was frantically begging for more water and trying vainly to reach the cup Faramir had set to one side. Faramir dared to hope that despite the raging fever, his stronger movements and desire to drink suggested that his lord was a little stronger. He was greatly relieved that Aragorn was moving his limbs freely, which showed the spider venom had not caused any lasting damage. Not wanting to keep Elbeth out in the cold, he swiftly tried to remove Aragorn’s clothing.

“No!” the King protested, clutching at his garments feverishly. ”Water!”

“You shall have more when your wounds have been tended,” Faramir said firmly, steeling himself to ignore the feeble protests and concentrating on his task. He threw a blanket over the King and bathed him under it as much as possible trying to protect him from the biting cold and protect his dignity, remembering how Aragorn had done he same for him. He feared that Elbeth might return at any moment if she grew bored with her game. Faramir liberally applied salves and re-bandaged the raw wounds on the King's ankles. He dressed him in clean drawers, noticing how his hand immediately felt for the embroidered white tree emblem.

“Arwen!” the King whispered with tears in his eyes. ”Arwen, where are you my love? Please do not leave me!”

“You shall see her soon.” Faramir soothed, hoping fervently he could keep his promise.

Tucking the blanket snugly around Aragorn, he went in search of Elbeth, only to be greeted by a snowball hitting him on the chest.

“I’ve learned how to make snowballs!” she announced, emerging from behind the tree where she had been hiding.

“I see that!” Faramir said grimly, resisting the temptation to scold her for following what after all had been his suggestion. “Come inside now, or you will get cold.”

“But I’m having fun!” she protested, pouting.

“You can play again when you have had something to eat,” he promised her.

“I’m hungry!” The snowballs forgotten, she followed him inside.

Mixing some oatmeal with water, Faramir put it on the fire to warm, telling Elbeth to watch that it did not boil over and not on any account to turn around.

Returning to Aragorn, he unwrapped the bandages and bathed his face, arms and upper body. To his dismay, the wounds were still oozing their evil contents, though he did not know whether that was a bad thing or not. He began to cleanse them thoroughly, which caused Aragorn to writhe and moan.

“Stop! No!” the King begged, as the raw wound below his ribs was cleansed. “Where is Faramir? He would save me. No, I remember now, he betrayed me! You look like him, but you cannot be that traitor! ”

Faramir felt almost as distressed as his patient. He truly hated causing pain to any. It was torment indeed to see Aragorn in such a pitiful condition. Even at the Hunting Lodge, most of the time Aragorn had been aware of who he was and what needed to be done. Most importantly, he had trusted his Steward then. When Faramir applied the honey, he ardently wished he could stop his ears against the injured man’s screams.

Elbeth left her place by the fire and grabbed his arm. “Why are you making Strider cry again?” she demanded accusingly.

Faramir sighed in dismay, ”I told you to stay by the fire!” he scolded, horrified both that she should see Aragorn's injuries and that the King should suffer the added humiliation of having a young child see him wounded and half naked.

“I won't stay there while you hurt Strider!” she replied furiously.

“The honey stings but it should help him get better,” Faramir replied, quickly bandaging the wounds.

“Honey tastes nice to eat, but why were you rubbing it on?” she asked, seemingly untroubled by the gruesome injuries.

“It cleans a nasty wound better than water does,” was the best explanation Faramir could think of, hoping she would not now want to eat his precious supply of honey.

Her attention was already elsewhere, as her eyes were drawn to wards the brand mark, which Faramir was now bathing. “I thought they put those marks on cows, not people.” she commented.

“They do, it was very wrong that this was put here,” Faramir said, almost to himself.

“Then the bad person should be punished as it must have hurt Strider a lot!” Elbeth said sternly.

“It did and so he should be!” Faramir whispered.

Chapter Thirty-One - Flee an enemy who knows your weakness.

Flee an enemy who knows your weakness. - Pierre Corneille (1606–1684)

“If it hurts, you should kiss it better,” Elbeth suggested. “The nice lady I used to live with always did that. See, like this!” Kneeling beside Aragorn, she gently kissed the livid mark disfiguring his flesh. “Now it is your turn!” she told Faramir sternly.

Faramir should have told her that adults did no such thing to each other. Maybe though, this was to be part of the penance he so richly deserved? Meekly, he did as she bade him, feeling as if it were choking him to do so. Was it his guilty conscience, or did the heat from the cruel disfigurement sear his lips? “I am so very, very sorry,” the Steward murmured. Tears started to roll uncontrollably down his cheeks. Faramir applied a salve to the burn. He then pulled a clean shirt over Aragorn’s head.

“Don’t cry, Uncle Faramir!” begged Elbeth, wrapping her small arms around him. “Why are you so sad?” she enquired.

Faramir swallowed hard. “It is because the King is hurting,” was all that he could say. Suddenly, he could smell burning. “The porridge!” he exclaimed, dashing towards the pan.

Fortunately only a little was burned, and he was able to salvage enough for their breakfast, which he forced himself to eat reluctantly. He spared a little of the honey to spoon on Elbeth’s portion and was rewarded by a beaming smile from his niece.

**

As the day progressed, Aragorn became more lucid and far harder for Faramir to care for. The King now recognised him as one of his tormentors.

Every time the Steward came near he would shout, “Traitor, be gone,” or worse still, a pitiful cry of “No more! Do not hurt me!” and look at Faramir with such alternating fury and distress in the grey eyes that Faramir had to fight hard to maintain his self-control. He feared his heart would break.

He had no choice but to ask Elbeth to give Aragorn the herbal brews he needed, as well as plenty of water. She also bathed Aragorn’s brow to try to cool him. As for his other bodily needs, all Faramir could do was leave a chamber pot within easy reach and be ready to order Elbeth outside if the King appeared to need it. Aragorn was too dehydrated to require it often; either that or he would endure considerable discomfort rather than seek aid from the man who betrayed him. It was now impossible for Faramir to do anything for the King unless he was rendered sufficiently sleepy by the poppy juice to be unaware of what was happening.

Faramir found Elbeth's presence his only solace during these dark hours. Even that reminded him of how close he had come to killing her, which further increased his abhorrence of what he had become. “How did Strider come to be your friend?” he asked the child, more out of a wish for something to take his mind off both their current predicament and his guilty conscience, rather than from any great desire to know.

“I was lonely as Mummy is always with Lord Dervorin and I missed my other mummy and daddy and my friends where I used to live,” she explained. “I heard them saying they were bringing ‘Lesser the Zerper’ here and that he was very bad. I saw them carry a sack to the cellar and thought it must be a monster inside and I was scared. Then one night, I heard crying. I was looking for something nice to eat in the kitchen, but I could only find bread and jam. I know monsters don’t cry so I went into the cellar and found Strider. I like him because he was kind to me when Grandma’s house burned down. I think he was crying because he felt hungry and lonely, so I took him food nearly every night until he told me he was going away. I was sad because he’s my friend!”

Faramir hugged her and planted a tender kiss on her brow. “You are much wiser than many, child,” he murmured, distressed at the thought of Aragorn weeping alone in the cellar. “You may well have saved the life of the high King of Gondor and Arnor. He is the noblest and kindest man alive.”

“I know that because he's always nice to me!” Elbeth replied matter of factly. “Can I comb his hair, it’s all tangled up?”

“If he will allow you to,” Faramir replied, handing her a comb.

“If he is the kindest man, who is the nicest lady there is?” Elbeth asked. She knelt beside Aragorn and started to gently untangle his unruly locks with her small fingers.

“My wife, your Aunt Éowyn,” Faramir replied instantly, a far away look of longing in his eyes. “She is kind, beautiful, brave and good.”

“I remember her,” Elbeth replied, starting to draw the comb through the King’s hair. “She saved me from the fire and was nice. She is very pretty; her hair was like gold! Why can’t I have golden hair?”

“Because both your parents had dark hair and children look like their parents,” Faramir explained patiently.

“I would like to see Aunt Éowyn again,” said Elbeth

“So would I!” Faramir said fervently. “And when I do, I shall take you with me and you shall live with us and have your own kitten!”

“That sounds fun,” Elbeth replied. She struggled to tame Aragorn’s hair, sticking out her tongue in concentration as she tried to unravel an especially stubborn knot. He seemed soothed by her touch. She was surprisingly gentle for one so young.

“When can we see her?” asked Elbeth.

“Soon, I hope,” Faramir replied, fervently hoping that were the truth. ”When the King feels better and the snow has melted, we shall go and find her and my little daughter.”

“Will your little girl play with me?” Elbeth asked.

“When she is old enough,” Faramir replied, growing weary of so many questions. “Should you not concentrate on Stride...I mean the King's hair now?” he suggested.

Painstakingly, she smoothed and combed the tangled and sweat soaked locks, brushing them back from his face. He appeared more comfortable and looked tidier. “Someone has been pulling his hair out!” Elbeth exclaimed, “That is very unkind, they need smacking!”

“Well I would cheerfully have them hung!” Faramir told her vehemently.

Elbeth looked interested, “There was a boy where I used to live who pulled my hair, will you have him hung too?” she asked eagerly.

“I do not know who he is, “ Faramir said diplomatically. “And as your hair has grown back, there is no evidence. When someone does something really bad, there has to be proof they did it, before you can punish them.”

Elbeth had lost interest in the subject and was now fingering a strand of her own hair, and looking between Aragorn and Faramir, a puzzled expression on her face.

“Uncle Faramir, why do we all have dark hair and grey eyes?” she asked.

Faramir smiled, at last a question he could easily answer! “Because our ancestors came from the island of Númenor,” he replied.

“Why did they leave it?” Elbeth asked.

“The people who lived there wanted to sail to the land of the Elves in the West and conquer it, for they falsely believed they would live forever if they did. The Valar were angry with them and sent a great wave, which swallowed up Númenor and all the people who lived there. There was a wise man called Elendil though, who escaped with seven ships and his followers and came to Arda. He was a forefather of the King’s, a very long time ago.”

“I should not like to live forever,” Elbeth said sagely, “I’d be bored! People don't seem to play any more when they are old like you. Is that real or just a story?”

“It is true,” Faramir said solemnly. He loved talking about the ancient history of his people and it had always been a favourite topic of discussion between Aragorn and himself. Éowyn was more interested in the pedigrees of her horses, while Boromir had only been interested in the history of weapons and the dates of famous battles.

He continued to tell his niece stories of Númenor while he prepared the rabbit for the pot. When he produced some potatoes and carrots from amongst the supplies, Elbeth offered to help peel them and proved far more adept at the task than her uncle, much to his astonishment.

“I used to do this both for grandma and the nice lady I lived with,” she explained proudly, noting the surprise on Faramir’s face.

“Did your grandma not worry that you might cut yourself, you must have been very little then?” he asked.

Elbeth shook her head. “No, they just said I must do it properly or they would be very cross with me.”

Faramir felt increasingly sad about the way the unfortunate child had been raised. If only Boromir had told him about her. Or had Boromir even known that she existed?

With Elbeth’s help, the stew was soon ready and put to boil on the fire.

Aragorn became even more restless as the day wore on and kept throwing off his blankets. He seemed stronger, Faramir thought, no doubt due to Elbeth coaxing him to swallow a cupful of water at regular intervals, but the more animated he became, the worse he raged in his delirium.

“Water!” Aragorn begged.

Faramir tried to approach him, a cup in his outstretched hand.

“Leave me, traitor!” the King cried, trying to lash out at the Steward.

Frantically Faramir gestured towards Elbeth, who was peeling a few more potatoes for later. Knife still in hand, she approached Aragorn.

“No, not you too!” he screamed. “All I love betray me!”

Frightened, Elbeth took a step backwards.

“Drop the knife!” Faramir ordered. ”He thinks you might hurt him! It is just because he is ill that he is shouting at you.”

Obediently, Elbeth dropped it and then approached again, cup in hand.

“Elbeth?” Aragorn looked at her, this time with a glimmer of recognition in his fever-glazed eyes. He thirstily drained the water in the proffered cup.

Faramir had to leave them to attend to the cooking pot, which was starting to boil over.

A few minutes later, Elbeth came to refill Aragorn’s cup.

“We should eat well today,” Faramir told her. “The stew is almost ready. I wonder if you could coax the King to eat a little. He might feel better if he could.” He glanced towards Aragorn, only to notice that the King was slowly edging his hand towards Elbeth’s discarded blade. “No!” he gasped, fearing the feverish man could injure himself and grabbing it just in time.

“I need a weapon against you!” Aragorn raved. “You want to torture me!”

“I will not hurt you again, sire. You have my oath,” Faramir told him, troubled both by the narrowly averted danger and the mixture of fear and revulsion in Aragorn’s usually compassionate and calm eyes.

“Oath? You broke every oath you ever swore, traitor!” Aragorn retorted, before falling back exhausted.

“Why does he want to hurt you?” Elbeth finally asked the question that Faramir had been dreading.

“Do not leave a knife where he can reach it again!” Faramir cautioned while trying to think of a suitable reply. He gripped her arm more tightly than he intended, causing her to yelp in pain.

“You are hurting me now!” she protested indignantly.

Faramir buried his face in his hands wondering what sort of monster he was becoming “I am so sorry,” he told Elbeth contritely, “I am upset because the King is ill.”

“Why won’t Strider let you go near him?” she persisted.

Faramir knelt so that he was at eye level with the little girl and looked directly at her. “I hurt him, Elbeth, that is why. I had to make the other lords trust me, so that I could rescue the King, but the only way to do that was to hurt him. It was a very cruel and wrong thing to do, though.

“I still like you, Uncle!” Elbeth said, fixing her grey eyes that were so like Boromir’s, upon him. “I’m still your friend!”

Deeply moved, Faramir hugged her.

They ate a hearty meal of the rabbit stew and Faramir mashed some of it up finely, which Elbeth coaxed Aragorn into eating quite a sizeable portion of. He seemed to have forgotten his earlier suspicions of her and devoured it hungrily before falling into an uneasy sleep.

Thinking she deserved some time to play, Faramir sent her outside to make snowballs. He settled down to keep watch beside Aragorn. He sat sadly studying every line of the noble yet ravaged features. All the light seemed to have gone from his lord. Not even during their ordeal at the Hunting Lodge had he seemed so broken. Tentatively, Faramir reached out and took Aragorn’s uninjured hand. Despite the fever, it was cold and clammy. He shuddered. Aragorn had always had such warm hands. It was the very first thing he ever remembered about him, the firm grip of a gentle, warm hand in his, after Aragorn had snatched him from the very brink of death. He had opened his eyes and hailed him as King. From that moment, he would gladly have died for his lord.

Then there had been the times when Aragorn had tried to treat Faramir’s shoulder and he had been too ill at ease to remove his shirt. He had felt the heat from those remarkable hands even through several layers of thick clothing. Now one hand felt like ice and the other was crushed. Faramir could only hope his unskilled attempts at splinting it would allow the bones in the fingers to heal. If only Éowyn were here to assist him with her skills! Sighing, he threw some more wood on the fire. The cave was now pleasantly warm and he felt himself becoming drowsy. Soon he was deeply asleep and did not even stir when Elbeth, finally wearying of her game, returned. Curling herself into her nest of blankets to protect herself from the cold, she quickly fell asleep beside the fire.

***

An hour or so later, Aragorn awoke, still dazed and confused from the fever that ravaged his brain. As he struggled to sit up, he realised he felt stronger. His eyes travelled around the cave and fell on Faramir. He wondered where he was. Then it all suddenly seemed to make sense. His treacherous Steward had brought him here to torture him further so that he would sign away his son’s future!

Aragorn realised that the shackles were no longer around his hands and feet and he was free to move. Tentatively, he tried to stand, only to find his whole body throbbed with pain. His legs felt as if they were made of jelly.

Faramir’s dagger lay at his side. Aragorn stared at it debating whether or not to kill the traitor. He had loved his man once as dearly as a son. He could not kill him.

The King staggered towards the cave entrance. He felt so hot. The cool air beckoned seductively. Now was his chance to escape. Weak and ill though he felt, blind instinct made him seize it. Since he could not kill Faramir, he must flee from him!

Half stumbling, half crawling, he made his way out into the snow.

 

Chapter Thirty Two – I have lost my way for ever

 I am so lated in the world that I have lost my way for ever. - Shakespeare- Antony and Cleopatra 3.11

Failure, then, failure! So the world stamps us at every turn.- William James

Faramir stirred uneasily in dark dreams. He was standing over Aragorn's lifeless body. The sightless eyes seemed to stare at him in silent accusation. Hanna appeared, brandishing a carving knife and waving it in the direction of a very delicate portion of the Steward’s anatomy, while Dervorin urged her to strike. Behind him, Fosco and his servant, now reduced to grinning skeletons mocked him. Suddenly Denethor appeared crying, ‘You failed, you always will fail! Why did Boromir have to die and not you? What use were you to that upstart you allowed to supplant our House? You failed him too!’ A scream rose in Faramir’s throat but he found himself unable to make a sound.

“Uncle Faramir, wake up!”

Faramir awoke with a start to find Elbeth shaking him. The candle had burned low and the fire was little more than glowing embers. He realised that he must have slept for hours. How could he have been so remiss? It was small wonder that he had been plagued by evil dreams. He blinked and yawned while he tried to force himself to full wakefulness. Throwing some fresh logs on the fire, he coaxed it back to life then fumbled to light a fresh candle from it.

“Uncle Faramir, Strider has gone!” Elbeth announced.

“What?” Faramir exclaimed in horror, “How could I have left him to die while I slept?”

“He’s not dead, he’s gone!” Elbeth said impatiently.

Leaping to his feet, Faramir looked around and then ran to check the outer cave. Elbeth was correct. There was no sign of Aragorn.

“When did he go?” he asked her urgently, gazing wildly at the mouth of the cave. It was dark outside and snowing heavily enough to obscure any footprints.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I got bored making snowballs and came back in and found both you and Strider asleep. I fell asleep too and when I woke up he had gone.”

“No!” groaned Faramir, snatching up his cloak. He could only surmise that Aragorn; delirious and confused, had somehow, using his phenomenal force of will, managed to leave the cave. Perhaps it was an attempt to cool his fever or a desire to answer a call of nature in private? But how could a wounded and feverish man, wearing only a thin linen shirt and drawers, survive outside in conditions like these? As Aragorn had obviously been gone long enough for the snow to cover his tracks, it seemed there was little chance of finding him alive.

“What has happened to Strider? Are you going to find him? Can I come too?” Elbeth’s torrent of questions exhausted, she burst into tears.

Faramir knelt and put his arm around the distraught child, trying to conceal his own fears from her. "I think he has gone outside and got lost in the snow. I need to go and look for him,” he told her. ”I have a very important task for you while I am gone. I need you to keep the fire well stoked and a pan of water boiling. Do you think you can do that?”

Elbeth nodded and dried her tears on her sleeve.

“I will be back as soon as I can,” Faramir told her, getting to his feet. He took a torch and lit it as he spoke, “Stay here and do not try to follow me. If you are hungry, there is dried meat and fruit in the sack next to the potatoes.”

“Don’t be long, Uncle Faramir, “ she pleaded, “I'm scared on my own and I want Strider back!”

“You should be quite safe here,” he reassured her. “I shall try to find Strider for you.”

***

“Estel, no, no!” Arwen awoke crying out.

“Whatever is the matter?” Éowyn exclaimed, roused from sleep by her friend's cries.

“It is Estel. He is dying!” Arwen announced bleakly, “I can sense his life force growing weaker.”

“You cannot know that for certain. Maybe it was just an evil dream?” Éowyn soothed. She found the mental abilities of Elves and Númenoreans highly disconcerting. Arwen's dreams had become ever more disturbing over the past week. The Queen was growing increasingly worried about her husband. Éowyn had fretted that might mean Faramir was in grave danger too.

Since Damrod had brought them to this secluded farmhouse to stay with his sister, they had been isolated from the outside world. The young Captain dared not visit often. When he did, he could tell them little, save that Faramir was the talk of the City for his increasingly outrageous comments made in the Council Chamber. The two women could only hope that Faramir's plan was working. Arwen had never wavered in her steadfast belief that her husband was alive.

“It was no dream! He is dying!” Arwen insisted.

Éowyn placed a comforting arm around the Queen and could feel her trembling violently beneath her touch. “You must be strong. Reach out to him with your love!” she counselled, though having no idea if such a thing were possible.

As if he too sensed something was wrong, Eldarion began to wail in obvious distress.

“I will try,” Arwen said tearfully, reaching to take her child from his cradle.

Éowyn could only watch and hope as the Queen soothed her son. She sat with a look of intense concentration upon her face. She seemed no longer aware of her surroundings. It seemed almost, as if she wandered in some distant realm, seeking for one who was lost.

***

Faramir hastened out into the freezing night wondering if it were possible to fulfil either of Elbeth’s requests. Why did the weather have to be so unseasonably cold? It was almost as if the Valar were conspiring against them! Faramir thought bitterly, wondering which direction he should take. He debated whether or not to call Zachus. Eventually he decided against searching on horseback, lest he should miss some vital clue on the ground.

A careful search of the idea area surrounding the cave mouth revealed nothing. The snow started to fall more heavily, making his task even harder. He debated which direction to look in first before deciding the stream would be Aragorn’s most likely choice of destination. He had been plagued by thirst and would hear the sound of running water and follow it.

Slipping and sliding on the snow, the Steward made his way down to the water's edge, dreading what he might find. Trying to stop his hand from shaking, he swept the torch over the shallow water but there was no sign of Aragorn. Nor could he see anything, which suggested that his worse fears had not been realised. Although relieved his King had not drowned, he had hoped against hope maybe he would discover him there still alive and trying to shelter on the bank.

The only other place he could be, was in the forest, where finding him these conditions would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. He could not have got far, though, being hardly able to walk. A flash of inspiration hit Faramir. “Roheryn!” he called, hoping that the horse’s bond with his master might help him find Aragorn.

There was no answer. He called again more loudly. The snow seemed to muffle his voice. Then he heard a soft whinnying. He raised the torch to behold Aragorn’s stallion carefully picking his way amongst the trees. Roheryn’s soft nose urgently nuzzled his arm as if trying to persuade Faramir to follow him. Without hesitation he did so, trying not to lose sight of the horse as he made his way towards him.

The Steward wondered whatever dark and feverish dreams had caused Aragorn to wander out in conditions like this. A dreadful thought struck him; that the King might be so afraid of him that he had sought to escape before he could inflict any further tortures upon his pain racked body. No doubt, he still feared that Faramir was part of the conspiracy to try to force him to sign the document, which would put Arwen and Eldarion in danger.

Faramir struggled on through the snow, now clutching at Roheryn’s mane to help him keep his balance on the slippery ground. He let the horse lead him though the trees until they came to a clearing.

He looked around, puzzled as to why the stallion had brought him here. There was nothing to see but the ghostly shapes of the trees, stretching as far as the eye could see. What looked like an upturned log almost escaped his attention, until Roheryn broke away from him and stood over the still form, neighing wildly and nuzzling it gently.

Stumbling and sliding as he ran, Faramir finally reached his goal. He fell on his knees beside the still form of his King. He could not have been there very long as his features were almost devoid of falling snow. However, he was bitterly cold to the touch and did not stir as Faramir called his name. “Aragorn, mellon nîn, can you hear me?”

Nothing broke the oppressive silence of the snow clad forest. Even Roheryn had stopped snorting and seemed to be holding his breath in anticipation.

Thrusting the torch in the snow beside him, the Steward felt for a pulse but could find none. He then thrust his hand inside the thin shirt in search of a heartbeat but his questing fingers met only with icy and lifeless seeming flesh.

“No, you cannot die!” Faramir cried in anguish, “You cannot! I love you too much! You were the father I longed for and the King we all yearned for! Do not leave me now! What of Arwen and Eldarion?” He bent and kissed the icy brow in farewell, devastated that all his efforts to save his King had been for nought.

He could hardly believe it. That it should come to this, the King of Gondor and Arnor frozen to death in the forest like some hapless beggar!

Unreasonable anger welled up within the Steward. He had lied, been disowned by his beloved uncle and become a traitor and a torturer. He had killed in cold blood. He had sent good men to their deaths and all for nothing! Aragorn had been slowly growing stronger; but instead of using his Númenorean vitality to recover; he had decided instead to come out here to die.

Faramir shook the limp form beside him furiously. The dreadful realisation then dawned that most likely the King had chosen such a course of action because of him. He laid Aragorn down reverently for a moment. Faramir then lifted him and fiercely clasped him in his arms. He wept bitterly, each sob, a howl of anguish shattering the forest stillness.

He was sorely tempted to lie down and die beside his King, knowing that his own cruel deeds driven his lord to his lonely death. How could he tell Arwen of her husband’s fate? How could he tell Éowyn that he had failed and how low her husband had sunk?

Faramir knew that however painful it might be, he must try to return safely to his wife and child. He could not abandon Elbeth alone in the wilderness. He doubted not though, that soon his heart would break and he would follow his lord beyond the circles of the world.

Chapter Thirty Three – Two are better than one

Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken. - Bible: Ecclesiastes, 4:9-12.

Faramir knew that he could not leave his King's lifeless body here for ravening wolves to devour. The hungry beasts would be abroad, once the weather improved enough for them to venture out of their dens.

He reverently scooped up the still form and gently laid it across Roheryn’s back. Numb, and heavy of heart with cold and grief, he made his way back to the cave. He had no idea how to break the news to Elbeth that her friend was dead. It would be better for her to believe that Aragorn had at least died within the cave, rather than alone in the snow.

To his surprise, Roheryn followed him inside, where Faramir took the precious burden from the stallion’s back and carefully laid it down.

A glimmer of hope flared anew, once within the cosy sanctuary, which Elbeth had minded well during his absence.

Faramir had known men, whom he had served with, fall into freezing water and appear lifeless, only to revive once they were warmed. If only a healer were here who would know how to help Aragorn! He knew he must try to save him, however hopeless the task appeared.

Elbeth rushed towards them. “What has happened to Strider, Uncle Faramir?” she asked in dismay. “He doesn’t look very well! Why has he turned such a funny colour?”

Faramir desperately sought the right words to gently break the dreadful news to her. He swiftly carried Aragorn to the fire and laid him down on a pelt in front of it. He lifted the simmering pot of water from the fire and put it to one side to cool slightly.

“He is very ill indeed because he is so cold. We need to try to warm him,” Faramir explained, already pulling the cold, damp shirt from Aragorn’s inert frame. “Turn your back, please, I need to get these damp clothes off him. Can you get some towels and hand them to me? ”

To the Steward’s relief, Elbeth obeyed without asking any further questions, her demeanour suggesting she suspected the cruel truth. Swiftly, Faramir removed the freezing and sodden bandages and drawers from Aragorn’s skeletal frame. He tested the temperature of the water, to see it had cooled sufficiently so as not to cause shock, if by some miracle any flicker of life remained. He carefully bathed Aragorn’s body with warm water, hoping that it would thaw him.

Drying him quickly, he clothed the King in fresh drawers, laid him on the bedroll and wrapped as many blankets as he could find around him, as well as one of the pelts, laid fur side downwards. Aragorn remained cold and still throughout the Steward’s ministrations; his skin pale and blue tinged. Faramir was increasingly certain that all his efforts were in vain. He pressed his ear to the icy chest, detecting not the slightest flutter of life.

Yet, he could not bring himself to admit that it was a hopeless task. More memories from his days as a Ranger came flooding back. Once, Mablung had been wounded and left for dead overnight in freezing rain. They had gone the next morning to retrieve the body for burial. Damrod had suggested that they warm him before giving up hope. To everyone's surprise, Mablung had made a complete recovery.

“Uncle Faramir, can I turn around yet? How is Strider?” Elbeth's anxious voice roused him from his thoughts.

“Yes, you can look now,” Faramir replied, “Strider is no better, I fear.”

“He will wake up won't he? Please say that he will, Uncle Faramir!”

“I do not know, Elbeth,” Faramir replied sadly.

“He can't die, he can’t!” Elbeth protested, bursting into tears. “Please can't you help him?”

Slight though the chances of success were, Faramir realised there was still one method left that he could still try; to warm Aragorn with his own body, as he had done in the Hunting Lodge. Aragorn was far colder than he had been then and most likely beyond all human aid. If only Éowyn were here to help him! Two would have a far better chance of success than one man on his own. Faramir turned to Elbeth. ”I am going to undress and try and use the warmth from my own body to help the King. The fire and the blankets are not enough.”

“I want to help!” she insisted, “I’m nice and warm, I can hold him too.”

Faramir shook his head, and threw some more wood on the fire. He could not permit a child to clasp what was most likely a frozen corpse in her arms! Taking a deep breath, he started to undress, shivering as he pulled his warm outer tunic over his head. “No, Elbeth, he is so cold that it would hurt you to touch him. I need you to keep putting wood on the fire when it burns low.”

“Please let me help!” she begged, her lower lip trembling. “Strider is my friend!”

”Well, you can wrap yourself warmly in your blanket and lie the other side of him.” Faramir relented, removing his shirt as he spoke. He was too distraught about Aragorn’s condition to care that it was considered most improper to appear shirtless in front of a lady, however young.

 

“Do you want me to take my clothes off too? “ she enquired.

“No!” Faramir replied hastily. “Just huddle as close as you can to the King.”

Even with the fire blazing, the air in the cave felt cold and damp on Faramir’s bared chest and arms. He was starting to develop goose bumps already. Shedding his boots, he slid under the covers beside his King, enfolding the icy body close against his warm one, trying his utmost not to recoil from the freezing body. Under the cover of the blankets, he wriggled out of his breeches. He hesitated over whether to retain his drawers or not for the sake of propriety. He concluded the material was too thin to trap much heat and kept them on. 

It took all his willpower not to cry out as the King’s icy flesh pressed close against his chest and belly. Faramir tried to breath deeply hoping his breath would help to warm Aragorn. He cared nothing for his own comfort. If saving Aragorn cost his life, he would gladly give it.

Aragorn still gave no sign of life and Faramir felt overwhelmed by grief and helplessness. He could not help but weep, the tears falling on the King’s icy brow. “Please, please live!” he whispered. “You have given me so much. It is thanks to you that I live now. You saved Éowyn and my daughter. Freely you gave me the affection that my own father denied me. I love you. Please come back to me! I cannot bear to lose you! Let me restore you to your wife and son!”

He wondered if he should try to sing, as he had done in the Hunting Lodge. He feared, however, if Aragorn could hear his voice it would only distress him and sap any remaining will to live he might yet possess. “Elbeth do you know any songs?” Faramir asked through chattering teeth.

“Lots!” she replied, gamely snuggling closer to Aragorn's frozen back.

“Will you sing them to Strider then?” the Steward asked.

“Of course! There was a pretty little cat who went to catch a mouse; but when the stars and moon came out, it ran back in the house,” Elbeth sang in a clear childish voice, sending a wistful pang through Faramir’s heart.

Faramir could remember his mother singing him to sleep with that nursery song long ago. It tore at his heart. He had lost her, then Boromir and his father. How could he bear to lose Aragorn too? He clutched him all the more tightly and begged Elbeth to continue singing.

Then all the mice came out to play, because the cat had run away,” Elbeth sang before repeating the first verse again.

Aragorn looked so peaceful now that he could have been asleep, were it not for his dreadful pallor and sunken cheeks. Faramir remembered wistfully all the times when Aragorn had devotedly cared for him, even when he tried to reject all the King’s kindnesses. It seemed so unjust that the bitter cold should still such a warm and generous heart.

Faramir grew ever colder, despite the mountain of covers, transferring his warmth to the frozen man in his arms. He told Elbeth to throw more logs on the fire. He felt some warmth returning to his own body as the fire blazed up. Elbeth's singing died away as weariness overcame her and the exhausted child fell asleep. Faramir maintained his lonely vigil, knowing that if Aragorn were alive, he would show some sign once he grew warm. The Steward became increasingly anxious as the hours passed.

Suddenly, Faramir felt the longed for sign: a faint heartbeat reverberating against his own! Silent and heartfelt tears of relief ran down his cheeks. He could have shouted for joy. He pressed Aragorn closer to his chest and began to gently massage his friend’s back. The King groaned and started to shiver violently making it difficult to keep his hold on him.

Faramir had heard somewhere that this was a good sign. More than ever he longed for Éowyn to be by his side. ”Come, Aragorn,” he whispered. “You can recover, I know it! You are strong, fight to live with that strength! You are safe now, none shall harm you while I live.”

***

The night seemed endless for Éowyn, attempting to alternately soothe both Arwen and Elestelle, all the while trying to contain her own mounting sense of panic. If Aragorn were to die, she was certain that Faramir, as well as Arwen, would quickly follow.

She had long since realised that Elves, and Men of Númenorean descent, could form such strong mental bonds that they became entwined in each other's souls. She was very grateful not to have inherited such a dubious ability from her grandmother. Someone had to take a practical view and be ready to care for the two orphaned babies that would result from such sensitivity. She had come to love Eldarion almost as her own and would never abandon him. How could she alone hope to protect two infants in a world so hostile to them, though? Eldarion had his uncles at Rivendell, but they could hardly provide the milk that he needed, powerful Elves though they might be! She realised she would most likely depend on Éomer’s charity for the rest of her days, should Faramir and Aragorn fall. Much though she loved her brother, Éowyn dreaded such a fate.

Initially, she had only accepted Faramir's proposal because she had no wish to return to Rohan. Now she had come to love him deeply and become a blissfully happy wife. Arwen too, she loved as a dear sister and could not bear to lose either of them. As for Aragorn; he had blazed across Middle earth like a comet. His loss would grieve her deeply.

Arwen alternately stared into space, or shook and sobbed, while Éowyn sat with her arms around her, trying vainly to comfort her. Both babies whimpered incessantly and refused to be comforted. Éowyn had a strong suspicion that Elestelle was experiencing some sort of mental link either with Aragorn or her father.

Suddenly Arwen relaxed and both infants ceased crying. The Queen turned to look at her friend and smiled. “He lives,” she said, “Estel lives, his life force waxes much stronger now.”

Éowyn burst into tears, which was most unlike her. So great was her relief, she was no longer able to contain her emotion. None of this made any sense to her and yet she knew Arwen was speaking the truth.

She sniffed loudly before saying briskly, “That is very good news, I will make us some tea!”

***

Gradually, Aragorn's breathing deepened. His cold flesh became warmer and a trace of colour returned to his pallid features. He appeared now to be a natural sleep.

Overcome by exhaustion, Faramir fell asleep too.

He had no idea for how long he slept. When he awoke he was confused as to why Aragorn was in his arms under so many heavy covers. Then he remembered. He carefully disentangled himself and felt for a heartbeat. It was strong and steady. Faramir could have laughed for sheer joy. He glanced across the now sleeping King and smiled to see Elbeth still curled up fast asleep on the other side, cocooned in her blanket.

Slowly, Faramir sat up, noticing for the first time that his arms and chest felt damp and sticky. He took up the candle and pulled the blankets aside a few inches to investigate, discovering that Aragorn’s infected wounds had at last burst and drained their contents. Quickly, he pulled on his breeches before sliding out from under the covers. He knew Aragorn would become distressed if he sensed him at his side after all that had happened. He needed to tend the King’s wounds before he woke up. Picking up his discarded shirt, he mopped himself with it before donning it again, together with his tunic. He then put some water on the fire to heat.

Gathering together the supply of salves and bandages, he gently bathed Aragorn’s wounds, wiping away the pus and fresh blood which now oozed from them, before applying a salve of calendula and carefully bandaging them. Aragorn moaned slightly but did not awaken. To his dismay, he noticed that the King's hands and feet were now purple and swollen. They looked extremely painful.

Remembering Éowyn had told him that hot drinks were beneficial; Faramir put more water on the fire to boil. While he was waiting, he quickly washed his hands before making some tea and trying to rouse the King.

“Aragorn!” he called gently, wondering what manner of reaction he would get. “Come, wake up!”

Chapter Thirty-Four – What is truth?

Every path to a new understanding begins in confusion. Mason Cooley (b. 1927),

In the greatest confusion there is still an open channel to the soul. - Saul Bellow 1915 -

“What is truth?” The Bible – John 18.38

The King stirred and moaned slightly, but did not open his eyes.

Faramir began to question the wisdom of awakening him. He knew, though, it was important that he had a drink. Would have been better to rouse Elbeth first and ask her to give it to him? The child was sleeping so peacefully however, he had not the heart to disturb her yet. She had sat up for most of the night with only a single blanket to protect her from the bitter cold singing for the unconscious Aragorn.

“Aragorn, wake up!” Faramir called again. As the King stirred slightly, he went to where the clothing was stored and took out a clean shirt and placed it by the fire to warm.

Aragorn fought against the return of consciousness and the associated pain. He had felt himself floating towards a glorious light while a wondrous sense of peace had enfolded him. He could hear his mother and Halbarad calling to him. Just as he was about to embrace them, he had been pulled back through what seemed like a long dark tunnel.

Arwen had been at the other side, pleading with him to stay with her. He had seen his son there together with Elestelle. Then he had been cold, so very cold, that he felt he would still most surely die. Loving arms had then enfolded him, their warmth seeping into his own frozen body. He had heard singing in a child's clear innocent tones. He had heard another voice, one that sounded oddly like Faramir's, but could not have been that traitor’s. This voice was cracked with emotion telling him how much he was loved and needed. That same voice was calling him now, but he had no desire to respond to it. He yearned only to escape from the pain, which ravaged almost every inch of his suffering body. His wounds throbbed painfully, as did some new hurts in his hands and feet. Had he been tortured again while he slept?

Without opening his eyes, Aragorn tried to take stock of his surroundings. He realised he was no longer in the cellar and appeared to be lying on soft bedding. The single moth-eaten blanket had been replaced by layers of warm covers, with the soft fur of a pelt next to his skin.

With a start, he realised that he was almost naked and wearing nothing but a pair of drawers, which were blessedly clean, as was his skin. He remembered Hanna demanding that he be stripped. Why then, had they left him anything to protect his modesty, if they planned to utterly humiliate him? Most surprisingly, his wounds had been bandaged, albeit very inexpertly and his hands and feet were no longer fettered. He felt dreadfully thirsty.  Unable to prevent himself from whimpering with pain, Aragorn finally opened his eyes. He saw that Faramir was kneeling beside him, with a cup in his hand.

Faramir held his breath, wondering how the King would react. Aragorn was looking at him with a bewildered rather than fearful expression. He held out the cup, preparing to rouse Elbeth if he would not take it.

“Drink this, my liege. It will help you,” he said gently. ”See, it is not poisoned!” To prove his words, Faramir took a sip and swallowed it. He then supported Aragorn's head and held the cup to his lips.

In too much pain and too thirsty to resist, Aragorn drank; sipping the soothing drink eagerly, until the cup was drained.

Faramir settled his King’s head back on the pillow. Even this slight movement made Aragorn moan with pain. “I will fetch you some poppy juice in a moment,” the Steward said, his eyes showing his distress at his lord's obvious agony. Faramir reached out to feel the King's brow. It was cool; the fever had broken! He made to move away before Aragorn could become agitated at the sight of him. However, a faltering hand reached out towards him and took his. The fingers looked red and raw, the snow had made the chilblains much worse.

“Faramir?” Aragorn whispered in a cracked voice.

“I am here, my lord, be easy!” Faramir replied, his voice choked with emotion. He held his breath. Aragorn appeared to be in his right mind again.

The King looked at him with a puzzled expression as if trying to recall something. He groaned again at the increasingly painful sensations returning to his hands and feet.

Faramir reached for the now warmed shirt. “Let me help you put this on,” he said. “You must not get cold.”

Aragorn allowed the garment to be slipped over his head without trying to struggle.

“You were out in the snow,” Faramir explained, pulling the shirt down and tucking the covers round snugly around the King again. “Your fingers and toes need tending. They look to be covered in chilblains, as do your ears.”

Aragorn breathed deeply and looked down at his reddened fingers. “Good idea - red not black - does not look too bad - not severe frostbite,” he mumbled, conceding that Faramir was correct.

The Steward mixed some poppy juice and offered it his lord. “Drink this, it should ease your pain,” he said, again taking a small sip to prove the potion was safe to swallow.

Aragorn wanted to refuse but when another groan involuntarily rose to his lips, he swallowed, ashamed of his own weakness.

Faramir fetched bandages and a salve of black bryony, which he knew would help to keep Aragorn’s damaged skin supple and ease him. It was a remedy popular amongst his men during their time in Ithilien. He worked in silence, noting how Aragorn was whimpering and biting his already raw lips. The King’s usually lively grey eyes were dull and clouded. The Ring of Barahir now dug painfully into his swollen finger, too tight now to remove.

The Steward then pulled the covers away from the King’s feet and painstakingly repeated the process with each reddened and swollen toe.

Aragorn bore the pain stoically, all the while feeling ever more bewildered at Faramir’s strange behaviour. This was his Faramir, his loyal friend and Steward, whom he loved as a son, trying to tend him as gently as he could. Yet, this same man was also the traitor who had tortured him so cruelly.

Bewildered, he wondered if it were some sort of trick to make him sign the marriage contract by lulling him into a false sense of security. Fragments of memory from when he was drifting in and out of consciousness flitted through his brain. He was sure that he remembered Faramir weeping and telling him how much he loved him and wanted to restore him to his wife and son. He could not understand his behaviour at all.

“There, my lord, are you more comfortable? Would you like another drink?” Faramir asked after applying the salve to Aragorn’s ears. He tucked the covers round the King’s chin and started to move away.

“Why did you betray me?” Aragorn demanded, a little strength returning to him as the poppy juice eased his pain.

“I am sorry, my lord, I meant it only as a deception that I might rescue you,” Faramir replied, unable to look Aragorn in the eye. He whispered, ”I never desired to harm you.”

“How can I believe you?” Aragorn replied, “You swore fealty to me and assured me of your love once. You have broken those vows! You even stole my ring!”

“Never in my heart, was I false, sire!” Faramir protested. “I sought only to save you. When your Queen suggested that I pretend to join the rebels, I agreed to do so. See your ring is back on your finger! If I had truly sought to betray you, I could have told them I knew how to operate your seal, but I did not!

“You branded me!” Aragorn accused. He wanted to trust Faramir but could not. The image of him advancing, red-hot iron in hand, would be forever seared in his brain.

“If I had refused to do so, I would have been unmasked,” Faramir replied desparately. “I had to do it. As soon as I could, I drugged you to make them believe you were dead and escaped with you. Ask Elbeth, when she awakens. She is asleep the other side of you.” He helped the King turn his head so that he could see her blanket- covered form.

“Must know!” Aragorn feebly reached out with his hand, trying to touch Faramir’s head and sense his thoughts before remembering that he had broken the bond.

“You severed our Thought Bond,” Faramir said sadly, “I understand why, but I feel my soul is torn asunder!”

Aragorn hesitated. He had no desire to bond with a traitor; yet, if Faramir were telling the truth, it would most likely kill him, were the link not at least partially restored. He distrusted him, yet the love he had once borne him, still lingered sufficiently for him not to want to risk destroying the younger man.

“A Bond can be remade. Place your head against mine,” Aragorn tried to sound commanding but his voice emerged as a feeble croak.

Faramir gulped; he had not dared to hope that he would ever again share the Thought Bond with his King. He was eager to do so, albeit this would surely be for the last time.

He lay down beside Aragorn so that their heads could easily touch; only to find their carven Númenorean noses were in the way. He could not help but smile at the memory of the first time that had happened and noticed there was an answering hint of a smile in Aragorn’s pain filled eyes.

Helping the King to a sitting position propped against the pillows, Faramir pressed his forehead against his King’s. It surprised him how quickly the bond was re –established. Almost immediately the dreadful emptiness within him was healed. Yet Faramir found it impossible to sense anything other than cruel images of pain and suffering within the King's mind. Whether it was because it was too much to endure, or that they lacked sufficient accord, he did not know. What he could sense was overwhelming in its horror.

From what he had witnessed, and the cruel marks on the King’s tortured body, Faramir already had some idea of how much his friend had suffered. Only now could he truly envisage what Aragorn had endured, the pain, the humiliation, the hunger, thirst,cold and loneliness that he had known, and worse still; the anguish and despair he had felt when Faramir had betrayed him.

For his part, Aragorn could sense even less. He could not bring himself to fully form a Thought Bond with one he trusted so little. He could sense guilt, pity and regret, but could not decide whether Faramir regretted betraying him, or those he had chosen to join forces with. Exhausted at the effort, Aragorn fell back against the pillows.

Faramir sat slumped, his head in his hands, increasingly alarmed for his lord. Never before had he seen Aragorn in such despair. He could sense how much he was missing Arwen but it went far deeper than that. He sensed an inner brokenness, which he could only hope; she would be able to mend.

“Arwen and my son?” Aragorn whispered.

“They are both safe. Damrod has taken them into hiding together with Éowyn and Elestelle,” Faramir reassured him.

Aragorn sighed with relief and settled more easily. He could not trust Faramir, but at present he was too weak to refuse his aid. He could sense no deception in him. For the moment, that would have to suffice. He could no longer resist the urge to sleep and escape the pain. He surrendered to the poppy juice and knew no more.

Chapter Thirty-Five – O what joy to breath fresh air

O, welche Lust in freier Luft Den Atem leich zu heben !

Oh what joy, in the open air, Freely to breathe again! - Fidelio -Bethoven/Sonnleithner

Once assured that the King was sleeping soundly. Faramir decided that he too, was badly in need of a wash and a change of linens. He needed to go outside and fetch water and see how the horses were faring.

Returning as quickly as he could, he put the icy water on the fire to heat, collected some soap and towels and selected a clean shirt and drawers from amongst the spare clothing he had brought.

Aragorn had not stirred while he was away. Faramir was concerned lest Elbeth might awake while he was in a state of undress. He solved the problem by securing a towel around his waist and undressing and bathing under it, his back turned to the sleeping child. He then donned clean drawers under the towel and put his breeches back on. The Steward then peeled off his shirt and tunic. His teeth chattering with the cold, he thoroughly washed away the detritus of the King’s wounds from his body. By the time he was finished dry, he was covered in goose bumps. Swiftly, he donned a clean shirt and finished dressing. He dared not risk any infection from Aragorn’s wounds. It seemed the King was likely to be dependant on him for some time to come. Elbeth was far too young to survive alone here, however resourceful she might be.

Carefully, he slid his hand under the covers and felt Aragorn's skin under his shirt to check that he was warm enough. Aragorn had started to sweat so he removed one of the blankets. He tucked one around Elbeth for extra warmth and kept the second to wrap around himself.

Faramir settled down beside Aragorn. Once satisfied that the King was still soundly asleep, the Steward tried to rest; yet sleep was slow to come. The anguish and despair he had sensed in his friend’s soul had truly appalled him. Aragorn had endured torments beyond anything he could imagine. He wondered if even an exceptional man, such as the King undoubtedly was; could ever hope to recover. For a man like Aragorn who even found the huge apartments in the Citadel confining, what must it have been like to spend weeks chained in a dark cellar? Not only a helpless captive but deprived of adequate food, water and warmth and constantly put to torment? He had no idea how he could help his King. He only wished that Arwen were here to console her husband with her Elven strength and wisdom.

Faramir felt stronger again, now the Thought Bond was re-established. He was grateful beyond measure that Aragorn had seen fit to restore the link with him. He doubted, though that anything could ever ease the pain and guilt over his shameful deeds. He knew the King did not trust him, but then how could he ever expect to be trusted again? His heart was deeply troubled.

Aragorn cried out in his sleep, restless despite the liberal dose of poppy juice he had been given. Faramir could do little but smooth his hair and murmur words of comfort. When the King finally settled, exhaustion finally overcame the Steward.

When Faramir awoke again. Many hours had passed. Aragorn appeared to be in a deep natural slumber and his temperature appeared normal. Beside him, Elbeth had burrowed deep into her blankets like a baby bird in a nest.

Deciding he could safely leave them for a little while, Faramir took his bow and went out in search of food.

He was fortunate to quickly take down a rabbit, which had been grazing on the patch of grass he had cleared for the horses. The snowfall of the previous night had only covered it thinly. Already the snow was melting in the weak morning sunshine. It was still very cold. It looked, though as if it were going to be a fine day; the sky was clear and no longer overcast by storm clouds.

He took the rabbit back inside the cave and was starting to prepare it for the pot when Elbeth awoke and came over to him.

“Is Strider getting better?” she asked. “He no longer looks such a funny colour.”

Faramir smiled at her. “He is much better today,” he replied.

“Will he be able to play with me, then?” she asked delightedly.

“Not for a while yet,” Faramir replied. “It might be a long, long time before he is well again. I believe he will get better eventually.”

Satisfied, albeit slightly disappointed, Elbeth turned her attention to other matters. “I’m hungry! When can we have breakfast?” she demanded. “I want to play snowballs again today. When can I go out?”

“After you have eaten your breakfast, unless you need to go out now.” Faramir told her patiently. Realising that he was hungry too, he left off his task and prepared some oatmeal for them both while Aragorn was still sleeping.

After they had eaten, he sent Elbeth out to play and collected what he needed to tend to Aragorn, who was stirring now. He made some tea and approached the bedroll where he lay.

The King opened his eyes and stared wildly around him; making Faramir fear for a moment that he was feverish again. Aragorn then focused his eyes on his Steward and looked at him questioningly.

Faramir knelt beside his lord and smiled reassuringly.

“Where am I?” Aragorn asked hesitantly.

“You are in a cave in the forest,” Faramir explained. “I brought you here.” He hesitated, trying to recall the passing of the days, which all seemed to have blurred into one. “It was two or three nights ago,” he said at last.

Aragorn struggled to sit up. Faramir was immediately at his side, supporting him and placing pillows to support his back. “Easy!” he cautioned, “You need to get your strength back.”

Aragorn grabbed Faramir’s wrist with his bandaged hand. “Am I your captive now?” he demanded.

“No, no, my dear lord.” Faramir reassured him. “You are no prisoner. As soon as you are well enough, I will take you to your wife and son. Éowyn will tend your wounds properly then.”

Aragorn looked far from convinced. “Is it daylight?” he asked.

“Yes, I think it is about noon,” Faramir told him.

“I want to see the sky!” Aragorn demanded.

“And so you shall, as soon as you are well enough,” Faramir soothed, “Now drink this hot cup of tea, it will do you good.”

“You tell me I am not a prisoner? You speak falsely! I want to see the sky now!” Aragorn demanded

“No, my lord, I fear only that you might take a chill,” Faramir replied.

“I have been in the dark so long!” Becoming increasingly agitated, Aragorn tried to struggle to his feet. He immediately fell back helplessly amongst his blankets. ”Faramir, please help me! I cannot endure this darkness any longer.” His tone was pleading rather than accusatory.

“I will light more candles, sire.” Faramir was becoming increasingly alarmed, fearing for his lord’s already very fragile health. He felt the King’s forehead for fever, but there was none.

“Please, for the sake of any love you ever bore me, let me see the sky again!” Aragorn pleaded. “I feel so trapped in here! I cannot breathe!”

“You have my love still and always will, sire,” Faramir replied sadly.

“Then prove I am no prisoner! Let me see the sky!”

Faramir realised there was only one way to calm his King. Obviously, his horror of being confined was upsetting him so.

“I will have to carry you then,” he said, his eyes full of compassion. “Put your arms round my neck and hold on!”

Aragorn looked doubtful, as if the thought of Faramir carrying him repulsed him. He then nodded resignedly.

Faramir peeled back several of the blankets, wrapping those that remained together with the pelt, tightly around Aragorn’s skeletal frame and bodily lifting him. He staggered to the cave entrance, his precious burden in his arms.

The sun was now high in the sky, which was a clear frosty blue. What still remained of the snow, sparkled in the winter sunlight.

Aragorn gazed up at the sky, his expression rapt. Tears started to slowly trickle down his haggard cheeks. “I never thought to see the sky or breathe the sweet air again!” he whispered.

Faramir felt both his heart and his back would break soon. He felt compelled to linger a moment or two longer. “Here is Roheryn!” he exclaimed, when the stallion whinnied and trotted towards his master. “See Elbeth is over there, playing snowballs.”

The little girl then caught sight of the men and ran towards them. “Strider, you are better!” she exclaimed joyfully, “But why are you crying?”

“I can see the sky!” was all Aragorn could say. “I can breathe again!”

“Elbeth, can you help me support his legs?” Faramir asked her urgently, fearing he would drop Aragorn any moment. He felt something in his back give way and gritted his teeth.

The child did as she was told while Roheryn nuzzled his master ecstatically. Faramir waited for him to caress the velvety nose before gently saying, “I fear I cannot hold you any longer. You could take a chill if we stay here.”

Aragorn was now weeping too much to speak coherently.

Faramir turned and carried Aragorn back inside. Elbeth helped as best she could.

“You can go back to play now,” Faramir told Elbeth, when Aragorn was laid back on his bedroll. “I need to give the King a wash and change his clothes.”

“Just a minute, I have something important to do first!” She bent to kiss Aragorn saying, “There I’ve kissed you better, you can stop crying now!” before running out into the sunlight again.

“Thank you, Faramir,” Aragorn whispered. “I feared I would die in the darkness without seeing the sun and the sky one last time!”

It was Faramir’s turn to blink back the tears. The tea was still drinkable and he held the cup to Aragorn's lips while he composed himself. Taking a pan of warm water from the fire, he gently bathed the King's tear stained face. At least, Aragorn seemed somewhat more settled now. He let him rest for a few minutes before tending him further. He knew it would be a considerable ordeal for such a proud man to be bathed like an infant.

Chapter Thirty-Six  - Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross

Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
She shall have music wherever she goes.
-Traditional nursery rhyme

Faramir steeled himself for the uncomfortable task ahead. He was no trained Healer. He had found it difficult enough to tend the King even when Aragorn was unaware of what was happening. He picked up a blanket ready to cover his lord with and stood fingering it uneasily. “I need to undress you to bathe you and tend to your wounds,” he said, wishing more than ever that a more suitable carer were here. “Do you need to use this? He offered the chamber pot awkwardly.

The King nodded reluctantly, regarding his Steward with an expression reminiscent of a trapped animal poised between fight and flight, while all too aware that he was unable to choose either of these options. Somehow, he had managed to retain some vestiges of dignity during his captivity; most likely because his captors still held him in some awe. He had also been alone for most of time and mercifully able to use the bucket to answer nature's calls in private. Now he required assistance even for that.

Faramir tactfully averted his eyes, all too aware that Aragorn found it greatly humiliating to rely on one of his tormentors for assistance in such intimate matters. When Faramir had cared for him at the Hunting Lodge, he had trusted him, which had made it all so much easier to bear.

Aragorn now had to endure the trials of having his clothing removed, albeit under a blanket, being bathed like an infant and then rubbed with something that smelt much like the salve Arwen and the nanny used for Eldarion's napkin rash. Then came more salves, this time something made with comfrey and arnica according to the smell of it.

Faramir's touch was far from gentle. It was impossible to tell whether this was from embarrassment, or a desire to cause further pain. His Steward’s expression of abject misery suggested the former. From the look on Faramir’s face, it would be difficult to decide which of them was the more uncomfortable. Aragorn hated his own weakness; in not even being able to bathe himself and apply the salves. Simply raising his head required considerable effort. He fell back against the pillow and closed his eyes. To his relief, he finally felt clean underwear being drawn over his hips. He shivered with cold as the covering blanket was removed. Faramir laid warm covers over his legs. His ordeal was far from over. Faramir began to tend the wounds on Aragorn’s upper body

The King forced himself to open his eyes and see clearly for the first time what damage had been done to him. The bandages were heavily stained and had stuck to his skin. He tensed in the anticipation of having them roughly pulled off. Instead, Faramir soaked them with warm water and removed them off quite gently.

Aragorn was shocked at what was finally revealed, despite his all too vivid memories of the pain combined with his Healer's knowledge and experience. There was hardly an inch of normal skin visible on his arms; chest and belly, so numerous were the cuts, bruises and patches of flesh, from where the skin had been brutally torn. The wounds still oozed but the worst of the infection seemed to have subsided. On his shoulder was burned the mark, which identified Dervorin’s cattle, a truly humiliating disfigurement.

When Faramir started to bathe his wounds, he closed his eyes, biting his lips to stop himself from crying out. They were extremely painful.

“What should I put on them?” Faramir asked.

“Honey if you have any,” Aragorn replied through clenched teeth, hoping he could endure the pain.

“It will sting,” Faramir warned.

 “I know that,” Aragorn replied wearily wondering had the man forgotten he had been a Healer long before he was even conceived? “The butcher did a lot of damage.” He shuddered to recall the memories of the knife cruelly teasing his flesh. He shivered again.

“Which one of them was he?” Faramir enquired, picking up the honey, knowing he must do this quickly before the King became chilled.

“A servant, a big, burly man, who delighted in telling me what his old trade was, whenever he skinned me!” Aragorn replied.” He was one of your father's chief executioners and an expert in causing lingering pain and enjoying it.”

“I killed him in cold blood during our escape.” Faramir's tone was devoid of expression.

Aragorn found himself wondering if the Steward regretted the deed or simply the manner of its execution. Had the man been one of his accomplices, a friend even?

Faramir began to smear generous amounts of honey to the raw patches disfiguring Aragorn’s chest, belly and arms. Aragorn’s pain now became so severe that he was incapable even of rational thought. He was no longer able to suppress his cries of agony. He was sweating heavily, despite the chill damp of the cave. Silent tears of distress rolled down his cheeks. He yearned for Arwen's comforting presence. Yet if she were beside him, how could he permit to see him thus? Once he could have turned to Faramir for solace but no longer. The Steward's very touch revolted him now.

Faramir hated himself for having to inflict such pain on his lord, needful though it was. He wanted nothing more than enfold him in a comforting embrace. He knew though, his right to do that had been lost the moment he had denounced his King before the Council. Unable to look Aragorn in the eye, he concentrated on bandaging his wounds, noting how he recoiled, when he momentarily lifted him to wind the bandages round his body. When Aragorn started to shiver again, he tucked the warm pelt around him.

“I have almost finished,” he said, tying the bandages in place. He suddenly froze when he came to the brand mark on Aragorn's shoulder.

“What salve should I put on that?” he asked, hesitantly.

“Calendula or comfrey salve,” Aragorn murmured, conscious of little else but his pain wracked body. He wanted to ask Faramir why he had carried out such a cruel act. However, the pain made conversation an ordeal, especially when the answers might cause even more anguish, if they were even forthcoming.

Faramir did as he was bidden, unsure whether or not to be relieved that an explanation for actions would have to wait. He slipped a clean shirt over Aragorn's head. After giving him more rose hip tea and poppy juice, he drew the covers tightly round the King, who despite the blazing fire, still shivered. Faramir gently smoothed back his lord’s hair, which was drenched with sweat from the ordeal. “Rest now and regain your strength,” he said gently. He wanted so much to place a kiss on his brow, but the way his King flinched away from his touch made such a gesture almost unthinkable. Painful though it was, he would have to accept that his only relationship with Aragorn now was that of subject and King. No longer could he look upon Aragorn as father, friend and brother. He had known that in his heart since the day he had agreed to Arwen's plan. His only task now was to restore the King to his wife and to his throne.

Faramir sat and waited until Aragorn fell into an uneasy sleep, then called for Elbeth to come back in. She sat with the King while he prepared the rabbit for their meal and washed the soiled linens.

With Elbeth’s help, Faramir prepared a stew for them both and some broth for Aragorn. His niece was surprisingly quiet. She was careful not to wake the sick man, whom Faramir allowed to sleep until they had eaten their meal.

“Will Strider be hungry?” Elbeth asked, scraping her plate clean.

“You may awaken the King and see,” he replied, wishing she would address Aragorn a little more respectfully.

Aragorn's eyes were wide with fear when he opened them. When he saw Elbeth, however, he visibly relaxed and smiled faintly.

“Are you hungry, Strider?” Elbeth asked. “We’ve some very nice food. I helped Uncle Faramir make it and it really tastes good.”

Aragorn lifted his head then looked at his bandaged hands that lay limply on the coverlet and shook his head.

“I will feed you, Strider, Elbeth said cheerfully.

Faramir fetched the bowl and spoon. He helped the King to sit up, propping him with pillows. Elbeth then sat beside him and spooned the broth into Aragorn's mouth. He was obviously hungry and devoured it greedily, which gladdened Faramir’s aching heart.

Elbeth chattered cheerfully all the while she fed her friend, telling him what fun it was camping out with him and Uncle Faramir and did he know that snow was for playing with?

Faramir could not help but smile at her chatter.

Once Aragorn had settled back to sleep, they dared to go outside. Elbeth helped her uncle wash the dishes in the stream. On the way back, as they trudged through the now almost melted snow; she stopped to pat the horses. “Can I have a ride?” she asked.

“Do you know how?” Faramir was surprised at this request.

“The charcoal burners would give me a ride on their horse when I lived with grandma,” she explained. “Then the Lord of Lamedon said I had to learn to ride for when I’m Queen, but he only let me ride a pony!” she added scornfully.

“We had better see if the King needs anything first,” Faramir cautioned, deciding against going into the reasons why she could not be Queen just now.

Aragorn was still sound asleep after his meal and a further dose of poppy juice. Faramir dared to leave him and grant Elbeth her wish. The child was being very good and deserved a reward.

He saddled the placid Zachus and lifted Elbeth on him, wincing at the pain in his back as he did so. Obviously, he had damaged himself when lifting Aragorn. He had once done something similar while lifting heavy sacks of supplies at Hennun Annûn and had been advised by the Healer to rest. Such a luxury was out of the question here.

Elbeth immediately took up the reins and urged the horse to walk. Faramir walked beside them, his arms firmly about her waist.

“Let go Uncle Faramir,” she said sternly, ”I know what to do!”

Somewhat reluctantly, Faramir released her and stepped back. Much to his surprise, she guided the bay confidently along the path, urging him to a canter. She laughed happily while the horse smoothly carried her along, her dark hair blowing in the breeze.

It seemed Elbeth had inherited Boromir’s early prowess on horseback. Faramir had been slow to become a confident rider, though his skills had eventually surpassed those of his elder brother. However, until he learned sufficient equestrian skills, he had been the subject of many cruel jibes from his father when he was Elbeth’s age.

Faramir had images of her galloping the day away and exhausting poor Zachus, had he not told her it was time to go back inside.

Chapter Thirty-Seven – Come to me in dreams

Yet come to me in dreams that I may live
My very life again though cold in death:
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath:
Speak low, lean low,
As long ago, my love, how long ago. - Christina Georgina Rossetti

Aragorn was riding across the fields with Faramir, laughing as they raced their horses together. A moment later, he was in the beautifully decorated Merethrond dancing with Arwen and kissing her tenderly. He turned to embrace Faramir and lovingly addressed him as his son.

Aragorn awoke with a start. The Merethrond dissolved into the bare walls of a cave while the ever-present pain replaced the glow of happiness. He was cold, so very cold, despite the fire and being wedged between Faramir and Elbeth under a heap of blankets and furs.

With a start Aragorn realised that his head was pressed against Faramir’s. Regaining full consciousness, he immediately tried to move as far away as possible from his treacherous Steward. The dreams had been so beautiful and so real that it could almost have been a vision, though the events it showed were almost impossible. He was King again, with his Queen at his side and in perfect harmony with the man who had so cruelly betrayed him.

Aragorn had lost count of time since they had come to this cave. He slept most of the time; his brain numbed by poppy juice. He had ceased resisting Faramir’s ministrations, accepting he was too weak to resist whatever his Steward chose to do to him.

His wounds were slow to close. He knew that they needed stitching. His hands were too maimed for the task while Faramir lacked the skill to draw the remaining skin together. At least he had healed sufficiently to no longer have to undergo the humiliation of being rubbed with the napkin rash cream, though in all other matters, he was still as dependant on Faramir, as an infant upon its mother. Tears trickled down Aragorn’s cheeks. The pain, humiliation and betrayal he was experiencing were in such sharp contrast to the wonderful dream he had just awakened from.

The King glanced at Faramir, who was smiling in his sleep. He wondered yet again, how could his Steward have treated him thus? Faramir claimed it was all a pretext in order to rescue him. Yet, this was a man, who had always claimed he would not even ensnare an Orc with a falsehood. How could he have been so fooled by him? Maybe, he had been too eager to find a kindred spirit and nurture him as the son for whom he had yearned, knowing that the beautiful boy Arwen had given him would take years to reach maturity. There had been such a sweetness and gentleness about the young man that years of trying to please his harsh father and fighting against Mordor had failed to dim. However, that gentleness seemed to have been replaced by a hardness Aragorn had failed to notice before.

To look at Faramir asleep now, he appeared so innocent. It seemed inconceivable that he had pressed the red-hot brand against his King’s defenceless flesh, struck him and insulted him. The throbbing in his maimed shoulder was a constant reminder of Faramir’s cruelty.

Could the Steward have truly repented of his evil and brought him here with Elbeth to save him? Or was it all some elaborate ploy to gain power for himself by keeping them both hostage?

Of one thing, he was certain. Faramir was very clever, which was perhaps, one reason his father had mistrusted him, with good reason, or so it seemed.

Faramir was deserving of the uttermost severity of the law, should he by some miracle regain his throne. Yet, Aragorn had sworn an oath never to harm him. He was no oath breaker. If he were honest with himself, he knew rather that it was the love he still bore Faramir, which would make him hesitate in ordering a traitor’s death for him. Those of Aragorn’s race, once having given their love, never withdrew it. That made Faramir’s treachery all the harder to comprehend. Maybe, he should give him the benefit of the doubt, but he had hurt him so very much. Aragorn wanted to sleep again, to escape the pain and return to the bliss of his dreams.

Faramir opened his eyes and blinked. Realising that Aragorn was awake, he immediately sat up and turned towards him. “Are you in pain, my lord?” he asked solicitously.

“A little,” Aragorn said listlessly. “I am thirsty.”

“I will fetch you a drink and some poppy juice.” The Steward scrambled to his feet as he spoke, taking care not to disturb Elbeth. Faramir had had such happy dreams; he had been loth to wake up. He had been dancing with Éowyn, his Uncle had praised him and most wonderful of all; Aragorn had embraced him lovingly and called him his son.

“Is it dawn yet?” Aragorn asked.

Faramir went outside to investigate and returned a few moments later shaking his head. “It will be hours yet,” he said. ”It is thick freezing fog outside.” He threw some logs on the fire to counter the bone chilling icy dampness, and tucked the covers more closely around the King.

Aragorn regarded him listlessly with dull eyes.

The Steward placed a pot of water on the fire to boil and took out some herbs and sprinkled them in a cup. It seemed to Faramir that some vital spark within Aragorn was missing. He spoke very little. Faramir lacked the skills to know whether this stemmed from the wounds inflicted on his body or the far deeper ones within his soul. He was anxious now to leave this place as soon as Aragorn was well enough to travel. The snow had melted and he was beginning to fear that they might be discovered. He wondered though, how he could accomplish the six-hour ride with a child and very frail man. He was not in the best of health himself, having pulled a muscle in his back with lifting Aragorn.

Aragorn’s wounds were healing slowly, but cleanly. The frostbite had not proved as bad as they first feared. The King had regained some of the use of his toes and his right hand. They no longer needed to be bandaged, although they were still painful. The left hand was a different matter, for two of the broken fingers had set at an odd angle, as had the thumb, which rendered the joints useless.

Faramir made the tea and held the cup to Aragorn’s lips. The King reached out to try to hold it for himself, but it almost slipped from his grasp.

“Easy now, you cannot grip with your left hand yet,” Faramir cautioned.

The fingers will have to be set again once I can get to a healer. They had already knitted badly before you came for me.” Aragorn did not voice his fears of permanently losing the use of his hand. He understood now why Éomer had been so upset a few months before when his arm was injured. A king needed to be strong to lead his people in battle when the need arose. Yet, what manner of king was so easily captured and ended up sheltering in a cave with one of his betrayers and a small child? “Are there any still loyal to me?” he asked suddenly.

“A few,” Faramir replied. “My Uncle Imrahil and his Swan Knights remain trustworthy. I only hope he has managed to keep control of the Council. As for the other lords, apart from those of Lamedon, Lossarnach and Ringlo Vale, I have no idea. They might be waiting to see if Eldarion and Elbeth’s marriage takes place to see who then held the reins of power. The same goes for the army too. Once the Queen gave me hope that you were still alive, she told me to join the rebels. It was the only plan we could think of to save you.”

Aragorn was startled out of his lethargy. “You are telling me that my wife told you to join the rebels.”

“Yes, sire, it was her idea,” Faramir replied.

“I want to know the whole story,” Aragorn demanded.

“You are in pain, Let me mix you some poppy juice so that you can sleep. I will tell you in the morning,” Faramir replied, wondering just how he could explain everything now that the moment had come.

“I want to know now.” Aragorn insisted. “You drug me to prevent me from learning the truth!”

“No, my lord, I wish only to ease your pain!” the Steward protested. How it hurt that his lord believed not a word he was saying and yet, what else could he expect?

He checked to see that Elbeth was still sleeping. It was no fit tale for a child’s ears. He then reluctantly began his story.  “When you did not return the night you were captured, I was very worried. I feared you had been taken ill. I ordered a thorough search, but found no trace of you. A few days later a body was found in the river dressed in your clothes and bearing your rings. It had been in the water for many days and was bloated and unrecognisable. Tarostar told me it had been beaten about the head and face. Everyone thought you had been attacked by robbers with no idea of your identity and thrown in the Anduin. I was broken hearted.”

“Were you really?” Aragorn remarked bitterly. ”I thought when they took my clothes that they planned something like that.”

“I believed the corpse to be yours and informed the Council.” Faramir struggled to hide the pain the biting words caused him. “However, I refused to hold the funeral until the fever epidemic had abated. I felt that would be your wish.”

“You were correct in that at least,” Aragorn said dryly.

“The next day, I went to tell the Queen the dreadful news and take your clothes and rings for her to identify. On the way, I had a suspicion we were being followed, so I changed clothes with my Captain and saw to it that he rode a horse very like Iavas. He and the others acted as a decoy, while I made my way to Emyn Arnen. My men were never seen again.” He bowed his head for a moment, lamenting the loss of life before continuing. “When I told the Queen the news of your death, she refused to believe me and accused me of having no love for you. She said if you truly were dead, the breaking of the Thought Bond would be tearing my soul asunder and hers too. I thought her distraught with grief and showed her your clothing. It only served to strengthen her conviction that you still lived, as the drawers the corpse was wearing bore no sign of the White Tree embroidered on the leg.”

“That was my plan, as I hoped Arwen would notice the lack of embroidery,” said Aragorn. “ How I fought to keep my drawers on! They eventually tore in the struggle, which would have looked suspicious if they had clothed the corpse with them.”

“I fear, I still did not believe her,” Faramir continued. ”Éowyn and I retired to bed after your lady insisted she wished to be alone. Then both the Queen and myself awoke in the night after having suffered identical nightmares in which you were calling to us for help. I finally realised that you were alive. The Queen suggested that I pretend to be hostile to you. It is foreign to my nature to lie, but I knew I had to do, if I were ever to find you. It took some time for them to trust me. I eventually received an invitation to the Lord of Lamedon’s country villa. I hoped you might be hidden somewhere in the area. I knew of this cave from my days in the army. With the help of the healers, I brought supplies here in advance. I smuggled you out by convincing them that you had the Fever and drugging you to make you appear dead. I am so very sorry that I hurt you so much. It was unforgivable and I will pay the price when we return to Minas Tirith!” Faramir paused, unable to bring himself to reveal that not only had he struck and branded the King, but also poisoned him with spider venom.

“If you had no wish to turn traitor and torturer, why did you not use soldiers find me or seek my whereabouts in the palantír?” Aragorn demanded.

“I had to come alone, for I feared they would move you before I could reach you if I brought troops,” Faramir replied. “I did try to use the palantír, but I could not bend it to my will.”

“I would have taught you to use it, but you always refused,” Aragorn said sternly.

“I did wrong in not learning to master it. I have injured my King and most cruelly!” Faramir replied, unable to meet the grey eyes. ”I deserve to be severely punished.”

“Your punishment will have to be decided later,” Aragorn replied. Surely, there was genuine contrition in Faramir’s eyes, but how could he be certain? He wanted so much for his Steward to be telling the truth.

“I will get mix your poppy juice now,” Faramir said, groaning at the twinge in his back when he tried to get to his feet.

“You are hurt! Let me see,” Despite everything, Aragorn could not ignore the younger man’s obvious pain.

“It is nothing, just a pulled muscle.” Faramir felt annoyed with himself for further burdening a sick man by better concealing his pain.

“Nevertheless, let me see, please,” Even in his weakened condition; the Healer in Aragorn would not be denied.

Faramir sighed and sat down again with his back turned to Aragorn. He pulled up his tunic and shirt. It was at least a relief that something had roused Aragorn a little from his dreadful lethargy.

“It is just there,” he said, pointing to the sore place, amazed that Aragorn should desire to ease him after all that had happened.

He felt Aragorn’s fingers prodding his back gently but instead of the familiar healing warmth in his hands, the touch was like ice.

Chapter Thirty-Eight – Too much suspicion

An indiscriminate distrust of human nature is the worst consequence of a miserable condition, whether brought about by innocence or guilt. And though want of suspicion more than want of sense, sometimes leads a man into harm; yet too much suspicion is as bad as too little sense. -Herman Melville.

 

Faramir repressed a cry of dismay. Aragorn had obviously lost all the power that his touch had previously held.

Aragorn did his best to ease Faramir’s pain with the Elven massage techniques he was so skilled in. His fingers though, remained cold and totally devoid of their former healing warmth and energy. The Steward momentarily wondered if it were revulsion towards the one who had betrayed him that made Aragorn unable to ease him. In his heart he knew that were Eldarion here in his place, Aragorn’s hands would still lack their customary warmth

Faramir felt Aragorn’s hand gradually cease moving across his back. The Steward finally turned to face the King. Aragorn was sitting in a crumpled heap with his head in his hands; tears silently pouring down his cheeks.

“I have lost my healing power,” he whispered. “What am I now? For should not the King have the hands of a healer?”

Despite strongly suspecting that Aragorn found his touch loathsome, Faramir impulsively placed his arms around the thin shoulders. “You suffered a dreadful ordeal,” he soothed. “It will take time for you to heal. Recall how it took me many months to recover from beating, and I was only imprisoned for a few hours.”

“I do not even know if I still wear the crown!” Aragorn lamented. “Maybe, that is why my power has left me? They might have usurped the throne by now. What will I have left to offer my wife and son? I was only permitted to marry Arwen on condition that I was King of both Gondor and Arnor!”

“You will regain your throne, sire,” Faramir said firmly. “And even if the very worse befell, though I am certain it will not, you still hold Arnor where your subjects are loyal. You have Arwen and your son who care for you, far more than for Gondor’s crown. And you have my love and loyalty and Éowyn’s too.” Faramir immediately bit his lip, realising his ill chosen words had shattered the fragile rapport between them. Aragorn immediately recoiled.

“Love? Loyalty?” Aragorn asked bitterly, shrugging off Faramir’s comforting gestures. “You would have done better to kill me, if you had any shreds of decency left, rather than have me reduced to this!”

Long years of bitter experience with Denethor, had taught Faramir to hide his feelings beneath an expressionless mask. Concealing his hurt he said, “I beg you not to think like that, my lord. Remember your Queen and your son! They are waiting for your return.”

Aragorn said nothing, seemingly exhausted from his outburst.

“The rebels cannot win!” Faramir continued, seeking to distract him. “We have the major advantage now, for if they stage a coup, whom do they have to replace you with without Elbeth? While she was with them, she was the most dangerous person in Gondor, but now she is with us, she is simply my niece!”

“She is dangerous enough as that,” Aragorn said morosely, though he smiled weakly in the child’s direction.

“I shall leave you to decide whether or not, she should be acknowledged as such,” Faramir said meekly. “I would accept her as part of my family, since she is all that remains to me of my brother, but I leave it you to decide her fate.” He felt no need to plead for her life, knowing Aragorn as he did. He shuddered to recall how he had contemplated killing the helpless little girl.

“Strange that one so innocent could pose such a threat,” Aragorn mused.

“She will not unwittingly endanger you again,” Faramir vowed. “Now rest, you are weary.” He eased Aragorn down onto his pillows and held a cup to his lips containing poppy juice.

“I have grown fond of the child,” the King murmured sleepily, already exhausted by his brief exertions.

Faramir tucked the blankets round him. He sat for a while sadly regarding his King. It broke his heart to see him like this, so frail and listless, and to know too, that he had forever forfeited his friendship and esteem.

Their conversation about Elbeth only served to remind him that the rebels would be looking for her. She was too valuable for them to let go easily. They could not linger here much longer .He would have to see if Aragorn could mount Roheryn tomorrow. If he succeeded they could leave the day after, even if they had to ride double, with him holding the King on the horse. Elbeth was confident enough to ride alone if need be, which was one less worry to be concerned with.

After a while, Faramir built up the fire, then settled himself beside the now snoring Aragorn and fell asleep.

The next day, Faramir awoke with a new resolve. He realised his dreams of the night before had unsettled him. He determined now to concentrate solely on restoring his lord to his rightful place. The memories of having known his love and esteem, from henceforth would have to sustain him. He would count himself blessed having known the love his father had denied him. Before knowing Aragorn, he had not even had the comfort of pleasant dreams of fatherly tenderness.

He dared hope too, that he had no need to fear a traitor’s cruel death from Aragorn, as his King had sworn to protect him. He accepted that the blissful life that he had known was over now. He would lose his position, his home and his reputation and maybe his life, if they escaped the rebels’ clutches.

However, he still had Éowyn and his daughter and hoped they could build a new life somewhere should Aragorn be merciful. Hardest of all though, would be the loss of Aragorn’s friendship. He had always known, though that would be the price he must pay. Faramir realised that he had held out a sliver of hope that once he had explained his actions to Aragorn the King might forgive him. That had been the hope of an over optimistic fool. Now he was without hope for himself, he could concentrate solely on his mission of restoring Aragorn to his wife and throne. He doubted Arwen for have anything to say in his favour; her instructions had not included torturing her beloved husband. He accepted his fate now and was resigned to it.

Aragorn seemed in a better mood when he awoke. He seemed to enjoy Elbeth’s chatter while she helped him with his breakfast. There was a wistful look in his eye through, when she recounted a dream about a puppy and a kitten playing together, as if he recalled some happy dream of his own.

Faramir sent Elbeth outside to play while he bathed Aragorn, tended his wounds and helped him dress, this time in breeches and tunic over the loose shirt and drawers he had worn until now.

The Steward had feared the heavy clothing would chafe the King’s wounds, but Aragorn was now so thin, they hung on him very loosely. He explained to the King what he planned to do and to his great relief, Aragorn made no protest.

The King’s beard had started to grow back where Hanna had so cruelly tugged out handfuls, but it looked decidedly odd and would immediately catch the eye of anyone out looking for them. Faramir cleared his throat nervously. “I think I had better shave you, sire, before we leave,” he said.

“What?” Aragorn looked aghast at the suggestion.

“If any of the rebels’ retainers are out looking for you, they will have been told of your appearance,” Faramir explained. “The patches of varying length in your beard are very noticeable.”

“I have worn a beard since I came to manhood!” Aragorn protested. “To shave it would be an affront to my masculinity!”

”I know,” Faramir replied sadly. “It makes you far too conspicuous, though. I am sorry. We can discuss it again tomorrow.”

Too weak to argue, Aragorn said nothing, though the misery in eyes spoke louder than any protest.

Faramir went outside and saddled and bridled Roheryn and led him to the mouth of the cave, He called Elbeth and asked her to hold Roheryn’s head and wait with him.

He went and fetched the King, who was still almost too weak to walk. By leaning heavily on Faramir, Aragorn reached the horse and while Elbeth held the reins, Faramir lifted Aragorn into the saddle. Roheryn whinnied joyfully, delighted to be reunited with his master.

Aragorn tried riding along the path and seemed happy to be seated on his beloved stallion once more in the open air. Soon though, his weakness overcame him and he swayed alarmingly in the saddle.

Trying to ignore the pain in his back, Faramir lifted the King down again, hardly able to endure the look of despair in the usually vibrant grey eyes.

“No matter!” he said, trying to sound cheerful. “We can both ride one horse and the other can take Elbeth and what baggage we need.”

“I am a burden to you,” Aragorn said sadly. “You should take Elbeth and leave me here. You can return later with some of Imrahil’s men to fetch me, if you truly mean to take me to my wife and child.”

“I will never leave you nor betray you again!” Faramir said firmly. “We are all leaving here together.”

“I should like to see Arwen and Eldarion again so very much,” Aragorn said wistfully, grimacing with pain as he spoke. He gripped Faramir’s arm tightly to prevent himself from falling. How he hoped it was true and that Faramir were truly taking him to his wife and not merely some cruel trick!

The Steward hated to drive his ailing King thus, but with every day the risk of discovery increased. Then, perceiving Aragorn’s despairing mood, he felt that he needed to be reunited with Arwen as soon as possible. He very much doubted his aptitude for offering any comfort at all to the King, after all the pain he had caused him. Éowyn could ease his bodily hurts too, with her healing skills.

Faramir spent much of the rest of the day debating what they should take with him. After discussing it with Aragorn, they decided it was best they should ride Roheryn together and let Zachus carry Elbeth and the baggage, which had to be limited to the bare essentials.

They would need to take bedrolls and blankets, for the pace would have to be slow so as not to overtax Aragorn or the horses, which meant they would have to rest overnight. Faramir was not exactly sure of their final destination, though he assumed it was near where Elestelle was born. Since the War, the area around Osgiliath had quickly been repopulated as people flocked out of the City to return to their country roots.

The next morning, Faramir rose early. He had reached a decision, which although painful to his pride he hoped would help Aragorn.

Before he could change his mind, he took his razor, and putting it to his own face, shaved off his neatly trimmed beard, the proud symbol of his manhood. He remembered Boromir telling him that he had become a man, when it first sprouted, and the new respect in the eyes of his comrades. Then, more recently, there were those nights he had lain in Éowyn’s arms and she had giggled delightedly when it tickled her soft flesh. He felt as if he were removing part of himself.

He then woke Aragorn and Elbeth.

Aragorn looked at him in astonishment. “I thought it would serve as a disguise if I shaved,” he said quietly.

“Your face looks all bare, Uncle Faramir!” Elbeth giggled.

“I will soon look the same, “Aragorn told her solemnly. “Will you help your Uncle Faramir shave me?”  He did not understand why his Steward should shave; the excuse was a feeble one. Yet, suspicious of him though he was, the gesture touched him and resigned him to his own fate. Faramir looked so very young minus his beard!

“Yes, please!” Elbeth was already draping a towel around Aragorn’s shoulders.

The Steward picked up the razor and felt Aragorn stiffen the instant he touched him with it. Being shaved were humiliation enough, without having the razor wielded by someone he mistrusted. It was obviously an ordeal for Aragorn, not knowing, whether by accident or design, if the blade would cut into his already painful flesh.

Faramir’s hand trembled slightly, but somehow he managed not to cut the King. It broke his heart to see him so reluctant, yet submitting so meekly to the blade. At last, it was done, and Faramir stood back to survey his handiwork.

The bruises on Aragorn’s face looked all the more livid now. Yet, more than that, a shiver ran down Faramir’s spine at how like Denethor, Aragorn now looked.

“You look funny without your beard, Strider,” Elbeth said critically, “Almost as funny as Uncle Faramir.”

“Our beards will soon grow back,” was all that Faramir could think of to say. He sent Elbeth out to play, while he washed Aragorn, tended his wounds and dressed him.

“Why did you shave?” Aragorn asked when she was gone. “I do not believe that you wish to disguise yourself.”

“I hoped this way you would feel less uncomfortable.” Faramir said simply.

Puzzled, Aragorn shook his head slightly as the now familiar but still painfully embarrassing routine proceeded of being undressed, covered with a blanket and then bathed under it.

Today was different, though, as it was the last time they would be within the shelter of the cave.

Chapter Thirty-Nine - They have prepared a net for my steps

They have prepared a net for my steps; my soul is bowed down: they have digged a pit before me, into the midst whereof they are fallen themselves. - Psalm 57.6. The Bible.

Faramir went outside. The morning was bitterly cold and damp. A thick icy mist was rising off the river and shrouding the surrounding countryside. It was not the most pleasant weather for travelling. The Steward hoped the mist would at least provide some cover.

He saddled the horses and carefully placed their baggage on Zachus, hoping he had not left behind anything they would need.

“I know we face a perilous journey today,” Aragorn said, looking Faramir straight in the eye. “The Valar alone know what lies at the ending!”

Faramir returned his gaze steadily. “I would shed my last drop of blood to save you, my Lord King,” he said quietly. He unbuckled his dagger and handed it to Aragorn. “Take this, sire, you will feel safer with it,” he said.

“Thank you!” Aragorn was surprised at this unexpected gesture and oddly comforted by it. Whatever his true intentions, Faramir had at least brought him out from that dark cellar and let him see the sky again. He had tended him caringly too. In different circumstances Aragorn would have said lovingly, albeit somewhat ineptly. Fleetingly, he wondered if he should try to share thoughts with Faramir and discover his true motivations. The hurt, though, was too deep. Aragorn feared too what he might discover, helpless as he was, and powerless to prevent himself being led into a trap. He would know soon enough if he truly were being taken to rejoin Arwen and Eldarion. The alternative: that Faramir had brought him here to revive him so that he could be returned to his captors to endure further torture, was too horrible to contemplate.

Aragorn fastened the weapon around his waist with his one good hand and Faramir helped him to his feet. The Steward hesitated, yearning to embrace his lord, all too aware that the journey was a perilous one and they may not live to see another sunrise. He yearned for Aragorn’s forgiveness and his reassurance that he had tried his best. Now was not the right time, though.

Slowly, they made their way out to where Elbeth was waiting impatiently with the horses. Aragorn’s face felt cold and alarmingly naked where his beard had been but a short time ago. He shivered.

Carefully, Faramir lifted the King on to Roheryn’s broad back and then mounted behind him, enveloping Aragorn in his cloak to keep him warm

Despite his weakness and apprehension, Aragorn’s spirits began to lift at the prospect of spending the day in the fresh air. After so long enduring the confines of first a cellar and later a cave; it was bliss to be outside, with the grass under Roheryn’s hooves and the open sky above his head.

All too soon his wounds began to pain him. Aragorn was determined not to complain and show his weakness. Faramir, however, was all too aware of his lord’s discomfort from the way the King tensed and his ragged breathing. It was unfortunate that one of Aragorn’s most painful wounds was on his waist, in the exact spot where Faramir had to hold him tightly to prevent him from sliding off Roheryn’s back. The King would have been more comfortable sitting behind his Steward, but dared not suggest it, since he doubted his ability to remain alert and upright in the saddle. He could not take poppy juice for the pain lest it make him drowsy. He needed to keep his wits about him should Faramir lead him into a trap.

Faramir insisted they stop to rest for a few minutes every hour or so, which made progress through the forest painfully slow. Elbeth was succeeding well in riding Zachus and kept up a slow but steady pace beside the two men. “Where are we?” she demanded, after they had spent the morning picking their way through the forest.

“I think we are about to cross the Lord of Lossarnach’s lands,” Faramir told her. “Half of this woodland belongs to him and the other half to the Lord of Ringlo Vale.”

“Oh!” said Elbeth, as this information meant very little to her, “How long are we going to be in this forest? I’m bored!”

“Not very long now,” Faramir soothed. Inwardly he dreaded reaching the open countryside, which would be the most dangerous part of their journey.

“I’m hungry!” Elbeth complained. “And I’m tired of sitting here on this big horse.”

Sighing, Faramir halted yet again to lift her down and give her some dried fruit to eat from their meagre supplies.

She ate it, shifting restlessly from one foot to another.

“Go and stretch your legs!” Faramir told her. “I do not want you to wander out of sight of the horses, though. You must be very quiet!”

She ran into the trees with the speed of an arrow released by a bowstring, her feet churning up the dead leaves that carpeted the forest floor

Aragorn suddenly slumped over Roheryn’s neck in obvious agony. Faramir lifted him down, wincing himself at the pain in his back as he did so. He sat the King on a fallen tree trunk where Aragorn slumped dejectedly, his features pale and drawn.

“Is the pain very bad, sire?” Faramir asked, his eyes full or concern.

Aragorn nodded feebly, lacking even the strength to lift his head. “Just here,” he whispered, gesturing towards his waist.

Faramir hurriedly fetched the saddlebag containing the salves and bandages and prepared to investigate. It was far too cold to remove the sick man’s clothing here, so he pulled Aragorn’s tunic and shirt up a few inches to see what was paining him. To his dismay, the bandage around his waist was soaked with blood, where the still raw wound had chafed and reopened. It looked excruciatingly painful. He knew it was madness to travel with Aragorn in such a precarious condition, but what other choice did he have? Faramir groaned inwardly. “Can you hold up your shirt while I bandage it? I will see if I can pad it better,” he said.

“The butcher knew all too well that removing the skin would cause a painful and slow healing wound,” Aragorn sighed, shuddering at the memory. “It needs stitching.”

Faramir brought the water skin and offered him a drink before starting to clean the wound. Aragorn flinched and gritted his teeth as Faramir washed away the blood and applied a liberal amount of salve to the raw flesh.

“Éowyn should be able to help you,” Faramir said, thinking longingly of his wife and only hoping her skills would be sufficient.

“I thought we were going to find Arwen,” Aragorn said suspiciously, wondering if Faramir and Éowyn together were planning to rule, using Elbeth as a figurehead.

“Éowyn is with your Queen,” Faramir explained patiently. “I sent them and the babies into hiding together. Éowyn is very loyal to you and your lady, my lord.”

Aragorn nodded tiredly, hoping she had developed a more gentle touch during the past year if she were indeed to tend his wounds.

The Steward pressed a thick wad of bandage to the wound and secured it with strips of bandage. There was even a different scent surrounding Aragorn now. Before his captivity, a wholesome aroma of refreshing herbs had always surrounded him. Now he smelt of sweat, blood and pungent salves.

“Now, do you think you can get back on Roheryn?” Faramir asked. “I want to be clear of the rebels’ lands before nightfall.”

Aragorn nodded and Faramir helped him get shakily to his feet. They joined Elbeth who was waiting impatiently by the horses.

“You said I was to be quick but I’ve been waiting here for ages and ages!” she complained.

“Well, I hope you have stretched your legs properly then,” Faramir replied, ignoring her complaints.

“I’ve walked on them, not stretched them!” Elbeth retorted. “Why do grown ups not say what they mean?”

“How I wish I could answer you that question,” Aragorn replied, an edge of bitterness in his voice, which scared Elbeth into silence.

Faramir lifted her back on to Zachus and they urged the horses forward again.

The King now seemed more comfortable and they were able to continue their journey until they reached the edge of the forest where they stopped to rest the horses. Several acres of rolling pastureland, which belonged to the Lord of Lossarnach, lay ahead. This would most likely be the most dangerous part of the journey as there was no shelter from anyone trying to find them. Faramir could only hope that the tenant farmers he had met were not from this area. He pulled his hood low over his face and draped the folds of his cloak to more closely conceal Aragorn. He hoped Elbeth was now unrecognisable as the bejewelled little princess she had been. Her clothes were now dirty and torn and her face streaked with mud.

They were riding past a row of cottages, when a man came out and approached them, much to their dismay. Faramir’s hand reached for his sword hilt.

“Who are you?” the man asked. “You’re trespassing on the Lord of Lossarnach’s land!”

“I am a soldier from Minas Tirith who came to spend his leave a few leagues from here, visiting my widowed father and my little daughter,” he replied, gesturing towards Aragorn and Elbeth and thanking the Valar, they would all easily pass as close kin. “I found my poor father stricken with fever and am taking him to the healers in the city. I am sorry. I did not realise we were trespassing!”

The man stepped back in alarm. “Be off with you then!” he snarled, “Don’t you go and be bringing the fever here!”

Faramir urged Roheryn to a canter, calling to Elbeth to do the same.

"You have become well skilled at deception, claiming to be my son!” Aragorn said when they slowed down to a trot again.

“I used to boast that I would not even deceive an Orc with a falsehood,” Faramir replied sadly. “But it seems I have become a master of lies. As I smuggled you out of Dervorin’s Lodge by claiming you had died of the Fever, it seemed as good a story as any.”

“Not all lies are evil, you learn after eighty seven years spent in hiding!” Aragorn replied sadly.” You were an idealist, or so I thought. I had hoped to create a world in which ideals could flourish! But are there any left to share such a dream?”

“You will create that world once you are restored to your rightful place!” Faramir said fiercely, as they approached a bend in the path.

Hoof beats could be heard approaching. Faramir looked frantically for some cover, but the nearest copse was at least a quarter of a mile away, across an open field, over which the mist hung but sparsely. There was no way they could reach it in time to conceal themselves.

A well-dressed rider on a fine grey horse loomed out of the mist and headed straight towards them. To their horror, it was the Lord of Lossarnach, accompanied by at least a dozen of his men.

Aragorn gave a gasp of sheer anguish. It was, as he had feared. Faramir had led him into a trap. He reached for his dagger, sorely tempted to first cut his Steward’s treacherous throat with it before turning it on himself. How though, could he destroy the one he had loved as his own son? Better by far to end his own torment. He tried to firmly grasp the weapon only to find he lacked sufficient strength. Dejectedly, he slumped forward.

Behind him, Faramir swiftly reached for his sword. The other hand, concealed under his cloak, held his dagger, which he held against Aragorn’s heart.

They were hopelessly outnumbered and their disguise woefully inadequate. He would not let them be taken alive. He would kill first Aragorn and then himself.

Chapter Forty – Deliver us from evil

Deliver us from evil - The Bible - Mathew 6.13

The Lord of Lossarnach reined in his horse and looked directly at Aragorn and Faramir.

The Steward tensed, desperately seeking some way out, other than that offered by the point of his dagger. A grimly ironic thought struck Faramir. He had become his father, in seeking to take his own life and Aragorn’s together. Yet what other choice did he have? Against two or three men, he could fight, but against twenty, the odds were hopeless. If he were alone, he would risk throwing the dagger and killing Fontos, hoping that would throw his followers into disarray. However, he dared not relinquish the only means he had of saving Aragorn from further torment. Fontos’ men appeared a bunch of ruffians. To appeal to their loyalty to Gondor, or to her King or Steward was most unlikely to work

“Are these the ones you seek?” one of the men asked the Lord of Lossarnach.

Aragorn suddenly lifted his head and looked Fontos directly in the eye.

Fontos sat transfixed. The King’s gaze seemed to pierce his very soul. He suddenly remembered the night when he had seen him, not as the King, but simply as a father, fiercely protective of his newborn child. He hesitated; thinking of the riches Dervorin had promised would be his if he joined in their conspiracy. It had seemed so easy at first, the plan to marry Elbeth to Eldarion when Fosco had discovered her existence. He had wanted only to see the House of Húrin restored to its former glory.

Once a close friend of Boromir’s, he had shared the dream of Denethor’s heir, that it was time for the Stewards to take the throne and emerge from the shadow of a King, whose return after almost a thousand years, seemed no more likely that pigs growing wings and taking flight. That dream had ended when Aragorn had come from the North and claimed the throne. He had indeed been victorious in battle, a battle that had claimed the life of Fontos’ father. Yet, if Lord Boromir had not died in this so-called King’s company and in somewhat mysterious circumstances, or had Lord Faramir not been gravely wounded, would the House of Húrin not led the West to victory instead?

Fontos had been willing at first to give the new King a chance. He had almost begun to like him, despite his father in law’s constant murmuring against him. It had hurt, though, to see Lord Faramir relegated to the role of the King’s vassal. However, it had been more than he could bear, when Elessar had sent his Steward to prison, where he had been most brutally beaten. To add insult to injury; it had been on account of Elessar’s friend, Éomer of Rohan, a King who would not even have a land to rule, had not Faramir’s ancestor, Cirion ceded it to him!

Then when Faramir had recovered, his attacker had simply been hung, rather than suffering the full weight of the law against such treason. The King had offered no word of apology to his Steward, but instead had made him kneel to kiss his hands in fealty when he had returned to public life! On that day, Fontos had told his father in law that he would support his plan to put Lord Boromir’s daughter on the throne of Gondor.

Fontos had never thought, however, that it would lead to the King being chained up like a dog and tortured so cruelly. He had been haunted by the sound of Aragorn’s agonised screams when the butcher had used his knife to peel away his skin and probe the raw flesh beneath. His fellow conspirators had punched and kicked and taunted the King. Aragorn had made not a sound then, other than to say again and again, he would never sign away the future of his son.

It amazed Fontos that Elessar was still alive after such cruelty. He had found himself reluctantly admiring the King’s courage and dignity. He had become increasingly desperate to avoid further witnessing the torture of a man whose boots he knew now, he was not even fit to unlace. He had been glad of the excuse of a winter chill, which he had pretended was the dreaded Fever.

Dervorin’s fury had known no limits when Faramir had failed to return. Elbeth was then found to be missing. The next morning Fosco and his servant had been found murdered in the forest. Fontos found he mourned them not at all. He had been summoned, together with the other surviving conspirators, and ordered to find both King and Steward. Dervorin had outlined in gruesome detail what he planned to do with them once they were caught.

Fontos knew his life would be forfeit for his part in the conspiracy, should Elessar return to power. However, he already suspected Dervorin would kill him once he had served his purpose. He suddenly realised it was better by far, to die in the service of a good and honourable man and for the good of Gondor, as his father had done.

The King’s eyes, once so vibrant, were dulled with pain and suffering. His beard had been shaved to reveal a haggard face covered in bruises. Yet this man, broken as he was, still had an air of great wisdom, insight and compassion. Fontos felt that somehow Aragorn knew him better that he knew himself. It had been folly not to honour so great a man, when he had the opportunity. Yet, if he followed his conscience rather than the will of his father in law, he was as good as signing the warrant for his own execution and that of his family.

“Aren’t they the ones we’re looking for? Two men and a small girl?” his retainer repeated.

Fontos looked away from Aragorn and directly at his servant. “What, these ragamuffins?” he said coldly. “You are a fool, man, we seek the King and the Steward!” He turned again to Aragorn and Faramir and addressed them directly. “Be off with you, you are trespassing on my lands!”

Hardly able to believe their luck, and almost weeping from relief, Faramir urged Roheryn to a gallop. He could feel Aragorn shaking beneath his protecting arm. He replaced the dagger in its sheath. “All is well, we are safe.” he soothed.

“So you would have killed me!” Aragorn said bitterly, wondering exactly what complicated plot Faramir had devised. Obviously, he and Fontos were in league or they would not have let them go. Yet, why had he reached for his sword if he were allied with the man? Moreover, it would have been an act of supreme mercy on Faramir’s part to kill him rather than allow him to be recaptured.

This man was a stranger, though, and not the Faramir he had known and loved for his gentleness and honesty. This Faramir could lie without hesitation and kill his liege lord in cold blood!

“I would not have let them take you and put you to further torment,” Faramir said quietly. “I sought to kill you, not from hate, but from the love that I bear you.”

“If only I could believe you!” Aragorn sighed. “Why else would Fontos allow us to leave, if you were not in league with him? I saw it in his eyes that he immediately recognised us.”

“I believe the Valar heard my prayer and softened his heart,” Faramir replied. “I can think of no other reason.”

“Maybe the torture sickened him,” Aragorn mused, desperately wanting to believe this explanation “His heart was never in it. I believe he only joined the rebels because his father in law urged him too. He is not evil but weak, I believe.”

The conversation was cut short by a shout from Elbeth. She was lagging further and further behind as she vainly tried to coax Zachus to keep up with Roheryn. Her feet were too short to reach the stirrups, so she had little means of controlling the horse other than by telling him to “Gee up” and tug at the reins.

“You left me behind!” she accused once Roheryn caught up with her and slowed to a canter. “What did those men want?”

“I am sorry, Elbeth,” Faramir apologised, “They just wanted to tell us that we were trespassing and must leave as quickly as possible.”

“I’m tired. When can I get off the horse?” she complained.

“Very soon now,” Faramir promised. “You are a very brave girl to ride Zachus all by yourself.”

Elbeth visibly glowed at the praise and made no further complaint, determined to prove just how well she could control the enormous horse.

They soon crossed the borders of the Lord of Lossarnach’s estate and passed through another stretch of woodland.

It was already growing dark. As soon as Faramir could find a suitable secluded clearing near to a stream, they stopped to rest for the night.

Aragorn was obviously exhausted and in pain. He could hardly stumble along, even leaning on Faramir’s arm, after being lifted down from Roheryn. The Steward managed to get his King to a log, where he sat him down and left him with Elbeth.  Faramir then collected the healing supplies and filled a pot with water from the stream and put it on to boil.

Despite the dangers of discovery, the Steward felt compelled to light a good fire to provide some warmth for Aragorn and Elbeth. Heat was essential both for a sick man and a young child.

Aragorn swayed alarmingly as soon as Faramir’s back was turned, causing Elbeth, who was playing nearby, to run to his side. “Are you alright, Strider?” she asked, her childish voice full of anxiety.

“I will be well soon,” he whispered. “Sit here beside me, please?”

Elbeth immediately settled beside her friend and put her small arms around him.

When Faramir returned he found the King leaning against the child for support. He shuddered inwardly, knowing all too well that he had embarked on this journey without allowing Aragorn sufficient time to recover. “Elbeth, will you gather some wood for the fire?” he asked. “I need to tend the King’s wounds.”

“Let her stay!” Aragorn begged, his features pinched and grey with fatigue. Much as he hated to involve a child, even the thought of holding up his shirt and tunic while Faramir bathed, salved and re-bandaged his wounds, was more than he was capable of at present. He fumbled to pull his shirt loose from his breeches and then asked Elbeth to hold his clothing away from the wounds.

Faramir frowned when he removed the bandages. The wound, which had bled earlier, now looked angry and inflamed after a day of being repeatedly chafed. He could do nothing but apply a generous amount of salve and re-bandage it.

He prepared a simple meal of porridge, which was at least warm and filling. Elbeth coaxed Aragorn to eat, spoon-feeding it to him. It seemed to revive the King a little, though his eyes betrayed his humiliation at being unable to do even the simplest thing for himself. Faramir would soon have to lead him into the trees to answer nature’s call, help him back to the campsite, bathe his face and hands and settle him down for the night. For a man accustomed to living off the land in complete self-sufficiency, such helplessness was very hard to bear, while forced dependence on a man he could not trust, made it far worse.

After throwing more wood on the fire, they prepared for the night. Faramir took out some blankets he had brought and they huddled together for warmth under them. Elbeth fell asleep immediately, worn out by the day’s exertions.

“There was a time before you betrayed me, when I had hoped to take you camping with me,” Aragorn murmured wistfully, “I thought how nice it would be, just the two of us, shoulder to shoulder by the camp fire under the stars, reliving our days as rangers. I never thought it would end like this!”

“I am sure you will enjoy the stars again, and enjoy taking Eldarion camping once he is older,” Faramir replied, thinking sadly how much he would have enjoyed a camping trip with Aragorn. His father would never have countenanced such a thing and he and Boromir seldom had had leave from their duties at the same time.

“Will I” Aragorn said gloomily.

“Gondor will again hail its rightful King!” Faramir assured him, wrapping his own cloak around the shivering body of his King and wishing he had more warmth to give him. In the past, he had always marvelled just how warm Aragorn was, even in mid winter, but now he always seemed to be cold. In her sleep, Elbeth nestled closer to her friend, which seemed to soothe Aragorn somewhat. His breathing grew deeper indicating he had fallen asleep. Faramir tried to stay awake to keep watch, but exhaustion soon overcame him. He slept uneasily, always with one ear open, but nothing came near to disturb their slumbers.

Faramir awoke at dawn, though as yet the cold grey light provided only a dim illumination. The air was cold and damp. He ached to the bone and moved stiffly from the pain in his back.

What would he not give for a hot bath and a soft bed to lie on? He realised he had become soft over the past few years, for many times during his life as a soldier he had slept in far worse conditions than these! He sincerely hoped that they would reach Arwen and Éowyn today. That is, if he could discover their whereabouts.

Chapter Forty-One - 'Til we've seen this journey through

I will weep when you are weeping;
when you laugh I'll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow
'til we've seen this journey through. -  Richard Gillard

 

Faramir stirred the glowing embers, coaxing the fire back to life with more wood. He fetched some water from the stream and put it on to boil to make tea and porridge.

Aragorn moaned softly and cried out in his sleep. Faramir decided it would be best to wake him from whatever dark dreams he was experiencing. He called Aragorn softly. When the King failed to respond, Faramir gently shook him.

The troubled grey eyes flickered open. “No, no!” Aragorn cried.

Faramir could see that his lord was visibly shaking and distressed. “You were dreaming,” he said gently. “Wake up, it is daylight. I am us preparing some breakfast. I want us to leave early in the hope we can reach our wives today.”

“I dreamt evil dreams,” Aragorn mumbled, blinking as if to try to shut out the horror. “I was led into a trap so that they could capture Arwen and Eldarion. They put us all to torment, I am so cold now!”

“Easy now, come nearer the fire,” Faramir soothed, putting his arm round the King and gently rubbing his lord’s back. He wished fervently that he had learned some of Aragorn’s Elvish healing skills. “We are still free and have left the rebels’ lands behind us now.”

“The known rebels,” Aragorn corrected. He sipped the tea that Faramir held to his lips.

“Who would recognise us now?” Faramir said, trying to reassure him. Elbeth finally stirred and burrowed out of her nest of blankets. “We must look like vagabonds!”

“I’m hungry!” the little girl announced, yawning. “What’s a vagabond?”

“A person who wanders around because they have no home,” Faramir explained.

“Like us now, because we’ve run away?” asked Elbeth.

Faramir shook his head. “No. We are not vagabonds, since we do have a home.”

“Where?” Elbeth demanded.

Faramir was momentarily lost for words. He wanted to say his home was in Minas Tirith or Ithilien. But the location of his home was likely to change in the future. Even if Aragorn succeeded in regaining his throne, he was unlikely to want a suspected traitor to live anywhere near him. “You will have to wait and see,” he replied somewhat lamely. “Now eat your porridge before it goes cold.”

“I don’t like porridge! I want bread and jam!” Elbeth complained.

“Well porridge is all there is, so you had better eat it or go hungry!” Faramir said firmly.

Elbeth scowled and started to very slowly stir her porridge, delaying the evil moment of having to actually eat it. Suddenly she started to giggle.

“What is so funny?” Faramir asked.

“Your hair and Strider’s is covered in dead leaves!” she giggled.

“If you eat quickly, you can pluck the leaves from Strider’s hair,” Faramir promised as he managed to swallow a few bites from the unappetising bowl of porridge between the spoonfuls he fed to Aragorn. The King sat morosely throughout the proceedings, saying not a word.

Elbeth glared sulkily, reminding Faramir of his brother when he was young. However, she finished her breakfast without further complaint.

Faramir then attended to Aragorn’s wounds, which still looked raw and angry. To make things worse, two more of the wounds had become inflamed, one on his chest and the other on his arm, where the movement of the horse had chafed the bandages against the injured flesh.

To have any chance of recovery, the King needed to rest quietly, wearing very loose, comfortable clothing. Unfortunately, they could not afford any respite until they found Arwen and Éowyn’s safe haven. Faramir prayed fervently that they could reach the place before nightfall. He feared that Aragorn was developing a slight fever and was too frail to survive another night outside in the cold and damp. The King also needed the comfort of those he loved and trusted at his side. Faramir felt he would hardly be included in either category, though he would gladly have laid down his life to save the man he loved so dearly.

The Steward gently bathed the King's hurts with boiled water and applied liberal amounts of salve.

“That looks sore!” Elbeth commented. Faramir had needed to ask her to hold up Aragorn’s shirt and tunic again.

“It is,” the King said shortly. His temper was becoming frayed by the indignity of the little girl's regard of his wounded body as some sort of interesting curiosity and knowing, yet again, that worse humiliation was in store. Faramir would soon help him with those routines that were once normal morning habits and which had now become a shared misery, since he could not perform them in solitude.

Had his Steward not betrayed him, he could have easily endured such embarrassments. But a few months ago, even bathing together had been no great trial apart from the reserve of natural modesty. Now it was very hard to accept help with the most basic needs from the hands of one who had so recently tortured him. He was the King who had once held armies at his command, yet now could not even command his own body to walk a few steps or hold a spoon! Then when they reached their destination, Éowyn would have to see his wounds. He shuddered at the thought. He could only hope her skills had improved during the past year, given what he needed her to do to try to repair his injured hand. Then whose side would she be on? She was the sister of Éomer, his most loyal friend and ally, but married to his treacherous Steward. Would she help him or use tending his wounds as a pretext for more torture? That was, if they were even journeying to where Éowyn now was, rather than into some trap? “How far do we need to travel today?” he asked Faramir, endeavouring to take his mind off his current plight and gain some clue to his fate. “You know this area far better than I do.” He gasped as the ointment stung his raw flesh and bit back a cry of pain, not wanting either Elbeth or Faramir to see his weakness.

“I think we are about ten miles from Minas Tirith now,” Faramir replied, placing a thick wad of cloth to pad Aragorn’s waist. “We need to avoid the city in case the rebels control it. We should make our way towards Osgiliath as our destination is in that direction. I hope we will reach it before dark. I am eager to see my wife again.”

“As am I, if you are truly taking me to her,” Aragorn replied gloomily.

“Sire, I give you my word of honour that I left the Queen and your son in Damrod’s care a few miles from here,” Faramir replied in a tone of weary resignation, trying hard to conceal his hurt.

“Do you even know the meaning of that word?” Aragorn asked bitterly.

“May my life be forfeit if I am speaking falsely!” Faramir replied.

“What does ‘honour’ mean?” asked Elbeth curiously, wondering why both her uncle and Strider seemed so upset.

“It is very hard to explain,” said Faramir. “Honour is what I held most dear and still do, yet I have none! What I was trying to explain to Strider, is that we should find Queen Arwen today.”

Elbeth frowned, more bewildered than ever. “But they said I was the Queen,” she said at last.

“Because they had no honour and told you lies,” Faramir said fiercely. “Lady Arwen is the Queen of Gondor.”

Elbeth tried hard to digest this information.

“You would have to be grown up and marry a king to be queen,” he said hastily, hoping to forestall a further torrent of questions. “Now can you do something very important for me by washing the dishes in the stream?” He tied the final knot in the bandages as he spoke and nodded to Elbeth to let go of Aragorn’s clothing. The King was shivering more than ever now. Faramir wrapped a blanket round him as well as his cloak. Delighted to be given another important task, Elbeth scampered away happily.

“Is that more comfortable?” Faramir asked Aragorn, the concern evident in his voice.

“Yes, thank you.” For an instant, there was a flicker of the old affection in Aragorn’s eyes as he looked at his Steward.

Faramir hardly knew which was harder to bear, the King’s scorn, or bittersweet memories of the friendship they used to enjoy.

The Steward carefully cleared away all traces of their camp before saddling the horses and preparing to leave. His back was now so painful that it took three attempts to get Aragorn up on to Roheryn. Both men were sweating from the exertion by the time they were safely mounted. Meanwhile, Elbeth had managed to climb on Zachus herself, using a fallen tree trunk to mount with. She sat there impatiently fingering the reins and waiting for the two men to be ready.

Aragorn’s pain intensified throughout the morning, but he was determined to conceal it from Faramir as best he could. He was resigned now that he was powerless to resist whatever his Steward had planned for him. He could only wait for the truth or otherwise of Faramir’s words to be revealed.

Faramir sensed his lord's discomfort, but forced himself to harden his heart and ignore it. They could ill afford to slow or stop while traversing the open countryside. They were all too easily visible if anyone else were searching for them.

They trotted through the seemingly endless miles, making good progress. Faramir’s back now throbbed with every step that Roheryn took.

“I’m bored!” said Elbeth after they had been riding for an hour or so.

“I used to play a game with my brother when we travelled,” Faramir told her. “We would see who could count the most cows in the fields.”

“That sounds fun!” she replied. “Will Strider play with me?”

Aragorn nodded wearily, thinking it might help him to keep his eyes open.

They stopped for a brief rest in a small copse of trees at what Faramir guessed was around midday, though the clouds hid the sun from their view. To his relief, Aragorn’s wounds had not started bleeding again. When he lifted Aragorn up on the horse once more, he hoped it would be for the last time without assistance. The pain in his back had worsened.

“Are we almost there?” Elbeth asked after another hour or so in the saddle. “I’ve counted three hundred and five cows and I’m getting bored with the game!”

“It should not be long now,” Faramir assured her, hoping he was right, as Aragorn kept threatening to slide from the saddle. It troubled him too that Roheryn was forced to carry so much extra weight. “Why not see if you can count to four hundred cows? You are very clever to know such big numbers!”

Elbeth glowed at the praise. “How many have you seen, Strider?” she enquired.

“Two hundred and one, so I am certain that you will win!” he answered, picking a number at random, having long since grown too weary to even attempt a semblance of playing.

The countryside was now very familiar to the Steward. He used to patrol this area with his men. It had changed a lot since the war; settlements had sprung up all over the place, repopulating what had before been desolate countryside over which Sauron’s minions had raged a ceaseless war against the defenders of Minas Tirith. They passed through several villages, attracting attention from the children but ignored by the adults, who no doubt were accustomed to wanderers made homeless by the ravages of war. Despite Aragorn’s best efforts, there was still a good deal of hardship in Gondor.

In every village they passed, Faramir asked the same question. “I am looking for an old comrade of mine by the name of Damrod. Do you know where he dwells?”

Aragorn was heartened by the question, it seemed that Faramir might indeed be telling the truth after all.

By late afternoon, Faramir was beginning to fear they were going in the wrong direction when a woman said, “Damrod? Him that was in the Ithilien Rangers?”

“Yes,” Faramir replied. “Do you know where I might find him?”

“He and his wife live in a cottage in the next village but you should come to his sister’s home before that. He often visits her at the farm, which is about a mile down the road. Her husband died soon after the war and it’s hard for a woman alone with small children so he …”

Wondering if the garrulous woman could be another of Ioreth’s cousins, since it seemed she could easily talk all day, Faramir politely thanked her and rode on, his heart lifting at the thought of seeing Éowyn again. He gently shook Aragorn who was half asleep. “Wake up, my lord!” he said, “We are almost there. You will soon see your wife and son.”

“Arwen, Eldarion!” Aragorn murmured, hoping fervently that his Steward spoke the truth.

Faramir urged the exhausted Roheryn to a canter down the lane. They rounded a bend and there it was, a small, single storied, but neatly maintained farmhouse standing apart from the village.

The sun finally broke through the clouds to end the day with a spectacular crimson sunset lifting their weary spirits.

At the front of the house was a herb garden, the fresh spring growth already visible. A line of washing, mainly comprising babies’ napkins blew in the breeze.

“I think we are here!” Faramir told his companions, sliding painfully from the horse.

Just then, a woman emerged from the house.

Chapter Forty-Two – At last, at last!

Geliebter!
Hab' ich dich wieder?
Darf ich dich fassen?
Kann ich mir trauen?
Endlich! Endlich!
An meiner Brust!
Fühl' ich dich wirklich?
Ist es kein Trug?
Ist es kein Traum?

(Beloved! Do I have you again? May I grasp you? Can I believe myself? At last, at last! Against my breast, Can I really feel you? Is it no delusion?
Is it no dream?)
- Wagner – Tristan und Isolde Act Two – Scene Two

 

For a fleeting moment, Faramir studied the dark haired beauty in bewilderment. His eyes then lit up. “Éowyn! I did not recognise you; you look so different! It is so good to see you! How have you fared? Is Elestelle well?” Faramir exclaimed, almost crying for joy at the sight of his wife.

“I hardly recognised you either!” Éowyn said, shading her eyes from the setting sun to look up at him. “Fear not, our daughter thrives. But you - Faramir, you have done it! You’ve rescued the King!” With that, she quickly bridged the short distance between them.

Faramir nodded, he was overwhelmed with conflicting emotions; relief, joy at their reunion, concern for Aragorn and the knowledge that their troubles were far from over. “I have saved Elbeth from their clutches too,” he said, gesturing towards the small girl fidgeting nervously on the giant horse’s back. “Can you help me get the King inside?” he asked, awkwardly dismounting from his horse and fervently embracing his wife.

“I could help Strider,” Elbeth volunteered but the adults were too preoccupied to heed her

Aragorn had said nothing so far. He eyed Éowyn apprehensively.

“What ails The King?” Éowyn asked eying Aragorn anxiously.

“It is a long story,” Faramir replied, “ Suffice to say that he is in need of your healing skills. I will tell you all, once we are inside. Can you help me get him down from Roheryn?”

Éowyn helped her husband lift the King from the saddle, then realising that he was hardly able to stand, called, “Arwen, come quickly!”

Aragorn’s sad and tired eyes lit up when his Queen came running out of the house. “Arwen, Vanimelda!” Aragorn broke free of Faramir and Éowyn’s supporting arms and tried to approach his wife. His legs gave way and he would have fallen to the ground had Faramir and Arwen not both dived to catch him at the same moment.

“Estel, beloved!” Arwen cried, clasping her arms around her husband, while Faramir and Éowyn supported him from behind. “Beloved, you are hurt, what have they done to you?” Arwen’s sweet voice was full of concern as she beheld her husband’s haggard features and felt his thin body trembling in her arms.

“They put me to torment,” Aragorn whispered, tears running down his gaunt cheeks. “Eldarion; is he safe?”

“The monsters! How dare they?” Arwen exclaimed in horror, tenderly trying to wipe away his tears, despite being partially blinded with her own. “You are safe now. They shall not hurt you again!” she said fiercely.

“Eldarion?” Aragorn persisted anxiously.

“He is well and growing more like you every day,” his wife reassured him.

“We need to get the King inside,” said Faramir. “Éowyn, could you see to Elbeth and the horses?”

Together, they supported Aragorn inside and laid him on the bed.

“I will leave you and your lady alone now,” said Faramir, dipping his head slightly.

“You were telling the truth then.” Aragorn turned his tear stained face towards his Steward.

“I was indeed, my lord, “ Faramir replied gravely.

“Thank you for bringing me to her,” Aragorn whispered.

Again inclining his head, Faramir silently left the room.

Alone at last with her husband, Arwen drew him close, enfolding him in a loving embrace. Still weeping, he buried his head against her breast, revelling in her nearness. She held him tighter, unknowingly aggravating his wounds and causing him to visibly flinch. “Your wounds! I am so sorry,” she exclaimed, “Where are they? Let me tend them!”

“Please, I am so weary. Let me rest for now!” Aragorn begged, “They are not bleeding since Faramir bandaged them earlier.”

“Very well,” Arwen agreed reluctantly. “I will just make you more comfortable now.” Thus saying, she took off Aragorn’s cloak, unlaced his boots, and settled him as best she could, propping several pillows behind him. “Why does Faramir address you now with such formality?” she enquired, troubled by the tone he used to speak of his Steward.

“He betrayed me,” Aragorn said bleakly.

“I told him to pretend to join the rebels in order to save you. A few lies were but a small price to pay for your life,” Arwen explained. “You cannot hold that against him.”

“It was far worse than that,” Aragorn responded.

“All that matters is that he has restored you to me!” Arwen kissed her husband tenderly, caressing his face with her slender hands and sensing his frailty, weariness and despair, which caused her to weep anew.

“Please do not cry, beloved!” Aragorn whispered, raising his head sufficiently to kiss her. “I should like to see our son.”

Reluctantly tearing her gaze away from his beloved face, now so skeletal and drawn, Arwen went to fetch Eldarion from his cradle in the living room. She settled down again beside her husband with the baby in her arms.

Aragorn’s face lit up at the sight of his son. The baby regarded his father curiously for a few moments, uncertain how to react to him and then deciding he liked the newcomer welcomed him with a beaming smile. “ Ad da da!” he gurgled.

Aragorn now wept uncontrollably. During those weeks alone in the darkness tormented by pain, hunger and thirst, this was the moment he had dreamed of, yet despaired of ever experiencing.

Arwen settled beside him, embracing him with her free arm and supporting his head against her breast.

“I feared I would never see you both again!” he sobbed.

“I never gave up hope and have kept this for you,” Arwen replied, her own voice trembling with emotion. She slid the Elven pledge band from her finger and returned it to Aragorn’s, albeit with some difficulty as his hand was still reddened and swollen.

“My love is now all I have to offer you, vanimelda, when I promised your father you should have the crown, which I gave you together with that ring,” Aragorn lamented.

“What is a crown compared to the man I love?” Arwen reassured him, kissing him again as she spoke. “I would still love you if we had to live as beggars in the wilderness!” She noticed then how dry his lips were.

“I will fetch you some refreshment, Estel,” she said, rising to her feet.

Aragorn slumped back against the pillows, his meagre reserves of strength exhausted now the first excitement of the reunion was over.

Arwen returned a protesting Eldarion to his cradle and went to fetch a drink for her husband. She resolutely washed away her tears then moistened a cloth with which to wipe Aragorn’s face.

She attempted to hand him the cup, but his hands were shaking too much to take it. Instead, Arwen held it to his parched lips while he drank.

“I am sorry,” he mumbled, embarrassed at his weakness.

“You would do the same for me,” she said calmly, though inwardly his frail condition alarmed her considerably. “Was Faramir tortured too?” she asked, aiming to distract him. “He looks to be in pain.”

“He hurt his back lifting me,” Aragorn replied, starting to wonder if she were correct about the Steward’s loyalty. Maybe, Faramir had carried out his cruel deeds under duress? He did not know now what to think about his Steward. Faramir had kept his word, and brought him to Arwen, and cared for him most devotedly. Yet, the same man had hit him, taunted him and branded him while he lay chained and helpless. If it had all been a ruse, why had he not explained during the moments they had been alone together in that dreadful place?

“Rest now, beloved,” Arwen soothed, placing the empty cup on the bedside table, tucking the covers around her husband and surreptitiously examining him. He appeared to be slightly fevered, though at the moment exhaustion was what troubled him the most. Almost at once, he fell asleep.

Arwen settled down beside him again, tenderly stroking her husband’s hair and murmuring endearments. She fervently wished that her father had agreed to teach her more of his healing skills, instead of desiring to shield her from the ugliness of illness and injury. If only she could somehow fetch her brothers here to tend Aragorn! She knew that was mere wishful thinking and Éowyn’s skills, combined with her own would have to suffice. Most importantly, her faith had not been in vain; Estel was still alive and again at her side, this extraordinary man whom she loved so dearly. Tenderly she kissed him, wanting to feel his skin beneath her lips and reassure herself that it was not just a dream that he had returned.

Chapter Forty-Three – Cleanliness is next to Godliness

Cleanliness is indeed next to godliness. — John Wesley (quoted): Journal, Feb. 12, 1772.

When Faramir went outside again he found Éowyn occupied in unsaddling Roheryn. The Steward pulled her into a tight embrace and kissed her passionately. He clutched her to him tightly, fearing almost that she were but a dream that would melt away if he let her go.

After a few moments of savouring his nearness, she reluctantly pulled away. “We had better attend to the horses,” she said. “The poor creatures look exhausted!”

“I had to ride double with Aragorn,” Faramir explained. “He is much better than he was, but still very frail and my heart fears for him. Once you see what those brutes have done to him…”

“Did they hurt you as well?” Éowyn interrupted anxiously.

“No, at least not in body,” Faramir assured her.

Éowyn drew her husband close and kissed him again.

“What about me?” Elbeth cried impatiently, “I want to get down! What is it about grown ups that they always want to kiss each other? I shan’t waste my time kissing when I’m grown up.”

“I am sorry, Elbeth, I was just so happy to see my lady again,” Faramir said contritely, lifting her down from Zachus’ back. He grimaced with pain as he did so. “Do you remember your Aunt Éowyn?”

“Your hair was like gold when I met you before!” Elbeth remarked in bewilderment after studying Éowyn carefully for a few moments.

“I needed a disguise to stop the bad men who hurt the King finding me,” Éowyn explained. “So I dyed my hair to make me look like a woman of Gondor.” She expertly removed Zachus’ saddle as she spoke.

“I liked it better before,” Elbeth observed. “Why can’t I have golden hair?”

“Because your parents both had dark hair and children usually look like their parents,” Faramir explained. He had become accustomed by now to her questions. Exchanging a look with Éowyn, they mutually wondered if their daughter would be as inquisitive once she could talk.

“Would you like some supper?” Éowyn asked the little girl.

“Can I have bread and jam?” Elbeth replied.

“Indeed you can! Go inside now and I will fetch you some water to wash your hands with before we eat.”

“Why must I wash? Uncle Faramir didn’t make me!” Elbeth complained.

“Ladies and gentlemen always wash before meals,” Éowyn said sternly.

“You are in a house now and not the woods, so you must do what your Aunt Éowyn tells you to,” Faramir said sternly, ignoring the pleading looks Elbeth cast in his direction.

Elbeth pouted but went inside without further comment.

“You are hurt. I can see it!” Éowyn exclaimed once she and Faramir were alone.

“Aragorn says it is just a pulled muscle in my back,” Faramir told her, as he took the bridle off Roheryn. “But, Éowyn, it is so sad, he has lost all his healing power and his hands are like ice and one is crushed! He tried to ease my back but could do nothing. I fear they have broken him!”

Éowyn’s furious expression suggested, that were Aragorn’s tormentors before her at this moment, their days would be numbered. “Time and rest are great healers,” she said, rubbing Roheryn down vigorously.

“Are we safe here?” Faramir asked anxiously, “What has happened since I saw you last?”

“Damrod brought us here to his sister’s home the day after you left,” Éowyn replied. “Bereth has been very kind and helps us with the heavy work. She has even moved into the barn to give us more space and privacy. She has sent her own children to stay with her brother. Damrod visits us whenever he has leave. It seems safe enough and no one else has been near as us. We are very isolated here. I dyed my hair to avoid attracting attention just in case anyone was looking for us. Damrod told the people in the village that we were the wives of two of his company, waiting for our wounded men folk to return. You are supposed to have been wounded in a border skirmish against the Harradim.”

“That man is a treasure!” Faramir exclaimed. “Has he brought news from the City?”

“He told us that Imrahil was still in control of the Council, but they were growing impatient. Rumour has it that some want to find Eldarion and crown him, while others want to return to the rule of the Stewards. Since you disappeared, no one has known what to do. While the fever raged, no one was very interested in politics, but now it is abating, Damrod tells me that the people are growing restless.”

“We can do nothing until Aragorn regains his strength,” Faramir sighed.

“And that, is what we are going to concentrate on, and restoring you to full health as well!” Éowyn said firmly. “I think we have done all we can for the horses. Let us go inside now.”

They found Elbeth playing with the farm cat and her kittens by the stove; or rather, the mother cat mewing indignantly as Elbeth cuddled a tiny ginger kitten.

“Give him back to his mummy!” Éowyn demanded, pouring some water from a jug into a bowl. “Now come and wash your hands as I told you too. After you have eaten, you are having a bath.”

“Uncle Faramir didn’t make me have baths!” Elbeth complained, as she washed her grubby fingers.

“Come and see my little girl, Elbeth,” Faramir said, hastily changing the subject. “Where is Elestelle, Éowyn? I am longing to see her!”

Éowyn smiled and led the way into the living room where Elestelle and Eldarion were lying side by side in their cradles. Eldarion was banging his rattle on the side of the crib, while Elestelle was sleeping peacefully through the racket.

“How she has grown!” Faramir exclaimed. “She is so adorable, just like her mother.” He bent over the cradle, grimacing at the pain in his back as he did.

Elbeth eyed the infant critically before pronouncing, ”She is quite pretty! Who is the other baby?”

“That is Prince Eldarion,” Faramir told her.

Elbeth wrinkled her nose. “I’m not marrying him!” she pronounced. “He is far too noisy!”

“Indeed you are not!” Faramir laughed as he tenderly stroked his daughter’s downy head. “I am sure he has no wish to get married either. He is only a baby!”

“Can I play with the kittens again?” Elbeth asked, already bored with the babies.

“They want to have their supper too now. You can help me set the table,” Éowyn told her. “Faramir, you stay with the babies awhile and sit down and rest your back.” Thus saying, she returned to the kitchen taking Elbeth with her, where she finished preparing a simple, but tasty and nourishing meal for them. She then went in search of Aragorn and Arwen and discovered the Queen anxiously watching over her sleeping husband. “Supper is ready,” Éowyn told her friend, her eyes noting Aragorn’s pale and haggard appearance even in sleep. “How is he?”

“Not well. I fear what they have done to him,” Arwen said sadly.

“Perhaps we should examine him now?” Éowyn suggested, moving to pull aside the covers.

“He is exhausted. I think rest would help him the most at present,” Arwen replied. “He does not appear to be bleeding.”

“It would be better to tend him in the daylight,” Éowyn agreed, feeling Aragorn’s pulse. “Come then we will leave him to sleep while we eat.”

“I do not like to leave him alone,” Arwen protested.

“You cannot miss meals with a baby to feed, nor would Aragorn want you to,” Éowyn told her sternly. “We are only in the next room. I expect he will sleep for hours.”

Sighing, Arwen rose to her feet and followed Éowyn, leaving the door ajar so that her keen hearing would catch any sound from her husband.

Faramir knew he needed to tell Arwen and his wife everything that had happened, but was loath to do so in Elbeth’s presence. Also, feeling guilty at having neglected his niece on their arrival, he thought it a good idea to encourage her to tell the ladies about how she had helped Aragorn.

Elbeth was only too willing to oblige and enjoyed being the centre of attention while she told them how she had found her friend ‘Strider’ alone in the cold dark cellar, hungry, thirsty and in pain, and how every night she had brought him food and water.

“The Valar will surely bless you for your kindness to Estel!” Arwen exclaimed after listening with horror to the little girl’s story.

“And she was a great help when we hid in a cave in the forest until the King was able to travel,” Faramir added.

Elbeth beamed as she devoured another slice of bread and jam, even eating the crusts, which showed just how hungry she was.

Shortly afterwards, Eldarion started to cry. Elestelle quickly copied him. The two women rose from the table simultaneously.

“Faramir, will you sit with Aragorn, then Arwen can help me give Elbeth a bath after the babies have been fed?” Éowyn asked.

Faramir nodded and rose to his feet.

“I don’t need a bath!” Elbeth protested fiercely, “Tell them that I haven’t needed one for ages now, Uncle Faramir!”

Faramir had already left the room.

He made his way to where Aragorn was sleeping and sat down beside him on the bed. A single candle illuminated the room, casting a warm glow over the King’s sleeping features. Aragorn did at least look more peaceful now. He seemed, alas to have aged by many years and his gaunt features were etched with his suffering of the past weeks. Faramir gently took The King’s uninjured hand, which lay limp on the coverlet. To his dismay, it still felt dreadfully cold. He knew it was irrational, but part of him had hoped, that once reunited with Arwen, the warmth and vitality would return to his lord. Now it seemed that only time might heal him.

Not for the first time, Faramir wondered what it was about those who were evil, which made them want to destroy all that was good. All those, who truly knew Aragorn, loved him and came to see how goodness and nobility shone from him in every word and deed. The King had tried so hard to make Gondor a better place, working all day and sometimes half the night as well, to rebuild after the War, see that the poor and vulnerable were provided for, create just laws and restore Gondor to her past glories. Yet, his reward had been to be chained up like a mad dog, tortured, beaten and starved.

A considerable commotion from the kitchen disturbed his thoughts. Obviously, Elbeth was having her promised bath. Faramir was forced to smile as squeals of protest were gradually replaced by splashes and giggles. His niece was a spirited child; but what less could he expect from Boromir’s daughter? He feared the noise would awaken Aragorn, but the King only sighed softly in his sleep.

Éowyn entered and started rummaging round in a cupboard. “Did you bring anything with you for the child to wear, or Aragorn, for that matter?” she enquired.

“We only have the clothes we are wearing and some clean underwear,” Faramir informed her, getting stiffly to his feet to stand beside her.

“It smells like it! You men need to bathe just as much as the child did,” Éowyn retorted. “Aragorn will have to borrow some of your garments, which fortunately I thought to pack before we left with Damrod. As for Elbeth, we will just have to make do somehow until her clothes are washed and dried!” She snatched up a bundle of assorted garments and made to hurry out again.

Faramir caught his arm around her waist and kissed her tenderly. “It is so good to be with you again,” he murmured.

“You have brought a lot of extra work with you!” she exclaimed with mock severity.

Pressing a kiss to his lips, she hurried out again.

Faramir soon heard more protesting cries from Elbeth as the child objected to having her hair brushed.

Eventually, all went quiet and he was on the verge of drifting off to sleep when Éowyn came in again. Yawning, he sat up and stretched.

“ We’ve settled Elbeth down to sleep by the stove in the kitchen,” she informed him. “Come into the living room now, so I can take a look at your back.”

“It is nothing!” Faramir protested in a whisper, careful not awaken Aragorn. The King was now deeply asleep.

“Nonsense!” Éowyn replied briskly. “It is obvious you have been in pain all evening. Come on now!”

Faramir followed her, expecting any moment for Arwen to pass them to come and sit with her husband. Instead, she was sitting on a chair in the living room. Éowyn’s healing supplies were spread out on a table next to her.

“How is he?” Arwen asked. “You have my eternal gratitude for restoring my Estel to me!”

“Sleeping peacefully,” Faramir replied, finding it hard to meet her penetrating gaze after all he had done. He would have to tell her the truth soon.

Chapter Forty Four – The good man’s sin

But sad as angels for the good man’s sin,
Weep to record, and blush to give it in. - Thomas Campbell (1777–1844)

My lady,” Faramir began hesitantly, “there is something I must tell you.”

Arwen looked puzzled at his troubled tone.

Faramir cleared his throat and took a deep breath. “I have committed most cruel deeds against your husband!” he finally blurted out.

Arwen’s clear grey eyes reflected a mixture of shock and disbelief. Yet her voice remained calm.  “How can that be, Faramir? You have restored him to me.”

Éowyn, who had been hovering by the door, came in and put a comforting hand on her husband’s shoulder.

“I cannot imagine you ever harming Aragorn,” she exclaimed. “You love him too much to harm a single hair of his head!”

Faramir swallowed hard. “I joined with those who were tormenting him! To maintain my traitor's guise, I raised my hand against the King. Later, I was challenged to show my loyalty by dealing an even fouler blow. I did as Fosco bid me. I branded the King myself with a red-hot iron. And by that deed, I became what I most abhor, a traitor! Deal with me as you will, my lady, for I betrayed and hurt my liege lord!” The words poured from Faramir’s lips. It was a relief to confess all. Finally, he raised his eyes to look at the Queen.

Arwen’s eyes darkened and the Steward could hardly endure her gaze. She rose to her feet. There was something about her demeanour that was truly terrifying. He was forcibly reminded yet again that this was not just his Queen, but also the daughter of Elrond and granddaughter of Galadriel, the inheritor of their power and wisdom. She had lived longer than the mightiest oak. He shivered and braced himself for the expected assault on his mind when she raised her hands to his face.

“He did but follow the plan you gave him! Is that not enough to prove his loyalty?” Éowyn interrupted. “I once raised Aragorn’s own sword against him and he pardoned me. Surely, Faramir can be forgiven for doing what saved both their lives?”

Arwen sat down again, ashamed at her own willingness to violate Faramir’s mind. “I cannot bear to think of anyone hurting Estel,” she whispered. “After all, it was I, who told you to join with those who conspired against my husband, though I hardly expected you to torture him!”

Faramir buried his face in his hands. Éowyn’s grip on his shoulder tightened. “Nor did I, my lady, I am truly sorry,” he murmured.

Arwen looked at him dispassionately for a long moment. Then her gaze softened “I do not believe you are a traitor in your heart,” she said gently. “I know that my husband almost died. Estel's survival bears witness to your loyalty towards him. I forgive your deeds as you have restored him to my side. Now, I must go and see how he fares.” With that, she left the room.

“Come now and sit on the couch,” said Éowyn briskly, “I want to have a look at your back.”

Hardly aware of what she was saying, Faramir merely looked at her sadly.

“It is no good brooding over what is past,” she advised. ”We must concentrate on restoring Aragorn to health and putting him back on his throne where he rightfully belongs. Brooding will not help, neither will neglecting your own health.”

Faramir pulled her close. Only then did he notice that her hair and clothing were damp.

“Your niece is quite a spirited child,” Éowyn remarked wryly, observing his reaction. “She was most reluctant to have a bath.”

Faramir managed a wan smile as he sat down. “I could hear her protests while I was sitting with Aragorn,” he told her. “Then, she suddenly seemed to change her mind. However did you manage that?”

“It was Arwen with her Elven touch,” Éowyn explained. “I shall have to learn more about using such skills on children of her age, seeing as we are to take the child in, I assume?”

“Thank you! I hoped you would agree that we should. Where our home will be, though, I have no idea,” Faramir replied. “Elbeth is a remarkable girl. Aragorn would never have survived without her. They have developed quite a bond.”

“Aragorn would never have survived without you,” Éowyn said emphatically. “Now, where does your back hurt?”

“Just there.” Faramir pulled up his tunic and shirt a few inches and indicated the painful spot.

“I cannot see like that!” Éowyn protested, “Take your tunic and shirt off so that I can have a proper look.”

“Aragorn let me keep them on when he had a look,” Faramir protested. “What if the Queen returns? Or Elbeth wakes up, or Damrod’s sister comes in?”

“Aragorn indulges you overmuch!” Éowyn said with mock severity, “Now take off your shirt and tunic and stop fretting!”

Sighing, Faramir did as he was bidden, grimacing with pain, as he stretched to pull the garments over his head. “It is just here that it is painful,” he told her, gesturing towards where his back hurt the most. “Aragorn thought it was a pulled muscle. I first felt it when I carried him outside to look at the sky.” He winched as she prodded the sore place, all the while hoping that the Queen would remain safely preoccupied with her husband.

“You and Aragorn indulge each other’s whims overmuch!” Éowyn said severely, expertly feeling along the length of her husband’s spine. “It seems to be a muscle strain,” she pronounced. “I have some comfrey salve in the bedroom, which should help. Stay there and lie down while I fetch it.”

Faramir stretched out on the couch. The warmth from the fire felt comforting against his bare skin and he allowed himself to relax a little. He had succeeded in reuniting the King with his wife, whatever they thought of him. At least he had not forfeited Éowyn’s love as well. She was right; all they could afford to think about now was restoring Aragorn ‘s health and rightful status. He was too weary to think any longer and could have fallen asleep in front of the fire, had the door not opened and Éowyn entered. Much to his horror, the Queen was with her.

Immediately wide-awake, Faramir blushed scarlet and crossed his arms defensively across his chest, trying to cover himself. He sought vainly to snatch up his shirt but found it was no longer on the couch beside him.

“I um, thought you were sitting with the King, my lady!” he stammered.

“He is sleeping,” Arwen replied, acting as if the Steward appeared before her half naked every day.

“I told Arwen about your damaged back muscles. She is skilled at easing backache with her Elven healing skills,” Éowyn said cheerfully. “You are very fortunate she is here to help you!”

“I do not really think…” Faramir protested. Being without a shirt in front of his Queen was quite unthinkable! “It is not that bad,” he protested. “There is no need for you to trouble yourself on my account, my lady, I am certain that a good night’s rest will cure me.”

“I still think you would benefit from Arwen’s skills,” Éowyn said firmly, a wicked gleam in her eye. Faramir had a nasty suspicion that she and the Queen had planned this and his wife was rather enjoying herself. Arwen’s expression was unreadable.

“I will sit with Aragorn while you treat my stubborn husband,” Éowyn said sweetly.

Faramir observed then that his tunic and shirt were in her hand.

Left alone with the Queen, and now the same colour as a beetroot from sheer embarrassment, Faramir wished the ground would open and swallow him. Gondorian etiquette strictly prohibited a man removing his shirt in front of any woman except his wife. In front of as high ranking a lady, such as the Queen, even removing the outer tunic was considered an outrage, never mind appearing bare to the waist front of her.

Arwen sat on the couch beside him. “Give me your hands!” she ordered unexpectedly.

Reluctantly, Faramir uncrossed his arms and mutely held out his hands towards her, palms facing upwards.

Grasping his wrists, she studied his hands from palm to fingertip, her eyes full of silent reproach. Her scrutiny lasted only a moment, but to Faramir, it felt like eternity. He knew that she was thinking that those same hands had tortured her husband. He almost wished that she had probed his thoughts, painful though it would be. At least then, she would have known exactly what had driven him to commit such evil deeds.

Abruptly she released him, apparently having reached a decision. “You can either lie on your front or your side,” she said in a detached tone of voice. “I assure you that I am skilled in doing this. I often treat your wife’s back. I know you are familiar with the benefits of Elven massage from Estel’s treatments.”

Faramir realised he was trapped, as Éowyn had taken his clothes. He could hardly wander around the farmhouse like this and risk encountering Elbeth and Damrod’s sister as well. The Steward conceded defeat. He dared not insult the Queen, Faramir obediently turned on his side, even though, to turn his back towards her constituted yet another breach of etiquette. He was amazed at the Elf’s audacity combined with that of his wife. Even Dame Ioreth would not have dared do such a thing!

He became aware of cool fingers probing the contours of his back, followed by a gentle pressure, which seemed to be almost remoulding the painful muscle.

“Just relax, I shall not harm you,” Arwen said with a musical laugh. “I am a married woman who has been doing this for my brothers for almost three thousand year.

“Is this quite proper, my lady?” Faramir finally found his voice to utter a feeble protest. “What would the King say?”

“He told me that you were in pain, so I promised I would help you. After all, you are needed to lift him until he is sufficiently recovered to walk,” Arwen said sweetly, calmly continuing her ministrations. “And what could there possibly be to object to? Elven massage is one of the most chaste forms of touch there is.”

Faramir wondered if this was some clever ruse of Arwen’s to punish him for his misdeeds, before dismissing the notion as unworthy. He realised he had no choice but to submit, as he could not lie injured while his lord had need of his help.

“Stop wriggling!” Arwen commanded, “However Estel ever managed to treat your hurts in the past I have no idea!”

Faramir had no answer to that. For one thing, her touch was very different, much more impersonal than Aragorn’s, yet extremely effective. Already the damaged muscle had stopped hurting for the first time since he pulled it.

“Thank you, I feel much better now,” Faramir told her, hoping his ordeal was now over.

“I have not finished yet,” Arwen replied firmly, her hands expertly moving up to his shoulders. “Uncross your arms, you need to relax for this to work. I fear I do not have healing power in my hands like Estel, but this should ease you.”

Faramir had no choice but to obey. He rolled over to lie on his belly to feel a little less exposed.

Despite his embarrassment, Faramir realised that the experience was certainly not unpleasant. Her touch lacked the tenderness and comfort that he experienced when Aragorn had treated him with Elven massage, but she was very, very skilful. He remembered Aragorn telling him once that he was a mere novice at the technique compared to his wife. Yet, he would gladly have exchanged all her expertise for the warmth and skill to be restored to the King’s hands and to again be worthy to receive his ministrations.

Chapter Forty-Five – A broken spirit - who can bear?

The human spirit will endure sickness; but a broken spirit—who can bear? -

The Bible: -Proverbs 18:14.

 

Despite his discomfiture, Faramir started to feel drowsy. He was spared from the further embarrassment of falling asleep half naked in the presence of his Queen by the sound of one of the babies crying. The door opened and he tensed in alarm, fearing that Damrod’s sister had chosen this inopportune moment to appear. Daring to turn his head, he was vastly relieved to see his wife enter with his clothes and a pot of salve. Arwen’s skilled hands finally ceased massaging his shoulders to be replaced with Éowyn’s comfortingly familiar touch when she began to rub salve into his back. Exhausted though Faramir was, he still felt tingles of pleasure at her touch.

“That should ease you,” Éowyn said briskly, “Go to bed now, you look almost as exhausted as the King! You had better share with him for tonight. Arwen and I will sleep here on the couch with the babies.”

“I thought the Queen would want to stay with Aragorn,” Faramir replied, hastily wriggling into his shirt that Éowyn had handed it to him, then turning to face her. He felt bare enough without his beard, never mind his shirt! As both Aragorn and himself had Elven ancestry, their beards would be slow to grow back again. He securely laced his clothing lest either lady decide his treatment was not yet complete.

“You need a proper bed until your back is better, and a good night’s sleep not disturbed by crying infants,” Arwen replied. “You are the only one with sufficient strength to lift Estel if he needs to get up in the night. Call me at once if he wakes and needs me. He is likely to sleep for many hours. We will take turns to stay with him tomorrow.”

“In any case, neither of you are in any fit state for husbandly duties at present!” Éowyn added, making her husband blush again and planting a passionate kiss on his lips. He returned it while Arwen was preoccupied lifting Eldarion from his cradle. Elestelle then started to wail, adding to the cacophony

Faramir conceded this was hardly a peaceful atmosphere for a sick man to rest in. “Thank you, my lady, my back feels much easier,” he said, bowing his head to the Queen and making his way towards the bedroom. “Goodnight, my lady, my beloved.”

“Goodnight, be sure to take off your boots!” Éowyn replied, lifting their daughter to her breast as she spoke.

Faramir crept into the darkened room illuminated by a single candle. Aragorn was still asleep, snoring softly. Carefully, so as not to disturb him, Faramir kicked off his boots and slid into bed. He had not even time to wish his wife could be beside him before he fell into an exhausted slumber.

About an hour later, Arwen entered the room to see how her husband fared. To her dismay, he was crying out restlessly in his sleep. Perching on the edge of the bed, she traced circles on her husband’s forehead and murmured soothing words until he quietened.

Kissing him tenderly, she then sat for a while watching him. How she yearned to be beside him, but she knew only too well that Faramir needed to regain his strength in order to help her husband. The Steward did not awaken. He was sleeping curled protectively against Aragorn. One hand was outstretched, as if to reach for a weapon with which to defend his lord if any danger threatened.

Arwen found the position of the sleepers oddly unnerving. She wondered why. Then she remembered how on the day Elestelle was born, both men had shared Estel’s room. She had gone to see if Aragorn and Faramir were sleeping after the ordeals of that day. Then, it had been her husband, who had been offering a protective fatherly shoulder for Faramir to rest upon. Now it seemed that the roles were reversed. Even though Faramir had betrayed the King, it seemed that he sought to protect him as one might a child who was scared of the dark.

It frightened her. She could see that her husband was broken in body, but broken bodies would mend, given time and care. A broken spirit was far harder to repair. She thought sadly of her mother, whose wounded spirit had been unable to find healing until she took ship to Valinor. Her Estel did not have that choice.

In the other room, Eldarion started to cry, so after pressing a gentle kiss to Aragorn’s pale lips, Arwen reluctantly crept away.

***

Exhausted after the journey of the previous day, Aragorn slept for almost twelve hours, not waking until after the others had eaten breakfast the next day.

When he opened his eyes, Arwen was sitting on the edge of the bed beside him. He looked at her for a few moments in bewilderment until he remembered the events of the day before.

“Vanimelda?” He hardly dared  believed he was not dreaming.

“I am here, Estel.” She held a glass of water to his lips and then tenderly took his right hand, which lay limply on the coverlet. “You are safe now, my love.”

Aragorn clutched at her fingers. His grip, which had once been so strong, felt far feebler than what even Eldarion’s tiny hands were capable of. Tears welled up in the King’s eyes in disgust at his own weakness.

Arwen said nothing, instead cradling him in her arms as gently as she would a newborn babe. “You are safe now,” she repeated, “safe with those who love you.”

“What of Faramir?” Aragorn asked fretfully. “He betrayed me! Are you his hostage?”

“No, beloved,” Arwen reassured him, “indeed I am not! We can leave here as soon as you are well enough to travel. Éowyn and I came here willingly with Damrod and are grateful for a safe place to shelter. Faramir is no kidnapper!”

“Maybe he is deceiving you, for he is clever?” Aragorn persisted.

“I sense no deception in him,” Arwen said quietly. “Before I sent him to rescue you, much to my shame, I forced my way into his mind and found nothing there but love and loyalty towards you.”

“Maybe that was true then,” Aragorn replied, “but Faramir has changed so much! At first, I believed he would surely come and hope remained with me. That was until the day, he walked into the cellar where I was imprisoned and struck me, spewing forth words of hatred that almost broke my heart! Later he branded me and gladly joined with my tormentors.”

“So he confessed,” Arwen said, looking sadly at her husband’s bruised face and the pain she saw all too clearly reflected in his grey eyes.

“Even when we were alone in that dreadful place, Faramir still abused me,” Aragorn said bitterly. “He held a knife to my throat and rubbed an onion in my face when there were none to see! Have you read his thoughts since he joined the conspiracy against me?”

Arwen shook her head. “No, nor will I violate his mind again. Faramir promised he would restore you to me and has done so. That suffices for me. You are Thought Bonded with him, so why not read his thoughts yourself?”

“I dare not!” Aragorn looked away, swallowing hard. “If I were to see some allegiance to the traitors in his heart, I should have to punish him most severely and I could not bring myself to do that. Despite all he has done, I still love him. He was like a son to me and he did save me!”

“More than once too,” Arwen replied. “Several times, I feared for your life and his too. Remember, it was at my bidding and for love of you, he became ensnared within that web of treason, and like all webs, it sticks to those who touch it for a long time afterwards.”

Aragorn sighed and nestled closer to her ignoring the pain that every movement caused him, comforted by her loving presence.

Tenderly she kissed him and gently stroked his face. “I love you Estel,” she whispered.

“I love you too,” he replied.

They remained thus for a few moments until he was reluctantly compelled to say, “I need to get out of bed.”

“Would you prefer that Éowyn and I should try to lift you and see to your needs, or should Faramir continue to aid you?” Arwen enquired tactfully.

Aragorn hesitated. He was uncomfortable with Faramir in his vicinity, but the humiliation of forcing his beautiful, perfect wife to have to wash and dress and change him like she did their infant son, was more than he could bring himself either to ask of her, or that he could bear. Then he was aware of the damage lifting him had inflicted on Faramir’s back. How could he risk a similar injury befalling his wife? Unpleasant though it was to have to rely on Faramir for such matters, he had in a way, almost become accustomed to it. Then the thought of Éowyn escorting him to the privy would be a humiliation beyond endurance!

“I think it best that Faramir should aid me,” he said at last, “providing that his back allows him to.”

Arwen nodded approvingly. “I think you will be more comfortable with him,” she said. “His back is much improved this morning. I gave him a through massage last night. The poor man was most embarrassed!”

“That sounds like the Faramir I know,” Aragorn said almost wistfully.

“I will send him to you now,” Arwen told him. “I came to sit with you while he ate his breakfast, so he should be ready now. Would you like something to eat? Then, you need a bath. We already have water heating. Afterwards Éowyn and I will tend your wounds.”

Aragorn nodded resignedly, though inwardly he dreaded her seeing his ravaged flesh. He was certain she would always love him. However, after she had seen what had been done to his body, would she ever be able to look on him with pleasure in her eyes?

“Thank you, I will eat a little later, but I need Faramir now!”

Arwen called to the Steward in the next room then tactfully withdrew.

Faramir hastened to his King’s side and helped him make his way to the privy. “Did you rest well, my lord?” he asked anxiously, lifting the King up from the bed.

“I did,” Aragorn replied tersely before adding. “You seem in less pain today. I hope that my wife was able to ease your back.”

“I am grateful for her help. I felt very ill at ease, though,” Faramir flushed at the memory.

“If it is any consolation to you, your wife will need look at my wounds after breakfast, so it will be my turn to blush then,” Aragorn said dryly while Faramir sponged his hands and face.

Faramir had the grace to look sympathetic. He was vastly relieved that Aragorn did at least seem well enough to talk after his long rest the night before.

By the time Faramir had helped Aragorn into the kitchen and sat him at the table, Éowyn and Damrod’s sister were filling a tub with water in front of the kitchen fire.

“Bereth, this is my husband and his friend, who have recently returned from fighting in the East to convalesce from their wounds,” Éowyn said by way of introduction. It seemed that Damrod had not even told his sister their true identity.

“I am pleased to make your acquaintance, my lady,” Faramir said. Aragorn politely dipped his head in greeting.

“You will have to decide who goes first,” Éowyn told them. “It would take all day to carry and heat enough water for two baths.”

“Where is Elbeth?” Faramir asked. “I would not wish her to come in while we are bathing.”

“She is outside playing with the kittens,” Arwen announced, coming into the room with Eldarion. “Bereth will keep an eye on her while you bathe.”

Aragorn struggled to eat the porridge that Éowyn fetched for him, but had to abandon the attempt; the spoon felt so dreadfully heavy. Noticing he was struggling, Arwen fed him, while balancing Eldarion on her lap.

Aragorn turned scarlet with the humiliation of it all. It had been bad enough having to be spoon fed in private, but in front of a stranger was almost too much to bear!

Éowyn left the room and returned a few moments later with an armful of clothes and towels. ”Here are some clean clothes for you and some towels for Aragorn,” she said, handing Faramir a large bundle. “There is little point in Aragorn getting dressed as I need to see his wounds,” she explained. “Afterwards he can borrow one of your nightshirts to wear.”

The women finished filing the bath and then turned to leave.

”We will leave you to have your bath now,” said Éowyn, ”That is unless you want me to stay and help?”

“No, thank you!” chorused Aragorn and Faramir in unified alarm.

Chapter Forty-Six – Nothing is covered up.

Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. : Bible, Luke 12:2...

For a moment, both men regarded the tub of steaming water. It was very different to what they were accustomed to in Minas Tirith, where the vast sunken baths would easily accommodate several people. Yet, compared with the small basins of water they had been compelled to use in the cave, it was sheer luxury.

“You should bathe first, Faramir,” Aragorn said, as soon as they were alone. He hoped that once Faramir undressed, he might have some answers to his Steward’s puzzling behaviour.

“No, you must go first, sire,” Faramir insisted.

“But the water will get cold while you are helping me,” Aragorn protested.

“And your wounds could easily become infected from my grime!” Faramir retorted. “As a healer you should know that! So come on, let me help you undress.”

“Very well,” Aragorn sighed, resigning himself to the inevitable. “I wish you did not have to bathe me.”

“I can fetch Éowyn, the Queen and Mistress Bereth if you would prefer their assistance,” retorted Faramir tartly.

“You know that your help is the lesser evil,” Aragorn conceded miserably. “I forbid you to fetch the ladies!”

“You know I would not. You will soon be well enough to do it yourself, now that you have Éowyn and your lady to tend you,” Faramir soothed, inwardly berating himself for his lack of compassion towards a sick and vulnerable man. He unlaced Aragorn’s tunic and lifted it over his head, followed by his shirt.

The King was so frail that already he was starting to shiver, despite the warmth from the stove. Faramir wanted to get him in the warm water quickly. He struggled to remove Aragorn’s blood caked bandages.

“Leave the bandages to soak off,” Aragorn told him.

“I remember you did that for me only a few months ago,” Faramir replied, removing the last of the King’s clothing. As tactfully as possible he eased Aragorn’s long limbs into the cramped tub. The King had to bend his knees in order to sit down. “I only wish I had some healing powers like yours, then I could ease your pain!” Faramir bit his lip as he spoke, all too aware that he had inflicted some of that agony.

“Do you really?” Aragorn said frostily. He was forced to concentrate on biting back a cry of pain when the water stung his raw wounds. If he cried out, Éowyn would most likely come rushing in to see what was the matter. He presumed Arwen was occupied with Eldarion as he could hear him crying.

Faramir picked up a washcloth and handed another to Aragorn. ”If you are able to, maybe you would like to wash where you can reach, while I bathe your back and wash your hair,” he said.

Aragorn nodded, grateful for his Steward’s tact in trying to preserve some dignity for him. Faramir washed his lord’s hair, while the bandages soaked free and then unwound them. Some of the older wounds were revealed as partially healed, but the one on his waist started to bleed afresh, as did those on his chest and arms.

“I told you, you should have bathed first!” Aragorn said ruefully, regarding the fast reddening hue of the water.

“I have bathed in far worse,” Faramir replied, remembering his days in the army when they would draw lots for who would have the first use of the bath, a small tub much like this one. During a lull in the fighting, it would be filled with heated water and concealed behind a makeshift screen. Often when it came to his turn, the water appeared about as appealing a muddy puddle!

The Steward gently bathed Aragorn’s wounds as best he could, and then scrubbed his lord’s back and legs more vigorously. Satisfied he had done the best he could, Faramir lifted Aragorn out of the tub and wrapped him in a thick towel. “I will get you dried and ready for Éowyn and your lady to tend your wounds, then come back and have my own bath,” he said.

“You will be needed, so you had better bathe first,” Aragorn insisted, flinching despite Faramir’s best efforts not to aggravate his wounds while drying him. The white towel was now covered in scarlet blotches.

Faramir sighed inwardly, having hoped for a leisurely soak in private. However, he could hardly complain, his plight being as little compared to the King’s.

“Have no fear, I will stay for as long as you have need of me,” Faramir replied, gripping one of Aragorn’s cold hands in a gesture of reassurance. The other, where the fingers had been broken, lay limp and useless. At least, the wounds now appeared to have almost stopped bleeding. He swathed Aragorn in dry towels, grateful that Éowyn had provided sufficient. He then settled the King on a chair nearer the stove. Turning away from Aragorn, Faramir began to quickly undress, unaware that he was being scrutinized intently. He had just removed his tunic and shirt when Aragorn’s voice startled him.

“Turn around, please, and come here!”

Somewhat alarmed, Faramir hastened to do as he was bidden. “Do you feel unwell, my lord?” he enquired anxiously.

“Lift your arms!” Aragorn ordered, studying his Steward intently.

Never had Faramir expected to feel self-conscious at his lack of scars, but he did so now. He shivered uncomfortably, involuntarily recalling an unpleasant memory from his youth when his father had compared him unfavourably with Boromir.

“I needed to see if you too had been put to torment. That would have accounted for your conduct.” The King’s tone was almost disappointed.

“No man raised his hand against me. I acted of my own free will,” Faramir said quietly, unable to meet Aragorn’s gaze. “I am sorry, I had no other choice.”

“No choice, but to continue to torment me, even when no others were present?” Aragorn’s voice was like ice.

“No, my lord.” How could he ever explain that had he let the traitor’s mask slip even for a moment, he did not know if he would have had the strength to don it again?

“You reminded me very much of your father,” Aragorn said cryptically.

“I am sorry, I had no choice,” Faramir repeated. He was shivering uncontrollably now. He could make no excuses for his conduct, nor would he burden a sick man with his guilt and remorse. All that mattered now was to restore Aragorn to health and his rightful place on the throne of Gondor.

“You had better have your bath,” Aragorn said morosely. He stared fixedly at the floor and did not look up again until Faramir had finished bathing and was almost dressed again.

The Steward was just pulling on his clean shirt when Éowyn’s voice called, “How are you getting on?”

“We are almost ready,” Faramir replied, picking up his tunic.

“I will lay out my healing supplies in the bedroom,” she called back.” Bereth has changed the bed linens and laid towels across the bed in readiness. Elbeth is still playing with the cats outside. I will tell her to go with Bereth to the barn. But don’t be too long, we are waiting!”

“We are coming!” Fastening his tunic as he spoke, Faramir helped Aragorn up from the chair and they slowly made their way into the bedroom.

Arwen was waiting by the side the bed when they came through the door. She helped Faramir lay the King down with a pillow under his head. Her eyes widened at the sight of the blood stained towels covering him.

The Steward then stood back a little while Arwen sat beside her husband and clasped his hand. The fire burned high in the grate, making the room comfortably warm.

“This will only distress you, vanimelda,” Aragorn told her gently. “You are not accustomed to the hurts of mortals and how slowly our wounds heal. It would be best if you stayed in the other room with our son.”

Arwen shook her head. “Permit to stay with you, Estel, I need to know what ails you. I would help tend your wounds,” she replied. “Eldarion and Elestelle are sleeping at present.”

“Very well, you may stay for a while. Though I much prefer you did not have to see me thus!” Aragorn replied. There was a catch in his voice.

“I am your wife for good or ill!” Arwen said staunchly, stroking his hair back from his face tenderly and suddenly noticing the missing clumps. “What happened to your hair, my love?”

“Hanna found it amusing to tear out clumps of my hair and beard,” Aragorn replied bleakly.

“That is why we shaved before we came here,” Faramir added. “Hanna’s cruelty gave the King too distinctive an appearance.” He swallowed hard, remembering his first glimpse of Aragorn in the cellar.

Just then, Éowyn bustled in laden with bandages.

The King shuddered.

 “Well, let me see what I can do for you,” Éowyn said briskly. She would have pulled aside the towels without further preamble; but noticing Aragorn’s look of abject misery, Faramir interrupted.

“Let me arrange the towels first,” he suggested.

Éowyn nodded and stood back, busying herself at the bedside table with her back to the King. Faramir wound one of the towels around Aragorn’s hips in attempt to preserve some shreds of dignity for him. He removed the others.

The women cried out in dismay. Faramir moved to comfort his wife. Truth to tell, the sight of Aragorn’s wounds still sickened him, though he knew he should have become accustomed by now. How could the Valar have permitted such a good and gracious man to be used so ill?

Arwen gazed in dismay at the harrowing sight of her husband’s maimed and wasted frame, taking in everything from the wounds on his wrists and ankles, his swollen hands and feet to the brand on his shoulder and raw wounds on his chest, inner arms and belly. Bruises of various hues covered almost every inch of his body. “Whatever did they do to you, Estel?” she whispered, her voice cracked with anguish.

“Each time I refused to sign a document authorising the marriage of our son and Elbeth, they took a patch of skin from me,” Aragorn told her, his eyes full of sorrow at causing her such pain. Shaking, he fought against the urge to defensively cross his arms to hide his disfigured body. The brand stood out livid against his skin

Faramir stared at the floor unable to meet their eyes.

Aragorn steeled himself to look at his wife; afraid he would see revulsion in her usually loving eyes. She did not usually see him thus uncovered, even when he was healthy. In the past, she had constantly reassured him that she was not disappointed by his lack of Elven perfection. Yet how could her beauty stomach such ugliness as now marred him?

Chapter Forty-Seven – By no means a privilege

Suffering is by no means a privilege, a sign of nobility, a reminder of God. Suffering is a fierce, bestial thing, commonplace, uncalled for, natural as air. It is intangible; no one can grasp it or fight against it; it dwells in time—is the same thing as time; if it comes in fits and starts, that is only so as to leave the sufferer more defenceless during the moments that follow, those long moments when one relives the last bout of torture and waits for the next. - Cesare Pavese (1908–1950)- The Burning Brand: Diaries 1935-1950

Arwen swallowed hard. She found herself recalling the day when her brothers had brought her mother home, after she had been captured and tortured by Orcs. Her father had not wanted her to see her mother’s wounds, but Celebrian had clung limpet- like to her daughter’s hand and refused to be parted from her. Arwen, who was devoted to her mother, had been determined to stay by her side throughout the long agonising hours while Elrond had cleaned and stitched the countless wounds that had covered Celebrian’s defenceless body.

Such abuse had been too much for her mother’s gentle spirit to endure and she had sailed the following year to seek healing in the Undying Lands. Arwen had wanted to accompany her, but her grandmother had urged her to remain, explaining that her foresight indicated that her granddaughter’s destiny lay within Middle earth.

For many years, Arwen’s dearest wish had been to go to Valinor and see her mother again. Then, she had met Estel and everything changed. She could only hope that her beloved mother would understand. She had written many letters for her father to take when he sailed trying to explain her choice to Celebrian.

The sight of Aragorn’s ravaged flesh brought back many cruel memories of her mother’s ordeal. Her father, the greatest of Healers was not here to tend her husband’s wounds. Estel could not seek sanctuary in the West. He, a frail mortal was dependent entirely upon the three of them in this room, one of whom had helped cause his hurts. ‘How can men do such things to each other?’ she wondered. Orcs were by nature the creatures of darkness, but Men, like Elves, were the children of Ilúvatar. Anger surged within her. How she wanted to strike Faramir and make him experience some of the pain that Estel was enduring! Yet, were it not for Faramir, Estel would be dead. She forced herself to restrain her emotions and concentrate on her husband. Arwen looked directly into her husband’s eyes. There was no revulsion in her compassionate gaze, only love mixed with sorrow. She pressed a loving kiss on his bruised cheek. Her eyes then hardened as she exclaimed, “How can they call themselves Men, who did this to you, my love? They are foul as Sauron’s minions!” She looked at Faramir, who flushed uncomfortably.

Éowyn quickly mastered her shock at the sight of the King’s pitifully abused body and began to examine the wounds. She was surprisingly gentle much to Aragorn’s relief. It seemed that motherhood had softened her a great deal. ”Can you turn on your side?” she asked Aragorn.

Slowly and painfully, he complied.

“However did you get so many bruises?” she asked in horror, taking in the half healed welts on his back and the vast array of bruises on his shoulders and the back of his legs. “You can lie on your back again now,” she told him; having satisfied herself that there were no open wounds there needing her immediate attention.

“Some were inflicted when they punched me, the rest when I was dragged up and down steps and across a stone floor,” he replied, groaning as he turned over again. He tried not to cry out as Éowyn prodded his ribs

Arwen shuddered. It seemed there was still a great deal she did not yet know.

“These wounds are serious, but most of them are mending. Faramir has tended you well,” Éowyn pronounced at the conclusion of her examination. “The most severe need stitching. The remainder should heal with salves, rest, and good food, which you have obviously sorely lacked. Does comfrey and calendula salve meet with your approval? I will give you rosehip tea to drink too. You have several cracked ribs, but as far as I can tell there is no damage inside.”

Aragorn nodded and managed a weak smile. “A good choice that is what I would use myself. The deepest wounds had started to heal. Riding opened them again.”

“I will stitch them,” said Arwen. ”I can put my skills with a needle to good use.”

Aragorn was astonished at his wife’s courage. Experienced healer though he was, he never found it easy to stitch the wounds of his loved ones. He shivered again, both with humiliation at being laid out before them thus, and the prospect of his impending ordeal.

“Can you tend his ankles, Éowyn?” asked Arwen, sensing his discomfort. “Then we can at least partially cover him.”

Éowyn swiftly applied salve and bandaged Aragorn’s raw ankles and swollen feet, made worse by having to wear boots so soon after his ordeal. She then applied more ointment to the bruises on his legs.

Faramir had fetched a blanket as soon as Arwen made her suggestion. He made to cover the King when Arwen replaced the pot of salve on the bedside table.

“Are you concealing any wounds under that towel?” Éowyn asked the King bluntly, waving her husband aside.

“No,” Aragorn said firmly, fearing his humiliation would have no limits today. How he wished someone like Aedred were here, a male Healer, who would see him as just another patient.

“Are you certain?” Éowyn persisted, making as if to take the towel away.

“He had some bruised and reddened skin,” Faramir interjected. “It is almost healed, though. I treated it with some salve that Tarostar gave me. It smells like what you use for Elestelle’s napkin rash.”

Aragorn wished the ground would swallow him, that he, High King of Gondor and Arnor should be the subject of a discussion concerning napkin rash in front of two women and his treacherous Steward.

Éowyn was unable to repress a smile at the thought of the King suffering from such a childish ailment. “Very well,” she said. “ But be sure to tell me at once if gets worse.”

When Faramir finally tucked the blanket round him, Aragorn felt absurdly grateful. At least, he no longer felt so exposed and his legs and feet felt much warmer. Since his ordeal, he was always so very cold. He looked up to smile at his wife, but she was preoccupied in holding a needle in a candle flame, preparing to stitch his wounds.

“I will be as gentle as I can,” Arwen promised her husband.

Aragorn tensed, when she prepared to insert the needle in his arm, not wanting her to see just how much he was hurting. Courageous though he was, the last weeks had left him apprehensive at the prospect of yet more pain.

Faramir yearned to offer some reassurance to his lord but knew it would not be welcomed. His eyes met Éowyn’s. She moved to sit on the bed and wordlessly offered her hand to the King, who grasped it, grateful for the proffered comfort.

Arwen took a deep breath to steady herself, before drawing together the damaged skin and carefully stitching the wounds under her husband’s arm and elbow closed. She then repeated the procedure with the open wound on his chest.

Aragorn made no sound and tensed only slightly. If Arwen’s ministrations were causing him pain, he was obviously determined not to show it.

When she came to the wound on his waist, she paused. It covered quite a large area and looked inflamed and slightly infected. She looked questioningly at her husband and then at Éowyn.

“It chafed badly from having to be held on Roheryn’s back,” Aragorn explained tersely. “I think stitching it now would cause more harm than good. There is not enough skin to close it.”

“I will simply bandage it and apply salves,” said Éowyn. “Why did they take the skin from there, I wonder?”

“To make every movement painful and break my will. They did not succeed.” A flicker of Aragorn’s former majesty was briefly visible in his features. “Sooner would I die than betray my wife and son!”

“I know you would, Estel!” Arwen tightly held her husband’s hand while Éowyn applied the stinging salves and bound up the gaping wound. The strong mental bond between them meant she could sense his pain almost as if it were here own.

“I’m sorry, I know I must be hurting you!” Éowyn apologised, noting Aragorn’s ashen and drawn features. She briskly wound bandages around Aragorn’s chest, arms and middle and then pulled the blankets over him to keep him warm.

As if somehow sensing his parents’ distress, Eldarion started to cry loudly in the next room, uttering high-pitched wails of misery.

“Our son needs you,” Aragorn urged his wife gently. “Go to him!”

Arwen hesitated. The wailing grew louder.

“Please, Arwen, go to our son! Éowyn can finish tending my wounds now.” Aragorn’s voice was barely audible above the cacophony.

“Are you certain?” Arwen’s strong maternal instincts decreed that she soothe her child. Yet, how could she leave her husband at such a time?

“I cannot bear to hear him cry so! Take him for a walk in the garden to calm him,” Aragorn suggested.

“I will return if you need me, Estel, you only need to call,” Arwen replied, tenderly kissing her husband and hastening from the room.

“I should have given you poppy juice before tending you, I am sorry!” Éowyn apologised.

“I wanted to leave that for the worst part,” Aragorn said quietly, “That is why I did not want Arwen to stay.”

“What else ails you?” Éowyn asked in alarm.

Aragorn took a deep breath; he had been dreading this moment for some time now. “The bones in my hand need resetting,” he said simply, holding out the damaged left hand for Éowyn’s inspection.

Éowyn took the damaged hand and cradled it between her own smaller ones as she studied it. All the digits had been broken. The smallest finger and the thumb were healing well, but the first three fingers had not been set correctly and had knit at an odd angle, rendering them virtually useless.

“When Faramir found me, they had already started knitting. It was too late for him to do anything,” Aragorn explained. “I need you to break the fingers again and reset them.”

Éowyn paled. “I cannot!” she exclaimed. “One of the Healers in the city will have to do it!”

Aragorn shook his head sadly. “How could I get to the City, or you bring a Healer here without betraying our whereabouts?” he asked.

“Damrod then?” Éowyn suggested desperately, “He will come to visit us here soon. I know he has experience of tending the wounded.”

“He has not been trained like you. This needs doing quickly and skilfully before it is too late for the bones to heal properly. What use would a one handed King be to his people! Please, Éowyn, I beg of you!”

Éowyn shook her head vehemently. “Aragorn, I cannot hurt you so! Do not ask this of me!” She shuddered, bitterly recalling the ironic fact that but a year ago, she would have carried out the task with grim relish; she had hated him so. So much had happened since then; not least, that he had saved her baby and Faramir too. Once, it had bewildered her why Faramir and her brother loved Aragorn so much. Now she understood and shared their love and admiration for this man. She looked again at his mangled hand and fury blazed within her that anyone could maim one of the very hands he had used to save her child! Her eyes met Faramir’s across the bedside. His gaze was filled with a pain equal to her own. Her eyes briefly lingered on the brand defacing Aragorn’s shoulder and at that moment, she understood his torment.

“Éowyn, listen to me!” Aragorn said firmly, mustering his meagre reserves of strength, “You will harm me more if you will not to this! If you give me some poppy juice, it should not be too painful if you work quickly.”

Éowyn bowed her head and carefully felt the damaged joints. She knew exactly where the bones needed to be snapped and then splinted back in the correct position. A painful procedure, but one she had been trained to carry out correctly. She had successfully done so before on a servant who had delayed seeking help for a broken finger. It was very different, though when a dear friend was involved; a friend who was already in a great deal of pain.

“I know it is hard for you,” Aragorn said quietly, “I had difficulty tending Faramir when he was so badly injured last year. On one occasion, Aedred had to take out the stitches and drain the wound on his arm, because I could not. Alas, there is no one else to call upon now but you!”

Chapter Forty-Eight - The love that reassembles

Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. - Derek Walcott (b. 1930)

Éowyn sighed resignedly. She gave a reluctant nod. “Very well, I will do as you ask,” she said. “You must tell me, though, if the pain is too great to bear. I will go and mix some poppy juice for you.”

“You are planning to do it?” Faramir asked in horror, as his wife made to leave the room.

“I don’t want to, but it seems that I have no choice. Aragorn could lose the use of his hand if it is not set properly,” Éowyn replied sadly.

“I need you here too, Faramir,” Aragorn said after Éowyn had left. “Someone must hold me down and I would not have Arwen witness this.”

“I will not leave you,” was all Faramir could bring himself to say. The prospect of seeing the King hurt again was almost more than he could bear.

Éowyn swiftly returned with a cup containing the opiate. She raised it to Aragorn’s lips for him to swallow. She then rummaged in a cupboard and brought out one of Faramir’s nightshirts. “I think you will be more comfortable wearing this,” she said, somewhat surprising both men. Usually Éowyn found their insistence on wearing the garments at all times in bed somewhat hilarious and was wont to tease her husband mercilessly. Offering a nightshirt to Aragorn now, was her way of trying to comfort to the King whom she had come to care for as a dear brother.

“You must wear nothing but this while your wounds heal. You will have stay quietly in bed to recover your strength for a while,” Éowyn said briskly. “I am going now to ask Arwen to stay in the garden to care for Elbeth and the babies while I set your hand.”

As soon as she had left, Faramir helped Aragorn don the nightshirt. He then pulled the covers over him. The King already looked pale and exhausted. The Steward feared that the bone setting would prove a cruel ordeal. Apart from a brief word of thanks, Aragorn said nothing. Desperate for something to do to distract himself, Faramir carefully folded up the towels the King had been lying upon.

Aragorn lay back against the pillows, trying to calm himself while waiting for the poppy juice to take effect. He knew that setting the bones would be a very painful ordeal, especially since Éowyn had very little experience in the procedure. He was no coward, but these past weeks had already had more pain inflicted upon his body than he had ever believed he could endure.

Faramir, unable to find anything else to occupy himself with, sat beside him in silence. He felt woefully inadequate. He would gladly bear Aragorn’s pain for him, yet he could not even comfort him. The King had tended his wounds many times, and had always displayed great skill combined with compassion, tenderness and reassurance. Now Faramir could do nothing save hope his wife’s skills would prove equal to the task and assist her as best he could. Instinctively, he reached for Aragorn’s good hand in a gesture of comfort. Too wretched to pull away, the King accepted the gesture, albeit reluctantly.

Éowyn returned a few minutes later to check the pupils of her patient’s eyes. They were dilated, a sign that the poppy juice was working as it should.

Her features set determinedly, she gathered together the bandages and splints she would need, together with a supply of rather sad looking comfrey leaves she had garnered freshly from the herb garden.

“Are you ready?” she asked, “I shall set all three now together. I think that easiest for us all.”

“I am,” Aragorn’s resolute tone was belied by his pallor and the beads of sweat glistening on his brow.

Éowyn checked his pulse. She nodded to Faramir to hold Aragorn securely so that the King could not jerk away involuntarily if the pain became too great.

Sweat dripping from his own brow, Faramir sat on the side of the bed and pinioned Aragorn’s arms against the mattress. He felt as if he were back in that dreadful cellar, preparing to torture his King; even though it was entirely for his own good this time.

Éowyn took a deep breath and firmly grasped the first and most grotesquely angled of the damaged fingers. It was still tender. Aragorn flinched when she probed it, feeling for the exact location of the fracture. Forcing herself to imagine that she was about to snap a twig rather than a finger, Éowyn braced herself. “Are you ready?” she asked.

“Yes,” Aragorn replied determinedly.

“You are certain you want me to do this?” There was a hint of pleading in Éowyn’s tone.

“I am certain. Do it quickly, I beg of you not to stop however I react!”

Faramir looked at his wife, trying to will her the strength to do what she must. Éowyn gritted her teeth, and with all her might, snapped the King's finger. Aragorn gave a strangled cry, but made no attempt to break free of Faramir’s restraining grasp. The Steward had to look away, unable to bear the contortions of pain in his lord’s features. Éowyn took another deep breath and then turned her attention to the second finger. It proved much harder to set; and she had to make several attempts before she succeeded. Aragorn could no longer now bite back his cries of pain.

The third finger caused even more woe, as it was broken in more than one place. Éowyn had the training and skill for the task, but lacked the experience needed and struggled to snap the bone. She wished the King would faint to make the task easier for them both. By now, Aragorn was screaming in agony. Éowyn was only able to continue by thinking of what she would like to do to the man who had originally crushed his fingers.

“All done!” she said last in a choked tone. “There is just the splinting now.”

Faramir released Aragorn, who fell back limply against the pillows. He had passed the limits of his endurance. The King of Gondor and Arnor burst into tears and his frail body heaved with convulsive sobbing. Faramir gathered his lord in his arms and held him, gently rubbing his back and murmuring words of comfort while Éowyn pressed the bones back into place, then wrapped comfrey leaves around the fractures. Finally, she carefully splinted and bandaged each finger, forcing herself to concentrate and maintain her composure.

Eventually, the almost unconscious King went limp. Faramir gently lowered him onto the pillows before taking a cloth and wiping Aragorn’s sweat and tear stained face. He then tenderly kissed his forehead.

When he straightened up and moved away from the bedside, Éowyn could see that her husband had been weeping. “I will fetch Arwen now,” she said quietly, “You need to rest, we both do.” She bent and kissed Aragorn’s uninjured hand, whispering, “I am sorry!”

Éowyn’s stomach rebelled before she could fetch the Queen. A wave of uncontrollable nausea hit her; forcing her to make a detour to the privy, where she lost the breakfast she had eaten earlier.

Faramir busied himself tidying up the room and straightening the covers while he waited for the Queen. He could only hope fervently that Éowyn’s intervention had not come too late and Aragorn ‘s pain would not be for nothing. The King moaned softly and shifted uneasily in the bed as he regained consciousness. “Is the pain very bad, my lord?” Faramir asked anxiously.

“A little… it will pass…glad it is over…” Aragorn whispered. “Arwen?”

“Éowyn has gone for the Queen,” Faramir reassured him. “You should have allowed your lady to stay.”

“I did not want her to be distressed, or angered at Éowyn. Arwen is used to seeing only the best, the most skilful of healers, at work. It had to be done. You understand?” Aragorn said after a pause to compose himself. “Alas, that I am such a coward!”

“You are the bravest man I know!” Faramir reassured him He wondered how anyone could endure weeks of such torment without being driven completely insane. Spending a few hours in prison had almost destroyed him a few months before. “Rest now,” he soothed.

A few minutes later, an anxious Arwen re-entered the room, clutching Eldarion in her arms.

Faramir immediately rose to his feet.

“How is Estel?” she demanded, “Éowyn told me that resetting his hand was a great ordeal for him.”

“It was, but it is over now, my lady. I will take my leave,” Faramir said, casting one last anxious glance at the King before he left the room. Aragorn appeared to finally have fallen asleep.

After settling her sleeping child in the cradle at the foot of the bed, Arwen sat beside her husband, lovingly stroking his face and using all her Elven skills to soothe the pain she sensed in his body and soul. ‘How could my strong, handsome Estel have been reduced to this broken shell of his former self?’ she wondered sadly, trying to pour some of the strength of the Eldar into his frail mortal body.

“Arwen?” His grey eyes flickered open.

“I am here, beloved.”

“Stay with me, please!” he whispered.

“I will never leave you.” Arwen unbound her hair, then unfastened her outer gown and stepped out of it, leaving her clad only in her thin shift. She draped the gown over the bedside chair then climbed into bed beside her husband, careful not to aggravate his wounds. Gently she kissed his face and stroked his pitifully thin body. Éowyn had warned her that he was seriously ill, weeks of starvation and ill treatment having taken their toll. Only time would tell, whether or not there was any damage inside and how well he would heal. It was a miracle that Faramir had managed to bring him back here alive.

“I love you so much!” she whispered.

“I love you too; but what manner of a husband now can I be to you?” Aragorn lamented.

“You are still the man I love, the man to whom I have given my heart!” Arwen assured him, tenderly kissing his lips. Her soft tresses brushed across his face and her perfume had never smelled sweeter.

Reassured by her nearness and tender caresses, Aragorn slept, his pain and distress soothed by his wife’s loving hands.

**

Faramir found Éowyn stretched out upon the sofa, her head buried in a cushion to stifle her sobs. He sat down beside her and drew her close.

“Oh, Faramir, it was so hideous having to hurt him so much, and after all I could see he already endured!” she sobbed.

“You understand now,.” Faramir said sadly, “When I had to brand him, or betray my true loyalties, I felt my heart breaking! If you could but have seen the look in his eyes, the hurt and betrayal!”

They clung to each other for mutual comfort. Éowyn knew now just how much it had cost Faramir to raise his hand against the King.

They had just started to exchange a comforting embrace when Elbeth interrupted them. Hastily, they pulled apart.

“The kittens won’t play any more and are hiding from me!” she complained.

“That is because they are young and need plenty of sleep just like a baby does,” Faramir explained, gesturing towards Elestelle’s cradle.

“Where is Strider?” Elbeth asked.

“He is resting now with the Queen,” Éowyn told her.

“Why couldn’t I stay with him and Uncle Faramir last night?” Elbeth demanded. “I didn’t like being alone in the kitchen!”

“You are not camping in the woods any longer. You must remember now that you are a Lady of Gondor, a daughter of the House of Húrin,” Éowyn told her. “Tonight, you can stay with me and the Queen if she agrees.”

“I don’t like being a Lady of Gondor,” Elbeth pouted, “I’m bored!”

“You can help me with the washing, then!” Éowyn said, getting to her feet, hastily wiping her face with her apron.

“I will see to the horses,” Faramir volunteered.

“I have fed them but they need grooming and exercising,” Éowyn replied.

“That sounds more fun than washing clothes!” Elbeth protested.

“Washing can be fun, let me show you!” Éowyn said firmly, sensing that Faramir needed to be alone for a while.

The Steward made his way to the stables and entered Zachus’ stall. He picked up a brush, but instead of grooming the large bay, he buried his head against his massive neck, overwhelmed with his fears for Aragorn. Could the King ever recover from such an ordeal and be whole again? His own future was bleak whatever happened. However, his beloved Gondor might yet flourish, but that could only happen if her rightful King ruled her

 Chapter Forty Nine – A little child shall lead them

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. Isaiah 11. 6 - The Bible

Éowyn tried her best to teach Elbeth how to use a dolly peg. However, her mind was not fully engaged with the task. She was far too worried about Aragorn. This was not the first she had seen the King wounded and feverish. At the Hunting Lodge, though, his ordeal had been of a short duration. Aided by his Númenorean strength, he had quickly recovered his health and spirits.

This time was very different, for he seemed to be as broken in spirit, as in body. How Éowyn wished she could send for a more skilled and experienced Healer to tend the King’s hurts. She had never been trained for anything like this; only the usual minor accidents and fevers, which most households could expect to befall them. Her main expertise was in women’s needs, especially bringing babies into the world.

Then there was the pain, fear and distrust in Aragorn’s eyes when he looked at Faramir, which Éowyn felt was another obstacle to the King’s recovery. She had seen how the bond between them had sustained him before. He did have the advantage of his beloved Queen at his side, but Éowyn wondered if he venerated her so much that he might try to shield her from the pain he felt.

She was worried too about her husband too. He had changed so much since he had set out on this mission. There was a new hardness and darkness about him. It were as if he had lost an inner innocence, which had been part of him before. She had witnessed similar occurrences many times in her life, in men who had seen and done terrible things during time of war. Faramir had been a brave soldier and respected Captain, who had managed to somehow keep his integrity throughout the horrors of battle. Now, the look in eyes, suggested that he had lost the honour that he held most dear. Faramir had indeed committed a grievous deed against his liege lord, however necessary it had been to save him. Éowyn believed Aragorn to be merciful. After all, he had pardoned her for raising his own sword against him, for far less reason. However, she had not actually struck a blow, as had Faramir. Nor had she been Aragorn’s closest, most trusted and best-loved friend.

She knew too, that Faramir’s soul was most likely as wounded as Aragorn’s body and far more deeply than she could ever hope to understand. She found the intensity of both Elvish and Númenorean emotional bonds both bewildering and sometimes alarming. She sincerely hoped that Elestelle would take after her, rather than Faramir in that respect, though already she suspected a fey quality in the child.

“I’m bored!” announced Elbeth, breaking into her troubled thoughts.

“Have you turned the dolly peg a hundred times yet?” Éowyn asked, wringing out a shirt, preparatory to hanging it out to dry.

“Yes and it boring!” Elbeth protested. “I want to help look after Strider!”

“Well, you can’t!” Éowyn snapped. As if she hadn’t enough troubles, without having to look after this infuriating child!

“Why not?” Elbeth demanded.

“Because there are plenty of grown ups to look after him now,” Éowyn told her. “Little girls do not look after sick men!”

Elbeth promptly burst into tears.

Somewhat ashamed of her harshness, for after all it was hardly the child’s fault that Faramir had felt obliged to bring her here; Éowyn rather awkwardly reached out towards the little girl. Elbeth recoiled, as if expecting to be struck. “Go and see if Uncle Faramir wants any help with the horses,” she said more gently, thinking her husband had had sufficient time alone with his thoughts. “Ask him to show you, my Windfola. He is a fine horse and he likes being made a fuss of. When I have more time, we will take him an apple and you shall make friends with him.”

Elbeth scuttled away, glad to escape.

Éowyn doggedly continued washing Aragorn and Faramir’s clothes, as well as the sheets that had been on the bed. She was just about to start on a dozen or so babies’ napkins when Bereth came in.

“May I help you, my lady?” she asked.

“Do we have anything to make a nourishing broth for my friend’s husband?” Éowyn enquired.

“I could kill a chicken and make him broth as well as a meal for us all,” Bereth replied.

“Thank, you, you are a good friend to us,” Éowyn said, smiling at the woman gratefully.

“I think I know who he is,” Bereth said quietly, “I will not endanger him, though, by speaking his name aloud. I shall say only, that it is a great honour to serve a man, such as him.”

“If all were as loyal to him as you and your brother, Bereth, our lord would be blessed indeed!” Éowyn replied. “I am certain that if he is able, he will reward you handsomely one day.”

“I desire no reward save that of serving my King!” the young widow replied, her eyes alight with devotion.

Glad to have some help with the cooking, Éowyn returned her attention to the washing. As a Princess of Rohan and of Ithilien, she had never had to do the household laundry herself. She vowed inwardly to appreciate her servants more in future, if she were ever returned to her former status.

A few hours later, the washing was hanging out to dry and Bereth almost had the meal ready. Elbeth had found a kitten to cuddle contentedly. Faramir had returned with his niece from the stables looking somewhat calmer. He had been singing her a song about bathing that he had learned from Pippin. The song had kept Elbeth entertained her until the mother cat had reappeared with her kittens.

Éowyn went to see how the King was faring. She found him apparently asleep, cradled in Arwen’s protective arms. “I have come to tell you that our meal is ready,” she told the Queen. “How is Aragorn?”

“A little more comfortable, I think,” Arwen replied.

“I will fetch some broth for him,” said Éowyn.

“I am not hungry,” Aragorn mumbled, without opening his eyes. The effort to wake up seemed too great. His whole body throbbed with pain and he sought to return to the merciful oblivion of sleep. “A drink will suffice.”

“You need to eat to restore your strength, beloved,” Arwen said gently, holding a cup of water on the bedside table to his lips. “I will get you some food.”

Once he had drained the cup, she put it down and climbed out of bed. As she was donning her gown, Eldarion woke up and started to cry. His mother took him from his cradle and realised at once that he needed changing and feeding.

“I will feed Aragorn while you tend Eldarion and have something to eat yourself,” Éowyn volunteered.

“Thank you,” Arwen said gratefully.

“Send Faramir to me, I need to get out of bed,” said Aragorn.

The Queen took Eldarion into the other room to change him, while Éowyn sent her husband to attend the King.

“Can I see Strider?” Elbeth asked, interrupting Éowyn as she filled a bowl with broth.

“Later, maybe,” Éowyn replied. “Finish your dinner now!”

“But I want to see Strider!” Elbeth grumbled.

“You cannot always have what you want!” Éowyn retorted. She feared this child was going to be far too much like what she knew about her supposed sire. She had only met Boromir twice. She had not much liked him, considering him arrogant and overbearing. She had later learned that that was the fault of his over indulgent father. It baffled her why Denethor had so preferred the elder of his sons, to the extent that it was still sometimes hard to convince Faramir that he was not inferior to his dead brother. She told him repeatedly that he was the greatest of his family, having staunchly resisted both the Ring and Sauron’s evil snares unlike his elder brother. Not only was Elbeth a probable scion of the flawed elder son of the House of Húrin: even worst her mother was little better than a crazed and evil whore.

Éowyn entered with a tray, containing bowls of chicken broth and stewed fruit, just as Faramir was tucking the covers around Aragorn again.

“You go and eat now,” she told her husband, placing the tray on the bedside table.

“I will be in the kitchen if you need me,” Faramir said. He went out, leaving the bedroom door ajar.

Éowyn settled herself on the side of the bed and dipped the spoon in the chicken broth. “I have some nice broth for you,” she said encouragingly, raising the spoon to Aragorn’s lips.

“I am not hungry,” Aragorn said morosely. He clamped his mouth shut.

“You must eat,” Éowyn insisted.

“Does my word count for nothing any longer?” Aragorn demanded. “I want to rest and I want Arwen!”

“She will return soon,” Éowyn replied, “Your son needs her care too. Now you must eat, open your mouth!”

“I am not hungry!” Aragorn parted his lips just long enough to get the words out. “And I am weary of being treated like a child!”

“Do not act like one, then!” Éowyn retorted, anxiety making her less than patient. “Open your mouth and let me feed you!”

“Let me try!” Elbeth had appeared in the open doorway. At that moment, Elestelle decided that she was hungry and started to cry demandingly. Exhausted after the morning’s exertions, and trying to cope with the demands of so many, Éowyn’s patience finally snapped completely. “Didn’t I tell you to stay in the kitchen and eat your dinner, Elbeth?” she snapped, “And you, Aragorn, are going to eat yours, even if I have to sit here all day!”

“Let her try!” Faramir’s quietly commanding voice was barely audible over the cacophony. “She has finished her own meal.”

Ignoring the adults, Elbeth clambered up on the bed and kissed Aragorn’s forehead affectionately. “I missed you, Strider,” she said. “They wouldn’t let me see you!”

“I missed you too, Elbeth!” Aragorn managed to smile at the little girl’s obvious pleasure in seeing him.

“I’ve found some kittens to play with, I’ll bring them to show you,” Elbeth prattled cheerfully.

“Come!” Faramir took his wife’s arm and guided her from the room.

A little later, once Elestelle was quieted, Éowyn dared put her head round the door again and was met by the sight of Elbeth spooning food into Aragorn’s mouth, which he was devouring obediently. “I would never have believed it!” she remarked to Faramir, who had appeared at her side.

“Elbeth has a bond with Aragorn and he trusts her,” Faramir explained somewhat wistfully.

The dishes emptied, Elbeth put down the spoon. “I will fetch the kittens to show you now, Strider,” she announced.

Aragorn smiled.

“They will get muddy paw prints over the bedcovers!” Éowyn fretted.

“We can cover the bed with an old towel,” Faramir suggested.

Soon afterwards, three inquisitive kittens were exploring the counterpane and chasing some chicken feathers, which Éowyn had tied on a string. Aragorn was chuckling slightly at their antics. When the kittens tired and fell asleep, followed soon after by the King, Éowyn called Elbeth to her side. “I am sorry that I was so ill tempered earlier,” she said.

“I’m used to grown ups being cross, “ the little girl replied without rancour.

Éowyn impulsively hugged her, realising that this child represented all that was good and warm hearted about the House of Húrin. “ I have a very important job for you from now on,” she said.

“What is it? Doing the washing is boring!” Elbeth asked suspiciously.

Éowyn laughed. “No, you are far to valuable to waste on scrubbing laundry!” she said. “I want you to help me look after the King.”

“That’s not a job!” Elbeth replied joyfully. “It’s fun helping Strider because he’s my friend!”

***

As the days passed, Aragorn gradually grew a little stronger and was able to get out of bed unassisted.

Faramir’s back was now much better too, so Arwen was able to sleep beside her husband at night. During the day, they took it in turns to sit with him. He seemed to especially enjoy Elbeth’s company and had told her stories of his youth.

Arwen, Faramir and Éowyn were still very worried however. Although the King’s body was healing, he was still morose and withdrawn. Only Elbeth seemed to have the ability to raise the occasional smile from his lips, though it never quite seemed to reach his haunted grey eyes.

That night, Faramir and Éowyn had settled to sleep on the couch and were slumbering peacefully, as was Elbeth by the stove in the kitchen. They were awoken with a start at the sound of a woman’s scream, which appeared to be coming from the bedroom.

Grabbing a candle, they rushed in to find a highly distressed Arwen struggling with her husband who was shouting, ”No! Let me be, no!”

Chapter Fifty - Come weep with me, past hope, past cure

Come weep with me, past hope, past cure, past help! - Shakespeare (1564–1616), Romeo and Juliet, act 4, sc. 1

It was as well that they had brought a candle to illuminate the otherwise pitch-blackness of the room. It revealed a disturbing scene. Aragorn was lashing out wildly, striking at Arwen, and resisting her increasingly futile attempts to restrain him. Despite his weakened condition, he was still able to land a blow with considerable force.

Faramir immediately realised that Aragorn was suffering from a nightmares. They had plagued him constantly since his ordeal. The darkness of the room had most likely caused it. Aragorn had wanted lights to be kept burning at all times since he had rescued him. The Steward placed the candle on the table, so that the bed was illuminated, then hastily averted his eyes from the Queen, who was clad only in her nightgown.

“No, Estel, please!” Arwen begged. “Be at peace, it is I, your wife!”

Hearing the distress in his mother’s voice, Eldarion started to cry, adding to the commotion.

“Come, Arwen! He is not himself,” Éowyn coaxed, gently pulling her away. The Queen suddenly snatched up Eldarion and fled sobbing from the room. Éowyn followed her.

Faramir gripped Aragorn’s arms firmly. The King continued to struggle and lash out wildly, all the while staring vacantly with unseeing eyes. “Easy, my lord! You are safe now.” Faramir said firmly, gently shaking the King as he spoke. “Éowyn, can you bring more candles, please?” he called to her through the open door. Aragorn’s struggles had grown less but he still writhed and moaned as if reliving some dark horrors in his mind.

Éowyn rushed in with several candles and placed them all on the table, flooding the room with light. “How is he?” she asked.

“I cannot wake him,” Faramir sighed.

Unnoticed by the adults, Elbeth had left her makeshift bed by the fire and followed Éowyn. The little girl joined Faramir beside Aragorn. “Strider!” she called, “Wake up, it’s me, Elbeth!”

“Wake up, sire!” Faramir continued to call, glad of Elbeth’s presence, yet feeling guilty that a child should be allowed to witness this.

Aragorn blinked and suddenly focused on his companions, looking extremely confused. “What happened?” he asked. “Where is Arwen?”

“In the kitchen. You accidentally struck her,” Éowyn said bluntly. “I must go to her. She is somewhat distressed.” She left the room, closing the door behind her.

“You were having a nightmare,” Faramir explained quietly.

“Nightmares scare me too,” Elbeth said comfortingly. “Was a monster chasing you? I once dreamed that and it was horrid!”

“I struck my wife?” Aragorn ‘s tone was bleak. “If so, then I am the monster!”

“You did not mean to. You were unaware of what you were doing,” Faramir soothed. He gently rubbed the King’s back. He could feel him trembling beneath the thin nightshirt he wore.

“How could I? What have I done? My beloved Arwen!” Aragorn suddenly burst into tears. The convulsive sobs racked his emaciated body. It almost broke Faramir’s heart to witness such a strong man brought so low. The Steward sat on the side of the bed beside his lord and impulsively placed his arm around the Aragorn’s shoulders. The bond between them was still strong enough for him to keenly sense the King’s distress.

Aragorn buried his head against Faramir’s shoulder. Despite everything that his Steward had done, he accepted whatever meagre comfort he could now offer. Faramir might well be a traitor, but he had become the lowest of the low, a man who beat his wife, and not just any wife, but the glorious Evenstar of her people, who had forsworn immortality to remain at his side. He had failed, not only as a King but also as a Man. He had raised his hand against the woman he had sworn always to love and cherish.

Elbeth joined them, wrapping her own small arms protectively around the distressed King.

***

Head bowed, the Queen sank down heavily on a chair, clutching Eldarion fiercely to her. The baby had stopped crying but tears still ran down his mother’s cheeks.

“Look at me Arwen!” Éowyn said, gently but firmly. Arwen reluctantly looked up. Only then did her friend notice the ugly red mark that disfigured the Queen’s pale cheek.

“What has happened to my husband?” Arwen whispered, as much to herself as to Éowyn. “He was always so kind, so gentle, so patient…” her voice trailed away.

“You are the most loving and devoted couple I have ever known,” said Éowyn, hoping to keep her friend talking.

“When we were first married he was so afraid of hurting me,” Arwen said wistfully, “We both felt terrified on the night of our marriage. The imprisoning walls of stone with servants’ lurking behind every door made it very difficult. My grandmother soon noticed the next morning that I looked less than a radiant bride. She suggested that we take our blankets to a secluded spot in the garden where we could see the stars the next night. Estel was so loving, so tender to me. He told me of Faramir’s vision of our line stretching through countless generations. I knew then our union would be a blessed and fruitful one. We have been so happy together until today. I never thought that he would raise his hand against me, never!”

“What happened?” Éowyn asked gently, putting her arm around her friend. The beautiful Elf was shivering. Éowyn fetched a blanket from the couch in the next room and tucked it around her.

“Eldarion woke up and needed feeding, which I did. When he was finished, I settled him back in his cradle, then blew out the candle, and settled down to sleep again. The next thing I knew, Estel was lashing out and shouting at me to go away! It was so unlike him. Does he no longer love me?”

“Never think that, Arwen!” Éowyn said firmly, “I see it in his eyes every time he looks at you, how much he adores you. I am sure there must be an explanation. He might have accidentally caught you with the splints on his injured hand, perhaps? Now, I am going to make some tea. I think we all need a cup!”

After giving the Queen a comforting hug, she busied herself with the cups, then looked through her jars of herbs, wondering what might best ease the troubled King and Queen. As soon as the water had boiled, she stirred some calming herbs into the brew and coaxed Arwen to drink. Gradually, colour returned to the Queen’s ashen features and she regained some of her usual placid composure.

“Thank you,” she said. ”Please could you hold Eldarion, Éowyn, while I wash my face? I must return to Estel.”

***

Aragorn’s weeping had gradually subsided to the occasional choked sob. Faramir still held him, while Elbeth sat snuggled beside him trying to divert him with a story about how she had been unable to find her kitten until Bereth had shown her it to her, curled up asleep in the barn with its mother and brothers and sisters.

Éowyn entered the room, bearing two cups of steaming tea and a glass of milk just as Elbeth concluded her story. After handing the milk to Elbeth, and a cup of tea to her husband, she held the other cup to Aragorn’s lips, “Drink this!” she ordered, “I have added valerian and chamomile, which should ease you.”

Aragorn wanted to refuse, feeling he deserved no kindnesses. However, he was dreadfully thirsty. He obediently sipped the drink until he had drained the cup. He then let Éowyn settle him back on the pillows, where he lay limp and exhausted with his eyes closed.

A few minutes later, Arwen hesitantly entered, a robe over her nightgown and carrying Eldarion. A purple bruise across her cheek disfigured her usually flawless complexion and despite her efforts to wash away all traces, there were still tearstains on her cheeks.

“My lady,” Faramir courteously rose to his feet. “I would speak with you.” He led her out into the living room. “How do you fare, my lady?” Faramir enquired gently.

“Aragorn struck me!” she said in a bewildered tone. “I do not think he even knew who I was! And why should he do such a thing?”

“He fears the darkness,” Faramir explained.

“I have known him more than seventy years and he has never been afraid of the dark before!” Arwen protested.

“He was not locked in a dark cellar before, with pain, cold, thirst, hunger and the scuttling of rats his only companions!” Faramir said sadly, “He has had dreadful nightmares ever since. He would have been completely unaware of his surroundings. Has he not told you?”

Arwen shook her head, her eyes wide with horror.

“I can only imagine just how much he must have endured during his imprisonment, even though I was at that dreadful place. I do know, though, how much the thought of you sustained him,” Faramir continued. “He loves you more than life itself, my lady.”

Arwen nodded, suddenly resolute. “Thank you for telling me this. He will not speak to me of it. The marks on his body cannot tell the whole story of what he must have endured. I will go to him now.”

***

Settled back on his pillows, with Éowyn and Elbeth seated either side of him; Aragorn was on the verge of falling into an uneasy sleep. Éowyn took Elbeth by the hand and let her towards the door. “We are only in the next room if you need us,” she said, before quietly leaving.

Aragorn opened his eyes and looked at his wife. Immediately, he noticed the spreading bruise. All thoughts of sleep banished, he sat upright, overcome at the sight of the evidence of the hurt he had caused. “Arwen, no!” he whispered, “I am so sorry. What have I done?”

“You did not even know I was there. I should not have blown out the candle,” she said gently, replacing a sleepy Eldarion in his cradle while spoke. She hovered at the foot of the bed, still slightly apprehensive. Never could she have imagined, that her husband would strike her. She knew of such horrors, but it was how drunken brutes on the first level might behave, not her Estel! He had even passed laws decreeing that such men should be punished.

“It was so dark. I thought they were coming again to torment me. I lashed out to try to protect myself. I had no idea where I was. How can you ever forgive me? I have wronged you most grievously! It would be best if you stayed with Éowyn in the other room, where no harm can come to you!” Aragorn buried his face in hands and wept anew.

Arwen was immediately at his side, enfolding him in her loving arms. “Eldarion has struck me and bitten me several times and I have forgiven him,” she said gently, her voice full of compassion.

“He is but six months old. I am a man full grown who should know far better,” Aragorn replied bleakly, becoming rigid in her embrace. “I no longer deserve your love, dearest and best of wives!”

“I have given you my heart’s love for all eternity,” Arwen replied. “Nothing could take that away.” Tenderly, she stroked his hair, massaged the back of his neck and caressed his still bruised face, until at last he relaxed in her arms.

“Vanimelda!” Aragorn murmured.

“Let me come to bed now,” said Arwen, “I would be beside you.”

“Leave the candle burning, I could not live with myself if I struck you again!” Aragorn whispered, his head still bowed with shame. “How can I ever atone for what I have done to you?”

“Share your thoughts with me, Estel!” Arwen demanded, placing her hand on the bowed head.

“No! I cannot allow you to see such darkness,” Aragorn protested, trying to move away from her.

“I am your wife. How can I understand what happened to you otherwise? I am stronger than you imagine, and have known many sorrows during the long centuries of my life,” Arwen said firmly, pressing her head against her husband’s.

Then, all at once, she knew and understood what Faramir had been trying to explain and what Aragorn had until now tried to shield her from. She started to weep again. The knowledge of his suffering hurt her far more than the blow. She realised that he would no more intentionally have struck her, than he would cut off his own right hand. She realised now, that even Elbeth, had understood more of what he had endured than she did.

“Estel, I love you so much!” she whispered.

“My Queen, my sweetest love!”

Arwen lay down beside him, drawing his head against her bosom and tenderly caressing him until he slept.

She remained wakeful for long after, staring at the candle flame and wondering how long it would take to find again the strong, kingly man she had married concealed within this broken man she held now in her arms.

Chapter Fifty-One – The die is cast

The die is cast. - Julius Caesar

Every decision is liberating, even if it leads to disaster. Otherwise, why do so many people walk upright and with open eyes into their misfortune? - Elias Canetti

The days passed. Slowly, Aragorn’s wounds healed. He gradually grew stronger in body, helped considerably by all the care Arwen and his friends lavished upon him. They watched over him day and night, coaxing him to eat and drink to build up his strength. They tended his hurts and tried to cheer him. However, he remained withdrawn and morose and revealed nothing of what he intended to do once he recovered. When he did speak, it was often to lament that he had been too trusting and lenient a ruler and that he should have had any who even spoke against him thrown into prison.

Faramir had discovered that Elbeth could neither read nor write and set out to teach her. Once Aragorn was able to use his right hand properly again, he suggested that the King take over the task, hoping that it would distract him and raise his spirits. Elbeth proved an apt pupil. Her enthusiasm for learning, served to somewhat distract Aragorn from his troubles, though he remained melancholy.

Ever since the night, when he had inadvertently struck Arwen and allowed his Steward to comfort him; Aragorn had developed an uneasy rapport with Faramir, though he still could not bring himself to wholly trust him. There were just too many questions, to which Faramir seemed either unwilling, or unable to provide an answer. The Steward had neither attempted to justify himself, nor made any plea for pardon, despite having expressed what seemed to be sincere contrition. A change had come over Faramir, and whether it was as result of his actions, or regret at not having seized power for himself and his brother’s offspring, Aragorn dared not probe further.

The King’s love for Eldarion was immense, yet he found it hard to spend time with his son, knowing he had most likely lost the child his birthright of ruling the Reunited Kingdom. Neither did he feel at ease with Elestelle, although he loved the child. She seemed to look at him with her father’s eyes, as they once had been, so full of love and innocence.

Faramir worked tirelessly, aiding the King and helping the women. He said little. His back still pained him at times, but he concealed his discomfort, having no wish to be tended again by Arwen. Not only did he find it acutely embarrassing, being seen half naked by his Queen, but it had served to remind him all too painfully of the treatments Aragorn had given him in the past. He was well aware that Aragorn had used his Elvish skills on him for bonding, as much as healing, and also used a special touch meant only for a dear friends or kin. The warmth that Aragorn’s hands once held was itself a healing touch. Now, those same hands were cold and devoid of healing power, and never again would Aragorn tend him as a beloved son.

Arwen had concentrated every healing art she knew, including her Elven healing skills on her husband. Aragorn found himself almost as uncomfortable as Faramir had been, albeit for very different reasons. Although, as always he rejoiced in his wife’s touch, he could take only comfort from it. A thrill no longer coursed through his body at her nearness. She could almost have been his sister or his mother. Arwen had not chosen mortality for some scarred and disfigured invalid, but a fit and healthy man in his prime. He felt he had cheated her out of what was her right. The King hated her to see the frailty and ugliness that was now his mortal body. Worse still, was to feel her fingertips against his skin, roughened from weeks of kitchen chores in the winter. He had only been granted Arwen’s hand in marriage on the condition that she would be the Queen of both Gondor and Arnor, given every luxury that the world of men could offer. Yet, he had succeeded in reducing the beautiful Evenstar to the status of a kitchen maid! How he despised himself for so doing.

Aragorn’s wounds had closed and the stitches had been removed, leaving his body healed but hideously scarred. Unless he could return to either Minas Tirith or Rivendell, it would remain so, for only an Elven mud bath could heal him completely. Now his bruises had faded, the brand bearing Dervorin’s insignia, stood out more lividly than ever, a shameful reminder of what Faramir had done.

Aragorn had found some cause for cheer when Éowyn had examined his left hand and pronounced it was healing well and that he should soon regain the full use of it. She had removed the splints and he was slowly regaining the use of his fingers.

***

One morning, after Elbeth had gone out to play, the adults were all sitting around the kitchen table finishing breakfast. They were startled by a sudden knock on the door. “Hide!” snapped Éowyn, bundling the men into the bedroom. The fear in her eyes was all too obvious. Had they remained hidden all these weeks only to be discovered now?

Faramir snatched up his sword. Pushing the King behind him, he stood poised behind the door ready to repel intruders. The prospect that the rebels had discovered their whereabouts was terrifying, with Aragorn still not fully recovered and their wives and children to protect.

“All is well, it is only Damrod!” Arwen called, while ushering the young Captain into the living room.

Heaving a collective sigh of relief, Aragorn and Faramir joined her.

On seeing the King, Damrod dropped on one knee and kissed his uninjured hand. “My Lord King!” he exclaimed reverentially.

Aragorn clasped the young man’s shoulder and bent forward to kiss him on the brow much to Damrod’s surprise. “Do not kneel, my friend!” he said, “I owe you a debt I can never repay for protecting my wife and child and Lord Faramir’s family!”

Damrod flushed shyly. “It was my pleasure to help, sire,” he replied.

“It is good to see you, Damrod!” Faramir greeted him, looking at him somewhat wistfully.

“Sit down and tell me what is happening in the City,” Aragorn ordered.

Éowyn went to fetch him some refreshments.

“There is a great deal of confusion and uncertainty, sire,” Damrod replied. “Prince Imrahil is still in charge of the Council, but some of the other Nobles, most noticeably the Lords of Ringlo Vale and Lebennin oppose his rule. The Lord of Lamedon did so too, but he was found murdered near Lord Dervorin’s Hunting Lodge. They are all vying to become Regent when Prince Eldarion is found, or to seize absolute power if he and the Queen fail to return. They are demanding repressive laws limiting free speech and repressing the poor, overturning all the reforms you have made, sire. So far, Prince Imrahil has resisted them, but the people are terrified.”

“My poor people!” Aragorn lamented. “I wanted so much to bring them peace and security.”

“What has been said of my disappearance?” Faramir enquired, a trifle hesitantly.

Damrod took a gulp from the mug of ale that Éowyn had brought him. “It is said Prince Imrahil believes that you took your own life out of shame for betraying the King, Lord Faramir, if you will pardon me repeating, what I have heard?” he said, shifting uncomfortably on his chair.

“Please, speak freely, I am not angry and would know the truth,” Faramir reassured him. His eyes showed his inner distress.

“The common folk say various things,” Damrod continued. “Some say you have been murdered, some that you have run off to join the rebels, while others hope that you will come and save them, if the King’s laws to protect them are repealed. Most of the people accuse you of abandoning your Lord and Land, though.” Damrod was unable to meet Faramir’s eyes and stared miserably at the floor.

The Steward sighed deeply but said nothing.

“What of the soldiers?” Aragorn asked, “Where do their loyalties lie?”

“They still support you, sire, or rather your son, since they believe you to be dead. Now the fever has abated, they are planning to hold your funeral in three days time. I strongly suspect that if there is still no sign of Prince Eldarion by then, one of the Rebels will declare himself Ruling Steward.”

“The gall of it!” Faramir cried. “Unfortunately, they are all distantly related to my family in some way. Most of the noble families have intermarried with each other over the centuries.”

“Some say the Rebels are less confident than they were, and there is less talk of Lady Elbeth than before. However, it is likely they will try to seize power on some pretext or other.”

“I have a feeling they could find a substitute for Elbeth if they looked hard enough,” Faramir mused.

“How could that be?” Aragorn asked.

“Much as I loved Boromir and dislike speaking any ill of his memory, I was not blind to his faults,” Faramir said thoughtfully. “Unfortunately, he considered our people’s ideals of chastity and fidelity outmoded. Therefore, it would not surprise me, if more than a few serving maids and tavern wenches had surrendered their virtue to him. He would never have forced a woman, but with his good looks and high standing in society, he would doubtless have found willing women a plenty, of a certain kind; especially with no many having lost their men folk during the years we fought to keep Mordor at bay.”

“Alas for Boromir that he prized his virtue so little!” Aragorn sighed. “It is well worth waiting for the right mate.”

“Boromir never wanted to be tied down by marriage. Soldiering was his life,” Faramir said. “However, he liked women and lacked the strength to resist temptation.”

“One of my comrades, who used to work for the Lord of Ringlo Vale, told me that his lordship was very interested in any children born on his lands with grey eyes and dark hair,” Damrod added.

“At least, we now have Elbeth and the rebels will find it much harder without her,” Faramir said. “She was meant to make their seizure of power appear as merely uniting two great Houses.”

“You have the child then, my lord?” Damrod enquired.

“I would have had to kill her otherwise. She posed too great a threat to the King.” Faramir said bleakly. “Though, I very much doubt a marriage ever took place, I am convinced she is Boromir’s daughter.”

Aragorn raised his eyebrows at this latest revelation. The Faramir, he once knew, would never even have contemplated killing an innocent child. Yet, this was also the man who would once never have lied. Could such a man have really carried off the elaborate pretext that he claimed?

Faramir hastily changed the subject to what they should do now. It was something that they had all been thinking of, but none had dared voice aloud until Aragorn’s health and spirits were restored.

“We should send a message to Rohan and ask my brother for help to restore you to your throne,” Éowyn suggested.

Aragorn shook his head, “I know Éomer would aid me gladly, but I would not plunge Gondor into civil war,” he said firmly. “Already, I am resented for ruling with too much foreign influence, coming as I do from the North and not being married to a lady of Gondor. Also, when I first returned to Gondor, the Rohirrim supported me. The people must want me back if I am to regain my throne!”

“You have your soldiers behind you and the love of your people, sire,” Damrod said. “The common folk love you for your many kindnesses towards them.”

Aragorn suddenly rose to his feet, a new light of resolve in his eyes. “The way before me now is clear at last,” he said firmly. “ I shall ride out on the day of my supposed funeral and see if my people will acclaim me again as their King. I desire no bloodshed, so I shall go alone. Either I regain my throne, or die in the attempt!”

Chapter Fifty – Two – Loved I not honour more

I could not love thee, dear, so much, Loved I not honour more. --Lovelace.

“No, Estel!” Arwen exclaimed in horror. “Rather would I live out my days as a beggar with you than have you risk your life in such a reckless fashion.”

“Arwen,” Aragorn said gently. “That is not what I promised your father. He gave you to me as my wife on the condition that I made you my Queen. Then, where should we live? We cannot stay here forever, dreading discovery more with every day that passes. I spent most of my life hiding in the shadows and will do it no longer! It is my duty to try to save my people too. I am sworn in all honour to protect them.”

“We could go to the North and live at Rivendell with my brothers,” Arwen suggested desperately. “They would welcome us and we could live out our days happily with Eldarion beside us.”

“And if I am rejected and live to tell the tale, so we shall. If I fall though, you and the children must make your way first to Rohan and then on to Rivendell. Faramir and Éowyn will escort you.”

“I shall ride with you to Minas Tirith,” Faramir said firmly.

“No, you shall not!” Aragorn and Éowyn chorused almost with the same breath.

“You are not going, if I do not go with you!” Faramir protested vehemently. “I have always tried to be your obedient servant, sire, but this one order I refuse to obey!”

“Yes, you were very obedient when you joined the rebellion against me!” Aragorn retorted with biting sarcasm.

“Then, let me try to atone!” Faramir pleaded. “What chance of success do you have without me?” Those who seek both your life and your crown have been proclaiming that Gondor should return to the rule of the Stewards. If King and Steward ride side by side in amity, it destroys their argument and the people are not forced to choose between them. We live or die together!” Faramir said firmly. “Éowyn, I am sorry, but I must do this both for the King and for Gondor.”

Aragorn nodded his head curtly, conceding defeat.

“Had I not our child to consider I would ride beside you,” Éowyn replied. “I too, would show my loyalty to my lord.”

Your loyalty is not in any doubt, my lady,” said Aragorn. ”You have never pretended any false devotion towards me.”

“Nor did I!” Faramir whispered in an almost inaudible tone, his head bowed.

“I will come too,” Damrod offered, vainly trying to make sense of what exactly was transpiring between his King and his former Captain, who both seemed to have forgotten his presence in the room.

Aragorn started, remembering the young man’s presence, then shook his head. “No, Damrod, I have a more important task for you. You are to wait here with the Queen, Lady Éowyn and the children. If Lord Faramir and I do not return, you are to see them safely to Edoras, where King Éomer will give them refuge.

“I will guard them with my life, sire!” Damrod replied.

“It lightens my heart to know that you will protect my loved ones,” Aragorn told him. “I would like you to stay here now. It is too dangerous for you to return to the city now that you have seen me and know my plans. If the rebels caught you and put you to torment, we would all be lost!”

“If only there were more to help us!” Arwen sighed, “Legolas and Gimli would bring Elves and Dwarfs to your side, but we have no idea where they are at present. The Hobbits would fight for you too, as would my brothers.”

“I would have none die, save those who betrayed me!” Aragorn said firmly, some of his former determination gleaming in his eyes.

Faramir gave an involuntary shudder at his words.

“My kitten is lost!” Elbeth breathlessly ran into the room, immediately ending the adults’ discussion.

“He cannot have gone far, I will help you look for him,” Faramir said, glad of an excuse to escape the tense atmosphere.

Arwen and Éowyn went to tend to the babies while Aragorn questioned Damrod further about events in Minas Tirith.

***

Spring had come early to Ithilien. The scent of blossom hung in the air, while the birds flew from tree to tree chirping merrily as they built their nests. The sun shone brightly out of a clear blue sky adorned with fluffy white clouds. All nature seemed to be rejoicing.

Aragorn had been well enough over the past week to get dressed and sit outside in the garden. He had even taken Roheryn for short rides round the nearby fields, accompanied by Faramir on Zachus. The few peasants they had encountered, were far too busy sowing their spring crops to pay any attention to two plainly dressed horsemen trotting along by the hedgerows.

That afternoon, Arwen and Éowyn sat in the orchard with their children. Elbeth played with her kitten, which would conveniently get lost once he was tired of the game. Faramir had discovered that he had a hiding place in the barn curled up behind a bale of hay. He had not revealed it to his niece; instead he told her that her playmate would return when he wanted another game.

The Queen was hard at work at her needlework. She refused to reveal to the others what it was that she was sewing.

***

On the evening before his planned funeral, Aragorn went early to rest before the next day’s ordeal. Arwen was sitting with him; Elbeth was in the barn with Damrod and Bereth, leaving Faramir and Éowyn in the living room together with Elestelle.

“Must you go tomorrow?” Éowyn asked her husband pleadingly. “I fear they will kill you!”

“I do not want to leave you and our daughter, my love, but maybe that would be for the best,” Faramir said grimly. “At least I would die with honour!”

“Do not speak like that!” Éowyn chided. “How can you say such things?”

“Do not forget that the eyes of the law and of the world, I am a traitor,” Faramir said sadly. “I raised my hand against the King and spoke against him in open Council. I am not above the law and Aragorn will be obliged to punish me for my deeds.”

“But everything you did was to save him!” Éowyn protested.

“The law says nothing of motive,” Faramir replied. “The King does not trust me and believes I changed sides.”

“That is so unfair!” Éowyn fumed, “If only the fever epidemic had not delayed him passing those edicts he intended to protect the life of the King’s Steward!”

“I would still have forfeited my honour. Aragorn may yet demand my life and rightly so,” the Steward said quietly.

Éowyn shook her head. “No, I cannot believe he would harm you. You saved his life after all! He is too honourable a man and I believe he still loves you, whatever he says.”

“The King is but a man, who must honour the law of Gondor, as must I. Tomorrow is my chance to regain some of my honour. I beg your blessing ere I depart.”

Éowyn put her arms around him and kissed him on the brow. “You have my blessing as long as you promise to take care,” she said.

“I promise,” said Faramir.

Just then, Arwen entered with Eldarion in her arms. Her expression was deeply troubled.

“How is the King?” Faramir asked, respectfully rising to his feet.

“He is sleeping,” she replied, gesturing for him to sit down and placing Eldarion in his crib, before seating herself on the chair opposite. She picked up her sewing and studied it carefully.

“I hope he has a good night’s rest,” said Faramir. “It will feel like a long journey on the morrow after spending so little time in the saddle of late.”

“Please try to protect him, Faramir!” Arwen pleaded, her beautiful eyes full of fear. “I know I have seem him ride off to war many times before, but this feels different.”

“I will try, my lady,” Faramir replied. “I would gladly give my life to save my lord!”

Éowyn shuddered, though she was now resigned to why Faramir felt he must accompany the King. Were he not so loyal, he would not be the noble man that she had married. She loved him for that loyalty, knowing it extended also towards her and their daughter, even though she feared it would make her an early widow.

“Estel seems to have lost something,” Arwen mused. “Some vital spark in him seems to be missing.”

“He suffered cruelly at the hands of the rebels,” Faramir said sadly. “They almost broke him completely. A lesser man would have lost his wits or died after so much torture.”

“I shared his thoughts and the horror was almost too much to bear,” Arwen replied. “They took away so much of his dignity and sense of who he is!”

“Maybe we could somehow restore his sense of kingship?” Faramir suggested with a sudden flash of inspiration. “Do you not know any Elven rites, with which you could consecrate him before he rides out tomorrow?”

“We have various rites of purification,” Arwen replied doubtfully, “I do not see how those could help much, though.”

“He once helped me with something like that,” Faramir told her, remembering how Aragorn had cleansed his sense of shame and guilt, a few months before, by bathing him with water in which athelas had been steeped.

“Gondorian coronation rituals are very lacking compared with those of Rohan!” Éowyn interrupted. “Long ago, a horse would be sacrificed and the King would be bathed in the blood to symbolise the sacred marriage between the king and the land. Nowadays, we daub the good earth of Rohan on the king’s hands and feet and our butter on his head to symbolise the fat of the land. Though, of course, our most sacred rite is the anointing. Éomer told me that when he believed Aragorn to be dying after the battle of the Black Gate, he anointed him and he believed that helped restore his strength.”

“Anointing! That sounds a good idea. I have heard it is a means of hallowing a king,” Faramir said thoughtfully.

“You are the expert at arranging ceremonies, so we will leave you to plan something for Estel tomorrow,” Arwen said sweetly. ”I have the royal regalia here with me that you brought when you believed my husband dead, so I will newly invest him with it on the morrow.”

“I shall do what I can,” Faramir promised, furrowing his brow in anxiety, though in fact he already had some ideas. Whether Aragorn would like them or not, was another matter. “We will need a bath prepared for him in the morning.”

“You had best attend to him there,” Arwen said. “He should be accustomed to you attending upon him by now.”

 “Would you anoint him, my lady?” Faramir asked. “As his wife and the Queen, that would be fitting.”

“I think we should all do that together,” Arwen replied. “For is not Éowyn of royal blood also? Elbeth too comes from the House that were kings in all but name for almost a thousand years. Three! That is a good number, for the Elves believe that three women in different stages of life, together hold great power. We will have to find him some suitable clothes, though I fear most of them will have to be borrowed from you, Faramir.”

“Perhaps Damrod would lend him his breastplate adorned with the White Tree?” Faramir suggested, yawning as he spoke “Perhaps Mistress Bereth still has her husband’s armour somewhere?”

 “We should all go to bed now, “ said Éowyn. Tomorrow is going to be a very long day. I will speak to Damrod and Bereth.”

The others agreed with her, and while Faramir and Éowyn settled down in the living room, Arwen joined her husband in the bedroom. He still needed to sleep with a candle burning. To Arwen’s keen eye, he looked very frail and vulnerable, even though, his bodily hurts were almost healed and his hair and beard had grown back. However, she still feared for his spirit and wondered if he would ever fully recover from his ordeal, or even be granted time to do so. She did not attempt sleep, but instead, lay there listening to him snoring and trying to imprint every detail of his beloved face upon her mind. She was determined to cherish every moment she could still spend with him. “Valar protect him!” she whispered. Arwen nestled close while taking care not to awaken him. ‘How could I bear to lose him now?’ she thought and a single tear fell on his pale cheek. Tenderly she kissed him, wishing she could keep him safe in her arms forever.

Chapter Fifty Three – That I may greet you as King

And Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet have anointed him king in Gihon: and they are come up from thence rejoicing, so that the city rang again. - 1.Kings.I. 38 The Bible.

So ward es uns verhiessen,
so segne ich dein Haupt,
als König dich zu grüssen.
Du - Reiner!
Mitleidvoll Duldender,
heiltatvoll Wissender!

As it was promised to us, thus do I bless your head, that I may greet you as King. You – pure one! Compassionate sufferer, Enlightened Healer! - Parsifal -Wagner .Act three.

The next morning, Aragorn appeared calm and resolute. He knew that ere the sun rose again, he would either be restored to his rightful place; or despatched forever beyond the circles of the world. When he had awakened that morning, Arwen had begged him to let them prepare him according to ancient ritual. He had agreed. If today were to be the last time they met in this life, he would try to ease their parting by doing what he could to please her.

Breakfast was a sombre affair; with the four adults wondering if this would be the last meal they would ever share together. Only Elbeth was in high spirits, chattering incessantly and asking endless questions about where Strider and Uncle Faramir were going.

After she had fed and changed her daughter, Éowyn went to the stables to brush Roheryn and Zachus. She plaited their manes and tails in the fashion of the Riddermark when the Riders rode out to battle. Elbeth came out, wanting to help her. She permitted the child to assist her in grooming the placid Zachus.

“Can I go to the City with Uncle Faramir and Strider?” the little girl asked.

“No, you must stay and help me in the house,” Éowyn replied.

“But I want to go!” Elbeth protested. “Why won’t they take me?”

“Your elders know what is good for you, child! We cannot all do just as we would like to!” Éowyn snapped, suddenly no longer able to endure Elbeth’s prattle and afraid she might burst into tears.

Elbeth started to cry. “Why are you so cross with me?” she sniffed.

“I am just worried, child, I am sorry,” Éowyn said, inwardly scolding herself for being so harsh. “I cannot go to the City either. There is something we can do though; Elbeth, which is very important.”

Elbeth stopped crying and listened intently to her Aunt.

***

Soon after dawn, Faramir had gathered some athelas leaves at Arwen’s request. He had also collected some earth from the flowerbed in which it was grown and placed it in a small bowl.

Arwen was occupied gathering suitable garments for her husband and Faramir to wear.

As soon as breakfast was finished, Damrod and his sister filled the bathtub for the King in front of the kitchen fire. Faramir and Arwen led the King to the tub, telling him, he should bathe and then left him alone to undress.

Slightly puzzled why they were so insistent, but assuming the bath was in some way part of the ritual, Aragorn tried to relax in the too small tub, fearing any moment that his peace would be disturbed. He longed for the spaciousness and privacy of his large sunken bath in Minas Tirith. He wondered if he would ever again know the pleasure of stretching out his long legs in warm water scented with refreshing herbs. A part of him was tempted to hearken to Arwen’s pleas and go with her and Eldarion to the North, there to live out his days with his loved ones, enjoying the much simpler lifestyle of the Ranger Chieftains. It was tempting to leave Gondor and its treacherous lords for ever.

How, though could he abandon his people to oppression and hardship? He would not give in to traitors who sought to usurp his throne. He had not fought against Sauron to skulk again in the wilderness. Nor would he lightly cast aside the conditions that that Elrond had laid upon him before taking his daughter as bride.

He was startled out of his thoughts at the sound of footsteps. He covered himself with his arms as best he could, wishing fervently he had left his towel where he could reach it. To his relief he heard Faramir’s voice.

“Your lady and I would hallow you today, to prepare you to once more take up your mantle of kingship, my lord,” the Steward said solemnly, making Aragorn struggle to repress a wry smile. It was so like the Faramir of old. Knowing it could well be for the last time, Aragorn decided to humour him.

“Will you stand please, sire?” Faramir said formally.

Feeling somewhat awkward, Aragorn uncoiled his cramped body and rather inelegantly rose to his feet.

“Be thou blessed with Gondor’s good earth!” the Steward intoned, scattering a handful of earth over Aragorn’s shoulders. He then poured water from a bowl over him crying, “Be thou cleansed with this hallowed herb! ”

Aragorn recognised the refreshing scent of athelas and felt heartened by it.

“I will prepare you now, my lord.” Faramir bowed low and waited for a somewhat baffled King to climb out of the bathtub. The Steward swiftly wrapped him in clean towels. When Aragorn was dried, Faramir slid a loose linen robe over his head and knotted it securely with a cord around the waist. The King noticed that the garment was embroidered with the emblems of Gondor and Arnor.

“Come!” intoned Faramir.

Aragorn followed his Steward into the next room. Faramir hesitated on the threshold, wondering whether or not he should remain. “Stay, son of Gondor, who hailed me first as King!” Aragorn commanded.

A bowl of clear water stood on the table, surrounded by three lighted candles, a vase containing some sprigs of athelas, a knife, a goblet of wine, a bowl with some soil in it, the Elessar; and to his amazement, Andúril and the Star of Elendil.

Arwen, Elbeth and Éowyn stood beside the table. Arwen gestured for him to kneel before her. “When my father and Mithrandir sailed, they took with them the old magic,” Arwen said. “Now we who are left, must create a magic of our own.”

 With Éowyn’s assistance, she unlaced Aragorn’s robe at the neck and slid it from his shoulders, leaving him bared to the waist. He felt painfully exposed thus, with so many eyes on his cruelly scarred body. The room suddenly felt very cold and he trembled slightly.

Arwen now knelt before him. She had a small bottle in her hand and dabbed some of the contents of Aragorn’s head. It appeared to be some sort of oil, which smelled of a mixture of orange, roses and cinnamon. “Be thy head anointed with kingly wisdom!” she said solemnly. “I, the wise woman of the elder race, bless you!”

Éowyn knelt beside the Queen and after taking the oil, dabbed some over Aragorn’s heart. “Be thou anointed with compassion and love!” she intoned. “I, the mother, bless you!”

Elbeth next dabbed the oil on the King’s hands, saying; “Be thou anointed with prowess and honour! I, the maiden, bless you!”

Finally, Faramir took his turn and dabbed oil on Aragorn’s feet “Be thou anointed with valour and courage!” he said.

What had begun, as a mixture of the embarrassing and the absurd, became a strangely moving experience for Aragorn. A feeling of warmth enveloped him, while a new strength coursed through his veins. He rose to his feet, blinking back the tears. His wife and friends then knelt before him with the candles and the bowls of earth and water.

“May the Valar protect you through trials of fire and air!” said Arwen who held the candles. “I, the eldest, hallow you!”

“May the Valar protect you through trials of earth!” Éowyn said, kneeling with her offering of soil from the garden. “I, the mother hallow you!”

“May the Valar protect you through trials of water!” Elbeth said solemnly presenting the water. “I, the maiden, hallow you!”

Arwen put down the candle and placed her hands on her husband’s chest. Faramir stood behind him with his hands on Aragorn’s back. Together they recited several Elvish spells of protection over the man they both loved, albeit in very different ways.

Arwen then led Éowyn and Elbeth from the room. Faramir led his lord over to the couch, on which a variety of garments were laid. The Steward took up the knife, causing Aragorn to flinch involuntarily. With a swift movement, Faramir severed the cord securing Aragorn’s robe. “ Cast off the man of old, become the King anew!” Faramir cried as the garment fell to the floor.

The Steward then went outside to join the women. The King hurriedly drew on his drawers, embroidered by Arwen with the White Tree, to cover his nakedness, and then reached for his shirt. He discovered that Arwen had made him a sleeveless undershirt from one of her silk nightgowns. He smiled at her thoughtfulness as he donned it next to his skin. He next donned the linen shirt and woollen breeches laid ready for him.

Aragorn made no protest when Arwen and Éowyn re-entered the room and slowly finished dressing him, blessing each garment in turn and evoking the protection of the Valar.

Faramir had lent a fine tunic made of dark wool, Damrod had provided his leather breastplate emblazoned with the white tree, while Arwen contributed one of her own cloaks made of black velvet and trimmed with ermine. The Queen fixed the Star of Elendil upon her husband’s brow, Éowyn pinned the Elessar on his breast. Finally the Queen knelt and girded Andúril at his waist. They stood back and surveyed their handiwork. Once again, Aragorn looked every inch the King that he rightfully was.

Faramir instinctively knelt in homage to his lord, offering his sword. He felt unworthy to speak the oath of Gondor and used instead a. Rohirric oath he had learned from his wife. “I Faramir, by my lord’s grace Steward of Gondor and Prince of Ithilien, do again pledge my self to become your liege man of life and limb; and faith and truth I will bear unto you, to live and die, against all manner of folks. May the Valar bear witness!”

“So may it be!” Aragorn replied.

Éowyn nodded to Elbeth and whispered in her ear. The little girl fetched the goblet of wine and offered it to the King. He took a draught. To conclude the ritual, the others drank from it too. Too overwhelmed to speak, Aragorn embraced his wife and then kissed Éowyn and Elbeth on the brow.

Arwen smiled bravely, struggling to conceal her anguish at the coming parting. She had seen Aragorn ride away to war many times before, but this felt far worse. Although she concealed it, the cruel marks he still bore on his body distressed her greatly.

“It is time we were leaving,” Aragorn said quietly, not wanting to prolong the misery of the farewells. He went to where his son was sleeping and kissed the soft cheek before laying a hand on Eldarion's head in blessing.

“I am ready to depart,” said Faramir.

“Wait one moment!” said Arwen, retreating to the bedroom and re emerging a moment later with a silk shirt identical to the one her husband was wearing.

“I have made this for you to wear today, Faramir,” she said.

“I thank you, my lady,” the Steward replied.

“And Bereth has agreed to give you her husband’s breastplate,” Éowyn added. ”Come, put them on!”

Faramir sighed, pulled off his tunic and started to put the silk shirt on, on top of the linen one, he was already wearing.

“No, next to your skin!” Éowyn insisted, “Go and change into it”

Faramir went to change accompanied by Éowyn, leaving Aragorn and Arwen alone together to make their farewells.

“Take care, beloved!” Arwen whispered, trying hard to maintain her composure. She wanted her husband’s last memory of her before he rode away, to be a happy one.

“Remember, if I do not return, to take Eldarion to safety. Éowyn and Damrod will be with you,” Aragorn instructed her.

“I could not live without you!” she choked, her composure faltering.

“You must! We have our son’s welfare to consider; promise me, vanimelda, that you will do as I say!” Aragorn begged her.

“I will try, my love, my hope. I beg you, though, to take care!” Arwen pleaded.

“I give you my word. I would reign again with you at my side. I hope I will be able to send you tidings by tomorrow sundown at the latest. Remember, if you hear nothing, go and seek help from Éomer. He will escort you safely to Rivendell.” Aragorn pulled his wife to him and kissed her fiercely. He felt almost as troubled as he had been before riding out to confront Sauron. Yet, he had returned from that seemingly hopeless mission. Maybe there was still hope. Then it had seemed absurd to face the might of Sauron with just a few thousand men. Yet, he had triumphed. Today he had only to face the rebel lords with Faramir at his side. 

“I wish you could stay here with me and Elestelle,” Éowyn said sadly, securing her husband’s breastplate.” Yet, if you did not have such a sense of loyalty and duty; you would not be the man I fell in love with! Keep both yourself and Aragorn safe. I know you will either return or die together! I only wish I could come with you both!”

“Take care of our daughter and the Queen if I do not return!” Faramir said gravely. “Dearest and best of wives, I bid you farewell!”

“Do not throw your life away rashly!” Éowyn pleaded. “I am certain that Aragorn still loves you deep in his heart. He will come to understand you acted as you did for his sake alone.”

Not trusting himself to speak, Faramir held her close. He tenderly kissed her and Elestelle. The babe regarded him solemnly from Éowyn's arms. Faramir turned resolutely from them and made his way outside.

 

Chapter Fifty-Four – Behold thy King cometh unto thee!

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: - The Bible- Zechariah – 9.9

Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life. - Tolkien- The Return of the King

Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green. – John Crum

 

Arwen and Éowyn lingered in the doorway clutching their babies. Together with Elbeth, they watched until the two riders disappeared over the horizon.

The King and Steward rode away resolutely. They dared not look back, lest they be tempted to retrace their steps and return to the wives and children they loved.

The beauty of the spring morning gradually lightened their hearts. The sun shone out of a near cloudless sky, bathing the fresh green fields and blossom-laden trees in its golden rays. Despite the dangers they knew might be ahead, it was impossible not enjoy being in the saddle on such a morning; especially after weeks of virtual confinement in the cramped farmhouse.

When Aragorn and Faramir reached the next village, they initially attracted little attention. The peasants were toiling in the fields, too concerned with the spring planting to pay heed to passing travellers. Then, a young woman, carrying a bucket and obviously on her way to the village well, almost stumbled across Roheryn’s path. Aragorn murmured an apology. She glanced up at him then fled, dropping the bucket in her excitement.

 

“It’s the King! He’s not dead! The rumours from the City were lies!” She exclaimed, stooping to gather a handful of blossoms to throw in their path. “Long live the King!” she cried.

Several of the men who were working in the fields, came to see what she was shouting about. They called to their neighbours. Aragorn and Faramir looked behind them and were surprised to find a group of sturdy farmers following on foot, struggling to keep up with the horses. King and Steward slowed down to a trot. Aragorn addressed the men, “Good men of Gondor, evil men would usurp my throne and spread false rumours of my death! Will you come with me to see justice done? I must warn you, though; that you may encounter great perils ere this day is over!”

“Long live King Elessar!” cried the men in unison. “We will follow you wherever you lead us!”

As they passed through more villages, more and more men joined them while the women and children threw flowers in their path.

Aragorn’s spirits rose with every mile they travelled. He was greatly touched that his people held him in such esteem. It warmed his heart to see their love. He had feared their reaction to seeing him, lest they thought him to be an unquiet spirit. It seemed, though, these people received little news from Minas Tirith, even though the City was less than half a day’s journey away from these enclaves. Maybe they did here tidings of the world at large but preferred to believe only what they saw with their own eyes? Aragorn neither knew nor cared. It mattered only that the common people did not reject him as so many of the nobles had done.

Some of the country folk told him of their gratitude in saving them from Sauron or healing their children of the fever. Others cried out: complaining that the lords were oppressing them, taking their crops and molesting the women. They begged the King to help them.

“If this day sees me restored to my throne, you have my word that you will have justice for your wrongs!” Aragorn cried in a clear voice. The crowd cheered his words.

When they reached the river, they briefly dismounted to let the horses drink. Faramir led Zachus to the water and stood there with downcast eyes while the bay gelding drank deeply. Aragorn watched him surreptitiously, wishing fervently he knew what the younger man was thinking. Would he ever know his true motivation? Despite the enthusiasm of the peasants that followed them, they would be heavily outnumbered if Damrod had misjudged the loyalty of the soldiers stationed in Minas Tirith. Many of those men had served Denethor and might choose to follow the House of Húrin, rather than the House of Telcontar. Moreover, could he truly count on the Steward’s loyalty? Faramir’s conduct had been exemplary since he had awoken in the cave, yet the image of his Steward coldly striking him, followed soon after by the branding, would be forever seared into Aragorn’s memory. He had never believed his good, gentle natured Steward could hold such darkness within his soul. Aragorn had thought that he knew Denethor's son as well as any man could know another. Yet, Faramir had changed into a cruel stranger who had mocked and tormented him. And the Steward still offered no explanation for his conduct, even when they had been alone together in the dungeon; he had continued to act the traitor. Was Faramir still playing some complicated game of deception? Or was he still the honourable young man whom the King had come to love as a son?

Part of Aragorn’s soul yearned to reach out to Faramir and embrace him, lest this was the last chance they would ever have in this life to be reconciled. He took a step towards his Steward, then hesitated. How could he reach out to the man who had made no attempt to justify the cruelty that had almost broken Aragorn’s heart? Yet, Faramir had sworn himself again to his service, albeit with a Rohirric oath. Faramir looked up and briefly met his eyes. “It is not to too late for you to change your mind and return to Éowyn,” Aragorn said, not even sure himself, whether he made the offer to test Faramir’s loyalty, or to protect him.

“I am resolved to follow you this day, whether or not I live to see the end of it,” Faramir replied without hesitation.

Aragorn almost extended his hand, but Faramir looked away and the moment passed. Shaking his head slightly, the King somewhat awkwardly mounted Roheryn. The scar tissue that so disfigured his body still made almost every movement painful.

Faramir did likewise, grimacing at the twinge in his back when he swung himself astride Zachus. His heart was close to breaking at the lack of any kindly word or gesture from the one he loved so dearly and held in such high regard. Yet, he knew he could expect none, and the best he could now hope for, was to die with honour in battle today.

They rode on in silence until they passed through the Rammas Echor and reached the Pelennor. Today, the town lands were filled with crowds of people making their way to the city. Faramir stopped and reined Zachus in, hoping the vast throng would not spook the horse. Zachus snorted, but showed no sigh of panic, much to his relief. An old woman had been watching his attempts to quieten his horse. She then caught sight of the King and cried out in fear before dropping in a dead faint.

Aragorn hesitated, instinctively wanting to go to her aid, but fearing he would only make matters worse. Fortunately, a younger woman and a man, who appeared to be her family, went to her assistance. The man then noticed Aragorn and cried out, “This cannot be! The dead cannot return! What manner of evil wizardry is this?”

A child, obviously too young to be afraid shouted, “We are on our way to your funeral, Lord King! Are you coming too?”

The crowd started to scream and panic at the seeming apparition in their midst.

Aragorn wheeled Roheryn around and faced the crowd, much as a general would address his troops. “Good people of Gondor!” he cried. “Be not afraid! The man they bury today is not I, but a victim of a plot to seize my throne! He was dressed in my clothes and murdered while I was imprisoned by those who would overthrow me! Come with me to the City so that I can take my rightful place amongst you again as your King!”

The crowd gaped in astonishment at Aragorn’s words and muttered amongst themselves, unsure whether or not to believe him.

“I bear the tokens of my house!” Aragorn cried and brandished Andúril, which gleamed in the spring sunlight. “Here is the sword that was broken! Behold, I wear the Elfstone and bear the star of Elendil upon my brow!”

“You could be a phantom sent to lead us astray!” one woman said doubtfully, “Those who die violently can return to torment the living, it is said!”

“I am no spectre!” Aragorn replied,” But if you do not believe me, good lady, come and touch me .You will know then, that I am as much flesh and blood as you are!”

The woman backed away; but a youth of about fourteen years came forward. “Prove you are not a ghost!” he challenged.

Aragorn drew off his gauntlet and offered the boy his right hand. Hesitantly the youth touched it, at first tentatively, tracing his fingers along the freshly healed wrist, then gradually with more confidence. Aragorn reached out and grasped the youth’s hand firmly. The boy kissed the King’s hand reverently, then fell on his knees. “My Lord King!” he cried, “I beg you to forgive my doubts. I know now it is you indeed! The Valar be praised!”

A little girl then joined them, looking at Aragorn in bewilderment. Smiling, he leaned down to her and offered her his hand. She trustingly clasped the large fingers in her small ones.

A loud cheer went up from the crowd. “The King has returned, long live King Elessar! The Valar have blessed us this day!”

Faramir observed the scene and his heart soared. He knew this Aragorn, every inch a King, radiating confidence and majesty.

The people then noticed the Steward’s presence and started muttering amongst themselves again. One man, bolder than the rest came forward and said, “Have a care, my King, they say that Lord Faramir spoke against you in open council on many occasions, reviling you and your Queen!”

Before Aragorn could react, the man had melted back into the crowd who started to call out, “Traitor, traitor!”

Faramir tried to ignore them though every shout pierced his soul to the core. He felt something hit him and realised the crowd were throwing clods of earth at him to show their disgust. He sat like a statue, concentrating on soothing Zachus, even when a well-aimed handful of mud, caught him on the side of the face.

“Peace, good people!” Aragorn said in a loud voice. “Today, Lord Faramir is at my side once more.”

The crowd subsided at Aragorn’s words but still cast baleful glances at the Steward. He was relieved that they had almost arrived at their destination.

When they reached the City Gates, they found that the guards were waving most of the people past, only stopping obvious drunkards and other miscreants. To Aragorn and Faramir’s delight, they recognised Lamrung, as one of the men on duty. He had formerly been a prison warder, but after he had helped Aragorn rescue Faramir from the City Prison, he had been rewarded with a post as a Citadel Guard. When he caught sight of the King he turned pale and looked as if he were about to faint.

“Fear not, Lamrung!” Aragorn told him, “It is I, King Elessar! I am flesh and blood just as you are.”

“But we are holding your funeral today, sire!” Lamrung protested.

“Reports of my death have been somewhat exaggerated,” Aragorn said grimly, “Now I should like to enter my City! Perhaps you could despatch a message to Prince Imrahil and tell him that I have returned?”

“Of course, sire! It is good to see that you are still alive, sire!”

“It does indeed feel good to be alive!” Aragorn replied, smiling at the young man.

Still accompanied by the crowd, which seemed to increase with every step the horses took; Aragorn and Faramir wound their way through the narrow streets until they came to the seventh level where they dismounted, giving their horses into the care of a Citadel Guard.

On the lawn, between the White Tower and the White Tree stood a black draped bier, on which rested, a coffin draped with an elaborate banner bearing the Royal Crest of the line of Elendil; the White Tree surrounded by seven stars and seven stones. A Guard of Honour encircled the bier in full ceremonial dress, their high-winged helmets glinting in the sunlight. The guards were wearing closed helms, a custom which Aragorn had abolished soon after taking the throne. It seemed that changes had already been made in his absence.

Behind them on the steps stood the Lords of Gondor, all robed in black and wearing suitably solemn expressions. The members of the Council were foremost; and Aragorn and Faramir took especial note of the Lords of Lebennin and Ringlo Vale, who made a great show of dabbing their eyes. Fontos of Lossarnach looked pale and distraught, like a man who has not slept soundly for many long nights.

To one side of the bier stood a raised platform; erected for dignitaries from other lands. A distressed looking King Éomer of Rohan was the most notable, tallest and fairest among them, and surrounded by two of his Marshalls and some twenty of his warriors, unhelmed and bearing sombre expressions. Aragorn noticed Ghan-buri-Ghan and several other Woses from Druadan Forest, and about ten Silvan Elves from Ithilien, as well as a similar number of Dwarves from Aglarond. There was no sign of Legolas or Gimli, nor any of Thranduil's Elves, nor Dalesmen. Representatives from the Shire and Rivendell were absent. Elladan and Elrohir and the Dúnedain of Arnor were conspicuous by their absence too. It seemed that the funeral been arranged too hastily to summon folk from the North, or had the traitors opposed attempts to invite more of the King’s friends and kin?

On the bier's other side, the families of the lords of Gondor were seated. Aragorn's keen eyes made out Hanna, conspicuous by her low-cut neckline, which made her black gown look more suitable for a ball than for a funeral.

A sorrowful and careworn Imrahil, his sons beside him, stood ready to preside over the ceremonies. From his demeanour, it appeared that no message had yet reached him.

Hoping the traitorous lords and their allies would somehow by their actions betray themselves. Aragorn decided to bide his time. After telling Faramir his decision he indicated to the crowd that they should wait.

Chapter Fifty Five – frustrate their knavish tricks

O Lord our God arise,
Scatter her enemies
And make them fall;
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix,
Oh, save us all! - British National anthem

Beckoning to his followers to be silent, Aragorn and Faramir melted into the crowd. Pulling up their hoods to veil their faces, they found a vantage point behind a pillar, from which they could see everything, while remaining unobserved from the platform.

Imrahil must have noticed the excited and cheerful demeanour from some sections of the crowd. He shot them a stern and disapproving stare, which failed to remove the joyous smiles from the people’s faces.

The musicians of the Tower Guard blew a mournful dirge on their silver trumpets and silence fell upon the crowd.

“People of Gondor, we are gathered here together on a sad day for us all,” Imrahil began. “Our beloved King Elessar has been taken from us his prime. This is indeed a dark hour for our beloved land that these things should come to pass. We were blessed to have beheld one, who shone before us like the sun in splendour. Now again, we are in darkness, the glory of the heir of Elendil has been taken from us. On this day, however, let us remember our liege for all too short a season, Aragorn Arathornion Elessar Telcontar. He led us to victory over the Dark Lord and brought healing in his hands to so many. Truly, he restored the glory of Gondor, though for all too brief a time! Today we are gathered together to pay tribute to our late lord.”

Éomer was weeping now, as if his noble heart would break. Many of the common folk wept too, ignorant still that their King was there amongst them.

The members of the Council silently filed to take their places beside Imrahil who continued, “Today, we shall lay our beloved King Elessar to rest besides his ancestors in the Rath Dinen. May the Valar grant him bliss beyond the circles of this world! The King is dead, long live the King!”

“But, alas, we have no King!” Dervorin of Ringlo Vale interrupted. “Prince Eldarion has not been seen for months now and extensive efforts have failed to find him. And he is a mere infant; too young to take the throne. Since the people are all gathered here today, I think it would be a good time to inform them that until a new king be found, the Council will rule in his stead!”

Imrahil looked annoyed at the interruption. “I am acting leader of the Council, unless the Queen decree otherwise, my lord, and I say that we shall await Queen Arwen’s word regarding who shall act as her son’s regent before doing any such thing.”

"Pah!" Dervorin exclaimed rudely. "We all know she has vanished without trace and how the Steward, Lord Faramir cuts his jib these days. That is, when he is even here. Has he even bothered to leave word of when he will return while this land lies leaderless?"

“We all appreciate your loyalty to the House of Telcontar; My Lord Imrahil, but for how long can Gondor be left without a ruler?” Meneldil, the Lord of Lebennin said, coming forward to stand beside the Prince of Dol Amroth. “We should tell these good people that we shall rule over them until a King return, or maybe an heir to the Stewardship if he does not?”

“Have you no sense of decency?" Imrahil countered sternly. "Our Queen has not finished the mourning rites of her people. We need not disturb her until those rites are done, as well as this sad rite we perform today. And the only heir in the direct line of the House of Húrin is an infant girl."

“But where is Queen Arwen?” protested Dervorin, “We cannot leave our beloved land waiting on the whims of an Elf and her half-breed son!”

A shocked gasp went up from the crowd at such dire insults to the royal family.

“Silence!” Imrahil thundered.

“We are pleased to tell you, my good people, that Lord Boromir was secretly married and sired a son and heir!” the Lord of Lebennin announced, ignoring Imrahil.

"What, my cousin had another hidden heir?" Imrahil's son Elphir interjected. "Just a few weeks ago, you spoke of a girl-child born in wedlock. How curious that Boromir never mentioned these children to his own family, much less his marriages to their mothers."

At that moment Hanna, furiously strode from her place beside the Lord of Lossarnach’s wife, protesting loudly, “My daughter is Lord Boromir’s rightful heir!”

“Hush, woman! You