Chapter 4: Searching
"Lie still. Do not move!"
Shock makes him gasp loudly, but this time, shock is tempered by a surge of relief. Faramir returned to his own tent after speaking with Mablung and Damrod, certain the dream would come again during the night. He clearly remembers dousing all lights and wrapping himself in blankets before allowing his mind to drift. None were around to see his fall into the dream.
"Hush! If you voice your fear, they will kill you!"
Faramir pushes himself upright but makes no response, waiting out the dream's beginning.
"There is time. You can still confront your fear, but you must do so in silence."
He wonders if Legolas will continue to claim there is time even after it is too late. Gimli seems to think there is little time remaining.
"They come! They must not see you with me. You must face them alone!"
The elf is gone, and Faramir is alone. It is not a significant change. Faramir decides he might as well be alone when Gimli enters the dream, for the dwarf's cryptic hints only manage to confound and confuse. Perhaps all this will change when his company enters the Nindalf. The thought brings some hope, but it also reminds Faramir that to dream in the Nindalf means to dream in the company of his men. He has not yet determined how—or if—he can avoid this.
"Legolas cannot help you."
"So you have told me," Faramir sighs. "Next you will tell me the same is true for any who enter this place. None of them can help me." He pauses. "Is that because they are in need of help? Can I help them?"
The darkness lifts. Stepping forth from the gloom, Gimli pulls at his beard and looks around at the shadows. "That remains to be seen."
It seems no one is able to answer a question directly. "You have spoken concerning those who enter this place," Faramir says, changing tactics. "What of those who do not enter this place? Can they help me?"
"Yes," Gimli says slowly, and his eyes narrow. "There is one who can."
Hope stirs in Faramir's heart. He eagerly waits for Gimli to continue, but the dwarf says no more. "Would it be too much to request a name?" Faramir finally asks.
"You will not accept it if it comes from me," Gimli answers. "You must discover this on your own, and until you do, you must not voice your fear. Do not voice your fear!"
"But there is someone who can help me," Faramir presses, grasping after this new hope.
"In a sense, yes."
Hope spirals away. "In a sense?"
"He can only help when he returns, and he can only return when you understand."
"How can I understand when none will aid that understanding?" Faramir demands. "All you offer are hints and riddles! At one point, you even told me I could not help myself, so—"
"No!" Gimli interrupts sharply. "I said you could not help yourself as you are! But still you do not understand, and there is little time left to understand! Thus I ask, who are you?"
Faramir hisses, bringing his hands to his face as he struggles to fathom the question. "The Steward," he finally says. "I am the Steward."
There is silence for a long moment. Then Gimli speaks again. "What is your stewardship?"
An answer immediately springs to mind: Gondor. But Faramir says nothing, wary of making a misstep. Instead, he asks a question of his own. "What do you believe my stewardship to be?"
Something glitters in Gimli's eyes, as stars in a darkening sky. "Like the name you seek, you must come to that answer on your own. But if that is a choice you are willing to make, perhaps he will return. Perhaps you will be sufficient after all."
Faramir's brow furrows. "What choice must I…"
But he trails off, for the dream fades around him. Suddenly awake, he finds himself tangled in his blankets. He stares at the roof of his own tent, and with a deep sigh, he wonders if he will ever discern answers.
The stench hits first. It always does. Even after spending several days on the borders of the festering swamp, the Nindalf's reek shocks all who brave its muddy waters. There seems to be a threshold on the edge of the fens beyond which the smell is overwhelming. Knowing this from past experience, Faramir tries not to breathe for the first few minutes.
Gagging sounds from behind reveal who has traversed the Nindalf before and who has not. Faramir offers the latter group a silent apology. He would spare them if he could, but as fate has chosen him, it has also chosen his men. An unfair means of choosing, perhaps, but Faramir has never had much success in thwarting fate. Lengthening his stride, he quickens the march. The men's senses will eventually adjust to the rancid air, but until then, a distracting speed is the best Faramir can offer them.
They are a young group. Faramir suspects Mablung would have preferred more experienced men, but he was hampered by a need for men who would not protest Faramir's presence. Gondor's law states that when the King is abroad or imperiled, the Steward is to safeguard both the realm and himself. Mablung himself referred to that law ere they set out, but Faramir reasoned there is no sure evidence of danger to the King. If his dreams are any guide, Legolas is the one in danger. But Faramir's actions still run afoul of the law's intent, if not its specific wording. Thus Mablung was forced to choose younger men who would not openly question Faramir's actions.
Thankfully, the Rangers were Faramir's only real obstacle to the morning's departure. Beregond went to great lengths in persuading the remaining White Company guards that Faramir retreated with the main camp at sunrise. Faramir decides to both commend the man and watch him more closely in the future. He makes the same decision about Damrod, for the Ranger managed to convince the main camp that Faramir remained behind in Beregond's company. With those two groups in blissful ignorance, only Aragorn's messengers had the means to voice a legal protest, and as for them…
Faramir smiles grimly. The poor messengers were in no position to gainsay a group of armed Rangers.
For the better part of an hour, they make steady progress. The morning sun rises through the mists like a veiled lantern. The air is heavy with no hint of a breeze. The water lapping their legs is frigid and choked with slime. The speed of the march keeps them warm for the first hour, but after that, the pace slows. Frozen feet begin to stumble, and watching the messengers closely, Faramir decides the path they are following—or rather, trying to follow—has disappeared.
Eventually, the messengers stop altogether, their faces uncertain. Faramir signals for the Rangers to halt, and he gives the messengers space to converse quietly. A few minutes later, the messengers resume walking only to stop again almost immediately. Faramir wishes he could be surprised. There are no permanent paths in the Nindalf, and whatever trail the King took yesterday has been swallowed by murky waters. The messengers have been good guides up until now, but it was a fool's dream to believe they could track Aragorn for long.
Mablung shifts beside him, eyes on the messengers. "Last night, they assured me they could find the King's company," he murmurs.
"Things change in the Nindalf," Faramir answers, his voice equally low. "You know this as well as any."
"True," Mablung concedes, "but several of these men have served for years as forward scouts and trackers. There should be signs of a large group's passage, yet it looks as though none have entered this place."
Faramir stiffens, the dream's words rolling through his mind. "Legolas cannot help us," he whispers, turning to stare at the mists. "Nor can any who enter this place."
Faramir shakes his head. "We must trust to our own judgment," he says, striding forward.
Hearing his approach, the messengers look up. Faramir reads both an apology and unease in their faces. "We are sorry, Lord Steward," one murmurs. "We were certain of the trail, but—"
"What direction did you take yesterday?" Faramir interrupts.
"Our path twisted and turned. We followed the elves as they sought better ground. But for the most part, we pressed north."
Faramir nods and orients himself by the dim glow of the sun. "We shall do likewise. We have no elves to guide us, but for many years, Rangers braved these fens using our own wits and senses. Come," he gestures, raising his voice so the rest of the company might hear. "We go north. I will lead."
The men follow. Whether through hard-won loyalty or a moment's madness, they fall in without question or protest. Even Mablung says no word. The captain simply takes up a position immediately behind Faramir as he leads them north in as straight a line as he can manage. The way is treacherous, and there are long stretches of marsh that force him to turn aside and find new paths. At any moment, he expects to plunge into waters well over his head, but though there are many stumbles and many slogs where slime laps thighs and waist, he somehow manages to always place his feet.
The pale sun climbs higher, but it does not burn away the mists. If anything, the mists thicken. After a time, Faramir cannot see the men at the rear of his company. Were he anywhere else, he would pause to signal for a tighter formation, but the Nindalf does not allow for such things. To follow in another's steps is the safest way to travel. Faramir must trust the men to stay close to those directly in front of them, and he must trust the mists to grow no worse.
Much to his surprise, his trust is rewarded. Verbal checks ensure his men are following closely, and the mists become constant, neither lifting nor deepening. Both hopeful and wary, Faramir presses forward, keeping a close watch on the sun lest he lead them in circles. They continue in this vein for perhaps another hour or so, and then Faramir feels a…change.
For a moment, he cannot say why. He cannot say what has changed. Behind him, the men stop, and he hears questions from the back of the group. But he has no answers for them. No answers until—
A cool breeze touches his cheek.
He turns his head, almost as though to flinch away from the breeze. Then it is gone. The swamp is still again.
Yet there is a change other than the breeze. The smell is different here. Heavier. Thicker. As though the source of all the Nindalf's festering odors is near at hand.
The breeze comes again, stronger this time. It tugs at his hair, and Faramir hears the herald's banner stir. He remembers the previous night when Aragorn's banners lifted in a breeze no others could feel, and his eyes snap to the tall marsh reeds around him.
They stand undisturbed without a whisper of movement. Even the waters are calm.
Mablung steps up next to him, silently questioning.
"The wind," Faramir murmurs. "Look at what the wind touches and what it does not."
After a confused silence, Mablung gasps. "What sorcery is this?" the Ranger hisses. "What does it mean?"
"As to your first question, I cannot say. As to your second, it means we are close," Faramir says. "Come."
They start forward again, slower now. The group bunches together more than is safe when traveling in the fens. Their courage is beginning to falter, and Faramir has no words to hearten their spirits. Whatever they face is near. His instincts tell him so, and for all his frustration with his strange dreams, he does not yet doubt his instincts.
Something turns underfoot.
At first, Faramir dismisses it as a rock or a clumping of marsh grass. But the shape is strange, and he pauses, sweeping his boot beneath the murky water until he finds the object again. Reaching down, his hand grasps a sword hilt. A thrill of fear courses through Faramir. With reluctance, he draws the sword from the water, and the men nearest him cry out in alarm.
Andúril is easy to recognize.
"Lord Steward—" Mablung begins, but Faramir sweeps his arm to the side, silencing him. Still holding Andúril, Faramir scrapes his feet at the mud beneath the water and hits a surface that does not yield to his pressure. It has the feel of stone. A road, perhaps.
Faramir's jaw clenches.
"Divide the men into search parties," he tells Mablung. "The groups must be large, and they must stay together. Scour this area for aught that may tell us why the King's sword was abandoned in the mud. Number the companies, and call to them regularly so that none wander too far."
"What do you intend to do, my lord?" Mablung asks.
There is a hint of challenge in Mablung's voice, for they can no longer pretend the King is safe. But Faramir is not about to turn back. "You and I will head a group together, and we will continue north," he answers. "This direction has brought us Andúril. Perhaps it will bring us other tokens."
Conflict wars in Mablung's eyes. Faramir keeps his face impassive, but inwardly, he feels himself torn. It is unfair to ask Mablung to choose between foresight and law. Between Steward and Gondor. Yet Mablung was made for difficult choices, and the moment of indecision is brief. He nods sharply and turns to the men, ordering them to gather and then dividing them into various companies.
Before they set out, Mablung insists upon one stipulation: If Faramir is to lead a party north, another party must precede him. It is a request Faramir willingly grants. He would have asked the same had their positions been reversed. But Faramir has a stipulation of his own: the forward company cannot venture too far ahead. It must keep pace with his own group, for the dreams have come to Faramir alone. The danger lurking in the Nindalf is something he must face, and he will send no other in his stead.
Tense and wary, the Rangers spread out. They move slowly, feeling about with their feet and plunging staff and sword beneath the water. They soon discover other weapons abandoned in the swamp. Swords. Spears. Shields. Bows. Arrows. A silver-hafted hunting knife that Faramir wishes he did not recognize. He binds the elven blade next to his own sword, hoping he will be able to return it. Further on, they find banners. Packs. Water skins. Pieces to a deepening mystery that hints at a tragedy but withholds the most important clues.
Mablung tenses, and Faramir looks forward. Through the mist, he sees members of the advance group approaching.
"You must come, Lord Steward!" one Ranger says, his voice rushed and strained. "You must see what we have found!"
Faramir shares an uneasy look with Mablung. Rangers do not frighten easily, and the men of the advance group were chosen in part for their courage. "Show me," he commands.
Countless possibilities swarm his mind, but he is unprepared for what awaits. In the midst of the bog rises a patch of firm ground no wider than thirty paces but quite long, stretching away until it is lost to mists on either side. Possibly it is the same ground where Aragorn chose to camp the previous night, for the grasses on this island are flattened and bent. Then Faramir's eyes are drawn to huddled figures upon the ground. They sit with their legs drawn close to their chests, their arms wrapped tightly about them, and their heads buried behind their knees, shivering violently. They seem not to notice the Rangers' approach, and Faramir stumbles with recognition.
"Summon the others," Faramir tells Mablung, hastening forward. The ground rises unexpectedly beneath his feet and he trips, falling to his knees before the foremost elf. Behind him, he hears Mablung ordering horn blasts, but Faramir's attention is focused on the trembling elf. He is a scout named Faelim, a bright-eyed youth as elves reckon age with a smile as wide as the Anduin. But there is no sign of that smile now and no sign that Faelim is aware of the Rangers. "Faelim," Faramir whispers, lifting a hesitant hand to the elf's shoulder. "Faelim!"
Nothing. No response. It is as though Faelim cannot hear him. Fearing he will do more harm than good but needing to know what has happened, Faramir gently tips Faelim's head up. Faelim does not resist the movement, but neither does he react.
"Faelim!" Faramir tries again, tapping the elf's cheek. Again he meets with failure. Faelim's dark hair falls away from his face, revealing eyes clenched tightly shut. Never before has Faramir seen this in an elf. Even in sleep, they reach out to the world around them, ever aware. But Faelim is pulling away, and when Faramir releases the elf, he curls back into his huddled ball.
"Lord Steward!" someone shouts.
Shaken, Faramir rises and wonders what more he might find. He regrets his question when a figures staggers forth from the mist, reeling amidst the gathered Rangers.
"Legolas?" Faramir cries, grasping the elf by the arms. "Legolas, what—" He hisses as Legolas seizes his shoulders with a grip tight enough to bruise.
"Who…?" Legolas demands, but he stops as a hard shudder wracks his body. The elf's legs give out and Faramir braces himself, catching Legolas as he falls forward. Guiding them both to the ground, Faramir kneels beside his friend and notices something about Legolas's eyes. Elven eyes do not focus as mortal eyes do, always seeming to look either too near or too far. But Legolas's eyes are beyond even that. It is as though he cannot see Faramir. As though he can see nothing close at hand. As though his eyes are drawn so far away that all else is a blur.
"Mablung!" Faramir barks, and Mablung is immediately at his side. "Choose three men from among the Rangers who know these fens well. Send them back with all haste to report on what we have found."
"What have we found?" Mablung asks, lowering his voice.
Faramir levels a dark look at the man. "Signs of battle and elven survivors. Tell Beregond he is to hold his position until tomorrow morning. If he has not received more tidings from us by then, he is to retreat to the main camp and send word to the Queen."
Reluctantly, Mablung murmurs an acknowledgement and moves away. Faramir puts the man from his mind and turns back to Legolas, who has yet to loosen his painful grip on Faramir's shoulders. Faramir wraps his own hands about Legolas's wrists, an idea coming to mind. Legolas seems to be reacting to touch; perhaps that can be put to use. With effort, Faramir pulls the elf's left hand off his shoulder and down his jerkin to the right breast, where the seal of Ithilien has been worked into the tough leather. Legolas himself helped design the pattern, and hoping it will be recognized, Faramir forces elven fingers to trace the sigil.
At first, Legolas fights him. The fingers of his right hand dig so deeply into Faramir's shoulder that Faramir nearly cries out. But then something in the elf's face changes. His hands relax. His breath quickens. "Faramir?" he whispers, blinking rapidly.
"Yes," Faramir says with quiet intensity.
"Faramir?" Legolas whispers again. His eyes lose some of their far-seeing look. "Faramir, say this is no dream!"
A shiver courses through Faramir, and he gives the only assurance he can: "I am here."
"Thank the Valar," Legolas hisses. His eyes close, and his head bows. "I brought them this far. I kept them together. But I could do no more. They hear nothing beyond their own thoughts!"
"What happened here?" Faramir asks, struggling to keep his voice low and calm. "Where is Aragorn?"
"It pressed inward," Legolas says. His fingers once again trace Ithilien's seal, as though seeking to confirm Faramir's presence. "It pressed inward, so I looked outward. We all did. But it was too strong! I was forced back! In! Down!"
Faramir looks around at the other elves and notes the Rangers gathering in a loose circle. With a jerk of his head, he signals a desire for privacy, and the others withdraw. Turning back to Legolas, Faramir places a supportive hand on the back of the elf's neck. "You did not stay down," he whispers. "You are here and you are speaking to me. How is this possible? How did you escape what befell the other elves?"
"It was too much," Legolas murmurs, shuddering. "Too much! I could not stop them! I could not help them!"
"What could you not stop?" Faramir asks, and it takes all his will to keep his voice steady.
"Ai Elbereth," Legolas moans, and he tips forward, shaking grievously. "I had no choice! It alone was strong enough to pull me back, and now I see nothing else! I hear nothing else!"
"What?" Faramir demands. "What do you hear?"
"The Sea!" Legolas cries through chattering teeth. "Only the Sea!
"Lie still! Do not move!"
Torn from deep concentration, Faramir jerks sharply and stumbles over an elven scout. The elf takes no notice. Mablung does. "My lord?" he questions.
Faramir whips his head around. Legolas stands beside him, alert and hale as though no ill has befallen him. Faramir looks at Mablung, but Mablung's gaze never strays from Faramir. "I thought I heard something," Faramir manages, his mind spinning. "Mayhap the breeze is playing tricks."
"Of that we can be certain," Mablung says grimly, looking at the mists. The ghostly fog hangs silent and still despite the wind teasing their cloaks. "I have never seen the like!"
"Hush! If you voice your fear, they will kill you!"
Faramir glances back at Legolas. He has spent the last few hours struggling to glean answers, but he has met with failure on all fronts. Perhaps this is why. Foresight notwithstanding, perhaps his mind has deserted him. Deliberately turning his back on what cannot be real, Faramir give his attention to Mablung and asks, "Where is Legolas?"
"Where you left him," Mablung says. "The men watching him say he seems no better. He has not spoken since you forced him to eat."
Wind stirs Faramir's hair, and he shivers. "I will speak with him again. Perhaps he has had time enough to recover."
"We will have to escort him and the other elves out of the Nindalf," Mablung warns. "And it would be foolish to divide our own force in order to provide that escort, my lord. I counsel that we all depart, and having left, we will have to revisit the issue of who can return to the swamps."
Mablung looks directly at Faramir as he says this, and Faramir finds he has no reply. Behind him, he hears, "There is time. You can still confront your fear, but you must do so in silence."
The voice seems as real as Mablung. As real as the Nindalf. As real as the mystery that stole their King. Swallowing a sudden lump in his throat, Faramir simply nods and takes his leave. He once wondered what would happen if he walked away from Legolas during the dream. Now seems an appropriate time to learn.
The dream follows.
It is a departure from the established routine, but it is a departure that lends Faramir no comfort. It has the feel of inevitability. As though he cannot escape, no matter what he tries. As though madness is now a foregone conclusion. "You are not here," Faramir accuses as he walks, his voice low. "You are not Legolas!"
The dream Legolas watches the swamp, bright eyes searching for danger.
Faramir finds Legolas—the Legolas of waking life—just as Mablung indicated. Several Rangers keep a watchful guard as well as a respectful distance, and where firm ground gives way to bog, Legolas stares south with vacant eyes, murmuring a quiet song beneath his breath. When they gathered for lunch, Legolas was almost lucid. He was aware enough to eat, at least. But whenever Faramir questioned him about Aragorn or the events of the previous night, Legolas would shiver and pull away. His gaze would turn south, and he would whisper that he had no choice. That he had to look outward before he was locked inward. Eventually, he ceased speaking altogether. Studying him now, Faramir decides Mablung and the men are right: Legolas is not better. If anything, he is worse.
Glancing over his shoulder, Faramir notes that the Legolas from his dream is still with him, tense and focused on something within the mists. Faramir sighs. It does not appear that either Legolas will be of much help to him. Still, he must try.
"Leave us," Faramir says to the Rangers. "I will stay with him."
The men nod and drift away. "We will be near at hand if you have need of us, Lord Steward," one says.
"They come!" Legolas hisses behind Faramir, his words oddly timed against the men's departure. "They must not see you with me. You must face them alone!"
The mists close behind both the Rangers and the dream Legolas, leaving Faramir with only one elf for company. He wishes he could view this as an improvement, but both versions of Legolas seem equally indifferent to his presence.
"Legolas cannot help you."
"That much is painfully obvious," Faramir murmurs. "He cannot even help himself."
"He chose not to. Rather, he chose to help his people. To an extent, he even succeeded."
Faramir stares into the swamp. "Succeeded?" he asks incredulously, his voice rising. "Look upon him!"
Faramir glances back into the mists and spies a faint form coming toward him. "Peace," he tells the figure. "All is well."
The form pauses as though uncertain, but then it bows and retreats. Faramir waits a moment more before again addressing the swamp. "Look upon him!" he hisses. "What success is this?"
"As much success as he could muster," comes the answer. "More, in fact, than he should have been able to." From the mists, Gimli steps forward, but the water is still and silent in his wake. "Now he pays the price for that success."
Faramir takes a calming breath. "What happened here?" he asks.
His question refers to Aragorn and the missing men, but the dwarf turns to Legolas. "He embraced that which he fears."
While not the answer he wants, Faramir is ready for an explanation of any kind. "The divide?" he asks softly. "Legolas spoke of it yesterday morning. I did not understand much, but it seemed a terrible burden to bear. Is Legolas…" Faramir trails off, uncertain of how to phrase his next question. He needs to know if Legolas has succumbed to madness, but since madness is something he fears, he does not know if he can name it. He does not know—
"Legolas is not mad," Gimli says, mooting Faramir's internal debate. "Lost, perhaps, but deliberately so. He was assailed by something he was unprepared to face, and alone of his company, he was able to resist. It was an impossible choice, for he knew the risks in opening his mind and heart to the Sea. But it was a choice he made, nonetheless. The call of the Sea deafened him to everything, including his attackers, and it is difficult to turn back from it. Even as we speak, he struggles for balance. He is lost but determined. Resolved but unfocused. His mind is torn asunder by a division he was never meant to endure, yet he has never been more whole than he is now."
"What caused this? What attacked him?"
"Something that gave him very little time in which to make a choice," Gimli answers, his dark eyes returning to Faramir.
Faramir's brow furrows. "This is not the first time you have spoken of choice."
"I have always spoken of choice," Gimli says. "But you have not always understood. Even now, you do not understand. And until you understand, he cannot return!"
Ignoring the familiar words, Faramir mulls over the concept of choice. "Legolas chose the Sea, but that is not all he chose," he says slowly. "He also chose his people. He chose to sacrifice himself to the Sea so that he might fight his attackers." Faramir turns to Gimli. "Is my choice also twofold? Do you wish me to choose more than my people and my King?"
"It is not a matter of what I wish!" Gimli growls. "It is a matter of what you need!"
"I need to understand!" Faramir returns heatedly. "If there is indeed little time left, help me!"
"None who enter this place can help you!"
Faramir swears and turns away. He is vaguely aware that the Rangers are drawing near again, and he hastily schools his thoughts. "Earlier, you said help could come if I understood," he murmurs. "And you spoke of one who must return. Is he the one to help me? But if none who enter this place can help me, how will that help be realized?"
"Because he returns not to this place. Rather, he returns to you."
"To me?" Faramir echoes, blinking.
"Only if you understand what that means. And thus I ask: who are you?"
The idea of choice beckons to Faramir. "I am what I choose to be," he answers.
"And what is your choice?"
Faramir rakes his hands through his hair. "Sufficient," he says.
Gimli shakes his head. "Whole, you are sufficient. But you have chosen to be less than whole."
"Would you have me be as Legolas?" Faramir demands, once again struggling to keep his voice low. He turns to the elf, gesturing at eyes too distant to see anything near at hand. "You said he is now more whole than he has ever been. Is this what you consider sufficient?"
There is no answer. When Faramir looks back toward the water, Gimli is gone.
Faramir orders a sleeping draught for Legolas. The other elves cannot be forced to eat or drink, but the smell of herbs rouses Legolas enough for him to choke down the tincture they force. Faramir hopes Legolas will find peace in dreams, but at the very least, the Rangers will not have to worry about him wandering south in pursuit of his beloved Sea.
For the remainder of the afternoon, they continue to search the swamps. The results are grim. They find more weapons and packs but nothing that answers the most important question: Where is the King?
As though attempting to match the gloom in their hearts, daylight fades, and Faramir directs the Rangers to gather the search parties together. While they wait for all to assemble, a grim Mablung pulls him aside. "Do you intend for us to remain in the Nindalf tonight?"
Faramir presses his lips together. Such was the plan when they first set out, but Aragorn's disappearance and the elves' condition complicate matters. "We may not find this place again easily," he says, weighing the options, "and we must know what happened here."
"If we remain, we may gain firsthand knowledge. Are we prepared for that?" Mablung asks.
It is a fair question, and Faramir wishes he had an answer. But none here have answers. None, that is, except— "Let us try again to speak to Legolas. The draught should be wearing off now, and perhaps rest will find him better prepared to give us tidings."
"If we tarry much longer, Lord Steward, the decision will be made for us," Mablung warns. "It took us several hours to come this far."
"Our departure will be swifter than our entry," Faramir says. "We are certain of our direction in leaving."
Mablung looks unconvinced but says nothing more. The conversation feels unfinished, but Faramir has nothing more to say, either. With a quiet sigh, he turns and moves toward the only member of the company who looks relaxed. Mablung follows in a tense silence.
Kneeling beside Legolas, Faramir draws away the blankets in which they cocooned the elf. "Legolas?" he calls quietly. "Legolas?"
Legolas's head lolls toward Faramir, and Faramir frowns. The elf's eyes are closed.
"Legolas?" he calls again, giving the elf's shoulder a gentle shake. "Legolas!"
Legolas's brow creases. "Faramir?" he murmurs.
"Yes, Legolas," Faramir says intently. "Wake! We need your aid!"
When discussing whether or not they should drug Legolas, Mablung voiced the theory that Legolas held to his wits long enough for help to arrive. Once his elves were safe, he relinquished his charges to the care of the Rangers and let himself drift away. The theory seems to be bearing fruit, for at the mention of being needed, Legolas stirs. He groans, pushing at Faramir's hand, and a moment later, his eyes flutter open.
A rush of hope surges through Faramir.
The eyes are focused. They are still not focused as elven eyes should be, but there is clarity to that gaze that was missing earlier. And when Faramir extends a hand to help him up, Legolas reaches back.
"Where are we?" the elf asks.
Hope falls hard. Hard enough that he pauses in pulling Legolas up. By contrast, Legolas does not pause and rises smoothly to his feet, though he certainly notes Faramir's hesitation. Through narrowed eyes, he takes in their surroundings with obvious confusion. When his gaze comes to rest upon the huddled elven scouts, Legolas stiffens.
"Ai Elbereth," he breathes. "Aragorn… Faramir, is Aragorn— No. No, he is gone. And my scouts…" He trails off, his eyes wide and unseeing.
"You remember, my lord?" Mablung ventures.
A shudder washes through Legolas. "Yes. No. Parts." He looks as though he wishes to say more, but he stops and licks his lips. "You drugged me," he says, turning to Faramir with an accusing glare.
"I did," Faramir says evenly. "It seems to have helped."
Legolas stares at Faramir for a long moment before looking away. "You are not wrong," he murmurs. "The Sea was too loud for me to sleep, and I was too weary to heed any other voice."
"You hear it still," Faramir notes.
"I hear it always. It is louder than it should be, but now that I have rested, I can be of more aid to you. It is…easier to ignore," Legolas says, his words slowing and his eyes turning south.
Faramir takes Legolas by the arm, drawing his attention. "What happened here? Where is Aragorn?"
Through his hold on the elf's arm, Faramir feels Legolas shiver. "They came at night," he begins, his voice strained. "I know not what they were. The feel was both familiar and unfamiliar, as though I recognized the type but not the kind. The men did not sense it as I did, but Aragorn knew something was amiss. He posted more watches and asked for my counsel." Legolas shivers again, his gaze turning inward. "The mists were unnatural. That much I could tell him, but I could not say why. And then something…something forced itself through. Something drove me back. Drove all the elves back. Drove us within ourselves and then sought to follow. Like the Houseless Ones. The torches…the torches went out. Or perhaps I ceased to see them, I do not know. But there was no light. Only whispers. Whispers and words too faint to hear. And at the last, I thought I heard…bells."
Faramir blinks. "Bells?"
"Bells," Legolas repeats, looking puzzled.
Faramir shakes his head, keenly aware of Mablung's growing concern. "What of Aragorn? What happened to him?"
Elven eyes close, and Legolas's face grows taut. "I think he left. Yes. I heard his orders. He led men away to meet our foe. To draw the enemy from the elves, for we could do nothing. He went toward the bells, and—" Legolas breaks off with a hiss, his fists clenching at his sides.
"And?" Faramir presses.
"I do not know," Legolas whispers. "My scouts fell. I fell with them until I sought the Sea, but by then, it was too late. Too late for the men. What happened to them, I cannot say. The elves were scattered, but I know not how or why. None would hear me. I gathered all I could find. All the elves. There were no others. I called and called, but only the Sea answered."
"You were only attacked once?" Mablung asks.
"Yes," Legolas says, "though the enemy remained throughout the night. Beneath the swell of the Sea, I felt a regard. A presence. But it watched and listened only. It did not seek to drive me inward again. It had what it came from."
Faramir tightens his grip on Legolas's arm. "When were you first attacked?"
"The torches were lit," Legolas says slowly, "but we had not yet set the night watches."
"Late evening," Mablung concludes. "Probably just as the messengers reached us. Or perhaps earlier, given these mists." He looks to the west where the sun is a faint shimmer in the murk. "Even if we left now, we would not escape the Nindalf until well after nightfall."
Legolas turns on Faramir with a sharp look. "Do you propose to leave?"
Despite his own desire to remain, Faramir bristles at the elf's tone. "Do you propose to stay and subject your company to another attack?"
Legolas's eyes harden in anger, but he makes no answer. Faramir sighs and releases the other's arm, turning to study the surrounding mists. They have found no place as defensible as this island. The King's company had more men, but the Rangers are better equipped with lanterns and torches. Moreover, the Rangers are more alert to the presence of an enemy in the swamps. But they do not know who or what the enemy is, and they do not know if they can combat it. The elves will be of no help, and Faramir wonders if Legolas can withstand a second attack. Prudence demands a retreat. Prudence demands they accept their losses and return later with greater numbers and greater knowledge.
Faramir decides to ignore prudence.
"We remain," he says. Mablung shifts uneasily, but Faramir turns back to Legolas. "I cannot guarantee your safety," he warns, "or the safety of your scouts."
"We came here at the behest of the King." Legolas glances toward the huddled elves, and his eyes flicker with something akin to grief. "We knew we walked with danger, even if we did not know the danger itself."
Faramir nods. Reaching down, he unties the laces binding the silver-hafted knife to his belt. "Then I believe I should return this to you," he says, extending the weapon to Legolas.
Legolas's eyes widen, and he glances to his own belt. "I do not remember drawing my weapon."
"Your bow and quiver were also found," Mablung says, nodding toward the pile of gathered weapons and packs. "I can fetch them if you wish, my lord."
Legolas turns to look but says nothing. He has still not taken the blade from Faramir, and Faramir wonders if rest was enough to quell the Sea-longing. "Legolas?" he prompts.
"Keep the knife," Legolas says softly. "If I drew the blade, it did me little good. Perhaps it will serve you better. Perhaps the elves were attacked first because our weapons can harm these attackers."
Mablung casts a doubtful look at the shivering scouts. "With respect, my lord, it could be that elves are more susceptible to our attackers' sorcery."
"But the elves were not susceptible on the edge of the swamp," Faramir muses, folding his arms. "None of them fell prey to the illness suffered by the men. And I cannot believe there is no link between that affliction and the attack here."
"Then perhaps the elves were not the target, then or now," Legolas says. "We were not among those lured into the swamp, and once Aragorn's company was taken, we were left alone."
"But how does this aid us?" Mablung wonders, frowning. "We have many questions and many concerns, but no answers and no assurances. We do not know what attacked last night last night, we do not know what role the elves might or might not play, and we do not know how to combat whatever it is we face!"
The last is spat forth in a frustrated whisper, but Faramir still glances around to see if any others overheard. There is worry enough without adding to it. "Repeat for us the signs preceding the attack, Legolas," Faramir says, his voice low.
"Mist," Legolas says, rubbing his brow. "The mist came first. Not this mist," he adds with a wave of his hand at their surroundings. "A thicker mist. Fouler. There was a smell… I cannot describe it. After that, I felt myself driven back. Driven in. Driven away from all around me." The elf straightens. "No," he says. "No, the torches went out first. And it was no trick of my eyes. It was as though the mist wrapped itself about the flames."
An idea niggles the back of Faramir's mind. Turning his eyes to the gathering Rangers, he sees a few torches already lit to ward off the growing gloom. His eyes stray to the huddled elves, his thoughts churning up a traitorous possibility.
"Mayhap our enemy fears fire," Mablung says in response to Legolas.
It is only part of the solution, but a part is better than naught. "Issue orders to light no more torches," Faramir says. "And hold all lanterns in readiness. Do not strike fire until commanded to do so."
"If our enemy fears fire—"
"Our enemy is able to extinguish fire," Faramir says, watching the mist play about the flickering torches. "But the enemy did so before they attack. If we wait to light the lanterns until the attack itself, perhaps we will catch our foe unawares. Perhaps we can draw it beyond the circle of our defenses and unveil fire in its midst." Faramir pauses, not wishing to say more but unable to say less. "Legolas, do you think you can wake your scouts?"
The elf blinks. "For what purpose? We were of little aid to Aragorn."
"Aragorn did not anticipate an attack. Or at least, not an attack of the kind you describe. Though he had time enough to draw the attack away from the elves, the King and his men did not know what they faced."
"Nor do we, Lord Steward," Mablung points out.
"True, but we know more than they did and thus we may be able to discern a means of defeating our foe. If we can draw the enemy into an attack and if we can control the first strike of that attack…" Faramir trails off as light dawns in Legolas's face.
"You wish to use us as bait. You wish to repeat the events of last night in which the enemy struck the elves first."
Mablung stiffens. Unflinching, Faramir meets Legolas's dark gaze, weathering the sudden chill in the elf's voice. "Can you wake your scouts?"
Legolas looks to the elves, his eyes narrow. His lips move, but he says nothing. At least, nothing Faramir can hear, though he fancies there is a whisper of song. At length, Legolas turns back, shaking his head. "They will not rouse. Not here. They have been pushed too far. Either we or our enemy must leave these fens. Until then, my kinsmen cannot return to the waking world."
"You woke," Faramir notes.
Legolas sighs. "Do you remember our speech together yesterday morning? Do you remember when I spoke of a divide? That was what roused me. As I was driven inward, it pulled me outward. But my people are too ignorant to be saved in like fashion, nor will I force this divide upon them. Once stirred, the Sea-longing cannot be undone."
Wind rises, and Faramir shivers. Legolas's words stir something in his mind. Something in his dreams. But he cannot quite—
"I will be your lure," Legolas says, interrupting Faramir's thoughts. "I have woken, and though the Sea is yet loud in my ears, I can face this enemy. When he pushes me into myself, I will draw him after me. Mayhap that will also draw him into your trap."
There are too many uncertainties. Too many things they do not know or understand. The King's life may hang upon what they do next. But they are running out of time, and there are few options left. "So be it," Faramir says, extending a hand. Legolas takes it, his own hand wrapping about Faramir's forearm. "Varda be with us," Faramir whispers.
"The stars do not shine through these mists," Legolas counters grimly.
"But they do shine, even if we cannot see them." Faramir releases Legolas's arm and steps back, turning to Mablung. "Spread the company in a wide circle around this central point. Legolas will remain here and seek to draw the enemy inward. And relay my orders concerning the torches. No more are to be lit until I give the signal."
After that, there is little to be said. Mablung hastens away, and the orders are both given and carried out with a minimum of questions. Faramir does not know whether to credit the men for unwavering loyalty or fault them for blind obedience. But while Faramir does not have full confidence in his own judgment, his men have decided in favor of it. Or perhaps they have decided in favor of Mablung's judgment, for Mablung would not have given the order had he felt it came from a man caught in the throes of madness. Whatever the case, oil and lanterns are soon distributed throughout the company and the Rangers spread around the elves. Then begins what should be the most difficult phase: waiting.
But to Faramir, waiting is like an old friend. Almost he imagines he is huddled in Mordor's shadows, watching and counting as yet another Southron army marches north. In this familiarity, Faramir finds comfort. His mind settles. Sharpens. Hones itself upon his goal. He gathers all of his frustration, fear, and uncertainty, and he pits them against the swirling mists, seeking to part the growing dark of evening.
A hand suddenly closes about his left wrist.
He glances at Legolas, for he has resolved to stand beside the elf. His friend is risking much, and Faramir will not allow him to risk it alone.
"Look," Legolas whispers, his words scarce to be heard. He is taut as a newly strung bow, and more than anything, he resembles the Legolas of Faramir's dreams. "Look!"
Faramir looks, straining his eyes in the darkness. But what few torches they have are too dim to pierce the gathering gloom. Or perhaps… Faramir's eyes widen. Perhaps the gloom is too dark to be pierced. Perhaps it is growing. Perhaps—
"They come," Legolas hisses.
Faramir's own breath catches in his throat. The words echo their way through countless dreams, and he sends an urgent look toward Mablung. The man nods, and despite the creeping mists, Faramir feels a surge of relief. Mablung hears the elf. This is no dream.
This is no dream!
The realization strikes as night engulfs the Nindalf, swift and merciless. So swiftly does darkness fall that some of the men cry out in alarm, and Faramir steps forward, his foot knocking against a lantern on the ground. "Hold!" he cries. "Stand fast! Await my word!"
Wind shrieks through the mists, its touch as cold as ice, burning against his face. Beside him, Legolas's breath comes in harried gulps. Faramir grits his teeth, tethered to the other by the elf's bruising grasp. He can see nothing, but he feels the fear and desperation of his men.
"Not yet," the elf hisses, and his grip tightens. "There is time."
Faramir inhales sharply as the dream flares to life around him. On the outer edge of the Rangers' protective circle, a torch fails. A second torch sputters and fizzles. Then another dies. And another.
"Hush!" Legolas's hand is a crushing vice on Faramir's wrist, and the elf sinks down to one knee. Faramir draws his sword and kneels with him. On the edge of sight, practically obscured by mist, Mablung watches closely. He is ready to give the signal if Faramir cannot. "Soon," Legolas hisses, closing his eyes. "The enemy wonders at my escape. They hesitate. But they come. They come!"
And then they are here.
Cold. Hissing. Dark. Dank. Rot. Legolas falls, his voice stricken as he cries out in a strange tongue. Something wet and slithering brushes over Faramir's skin. The night fills with moaning voices, and around the island, waters churn and boil. The men are shouting. Faramir's lungs are frozen. It is difficult to breathe, and he feels as though he is drowning.
The air is wet. Heavy. He cannot stand. Legolas no longer holds his wrist, and Faramir lurches to one side, desperate to find someone. Anyone. "Light the torches!" he manages to cry, but amidst the howling, he does not know if any will hear him. "Light the torches!"
Something metal clangs against his knee. He swings his sword about, but his movements are slow. His arms drag, and his hand cannot grip the weapon. It flies from his grasp, and he falls forward.
Metal hits his knee again, but now he recognizes it. A lantern! A dwarven lantern! With fumbling hands, he reaches into his belt pouch and draws forth flint and steel. With a hissed a prayer to Varda, he strikes the metal. Sparks fly. The mists pause. It is not much, but it is enough.
The oil catches.
Something shrieks, shrill and deafening. Another man would have wilted before it, but Faramir knows a Nazgûl's scream. He staggers to his feet, lantern held aloft, and to his right, another lantern catches. Then there is a third. A fourth. A fifth. Around the island, lanterns and torches bob, separated by mist and shadows and…
Silhouettes. Dark forms. Ghastly figures hunched and broken, with fingers as long and slender as the marsh reeds. Caught in the midst of the growing light, the figures scatter, swirling away with the mists. Faramir leaps after them, drawing Legolas's knife. One of the shadows whirls about, and the mists around him writhe with noxious fumes. Faramir strikes, the elven blade hissing as it buries itself in…
Faramir stumbles back, pulling the knife free. Tangled, knotted grasses drip from the weapon, coated by a black ichor that bubbles and hisses on the long white blade. Faramir's lantern flickers, but it is still bright enough to illuminate a face. A gray face. Wrinkled, sagging skin. A yawning maw. A hungry gaze. Eyes blacker than the night, but in their depths, a fell light burns. A fell light burns with hatred and…recognition?
Recognition also sparks in Faramir, though he cannot grasp the meaning. But the terrible eyes stir something in him. Something deep. Something dark. Something burning… Faramir shakes his head sharply, realizing the creature he faces gives more heed to the lantern than to anything else. Faramir advances, holding the lantern high, and the figure retreats into the reeds surrounding the island. Shadows rise. Mists flood the space between them. The creature becomes an outline only.
Then it begins to sink.
Near the water's edge, Faramir stops, uncertain of what he is seeing. He raises the lantern higher, and by its flickering light, he spies other shadows in the shallow fens. The swamp boils and churns as the shadows sink lower and lower. The stench is overwhelming, and Faramir fights to stand his ground. A groan can be heard from beneath the swelling waves, and behind that groan, there seems to be the sound of…bells?
Then a Ranger cries out.
A Ranger cries out from the midst of the waters.
The creatures are not the only ones sinking.
Faramir surges forward, brandishing both lantern and knife. Voices cry to him from all around. Water sprays upward on all sides, and something behind Faramir hisses.
He swings around, and once more, he feels a dark stirring within. Something beneath the water catches his ankle. He staggers backward, and the lantern flies from his grasp, plunging the fens into shadow. Something twines about his arms. He jerks free and sees lights bobbing toward him. But the muddy swamp is treacherous, and in his haste, he slips. He is stumbling…
Waters close over his head.
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.