Chapter 3: Burning
"Lie still. Do not move!"
The words still manage to surprise Faramir. With a strangled gasp, he again finds himself on his back in stagnant water.
"Hush! If you voice your fear, they will kill you!"
Faramir closes his eyes, struggling to remember where he was before the nightmare stole his mind. He hopes he was not among his men, but try as he might, he cannot recall.
"There is time," Legolas says, and a restraining hand rests upon Faramir's chest. "You can still confront your fear, but you must do so in silence."
It feels real. It feels as though Legolas is with him. But according to Gimli, Legolas is not here. Legolas has never been here. The elf's hand, solid and strong, is not real.
"They come!" Water splashes. Faramir opens his eyes in time to see panic flood Legolas's face. "They must not see you with me. You must face them alone!"
Once again, Legolas flees. As he did the last time, Faramir makes no attempt to stop him. He has not the patience to contest this part of the dream. Rather, he saves his arguments for the part of the dream that does change, and he struggles to his knees, waiting for Gimli.
"Legolas cannot help you."
"Nor can any who enter this place," Faramir answers grimly. "But in truth, I am the only one who seems to enter this place. Does this mean I cannot aid myself?"
It seems the right question to ask. For a moment, there is a…pause in the dream. Faramir can think of no better word to describe it. The mist stops swirling. The water stops lapping. The breeze stops blowing. It is as though the forces that compel him here must consider the question.
Then the moment is over. Darkness parts, and Gimli comes forward with a thoughtful look. "Not yet," the dwarf says. "Not as you are. Rather, you must become what you were."
Faramir's brow furrows. "What I was?" he echoes.
"Yes. That is when he will return, and that is when you will find help. But not yet. It is too soon. And you must not voice your fear! If you do, then there is no hope. Do not voice your fear!"
Shaking his head, Faramir decides to test the theory he formed in the midst of Aragorn's summons. "You claim I must not voice my fear," he says, "but my fear is here. It stands in plain sight before me!"
The dwarf's face is skeptical. "You understand? He has still not returned, and only when you understand can he return."
"Legolas cannot return! You said so in an earlier dream! But I do understand, and I know the fear you speak of. It is a weapon by which this dank and rot and wet can be driven back. I know not how, yet—"
"So near!" Gimli growls, his eyes burning. "But still, you understand only part. You refuse to see more!"
Faramir steps back, confused. "I did what you asked. I learned the meaning behind your name—"
"But that is all you have learned! And it is important, yes, but it may only be used if you accept that which you still deny! And you still deny your fear!"
Words fail Faramir. Ever since waking in the Houses of Healing, fractured memories of scorching heat and searing flames have haunted his nights. It is a real fear that answers most of what he has discerned from this dream. But if fire is only part of the answer, he is still missing something of the question.
"Soon there will be no time," Gimli continues, his voice rising, "and all because you fail to understand!"
"What do I fail to understand?" Faramir demands, begging the dream to explain.
"Who are you?"
"One who fears the meaning behind your name!"
"No," Gimli whispers, turning away. "That is only part. And though there are some who fear the fragment, you fear the whole."
Faramir starts awake. His cheek scrapes against rough planks, and his hands slap down on wood. Surging upright, he looks about and finds himself seated at a table in a darkened tent. The King's tent. A platter of food is pushed off to one side, and an overturned goblet explains the stain of wine on the carpets beneath the table. Groaning quietly, he cards his fingers through his hair and tries to remember what happened.
The dream is easy enough to recall, but before the dream… He remembers speaking with Beregond. He remembers ordering the night watches. He wishes he did not remember visiting the ill, but that is unfortunately clear in his memories. Their vacant faces and tortured eyes are all too similar to his own confusion. After visiting the ill, he remembers returning to the King's tent where Beregond brought him supper, and then—
A sigh escapes him. Perhaps he is stricken with sickness after all. And perhaps he grows worse.
In frustration, he thumps a clenched fist onto the table. His arm knocks against an unlit candle, and instinctively he catches it before it can fall. His fingers wrap about the cool tallow, and feeling upward for the wick, he considers lighting the candle. He also considers lighting the dwarven lantern beneath the table, but something makes him pause. Some hesitation about the spark needed to bring light to the tent.
Pushing his chair back, he stands and rubs his brow. When he dreams of his father's death, he is prone to wake in a cold sweat filled with images of flames. Fire is certainly something he fears, and thus he was certain it answered the dream. An errant thought niggles the back of his mind, reminding him of another fear, but he dismisses the idea. Why would a dream warn him against voicing a fear of madness?
Then again, why would a dream warn him against voicing a fear of fire?
Frustrated, Faramir begins to review the dream once more, but ere he gets far, his attention is drawn outward beyond the walls of the tent. There is a change in the noises of the camp. The sides of the tent shift in response to a light wind, and carried on that wind, a faint voice can be heard issuing a challenge. An even fainter voice responds, and Faramir immediately reaches for his cloak. Aragorn's messengers have arrived from the Nindalf.
Faramir is acutely aware of guarded looks from the sentries as he steps outside. Their concern rankles, for though well-meaning, such concern might easily translate into doubt. Faramir's mind is drawn to memories of his father's stern censure during the final years of the War, and with effort, he pushes those thoughts away. Leaving the tent behind, he sets out a brisk pace, fighting the wind that tugs the edges of his cloak.
"Lord Faramir!" calls a voice, and Faramir pauses as Beregond emerges from the twilight. "The King has sent messengers."
"I hear them," Faramir answers, starting forward again.
"I can conduct them to your tent," Beregond offers.
"I thank you for your consideration, but I will see them to the King's tent," Faramir answers coolly. "If you wish to be helpful, go there and light candles and lanterns. The tent was dark when I left it."
Beregond's expression is difficult to read in the shadows, but Faramir senses the other is troubled. He continues forward, forcing himself to focus only on the sounds ahead as the sentries and messengers approach. After a moment, he sees the glow of torches lighting the way forward. The advancing group stops as they catch sight of Faramir.
"Hail, Lord Steward!" cries the foremost messenger. "We bring tidings from the King."
"Gladly do I receive both you and your tidings," Faramir answers. "Come! You shall have somewhat to eat, and while you dine, you may tell us of our progress in the marshes."
As he turns to lead the way, Faramir realizes Beregond is no longer with him. Nor can he say when Beregond left. Doubtless the man is doing as directed: lighting candles and lanterns in the King's tent. But Faramir once prided himself on knowing his Rangers' movements in Ithilien's darkest shadows. His failure to note Beregond's absence is worrying.
But there is naught to be done about it now, so Faramir orders the watch back to their posts and escorts the messengers himself. News of their arrival spreads quickly through the camp, and a small crowd grows around them, curious to know how those in the Nindalf fare. Aware that the mood of the camp could be improved, Faramir gestures for the messengers to enter the King's tent—now brightly lit—but does not enter himself. Rather, he spies Beregond by the entrance and addresses him, pitching his voice so all may hear. "Bring refreshment for the messengers, and send word to each of the remaining companies: All captains who did not follow the King into the Nindalf are to gather here, and together, we will learn of the progress in the fens. The captains may then share what they learn with their commands."
The feeling of relief is palpable. The crowd disperses almost as quickly as it formed, the men satisfied in knowing they will soon learn how it goes with the King. A smile eases the lines around Beregond's eyes, and he hastens away to carry out the orders.
They do not wait long. Some of the captains were in the crowd, and those not present quickly learn they are wanted at the King's tent. All are soon gathered, and after food and drink are secured, the messengers tell of the journey in the Nindalf.
The report is as Faramir expected: The swamps are wet and treacherous. Progress is slow, and even the elves are mired at times. There are no signs of brigands, but the King intends to press on for as long and as far as they can be certain of a trail. Through all of it, Faramir listens closely, hoping for something that might relate to his dreams. But as the messengers continue, he begins to despair. Nothing they say strikes him as significant. Nothing they relate is any different from what he has experienced before in the fens. Nothing, that is, until the messengers near the end of their tale and describe the area where the company stopped for the night. Here they pause, and something in their faces changes.
"Just before the King sent us back, Lord Legolas took a small group and scouted the area around our encampment, such as it is. He found ruins."
Faramir blinks. "Ruins?"
"Stone ruins, Lord Steward."
"Impossible," someone mutters on the opposite side of the tent. All eyes turn toward Mablung, the Rangers' captain. "There are no stone ruins in the Nindalf," he informs them.
"Can you be certain of that?" Beregond wonders. "You told me yesterday that the fens change every spring. Perhaps these floods have forced something to the surface."
"So the King suspects," one of the messengers says. "There are not many ruins, and were it not for the keen senses of the elves, we might have missed them altogether. They are submerged in the water, and it is suspected that heavy rains have stripped much mud away, allowing the elves to feel them underfoot."
"What manner of ruins are they?" Faramir asks.
"They were described to me as the remains of a stone pathway, my lord," another messenger answers. "Some say they have also found part of an old stone wall."
"These ruins would have to be very old to be built ere fens covered these lands," Mablung says, his tone doubtful. "Older than any records we have and any legends we know."
Faramir folds his arms across his chest, his head bowed. Aragorn and Beregond may be right: the ruins might have been buried in mud, only to emerge now. But something in the back of his mind whispers the truth is more sinister. "What more can you tell me of these ruins?"
"Little, Lord Steward. The scouts did not spend long amidst them. The way proved treacherous, and there was a chill breeze that made the men shiver."
Faramir's breath catches, remembering the wind that stirred the King's departing pennants but touched nothing else. "Was there a breeze anywhere else in the Nindalf?"
The messengers exchange looks. "None that I remember, my lord," one says.
"I felt no breeze until returning here," another adds.
"Only in the ruins did you feel a wind?" Faramir presses.
"Not us, Lord Steward, but the scouts who went. Yes, they felt the wind."
Faramir's glances toward the tent flaps as though daring a breeze to stir them. "Have you aught else to share? Any other tidings?"
"Only to say we must leave early on the morrow."
Faramir nods absently, keeping his eyes on the tent flaps while his thoughts chase one another to and fro. He eventually shakes his head and turns back to the messengers. He can ponder the matter after he rids himself of an audience. "If you intend to make an early start, it would behoove you to sleep now. Beregond, have we lodging these men might share?"
"They are already prepared, and I have a man waiting outside to take them to their booths," Beregond answers.
"Good. Then I thank you for your service and wish you a pleasant night," Faramir says. He turns to the rest of the group. "Let us all follow their example. Return to your companies. Captains, you are charged with sharing tidings of our friends in the swamp. Afterward, post your watches and seek what rest you can."
With murmured acknowledgments, the group rises and the captains begin to leave. "Are you certain you can find the King's company again?" Mablung asks the messengers as they drain the last of the wine from their goblets. "The Nindalf is known for confounding its travelers."
The messengers assure Mablung of their confidence, but Faramir's attention is not on them. Rather, he looks sharply at Mablung, hearing an uncertain note in the Ranger's tone. Catching the captain's eyes, Faramir cants his head slightly to one side. The other reads his signal easily and steps away from those shuffling out the tent flaps. Within moments, the tent is empty of all save Mablung, Faramir, and Beregond.
"Shall I tell the sentries you do not wish to be disturbed for a time?" Beregond asks, his gaze darting between Mablung and Faramir.
"Mablung and I will be swift," Faramir reassures, "and I will see to the sentries when I depart for my own tent. Seek your rest."
Though reluctant, Beregond knows how to choose his battles. He takes his leave with a murmured farewell. When the tent flaps fall shut, Faramir turns to Mablung and finds a gaze as concerned as his own.
"There are no stone ruins in those swamps, Lord Steward," Mablung says flatly.
"None that we know of," Faramir qualifies.
"As Rangers, we traversed them often enough to know. At the very least, there are none this near the outskirts."
Faramir grimaces, unable to refute the claim but also unable to ignore the obvious: "Ruins do not spring forth overnight."
"Which leaves us two possibilities as I discern them: either we missed paved stone during countless and weary slogs through the fens, or something with abilities beyond our ken is at work." Mablung gives Faramir a measuring look. "My lord, the rumors in camp say you were ill last night, but you do not seem ill to me. Rather, you seem as one torn. Indeed, you seem as you did three years ago when restless dreams compelled your brother to seek Imladris. If I may be permitted to ask, have you fallen to the malady that afflicts others? Or is your illness the workings of foresight?"
Startled by Mablung's questions, Faramir does not immediately answer. During the War, the Rangers relied upon frank assessments of one another, and Faramir knows he should expect such boldness from Mablung. But over the past two years, the White Company's deference enabled him to avoid matters the Rangers would have forced. Perhaps in the future, he should spend more time among the Rangers. He has missed their candor.
"My troubles last night were the work of a dream," he finally says. "I have now been visited by that same dream several times."
"Then it is foresight."
Faramir shakes his head. "The sick who are hale enough to speak say they have also had strange dreams."
"Yes, but that is all they can say of those dreams," Mablung answers. "If you remember enough to know you have endured the same dream, it does not sound as though you suffer the same malady. Does your dream warn of danger, Lord Steward?"
"I believe so, yes," Faramir murmurs, rubbing his jaw. "But I cannot fathom the nature of the warning or to whom it applies."
Mablung's eyes darken. "Then I beg leave to lead a portion of the Rangers into the swamp. We could provide escort to the messengers and join the King's company. The rest of the Rangers would remain with you under Damrod's command, and should you understand more of your foresight, they will be available to counter any threat."
Faramir considers the request. Such an act would not unduly weaken the remaining company, and it would satisfy the demands of prudence. But something chimes a warning. Sending Mablung forth is not the answer. It is a part of it, but not the whole. Recalling that his last dream said much the same thing, Faramir grits his teeth in silent frustration. "You have leave to assemble a party of Rangers," he says, "but you do not have leave to escort the messengers into the Nindalf. Not yet. I must think on this further. Inform the messengers to seek you out in the morning. You will know your duty before then."
"It will be as you say, my lord," Mablung says, sketching a brief bow. He straightens, and there is a sudden twinkle in his eye. "Would you like me to inform Beregond that you have sought your blankets?"
"Yes," Faramir says, his own lips twitching. "Otherwise, he will not sleep himself."
Mablung laughs and bids Faramir a good night before slipping out of the tent. A cold breeze twists the swinging tent flaps, and the candles atop the table flicker, drawing Faramir's eyes. Despite his words to Mablung, he is not quite ready to retire for the night. He should. He needs rest, certainly. Yet there is something he must understand from his dream. Something that will dictate his actions in the morning.
Bewildered and frustrated, Faramir finds himself staring at one flickering candle. The sides of the tent stretch and shift in the growing breeze, and somewhere in the distance, he fancies he hears the sounds of…
"Lie still. Do not move!"
Faramir does not know why he is still surprised by the words. Perhaps it is the suddenness of the dream's onset. Or perhaps it is the shock of the freezing water. Regardless, he is again unable to muffle a sharp gasp, and as before, Legolas responds quickly.
"Hush! If you voice your fear, they will kill you!"
Faramir pushes himself upright, countering Legolas's attempts to keep him still. He is sorely tempted to shout the word "fire" as a last attempt to salvage what he thought was once an answer. But he holds his peace. Once again, a voice in the back of his mind reminds him he also fears madness. And certainly he associates memories of madness with memories of fire. But how might madness pertain to the Nindalf? Has it somewhat to do with the stricken men?
"There is time," Legolas says, and Faramir suppresses the urge to recite the words along with the elf. "You can still confront your fear, but you must do so in silence."
And why is that? Why would breaking his silence prove ill? Faramir shakes his hand free of the slime that passes for water and rubs his brow. There is so much he does not understand, and Legolas will not answer his questions.
"They come!" he hears Legolas hiss. The elf shoots upward, water splashing against Faramir. "They must not see you with me. You must face them alone!"
Abandoned in the dark, Faramir decides there is very little difference between Legolas's presence and his absence. He wonders what might happen if he were to walk away in the beginning of the dream. But where could he go? All here is dark. Perhaps he would simply find himself back where he began and be forced to endure the same conversation.
"Legolas cannot help you."
Mud squelches beneath his boots as Faramir rises. He remembers the King's messengers speaking of stone underfoot, and a thought occurs to him. Since the dream takes place in what appears to be the Nindalf, perhaps it mirrors what is currently happening in the fens. "Are there ruins beneath this murk?" he asks.
The darkness lifts enough to reveal Gimli. The dwarf's eyes are narrowed, and he does not immediately answer. "Were there ruins here before?" he asks at length.
"None that I saw or felt," Faramir says, certain he has stumbled upon something important.
"Then why look for ruins now?"
"Because this is the part of the dream that changes," Faramir says, and a piece of the puzzle slides into place. He pins Gimli with a piercing look. "In the beginning of the dream, Legolas repeats the same words and the same actions. I have no power to alter what he says or what he does. But when you are here, things change. And outside the dream, it is likewise. The Nindalf has already changed. There are ruins where there should be nothing. And like the Nindalf, I can now create change. Is this not so? The beginning was unalterable, but the ending can be changed!"
Gimli's expression is one of guarded approval. "You are starting to see. At least, you are starting to see in part. But do you understand?"
"Do I understand?" Faramir echoes, a mirthless laugh catching in his throat. He waves his hand at the darkness around him. "Regarding this place? No! I do not understand! But regarding the ability to effect change… The change is in the Nindalf, and I am the recipient of a dream that changes only in the end. If I understand that aright, then I must not linger on the outskirts. I must place myself within the Nindalf so that I may alter the end."
"You cannot look for help from any who enter this place," Gimli warns.
"So you have told me," Faramir says. "Would it be too much to ask where help can be found?"
"You would know if you understood! All I ask now is that you not voice your fear. If you do, then there is no hope. Do not voice your fear."
"I do not even know what my fear is!" Faramir exclaims, weary of the mystery. "Nor do I know why I should refrain from voicing it!"
"Again, you would know if you understood," Gimli growls, shaking his head. "But you are running out of time in which to understand!"
"Then help me!" Faramir demands.
"Who are you?" Gimli returns heatedly.
Faramir spreads his arms helplessly. "What would you have me say?"
Faramir sighs, shaking his head. "Then in truth, I do not know."
After a moment, Gimli begins to nod. "At least you realize that."
When Faramir wakes, he is lying prone upon the carpets beneath the table of maps. In a stark testament to the past few days, this fails to surprise or concern him. Rather, his thoughts are consumed with the need to act. The dream has unlocked at least one of its secrets: something can change. Something needs to change. What that something is and what form the change will be, Faramir cannot say. But his instincts scream for action, and he learned long ago to hearken to his instincts.
There are still several hours left of night, but Faramir cannot wait for morning. He shrugs into his heavy cloak and leaves the King's tent, startling the sentries outside. Recovering quickly, they move to follow, but he waves them back, his curt manner brooking no disobedience. Beregond probably instructed them to accompany him should he leave the tent, but Faramir is the Steward. While the King is gone—and until Beregond has cause to believe otherwise—the Steward is in command.
The night is dark with only a few watch fires lit, but Faramir was a Ranger too long to be bothered by shadows. He moves quickly, avoiding obstacles as they appear until at last he spies a tent lit from within. He knows who is still awake, and with his destination in sight, he hastens his pace, absently returning the hails of surprised men before ducking into Mablung's tent.
To say Mablung is shocked by his sudden entrance would be an understatement. Constantly attuned to his surroundings, Mablung looks up the moment Faramir pushes the tent flaps aside, and his mouth drops open.
"There is a change of plan," Faramir announces without preamble. "Send for Beregond. The disposition of this camp must be altered."
Mablung nods in startled obedience and slips outside briefly. Following a low murmur of voices, Mablung returns, pulling the tent flaps closed behind him as he shivers from the cold. "Damrod left a few minutes ago to fetch supplies from the far side of camp. I have sent runners after him, and they will instruct him to fetch Beregond as he returns."
Faramir gives Mablung a sharp look. "Your runners need not chase Damrod. You could have sent them directly to Beregond."
"True," Mablung agrees, meeting Faramir's look with an even stare. "But you could have sent your own guards to fetch Beregond, Lord Steward. I know not why you delayed until you reached my tent, but I thought it prudent to continue the delay. If it is not too bold, may I ask what change you intend and why? Have you received new tidings?"
Shrewd as ever, Mablung manages a question that is both direct and discreet. His inquiry after "new tidings" covers both tidings from Aragorn in the Nindalf as well as tidings from…other sources. In light of Mablung's actions—particularly the delay in sending for Beregond—Faramir chooses a direct approach. "Yes, I received new tidings," he says, "and it forces several decisions. As requested, you and your men will escort the messengers into the Nindalf. But a company of Rangers will not be enough. I must journey into the Nindalf with you."
To Mablung's credit, his only outward reaction is a slight widening of the eyes. "We welcome your company." He pauses, and his gaze shifts toward the tent flaps. "What aid do you require in arranging the camp for departure? We must act swiftly if we wish to leave in the morning."
"The rest of the camp will not be moving into the fens. Only I and those Rangers you select will depart. The remainder of our encampment will move away from the Nindalf."
Now Mablung's eyes narrow. "Forgive my impertinence, Lord Faramir, but the King—"
"As I said, I have received new tidings," Faramir interrupts. He needs not Mablung's warning; he knows his actions trespass on the King's orders. But grief has taught Faramir not to send another in his stead when answering a dream.
Mablung shifts uneasily. "The Rangers trust your judgment and your foresight. But we also trust the King."
Setting aside all lingering doubts, Faramir steps forward and puts a hand on Mablung's shoulder. "As do I," Faramir assures quietly. "But my dreams persist. I know not why this foresight has come to me and not to the King. Possibly my familiarity with the fens breeds the warning, I cannot say. But I can say that I am needed. And as Steward, my responsibility is to both Gondor and to the King. I cannot ignore that. If you will not accompany me, I will go alone. But I will go, regardless."
For a long moment, Mablung says nothing. His eyes search Faramir's face, and at length, he seems to come to a decision. With a slow nod, he claps a hand on Faramir's shoulder, and they stand not as Steward and Captain but as Rangers of Ithilien. "My men and I will follow."
Faramir grips Mablung's shoulder tightly in silent thanks. A weight lifts from his own shoulders, and though questions persist, Faramir feels again the sure confidence of commanding the Rangers. With Mablung at his back, they can prevail.
But the battle is not yet won, for he must still convince Beregond. And seemingly cued by his thoughts, noises rise outside. The tent flaps part, and Damrod enters bearing a small stack of maps. Behind him comes a haggard Beregond. Something about his disheveled appearance suggests a lack of sleep rather than an abrupt waking. Pity stabs at Faramir's heart. What he is about to ask will have many consequences, and Beregond will bear a goodly number of them. But they are running out of time and choices. Stepping away from Mablung, Faramir lets fall his hand and addresses Beregond: "Captain, I have been stricken by the malady attacking this camp."
Mablung adopts a neutral expression. Damrod blinks. Beregond stares. "My lord," the latter ventures slowly, "are you certain?"
"As certain as you need me to be," Faramir answers. "I relinquish command of the encampment to the White Company, but if you heed my counsel, you will move this encampment several miles away from the fens. Distance might aid the ill."
Beregond's eyes narrow. "Sound counsel. The White Company will see it done. But it seems strange to hear sound counsel coming from the lips of one so afflicted. If I may say, Lord Steward, you seem no different now than you did hours ago when I took my leave for the evening. If anything, I would deem you better, for you are filled with purpose. Do I err?"
Either command has made Beregond bold or he has spent too much time with Mablung. Deciding to remove at least one potential culprit, Faramir turns to Damrod and Mablung. "Leave us. I will call for you soon."
Silently, the two Rangers fetch their cloaks and slip outside. Alone with the captain of the White Company, Faramir takes a deep breath and turns back to Beregond. "What were the King's words to you ere he left? At what point were you to assume command?"
Beregond's jaw tightens. "I was to watch you for signs that your judgment faltered. I was to watch for a time when you could no longer be trusted with your own safety or the safety of those in your charge."
Faramir nods. "I wish to follow the King into the Nindalf, and I wish to take little thought for my own safety. Do I satisfy your requirements?"
Growing suspicion in Beregond's face reveals Faramir has not compromised his judgment enough. "Should we guard your movements, Lord Steward? Or can you vouchsafe your good conduct when we move the encampment away from the fens?"
"I will probably fight any attempts to remove me from the Nindalf," Faramir says, his eyes never leaving Beregond's. "And I do not wish to leave the King without forces on the border of the Nindalf that he may draw upon at need. Therefore, I propose that Mablung and a small group of Rangers remain here. I will tarry with them, for Mablung has already agreed to see to my welfare. You and Damrod will concern yourself with the main encampment and lead it to safer ground."
Beregond is silent for a long moment. "With all due respect, Lord Steward," he says at length, "Mablung was not charged with your welfare. That responsibility fell to me."
"But this encampment must be moved," Faramir reasons. "And if I openly resist leaving, we will lose the confidence of the men. The disappearances have already given rise to rumors and unease; the strange illness has made matters worse. You were charged with my safety, yes, but now that you hold command, you are also charged with the safety of all assembled here. You cannot afford to let fear sweep the camp, and thus you cannot move me against my will."
It is a cruel appeal to duty. In another situation, Faramir would never consider such a tactic. In fact, this entire approach chafes hard against his honor. It smacks of deception, though he has told no falsehood outright. But he needs to force Beregond's hand, so he ignores the scruples of his conscience and watches frustration play over Beregond's face.
"If I ask Mablung to give me his word of honor that he will not allow you to enter the Nindalf, what will he say?" Beregond challenges.
Faramir smiles grimly. "He will not give you the answer you desire."
"My lord, do you know what you ask of me?"
"Yes," Faramir answers softly. "I ask for your trust. I ask for the same trust given me by my Rangers when I went against my father's orders and granted two hobbits safe passage through Ithilien. And also I ask for your courage. I ask for the same courage that caused you to desert your post and save me from an early funeral pyre in Rath Dínen."
If anything, this second appeal is even harsher than the first, and Beregond's pained expression speaks of turmoil. But then something in Beregond's face shifts. A stubborn resolve lights his eyes. "The White Company is beholden to the Prince of Ithilien, my lord," Beregond says, "but the Rangers are beholden to Gondor. Should it not be their charge to see to the welfare of the encampment?"
Faramir is certain of it now: Beregond has spent far too much time around Mablung. "The Rangers know the Nindalf best, and in this, duty should give way to prudence. The Rangers must tarry and the White Company must depart."
"Are all the Rangers staying?"
"No. Mablung will choose those who are to remain here. The rest will depart with the main camp."
"Under Damrod's command?"
Beregond nods and steps back. "Then a portion of the White Company will fulfill our duty to you even as Damrod's Rangers fulfill their duty to Gondor. Grant Damrod command over the encampment, and let him see to its welfare. I will remain here with a small detachment. If illness takes you into the swamp, the Rangers will be free to follow, and there will yet be men on the outskirts of the Nindalf should the King need them."
Faramir smiles slowly. It is a mirthless smile, for their gambit is too desperate for mirth. Nevertheless, he is both humbled and relieved. Relieved that Mablung and Beregond will support him in this. Humbled that Mablung and Beregond trust him enough to follow what may or may not be foresight. If he is wrong, he can only hope his position as Steward will absolve his two captains of blame. But he does not think he is wrong. Not anymore. Already, he feels the power to change.
"So be it," he tells Beregond, and the other man returns the mirthless smile. "Damrod will lead the camp away from the Nindalf. You will stay on the outskirts of the fens and await word. Go now, and begin the necessary arrangements. And if you would, ask Mablung and Damrod to return."
"My thanks, Lord Steward," Beregond says quietly, and he bows before moving for the tent flaps.
"One more thing, Captain," Faramir calls. "As you organize the companies for departure, set aside oil, flint, and steel."
"Oil, flint, and steel?" Beregond echoes, frowning.
"Yes," Faramir says. "As much as you can spare." He turns his gaze to the lanterns flickering in the tent. Fire may not be the answer, but if it is part of the answer, he can ill afford to be without it. "Keep some for your own company, but prepare the rest against the threat of water and distribute all you can to Mablung's company."
"As you say, my lord," Beregond says. "Might I inquire as to the purpose?"
"If I knew it, I would tell you."
It is not the answer Beregond wants, but Faramir has little sympathy. He does not yet have the answers he wants. Barely listening as Beregond murmurs an acknowledgment, Faramir keeps his focus on the lanterns lighting the tent. He feels he should know something more by now. That there is some obvious piece he is missing. But when Mablung and Damrod return to the tent, he quickly turns to more practical matters. For the moment, his questions will have to wait.