Of Stewards and Rangers
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Captain of Gondor, A: 3. Flight At the Ford
It was the storm that saved them, a torrent of water that turned the surrounding country to grey murk and made tracking impossible. They blundered on in silence, circling and back-tracking endlessly, deafened by the roar of wind and rain, barely able to see beyond the length of their outstretched arms. Low wet branches lashed at their faces and hands, drawing blood. By sunset, Faramir, rubbing his weary eyes, had to admit to himself that he was completely and utterly lost. And when the storm had blown itself out at last, a pale fog rose from the ground, swallowing altogether the familiar little landmarks the rangers depended on. He followed the Captain’s slight, purposeful figure, seemingly untroubled by the growing dark, no more than a grey shadow in the writhing mist with the trusting, absolute faith of a child. Men did not call the Captain the Red Fox of Anorien for nothing.
He was cold and tired and every step he took was beginning to jar him to the bone. Suddenly, sleep threatened to overcome him, and he slipped, crashing into the Old Man’s back. A muttered oath stunned him into wakefulness; he felt a hand on his arm, and in an instant, he was pulled into a thicket of tall reeds. At once, he knew the familiar bitter smell of wet grass and river mud, the music of the Anduin, and relief flooded over him. But where were they? He could hardly make out the water in the gloom, let alone the far bank.
They stayed silent for a time, listening, but there nothing, save the faint cries of night-creatures and water leaping and lapping against the muddy bank.
“I think we’ve lost our friends from Harad,” the Captain chuckled. “And good riddance too, may the Balrogs take them.” He shivered. “Give me a sip of that sour vinegar of yours, if you have not lost the flask.”
He reached for the wooden flask at his belt, vaguely aware of a dull ache in his arm. “What’s that?” the Old Man demanded sharply. “You’re hurt!”
In surprise, Faramir looked down, and in the faint light of the red moon, a black-tasselled dart, slim as needle glimmered wickedly in the shadowed curve of his elbow. For a long moment, neither man said a word.
“In the name of Eru, why didn’t you tell me!”
Their eyes met. “I did not feel it, sir.”
“Hold still. You know these accursed things are meant to break, leaving their venomous tips behind.” Swiftly, the Old Man peeled off his sodden gloves, and almost at once the dart came away in his nimble fingers. He held it up to the faint light. “It’s broken,” he said gruffly, “but there’s naught we can do.” The Captain carried on in grim silence, slitting the younger man’s sleeve to reveal a swollen wound very like a serpent bite on the upper arm. Two dried leaves he extracted from a small pouch at his waist, “Millefoil,” he murmured, breathing a soft incantation over them before pressing them on the wound, and binding it with a strip torn from his own cloak.
“The leaves will draw the poison for now, but you’ll need a healer before long if you’re not to lose that arm. Does it still hurt?”
“Not at all, sir,” Faramir said, setting his teeth.
The Captain stared, then smiled, laying a light hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Brave lad. Would that I had a son like you.” A pause, a soft bark of laughter. “Oh, come now my boy, that’s no cause for blushing like a girl. We’ll cross the river – there is a ford just ahead. My sister will see to that wound of yours; there is no medicine-woman in Anorien more skilled in the healing arts than she.”
Silently, they crept like ghosts through the reeds, guided by the moon and the Captain’s own unerring sense of the ground. The wine they drank from time to time – lamentable, standard-issue stuff doled out to each ranger by the quartermaster at Henneth Annûn - hardly warmed their shivering bodies, and inwardly, Faramir cursed himself for having neither the foresight nor the resourcefulness to spirit away the flask of strong Lebenin wine that Damrod had hidden inside a spare pair of boots. Damrod was a natural forager, and his unlikely gift of conjuring up food and strong drink of all imaginable vintages out of thin air during the leanest months of the year made him a popular companion on patrol.
They were not far from the ford when the Captain halted suddenly and put a finger to his lips. They stood very still, the Captain tense as a hunted fox, and for a long while, all Faramir could hear was the blood thundering in his ears, every sinew of his being straining, listening. Then he heard it - the thin high moaning of a dying animal or a man in agony, and saw at once that the Captain had heard it too. The Old Man gave the sign to halt, drawing his long hunting knife, and alone, slid soundlessly down the muddy bank before vanishing into the mist. Grimly, Faramir waited, his fingers tightening on the hilt of his own blade. His right arm had gone to sleep; he could hardly feel the fingers now – at least, by the grace of the Valar, the dart had not struck his sword-arm. That he should no longer be able to write or wield a sword was a fate that did not bear thinking about.
A scream soared into the night and just as suddenly, broke off short. Mortified, Faramir slipped through the reeds and after a few breathless moments, went slithering down the bank and came to an abrupt halt almost on top of the Old Man.
“Captain – sir, are you hurt?” A pause, a gasp as his eyes found the twisted shadow of a second man lying sprawled half in the river, half out of it. “Mablung!” he cried softly. “What have they done to you?”
“Hush, my boy! Quick, let’s get him out of the water.” It was no easy task, for although Mablung was not a big man, his clothes were sodden to the waist, and they had only three hands between them. But at last, they dragged him up to drier ground and the Captain, hissing through his teeth, shook his head, “He has a belly wound. Do you keep him quiet while I bind it; that cry of his was loud enough to wake the dead.”
There was no need after all, to keep Mablung quiet, for pain and fatigue had mercifully taken his senses from him, and he lay as unresisting as a sleeping child. He was burning with fever, and as Faramir held the boy close, he remembered that there should have been not one, but two cubs.
Where was Arvegil? The same question must surely be in the Captain’s mind. His work done, the Old Man was on his feet again, peering intently into the dark, hoping against hope.
“Have you seen any sign of the other cub?”
“No, sir. I saw no tracks save for our own, and Mablung’s.” He hesitated, “But it may be that he escaped the attack and - ”
“Well, we’ll have to leave him, wherever he is. The enemy is upon us!”
They stiffened, listening. The night air carried from afar the murmur of guttural voices, rapidly silenced, then the gentle rustle of reeds being swept aside.
Urgently, the Old Man whispered, “I’ll hold them. Take the boy with you, ford the river and make at once for Oiolairë. Ask for my sister – her name is Nienna. This is the shallowest crossing for leagues – you’ll not find a better, but the Anduin as you know, has strong arms, and he’ll have you by the hip if he can. Come, Mablung, up with you – there’s a good lad.” He heaved the unconscious boy to his feet and somehow they got him across the younger man’s shoulders.
“But sir, we can’t leave you -” Faramir protested hotly.
“Go, you young fool! Do as I say!” the Captain growled in a tone that brooked no argument. His sword was already drawn, glinting redly in moonlight. After a moment’s hesitation and a quick clumsy salute, Faramir lumbered away into the mist.
Mablung’s weight slowed him, and often, he found himself sinking up to the ankles in mud, as though some spiteful subterranean creature was sucking at his feet. In his mind’s eye, he saw black fingers, fiends of Mordor curling their claws about his legs, dragging him down into the fathomless depths of the earth. No! Banish the thought. Step after step after step; then relief swept over him as the soggy earth suddenly gave way to cold swirling water, and the rush of the river filled his ears. He turned back for a moment, shifting Mablung a little on his aching shoulders. Mist. The watchful moon in a sky now empty of cloud.
The Captain had not come.
Tightening his grip on the cub, he waded into the frigid water, and almost at once felt the tug of the Anduin against his knees. Deeper and deeper; he was up to his waist and the river was still rising. Ironically, he observed that the Old Man’s idea of a shallow ford was hardly his own. Halfway across, and he was being buffeted by currents from all sides pummelling his chest, whipping his sword against his thighs.
He was tiring fast. The Anduin had strong arms indeed; it seized him, and twice almost drove him to his knees, and each time he came up spluttering, his eyes stinging with water. Sleep was claiming him again, his movements grew sluggish and it was only when he stumbled against an unseen boulder that he was jolted awake. Like lightning, fear struck him – a sudden unreasoning terror of slipping forever beneath the waters, taking poor young Mablung with him, a horror of failing in the task entrusted him by his Captain.
From dread he drew strength, and as he plodded on against the growing numbness in his mind and body, it seemed that the water was receding little by little. It dropped to his waist, its vise-like grip on him slackening, then it eddied about his knees, until at last he felt only a benign lapping against his ankles.
He crawled to the bank and sank to the ground, drawing in deep ragged breaths of sweet night air like a swimmer rising from the water. Somewhere beside him, Mablung was still alive and groaning. Staggering to his feet, Faramir found the boy, and one handed, tugged one of the unresisting arms across his shoulders. “Mablung – Mablung,” he whispered hoarsely, “Listen to me. Can you walk?”
For a moment, there was no answer, then came a feeble nod of the boy’s head.
Together, they somehow found the narrow dirt track that led to Oiolairë. Faramir never knew how long they struggled along that endless path. Often, they stopped because he was sick, and because Mablung’s weight grew too heavy for his own flagging strength. He was light-headed and the numbness in his right arm had turned into a bonfire of raging agony. How far was Oiolairë? And deep in the recesses of his memory he found the answer, the Captain’s cool voice echoing back at him, “Two hours’ march as the crow flies from the nearest ford.”
The Valar help us – two hours!
Still they shuffled on, two bedraggled shadows in the feeble moonlight unable to travel in stealth or even cover their tracks. His one remaining hope was to get the boy into safe hands before the venom coursing in his veins overtook him. Of his own death he thought little. Only a single painful regret troubled his conscience - that there would be no word of farewell to Boromir, no time for this wayward son to beg his father for the one thing above all that he longed for.
Father, father…forgive me.
He felt a strange flutter in his breast, as though his soul was shaking off the coils of mortality, readying itself for its flight …
He sank to his knees, Mablung dropping heavily beside him.
Then, in the blackness, hands gripping his shoulders. A man was shaking him roughly, his name ringing through the rising waves of darkness, a beloved, familiar voice husky with anger and desperation.
Thousand leaf or millefoil is also known as yarrow, a versatile healing herb which was according to legend, applied to wounds by the great Achilles himself.
Oiolairë is the name of a village in Anorien near the river Anduin. The village was invented by me, and its name, meaning “ever summer” was taken from The Complete Tolkien Companion. This name already appears once in Chapter 7 of my never-ending story The Phrygian Flute, where an older and wiser Mablung tells the cub Edrahil:
“We are on the other side of the Anduin, in a village men once called Oiolairë long ago, before our wolfish friends the Easterlings put the torch to it. This is where we’re keeping the wounded - almost the only house with a roof still left on it.”
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