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10
Chapter Ten

Hethlin leapt away from the soldiers and headed down the hill. At first she let gravity carry her downward swiftly. But upon rejoining the original trail, she forced herself to moderate that pace to something slower than her sense of urgency liked. She had a long way to go, and needed enough wind to get her all the way, for she was still not back up to peak physical condition.

As she ran, she thought upon the Captain-General, a man unlike his brother. Boromir possessed neither Faramir’s gravity nor that sweetness that lay beneath the Captain’s reserve, though the sense of duty that drove both men was the same. But strangely enough, it seemed that he understood her nature better than did his brother, who had much more first-hand knowledge of it. Faramir was too invested in trying to keep her safe. Lord Boromir, with an open-mindedness she found astonishing, had fought by her side, found her competent, and as far as he was concerned, that was that. Hethlin was determined not to fail his trust in her.

The trail was easy enough to follow, as she had told Lord Esteven it would be. For a long time she simply backtracked, jogging along with bow at the ready. The afternoon had heated up, and before long the shirt beneath her jerkin was soaked with sweat. When she’d covered what she guessed was a couple of miles, she paused to drink a couple of small sips of water, and lifted her head to whistle the Ranger recognition signal. Months of exposure had given her some familiarity with the bird calls they used, and she was a reasonably competent whistler. She waited for a couple of minutes, issued the call once more, and when no response was forthcoming, resumed running once more. A mile further and she did the same again, then another mile. The last time she was answered.

Rangers materialized out of the woods around her. This patrol was led by one of the older men, aptly named Feredir, for any hunting forays that included him were usually successful. He cocked a graying brow at her in surprise.

"Hethlin, lass! I didn't know you knew the signals! What do you do here? Where is the Captain-General?"

"The Lord Boromir is waiting with his men and the Swan Knights upon the ridge above that big ravine down towards the river," Hethlin answered between gasping breaths. "There is a large orc patrol laired up there, possibly as many as one hundred in number. He sent me to find some Rangers. He said to send any patrols I found on to him and to go back to Henneth-Annûn to report to the Captain."

"Are you sure that was what he wanted?"

"It is what he commanded me to do, sir. And I had best be on my way-the orcs will move when dark falls. I would not want the Captain-General to meet them with only the men he has with him now."

"Valar, no!" Feredir swore. "Very well then, we'll be off. But I don't think there are any other patrols out here close enough to signal, lass. You'd best get back quick to the refuge and tell them there." He gave her a penetrating look. "Can you find your way?"

"I can, sir."

"Are you certain?" He looked thoughtful for a moment, perhaps weighing the merits of sending a man with her versus adding said man to the Captain-General's force. " It is urgent that Lord Faramir be informed of this."

"I've been backtracking our trail sir, and when I get close enough I will know. I can follow the stream up."

Feredir winced. "That's put the fox among the chickens!" There was some murmuring from his men. "Very well then, lass, if that's what Lord Boromir wanted you and us to do, then we'd best be doing it." He motioned his men to move off at the trot, then nodded a farewell to her and joined them. Hethlin took another couple of sips of water, then started to run again, first at a slow jog, then increasing her stride.

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

Despite her confident words to Feredir, Hethlin felt a moment's panic once he and the other Rangers left. But her father's training held true, and she soon spied signs of her party's earlier passage. After following the signs for a time, the murmuring of the stream came to her ears-she must have been closer than she had thought!

Almost totally winded, she came to the bank of the stream, looked up the faint path that led to Henneth-Annûn and grimaced. Despite her relief at having found the way, she was crestfallen, for the path was all up hill from this point and most of it steeply up hill. But there was no help for it, the Captain needed to know what had happened to his brother. She sucked in two or three deep breaths, then started upward.

Her thighs were trembling and burning and she was staggering from exhaustion when she heard the call from the outer sentry ring. Stopping in her tracks, she feared that she would not be able to make the call and would be shot for all her pains, but a moment's rest and a hasty drink from the water bottle wet her mouth enough and gave her enough wind that she was able to issue a passable response. She was unable to run when she started moving again, but a swift walking pace covered ground swiftly enough, and before long she heard the inner ring challenge. That answered, soon she found herself by the Forbidden Pool, then climbing the path to the refuge itself.

Her shaky legs required her to lean upon the wall as she made her way down the carven stair. She met no one as she did so, and entered unchallenged into the main chamber.
But once she was there, all activity and conversation ceased, the men looking up at her in astonishment.

Mablung, hearing the sudden quiet, came out from behind the alcove curtain. Shock and dismay chased each other across his face when he spied her.

"Hethlin, lass, whatever are you doing here?"

"Message for the Captain from the Captain-General, sir," she panted. The Rangers began murmuring among themselves.

"Lord Boromir sent you back? Why?"

"Because I was the easiest spared, and I knew the way. He needs all the fighters he has."

"You'd best come see the Captain then," came the terse reply, and Mablung moved forward to take her elbow.

Grateful for the support, she did not fight him, but allowed the lieutenant to lead her back to the alcove and within. There she found Faramir, shirtless and bootless in the summer heat, reclining upon his bed in his breeches, propped carefully up on one elbow on some pillows, reading a book by candlelight.

He looked up and saw her and froze. The weary yet peaceful expression he'd had upon his face at her entrance changed into something totally impassive and impenetrable. His grey eyes grew chill, and even though she had Lord Boromir's backing, Hethlin found herself giving back a step at the look on his face. Or she would have, had Mablung not been standing behind her.

"Hethlin, what are you doing here?"

"Your brother sent me, my lord," she managed to stammer out. "He needs Rangers! There are orcs, a lot of orcs, down in that large ravine near the river and we nearly stumbled across them on our way down."

"Valar! I told him he needed an escort!" Faramir started to push himself up with his usual swiftness, but pain obviously stitched his side, for he sucked in a loud breath and his brow furrowed. Moderating his movements, he righted himself and looked up at her.
"Report, Hethlin!"

Concern had replaced the cold anger upon his face, and relieved, Hethlin launched breathlessly into her tale. When she had done, captain and lieutenant looked at each other.

"Take them all, Mablung, everyone here save for the sentries, and do it as of five minutes ago!" Faramir commanded. Mablung moved out into the cavern and started giving orders. There was the sound of many men standing up from the tables and moving about the chamber. Questions were being asked and more orders were given, then many feet moved quickly up the stairwell. Eventually the clamor faded, leaving only the muted roar of the waterfall in the outer chamber and Hethlin's hoarse panting.

"Hethlin, how did you find your way back here?" Faramir asked when they had gone. "You were blindfolded. Did Boromir remove it for some reason?"

"Nay my lord, he did not take it off until we were a couple of miles down the trail. But your brother and his men and the Swan Knights are heavy-footed. It was not difficult to backtrack them to the stream, and from there to make my way here."

Faramir did not seem pleased at her cleverness. "What am I supposed to do with you now? Hethlin, shortly after I took command here, I had to hang a man who found his way to the Pool! My father commands that this refuge be kept secret!"

"I do not think your men would like it if you were to hang me," the girl said, her expression guarded, as she dried her sweaty face with her shirt sleeve.

The Ranger Captain sighed and scrubbed his own face with his hands. "You are right about that. As it is an order I could not give in good conscience to anyone else, I would have to do it myself. And I can't do it myself. So you need not fear hanging." He looked at her flushed face and relented slightly. "Did you run all the way back here?"

"Almost all of it, my lord."

"After that hike? You must be exhausted! It is stuffy in here, let us go out to the larger chamber." He found his boots, which were on the floor by the bed, and pulled them on very carefully with some repressed wincing, then reached for his shirt, which was draped over a chair by the bed.

"Let me help you, my lord," Hethlin said, and held it spread over his head as she had seen Mablung do, so he could put his arms up into the sleeves without jarring his side overmuch.

"Thank you." He got to his feet with a tiny, muffled grunt and she followed him through the curtain to the outer chamber, which was indeed much cooler because of the circulation of air down the stair and the presence of the waterfall. Faramir went to the cider casks, found a couple of tankards, filled them from one of the casks and carried them over to a table, where he seated himself.

"Walk about if you need to cool down, Hethlin, or sit if you prefer."

She chose to walk a few circuits of the chamber, wending her way through tables and around boxes until her breathing evened out, the sweat upon her cooled and her legs felt leaden instead of rubbery. It was odd to see the chamber so empty, there were usually at least one or two Rangers about. The Ranger Captain watched her silently, sipping his cider until she joined him. Then he spoke.

"Let me see if I understand fully what you told me. You sensed something wrong and asked my brother to let you scout ahead. Knowing that there might be orcs about, he actually agreed to send a young woman who had been captured and tortured by orcs once before to spy on them while he and his men waited safely behind?"

"It is not so bad as it sounds, my lord. He did not know if the orcs were really there or not. He only had my feeling of wrongness to go upon."

"Even so, if there was the slightest chance…"

"My lord, I was the closest thing to a Ranger he had! I can move silently, his men cannot. And though I don't know much about them, I don't think the Swan Knights are very good at sneaking around. At least they don't look like they would be-too shiny."

The corner of Faramir's mouth actually twitched upward for a moment, a most welcome sight. "No, I've never heard that sneaking was a Swan Knight talent." His eyes locked upon hers. "You did find the orcs, and without being seen?"

"I did, sir. I scouted around the perimeter and found the boundaries of the camp. Then I returned to the Captain-General and the others. He decided that he needed help, and sent me back to you. He said that he didn't want me in the battle, and that he would find another way to get me home."

"Well at least his sense hasn't completely deserted him! Though surely he must have realized that your knowing the location of Henneth-Annûn would change things."

"I don't see how it does, sir."

"Hethlin, we take great pains to see that this place is not discovered! For instance, one of our standing orders is that if one of the Rangers is taken by the Enemy and there is no hope of rescue, then we shoot them ourselves so that our location may not be achieved by torture."

Hethlin pondered this for a moment. "You are afraid that if I leave knowing where you are, and the orcs come back again to my farm, that I will betray you?"

Faramir nodded. "I know that it is not very likely, I think it was only the foulest chance that they penetrated so far into Anorien, but I should not like to risk it. I would prefer that you agree to go to my uncle's home, where you might be protected and our secret along with you."

"I do not wish to be your uncle's servant, sir."

"So you have said. But surely you see that you have no other choice now?" The Ranger Captain's tone was reasonable enough, but Hethlin could see the line between his brows that denoted worry or frustration.

"Captain, what happens to the Rangers who are injured too badly to continue to fight? Or the older ones who have survived and done their time? Do you kill them too, to keep your secret?"

"Of course not!" Faramir said, affronted. "They are sent home in all honor-" He stopped, giving her an appreciative look.

"You argue well, Hethlin. There are in fact others in Gondor who know our location. But they are living in parts of Gondor that are not so dangerous as Anorien." He shifted uncomfortably upon the bench for a moment before speaking again in a reasonable tone. "I have no problem with letting you go to Lossarnach or Morthond or Dol Amroth or any place in Gondor that is more settled than Anorien."

"I do not have land in those places, or kin. I would just be a stranger, an extra mouth to feed. How would I earn my living?"

"You are a strong, stout girl, Hethlin. I am sure you could find some sort of employment."

Hethlin grimaced. "I have seen that sort of employment. One of my father's friends had a sister who never married. She was this wretched mouse of a thing, who spent all her days taking care of her brother's children and helping his wife with the house, with never a thing to call her own." She looked at Faramir earnestly. "There is another way, Captain. Since I hold Ranger secrets in my keeping, wouldn't it just be easiest if I become a Ranger?"

The Ranger Captain shook his head. "Despite what your father may have said about Northern customs, in Gondor our women do not fight."

The girl's heavy brows drew down, and her mouth tightened. "Oh, really?" She got to her feet and went, to his puzzlement, to one of the washstands left ready for the men. He watched as she washed her face and hands, dried them, then moved stiffly into the alcove. After a few moments she reappeared, carrying one of his books, a slim volume bound in black, in her hand. Rejoining him at the table, she opened it and leafed through it, her eyes scanning each page near as swiftly as he did himself.

"Where is it now, I know I read it here…" she muttered to herself, then said, "Ah! Here it is!" Pausing to give Faramir a triumphant look, she turned her eyes back to the page and began to read aloud. "But the Dunlanders were cunning, and they laid their trap well, and they set upon Duiloth and his men as they came back over the high pass and slew them all. When word was brought to the lady Eirien of what had befallen her lord, she took up her own bow and summoned all of the men of Morthond, and they went in force over the mountains and down into the Dunlendish lands, and there they did such destruction that the Dunlanders would not move against them for more than a generation. The Lady Eirien ruled with sword and bow until her young sons were grown to lordship, and for years after, the men of Morthond would go into battle with daisies in their caps in honor of their fighting lady."

Hethlin closed the book gently, and folded her hands over it. "Morthond Chronicles, Volume Four. Did you not say, Captain, that you did not have very many books here?"

"I did."

"And if I could find a lady of Gondor who fought in your few books here, do you not think there are probably many others in those big libraries you told me of-the City Archives, or your father's library or the one at Dol Amroth?"

"I suppose that is possible, yes," Faramir was forced to concede. "But I think you would find, Hethlin, that most of those women fought because they had to, not because they truly wanted to."

Hethlin pulled open the throat of her shirt, so that the red weals over her breastbone could be seen. "Captain, if it were still possible for me to be a normal woman, and to have a family and children, I might be willing to do as you ask. But you know what I look like now. What man would have me, and why would I ever want to be bedded by anyone? I can be a servant drudging for the rest of my life somewhere, in your uncle's house or some other place. Or I can go back to my farm and work to bring it back and hope that the orcs don't come again to burn it. Or-" and here her voice became very solemn, "-I can fight and maybe protect some families from having happen to them what happened to mine. I am a Ranger, sir, my father brought me up to it. Your own men know it-they tested me and told you so. The Captain-General knows it-he trusted me to act as a Ranger. Why won't you let me do what I know how to do? If I were a boy who had suffered as I have, who had my skills and wanted to join you, would you even question me?" She did not give him a chance to answer, but hurried on. "No, you'd swear me in on the spot! I've heard the men talk. It's not enough to be a good archer, and you lose a lot of men who come up here in their first fight, because it's not the same as being a soldier in the open. I've already had my first fight, sir, and I survived it."

Faramir studied her pensively. "You do appear to have an answer for all of my arguments. What about this one? I do not wish to see you killed or maimed. It goes against everything I was brought up to believe is right."

Hethlin sighed, took up her tankard and took a drink, then set it down, folding her hands about it. "I do not have an answer for that one, sir. But I know that you grieve for all of your men who are wounded or killed, and that you are careful of their lives. That is good enough for me. Would it truly be so much worse for you?"

"I have always in all of this only wanted to keep you safe."

"And you know, Captain, better than anyone in Gondor, I think, that there is no safety. I could die in a month of a fever. Or in five or ten years when He-" and she gestured vaguely up hill in the direction of Mordor "-moves on Gondor at last. You saved my life, 'tis true, but what were you saving it for? Please let me spend it in a way that means something."

There was a long silence while Faramir studied the depths of his cup. "Again, you argue most cogently, Hethlin."

"'Cogently'? What's that? Is it good?" the girl looked almost alarmed, and the Ranger Captain to his surprise found himself laughing.

"Yes, it is good. It is very good! It means that your arguments are sound and to the point." He sighed and sobered. "For my part, you have convinced me." He forestalled her jubilant exclamation with an upraised hand. "But there are difficulties involved with allowing a woman to serve with so many men. I am sure that you can see that."

"Sir, there is not a man in the Rangers that I am afraid of. They none of them look upon me that way. Why is it that I trust them more than you do?"

Faramir did not answer that question. "I will speak to the men upon your behalf, Hethlin. I must know that there is no doubt that they wish to serve with you. If enough of them have doubts, I will not take you as a Ranger-I will find a way to get you back to your farm instead. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Captain."

"I know that you are tired after that long run. Your pack is with Boromir still, is it not?" She nodded. "Then why don't you use my washstand and borrow some of my clothes and get some rest in your old place? Take one of the spare bedrolls. It will be some time before the others return."

"What will you do, sir? I don't mean to turn you out of your room."

"You won't. I'll come back in when you give the word that you are done washing up. In the meantime-" he reached across the table and slid the Chronicles of Morthond over to his side. "I think I'd better give this a look and make sure it holds no more surprises!"

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

Hethlin slept the remainder of the afternoon away, woke in the early evening and took supper with Faramir and the men of the patrols who had come back in. He had apparently spoken to them about her while she slept, for there were many who wished to speak with her. To someone who had only recently begun to speak again, such attention from so many different men, some of whom she knew only by name, was daunting. But she tried to answer all the questions as completely and emotionlessly as possible, including the inevitable requests for details about what had happened to her family and her experiences with the orcs. She knew that she was being judged and did not want to appear womanish or weak. Emotional exhaustion compounding the physical, she found it easy enough to go back to sleep later that evening despite her long nap earlier. But she was restless in the night, with nightmares about what had befallen her family and herself, and Faramir finally woke her in the early morning before dawn.

"You were crying out," he said, holding her hands by the wrists. "Bad dreams?" She nodded, and when he was sure she was awake, he released her.

"You were flailing about, so I thought I'd best be careful."

Appalled, she sat up. "I am sorry, Captain! Did I wake you?"

"Not until just now. I've been sleeping like the proverbial log."

"'Tis the wound," the girl said sagely. "But the rest is the best thing for it."

"No doubt," he agreed; then added, "I am sorry to have stirred all of that up for you, Hethlin."

She ran her fingers through her short black hair. "They have a right to know. I want them to trust me. What time is it?"

"A little before dawn. Come and get some breakfast. I will warn you-there will be more who wish to speak with you today, when Mablung and the others return. Can you face that?"

A frown, then a resolute nod. "Yes, Captain, I will be fine. Shall I work on the fletching box today? It's getting full."

"If you like. Or rest if you'd rather. That was more exercise yesterday than I think you were ready for."

"I feel fine, sir." Faramir realized that under the circumstances the girl was hardly going to admit to a weakness of any sort, so he merely nodded and left to get his own breakfast so that she could wash and dress in privacy.

At mid-morning, Mablung, Feredir and most of the Rangers sent to Boromir returned to Henneth-Annûn, minus a contingent tasked with escorting him the rest of the way to Osgiliath. They were triumphant, with reports of a successful battle with only a few minor wounds.

"We hot-footed it down there and caught the orcs before they started moving, Captain," Mablung reported to Faramir over an early lunch. "Actually, I think we caught them before they were truly awake. Shot that ravine full of arrows, and when the ones that were left tried to break out, they found the Captain-General, his men and those Swan Knights waiting for them. Talk about a meat-grinder! Lord Boromir was in fine fettle, as were his men. They'd apparently had a restful little nap while waiting for us to come up. As for the Swannies-turns out they're as deadly afoot as a-horse. Surprised me a bit, that did."

Faramir smiled. "I don't see why it would, Mablung-you've met my Uncle Andrahar. Not to mention my uncle the Prince."

"Only that one time, when you took me with you to the Prince's house. Never to fight with. I guess all those stories are true."

"Believe me, they are."

Mablung nodded acknowledgement. "Anyway, the Captain-General was pleased as punch at how things turned out and had lots of good words for the men, as is his way. Sent some words for you as well," and the lieutenant took a somewhat disreputable and folded up piece of parchment out of his pouch and handed it to Faramir.

Faramir did not open the letter immediately, but turned it over and over, his fingers caressing the seal. "Mablung, is the tale Hethlin told true? Were there as many orcs as she thought there were?"

"Yes, Captain, she called the number almost exactly-she's been listening to us talk, that much is certain. It was a good thing she was there and that the Lord Boromir had the sense to listen to her. The Captain-General, begging your pardon, doesn't know the forest. He could have stumbled right over them and then…I wouldn't have given much for his chances, not with those numbers, even as good a fighter as he is."

"So…it would seem that I now owe Hethlin for my brother's life as well as yours. This is getting to be a habit of hers."

Mablung gave his captain an interrogative look as he chewed a bite and swallowed. "Is it true, what the sentries were saying when we came in? That you're going to ask a place for her here?"

"I have little choice, thanks to Boromir sending her back here! She knows the way to the refuge, and she refuses to take service with my uncle, or any other place in Gondor where she might be safe. But I told her that if enough of the men had doubts about her, I would take my chances and send her back to her farm."

The lieutenant frowned. "Exactly what is 'enough', sir? I don't think there's a Ranger here who doesn't have someone less than thrilled with them in the Company. Are you thinking a simple majority?"

"I'm thinking more than a simple majority, Mablung. At least two thirds. Hethlin is unprecedented, and I need to know that there are no overwhelming objections before I agree to swear her in. We will all have to make some allowances to keep her here, not the least of which is that we will all have to be silent about her sex. We may even have to lie. I won't force anyone to do that who is not comfortable with it."

"I guess I see your point. Do you want me to talk to this lot, or are you going to do it?"

"Oh, I will do it. It's the first useful thing I've been able to do in days! I'll address them in a few minutes. We'll bring all the patrols in, convene tonight, and make a decision then. That should give everyone time to talk the matter over."

"Very well, sir." Having finished his meal, the lieutenant stood and gathered his plates. "I'll just wash these up and give you some time to read your letter. Then you'd best let me have a look at that wound. It's not been dressed since yesterday, and I'd not want your brother to think I was neglecting you."

"You need have no fear of that, Mablung. Boromir knows that I am well cared for!"

Mablung nodded and moved away, and the Ranger Captain turned to his letter, which had been written, from the looks of things, upon the back of a requisition form. It was properly sealed with the Captain-General's sigil, however, which meant that Boromir's lieutenant had not been caught completely by surprise. He opened it to find his brother's handwriting scrawling a bit unevenly across the page-written, perhaps, using a shield or rock for a table. Boromir did not carry books with him as a rule.

Faramir-

Your men performed admirably as ever. I have told them so, but please tell them again. Mablung is a jewel, and I would be tempted to woo him away from you did I think that he could be wooed and did I not believe that he is best placed exactly where he is.

As regards Hethlin-upon reflection I realize that I may have put you in a bit of a spot with my actions, but I will not apologize. I needed all my warriors with me and Hethlin was the one who could return swiftest to Henneth-Annûn. Based upon the outcome of the day's events, my choice was the right one. I will of course back any decision you make as regards Hethlin's disposition, but if you want my opinion on the matter, it is this-you need more Rangers. Hethlin looks to become a good Ranger, and I speak as a man who has known more than a few of them. Take what the Valar send.

Your loving brother,
Boromir

Well, that is clear enough!
Faramir thought, though he was neither surprised nor dismayed. From the moment the Captain-General had met Hethlin, Boromir had been firmly in her camp for some reason. Which was surprising, for as a rule he did not have much use for women outside of their late mother, their late aunt and their cousin Lothiriel. But if Faramir intended to make the girl a Ranger, the knowledge that his supreme commander approved and would not inform upon him certainly made things easier. He did not like to think about what his father would think or assume upon finding out that he had a woman in his company. His uncle Imrahil would not believe any prurient rumors, but the Prince would probably also have some pithy, pointed words to say about putting a woman in danger-Imrahil was chivalrous in the extreme.

Re-folding his brother's letter, he tucked it in his sleeve to put with Boromir's other letters later, and looked about the room at his men moving to and fro in their usual routine, the picture of contented industry. Would taking Hethlin as a true Ranger change this, when having her about as a recovering captive had not? He did not know. Her sleep might have been restless the night before, but Faramir had slept deep and dreamlessly, with nary a whisper from the dreaming gift he had inherited from his Dol Amroth mother to trouble his rest or offer any guidance. Faramir glanced towards the waterfall, watching the sun play upon it for a few moments, but there was no glinting flash of vision, not that he expected any. He had never been able to summon the gift to heel at his whim-to the best of his knowledge even Imrahil, who possessed it in much greater strength and had actually had Elven training, could not do so either.

I will let the men decide, he concluded, and rose up to speak to those who had just returned.

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

With the outgoing patrols canceled, as incoming ones arrived the refuge began to fill up. As the day drew on, some of the Rangers chose to rest outside under the trees because of the closeness in the cavern. In the winter, the close-packed warmth of bodies would be welcome, but in the heat of August it was not. The waterfall did much to cool the cave, but it would become stuffy if many men were within during the midday heat.

Hethlin stayed in the cavern during the day, busying herself first with the fletching box, then with such other tasks as Mablung set for her. Throughout the day, more Rangers came to her with questions, and as before, she endeavored to answer as completely as possible. As the afternoon wore on towards dinner time, Faramir found her and took her outside to talk to the men who were going to stand sentry during dinner and the first part of the night. He then dismissed her back to the cavern and remained to have private speech with them.

Every trestle and bench the refuge possessed were set up that evening, and when the Standing Silence came, they were all completely filled. Hethlin sat at Faramir's left hand, while Mablung sat on his right. She found that she could eat little because of nerves, but endeavored to do so anyway. Faramir had a good appetite, and he addressed himself to his dinner, refusing to speak of the matter until after the meal was finished. Mablung also managed to eat, giving Hethlin some encouraging smiles as he did so.

When it looked as if all present had eaten their fill, and the hum of conversation in the cavern was beginning to rise, Faramir stood, tapping his silver goblet with his knife.

"It is rare that we are all brought here together and I am glad that I am able to do so for peaceful reasons, rather than for some major engagement. You have all been gathered here tonight to discuss the admission of a new Ranger to our company." He paused for a moment to take a drink from his goblet, then set it down and continued.

"Ordinarily, as you know, you would not be consulted on such matters. Such decisions are the province of the commander and his staff, and I have no reservations about our ability to make them, nor do I feel that it is anyone's right to question our decisions. This case, however, is extraordinary, given that it is a young woman who wishes to join us. You all know Hethlin, and you have spent many months in her company as she found her way back to health."

"Yesterday, on the way to Osgiliath, my brother encountered a large patrol of orcs. He sent Hethlin back here with a message for me, requesting reinforcements. She was able to back trail the track his party had left in the morning, so she now knows the location of the refuge. She has expressed the wish to become a Ranger upon more than one occasion, and because of the events of yesterday, I am willing to consider the idea. But I will not do it if many of you object. Subterfuge would be required if she were to join us, and I would never insist that any of you do anything which you feel dishonorable." His eyes scanned the room. "I will open discussion of the matter by letting Angrim and those who gave Hethlin the Ranger candidate test to speak of their findings. Then the rest of you may ask questions or state your opinions."

Faramir sat back down and Angrim and the Rangers who had tested Hethlin stood and told of the trial they had given her and her success in all aspects. When they had finished and seated themselves, there were a few moments of silence, then Feredir stood, his seamed face grave. "Hethlin, lass, we've all of us talked to you in the last day, and given what happened to your family I can understand why you wish to join us, but this is a deadly business, lass. Have you no kin here to take you in?"

Hethlin stood in her turn, and shook her head. "No, sir. My father and mother were both from Arnor. I have no kin in Gondor." There was some murmuring at that, for it was something that not all present knew.

"You've a home with my sister and her man, if you wish it," Feredir offered. "There is no need to go to war, lass-any number of us would be happy to give you a place."

Other Rangers chimed in with similar offers. Startled, Hethlin looked around at them, then at Faramir, who merely gestured with an open hand. You're on your own here, he seemed to say. So after a moment she spoke, hesitantly at first.

"You are all very kind, you have always been so to me and it is very generous, what you have offered to me. But I need my own place, either here among the Rangers or on my farm. I do not wish to be beholden to anyone, no matter how kind they may be.”

More murmurs arose, but they were murmurs of approval and agreement. Most of the Rangers in Faramir’s company were descendents of folk who had lived in Ithilien before the Enemy drove them out, and as such were an independent-minded, prideful and stubborn lot. Hethlin’s reasoning was all too understandable to them.

“Captain, if we do agree to let Hethlin join the company, how will things be…arranged?” The questioner was Caladir, one of the younger men. “Living arrangements, I mean.”

“I think that for now, we will continue as we have begun,” Faramir answered. “Hethlin will remain in the alcove. It is the best way to give her some needed privacy.” Nods all around, but no scurrilous remarks or jokes. Hethlin glanced around at the Rangers, ducked her head and smiled a little. The men obviously shared her faith in Faramir’s virtue.

“And she begins just like any new Ranger, sir? As regards training and such?” That was Damrod.

“Indeed, Damrod. In fact, should it be agreed that she join us, she may go out with your patrols since you have brought the question up.”

“I have no problem with that,” Damrod said, giving Hethlin a smile. She smiled bashfully back.

“Does anyone else have a question or concern, before we put this to a vote?”

Angrim rose. Silence fell, for as the Ranger who had been longest with the company, he commanded respect. He looked about the room for a long moment, and Hethlin wondered if he were going to object to her presence, particularly when his unsmiling glance crossed hers.

“I deplore the times we live in, that have brought us to this,” he said, “that we could even consider allowing a woman to fight. It is just another sign of how low the Enemy has brought us.” Another long pause as every eye watched him, broken only by the song of the waterfall. “Hethlin once told me that she had more right to fight than any of us here, and I disagreed with her about that, saying that she did not know the stories of every man here. But I also told her that she had as much right to fight as any of us, and I hold to what I said. I have no objection.”

His approval seemed to settle the matter, for no one else rose, save for Faramir, who tapped knife to goblet once again.

“Does no one else wish to speak?” No one answered. “Then it is time to put this matter to a vote of the Company. All who do not object to Hethlin of Anorien becoming a member of the Company, please rise.”

With much scraping of wood against stone, the Rangers rose. There was a hole here or there where a man remained sitting, and Hethlin could not see who had done so, but the vast majority of them were upon their feet.

“Looks like more than two thirds to me, Captain,” Mablung murmured to his commander. Faramir nodded, and spoke.

“As the majority of the Company have no objection, you are accepted as a Ranger of Ithilien, Hethlin of Anorien. Are you prepared to swear the oath?”

Hethlin swallowed hard. “I am, Captain.”

“And have you a sword upon which you can swear?”

Hethlin reached to her side, where her father’s sword was belted.

“I do, sir.”

Faramir stepped away from the table, into the open space at one side of it where they might be more easily seen.

“Then come before me, and kneel.”

Hethlin did so, sternly willing her knees not to shake.

“Give me your blade.”

She drew the sword, somewhat awkwardly since she was kneeling, and presented it across her open palms to Faramir, who laid his own hands over hers.

“If you are truly resolved on this, Hethlin of Anorien, then swear the oath.”

Mablung had taught her the words that very afternoon, and Hethlin spoke slowly, lest she mar them with haste, her eyes lifted to the man who had saved her life.

“Here do I swear fealty and service to Gondor, and to the Lord and Steward of the realm, to speak and to be silent, to do and to let be, to come and to go, in need or plenty, in peace or war, in living or dying, from this hour henceforth, until my lord release me, or death take me, or the world end. So say I, Hethlin daughter of Halaran of the House of the Eagle.”

I am yours, Captain, unto death and beyond, she thought, looking straight into his eyes, knowing to whom it was she was truly swearing her oath.

Perhaps Faramir sensed something of that thought, for he smiled gently as he spoke in his turn.

“And this do I hear, Faramir son of Denethor Lord of Gondor, Captain of the Rangers of Ithilien, and I will not forget it, nor fail to reward that which is given: fealty with love, valor with honor, oath-breaking with vengeance.” He lifted his hands from atop the sword and moved them to grip hers beneath the blade, pulling her upwards. “Rise, Ranger Hethlin.”

The cavern erupted in cheers, and Rangers surged forward to congratulate their newest comrade. Predictably, Mablung got there first, and Hethlin gave him a shaky grin.

“Congratulations, Hethlin,” he said, squeezing her arm in a warrior’s clasp. Then, looking to his lord, he suggested, “Perhaps we might broach a cask, Captain? It’s been a good day after all, what with the victory over those orcs and a new Ranger.”

The Ranger Captain was pensive again as he looked upon his newest recruit, but there was also a hint of a smile in his eyes.

“Yes, Mablung, I think a bit of a celebration would not go amiss.”

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