Notes to Readers:

After much thought, I am going to start posting the sequel to "Down and Out" (which comes after "FirstBorn", in case you were wondering). Although this story is still in progress, it is completely outlined and so far, running smoothly, unlike "Shire" which has stalled a time or two. It is risky to post a story still in the process of being written! However, I have not yet left a story unfinished, frustrating readers, and I have found your comments helpful while shaping past stories. (Plus, I got two votes for "Runaway" and only one for "Shire". Don't worry, I still plan to post "Shire" as soon as I can.)
 
Thank you for the comments! (I am especially grateful to you who reviewed the final chapter of "FirstBorn". It is easy to bypass the review process on a final chapter but it leaves the author wondering if anyone bothered to finish the story besides herself! Insecure creatures, some of these authors are…) Reviews are very motivating and give me insights into the stories that make me dig deeper in writing, which I probably wouldn't do were I the only one reading these stories...

Ff.net permitting, expect to see the next chapter two days from this posting. If you cannot access ff.net, try www.storiesofarda.com. You can leave reviews there, as well (thanks Miriel and Hai and FantasyFan!), and there is a "reply" feature where I can reply to a review right there rather than within the text of the story. I'm also told there is an "author alert" feature. Amazing place, that SoA.

The next chapter of "Truth" will be added on the morrow, if ffnet agrees. Did I tell you it is 24 chapters in length?

Enough admin notes. Let's get to the story.

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1. The Hunter and the Hunted

1440 S.R., late in the year

The hunter followed the faint trail with quickening heartbeat as he gained on his quarry. After a long chase, the trail was definitely fresher; he was getting closer. His belly rumbled with hunger, but he ignored the discomfort, focusing on the trail and the reward waiting at its end.

There, a clear footprint in the mud where the trail crossed a trickle of water. The hunter increased his speed slightly, sure now that the trail he followed was that of a young hobbit. Soon... very soon now, the hunt would end. The youngster was far from home; no one would be near enough to hear a cry for help should he fall into difficulty.

The hunter stiffened as it became obvious that another had joined the trail; another hunter was ahead of him. The hunter's nose wrinkled in disgust at the heavy scent of musk. The young hobbit might not be waiting for him at the end of the trail after all, for a fox was close on the lad's heels.

He put on a burst of speed in the dimming light, nearly running now, his tireless hunter's stride standing him in good stead. His eyes greedily drank the signs left by those passing before him. He nearly overran the trail's end before his brain registered that he no longer followed the young hobbit's trail, only that of the fox. He slowed, stopped, retraced his steps to the flurry on the ground that spoke of a struggle, a few smears of blood, a piece of cloth, no more.

He stopped, staring down at the signs that bespoke failure, futility. Wearily, he let himself sink to the ground. There was no need to run anymore, and no hurry to turn back, empty-handed.

The hunter took deep, deliberate breaths. His breathing steadied and slowed as he rested there. He reached out reluctantly, picked up the scrap of cloth, carefully tucked it away. In another moment he'd turn back, but there was no hurry now.

The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as he heard a distinct sniff from somewhere above him, and then his heart leaped within as he caught a glimpse of a small, dirty face that disappeared into a hollow where thick branches met the tree bole. It was evidently the abandoned home of some creature, a fine refuge for a frightened hobbit lad.

Abruptly the hunter rose, but instead of retracing his steps, he began to gather wood, laying it precisely inside a circle of ground that he scraped bare. It was not long before a cheery fire burned there, and the savoury smell of roasting bacon arose from the stick the hunter held. Flames jumped higher, and the hiss of dripping promised a coming feast. He thought perhaps the homey smell would entice the lad from his hidey-hole, but he'd misjudged the steel-hard stubbornness that the young hobbit had inherited from his father.

At last, bacon done, the hunter pulled a loaf of bread from his knapsack, broke off a chunk, used it to pull a piece of the bacon from the stick, and took a large bite. He closed his eyes in obvious enjoyment as he chewed, gave a loud sigh, and broke off another piece of bread. There was still no sign from the tree.

Enough was enough. 'Farry!' he said, just loudly enough for the sound to reach the hollow. 'Faramir, come down. I cannot promise to save you a portion if you stay up there; I'm rather hungry from the merry chase you've led me.'

'No,' a muffled voice said, and the hunter smiled a private smile. The first word had been spoken, the wedge, driven into the wood, that would split the log with enough tapping.

'Good bacon,' he said conversationally. 'You really ought to have some. Come down now, Farry.'

'I cannot,' the small voice said, just a bit louder.

'What was that you said?' the hunter asked. 'Is your hole that much better than a fire and food?'

'I've hurt my leg,' the small voice said plaintively. Instantly the hunter put the food down upon the sack and was on his feet.

'I'll help you,' he said, jumping to grab the lowest branch, not much of a reach for a grown hobbit, but a prodigious leap for the lad. Undoubtedly fear had lent Faramir wings. The hunter pulled himself up and soon reached the hollow. 'Come lad,' he said now, one hand held out invitingly.

A small hand nestled in his; he closed his hand over it and drew the lad from the hollow, wincing sympathetically as Faramir's face appeared, screwed up in pain. The hunter gently lifted the lad out, tucking him securely into the crook of one arm, and then climbed down to the ground.

Laying the lad upon the blanket he'd carried tied to his pack, he handed Faramir a chunk of bread-and-bacon, then bent to inspect the injured leg. 'Fox got you?' he asked.

'Aye,' Faramir answered, the words muffled by the fullness of his mouth. 'Just as I jumped for the tree, he jumped for me, but he didn't get a good grip.'

'Good thing for you,' the hunter muttered. He poured water from his bottle onto his kerchief and began to clean the wound. 'Nasty, that,' he said. 'Hope it doesn't get infected.'

'Why did you have to come after me, Ferdi?' Faramir said.

The hunter looked up in surprise. 'My life would not be worth the living should your father return from Buckland to find you gone,' he said.

'He'd get over it,' the lad muttered, sounding much too old for his ten years.

'Feeling right sorry for ourselves, are we?' the hunter said cheerily. 'I imagine the tune you were singing earlier was "They'll be sorry", was it not?'

'They won't be,' Faramir said defiantly. 'After all, there's another babe on the way; they don't need me now.'

'Farry!' Ferdibrand said sharply. With an effort he softened his voice. 'Is that what this is all about?' he said in amazement. 'You're jealous of the babe?'

Faramir ducked his head, but not before the hunter had seen the glimmer of tears. 'No,' the son of the Thain mumbled. 'That's not it, at all.' He raised his head, defiance still plain. 'They're better off without me.'

This was not going to be quite as simple as he'd thought, the hunter realised. Should he carry Faramir back to the Great Smials in this state, driven by the events of the past few years as he was the lad would run again as soon as his leg healed. He had that cursed Tookish stubbornness that Ferdi himself knew so well. He'd seen it in his relations, in himself, in Farry's father Pippin. Come to think of it, Faramir had it in double measure from his father and his mother Diamond in the bargain.

'All right,' he said slowly. 'If you're determined to run away, you had better let me help you.'