Boromir, Faramir and the Rangers made somewhat better time than Hethlin and Mablung had, for the first two hunters had not been attempting to hide their trail in any way, and it was fairly easy for Damrod to follow them even in the moonlit dark. The second party was heading uphill at a steady clip when they heard the scream echo faintly through the silent forest. Faramir raised his hand, and they all halted, straining their ears, but could hear nothing more.
“Let’s pick up the pace, Rangers,” was all he said, but they resumed moving at the trot with an increased sense of urgency. Boromir, who was a tall man and strong, and one who wore harness almost every day and was thus well-accustomed to it, nonetheless cast an envious glance at his younger brother. Faramir, his face grave, jogged along lithely, neither so well protected nor so encumbered as Boromir was.
“Do you think the orc overcame Mablung?” he asked.
“There’s no way of knowing,” Faramir replied, not even out of breath though they were steadily climbing. The line that creased his brow when he was worried was quite visible in the dim light. “I deem it unlikely, but not impossible. I hope not, for the girl’s sake.”
“If we get her out of this, I want her on her way to Dol Amroth as soon as possible, orc incursions or not,” Boromir declared.
Faramir nodded. “I agree, brother. With or without Mablung, I promise you I’ll send her as soon as we get her back.”
“Why is it that women are always so disruptive?” the Captain-General panted rhetorically after a moment. “Look at her-barely out of childhood, and already she has you concealing things from me, and your whole command in an uproar.”
Faramir gave his brother a sidelong look. “In all fairness to the girl, Boromir, the orc put my command into an uproar. Hethlin is no trouble-most of the time, we hardly know she’s there. As soon as she was back on her feet, she tried to start earning her keep. She fletches arrows, does laundry, and tends to the wounded when the patrols are out. A prideful child, for all of her silence.”
“She’ll fit in well enough at Dol Amroth then. Uncle appreciates people who have integrity, and he’s the one best suited to sort out her pride and silence and all the rest of it. I wish him joy of her.”
Staring intently into the silver-shot darkness, Faramir’s expression was grim. “I just hope that she has the opportunity to find joy at all.”
Terror gave new strength to the girl’s exhausted legs, and Mablung’s hand beneath her elbow helped tow her along as they fled downhill at breakneck pace, the orcs howling mockingly behind them. Every so often, an arrow would hiss by them, but none came close enough for concern. Either shooting on the run was not a skill these orcs possessed, or they were intentionally driving their quarry. Perhaps they knew of their companion’s mission, and now that he was slain, were hoping to pursue the Rangers straight back to their refuge.
Mablung, who knew every rock and tree of this land, was not about to let that happen, even if it meant that both he and Hethlin would perish. Henneth-Annûn’s secret was safe, now that the orc scout was dead, and he was not going to imperil it again. He was about to bear left and to the south, moving away from both the refuge and any possible patrols, when he heard a most welcome signal call, and bore a bit to the right instead.
“Reinforcements!” he gasped joyfully to the girl. “Just a little further now!” The desperation on her face gave way to a faintly hopeful look, and she ran a bit faster.
“Orcs, my lords! Do you hear them?” Damrod exclaimed. Faramir nodded, and threw up a hand to signal a halt. The enemy’s ponderous crashing through the underbrush was quite audible, as well as their quarrelsome, mocking calls. The two Rangers exchanged a long look, and Boromir laid a hand upon his brother’s shoulder.
“They are both dead, aren’t they?” Faramir sighed, and the muscle in his jaw tightened.
“Most likely. But give a call anyway, Damrod, just in case they are out there.” The Ranger pursed his lips and whistled, paused for a moment, then repeated the call. The other Rangers were readying bows and loosening swords.
“Shall we pursue, sir?” Damrod asked when he had finished. Faramir shook his head and smiled dryly.
“There’s no need, lieutenant. Listen. They are coming right towards us.” Another, closer sound of running feet was suddenly discernible above the orc clamor, and arrows were nocked and drawn.
“RANGER!” a hoarse voice shouted. “Ranger coming in! DON’T SHOOT!” Mablung came into view, pulling Hethlin along with him. The Rangers lowered their bows and raised a cheer of welcome. He staggered to a halt before Faramir, who regarded him coolly for a long moment.
“Did you kill the orc, lieutenant?”
“No sir.” Faramir frowned faintly, then his eyebrows shot up as Mablung continued. “Hethlin did.”
His gaze then turned to her. “Indeed? Then we all owe her thanks. But time enough for that tale later. It is good to see you well, Hethlin.” The girl bobbed her head quickly before staring at Boromir curiously. “How many are there, Mablung?”
“Not sure, Captain. A lot, at least a dozen, probably more. And they’re hot on our heels.” The Rangers looked to their Captain expectantly. Faramir took a quick look around.
“Back the way we came a bit-there’s that rocky outcropping just off the track. We’ll put our backs to that.” Nods and murmurs of assent came from the men, and they began to move quickly back towards the designated area.
Boromir came up beside the girl, took the sword-belt down from his shoulder and gave it to her as she gave him a wary stare. “I understand that this is yours, Hethlin. We’ll look after you, but why don’t you carry it?” With a bashful nod, she fastened it around her waist, then moved to Mablung and offered him his dagger back, which he accepted with a smile and thank-you, laying an arm about her shoulders to give her a reassuring squeeze. As the noise of the orc-patrol grew louder, she began to tremble again, and her face was strained and fearful.
“We won’t let them have you again, lass, I promise you that,” he whispered to her. She bowed her head, and her hand went to the hilt of her father’s sword. Mablung laid his own hand upon it. “No, Hethlin, you won’t have to fight again. You have done enough for one night. Stay back behind us.” Faramir looked over at them as they approached the great grey rock.
“Do as Mablung says, Hethlin. I promise you as well that we will keep you safe.” The girl stared at the Captain’s face searchingly for a moment, then, seemingly reassured by what she found there, sighed and relaxed a little.
Under Faramir’s direction, the Rangers formed into a rough semi-circle, their backs to the rock, the girl within their midst, the Captain and his brother in the center of the line. The Rangers raised their bows. The orcs could be seen now, they were almost upon them.
“Give them two volleys if you can as they come in,” Faramir commanded his men, his voice utterly calm. There was a slight creak of bows being drawn. Hethlin pressed herself back against the cool, damp rock. A hiss of arrows flying through the air was answered by an ululating war-cry as the orcs closed with the Rangers and battle was joined.
All of the Rangers got off one shot before having to go to their swords, and the Captain and his lieutenants managed to make two. The patrol was a large one, but at least six of them fell before they could close with the Rangers. The orcs, knowing their shooting was inferior but numbers superior, did not try to shoot back, but rather sought to close as quickly as possible, that they might dispatch their foes hand-to-hand. Swords to the front rank, their spearmen in the second, they crashed against the Rangers in a wave that would have overwhelmed a lesser enemy. But the Rangers of Ithilien, few though they were, were doughty, keen warriors, and they had both their captain and Boromir of Gondor with them.
The prowess of the two brothers was something that Hethlin, terrified as she was, could not appreciate. Crouched against the outcropping, her right hand clenched around the sword hilt. The stench and clangor and vile voices had caused memories of the worst night of her life to flood her mind, and she was only dimly aware of the battle that raged around her. Whimpering, she fought against the fear that threatened to overwhelm her. Her other hand strayed down over the scabbard, and her fingertips brushed over the eagle and star tooled into the leather, the only ornamentation upon the otherwise plain sheath, quite unlike the elaborately chased one that housed the armored man’s sword. She closed her eyes and another, more pleasant memory came to her then.
She stood proudly, holding her father’s bow and quiver, his cloak thrown over her arm, as he saddled his tall, shaggy horse by lantern light. Her mother held his large saddlebags, filled so full that they bulged.
“Bandages. Unguent. Brandy. My journeybread, not that you’ll get to eat any of that yourself...”
Halaran grinned, his craggy face almost handsome for a moment. “I can’t help it if everyone loves your journeybread, my sweet. Did you make it with the nuts in it?”
Liranael sighed and nodded. “Of course. Would I dare to do otherwise? A change of clothes. Whetstone and steel. Extra fletches and thread. Is that everything?”
Halaran turned from tightening the girth, and snaked an arm around his wife. “Everything except the most important thing,” and he bent his head and kissed her. Liranael’s arms slid up around his neck as well, her fingers tangling in his rough black hair. The kiss lengthened, and ten-year-old Hethlin rolled her eyes and sighed. Her parents broke their embrace to regard her with amusement.
“Are we boring you, chick?” her father asked.
“Don’t you ever get tired of doing that?” she grumbled. “You were kissing last night before I went to bed, and you kept me up half the night thumping around downstairs.” Liranael gave her an odd look then, her cheeks slightly red, but Halaran roared.
“No, we don’t get tired of it, but I apologize for disturbing your rest,” he replied gravely, his eyes twinkling. Hethlin handed him his cloak, and scowled.
“Father, why do you have to leave again?” she complained. “You only just got back yesterday.”
“You know about the brigands, chick. I went to the White City to ask the Steward if he would send us help, and he refused us. But the brigands are still here. So I and Merelan, and the Dorthansons and some of the others are going to get together and see what we can do about it.”
“But why do you have to go? You already made that trip for them. Can’t they do anything without you?” Halaran frowned, the warning frown that said she was pushing her luck.
“You are being selfish, Heth. Stop it. You know why I have to go-I’m a Ranger, and that’s what I do. I protect people.”
“Why can’t the people protect themselves?” Hethlin’s next question was genuinely curious and not a complaint, so her father did not take offense, and answered her seriously.
“Not everybody can, chick. We all have different gifts and a poor world it would be if it were filled with only warriors! Some folk are harts, and some are hounds. And some are wolves. There comes a point in most everyone’s life when they have to decide what they are.” She pondered this while he took his cloak from her and fastened it, accepted the bow and quiver and slung them on, then bent and kissed the top of her head.
“Take care of your mother,” he said, indicating the knife at her belt. “If the two of you see anyone, don’t worry about the house, get on up the mountain into the caves and lie low.” Liranael nodded, and they followed him as he led the horse outside and mounted.
“Valar guard and guide you, husband,” Liranael murmured, and he leaned down to kiss her once more.
“Valar guard and guide the two of you as well,” Halaran replied when he had done, and with a cheerful wave, turned and rode off into the growing light. Wife and daughter watched him go, Liranael’s arm draped consolingly about Hethlin’s shoulders.
“I think I am a hound,” Hethlin declared, and her mother chuckled. “I want to be a Ranger when I grow up.” Liranael looked down at her and sighed.
“’Tis not what I would wish for you, daughter, though in truth, being the wife who waits for the Ranger is no easy task either. Come, there are chores that need doing.”
I think I am a hound. That old declaration echoing through her mind, Hethlin opened her eyes and looked about. The battle was still raging furiously., and the Rangers were hard beset. She could smell blood in the air-one of the Rangers had a wound in his upper arm. The Captain and his brother were fighting side-by-side with the ease of men who had often done so together, but even as she watched, a spear thrust forward into the space between them and beyond, and Faramir jerked and cried out. Dismay clutched at her heart, but when Boromir called out, “Brother! Are you well?”, the Captain replied steadily enough.
“I am well. It is not so bad, Boromir.” He kept his feet and continued to fight, though after a moment Hethlin noted a shadow that began to deepen along his side. She berated herself silently for her cowardice. What would her father think, should he have seen her letting these men risk themselves for her so? He would think she had chosen the path of the hart, one who relied upon others to protect her as no Ranger ever would.
Was she to cower for the rest of her life? This was not her first battle, where she had happened upon the orc patrol armed with nothing but a dagger. Her father had taught her with wooden blades, promising her a true sword of her own upon her eighteenth birthday, but of course that had never arrived. And she had been alone then. It had not been so hard to take her captive. Here there were others to help and support her. She had even killed an orc but a little while earlier. And now she held her father’s sword in her hand...
The Ranger to the other side of the Captain’s brother staggered back suddenly, blood welling from between the fingers of the hand he’d clamped over his leg. Quickly, before she could give herself too much time to think about it, Hethlin drew her blade and stepped into the breach.
She feared that she would be unable to strike even one blow, but when the black, corroded orc blade swung for her neck, the arms that her father had trained since she was old enough to wield a twig did their work and swept up in a proper parry. The force of the orc’s blow jarred her wrists, but she was able to hold him off and the fear began to seep off of her as if it were sinking away into the ground.
Without her telling them to, her arms then flowed into an attack which the orc parried in his turn, and before he could swing again, her blade disengaged and she opened his belly with a backstroke, the ancient sword cleaving his armor as if it were paper. He folded over himself, screaming, and another orc stepped forward, its foul face twisted into a snarl. Hethlin curled her lip, bared her teeth, and snarled right back at him.
Hello, what’s this? Boromir thought, casting a glance to his left. The Ranger there had fallen, dragging himself back against the rock, and the Captain General had thought that it was one of his fellow Rangers moving over into the wounded man’s place. Realizing that it was the girl instead, he considered thrusting her back out of harm’s way for a moment. Then the orc died.
There were those who named Boromir the best warrior in Gondor. He did not necessarily agree with that opinion, he knew whom he considered the best swordsman, but he was certainly extremely proficient, and the average orc was no match for him. So it put him in no peril to spare a bit of his attention for the green warrior at his side. It was something he had done often among his own men, for a little extra care early on sometimes ensured the survival of a promising warrior long enough that he could grow into his promise.
When she exchanged a flurry of blows with her second opponent before opening his throat with the tip of her blade, he decided she needed no help from him after all. So he turned his attention back to his own concerns-namely, finishing off the orcs as swiftly as possible so that he could see to his brother.
There were a pile of orc bodies in front of Faramir, but his arm was slowing, the force of his strokes abating and his face was pale and strained. Boromir redoubled his efforts and before long, the last orc was dead. He turned with concern to his brother to find him calmly issuing orders. The damp dark patch soaking through his tunic was quite large now, but he was ignoring it.
“Mablung, see to the wounded. Damrod, whistle us up some help. Surely some of our folk heard that racket. Captain-General,” he continued, turning his attention to his brother, “We will add to the ever-growing list of things we will discuss later exactly why it was you let Hethlin into the battle line.”
“No brother, we won’t,” Boromir disagreed, watching the color drain suddenly from Faramir’s face as the last of the battle fever left him and his knees finally buckled. “Mablung! Over here!” Mablung hurried over as Boromir eased Faramir to the ground, and Damrod and the other Rangers came over as well, forming a circle about their captain, their faces concerned. The girl, who had cleaned her blade upon an orc’s cloak and sheathed it, came over as well, and seemed equally wary, but she faced outward and put her bow at the ready. Boromir noted this with surprised approval, then turned his attention back to his brother, grasping his hand reassuringly as Mablung removed Faramir’s leather jerkin, pulled up his shirt and examined the wound with eyes and hands and nose. Faramir hissed in pain.
“I don’t think that he’s gut-riven,” he declared at last, and Boromir sagged a bit in relief, for such would have been a death sentence, “but I need light to tell how bad this is. We need to get him back to the falls.” Mablung looked at the downed Ranger with the leg wound and at his captain, and frowned. “We’ll need two stretchers, men, see to it.” He then belatedly looked at Boromir in apology. Boromir shook his head.
“You and Damrod know your own business best. See to it, lieutenants, and I’ll see to my brother.” The Rangers nodded, and Damrod began whistling bird calls while the Rangers tended to their wounded and looked to see if the orc spears could be used to fabricate stretchers.
Of the six Rangers who had come forth with them, two were injured, one walking wounded, so four of them were going to be involved with carrying the wounded back-not a good thing strategically if they encountered any more trouble, but it couldn’t be helped. Damrod brought over a roll of bandages for Mablung, who stripped Faramir’s shirt off of him, wadded it up to make a pad, bound it firmly into place with the bandages, then replaced his leather jerkin over the top for warmth. The Ranger Captain was starting to shiver, and Boromir carefully wrapped his arms around him, cursing the warm evening that had caused him to leave his cloak at the refuge. One of the other Rangers came over and proffered his, and Boromir took it gratefully, draping it around Faramir’s shoulders.
“I can walk,” Faramir protested. “You don’t have to carry me.” Mablung gave him a very dry look.
“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” he declared. “Now lie quiet!” The girl looked over at them for a moment before returning to her vigil.
They were almost ready to depart when more bird calls indicated that Damrod’s signals for help had been answered. Another six man patrol showed up, and the additional man-power expedited things enormously. Mablung sent a runner ahead to Henneth-Annûn, demanding boiled water and a lot of light against their return, and the new Rangers helped carry the wounded. One of them, noticing Hethlin’s bow and sword, grinned and said, “You look like a Ranger, Hethlin.” The girl bobbed her head in acknowledgment in that nervous way she had.
“Fights like a Ranger, too,” said one of Damrod’s original six men. “Killed two tonight that I saw.”
“Three,” amended Mablung. “She shot the orc scout when he had the drop on me. Now enough of this chatter!” For the lieutenant could see that the Captain-General was regarding them all with a furrowed brow. The girl said nothing as usual, but had worked her way around the party till she was walking by the Captain’s stretcher near Mablung. She looked at Faramir, then gave him an imploring look, and it didn’t take a scholar to know what she wanted.
“I won’t know how bad this is until we get him back, lass, but I’m thinking that though he’s lost more blood than might be good for him, he’ll be all right. I’ll certainly do my best.”
“You’d better,” Faramir remarked weakly from the stretcher, “though I don’t think I’ll be requiring any of your more decorative stitching.” The Rangers chuckled, and Mablung glared balefully at his captain. Faramir lifted a hand and gestured to the girl. Hethlin leaned over, and he took her hand in his.
“I did not thank you earlier for saving my lieutenant, Hethlin. Disrespectful though he is, he does have his uses,” another chuckle from the men, “and I appreciate what you did.” The girl flushed dark enough to see even in the moonlight, and nodded. But when his eyes closed and he sagged into the litter, she did not release his hand.