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PostPosted: Sun 19 Mar , 2006 10:58 am 
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Faramir felt Éowyn squeeze his hand quickly before she let go of his and rose from the bed so that he could get up his legs and stretch out. Resting his head on the pillow with a sigh and closing his eyes, despite the tension he bore in anticipation of what Teherin was about to do with him, he felt his body relax, as if in reminder that he was still owing it a long, long rest after what he had put it through lately.

For a moment he actually considered simply keeping his eyes closed and yielding to the sleep that beckoned so persuasively to him. Did Teherin really need him awake for whatever she was about to do? Moreover, did he want to stay awake? The coverlets were soft and cool underneath him. Someone had opened a window, apparently, for he felt a gentle breeze on his skin. His left shoulder grew warm from a ray of sunlight that had found its way through the fluttering foliage of the trees outside the window and drawn-back curtains of the bed. Éowyn and the healer seemed to be moving about the room, speaking softly among themselves, too softly for him to hear their actual words. There was the sound of water being poured into a bowl, then a light rustling noise, and soon the aromatic scent of herbs mingled with the fresh, faintly foresty smell wafting in through the window.

Faramir felt his body relax even more. He felt utterly comfortable, and increasingly drowsy. Would they mind if he yielded to sleep, just for a moment? After all, he needed to rest, Teherin had repeatedly said so. And if they really required his assistance in the ritual or whatever the healer was preparing, they could wake him any time. Moreover, he reasoned, the idea of sleeping through Teherin’s examination might not be a bad one at all, if she was indeed searching for traces of the poison. He was not sure what she might find. Also, he was uncertain what he might feel. His body might remember, she had said. Surely, surely this could not mean that she would try and make him relive how the poison at work had felt. Or could it?

Of a sudden he felt cold, as if a a shadow had fallen on him. Opening his eyes with an effort, he saw that the sunlight caressing his shoulder had been blocked out by Éowyn’s figure. She said down on the bed again, reaching out to brush a few strands of hair from his forehead. He smiled gently.

“A moment longer, and I would have fallen asleep,” he murmured. Then drawing a deep breath and fighting his desire to simply close his eyes again, he looked at her. “What is going to happen now?” he asked. “Did she tell you what she is going to do? And what is going to be my part?”

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PostPosted: Tue 11 Apr , 2006 1:18 am 
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"So many questions," Éowyn murmured, handing him a filled cup. "Teherin wants you to drink this, to prepare you for the examination." At his questioning and almost wary glance, she assured him that it was nothing more than some herbs and tea and honey. "It is to help you relax even more," she said. "As for your part, you need do nothing more than rest and answer any questions Teherin may ask you while she works. She has not told me much about what she will do, for I think that what she is really doing is difficult to really describe." She took the empty cup from me. "But do not worry, I know you will be fine." She brushed a light kiss across his lips, tasting a faint trace of honey, and took the cup back to Teherin.

"What are you going to do?" she quietly asked the healer.

Teherin looked up from where she was stirring a mixture into a light cream. "I am going to try, as best I can, to find the work of the poison. From what I have learned, no one could go through such a trial without some reminders. Hopefully I will just draw upon the memory and not find anything left lingering in him."

"But how will you do that?"

Teherin sighed. "The tea will likely put him to sleep for the time, and this cream will make his body more attentive to my inquiries. When I sense he is ready, I will look for my answers."

"But--"

Teherin held up her hand and smiled slightly. "I understand your concern, but if I do not even fully understand what happens, how can I explain it. Here," she said, handing Éowyn the bowl of cream, "smooth some of this onto his forehead and just above his collarbone, a bit on his chest below the bandages, and a little on each wrist.

Éowyn nodded, though her questions were not satisfied, and went back to Faramir. His eyelids fluttered slightly as she sat down on the bed, but otherwise he seemed to be in a peaceful slumber. "This may be cold," she said, dabbing some of the pale cream on his forehead. He murmured something unintelligible while she worked over him. She noted that his breathing had steadied to its usual nighttime rhythm. For a moment she wondered if indeed he would sleep for the rest of the day now instead of seeing his son to the stables, but that soon passed. Knowing the quality of his health could determine how many future trips to the stables he would make.

Teherin finished her preparations at the table and walked over to check on her charge. She studied him for a few moments, then, apparently seeing something that satisfied her, she said quietly, "He is ready. You may remain near him, but I ask that you do not touch him, even if he should cry out during this."

Éowyn's eyes flashed, but she nodded and, with a final squeeze, let go of her husband's hand.

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PostPosted: Thu 13 Apr , 2006 6:57 pm 
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A gentle breeze is blowing over the sun-warm rocks, carrying with it the sweet honey-like scent of the yellow-flowering gorze, mingled with more fragrant, aromatic smells of the many herbs and shrubs that grow in abundance on the stones. There is a faint, salty tang in the air as well, telling of the sea just below the cliffs. The water can be descried from the window, deep blue under the lee of the cliffs and only rippled by the soft wind, not greyish blue as usual and crowned with white foam. Small clouds are sailing on the breeze, and seabirds glowing brilliantly white, bright argent like the banner of the Ruling Stewards that used to flow over the White City.

It is a sight of utter, breathtaking beauty, and under different circumstances he would have relished it. But he is feeling unwell, and has been doing so for quite a while which he has spent writing a last, a farewell letter. By now it is pain he feels, not anymore the sensation of mere unease, pain without hope of relief, and in expectation of worse, much worse to come.

It started as it always did. This strange, uncomfortable sensation which has woken him so often at night and makes him reach for the bottle of water next to his bed, a draught from which he knows will dull the feeling for the next few hours. It is a sensation difficult to describe. Not yet pain. That comes later. More like an itch one cannot reach to scratch, a slight stinging in the chest at each breath, the prickly sensation when the blood begins to course again in a limb that has fallen asleep, and a thirst that cannot be quenched by drinking. And yet different still.

After a while breathing becomes more painful, and it fees like less and less air actually reaches the lungs. At times one fears that one will suffocate, and cease all activity until the fit passed. It feels like breathing in very fine needles, or fire, or ice. This burning sensation then spreads through the veins until it feels like there is acid instead of blood running through them. At this stage even the slightest movement hurts. Every muscle that is used somehow, consciously or unconsciously, feels like it is tearing, or begins to cramp.

He has reached that stage now, sitting on the bed, his back resting against the cool stone wall, trying not to move at all and to relax whatever muscle he has control of. But he has to breathe, and his heart has to go on beating, painful though this be. At least for a while.

The fire in his veins has reached the skin. Looking at his hands, he wonders that they do not flame crimson and blister, but turn deadly pale with the veins showing like an intricate blueish pattern. The skins has become extremely sensitive – so much so that even the softest brush of the wind against the hairs on his arm sends waves of pain through his body. The fabric of his clothes, despite their loose cuts, suddenly feel like rough wire cutting into his skin, and the wall in his back like ice so cold that it seems to be freezing him. He would have torn off his clothes in the hope of finding relief from the pain, but he knows the blankets on the bed would feel the same. Also, moving his hands – or moving at all, would be painful beyond endurance. It would seem like his fingers, hands and arms would tear apart.

He wants to cry out because the pain is becoming too great to bear, yet a cry requires a deep breath, and breathing is almost impossible as it is. He thinks – if it can be called thinking still, since all that fills his mind now is pain – he can taste a faint metallic tang in his mouth, like blood. As if his lungs are slowly beginning to dissolve. Which most likely they are.

There is something clogging his nose now, making breathing even more difficult. It must be blood. It seems to be burning his skin where it flows. Perhaps if he keeps his mouth shut, because it would hurt too much to open it to be able to breathe on, perhaps he will simply lose conscience, simply fall asleep and be free of this pain ...



Faramir woke from Teherin’s tea-induced sleep drawing a deep, ragged breath. He could still taste blood in his mouth, but strangely the pain was gone. For a moment he felt utterly bewildered. Had he not just been in his room in Barad Gwaelin, about to die? But there were no playing dolphins on the ceiling. And someone was leaning over him, holding a hand to his neck just above the collarbone, and another to his brow. Focusing on the person tending to him, he recognised a pale face amid a mass of black hair, and a pair of dark eyes gazing at him with an expression of nothing short of horror.

Slowly realisation set in that he had been asleep, and dreaming. Or remembering, rather. He relaxed again, although a feeling of bewilderment remained. The dream had felt so terribly real.

Teherin seemed to notice only now that he was awake again. She appeared still under shock, which made him wonder if somehow she had shared or witnessed his dream, and the pain he had felt there. What had it been like for her, he wondered. Behind her he could see Éowyn’s face, also pale, worry written all over it. How much did she see?

He wanted to inquire after what had just happened, but upon drawing a breath he coughed, because some blood had flowed down his throat. To his surprise he noted that his nose was bleeding slightly indeed, as it had done repeatedly during the past weeks. He swallowed the blood and tried again. “What happened?” he whispered hoarsely, feeling very thirsty of a sudden.

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PostPosted: Sat 15 Apr , 2006 4:18 am 
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Éowyn dabbed a wet cloth around his mouth and under his nose, wiping away the drops of blood that had seeped out. She didn't know how to answer him, or even if she wanted to try. Teherin remained silent as well, still stunned from what she had discovered. As Faramir tried to speak again, Éowyn hushed him, saying, "No, not yet. Give yourself time to recover." As she wiped the sweat droplets that had formed on his forehead, she found that her hand was shaking slightly.

"Sit up and drink this," she said, putting some pillows behind his back and handing him a cup. "It is just clean water," she told him, noting his glance. While he drank, she was relieved to see the color return to his cheeks. He had grown disturbingly pale during the ordeal, and she had begun to wonder whether he was actually reliving his experience. His forehead felt cool when she presed her hand against it, and by now his breathing had steadied. Her worries began to ease, but then she remembered Teherin's response.

Having finally composed herself after several long silent minutes, the healer murmured, "What you... It was terrible." She continued as Faramir nodded. "I saw what you saw, and to some extent, felt what you felt. You were in a room overlooking the sea, and you had gone from discomfort to utter agony."

Éowyn clasped her husband's hand and felt him shudder as Teherin spoke. "It's a wonder that you remained conscious so long, but that was also part of the nature of the venom, was it not?" She sighed and spoke as if to herself, "How could a person do that to another? This was a desire for vegeance, not simply death."

"Is there any left in him?" Éowyn asked.

Teherin shook her head. "No, not that I can detect. What you saw was his body remembering what had happened. It still clearly remembers and fears the poison. The memory is fresh, since it has not been long since he was given the antidote. Given enough time, the scars will heal and the memory will fade."

"As for what happened here," Éowyn said quietly, "you became really pale and tense for awhile. At one point you moaned and thrashed a little, but mostly you were silent and still."

"When you were poisoned, you wanted to be rid of it, but dared not move," Teherin said. "But in memory, you could escape, and I should have let you before you began bleeding. I made you stay longer than was good, and for that I apologize."

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PostPosted: Mon 17 Apr , 2006 7:47 pm 
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“There is no need to do so,” Faramir replied softly. He was feeling better now that he had drunk some water. The bleeding from his nose seemed to have been stilled. Also, thankfully, the memories of his dream began to fade, leaving nothing but a faint dread. Éowyn’s presence was comforting and reassuring, despite her still looking worried.

He squeezed his wife’s hand gently, to show her there was no need to worry about him anymore, and continued quietly, “At least now we know that apparently none of the poison remains within me. I think I am the one to apologise. I should have warned you in advance what to expect, given you were forced to share these memories, and even feel what I felt. I was not aware I remembered so much of it, even if it was subconsciously. As for the poison, you are right, part of its viciousness was that it kept one from losing consciousness. I do not remember clearly how and when I finally did so. Perhaps I simply stopped to breathe at one point, and passed out for lack of air. Had they not found me as timely as they did ...”

He left the sentence unfinished upon seeing Éowyn’s gaze, and feeling her grip on his hand tighten.

“Yes, it was close,” Teherin agreed gravely, holding two fingers to his neck to feel for his heartbeat, which she seemed to count for a while. “And even though the venom itself is gone and cannot harm you anymore, I found some of the traces it has left in your body. It ran in your blood, and has wrought some changes there, weakened it somehow. It appears to have affected your body’s defences against illness. It is too early yet to say if it is going to recover completely. I reckon that illnesses that used not to bother you in the past are now going to do so. Which means you will have to look after yourself more carefully, and not to take a blessed health for granted anymore.”

Shifting her fingers in order to feel his pulse better, she continued. “Your heart and lungs have been affected as well, from what I can tell. It hurts when you draw a deep breath, does it not?”

Faramir nodded slightly. “When I breathe in really deeply, I sometimes end up coughing, and I can feel a sting, especially on the right side of my chest. It feels like there is something in my lungs which does not belong there, but which makes breathing difficult. And when I rise quickly I feel dizzy for a moment, and need some time to steady myself. ‘Tis a different dizziness from common fatigue. It feels like my heart skips a few beats, or at least does not keep its rhythm very well. But after a short while ‘tis over again, and the dizziness is gone.”

“The pain in your chest is also due to the injury in your shoulder, and your general poor condition, which should improve quickly once you have rested and eaten properly,” the healer explained, withdrawing her hand again. “But I fear you will have to be careful not to overexert yourself for a long time, and may never fully regain your strength of old. There has undoubtedly been some damage to your heart, and this affects other parts of your body as well. Have you encountered any deficiencies to your eyesight and hearing after the poisoning? Any numbness in your fingers, or your skin in general?”

“No,” he replied. “On the contrary. My skin appears to have become more sensitive to heat and cold, although by now ‘tis not as prominent anymore as it used to be right after I had recovered from the fever. Back then it was really uncomfortable at times, when for example only a minor draught would feel like an icy blast, and my soft garments like chainmail on the skin. My senses of smell and taste were enhanced as well for a while, so much so that I could tell apart the guards who were standing outside my door by scent alone. Certain kinds of food tasted so intensely that it was almost impossible to eat them – and they did not feed me anything sharp and spicy during my recovery, only very mild stuff. But all this has faded by now, and almost returned to normal.”

“This is interesting,” said Teherin thoughtfully, “but in regard of what I have just witnessed of the poison at work it makes sense. It is good to know that despite the difficult circumstances your body seems to be recovering. This recovery should speed up now that you are back home, and hopefully will include all parts that have suffered. I am going to arrange a special diet for you with the cook, and mix you some teas that should restore strength in you. Also, I am going to check on you regularly, and should you be in pain or simply feel unwell, I expect you to inform me immediately. I know this sounds exaggerated, but after experiencing part of the evil of this venom and seeing what it has done to you, I will not take any changes. I shall charge your lady here with looking after you, and implore you to listen to what she and I counsel. I know you yearn now to return to your life as it was before you left, but at the moment this is impossible. I cannot repeat it enough: you need to rest, and give your body plenty of time to recover. You must be patient.”

Turning to Éowyn, she said, “I fear it is going to fall to you to remind him of this, should he choose to forget.” She smiled slightly, and added in a voice less stern, “I assume he listens to you more than he does to me, or else you have ways to make yourself heard other than my own.”

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PostPosted: Mon 24 Jul , 2006 2:54 am 
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“I do,” Éowyn said, brushing a lock of his hair back with her free hand, “but sometimes even I cannot sway him once his mind is made up.” She smiled slightly as Faramir glared at her over the rim of the cup as he drank. She leaned closer to him and lowered her voice. “You’re a bad patient, and you know it.”

“I had an excellent teacher,” he replied.

With mock indignation, Éowyn took the empty cup from him and went over to the pitcher to fill it. As Teherin put her things back in her satchel, she asked quietly, “Is there anything else we should know?” The healer paused, then continued putting her herbs away.

“No. What is most important is that he rests.” Teherin tightened the drawstring. “It will save him from any further complications.” She smiled slightly. “Sit on him, or tie him down, if you have to.”

“You know I can still hear you, ladies.”

“Good to know that your hearing has not been affected, then,” Éowyn called over her shoulder. Turning back to Teherin, she asked, “How much do you think he should do each day?”

“A few short walks in the fresh air will not hurt him any, and the children will like that too,” the healer replied. “He’s already over-exerted himself for today, so any other plans should be very light indeed.” She slung her bag over her shoulder and gave a full smile. “This is his chance to be completely lazy without anyone complaining.” She started for the door, then halted and looked back to Faramir. “Though I have been very stern about your health, do not let it hide that I am very glad and relieved that you are home again, where you belong.” With that, she nodded to them both and left.

Éowyn filled the cup and took it back to Faramir. “Since you claim to have heard everything we said, I do not need to repeat it, do I?” she said, handing the cup to him. She sat down on the edge of the bed and stroked his hair again. “But she is right, you have done too much already today.”

“And I have not heard you complain about any of it yet,” he replied after finishing a sip.

“Well, no, but I am not going to encourage any more of it, either,” she said hastily. “You are quick enough to forget a healer’s orders without my help.”

“But unfortunately I already have plans for the rest of the day,” Faramir said, reaching to clasp her hand. “I have one appointment that I absolutely cannot miss,” he added teasingly.

“Yes, there will be a very disappointed little boy if his father does not take him to the stables,” Éowyn said. She leaned forward and kissed him gently. Drawing back, she said, “But you must promise not to take him on a horse ride, no matter how much he begs, or look for bird nests in the forest, or any of the other thousands of things he wants to do that would violate your orders to rest and relax. Agreed?”

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PostPosted: Thu 27 Jul , 2006 7:17 pm 
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“Agreed,” answered Faramir with a grin. “Although ‘tis going to be difficult to resist the urge to climb a tree, or at least crawl through a couple of rosebushes in order to find a nice nest.” Noticing her glare, he smiled. “I promise I am going to behave, and to be careful,” he assured her earnestly. “To be honest, I cannot recall having ever felt so much in need of rest. I do not like this state at all. So the sooner ‘tis going to change again, the better. At least this way I can finally read all those books I have been wanting to read for a long while, but always lacked the time. And I am sure Elboron will enjoy some of the stories as well, and the twins might, too, although perhaps they are a little too small for that yet. Would you help me into the shirt again?”

Putting on the garment, even with Éowyn’s aid, proved a tricky matter again, but in the end he managed without aggravating his shoulder too much. Together they left the room. On the corridor they encountered Rían carrying Meriadoc, accompanied by Visilya, with Peregrin on her arm. Meriadoc was dozing peacefully, while Peregrin was sucking his thumb and gazing round lazily, looking ready to fall asleep any moment, too.

“Time for another nap,” said Rían softly, and upon Éowyn’s unspoken question, she added, “We will manage. Elboron has been asking for you and his dadi for some time. He is down on the terrace, with your brother and Lord Túrin entertaining him.”

“Voro is there as well,” Visilya said. “Eager to also see the horses, I have no doubt. I’m going to join you in a moment.”

“Thank you for looking after them,” Faramir told the two women.

Visilya winked at him. “Be certain that we’ll leave Voro in your care as well, some day.”

“No problem,” he told her with a smile. Despite Rían’s assurances that she would manage, Éowyn decided to accompany her, taking Peregrin from Visilya.

“I will be with you in a moment,” she told Faramir, kissing him swiftly. “And remember your promise.”

“I shall,” he replied, stroking Peregrin’s cheek gently. Kissing his wife as well, he left with Visilya. On their way down the stairs he became aware of her watching him thoughtfully. “Is anything the matter?” he inquired.

She looked startled for an instant, then shrugged. “After your account of what befell you today, and the visible reminders of your ordeal … I cannot help wondering what happened to Túrin back then, when he was a captive in the Harad.”

“Have you ever asked him?”

“Of course. And he told me a little. But not all, I’m sure.”

“I am quite certain he has told you more than anybody else. Maradir and I have often questioned him about his time there, but I doubt we ever learned more than the basic facts – which has always struck me as odd, for you know how much Túrin enjoys telling tales. There appear to be things he does not want to remember, them being too painful, perhaps, or he at least wants to keep from coming up again.”

“What do you mean?”

He smiled slightly. “Well, today when I saw him again I could not help noticing how his looks had changed. The way he wears his hair and beard now, for example. It seems to me that Azrahil’s, and before that Khorazîr’s presence here have had some influence on him. Has he mentioned the wish to journey to the Harad recently?”

“Well yes, certainly. To try and catch the snake Al-Jahmîr.”

Faramir laughed softly. “That is a noble reason, of course, but not the only one.”

She frowned. “Do you mean there are others? That he might wish to return there, despite everything that befell him, after all he went through? Do you think it has to do with us?”

Faramir shook his head swiftly. “Nay, ‘tis not that. I do not doubt he is happy here, at your side, with Vorondil. But there are times when he yearns for the South. I am not sure he himself can pinpoint what it is which draws him back there. But I know from personal experience that the desert can have a strange effect on people. And he has spent a far longer time in those parts than I have.”

Visilya’s jaw set tight now, and there was a fierce light in her eyes. “And what if one day he decides to follow this mysterious call of the desert, or whatever it is that lets him repeatedly dream of the South, or gaze out over the hills with longing in his eyes?”

“I do not think he is going to dash off like you fear. He knows he is needed here. Moreover, during Elessar’s campaign against the Umbarians he spent some time in Haradwaith, and returned of his own accord. You will not lose him to the Harad, never fear.”

She gazed ahead of her with a troubled expression, but at length she nodded. “Should he try and run off, I’ll catch him again, be certain of that.”

He smiled. “I think he knows this.”

+++

On the terrace Túrin and Éomer had set up a small parcours for Horsey with sticks and small stones, and with Elboron’s help the steed was passing the hurdles with great bravado. Vorondil was sitting on a blanket nearby, watching the scene with interest, clutching what looked vaguely like a fluffy bear-doll to himself. He was the first to spot his mother and Faramir as they stepped onto the brightly lit terrace. He let out a squeal, and waved his bear in their direction. Visilya went over to him and sat down next to him, while Faramir went over to the three ‘boys’ playing with Horsey.

“How about paying the real horses a visit?” he asked.

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PostPosted: Fri 04 Aug , 2006 7:55 am 
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Horsey missed his next hurdle, scattering pebbles and sticks about. “Dadi,” his ‘rider’ exclaimed, leaping to his feet with a speed and agility that astonished his father.

“Hello Elboron,” Faramir replied, ruffling the boy’s hair gently, of a sudden recalling how Boromir had often done so with him, to greet his little brother in his jovial way. Strange how these things get passed on, thought Faramir, smiling at the boy who was looking up to him cheerfully. “I see you have given Horsey some exercise, with the help of these two gentlemen, who, I am sure, had as much fun at it as you did.”

The two grinned at this, and Éomer said, “It seems Horsey has become rather restless, after all the adventures he has had recently, and he had to work off some of that energy.”

“I wish I could have spared him the adventures,” said Faramir gravely, recalling the long journey the doll had undertaken, then turning to Elboron again, he extended a hand to him which the boy grabbed eagerly.

“Go see horses now?” he asked with unveiled excitement.

“Aye,” said Faramir. “And hopefully our friends will come, too. Will you show me where they are?”

Elboron nodded, and drawing his father after him, he set off along the terrace towards a path that led round the house, and towards the back of the long low building which contained the stables. Éomer trailed after them, and Visilya followed with Túrin carrying Vorondil, who was still clutching his beloved bear.

“A present from his grandfather,” explained Túrin upon a questioning glance and a nod towards the doll from Faramir. “Actually, the bear once belonged to my brother – you know how good my mum is at keeping her children’s old garments and toys and stuff. Obviously, father thought it fitting that his namesake should inherit the bear. Or what’s left of it. Mother had to patch it up again before it could be passed on.”

“I still have some of Boromir’s old things, too,” said Faramir. “Elboron is still too young to play with most of them – wooden swords and the like, you know what Boromir was fond of,” he added with a faint smile, “but I do not doubt that rather sooner than later he and his brothers are going to find them useful. Where is Azrahil, by the way? I had expected him to wait with you.”

“Well, he does not strike me as the patient kind,” replied Éomer with a shrug. “He left to look after his lion, and is going to wait for us there. This is what he said, at least.”

“You still do not trust him, do you?” inquired Faramir while ducking his head to avoid his hair getting entangled in the low branches of an apple-tree that were hanging down onto the path – with his right arm still mostly immobile and his left hand firmly clasped in his son’s, he had not been able to simply hold them aside.

Éomer stepped forward to clear the path. “He is not a bad fellow,” he admitted slowly, and almost against his will, Faramir thought. “But with a past like his …” He shrugged again, letting go of the branch after the rest of the small procession had passed underneath. “It does look like he has finally chosen the right side, and yet … – nay, I cannot say I trust him completely. Do you?”

Faramir hesitated, absently glancing at the sunlight playing on Elboron’s dark hair, and the grassy path overlaid with a pattern of flickering shadows to his feet. He had asked himself this very question several times. Back during his captivity there had come a point where he simply had to rely on the young Umbarian’s trustworthyness. Without Azrahil’s aid, he would not have survived, so much was certain. And fact was that Azrahil had risked a lot to safe him, and thus proven that Faramir’s trust had not been unfounded. Slowly, he nodded. “Yes, I do. He is not like his uncle, you know. The Haradrim have a code of honour, very much like your people, Éomer. Am I not right, Túrin?”

The addressed nodded. “Stricter, even,” he added.

“Of course, not all of them live by it,” went on Faramir, “Al-Jahmîr being the prime example. But for some reason, despite his family connections and his troubled past, Azrahil takes it very seriously. Perhaps because ‘tis the only thing which gave him some kind of hold in the past, and a purpose. I could be completely mistaken in him, certainly, but I do not believe he is that good an actor.”

Túrin laughed softly at this. “Nay, he is very straightforward in everything he does. And, honestly, to try and deceive you he’d have to be an excellent actor indeed. In this you’re like your father. My dad once that you had to tread carefully around Denethor. ‘Stick to the truth when you deal with the Steward,’ he once told me when I’d done something … well, you know … and had to report to your father for punishment, ‘because it is difficult to deceive him, and dangerous to try.’ I think we can extend this to you, too,” he ended with a grin.

Faramir smiled. “Oh yes, I can be very dangerous,” he agreed, upon with Éomer let out a laugh. “Yeah, ask the snake about that. I bet the fellow now rots in one of Elessar’s cells, awaiting his punishment. And serves him right.”

Faramir’s smile faded somewhat. “To be honest, I do not believe the King has caught him so swiftly. For some reason, I think we would have had word had he done so.”

“But they are far away, and not all messengers can fly,” observed Visilya.

“True,” agreed Faramir. “Yet there are other ways of receiving tidings than by bird or errand-rider. Surely Queen Arwen has her ways of knowing how her husband is faring.”

“Elven magic, you mean?” asked Éomer, frowning slightly. Despite his dealings with some of the Elven-kind in recent years, Faramir knew he still retained a little of the old prejudice many of his people harboured against the Elder Kindred.

Faramir shrugged. “I am not sure it can be called ‘magic’. But they do have strange powers.”

“Weird powers, if you ask me. But helpful ones, too, sometimes,” admitted his brother-in-law. “Ah, here we are. Wait a moment, I shall open the door for you, Elboron. It is too heavy for you.”

They had reached the backdoor of the stables that opened out into the garden. Éomer stepped forward and pushed it open. A smell of hay and horses and oiled leather greeted them, together with a soft snorting from the inhabitants of the stalls. Elboron pulled his father over the threshold, then halted for a moment to look about. Faramir doubted the boy could indeed see much, being too small still to glance over the stalls that took up most of the ground level of the building. Not many horses were visible, he noted. Only those used by errand-riders and thus had to be close-by and ready all the time, and some of the steeds his rangers had ridden on their way to Dol Arandur.

Elboron looked up to him questioningly. “Where horse?” he asked, having obviously searched for any steed he recognised, and not found any. Faramir carefully lowered himself into a kneeling position to be able to talk to him better.

“Do you mean Narâk?” he asked. “And mami’s horses?”

Elboron nodded, again glancing round searchingly. “Where?”

“Perhaps they are outside, on the meadows,” mused Faramir.

“Why gone?” asked Elboron, looking disappointed at the horses’ absence.

“Well, would you like to have to stay indoors all the time – especially when the weather is that nice –, in a small stall where you cannot move properly or run about?”

Elboron gazed at him as apparently he tried to imagine what his father had just told him, then he shook his head.

“You see. They want to be outside, too. So the grooms must have brought them there.”

“My horses and those of my men are on a meadow about a mile from here, a little further up the hill, where the river comes out of the forest,” fell in Éomer. “So are yours, are they not, Túrin?”

Túrin nodded. “I recall having seen some of yours up there as well,” he told Faramir. “Narâk at least, and Éowyn’s dapple-grey. And that big chestnut one.”

“There is good grazing there,” went on the Rohir appreciatively, upon which Túrin grinned mischievously.

“I bet you’ve tried the grass yourself, before you let the horses have it, eh?” he remarked jestfully, with a wink.

Éomer only snorted, and set off towards the main door of the stables that opened onto the central courtyard around most of the buildings were grouped. They others followed him through along the stalls and then over the courtyard towards the main gate. As they neared it, the guards spotted them. One stepped forward to greet his lord, and swiftly those companions of his who were not on duty at the gate joined him. Faramir had to give them a very brief account of how he had fared, and how he had managed to return him, all the while aware of the little boy tugging at his hand or the hem of his shirt impatiently. Thus in the end he apologised to the young lieutenant, indicating he had to leave on important business.

“But not without an escort,” said the guard. “Captain Beregond has reminded us again and again to take matters of security even more seriously than before, after what befell with Amlaith. I shall provide some men for you to accompany you.”

“So much for simply spending some time with your son and your friends, eh?” said Túrin. “But even we have been provided with extra protection lately, whenever we left the house. It’s for the best, I guess.”

“Aye, it is,” agreed Faramir. “Although it can be noisome, at times, I admit.”


+++


A short while later, they exited the gate in the company of two of Éomer’s household men and four members of Faramir’s own White Company, causing Túrin to jest about Visilya and him having forgotten to inform their own guards to include a delegation as well. “There should be some of the King’s kinsmen around, too,” he said, casting a glance over the wide square in front of the gate. “But they tend to hide so well that you can’t spot them. Almost like Elves.”

“Well, they know their business,” stated Éomer as he led the way past the square that was surrounded by the houses of a growing village, and was usually taken up by a market. They skirted the outer wall of the Steward’s abode, and came upon a broad, slightly ascending path lined by plane-trees which gave forth a sweet, aromatic scent. Ahead and to the right there were meadows fenced by hedgerows or partly overgrown stonewalls, studded with large oaks shaped by the animals grazing on these fields, or apple- and plum-trees.

Elboron halted suddenly, handed Horsey to his father, then stooped and picked up one of the planes’ curious fruits from past autumn. He held it up for closer inspection, then presented it to Faramir.

“’Tis a fruit of one of these trees,” he explained, pointing up to the speckled branches swaying softly in the breeze. “They look funny, do they not?”

Elboron laughed as he held the fruit by the long stalk and let it dangle. “Horse eat?” he asked.

Faramir shook his head. “You can try and offer it to them, but I doubt they like it. Come on, let us go on.” He returned Horsey to the boy, and they continued on their way. The path began to climb more steeply, and with Elboron dashing on excitedly, Faramir soon noted that his breath was going more heavily than he was used to. He noticed how Éomer who was walking next to him was giving him a slightly worried glance.

“You will tell us if this gets too much,” he said quietly. “I do not know what the healer told you about you conduct, but I doubt dashing up the hill like this is something she is going to appreciate.”

“I will manage,” Faramir assured him. “And ‘tis not far anymore.”

“Horse!” Elboron exclaimed as on cue, and letting go of his father’s hand, he shot off. They had reached a stout wooden gate set in a low stonewall grown with a thicket of blackthorn, terebinth and holly, and small oak-trees cut into shape, overgrown by flowering honeysuckle and other trailing plants. Two grooms were waiting at the gate, as it was their duty to watch the horses. Beyond the gate was a broad meadow upon which a number of horses was grazing. Elboron had run to the gate and was peering through one of the lower openings, waving a hand at the animals. After greeting the grooms who also welcomed him joyously, Faramir stepped over to his son. “Call them,” he told him softly. Elboron did so, and although he had some trouble with the name of Faramir’s stallion, Narâk seemed to recognise his voice. He lifted his head, shook his long mane, then set off towards the gate at a gentle trott. The other horses, noticing that apparently something of interest was happening there, soon trailed after him.

Elboron let out a squeal of delight and began to try and crawl through the gate, but Faramir held him back. “Wait a moment, young man. We shall do this properly and open the gate to pass through. Come on, take my hand again.”

The boy did so, and soon they stood in the high grass of the meadow, watching the horses approach. By now Narâk obviously had recognised his master, for he whinnied softly and increased his speed. Faramir watched him canter up to them with his proud head held high and his chestnut coat gleaming in the sunlight and the white mane and tail flying with a feeling of deep gratitude. He had been mounted on the stallion when his company had been attacked and he wounded by poisoned arrows, and vividly he recalled those desperate moments when, parted from his guards and alone with the horse, he had scribbled a brief note for Éowyn and attached it to the saddle, all the time feeling the grip the poison already had on him, numbing his fingers and meddling with his concentration. Narâk, nervous and frightened though he had been, had provided some solace at least, and only too well Faramir recalled the feeling when he had chased the steed away to prevent it from getting caught by his pursuers who had been drawing near.

Now Narâk had reached them. He whinnied again, then rubbed his head against Faramir’s shoulder (the hale one, luckily). “I missed you, too,” he told the stallion softly and affectionately, stroking his head. “Thank you for delivering that message so faithfully.”

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Éowyn shifted Peregrin on her shoulder as she walked him back to the nursery. She hummed softly and stroked his hair gently.

“You look happier than I’ve seen you in months,” Rían said quietly.

“I do not think you need to worry about me staying awake all night by the window anymore,” Éowyn replied.

“Though, Lord Faramir does look terrible.” Rían gasped, her hand flying to her mouth. “Begging your pardon, my lady, it was not my place to—”

“No, you are right,” Éowyn said. “He suffered many terrible things while he was away, and the effects will stay with him for a long time, I fear.” She sighed. “But he is home now, and that is the best remedy for him.”

Peregrin gave up and fell asleep, and Éowyn brushed her lips lightly over his and his brother’s foreheads as she tucked them into their cradles. Straightening, she watched their peaceful slumber for several moments. Her sons would not grow up without their father, and this knowledge eased many of her fears. But for how long? She could not lie to herself. She knew there would be no lasting peace until al-Jahmîr was destroyed. And that would take more than a pair of warships. Not for nothing was he called the snake.

Shaking her head suddenly, she pushed these thoughts from her mind. Today was not the day to dwell on them. Tomorrow, perhaps, but not today. She lifted the horse-dolls lying on a nearby chest of drawers and placed each next to its proper master, untangling a knot that had formed in the yarn tail of Meriadoc’s. “Sweet dreams, my darlings,” she murmured, kissing each one again.

She watched them another moment, then made to leave. Then she noticed that the tray they had eaten from earlier was still in the room. Elboron had forgotten the partial apple slice he had wanted to feed the horses. She took it and several others, wrapped them in a handkerchief, and slipped them into her pocket. Going back through the house, she paused at the kitchen to briefly discuss supper preparations. The cook grew misty-eyed again and said once more that it was so good to have the lord back home and that she would do her best to fatten him up again like he should be. When that was finished, Éowyn made her way through the garden to the stables.

It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim light, but she was surprised by the silence. She had expected to hear her son’s cheerful chatter and see him sitting upon some steed’s back. Instead, all she saw was Azrahil slowly stroking the nose of an errand rider’s horse. It seemed had not noticed her entrance. He looked deep in thought, a somewhat lost expression hanging on his features. “The others are at the meadow,” he said suddenly, his voice flat. The horse shook its mane and turned to its hay-net.

“You did not go with them.”

“No.” He leaned against the stall door, still watching the horse.

“Why not? You were invited.”

He snorted. “I am not so ignorant that I do not realize when I am not wanted.”

“That is not--”

“Yes it is!” He slammed his fist against a supporting post. “I see it when your guards look at me, when your brother’s guards look at me, even when your brother…” He spun, took a few steps toward the other entrance, stopped, took a breath, and turned back. “There is not one among them who would not slit my throat if given the chance. I know what I am, who I am. All my life I have brought only death and pain. I cannot change that, and I will not draw it here.”

Éowyn fought to keep her voice steady. She had not appreciated what he had implied about her brother or those in their service. “No, you cannot change what you have done, but you can rise above it. You have risked much and lost much, but you have much more to gain because of it. Yes, you are not accepted in everyone’s eyes, and it will take much work and reconciliation before you are, but that day will come.”

“Marek will see that I am dead first.”

“You are worth a king’s protection,” Éowyn said sternly. “If you believe that it will be so easy--”

“Have you forgotten already how near you yourself came to disaster not even a short month ago?” His eyes flashed. Éowyn took a step back, startled by his intensity. “How much more eager will he be to annihilate someone who knows his secrets, his habits, his sources? You may say that I am a blessing for it, but really I am a curse and more of a danger to you and your house. Do not try and pretend I am not.”

Éowyn struggled to figure out how a carefree trip to the stable had suddenly turned into an argument with an insecure assassin. Afraid, she thought. “Please,” she said, trying to soothe him, “today is not the day to—”

“Will tomorrow be the day? Or the next? Or the next? What day will be convenient for you to see what I am?”

“Well, what are you then?” Éowyn exploded. “Are you a villain? A traitor? A killer? A man? Are you afraid of what will become of you, or of what you have already become? Tell me, since you insist that I know, what are you? Are you a hero? Are you a coward?” At her last words, Azrahil’s eyes flashed again, and his face twisted with anger.

“Never call me a coward!” he roared. He stepped forward, then paled severely.

“And you should never raise your voice to a lady.” Éowyn turned to see Beregond standing several feet behind her, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword. He studied Azrahil with a steady, calculating gaze. Éowyn discovered she was breathing rapidly and that her hands were clenched tightly. She uncurled and flexed them gently. Beregond stepped beside her. “No man likes to be called a coward,” he said evenly, still speaking to the young Southron, “but as I heard it, the lady was only asking. I do not know all that passed before I stepped in here, but I doubt it was worth such outrage, on both your parts.” A silence followed his words, and when it appeared that neither was going to attempt an apology, preferring to exchange hard looks, he shook his head.

Azrahil turned to leave. “Come with us to the meadow,” Éowyn called after him. “I would hate for you to think you were not welcome.”

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Narâk snorted, then began to nibble at Faramir’s tunic. Elboron spotted this and laughed. He stepped forward and gingerly held out a hand to touch the great horse’s nose, then shrank back when Narâk became aware of him and started to sniff at his hair. Faramir watched both carefully, ready to interfere – after all, the stallion was a horse many of the grooms feared to handle –, but soon realised that the two were getting on very well, and were obviously playing some game they had rehearsed before. He felt some gentle pride at the small boy’s fearlessness as he faced up to the powerful stallion and rubbed his nose playfully.

Soft laughter behind him made him turn round. Éomer was visibly amused. “He may look like one of you tarks, but in truth he is a true Eorling,” he stated, indicating the boy. “Éowyn was like this when we were children. She dared handle horses I did not even approach. Our cousin Théodred often teased me about that, until we found out that he feared those beasts as well.”

“Aye, she is not daunted easily,” agreed Faramir.

Éomer stepped over to Elboron and with a swift movement lifted him onto Narâk’s back, while Faramir took hold of the halter. The stallion neighed again, but suffered the small rider without ado. Elboron held onto the mane and giggled, sitting up very straight. Vorondil, obviously realising that his friend was enjoying his ride, let out a sqeal and waved his bear in the direction of the horse. Túrin brought him a little closer, so that he could touch the horse with his free hand. By now the others horses had gathered round them as well and were searching tunics and pockets for dainties.

“You quite spoiled them, did you not?” observed Faramir, gently pushing aside the head of a nosy grey mare that was busy investigating his bandaged arm.

“Say rather, your son spoiled them,” said Éomer. “He insisted on visiting them every day. And more than once, too.”

“And you, of course, gladly obliged.”

Éomer laughed. “Of course.”

“Still, Narâk seems to be getting gentler by the day, the more contact he has with these little ones,” remarked Túrin. “When we found him astray in the valley below the village, we hardly managed to catch him, poor thing. He was hurt and terrified, and really aggressive. But at least we got him. And then we found the message …” His voice trailed off, and his expression turned grave. “Of course, it fell to me to deliver it to Éowyn.”

“You always seem to be the unlucky messenger,” said Faramir sympathetically.

Túrin shrugged. “Yeah, by now I’m almost used to it. That was a black day, though. Strange that the very man who abducted you back then now lives at your house.”

“Strange indeed,” agreed Faramir. “And a good sign, too. Where would we end if there was no way we could come to reconsile with our enemies? Look at Khorazîr. Some years ago, whenever we met we would end up fighting some stupid duel. And now we are friends.”

“But there are some enemies you don’t come to terms with,” interjected Visilya grimly. Faramir recalled that she had her own grievous experiences with long-term foes. “Or do you expect to befriend Al-Jahmîr one day?”

“Definitely not,” answered Faramir. “He is unlike any opponent I have met before. Khorazîr can be cruel and stubborn and persistent in his desire for revenge – alas, yes –, but in his dealing with me he has always been fair and honourable. And people like Falastur, they set little store by honour, yet at least they are, in their own twisted way, loyal to Gondor. And, fortunately, too intent on their own gain that they fear to remove people they loath if they need them to “stay in business”. But Al-Jahmîr …” He stroked Narâk’s head thoughtfully.

“Al-Jahmîr is, in a way, incalculable,” he went on after a while. “Even now I am not sure what exactly he wanted with or from me. I have come to believe he simply intended to torment me, and Éowyn. But why? Why us? Surely he has enemies who in the past have done him greater harm than I. And Éowyn he has never even met. I tried to talk with him about his reasons, but what answers I got from him were evasive and off the point.” He took a deep breath and looked at his friends as if finding answers to these troubling questions in their features.

Éomer stepped to him and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Ask him again when Elessar drags him here,” he suggested with a fell smile. “And be certain that I am going to ask him a few things as well. And I shall not take care to be overly polite.”

“Mami,” interrupted Elboron their conversation, causing everybody to turn whither he was pointing excitedly. Éowyn was stepping through the gate, followed at some distance and with reluctance, as if he had taken this direction against his will, by a troubled-looking Azrahil, who in turn was accompanied by Beregond and two more guards. As she drew near, Faramir noticed that Éowyn, too, wore a frown, which soon vanished, however, when she glanced at the assembly. Azrahil and the guards halted at the gate, and it looked to Faramir as if Beregond had to persuade the young Southron to pass through and join the company as well.

Éomer greeted his sister with a jovial smile. “We have just remarked upon your son’s knack with horses, which of course shows that despite his uncanny Gondorian looks he is one of us inside.”

“King Éomer has been declaring a lot of cheerful things like that,” said Faramir, smiling as well. “Where did you find him?” he asked, indicating Azrahil. “He looks troubled. Is anything the matter with him?”

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Éowyn kissed him swiftly, then said, “Nothing out of the usual. We have had some words, though, and now I believe he is just sulking because he was proven wrong.” Ignoring his searching look, scratched her grey mare’s forehead. “You forgot something back at the house, Elboron,” she said lightly. “Do you remember what it was?”

Her son’s face took on a mix of confusion and concentration as he tried to imagine what he could have left at home. Finally, he shook his head. Éowyn turned from her horse, pulled the handkerchief out of her pocket, and took one of its contents out for him. “Apple!” her son squealed, reaching for the fruit. The horses immediately pricked their ears and nickered with interest.

Éowyn shook her head and lifted him from his steed’s back, despite his protests. “No, it would not be nice for you to sit on Narâk while you gave the other horses something sweet to eat. He would think you were not going to save any for him.”

“Oh,” Elboron said, turning the apple over in his hand, then hiding it with his other as another horse came close to sniff it. “No! For Nak.”

“Alright, then you can give him the first slice since he let you ride him today.” She moved toward the chestnut’s head, noticing out of the corner of her eye that Éomer was pushing some of the more ambitious horses back.

“Now, remember how we told you to hold a treat,” Túrin told him. Elboron nodded as he carefully balanced the slice on his flat palm. It was a tricky task for him, as his hand was not much bigger than the apple itself. Éowyn watched with a bit of apprehension as the chestnut sniffed at the fruit, then lifted it lightly with its teeth. She had received enough nips to know that her son’s fingers did not have a chance if they were mistaken for a tasty treat.

Elboron squealed and buried his face in his mother’s shoulder as the horse crunched the apple. “Mami’s horse,” he said next, pointing to the grey. They repeated the sequence with the grey, and continued around the circle until the handkerchief was empty. “All gone?” Elboron asked sadly, holding up the empty cloth.

“Yes, for now. Maybe you and your dadi can take some apples to the horses tomorrow, if they are in the stables. I do not think Lady Teherin would like him taking long walks to the meadow before he is fully rested.” Having lost her son’s attention, she handed him over to his uncle, who tossed him in the air before setting him on his own horse. Éowyn watched them for a moment before turning back to her husband. “I doubt treks like this count as rest, no matter how you try to justify it,” she said, tapping him lightly on the chest with her forefinger. “And yes, I have no shame in scolding you like this in front of your friends.” Túrin chuckled.

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“You better listen to her, Faramir,” said Túrin with a broad grin and a wink, “before she tells your guards to lead you away and lock you in to make you stay abed.”

“I would not put it beyond her,” replied Faramir jestfully, earning himself a nudge in the ribs from Éowyn’s elbow. Leaning to her, he said softly, “You did not care so much about me having to rest a few hours ago, did you?” He grinned when she blushed. Kissing her cheek lightly, he said, “To ease your care, my lady, and to pacify our esteemed healer, I shall return to the house now – although I should really like to visit Pharzi, and to see how much she has grown.”

At the mention of his lion, Azrahil, who had approached a few steps but still remained outside the circle of horses that now ringed the company, looked up. He still wore a frown, and had his arms folded in front of his chest as if to build a barrier between himself and the others.

“Well, you can visit her tomorrow,” said Túrin. “She won’t run away, although she surely would like to. Come on, Voro, let’s leave these nice beasts and see to getting you changed. You don’t smell too nice.”

Éomer retrieved Elboron from his steed’s back and set him on the ground, where the boy turned about searchingly, then upon spotting Faramir he came over to him and grabbed his father’s hand, looking up to him expectantly.

“We go back to the house now, Elboron,” explained Faramir. “So say farewell to Narâk and the others. We shall visit them again tomorrow.”

“Bring more apples?” asked the boy.

“Yes, you can feed them more apples tomorrow. And carrots, too.”

They set out, with Éomer and Visilya clearing a path between the inquisitive horses. Once they had passed the gate, Faramir walked over to Azrahil. Éowyn did not accompany him, which the young Southron seemed to appreciate.

“What is the matter, Azrahil?” Faramir inquired of him.

Azrahil looked slightly startled by so direct a question. “Nothing,” he said swiftly, but not very convincingly.

“I thought you were a friend of the truth.”

The young man drew a breath, kicking away a pebble. “I don’t belong here,” he said at length. “In fact, I don’t belong anywhere anymore.”

Faramir nodded gravely. “Yes, I understand what you mean. Not everybody here appreciates your presence, and they let you feel it. It will take time to overcome their prejudices. And you will have to change, too, even though this frightens you. You are right, you cannot return back to your home – if ever home it was. But you can start anew here, if you want. We will help you, if you let us.”

Azrahil shrugged, then hung his shoulders. “I do not think I will trouble you much longer. Marek will see to that.”

Now it was Faramir’s turn to frown. “You know what, Azrahil,” he said sternly, “with that attitude of yours, I completely understand that Éowyn got angry with you. I know you are afraid of your uncle’s vengeance, and rightly so. I would lie if I said that the prospect of him escaping and being free to work further mischief on his enemies does not frighten me as well. But unlike you, I will not revell in that fear until it numbs me. You are one of the bravest men I know, so stop this silly behaviour. Enjoy your stay here in relative safety as long as you can.”

Azrahil bit his lip, and almost against his will, he gave the tiniest of nods. Then he looked down in surprise at Elboron tugging at his tunic. “Not look grumpy, Azil,” he said.

Faramir laughed softly. “Listen to the boy, if you do not listen to me.”

Azrahil sighed again, but a faint smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Bloody tarks,” he muttered, and the smile broadened.

“Be careful of what you say, young man,” reminded him Faramir, “as there is quite some tark in you as well.”

Elboron looked up at them questioningly. “What is tark?”

Faramir glanced at Azrahil, who was grinning slightly now. “I should like to hear the explanation as well,” the young Umbarian said.

Faramir was spared, however, because Elboron gave a squeal and letting go of his father’s hand, dashed off to the right of the path, where the grass was high and dotted with summer-flowers. Something was moving between them. “What have you found there, Elboron?” asked Faramir.

The boy crouched down and begun bending over the stalks. “Frog,” he replied excitedly.

Faramir laughed. “I should have known.”

Both men stepped over to where the boy was searching for the frog. Azrahil stooped and caught it – it was a large grass-frog – and held it out on his hand for Elboron to see. The boy was beaming, reaching out with a tentative finger to touch the frog on the back. It croaked, and Elboron giggled.

“Bring to pond?” he asked, looking at Faramir, who shook his head. “They live in the meadows as well, so let it stay here.”

“Show mami.” Éowyn, who had been walking some paces before them, had halted at her son’s squeal and turned to them. Elboron grabbed the sleeve of Azrahil’s tunic and dragged the young man with his precious catch over to his mother.

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“Look, mami! Frog!” Elboron announced. His mother shook her head slightly and crouched to be able to see his prize better.

“And quite a big one,” she observed. “Azrahil was very kind to catch it for you. Did you tell him thank you?”

“No,” the child whispered, still staring at the frog, then followed that up with a cry of “No!” as the creature took the opportunity to escape. With a great leap it disappeared into the tall grass. Elboron chased after it, calling, “Catch, Azil! Catch! Frog!”

Éowyn put a hand on the Umbarian's arm as he stepped forward. “No, it has been caught once today. That is enough.”

Azrahil watched the child push aside the grass stalks a bit longer before he took a deep breath and turned to face her.

“My lady, I wish to apologize for my outburst earlier. It was most uncourteous of me, especially since you have been a gracious and generous hostess even though I do not deserve anything except chains and a cold prison cell. I spoke in anger and,” he hesitated, “fear, though this does not excuse my behavior.”

“It is forgiven,” Éowyn said gently. “You certainly do have much cause for anger and fear, nor am I foolish enough to believe that all trouble has passed. But as I said, today now is not the day for such thoughts and worries. Set them aside for a little while if you can.”

He started to nod but then shook his head. “I would celebrate with you, yet I know that while the Snake remains free – and even should he be caught – I bring danger to your house. Each day that I am here I realize more how greatly I have wronged you and your family. I wish not to bring further harm to them.” He looked down at his side suddenly. Éowyn followed his gaze and saw Elboron had returned from his search and was grasping the Umbarian's hand. A moment passed, then Azrahil carefully closed his fingers around the little one's. “But Lord Faramir has offered me refuge here, and should my presence indeed lead to danger, I will offer what aid I can to thwart it,” he ended, still looking at the boy.

“Frog gone,” Elboron said sadly.

Azrahil glanced swiftly at Éowyn, then back at Elboron. “Perhaps we will find another one tomorrow.” The boy looked up at him and beamed, and Éowyn saw the Umbarian offer a grin of his own. It faded somewhat as he raised his gaze to meet hers.

“Let us hope then that the only danger you bring,” she said, “is to frogs and newts and whatever other small creatures this little ranger wants to examine more closely.”

By now Faramir had caught up to them, and he slipped his left arm around Éowyn's waist. He looked from her to Azrahil. “All is well?”

The two exchanged glances before she replied, “All is well,” and the Umbarian nodded slowly as Elboron swung his arm back and forth.

“Good. Then let us continue back to the house. I think I shall need very little persuasion to rest once we get there.”

The return walk took quite a bit longer than the journey out, with a few pauses for Faramir to rest and even catch his breath at times. Éowyn felt his weight steadily increase on her shoulder until, when standing at the foot of the stairs leading up to their chambers, she wondered whether she would need to call for Túrin or Éomer to help him. “Did we have to match Mindolluin's height?” Faramir muttered, surveying the staircase. “Nay, melda, I will manage,” he said when she began to suggest extra help. “But do not expect me to race you to the top.”

In time they did reach the top, and it stung Éowyn to see how much weariness had returned to his face after such a small excursion. He sank heavily onto the bed and did not protest when she knelt to help him out of his shoes. She pulled the covers over him, then leaned in to kiss him gently as he ran his fingers over her hair. “I will check on the boys and return,” she said. He nodded slightly, his eyes already closed.

Éowyn halted in the doorway and looked back at him awhile before continuing on to the play room. Elboron had easily outpaced his parents up the stairs, dragging Azrahil along with him, and now he was back with his wooden blocks and building towers with his new playmate, who still seemed uncertain around the child. Rían sat with Meriadoc, and Túrin was stretched out near the builders with Peregrin propped up against him. Vorondil was still within arm's reach but eyeing the growing tower of blocks. Leaning against the doorframe, she watched the scene for several moments before Túrin caught her attention. He tilted his head back toward her chambers, and she bowed her own in understanding. The children had not noticed her yet, so she backed away silently. She had just crossed the threshold of her room when all at once came a great crash, a squeal and a shriek of laughter. She chuckled, knowing Túrin had moved too slowly to prevent Vorondil from carrying out his plan.

As she closed the door Faramir called out quietly, “Please, leave it open a little. I have missed that music.”

“Of course,” she replied, coming round to sit beside him on the bed and stroke his hair. “But I will throw them out should they try to invade.” His reply faded ere it got past his lips.

She watched him for a while, noting the contented smile that lingered on his features. In time the apparent evidence of his trials would fade: The haggardness would give way to health, and the wounds and scratches would heal. In still more time, she believed, he would overcome whatever long-term effects of the poison lingered until they were nothing more than a dark memory of these dark months.

That thought in turn led her to wonder how the pursuit of the Snake was faring. Much of her hoped that with the king on his trail at long last he would be trapped for good, but the small voice that had kept her awake these many nights would not let her forget that Marek Al-Jahmîr was called the Snake for good reason, that he had proved time and again able to wriggle out of tight traps and disappear. Then he would wait, plot and strike again. He had already struck twice here in their home, and what if the third time truly did pay for all?

You would not let Azrahil brood over such dark thoughts, and yet you will not heed your own orders, she chided herself. Yes, there is danger and cause for worry still, but do not let them darken this day any more than a passing cloud.

The sounds of the boys playing drifted down the corridor as Faramir's breathing eased into the steady, deep rhythm of sleep. Moving carefully so as not to disturb him, she reached for the tray resting on a bedside stand and set it across her lap, straightening a sheet of paper that curled over in the breeze drifting through the window. She had sat like this many times over the past months, passing along questions about poison and news of rescue plans, and struggling to find words of comfort and hope, then entrusting them all to the care of a buzzard. Often she had wondered whether it would all be for naught, whether she would have to summon the strength to send grim news to dear friends when this was all over.

Faramir shifted in his sleep and settled again as she put a hand on his shoulder. She felt relief and joy well up in her anew. No, there would be no need for somber words. Not today. Finally, she had happy tidings to share.

She picked up the pen, dipped it in the ink and began to write.

Dol Arandur, Ithilien, Nárië 24th, Fourth Age 11

Éowyn, Lady of Ithilien, to Khorazîr, Lord of Khiblat Pharazôn

Dear Khorazîr,

He is home.

_________________
Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.

Sweet home Indiana
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