Hethlin pushed past the curtain, out into the main chamber, and Mablung looked at her. He frowned in sympathetic concern when he saw her face.
“I am sorry, lass.” She looked at him in surprise, and he tapped his ear, then gestured towards the curtain.
“You heard then?” she asked, lowering her voice, which was vibrating with anger. Upset as she was, she kept her wits about her, he noticed. She looked towards where the Swan Knights stood, admiring the waterfall in the early evening light, then moved towards the back corner of the chamber opposite the alcove, where neither they, Boromir’s men, nor anyone in the alcove could hear.
“I heard. About the medicine, and the rest of it as well.”
“I told him I did not want to go to the White City or Dol Amroth, but he won’t listen! Says I won’t be safe. I don’t care about being safe, if I cannot stay here, then I want to go home! And I can take care of myself!”
“There’s no doubt of that, lass, not after the other night,” Mablung said soothingly. “But the Captain does not wish to risk your life now that he’s gone to so much trouble to save it. Can you not understand that? And the rest of us don’t much like the idea of you being killed or wounded either.” Hethlin glared at him, her expression equal parts exasperation and despair.
“You cannot keep me safe forever, Mablung! No one can! Wherever I go, there are perils-even in Dol Amroth! Do not the Corsairs raid the coasts? Taking the sword out of my hand does not make me safe. It just means I won’t be able to fight before I am killed.”
The lieutenant thought about that for a moment, and found the reasoning sound enough for a girl who until recently had been considered a possible madwoman. Damrod and Lorend, seeing the vehemence with which Hethlin was speaking, moved towards them.
“What is going on, Mablung?” Damrod asked quietly, gesturing towards the girl.
“The Captain wants to send Hethlin away with the Swan Knights, to Dol Amroth. To work in his uncle’s house as a servant.”
“Huh! Sounds like a good place to me,” commented Lorend, cocking an eyebrow. He seemed impressed with the idea. “The Prince is the richest man in Gondor. I would imagine he pays his people well.”
Hethlin gave him a flat look. “Or perhaps he doesn’t, and that is why he is the richest man in Gondor!” Damrod laughed quietly, and she glared around at all three of them in indignation.
“But I do not wish to be a servant in a great castle, well paid or no! I have a farm I can return to. Or I could stay here and be a Ranger. I will not let him send me to Dol Amroth!”
“Don’t see how you could stop him, lass, if he sends you under guard,” Mablung said.
“A journey’s end and escort can change along the way,” Hethlin suggested darkly.
Mablung, knowing how good she was at stalking and tracking, could well imagine her giving the Swan Knights the slip. While the idea of the flower of Gondor’s chivalry being horribly embarrassed by an Anorien woods-girl appealed to his rough-hewn Ranger soul, he nonetheless shook his head.
“You should not resort to that sort of thing until we try another strategy first. Let’s go talk to some of the men. Lorend, Damrod, you can help us with that as well.” The two Rangers nodded, and started to go back to the tables, only to be halted by Mablung’s upraised hand. “Quietly now-we don’t want word of Heth’s being a woman to get to the Swan Knights or the Captain-General’s men, or there won’t be any way to keep her here.” Both of the men nodded. Surprised and relieved at Mablung’s offer of assistance, Hethlin subsided obediently, going with him to speak to the Rangers currently within the cave, who were for the most part busy setting up the trestles and laying out the dinner things.
“Angrim,” Mablung said softly to another of the most senior Rangers, a man who had been in the troop since before Faramir had taken command, “I want a Ranger trial for Hethlin.”
Angrim cocked an eyebrow. “Why?”
“The Captain wants to send her to Dol Amroth to be a servant in the Prince’s house. She doesn’t want to go. Wants to go back to her farm, or become one of us.”
“Why won’t the Captain let her go home?”
“He’s afraid she’ll come to a bad end, all alone on a burned-out farm.”
“She’s much more likely to come to a bad end here with us.”
“I don’t care!” Hethlin interjected with soft vehemence. “I can fight, I’ve proven that! And I want to fight! I have the right to! No one here has as much right as I do!”
“Do you know the story of every Ranger here, lass?” Angrim asked quietly. “Unless you do, then don’t say things like that. But I’ll grant you have as much a right as any here.” He looked at Mablung . “So, what is the point of this? Do you want a Ranger trial so she can stay here, or so she can go home?”
Mablung shrugged. “I figure it will serve either purpose. Show she’s good enough to fight with us, or show she’s good enough to get herself home and take care of herself once she’s there.”
“You told me you’d already tried her skills when the two of you were out in the perimeter. Why don’t we just let that stand as the test? Your word is good to the men.”
“Ordinarily, it would be. But you all know I helped nurse her back to health, and I’m rather fond of the lass.” He shot Hethlin a smile, and she smiled shyly back, then ducked her head. “’Tis better if another of us who is not so…attached to her agrees with me.”
Angrim nodded thoughtfully. “There is that. When do you want to do this?”
“Right now, while there’s still light. You can do the shooting first, then take her out stalking in the dusk.”
“I was about to have dinner, Mablung.”
“We’ll put something in your packs. I’m sorry, Angrim, but there’s no help for it. He’ll ask the Swan Knights to take her tomorrow, then everyone will know she’s a woman, and we’ll have no choice but to let her go.”
The Ranger lifted his eyebrow, and gave Hethlin a wry smile. “If she’s truly good enough to be one of us, that should be no hardship. She could go out with the Swan Knights, lose them, and make her way home.” The girl grinned wickedly back at him, but Mablung shook his head.
“Not a good idea, Angrim. She might very well give the Swan Knights the slip, but they would hardly let the matter drop. The Captain is the Prince’s nephew, and the Prince has told them to do as the Captain commands, if he needs anything-I heard Lord Esteven saying that just a while ago-”
“-And you saying just the other day that your ears weren’t what they used to be!” Angrim interjected blandly.
“I was listening at the curtain, as you well know,” Mablung admitted with a certain pained dignity. “And since you’re always one of the first to ask me what happened when I do, you’ve no call to be coming over all virtuous on me now! In any event, if the Captain asks the Swan Knights to deliver her safely to Tirith, then they won’t stop trying until they get it done. You know how mad they are for fulfilling orders and duty and all the rest of it! If she gives them the slip, they’ll go back to Minas Tirith and get reinforcements, and they’ll comb the area and they won’t stop until they find her and take her to the Prince. They’ll use numbers to make up for what they lack in woodcraft, and we’ll be tripping over Swan Knights at every turn! The Steward is bound to notice, and will start asking questions about what they‘re doing in Ithilien, and the next thing you know, the Captain will be in trouble with his father. Again.”
“No, I don’t suppose we want that,” Angrim conceded. “Very well then, I’ll do it. But you need to make sure the Captain doesn’t speak to the Swan Knights tonight and ruin things that way.”
“I’ll see to it.” Angrim turned to Hethlin.
“Get your gear. Full pack, and that bow you used the other day. Let’s go see what you’re made of.”
The girl’s face lit up, and eyes sparkling, she hurried off to do as she was bidden without another word. Angrim looked at Mablung.
“I hope you know what you are doing.”
“Haven’t a clue. Making it up as I go along,” the lieutenant admitted. Angrim shrugged.
“Ah, well. The Captain-General is said to like soldiers with initiative. You could always transfer to the regular army if the Captain doesn‘t approve of your improvisation.” He got up, and moved purposefully towards the supper tables. “I’m going to see that we get a good dinner in those packs myself. We should be back before midnight.”
Mablung followed along. “Thank you, Angrim.”
Another shrug. “I do not think we are so short of men that we have to resort to using women just yet, but I do agree that Hethlin is something of a special case. And she has been no trouble and certainly earned her keep thus far.” Angrim selected a couple of the other Rangers to join him as judges, and in a very short time, the impromptu trial party had loaded packs with their suppers and left the refuge. Mablung turned from watching them leave to see Boromir exiting the alcove, a strong arm beneath his younger brother’s elbow. Faramir had thrown a shirt on over his bandaged chest, and it hung loose over his breeches and boots. He was hardly his usual neat, tidy, laced-up and proper self, but the Rangers greeted him with a cheer nonetheless, and he smiled. Then his eyes flicked about the cavern, and the smile vanished. He gestured to Mablung, and the lieutenant approached.
“Where is Hethlin, Mablung?” he asked, his voice low.
“With Angrim, sir,” Mablung answered, equally quiet. “I asked him to give her a Ranger trial.”
“What? Why ever would you do such a thing, Mablung? ‘Tis cruel to raise her hopes in such a manner!” Faramir’s eyes flashed grey fire of a sudden, and though there were few who would choose to face him in such a mood, Mablung stood his ground.
“Begging the Captain’s pardon, sir, but it is you who are being cruel, by sending Hethlin to the City to make the Prince’s beds. ‘Tis not what she was bred and born for, and ‘tis not what she wants.”
“And is what you want to see her killed or maimed for life playing at being a Ranger?” Faramir asked in a hissing whisper. “Would you hold her hand while she died as slowly as Modrien did?”
Mablung met his eyes squarely. “If I had to, then yes, Captain, I would. But I asked Angrim to do this not so much so that you’d let her be a Ranger, but so you would let her go home. I reckoned that if you knew Angrim and the others thought her good enough to pass a Ranger trial, then you would feel more easy about letting her go back to her own place. You‘d not worry about one of us traveling alone to Anorien now, would you?”
“You are all adults, not some seventeen-year-old child!”
Boromir, who had been studying the toes of his boots as he served as Faramir’s silent prop, spoke for the first time.
“Faramir, no one who has suffered what she has suffered and survived is a child any longer. I think you should let her go home as well. She has the right to chose for herself., and that land has been bought ten times over with her family‘s blood. Small wonder she wants to keep it.”
Faramir gave his brother an irritated glare. “Whatever happened to ‘I want her sent to Dol Amroth as soon as possible.’? Some consistency here would be welcome, Captain-General.”
“I had not fought beside her, looked her in the eye, nor yet spoken with her when I said that,” Boromir reminded him in a reasonable tone. “Now, having done so, and being better informed about the subject, I have amended my opinion.” He nudged Faramir gently towards the tables. “In any event, we can discuss this further after dinner, and in private. No need to involve Uncle’s men in the matter until a decision is made. Now come-you need to get off of your feet, and get some food in you. Look how glad your men are to see you so recovered!” Faramir, well aware of the fact that he was being cozened, glowered at Boromir, but allowed himself to be seated at the table nonetheless, his ire slightly appeased by the speed with which his supper was laid before him.
However-“You have not heard the last of this, Mablung,” he warned, before picking up his fork. The lieutenant nodded, gulping slightly.
The dinner passed pleasantly enough despite Faramir’s displeasure. He knew Esteven fairly well from both his visits to Dol Amroth and the Swan Knight‘s postings in Minas Tirith. Esteven was but a couple of years younger than Faramir and the Ranger Captain liked him, so he forced himself to play the genial host, allowing his men to recount tales of recent encounters while the Swan Knights responded in their turn with accounts of the goings on in Minas Tirith and other parts of the realm.
Boromir, eating the Ranger food with more enthusiasm than its quality warranted, watched all of this with a rather infuriating smile that could not have been called a smirk, but was the next best thing to it. Faramir thought he seemed entirely too amused over the whole business, though he said nothing to the Swan Knight or to his own men about a possible addition to their party the next morning. After dinner had been consumed, the Swan Knights, the Captain-General and his escort and Faramir and his lieutenants gathered about the table with lamps and maps, to amuse themselves with more a more detailed discussion of the current military situation, while the other off-duty Rangers saw to the maintenance of the retreat, or played with cards or dice.
In a shorter time than he would have liked the Ranger Captain decided to return to bed, for he felt his strength failing him. Just as he was going to make his excuses, Boromir, noticing his weariness, leaned close to his ear. “Shall I tuck you in?” he murmured with a grin, and his brother gave him a disgruntled glare for a moment, before suddenly relaxing and chuckling in a mercurial turn of mood.
“You may as well-the Valar know I’ve done it for you often enough!” Throwing a hand up to his brow like a swooning maiden, he sagged against Boromir, who caught him, careful of his wound. Laughter echoed through the cavern, then halted, as Angrim and the other judges came down the stairs with Hethlin in their midst. She looked very pleased with herself, which told Faramir all he needed to know, even before the other Rangers nodded soberly at him.
Straightening up, he twitched his shirt in a rather futile effort to neaten it, then motioned the Rangers to follow him into the alcove. Boromir stayed his own men with an upraised hand, and followed as well, pulling the curtain shut behind them.
“Report, Angrim,” Faramir commanded, sitting slowly down upon his bed. “I understand that you tested Hethlin’s abilities this evening, at Lieutenant Mablung’s request.”
“That is correct, Captain.”
“And how did you find her?”
“Well up to the standard we would expect of a young recruit. Better in fact, than many we’ve taken, my lord. Some of whom have become very competent Rangers.” The commander of the Rangers nodded acknowledgment and looked at the others.
“What about the rest of you?”
“She’s good, Captain.” “A good shot, and stalks well.” “Gave us the slip for quite a while.” came some of the judgments offered. Faramir absorbed all of this for a moment, then turned to the girl.
“Hethlin, is it still your wish to return to Anorien?” Hethlin nodded. “As my men feel that you are as skilled as any Ranger, I see no reason to deny that wish. You will leave with my brother and his escort in the morning, and accompany them as far as Osgiliath, where you will be given passage across the river. From there, I have no doubt that you can make your own way home.”
The girl looked at him for a moment and ventured a small smile, then nodded and cast her eyes down once more. “I am well aware that you have endeavored to make yourself useful while you were staying with us, and I am grateful for your service.”
“No need for thanks, captain. T’was only payback as is meet and proper,” she murmured in her husky voice.
The Captain’s face was expressionless. “Whether you think there is need or not, you have my thanks. Go speak to Mablung, and tell him I want you outfitted with whatever you can carry that you might need to make your way there. An axe and a tinderbox leap to mind, but I am sure that you and he together can think of other things.”
Hethlin’s chin came up. “I shan’t take charity, my lord.”
Faramir frowned. “And I am not offering it. You have been in my charge, I drew you from the river, you are my responsibility. As I am the military authority in this area, I would be remiss in my duty were I to let you leave without the equipment you needed for your survival. So there will be no more talk of charity.” He took a deep breath, and cast a look in his brother’s direction. “And as you mentioned in an earlier discussion, it was the failure of the Steward to provide protection for his people that got you into the situation you were in. So consider the equipment a very inadequate recompense.” Boromir nodded in grave agreement.
The girl looked at them both, then nodded. “Thank you, my lords.”
“You are welcome, Hethlin,” Faramir replied before turning his attention back to his men. “Thank you as well, Angrim, and the rest of you for taking the time to do that. I know that you were off-duty. Go seek your rest now.” A gesture dismissed them, and Angrim urged Hethlin out of the room as well. As soon as they were gone, Boromir drew back the coverlet and helped his brother take off his boots and shirt.
“Are you all right, brother?” he asked. “You seem troubled. Is it Mablung and your men taking matters into their own hands, or something else?” A wry grimace answered him.
“My men have always been an independent lot, brother. But such rampant rebellion as this I’ve not seen since my early days here as commander. I thought I had put an end to such antics forever and fear that my inability to have done so does not show me in a favorable light. Perhaps you should find another commander for the Rangers.” Faramir eased himself down onto the bed, forestalling his brother’s assistance with a shake of the head. Once he had done so, the Captain-General drew up the blanket as well as a chair for himself.
“As if I could find another who would do the job as well as you! No, Faramir, the problem here is not that you are a bad commander, but rather that the men care too much about that girl. She is the disruptive influence I originally claimed she was, though not in the way that I thought she would be.” He reached out to stroke the hair back from Faramir’s brow with an understanding smile. “This self-doubt of yours has no basis in fact, brother, but is merely because of you are weary with the effort of healing and it has made you melancholy. Be of good cheer! She will leave with me tomorrow, and then you needn’t trouble yourself about her anymore.”
“I fear I shall always be troubled about her, and wonder what happened to her,” Faramir protested. “As I said, I am responsible. Was it so wrong of me to try to make sure that she was safe? Everyone seems to be acting as if it was.”
Boromir gave his brother a thoughtful look. “I think what is happening here is that everyone but you seems to realize that Hethlin, like all of us here, knows that there is ultimately no safety. She has said it herself a couple of times now. You have generously offered her what most women would in fact be happy to receive-the prospect of as secure a home as can be managed in these troubled times. Food, shelter, a decent wage and protection. But she is a true child of Gondor-she wishes to live on her own land, within sight of the Shadow, and upon her own terms. I rather admire that.”
A wicked glint came into Faramir’s eye then. “Father is desperate enough at this point that he would probably accept even a farm girl as your wife, brother.”
Boromir’s eyebrow flew up. “You truly were not listening, brother! I begin to wonder if the fever affected your hearing!” The commander of the Rangers gave him an offended look, but undaunted, he continued. “‘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.’” A wry smile twisted his lips. “I am too ungentle for such an injured lady in any event. She would require a more sensitive, understanding approach. Perhaps from a man who knows poetry?” His brother snorted, and he grinned. “Besides, I am otherwise engaged.”
Faramir looked at him for a moment, then comprehension dawned, and his eyes widened. But before he could speak, Boromir laid a gentle finger upon his lips. “And we will not speak of that here, with the men about.”
Faramir removed the finger, his brow furrowed in disapproval. “I thought you had done with that.”
“Whatever would have made you think so? Had you heard any word from me to that effect?”
“No, but…Boromir, you cannot continue in such wise! You must wed! And soon! Our house needs an heir!”
“Not while I have a little brother who can wed in my stead. Look at it as your chance to do something to really impress Father.”
“That is not funny, Boromir.”
“No, it is not,” Boromir agreed. “Do you know what Uncle called his children once? The same ones he loves so dearly? Hostages to fortune. He was admittedly in a very black mood; it was the day Aunt Nimrien died. And he was rather drunk at the time. But the phrase stuck with me, for some reason, and in time I realized that I did not want to create any such hostages, only to lose them if the Enemy should have the victory. So my current situation suits me well enough. I’ll not wed until this matter is settled. And if we are not victorious, my lack of an heir will hardly matter now, will it?”
Faramir stared at him, dumbfounded. Boromir had never been so open about his reluctance to wed before. “By the time this matter is settled, you may be old and toothless and without the means to make an heir!” he argued at last, gathering his scattered wits. The Captain-General chuckled.
“Give our house credit for some small vigor, Faramir! Why, I am still nine years younger than Father was before he troubled to court Mother and wed her, and he an only son! Which fact I think I shall remind him of the next time he tasks me with neglecting my duty!”
Faramir shook his head in disbelief. “You are over-bold, Boromir!”
“Hardly. In this matter, I have the high ground.” He tugged the blanket up further over his brother’s shoulders. “But enough of my love life, or lack of it. Rest easy about the girl. She goes in search of the destiny she most desires-you gave her her life back, and her freedom. Be content. When she is gone, the men will settle, and in six months it will be as if this had never happened. T’will be naught but another Ranger tale told about the campfires of an evening.” He stooped to kiss his brother’s brow. “Get some rest. You’ll feel better in the morning, particularly when you’re rid of my troublesome presence and can get back to work.”
The Ranger Captain smiled then, and it was a sweet smile, free of his earlier discontent. “Troublesome? Hardly. I would we could be together more often than we are.” He closed his eyes.
Boromir rose and started quietly for the door. “So do I, brother. So do I.”
Hethlin spent quite some time assembling a heavy pack under the direction of Mablung and the other Rangers. Indeed, it was not so much a case of trying to find things that would be useful as trying to gracefully refuse the many items that were thrust upon her. Everyone wanted to donate some small thing, as if doing so would give them a stake in her new life, and she would have been hard-pressed to have carried it all even with a pack-horse. But Mablung and Damrod assisted her, and eventually things were winnowed down to an amount that could be borne upon her own back, with some effort.
The hour was very late by the time they were finished, and yawning, she crept quietly into the alcove for a last few hours sleep there before her departure. She was very careful to be as silent as possible, so as to not wake the Captain, but his eyes cracked open as she was arranging her bedroll.
“Sir?” Advancing to his bedside, she gave him a curious look. “Are you well? Do you need anything?” Laying a hand upon his brow, she found it cool. Faramir chuckled sleepily.
“No, I’m well enough. But if you don‘t mind…” Pushing cautiously up onto an elbow, he gestured to the pitcher and cup on the stand beside his bed. The girl poured him a glass and presented it. He drank without pause till it was drained, sighed in appreciation, and set the cup back down. Then he settled back against the pillows and indicated the chair his brother had used earlier.
“Thank you. Would you object if I kept you from your rest but a moment longer?” She shook her head and seated herself. “I find myself worrying, you see. I want to know that you’ll be all right when you leave us.”
Hethlin’s eyes widened slightly. “Oh, sir, you needn’t trouble yourself on my account! I’ll do well enough. Did not your Rangers tell you so?”
“Indeed they did. And perhaps it is foolish of me to worry. What is this home of yours like, that you love so well? I never questioned Mablung about it, and for a long time you and I could not speak of it.”
Hethlin was silent for a long time, brow furrowed as she chose her words. Faramir watched her, saying nothing himself. At last she spoke.
“The farm is at the foot of the mountains, hard by the Nardol beacon. The beacon-keepers used to stop by now and again, to get some of Mother’s cooking.” She paused a moment and blinked. “Poor fellows, they’ll have no joy of me in that way. I can roast a rabbit over a spit, but that’s about it.”
The Ranger Captain smiled. “I had noticed you avoided such tasks. Did you go up into the mountains themselves a lot?” he asked, coaxing her away from the painful recollection of her mother. Hethlin nodded, and resumed speaking with more enthusiasm.
“Oh yes! Father and I hunted there all the time. There is this stream near the house, where we get our water. It comes from up on the mountain, and there is a waterfall up there that is very beautiful. Not like this one, there’s no cave behind it and the sunlight doesn’t hit it but in spots, except in winter. Then it is wonderful-everything nearby is coated with ice, and the sun can get through and makes everything sparkle in rainbow colors. It’s my favorite place. There‘s a bit of grass there, and trees all around. The water is very cold, but it feels good to bathe in in the summer!”
Another moment’s thought. “The evening falls quicker there, because of the mountains. The farm is already in purple shadow when other folks farther away are still in sunlight. But the morning comes there first. My bed was upstairs in the garret, and I had a window that faced the mountains. I would wake up of a morning, and it would still be dark all about, but I could look up and the Sun would be gold upon the mountaintops.”
“It sounds lovely,” Faramir commented, a bit surprised at her descriptive powers. Hethlin nodded again, smiling.
“It is, sir! There are birds, and hawks-I loved watching the hawks soar-and all sorts of flowers and butterflies in the summer. If you were ever to come there, I would be glad to show you,” she concluded shyly.
“I would hope that if I ever came there, it would be in a time of peace. And then I would very much like to see your waterfall, and your hawks and flowers. Thank you, Hethlin.” He yawned, and snuggled down further into his covers. “I think that I can sleep now.” His eyes closed, and she watched for a couple of minutes, as his breathing evened out and slowed. When a soft snore issued forth from his lips, the girl smiled, and greatly daring, gave his hand a gentle squeeze where it protruded from the blankets. Then, cheeks pink, she sought her own rest.