Ithilien, August 3006 T.A.
It was hot in the forest as noon approached, and it would only get hotter. Haldar pulled off his mask and wiped his face with it. Hot – and still, he thought. Nothing moving. Nothing ever did.
Sitting beside him, Damrod pulled off his own mask, stuck his hand through his soaked hair, and then sighed from the very depths of his being.
"Cheer up, lad," Haldar said. "The others'll be back before you know it. Fish for supper tonight. We always have fish on Wednesdays."
"That'll be the high spot of my week, that will."
"Don't knock it."
The boy rubbed a hand over his face. "Still," he said, "I wouldn't mind sitting by the river on a day like this—"
"Aye, well, when you've been out in the forest as long as the rest of us, then you'll get to go and sit by the river all day. Instead of sitting here all day."
Damrod looked across at him cautiously. "Things are different since the new captain arrived, aren't they?"
"They are indeed." Haldar shook his head. "Brand new officer, not much older than you, wants to make his mark – and so we kick our heels here, or pace around a little bit of turf, instead of doing what it is we do best."
Damrod thought about this for a moment. "Still," he said, "with all these new men coming in, all their tracks about – it must make it easier to guess where the refuge is. So I can see why we need more guards around it. I mean, I can see the point of it."
"The point," said Haldar firmly, "is not the point. What the point is, is that we're rangers, not messenger boys. Which means tracking the enemy, not running back half a mile to tell someone it's coming."
He stood up and walked on a little way ahead, then came to a halt, staring out into the sleeping forest. Then he looked down.
"Hang on a minute, what's this?"
"What's what?" Damrod got up and went over to him.
There was a clear set of tracks, heading off away from their post, into the trees.
Haldar had brightened measurably. "Come on, lad," he said. "Let's go and take a closer look at what we've got here. About time you learned a bit more about tracking."
"Are you sure?" Damrod frowned. "Aren't we meant to stay here? Or one of us should go back up the line and let them know—"
"What, and let someone go off wandering through our forest? No, we're going after him!"
"We should wait until one of the others gets back, shouldn't we? So there's someone here—"
"They won't be back for hours. Come on, lad! We can't hang around all day!"
Damrod looked at him doubtfully, but Haldar was already on his way. He picked up his bow and followed.
Mablung resisted the urge to raise his arm and wipe at his forehead with his shirt sleeve. Instead, he shifted forward slightly on the soles of his feet and allowed a soft sigh to escape his lips.
The captain continued reading.
The day had turned into one of the hottest of the summer so far. Not a breath of wind troubled Ithilien. Under the trees, the men would be sweltering at their guard posts. Only in the refuge, near the Window, did the rush and fall of the water cool the air. Here at the back of the cave, where the new captain had set up his office, the air was still and heavy. Despite this, the captain's shirt was laced tight up his throat and he was wearing a tunic over it.
Does he not get hot at all? Mablung wondered hazily, and sweated a little more to look at him.
The captain frowned, then reached for his pen and began writing over the report Mablung had laboured throughout the heat of the day to prepare – for a second time. Mablung raised his eyes to the heavens.
The middle of the afternoon, and I am kept here like a schoolboy failing his lessons! He glared down at the young lord, head bowed as he scribbled over the paper. Kept here by a lad barely out of the schoolroom himself...
At length, Faramir set down his pen, flattened his hands out before him, then looked up, his eyes cool.
"Sit down, please, lieutenant," he said. He was softly spoken, but with the crisp, unmistakeable tone of the upper levels. Straight from the schoolroom, thought Mablung bitterly. And straight from the city. What has Ithilien done to deserve this?
He sat down. The captain leaned back in his chair and folded his arms.
"I believe," Faramir said, "that it would have been quicker to write this report myself. Nevertheless, since the steward sees fit to give me lieutenants, I saw fit to pass the task along. And yet this," he pushed the report back to its unhappy author, "would put a schoolboy to shame. These figures," he pointed down the page, "appear to be invention. When I asked you for a full account of our supplies, I did not expect to be given a rough estimate."
"I am a ranger, sir," Mablung replied, through clenched teeth, "Not a clerk. How am I supposed to know how many loaves of bread we have—"
"Try counting them."
The silence hung as heavy as the air. Faramir drummed his fingers on the desk. "This is only part of a larger problem, is it not?"
"I'm not sure I know what you mean, sir—"
"What I mean, is that in the month that I have been in command here, very few of the orders I have given appear to have been followed. It has taken three weeks to set up new guard posts around the refuge when it should have been done like that," he snapped his fingers. "Duty rosters appear on my desk hours late. I read them eagerly hoping to see my instructions have been followed, and each day I suffer the disappointment of discovering that the old hands have been put together and the new men have been left to struggle on unaided... I ask for a report on the state of our supplies, and I receive a work of fiction... I did not realize, Mablung, that I was here solely in an advisory capacity. Perhaps there is something I do not fully understand about the chain of command?"
"I'm quite sure that isn't the case," Mablung replied coldly. "Sir."
Mablung wiped his brow with the cuff of his shirt. It didn't help much. "Captain, the Ithilien company is a small one – we watch the borders, we report back on what we see to the garrison at Osgiliath—"
"No," cut off the captain firmly, shaking his head. "That is not how the Ithilien company is. It is how the Ithilien company was. I brought fifty men with me at the start of the month, and another hundred are to follow." He leaned back again in his chair. "Did I not make this all clear when I arrived? The object of this company has changed. The incursions from the east and from the south are now too great a threat to the river. It is no longer enough for us simply to watch Ithilien – we have to hold it. Which means more men, more supplies, more action, and more opportunity for outright chaos. But these are my orders, Mablung – direct from the steward, and I intend to see them carried out."
Not even sweating, Mablung thought. They say his father's made of ice. Two sons the steward has, and we get stuck with this one.
"Captain," he said at last, "may I speak freely for a moment?"
There was a brief pause.
"I would be most interested to hear what you have to say, lieutenant."
He hadn't expected that. But he swallowed, took his chance, and began to speak.
"I understand that this is your first command, sir. And I know every new officer's keen to have a success or make a name for himself. But we have ways of doing things here in Ithilien, ways that have worked well for a very long time. These men here are trackers, and hunters, and scouts – they work well together and they're good at what they do—"
"And I shall continue to need good trackers, and hunters, and scouts. But I also need order, and discipline, and – most of all – I need lieutenants who do what I say when I give them instructions and anticipate what I need when I don't!"
Faramir's voice had risen as he spoke, and the curtain would not be enough to stop his words carrying out and around the cave. Mablung sat and stared at the ground, and seethed. Faramir looked at him for a few, long moments, and then picked up the report and handed it to him.
"This needs to be ready by the morning," he said. "Get it done, Mablung – and do it properly this time."
After almost three hours, Damrod put down his bow again and rubbed his hands across his face. He was still hot, and now he was panicking. Beside him, Haldar too looked hot – and murderous.
"If I told you that we've just come round in a big circle, would you thump me?" the boy risked.
Haldar didn't answer.
"What are we going to do now?" Damrod persisted. "Whoever he is, he's run circles round us – and I mean circles—"
"Shut up and let me think."
The long, futile afternoon weighed upon them both.
"We should have gone back up the line," Damrod said, shaking his head. "The minute we saw the tracks – we should have gone back up the line and let them pass the word back. Like we're told to. Who knows where he is now?"
"Well, we can't mend that, can we? So we'd better get the news back as quick as possible." Haldar wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Come on, lad, pick your bow up. We've a way to walk yet."
There was a moment's pause, then the quiet command, "Come in."
Mablung took a deep breath and went in. The captain was bent over his desk, writing. He looked up, and raised an eyebrow.
"Mablung. You can't possibly have done that report in so little time," he said. "Which means I can't possibly be pleased to see you. What's happened?"
"You'd better come and see, sir."
The captain looked down at the piece of paper before him, tapped it with his pen, then stood up.
"The pool, captain."
They walked out of the chamber, up the stairs to the landing, and took the left-hand steps all in silence, coming out onto the ledge by the fall. The water crashed beside them, but the spray from it brought Mablung no relief. The sentry on duty there gestured towards the edge, and Mablung and Faramir went and looked over.
Down in the pool below, there was a man, swimming.
The captain made a slight, unfathomable sound at the back of his throat. Then he turned on his lieutenant.
"Get him," he said, his voice as icy as the water falling by them. "I want to talk to him."
Mablung turned and raced back inside. As he reached the rock-chamber, he came upon Haldar and Damrod, red-faced and breathless.
"You two..." he snarled. "I'd make yourselves scarce if I were you," – but it was far too late.
"Ah," Faramir cut in from behind him. "I think I have an idea now what might have gone wrong."
About two hours later, Faramir stood up, and straightened the black-and-silver clasp holding his cloak in place. Then he walked a few steps away from his seat, picked up a water bottle, and drank half of the contents. It was, Mablung thought, the very first sign the captain had given all day that he had even noticed the heat.
Their visitor watched him nervously. "Any chance of a sip of that?" he said, licking dry lips, and with a weak laugh.
Faramir ignored him and sat down again. He spent a moment or two examining first the palms and then the backs of his hands, then he set them flat upon his knees and looked up.
"Let us go through this one more time," he said softly. And hearing him, and despite the day, Mablung shivered.
"Why were you on the eastern bank?" the captain said, again.
The man sighed. "I had a long trip ahead of me up the river. I saw what I thought was a deer moving in the forest, and decided to go after it, for provisions. So I pitched the boat up on the eastern bank, and headed after it. You can go and find the boat if you want."
"I am quite certain I would find the boat. What were you doing on the river in the first place?"
The man's shoulders slumped. "How many more times? I trade in furs. I was bringing them up to Anórien for a market."
"Is there much of a market for furs in this weather?"
The man blinked at him. "What?"
"I don't think it's escaped your attention that it's a warm day today. Is there much call for furs in Anórien in August?"
The man stared back as if the captain had turned into a madman. He waved his hand about vaguely. "You have to cure them – it takes time, and then they're ready for the winter months... Did you really want to know about the fur trade?"
"I want to know what brought you to Ithilien today."
"I followed a deer into the forest, I got lost, I wandered around for hours, then I found that pool, and then your men dragged me up here!"
Faramir leaned back almost comfortably in his chair, stretching his legs out before him, and bringing his hand to rest on the hilt of the knife at his belt.
"Now my difficulty with your account, you must understand, is this. You tell me that you are an ordinary tradesman, plying his wares up and down the river. And yet you cross that river and then walk – seemingly unerringly – across fifteen miles of abandoned terrain, straight to our most secret refuge."
"But I thought there was a settlement – there were tracks all over the place, leading right here!"
Mablung winced to himself at this. What was it the captain had said earlier? The old hands are put together and the new men struggle on unaided. Fifty half-trained men blundering round north Ithilien for the best part of a month. The wonder was that the refuge hadn't been found sooner.
But if the captain was thinking the same, he certainly wasn't showing it.
"You said before that you have traded between Anórien and Lossanarch for a score of years," Faramir said. "Have you known Ithilien to be settled in your lifetime?"
"I was lost – I was just hoping to find someone...!" The man put his head in his hands. "Please... it is so hot... I am so thirsty... can I not have some water?"
Faramir turned his head slightly to the right and nodded at Damrod, who was standing there, who had been standing there throughout. The lad's face was ashen, but he poured some water into a cup and handed it over to the man with a steady hand. Must remember to pat him on the back for that later, Mablung thought. After I've torn strips off him.
The man took the cup and drained it thankfully.
"I've told you the truth," he said at last, staring into the empty cup. "All that I've said – it's the truth. I'd not be much of a spy if I let myself get caught, would I?"
"In point of fact," replied the captain, sitting up again and folding his arms, "you did a very good job of evading capture for quite some time."
"You won't believe a word I say, will you?" He looked up at Faramir with sudden understanding in his eyes. "You can't. There's naught I can say, is there?"
Faramir did not reply.
"You're not going to let me leave here, are you?"
Faramir looked him straight in the eye.
"No," he said. "No, I'm not."
A clear sky, no clouds and no moon. Someone, somewhere, would be calling it a fine night.
"Sir, the captain's on his way out."
"What the... blazes does he want now?"
Mablung hurried back towards the entrance to the refuge. Sure enough, Faramir was there. He was still cloaked, and now he was wearing gloves.
Mablung stepped forward and blocked the way out. The captain was taller, but the lieutenant was broader.
"Step aside, lieutenant."
Mablung shook his head. "Captain," he said, "this isn't your job. That's not how it's done. We've drawn lots, the men have been picked who'll do it. That's how it's done."
Faramir stared back at him. "Mistakes have been made," he answered. "And the responsibility for that lies with me—"
"It's not your job, captain. It wouldn't be right. It wouldn't be seemly."
"Seemly?" he hissed. "We're about to... I'm about to have a man hanged!"
Mablung frowned. There were others almost within earshot. He steadied his voice, reminding himself of the captain's age. "Aye, sir, that's right," he said gently, "but the officer gives the order, he doesn't do the job. Your last commander, sir, would he have done it?"
"No," Faramir replied, after a moment, more quietly. "No, he wouldn't."
Faramir looked past him, out into the night. A faint flush was rising up his throat. In this heat, Mablung thought, ice has to crack at some point.
"This is how it's done, captain," he said again firmly.
Still looking beyond him, and very slowly, Faramir began to take off his gloves. When he was finished, he tucked them carefully into his belt. Then he turned to face Mablung again. "Very well," he said, composed once more. "Carry on, please, lieutenant." He turned and withdrew into the refuge. Mablung watched him go, and then went back to the night's work.
The night was airless. Faramir lit his lamp, took off his cloak, and threw it and his gloves onto the bed. He thought about joining them there, but instead he removed his sword, propped it up against the wall, and applied himself to making some tea. Then he eased himself back behind his desk to finish the task left undone earlier that afternoon. He read back as far as he had written—
To my lord and father Denethor son of Ecthelion Lord Steward of Gondor, my fealty and greetings—
He took a sip of tea, and picked up his pen once more.
I enclose with this letter a full account of the company – the changes made over the last month and the situation as it now stands. In summary – preparations are well underway for the arrival of the new men within the coming weeks, and I await further news of them.
He stopped and chewed at the pen for a moment of two before continuing.
In addition, the value of my new defensive strategy has already been proven.
I remain somewhat uneasy about the current and future provisioning of the company and would request that more imperishable food be made available to us.
I trust that all within will meet with your satisfaction. I trust also that this letter finds you in good health and I remain, sir, your most obedient servant and son—
Faramir Captain of the Rangers of Ithilien
He set the letter aside, and drew out one that he had thought finished earlier, unfolded it, and added a postscript to the end of the final sheet.
Night of the same—
Brother – I have heeded all of your advice and have followed your example. Be proud of me. From this day on, I command in Ithilien.
He put down his pen and, while he waited for the ink to dry, fanned himself slowly with a blank sheet of paper. It moved a little warm air across his face. Then he folded the letters, sealed them, and set them to one side, ready to be sent out the next morning.
The day's business was now done.
He stood up from his desk, stretched, and then went over to the little copper bowl that had been set out for him. He washed the ink from his hands and then splashed his face gratefully.
He looked behind him, and saw the shadow of a figure standing just beyond the curtains. He reached for a cloth and dried himself quickly.
"Come in," he said, throwing the cloth over the back of his chair.
Mablung entered, warily. Something seemed different about him, Faramir thought, but he could not put his finger on what it was.
"Sorry to disturb you, sir," Mablung said. "I thought you might like to check how the stocktaking was going."
Should I even contemplate the list of things I would rather be doing on a summer's night? Faramir thought. Although I should be thankful for small mercies. It does edge in just above writing to my father.
"Thank you, yes," he said in reply. He reached for his sword belt and then nodded towards his desk. "Do you want some tea?" he said.
"There's another cup up there on the shelf with the books. Help yourself," Faramir said, and buckled on his belt. Then he picked up his own mug, and drew back the curtain. Mablung came to stand beside him, holding a cup, and they looked out across the refuge.
To the untrained eye, it would have looked like chaos. Most of the boxes that usually lined the chamber were open, and their contents strewn about. But the movement of the men suggested that there was method at work. Nearest to him, positioned rather ostentatiously, Faramir thought, someone was busily counting loaves of bread.
"I know it looks a mess, sir," Mablung said, a little fretfully, "but they do know what they're doing."
"I can see that."
They stood there for a while – watching the men, drinking the tea. For a brief moment, Faramir considered asking – and then he dismissed the idea. The day's business was done. He leaned his shoulder against the wall of the cave and looked sideways at his lieutenant – and then it struck him what it was about the other man that had changed. Mablung's shirt was fastened at the neck, and his sleeves were rolled down.
Faramir raised his cup to his mouth, and smiled into his tea.
A/N: Thank you to Dwimordene and Celandine for the challenges, and to Isabeau and Alawa for reading the drafts. Profuse apologies to Alawa that heads did not in the end roll. And thank you to Mr A. for letting me track him around the kitchen.
Altariel, 6-11 June 2003