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Danger in Ithilien - First three chapters revised

Danger in Ithilien

Disclaimer - These characters all belong to the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien. This story was written for pleasure and not for financial gain

With grateful thanks to Raksha, Deandra and Ellynn.

A/n This story was written several years ago and I have only just decided to edit and post it. It is a multi- chaptered story in much the same style as "Shadow and Thought".


Anxious not to disturb his sleeping wife, Faramir slid out of bed with the stealth that only a former Ranger could accomplish. His efforts proved vain, though, as Éowyn stirred and sleepily opened her eyes.

"Faramir?" she protested. "I know you desired an early morning ride but it is not even light yet."

"It will be by the time I am dressed and ready to leave. I will be able to enjoy the sunrise, and hear the dawn chorus if I go now. I will be back in time for breakfast."

"Mmm." Éowyn was already asleep again before Faramir reached his dressing room. He shed his night attire in favour of a simple but finely woven tunic and breeches in dark green woollen cloth, over which he donned his favourite cloak, securing it with a brooch, which had been a gift from the King. The treasured cloak was made of an Elven fabric that the Queen had been given by her grandmother. He paused before buckling on his sword, wondering did he really need it for a short ride within his own lands in times of peace. Sadly, there were still the occasional sightings of Orcs. Reports had also reached him that bandits had been harassing travellers. He had sent patrols after them, but they had not yet been caught. With a sigh, he buckled on his old sword. He would save Glamdring, which he had pulled from the tree where Gandalf had left it, for an occasion worthy of such a blade. He made his way towards the stables.

Faramir rarely rode out quite so early, but today he needed time alone to think. Aragorn had entrusted him with the drawing up of a treaty, which hopefully would improve relations with Khand. The conscientious Steward was concerned over the wording of a clause meant to ease trade between the two nations, but if worded ill, it could damage the livelihood of the cloth merchants in Gondor. He had sat up late the night before until his head ached, but a way to be fair to both parties had so far eluded him. He hoped the fresh morning air would clear his head. Perhaps he would find the track of the white deer, for the fabled beast had been seen of late in his woods. The white deer would make a fair portent for a Prince of the Moon-land, Faramir thought.

"Do you wish for an escort, my lord?" a sleepy eyed young guard enquired as Faramir saddled Iavas, his chestnut mare.

"No, thank you, I should like to be alone."

"Very well, my lord." The guard did not look surprised. Faramir had spent so long as a captain faring for himself that he usually only took guards when his official duties required them.

"Come Iavas!" Faramir led the mare from her stall. A loud neigh from the neighbouring stall caught his attention.

"I am sorry, Zachus, it is Iavas' turn to bear me." He patted the gelding. The bay snorted in response.

Once outside, Faramir mounted. He exercised Iavas gently for a few minutes to warm up the mare’s muscles, then rode away swiftly down the hill. He paused briefly on the lower slope, admiring the rosy dawn sky and debating whether to ride through the woods or across the fields. Given his urge for solitude, the woods seemed a better choice. Soon the farmers would begin their day's labours and all would call out greetings to their Prince. Usually Faramir would gladly stop to talk to his people, but he knew he must concentrate on the treaty today.

He ignored the main trail and instead urged Iavas into a brisk canter along a broad woodland path leading deep into the heart of the forest. It was one of those mornings unique to early autumn, when everywhere seemed bathed in pale golden light. It promised to be a warm day later, though the air still held a distinct nip and a layer of fine mist enveloped the woodland. The sun grew stronger as Faramir rode ever onwards, its bright beams illuminating the forest paths and clearings.

The trees were beautiful at this time of year, and the undergrowth of bracken a glorious colour. The path wound uphill again twisting and turning. Then he espied the delicate, familiar track of a deer, a yearling by the size of the tracks. Could it be the white deer he sought? The trail narrowed as he approached a slight bend at the top of the incline. Focusing on the deer tracks, Faramir failed to pay his surroundings much heed. Neither did he notice the thin rope spread out across his path at shoulder height until it was too late. Iavas whinnied in panic and came to an abrupt halt. Unable to move forward, she reared up. Faramir struggled to remain in the saddle, but in vain. He was pitched backwards to the ground where he lay stunned.

As if out of nowhere, a small group of men emerged from amongst the trees. One, a burly fellow with a coarse black beard made a grab for Iavas' bridle. "We are in luck 'ere, lads," he smirked. "This 'orse alone is worth a small fortune!" He secured the protesting mare's reins to a nearby tree.

"And just look at 'is sword. These be real jewels as is this 'ere pin!" said a second man, a short fellow with brown hair.

"Look at 'is clothes too. The cloak alone is worth a poor man's wages for a year," said a third, a man with a prominent scar across his cheek. He knelt beside Faramir's prone form and unfastened the cloak. "This 'ere fellow looks familiar," he remarked. "I'm sure I've seen 'im somewhere."

The black- bearded man took a closer look just as Faramir groaned and opened one eye. "Valar!" the thief cried. "Tis the Steward!"

"We're done for!" exclaimed the short man. "Every blasted guard in the realm will come after us once word gets around we robbed 'im!"

"Not if they don't know, they won't!" said the black- bearded one, starting to remove Faramir's clothing. He smiled as he fingered the fine wool greedily. Faramir started to struggle. The man kicked him viciously.

"We ain't killers," said the scar-faced man doubtfully.

"Who said owt about killing? We simply leaves 'im 'ere and if 'e dies, it just 'appened, I reckon. Serve 'im right for what 'is lord does to the likes of us. 'ave you got some ropes?"

"I can 'ear something," the short man said nervously as he roughly yanked Faramir's shirt over his head. "Let's get out of 'ere!"

"Tis but a wild animal," said the black- bearded man. "Still, we'd best get moving. I've 'eard there still be Orcs in these parts. Leave 'is drawers, they'll take too long to get off and I don't fancy wearing 'is smelly drawers any'ow. We'll tie 'im to yonder tree." He produced a dirty rag and with it gagged the Steward before tying coarse ropes round his wrists and ankles.

The three men dragged Faramir roughly to a massive oak. One of them climbed up to secure the rope. Together the three suspended Faramir by his arms about three feet from the ground. They then secured his ankles to the trunk with another rope.

The bandit's leader took a knife from his belt and advanced upon Faramir.

"I thought you said we'd leave 'im to die of 'is own accord, natural like," said the scar- faced man.

"I ain't going to kill 'im, just leave 'im a souvenir." With the same nonchalance that was usually found when whittling wood, the black bearded man cut the word "Arandur" across the Steward's chest. He stood back for a moment to admire his handiwork. "I'd love to see the King's face when he 'ears what 'appened ere! That'll show 'im!"

"’ e’ll surely 'ang us all!" said the scar faced man.

"We'll be well away from 'ere by then," said the leader.

"You forgot the stars," remarked the short man.

"So I did!" The black bearded man made several cuts into the soft flesh of Faramir's upper belly. "Come on, lads, then, let's get out of 'ere. We'll live well for weeks on the proceeds of our spoils. Damgond, get the 'orse!"

Dragging the protesting Iavas by her bridle, the bandits disappeared into the forest.

0000

Faramir was left alone, blood oozing from his wounds. He had vainly struggled against his captors and the humiliation of having his clothes removed, but he was too stunned to make other than a feeble protest. After several vicious kicks, he deemed it best to appear senseless and seek a chance to escape once his attackers had lowered their guard. It was not to be. The stuffed a filthy rag in his mouth before securely binding his wrists. Then he felt himself being dragged upwards into the tree. For a dreadful few moments, he thought they were going to hang him, but instead they tied his wrists to a branch.

Faramir felt a knife cutting into his chest and then into the tender flesh around his waist. He felt almost grateful for the gag that denied these miscreants the satisfaction of hearing him scream. He kept his eyes tightly closed. At last, there was silence and he dared look around him. His head still spun from his fall and it took him some time to take stock of his surroundings.

He was in a forest clearing, his only companions the birds and the insects, which buzzed around his head and crawled over his skin. Faramir observed that he was suspended only a few feet above the ground. He tried to wriggle free from the bonds that secured him, but only succeeded in digging the ropes more tightly into his wrists and making his arms feel as if they were about to be wrested from their sockets. The branches were thick and sturdy. Only a fierce storm or an axe would sever them.

The pain forced him to cease struggling. There was no sign of Iavas. The brutes must have taken her. Faramir felt a surge of fury. The beautiful, gentle mare did not deserve such a fate! His wedding ring and a chain Éowyn had given him was gone too, together with his favourite cloak and brooch, irreplaceable gifts from Aragorn.

He supposed he should be grateful they had left him his drawers in their haste to escape with their ill-gotten gains. Who was there to stop them though in the forest? Even the woodcutter, whose cottage was nearby, had gone to visit his daughter in Minas Tirith.

Faramir cursed himself inwardly for riding alone along a little- used track through an area still mostly wild. No doubt, he had unwittingly ridden close to the bandits' hidden lair. Yet he should be safe in his own domain, so close to his home! And if those brigands had dared to strike the Steward Prince, what would they do to his people, whom he was bound to protect? The gag stifled a cry of rage and anguish. Dejectedly he tried to think of some means by which he could free himself. None presented itself. Already his arms and hands throbbed painfully as did the cuts on his chest. His head ached and his mouth was uncomfortably dry. Faramir pushed his feet against the tree trunk to support himself as he increasingly struggled to breathe.



Danger in Ithilien

Disclaimer - These characters all belong to the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien. This story was written for pleasure and not for financial gain

With grateful thanks to Raksha, Deandra and Ellynn.

A/n This story was written several years ago and I have only just decided to edit and post it. It is a multi- chaptered story in much the same style as "Shadow and Thought".

“They also serve who only stand and wait” - Milton

Éowyn was awakened with a start by Elboron’s crying. Clambering out of bed, she lifted her son from his cradle, and then took him back into bed with her to suckle him.

Only then did she instinctively look for her husband beside her, as Faramir was usually slower to awaken in the mornings than she was. Then she remembered that the Steward had decided to go for an early morning ride.

Her maid knocked on the door and entered, bearing a cup of Éowyn’s favourite mint tea. While Éowyn sipped her drink, her little daughter ran into the room. "Where’s Ada?" Elestelle demanded.

"He has gone riding. He will be back soon," Éowyn reassured the child.

Elestelle clambered up into bed beside her mother and baby brother.

Éowyn finished her tea and the baby his breakfast. The maid took the child to his nurse, then brought her warm water to wash with and laid out the gown Éowyn intended to wear that day. By now, Éowyn had expected that Faramir would have returned and would be waiting in the dining room for her. She was vaguely annoyed when he was not. Although Faramir was a conscientious man, he did occasionally lose track of time when he was deeply engrossed in thought.

She ate her breakfast in an increasingly ill humour for there had been several pressing household matters she desired to discuss with her husband over the meal. She knew all too well he intended to shut himself away with that wretched treaty for most of the day. He could at least have spent time with her over breakfast! It did not help that Faramir’s young niece, Elbeth, kept asking her where he was and wanting to know when could she go riding with her uncle.

Breakfast was cleared away, and after spending some time with the children and discussing her plans for the household that day with the housekeeper, Mistress Elwen, Éowyn went out to the stables while Elbeth started her lessons. Éowyn expected Faramir to appear any moment. He did not. She went back inside. By mid- morning, Éowyn had become seriously worried when her husband failed to appear. Could he have fallen from his horse? Surely if that had happened, the mare would have found her way home by now. Could there still be Orcs around waiting to waylay him? She shuddered at the thought. She knew that remained a possibility, despite the White Company’s best efforts to clear them from Ithilien. It was useless to wonder what had happened. It was time to act. Little Elboron started to cry to be fed again, reminding her of her other responsibilities.

She decided to send out a search party. Faramir’s men were well trained and she could trust them. Éowyn called to a passing guard. "Fetch Captain Beregond to me, please!"

"He is out on a training exercise with Captain Damrod and the recruits," said the guard.

"Where?" demanded Éowyn.

"He did not say exactly, my lady."

"Send him to me the instant he returns," Éowyn ordered. Elboron’s wails were growing louder. An afterthought struck her. The King should know that his Steward was missing. She hurried to write a note; then entrusted it to a messenger, bidding him ride with all haste for the Citadel. Once, she would have ridden out herself in search of her lord. She was older and wiser now, though, and had her children’s welfare to consider too. She took Elboron from the arms of the nursemaid and sat down on the rocking chair to suckle him.

000

Aragorn had awoken early, as was his custom, and was enjoying breakfast with his wife. The day ahead did not promise to be especially arduous, though the King feared it would prove tedious. He had little love of paperwork, preferring to leave most of it in his Steward’s capable hands. It was only fair, though, that Faramir should spend time in Ithilien with his family, however much his friend and lord might miss him.

"Eldarion recited the alphabet to me last night," Arwen said proudly. "How I wish you could have heard him!"

"Maybe I shall tonight," said the King beaming at his four- year- old son’s achievement. "I am not expecting to work late today." He turned his attention to his plate and attacked his egg and sausage with relish. His hand suddenly froze in mid- air as he lifted his fork to his mouth. A sudden feeling of dread assailed him and pain coursed through his body. He turned pale.

"What is wrong, Estel?" Arwen exclaimed in alarm. "Are you unwell? Shall I summon Master Aedred?"

"I am well, vanimelda," he assured her, forcing a smile. "I fear Faramir is not, though."

Arwen looked puzzled. "You told me that you gave him an Elven treatment ere he departed last week and he was in perfect health after you had finished treating the twinges in his back."

"He is in great pain and distress now," Aragorn said gravely. "I can sense it."

“Then you must go to him at once.” Arwen knew from experience how the Thought Bonded could sense when something was wrong. She always knew when Aragorn was injured or even sore of heart.

"I shall depart for Ithilien immediately," said Aragorn, pushing his plate to one side. "I leave the City in your capable hands, vanimelda. I fear hearing Eldarion recite his letters will have to wait."

"I will help you pack, Estel," said Arwen, her expression full of concern for their dear friend.

"I shall travel light. I require only a few provisions, healing supplies, and a change of linens," said the King. He hurried from the room pausing only to request a servant to take a message to the captain of his personal guard.

000

The sun rose higher in the sky until it was almost overhead. Faramir’s ordeal continued. His mouth was parched. It was an unseasonably warm day for October and the sun burned mercilessly down on his bare skin. Flies crawled over his throbbing wounds. The pain in his arms and shoulders was indescribable. He tried not to give way to despair. Surely, someone would find him soon. Éowyn must have noticed he was missing and sent out a search party. Then would not Aragorn sense that something was amiss?

Why had his captors treated him thus, desiring to condemn him to a horrible death?

Then he recalled that because lawless men had increasingly been attacking travellers, Aragorn had recently decreed that all bandits were to be executed, if found guilty after a fair trial. Several had already been hung for their crimes in Lossarnach. The Steward had increased patrols in Ithilien against them, though without success. Obviously, these ruffians thought they had nothing to lose. Maybe they had known the men executed and sought revenge or were seeking to convey their contempt for the King and his laws.

Then he heard sounds in the distance. Someone was coming! His spirits soared. If only he could cry out! The sounds grew fainter and died away. Faramir’s head sagged. They had not found him.

000

Flanked by a dozen of his heavily armed personal guard, Aragorn rode with all haste for Faramir’s home. It was a beautiful morning, but for once, the beauty of nature did not stir the King. His heart was heavy and his feeling of dread increased with every mile he travelled. He led the men relentlessly, allowing only the briefest of stops to rest the horses.

They were about half way to their destination when a rider approached from the opposite direction. He was dressed in the colours of the Prince of Ithilien. On espying the Royal party, the man approached them. "My lord King!" he called, pausing to catch his breath. "I bring a message from the Lady Éowyn." He handed a folded parchment to Aragorn.

Aragorn reined in Roheryn and called to his men to halt. Swiftly unfolding the parchment, he recognised Éowyn’s distinctive hand. It was brief and devoid of the usual formalities. Faramir is missing. He went riding at dawn and never returned. I fear some ill has befallen him. I beg of you to come, Éowyn.

The King’s heart sank. It seemed that his forebodings were all too true. "We will return with you in all haste," he said, urging Roheryn to a gallop.

000

Éowyn was standing in the open doorway of her home when the King arrived, flanked by Elestelle and Elbeth and a nursemaid carrying Elboron. Heedless of protocol, she hurried outside to greet the King, her face pale but composed. "Valar be praised! You have come. But how did you travel so swiftly? I sent my letter but two hours ago!"

"I sensed that you had need of me," said Aragorn trying not to alarm her. He kissed her on the brow, and then bestowed a kiss on Elbeth. He scooped up little Elestelle who was demanding attention.

"Faramir would never just go off without telling me," Éowyn explained, leading the King inside. She called for Mistress Elwen to bring refreshments for them and for something to be taken outside for the men.

"Have you sent out a search party?" Aragorn enquired as he accepted a mug of home brewed ale.

"I have sent a messenger in search of Beregond," Éowyn replied. “He is training his men. Most of the older ones are fighting rebels on the border, so the younger ones are undergoing military exercises. So far we have not been able to find them." She lifted her troubled eyes to meet those of her King and sighed deeply. "I wish I could go and look for him."

"No!" Aragorn said sharply. "There could be more to this than meets the eye. I hope that Faramir’s horse has simply gone lame or he has met with some other minor mischance that has delayed him. Yet is possible that his disappearance is more sinister. There might yet be some involved in the plot against me that Faramir foiled who have gone detected or unpunished, or new plots to destabilise our realm. Éowyn, you are Lady of Ithilien, and in Faramir's absence, I rely on you to hold Emyn Arnen safe. You are needed here; to defend your children and Elbeth. I would advise you to double your guards and keep your sword at your side."

Éowyn nodded. Elbeth's small hands clenched into fists. "I can help, Uncle Strider! Let me ride out with you and search for Uncle Faramir!" the child urged.

Éowyn smiled, with, it seemed to Aragorn, memories of her own youthful unrest. She touched Elbeth's hair in a brief caress, and then looked the child in the eyes. "Uncle Faramir would be so proud of you. I will need you to bring me messages as I make preparations. And it would comfort both Uncle Faramir and I to know that you will watch over Elestelle and Elboron. Can you obey me in this, brother-daughter?"

"Yes, Aunt," Elbeth answered. Éowyn briefly hugged her daughter and niece; then dispatched Elbeth, who took Elestelle by the hand, and the nurse who carried Elboron, outside to the gardens, four household guards following at a discreet distance.

Éowyn emitted the faintest of sighs before turning her eyes from the retreating children to Aragorn. She squared her shoulders, lifted her head, and Aragorn saw once more the proud Shield-maiden he had left behind at Dunharrow. Éowyn must have seen his disquiet; for she spoke quickly: "This time I will stay. Elboron relies on me for sustenance still. Nor will I chance leaving our children motherless, unless it be to die saving them from harm. I promised Faramir that I would put them first, even above his own life."

"I know Faramir yet lives," Aragorn reassured her. "The Thought Bond we share would make it certain I would know had he departed the Circles of the World. I swear to you that I shall find him and restore him to you."

Once Éowyn would have argued, but now she knew better. "If only I had not been half asleep when he departed!" she lamented. "He might have told me where he planned to ride. He could have gone in any direction. We have so many miles of tracks in the forest. I have not explored half of them yet! Then he might have ridden out by the fields. I simply do not know!" She rubbed her brow frowning in frustration.

"Gandalf once spoke of me as the greatest tracker of the Age," Aragorn said in a lighter tone. "My skills might by now have grown a little rusty, but I can still follow a trail."

Just then, a servant announced Captain Beregond’s return. Éowyn requested that he be shown in.

"My apologies, my lady," Beregond said. "Damrod and I were taking the new recruits out to Henneth-Annûn. They need to be able to fight in difficult terrain should the need arise. " He belatedly noticed Aragorn and bowed low. "My lord, my apologies, I did not realise we were honoured by your presence."

"Have you seen Lord Faramir?" Aragorn asked him abruptly, gesturing for him to rise.

Beregond shook his head. "No, my lord, not since yesterday when he dined at the garrison. He inspected the Company and pronounced himself well satisfied with their progress."

"My husband is missing, Captain," Éowyn explained. "He went out riding at dawn and has not returned. I wish you to gather your most experienced men and organise and form search parties."

Beregond paled, but swiftly composed himself and nodded. "Of course, my lady. I will begin by questioning anyone who might have seen him leave and could give us word of his intentions and the direction he took."

"And I will see if Faramir wore or took anything out of the ordinary," Éowyn said. "Captain, will you and my Lord King meet me at the stable later to share what we have learned?"

Half-hour later, Éowyn met Aragorn and Beregond in the stable. She brought the guardsman who had exchanged words with Faramir, twenty soldiers of her household guard, and her own determination. The three made plans to disperse riders and walking soldiers in an ever-widening sweep down through the hills and across the fields and then into the forest. The searchers were given instructions to stay in groups of no less than three, and use horns to signal sightings of Faramir's possible tracks or warnings of any danger. Éowyn also sent messages to the Rangers and Legolas to ask for their help.

The afternoon wore on. Messengers and riders from the teams of searchers came and went, delivering tidings to Éowyn and then leaving with orders and fresh supplies. But when the day cooled with the sun's descent, the searchers had succeeded only in finding places and trails that held no sign of Faramir. It were as if the Prince had vanished from his land.

000

The sun slipped down from the sky, taking with it Faramir's hopes of discovery. Several times, he thought he had heard booted footfalls, someone approaching, but always the sounds always faded; each time further destroying what little hope remained.

Nightfall had at least brought a respite from the tormenting insects and the beady greedy eyes of the crows that watched him from a tree on the far side of the clearing. As the sun sank, so did the temperature and Faramir shivered with cold.

The Steward sadly realised that he was unlikely to ever see again those whom he loved, clasp his wife in his arms, nor watch his children grow up. Never again would he enjoy the King’s companionship and the joy of being loved as a honoured son. What a wretched end for the Steward of Gondor, who had so much yet to do for his land, his people, his family! He would die here alone, with only bats and owls for witnesses! Would his bones even be found and decently laid to rest?

The pain in Faramir’s arms was beyond anything he had ever felt now, and thirst raged in his arid throat. Silent tears of agony rolled down his cheeks. It was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe. He tried to reach out with his mind to Aragorn, hoping that the mental bond between them might bring his lord to save him.

Faramir heard wolves howling somewhere in the distance and felt a stab of primeval fear. He must be strong; he must fight to live, as someone might yet find him! Then the pain flared up, stronger than before; and he fell into a merciful swoon.

Danger in Ithilien

Disclaimer - These characters all belong to the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien. This story was written for pleasure and not for financial gain

With grateful thanks to Raksha, Deandra and Ellynn. Most of this chapter was written by Raksha.

A/n This story was written several years ago and I have only just decided to edit and post it. It is a multi- chaptered story in much the same style as "Shadow and Thought".

Dreams that do come true can be as unsettling as those that don't.- Brett Butler, 'Knee Deep in Paradise'

It was a worried King and a tense, weary group of searchers who returned to Éowyn that night. They had combed the hills, the fields and many riding trails of the forest, but had found no trace of the missing prince.

"He is out there, Éowyn," Aragorn assured the lady over a bowl of soup he could hardly bear to touch. "He is still alive; but we have not yet found his trail yet. Fox-tracks, deer-tracks, and signs of other forest creatures we saw in abundance, but none of Iavas, nor of Faramir. The forest is vast and we have, as yet, only covered a small part of it."

Éowyn, who had personally welcomed and encouraged all the returned searchers and overseen their refreshment, nodded briskly at her King and friend. "You will find him, Aragorn; I am sure of it. But you must eat and drink now, to keep up your strength."

Only Aragorn saw the anguish in her eyes.

Legolas arrived soon afterwards, bringing twenty Elves skilled in forestry and tracking. They had searched the woods north of Emyn Arnen in vain, but their presence heartened the other searchers.

"We saw nothing new," Legolas added; "Save for a young buck of a silver-white colour, that crossed our path more than once. Such deer are rare; a sign of hope and luck, so we never slay them. I pray that the silver deer will bring us good fortune in finding Faramir."

Éowyn found sleep long in coming. Deer or no deer, she feared some terrible fate had taken her beloved husband. She forced herself not to weep; for Elestelle and Elbeth had come to sleep beside her, one child on either side, seeking solace for their own fears. Elboron was the only one in perhaps all of Emyn Arnen to sleep soundly, curled up in his cradle, beside the bed. The footfalls of guards patrolling the hallways outside her family's chambers both soothed and unsettled Éowyn.

Suddenly, Elestelle cried out softly in her sleep: "Ada, Ada!" She twisted, hurling her fists against the pillow and then against Éowyn, and suddenly awakened.

"Hush, hush, now," Éowyn said as gently as her raw nerves would allow. She gathered her daughter in her arms. The little girl began to cry.

"I saw Ada and he was hurt," sobbed Elestelle.

"You were dreaming, dear one," Éowyn soothed.

"I saw Ada, I did!" Elestelle insisted. "He was hanging, like Maedhros in Ada's big book, only by both hands. He called for help, but no one could hear him."

Faramir had recently read the story of Maedhros' rescue from Thangodorim to Elbeth and Elestelle after they had seen a picture in his book and asked about it. Strange, at the time that Faramir had read the girls the story, Elestelle had not been frightened at all, clapping her hands at the arrival of Fingon and the great eagle. Faramir had deliberately omitted any facts from the story that might upset his little daughter, especially the unpleasant fact of Fingon's having to cut off his kinsman's hand to free him. He liked to answer any questions the children put to him in a manner appropriate for their ages. Elbeth was old enough to hear the full story, but was not as interested in it as her cousin was.

"If Uncle Faramir is hanging off some cliff side, then an Eagle will come and save him," Elbeth sleepily the younger girl.

"It was just a bad dream," Éowyn said, stroking Elestelle's hair. "Go back to sleep now." Both children huddled against her. She felt their young bodies relax, and, eventually revert to the steady, quiet rhythm of slumber. Éowyn lay still the rest of the night, unable to find peace or rest.

000

Alone in the well-appointed guest chamber, Aragorn stretched his long legs out on the comfortable bed and seemed to wander far while sleeping beneath the coverlets. He found himself roaming the new road that led out from Faramir's holding, down towards the woods, then taking to the air like some great bird. He flew over the trees and wove between them. Images and scents came up to meet his senses - the cool green fragrance of the autumn forest, a pale deer dipping his head into a stand of moonflowers and then raising it to look mournfully at Aragorn, the screaming neigh of a frightened horse, a horse he knew! Beware! Beware! And Faramir, somewhere near, calling for help.

Aragorn awoke, his brow streaked with sweat, his heart pounding. He sat up, only to see the dawn breaking outside the window. The answer is out there, he thought; what am I missing? By all the searchers' accounts and his own observations, Faramir had not ridden through or by the fields nor had travelled towards the river. Legolas had told of seeing the white deer Northwest of Emyn Arnen, below Osgiliath, some fifteen miles away. And as he knew well, deer had a fondness for the leaves of fair white blossoms that were called moonflowers, or sometimes Isildur's Tears, that bloomed in the thickets of Ithilien.

Suddenly Aragorn remembered Faramir's mentioning, during one of their conversations in Minas Tirith only last week, the news that the white deer had been sighted in the wood just north of Emyn Arnen. They had spoken of it as a good omen; since the deer had not been seen in abundance since Ithilien had been abandoned after the Shadow's rising. Aragorn himself had seen one, fleeing towards the White Mountains, when he had patrolled with Faramir's father in western Ithilien so many years ago. Faramir had been eager to see the deer for himself.

What if Faramir had followed the same deer that Legolas had come upon last night? The white deer were very rare, and only a few of the beasts had been reported.

Aragorn leapt to his feet, and then sought hastily for his boots and the rest of his clothing. If they rode fresh horses, they could reach the place where Legolas had seen the deer in an hour or two; and then they could follow the tracks it had made to get there. If the deer had come from the south, there was at least a chance of finding Faramir's trail. Aragorn was certain that his friend would have followed the deer.

It took longer than he would have liked to ready a new search party then get started on their way with the fresh horses Éowyn provided. They would have to circle, take a wider route than Aragorn would have liked, to reach the hillock where Legolas had seen the deer, so as to avoid the risk of erasing the very tracks they sought.

Just as Aragorn and the searchers were about to leave, Éowyn called out, "My lord, wait!"

Aragorn turned back to her.

"You may think me foolish to mention this, but Elestelle had a strange dream last night that her father was hanging, like Maedhros in the story, only by both hands. She said he called for help, but no one could hear him. It is probably nothing, I scolded Faramir last week for telling her such a tale so young and yet-"

"The blood of Númenor runs true in Elestelle as it does in Faramir," Aragorn said thoughtfully. "This dream might have some portent. You did well to tell me. Farewell, I hope to return soon with news."

And then Aragorn rode out from Emyn Arnen, leaving Éowyn standing outside the house with the children. He had mounted one of Éowyn's best horses, Silma, a lively chestnut mare who was strong and well-schooled and cantered along the main road as lightly as a bird skimming the treetops. Roheryn needed to rest after the hard riding of the previous day. They descended the hills and cantered into the great forest as the morning sun burned away the mist. This time they rode straight north, instead of west and south in the direction of Faramir's usual morning rides. After several miles, Legolas brought them to the hillock, near the outfall of the Morgulduin into the Anduin, where he had sighted the white stag.

"The stag turned to the west, to drink from the Anduin", the Elf explained, dismounting to find the tracks. "We saw him come up from the deeper wood. Here, Aragorn," he called, beckoning the King. Legolas' fair face relaxed and he smiled for the first time that day. "I believe you are right, mellon-nîn; the deer came from the south."

Aragorn dismounted and surveyed the tracks. They were cloven, pointed at one end, possessing a familiar inverse-heart shape, a few inches in length, and unencumbered by tracks of other deer or smaller creatures. A male yearling deer had walked there within the past two days.

The next two hours passed far too slowly for Aragorn's liking. They could not ride fast; for fear of the horses' hooves obscuring the tracks that were their only hope of finding Faramir's trail. They had to slow the horses to a trot or even a walking pace, as Aragorn and Legolas kept their mounts parallel to the deer's tracks, often dismounting to make sure they followed the deer's frequent twists and turns. Fortunately, the deer had kept to fairly even terrain, favouring glades where the moonflowers grew amidst good grass and shrubs dispersed among the trees.

Aragorn prayed that their hope was not in vain.

Suddenly, the track changed. The deer had run for about a mile, swerving through heavy cover, as if affrighted. And lo!, behind it, for a short way, lay the tracks of a much larger animal, one that Aragorn knew well from head to hoof. It was Iavas! Aragorn dismounted again and examined the tracks in detail. Faramir's mare's tracks converged only briefly upon those of the deer, as if she had followed the yearling for only a short way, then had turned east. What prevented Aragorn from instantly ordering the party to follow Iavas was the strange set of her hooves. She was not riding easily; her tracks were confused rather than even, and set unusually deep into the earth. She seemed to have been at odds with her rider, stopping short and forcing more weight onto the front feet. Could they have been attacked by Orcs or wild creatures, which would have also frightened the deer? But, what was this?

One, then two sets of tracks made not by horse or deer, but men! They had come up behind the horse, at some distance, running. And neither belonged to Faramir; the footfalls were made by lighter shod men with shorter legs than his friend. Aragorn ran on, stepping lightly around the tracks left by deer, mare, and men. If he found no further trace of Faramir soon, he would turn back to see if and when the men re-joined the horse and then follow Iavas' eastward tracks.

"There is some evil afoot," Legolas, coming up behind him. "Hold a moment."

"What is it?"

"The horses are uneasy. And the wind is high from the south. Aragorn, there are crows circling above the clearing ahead."

Aragorn shouted for the horses. He mounted the chestnut mare and took a moment to soothe her, then urged her into a canter. His heart in his mouth, he rode toward the small clearing that Legolas had seen. Five crows screamed and took to the air with the others. Rounding the final bend, Aragorn slowed Silma and reined her to a halt. For a moment, he gazed aghast at a large ash tree. For there, suspended from a branch, was Faramir.

TBC
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