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The Healer's Gambit
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When Aragorn opened his eyes again, he was standing in a mist. He felt awake and alert, and he glanced around quickly, taking in his surroundings, for he knew he must find the bridge without delay. As he thought of it, the mist ahead of him began to clear, and he saw one side of a low-arched bridge. Walking towards it, he looked down at himself -- he was not wearing the clothes he had been in Lothlórien. His tunic and trousers were silk and velvet, and he wore no sword belt or weapon.

He walked quickly toward the bridge, searching for Faramir, but he saw no one. He stepped onto the bridge, but the mists still shrouded the far side. "Faramir!" he called. "Faramir! Seek the bridge!"

He continued calling, and what felt like hours passed. Aragorn had almost begun to despair when he finally saw Faramir through the mists on the far side of the bridge. He was dressed as an Ithilien ranger, but like Aragorn, he bore no weapons.

Relieved to see Faramir, Aragorn started towards him, then stopped when he saw that Faramir's eyes were wide and dark, as they had been on the practice ground.

"Reniathon ed vi ely naden gurth nín," Faramir murmured.

Aragorn stilled a shudder at Faramir's words: In dreams until my death I will wander on. He was fey, apparently unaware of who Aragorn was or why he was there.

Aragorn considered what he should do as Faramir continued to whisper to himself. He decided to reply in kind. "Faramir!" he called, and the dark eyes fixed upon him. "Im mellon. Im Aragorn. Lasto beth nín. Ratho ed a le tegithon." He watched, hoping his words had reached his friend. I'm a friend. I'm Aragorn. Hear my voice. Reach out and I will guide you. Aragorn held out his hand, and Faramir's head canted slightly to the side, as if he were deciding what to do. Then his hand lifted slowly, and met Aragorn's.

Faramir stumbled as they touched, but Aragorn caught him before he fell, grasping his elbow. When Faramir looked up again, his eyes had cleared. "My lord," he said. "Aragorn."

Aragorn breathed a sigh of relief. "Yes, my friend," he said, lifting Faramir to his feet. "How fare you?"

"I..." he paused. "I was trying to find the bridge, but knew not where to go," he said. "I am well enough now, I think."

Aragorn patted his friend's shoulder. "Good," he said. "You must lead me off the bridge," he said.

Faramir nodded, and did so. As they stepped off the bridge, Aragorn released Faramir's arm, taking stock of his surroundings for a moment. The mist moved slowly, but it was not cold or damp like an earthly fog. Nor did he feel any evil in the air as he had when he rescued Faramir and the others from the Black Breath.

Faramir turned and looked at him, a question in his eyes, his face pale and drawn. Aragorn could almost feel his despair. "Let the dream come, Faramir." He reached for Faramir's shoulder and rubbed gently, hoping his friend felt the comfort he offered.

After a moment, Faramir drew a deep breath, and his eyes closed. Aragorn felt the mist surrounding them move and shift, and when it cleared, they stood on the marble floor of the House of the Stewards in Rath Dínen.

Aragorn stayed a shudder, but only barely. Gandalf had told him of what had happened, yet seeing it with his own eyes was different entirely. Faramir -- not the Faramir standing beside him, but the Faramir of the dream -- was lying on a table, insensate, with oil-soaked wood piled about him. Denethor was ranting, ordering confused servants hither and thither.

"I have no conscious memory of what occurred here," Faramir said quietly. "Yet I see it in my dream, over and over."

"I do not wonder," said Aragorn, reaching for Faramir's shoulder again, "For it is the stuff of nightmares."

They watched as Gandalf entered with Pippin and Beregond. Denethor was mad, alternately pleading and arguing with Gandalf as he lifted Faramir and moved him from the oil-soaked table and brought him outside, placing him on the bier.

Aragorn listened as Denethor ranted on, unsurprised when he accused Gandalf of trying to supplant him with Aragorn. When Gandalf asked him what his will was, Denethor said, "I would have things as they were in all the days of my life, and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard's pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honor abated."

He drew a knife, and advanced toward Faramir, accusing Gandalf of having stolen "half my son's love." Faramir's head dropped as the scene played itself out, Denethor finally leaping onto the table and setting himself aflame.

"Nothing I did ever met with his favor," Faramir said. "He loved me not."

Aragorn knew not what to say; perhaps Denethor did love Faramir in his own twisted way, or perhaps he sought control over death, after being denied control over his realm and ultimately his own life. "I do not know, Faramir," he said. "Gandalf believes your father loved you, and I would not doubt him. But whatever your father's feelings, they were the product of his own shortcomings, not yours. It was not your fault that you were curious as a child and sought Gandalf's teachings, or committed whatever other imagined misdeeds for which your father blamed you."

"Perhaps," Faramir said. "'Tis so strange here," he said, looking about. "It is the same as the nightmare, but without the terror."

"That is because you control it, and there is no terror in what you control," Aragorn said. "What else is in your dream, Faramir?"

Faramir laughed grimly, his face pale. "One would think that having his own father try to burn him alive would be the worst part of any day. But for me it was not. Or perhaps it was the day before... I do not remember."

The mists swirled, and they were outdoors again, among the ruins of Osgiliath. The controlled chaos of a fast retreat was underway. Soldiers swarmed about, readying horses and weapons, packing whatever they could, and destroying whatever they must leave behind. Orcs were visible across the narrow shore. "We could not hold the river. We were readying a retreat to the Causeway Forts."

"Where are you, Faramir?"

Faramir pointed to a healer's tent in the distance, and they walked toward it and entered. Most of the beds were empty, but five or six were occupied. After a quick perusal, Aragorn could tell the men in those beds were unconscious and suffering from grave wounds -- far too grave to survive the trip back to the city, or even as far as the forts. He sucked in a horrified breath as he realized what he was likely to witness.

The Faramir of the dream stood in the entry, a moment's hesitation in his step. Then he entered, and he approached the only remaining healer.

"Go," Faramir said tersely. "The retreat is underway. Prepare to depart."

"But, my lord," the healer protested. "I must see to moving these patients..."

Faramir interrupted. "Go!" he ordered, speaking harshly and in a tone of voice Aragorn had never heard him use before. Aragorn recognized that voice, for he had used it himself; it was the tone of a captain making an impossibly difficult decision, irrevocably and finally. It was a tone that allowed no response and left no room for discussion or argument.

Once the healer had left, Faramir's eyes closed for a moment, then he pulled his dagger from its sheath. He moved to each of the occupied beds, and Aragorn could hear whispered supplications to the Valar before he plunged the dagger swiftly and precisely into each heart.

"Oh, Faramir," Aragorn whispered. "I knew not. I am so sorry."

"Six men," Faramir said, his voice toneless. "Two of them rangers I had served with for years. Loyal, brave men all. And I killed them in their beds."

"You had no choice," Aragorn said. "Abandoning them to the enemy would have been a fate far crueler. You did all that you could."

"Perhaps," he said. "It matters not. They are dead. Death was all I had to offer that day."

He walked out of the healer's tent, and Aragorn followed. When they stepped outside they were no longer in Osgiliath, but on the Pelennor, watching Faramir's retreat to the city. The city gates were in sight, but Faramir's men were suddenly overtaken and beset by a company of mounted Haradrim, with orcs following on foot. Turning his mounted company to face them, Faramir shouted to the foot soldiers to make haste for the gate. The Haradrim outnumbered Faramir's men, and they were hardy warriors, deftly wielding their blades and bows from horseback. His men died around him as Faramir fought on, wielding his sword with a fell hand. He was heedless of pain and fatigue, slaying one opponent after the next with barely a breath between. Faramir was fey, Aragorn saw, taken by battle lust, and he grieved for the toll this war had taken on his friend's heart and spirit.

The situation was grim for Faramir and his men, and then it became worse. The air was pierced with the heart-stopping shriek of Nazgûl, and Aragorn stilled the shiver that chased down his spine. Some men panicked and ran, only to be swiftly picked off by the wraiths' fell beasts as they were separated from the others. Faramir appeared undaunted, moving deftly to avoid the creatures as he continued to slay his enemies while advancing the retreat toward the gates.

Aragorn was amazed that Faramir's men held out as long as they did, outnumbered and chilled into utter terror by the Nazgûl, yet hold out they did. Hope finally came -- the gates opened, and Prince Imrahil and a company of his knights came forth, fierce and proud, their blue and silver banner held high. "Amroth for Gondor!" they cried. "Amroth to Faramir!"

Gandalf went before them all, flying past the knights on Shadowfax. But even as the Nazgûl were chased away by the light shining like a beacon from Gandalf's staff, Faramir was engaging a mounted warrior of Harad, barely holding his own against twin scimitars that sliced swiftly through the air. He had no attention to spare elsewhere, and even as deliverance hastened toward him, a dart flew through the air and struck his shoulder, and Faramir tumbled to the ground.

"I remember naught after," Faramir said as the mists swirled around them again, "Until I awoke in the dark place where you found me."

"That is not in your nightmare?" Aragorn asked.

"Nay," Faramir answered, his eyes meeting Aragorn's. "The dark place holds no terror for me, for it was there that you found me, and called me back. When I awoke, you were there, and I knew you as the King returned." For a moment, his gaze was calm, but as he looked away, the mists swirled once more, and everything began to darken. The air turned cold and chill, reminding Aragorn of the dark realm from which he had rescued Faramir once before. Yet they were still on the Pelennor, for the sounds of the battle continued to pierce the air around them.

Aragorn felt a surge of fear pulse through him, and he reached for Faramir's forearm. "Faramir!" he called.

But when he saw Faramir's eyes, they had gone black once again, as if he had slipped into some other realm. "I 'wilith morn," Faramir muttered, studying the sky. The air is black.

Aragorn could not see the sky above them any longer, but he could hear the Nazgûl shrieking, and on the field, dying men were screaming in pain. "Faramir! Pertho i faer lín dan o uial!" he called. Turn your spirit back from the twilight.

But Faramir backed away from him rapidly, something akin to panic in his eyes. "Faramir!" Aragorn could no longer see him in the darkness, and he stumbled, falling to the ground. He covered his ears as one of the Nazgûl swooped to the ground, the fell beast on which it rode coming straight towards him, its jaws opening...

He heard a voice in his mind, echoing as if from a distance. "Echuiro, Elessar! Echuiro, Faramir! Awake!"

He blinked his eyes open, his heart pounding as he tried to catch his breath. He was in Lothlórien, and the Lady was standing between the beds on which he and Faramir lay, one of her hands clasping each of theirs.

He drew a deep breath and sat up, hearing a cry from the other bed. Galadriel released their hands and staggered backwards.

"Lady!" one of her attendants cried, leading her to a padded bench at the foot of Aragorn's bed. Legolas was there, his eyes darting from Galadriel to Faramir, and Aragorn's eyes followed his. Faramir was unconscious and perspiring, as he had been after he fainted on the practice field.

Aragorn swung his legs over the edge of the bed, going to Galadriel first. He knelt before her, taking her hand gently. "My lady," he said as her eyes opened. "How fare you?"

Her gaze penetrated to the depths of his soul, and he felt her mind touch his. He did not fight the intrusion, but allowed her to make her own assessment of his condition, even as he tried to assess hers. "I am well enough," she said. "We will speak later, Elessar. See to your young Prince."

Bowing his head to her, he rose and went to Faramir. Legolas was already on the other side of the bed, holding Aragorn's herb satchel. He took it, nodding his thanks, avoiding Legolas's worried glance.

Faramir was indeed feverish, and over the next hour Aragorn tended him, Legolas at his side. Faramir woke briefly, for which Aragorn was glad. He was lucid but very weary, and without argument he drank the draught Aragorn had prepared. When he slipped into sleep, Aragorn went to his own bed, nearly staggering under the weight of his own exhaustion.


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