Ten in all, of ages between seventeen and nineteen, the newest recruits of the Ithilien Rangers spoke in soft, excited voices as they cleaned their newly bloodied blades.
"I can name my sword now that I blooded it with my first man," boasted a young man with broad shoulders and a broader grin. "I will call it Red Flame, for it struck as if with the fire of Anor itself!"
"And you were lucky that the one you struck was looking the other way at the time, Mablung, you big ox," a smaller lad scoffed. "My sword is my grandfather's; and already named, but I shall call my bow Dragon-Breath now. She will shoot down hundreds of Haradrim!"
"Did you see my stroke?" asked a tall boy whose head was bandaged. "I nearly lopped off a Southron's arm as I slew him! I think he was an officer!"
A few paces away from the other fledglings, the youngest and tallest of their number huddled in a corner of the cave, holding a long knife in bruised hands. He was Faramir of Gondor, son of the Steward of Gondor, brother of Boromir, whom men already called The Bold. And today, this moment, Faramir of Gondor strove to hold himself together; fearing that if he let go, he would start to shake and cry.
Boromir should have told him. Boromir had said that he would feel proud to strike down the enemies of Gondor. Faramir felt proud to have come out of the battle alive, but he felt no pride in striking down the Haradrim. He had slain two, one with an arrow from twenty feet away; and the second in close battle.
Faramir felt a tremble starting up in his chin and quelled it. The fight had been brutal, they had wrestled, clawed, like animals rather than men. Faramir had been ready, knife in hand, when the Haradrian had leapt upon him; he had just stabbed and stabbed until his foe had coughed up his life's blood onto Faramir's green hood . No artistry nor courage, merely his own quickness, his refusal to die, had saved him. Finally, pinned beneath his enemy's body, Faramir had chanced a look into the dark-eyed, swart face and known that this Southron was close to him in age.
He had wounded another two or three before the battle had ended, but others had killed them.
Afterward, Faramir had not been sick, unlike a few of his comrades. He had felt numb and tired, and had gone through the proper motions of helping the wounded, obeying his commander. And now, he was haunted by the sound of the Southron's gurgling final breaths, the terror in the youth's eyes and then the quivering end of him.
Someone had asked Faramir if he wanted a drink. He had taken it, not really knowing if it was water or wine. What he wanted to do, then and now, was to run away, flee back home and take up his lute again. But such thoughts were utter folly. He was born to lead men in battle, not run away from it, such was the payment of the privilege with which his high station had gifted him. A lord must set the example, not defy it. Desertion would be an insult to the brave men who bled to defend his land. Nor could he sit in some safe post behind the walls of Minas Tirith while others braved the lengthening Shadow.
He looked down at the dagger. No matter how often he wiped it clean, it never would really be free of blood. He would have to rend and slay with it for the rest of his life, such was his duty while their Enemy sent men and monsters against them. And the Enemy had shown his intent to encroach upon and eventually conquer the last of the realms of Westernesse.
It isn't fair; some part of Faramir wailed inwardly. But only children and fools expect real life to be fair, said another part; which was possibly his father's remembered voice. He was a man now
A life where he could choose his battles, where there was no Enemy to demand his constant service, was a dream that he must put aside. Faramir felt a childish sniffle trying to break, and tiredly, rudely, wiped his nose with his blood-stained sleeve. Might as well wish us all back on Númenor, he told himself, with no enemy but our own arrogance. Might as well wish for Elendil to sail up the Anduin with a host of Elves, or the King to return, driving all foes from the realm!
"And you, Lord Faramir?" Mablung was asking. "What will you call your sword?"
He forced a smile. "My sword is already named, it is called Avenger . 'Twas used by my father when he first went on campaign." It had been discarded after a year's use, for a worthier blade, Faramir remembered, though he preferred not to say so. It was only fair that he should begin his service with a blade that needed to win honor as much as he did. "But I will call my dagger, which saved my life today by taking another, the truest name I can give it: Slayer."
Mablung guffawed, and stared approvingly at the Steward's son. "Well, sir, that's not a pretty name, but 'tis a sharp one. May your dagger live up to it!"
Faramir nodded, hoping he did not deceive even in so small a gesture. He could not speak, he would not speak, of the greatest fear to assail him. He was a soldier of Gondor now, one of the Ithilien Rangers, the bravest company in the realm. Soon he would face the Enemy's troops again in battle. His comrades might fall if he were slow to shoot or strike! Faramir bowed his head to hide the tears that began to pool in his eyes. What if he could not bring himself to kill again?