A loud cry rang out followed by a thud. Faramir opened his eyes again and saw that the torchbearer was lying face down upon the ground; an arrow with Gondorian fletching protruding from his back. The torch was entangled with his robes, which were now burning. Fortunately, the man was still some distance from the oil soaked pyre.
Faramir's captors were thrown into confusion, looking wildly around them to see from whence the arrow had come.
"We are under attack!" cried the high priest. These proved to be his final words. Another arrow whizzed through the air and struck him through the heart. A man brandishing a sword, then raced out from behind a rocky outcrop. It was Aragorn.
Faramir regarded him with a mixture of joy and horror. His lord had come to his aid! The King was heavily outnumbered, though. The Steward yearned to live, but not at the cost of Aragorn's life.
A dozen or so Southron warriors rushed towards the King, scimitars in their hands. Aragorn cut and slashed with Andúril, but he was surrounded. As soon as he felled one, another took his place. Arrows started to fly, picking the warriors off before they could approach the King. Faramir took heart; knowing his King had not come alone. Maybe he would not die trying to save him.
Another group of warriors raced towards the rocks from whence the arrows were flying, trying to stop the archer.
Fikri, who had been standing at one side, suddenly ran towards Faramir and clambered up the pyre, knocking aside the logs that surrounded the Steward. Faramir's heart soared. Then Fikri drew his dagger. The Steward groaned inwardly.
To be so close to rescue only to have hope snatched from him again! The archer was preoccupied in defending Aragorn and could not help him. This boy was after all an acolyte of the Dark Lord. It was futile to expect help from him. Fikri's blade flashed, but instead of cutting into Faramir's flesh, it cut through the ropes that bound him. Before Faramir could thank Fikri, an arrow flew through the air and hit the boy. He fell forward with a sickening thud as he hit his head against the stone altar.
Faramir slowly and painfully sat up, his head reeling at this sudden turn of events. He was saved from the fire! Fikri had aided him, but the unknown archer had concluded that the blade in his hand was for some sinister purpose. Now the boy was most likely dead for showing mercy. The Steward's heart ached. He tried to see if Fikri was still breathing or not, but before he was able to, Aragorn cut down the last of his assailants and ran towards him.
Aragorn snatched him from the altar and half dragged, half carried him back towards the track that marked the border between Mordor and Ithilien. The surviving Haradrim gave pursuit, but the archer kept them at bay with a constant volley of arrows.
"You risked your life to come for me, ada," said Faramir as soon as he could draw breath for speech.
"Only just in time," Aragorn replied grimly. "Are you much hurt, ion nîn? Would that we could have found you sooner!"
"I am stiff and have a few bruises," Faramir replied. "Nothing worse."
"The horses are waiting in the woods," said Aragorn. "Damrod will cover our retreat. Those archery lessons you gave him were put to good use. He was telling me that you spent hours improving his proficiency with the bow."
"Maybe I taught him too well," Faramir said sadly. By now, they had reached the clearing where the horses were tethered.
"How so?" asked Aragorn. He helped Faramir mount Roheryn before leaping astride the horse himself.
"One of my captors cut my bonds, but Damrod thought he was attacking me and shot him," said Faramir. "He is most likely slain."
"We dare not go back," said Aragorn. "The Haradrim are still pursuing us."
"I know." Faramir's tone was both sad and resigned. He slumped against Aragorn as the pain shot through his limbs with the returning circulation.
Aragorn urged Roheryn forward and the great horse sped on his way. Soon afterwards, they were joined by Damrod. His quiver was empty. "There are still some of them alive," he said. "We should be able to outpace them as our horses are swifter."
"Let us leave Mordor far behind us!" said Aragorn.
They rode onwards until the sun was almost overhead, visible through the leafy canopy of Ithilien woodland. Every muscle in Faramir's body ached, but he spoke no word of complaint. Suddenly they heard the sound of approaching hoof beats, as if a large company were coming towards them. Aragorn gestured that they take cover amongst the trees. To their great relief, once the men came into sight they could see that the riders wore the uniform of Gondor. Beregond was at their head.
"Well met, my friend!" Aragorn emerged from cover to greet the Captain. Faramir straightened up in the saddle.
"Valar be praised, sire!" cried Beregond. "You have Lord Faramir safe!"
Aragorn swiftly recounted all that had happened then asked Beregond to divide his men into two troops; one headed by the Captain to pursue any remaining Haradrim and the other to accompany them to Emyn Arnen.
"Beregond!" Faramir called as the Captain prepared to ride away.
"Yes, my lord?"
"There was one amongst the Haradrim who was little more than a boy. Grant him a decent burial if you find his body."
"I will, sir. What if he yet lives?"
"It is most unlikely, but have the healer treat his wounds if he still draws breath. And take care, my friend, these Haradrim are a savage bunch, dedicated to the worship of Sauron. "
Beregond nodded and spurred his horse forward.
The others continued their journey to Emyn Arnen without further incident.
"You have been fortunate, mellon nîn," said Aragorn as he finished examining Faramir's injuries in the privacy of the Steward's bedchamber. "I fear you will ache for a while, but your bruises and sore muscles will soon heal. I will apply a salve to help the hurts heal and mix you a draught for the pain."
"What of these fiendish markings?" Faramir gestured to the mark of the eye standing out scarlet against the skin of his forehead and chest.
"Whatever dye was used burnt the top layer of your skin off," said Aragorn. "It should heal without scarring, though. I will bandage the wounds so you do not have to look upon them."
"I would not have my lady and my little ones distressed by the mark of Sauron when they return," said Faramir. "I would rather tell Éowyn first than have her walk in and behold me thus."
"She is strong and possesses the heart of a warrior, does your lady," said Aragorn. "All that will matter to her is that you are home, safe and almost unscathed. Now lie still, while I apply these healing salves."
The two lapsed into companionable silence. Faramir lay back against his pillows, thankful beyond measure to be back in his own bed. He closed his eyes and tried to drowse, but harrowing visions of his father and himself engulfed in flames whirled around in his mind.
"What troubles you, ion nîn?" asked Aragorn. "You are tense as a drawn bow string." He paused in applying a comfrey salve to Faramir's bruised ribs.
"My captors told me that my father intended both himself and me as a sacrifice for Sauron," said Faramir. "I cannot believe such a thing and yet…."
"Your father hated Sauron and all that he stood for," Aragorn said firmly. "His mind was twisted at the end, but it was fear of Sauron and what he and his minions would do that influenced his actions. So Gandalf told me and his words are to be trusted."
"Yet I am told that he desired to burn like the heathen kings of old," said Faramir.
"He meant only in the manner of his death," Aragorn replied. "He feared bowing to me almost as much as bowing to Sauron."
"What greater honour could there be than to return the White Rod to the King returned?" Faramir exclaimed.
Aragorn laughed bitterly. "I believe the Valar destined that honour for you, Faramir. To your father it seemed as ignominious as falling captive to some tyrant!"
"Never did a captive have more freedom!" said Faramir and smiled. His eyes soon became grave again, though. "My heart grieves for that boy who fell trying to help me. I put no blame on Damrod, though. He believed the lad was trying to kill me."
"Do not trouble yourself overmuch," said Aragorn. "The lad was a devoted follower of Sauron, as much a thorn in the side of the Kha Khan as in ours. It was he who placed these fiendish markings upon you." He lightly touched the bandage on Faramir's forehead as he spoke.
"I believe he knew no other way of life. He did say he was sorry and tried in his own way to be kind." A sudden thought struck Faramir. "You were there when they prepared me for the fire?"
"I was, and gaining more grey hairs by the moment. Damrod and I had to wait until your captors were distracted before we could rescue you, outnumbered as we were." Aragorn replied.
"You risked much for me," said Faramir. "Thank you."
"I would not be without you, ion nîn," said Aragorn. "Neither would I face the wrath of your lady should I return without you! Now drink this herbal tea I have prepared and try to sleep."
"I am weary," said Faramir. "I only hope I can sleep without dark dreams."
"I shall stay with you," said Aragorn. "I will rouse you if you are troubled by dreams." Now drink this." He handed Faramir a cup.
"You need rest too," Faramir protested.
"And I will get some," said the King. "Do not forget that during my years in the wilds, I learned to sleep with one ear open. I will give you an Elven treatment while the herbs take effect." Thus saying, he began to lightly massage Faramir's neck and shoulders with his fingertips until the younger man relaxed beneath his touch. He did not stop until Faramir was sleeping as soundly as a contented cat.
Aragorn settled himself beside the younger man, wondering how long this restful slumber could last.