This story was written for the LotR Big Bang challenge, which encouraged its participants to either write or finish an unpublished multi-chapter story. My story has been sitting on my hard drive in various pieces for a while, so I decided to hammer through some impressive writer's block and get it done.
My heartfelt thanks goes out to some wonderful people who made this story possible. There are quite a few, but in particular, I have to single out Docmon and Baranduin for heroic beta efforts on various chapters. Also in conjunction with the Big Bang, Dreamflower has made a STUNNING piece of art that goes along with this story. You can view it over at the Many Paths To Tread archive under Dreamflower's artwork. It's entitled "The Nindalf." Check it out! It's beautiful! And with that, I'll leave you to read and hopefully enjoy!
Chapter 1: Dreaming
"Lie still. Do not move!"
Faramir freezes, suddenly and acutely aware that he is not where he should be. The taste of dank and rot fills his mouth. Darkness shrouds his vision. Damp, sucking mud clings to his arms. Shivering violently, he finds himself lying flat on his back in what feels like a stagnant pond. "Where—"
"Hush! If you voice your fear, they will kill you!"
Faramir blinks, and the darkness retreats enough for him to see another kneeling at his side. "Legolas? Legolas, what—"
"There is time." A hand rests upon Faramir's chest as though to prevent him from moving, but Legolas's attention is not on Faramir. It is on the shadows around them. "You can still confront your fear, but you must do so in silence."
Utterly bewildered, Faramir pushes himself upright, dislodging the elf's hand. Confusion and a growing sense of alarm make it difficult to ask even one of his myriad questions, but eventually Faramir manages, "Where are we? How—"
"They come!" Legolas's hissing rasp is harsh and strained. He snaps his gaze to Faramir, facing him for the first time, and the chill of the water lapping Faramir's legs is nothing compared to the chill in the elf's eyes. "They must not see you with me. You must face them alone!"
Legolas darts away, disappearing from sight. Faramir scrambles to his feet and tries to follow, but the shadows close too quickly. Night blinds him to all save darkness.
"Legolas cannot help you."
Faramir spins about, one hand flying to an empty scabbard hanging from his belt.
"Nor can any who enter this place," the new voice adds, and as it did with Legolas, the murk lifts just enough to reveal the speaker.
"Gimli!" Faramir exclaims, staring at the dwarf. "Gimli, I… Think not that I am unhappy to see you, but how are you here? How am I here? Where—"
"I have no answers to your questions," Gimli interrupts. "Not yet. Soon. When I do, perhaps he will return. Perhaps you will find help. But you must not voice your fear! If you do, then there is no hope. Do not voice your fear!"
Faramir stares, frustration warring with caution. "I do not understand what—"
"Of course not!" Gimli says sharply, and something in his voice makes Faramir pause. "How could you understand? You have denied that which would enable understanding. And to that end I ask: Who are you?"
Faramir takes a shaky breath. "My friend, do you not know me? I am Faramir."
For a long moment, the dwarf studies Faramir. Then his eyes dull, and his head bows. "No," Gimli whispers. "Not yet."
Faramir shoots upright, heavy blankets pooling in his lap. His heart pounds in his chest, and sweat trickles down the back of his neck. One shaking hand runs through his tousled hair while the other fists the thick folds of his sleeping pallet.
Nothing more than a dream.
A dream identical to a dream from the night before…
With a slow shudder, Faramir bows his head and rests his chin upon his chest. His limbs still tremble, but he no longer gasps for air. His body, at least, is calming; his thoughts are another matter. The images from the dream are as vivid now as they were when he slept, and those images trouble him.
Faramir frees his feet from the twisted blankets and feels about for his boots. It will be some time ere he can sleep again, and spending that time alone in a dark tent with dark thoughts does not appeal. He requires movement. Conversation. Something to leech the turmoil from his mind so he can better examine the dream. When this dream came the previous night, he noted it but gave it little heed. No stranger to night terrors, Faramir assumed his restless slumber resulted from proximity to the Nindalf. He has no pleasant memories of the bogs below the Falls of Rauros, and at the time, it seemed only natural for the Nindalf's foul smells to inspire foul dreams. But now that the dream has come again, Faramir cannot easily dismiss it.
But neither can he easily study it until he is calmer.
Finding his boots and wrestling them onto his feet, he stands and pulls a thick cloak about his shoulders. Spring near the marshes is always cold. Snowmelt cascades down both the Anduin and the Entwash, filling the swamp where they meet with frigid water. The chill of the water then lends itself to the chill of the air, especially at night, and Faramir already misses the warmth of his blankets. But he knows the cold will clear his mind, so he pushes through the flaps of his tent.
He immediately wrinkles his nose. During the long struggle against Sauron, he was occasionally forced to lead Rangers into the Nindalf, sometimes for concealment and sometimes in pursuit. No matter the reason, the experience always involved nauseating odors, and even on the edge of the swamps, these smells stir dark memories.
Rubbing his arms, Faramir reminds himself that their current situation might be equally dark. The number of people to mysteriously vanish around the Nindalf is a growing mystery that hints of ominous designs. The loss of one or two could be understandable; tragic accidents are not unheard of when spring floods the fens. But the disappearances are increasing as summer approaches, and the victims' companions say someone or something is moving within the swamp. Even more troubling is that many of the disappearances take place on the northern edge of Anórien, where the King's authority is direct and absolute. Such a blatant disregard for the crown is particularly worrisome.
His thoughts turning to Aragorn, Faramir glances across the fire pit at the King's tent. To his surprise, he finds it lit from within, the glow of candlelight spilling out beneath the sides. Aragorn is still awake.
Hesitation wars against hope. Speaking with Aragorn will soothe Faramir's mind; there is no doubt of that. But Aragorn will almost certainly sense Faramir's unease and inquire after it. Given the dream's twin warnings about voicing fear, Faramir would like more time to examine the dream before seeking another's counsel. Moreover, there is a… weight to the dream. A feeling of portent. Of foresight. It is not unlike what he experienced when he dreamed of the command to seek out Imladris, Isildur's Bane, and the Halfling. And after losing Boromir to those promptings, Faramir is in no hurry to repeat history.
But the glow of the tent is inviting, and the promise of both a stalwart liege and a wise friend overcomes reluctance. Wrapping his cloak tightly about himself, he sets out toward the King.
The guards about Aragorn's tent straighten at his approach, but when they recognize him, they nod a greeting and stand aside. One steps back toward the tent and speaks quiet words before moving away and gesturing for Faramir to enter. Now standing before the tent flaps, Faramir inclines his head in silent thanks, clears his throat to announce his presence, and steps inside.
"Lord Steward," Aragorn greets, his gray eyes sweeping over Faramir.
"My liege," Faramir answers, sketching a brief bow before stepping further into the tent. The King is seated at a small plank table covered with maps. Andúril lies before him, and he is polishing the blade with quick, sure strokes. The presence of the sword on the table seems to be all that has changed since Aragorn met with Faramir and Legolas to discuss the best strategy for searching the Nindalf. That was hours ago, but Aragorn undoubtedly poured over the maps long after Faramir and Legolas departed.
"I thought you had taken yourself to bed," Aragorn says, interrupting Faramir's musings.
"I thought you had done the same," Faramir replies, hoping the deflection will be enough to stall questions.
"Soon, yes, but you professed a need for sleep. Surely that need is not already satisfied."
Aragorn's gaze sharpens, and his hands still on his sword. Faramir quickly casts about for a distraction. His eyes settle on the maps, and he moves to the table to better examine them. There is nothing subtle about his ploy, but perhaps so obvious an evasion will dissuade Aragorn by virtue of sheer surprise. "Has Legolas returned?" Faramir asks, picking up one of the maps.
There is a pause before Aragorn answers. "Not yet. He sent word that he was venturing into the swamps with the scouts. I do not expect him to return until morning. If the elves find a path of firm ground, they will follow it to see how far we may trust the trail."
"I will marvel greatly if any trail they find offers aught in the way of firm ground," Faramir murmurs, tapping his fingers on the parchments. The foremost map depicts the Argonath, Nin Hithoel, the Falls of Rauros, and the swampy Nindalf below the falls where the Entwash flows out of Rohan to join the Anduin. The courses of the two rivers and all around them are clearly marked, but the ever-changing swamp has few details.
"When did you last enter the fens?"
Still hunched over the maps, Faramir risks a glance at Aragorn. Though the King is again polishing Andúril, something in his demeanor suggests his mind is not on the sword. But neither is he pressing the issue of Faramir's sleeplessness, and Faramir cannot decide if he should be concerned or relieved. "Four years ago, my liege."
On the other side of the rough table, Aragorn sets aside his polishing cloth and holds Andúril up to the candlelight, sighting down the blade. "That would be two years before Sauron's fall," he murmurs. "Curious. I also found myself in the Nindalf that year."
"Indeed? Which season?"
"The end of summer." Aragorn grimaces. "I was tracking the creature Gollum, and his trail forced me into the fens. Fortunately, he only subjected me to the Nindalf. He was on the border of the Dead Marshes months later when I caught him, and grateful am I that he did not venture further. I would sooner wade the Nindalf ten times over than contend with the lights of the departed."
"We missed one another by only a few weeks, then, for my Rangers followed a group of orcs into the Nindalf during the harvest," Faramir says, his brow furrowing at the memories. "The fens are driest just before winter, but even so, we went forth on foot. It was too dangerous for horses."
"We shall have to do likewise now," Aragorn sighs, setting Andúril down. "This past winter was wet."
"Which makes our mystery all the more confounding." Faramir traces one hand over the maps. "Travelers have been vanishing around the Nindalf as though it is home to brigands, but I cannot fathom even the most desperate thief making these swamps his base."
"Agreed," Aragorn says. "And I remember well your words at supper: A band large enough to be responsible for all these disappearances would find no place large enough to shelter in the Nindalf. Since then, I have called to mind my own experiences in the marshes, but I have had no more success than you. There are countless clusters of trees and brush throughout the bog, but there is little in the way of firm ground where one might construct a camp. Not in the spring, at least, when the waters are highest. Yet the reports seem clear: The attacks come from the Nindalf."
"With respect, I must disagree," Faramir says as wind stirs the sides of the tent. "The reports are not clear. They are taken from distraught and grieving kin."
"Yet you agree we should focus our searches around the Nindalf."
"It is the only common thread among the stories," Faramir says, raising his voice as the wind blows open the tent flaps. "Merchants traveling north from Cair Andros," he continues. "Homesteaders along the Entwash. Traders upon the Anduin between Osgiliath and the Falls of Rauros. They all speak of the Nindalf, but…" He trails off, a strange foreboding chilling his heart.
"But…?" Aragorn prompts.
Faramir shakes his head, his eyes drawn to a flickering candle.
The tiny flame dances, swaying in time to the distant sound of—
"Lie still. Do not move!"
Faramir freezes, suddenly and acutely aware that he is not where he should be, but also suddenly and acutely aware of where he is. It is the dream! The dream that is making its third appearance! Yet only moments ago, he was in Aragorn's tent! Wresting his arms free of clinging mud, he pushes upright and immediately feels Legolas's restraining hand upon his chest. "What—"
"Hush! If you voice your fear, they will kill you!"
The elf has spoken these words twice already, but they still make no sense. When the shadows lift, Faramir catches a glimpse of strained features as Legolas stares into the darkness. "Legolas, I do not understand! How—"
"There is time. You can still confront your fear, but you must do so in silence."
"What fear?" Faramir demands. "What do you—"
"They come!" Legolas hisses. His glance snaps toward Faramir, and his eyes glint with something fell. Something crazed. Something that stirs Faramir's last memories of Denethor. "They must not see you with me. You must face them alone!"
"Legolas!" But as before, the elf is gone, enveloped by the dark. Faramir is powerless to alter the course of his nightmare. Or is it still a nightmare? Is it real? He cannot remember going to sleep, but neither can he remember anything that would explain his presence in what seems to be the middle of the wretched Nindalf! Struggling to his feet, he wraps his arms about himself, wondering if—
"Legolas cannot help you."
"Gimli," Faramir whispers with relief. If Gimli is here, it is yet a dream, for in the waking world, Gimli is far away in Aglarond.
"Nor can any who enter this place," Gimli continues as the shadows lift.
"Why am I here?" Faramir asks, hoping a challenge will prompt clarity. "And what is your purpose? What do you and Legolas—"
"I have no answers to your questions," Gimli says. "Not yet. When I do, perhaps he will return. Perhaps you will find help. But you must not voice your fear! If you do, there is no hope. Do not voice your fear!"
The dream is the same. The same yet not the same, for Faramir now knows it is a dream. But he is no closer to understanding. "Will you not speak plainly? If there is a warning in this, I do not see—"
"Of course you do not!" Gimli snaps, and even if only slightly, the script of the dream changes. "You see no warning, for you refuse to believe! You still deny! And thus I ask: Who are you?"
Wondering why the dream is changing, Faramir hesitates. "You asked me that before. I do not know what you—"
"Who are you?" Gimli roars, his eyes flashing.
"Faramir," Faramir says firmly, hoping the dream's changes will continue. Hoping the changes will become answers. "I am Faramir."
But as before, the dwarf's eyes dull and his head bows. "No," he murmurs. "Not yet."
"Gimli!" Faramir cries, reaching out. His fingers close around rich folds of fabric, but he does not grasp the dwarf's tunic. He grasps—
"Faramir!" Aragorn's face is stern, and his voice is sharp. "Faramir, look at me! Silence your thoughts and look at me!"
Faramir shudders, and his hand falls away from Aragorn's sleeve. The King kneels beside him in terrible mimicry of the way Legolas kneels beside him in the nightmare. A shiver wracks Faramir. Suddenly, all he wishes to do is sleep. Dreamlessly. But the King has commanded, and summoning his faltering will, Faramir fixes his eyes upon Aragorn's.
"Better," Aragorn says, his voice softening. "Now, lie still and slow your breaths."
Faramir sees the roof of the tent behind Aragorn's head, and he wonders how he came to be lying down. On the King's pallet, no less. Loud voices call to one another outside, as though a commotion stirs in the camp. Turning his head toward the tent flaps, he begins to push himself up, but Aragorn immediately stops him.
"Did you not hear me? Lie still!"
Aragorn looks as though he wishes to say more, but the tent flaps part and two guards rush in. One bears a large brick of stone held gingerly with heavy tongs. The other carries a pot of boiling water. Under Aragorn's direction, the brick is placed beneath the blankets wrapping Faramir's feet, and Faramir immediately feels warmth soak into him from the fire-heated brick. The pot is placed beside Aragorn, and Faramir catches the sweet scent of athelas as the guards are dismissed with a quiet word.
"I have been here all along," Faramir whispers, blinking at the realization.
"In body," Aragorn says, "but not in mind."
A headache begins to pound behind his eyes. "What happened?"
Aragorn raises his brow. "That was to be my question for you. What do you remember?"
"Studying the maps of the Nindalf," Faramir says slowly.
Faramir frowns. "Wind. Fire. Then—"
Do not voice your fear.
Gimli's voice echoes through his mind. If the dream is a product of foresight, he can ill afford to ignore such a warning.
"Then you collapsed."
Faramir flinches, his eyes snapping to Aragorn. "Collapsed?"
"You fell onto the table and slid off one corner." Aragorn nods at the scattered maps on the floor, "I caught you ere your head hit the ground, but I could not call you back to the waking world. Your mind was drawn too far away. Thus I return you to your own question: What happened?"
Faramir takes a deep breath and pushes himself up. This time, Aragorn does not stop him, and Faramir is grateful. Lying down feels too vulnerable. "Last night," he begins, "I was visited by a strange dream. Earlier this evening, it came again."
Do not voice your fear.
"When I collapsed here, I found myself once again caught in the dream," Faramir continues, wondering exactly what fear he is not supposed to voice.
"What is the nature of this dream?"
Faramir hesitates. "I believe it to be a warning."
"I do not know. And if I did know, I do not know if I could tell you. In the dream…" He closes his eyes, searching for words. "In the beginning of the dream, I am with Legolas. He says many things I do not understand, but his primary concern seems to be a warning: I must not voice my fear. Then Legolas leaves, and Gimli appears. He also speaks to me, and in the course of our conversation, he gives the same warning."
"And because you must not voice this fear, you hesitate to say more," Aragorn guesses quietly.
Faramir nods, his eyes still closed.
"Do you know of what fear they speak?"
"No," Faramir murmurs.
An aggrieved sigh breaks the stillness. "I do not recall giving you leave to have difficult foresight on this venture."
Despite himself, a smile creeps over Faramir's face. Opening his eyes, he gives Aragorn a look that is equal parts amusement and protest. "Were it not impertinent to do so, I might name another in this tent with a history of difficult foresight."
Aragorn returns the smile before sobering again. "So you do not know what fear the dream warns against, and even if you did know, you could not voice it. What can you voice? Where does this dream occur?"
Faramir's jaw clenches. He is reasonably certain the dream takes place in the Nindalf. What little he saw of his surroundings supports this, and the dream began only after arriving at the Nindalf. But while he does not fear the Nindalf, he cannot deny that the swamp inspires unease. "I know where I am," he says carefully, "and it is not a place I welcome."
Aragorn nods, seeming to understand when Faramir says no more. "Do Legolas and Gimli caution you separately or together?"
"Separately. Only when one leaves does the other appear."
"And both warn you against voicing your fear." Aragorn sits back on his heels, his gaze distant. "Is there aught that they fear?"
Faramir frowns, not having considered that. He plays the dream over in his mind and watches the details. He studies the strain on elven features. The curt words and harried movements. The way Legolas constantly searches the dark, only once glancing his way. "Legolas fears something," he says at length. "When he leaves the dream, I believe it is either to flee from it or charge toward it. But as for what this fear is, I do not know. Gimli…" He trails off, and something tells him this question is important. Whether or not Gimli fears something is important.
"Gimli…?" Aragorn prompts.
Faramir's eyes narrow. Unlike Legolas, Gimli does not search the dark. He searches Faramir. His eyes are urgent. Measuring. Concerned. But fearful…? "There is no fear in Gimli," Faramir decides. "Rather, there is warning and…expectation. And when that expectation is not met, there is disappointment. But not fear." He pauses to search his memory again. "Not yet," he amends, certain of his impression but uncertain of its meaning.
Aragorn's expression becomes almost a mirror for Gimli's. "Will there be fear?"
His headache growing, Faramir closes his eyes. "I do not know," he murmurs.
"Why is Gimli present in this dream?"
Another important question. Another question to which Faramir has no answer. He shakes his head in wordless frustration.
"Are both Gimli and Legolas intent on the same purpose?"
At least this question he can answer. "No. As I said before, Legolas is concerned about whether or not I will voice my fear. Gimli…" Once more, Faramir finds himself at a loss. "Like Legolas, he warns against voicing my fear, but that is not why he is in the dream. He asks a question of me, and it should be a simple question. But the answer I give does not satisfy, and the dream ends." Faramir grits his teeth. "I do not know what he wants from me."
There is silence for a moment. Then a warm weight falls upon Faramir's shoulders. His eyes open in surprise, but before he can protest, Aragorn pushes him down onto the bedding with firm hands. "We will speak of this later," Aragorn says, releasing Faramir with a warning look against rising. "We are both weary, and reason will come easier when day drives back the night." He reaches into the pot at his side and pulls forth a damp cloth laden with the scent of athelas. "Sleep," he instructs, smoothing the fabric over Faramir's brow.
"If I dream again—"
"Then we will speak again," Aragorn interrupts. "But for now, sleep."
Faramir relaxes back into the blankets, his body demanding he follow the King's orders. He watches Aragorn retrieve a stool from the table and set it next to the pallet. Askance, Faramir starts to sit up. "My liege, you—"
"I have slept in chairs far less comfortable than this, and given your earlier collapse, I would rather keep you where I can see you. Sleep!"
The last word is a firm command, and Faramir is too tired to argue. With the warm cloth soothing his aching head, his thoughts begin to wander. Almost ere he is aware of it, his eyes close. He wishes to offer one last protest, but his weary body refuses. Comforted by the creek of the stool beside him, Faramir drifts into slumber. And for a brief time, his sleep is even dreamless.
But only for a brief time…
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.