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8
The Houses of Healing

As Elladan had predicted, it took me a long while to come all the way back. For two days, I simply lay in my bed in the Houses of Healing, drifting in and out of consciousness, swallowing whatever the healers offered me without complaint. On the second evening after my awakening, Mablung came to see me.

“We’re leaving in the morning, Heth. I’m taking the Rangers back out with the Captains of the West. We’re going to the Black Gate. The King and Mithrandir have some sort of plan going, but I don’t know what it is.”

I tried to wake up, become more aware. “I should be going with you.”

“There’s no denying I wish you were, girl. But it may be better this way. If we fail there-and I don’t see how we can succeed, we’ve only got seven thousand to take with us-then they’ll be back here again. The Captain will need you with him then, Heth. So get back on your feet quick as you can, and get that bow arm working. I’ll be a lot happier if I know you’re here guarding his back and looking after him.”

“I’ll do my best, Mablung.” I looked at him gravely for a moment. “You were right, you know. About aiming too high. I realized it when I was...lost.”

“Aye, I know. And I’m sorry for you, Heth. I know how much that must hurt.” He looked down at his feet for a moment, then back up at me. “I’m going to kick myself later for saying this, but here it is anyway.”

“It seems to me that if the world ends, the rules change. So if we don’t come back, and they come back here again to end things, promise me you’ll tell him. I’d rest easier if I knew you’d taken what joy you could before going down in the dark.”

I held up my good arm to him, and he got a little red in the face, but bent down and let me embrace him. Giving him a kiss on his slightly bristly cheek, I said softly into his ear, “I promise. But not until the world ends. The Valar guard and guide you, Mablung, and the others too.”

“And you and the Captain, and the ones we leave behind, Heth.” He straightened up, made a funny harrumphing noise, squeezed my hand, and left. I lay, and watched the flickering shadows on the wall for a while, and then fell asleep once more.

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

The next morning I was feeling somewhat better, and was just finishing breakfast when a dark head peered around my door.

“May I come in, Hethlin?”

“Of course, Captain!” I could not entirely hide the pleasure in my voice, but then he looked happy to see me as well.

“I’ve stopped by several times over the last couple of days, but you were always asleep. I was beginning to despair of ever finding you awake!”

“I am sorry, my lord, but I was very tired.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for, Hethlin.” He came in and sat on the chair by my bedside. I studied him in between bites of my porridge. He looked somewhat pale still, but I could not tell if that was the pallor of illness, or the black tunic he was wearing. His left arm was in a neat, white sling, but he did not look uncomfortable. He looked, in fact, better rested than I’d seen him look in some time. But something about the way he held his mouth, and the look in his eyes, told me that something was amiss.

“What has happened, Captain? You are troubled about something.”

“Your eyes are entirely too sharp, Heth.” He settled back in the chair carefully. “But I will not burden you with my problems on your sickbed.”

“My lord, if you feel the need to tell someone of your troubles, then I am here, and it is no burden.”

“I will tell you of my troubles if you will tell me how you came by this,” and he reached out and lifted a lock of my hair.

“You have nightmares enough of your own, my lord, without giving mine the opportunity to disturb your sleep.”

“Hmmm. It seems we will have little to speak of then, other than rumor and current events.” He gave me a pained, quizzical look. Tell me truthfully-did Mablung and the rest of them really kidnap the sons of Elrond?”

“To quote Lord Elladan-’They surrounded us, and made us come.’” He groaned, and rubbed his temple with his good hand.

“Remind me never to be wounded again. The diplomatic situation will not support it.”

“I would prefer that you not be, my lord.” He looked at me then, and smiled.

“I imagine so! I make so much work for you otherwise.” I blushed, and he laughed, and took my good hand in his. “Thank you, Heth, for saving my life. My uncle told me about what you did. He’s quite impressed with you, by the way.”

“And I am quite impressed by Prince Imrahil. He is a good man, a gentle knight, a valorous commander-and he has a stable full of really excellent horses.”

“My goodness! From you, there is no higher compliment! I shall have to tell him when he returns,” and here he looked sad for a moment, “of the high regard in which you hold him. He’ll be very complimented, I’m sure.” He squeezed my hand gently, and got up to leave.

“I must go see some of the others, and make sure Lorend isn’t up to something. Are you able to read anything? And would you like to? I could bring you some books ”

“Well, I have the one you gave me,” and he looked pleased at that, “but could I have something that’s not in Elvish as well? I don’t translate very well or fast, and it tires me out.”

“There are some at the Citadel that you might like, and I will have them sent for.”

“My lord is kind.”

“Your lord is fortunate in his friends.” He saluted me, and departed. I sat smiling foolishly for some time after he left, then returned to my breakfast, and found the porridge cold.

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

I tried to get up that day, and walk a bit about my room, and found my legs had no strength in them at all. But I forced myself to it, and did a little more the next day, and even more the day after that, remembering what Mablung had said. Faramir came the next morning, and stayed a little longer that time, perceiving that I wished for company and was strong enough to enjoy it. As promised, he brought books, and we spent a pleasurable time poring over them. The morning after, he brought something rather different.

“This is not official yet, for I have not been sworn in, but it will become so very soon, and I wanted you to start thinking about it.” ‘This’ was a parchment, made out most formally, granting one Hethlin, daughter of Halaran, called Blackbow, a captaincy in the City Guard. And it was signed Faramir, Steward of Gondor. I was so bemused by the signature that the significance of the first part escaped me for quite a while.

“Your father. That’s what has been troubling you all this time. What happened to him, my lord?” For answer, he said nothing, but raised his eyebrows and his hand, and lifted a strand of my hair meaningfully.

“My lord, please do not press me on this matter. It happened because of a dream. It was naught but a dream. Really, it was!” Rather to my surprise, my voice rose suddenly, and I started to tremble.

“Heth, no one knows better than I how troubling dreams can be. Sometimes, it helps to tell someone else about them.” He looked concerned. How many times in his unhappy youth had he sat down with his elder brother and confided his dreams? How many times had Boromir had to calm and soothe him?

“I don’t want to talk about it! I don’t want to think about it!” Suddenly, it was as if all the color drained out of everything, and I was looking at him through a mist. Chills wracked my body. Faramir, for the first time since I’d known him, looked absolutely shocked.

“Oh, Heth, I’m sorry! Valar, I didn’t mean to-” He quickly removed his arm from the sling, leaned toward me, and took me into his arms, laying my good cheek against his good shoulder. His uninjured arm held me tightly, and his left hand rose and carefully stroked my hair.

“Shhhhh. Hush now. Of course you don’t have to speak of it if you don’t wish to!”

Reality and warmth came flooding back, though I was still trembling. My nose was pressed against his neck, and I could feel the heat of his flesh and the beat of his pulse, fairly fast-apparently, I’d surprised him badly. I could also smell the pleasant, spicy scent of whatever soap he’d used to wash with that morning. A strand of soft black hair was tickling my face. I burrowed deeper into his shoulder, his arm tightened reflexively, and I addressed a silent prayer to the Valar to the effect that if they’d ever wanted to take my soul directly to them, now would be the perfect time. The Valar, however, were not listening, and I continued to live.

“It was the Witch-King,” I murmured at last into his neck. He stiffened slightly, his hand continuing to stroke my hair.

“After we took you to your father, Mablung and I went to the Houses of Healing to get patched up. After that, we went to the Ranger barracks, and I fell asleep. He drew my spirit from my body, and brought me to him.”

“How did he do that?” Faramir’s voice was quiet, soothing. I sighed into his neck (he jumped a little-it must have tickled), and relaxed a bit.

“He had a charm, a little amulet. It was an eagle, I think. Apparently, one of my ancestors had bound himself over to him long ago in Angmar, and he was able to use that binding to draw me to him.”

“Did you see him?” A brief vision flashed across my sight, and I tensed back up.

“Aye, my lord, I did. And I would to Eru that I had not! He brought me before him, and picked through my mind as if he were searching a rubbish heap for a treasure he had lost. He showed me visions of the armies that were being sent against us.” Though I did not wish to leave Faramir’s arms, ever, I straightened up and looked him in the eye. Our faces were very close.

“If what he showed me is true, and the Captains of the West fail, I do not see how we can prevail, my lord.”

Faramir gave me a sad smile, and touched my unwounded cheek gently. “I know, Heth. But we must try to be hopeful, nonetheless. What was it he wanted? To simply taunt you with the knowledge of our ultimate destruction?”

“He wanted me to kill your uncle.” It came out rather flatly. The new Steward absorbed this, and nodded. “Of course. He was in command. He didn’t ask you to kill Mithrandir as well?”

I sat up a little straighter. It increased both the distance between us, and my composure.

“He knew everything there was to know about me at that point. Including my capabilities. He set me a task within my means, and promised great rewards if I accomplished it.”

“What sort of rewards?” He was giving me his total attention, as he always did when debriefing his men. I responded in kind, calmer now, making a report to my Captain.

“Oh, the usual. Riches. Power. Kingdoms to rule. You know, that sort of thing. Oh, and--” I added it offhandedly, as an afterthought, “he said that he might even prevail upon Sauron to spare you, if I pleased him well enough.”

“Well! I suppose I should be flattered to be the recipient of such consideration! I wonder what he thought I would do, should I be spared?”

Whatever I wanted, I thought, but of course did not speak of such a thing aloud. “I have no idea. Perhaps he thought you might be...convinced to be cooperative?”

He shook his head. “Not very likely! But then, he promised to leave me alive, not leave me alone...” he shuddered a bit, then recovered himself. “What happened after that?”

“What do you think happened? Do I look like I said yes? Can you even think that I would?” I saw no need to tell him of my moment of temptation.

“Was I wandering the Grey Lands for two days because I agreed to deal with the Dark Lord? I told him no! And then he...he grew very terrible.” I shivered again, and Faramir took my hand and squeezed it. “It went very badly after that. He told me that you would die. That he had set a fire in your flesh.” He started at that. “That I would wander till my soul faded away, and you would die in torment. Then he sent me to the Grey Lands, and I was there till Elrohir and Elladan brought me back. You know the rest of it.”

He got up suddenly, and began pacing slowly about the room. “Heth, did anyone ever speak to you of what happened to me?”

“No. I wasn’t even awake much till Mablung came to tell me goodbye. And some of the others visited, but I think they were under orders not to say anything to upset me.”

“And that was as it should be. But what you just said here...I became fevered after you brought me in. The healers could do nothing about it. It was thought that I would die. My father...we had not parted well. He was remorseful and distraught.”

I personally thought it was well past the time that Denethor, Steward of Gondor, should have shown some regret for how he had mistreated his younger son. But saying so would have only grieved Faramir, so I forbore. He stopped pacing, slim and princely in his black, and looked at me from across the room.

“The siege was not going well. And for a long time, my father had been utilizing an ancient artifact of the kings of old. A palantir...a seeing stone. The Dark Lord had directed his visions, and entered his mind. I think he saw much the same sort of thing the Witch-King showed you. The combination of that, and the grief he felt for me, and what looked to be the failure of the defense of the City...it caused him to despair, and his mind was overset.”

“I knew it!”

“I beg your pardon?”

“When we brought you to your father, I had a feeling that something bad was going to happen. I told Mablung that I wished we could take you to the Houses of Healing instead.”

Faramir came back over to the chair, and seated himself. “Well, ‘tis said that most of the Dunedain have foresight. Perhaps yours was active at that moment.” He didn’t frown, exactly, but he got the line between his brows that happened when he was thoughtful or sad. I reached out and took his hand and pressed it gently, and he smiled a small smile in acknowledgement of my attempt to comfort.

“Father decided to make his own end, rather than wait for the one the minions of Sauron would give him. So he had me borne to the House of the Stewards on Rath Dinen, and had his servants build a pyre. It was his intention to burn himself alive, and me with him, thus sparing me a worse fate. I suppose,” and here his voice turned bitter as I had rarely heard it, “that it was his way of expressing his affection.”

“Valar!” I swore. “How was it you came to be saved?”

“The perian, Pippin, was my deliverance, can you believe it? He was sworn to my father’s service, and was waiting upon him when he decided upon his plan. He fled, and begged a Guard of the Tower, Beregond by name, to delay matters while he sought Mithrandir. Beregond did so, forsaking his post and slaying a couple of my father’s servants. Pippin found Mithrandir, and the wizard bore me away from my father. Whereupon, being thwarted of his intention of burning me, father tried to knife me instead. But he was forestalled again by Beregond, so he then settled for accomplishing his own death, and he took a torch from one of his servants, lit the pyre himself, laid down upon it, and perished. I was carried here, and when the King came, he called me back. So now, like you, I am orphaned indeed. And Steward indeed. Which enables me to give things like this out.” And he indicated the parchment that had lain, quite forgotten, on the bed all this time.

My hand still lay upon his. “I grieve for you, my lord. I cannot say I ever liked your father, but I know what it is to loose all your family.”

“I know you do, Heth. And I thank you. My father....was not an easy man to like.”

Nor to love, I thought, though I’d watched Faramir tear his soul asunder trying. It was well past time for a change of subject. So I took up the one he had offered.

“My lord, what mean you by this? I am not ready for such an elevation.” I looked at the warrant. “ A captaincy! Is it not customary to be a lieutenant first for a while? I have yet to lead so much as a patrol.”

“That is very true, Heth. But it is also true that in times of war, promotions come swiftly. Has not Mablung trained you well? Have I not? You have seen what it is to lead, and you are a quick learner. If the Enemy returns, I want captains I can count on, and I know I can count on you. You keep your head in a crisis, and if you think your superior officer is being a bone-headed fool,” and here he actually smiled, praise Elbereth, “you’ll tell him so.”

“What it comes down to is that I think you are competent enough to do this, for were I to promote you, and you unready, your men would suffer for it. I know I can trust you to care for them as much as I do.”

I felt very warmed, and very pleased. If one could not have love, then trust of this magnitude was something of a substitute.

“How long do I have, Lord?”

“What? To be on your feet?” I nodded.

“The Captains reached Morgul Vale yesterday, and we’ve not had word today. It should take them a week to reach the Black Gate from here, if they do not encounter any major resistance. I need you up on your feet in a week, Heth, not bow fit, for I know that will not happen, but able to see to the training and organization of your archers. Your company will be formed of the Rangers remaining here, as they become fit, and some other odds and ends from other companies. You’ll have your roster in three days. And Lorend for your lieutenant. Can you do this?”

“I can, my lord.” I was actually beginning to think I could.

“Good.”

“My Lord?”

“Yes, Heth?”

“What will you do if the Captains actually win?” He considered that for a moment, and smiled.

“Wouldn’t that be lovely, Heth? I would lay my sword down as soon as I could--though I expect that even if Sauron is defeated, there will still be unrest for some time. And I would serve the King in whatever capacity he required of me. I would catch up on my reading! And take harp lessons again.” He flexed his fingers reminiscently.

“I didn’t know you played the harp.”

“I don’t, as minstrels reckon such things. I had some lessons as a child, so I can play a few songs. There were times when I thought about bringing one out from Minas Tirith so I could practice again. But Henneth-Annun was no place to keep a harp-too damp. What about you? I’d transmute your warrant to Captain of Rangers if you liked. Or the King might use you as a royal courier.”

“That would serve for a while, I suppose. I’d need the money to buy horses.”

“Ahh-you’d be a horse-breeder then?”

“I think so. It sounds as good as anything.” We sat in silence for a few moments, pleasantly contemplating a future with hope and happiness in it. Then Faramir stirred, rising from his chair and stretching with care.

“I’m sorry I made you speak of the Witch-King, Heth. You frightened me there for a moment-you looked quite wraithish yourself.”

“I did not want to do it at first. But you were right, my lord-speaking of it did make me feel better.”

“I am glad of that then. I’m going for a walk in the garden. Would you like me to help you outside as well?” It was a tempting idea-more time in his company. But I was truly tired after the stress of recounting my meeting with the Witch-King, I’d already done my walking for the day and I wanted to lie in peace with my own thoughts for a while-and remember the feel of his arms around me.

So I thanked him but declined, and he went out to the gardens alone, and as he walked there without me, the Warden of the Houses of Healing brought to him the Lady of Rohan.

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