August 3015-Hethlin had not finished the first book the Captain had given her, but she did soon after breakfast, and took up the second. Her reading and the lieutenant’s carving occupied them both till after lunch, when Mablung set the little animals aside, and looked at the girl.
“Let’s take a walk,” he said. “I’m getting stiff as that log over there.” Hethlin seemed pleased at the prospect, and immediately packed the book carefully away into her pack, preparing to shoulder it. The lieutenant stopped her.
“We’ll be back. Just bring your bow.” That pleased her even more, and she rose swiftly, with a coltish grace. Mablung followed in a more workmanlike fashion.
He spent the afternoon evaluating her level of skill in woodsmanship, watching her track, having her skulk through a thick patch of underbrush. She found these exercises to be most enjoyable, her eyes gleaming gleefully, and when he ceased the trials, he owned himself impressed. If her father had taught her his trade, he’d done a good job, for all that he’d been prematurely and permanently interrupted. She was more competent than several of the young men who had become successful Rangers.
The perpetual silence was beginning to wear upon him, however, particularly since he knew there was no physical reason for it. It was not so noticeable when they were in the company of the other Rangers, but now, with no other companionship, the one-sided nature of their conversations was glaringly obvious. Remembering how the Captain had chastised Lorend for forcing her to talk, Mablung swore to himself he would make no effort to do so, but late in the afternoon, despite his resolution, a frustrated sigh gusted out of him.
“I wish you were more talkative, Hethlin. You’re a pleasant enough companion, but a man wearies of the sound of his own voice.”
The look she gave him then was so stricken and shame-faced that he apologized at once.
“I’m sorry, lass! I didn’t mean to be surly-it’s just that sitting out here and not knowing what is going on is frustrating.” Hethlin’s response to that was a remorseful, sidelong glance which told him she was well aware that she was the cause of his exile and that he wasn’t helping matters with his explanation. He grunted uncomfortably.
“Oh, forget I said anything, lass! There are men in the world who would love to be in the company of a sweet, silent lass such as yourself. The Valar know I wish my sisters had been so quiet every once in a while!” That earned him a tentative smile. “You know anything about what you can gather to eat in the forest?” She nodded. “Then why don’t we go up the stream a little, and see what we can find for supper?”
They came back half an hour later with some cresses found in the stream, some small mushrooms and a few handfuls of berries, and added these to the food Damrod had brought that morning to make another cold but adequate supper. Hethlin ate with her usual appetite, washed up afterwards, and settled down once more with the new book Faramir had sent her till the sun went down, and it got so dark that Mablung told her to stop reading so as not to damage her eyes. They then settled into their bedrolls for their second evening under the stars.
“I hope the Captain has enjoyed his little vacation,” Mablung muttered quietly as he shifted around until he was upon his back looking upward. “I’d like to think we are roughing it for a good cause! He’s been under a lot of strain lately. Mayhaps his brother got him drunk and put him in a better mood. If I know the Captain-General, and I rather fancy I do, he didn’t come up here without a bottle or two!” A tiny chuckle came from Hethlin’s direction. “Well, in any event, we’ll be back at the refuge in the morning, after they send to tell us Lord Boromir’s gone. Get some rest, lass.” He could barely see her answering nod.
The orc began moving again as darkness fell. Still very conscious of his precarious situation, he was nonetheless also eager to be free of the net of men into which he had cast himself, so that he could achieve his mission and receive his reward. Moving to the east and slightly to the south, he kept his course parallel to both the path and the gorge of the stream which it bounded upon the southern side, hoping that a straight-line course would take him out of the area of the Ranger hideout with the fewest encounters. A little after full dark, he was well past the entrance into the earth, and headed upstream. Two sentries coming in from watch and chatting amiably together caused him to freeze in a thick patch of brush, but intent upon their conversation and confident because of their proximity to their headquarters, they never noticed him.
Once past them, he encountered no one else, and picked up his pace a bit-only to pay the price for his haste by all but stumbling over a sentry unawares. The Ranger was standing quietly behind a large tree, which was why he did not see him, and peered around at the sound of a twig breaking beneath the orc’s foot.
There was no time to plan; desperate, the orc lunged forward, dagger in hand, and plunged it into the Ranger’s belly, dragging him down by the throat. The man gurgled, his hands closed about the orc’s, and made a strangled moan as the orc twisted the blade within him, ramming it upwards. Then he went limp. The orc tried to ease the body gently to the ground, but there was a slight crackling of underbrush. He froze for a long moment, then, hearing no answering outcry, continued on his way up stream, up the slopes that began to climb towards the Ephel Duath. The scout had decided that he’d had enough of Ithilien-he would make his progress towards Minas Ithil on the Mordor side of the mountains.
The girl lay awake, looking up at the stars, and listening to the sounds of the night about her. A slight breeze soughed in the branches of the trees, a soothing murmur almost like a mother’s whisper, and the air was redolent with the aromatic herbs that Ithilien was famous for. A slight lightening of the sky towards the East indicated that Ithil was going to rise soon. Her fingers slipped out of the blanket and reached to touch her bow, as if for reassurance. Memories of good times spent with her father under the eaves of the forests of the Ered Nimrais came into her mind, and she closed her eyes for a moment, fighting back tears.
The faintest of sounds, at the very limit of her hearing, caught her attention. It was almost indiscernible and all she knew was that it was not a usual sort of forest sound. Unmoving, so as to not obscure the sound, she strained her ears and heard another. Something was coming towards their campsite, moving stealthily like an animal on the hunt. It was coming uphill from the direction of the cavern, and she wondered for a moment if perhaps one of the sentries was trying to pull some sort of trick upon Mablung. If so, she did not think the lieutenant would appreciate it.
Sliding soundlessly from her bedroll, she reached out to Mablung, who looked as if he’d fallen asleep already, and laid a hand upon his shoulder. His eyes snapped open, and squinted as he peered up at her. She gestured in the direction of the sounds she’d heard, then pointed at her ear. He nodded, and sat up, and she returned to her bedroll, slid her quiver onto her shoulder, took up her bow, and waited, crouching beneath their bushy shelter. Beside her, the lieutenant disentangled himself from his bedroll in turn, and armed as quietly as possible.
A couple of minutes passed. Nothing further was heard, and Mablung had just turned his head to speak chidingly to the girl when there was another of the slight sounds. He froze for a moment, then his own hand crept stealthily over his back for an arrow to nock. Hethlin had already done so.
If anything, Mablung thought that one of the sentries was playing a game of Tag the Ranger. What he did not expect to see was an orc moving through the underbrush on the other side of the small clearing that was their camp.
Dread curled in his belly as he realized that the orc was probably a scout, and had penetrated all the way into the inner sentry perimeter. What if it had seen Henneth-Annûn, and understood the significance of what it had seen? Certainly the orc saw him. With a muffled growl, it loosed an arrow from its short bow which went hissing through the branches of their thicket, uncomfortably close to Mablung, who flung himself to the side. The lieutenant then answered with his own shot, which was more successful-the orc yelped softly, and scampered away into the underbrush. Scrambling up, Mablung pursed his lips and made the night-bird call that indicated an intruder, paused a moment, then repeated it. An answering call came from the sentry posted to their north, but nothing from the one to the south. He started to pursue the orc, then stopped, remembering his companion.
Hethlin was getting to her feet as well, the whites of her eyes visible even in the dim light. She was trembling, but held her bow ready. Mablung shook his head forbiddingly.
“You stay here lass, go back to the refuge. I have to catch and kill him, he might have found out our location. You will be safe enough. Better that Lord Boromir discover you are here than you get yourself into trouble once more.”
She had always been biddable, but this time she shook her head stubbornly, and moved out of the thicket in the direction the orc had gone.
“Hethlin, go back!” Mablung commanded. The girl merely jerked her head in the direction of the orc’s path as if to say he was escaping, then held up first one finger, then the rest of them one at a time, completing the sequence with a shrug of her shoulders. She seemed to be saying that there could have been more than one, and the lieutenant had to admit she was right, in which case it might very well be no more safe for her to go back alone than go on with him. Less safe, in fact, for at least if she were with him, he could protect her.
“All right then,” he capitulated, heading out, “but you do as I say! You let me deal with him, and if we meet up with more of them, then we are going to run, do you understand?” A fervent nod was his answer. It was not entirely the truth-if they met up with more orcs, Mablung intended to buy the time for her escape, with his life if necessary. But she did not need to know that.
Stifling a grunt of pain, the orc pressed onward, trying for the best compromise between outright flight and the too-slow progress of stealth. The cursed Ranger’s arrow had creased his shoulder, which was bleeding freely, and he would have liked to hole up somewhere, but he knew it was not possible. The Ranger’s whistle was obviously a signal, and soon the woods would be crawling with his companions. The orc had an advantage in his superior night vision, and more acute senses, but the Rangers had sheer numbers on their side. No, his only hope was to get out of the area as swiftly as possible while not attracting the attention of any more Rangers.
For a brief, hopeful time, he thought he had evaded the two Men, but he soon heard noises to the rear of him that indicated they were in pursuit, and he stepped up his pace. If he could open enough distance between them and himself, perhaps he could make them loose the trail.
“Here, hand me that, will you?” Boromir asked his brother, indicating the girl’s sword. Faramir did as he was bidden, raising a curious eyebrow. “I know you said that she does not talk, but I do have some questions I’d like to ask her about her father.”
“I don’t know that it will do any good, but you are welcome to try. Though she has managed to make herself understood fairly well without speech. Mablung always seems to understand what she wants.” Faramir took up his bow and quiver as his brother buckled on his own blade, and slung the girl’s sword over his shoulder by the belt.
“Mablung is a clever fellow, with a sound head upon his shoulders.” Boromir declared. “He’s a good one-you keep him close, and I’ll do what I can for him.” The Ranger Captain smiled, a twinkle in his eye.
“You just admire him because he can beat you at cards.”
“That is more luck than skill!” came the predictable protest. “Not that being lucky is a bad thing.” Boromir added in swift and superstitious reflex. He grinned as cheekily as if he were claiming fortune’s favor as a birthright, and his brother in turn shook his head as if humoring one who was delusional.
“I’ll take skill over luck any day.”
“You would! For such an incurable romantic, you’re depressingly practical at times.” After taking a brief moment to speak to the head of his escort and command him to remain at the refuge, the Captain-General followed his brother out into the main chamber and up the stairs.
A great deal of skill and a little luck kept Mablung on the trail of the intruder, as did the girl’s younger, sharper senses. Ithil was rising above the Ephel Duath, and the orc was leaving a slight blood trail, but it was still difficult to track him in the dark and move with enough speed to try to close with him. More than once, the Ranger had to stop and cast about, and each time Hethlin would look, listen intently and even sniff and help set them back upon their way again.
The trail was all straight uphill, the orc was obviously going to try to get over the mountains. Mablung needed to catch him before he got into the stonier regions upon the high slopes, where it would be impossible to track him, and where there were hundreds of places among the rocks where he could hide and slip away. The lieutenant was a fit man, hard from years of Rangering, and not troubled overmuch by the pursuit, but he cast a worried look at his companion from time to time. Her legs were long, and she could keep up with him, but she was starting to huff a bit. Her lifestyle as a child had no doubt made her strong and capable of enduring hardship, or she would not have survived what the orcs inflicted upon her. But her convalescence had been lengthy, and had not prepared her for a prolonged chase up a mountainside. She was beginning to feel the strain.
Had the orc scout been one that they had simply encountered elsewhere in the woods, he would have let it slip away out of concern for his companion. But that was not a choice he possessed now.
“You all right?” he asked her. Hethlin nodded.
“You wanted to come along when I told you you shouldn’t, so you’d better keep up now. No complaints.” As he’d expected, that earned him a glare, and the girl’s face set in a determined grimace. Her stride lengthened, and she drew even with him. Mablung grinned.
The Steward’s sons emerged from the caverns to the sound of night bird calls echoing through the air. Damrod had gathered a squad of six men and was preparing to leave when he saw his Captain and trotted over, acknowledging Boromir with a respectful bob of his head.
“What has happened?” Faramir inquired, head cocked slightly to listen to the signals.
“Intruder, sir,” Damrod responded. “Just one, we think, almost due east. Celoren’s post, but he’s not answering. I was about to go take a look.”
“I will go with you.”
“And I as well,” the Captain-General said.
Damrod looked uneasily at his commander. “Captain, Mablung was out there.”
“All is well, Damrod,” Faramir reassured him. “I have told my brother about Hethlin. We were just going out to talk to her.”
Damrod’s face cleared. “Talk at her then, don’t you mean? A rather one-sided conversation, if the Captain-General will pardon my saying so.” Boromir inclined his head graciously, and Damrod shrugged. “As we’re all going in the same direction, sirs, we may as well go together.” Faramir nodded his agreement, and they were about to move out, when someone cleared his throat behind them. The brothers turned to find Boromir’s aide standing there with the rest of his escort.
“I know you commanded us to remain behind, my lord, but surely you can see that this changes things! Please let us accompany you!” the man implored.
Boromir smiled. “Gethrin,” he said kindly, “I think that my brother, myself, these good Rangers and the Rangers already out there can handle a single intruder! You are to stay here as I have commanded. We won’t be long.”
Gethrin bowed, his unhappiness with the situation very apparent, and there was some low muttering among Boromir’s men, but they filed back down the stairs obediently enough.
“They don’t trust you with us,” Damrod commented wryly. “As if they’d be any good out there, clanking and crashing around! We’ll take good care of you sir, never you fear about that!”
Boromir laughed, and fell in beside his brother. “I am not worried, lieutenant. Faramir and I have looked after each other for a long time now.” Faramir cocked an eyebrow at him.
“And I’ll continue to do what I can, brother, but see that you keep up in all that armor, and try not to make too much noise!” he jested as the Rangers began moving swiftly eastward.
The orc hurried on, cursing to himself about his two pursuers, for, despite their disadvantage in the dark, the two Rangers had not lost his trail and fallen behind as he had hoped. There were some miles to cover before he began to climb into the stony uplands of the Ephel Duath, and he doubted that he’d reach them before dawn.
Perhaps he could find a way to draw far enough ahead of his pursuers to ambush them. Once the Rangers were dead, he was reasonably sure he’d be safe enough to travel almost till dawn, for he could move cautiously once more and avoid any outlying patrols. Then he could lair up somewhere high in the hills, and continue into Mordor at his own pace the following night. Or perhaps he could buy himself enough time to confuse his trail so that they’d never be able to find it again.
In either event, he was going to have to move faster than he was moving now. With another silent curse, the orc scout resigned himself to the necessity of picking up the pace, and began to move so quickly that he was almost loping along.
“Valar, we’re losing him!” cursed Mablung, stopping once more to cast about the orc’s trail. Hethlin bent over, hands upon knees, fighting to catch her breath. A few moments later, she straightened back up, though her left hand continued to rub a stitch in her side. Frowning in concentration, she listened carefully, then, hearing a faint crashing in the distance, moved over to Mablung and indicated a course a little to the left of their current track.
“You sure?” he asked and she nodded, pointing a finger to her ear. “All right then, let’s keep going.”
The lieutenant was not a happy man. They were losing the orc and were much farther from Henneth-Annun than he would have chosen to be with only a convalescent former orc-captive as a companion. But while he had signaled the nearest sentry, he could not wait for reinforcements lest he lose the orc’s trail, and now he feared that he and Hethlin were far in front of any possible aid from his fellow Rangers. Certainly, he’d neither heard nor seen any sign that they were coming.
Hethlin nodded weary acknowledgment of his command, and as they started moving again, Mablung handed her his long knife.
“You leave him to me when we catch him, but you should have this in case something happens.” Another nod from the girl, as she shoved the dagger into her belt without breaking stride. Mablung knew that she was afraid of the orc, yet she had carried herself well thus far, and had been invaluable in aiding him in the tracking of his quarry. Not for the first time, the lieutenant found himself regretting she was not a lad.
Wondering, also not for the first time, if her dead father had had the same regret, he made a silent promise to the dead man.
I am going to do my best, Halaran, to see that your daughter does not die tonight.
Faramir said very little to his brother as they made their way towards where the sentry had been silenced and Boromir did not trouble him with questions, simply watching as Faramir listened to and interpreted his Rangers’ signals.
They reached Celoren’s position swiftly enough, and found the man dead. Damrod, who was one of their better trackers, examined the area in the growing moonlight and frowned.
“An orc,” he confirmed with a frown. “Just one, but the trail leads back towards the falls, sir. I’m afraid there’s a good chance he found us.”
Faramir received the disastrous news calmly enough, did not curse nor even raise his voice, but Boromir was taken aback by how much he suddenly resembled their father.
“How is it that this came to pass?” came the deceptively mild question.
“You know as well as anyone, Captain, that it’s possible to slip in almost anywhere, if you’re smart enough, quiet enough, and lucky enough,” Damrod replied a bit defensively.
Faramir did not press the issue, but merely said, “We will discuss the failure of our perimeter security at another time, Damrod. Which way did the orc go?” The lieutenant looked unhappy, his expression showing clearly that, as the officer in charge, he knew that the blame for the failure lay with him. But he turned his attention back to the matter at hand resolutely.
“This way, sir,” he said, picking up the trail once more and moving eastward. Faramir, Boromir and the rest of the Rangers all fell in behind him.
“And where were Mablung and Hethlin camped?” Faramir asked. Damrod looked back over his shoulder, and his face was grim.
“This way, sir,” he repeated.
A short time later, the patrol found the deserted camp and once again, Damrod searched for signs of what had happened there.
“They’ve gone after the orc,” he told his Captain after some minutes of study, “and it looks as if Mablung may have wounded it. There’s orc blood over here.”
“Why did he take the girl with him?” muttered Faramir. “She must be terrified of orcs, and rightly so! How could he ask that of her?”
“He might have been trying to protect her, “ Damrod speculated, “if he were afraid there were more of them, he might have thought her safer with him.”
“There is some truth to that,” Faramir conceded. “Very well, we’re falling further and further behind just standing here. Let’s follow them and find them before they get themselves into trouble.”
Finally, the orc was opening out some distance between himself and his pursuers, and he now had to make his decision-to simply try to lose them, or to ambush them and finish the matter once and for all. His concern that even if he lost them, the Rangers would not rest until they rediscovered his trail, and his very real need for rest eventually made the decision for him. Fear spurring him onward, the scout began to once more indulge in behavior very unlike the usual orc. With many a muted grunt of pain, he began to climb a nearby tree, and once he was high enough to have a good view of the forest floor below, but not so high that the branches were thin, began to creep carefully from one tree to another, back along his trail. Transferring from one tree to another required leaps that made his gorge leap into his throat, but he succeeded, and in the third tree back, settled himself as comfortably as he could upon a thick branch close to the trunk of the tree, got his bow out and waited.
He had discovered over time that Men never expected to find an orc up in a tree. This peculiar oversight of theirs had saved his life upon more than once occasion. Now he listened for the approaching footsteps of his enemies and felt anticipation as well as trepidation. With any luck at all, he would be able to kill both of them as they passed below before they were any the wiser. And then perhaps he could rest for a bit.
Hethlin was beginning to stagger and slow, and Mablung seethed in frustration, for they were falling farther and farther behind. Finally, she had to stop, bent over as she had been before, her breath coming in rasping pants. He tried to calm himself and be patient with her.
“Do you need a moment?” The girl nodded, then gestured to him and waved him on.
“No, I’ll not leave you. But I’m going to check up ahead a little way, make sure we’re still on the right track. Come on when you’re able.” She nodded once more, and Mablung moved forward, seeking out the trail.
Up on his leafy perch, the orc grinned as the Ranger came in view. The older and the more dangerous one to his way of reckoning, and the Man was alone. He spared a moment’s concern for the location of the younger one, but figured he could not be far away and that he would come running when his companion fell. It was actually better for the orc this way-he was not a great shot, and this way, he would not have to shoot in haste.
Ever so carefully, so as not to cause any revealing rustle of leaves, the orc scout nocked and drew.
Having caught her breath, Hethlin straightened up and started after Mablung. She could hear the Ranger a little way ahead, and her jaw clenched in determination. She would not become a hindrance! Not after all his kindness to her! He had not gone far, and it took but a moment’s jog to bring him into sight once more.
An owl flew from left to right overhead, and her eyes followed it automatically. Eagles and hawks and owls were creatures that had significance to her family, or so her father had always said. They brought luck, and she smiled a little as she watched the bird soar soundlessly by. Then the smile froze, and her heart thudded painfully in her aching chest.
A clot of blackness was in one of the trees above the trail, and it moved as she watched. There was only one thing it could be. The orc was far cleverer than they had expected. It had gone high and Mablung was oblivious to its presence. She fumbled for an arrow, and knew that she would not be able to shoot it in time. A desperate, wordless shriek of warning burst from her lips.
Startled by the young Man’s scream, the orc’s arm jerked as he released, and the Ranger below him, also startled, jumped and spun. The two movements were enough to make the arrow go wide and thud into the ground beside the Man. Stifling a curse, the orc looked around the tree and found the younger Ranger staring straight up at him, and nocking an arrow. The older Man, who still seemed unsure of his location, was no longer the greater threat. The scout hastened to ready a second shaft.
Hethlin’s hands were shaking as she nocked the arrow, partly from exhaustion and partly from fear. She knew that the orc must be readying an arrow for her even as she did for him. Incongruously, at that moment a memory came over her from a more peaceful time.
“When someone surprises you,” her father had said one day, when they were resting after a game of Skulk-and-Hide in the woods on the slopes above their home, “don’t try to get fancy, don’t try to aim. Get a shot off as fast as you can. Rattle them. Then make your second shot count.”
Calmed by the memory, she did as she had been taught, drawing and releasing almost without aiming at all, at the black blot above her. The arrow came closer than she had any right to expect, slicing through the leaves near the orc. He uttered a guttural curse, but by then her hands had steadied, flying through the motions she knew so well, nocking, drawing, and this time aiming squarely at the shadow of his body. She knew even as she released it that the shot was good.
The young Ranger’s first arrow indeed rattled the orc, causing him to fumble and drop the shaft he’d been readying, and the moment he did so, he knew that he was done, even before the second arrow pierced him, driving up under his ribs and into his heart. His dreams of glory fell into darkness with him. He never felt his body hit the ground.
As the orc’s body thudded onto the forest floor, Mablung leaped over, sword in hand to finish it off, but found the effort unnecessary. The intruder was quite dead. Shaken himself by the close call, he looked over at his companion, who was staring with wide eyes blankly back at him, pale and shivering, her bow held laxly, seemingly forgotten in her hand.
“That was well-done, Hethlin, well-done indeed,” he said, and not knowing that she was hearing his words spoken in another voice entirely, was worried when she began to weep.
Moving slowly, so as not to alarm her, he came over and after a moment’s hesitation, took her carefully into his arms. During all his nursing of her, he had never done so before, for she had not permitted such things, but she suffered him to do so now, even dropping her head onto his shoulder as she sobbed. A bit at a loss as to what to do, he settled for stroking her hair and speaking soft words of praise and encouragement.
Rather sooner than he had expected, she mastered herself, nodding to him, swallowing hard and stepping back out of his embrace. He prevented her wiping her nose on her sleeve by presenting her with a handkerchief from his belt pouch, which she accepted with an embarrassed bob of her head. Scrubbing at first her eyes, then her nose, she was giving it back to him when she suddenly froze, eyes widening. He saw her stare due east, sniffing the wind, and it came to him then as well, but as a drift of noise-footsteps heavier than even the worst Ranger’s, lots of them, and guttural grumbling. There was a shadow under the trees in that direction, and even as he saw it, a cry arose and he knew that they had been seen in turn.
The scout, it seemed, had not been alone. He did not know how the orc had infiltrated Henneth-Annûn so successfully, nor how it had arranged this rendezvous with its fellows. But he did know what he was going to do, and grabbed Hethlin by the arm. She stared back at him with wild, panicked eyes.
“RUN!” he cried, and did.