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3
Chapter Three

August 3015-As true darkness fell, the orc began to move once more, ever so carefully and quietly. He intended to take as much time as was necessary to penetrate the perimeter of the Ranger haven; indeed, he could not afford to do otherwise, for it was unlikely that he would get more than one opportunity. If others had ever come this close, they had not survived to tell the tale. He intended to be the first to make the boast, and take the reward for accomplishing it.
So he crept in small increments up the stream, pausing often for long periods to look and listen and scent the wind for any sign of sentries. It was not his intention to engage them unless discovery made it absolutely necessary-he was not a large orc or a great warrior. He possessed some skill when it came to killing swiftly and silently from behind, but littering the forest with dead sentries would alert the Rangers to his presence. Discovering the location of the refuge would do him no good if he was killed after obtaining the information. Along with more than average wits and intelligence, he possessed more patience than was usual among his brethren, and he used that now.

The land began sloping more steeply upward, the stream’s banks began to cut into the earth and the roaring of a waterfall increased as he drew ever closer. A couple of hours before midnight, he encountered a sentry. Hunkering down in the underbrush, moving one limb at a time, making not the slightest sound, he crept past the man. From that point on, his progress became even more cautious and careful. The cut in which the stream flowed grew taller and steeper, and eventually he lost sight of it. He heard another sentry to the south of him, and lay quiet for a long time before he resumed moving, unsure as to whether he had penetrated the inner perimeter or if he were moving between an outer and inner one.

Eventually, he spied a glimmer ahead of him through the trees to his left. The roar was quite loud now. Further careful progress showed him a thinning in the trees ahead of him, apparently some sort of path more worn from constant use than the deer track he’d used earlier. Shadows were moving upon it, more sentries. The sheer number of Men he was encountering was both frightening and exciting. Frightening because of the possibility he would be discovered, exciting because their numbers indicated to him that he was very close to what he sought.

Dropping back a little to the south, he began to parallel the path as he had the stream earlier. Several times he was forced to freeze in place to avoid sentries, who were now to both the north and south of him. In those hours between midnight and dawn, the orc scout called upon all his native cunning and craft as he never had before. The sentries remained oblivious to his presence, and as dawn was beginning to lighten the horizon, his efforts were rewarded. He watched, amazed, as men upon the path vanished into the earth, and issued forth from it, and realized that there must be some sort of cavern system behind the waterfall itself.

No wonder the Enemy had sought in vain for this place! Exultant, he realized that he had found the golden prize itself! Now all he had to do was lie low until nightfall and make his way back out, preferably up the course of the stream that fed into the waterfall, that he might mark its source so as to aid his fellows in finding the place again.

The light was growing perilously fast, so he turned his mind from thoughts of his reward to more practical matters. In a tumble of boulders beneath a gnarled and overhanging tree, he found a place in which to den up for the day, and crept in. Exhausted by the strain of his stealthy journey, the orc was asleep by the time the rim of the sun crept over the horizon.

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

Mablung fed the girl more bread and cheese for breakfast, and brought out another surprise-a smallish bottle that turned out to contain ale, which he shared between the two of them. Hethlin grinned when she took the first swig, and looked at him meaningfully.

“I like a little ale for breakfast,” he grumped, and she actually laughed. The sound of approaching footsteps made her head snap up, then she looked at his unconcerned posture, and relaxed again. Damrod strode into their tiny camp, a pack upon his back.

“There’s been a change of plans, Mablung,” he announced without preamble.

“And a good morning to you too, Damrod,” the lieutenant growled at his fellow lieutenant. Damrod took a step back as if in horror, and grinned at the girl.

“Gracious, Hethlin, you mean to tell me he hasn’t had his morning bottle yet, the big baby? You’d best hand it back over quickly-he’s a veritable dragon till he’s had it!”

Eyes twinkling, the girl passed the bottle back to Mablung, leaning away from him and extending the bottle towards him with the tips of her fingers as if she feared they would be bitten off. Mablung took it.

“The two of you are very funny.” But he followed his statement with another swig of the ale.

“As I said, there’s been a change of plans,” Damrod continued. “The Captain-General’s staying another day.” Mablung frowned.

“What for? Surely he did not find anything to complain of?”

“Nay, nothing like that. From what I was able to hear, it’s more along the lines of a day off. Captain Boromir says he has not had one in eight months, and if he goes to Tirith to take leave, his father will just make him sit in council all day. And he wants to spend some time with his brother. So he’s just going to stay up here an extra day, pretend he’s looking the situation over further and rest instead.”

“The Captain could use a bit of that himself,” commented Mablung, and Damrod nodded.

“That’s the pure truth! It’ll be good for him too. In any event, you’ll need to stay out here till tomorrow, so I brought you some more food. There’s another book for the girl as well.”

“I don’t think she’s finished the first one yet, but give the Captain our thanks when it’s safe to do so.” Damrod nodded, and started swiftly emptying the pack of its contents.

“Damrod,” Mablung said as he was finishing the task, “the girl can shoot.” Damrod cocked an eyebrow at him.

“A lot of these farm girls do know one end of a bow from the other. Some of them hunt for the pot.”

“No, I mean she can really shoot.” Hethlin ducked her head, blushing a little, and Damrod contemplated the top of her head for a moment.

“Anborn says she can really fletch as well,” he commented. “And she knows a little bit about the sword-”

“-though not about finishing the job when she had the chance!” interjected Mablung, and the two men laughed.

“’Tis curious, is it not?” said Damrod, shaking his head thoughtfully. “I remember that mending you set out for her. Valar, how you cursed! She’s good for naught of womanly things but doing the laundry. Whatever were her parents thinking of?”

Hethlin shot a glare at Damrod. Mablung gave her a considering look.

“I’m thinking her parents were doing as any parents do-letting her go where her own best gifts would take her.”

“Into the woods? The wild? ‘Tis no place for a woman, Mablung.”

“Then what is her place?”

“Fortunately for us, that is the Captain’s job to decide.”

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

The Captain, having imbibed the better part of one of the bottles of wine at his brother’s instigation, slept very late, and woke in a less than cheerful mood.

“Valar! What is the hour? Why did no one wake me?”

“No one woke you,” replied Boromir from a bedroll upon the floor, “because I commanded them not to. You needed the rest, little brother.”

“If you were so concerned about my well-being, you might have prevented my waking with a hangover, you wretch!” grumbled Faramir. “Instead of encouraging it!”

“I did not hold a sword to your throat and force you to drink that wine!” the Captain-General declared, pushing up on an elbow. He’d slept in naught but breeches, and had put Faramir to bed the same way.

“Perhaps not, but I’m sure you’re at fault somehow. All my indulgences in vice can usually be traced directly to you!”

“I would be derelict in my duty as a proper big brother could they not,” Boromir agreed equably, stretching. “Though I must say, I had hoped you would have developed a better head for the stuff by now.” That earned him a frown from Faramir, who had sat up, and was groping about for his boots.

“I don’t drink as a rule, unless you’re about. Not like that.” Finding the offending footwear, he began to pull it on, grimacing as the motion of bending over made his head pound. “What is it you want to do on your day off, oh commander-in-chief?”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” Boromir arose as well, and began rolling the blankets up with the neat, economical motions of someone who’d done it thousands of times. “I do not want to do anything but go swim in that frigid pool of yours, and eat your wretched food-it’s a credit to you all, by the way, that you accomplish what you do on those horrible dried rations-and lie in the sun and just talk to my brother.”

“That does sound lovely,” Faramir admitted, “like basking on the beach at Dol Amroth.”

“Your water’s a lot colder than Dol Amroth is this time of year.” Boromir looked about for his own boots.

“Well, if you must have warm water, we could always hike down to Anduin. It is only about fifteen miles each way,” his brother suggested mildly. “Your boots are over there in the corner. I have no idea how they got there, but I can see them from here.”

“Thank you.” The Captain-General went to the indicated corner and started pulling them on. “I think I’ll pass on the thirty-mile stroll, brother.”

“Tsssk. The regular army gets softer by the day.” Boromir cocked an eyebrow.

“Is that a challenge, Faramir? Because this day I do want to be soft and indolent, and will not answer it.” Faramir sighed.

“In truth, I don’t think I have the energy either. See-you’re corrupting me again!”

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

An hour later, the brothers had bathed and swum in the Forbidden Pool, and were basking on the small piece of beach at the foot of the path that led down to it. The sun was directly overhead, which made it the best time of day for such activities, and the heat was lulling. They lay back, using their towels to cushion them from the odd stone, and let the sun bake them dry.

“Speaking of Dol Amroth,” Boromir said, “Cousin Elphir is coming up here to do a tour with me next month.”

“Really?” Faramir asked, surprised. He was in a much better mood, for one of Mablung’s vile herbal concoctions, followed by the cold water and warm sun had worked wonders upon his headache. “However did you get Father to agree to that?”

“It was not easy, it never is with Father. You know how he gets when he thinks Uncle is sticking his nose in. I had to give him a big speech about unity between our forces, increased efficiency, everybody needing to know how to work together. Of course, I made sure I gave it in Council, in front of everybody.”

Faramir sighed in admiration of his brother’s daring and political acumen. “You’re good.”

The Captain-General folded his arms behind his head, and smiled. “Yes. Yes, I am.”

The Ranger Captain sat up, reached for the comb he had laid close to hand with his sword, and began dragging it carefully through his still-damp locks.

“I do not mean to offend you brother,” he said thoughtfully, “but I find it curious that we do not have a unit like Uncle’s Swan Knights. I’m not saying cavalry necessarily, but something that tight-knit and with that tradition of excellence. There is the Tower Guard, but they are rather small, and they don’t go afield. It’s something you might look into doing.”

Boromir did not take offense. “I don’t have to,” he murmured without opening his eyes. “Because you are mistaken, Brother. I do already have an elite unit that is tight-knit, well-led and has a tradition of pulling off miracles. It’s called the Ithilien Rangers.” He then cocked an eye open so he could watch with delight as his younger brother’s sun-bronzed cheeks flushed red.

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

There were no dried rations for the Captain General’s lunch after all, but rather the good bread and cakes his own aide had brought, a fine cheese, blackberries that had been gathered wild by the Rangers, and bacon that had been cooked by them five miles from the refuge and carried back that morning. He and Faramir carried their spoils out to the ledge near the cave entrance, and sat them upon a blanket under the shade of the tree, where they could watch the waterfall, and the comings and goings of the Rangers.

“Father is after me again to take a wife,” Boromir commented, once they’d sated the first edge of their hunger.

“You really should,” his brother replied after chewing and swallowing a crisp bacon piece appreciatively. “Why haven’t you?”

“Oh, I have my reasons. What sort of life would it be, married to me? The poor girl would never see me-I am home only about one month in six.”

“One month in six is time enough to get you an heir,” declared Faramir. “Which you should have done long before now. We are neither of us in a safe line of work.” The Steward’s Heir gave his younger brother a wicked grin.

“All too true, brother! I have got an idea! Why don’t I delegate this little task? You marry first, and get yourself an heir, then I will follow when I have time.”

Faramir shrugged, and started popping blackberries into his mouth. “My objections are much the same as yours. Not that that means anything to Father. He’ll get around to picking out someone for me one day, command me to marry her and that will be that.”

Boromir did not deny it. “He’s trying to do something of the sort to me. Gave me a list of ladies he deemed suitable. Most of them are mere children ‘Thiri’s age. Perhaps if they were more like ‘Thiri, I might be tempted.”

“I suppose......he would let you marry ‘Thiri if you truly had a mind to,” Faramir commented thoughtfully. “Uncle might let you as well if he thought the two of you were in love. He has said that our cousins might wed to suit themselves, and Elphir has already married the lady he fancied.”

“Yes, I got Elphir thrown in my face as a paragon of familial virtue the last time I was home. Which should show you how desperate Father is about the situation, if he is praising anything Dol Amroth does!” Boromir snorted as he started eating the blackberries as well. “No, I’ll not wed ‘Thiri, we’re too close kin. There is too much of that about the court already, and I’d like my children to have the right number of fingers, and all of their wits!”

“Who was on Father’s list?”

“Oh, the usual lot. Little Jerulas from Belfalas, Sealyn of Lossarnach-you know the crew. Théodred says I may have his cousin Éowyn, and I’m tempted. Father would be torn between the necessity of strengthening the alliance with Rohan, and the horror that I was marrying someone who was not Numenorean. It might be fun.”

“Have you seen her? What is she like?” asked Faramir curiously.

“I’ve not been in Rohan for a long time. Last time I saw her, she was about the age ‘Thiri is. That would make her twenty now.....maybe twenty-one, I’m not sure. She was pretty enough, and feisty. A tomboyish little thing. Harassed Théodred until he let her ride to the hunt with us, and kept up just fine. Not squeamish, either.”

“Not squeamish, hey? Sounds like the ideal wife for you!” Faramir quipped. Boromir cuffed his shoulder and handed him a piece of the bread.

“Since she’s not Numenorean, Father may have her in mind for you. Which would be a shame, since she would no doubt eat you alive.”

Faramir eyed him from under hooded lids, took a bite of the bread, chewed it slowly, then swallowed. “I rather doubt it,” he said at last.

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

“Where is Mablung?” inquired Boromir that evening, as they sat over dinner in the alcove. Once again, the men had gone out of their way to please the Captain-General, and a pot of rabbit stew in wine sauce simmered upon Faramir’s spirit lamp. “I’ve not seen your right-hand man the whole time I’ve been here. Is he on patrol?”

“He is out with a new recruit. We do that now, so that they learn the things they need to know a little better before they see battle. Within the outer sentry perimeter, so it is safe enough,” Faramir replied after a moment.

“When did you start doing that?” Boromir inquired.

“Since I started getting recruits, sending them out on their first patrol, and having them killed. We cannot afford the loses-Orcs breed faster than we do.” The Captain-General nodded his comprehension.

“That sounds like a good idea, Faramir.” He was drinking the company’s ale this evening, as they’d finished the wine the night before, and was looking over the reports once more as they ate, since he was going to leave early in the morning. “You are a good commander, seeing to such details. A good commander indeed...” He held up the report upon the orc ambush at the River. “This, for instance, was a sweet action, with the rarest of results. The enemy totally destroyed, not one of your men slain. Even Father could not fault you on this one!”

“Oh, I suspect he could find something there to take exception to,” Faramir remarked dryly, thinking of the girl. Boromir, scanning the report, paused suddenly.

“They had a captive with them? Whatever happened to the poor fellow? Were you able to save him? Question him? It does not say anything here except that he went into the River.”

Faramir stared at his brother, frozen, for he had not anticipated that Boromir would ask about the captive, or even be particularly interested. Boromir was not someone he could lie to, not that he felt himself to be good at falsehood or concealment anyway, and he realized now that his subterfuge with Mablung was a futile thing that was going to accomplish nothing except to make him look bad. His brother was the person in the world he was closest to, and deserved nothing less than the truth.

“Faramir? What is the matter?” Boromir’s brow furrowed at the look on his brother’s face.

“The captive survived,” Faramir said quietly, after a moment’s hesitation, “I fished her out of the River myself.”

Her? The orcs had a woman with them?”

“A girl. I think she is about sixteen.” The Captain-General frowned.

“Where is she now, Faramir?”

“With Mablung, within the outer sentry perimeter. Where I had hoped,” Faramir admitted miserably, “you would not find her.”

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

It did not take long to tell Hethlin’s story, and Boromir paced about as Faramir did it, looming over the younger man like a louring thundercloud.

“You swear to me that she is not your leman, nor shared among the men?” he said at the conclusion of the tale.

That brought Faramir to his own feet in a hurry. “Any man who could have forced her after having seen how hurt she was when we found her is no man I would have in my company! And how could you think for a moment that I would use her that way, brother? I will admit that I tried to conceal her from you, but I have never done anything to make you believe I was capable of such calumny as that!”

Boromir threw up a hand in appeasement. “Peace, Faramir! I did not truly believe you could do such a thing, but this deception of yours has wounded me, and I suppose I wished to wound you a bit in return. How could you not believe that I would help you?” Faramir picked up his tankard of ale, and folded his hands around it.

“I did not wish to involve you, should Father hear of this. And I truly did not know what you would do-that you would do what you felt would be of help to me, of that I was certain. But whether what you did would be good for Hethlin-that I did not know.”

“I have nothing against the girl!” Boromir protested. “She has certainly suffered enough to make anyone pity her. But your company of Rangers is not the place for her! Do you truly believe that she may be the daughter of that fellow from Anorien you questioned me about?”

Faramir nodded, set the tankard back on the table, and went over to the chest that held his possessions. “That I do, and this is why I think so.” He reached within, and drew out the sword that Mablung had brought back from Min-rimmon. Unsheathing it, he handed the blade to his brother, who hefted it experimentally, then gave it a swing and whistled in appreciation.

“This is a fine blade!”

“’Tis all she has left of her family now,” Faramir said somberly. “Look upon the blade, hard by the hilt.” Boromir examined the device engraved there, and nodded.

“’Tis indeed the same device he bore on his brooch. And you said his name was Halaran? That is much like the name I remember.” He sighed. “It saddens me that such a man should come to such an end. And the children, and his wife, and what was wrought upon the girl herself-by such acts does the Enemy’s vile nature make itself known.” Sheathing the blade, he handed it back to Faramir. “What is it you wish to do with her?”

“Send her to Uncle,” came his prompt reply. “He will know what is best to do, I am sure of it. I would have sent her myself already, had the opportunity presented itself. But by the time she was well enough to make the journey, we started having all of those orc incursions. Things seem to be quieting down now though, and I was hoping to send her soon.”

“I could take her back with me when I return to Osgiliath,” Boromir offered, but Faramir shook his head.

“I do not wish to put her into the hands of strangers; not even your men, brother. I would like to send Mablung with her, if I could find a way to arrange it. Him she trusts.” The Captain-General gave him a thoughtful look.

“That’s a long time to go without your second in command. Depending upon the weather, it could take up to two months to get to Dol Amroth and back.”

“Even so, I will do without him to accomplish this.” Boromir nodded.

“Very well then. I will consider how it may best be done. Why don’t we go out and find them? I would like to see her for myself, and speak to Mablung without your whole company listening in. And then they can come back with us. No sense in their sleeping in the rough now that I know she’s here.”

“It is full dark, Boromir.”

“What matters that? The night is cool and the walk will be pleasant.” Faramir murmured an assent, and began shrugging into his leather. Boromir started donning his gambeson and chain as well, for despite what he’d said about enjoyment, he was a prudent man and had no illusions about being safe in Ithilien, even within the sentry perimeter. When he’d pulled them on, and was fastening the buckles, he looked over at his brother.

“Faramir?”

The Ranger Captain turned to look at Boromir, who smiled at him fondly. “Thank you for being truthful with me.”

Faramir dropped his eyes. “There is no credit in this for me, brother. I should have been honest with you from the start.” Boromir shrugged.

“You were not dishonest. You did hide her from me, but when I asked you directly, you answered truly. I understand why you did what you did, but fear not. We shall see the girl properly settled together.” His younger brother nodded after a moment and buckled on his sword.

And as full dark fell, the orc roused himself from his den, to begin to make his creeping, careful way out of the sentry lines, towards what he hoped would be reward beyond reckoning for him, and death to the Ithilien Rangers.

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