These characters all belong to the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien. This story was written for pleasure and not for financial gain.
From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties And things that go bump in the night, good Lord, deliver us!
Dedicated to Cairistiona, Lily Baggins and Estelcontar as a belated birthday gift.
"My beautiful foals, this is just too much!" Éowyn buried her head in her hands; she was on the verge on tears. "It is bad enough to lose lambs, but such is nature, and all creatures must eat to survive, but not my horses! What will this creature take next? A hound, a cat, one of our children?" She shuddered. "It grows ever bolder. I have never known the like!"
"My best Rangers are tracking the beast even as we speak," said Faramir. He drew his wife close, attempting to comfort her.
"They have tracked it for days now, but to no avail. They follow its trail as far as the trees and then it seems to vanish into thin air."
"I will join them this afternoon."
"As shall I." Unnoticed by the Prince and Princess of Ithilien, the King had entered the room with his silent, catlike tread.
"Aragorn!" Faramir and Éowyn jumped to their feet to embrace their friend.
"I am sorry to catch you unawares, my friends, but as I was on my way to visit the Elven Colony, to see Legolas' new gardens, I could not pass so near to Emyn Arnen without greeting you. It seems I have just come in time to lend my tracking skills to hunt down this creature."
"But you are on your way to visit Legolas," Faramir protested. "His gardens are beautiful at present with the mallorns he has planted. Éowyn and I visited last week."
"I will send a message that I shall be delayed. One day will make no difference."
Éowyn rose to her feet. "I had best go and tend the surviving foals. What manner of creature can devour one, leave another for dead, and injure four others? One of them is so terrified; she will not let me near her. Even Faramir, who has such a way with horses, could not approach her."
"I have some experience of tending horses, if you would permit me to assist?"
"I suppose it would be worth trying." Éowyn sounded sceptical. Aragorn was a great healer of Men, but horses were a very different matter. He was their friend, though, as well as their King, and she could not deny him. She led the way to the stable housing the injured foals.
Aragorn carefully examined what had been a lovely grey foal. Hideous deep scratches across her flanks now cruelly disfigured her. She shied away from him and neighed in terror. The King stood back and sang softly in Elvish until she came closer to him. Then he gently rubbed her nose and offered her a juicy apple. Only when she was calm did he apply a healing salve to the wounds. "With time and care she should recover," he told Éowyn. "Now let me see the other injured horses."
"What do you think the beast is?" asked Faramir quietly, as he calmed a jet-black foal.
"No wolf or bear caused these injures," said Aragorn. "I wager it is some sort of large cat. That is no doubt, why it is proving so elusive, but we should be able to track its footprints. Keep the foals well guarded until we catch this beast."
Faramir glanced at the stable cat that was slumbering curled in the hay, almost invisible, so well did its tawny coat blend with its surroundings. Cats were indeed masters of stealth and camouflage. "That would explain much," he said. "But there are few records of any such creatures in Ithilien. Still, much has changed since records were last kept in my great-grandsire's time."
"This one is more frightened than hurt," said Aragorn as he examined the black foal. "He just has a few scratches."
"The black horses are especially precious," said Éowyn. "The Dark Lord depleted the herds of the Mark of too many of these beauties. My beautiful horses were thriving so well before this monster, or monsters came!"
"They will thrive again, Éowyn," said Aragorn. "You have my word that I will do all within my power to catch this beast. Looking thoughtful, he continued to rub salve on the black foal's wounds.
Aragorn insisted that no special provision be made for him; therefore, the noonday meal comprised simple but tasty fare. The Princess of Ithilien was proud of her kitchens and the good food that the home farms produced.
After the meal, Aragorn and Faramir changed into Ranger clothing and sharpened their weapons. Deciding that horses or further members of the party would only hinder their progress, they set out on foot. Despite the gravity of the situation, both men were looking forward to an afternoon together, hunting and tracking and enjoying using their Ranger skills once more.
Faramir showed the King the paddock where the injured foals had been found. The grass yielded only flattened blades and bloodstains, around which a few flies buzzed in defiance of the autumn chill. Aragorn espied a muddy patch where the ground had been torn up by flaying hooves. He stooped to examine it more closely. "Look!" he said. "There and there are hoof prints, but see that print, as large as a man's foot almost? That is creature we are seeking."
Faramir studied the ground, but could discern only hoof prints and indistinguishable marks. Aragorn looked around until he espied some flattened grass near where the paddock bordered an area of forest. Still following what to Faramir seemed invisible tracks, they walked amongst the trees for some considerable time until the track petered out into a wilder area, where a rippling stream fed the dense undergrowth beneath mighty oaks and slender birches.
"We are still clearing paths through the woods," said Faramir. "As yet, though, this part is almost untouched."
"We will follow the stream," said Aragorn. "See, there is a print! All animals need to drink, so I would wager our quarry's lair is not far from here.
For the first time Faramir clearly beheld a large paw print, the size of a man's hand in the soft earth beside the water. He followed the King deeper into the forest. The undergrowth was so dense here that the men had to cut their way through with their swords.
Aragorn suddenly halted and sniffed the air. "We are close," he whispered to Faramir. The two stealthily moved forward, not speaking again lest they disturb their prey.
There was a sudden rustling above them followed by a thud. A great cat leapt from the trees. It landed heavily on Aragorn's back and ferociously clawed at his flesh. The King gave a cry as the beast forced him to the ground
Faramir's ranger training fast overcame his horror. Reaching for his bow, he swiftly nocked an arrow. The King pinioned on the ground, the giant cat atop him, the two a tangle of fur and flesh. To shoot the beast carried a grave risk of also shooting the King. Faramir shot several arrows over the creature's head into the trees in quick succession.
The beast panicked and fled. Faramir noticed that it bore an ugly festering wound on its flank, which would explain why it had been seeking easy pickings amongst Éowyn's foals.
The Steward ran to the King's side and dropped to his knees beside him. Aragorn lay face downward; his cloak and upper garments torn to shreds exposing his back, which now resembled a raw and bloody steak. Faramir felt sick.
Aragorn groaned. Faramir swallowed hard and lifted him, turning him over, and cradling him in his arms. He snatched off his cloak and held it against the King's back, attempting to staunch the copious bleeding.
He pressed the cloak harder against the wounds. There was so much blood!
Aragorn groaned again and opened his eyes. "Faramir?"
"My pack - healing supplies."
Faramir looked around him and espied the pack a little way away; it had been torn open and the contents scattered. Now the initial shock was wearing off, the realisation struck him hard that the King's survival lay in his hands and his alone.
After what seemed like an eternity, the bleeding slowed. Faramir dared to gently lie Aragorn down upon his side. He got to his feet and began to gather up the healing supplies. All the while, he remained alert lest the beast return. To his dismay, very little was usable apart from the knives and a metal cup. Most of the bandages were scattered and soiled and the pots of salves shattered to smithereens, including what he recognised as the precious vials of pain relieving poppy juice. He collected anything that looked as if it might be usable and hastened back to Aragorn's side. The King's face was ashen and his grey eyes filled with pain. He smiled wanly when Faramir knelt beside him again.
Faramir showed him the pots of salve. Aragorn weakly shook his head at the first one.
"For rashes," he muttered.
"That is no use then. And this one?
"For bruises. That pot- Scratches- might help a little. You need -clean wounds." He groaned again and closed his eyes.
Faramir half dragged, half-carried Aragorn to the bank of the stream. He filled the cup with water and held it to the King's lips, all the while wondering what he could use to tend the wounds with. He suddenly realised he did have adequate cloths. He unlaced his shirt and tunic and pulled both over his head; then replaced his tunic and carefully cut up his shirt with one of Aragorn's knives. At least the garment was fairly clean having been donned fresh from the laundry that morning.
He would have liked to boil the water, but had nothing with him in which to heat it, At least it looked clean, for the steam rippled constantly over a bed of gravel. He sipped the water. It tasted sweet and pure.
"I shall try to cleanse your wounds, mellon nîn, though I fear it might pain you," he warned Aragorn.
"Do it," Aragorn muttered through clenched teeth.
Faramir washed his hands in the steam then took a deep breath and peeled away what remained of Aragorn's shirt and tunic. Now the bleeding had slowed, he could see that Aragorn's back and shoulders were covered in deep ugly gashes. He had seen men's backs bloodied from a flogging, but these wounds went far deeper than those a lash could inflict.
He began to clean the gashes as gently as he could. Even so, Aragorn groaned at every touch of the cloth. Faramir flinched in sympathy, but forced himself to continue. The wounds started to bleed anew, but mercifully, the blood flow was sluggish this time. Faramir staunched it with more cloth from his shirt.
As soon as the wounds were clean and the bleeding had ceased, Faramir again washed his hands and applied some of the salve. He supported Aragorn against his shoulder and carefully bandaged the injuries with the few bandages he had salvaged from Aragorn's pack and from what remained of his shirt.
He turned Aragorn over on his side again. The King's face was even paler and drenched with sweat while his breath came in short pained gasps. Faramir supported his friend's head and gave him more water to drink. His thirst sated, Aragorn closed his eyes. A little colour returned to his cheeks and his breathing became more even.
Faramir turned his attention to the gravity of the situation that faced him. The Thought Bond he shared with the King made him all too aware of just how much pain and distress the older man was suffering.
Aragorn needed help from a trained healer and quickly. Éowyn was well versed in the healing arts and would know what to do, but how could he get the King to her? If he left Aragorn here to go for help, he would be able to return within an hour or two. But how could he leave a badly injured man alone with that monstrous cat abroad and hungry for his blood?
Aragorn was not just any man either; he was Faramir's liege lord, and not only that, but the man to whom he owed the life that his father would have snatched from him, the man who had become father, brother and dearest friend to him. He could not leave Aragorn alone to die. To lose him would be like having a part of his soul torn asunder. He would somehow have to carry him to safety.
Faramir's spirit quailed for a moment. He had been in desperate situations before with Aragorn, but never one quite like this. To be so near to home and yet so far from safety! The Steward was a tall strong man, but the King was even taller. He would be a heavy load to bear, but bear him he must. Love, honour and duty would give him strength. They could not remain here in the depths of the forest. If only he could have shot the beast while he had the chance, he might then have dared leave Aragorn to summon help! Faramir shook himself. It was no good dwelling on what might have been.
A/n A version of this story was written for the "Teitho" "animal" challenge where it was placed equal second.