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The Healer's Gambit
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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4

Yavannië 3020 T.A.
Lothlórien

The trip was long and fairly strenuous as they tried to make good speed. After leaving the road just west of Rohan's border, they had traveled cross-country, fording the Entwash and traveling north through the East Emnet and the Wold, skirting the eastern border of Fangorn Forest. Aragorn could not help but recall his last journey through this part of Rohan, hunting the Uruk-Hai who held Merry and Pippin captive. This journey was not quite as desperate, but its outcome was no less important to him.

Faramir was still quite exhausted, and the long hours of riding in the heat each day did not help. He took the sleeping draught Aragorn prepared each night, and it helped him sleep, but left him poorly rested the next morning. Aragorn was grateful for Legolas's calm, assured presence as well as his help, for he took on most of the routine tasks of the journey, leaving Aragorn time to closely watch Faramir.

Aragorn's words about the safety of the journey had proved true, and they had only fatigue and travel-weariness to contend with as they pressed north. But the travelers' spirits rose even as they completed the soggy task of fording the Limlight, for they knew their journey was nearing an end. Still, when they reached the borders of Lórien at dusk on the twelfth day, Aragorn sighed with relief.

But as they entered the forest, Aragorn immediately sensed that something was different. On the border, there were burnt trees, the scars of the war Dol Guldur had waged against the Elves even as Aragorn's forces had fought at the Black Gate. Yet the change Aragorn felt was more profound than blackened trees scarring the landscape.

Soon after they crossed into the forest, they were met by border guards, who were not surprised to see them. "Well met," said their leader, who introduced himself as Edrahil. "The Lady is expecting you."

Once past the border region, the land had been cleansed, and the mellyrn bloomed. The forest was still beautiful, yet it was different than it had been. He glanced over at his companions. Legolas noticed the changes too, his eyes reflecting his uncertainty. But Faramir, despite his fatigue, was clearly enchanted, studying the land around him with wonder. Aragorn smiled at his friend's pleasure.

As they climbed the winding staircase in Caras Galadhon, Aragorn realized that the air of magic Lórien had always held felt diminished. It was still a fair forest, one of the most beautiful places on Middle-earth. But it was no longer a place where a Man felt as if he had stumbled through the mists and into Valinor itself, for it was no longer protected by a Ring of Power.

The Elf-woman who had once wielded that ring greeted them on a high talan. Aragorn and Legolas bowed, hands over their hearts, and Faramir did likewise. Galadriel greeted Aragorn silently, and he nodded in acknowledgment, before turning her eyes to his companions. She smiled at Legolas briefly, then turned to Faramir. He managed to hold her gaze for a few moments before dropping his eyes. Ring or not, she was still the oldest of her kind in Middle-earth, and she carried enormous power. Aragorn remembered the tale of how she had thrown down the walls of Dol Guldur with nothing but her will to aid her.

"You are welcome here, Faramir, son of Denethor," she said. An Elf approached, and Galadriel gestured to him. "Go and rest," she said, addressing Faramir and Legolas. "Your King shall join you shortly, and your needs shall be seen to meanwhile."

Faramir glanced at Aragorn, and he gave a slight nod. Faramir bowed to Galadriel again, and followed Legolas and their escort from the talan.

Once they were gone, Galadriel gestured to Aragorn, and he followed her to an open sitting area. Refreshments were brought, and they spoke quietly of Gondor and Arwen.

"Arwen wrote to me of your young Prince's troubles," Galadriel said at last. "I had no easy answers to offer, for I could not know the nature of his condition without looking upon him."

"And now that you have?" he asked.

Galadriel hesitated, the first time Aragorn could ever recall seeing her react so. "It is difficult to say whether he suffers from memories of battle, or whether some remnant of the darkness truly remains within him. I see only the shadow."

Aragorn's heart fell, for Galadriel had truly been their best hope of finding peace for his friend.

"Do not despair, Elessar," she said. "If his dreams are the symptom, there is a way we might learn what ails him." She told him silently what she had in mind.

"Enter his dreams?" Aragorn said.

"'Tis is not a simple task, and it may be dangerous for you. He could draw you into his terror, or the darkness itself could seek to trap you. You must be truly asleep, not conscious as you were when you helped those under the touch of the Black Breath. Yet I deem you are the only one who could do this, for your minds have touched before, and that will make entering his mind easier."

"I must try," Aragorn said. "The dreams plague him. But he tells me the nightmares are quick, moving from one memory to the next almost too fast to comprehend."

"The draught we will prepare will allow him to wrest control, as long as the images are from his own mind, and not a trick of the darkness." Galadriel watched as he nodded in response. "Then we shall do this on the morrow, Elessar. Go and rest, and then you must explain to him, for he must agree to try. He must trust you enough to allow you to follow him into his deepest fears."

***

Aragorn entered the talan to which he had been escorted and glanced about. It was similar to those he had stayed in during past visits, with a curtained entryway from the stair into an outer room. Like all talans, it was open to the air, with walls defining the space, but leaving large open windows on each side. The billowy curtains covering them were stirred by the light breeze.

The outer room was arranged with a sofa, table and chairs, and a sideboard on which a tray of refreshments lay. Another curtained entry led to a bed chamber, he knew. Legolas waited for him in the outer room, and gestured to the bedroom as he told Aragorn that Faramir had already gone to bed.

"They asked if we wanted separate chambers, but I thought you would wish to be close by," Legolas said.

Aragorn nodded, pouring himself a cup of water as he told Legolas what Galadriel had proposed.

"Are you sure you wish to attempt this, Aragorn?" Legolas's voice betrayed his concern.

He nodded. "I must try." Aragorn pulled back the curtain and looked through the doorway into the bedroom. Faramir appeared to be resting easily. He raised an eyebrow at Legolas.

"Aye, he drank the sleeping draught. He was very weary."

"I doubt it not," he said, sinking into a cushioned chair as he took the plate of food Legolas offered. They sat in silence for awhile, and Aragorn contemplated what he and Faramir would face the next day. He knew Faramir was strong enough to defeat any evil that came from without -- he had proved that already. But his own demons might prove a more daunting challenge.

"Aragorn..." Legolas's voice shook him from his thoughts. The Elf's eyes were dark and narrow with concern.

"I must try, Legolas," Aragorn preempted his objections. "I cannot -- if this is the only way he can be helped, I must try."

Legolas's features softened as he heard the worry in Aragorn's voice. "I know he is special to you," he said gently.

"He has given so much of himself, with so little in return," he said. "I would give him the peace he deserves."

He only hoped he would be able to help Faramir banish the darkness once and for all.

***

The next morning after breakfast, Aragorn explained what Galadriel had proposed. He omitted mention of any possible danger to himself, ignoring Legolas's gaze as he concluded.

"What will happen, precisely?" Faramir asked. He was pale, and did not appear to have slept well, despite the sleeping draught.

"You and I will each drink a draught the Lady prepares for us, then we will simply go to sleep. It will help us to control what happens once we begin to dream."

"But if I can control it..." Faramir looked at Aragorn, confused.

"Aye," Aragorn said. "You will have to choose to let the dreams come. I know it will be difficult, but you must. But not until I am there with you. Then we can see if the dreams are yours, or if they are the product of some fell influence."

"How will I find you?"

"You must look for the bridge, Faramir. I will be there waiting. You must take my hand, and invite me to enter. If you do not, I cannot follow."

Faramir was still wary. "What can you do to stop the dreams, if they are mine, or to defeat this evil, if they are not?"

Aragorn gazed at him long and hard for a moment. "Truthfully, I know not. I trust that my instincts will lead me down the right path. I must ask you to do the same."

"Of course I trust you," Faramir said. "I am grateful for all you have done."

Further conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Lady Galadriel, with two Elves following behind her. They went to the sleeping area to begin their preparations, and Legolas drew Aragorn aside.

"You should have told him," Legolas said.

"To what end?" Aragorn replied. "If he felt there was any danger to me at all, he would have refused."

"Perhaps not unwisely," Legolas pressed. "You are a King now, Aragorn. You have duties greater than the well-being of one man, no matter how dear he is to you."

Aragorn met Legolas's gaze for a long moment. "If I cannot protect those most dear to me out of a greater duty to my kingdom, then I no longer wish to be King." He squeezed Legolas's shoulder affectionately. "Do not fear, my friend. We have both survived far greater dangers."

Legolas sighed. "Be safe, Aragorn."

"I will." With a smile, he went to join the others in the sleeping area.

Two of the beds had been drawn next to each other, and one of the Elves was pulling curtains around the edge of the flet, shutting out the sun streaming through the leaves.

Faramir was sitting on the edge of one of the beds, and Aragorn sat on the other, pulling off his boots. Galadriel's eyes met his, asking if he was certain he wished to proceed. He nodded almost imperceptibly in response.

"Elessar has explained all to you, Faramir?"

He nodded. "Aye, my lady."

"Very well," she replied. "You must be at ease, as much as you might, and allow the draught to work. Do not resist. I will be here, watching over you, as you sleep." The Elf behind her handed Galadriel two cups, and she handed one to each of them. Aragorn drank, and Faramir did likewise. The draught was not unpleasant, tasting of mint.

Galadriel watched as they lay back on the pillows, then sat on the edge of Faramir's bed and took his hand. "Losto a no mae," she whispered as she kissed his forehead, wishing that he might sleep, and be well. Faramir smiled, his face relaxing as the draught began to take effect.

Aragorn smiled too as he watched his friend ease into sleep. Galadriel began to sing as he shut his own eyes; the sound was sweet, and lulled him easily into slumber.

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