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The Healer's Gambit
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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6

When he awoke the next morning, Aragorn felt better, though the weariness lingered. Faramir was still in other the bed, sleeping. Aragorn examined him with a light touch, unwilling to disturb his sleep, and was gratified to discover the fever had broken during the night.

He found Legolas in the outer chamber, and as he sank into a chair, he was handed a cup of tea. He murmured his thanks, lifting his eyes to his friend's. Legolas's expression was placid, but his eyes betrayed his concern.

"Faramir is improved," Aragorn said quietly. "His fever broke, and he should recover quickly." He served himself from the breakfast that had been laid on the sideboard, discovering that he was famished.

"I am glad to hear it," Legolas said. "Please tell me, Aragorn, that you do not intend to attempt this again, for both Faramir's sake and your own?"

"It is for Faramir's sake that I must," he said, as Legolas sighed. "Legolas, I do not wish to speak of this now. It may be irrelevant -- I am uncertain the Lady will try again, and unless she will, we cannot proceed."

"She wishes to speak with you, when you are able," he said.

He nodded as he continued eating. Between mouthfuls, he said, "I will prepare another potion for Faramir, then attend her. Will you see that he drinks it, when he wakes?"

Legolas nodded, and did not speak further as Aragorn finished his breakfast, then began working on another draught. He knew his friend was unhappy, concerned for both him and for Faramir, yet there was little Aragorn could do to assuage his worry. Either there would be danger to him, or Faramir would not find the healing he sorely needed. Legolas might have his doubts, but Aragorn had none as to which risk he would choose.

***

Faramir awoke weary, but clear-headed. He shuddered as he recalled what they had seen in the dreamworld -- the memories were much clearer than memories of the dreams themselves. He forced his legs over the side of the bed, and after a few moments attending to necessities, he entered the outer room to find Legolas there.

"Good morrow," Legolas said, as Faramir took a seat at the table. "How do you feel today?"

"Weary," he said, "but not unwell."

Legolas nodded. "There is food, and Aragorn left another draught for you."

Legolas's voice was calm, but Faramir sensed his unease. "What disturbs you, Legolas?" He began swallowing the bitter draught.

For a long moment, he said nothing, then his gaze met Faramir's. "Do you remember aught of last night?"

Faramir thought a moment; he remembered the dreamworld, but nothing else before waking up this morning. "No," he admitted. "Aragorn and I were there, and I was remembering something, then everything became cold, and very dark. Then I woke up this morning."

Legolas looked away, as if he was unsure he should speak. His voice was quietly intense. "The Lady felt Aragorn's spirit being pulled away," he said. "She had to force you both to wake."

Fear began to grow in his heart. "What are you saying?"

The clear blue eyes finally met his. "I am saying that Aragorn was almost pulled into the darkness of your dream, his mind trapped there. It was only the Lady's force of will that drew him back. Otherwise, he might have been trapped there, even after you awoke."

"Did Aragorn know this might happen?" Legolas merely looked at him, his eyebrow raised. "Of course he did," Faramir muttered. "And he did not tell me."

"He knew you would not put him at risk, Faramir," he said. "It was his decision, and he still wishes to try again."

"Absolutely not," Faramir said firmly.

A voice standing in the doorway spoke. "It was my risk to accept, and it still is," Aragorn said as he entered, pointedly glancing in Legolas's direction. "The Lady is willing to try again, and so am I."

"I will not do it, Aragorn!" Faramir said. "Putting the King at risk -- it is absurd."

Aragorn did not reply, but Legolas rose and moved towards the door. "I will take my leave," he said. "Aragorn..." Aragorn merely shook his head, and clasped Legolas on the shoulder. With a nod, the Elf departed, and Aragorn took the chair beside Faramir's.

"You should have told me," Faramir said. His feelings were a mix of anger and concern, combined with something else, something that would have brought joy if it had not meant putting Aragorn's life in danger -- a glimmer of understanding that Aragorn believed in him enough to accept such a risk.

"Perhaps," Aragorn admitted. "I did not because I knew you would resist if you felt there was any danger to me."

"You cannot risk yourself for me!" Faramir said.

"But I can," he said. "It is my risk to accept, as someone who cares for you and would see you free from these nightmares."

"But..."

"Faramir," he said wearily, "I know the arguments. But I choose to do this."

"Why?" he asked.

"Why?" Aragorn said, surprised. "Do you really need to ask me that?" Faramir's eyes fell at the intensity of his gaze. "Did we not discuss this in Minas Tirith?" he asked. "You told me there we were friends, and you were sorry you had not asked for my help."

"We are," Faramir said. "And I was... I still regret I did not."

"To accept friendship is more than asking for help, but accepting the help that is offered," he said. "This is the only way I could help you. I did so in friendship, because I would have you well, Faramir," he said.

"But -- to put yourself at risk --"

"I have been putting myself at risk for a long time now," Aragorn said dryly. "Usually, risk far worse than I did here. For as good a reason, or better, than any risk I have accepted before," he said. "I would have you simply accept the help I offer, in the spirit of friendship in which it is offered."

Aragorn's eyes pierced his heart, filled with calm certainty, the absolute knowledge that he had chosen the right path. Faramir found it was impossible to deny him. He nodded in resignation, and said a silent prayer to the Valar that he was not making a terrible mistake.

***

It was easier, the second time, to find the bridge, and each other. To Aragorn's eyes, Faramir was steady and calm, taking Aragorn's arm and leading him from the bridge into the mists. Faramir glanced about, then closed his eyes.

Walls appeared around them as the mist cleared, white walls made of stone, and they found themselves in a chamber somewhere in Minas Tirith, in the Citadel, from its rich appearance. Faramir drew a harsh breath as the mist cleared further, revealing a woman in a bed, with two young children at one side of the bed, a man at the other.

Aragorn drew a deep breath of his own as he recognized Finduilas, although only barely, for the woman in the bed bore little resemblance to the young, cheerful woman he had met during his service to Ecthelion. She was not yet forty years old, he knew, yet she appeared much older. She was thin, so thin, her face gaunt, her hair grey. The sound of her breathing echoed through the stone chamber, each breath a clear torment. Faramir's mother was dying.

He glanced at Faramir, who was standing next to him stoically, his expression unreadable. He said a silent prayer to the Valar that Faramir would find healing through this, for it was surely the most unspeakable of torments, to relive such moments over and again. If it was for naught...

"Naneth!" The smaller of the two boys -- Faramir, he knew -- plucked at Finduilas's bedclothes, reaching for her hand.

"Faramir," she whispered, her hand lifting to touch his face. "Such a dear boy." She looked at the older of the two. "You must look after him, Boromir. Your father will need you."

The boy's eyes were solemn, his voice filled with sorrow. "I will, Naneth, I promise you." He reached down and kissed her cheek.

"I know you will, my darling." She coughed, and the man -- Denethor -- supported her back as she sat up to cough, covering her mouth with a handkerchief. It was speckled red when she drew it away.

"Boys," Denethor said, firmly but not unkindly, "You must go now."

Boromir nodded, leaning down to kiss her once more, but young Faramir began to cry and sob, even as Boromir took his hand and led him from the room. "Naneth!" he cried again. "Naneth!" It was clear he knew something was terribly wrong, but he was simply too young to understand. Boromir picked him up and carried him, but the child would not be comforted, sobbing into his brother's shoulder.

Finally, the door closed behind the children, and Faramir spoke. "I do not recall my mother ever being well. My only memories of her are when she was ill, and then she was just gone. I never knew whether my birth was the cause of her illness, but I think in his heart my father believed it so."

"If he held that against you, Faramir..."

"It lacked in reason, I know," he said wearily. "But it mattered not, did it?"

Aragorn felt the air shift, and the mist slowly cleared. They were outdoors, on the banks of the Anduin. The mist shrouded the water and the trees beyond, but as he gazed out at the river, a gray boat floated in the distance, and knew immediately what it was they were seeing.

"Boromir," he whispered.

"Aye," Faramir said. "I see this in my nightmare. 'Tis the waking vision, how I knew of Boromir's death."

They moved easily through the water toward the boat, which slowed as they approached.

"I loved him so much," he said, gazing down at the face so beloved to him, now grey and lifeless. "When I was a boy, I worshipped him. After our mother died, and Father grew distant, he was all I had in Minas Tirith. He listened to me, supported me, did whatever he could to protect me."

Faramir's eyes were fixed on the still figure in the boat, but his voice was level and calm.

"When I began to train, I was tall and awkward, and the armsmasters despaired of ever making a proper soldier of me. It was Boromir who thought I would progress more away from Father's constant scrutiny, so he persuaded Father to let me spend a year in Dol Amroth, training with Uncle's esquires and knights. It was not only the happiest time I'd had since our mother died, but in Dol Amroth I learned I wasn't as hopeless as I'd been in Minas Tirith."

His lips curved at the memory. "I found I was quite good with a bow, and while my swordsmanship was not distinguished, it was competent. I found some self-respect and confidence, too. When I returned, and Boromir saw how much I'd flourished away from the Court, he convinced Father to send me to Ithilien. Without that year in Dol Amroth, I'd have been sent to a regular company, unskilled, unsure of myself. I would have been dead in my first skirmish." Faramir's eyes were still fixed on the figure in the boat, and his voice was steady but full of sorrow. "He gave me so much, and asked for nothing in return."

"He loved you dearly," Aragorn said, feeling his throat tighten. "He was so proud of you, Faramir. He spoke of you often, and with such love and affection."

"Boromir," Faramir whispered, as he gazed down at his brother's lifeless body. "It should have been me, my brother."

"Why say you that, Faramir?" Aragorn asked softly. "It was not your doing."

"It was my dream, my cursed dream, that led Boromir to Imladris, and to his death."

"Did Boromir not have the dream too?" Aragorn asked.

"Yes," Faramir said bitterly. "After I told him of it. Who can say whether he dreamed it true, or my telling of it?"

"It was not your dream that killed your brother," Aragorn said, "nor the quest for Imladris, which you would have undertaken yourself, had your father given you leave." The boat began to move away, and as they watched, Aragorn drew a deep breath. "If Boromir's death is any man's fault, it is mine," he said quietly.

Faramir snapped around to look at him. "Yours? Indeed not."

"Perhaps it is. For I knew the Ring called him, and I should have kept a closer watch. That encounter with Frodo should never have happened, and had it not, Boromir might have lived."

"You cannot blame yourself for that!"

"Why not?" Aragorn asked. "You blame yourself for a dream and decisions that were not yours. Why should I not blame myself for insufficient vigilance over a situation I knew was dangerous?"

Faramir's eyes met his. "I know not."

"We must both lay him to rest, Faramir. He would not want you to suffer this. He would call it folly."

Faramir almost smiled at that, though his eyes were sad. "And he would say that I think too much."

"Perhaps we both do," Aragorn said quietly.

"He made me what I am. If there is any use in me, as captain, warrior, or man, then all credit belongs to him."

Aragorn took Faramir's forearm, and turned him, commanding his gaze. "You are all those things, Faramir, and more. And there is more than just 'use' in you. Do you not know this? How can you not?" Aragorn felt the glimmer of understanding in a corner of his mind.

Faramir's gaze was steady as he met Aragorn's. Then his eyes closed for a moment, and the mist shimmered around them. The river disappeared beneath their feet, replaced by a forest floor.

They were in a glen, but something was odd. The trees and plants surrounding them were in strange combination, and Aragorn moved around, examining them more closely. The trees were a species he had seen in Harad, with large, fanlike leaves. Long shoots grew from the trunk, yellow in color and narrow, and soft to the touch, for within the shoots was a substance from which the Haradrim extracted a highly toxic poison they used in their darts.

On the ground, fern-like leaves sprouted, and Aragorn recognized them from his travels in Mirkwood. The leaves were not dangerous, but contact with the skin produced an unpleasant rash. Nearby were shrubs of northern Eriador, pretty and green, but the berries they grew resulted in a nasty stomach ailment if consumed. Underneath the shrub, a yellow-brown species of mushroom native to the Misty Mountains grew, but unlike the berries, ingesting a small bit would result in uncontrollable bleeding and death. Harad, Mirkwood, Eriador, the mountains... nowhere in nature would this combination of plants grow together. And they had only one thing in common.

"Poison," he said, speaking aloud for the first time since the mists had cleared. "All of these plants are poison."

"No," Faramir said calmly. "It is me. I am poison to those who I love."

Aragorn turned to face him, disbelieving.

"Don't you see?" he asked, emotion building in his voice. "My mother, my father, my brother. Men who trusted me to lead them to safety, killed by my own knife!"

His pain-filled eyes filled Aragorn with sadness. "You cannot believe this," Aragorn said quietly. "You know the truth of how your family died. You know the truth of war."

Faramir sank to the ground a few feet away. "'Tis best to stay away from me, Aragorn, lest you be next. Who is to say that I will not be the death of everyone I love, given enough time? Leave me here, where I can do no harm to those I love. You, Éowyn, my uncle and cousins -- you are all better off without me. Leave me, I beg you."

"I am better off without you?" he repeated.

"I could have killed you on the practice field! You might still be lost in this nightmare that has become my only true existence!"

"You speak nonsense," Aragorn said tersely, and Faramir's eyes snapped up to meet his. "And you should know better."

"Indeed," Faramir said bitterly.

"Indeed," Aragorn replied, kneeling beside him. His voice softened, and he laid a gentle but firm hand on Faramir's shoulder. "This is guilt that speaks, and sorrow. And while you have ample cause for sorrow, the guilt is sadly misplaced. And you are wrong," he added. "I would not be better off without you. I would be far worse, for I need you, and more important, I choose to have you by my side."

Faramir's gaze met his, and the sorrow he saw there reached to the depths of his soul. "I would be by your side, my lord, if I could. But..."

He took Faramir's chin in his hand, turning him until their eyes met. "You are not poison, Faramir! You are the farthest thing from it... you have a fair heart and wise soul. You must release this torment you inflict upon yourself to the winds! It is the real poison."

"It is like a great weight, pressing me down," Faramir whispered.

"I know. You must cast it away. I know you have the strength within you to do so," he said. The air began to swirl again, and quickly the sky grew dark and the air chill, as it had the first time, just before the Lady had pulled them out of the dreamworld. His heart began to pound, and he knew this was their last chance, the final moment in which they would succeed or fail.

With one hand he grasped Faramir's shoulder, and felt Faramir shuddering in the cold air. "Stay with me, Faramir," he said. "The darkness comes, but you can banish it if you wish to, you can send the nightmares away forever. Just let go of the pain." Fear gripped his heart as Faramir's eyes began to darken. "You are not poison," he said firmly. "You never were. I believe in you, Faramir. So does Éowyn. Does does Imrahil. If you trust in nothing else, trust that."

Faramir's head dropped a moment, but Aragorn gently lifted his chin, holding his gaze, and his eyes began to clear again. "You can have everything you have ever wished for, Faramir, the life you have always desired. All you need do is reach out for it."

For a long moment, their gaze held. The air around them shimmered again, and the darkness began to lighten. As the air around them warmed, they found themselves on a tall hill covered with cool green grass. He saw Faramir's eyes drift closed, as if at their own accord, then his did the same.

When he opened his eyes again, they were in Lothlórien, in their beds, the Lady close by. He turned towards Faramir, whose eyes were already open, and Faramir's arm reached out across the space between them.

Aragorn grasped the proffered arm in his own, a familiar warrior's embrace they had shared before -- but this time warmed by genuine friendship.

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