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2
Chapter Two

As to the big problem in Captain-Heth claims she doesn’t know if her family have been properly laid to rest, and there is mention a couple of times as to whether the Rangers went to the right farmstead or not, while all the time she is carrying her father’s sword that Mablung had brought to her. Sigh.

Thanks to E.W. for an alternative possibility, which I put forth in this chapter, and will edit Captain to match in the future. She has also been most helpful once more as a medical consultant.


~~~

August, 3015-Eight days later, Mablung and Lorend huffed their way up the trail to Henneth-Annûn, the lieutenant carrying a long, narrow, fabric-swathed object on his back that might have been another sword besides the one he wore at his hip. They arrived at the refuge just as the sun was setting, and the Rangers were sitting down to meat. Waiting quietly in the entrance to the cavern until the Standing Silence was done, Mablung and Lorend went forward to greet their captain as a cheerful hum of voices and clatter of plates and cups arose.

“Did you find out anything?” Faramir asked curiously, taking a long drink of cider from his plain silver cup.

“Yes, my lord!” Lorend exclaimed before Mablung could say anything, walking towards the alcove. “We found out everything! Is she back there?”

“Isn’t she always?” sighed the Captain. Mablung, a concerned look on his face, murmured, “Lorend, I don’t think you should-”

“Watch this, Captain!” Henneth-Annûn’s irrepressible black sheep called over his shoulder. “Hey-Hethlin, are you in there?” Heads swiveled with interest along the trestle table. “Hethlin is her name, Captain,” Lorend explained quickly, before calling said name out twice more.

There was a moment’s pause, then the girl pulled the curtain back and stepped into the main room, a shocked expression on her face. Lorend rushed forward and seized her by the upper arms.

“Hethlin, that is your name, isn’t it? We talked to people who-urk!”

“Lorend!” snapped Faramir in warning, leaping to his feet, but he was too late. He expected, if anything, that the Ranger’s sudden effusive rush would panic the girl, cause her to flee back into the alcove, and totally undo what little confidence and trust they had begun to build with her. What he had not thought would happen was that her face would suddenly go blank, her right hand shoot out swiftly for his sword-hilt, her right foot hook behind his leg, and that she would neatly trip him up. His descent to the cavern floor served to pull his sword free of its scabbard, and the next thing Lorend knew, he was lying upon the ground looking up his own blade, the point of which was hovering threateningly at his throat, while the girl’s foot was planted firmly upon his groin. Quite understandably, Lorend squirmed, and the sword moved closer to his throat.

“Don’t move, Lorend,” Mablung cautioned rather unnecessarily. A silence fell over the cavern. Faramir took one slow step towards them, then another, surveying the situation and cursing himself for never considering that his little charity project might be actually be dangerous. Her stance was not that of a girl who’d gotten her hands upon a sword for the first time in a sticky situation-she held the blade correctly, and with confidence, and it did not waver. Somehow, somewhere she had been trained at least a little in the art of swordplay.

Her face was calm, dispassionate as she surveyed Lorend, and that worried him the most, for he was not certain that she was even really in the here and now at all. The situation was getting out of control, and he needed to take command of it immediately.

“Hethlin,” Faramir said as calmly as he could while still keeping the ring of authority in his voice, “we do not draw blades within these walls, and certainly never upon each other. Put up the sword.”

The girl’s head gave an odd little twitch, but she did not move otherwise-to either threaten or release. Lorend, still as stone and trying to even breathe quietly, gave his commander a desperate, imploring look.

“Put up the sword, I said!” the Captain snapped, and this time Hethlin turned her head to look at him. “Now!”

Gradually, the blank expression left her face, to be replaced by a worried look and furrowed brow. She stared at him, and then down at Lorend, and after a frighteningly long pause, extended her hand rather stiffly out to the side and dropped the blade, which clanged with shocking loudness on the stone floor of the cavern. Stepping back, she freed the Ranger to scrabble swiftly out of her reach, then looked once more at Faramir. Her mouth worked, and for a moment, he thought she might actually try to talk. But no sound came out, and she scowled ferociously, turned upon her heel and walked back to the alcove.

He followed her at a little distance, hearing the hum of uneasy, excited conversation from the men behind him as they converged upon Lorend.

“Did you leave a puddle on the floor, lad?” “For someone who is good with the girls, you were pretty slow just now!” “Can’t fault her aim at least as far as the foot goes!” and other similar comments filled the cavern. Mablung followed his captain, and they both entered the alcove to find the girl in the farthest corner, her face pressed to the rough stone, slamming her fist into it repeatedly with a force that made Faramir wince. He went forward and grasped her wrist, stilling it against the stone, being careful to stand to the side so that she would not feel trapped. The knuckles were already scraped and bloody.

“There now,” he soothed, wondering what he had truly gotten himself into. The madhouse was looking more and more like a distinct possibility. “You don’t want to do that. You will hurt yourself. Lorend would not have harmed you, and I am sure he didn’t mean to frighten you.”

To his great surprise, she turned suddenly and tucked her head beneath his chin, pressing her body against him. It was the first time she had initiated any sort of physical contact. He gave Mablung a startled look over her head, and the lieutenant shrugged. Then he slowly and carefully put his arms around her. A faint tremor was running through her frame.

“Is your name truly Hethlin?” he asked softly after a moment, not expecting any response, but to his amazement, she slowly nodded.

“Did you mean to hurt Lorend?” A definite shake of the head. “He simply startled you, didn’t he?” Another nod. With a thrill, Faramir realized that after three months, they were finally communicating.

“Hethlin, I’ve been to Min-rimmon,” Mablung said quietly. “They said your father’s name was Halaran, and your mother’s Liranael. Is that true?” Another nod. “And you had a little brother and sister?” Another nod, and the tremors increased. “The orcs we ambushed killed your family, didn’t they?” Yet another nod, and she started trembling in truth. Faramir gave the lieutenant a warning look, but he pressed on.

“The folk who run the inn at Min-rimmon said to tell you that Berrill and his sons went to your farm and said the words over your folk and laid them to rest. And that he found this there, and brought it back, in case any of your other kin should show up. When I told them that you were alive, they gave it to me.” Mablung shrugged his strange burden off of his back, and began to unwrap it. Faramir saw that it was in fact a sword, plain-hilted in an unadorned scabbard. There seemed to be nothing particularly special about it, but when the girl saw it, she made an inarticulate cry, turned in his arms, and reached for it. Mablung took a step back.

“I am going to let the Captain keep this for you for now, until you are feeling better.” Hethlin made another noise, this one clearly of protest, but the lieutenant was adamant. “We have rules here, lass, and we need to know that you can follow them before we trust you with a blade. The first, and most important, is what the Captain said-we don’t hurt each other. You want to carry a blade here, you have to earn it.”

The girl stared at him for a moment, wide-eyed, then nodded in a fierce, abrupt fashion, tore herself out of Faramir’s arms, and went into the other corner, behind the desk, where she sank to the floor, drew her legs up, wrapped her arms around them, bowed her head and began to cry, much to the Captain’s amazement. Other than the tears she had wept when touched early on, she had never before expressed any grief at all when awake. Faramir thought that this might be a hopeful sign, and almost went to her, but his lieutenant stayed him with a hand upon his arm.

“Perhaps we should leave her alone for a bit, sir. I need to talk to you in any event.” The Captain nodded, and they went back out into the cavern, out of earshot of the alcove, but also as far away from the tables as possible. Mablung bent his head close to Faramir’s.

“You know a lot about lore and such, my lord. I wanted you to see this.” He drew the girl’s legacy from its scabbard, and handed it to his captain.

Faramir took the sword by the hilt, lifted it, looked at the way the light ran down the blade, and his eyebrow raised at the watery, almost blue patterns in the steel. There was a device graven in the blade near the hilt-an eagle with wings upstretched, arching protectively around a six-pointed star. It was the only ornamentation upon the weapon, but the Ranger captain swung the sword experimentally, felt the exquisite balance of it, and knew that in this case, appearances were deceiving. It was a much finer blade than the one that hung at his side, and possibly even better than the heirloom of their house his brother carried.

“I thought it looked old,” Mablung commented, and Faramir nodded.

“I’ve only seen one other like it-the patina on the hilt, the pattern in the blade. It puts me in mind of Swansong, my uncle of Dol Amroth’s blade. That sword is reputed to have been forged in Numenor itself. It baffles me how a farmer in Anorien should come to have such a weapon-and why the orcs did not take it with the rest of the plunder.”

The lieutenant shrugged. “The orcs may have sensed something about it-I’ve heard they don’t much like things from the old days. As for the girl’s father being a farmer-the inn-folk said that he and his wife were from the North-the far North. Arnor in fact.” At Faramir’s surprised look, he expounded further.

“They said that Halaran claimed to be a Ranger, and of a certainty, he was a warrior. Whenever they had problems with bandits or such, they would get together and he would lead them. According to Merelan, the inn-keep, about eight years ago, they even sent the man to Tirith, to ask aid of your father-apparently they had a major incursion of brigands, more than they thought they could handle. But the Steward said he didn’t have the men to spare, so this Halaran fellow went home, got everyone together and planned some sort of really clever ambush or something. In any event, they dealt with it, though a couple of them were killed. He was well thought of there-they were much dismayed to find out he’d been slain.”

Faramir frowned thoughtfully for a moment, for Mablung’s explanation had triggered a memory.

“Do you know, I think I remember Boromir saying something about that very matter? I had gone into the City for a week’s leave, and to make my report to the Council. I could tell he was wroth about something, and we went out the evening of my return for a drink and to talk.”

“’Is it part of Gondor or is it not?’ he asked me at one point, after telling me of the Sun-landers’ request. ‘Shall we just tell Théoden to take Anorien as well? Are we so diminished that we cannot defend our own people when they have need, scarce fifty leagues from the City?’” He had wanted to lead a patrol into the area, but Father forbade it. I noted it because it was one of the few times I’d ever seen Boromir and Father truly at odds.” He gave the sword back to Mablung. “I could have passed Hethlin’s father in the halls of the Tower, and never have known it.”

“Life is peculiar that way,” the lieutenant agreed, sheathing it. “Speaking of your brother, Captain, it’s past time for the Captain General to show up for his quarterly inspection. He could be here any time now. What do you want to do about the girl?” Faramir groaned softly.

“You’re right, Mablung. I suppose we’ve been fortunate he hasn’t come before now, not that it isn’t always good to see him.” He hooked his thumbs in his belt and stared down at the rough stone floor of the cavern, considering. He did not care to deceive his brother, but he was unsure of how Boromir would react. He might be sympathetic and agree to help Faramir send the girl to their Uncle Imrahil, or he might stand upon military protocol and insist upon packing her off to Minas Tirith at once. A great deal depended upon how bad the incursions had been down by Osgiliath, and how much pressure their father had been putting upon him of late. Ashamed at the flood of relief that came over him at the possibility of being relieved of his problem child, Faramir then cringed mentally at the thought of Hethlin being dragged away by the more unsympathetic hands of the regular army, and being placed willy-nilly into one of those establishments for the feeble-minded, just when they were starting to make some progress with her.

The lieutenant waited patiently, silently, as he worked it through. “Mablung,” he said finally, “I would appreciate it if you would take the girl a little way from the refuge when my brother comes, and keep her there until he leaves. The weather is warm, and she has not been sick for a long time. She should be well enough.” Mablung gave him a searching look.

“Are you sure that’s what you want to do, Captain?” Faramir nodded. “Very well then, sir-the two of us will go camping a little way away, within the sentry lines. We’ll take a couple of bows, do some target practice-see if she can shoot as well as fletch.”

“Is it wise to trust her with a bow, Mablung?” the Captain asked with concern. Mablung shrugged.

“She put up when you told her to. I think it will be all right. She may not even know how to use one.” The two of them looked at each other for a moment, both thinking how unlikely that was . “We’ll be camped upstream. Keep your brother away from there.”

“Very well,” Faramir replied. “Thank you, Mablung.” He turned away to return to his supper. Fortunately, as it had been cold to start with, it was not much harmed by the various delays.

“Captain?” Mablung asked quietly. Faramir turned back to him. “I couldn’t say while you were making up your mind, but I’m glad you decided not to give her to him. I didn’t want to send her away either.” He got a rueful smile in response, and a command to come and get his dinner before the trestles were cleared away.

“Come on then, lass,” Mablung said softly, handing Hethlin one of the masks and cloaks that the Rangers used, as well as an arm brace and shooting glove. She slipped the items on quite deftly, looking, the lieutenant thought, entirely too pleased with developments. Stepping to the bow rack, she took up the bow that had belonged to a young twenty-year-old man from Lossarnach, who had died upon his first patrol, and gave Mablung an inquiring look. At his nod, she helped herself to the quiver as well, and filled it with arrows from the fletching box, swiftly choosing a dozen of the best ones. She was able to adjust the quiver and the cloak correctly and easily enough, Mablung noticed, and he wondered again exactly what kind of upbringing she had had.

There was a rather wistful glance at the sword and long knife he wore upon his belt, but when he shook his head, she sighed in disappointment, and took up one of the packs he had prepared without protest, as well as a water-skin.

It was interesting , the lieutenant thought, how much more communicative the girl had become since her outburst a couple of days ago. She still did not speak, but she nodded and shook her head in response to questions, and would express herself in simple gestures. The day after her attack upon Lorend, she had even approached the young man cautiously and patted his arm, an obvious apology. To give him credit, Lorend had stood his ground and apologized in his turn for startling her. She had nodded, and even given him a tiny, tentative smile. That smile had mended matters between them completely, though Lorend had then taken it upon himself to try to coax her into speaking. So far he had been unsuccessful, getting naught but a distressed frown in response to his efforts. Faramir had had to command him to leave off more than once, but it was difficult to divert Lorend once he had gotten an idea into his head.

“We need to hurry, lass,” the lieutenant said, knowing that the sentries had announced the Captain General’s immanent arrival a few minutes ago. It would take him some time to hike up the steep trail to the refuge, but Mablung did not want to be departing just as he arrived. Boromir knew the lieutenant, having gambled with him upon more than one occasion, and would undoubtedly greet him, which might very well lead to curiosity about his silent companion. The girl, seeming to sense his urgency, finished loading up swiftly and gave him an inquiring look. Pleased, Mablung nodded, and they moved quietly out of the cavern, just another pair of Rangers headed out to sentry duty. They were well away from the entrance, fading into the trees, as Boromir arrived.

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

“Do you remember that business with the Sun-landers, oh, about eight years ago?” Faramir asked his brother, as they supped privately together in the alcove. It was a better meal than most, as a Damrod’s hunting party had killed and roasted a deer, and brought some of the meat back for their high commander. It was cold, but Damrod kept a cache of spices about, and he knew very well how to use them, so it was quite tasty. The man had a great future before him as an inn-keep or cook, once the war was over.

Boromir certainly seemed to appreciate his efforts, scraping the last of the juices up with a piece of bread, which he popped into his mouth before replying. He’d done off his armor and gambeson because of the heat, and the two brothers sat in their shirt sleeves, enjoying a respite after a busy day. The Captain-General had inspected Faramir’s books, his reports, the refuge, the men who were present, and had declared himself satisfied- “Not that there was any doubt,” he’d said with a grin when all was done.

Now he cocked a curious eyebrow. “The Sun-landers?”

“Yes, you do remember, don’t you? You spoke to me of it-that a man had come from Anorien to ask for help, and Father had refused him.” Boromir frowned slightly, then his face cleared as the memory surfaced.

“Oh. That. Whatever made you think of that?”

Faramir shrugged. “Curiosity more than anything. That orc band that we slew three months ago-they had been wandering around in Anorien, and according to the sentries at Cair, they weren’t the only ones, though they were the only party we were able to apprehend. I was just wondering if you’d had any news from there, about how the people were faring or if they’d perhaps sent that same fellow or another back again to talk to Father.”

“No, we’ve heard nothing from them since. And believe me, I would have heard of it had they sent their emissary back once more.”

“Really? Why?” Boromir did not answer immediately, but instead helped himself to a swig from one of the two wine bottles he had considerately packed up to the refuge, then handed it to his brother. Faramir took a drink in his turn most appreciatively, though he was in awe of Boromir’s cheek, for judging from the label, it was from their grandfather Ecthelion’s private reserve. Not that their father was a drinking man, or truly paid attention to the wine cellar, but still...only Boromir would take a couple of bottles of wine that were worth their weight in gold, carry them out to the wilderness upon his own back to share with his younger brother, then enjoy them without even affording them the dignity of a goblet. It was, perhaps, indicative of his habit of paring away extraneous details to get to the heart of a matter.

“Oh, let us just say that the fellow made a very profound impression upon Father,” he said at last. “The man wasn’t from Anorien at all, though he had settled there. He was from the North, and I suspect had a connection to He Who Must Not Be Named.”

“Sauron?” Faramir asked in disbelief. Boromir grinned again, more broadly this time.

“No! Captain Thorongil of glorious memory.”

“Oh! I see.” The two men looked at each other for a moment, then burst out laughing. “What made you think that?” Faramir asked eventually, when he’d gotten control of himself once more.

“He had this silver cloak brooch, star-shaped,” answered Boromir, still chuckling. ‘Tis said Thorongil had such a brooch. To make matters worse, there was an eagle and a star upon it. Father was profoundly disturbed when he saw that. He asked the man right out if he knew Thorongil, or was kin to him. The fellow, whose name I misremember-I think it began with an ‘h’-said that he didn’t know this Thorongil, whoever he might be, and that his people were eagle-friends.”

“Eagle-friends?” mused Faramir. “That’s peculiar. They certainly seem to like eagles in the North, don’t they? What was he like?”

Boromir retrieved the bottle and took another drink, giving his brother a speculative look. “Goodness, but you’re full of questions today! Why so curious?” He glanced around at the piles of books, shoved haphazardly off of the table to make room for their supper. “Have you got another of your little research projects going on?”

Faramir shook his head. “I just got intrigued when you said he was from the North. We know so little of our Northern kindred-nothing of their numbers, their customs, their culture. It seemed an opportunity to learn something new.”

“You and your history!” declared Boromir with a grin, handing the bottle back to him. “All right then, let me see what I can remember...He was tall, eye to eye with me, leaner than me, heavier than you. Black hair, grey eyes-the standard Dunedain look. Moved like a cat. Hawk nosed, rather chiseled features. Not an ugly man, not exactly what you’d call handsome either. No armor, rather plain clothes, though he did have a shirt with some nice embroidery on it. The only other ornament he had was that brooch. His bow and sword were plain as well, though he was neatly kept and all of his equipment was in perfect order. He looked dangerous-I remember thinking at the time that I would have liked the opportunity to spar with him. Thought he might know a trick or two he could teach me.”

Faramir stared at his brother in disbelief, for Boromir was widely regarded as the greatest warrior in Gondor. The Captain General shrugged.

“It’s true-I got the impression he was a very formidable warrior. Not much of a talker though. Basically got his appointment with Father, told him about the brigands, requested aid, was refused it, glowered and gave him a few choice words about lords who don’t fulfill their obligations to their people, then left to try to resolve matters himself.”

Faramir blinked. “He chastised Father?”

“More or less. Between that, and Father thinking that perhaps Thorongil’s relatives were intending to move into Anorien to annex it for their own devices, he did not make a very favorable impression. And there you have it-my observations of a Northern Dunedan.”

Faramir drank deeply of the bottle. “I thank you, brother-that was exactly what I wanted to know.”

Boromir gave him a wry smile. “So glad to have been of service! Now, what about all this orc activity you’ve been seeing? Why don’t you pull out the maps and show me where you’ve been encountering them?”

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

As Mablung had expected, the girl could shoot. In fact, she hit the target with all of her arrows the first round, despite the fact that she had not shot in a long time, and was using unfamiliar equipment. The second round, a hat would have covered her grouping, and on the third, the cluster of arrows could have been covered by the span of a hand, which was certainly up to Ranger standard, and truly even beyond it-there were many men in the company who were successful Rangers but did not shoot half so well. At that point, they stopped, for he could tell that she was getting tired, though she also seemed very pleased, and gave him a big smile. He showed her where it was he desired to set their bed rolls, out of sight within a thicket, and set off to fetch some water. When he returned, it was to find her quietly gathering bracken to soften their beds.

“Don’t get too enthusiastic there, lass-we have to scatter it all when we leave. A Ranger leaves no trace of his passage.” She nodded, started fluffing what she had, then began to spread the blankets. Soon, two neat bed rolls lay within the thicket. Mablung regarded them with approval.

“You’ve done this before, haven’t you?” Hethlin nodded again, then gave him an obviously hungry look. She had a very expressive face, and he was beginning to be adept at interpreting those expressions. He glanced at the sun and smiled. “I think it’s close enough to lunch time as makes no difference.” Bringing out some bread, cheese, apples and a bit of the cold venison he’d filched for them, he laid out their meal on a small cloth. The girl tore into her food with enthusiasm-once she’d recovered from the fevers, her appetite had become something to behold, her body fighting to heal and return to its former status. She was still a little under what Mablung would have thought her ideal weight, but nothing like the scrawny scarecrow she once had been.

Her wounds had healed fully, but despite his best efforts, the scars were quite disfiguring. She would carry them till the end of her days. And she was not a pretty girl in the conventional sense. But looking at her now, with the sun slanting through the leaves onto her hair that was beginning to gloss with regained health, and her face filled out around the hawkish nose that was its centerpiece, he thought her handsome enough, and felt a sense of pleased accomplishment that he had been able to save her life.

“I need to tell you why we’re out here,” he said as she leaned back, replete, against a tree, brushing crumbs from her lap. “The Captain General of the whole army, Lord Boromir, is the Captain’s brother, and he has come to visit him and inspect the Rangers. He will be at Henneth-Annun the whole of today and tonight, and leave in the morning.”

“He must not know that you are here, for to have a woman with the army is against regulations.” She frowned at that, and gestured to her bow. Mablung shook his head. “He won’t think that you are a Ranger, he will think that you are here to service the men.” The frown became a glare. “And if the Captain explains your true situation to him, Lord Boromir will be sympathetic, but he will still take you away, back to Minas Tirith, and place you somewhere where you can be cared for.” The glare became a look of trepidation.

“Hethlin, I know that you are not feeble-witted or mad. But you do not speak, and he will think there is something wrong with you.” Trepidation then became embarrassment, and her face contorted as she opened her mouth silently. Mablung laid a comforting hand upon her shoulder. “No lass, I’m not trying to force you to talk before you are ready, I’m just telling you what would happen. And I don’t think you would like the sort of place where he would send you. So we need to lie low out here today and tonight-do you understand?” Her expression lightened, and she gave him a sober nod.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t think to bring anything for you to do. I’m going to whittle for a while-my youngest sister’s lad is two, and has a birthday coming up, so I think I’ll make him something.” Hethlin smiled at that for a moment, then her countenance darkened suddenly. She ducked her head, and began clearing the remains of their lunch away. Mablung, thinking over what he had just said, recollected what the folk at Min-rimmon had told him about her brother and sister, how they had been so very young, and cursed himself mentally for a clumsy fool. But thinking that apologizing would only make matters worse, the lieutenant decided that silence was the best course.

He watched her covertly as she carefully scattered and concealed the few crumbs that remained from their lunch, and folded the cloth to return it to his pack. That done, she went to her own and opened it, rifling through the contents out of bored curiosity. To his surprise, she suddenly made a very pleased noise, and pulled a book out of the pack. A big smile came over her face.

“Did you put that in there?” Mablung asked severely, knowing how the Captain treasured his books, though in truth this particular one was one of the more battered specimens in his collection. Hethlin’s eyes widened, and she shook her head vehemently. “I suppose the Captain must have done it then. See that you look after it properly and keep it out of the wet.” A vigorous nod answered him, she set it carefully down upon her blanket, then began rooting through the pack once more. Her actions puzzled him-till he saw the small piece of soap in her hand. Grinning, he watched as she headed towards the creek to wash her hands in accordance with Faramir’s instructions, and noted that her bow was in her hand and her quiver on her back.

Anorien was a sparsely settled place, and undoubtedly dangerous. The girl had been raised to have habits which would insure her survival. Those same habits and skills would have made her a good Ranger with only a minimal effort upon Mablung’s part. Startled to find himself thinking in such a way, the lieutenant shook himself hard. It was not a woman’s place to go to war, unless necessity forced her to defend her homestead in her man’s absence. He thought of the young men from Lossarnach or other parts of Gondor, who had come to the Rangers without those skills, had been unable to learn them swiftly enough, and had died in consequence. She was carrying the bow of one of those young men right now. Considering how badly he felt when he lost one of them, how much worse he would feel were she to be killed or wounded?

That was, of course, assuming she even had the wish or will to go to war. After her experiences with the orcs, she would probably want to be as far from any sort of conflict as possible. Shooting at targets was one sort of skill, hunting for the table was yet another, shooting a man or man-like orc who was charging right at you intending to kill you was still a third. It seemed as if her father had raised her as a lad, but like most lads, she was an untried, unknown quantity. A great many people, even people trained as soldiers, died in their first few seconds of combat because they froze, and were unable to steel themselves to take life, even when their own lives were in peril. Things could happen to her, had already happened to her, that were unlikely to befall a lad, things that were arguably worse than death-he was insane to even be pursuing this line of thought!

Mablung sighed, picked up his knife and one of the seasoned chunks of wood he had brought with him, and began to carve. The girl returned from the stream and settled herself upon her bedroll to read, her bow and quiver by her side, the very picture of contentment. The afternoon passed by slowly and silently for the most part, though every once in a while Hethlin would look up to check upon the progress of his carving, and smile with delight at the small, whimsical farm animals he was producing. When the light began to fail, Mablung brought supper out for them, more of the same they’d had for lunch, save for a special treat-a honey cake he’d filched from the special batch baked outside the refuge in anticipation of the Captain-General’s visit.

The honey cake earned him a ecstatic smile, and he was amused at the way she slowly ate her half, savoring each crumb in a manner quite unlike her usual wolfish ways. As the night drew down, she stepped off for a moment to take care of necessary matters, again taking her bow with her, then washed up and settled into her bedroll without protest. The two of them ended their day by lying silently in the thicket, looking up through the branches of the trees where the stars could be seen glimmering, burning bright, hot silver against the deep blue vault of twilight. It was, Mablung thought as he drifted off to sleep, the most peaceful day he had ever passed with a woman.

Down the same stream which chuckled hard by the sleeping pair, well below the Window on the West, and the pool into which it poured, a shadow moved. Patient far beyond the usual sort of his kind, he had spent the day marking the sentries, napping, and moving upstream a short distance at a time. Far wiser than most of his ilk, he had bathed himself and his clothes in the cold water of the stream, and bunches of the aromatic herbs for which Ithilien was famous graced his leather armor, along with the more usual sort of camouflaging leafy branches. The fragrance of the herbs irritated his nose, but he was a hunter and a tracker, and knew that an enemy could be found by smell as well as sight. For that reason, for an orc the scout was positively cleanly.

The company to which he had been attached as a scout and tracker had been found and slain by the Rangers three days ago. Fleeing, he had gone to ground, listening still and silent while all of his fellows had died. Since then, the scout had been endeavoring to move unseen through a wood which seemed full of the green and brown-clad Men for some reason. Initially, he had hoped only to be able to climb up and over the steep slopes of the Ephel Duath, or to slip north and re-enter Mordor by way of the Morannon. Then things had changed. He had begun to notice a pattern to the movements of the Men, how they all seemed to be leaving or converging upon the same place. The scout, more intelligent than the average orc, for scouts had to be bright enough to act alone and on their own initiative, realized with excitement that he could very well be close to the legendary Ranger lair the Enemy had been trying to find for years.

His plans had changed-instead of simple escape, his mission now became one of surveillance. The Nine struck fear into the heart of every orc, and he was no exception to that rule, but the scout also knew that the Witch-King admired initiative and had been known upon occasion to reward it handsomely. There were tales told among the barracks and dens of orcs who had been given their choice of females, riches, and the favor of the Nine, for achieving a great victory in battle, or for bringing some choice bit of intelligence to the attention of the wraiths. And Minas Morgul was about the same distance to the south as his original destination, the Morannon, was to the north.

So it was he had begun to move by night, ever so carefully, his course paralleling the stream, but slightly to the south where there was plenty of cover. He had noted a faint path along its banks, another indication that he might be upon the right track. It was not enough to go to the Nazgûl with the little information he had now-he had to risk penetrating the sentry lines to see the lair with his own eyes.

As if the Dark powers were of a mind to reward his enterprise, he had been able to capture a couple of rabbits over the last two days to sate his hunger, their fresh, raw flesh a delightful change from his usual fare. And this morning, he had received further confirmation of his theory. He had been lying low, covered with leaves and bracken in a comfortable, shadowed hollow but a few feet off of the trail, when a party of Men had come up it. These were not Rangers, but armored soldiers of Gondor, with a man amidst them who was obviously a commander of great importance from the richness of his garb. Such a man would not be out here in the middle of the woods, just idly ambling about-he obviously had a specific destination. Perhaps he had come to confer with the cursed Captain of the Rangers.

The scout had been tempted momentarily to try and assassinate the great commander, but his common sense, another faculty he possessed in greater measure than his fellows, stayed his hand, for he knew that the man’s escort would have immediately combed the woods for him, and he would have had great difficulty evading them in the hurtful sunlight, even the dim and dappled sunlight of the glades. So he watched, and waited for the night, licking his gnarled lips in anticipation of what was to come, and dreaming grandiose dreams of glory and riches. He would skulk, and slink, and see, and then tell-and be the one who brought about the downfall of the Ithilien Rangers at last.

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