Afterwards, Bron insisted that it had not been a fair fight.
"That does not count as a win!"
Déor had some sympathy with his cousin on this point, since Bron was, by virtue of his age and common knowledge, by far the better fencer – painstaking in his study of the art and dedicated in his practice. Still, Déor could not help but admire his older brother's daring in dodging the well-judged thrust, ducking round Bron, and tripping him up from behind. There was more, too, for family honour had been amply satisfied at the sight of the heir of the king of Rohan standing astride the steward's son – two years his elder! – with one arm in the air, and the other holding the point of his practice sword to his cousin's throat. And here in Ithilien, no less! Swinging down from the fence and running alongside his father, Déor thought he heard him chuckling, but when he looked up, there was no sign of it on Éomer's face.
"That is not how it is supposed to be done!" Bron pulled himself onto his elbows and up from the ground. He was trying hard to laugh off the loss, but Déor could see he had flushed crimson.
Déor's uncle folded his arms. "Well, Bron," the steward replied, "he did not, I think, break any rules... Perhaps there is a lesson—" Son glared and father ceased speaking, raising his hands as if to ward off the boy's fury.
"I won," declared Elfwine, flourishing the sword about him, "fair – and – square!"
Déor watched their father beam at him.
"Square, maybe," Bron muttered.
"You need not be so disappointed, lad," Éomer said, putting a hand on his nephew's shoulder. "The same thing happened to your own father when he was a boy – only he was playing draughts."
The Steward of Gondor looked rather pained. "It was – as you well know – chess."
The King of Rohan gave his brother-in-law a smile that almost – but not quite – brimmed over. "As you will," he said generously, and then patted his nephew's shoulder. "Cheer up, Bron! You won't lose that way again!"
Bron looked over his shoulder to where Elfwine was now punching the air as part of his victory dance. "But I rather think," he said gloomily, "that I shall hear about this for a very long time to come."
By mid-morning, the truce was well in place. Mostly, Déor thought, because Bron had found his sense of humour again, and that despite his sister's glee when she had heard the tale.
"I wish I'd been there." Her eyes were sparkling wickedly, Déor noticed.
"Yes, well, it wasn't that exciting." Bron leaned back against the tree trunk, stretched his long legs out before him, and folded his arms.
"Oh no, Bron," she sighed, and her eyes now took on a regretful look. "A piece of family history, and I wasn't there to witness it."
"I'm sure," said the Steward's heir, sounding for all the world exactly like his father, "that you will learn to live with the disappointment."
Elfwine snorted. Bron leaned over and punched him on the arm. "As for you..." he added, laughing now himself. Elfwine favoured him with his wide and charming smile, his trademark.
Most of the previous year, the steward's elder son had been in Edoras. He had been a little lost at first, but within a few days he and Elfwine struck up the friendship that both their fathers had been privately hoping for. Bron – intense, dedicated, a little over-serious – had lightened measurably in his cousin's company. And Elfwine – used to being the star of his house – acquired a new concentration, hurrying to catch and keep up with the older boy. He had seemed to grow more quickly too, Déor thought wistfully. And even to talk differently, as if there were whole bits of conversation that Déor misheard, or didn't hear at all.
"When?" Elfwine was saying eagerly. "Tomorrow?"
When what? Déor looked round. The other three were clearly hatching some plot.
"Why not this afternoon?" Morwen said. "It's not that long a walk. Will father want you, Bron?"
"No, he said something about wanting some peace and quiet."
"Letting you off the hook while you're only just home?"
"I'm not complaining!" Then Bron frowned. "What about mother?"
"I," said Morwen, with a dangerous gleam in her eye, "can handle mother."
"Which could well be the least true thing you've ever said, Wen. Leave her to me. Better still – we'll send in Elfwine."
Brother and sister turned as one to inspect their cousin, as if to measure his worth for the trial ahead. Elfwine raised his chin and looked squarely back at them.
"What do you think, Bron? Can he survive?"
"Knowing him," Bron said dryly, "he'll charm half the pantry from her while he's at it."
"What's going on?" Déor said, tentatively.
"Hawks," Bron said, not entirely helpfully.
Elfwine rolled his eyes. "Keep up, Déor, can't you?"
But Morwen was smiling at him, grey eyes clear and kind. "There are hawks nesting up on one of the ridges just south of here. Do you want to see them?"
Déor's heart jumped in delight. "Yes, please!"
"Ah," said Bron, looking at him and biting his lip. "That might not be such a good idea..."
"Why ever not?" his sister said in surprise.
Elfwine glanced as his cousin. "Steep, is it?"
"Mm. Quite a bit of climbing."
"Oh." Déor dropped his head. "Never mind."
"What's the matter with that?" Morwen asked, confused at the turn the conversation had taken. She glanced at Elfwine for an explanation.
No! Don't say it!
"I'd rather not climb, that's all," Déor said quickly. Morwen frowned. She gave Bron a quick look, and then shrugged.
"Are you sure?" Elfwine asked, eyeing his little brother anxiously.
Déor sighed to himself. It they didn't go this afternoon, it would only be some other time. Once Elfwine had his heart set on something, he tended to get it. "There's plenty to do here," he said, hoping it sounded convincing. He was rewarded with a flash of the famous smile.
"Good! Thanks, Déor!" Elfwine jumped up. His cousin followed quickly and they headed towards the house. Déor stood up and kicked a stone. Then he felt an arm around his shoulder. He looked up. Morwen was smiling down at him.
"That was generous of you," she said softly. She glanced at the two figures hurrying away. "What is it," she said, with a too-dramatic sigh, "about firstborn sons?"
Elfwine did not charm half the pantry from his aunt, although it looked to Déor to be something close. "We should flee soon," Bron advised with a mutter. "All this maternal interest is making me nervous. She might ask to come with us."
And so they were gone with an eerie haste. Déor sped off himself to avoid his aunt's attentions falling on him – his father's sister scared him more than his father did. He hurried off into the famous gardens and wandered around for a little while, but the afternoon was getting hotter and, besides, one lawn looked very much like another. A butterfly danced past on black velvet wings and Déor trailed it until it flew out of sight over a high green hedge. Then he went along the hedge until he came to a gap and, with nothing better to do, he ducked through. He followed a little path some way until the hedges on either side opened out into a quiet little garden, shaded by trees, and with a pond at the centre. He went over to this, picked up a few stones, and dropped one into the water. It made a satisfying noise, and he saw the quick silver of a fish whisk away from him.
"On your own, Déor? Where have my ill-bred children slunk off to this afternoon, I wonder?"
Déor jumped and turned. At the other end of the garden, in the shade of a tree, sat his uncle. Déor looked guiltily at the stones in his hand.
"Would you care to join me?" the steward asked politely.
Biting his lip, Déor nodded, and approached his uncle cautiously. The steward had set up a makeshift office for himself out here, it seemed. There was a large pile of papers before him, weighed down with a slim, red leather-bound book. He had some papers spread across his knee, and a pen in one hand.
"Am I disturbing you, sir?" Déor liked his uncle, but hadn't Bron said something about him wanting peace and quiet? His own father would not be pleased to hear he had been plaguing the steward while he was busy.
"Well," said Faramir, with a sigh, "In all truth, I wouldn't mind the interruption..." He put down his pen and flexed his hand. "Come and sit down." He patted the grass next to him. The steward didn't issue commands as such, Déor thought, but there was something about the way he said things that you seemed to end up doing what he suggested.
"So," Faramir said, after they had spent a moment or two sizing each other up, "where are my errant children?" He curled the corner of a piece of paper around his finger.
"They went for a walk in the hills. Elfwine too. Some hawks are nesting up there."
His uncle frowned. "Is Léof with them?"
Léof – the baby of the steward's family... no, Déor thought, he knew how he hated it when he was described that way, and Léof must be eight or nine now... "No... I don't know where he is."
"Hm." Faramir's eyes narrowed for a second or two. "Well, Déor, from your expression, I would think you are someone who would rather be watching hawks than stoning fish."
Déor blushed and quickly put the handful of pebbles down. "Sorry, sir."
His uncle gave him a half-smile. "I do it myself. Helps me think," he confided. "Did you not want to go with your brother and cousins?" The question came out so rapidly that before he knew it, Déor had blurted back, "I'm not very good with heights."
"Oh," said his uncle. "Oh, I see. That is unlucky." He seemed, Déor thought, not to mind about it, although he said no more straight away. "Well," he murmured, finally, and looking back down at his papers, "sometimes that is just how things are." He shifted one of the pages to the front. "Myself, I'm not very good with swords."
Déor wasn't sure what he meant by that – but he didn't ask, because it was always quite clear when his uncle didn't want to talk any longer. But since he didn't seem to mind having Déor near him while he carried on reading, Déor stayed sitting beside him on the grass, leaning against his arm and reading over his shoulder.
"Are you following this?" his uncle asked suddenly, tapping the page.
"They're petitions, aren't they?" Déor said. "People from the East settling on the northern borders of Ithilien. They want to stay there."
"That's right," murmured Faramir. "Now," he said, smoothing his hand over the paper, "I have received a lot of counsel on this matter. Your father, for one, worries about the threat these people pose."
"Because of the wars we won against them," Déor said quickly. "They might want revenge." He looked at the uppermost sheet again. It asked for the steward's protection and promised loyalty.
"Indeed... But when I met with their leaders – elders, they call them, they came here to Emyn Arnen last winter – they said that it was those wars that brought them here. That they were looking for somewhere to live in peace. That perhaps we owed them a place to live in peace." Faramir tapped the paper with his fingers. Déor looked up. The steward was frowning, his lips pursed thin. He looked at Déor again. "What should I do, Déor? Grant them the land? Force them to go back? Should I trust them or mistrust them? They are on my northern borders – and your father's eastern borders."
Déor fidgeted nervously. "Did you trust them when you met them?" he offered at last.
Faramir did not answer straight away. "The sight of the White City awed them, certainly," he said, more to himself.
"Have you been up to their settlements?" Déor asked. "That's what father would do, I'm sure. Ride out there and look at the settlements. I mean," he continued, finding his courage, "There'd be reports from his marshals and from... well, agents, spies, you know..." he shot his uncle a look, guessed that Faramir probably did know, "but he would certainly go and have a look. Then he'd make up his mind."
His uncle had raised one eyebrow. Déor ducked his head down again. "Sorry, sir."
"No," Faramir replied. "Good advice. Your father said much the same. My guard, however, beg to differ." He jerked his thumb behind him and, turning, Déor saw for the first time the figure of a man standing just beyond the trees and the hedge of the garden. "Too far, they claim," Faramir said. "Too risky."
He closed the topic by pulling out another sheet of paper and handing it to Déor. "Can you read this?"
"Mostly..." It was in Elvish. "Mother insists we learn."
"Showing very good sense," his uncle replied. "Do you like studying it?"
"Yes, I do – but Elfwine is better."
"Elfwine is also two years your elder."
"A year and a half," Déor said, a little bitterly.
His uncle looked at him thoughtfully, and then gave a wry smile. "It's hard, isn't it, to be just a little bit behind all the time? It was the same for me with my brother."
"Do you have an older brother?" Déor said in surprise. "Why isn't he the steward?" and then he wondered if it was possible for him to have said anything more stupid.
"I did have an older brother," his uncle said quietly. "But he died..." He roused himself and smiled at his nephew. "He died," he said, firmly, "A long time ago. But he was very brave – he died doing a very brave thing. When we were young, people would often compare us, in his favour. I didn't much mind, because often it was true. But it could be maddening at times, from some people."
Someone was approaching. Faramir looked up, and smiled. "Speaking of second sons..." Léof thudded down at his father's other side.
"How is your day, Léof?" his father asked, reaching out to brush a blond strand of hair from the boy's forehead.
"Hot," he muttered, batting at his father's teasing hand, but leaning against him.
"Mmm... then why don't you show Déor where the stream comes into the West Garden?" Léof looked up with interest, round his father and at his cousin.
"Best place to be," Léof offered.
A stream... now that had possibilities...
A bird screamed overhead, cutting through the afternoon heat. Déor looked up quickly, but couldn't see it clearly enough. His shoulders dropped.
"It was just a gull," his uncle said gently. "They come up the river all the time."
Déor sighed and stood up. "I think I'll go back inside," he said, then glanced down at his baby cousin. "Thanks anyway."
He heard a great deal about the hawks the following morning, since they naturally formed the chief topic of conversation between his brother and his cousins. After Elfwine and Bron had finished their morning practice (Bron victorious throughout, and with a distinctly vengeful gleam in his eye), they spread out on the lawn at the east wing of the house.
Déor wondered for a moment where Léof was – he hadn't seen him since breakfast. But he had other things on his mind this morning – second-hand accounts of the birds being better than none at all – and he was still puzzling over much that his uncle had said the previous day. Déor didn't for a moment think he knew better than his uncle on the matter, but it seemed to him that a trip north was the only way for his uncle to put his mind at rest. It was what his father would do. And it was what his uncle wanted to do, plainly. So why were his guard so against it? And why did they keep so close, even here, in the shelter of the house in Emyn Arnen?
A beetle was crawling along a blade of grass near his hand. Déor plucked another bit of grass and coaxed the beetle onto it, then took pity and sent it back scurrying on its way.
"What did your father mean," he asked, tying the grass into a knot, "When he told me that he wasn't very good with swords?"
There was no answer. Déor looked up at his brother and his cousins.
Morwen was staring at him. Elfwine looked horrified. And, worst of all, there was a hard edge to the set of Bron's jaw. Déor felt himself redden. He was not sure why or how, but once again, it seemed he had said the wrong thing.
Morwen spoke first. "Father said that to you?"
Déor nodded. "He said it... he said it yesterday," he stammered to her. "And I thought... I thought, well, that I never had seen him... with a sword, I mean, which is strange because everyone always says how he's so brave..."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Bron had gone scarlet. Then his cousin stood up, glared down at him for an angry moment, and then turned and stalked off towards the house.
Elfwine jumped to his feet. "Sometimes, Déor," he said through his teeth, "you can be an idiot." He hurried off after his cousin.
Déor stared down sorrowfully at the grass. When he dared raise his eyes again, Morwen was still looking at him, thoughtfully.
"Did father really say that?"
He nodded. Morwen stared towards the house.
"Well," she said at last, looking back at her cousin, her lips twisting into an odd smile, "aren't you the favourite?"
Déor didn't answer.
"He never used to say anything about it at all," Morwen said. "I guessed and Bron being Bron had to ask... I think mother may have explained to Léof, but you know what Léof's like, I imagine he guessed it all too but hasn't bothered to mention it yet. He'll give us his considered opinion at breakfast one morning when none of us are expecting it."
She gave Déor a sidelong look. "None of us mind, you know," she said. "You do understand that, don't you? It's just how father is."
"But I don't understand," Déor said unhappily. "I don't understand at all."
Morwen twisted her mouth again, but the smile had faded now. "Father was a soldier once, Déor, did you know that? A captain. A great captain," she said. "But the war... it cost them all dearly – my mother and father, your father, everyone – but with father..." she frowned. "It wore him out, Déor. He did all that he was able, and now he can do no more. Do you understand that?"
Peace – and quiet... "I think so..." he said slowly.
"Good," she said firmly. "And don't pay any attention to Bron," she added, her voice kinder. "He thinks too much about honour and family and all that kind of thing." She waved her hand vaguely. "And he worries he doesn't show father enough respect when anyone with a grain of sense can see he worships the ground father walks on." She grinned at him. "He'll be mortified later that he was rude to a guest, and he won't know how to make it up to you."
Déor did not wait to find out. He hurried off away from the house and hid for a while in one of the little walled gardens that were dotted around the grounds, and thought sorrowfully of how angry both Bron and Elfwine had looked. Not even the thought of Morwen's words made him feel better – she had talked to him as if he were a child still.
Not good with swords. That wasn't quite true, Déor thought. Not if he had once been a great captain. No longer good with swords, that was more what it was like. And a man who was no longer good with a sword would have to keep people near him who were...
Lost in pursuit of such thoughts, an hour or so passed before Déor came out of his hideaway and considered the house. His cheeks felt hot, and he strongly suspected that his eyes were red too. The house was not an option, not yet. Where else? He looked around the grounds, and felt fenced in...
The stream. His uncle said it came into the garden – which meant also that it went out... Fired by this new purpose, Déor set off.
He found it easily and, being a little on the small side for his age, had soon wriggled through the fencing that was meant to seal the way into the grounds – and the way out. The stream dipped downwards into a valley, and there were woods on the other side. The water looked a little deep here, and so Déor followed its course downwards, along a rough but well-trodden path.
His heart lifted. The grounds of the house had been too enclosed. He did not dare stay out too long – there would be trouble if he was missed. He decided he would make a quick foray into the woods and then come back. Half an hour? As much as an hour? If his absence was noticed in that time, he could say he had been in one of the little gardens – that wouldn't be a lie, not as such...
Deep in consideration of his plans, Déor did not notice in time the man ahead of him on the pathway until he had walked into him. The man swung round, raising an arm in defence. It was, Déor saw in astonishment, his uncle.
They looked at each other, guiltily. Then Déor frowned. "Where's your guard?" he said.
Faramir blinked at him. Déor put his hand over his mouth and his eyes widened in horror.
But Faramir began to laugh. "I gave him the slip," he confessed. "He's not yet worked out how I do it. He'll be furious with me later. But I am of the opinion that if I cannot walk the hills of Emyn Arnen by myself, I can hardly call myself its lord." He studied his nephew. "What brings you here?"
Déor chewed on his lip and mulled over the quarrel earlier and how much he could safely say. He didn't want to add to his troubles if he could help it. But his uncle spoke first.
"Did you want a little peace and quiet too?" Déor nodded. His uncle gave a wry smile and then looked around. "Do you want to see the hawks?" he offered. "I've been watching them all summer. If we cut across the stream and into the woods, we can climb a little higher and see from there. Not as close as the other spot, but easier to reach. My cliff-scaling days are long since gone."
Déor didn't think that was true – his uncle was a fit man – but he appreciated the kindness. "Please!" he said eagerly.
"Well then. So we're both saved – saved each other. I came out to take you to look at the birds." His uncle nodded to Déor to follow, and the boy scurried to keep up.
They went along in comfortable silence, and Déor remembered again that one of the things he liked best about his uncle was that there was no unnecessary talking. You could just walk alongside him and think, and not be asked what it was that you were thinking about, as if thinking itself was a reasonable enough way to spend your time. And when he did decide to talk, it was always to say something interesting.
"My grandfather – your great-grandfather – kept hawks," he said, as they made their way across the stream, his uncle striding easily from stone to stone, as Déor jumped just behind him.
"You can train them to hunt. Grandfather loved them – I remember the first time he let me handle one. I was a little younger than you are now. It came to perch on my hand. Its eyes were like gemstones and it glared at me as if I were its mortal enemy. Terrifying. Beautiful." His eyes took on a distant look, lost for a moment in the memory. "Although I never did acquire the taste for blood sports," he mused, then shrugged. "Ask your grandfather about it all when you're next down by the Sea. He can tell you more, I'm sure."
They made their way through the trees, the ground climbing steadily. Déor told his uncle about his last visit to Dol Amroth and Faramir smiled at his tales. "I miss them all," he said simply. "I must take the family back there soon."
The trees had thinned out and the grass underfoot was coarse and overgrown. The sun was at its highest. Faramir struck out on a path through the scrub, grass that had been flattened down by use into a path. They were still heading uphill. It was at least quarter of an hour before he stopped, and pointed back down the way they had come. The woods and the stream were spread out below, and Déor could see the house and the township beyond.
"Just a little further," Faramir murmured and, when they set off again, they were no longer climbing, but walking along the contours of the hill. When Déor looked back, the house and the valley were out of sight.
Instead, the foothills of Emyn Arnen lay before them. Déor looked further on, further west, into the valley of the Anduin. The haze of the summer heat lay on the ships in the port and, beyond, sunlight was pouring down on the mountains and all the spires and domes of Minas Tirith.
"The White City," said Faramir, as if offering him a gift. Déor took his hand and smiled up at him. "And quickly! Look!" his uncle said, and pointed up the hill behind them.
A dark shape swooped, and then Déor could make out what it was – yes, there it was and there they were on the ridge above – a frenzy of feathers and sharp, resolute beaks and claws. As he watched them, Déor's heart soared with sheer joy. He turned in delight to his uncle. Faramir too was gazing up at the birds, and smiling.
They found a wide ledge on the side of the hill, and sat down there, admiring the view. Faramir produced some bread and cheese from the pouch on his belt and, after they had eaten, he stretched back on the grass and dozed in the afternoon heat. Déor lay on his front, legs crossed behind him and chin in his hands, and watched the city, storing up questions for his uncle about each tower that caught his attention. A hawk swooped past, and Déor caught a glimpse of something in its claws, its quarry.
After an hour or so, Faramir opened his eyes suddenly.
"Did you hear something?" he said.
Déor shook his head. "Only the birds."
Faramir frowned. "I suppose it was that. Well," he said, leaning up on his elbow and smiling at his nephew, "we should get back, I think, before they send the hounds out in search of us."
He stood up, shoved his hands through his hair, and then turned his head suddenly. The frown had come back, and he was listening intently. He smiled at Déor again, but Déor could catch the worry beneath.
"I think..." began his uncle, and then stopped and listened. He took Déor's hand. "Let's... walk on round the hill a little way, Déor." His grasp was firm, and Déor had to scramble a little to keep in step with him.
"Wait here," his uncle said, after they had gone a little way. "I'll only be a few minutes."
"Is something the matter?" Déor said.
"I hope not." His uncle gave him a quick smile. "A few minutes, that's all." He went off back round the path.
He was as good as his word but, when he returned, the frown was fixed in place. "Come on," he said, taking his hand again. "We need to go higher up." His uncle set a quick pace again, and as they hurried along, Déor noticed that the ground was getting stonier and the path steeper and narrower. He reached his hand out to balance himself by touching the rock rising alongside him, and he concentrated hard on his uncle's back.
After five or ten minutes, Faramir stopped, turned, and bent down, coming face to face with his nephew.
"Déor, I'm going to have to ask you to do something now that you're not going to like." His eyes were serious. "Just a few yards ahead," he said, "the path ends, and there's a ledge there. On the other side, it widens out again, like the place where we stopped and ate. The rangers use it as a place to camp, and it's safe up there. Hardly anyone knows it's there." Faramir looked behind, quickly, and then pushed a hand through his hair. "It's a narrow ledge, Déor – but we're not safe here. Can you do it?"
Déor felt himself go cold. He stared down at the ground and thought of saying, I'd rather die. I'd rather stay here, and die... and then he felt his chin being lifted. Faramir was staring into his eyes.
"I'll try," Déor heard himself say.
"That's all I ask."
The ledge was a few inches wide. Déor did not dare to look and see how far the drop was. His uncle went first and, although it seemed only a few moments before he was across, he could not reach far enough to hold Déor's hand as he made his own attempt.
Déor put one foot on the ledge.
"That's right," his uncle coaxed.
He reached out a hand, and put it against the rock. It felt solid enough. Emboldened, he put his other foot onto the ledge and then, very slowly, with the rough stone pressed against his cheek and beneath his fingers, he inched his way towards his uncle's voice.
For an age, all seemed well. And then, all of a sudden, Déor pictured the view they had seen from the ledge – the long drop down into the valley, the sheer mountains looming ahead, the swirling blue of the sky when he'd twisted his head to look at the birds... He froze.
"Take my hand, Déor!"
He grabbed out blindly, felt his uncle grasp his hand and pull him across. He fell on him, and a few sobs came out before he could stop them. Faramir stroked his hair and whispered soothingly.
"What's happening?" Déor gulped. "Why are we here?" He gazed around, slowly taking in his new surroundings. As his uncle had said, the path had widened out again. They were high up, but not near the edge. There were some packs leaning against the rock, and one or two boxes.
"The men further down the hill are Easterlings," Faramir said. "And I am not sure they mean us well." He stroked the boy's hair again. "I don't want to put you in danger, Déor. We'll stay here for a while, and then I'll go and find out how we can get past them and go home." He let go of the boy gently, and then went over and opened the lid of one of the boxes. "We can't do anything till it starts to get dark. I think that you should try to get some sleep."
The boy nodded. The climb had exhausted him. He lay down on his side, and watched his uncle draw out a blanket and roll it up. He gave it to Déor to use as a pillow, rested his hand on the boy's head for a moment, then withdrew. The last thing Déor saw before he closed his eyes was his uncle, sitting by him, chin in his hands, staring at the ground and lost in thought somewhere.
Déor opened his eyes to see a sky that had become dark blue. He shivered a little. It was the very edge of the day; the evening was about to turn into night. He heard a movement, and twisted his head up.
A yard or two away from him, his uncle was testing the weight and feel of a sword. He swung it around a few times, the fading light catching on it, and then he sheathed it, carefully. He bent down and picked up a knife, shifted it from hand to hand, and then set it in place in the belt at his waist. And then, suddenly, he looked up, straight at Déor.
"Déor," he said softly. "I didn't know you were awake."
Déor sat up and rubbed his knuckles into his eyes. He stared at the sword at his uncle's side. "Are we going, sir?"
Faramir came to kneel beside him. Déor was used to his uncle looking serious, sometimes even forbidding, but his face now was graver than Déor had ever seen it. He sat up even straighter, and looked solemnly back.
"Déor," his uncle said, "what I am about to say is very important, and you must swear that whatever I tell you to do, you will obey me. Do you swear, Déor?"
"I swear," Déor replied, hoping that he did not sound more than a little scared.
"Good." Faramir set both his hands upon Déor's shoulders. "I'm going back down the hill now, Déor. But it may... it may go ill for me, and I may not be able to return."
Déor opened his mouth, but Faramir stopped him before he could speak. "Listen to me," he said. His voice was quiet but very firm, the kind of voice that you could not help but obey. "If the dawn comes, and I have not come back, then you are to wait until the sun stands high in the sky, and then you are to leave here. Go back to the house, and tell them there what has happened."
"What about the ledge?" Déor whispered, before he could stop himself, and hated himself for asking.
Faramir touched the boy's cheek very gently with the backs of his fingers, and smiled. "You came across here once, Déor," he said. "The first time is always the hardest. Hardest, because we don't believe we can. And then we do it anyway."
He pulled the boy to him for a moment, then drew back, and gave him a wide and sudden smile. "Try not to worry, Déor! Be patient. And I'll try to be back soon." He gave the boy a swift kiss on the top of his head, and then he was gone, behind the rock and out onto the ledge.
Déor sat for a while and watched it get darker. It got colder too, and he pulled his knees up against his chest, and wrapped the blanket around himself. He listened hard, but all he could hear was the wind murmuring.
An owl hooted. Déor jerked awake. He had dozed off, and did not know for how long, but it was full dark now. The stars had come out, and a three-quarter moon – some cloud passed across it. He could still hear nothing other than the soft sounds of the night. He felt stiff and cold and sore. He stretched out on his side and told himself he would stay awake, and listen, and wait. And – because he was tired and perhaps, he admitted to himself, a little frightened – he slept again within seconds, and dreamt of his brother and his cousin, fighting with their swords but not, this time, at play.
He felt strong arms holding him, and he struggled against them as he woke. And then he heard the soft voice, the one that you listened to: "Ssshh...! Don't be afraid...!" Forgetting his age, he threw his arms about his uncle, fearful that this was another of his dreams and that Faramir would disappear once more.
He looked up. He could just see his uncle's face, pale in the moonlight; pale, but harshly shadowed. His eyes were bright and intense. And then he smiled down at Déor, and everything seemed better again. Déor sighed and held him, and his uncle rumpled his hair. "Sleeping as soon as you get the chance, Déor?" he said. "You'd make a good ranger."
"Can we go home?" Déor whispered, to Faramir's chest.
"I hope so," replied Faramir, helping him stand up, "We're certainly going to try." He took the boy's hands in his and began to rub them. "But we're not quite safe yet. There's still a man down there, and we need to get past him." Déor felt his hands warming, and his uncle's too. "Think we can do it?"
"Good! So do I." Faramir released one hand and made to move off.
"We're going now...?"
Faramir looked down at him and nodded.
"But..." Déor swallowed. "But it's dark..."
"Which means we have less chance of being seen."
"I can't..." He nodded towards the ledge.
"Yes, you can," Faramir said firmly. "I'll go first – I'll talk to you as you cross, you can follow my voice—"
"No!" He thought of his uncle going on ahead, of something happening to him – if he slipped, or if there was someone waiting on the other side... "I don't want to be left here again." His voice sounded small.
Faramir pressed his hand. "We'll do it your way then, Déor."
The darkness, Déor thought, as he made his way across, might even help rather than hinder. He couldn't see down. But he could picture down and he couldn't he see how far he had to go and the night breeze seemed to whip against his skin. He kept his cheek pressed to the rock, and inched his feet along step by slow step. Behind him, Faramir whispered encouragements.
The first time is the hardest.
Gulping for air, Déor reached the other side. He scrambled into safety and slid down onto the ground. Faramir sat down and held the boy to him. "Well done," he said, very quietly. "Well done."
They sat there for a little while, and when Déor was ready, they began to make their way quietly down the hill, Faramir in front. Déor tried to see in his mind how it had been in the bright light of the afternoon. The path was steep and narrow at first, and Faramir took Déor's hand in his own again. As their descent levelled out, Déor realized they were coming close to the place where they had eaten and looked at the White City.
Faramir stopped and, turning to look at Déor, put his finger to his lips, and pointed. Déor could see the glow of what he guessed was firelight.
Faramir took a step forward. A voice called out.
"Are you going to come out before dawn, ranger?"
Faramir leaned down close to Déor's ear and whispered to him. "Stay here – and stay silent."
"Or do I have to come and get you out?" the voice called to them again.
Faramir stood up and walked towards the fire. Déor could only see his back but, shuffling forward an inch or two and craning his neck, he could see the other man quite clearly in the flickering light. An Easterling. He would have known if his uncle had not said. His father had described them many times.
"You!" the man said, recognizing the Steward.
Faramir raised his palm in greeting. "Bór son of Borlad," he said calmly, but from where he was, Déor could see the tension across his shoulders. "What brings you so far south, to Emyn Arnen? Do you bring a message from your father?"
Bór gave a harsh laugh. "You and he had, I thought, much in common."
"We both seek peace for our peoples. Between our peoples." Faramir had dropped his arms straight by his side, Déor noticed. His voice was calm, measured.
"Peace? After all the West has done?"
Faramir shook his head. "We did not bring war to you—"
"Aye, but you finished it!"
"You allied yourselves with the Enemy and brought war to the gates of my City. I wish for peace, and I would give your people aid in their need – but I will protect my own."
Bór's hand went to the hilt of his sword. "And what did you do with my man? He is dead, yes?"
"Yes." Faramir paused. "I cut his throat," he said.
Bór gave a bitter laugh. "As a gesture of peace?—what was that?" Bór jerked his head to look past Faramir, at the place where Déor was hiding. Faramir did not move.
Déor clapped his hand over his mouth. He hadn't thought his gasp would carry, but he had not been able to stop himself. He could not believe what he had just heard. So that was where Faramir had gone earlier – and that was what he had done. His uncle – his quiet and gentle uncle – had crept up behind a man and cut his throat.
Bór tightened his hand around the hilt of his sword. "Why don't you come out too, ranger?" he called. Déor watched Faramir's back grow even tauter.
"Or shall I kill this one and then come for you?"
He is no good with swords.
Panic-stricken, Déor jumped up and ran out, into the firelight. "Don't!" he cried.
It was suddenly very quiet on the hillside. Bór stared at Déor and then looked at Faramir. "Is this your son?" he said.
"No," Faramir replied quietly.
"Not your son. Whose, then?" Bór stared at Déor and took a step towards him, catlike. He still had his hand upon his sword. Faramir shifted his weight, just enough to put himself between them.
"Let us pass, Bór," he said. "Let me take the boy home."
"He could be your son – I saw that Northern bitch you wed—"
Faramir shook his head. "There's no need for this—"
"He is Northern... Rohirric?" A glitter of comprehension lit Bór's eyes. "How much is he worth, I wonder?"
"To me?" said Faramir. "Enough." He drew his sword.
Later, it was the sounds Déor would remember best – the clash of blade against blade; Bór's scornful laugh as he realized how easily he had the upper hand; his uncle's gasps as he struggled to keep up with the other man's blows... Then, as Bór raised his sword to deliver the death blow, there was a clatter as Faramir threw his own sword aside, a crunch of bone when he stepped in and smashed his forearm into Bór's face, a low moan as his knife went into Bór's back – and then the exultant yell as Faramir wrenched the blade back out and let Bór's body fall down onto the ground.
Then everything went quiet, just ragged breathing, and a pounding in Déor's ears.
Faramir stooped and wiped the knife on the grass. He reached to retrieve the sword, and sheathed it. Then he turned to Déor. They looked at each other for a moment, and then Faramir walked slowly towards him. He knelt down before him and reached out to touch his nephew's face, but his hand was smeared in blood. Déor flinched. Faramir dropped it quickly, wiped it against himself, and then grasped Déor's hands in his. It helped, Déor noticed, with the shaking, but Faramir's fingernails were still edged red.
"There were two of them," Déor said. "You cut the other one's throat."
"I couldn't beat two. Twenty years ago, yes. Not now." The firelight was casting strange shadows on his face.
"You said you wanted peace."
"And I did. But he didn't. He wanted us dead." Faramir drew in a lungful of night air. "I'm sorry, Déor..." he said, and then stopped. When he spoke again his breathing had levelled out. "What you've just seen... Bron, and your brother... they'll have to see it too – and worse – soon enough. I would have saved you from it for a while yet – a long while yet." He raised his hand and touched Déor's cheek, very gently. "Don't wish for it, Déor. It will come soon enough."
Déor shivered in the night's chill, and then reached out for his uncle, who reached to hold him back.
"And you told me that you were no good with heights," his uncle said, his voice muffled with his face pressed against the top of his nephew's head.
"You told me you were no good with swords!" Déor shot back, and then could have bitten off his tongue when he felt his uncle begin to shake. He looked up fearfully. But his uncle was laughing.
They reached the house a little after midnight. The whole place was lit up. Faramir set Déor down on the ground, and his mother and father ran towards him. As his mother fell upon him and covered him in what Déor thought was a wholly unnecessary number of kisses, he heard his uncle saying, "...a sword, Éowyn, what do you think it is?" and then "...no need for such excitement – Déor and I have had an adventure, that's all..." but when Déor cricked his neck so that he could look over his mother's shoulder he saw his aunt and uncle in their own, firm embrace.
They went towards the house, Déor resting his head on his mother's shoulder, and, as they reached the door, he watched as his uncle set his hand on the hilt of his sword, and raised an eyebrow at his father.
"Tomorrow morning?" suggested Faramir.
Éomer gave a predatory smile.
Léof had been right, Déor decided, when he had said that the only place to be on a day this hot was in the stream. They had found a willow tree to shelter them, and splashing the water about had kept them cool too.
Déor watched as Léof lifted up another handful of mud. It oozed through fingers already filthy from a good morning's work. He slapped it down on the pile and then, furrowing his brow, looked up at Déor.
"What is it?" Déor prompted. The other boy leaned over the bank and plucked out of the water a stick passing by on its lazy way. Déor waited patiently. Léof always took his time to speak his mind.
"Do you think your father will beat up my father every morning for the rest of the holiday?" Léof asked, making dark eddies as he stirred up the water.
Déor scooped up some mud and weighed it in his hand. "Yes," he replied. "Yes, I think he will."
Léof brandished the stick above him, and thought a little more. Then he threw the stick back into the stream.
"It seems a very strange way to go on," he said calmly.
Déor looked down at the mud as it slid through his fingers, thought of the man on the hill and the blood trickling down his face, thought of the hawk with its kill in its claws.
"I think it is too," he said – then he flicked some mud at his cousin, who yelled and laughed and threw some back, and it was not long before they both were much wetter, and much dirtier, and wondering what to tell their mothers.
A/N: Written for and with thanks to Isabeau of Greenlea and Sailing to Byzantium.
Altariel, 3rd-22nd August 2003