"These runes are familiar to me. I believe I recognize the hilt of the sword too now I see it clearly," said Aragorn. "I think the blade is none other than Glamdring. I believe Gandalf must have placed the sword in the tree for Faramir. I had no idea he returned to Rohan after your uncle's funeral, though, Éomer."
A sudden light of understanding dawned in Éomer's eyes. "I did not think he had returned," he replied. "When I learned he was soon to sail West, I sent a message to him, asking if it were possible to allow Shadowfax to run with the mares for one last time. He had only fathered a few foals and it seemed a pity that his bloodline might be lost from our herds. So many great horses were slain during the war. I received a somewhat cryptic reply about Shadowfax being his own master and that seemed to be the end of the matter. A year later, some of the mares gave birth to foals that resembled Shadowfax, which gave me cause to wonder if Gandalf had granted my request after all."
"Éowyn puts the mare in a field with whichever stallion she desires to breed from," said Faramir. He looked around him for somewhere to sit down as his legs felt very unsteady.
"It would be an insult to breed the Mearas. Our finest mares and stallions run together and choose their own mates. We can see from the colour of the foals who their sires were."
"Gandalf must have returned with Shadowfax then," said Aragorn.
"But Gandalf had long since shed his grey robes at the time the stranger placed the sword in the tree, though," Éomer protested. "He was the White Wizard by then, not the Grey!"
"It would be an easy enough matter to don a grey cloak over his white raiment in order to attract little notice," said Aragorn. "He was greatly fond of Faramir and must have desired to give him Glamdring for his own. I doubt he would have need of it in Valinor."
"But why not leave it with me to give to my brother in law rather than placing it here in a tree?" Éomer sounded bemused.
"Gandalf is a Maia, a servant of the Valar themselves. No doubt, he knew that if this village were to be saved from the wargs, it needed mighty warriors here. Gandalf could well have placed enchantments on the sword so that none save Faramir should draw it forth and to keep it from rusting."
Aragorn suddenly realized that Faramir was absent. He looked around, wondering why his friend was not beside him studying the runes for himself. He finally saw the Steward sitting on a bench near to the doorway, apparently deep in thought.
Faramir felt a thrill at the possibility that Gandalf should have left such a fabled sword for him to find. At present, though, all he wanted was to return to the Golden Hall and rest.
The injured farmer that Aragorn had been caring for still lay in the centre of Signi's hall, now divested of his clothing and being washed and wrapped in blankets by the village women. Faramir shuddered, not wishing to share his fate. The Rohirrim had few inhibitions and would not understand the Steward's need for privacy. The Steward was certain that he had only suffered a minor wound, one that could wait until he reached his chamber in the Golden Hall. It would be much cleaner there too, and he could don fresh clothes to replace the torn ones he was wearing. Faramir pulled his cloak more tightly around himself and forced a smile as the two kings approached him. He held out the sword for their inspection.
"This is indeed Glamdring," said Aragorn.
"Mithrandir has honoured me greatly," said Faramir.
Aragorn walked back to where the wounded farmer lay. Satisfied, the man was being well cared for, he began to gather up his healing supplies.
Faramir heaved a sigh of relief. It seemed he would soon be able to return to Edoras.
"No, no it hurts!" A blood splattered little girl, who was being tended by the village healer, started to cry hysterically.
Aragorn hastened over to where the little girl was being held down by another of the women. She was struggling like a trapped bird trying to escape. "What ails the child?" he asked. "I asked that the seriously injured were to be brought to me."
"She only has a small cut on her cheek," the healer answered." She is frightened of having it cleaned and stitched, that is all."
"I'm her mother and I've told her it is for her own good," the other woman explained, "Her older brother died from wounds received in a skirmish against the Dunlendings not long since and I think that has made her anxious."
"Give her to me!" Aragorn scooped up the little girl in his arms and rocked her gently, all the while rubbing the back of her neck in an Elvish calming technique. Her frightened screams soon subsided to whimpers.
"What is your name?" he asked after a few minutes.
"Erlene," the little girl whispered.
"You are indeed Elven fair," said Aragorn. "Now will you permit me to tend your cut?"
"It will hurt!" Erlene protested and swiftly changed the subject. "You don't look like us? Why is your hair black?"
"It is because I come from another land," Aragorn explained. "See my hair is like yours, only not so silky, as I am not a little girl." He guided her hand to feel a lock of his unruly mane and studied the gash on her face while she was preoccupied.
"You are a brave daughter of the Mark," Aragorn told her, "I shall try hard not to hurt you too much. Your mummy is here and will be proud of her small warrior maid!"
The little girl nodded her golden head after a moment's thought. Aragorn handed her back to her mother. "Sit here with her on your lap," he said.
He knelt and bathed the cut with water in which athelas and meadowsweet had been steeped, rather than the salted water that was usually used. Her trust gained, the child sat quietly while Aragorn sewed the cut closed with a fine needle, hardly making a sound.
Despite his wish to return to Meduseld, Faramir could not begrudge the small girl his King's aid. No doubt, Elestelle would look much like her in a few years' time. He could only hope that Aragorn would be at hand to help should she ever have the misfortune to be injured. Éowyn was well versed in the healing arts and highly skilled, but no other had healing power in their hands like Aragorn.
"It should heal without scarring," Aragorn smilingly pronounced when he had finished. "You are a very brave girl indeed. Lady Éowyn would praise you highly for your courage!"
"I want to be a shieldmaiden like the White Lady!" Erlene cried. She beamed and slid off her mother's lap, lifting her small face in wonder.
Aragorn bestowed a kiss of blessing on her brow then went to see how Friedhild was faring. He had given her poppy juice and she was now sleeping soundly. Satisfied that she was as well as might be expected, he left medicines with the village healer together with instructions to see that she had plenty of boiled water to drink and nourishing broths.
"Will my daughter live?" asked her mother.
"I believe she has a good chance," said Aragorn. "Whether she will ever be able to use her arm again, I cannot say, though I am hopeful. Send to Edoras for me should her condition cause concern."
The woman knelt and kissed his hand in gratitude.
"The horses are ready!" Éomer called from the doorway. He sounded anxious to leave. "I will send some men to guard your village and I shall return soon to see how you are faring."
"Farewell for a while," said Aragorn. "I shall return with Éomer King."
Vastly relieved to be able to leave at last, Faramir tried to stand up, only to find he could hardly stay on his feet, he felt so light headed. He wondered if he should say something to Aragorn, but decided it was unfair to keep Éomer away from his wife any longer. He had waited this long and could endure a little longer. After all, he had endured far worse wounds in the past.
While Signi , her household, and the grateful villagers milled around them, he was able to surreptitiously support himself by leaning on his new sword and holding on to the furniture until he reached the doorway. Then, by a supreme effort of will, he somehow managed to clamber on to Zachus' back.
Éomer and Firefoot set the pace. They set off a brisk canter towards Meduseld.
Faramir concentrated all his energy on staying upright in the saddle. For the first league or so, he succeeded, telling himself that he had only to stay upright a little while longer and then he could rest. He felt increasingly dizzy, his spinning head made worse by the swaying motion of his horse. Desperately he tried to cling on, but felt himself sliding from the saddle. Everything went black.
"Faramir!" Some instinct made Aragorn turn around at that moment, just before the Steward rolled to the ground. He wheeled Roheryn around. Followed by Éomer, he hastened to where his friend lay. Aragorn leapt from the saddle and knelt beside Faramir, noting with alarm that the Steward was deathly pale. Anxiously, he felt for a pulse, noting with concern that it was weak and rapid. Pulling aside, Faramir's cloak, he was horrified to discover the Steward's side was covered with blood soaked makeshift bandages.
"What has happened to him?" Éomer dismounted and ran towards his brother in law.
"He appears to be sore wounded," said Aragorn. "I saw him fighting a Warg earlier. It must have clawed him before he could dispatch it. Help me get him on Roheryn, Éomer. I dare not examine him properly here, lest he lose more blood once I touch the bandages."
Aragorn cradled Faramir in his arms, while Éomer fetched Roheryn from where he was nibbling at the grass by the path. "Why did you not tell me you were hurt?" he murmured to the unresponsive man.
Éomer led Roheryn to his master's side. "You mount and I will lift him up in the saddle beside you," he said.
"Be careful," Aragorn cautioned, loth to relinquish Faramir's care to another even for a moment, lest his life slip away.
"He is dear to me too," Éomer replied. "I would not lose him, nor have my sister made a widow so young. Now, give him to me." He gently took Faramir from Aragorn's arms.
Aragorn mounted his faithful stallion while Éomer, helped by one of the guards, lifted Faramir up beside him Aragorn secured Faramir in front of him with one arm and with the other held the reins, coaxing Roheryn forward. The great horse bore his extra burden uncomplainingly.
Faramir remained unresponsive, his head lolling limply until Aragorn supported him.
Éomer rode on a little ahead and one of his guards led Zachus. Faramir had secured the sword he had pulled from the tree to the gelding's saddle before his collapse.
The short ride back to the Golden Hall felt like an eternity to Aragorn. How badly was Faramir hurt? He had seen all too many victims of warg attacks succumb to their wounds in the past, despite his best attempts to save them. If the cruel claws tore the victim's guts, or a major blood vessel, their chances of survival were very slim indeed, even if tended by Elrond himself. Then, even if the wound itself were not serious, the risk of infection was very high from the claws of such filthy beasts.
Faramir moaned softly when Roheryn faltered over an exposed root across the path. This sign of life heartened the King and he quickened Roheryn's pace a little. He called to one of the guards to ride on ahead with instructions to build up the fire in their chamber and see that plenty of hot water and bandages were made ready.
He would do everything he could to save Faramir. Éowyn had gladly sent her husband on this mission with him, believing it would simply be a pleasant visit to her brother. He could not return with her husband's corpse. Why did the Valar have to be so cruel to threaten to tear Faramir from his side a few short weeks after they had been reconciled and their friendship had grown even stronger? The Golden Hall was now in sight. Soon he would know just how severe Faramir's wounds were.