The line was long, and it was comprised of women, children and the occasional maimed soldier.
"What do they do there, sir?" Hethlin asked, her brow furrowed. The Captain of the Ithilien Rangers had brought his favorite escort with him to Minas Tirith, for he had been summoned to Council.
"That is the office where the stipends for the crippled, widows and orphans is disbursed," Faramir responded, frowning himself.
"Long line there," Lorend commented, no flippancy in his voice for once.
"A lot longer than I'm used to seeing it," came Mablung's voice, "and we've not had a major battle in a while."
A carriage, richly ornamented, rolled past them then, going towards the upper levels. An equally richly dressed man, seeing the motley Ranger cloaks, looked out at them disdainfully as he passed.
"Bacarth," Faramir muttered to himself. Then, at his Ranger's quizzical looks, he explained. "He's one of the merchants contracted to supply the Army."
"He seems to be getting on well enough," Lorend snorted.
"Now, Lorend," said Mablung dryly, "haven't you always held that a great merchant is worthy of riches because of the invaluable services he provides, bringing people and goods together?"
The Lossarnach Ranger's eyes followed the carriage, and they were decidedly unfriendly.
"I said worthy of compensation, Lieutenant, not necessarily riches. Mother sells cheese to the Army and Father supplies them with sundries from time to time and I can tell you they're not rigged out like that fellow is. Makes me wonder if he's not skimming more than a little bit."
"Let me see what I can discover," said Faramir. "Perhaps something can be done." Hethlin looked upon him with her usual absolute faith that he would be able to mend the matter, but her two more worldly companions merely nodded.
"You all had shopping you wanted to do." Faramir handed Mablung some coin. "Didn't you say you needed a new shirt, Hethlin? Lunch is on me." With a last look at the line, the Rangers set off towards the market, and Faramir went off to Council.
He decided that it would be best to broach the matter with his father privately, after the Council, but even then it did not go well.
"So you've become an expert upon procurement now, have you?" Denethor commented acidly. "There are always men who are going to profit from war, Faramir. It's unavoidable. And Bacarth is reliable and doesn't gouge over much."
"He shouldn't be gouging at all! Not while there are soldiers' widows and orphans going without!"
"There is always an acceptable limit to such things. It's the way business is done. He can get us what we need and in quantity and never oversteps that limit. If he ever does, I'll cut him off at the knees."
"But the stipends, sir-it looks as if they're not going out very quickly."
Denethor steepled his fingers across the bridge of his nose for a moment, rubbed it, then lowered his hands. "No, they're not and I am sorry for that. But there are hard choices to be made here, Faramir, and not enough money to go around. I have to assume that the soldiers' families would prefer to be somewhat hungry but alive because we used the taxes to defend them, than that they be dead and their precious stipends in the orcs' pockets." His eyebrow rose, and Faramir braced himself. "Of course, you could always apply to your uncle, if you find my management so lacking."
Faramir dropped his eyes. "I would never do that, sir."
"Indeed. Well, if you truly desire to help with this matter, then there's one thing you can do." He looked up, and Denethor continued, his eyes hard, grey flint. "Find more Haradrim, and kill them. And send the gold to me."
Boromir was not much help either in his turn. "I'm doing what I can, Faramir. Do you remember Adrann, your Ranger that got his left arm crushed by an orc maul?" Faramir nodded. "He writes a fair hand, so I reassigned him to the quartermaster's office as a clerk. I've got one of my fellows who lost both legs on a stool in the mess, cooking. Anyone who can still do anything at all I've reassigned to non-combatant duty so they'll still have some money coming in, and free up people who can still fight. Beyond that, there's not much I can do."
"Father suggested that I apply to Uncle."
"You did annoy him, didn't you! Not wise, little brother! 'Tis true that Uncle looks after his own, but then he's got that navy of his bringing in Corsair prize ships, all of that superb farm land and all of that trade. And the Swan Knights have a fund they all chip in part of their pay to, specifically for the families of their fallen and those that can no longer fight. Andrahar told me about it once."
Contemplating Belfalas's wealth, Faramir frowned and asked, "Father isn't thinking of raising Uncle's taxes again, is he? He did it just a couple of years ago and he said nothing about it at Council today."
Boromir shook his head. "No, he can't, much as we could use the money. Imrahil would protest, and rightly so, if he singled Belfalas out and the rest of Gondor can't support another increase. We're going to have to make do with what we have, Faramir, and that's the plain truth."
Knowing the caliber of the men (and one woman) who served him, Faramir was not particularly surprised to find that they'd used the money he'd given them, as well as every bit of money they'd brought with them to shop, to instead buy bread and cheese and cider for everyone in the line, which was still extensive despite the late afternoon hour. Mablung had additionally given to the small children there all the little carved wooden animals he'd been intending for his own nephew and was actually carving some more there on the spot, surrounded by an admiring audience of children, who clamored guesses about what he was currently making and suggestions for his next work. Lorend was chatting with the folk in the line, and to Faramir's surprise, Hethlin was as well. Before she had joined the Rangers, she had been an orc captive and so traumatized by the experience that she was mute for months. Even now she was shy with folk she did not know, though easy enough with those she did. But she seemed perfectly comfortable talking to the women in line and they seemed equally comfortable as well, though to Faramir's relief, none of them seemed to discern her secret. They simply took her for a country lad.
"Rangers, we need to go," he called out, and they came to him reluctantly, Mablung giving one last little carved horse away. The line was sorry to see them go as well, and there were many exclamations of "Valar bless you, Rangers!" and "Valar guard and guide!" as they departed.
"Boromir has offered us dinner with his officers this evening," Faramir informed them as they walked up towards the Citadel. "I would rather you did not discuss this matter with him-I have already done so with both him and Father today."
Lorend whistled low under his breath. "You talked to the Steward, did you, sir? What did he say?"
"That the stipends are going out late, as we knew and that there is nothing to be done about it at present-there's just not enough money to go around. He can't raise taxes any more and the army must be supplied."
"Yes, because Bacarth needs a new team for his carriage," the Lossarnach man grumbled.
"Lorend…" Mablung growled in warning.
"What did the Captain-General say, sir?" Hethlin asked, the frown back on her face.
"That he is keeping as many of the cripples as he can on the payroll in a non-combatant capacity and that is all he can do. It would appear that the matter is closed."
Hethlin jerked her head back in the direction of the line. "Did you know that some of those people have come in from far away? From Morthond and even further, Captain? And some of them are sleeping on the streets because they can't afford inns, waiting to see the officer in charge of stipends?"
"I've heard so today," Faramir responded. "I don't approve of it, Hethlin and I agree that it should not be that way."
She acknowledged the sentiment with a nod, then sighed in frustration. "Begging your pardon, sir, it seems so stupid to me! It's like eating your seed corn." Lorend, who had grown up on a farm, was nodded agreement. Faramir, who was city-bred, nonetheless understood the analogy, but Hethlin seemed to think he needed further clarification.
"The children, sir. They're like seed corn. They're the future. If we let them starve, what are we fighting for?"
The Rangers returned to Henneth-Annûn and resumed their duties. Faramir continued to ponder the matter.
We cannot raise taxes on the people any more. There's no money there. I can hardly leave my post here to oversee procurement and eliminate fraud and waste in the hopes of freeing up more money for stipends, and I doubt that Father will assign someone else that task. The plain fact is that the longer the war goes on, the more widows and orphans and cripples there will be. Gondor owes the families a living in return for the bread-winner who was taken from them, and the cripples for their service to her. It is a debt of honor. But she also needs to defend them, and that takes money too, more and more money as time goes on. Sauron may not ultimately need to defeat us on the field of battle-he's doing a good job of it in the counting-house!
Neither Boromir nor myself draw a salary for what we do, and Father holds the family purse-strings. So there's no way to draw on the family funds. There's my allowance, but I use it to buy supplies for the Rangers more often than not, and I need to hold that in reserve so I can get us what we need in an emergency, particularly medicines, if the quartermaster shorts us. I suspect Boromir uses his in much the same way.
Dol Amroth takes care of her own, 'tis true, and if I know Uncle, he's probably also taking care of some of ours already without informing Father of that fact. And he would certainly loan Father what money he could spare for the stipends, without ever expecting repayment. Surely Father would swallow his pride if it came to that, rather than let widows and children starve! But things would have to become much more dire than they are at present for him to lower himself so far. And in the meantime, people are suffering.
Find more Haradrim and more gold, Father said. Send the gold to him. But how much of that gold would actually get to the people who needed it, and how much to people like Bacarth?
This problem is simply too large. Hethlin's blind faith in me aside, there is just no way for me to find a way to get the whole army's stipends paid. So, when a problem is too large, what do you do, Faramir? Cut it into manageable chunks.
I cannot take care of every widow, orphan and damaged soldier in the Army. But what about just the Rangers? That might be possible!
A month after the trip to Minas Tirith, the Rangers fought one of their biggest battles yet. The Haradrim patrol had been a large one, and their size had made them cocky. They'd been too deep into Ithilien for Boromir to help and it had taken the whole company of Rangers to deal with them. Fortunately, large as the patrol had been they'd had no Mûmakil with them, and equally fortunate, the ambush Faramir and Mablung had set up had gone off perfectly and according to plan. The Rangers' casualties had been minimal and their victory absolute. Save for the requisite sentries outside, the entire company had returned to Henneth-Annûn flush with victory . A better time will never come, Faramir thought, and swallowed hard.
Before him on the trestle table was all the most precious loot from the patrol, the coin and jewelry. The arms and armor had already been bundled up and stored and would be taken a bit at a time as opportunity permitted to Cair Andros or Minas Tirith.
"Rangers, attend me!" he commanded, and the room, which had been echoing a moment before with vociferous retellings of the battle's high points, fell silent. Faces turned expectantly to him.
"I have a proposal to make to you. I hesitate to do so, in truth, for it is illegal and in violation of my father's wishes. Therefore, if after I have explained the proposal, any of you have reservations or wish to protest, please feel free to seek me out. I will not enact this unless we are all resolved upon it."
Murmurs broke out for a moment, then the room stilled once more. "You have all heard that the stipends for those crippled by the war and the families of dead soldiers are coming later and later. Perhaps some of you have relatives that have experienced this." Nods and the odd affirmation answered him. "I recently spoke to my father and my brother about that very matter and they had no good answers to give me. The situation with the stipends will not be resolved any time soon."
"And a fine reward for service to Gondor that is!" Berenath, one of the more contentious Rangers called out.
"The money is not there, Berenath," Faramir replied. "We have more men in the field than we have had since before my grandfather's time and we need still more yet. And the people have been taxed as much as we dare. So as for my proposal…" He drew his dagger and used it and his other hand to portion off a tenth of the loot and draw it to him, then rested both hands upon the pommel of the dagger, point-down upon the table. There was puzzlement and not a few frowns on the faces of those closest to the table. Surely they do not think I seek to keep this for myself? Faramir hastened to explain.
"In times of old, a captain of Gondor was awarded one fifth of all the loot his men captured in battle. That law was rescinded by my grandfather Ecthelion-now all spoils go into the army's coffers. So what I propose is illegal, have no doubt of that. I do not seek to excuse myself in any way and I will take full responsibility, should we decide upon this action and it is discovered later. My father admits to me that the procurers for the army are allowed to gouge the army a certain percent before they gain official notice. Our old enemy the quartermaster," some tension-cutting laughter from the crowd at this, "informs me that that amount is approximately ten percent. While I could try to justify myself by saying it is the procurers' ten percent we keep, that is truly no argument either."
"What do you mean by 'keep', Captain?" Mablung asked. He was obviously curious, as was everyone else in the room.
"What I propose is that we hold back one tenth of the gold and silver we win in battle and use it to make our own stipends for our Rangers and their families. I propose that from time to time when we have gathered enough, we send a party forth to seek our former soldiers and our dead soldiers' families out, make sure they are well and give them their stipends, independent of what the main army does." Faramir paused for a moment, but was answered only by silence. Well! They either all approve of this or are totally appalled. Perhaps there will be a race to the exit, to see who can report me first! Not that that seemed likely. Those who had been frowning seemed relieved and were now simply listening attentively.
"Well! That seems more the thing!" Berenath declared.
"Good plan," said Anborn, the Ranger famous for his taciturnity.
"The Rohirrim have something they call weregild," Faramir continued. "It is something like our stipends, a payment in money to a family whose member has been killed, by the person who slew them. This is blood money, it was bought with Rangers' blood, and it seems meet to me that a small portion of it be used to succor Rangers' blood kin. Let Mordor and the Haradrim pay weregild. They do it anyway; ultimately, this is just a bit more direct. But it is also totally illegal, and would require the cooperation of us all, so I will ask you now-do any of you object?"
More silence, and shaking of heads. "Then who among you approves?"
The roar of approval that went up then was loud enough to drown out the voice of the waterfall. "Faramir! Faramir! Faramir!" the chant went up. Faramir sheathed his dagger, smiled at the soldiers nearest and tried not to show how moved and relieved he was. This idea could have broken my command. But it looks instead to possibly have made it stronger! He let his men chant for a few moments longer, then raised his hand. When all were quiet once more, he reminded them, "There are still sentries outside who have not agreed to this. Six volunteers to relieve them. Mablung and I will explain the plan to them and if they all agree, then we will do it. For now-ale all around for our victory!" Another cheer went up. Faramir was not surprised to see Hethlin among the volunteers for sentry duty-she was not much for drink in the usual way of things.
It was soon established that the six sentries were in unanimous agreement with the weregild plan. Faramir stayed within the refuge for a time, circulating among his men and hearing some stories about hardships among their kin that had been previously unknown to him. It surprised him, for he prided himself upon knowing his men very well. Apparently they will unburden themselves to a brigand before they do so to their Captain! he thought to himself wryly. Then he gathered up a tray of tankards and ventured forth out to the sentry lines. Hethlin he sought out last.
"Something for you," he said, offering the tankard, and when she objected that she was on duty, added, "It's just cider, Hethlin." He waved the now-empty tray. "I am making the rounds."
"Oh! Thank you, sir!" Her eyes turned immediately back to the darkness after she took the mug, watching intently over its rim as she sipped.
"So-how does it feel to have a common thief as your Captain?" he asked with a smile.
That won him a momentary, scandalized look. "Oh, never a thief, my lord!" He laughed, and she turned her gaze outward once more. "I do not have a family myself," Hethlin said and Faramir suppressed a wince. "But I am glad that if something happened to me I would be taken care of. That's not something thieves do, sir." She took another sip, then asked, "Did you get the weregild idea from that Rohirric book you were reading last week?"
Faramir thought back and remembered the book of Rohirric lays. Hethlin held the firm conviction that he could do almost anything well. He wondered if he should disabuse her of that conviction by explaining how atrocious his Rohirric accent really was. Deciding to save that humiliation for another day, he shook his head.
"I got the name for it from the books. The idea began to be born when I saw three of my Rangers give up all their money to help widows and orphans." He could feel that she was blushing, even in the dark, and laughed. The pleasure of knowing that he was helping his Rangers' families did much to quiet Faramir's ethical qualms. Perhaps it is because it is a hopeful act, an affirmation that Gondor might indeed have a future she should plan for. Or perhaps a life of crime is simply freeing…He raised his tankard to clink against Hethlin's.
"To seed corn."