August 3015-Hethlin stared curiously at the three blindfolded men the Rangers escorted into the refuge four days after Faramir’s fever had broken. Like Boromir’s guard, they were armored in bright hauberks, but there was something different about them, a special sort of attitude. They wore not the silver and sable of Gondor, but were clad instead in blue and silver, and their tabards bore a design of a silver ship shaped like a swan. White belts girded their waists, and cloaks of the same beautiful blue flowed down their backs. Their helms and greaves and vambrances were all intricately etched, and they bore very fine swords at their sides. They were quite the fanciest folk she’d ever seen, and the Captain-General’s men bristled a bit.
“Well goodness me!” one of Boromir’s escort called out, “Look who’s slumming! Break out the good dishes, my lads-the Swan Knights have come to call!” There was some laughter from the Rangers, who were watching with interest, but the new arrivals, who were looking about curiously as their blindfolds were removed, did not take offense nor even seem to notice. Their lordly manners proclaimed them to be above such things. Their leader, a young man whose chiseled features, black hair and blue-grey eyes spoke of Numenorean blood, but who was a bit swarthier than usual, glanced about the chamber until his eyes lit upon Mablung. He moved towards him, his escort following, and bowed.
“Lieutenant, I do not know if you remember or not, but we met in Minas Tirith some time ago, when Lord Faramir was in town for the Council. I am Lord Esteven, and currently in command of those of Prince Imrahil’s men in residence at Minas Tirith.” Mablung looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded.
“I remember, my lord. What brings you all the way up here? Did the Prince send you?”
“No, lieutenant, not exactly. Our escort told us on the way up here that Lord Boromir was still in residence. Is that so? Because if he is, I would have speech with him, or Lord Faramir if he is able.” Mablung nodded, and rose from the table where he had been playing a half-hearted game of cards with a couple of other Rangers.
“Lord Boromir is still here, and Lord Faramir is quite able.”
“He is better then? That is good news indeed.” The Swan Knight smiled, and followed Mablung to the alcove’s curtain. There, he turned to his escort and took from one of them a nail-studded leather case of some size before he entered into the small chamber.
Hethlin, curious, suddenly moved to the shelves where the dishes were kept and caught up three tankards, filling them from a new keg of ale that had been brought up the day before. Anborn, sitting at a table nearby, and fletching arrows as usual looked up for a moment.
“Smart,” he said, and rising, moved over to assist her, quickly helping her to fill a large plate with a loaf of bread that had arrived with the ale, and slices of some of the first of the new apple crop and a very nice cheese. She then gathered the tankards in one hand, and the plate in the other, and went into the alcove.
There, Faramir was sitting propped up against pillows in his bed with his brother at his side and the Swan Knight in the other chair, the case in his lap.
“I am curious as to how you came to be up here, Esteven,” he was saying as she entered. Boromir, seeing her arrival, expeditiously cleared the little table by grabbing the pile of books that covered it, and tossing them onto the bed. One looked as if it were going to slide onto the floor and both brothers reached for it at once, Faramir wincing in pain as he did so. Boromir glared at him, dexterously snagging the volume.
“Would you stop that? I saw it. I know better than to let a book touch the floor in your presence.” Faramir snorted, winced again and the Swan Knight suppressed a grin.
“As to how I came here, my lord, I fear that I owe Lord Boromir an apology,” Esteven said, giving Hethlin a nod as he took up one of the tankards she’d set down.
“Thank you, lad.” He took a sip and continued. “I do not know if you are aware of this, but Prince Imrahil has left a standing order that whoever is on duty in Minas Tirith is at your disposal should either of you have any need.” The two brothers looked at each other, and some sort of unspoken communication seemed to pass between them. Both of them smiled then at exactly the same moment in exactly the same way, and for just an instant looked very much alike.
“Trust Uncle,” Boromir said at last, and Faramir nodded. “But what have you to apologize for, Esteven?” The Prince’s man made a graceful gesture.
“Your letter was addressed to the Prince, my lord, but the soldier who brought it said the matter was urgent. As he had not yet arrived in Minas Tirith, and is not expected for at least a week, and because of his standing order, I took it upon myself to read the letter, that I might be able to render aid if necessary. But it was not my correspondence, and I apologize for the intrusion.”
“No apology is necessary,” Boromir declared. “You were simply trying to help.” He cocked an eyebrow at Hethlin, who had taken the opportunity to slink unobtrusively into her favorite corner, and had buried her nose in a book she couldn’t possibly be reading because of the lack of light, but said nothing. Faramir followed his glance, then looked down for a moment, his lips twitching.
Lord Esteven set down the tankard, and opened the case, leaning forward to show it to the brothers. “I wasn’t exactly sure what was needed. I know that you have a couple of Rangers who are good at leechcraft, as does my lord. So I asked our men who are knowledgeable in such things what would be useful, and they accompanied me to the Houses of Healing that we might acquire some medicines. Lord Faramir looks as if he has little need of such now, thank the Valar, but you can perhaps make use of these nonetheless.”
Faramir, reaching out carefully to finger the bottles inside, whistled. “Goodness, Esteven, you’ve enough poppy in there to put a Mumak to sleep! I wish you’d been here four days ago!”
“Yes, that way we could have preserved the fiction that you can drink,” murmured Boromir, earning a sour look from his younger brother. The Swan Knight chuckled.
“If I had known, I would have been, my lord. These will be helpful to you then?”
“Oh yes! And look at all these other things! You’ll make Mablung a very happy man.” Esteven gave the Ranger Captain a concerned look.
“If you have need of simples for your men, Lord Faramir, I am certain that the Prince would be only too happy to supply them. I know that you are isolated here, and that it is difficult to transport wounded all the way to Minas Tirith.” Boromir and Faramir looked at each other wryly.
“Father would just love that!” Boromir said, shaking his head sadly. “Uncle having to augment his insufficient supplies.” But Faramir frowned thoughtfully.
“The plain fact of the matter is that they are insufficient, Boromir. He sends me what suffices you, but when you have wounded, you send them up the road to Minas Tirith to the Houses of Healing, and they are cared for there. When a Ranger is injured, he generally lives or dies up here. We do all the nursing ourselves, and subsequently, we need more medicines.”
“I’ll put a word into Father then,” Boromir said with a furrowed brow. “If I’d known you had need, I’d have done it sooner, Faramir.” The Ranger Captain shrugged in a cautious manner that showed his wound still pained him.
“I’ve been going round and round with the quartermasters about this very matter for a couple of years now. It is as if they fear we will re-sell the medicines to the Haradrim! I even bought some additional supplies with my own funds the last time I was in Minas Tirith, as I did not want to have to trouble Father with such trivial things. But right before I was wounded myself I decided that since my own efforts had availed me naught, it was time to speak to him. Needless to say, my resolve has been strengthened by recent events.” He glanced up at the Swan Knight somewhat apologetically. “It is, as might be expected from Uncle, a princely offer.”
Lord Esteven’s answering smile was a knowing one. “And one, I assure you, that will be implemented with the utmost discretion, should you ever have need.”
Faramir inclined his head. “Please convey my thanks to him, and my thanks to you and your men for undertaking the journey here. I believe that the men are preparing to set supper on the boards. My brother and I require a few minutes alone to speak of a certain matter, but if you will wait without, we will join you presently. Rest with us this evening, and we’ll see that you receive safe escort in the morning.” The Swan Knight stood, and bowed.
“I look forward to spending the night here. I’ve never been up here, and it is a most intriguing place.”
“Beware the killer mildew,” Boromir suggested with a straight face. Faramir gave him an indignant glare. The knight chuckled, and went out into the main chamber.
“Well there is a bit of luck!” the Ranger Captain said after he had gone. “We can send Hethlin to Uncle with Esteven, and you won’t have to be troubled with the errand.” The girl looked up from her book with a scowl.
“Oh, I’ll be with him as far as Osgiliath,” Boromir said. “You worried me half to death, brother, but you are on the mend now, and I cannot afford to spend any more time away from my own command.” Faramir nodded, and reached out to grasp his arm.
“I know. I’ve been greedy keeping you away from your men for so long, but other than the hole in my side, it’s been wonderful having you here. I cannot think when we last had this much time to just talk and be together. And I am very glad you were here when Mablung was doing his needlework.”
Boromir returned the clasp of arms, and hugged his brother cautiously close with the other one. “I am glad that I was here as well.” He released Faramir, sat up and looked over at Hethlin. “Come over here lass, it is time we had a talk.” Hethlin got up slowly, took her time shelving the book, and came over rather hesitantly. Over the last four days, she had begun to speak more and more frequently, starting with greeting the Rangers by name. Mablung’s expression when she had first spoken to him and said “Thank you, Mablung,” had been priceless, and Lorend had been very disappointed that it was none of his ploys which had succeeded in ending her silence, but rather the girl’s concern for Faramir. She had moved on to short phrases, then longer ones and this very afternoon, Faramir had heard her chatting comfortably away in a rather one-sided conversation with Anborn about fletching techniques.
The Ranger Captain gestured to the chair that the Swan Knight had recently vacated. “Sit, Hethlin. No one is going to bite you.” Once she had seated herself, he continued in a soft and reassuring voice.
“Hethlin, for a long time after you came to us, you were too sick to transport to Minas Tirith. Then, just when you were well enough to stand the journey, the orcs became very busy, and we were too busy with them in turn to make the journey. Now I finally have an opportunity to do as I ought to have a long time ago.”
“When I was first deciding what to do with you, you were not talking. I was afraid that if my brother found out about you, that he would send you to a madhouse.” Boromir sighed, and Hethlin flicked a glance in his direction. “That is why I hid you in the forest when he came to visit. It was my idea to send you to my Uncle Imrahil instead. He is a very kind man, and would take good care of you. Though you are talking now, it is still my intention to do that. Those are his men without in the main chamber. You may go back to Minas Tirith safely with them, and await his arrival. I will send a letter with you explaining your situation.”
Hethlin’s eyes hooded, and she seemed to consider this for a moment. Then, in her husky voice, she asked, “This uncle of yours, sir, you said he is a prince?”
“Where does he live when he isn’t at the White City?”
“In Dol Amroth, by the sea. It is about three weeks travel west of Minas Tirith. A very beautiful place.”
“What would I be doing in your uncle’s house? I know nothing of the sea, or fine sewing or much of cooking at all. How would I earn my bread?”
“Uncle is a wise man. He would find out what you were best suited for, and set you to those tasks.” The girl looked up and straight into his eyes at that.
“Then I would be a servant in his house?”
A bit taken aback, Faramir nodded. “Why yes, I suppose that you would. But you would be safe, and earning a wage. It would be a good position for you.”
Hethlin shook her head. “I am not interested in making your uncle’s beds or emptying his chamberpots, no matter how wise he is. I want to be a Ranger.” Boromir immediately started laughing.
“Oh, I saw this coming!” The girl turned her attention to him.
“’Twas you who told me you’d known stout lads done worse than I in battle.” The Captain-General’s laughter ceased under the irritated scrutiny of his brother.
“Did you tell her that, Boromir?”
“Yes, I did, while you were fevered. And I meant what I said,” Boromir replied, somewhat defensively, “because it is true, brother! She kept her head and made her kills, and needed no help from me at all. And didn’t Mablung say she had saved his life? Three orcs in an evening-isn’t that a good score for any of your Rangers?”
“That is hardly the point! She is a woman! I cannot believe you were encouraging her!”
“Not encouraging exactly,” the Captain-general temporized, looking as if he were in fact somewhat surprised himself that he was coming to the girl’s defense. “More like giving credit where credit is due.” Hethlin gave him a grateful look, then turned to his brother.
“I never was a woman, sir. Almost one, but the orcs stopped that. There wouldn’t be anyone who’d have me that way now, even were I to let them. Which I wouldn’t.”
Faramir frowned, lay back against his pillows and sighed, folding his arms and giving her a stern look. “It would not work, Hethlin. A lone woman among the men-it would sow dissent.” The girl was puzzled.
“’Dissent’? What is that?”
“Trouble,” Faramir explained. “There would be fighting for your favor, and someone might want you to do what you just said you did not wish to do.”
Hethlin frowned. “Months I’ve been here already and there’s been no trouble over me!” she exclaimed indignantly. “I am no slattern, and there are none here who would hurt me-or fight over me, for that matter. I track better than some and shoot better than most. And I liked killing the orcs. It was better than being afraid of them. I wouldn’t mind killing a few more.”
“I will own you did a good job out there the other night, and for that you have my thanks,” Faramir said quietly, “but it was not a fitting place for you and you should never have been forced to take such action. My decision stands-you will go to Minas Tirith with my uncle’s men on the morrow.” The girl got to her feet at that point, and made a quick and nervous bow, almost a sort of bob.
“Nay, my lord, I will not.” Faramir’s eyebrow crawled slowly skyward. Boromir covered his mouth with his hand briefly, then let it drop when he had mastered himself.
“I beg your pardon?” For someone who had promised but scant moments before not to bite, his voice was suddenly very chill, and that did impress Hethlin, who flinched slightly, her face paling. But then she took a deep breath, and stood straight before him, her expression suddenly resolute.
“My father raised me to be a Ranger. In the North, he said, women sometimes were Rangers. It is what I know. It is all I know; that, and farming. I’m grateful for what you’ve done for me, sir, and can’t ever repay you for all your care. But I won’t be a servant in some rich man’s house, no matter how kind he be. There’s no need-I’ve land of my own. I’d be much obliged if you could spare me a knife, an axe and that bow I used the other day. Then I’ll be on my way, and trouble you no more. I’ll pay you for them when I’m able.”
“But what would you do if you left here, mistress?” Boromir asked, genuinely curious, before his brother could frame a response.
“Go home to my farm.”
“Your farm is burned and ruined,” Faramir said quietly. The girl shrugged.
“Father built the house and barn of stone, and built them well. They need naught but roofs and a good scrubbing to be livable again. I can rig some sort of roof over at least part of the house, and if that doesn’t work, there’s a cave up the mountain that would serve for the winter.”
“You cannot live in a cave!” Boromir protested rather thoughtlessly. Hethlin made no spoken answer to that, but merely looked up and around the alcove in a very pointed manner then stared at him meaningfully. Her gesture was then mimicked by his brother, whose serious face lightened with a smile for a moment despite his irritation at the girl’s willfulness. The Captain-General groaned, disgusted with his own folly, and Faramir chuckled.
“I would hunt to eat and set some snares this winter and tan the hides of the beasts I caught,” the girl continued after a sidelong look at the Ranger Captain. “In the spring, I would take them to Min-rimmon and see if Merelan the inn-keep there would trade them in Tirith for me. He would get me the seeds and tools I needed if I asked him to. It would have to be hand-tools the first year, but I’m strong, and with a shovel I could make a garden big enough to feed me, and start working on the fences. When everyone else got their crops out, they’d come over and help me raise the roofs. We look after each other in Anorien. Someone might even give me an extra kid or calf, or a few chicks, once I’ve a place to keep them and the fodder to feed them.. The second winter I would trap again, and hopefully get enough to buy a plow and a horse or mule. No looking back after that-always providing the weather held.” It was the longest speech the brothers had ever heard her make, and she looked a bit weary when she was done.
“You do seem to have it all planned out,” Boromir commented. “But what if trouble came again?”
“Then I would hide. I can be the wind if I wish. They would never see me. And I would kill them from cover if I could.”
“As you did the night the orcs came to your farm?” Faramir asked, grave once more. The Captain-General glared at his brother in utter disbelief, then saw the distaste and sorrow in Faramir’s eyes and the set of his mouth and realized that he was using whatever argument he could to persuade the girl that she needed their help.
Hethlin looked down at the floor. “I shot a few of the orcs that night,” she said quietly after a moment. “Saw what was going on, tied my horse well away, and slunk in on my belly. But my brother and sister were still alive, and the orc-captain held my brother up by the fire with a knife to his throat and told me to lay down my arms and come in or he’d kill him. Said if I did, they’d take us back to Mordor to be slaves.” Faramir sucked in a quick breath, but the girl did not look at him, and continued in the same quiet, dead voice.
“I knew you should not trust orcs, but I also knew they did take captives, and I thought that if I was with my brother and sister, then perhaps I could get us all away at some point. So I did what he said, and they took me and bound me as they had done Hiranthel and Derulin and put us all together. My brother and sister were the only reason the orcs got their hands upon me. If Hiranthel and Derulin had been dead already, I’d have slain as many as I could, and then left to get some help.” She reached out blindly for the back of the chair and sank into it again. “They were so frightened. I promised them I would stay with them and protect them as best I could.” She looked up and gave Faramir another of those straight looks. “Hiranthel had five years, and Derulin three.” The Ranger Captain paled a bit, but met her gaze squarely. Boromir reached for his forgotten tankard of ale and quaffed a deep draught, eyes on the girl all the while.
“What happened to them, Hethlin?” Faramir asked after a moment. The girl swallowed convulsively and cast her eyes down once more.
“I thought at first that the orcs would hold to their word. And perhaps the orc-captain intended to. It seemed so at first. But a big quarrel broke out in the middle of the night. It was in orcish, so I did not understand it, but there was much pointing at the three of us, and the orc-captain finally shrugged and said something. Later he told me that some of them had still been hungry-it was a big troop, as you know, and orcs eat quite a bit.” She glanced up briefly and Faramir nodded, obviously not liking the direction this was going. “Mother or Father had set Father’s wagon team loose when they first came in and the cow. The orcs had caught the cow and roasted her, but she had not sated their hunger completely. I was off-limits-they’d not had a chance to sport with my mother, she had died with a blade in her hand, and the orc-captain wanted to keep me for himself. But Derulin was not old enough for that, and good for only one thing.”
Boromir was pale as well now, and he pressed his tankard into the girl’s hand, who drank from it without even really registering that she did so. When she spoke again, her voice was little more than a whisper.
“The orcs came over and tore my brother and sister from my side. They cried to me to help them, and I tried to break my bonds, but I was bound too tightly and I couldn’t.” Faramir glanced down at her wrists, remembering the deep galls that had been upon them when they’d first retrieved her. “Then the orcs tied them to a spit, and roasted them alive. I will hear their screams until the day I die.”
“Valar!” muttered Boromir. Faramir looked as if he were regretting his strategy, which had apparently not worked in any event, for Hethlin set the tankard carefully down upon the little table and met his eyes once more. Her own were red-rimmed all of a sudden, but strangely dry.
“You need not fear for me, Captain, when I go home. I have naught to protect but myself now. If brigands or Dunlanders or orcs come nigh me again, I will slip away and not show myself. The only time they’ll lay eyes upon me is as I kill them.”
Faramir was silent for a long moment. “You would be safer by far with my uncle,” he said at last very quietly. Hethlin looked down into the tankard as if studying something in the depths.
“Being safe is not always the most important thing. I have my land, and Mablung tells me my kin are buried there. I wish to be free, not beholden to someone else for my living. And I do not want to live in a city. If I cannot be a Ranger here, I will go home and be a Ranger in Anorien. Now that my father is gone, they can use my help.” She was utterly serious, and after the tale she had told and the deeds she had done neither man felt inclined to laugh at her.
“I do not like the idea of you placing yourself in such peril, mistress,” Boromir declared, “and I am the Steward’s Heir of Gondor.” Hethlin’s head lifted, she looked at him and shrugged.
“That means little to me, sir. My father went to ask aid of your father when I was ten years old and we had brigands preying upon us. The Steward said he had none to spare and that we must look to ourselves. So Father and the others did. A couple of them died doing it. And I am not the only girl in Anorien who has ever had something like this happen to her-there was a lass the Dunlanders carried off with them over the mountains when I was small. Father told me her tale to frighten me and make sure I remembered to never leave the house without keeping a weapon to hand. The Stewards never got upset over her or any of us before-the only reason you are worried about me now is because you know me.”
Which was a cold assessment, but not entirely untrue, Faramir thought ruefully. And it did not sit well with Boromir.
“I remember when your father came to meet with mine, mistress. Afterwards, I quarreled with Father because I did wish to come to Anorien’s aid and he forbade it. He is my commander, as I am the commander of Gondor’s army and I owe him my obedience.”
She nodded her understanding. “Indeed, my lord, you should obey your father. And I thank you for your concern. But it doesn’t change the fact that there was no-one there to help us.” There was no condemnation in her voice, but a great deal of sorrow, and her eyes were shadowed. Boromir sighed, and scrubbed at his face wearily with one hand. Faramir looked up at Hethlin.
“Why don’t you go and wash up for supper? We will speak more of this matter later.” She nodded, and started for the door. “And Hethlin?” The girl paused and looked back over her shoulder at him. “I would very much prefer it if you did not try to leave the caverns without my leave. I haven’t the stomach,” and here he brushed a hand lightly over his bandaged side with a wry smile, “for any more moonlight chases this week.” Her suddenly disgruntled expression told him that he had in fact successfully divined her intention, but after a moment she nodded curtly and left the alcove.