He swallowed hard as the heat still surrounded his body, only to discover that his throat hurt. The pain was such, in fact, that he couldn't help but moan slightly. Suddenly something warm touched his brow and caressed him lovingly.
"Hold still, my son."
Beregond frowned. Mother? What was going on? He tried to rise and discover the meaning of this, but his body felt heavy and numb. He attempted to open his eyes, and blinding sunbeams hit directly his face, making him shut them again with a grunt. The caress stopped and Beregond heard the sound of curtains being drawn; then the same gentle hand cupped his face affectionately.
"Open them. Don't fret."
Beregond complied, though more cautiously this time. Isilme was indeed by his side, but that was not all. Once his sight adjusted to the light and he looked at his surroundings, he found out that he was in his room.
"How…?" How did he get there, he tried to say, yet somehow talking seemed like too much of a difficult task.
"The bridge keepers found you and your companion by the riverside. They sent a messenger to Gondor and it wasn't long before a small party brought you back here."
Beregond nodded his understanding; then looked at his mother in wonder. He sighed, knowing what was going on Isilme's mind. She tried to apply reason to, what it seemed in her eyes, her son's madness.
"Mother, I had to do it. Letting Faramir go on his own wasn't an option."
"Even if it meant almost dying?" she said bitterly. "Do you realise that for ten days I've done nothing else but sit by your side, pinning you down with my hands as you thrashed in your fevered dreams? While at night I kept crying myself to sleep, praying you woke up? I was strong at your father's death and I try to be strong while Iorlas is away; but my strength has its limits!" Her voice cracked and she hid her face in her hands, her anguish caught up with her.
Feeling his heart wrenching at the sight, Beregond used all his strength to sit up and embrace her, trying to sooth her down; then caught her hands in his hands and fixed his gaze on her.
"I won't claim I know or even reckon how much you suffered because of me," he said softly. "But, even if I disappoint you by this, I won't say that I wouldn't do it again had I faced the same dilemma once more."
"I believe you, child. You're your father's son," Isilme replied, smiling grimly. "But I fear soon you will have to deal with more than your illness. You know there will be a trial for what you've done."
Beregond nodded. "When will it be held?"
"I do not know. Denethor awaits the knights to return from Ithilien, for he needs Thorongil's advice, like Lord Ecthelion, his father, did. Meanwhile, both you and Faramir are to stay in your rooms, only to get out for the trial. There is something else. Maldir told me that, since neither you nor Faramir has come of age yet, you're to be escorted by guardians who are to help you during the trial. He already offered himself to be yours."
"And who will be Faramir's?" asked Beregond.
"Gandalf the Wizard."
Suddenly, both mother and son heard a knock on the door. It was Mauwin, a friend of Isilme, and she came now with important news to tell. Tidings had arrived from Ithilien that the Orcs were finally defeated and the knights were expected to return in six days' time. Isilme and Beregond exchanged a glance full of meaning when they heard this, for they both understood what that meant: the trial was bound to follow soon enough. Beregond couldn't help thinking what awaited himself and Faramir; he could only hope for the best.
The six days passed as in a flash, and on the morning of the seventh day the knights entered the White City. The citizens welcomed the soldiers as heroes and even celebrated for two whole days the victory against the Orcs. Then the festivities ended, and the City returned to its former routine; something that wasn't true for the court though. For the Steward and Thorongil had to set themselves on a different task: to judge the actions of the two boys who dared leave the city in secrecy with the intention of following the Gondorian army.
Everything was arranged quietly. No announcements were made, nor indeed any citizen was to be present during the trial, since it was decided that the matter concerned Lord Denethor most of all – his son was being one of the accused. Thus it was that only seven people were at the Great Hall at the crack of dawn: Lord Denethor, Thorongil, the boys and their appointed guardians, as well as the commander of the bridge-keepers, for his own account was needed also. As it was customary on such occasions, all who were to tell their side of the events were expected to go inside the Hall only when asked, speak of their tale, then answer any questions were addressed to them until they were dismissed once again. When this procedure would come to its end, the judges – the Steward and his advisor – would retire to come to their decisions.
The first one to be questioned was the commander, who told everything he knew. He was on guard with his men by their post, when suddenly they saw two horses galloping in fright towards them. This struck them as odd and so they decided to investigate matters; it was then that they came across a party of Orcs and swiftly did away with them. Suspecting that there could be more of the monsters about, they separated into two separate groups and patrolled the riverside. They searched for many hours, but it was only at dawn that they found at the opposite side of the river a young boy by the side of his companion, whose eyes were closed and his face was pale as a sheet. The young boy, who turned out to the Steward's son, was in a state of shock, fearing that his friend, who was instantly recognised as late Baranor's son, was dead. Baranor's son, however, was alive, if only suffering from severe pneumonia as one of the soldiers, knowledgeable in the healing art, discovered. The children were taken to the camp close to the bridge, where Baranor's son would be treated properly while a messenger travelled to Minas Tirith. Soon enough, a party of soldiers came with Baranor's wife, and took both lads back to the White City.
And that was where he ended his tale.
Then it was Beregond's turn to walk into the Hall. As Maldir had advised him, Beregond spoke briefly and truthfully to all the questions he was asked, though Lord Denethor's seemed to pierce his very soul, making him more than a little uncomfortable. Looking at Maldir, who was standing a little further away, and mustering all his courage, he told of everything, starting from the day he received Faramir's note and doing his best not to omit anything.
Just when he thought he was doing well, he was interrupted.
"You said you encountered six Orcs. The bridge keeper said there were five of them," pointed out Thorongil.
"He was right, sir," replied Beregond. "We killed the sixth one, when he tried to capture us. Faramir made the first stroke and I made the final one."
Thorongil and Maldir were certainly impressed by this, but Denethor's face didn't betray any clear emotion. All he asked was, "Have you any proof of this?"
"None that I can think of, my lord," said Beregond hesitantly. "I can only tell you what happened."
"And what makes you think that should be enough?" asked Lord Denethor again, looking hard at Beregond.
But this time Beregond didn't flinch; anger was ignited in his soul instead.
"My word as the son of a Gondorian soldier that died to save your life… my lord," he said through clenching teeth. Fleetingly he felt strong fingers curled around his arm and he understood. Maldir was warning him that he was about to take one step too far.
If Lord Denethor had any intentions to comment on the curtness of Beregond's reply, he never had the chance; Thorongil spoke at that very moment. "My lord, if I may say so; if your son's tale confirms the boy's words, then it is probably that this incident is true."
Beregond locked his gaze on Thorongil, wishing to express his thanks to the man for offering his help. And as he still looked at Thorongil, he began to understand why it was that he heard so many soldiers talk about him with such admiration and even fondness. His calm stance; his confident voice; his whole demeanour, in fact, revealed far more nobility than Denethor's, without the estrangement the Steward seemed to have with the small folk. His eyes drifted on Lord Denethor, and in wonder he realised that apparently the Steward was aware of it too; he kept regarding Thorongil with what could only be labelled as resentment.
"Very well," said then Lord Denethor, cutting into Beregond's train of thought. "You may proceed with your narrative, Baranor's son."
Beregond huffed again and fingered his brooch nervously. Faramir had been in the Hall for half an hour now and that was making him nervous. What was happening in there?
"They're probably asking Faramir about that Orc you killed," said Maldir, who was sitting next to him; "something that probably would have been avoided if you had controlled your temper."
"My temper?" said Beregond incredulously. "Lord Denethor doubted my word, Maldir!"
"You doubted the way he rules," said Maldir, his face growing stern. "Did it ever occur to you that, if Lord Denethor was certain your tale was false, he wouldn't bother asking any questions in the first place? He wanted to find the truth, like any good judge should."
"But I didn't lie about anything! It was one of the first rules you taught us in training: don't even trick Orcs with falsehood, for it doesn't make you any better than them."
"And there is a law saying that, in times of war, no citizen is to venture far from the city's walls. You didn't obey that one though, did you?"
Beregond was about to protest, but no word came out of his lips. He only closed his mouth again, shaking his head. He knew Maldir was right.
"I didn't want this," he said sadly.
"I know you didn't, lad," said Maldir, placing an arm over Beregond's shoulder. "Your mother explained everything," he said, answering his trainee's puzzled look.
"You're not angry with me then?"
"No, not angry. Disappointed, more likely," admitted the old soldier. "Don't get me wrong, your loyalty is admirable and it means you'll become a fine soldier one day. But if protecting Faramir from harm meant so much to you, you could have easily spoken to me and told me about it. Though Faramir didn't wish to listen to you, I would know what to say to him to stop him from such madness that his young heart encouraged him to do. Do you have so little faith in me?"
"That would feel like betraying his trust," said Beregond. "But I talked him into writing a note," he added lamely.
"That was hardly helpful, was it?"
Beregond sighed and bowed his head. "I guess it's difficult doing the right thing, isn't it?"
Maldir smiled a bit and nudged Beregond to look up at him.
"It is difficult, lad; but there is a little secret that might prove helpful to you in the future. Care to know it?" he said in a confidential tone.
"Please," answered Beregond, his eyes shining expectantly.
Maldir darted his eyes at every direction, as though afraid that somebody would hear him; then leaned close to Beregond.
"There is no such thing as a right thing," he whispered.
Beregond gaped. Maldir, of all people, was saying that?!
Maldir nodded, confirming his words. "For the right thing is different in every person, and it resides here," he continued, pointing at Beregond's forehead; "and here." He pointed at the boy's heart. "They are your best guides. You have some good instincts that already point you to the correct direction of what a soldier really should be, Beregond; though perhaps still faulty at times because of inexperience and recklessness." He smiled at the slight tease; then sobered again. "But as you grow older and wiser, there will come a day that they will lead you without much error."
"Even if it means I will have to oppose those I'm to obey as a soldier?" asked Beregond, feeling more confused than ever.
"Only if it means that you will have to obey at the expense of your conscience and your soul. Those are in your keeping alone. For a soldier, like every mortal, does not answer to kings or stewards in the end; but to something far more powerful and wise. And once there, at the end of the great journey beyond, lad, words like 'But I was told by others to do this' won't suffice. Remember that."
Beregond nodded slightly, such words clearly setting him thinking; then spoke again.
"What do you think will happen to me and Faramir now?"
The old soldier sighed in answer.
"I honestly can't tell, lad. There was never an incident like this before, at least none that even the eldest of the elders can remember. But, I like to think that, despite what you've done, your young age and the fact that you were turning back to face the consequences works to your benefit. Thorongil will see to that. He's a good man, as you have already noticed."
"I have. And I hope you're right."
Just then, the door opened and Faramir came out, accompanied by Gandalf. Though his friend's face seemed calm and passive, Beregond noticed how tightly clenched his fists were. He was about to rise and comfort him, but Gandalf stopped him with a discreet, meaningful look. So Beregond remained still, understanding. Faramir shouldn't think that he was pitied, otherwise matters could get worse.
Faramir didn't say anything. He merely sat down next to Beregond, his eyes locked stubbornly on the ground. As for Maldir and Gandalf, they took a few steps away to let them be for a few moments, something that Beregond appreciated. He waited some more, hoping that Faramir would speak first, but it was of no use. In the end, the silence grew so heavy on him that he decided he couldn't take it anymore.
"Well, what happened?"
Faramir heaved a sigh. "I told him everything. He especially wanted to know about the Orc we killed."
"No, Thorongil," faltered Faramir. Too late did he bite his lower lip to stop himself from sobbing; he quickly hid his face in his hands. "Father didn't seem to care enough to even look at me."
"I'm sorry," said Beregond.
"No, I am sorry," exclaimed Faramir, instantly looking up. The tears he had been holding back finally flooded out. "I not only failed him, I failed Gandalf; I failed Boromir; I even failed you! I…" He stopped midway and averted his eyes in shame. "If you do not want to talk to me after that, I will understand."
Beregond stared at his friend in shock.
"I wasn't disappointed before, but I'm now! I thought you knew me better than that! We both got ourselves in this mess, remember?"
"You followed so you would look after me!" said Faramir. "You think I don't understand that now? If I hadn't…"
"So you are saying that you will take the blame even for choices I alone made?" interrupted Beregond, and prodded Faramir to look at him. "I was the one who had a bad feeling about our venture; I was the one who should have done something about it. Because I'm the oldest and I should have known better!" He paused, feeling his indignation ebbing away. "Frankly, I would prefer neither of us had to go through this, but we did. And, believe it or not, I'm glad that things turned out the way they did. Now we can stand by each other, just like the heroes Gandalf used to tell us about; like brothers-in-arms."
Faramir listened to Beregond, almost mesmerised, his eyes reddened because of his tears, but his gratitude still shining through them. He clasped his hand on Beregond's shoulder.
"Thank you, best of friends. You know something though? We are not only just like brothers-in-arms; for, I swear to you, whatever happens, I will never abandon you. Not now, not ever."
"Nor I you," replied Beregond, smiling broadly and clasping his own hand on Faramir's, thus sealing their vow. Neither of the boys noticed Gandalf and Maldir watching them and smiling as they realised that they weren't looking on boys anymore, but young men.
An hour passed, and the boys and their guardians were asked to go into the Great Hall again to listen to the Steward's decision. Beregond and Faramir exchanged a look, confirming that they were there for each other; then walked in to see that Lord Denethor and Thorongil were already each in his own position, looking at the boys gravely.
In a matter of moments, Denethor arose and spoke.
"We had before us a very difficult decision to make, since our laws do not predict punishment for offenders of such a young age. Should that mean that they should not be punished? No. As a matter of fact, because of their heritage," and at that he looked sternly at Faramir, "they should be punished all the more; for they should set an example on the city, yet failed to do so.
"However, as Captain Thorongil pointed out, such a violent experience that almost led to the death of one of you should be enough punishment. I agree to that, but only to some extent. I can't fail to notice that, because of one's desire for adventure, he dragged the other as well, leading thus to this unfortunate and undesirable chain of events. Despite whatever reassurances, I am afraid this sort of thing is bound to happen again, unless something is done about it. Because of this, I am going to have to ask from the boys not to see each other ever again. They will be placed in different training groups as of tomorrow."
Beregond gaped, hardly believing his ears at what he had just heard. He looked at Faramir's face and he saw that his friend was just as stunned. He turned to Lord Denethor, wishing to cry out his outrage, but he stopped himself at the last moment. Maldir's words still echoed in his mind; he had no right to question openly the Steward. Instead he was ready to plead his lord to reconsider his decision and not separate him from his best friend, for the thought seemed unbearable.
It was to no avail. The Steward had already left the room.
All was not lost to Beregond yet though. Just then, the corner of his eye caught a glimpse of Thorongil, still on his seat, shaking his head solemnly.
"My lord," he said, rushing toward him, followed closely behind by Faramir, "what are we to do now?"
"I am afraid nothing but comply. A Steward's word cannot be denied by any man but the king himself," answered Thorongil, his stormy grey eyes clearly showing his regret.
"But, sir," cried Faramir in frustration, "what about our friendship?"
They both looked pleadingly at the three men, wishing to hear an answer, any kind of encouraging answer; while Thorongil, Gandalf and Maldir, looked at them sadly, wishing to give them something to hope for. Finally, after a long pause which seemed to last an eternity, it was Gandalf who gave the answer.
"You will find a way."
And he was right. They did find a way.
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.