With grateful thanks to Virtuella and Raksha
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Psalm 51. 17 – The Bible.
"Faramir, wake up, ion nîn!"
The Steward sat up, instantly alert. "Is Farawyn...?" Faramir dared not ask the question that hovered on his lips. These past days he had seen little of Aragorn. He thought he could best aid his King by relieving him of as many of the burdens of office as was within his power to do. He loved the little girl, named for him and his lady, almost as his own, while to Thought Bond he shared with Aragorn, made him keenly aware of his friend's anguish.
"She lives still, but barely. I need to take her up to the Hallow, mellon nîn. Will you come with me?"
"The Hallow?" Faramir rubbed his eyes, wondering if he were hearing aright.
"I know it sounds like madness, but I feel I must take Farawyn there."
Faramir scrambled out of bed, fearful that worry and grief had addled his lord's wits. Whatever the reasoning, though, he would follow his lord to the ends of Arda and beyond if bidden to. "Surely the Queen would never agree to you taking Farawyn up the mountain?" Faramir protested. Even as he spoke, he pulled on his breeches over his nightshirt. He had left his clothes folded on a chair at the bedside in case of a sudden summons to attend his lord.
"I have caused her to sleep," Aragorn said brusquely.
Faramir lit another candle in addition to the one that burned low on a table beside the bed. He could see now that Aragorn was dressed for travelling. A canvas sling was strapped across his chest, in which lay the limp form of Farawyn.
"I know not whether I was sleeping or waking," said Aragorn as Faramir pulled on his boots. "It seemed, though, that I heard a voice telling me that I must take Farawyn up the mountain.
Faramir was no stranger to visions, but this seemed beyond all logic and reason. Aragorn was determined to go, though; and Faramir's place was beside him to support his friend in the anguish, he knew that the King, as a father must be feeling.
"Will you accompany me, ion nîn?" Aragorn asked urgently. "I cannot do what I must alone."
"Wherever you lead, I will follow, you should know that, mellon nîn," said Faramir. "You led me out of the dark vale."
"What if I lead into the darkness this time?" asked Aragorn.
"I would still follow you," Faramir said staunchly.
"We need ensure the guards do not follow us," Aragorn instructed him as the two men crept through the darkened royal apartments, their way lit only be one of Faramir's candles. Only a few sleepy guards were on duty at this hour of the night and it was easy enough for two seasoned rangers to creep past them.
Aragorn and Faramir moved swiftly and stealthily through the gardens, planning to walk down to the stables in sixth level. The grooms were accustomed to their King taking rides at odd hours, as he liked to ride with the Queen beneath the stars on a fine summer night. Tonight though, a cold wind blew from the mountain and driving rain battered against their faces.
Suddenly a gigantic shape loomed out in front of them. "What is happening? No one will tell me!" a plaintive voice demanded.
"Súlion!" exclaimed Faramir. "How you startled us! Why are you not in your field? Surely you have been fed?"
"No one has been to talk to me," the dragon complained.
"Well, we cannot stop now," Aragorn said brusquely. "I need to take my child to the Hallow. Time is running out for her."
"The sickly girl child?"
"My daughter, my heart's treasure! No go back to your field!"
The men walked on. They had only gone a few paces when they realised the dragon was following them."
"You mean to go near that beautiful lake I flew over on my way here?"
"Yes," Faramir said curtly. "The Hallow is just beneath it."
"However will you get there?"
"On horseback of course, provided you have not terrified all the horses into bolting!"
"I will take you," Súlion offered. "I can fly all the way, unlike a horse. You would get there much faster."
Aragorn and Faramir stopped walking and looked at each other. The dragon's suggestion made perfect sense, but how could they take a dragon to a Hallow sacred to the One, where the King alone was allowed to tread?
"Well?" Súlion demanded. "Why are you waiting?"
"The Hallow is sacred to our people," said Faramir. "Only the King is permitted to walk there."
"I thought you said you were going to a lake?" The dragon sounded puzzled.
"It is just above the Hallow," said Aragorn.
"Then it is not your holy place and anyone can go there!" the dragon concluded triumphantly. He lowered his neck so that Aragorn and Faramir could climb aboard.
"If the Higher Powers are cruel enough to strike down my daughter, they have already done their worst!" Aragorn exclaimed bitterly. He climbed astride the dragon and Faramir followed. "You can put us down a short distance from our destination," he told the dragon.
Súlion soared aloft and within minutes, they were hovering over the mountainside. Aragorn directed him to land on a rocky outcrop. The men climbed down. It was noticeably colder than in the City, but the rain had stopped. Faramir surmised they had flown above the low clouds that had covered the City during the past days.
"I could take you all the way," the dragon volunteered.
"You must remain here," said Aragorn, setting off at a brisk pace along a narrow mountain track. Every now and again, he paused to reassure himself that his daughter still lived. From the look on his face, it was apparent that she was fading fast.
Faramir could only observe. His heart was breaking for the friend he was powerless to help in any other way save by remaining at his side. His heart bled too for the Queen, who would be denied even the small solace of being beside her child when she breathed her last.
The track was faintly illuminated by the moon veiled in wisps of high cloud. Aragorn flung himself to his knees on the cold ground, where the White Tree had been found; his head bowed in fervent prayer.
"We must go to the lake," Aragorn announced, rising to his feet.
"That is not wise, mellon nîn," Faramir said gently. "The way is steep and will be icy and treacherous. Come; let us return home to your lady. There is nothing here."
"I believe the One is leading me to the lake," said Aragorn in a tone that brokered no argument." You may remain here if you wish, but I must go onward!"
"Then I shall follow you," Faramir said simply.
Step by painful step, the two Men climbed up the icy treacherous track, aiding each other where the path was most dangerous. In the moonlight, the Steward could see that Aragorn's features were grim and set. Faramir knew the King had not slept since Farawyn had fallen ill. Sheer force of will was keeping him on his feet. Only when they rounded the bend that approached the lake, did Aragorn finally pause to take a deep breath.
The lake was just as beautiful as Faramir remembered it, from when they had found peace here a few years before. In the cold light, though, it looked almost enchanted, and even vaguely sinister to his eyes.
Aragorn unstrapped Farawyn from his chest and assured himself that she was still breathing. He stood for a moment gazing at her, his eyes full of love and grief. Then, to Faramir's horror, he started to remove the baby's many layers of clothing.
"Whatever are you doing?" Faramir demanded.
"I must offer myself and my daughter to the One," Aragorn said simply, unfastening his cloak and it warmly around Farawyn, and laying her upon the ground. He started to unlace his tunic.
"You mean to take her into the lake?"
"You will kill her and most likely yourself too!" Faramir exclaimed in horror. "The water will be deathly cold."
Aragorn laughed bitterly as he pulled his shirt over his head. "She is dying already. What more harm can it do? I must take this chance, the only one left for me." He pulled off his rings and handed them to Faramir. "Please keep these safe for me and hold our clothing to keep it warm and dry."
Faramir could only watch aghast as Aragorn divested himself of the rest of his garments. Instead of immediately entering the lake, Aragorn stood shivering on the bank, staring across the water as if seeking some sign.
"You have ever been the son of my heart and the best friend that any Man could ever wish for," said Aragorn, turning suddenly and extending his hand to Faramir in what seemed suspiciously like a parting gesture. "Be of good courage!" The King's eyes glittered with unshed tears.
Before Faramir could think of a suitable reply, Aragorn snatched Farawyn out from the folds of the cloak and strode into the water, clutching her to his chest.
"Wait, let me come with you!" Faramir cried.
"No, this one journey I must take alone, ion nîn! Thank you for coming thus far with me." With these words, Aragorn strode into the lake until he was immersed up to the waist. The water felt much warmer than the surrounding air, and just as when he had swum in the lake before, it seemed to welcome him in a comforting embrace. Aragorn paused and cried aloud "I come before you, Highest One, as I came forth from my mother's womb in all humility. If I have erred, I am the sacrifice you require, take me, not my innocent child!" He lifted the child high in his arms.
"No!" cried Faramir. "If there must be a sacrifice, take me instead!" Faramir tried to move forward, but found himself rooted to the spot as if by some invisible force.
Just then, the moon emerged from behind the cloud and brightly illuminated the lake, but a brighter light seemed to glow around Aragorn as if his skin were polished mithril.
Faramir glanced upwards and saw that the Star of Eärendilseemed to hover above his lord. He sank to his knees in awe. He heard the flapping of great wings and half expected to behold one of Manwe's Great Eagles, though common sense told him that eagles did not fly at night.
"Why is he no longer concerned about covering himself?" Súlion asked. The great dragon had landed beside Faramir on the lakeside.
"This is a holy place," Faramir replied. "We need conceal nothing from the One who made us as we are."
Súlion immediately spread out his wings so that his markings were visible and preened.
Then to Faramir's dismay, he ducked his head into the water and started to drink.
"This place is holy to the One who caused all to be!" Faramir protested.
"Did not your One make water for drinking?" Súlion replied. "I am very thirsty."
Aragorn moved steadily into the deeper water until he was completely submerged. He scarcely knew why he was doing this, only that he must. Holding his breath and his hand over Farawyn's nose and mouth to prevent her from drowning, he ducked her under the water. He meekly submitted himself to the will of a Greater Power than the King of the West. He recalled the time when he had been in danger of losing himself, that a voice had told him to beware of pride and follow his heart. Could his child find healing or was her time on Arda at an end and maybe his too?
Suddenly Farawyn started to struggle in his arms! A great sense of wonder and elation filled Aragorn, followed by an overwhelming weariness. With an almighty effort, Aragorn re- emerged from the depths. He swam towards the shore, propelling himself with one arm, while with the other he held Farawyn above the water. The child's screams pierced the air.
Aragorn clambered out of the lake clutching his wriggling daughter. Tears were pouring down his cheeks. "She lives!" he cried. "She lives!"
Faramir, rendered temporarily speechless by this miracle, draped his own cloak around his shivering lord. "I will care for Farawyn while you dress," he said simply. Thankful for his experience with his own children, Faramir started to rub Farawyn dry with her father's cloak. "Naneth, want Naneth!" the little girl screamed, seemingly little the worse for her ordeal. He had almost forgotten Súlion's presence and started when the great dragon extended his neck and blew clouds of warm air over the child, all the while sheltering her with his great wings.
Faramir expected Farawyn's screams to become ever more frenzied, but instead she stopped crying and stared at the dragon. Faramir took advantage of the distraction to pull on her clothing. "Nice horsy?" the child said hesitantly, then catching sight of the dragon's wings; "Nice birdie?"
"I am a dragon, little one," said Súlion.
"Dragon, Dari's best toy!" Farawyn said firmly. "Thirsty!"
Remembering how good the water in the lake was, Faramir cupped his hands and filled them, then held them for the child to drink. He had to repeat the process several times as the little girl was extremely thirsty. He started to worry that he might be giving her too much too soon and looked round to Aragorn for advice.
He had expected Aragorn to be dressed by now, but instead the King lay crumpled on the ground still wrapped in the cloak. His features looked drawn and pallid even in the bright moonlight.
"What ails you, mellon nîn?" he exclaimed in alarm.
"My strength has failed!" Aragorn's voice was little more than a whisper. "I offered my life for my child's and must pay the debt."
A/n. A version of this previously appeared on the AA list.