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4
Three times the owl now

The characters are the property of the Tolkien Estate. No profit has been nor will be made from this story.

Three times now the owl

Has sighed from on high – Scribel/Verdi – Ulrica’s Aria

With grateful thanks to Raksha


~~~

The Innkeeper gestured for Faramir and his escort to go inside. After bowing low again, he left them.

“Who seeks my counsel?” asked the darwisa, emerging from the shadows. Her husky voice was oddly compelling. She was a tall woman, dressed in faded scarlet robes. Her long grey hair was wild and unkempt and she was missing her front teeth. Aban shrank behind Faramir.

“You are not what you seem to be!” said the woman. She raised a large hand that looked capable of easily wielding a weapon. Her sleeve fell back to reveal a serpent tattooed on her forearm.

“I am Faramir, son of Denethor, Steward to King Elessar, esteemed Lady Zafirah,” said Faramir. “I have come to seek your aid for my lord, laid low by a poisoned blade.”

“You are a bold one, Faramir, son of Denethor,” replied Zafirah. ”Why should I aid a man who defeated my people and killed many of my own kin?”

“With respect, lady, my lord defeated your people in fair combat; combat that the Haradrim brought to our very gates,” said Faramir evenly but firmly. “Your ambassador himself commands that you aid my lord.” He handed the woman the letter.

Zafirah studied the parchment and frowned. “His order bids me to come with you on pain of death,” she said. ”It does not tell me why I should use my healing arts on a man I despise!”

“Lord Elessar is the noblest and best of men!” said Faramir fervently. “All who know him come to love him. He is as a father to me. Should he die, part of my own soul would perish with him! He has a wife who loves him and a young son who would grow up fatherless."

Zafirah suddenly grasped both of Faramir’s hands and stared into his eyes. Aban gave a cry, then turned and fled. The darwisa suddenly smiled, her gap toothed smile strangely beautiful. “I will help you, if my powers permit, Man of Gondor,” she said. ”If your lord can inspire such love, he is worth saving, if the Powers on High will it. Tell me of the poison! Do you have the weapon that caused the deadly wound?”

“I thank you, most esteemed wise woman,” said Faramir. "Our healers still have the poisoned blade. The venom is slowly paralysing my King. The woman who attacked him said he would die within twenty-four hours.”

“Akuiniama!” exclaimed Zafirah. ”A rare poison unknown to men, but the women of our people know its uses well. It is powerful magic!”

“Is there an antidote?” Faramir demanded.

Zafirah smiled again. “Of course. What use would it be to us, if we could not control the powers of life and death the plant holds!” She seized several jars from the crowded shelf behind her and wrapped them in a cloth, which she placed in an already laden large basket. ”Come, Lord Faramir, take me to your master!”

The Steward found Aban waiting outside with the horses. The man’s eyes widened in fear at the sight of Zafirah. ”Mercy, great Prince!” he cried. “This woman will place the evil eye upon us! Do not make me go near her!”

“You can lend her your horse and walk home if you prefer,” said Faramir. “Tell your Master how we have fared and that I will return his horses in the morning.”

“Thank you, noble Prince!” exclaimed Aban. He hurried away without a backward glance.

Zafirah laughed mirthlessly. ”They fear me, as I am not like them, yet they seek my wisdom,” she said.

“My lord will give you high honour if you can heal him, said Faramir, helping her mount and securing her basket to the saddle. ”He is a great healer himself.”

The Steward urged his horse into a gallop. Fortunately, Zafirah was plainly a horsewoman skilled enough to keep up with him. He kept checking to ensure that the woman was still following. Yet something in his heart told him, that she could be trusted to keep her word. Whether she could heal Aragorn was another matter entirely.

Night was full upon them now. They rode swiftly through the silent streets lit by a crescent moon and the occasional lamp.

“Who goes there?” A guard loomed out of the darkness issuing the challenge. “It is late to be abroad, and do you not know that horses are forbidden beyond the sixth circle?”

“Let me pass, Sergeant. It is, I, Faramir, Steward of Gondor. My companion and I are on an urgent errand for the King!”

The Sergeant bellowed with laughter. ”You will not fool me so easily! Since when did our Steward have swarthy skin and Southron robes? You are no Man of Gondor, though you speak like one!”

Hastily Faramir dismounted and threw off his borrowed garb. ”Let me pass, man, the King’s life may depend upon it!” He reached in his pocket and slipped on a discarded ring. ”See, here is my seal of office!”

“You might be the Steward, but I don’t know, I must fetch -”

Unable to wait any longer, Faramir gestured to Zafirah and suddenly urged his horse to a gallop, forcing the guard to jump aside. He was relieved that the next guard they encountered was a man he knew well, who stared at him, but let him pass.

When they reached the King’s apartments, everyone was still abroad despite the lateness of the hour. The servants with no duties to perform stood in groups, some talking quietly while others were weeping. Healers were bustling to and fro, their faces grave. Everyone looked up and stared at Faramir and his companion.

“How is the King?” Faramir asked a passing healer.

“Alas, my lord, he grows weaker by the hour,” said the man. “He cannot move his limbs at all. Soon the venom will reach his vital organs. Master Tarostar is about to insert a tube in his throat, in the hope it will help him breathe for a little longer The assassin died a few hours ago. But, whatever has happened to your face?”

“Henna dye,” Faramir said shortly. “I must go to the King. I require the dagger that dealt him the deadly blow.”

Grasping Zafirah’s arm tightly, Faramir hastened towards Aragorn’s room, knocked, and entered.

Aragorn lay motionless upon the huge bed in a stiff, unnatural position, his skin whiter than his nightshirt. The room smelled strongly of athelas, but the herb seemed to have no effect. Arwen sat on a chair weeping quietly, while three healers were bustling around, and a fourth was sharpening a knife. The Queen looked up as Faramir entered, her red eyes widening as she saw him and his companion.

“Estel was asking for you before he lost consciousness,” Arwen said reproachfully.

“My lady, I left him only that I might search out an antidote for what ails him,” said Faramir. I bring Mistress Zafirah, a darwisa, who knows the secrets of deadly venoms.”

“I fear you are too late to help my Estel,” said Arwen. “He cannot swallow, and can scarcely breathe.”

Faramir hastened to the bedside and clasped Aragorn’s hand. It felt cold and lifeless much to his dismay. “Can you aid my lord?” he asked Zafirah urgently.

“It may already be too late, but I will try my best. You must all must leave. I do not share the secrets of my healing arts with outsiders,” the darwisa said sternly in her deep, husky voice.

“Certainly not!” protested Tarostar. “We must stay with our patient! He is very seriously ill!”

“Can you cure him?” asked Arwen bitterly.

“You know we cannot, my lady,” said the Warden, “But we should -”

Arwen rose to her feet and drew herself up to her full height, every inch a queen. ”Go!” she said in a voice that allowed no argument.

TBC

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