Author's note:

In this story, there are two names that are not on the map on Middle-earth. Small river Celion and fortress Harnost in South Ithilien are my invention; but Tolkien's map has only a few settlements shown, and it seems reasonable that there are many other settlements, villages and fortresses as well.

Special thanks to Lidia, for translating this story, and to MerryKK, for beta-reading. I wouldn't have made it without you, girls. *big hug*

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A small camp set up by Ithilien rangers was well hidden in the woods. Actually, one could hardly call their current location a camp – it more resembled some sheltered spot where they stopped to take a rest and to wait for their remaining comrades. Their horses were hidden even deeper in the thicket. The eight men were cautious; they did not put up a fire. This was South Ithilien, far south of Minas Tirith, where the raids of orcs from Mordor and Harad men were frequent. The patrol was for the very purpose of identifying the enemy's most recent activities. Faramir was concerned, for they had discovered trails of several bands, which seem to have been lingering constantly on this area. South Ithilien was becoming more and more unsafe.

He watched the sunset and awaited his brother's return. Boromir led six men a little further south to check the area around the river Celion. They should be back very soon, and then they would immediately move northwards, sheltered by night. They were on the borderline, in dangerous area; they had done their task and it was better not to risk it any more by remaining unnecessarily in this area.

He looked at the face of the man beside him, now lit by a red glow. The sun gave Arantar's usually pale face certain liveliness.

"When they return, we will start right away", said Faramir and nodded. "Did everyone eat? We will not have time to stop later."

"Some ate twice", Arantar smiled. "You need not ever worry about that."

"Hm, do not think I did not hear you", replied Belegorn, giving him a side-glance. "Do I have to check my saddle bag for any missing things?"

"Even that could not help you, I am a ranger, I know how to hide my trails", replied Arantar and looked at him innocently.

"And he, being a ranger himself, could not read if he is missing a piece of dried meat?" Faramir joined in, laughing.

"I think even my grandmother could find that out, and she's no ranger", teased Valandil, who was standing a little away from them.

"My mother would sometimes hide cakes and cookies so we would not eat them right away, especially when we were expecting guests", added Mallor, still with his mouth full, just finishing his meal, "but my brothers and I would very soon discover all her hiding places and finished off with the cakes in no time."

"I don't have any other choice but to send you all home and take your grandmothers instead", grinned Faramir. "At least they could cook, and they would be at least as successful as you in military actions."

"Do you mean my cooking is no good?" asked Halmir, pretending to be offended. "That my dishes are not all dainty stuff?"

"Oh, let's change the subject." Faramir retreated one step back, as tough in fear. The others also realised the weight of the mistake they had made, for Halmir usually cooked when they were in campaign or carrying out certain missions, and he enjoyed it. He could talk about food for hours, even after being interrupted a number of times. He just needed a little nudge, and they had just made the introduction.

"No one changes the subject now", continued Halmir, just as they knew he would. "The subject is food, which also indirectly implies my cooking. What do you have to say about ...?"

"Your cooking is perfect and we will ask Lord Denethor to establish a special medal for the chefs and you will be the first to receive it and it will be more important than any other medal", said Belegorn hurriedly in another attempt to change the subject. "Which one of you just mentioned that the other group was late? I hope they return quickly so we can start for Harnost soon."

Faramir opened his mouth to say something about the fortress, which was their destination, but he was late.

"In order to eat there again when we arrive?" added Arantar, with an obvious intention to trick them all and return the subject to Halmir's topic.

"Captain, send him on the watch to replace Eradan, because if he continues to talk like this, it will turn out he's starved, poor thing ", said Valandil, rolling his eyes. "And he eats more than any of us."

"That would be wrong, for what will Eradan be when he returns from the watch, but hungry?"

But before anyone could say anything, a tit call was heard from the woods, very near, which was a sign for caution and alarm. They fell silent in a second and took their positions, ready to fight, and Faramir hurried towards the guard who gave the sign, to see what was going on. He quickly approached the ranger leaning against a large tree, which was sheltering his guarding position. This was Eradan, a youth who just entered into his twenties, the youngest one in the group.

Without a word, the young man pointed with his head toward the source of a sound, his hand on a bowstring. Faramir himself heard the sound of a horse rider approaching, but just as he was drawing an arrow from his quiver, another whistle was heard – a signal that meant it was their scout returning. Just as he managed to form the thought that something must be wrong, for the rangers usually returned more quietly and sent in the signs of their approaching in advance, when a few moments later Dorlas, a ranger from the group which Boromir led into patrol, rode into the camp. It was enough for Faramir to take just one look at him to realize the man was in a great hurry and anxious. His hair was tousled and his cloak was torn on one spot. His horse was panting after a fast, strenuous ride.

Dorlas jumped off his horse and in one large stride approached Faramir. He was a tall and strong man, over forty-five, and a very experienced ranger.

"Captain, Lord Boromir's group entered into the Southerners' ambush. About thirty of them. He has been wounded and captured. The others are, sadly, dead." He made the report in one breath, and his voice was solemn. The faces of five men who were with Boromir flipped through Faramir's mind in a second; five men he knew well, who were his friends and with whom he fought side by side for. He felt pain.

The other rangers came to them now to hear what happened. A few moments of silence followed, and in their eyes there was sorrow for loss of their friends.

"How badly was Boromir wounded?" asked Faramir, fighting to conceal his concern and tension.

"He got a nasty stab with a sword in his right shoulder, as far as I could see. He tried to fight with his left hand, but there were too many of them. They overcame him quickly." He stopped for a moment and then continued. "We checked the entire area around the river and started back. I separated from them, because I went to check something. Then I heard the sound of fighting and returned, but there was simply too many of them. That is why I did not reveal myself, but hid, so I could inform you of everything."

Faramir nodded. To hide was the only logical and possible thing to do – otherwise he would be killed himself. Then no one could tell them what happened and call for help.

"Where did it happen?"

"Right after the fords, not far from the ravines leading towards east."

Faramir frowned, analyzing the situation. They were attacked on the most dangerous spot, which they could not avoid, though. Celion was not passable elsewhere, especially not now in spring, when it was flooding because of the melting snows from the slopes of Ephel Duath. The spot was one hour of riding away.

"In which direction did they go?" he asked. However, even before he got an answer, he knew what it would be.

"South."

Of course, opposite side from where they were. Meaning, they now have at least two hours advantage. While his men immediately started packing for departure and removing the trails of their presence and one went to get the horses, Faramir split a few paces away, thinking.

The people who attacked them could just kill the whole group. However, they wounded Boromir and captured him alive. That could mean only one thing – that they know who he is and want to use him for a hostage. With Boromir in their hands, various blackmail possibilities were at hand. He supposed they would try to distance themselves as far as possible, so they would be closer to the safety of their territory, in order to send a messenger from there with requests and blackmail message.

The alternatives were numerous and equally difficult and uncertain. He tried to stay calm, reminding himself that Boromir was more useful to them alive than dead, but his concern would not completely go away. Especially because his brother was wounded and he did not know if he would receive appropriate care. Perhaps it was in their interest to keep him alive, at least at the beginning, but they probably could not care less in what condition he was. He did not expect anything to keep them from beating and torturing him.

His father might make the enemies think he accepted their terms of blackmail, but in reality, he will certainly prepare a rescue mission. However, that was not so simple. Any larger military engagement in the south, which could tighten up the relations, would weaken Gondor on all other sides; north Ithilien, Minas Tirith and Lossarnach would become much more vulnerable. Gondor could not stand battles on several fronts… and their enemies knew that. That meant that after a certain period of ostensible talks and blackmailing, they would no longer need Boromir alive. Harad did not need fear a significant retaliation.

It will be more difficult to carry out a quick, secret action, as the kidnappers got further away. If they entered the south deeper, the chances would be minimal. The wide wasteland plains south of Poros shattered all illusions about secret, hidden foray.

Even if the kidnappers were not from Harad, even if they were some band who inhabited Mordor and descended down the passes in Ephel Duath on predatory and murdering raids, that did not change a thing when talking about freeing a hostage. It was equally difficult to get to Boromir, were he captured far in Harad or taken across the mountains to Mordor. Actually, the latter was even more difficult.

And for that reason, the solution was simple: they must not let them get away too far. Right, really simple, he thought. The kidnappers had an advantage of whole two hours and there were thirty of them, as Dorlas said. Nine against thirty. No worries. He firmed his lips and wrinkled his forehead. Actually, eight, he remembered; he would send one as a messenger to the fortress of Harnost, the rangers had to be informed of what happened and about Faramir's plan so they would send backup. However, they alone did not have much choice; they had to move, immediately. He did not want to think about the force ratio, he would figure out something. As long as they were in Ithilien, in this hillside forest country, they had chance. Eight against thirty? No problem. It only takes a little more effort for the impossible, right?

Faramir turned around. The traces of camp were removed and Girion brought the horses. Everyone was ready for departure and looking at him, awaiting his orders.

Who will he send to Harnost? He did not need to think, there was only one possible answer to that question. Eradan. If they got killed on this dangerous mission on which he was about to lead them, let the youngest one, who just entered his life, be spared.

"Eradan", he spoke to the young man, "you will go to Harnost and inform them of everything. They must take care about the bodies of those who were killed. Also, send the reinforcement after our trail."

An expression of disappointment for being excluded from this mission appeared on the young man's face for a second, but in the next one, he solemnly nodded. "Ay, captain."

"We will follow the kidnappers' trail", he said seriously, observing the rest of them. Their faces were determined. They mounted their horses.

One rider started north, towards the fortress. Eight of them chased their horses toward the south, full speed, forced by urgency.

And hope.