Houseless (by PSW)

Summary:  Faramir and Legolas find more than they bargained for in the deep woods of Ithilien.
Category: Lord of the Rings
Genre: Fantasy
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  11,605


 

 

Chapter 1

“The forest is indeed dark here. The trees are twisted and feral.”

‘Feral’ was not a word that Faramir would have thought to apply to vegetation even a year past—and as a Ranger he had seen his share of forbidding landscapes—but much had changed in a very short time since the Ring War’s end. Gondor had a new King, he himself was Steward of Gondor and Prince of Ithilien, and he was joyfully wed to a brave, stubborn, beautiful woman. He was also able to reasonably discuss topics ranging from sustainable farming practices to the political ramifications of individual pardons for Haradrim and Easterling supplicants to … angry trees. Had anyone attempted to describe such a future to him as he and his men skulked in the forests of Ithilien mounting a losing defense against the foul creatures of Mordor, he would have called that one a liar or mad—but such were the strange workings of fate in this new Age.

“Should you be up there, then?”

In truth, he would be more than content to leave this place. For most of the day dread had been growing steadily in his mind—a sense of heaviness and presence, a feeling that they were observed by unseen eyes. It was a sensation that Faramir had not known since his deep patrols with the Rangers before the War, and he had hoped it might be longer—or never—before he felt it again. Still, he was not ready to admit out loud how anxious he was to depart.

If the Elf above him was also uneasy, he gave no sign. Rather, he offered a brief smile, muttered, “Perhaps not,” then darted along the high branch and leaped with enviable ease into the next tree. Faramir swore beneath his breath and followed, bow half-drawn, eyes scanning their surroundings for any hint of an unwelcome visit by predatory beast or stray Orc.

This current venture and, in consequence, his growing friendship with Legolas Thranduilion was yet another of fate’s unexpected boons. One of Faramir’s chief concerns, when King Elessar had named him the Prince of Ithilien, was the first-hand knowledge of how wild and overgrown and utterly desolate his new land had become during its years in the shadow of Mordor. He had spent long days and not a few sleepless nights both formulating and discarding plans for how the land might be made safe and coaxed back toward the bounteous fertility it had once known. He was no farmer or gardener, though—he might make strides toward cleansing his new domain of the remnants of Sauron’s forces, but any attempt at restoring the land itself was beyond his immediate skill. He would require aid, that much was certain.

Ithilien was not, however, the only part of Gondor that suffered. Much of the kingdom had been destroyed by the Enemy’s ruthless advance and by the pitched battles in Osgiliath, on the Pelennor, and even within the White City itself. Minas Tirith and the previously settled lands would receive the bulk of whatever aid was to be had, both in craftsmanship and in workers of the land, and this was as it should be. Faramir had finally, reluctantly decided that he and Éowyn would have to be content for the foreseeable future with restoring the lands immediately surrounding Emyn Arnen—and then he found himself seated beside the Prince of Mirkwood at dinner one night. Given the affinity of the Elves of Eryn Lasgalen for forest lands, Legolas had been more than eager to discuss Faramir’s new holdings. Faramir had, over the course of the evening, revealed his hopes, his goals, and his concerns regarding Ithilien. Discussion became ideas, ideas became planning, and by the end of the evening he had found himself standing with Legolas before the King, requesting permission for the Prince of Mirkwood to establish an Elven colony in the southern forests of Ithilien.

Life was indeed wondrously unpredictable.

This stretch of woodland that made his skin crawl as if he had been overrun with fire ants was, however, not. The hair on the back of his neck rose and Faramir pivoted sharply, every instinct telling him that unfriendly watchers were near.

There was nothing—nothing but dark, heavy trees rustling in a breeze that he could not feel. Faramir glanced back up.

“How far do you intend to go?”

Legolas halted and eyed the expanse of the Ephel Dúath looming over them, just visible through the thick leaf canopy. Their two-week trek had taken them from Emyn Arnen to the banks of the Poros, north through lands painstakingly chosen and marked out over the past year for the location of the new Elven colony, then east to the foothills of the Ephel Dúath. These last days had been spent working their way slowly through the thick forests that carpeted the base of the Outer Fence, noting the condition of the land and discussing possible expansion or out-settlements after the colony had been firmly established. It was long-term planning to be certain, given the sheer scope of the work that lay before the Elves even within their original prescribed habitation. Still, Legolas was keen to have a full understanding of both the possibilities and the pitfalls inherent in this new undertaking.

The trees had grown twisted during the past hours, though, the path narrower and the undergrowth thicker. Faramir could no longer move easily or without significant rustling, despite his best efforts. Now, Legolas shook his head and crouched on the broad branch.

“No further. I like not the feel of this place.”

“Good.” He hadn’t intended his response to come quite so quickly. Despite the oppressive atmosphere, Legolas’s eyes twinkled with the merry, fey light of his wild folk.

“Something troubles you, my Lord Steward?”

Faramir bit back a snort. “Aye. We’ve three days before the King and Queen arrive in Emyn Arnen. Less, perhaps, if the weather holds. I have little wish to miss their arrival. We’ve accomplished much over the past months.” It was an evasion, but truth as well. He was proud of what they’d built—he and Éowyn, Legolas, Beregond and the White Company, Éowyn’s handmaidens and grooms out of Rohan, Mablung and the Rangers stationed still in the wilds of Ithilien. Clearing and planting and building was not the first craft of any of them, and yet the year of grinding physical toil had been cleansing and uplifting. It had brought them together, strengthened and built bonds of loyalty and friendship, and had given them all a strange sense of pride that came from building up rather than the destruction and death that had ever been their lot. Aragorn had not been able to visit often, taken up as he was with the rebuilding and renewal of Minas Tirith itself, but the King took great interest in the reports of their progress and had expressed genuine pleasure that he and Queen Arwen were finally able to carve out an entire week to spend in Emyn Arnen, renewing acquaintances and viewing all that had been accomplished.

The Elf knew and understood all of this. Unfortunately, he also knew Faramir. The grin deepened. “As true as that is, my friend, are you certain that—”

A chill breeze rustled his hair, a sighing that was not quite sound or sense, even as the branches around him remained utterly still. Faramir leaped forward with an oath as Legolas broke off above him, bow appearing as if by magic. He pivoted, sword leaping to his fist, even as chill fingers traced once more at his nape. He whirled again, slashing wildly, wondering madly how he could feel the wind and yet the trees still weren’t moving. He heard Legolas calling, but the words were lost in a rising whisper, a susurration that filled his ears and pressed against his mind, demanding admittance. He stumbled back and swung again at he knew not what, for there was nothing to fight. For a moment the pressure eased, but then it returned in double measure, the whispering grown into the scream of a thousand cicadas at day’s end. His sword fell from numb fingers and he clutched at his head, tore at his hair in a vain attempt to escape the crushing weight …

A solid body struck him from behind. He fell beneath its onslaught and hit the ground hard, bruising his knee and biting his tongue. The cold and pressure and the pulsing shriek fled with the pain, and for a moment he lay dizzy and stunned. Nearby thrashing stirred him, and he rolled to his knees, spitting blood and scrabbling for his sword. Legolas was in danger. By the time he rose, though, the Elf was still and alone, kneeling in thigh-deep undergrowth but five yards away. Faramir gripped his hilt with sweating hands and scanned the area for any sign of life, gulping air and attempting to force his heart rate to slow. An itch on his upper lip proved to be blood from his nose, though he didn’t remember hitting it. Panic surged to the fore, and he battled it down.

“What was that?”

His voice echoed in the hushed glade, thready and high. Faramir winced, but Legolas made no response. Faramir took a step forward, sparing an eye from his watch for the bent blond head.

“Legolas? Are you—”

The Elf pitched forward suddenly and heaved into the brush, bracing with one arm and curling the other around himself in a strangely vulnerable gesture. Even with as little as Faramir understood of Elven physiology, he knew this to be vastly atypical. He started forward, but Legolas gestured sharply as he sat back, breathing heavily.

“No, stay back.”

Faramir took another uneasy step. “Legolas …”

Stay back!

His companion’s voice was thin and … frightened (frightened, the Elf was frightened), and Faramir’s own tightly held fear broke free. “What was that?” He gazed wildly about, unsure whether he truly wished to see the source of their attack. Legolas remained silent except for a series of long, careful, rasping breaths (he can’t breathe, what is wrong with him?). “Are you injured?” Still no response. Faramir swallowed the panic, the wild terror that he would look over his shoulder and find some creature out of his childhood nightmares crouching at his shoulder, and edged forward. “Legolas, what ails you? I—”

“You should go.”

The whisper brought him up short. Go? Abandon his companion in the wild? The suggestion was offensive to one who had long served as a Ranger in the perils of abandoned Ithilien, and Legolas knew it well … Seeing no immediate threat, Faramir sheathed his sword—he was forced to make the attempt twice because of his shaking hands—and strode forward. “Speak sense, my friend, for this is not it. I know you do not expect—”

Go!

The snarl lashed at him, and the prince finally turned his head, pinning Faramir with turbulent eyes. Faramir stumbled to a halt, struck dumb by the dark shadow that swirled there. The glint was at once dangerous and desperate, and Legolas looked quickly away. His mouth suddenly parched, his heart hammering, Faramir forced himself to stand fast.

“I will not.”

He expected an argument, but perhaps it was too much for the Elf. Instead, Legolas rocked forward again, resting his weight on one arm, and whispered, “Then be still.”

The haunted eyes closed before Faramir could protest, and the blond head tilted slowly to one side, as though Legolas concentrated completely on a thing that only he could hear. Thinking it best for the moment to obey, Faramir crouched in place, his own attention torn between their silent surroundings and the increasingly obvious battle before him. Legolas’s breathing quickened, his jaw tightened, his fingers clenched in the damp earth. Just as Faramir deemed he could sit by no longer—though what he might do was still a mystery—the prince reopened his eyes. The shadow remained, the usual laughing glint gone, but the danger that Faramir had sensed was, for the moment, absent.

“It is … contained. For now.” The Elf’s voice was ragged and soft. Faramir moved to stand, but the prince held up a warning hand. “Best to stay where you are.”

Faramir obediently sat back. “What has happened? Legolas?”

“I …” Legolas blinked and looked away, hollow eyes flitting from tree to brush to ground—anywhere except Faramir’s gaze. “They are …” He shuddered again, and drew his shoulders in protectively. “Does Gondorian lore tell of the houseless spirits?”

Faramir gaped. “Houseless … Those who refuse the summons of Mandos and remain bodiless in Middle Earth after death?” Legolas jerked a nod, but Faramir shook his head, barely able to form words around his horror. “No! They are myth, stories to frighten children!”

“Not so.” The prince curled his arms about himself and stood, eyes still flickering about the dark, close wood. Faramir followed suit, drawing his sword again—for all the good it might do them. A wry, hard smile graced the Elf’s lips. “Verily, I can now testify that they are quite …” His voice faded, and the stormy eyes lost focus. Faramir’s panic surged.

“Legolas!” It came to him then how young his friend suddenly seemed, despite the weight of Elven years. He attempted a soothing tone, despite his own unrest. “It tried to take you, and you fought it off. Are you injured? What can I—”

“It is inside me.” The razor-edged despair was an utterly foreign concept from this merry, loyal companion. Faramir faltered, feeling its cold fingers fanning the flame of his own revulsion. “It … attempts even now to oust my fëa, it wishes my body for its own.” Legolas’s face was drawn in the pale light. “I believe it withdrew from you not because of my attack, but because it sensed that I am an Elf. I …” The prince shook his head and stepped back. “I do not know how long I can resist it, or if it is even possible for me to win at the end. It will simply wait until I must sleep …” The shadowed eyes hardened. “You must go!”

“Why?” Faramir set his jaw. Whatever must be done, abandoning a friend to an unspeakable fate would not be any part of it. “You’ve said yourself that it does not want me. It will not—”

“It will kill you!” the Elf snarled. “It is foul, it is … vile. If it does not kill you as a threat, it will destroy you simply because it desires to! Whatever these were in life, Faramir, they were creatures of Sauron …”

They were creatures … It was, he realized, not the first time Legolas had spoken of their assailant in the plural. Faramir sucked in a breath.

They?”

The prince was silent for a moment, eying the dark forest, and then another ghastly grin twisted his pale features. “They are all around us.”

The impossible horror of it all finally tipped his mind from panic back into the realm of rational thought, as if it had abandoned fear as a useless tool against such overwhelming odds. Faramir blew out a deep breath, eyed the still clearing again, then sheathed his sword with a solid stroke.

“So. A nest of them.” Faramir’s calm, practical tone impressed even himself. “Then our first order of business is to find our way back to safety.”

Legolas’s eyes flickered, so quickly that it might have been a trick of light and shadow. Then, the Elf nodded briskly. “Aye.” He knelt and rustled about in the brush, coming up with his bow and a stray arrow. “I do not know if our return path is the quickest or the safest, but it is our surest chance of leaving this place without becoming lost along the way.”

“Agreed.” Faramir hesitated. “You can … see them?”

“Not precisely.” Legolas slid the arrow into his quiver and fastened his bow to his pack. Their weapons were useless against foes such as these. “I have … an idea of their presence. A resonation, perhaps, with the one inside of me.” The words were distant, flat, as though he had somehow convinced himself that this was all the dry tale of some other unfortunate soul. “I believe I will be able to lead us safely around the others, assuming that they remain mostly … dormant.” Dormant. This was not the time for explanation. Faramir nodded, and Legolas moved back the way they had come, skirting widely around his companion. “Stay with me. Move only where I walk. If I give you direction, obey immediately.” Faramir fell in behind, leaving a good several yards between them. It was, he admitted, somewhat for his own comfort—his head still throbbed and his ears rang with the memory of the initial assault. Mostly, however, the distance was for his friend’s peace of mind, as he could see that Legolas still did not wish him near. The Elf nodded tightly, both acknowledgement and thanks, and moved off through the close-set trees.

*****

Chapter 2

They traveled through the evening and into the night, taking many more hours to retrace their steps than they had originally needed to make their way so deeply into the wood. The silence was a living thing, heavy and hostile, broken only occasionally by terse whispers as Legolas checked their way or adjusted their course. At times the looming sense of wrongness eased, at times it rose to a fever pitch that was almost a noise within itself. Faramir kept tight on the Elf’s heels, breathing prayers of thanks that Ithil shone brightly this night. He followed the hissed instructions without discussion or complaint, no matter that their deviations took them through briar patches and poison vines and into one knee-deep stream. He was glad for the cool water, in truth—the tension sent sweat rolling into his eyes and dripping off of his nose, and a quick, silent splash on his face and neck went far toward relieving the discomfort from that source. The night was half gone when Legolas halted. He peered around them, then exhaled slowly through his nose. “I believe we have left them behind—I have not sensed another for more than an hour.”

Faramir released a long, shuddering breath of his own, rested his hands on his knees, and shook his head vigorously, flinging sweat in all directions. Legolas produced a hum of either amusement or disgust—perhaps both—and motioned to the northwest.

“We should continue on, in case of outliers. Go.”

He might have recognized the ploy, had he not been practicing instant obedience for so many hours. As it was, Faramir walked for nearly five minutes before it occurred to him that for the first time since the attack, Legolas had passed the lead to him. Quickly on its heels came the realization that he had heard nothing behind him since their last stop. Such silence was customary for Legolas, but not this night—tonight, the Elf’s distraction with other matters had shown in the odd scuffed footfall or rustle of clothing against branch. Faramir pivoted and found himself alone in the moon-dappled forest. Swearing, he pushed back toward the tiny clearing where he had last seen his companion.

Legolas was there still, standing with his face upturned to Ithil’s pale light, arms wrapped tightly about himself as though he feared flying apart. He did not stir as Faramir approached, and for a moment Faramir wondered if their separation had been chance after all. He would be required to keep a closer watch if his companion began to fall prey to such spells. As he drew near, however, he heard the hushed song, his friend’s voice breathing a faint, liquid melody into the night. Legolas looked around, noted his approach, then returned his gaze to the stars.

“You should not have returned.”

You should not have stayed!” Faramir jabbed a finger at Legolas. The Elf stepped back, avoiding the contact. Faramir again closed the distance between them. “It was all a pretense? You had no intention of—”

“Stay back!” For an instant Legolas’s control wavered, his forced calm replaced with anger and fear. Then, just as quickly, they were gone. “Do not approach, Faramir. I do not wish to harm you.” It was impossible to see eyes or expression in the shadowy moonlight, but the tone pleaded for understanding. Faramir ignored it.

You would never do so.”

Legolas looked away. “If you stay, I cannot promise your safety. I grow weary already, and it has been only a matter of hours.” His fingers scratched rhythmically, absently along his arms and across his palms.

A frisson of apprehension shook Faramir. He shoved it away—this was not the time. “You cannot promise my safety on any day, no matter what dangers we face.” He circled slowly, placing himself again in his companion’s line of sight. “If I do go, what will you do?”

“I will … I will fight it.” The lifeless tone left little doubt as to Legolas’s expectations for such a contest. “If I am able to drive it away, I will join you … after.”

“And if you cannot?”

“Do not make this more difficult than—”

“If you cannot?”

“Then my fëa will be lost and this … creature will wander endlessly in my body, wreaking mischief that I cannot even begin to guess!” Legolas spat the words, careless for whatever dangers may be lurking near. “But I will not allow you to stay and risk death at its hands!”

It was a welcome change from the calm despair.

“And I will not allow that to be your fate.”

The eyes that pinned him were black in the pale, shimmering light. “You cannot stop it.”

“I have no …” What a mad, ludicrous conversation. “I have no control over the fate of your fëa, it is true—although it is not my belief that Mandos will allow such a one as you to be lost.” Faramir stepped forward and caught his friend’s shoulder, grasping tightly when Legolas would have pulled away. “But I swear to you, this creature will not wander one step in your body.”

Even as he said it, Faramir did not know if he could truly follow through that promise—his mind shied away from the horror, and stinging bile rose in his throat. The words, however, produced the desired results. Legolas blinked, and the tense carriage relaxed minutely beneath Faramir’s fingers. For a long moment, both were still.

“And what will you do if the outcome is not yet decided when we reach Emyn Arnen?” Legolas finally asked. “You must have some plan. You cannot expose your people to … to this.”

“No,” Faramir agreed. “But remember, my friend. The King is coming.” Although he was not certain what Aragorn might be able to do against a threat such as this, he believed in his King as he did in no other—and it seemed that Legolas felt the same. The Elf’s head came up quickly, and for the first time in hours, a glimmer of hope entered his eyes. “Given our slower pace this night, it is very likely that he will be waiting there at our arrival.” Faramir shook the slender body gently. “If anyone can aide you in this, is it not Elessar?”

“Yes,” Legolas whispered, his voice little but a sigh in the night.

“Then let us go to him.” Faramir nodded, offering such encouragement as he could with his tone and firm grip, then released his friend and backed away. Legolas hesitated, gaze roaming the forest around them with quick, sharp movements, then nodded slowly.

“Very well. But beware—you may find yourself responsible for both of us ere the end. I must put forth much of myself against this creature in the days to come, if I am to undertake such a journey with any hope of victory.”

“Agreed.” Faramir let out a silent, relieved breath. He had won this bout—likely only one of many over the next days. Practical matters rose to the fore. “So. To that end, it seems to me that you will be better served by a less physically taxing road than our planned path.” He lifted a questioning eyebrow, and Legolas nodded reluctant agreement. “I know other ways. The one I have in mind is longer by half a day, but flatter by far—fewer hills, shallower ravines. It will require little of your attention, beyond ensuring that you keep upon the trail behind me.”

Legolas rocked slowly, scratching at his palms. “I begrudge the extra hours, but I see little hope if I am required to expend effort on the terrain.”

“One problem at a time, my friend.” Faramir clapped the Elf briefly on the shoulder before moving to turn away. “Let us not beg trouble before it forces itself upon us.” Legolas scowled at the contact, but Faramir shook his head. “Legolas. I do not fear you.”

The blond brows drew together. This time it was Legolas who gripped his arm, the slender fingers digging into skin and muscle. “Faramir. You should.”

The swirling tumult of shadow in the Elf’s eyes was visible even in Ithil’s pale light, and Faramir’s mouth suddenly parched as dry as sun-baked clay. He ignored it and forced a grin, deliberately mimicking his companion’s careless humor of … was it truly only a few hours ago? Gently, he extricated himself from Legolas’s grasp. “Perhaps.” He could not allow his own fear to show—not when his friend’s was so very near to the surface.

“Faramir …”

“I hear you.” Faramir returned the dark gaze with his own, then deliberately turned his back and strode west into the wood. An instant later, his companion followed.

“Remember it.”

“There is utterly no chance of my forgetting.”

Silence dropped like a heavy curtain as they entered the dark mass of the forest, the only sounds the rustling of wind in the branches and the strangely loud echo of the Elf’s usually silent footfalls. The hair on the back of Faramir’s neck rose, and he forced down a shiver of unease. This was Legolas behind him, and he trusted his friend. He must. If the Elf began to lose control of his situation, they would take some other action. Until that time (Valar, may such a time never arrive), Faramir was the most logical choice to lead them through the wilds of Ithilien. He could not begin to second-guess himself or his decisions. It was a lesson he had learned well and painfully during his years of command, and he would not abandon that training now.

They pushed on. The sound of his own breathing grew in Faramir’s ears. Each broken acorn was as the blast of a horn, each rustling branch the attack of some fresh terror, until his every nerve seemed on fire with tension. Just as he feared he might go mad before the dawn, Legolas began to sing again. His voice was so faint that Faramir could barely hear it, and yet the fluid tones wrapped around him, settling and refreshing him. He breathed in deeply and wondered if his friend sang merely for comfort, or if the Elvish melody actually held some power against the foul creature inside of him. Either way, Faramir was glad of it, and drew on it for strength as they left behind the night and the looming bulk of the Ephel Dúath, continuing on toward home and help.

*****

They did not halt with the coming of day, or even pause beyond a brief rummage in Faramir’s pack for bread and apples. The deep red welts that scored Legolas’s hands and arms and neck spoke of a night of mindless, repetitive scratching, and Faramir attempted not to stare as he passed over his friend’s share. The Elf was either unaware or uncaring of the damage—he looked at neither Faramir nor his own skin as he bit into the apple and continued on. Faramir swallowed his horror and forced down a bite of the heavy, dry bread. His appetite was lacking to the point of nausea, but it was necessary to keep up his strength if they were to continue on without rest.

Faramir had no intention of resting at any time soon.

The hills of the Outer Fence receded but slowly, despite their ground-eating pace. They strode on through noon and into dusk, stopping but long enough to refill their canteens or make use of a convenient trunk. Faramir was relieved when they passed before dark from the forest into a wide, overgrown plain scattered with patches of scrub and only the occasional copse of trees. He had little wish to spend another night in the wood. Time and long familiarity had gifted Faramir with a deep love of Ithilien’s lush, unkempt wilderness, but never before had he passed so long in its trees without any sound of bird or beast. The forest’s inhabitants, it seemed, sensed the spirit that had taken residence within the Elven prince and fled from all chance of contact. At least, Faramir knew of no other explanation for their palpable silence. The long, eerie absence weighed on him, and he clung as tightly as Legolas to the Elf’s soft, steady song.

The midnight hour was nearly upon them when Legolas spoke, his first words in the Common Speech since their long trek had begun. “Will you not require sleep this night?”

His mind had become accustomed to the flow and cadence of the Elvish music, and it was a moment before Faramir registered the question. He shook his head, keeping his focus on the moon-washed ground before them. “No.”

Legolas hummed doubtfully. “You cannot continue for three days without rest.”

“Perhaps.” Faramir had been hoping to avoid this particular conversation for a while longer. Still, it was just as well to have it out now. “The timeframe I provided for this route did not account for sleep. I do not intend to stop unless you require it.”

The Elf’s voice took on an edge. “That is folly. I need not tell you this.”

“I have gone without for such a time in the past.”

“And yet, you have need now of great attentiveness. Fatigue will only hinder your response if something should—”

“Do you wish me to sleep in your presence?” Faramir swung around, stopping Legolas in his tracks. His friend froze, and the black eyes flickered in Ithil’s light. Faramir nodded. “One problem at a time, my friend. I do not yet require sleep, and it is my hope that we may reach Emyn Arnen before it becomes a necessity.” Legolas looked away, and Faramir caught at his shoulder. “I trust you, even if you do not trust yourself.” He must trust him, despite the foul spirit that swirled close to the surface of the familiar eyes when Faramir but looked too closely. To walk for days with Legolas immediately at his back was otherwise unthinkable. “You require the King’s aid as soon as may be, however. I would not willingly delay it for even an hour.”

Legolas was silent for another long moment, then nodded. Faramir turned back toward the west, and they continued on.

*****

Dawn found Faramir chewing the leaves of a mild stimulant along with his breakfast of increasingly stale bread. It was perhaps not yet necessary, but he was beginning to feel the heaviness in his limbs and eyelids that spoke of long days without rest and two sleepless nights. Legolas’s urging of attentiveness was well spoken, and Faramir wished to take no chances. The herb, native to Ithilien and long carried by Gondor’s Rangers, was safe enough when used in moderate doses and helpful for an extra mild burst of energy at need—and there was indeed great need. Legolas’s state in the morning light—the bruising scattered across pale skin, independent of the fresh scratch welts, and the thready, breathless tone lurking beneath the liquid song—proclaimed it louder than any words.

Faramir picked up their pace, intent on making up the extra half day that hung over them. He may not earn for himself any name such as Wingfoot, but he would see to it that their crossing of Ithilien was one for Minas Tirith’s record books.

The day grew darker as it progressed, and with noon came a brief but heavy downpour that thoroughly soaked them and turned the firm earth to soft mud beneath their feet. Faramir ignored both the rain and the questionable footing—Legolas’s voice behind him had been flagging throughout the late morning, the song drifting and thin and at times halted altogether. He drew his hood down over his forehead, hunched his shoulders, and grumbled silently, unwilling to distract his companion’s attention with any unnecessary conversation, no matter how brief.

As the afternoon progressed and the first hints of the rising land leading to the hills of Emyn Arnen began to make itself known, Legolas’s voice grew rough, such as Faramir had never heard from an Elf. He was silent more often, his tone louder and increasingly desperate even during its stronger periods. A glimpse when Faramir handed back the evening bread and apple revealed full-blown pupils, dark and strange in the fair, pale face. Deep-set creases painted the Elf’s forehead, and the hand that reached for the food trembled.

“Are you in pain?”

Legolas blinked sluggishly, turning unfocused eyes on him, and something in the gaze caused Faramir to shiver. “It is … it is painful, yes, but not in any way that I am able to describe.”

Faramir pursed his lips. “Would a pain herb help?” He knew what the Elf’s answer would be before the words were spoken, but it would be cruel not to make the offer.

“No.” Legolas tore off a small piece of bread and chewed carefully. “I will not take the chance that even the smallest dose may dull my … what is left of my resistance.”

What is left. Faramir nodded and rummaged again in his pack, dropping what remained of the crumbled stimulant herbs into his waterskin in preparation for the push through the nighttime hours. He grimaced against the bitter taste, wishing for a good swallow of hot strong tea instead. Well. There was a reason the Rangers carried this herb—a fire and a mug of tea were simply not always possible. He re-secured his waterskin and started off again, ignoring his aching feet, trembling knees, and dry, gritty eyes. He could not be grateful that the spirit had chosen Legolas over him—such an attitude would be unseemly. There was no question, however, that he would not have lasted so long in his friend’s place. The Elf’s constitution gave his friend an advantage against both the foul creature and the long, sleepless trek that he as a Man simply did not possess. It was obvious, however, that Legolas was slowly losing the struggle, and that they had very little time left to them.

Faramir spent the long nighttime hours muttering fervent requests to the Valar and to Ilúvatar Himself that their time would be enough, and that they would find Elessar in Emyn Arnen upon their arrival. If the King was not there, if their entire desperate trek had been in vain … He forced his weary mind away from that terrible possibility. It did not bear pondering.

*****

The rising sun found them scrambling up the rocky incline of the path that would take them through the eastern hills of Emyn Arnen and then on to the home that Faramir and Éowyn had made and now shared with their people. It was unfortunate, Faramir thought, that this most taxing road of their trek fell at the tail end of their journey, but it was not to be helped. In any event, Legolas seemed to have regained a measure of strength and speed as the early hours waned, and spent the morning flitting ahead up the steeper, rocky inclines. Faramir followed reluctantly, unsure what to make of this second wind and afraid that it could mean nothing good. He reached the top of the current rise and joined the still, silent Elf, who stood gazing west across the next rise of hills.

“Legolas?” Faramir reached for his pack, intending to offer a meager early lunch, but his hand stilled as the black eyes turned his way. They swirled slowly, glinting with a light not of the late morning sun. The blond head canted to one side, considering, and a tiny, odd smile touched the corners of the Elf’s mouth. Faramir’s breath left him in a rush, his mind shrieking an angry denial. We are so close! He stumbled back, away from the thing viewing him through his friend’s eyes. “Legolas!” The dark eddies continued their sluggish dance. His companion turned slowly, and the grin widened.

Suddenly, Faramir no longer desired any response.

Instinct took over, leaving behind his tired mind. He lunged forward and struck Legolas a solid hit across the jaw, snapping the blond head back, then fumbled for his sword as the long, thin body glanced sharply off of the nearby rock face. It was now or never … now or never … “Legolas!

The Elf’s knees buckled, and loose rock scattered as Legolas scrambled for balance. He threw up one arm as Faramir’s sword swept overhead, gasping, “Faramir!”

He could not stop the sword’s arc, but he deflected it against the rock instead. Sparks flew and a loud snap signaled damage to the blade, but Faramir’s full attention was focused on his companion. Legolas crouched on the dusty trail, terror and desperation playing across the fair features.

“Faramir. Run!

Faramir jammed the battered blade back into its sheath, ignoring the revulsion and horror that coursed through him. “Come.” He could barely hear his own words over the ringing in his ears. “We are very near.”

“No.” The blond head shook vigorously. “No, I cannot—”

Move!” Faramir gripped the Elf’s upper arm and hauled him to his feet, shoving him down the path. “We are close, do not give up now!”

Legolas wasted no effort in further argument, but fled on swift feet down the narrow trail. Faramir followed, his heart beating fiercely, bitter fear flooding his mouth and driving the weariness from his limbs. Together they raced across the uneven terrain, heedless of loose stones or drop-offs or the jagged rocks that blocked their way and pummeled ribs and arms unprotected in the frantic flight. The slope evened out and rose again, but less sharply, and they plunged along with little care for anything but the path that stretched before them. Faramir’s legs were numb, and he could feel neither his feet nor his hands. His body had taken control for both of them, an iron grip dragging the Elf with him when Legolas stumbled or hesitated. Their pace was fearsome—unplanned and unwise in such hills as these—but Faramir could not have slowed himself, and in truth had no wish to try. There was, in any case, no need. The trail passed through a narrow opening and then thinned away into wide, sloping grassland. Faramir and Legolas staggered on for a few feet more and then as one fell to their knees, staring ahead over the outer pastures of Emyn Arnen.

*****

Chapter 3

He allowed them no rest, despite his burning legs and aching lungs. Too much was at stake, and Legolas now teetered on the precipice of disaster. Every moment was precious.

“Come.” Faramir grasped the Elf’s arm. Legolas flinched away but Faramir tightened his grip, dragging Legolas along as he staggered to his feet. “We are very near. See, we are on the edge of the outer pastures. We need only …”

His eyes fell on a small group of riders but a short distance off, and Faramir’s heart leaped into his throat. Who was this, out so far into their pasture land? He had not expected to meet any of his folk until they drew in much closer to the inner pastures and outbuildings—perhaps even nearing onto the house itself. He had as yet finalized no plans for how they would proceed once they arrived in any inhabited area. Much thought had he given this dilemma as they traveled across the long miles of Ithilien, but he had found no satisfactory answer. Legolas could not be left alone—even if he did not finally succumb to the dark spirit with none to aid him, there was no guarantee that he would be in the same place still when Faramir returned. Confusion or a sense of duty might drive him forth on his own. He could not, however, be taken into populated areas, not where he might become a danger to others should the worst occur. Neither Man nor Elf would quickly forgive himself if some innocent should be harmed in this struggle. Drawing near to their destination and almost out of time, Faramir had been formulating some thought of securing Legolas in one of the outbuildings while he went for the King (please, let the King be there). It was not perfect, but the best that he had been able to devise. Riders this far out, however, added another level of complexity to his already …

He had allowed his attention to stray for too long from his companion. The blow, when it came, was utterly unexpected, and Faramir dropped hard to his knees, head swimming. Instinct saved him, as it had so often in the past—he threw his arm up in time to deflect another, but the Elf drove him back onto the turf. Long flingers clawed for his throat.

“Legolas!”

Faramir seized the slender wrist, fighting for breath. He managed to get one foot beneath him and shoved off, flipping them both.

Legolas! Stop!”

He retained the upper ground for only a moment—the Elf was light and quick, and slipped away before Faramir’s full weight could bear him down. A knee to the gut expelled Faramir’s breath in a rush, but he was moving already and his momentum carried him away from Legolas’s next attempt. The reprieve was brief but enough. He braced against the next rush, and managed to turn them as they fell, landing beside the Elf rather than beneath him. Faramir seized one slender shoulder and pushed with his knee, attempting to force Legolas back. Legolas’s free arm shot through his defenses, and fingers closed again around his throat.

“Legolas, look at me!”

Legolas was beyond words, though, beyond pleading or rational thought. Faramir gasped for breath and drove his knee upward. Wherever it hit—abdomen, groin, he did not particularly care—was enough to loosen Legolas’s grip. Faramir sucked in a frantic breath, and—

Of a sudden, his opponent’s weight was gone. For a moment Faramir lay gasping, only dimly aware of the crashing struggle to his right, and then urgency reasserted itself. He scrambled to his knees in time to see Legolas roll smoothly over and then halt, panting. Rage radiated from the glistening eyes, fixed now on the shining blade at his throat.

“Stay down, or your life is forfeit.”

The familiar voice washed over him like a wave, and Faramir sat back onto his heels with a gasp, shuddering with reaction and drawing in deep, rasping breaths. His throat was on fire, and his arm was deeply bruised at best. His knee pounded in time with his pulse.

“My Lord?”

He pulled in another long breath. “Beregond, has the King yet arrived?”

“He has, my Lord.” The captain of the White Company stood firm, his attention fixed and his sword arm steady, though his voice held a host of unasked questions. “Are you injured?”

Faramir would have sagged with relief, if not for the dark loathing that played across the Elven prince’s usually merry face. After everything, were they to be too late? “Legolas?”

The dark eyes flickered toward him, and Faramir thought for an instant that he saw regret and terror in their depths. He might have imagined it—before he could draw another breath, nothing but shadow and fey presence remained.

“My Lord, are you injured?”

Beregond’s voice pressed at him. “No.” Faramir shuddered. “No, I … Beregond, why are you here? What are you—”

“Faramir!”

No!

His heart pounded anew at that beloved voice. “No, stay back!” Faramir pivoted, injured knee grinding into rock and turf, and threw up a frantic hand, halting Éowyn’s headlong flight.

She stumbled to a halt near Beregond’s mount, wide eyes darting between her husband and the Elf with Beregond’s sword at his throat. “Faramir?” Her tone was bewildered and urgent. Wisps of blonde hair fell about her flushed face, and her lithe body was coiled even in stillness, poised and ready.

“Éowyn, we need the King!” His wife was efficient and practical as well as beautiful, for which he thanked the Valar now as he had done so often before. Éowyn would act immediately on his word and urgency, leaving explanations for a more suitable time. Indeed, she was already backing toward her mount, reluctance shining from her eyes and every movement.

“What is amiss?” Her eyes moved again between Faramir and Legolas. “Faramir, what shall I—”

“Tell Elessar that a houseless spirit of the dead attempts possession of the son of Thranduil.” The melodic tones drew Faramir’s gaze. His eyes fixed on the figure rounding the small bunch of horses, removing her riding gloves with slow, deliberate tugs, and he sucked in a breath.

Queen Arwen.

No, no ….

“My Lady, do not approach!” he panted, holding up one hand. Arwen continued forward, and frustration and fear boiled to the surface. The Queen recognized their danger—somehow, she knew what they faced—and yet still she advanced. “You must not—”

“Éowyn, wait.” Arwen took Éowyn’s reins in her hand as the other woman swung smoothly into her saddle. Éowyn paused, and Faramir’s mind screamed a desperate denial. They could not wait, their time had already fled … Arwen looked to the final member of the party. “Faolán.” The Rohirric horse master attended the Queen immediately, eyes still flickering toward the strange scene. “You know where my husband and Hefin went to look at the colts?” Faolán nodded. “Find them, tell the King my words and send him to us with all haste.”

“At once, my Lady.” Faolán pulled his mount around and urged the mare into a gallop across the pasture. Arwen looked to Éowyn.

“We will need athelas and water, warm as can be found—but you must not wait to heat it.”

Éowyn nodded, cast one last longing glance toward her husband, then wheeled her horse and raced for the house. Arwen dropped her gloves to the ground and drew slowly closer, eyes fixed on Legolas. The prince’s attention had shifted from the sword to the Queen, and he viewed the approaching Elf with a palpable hatred. Faramir’s gut clenched, and he struggled to his feet.

“My Lady, you must not! I—”

“Back away please, Faramir. Beregond.” Her voice was lovely and smooth, as chimes in a summer breeze, but Faramir sensed a core as of steel beneath. Still, he could not. He would not place his Queen, his King’s beloved, in such danger.

“My Lady …”

“Move to safety, my Lord Steward!” Her voice snapped out, a command to be obeyed, and yet Faramir balked. Surely he could not … “Captain Beregond!” The captain of the White Company glanced between their Queen and his Lord, who stood swaying with exhaustion and pain, and then complied with sudden alacrity, retreating in a rush and hauling a protesting Faramir with him.

“No!” Faramir struggled against Beregond’s iron grip, horror rushing upon him as his captain’s actions freed Legolas’s attention. “Beregond, no! Release me!”

Before he could loose himself, however, before Beregond’s first lunge slowed and before the spirit within Legolas could respond, Arwen Undómiel lifted her voice in song.

Such beauty and power Faramir had never heard. It was as a tangible thing, the Queen’s song—cleansing as the spring rain, comforting as the summer sun, vivid as the autumn sky, pure and bracing as a stiff winter breeze. Straight and tall Arwen stood, focused and yet utterly unafraid. Her eyes shone with an inner fire—light to the darkness before her, still to its turbulence. Legolas snarled and started forward, but the melody rose—higher, faster—and he sank back. Rage and loathing rippling across his fair features, but he seemed pinned in place, unable to mount a counterattack or even any manner of defense. Faramir sank to his knees, barely aware of Beregond’s supporting grip, and watched in awe the scene unfolding before him.

How long he crouched there, viewing the strange battle in mingled wonder and fear, he did not know. Melody and fatigue stretched and twisted time until it might have been moments or hours. All else was faded, secondary, and he jerked when a strong hand gripped his shoulder and a warm body settled beside him. The fingers tightened for an instant, steadying, and a glance revealed his King at his side. Relief spun his brain and turned his joints to water. Warm grey eyes surveyed him with practiced speed, and Faramir jerked a nod to the unspoken question—he was well, or as well as could be. The King need spend no immediate attention on him. Aragorn squeezed his shoulder and returned his focus to Arwen and Legolas. He asked no questions, and Faramir assumed that the Queen’s message, brief as it had been, must be sufficient for the time.

Faramir knew not what to expect, but for the moment Aragorn seemed inclined to wait in tense readiness by his Steward’s side. Arwen’s voice grew in intensity, if not volume. Legolas’s body twisted as if in pain, the slim frame taut and jaw clenched. The King’s fingers dug painfully into Faramir’s shoulder, but Faramir was too focused to spare it much notice.

Hoofbeats pounded, a background echo which might not have even registered had Éowyn not flung herself suddenly beside them. “My Lord!” A tremor shook her voice and her eyes flitted anxiously toward the combatants, but her hands were steady. “Athelas, my Lord.” She gave into Aragorn’s hands a flat, damp cloth through which Faramir could see outline of leaf and root. “And warm water—it was boiling in the kitchens, but it has surely cooled by now.” She thrust a waterskin toward him, and followed with a clay mixing bowl. Aragorn nodded and pressed her wrist.

“Thank you, my Lady.”

The King poured the water into the bowl and then uncovered the athelas leaves, less than an hour removed from Emyn Arnen’s gardens. As he crushed them in his hand, Faramir caught the first hint of pure, clean scent. Then Aragorn dropped them into the warm water and a light, heady fragrance washed over them. Faramir closed his eyes as dizziness took him, the soothing scent of athelas and the Queen’s cleansing song swirling in wild tandem. Aragorn moved away and immediately Éowyn took his place, ducking beneath her husband’s arm and pulling him close. Faramir leaned against her, resting his cheek on the crown of her head. A wordless snarl sounded beneath the song, and Faramir opened his eyes to see Legolas—no, the spirit within him—back away from the approaching King, impotence and blind fury in the black gaze.

Arwen’s song changed then, growing harder and louder and more commanding. Aragorn inched nearer, the warm, fragrant water held before him as a shield, and suddenly Legolas screamed. It was a feral cry, full of rage and pain and … grief, and only when Legolas collapsed limply, eyes and mouth both firmly closed, did Faramir realized the scream was not aloud. Aragorn lunged forward, throwing himself over the body of his friend. Both the scream and the song rose, until the shriek bore into Faramir’s ears and pounded within his head … and then, suddenly, nothing.

For an instant silence rang loud around them. Slowly Faramir came back to himself, realizing as he opened his eyes that his hands were pressed uselessly over his ears. A glance at Éowyn showed the same, and Beregond as well. He squeezed his wife’s shoulders and then pushed himself to trembling knees, looking across the short space toward Legolas.

The King and Queen knelt beside the fallen Elf. As Faramir moved closer, he saw that Aragorn had dipped his hands into the steaming bowl of athelas water and was brushing Legolas’s face and hands, calling his name gently. “Legolas.” No response. Aragorn sprinkled more water over the Elf’s face, then laid one hand on Legolas’s forehead and gripped the Elf’s hand with his other. “Legolas.” His voice was gentle, coaxing, and Faramir was taken abruptly back to that day in the Houses of Healing, when he had followed his King’s voice back to the light. Aragorn would succeed, then—surely none could resist such a call from this Man. “Legolas …” Aragorn’s voice dropped, and his eyes closed, and he was silent.

Queen Arwen knelt silently, gripping Legolas’s other hand. As Faramir sank beside her, she offered a glance of strength and hope. Faramir could not help but stare as he laid a hand on his friend’s leg, offering what comfort he was able. Arwen seemed to him as she had always been—wise and gentle and welcoming—and yet the power and command he had seen from her … To look at her now, he would not have imagined it. Truly, the Queen was amazing, and Gondor was blessed by Ilúvatar Himself that she had chosen to live within its borders.

“Legolas.”

Aragorn’s faint voice rose again, and the Elf’s eyes blinked open. Faramir sat back with a sigh of relief at the sight of clear blue, untainted by any darkness or shadow. They darted frantically from one face to the next, landing finally on Aragorn. The King nodded, reassuring.

“You are well, my friend, and safe. Sleep now.”

He cupped a hand briefly across Legolas’s eyes, and after a moment the slim body relaxed, sinking bonelessly against the warm turf. Aragorn sat back on his heels and blew out a deep, slow breath, meeting the anxious gazes around him.

“His body and fëa have been under much strain, but he will recover. He had retreated far at the last, in an attempt to save something of himself from the spirit’s assault, and required reassurance and guidance to emerge again.” Aragorn’s eyes rested on his Queen, and the love and respect within shone for all to see. “You put forth much of yourself, vanimelda. Do you require aught from me?”

Arwen smiled faintly and reached across Legolas to grip her husband’s hand. “I require rest only. I will return to the house and spend some time in sleep.”

Aragorn lifted her fingers to his lips, kissing them gently. Faramir rose, attempting a discreet retreat from the scene now that he was assured Legolas would recover. The King would wish a report soon, but for the moment Faramir had duties to attend. He nearly tripped over Éowyn, who had crowded close behind him. Wrapping an arm around her and dropping a kiss on her head, he guided them both toward Beregond, praying that he remained on his feet long enough to give the necessary orders. The sudden relief after days of exhaustion and terror left him lightheaded and trembling, but Éowyn’s strong presence beside him was enough as he approached his captain.

“Beregond.”

“My Lord.” Beregond had risen, but remained a respectful distance from Legolas’s prone form. “Are you well?”

“For now.” Faramir shook his head. He, too, would require sleep—and much of it—but that time had not yet arrived. “Prince Legolas and I discovered a … nest of houseless spirits along the southeastern ridge on the border of the Outer Fence.” Éowyn gasped softly, covering her mouth. Beregond’s eyes widened, and flickered briefly beyond Faramir toward the fallen Elf. “We were fortunate to take no more harm from them than we did.”

“A nest, my Lord?” Beregond shuffled uneasily. “What can we do against such as this?”

“I know not.” Faramir shook his head. It was yet another unanswered quandary of the past days, but he had no time or energy to discuss the matter now. “For the moment, contact the Ranger messenger on duty and send to Mablung that I wish a blockade set up along the lower curve of the number eight trail. I leave it to him to enforce, but no one is to go east of that section of the trail until further notice.” It would not solve their problem (what did one do to eradicate a group of houseless spirits? Could it even be done?), but it would at least keep any unsuspecting Ranger or Elf or traveler from tempting a worse fate than Legolas had found.

“Yes, my Lord.” Beregond retrieved his sword from the grass at his feet and skirted around Faramir, nodding and murmuring, “My King,” as he disappeared from view. Faramir turned quickly to find Aragorn at his shoulder. The King’s face was dark.

“A nest? How do you know? How many, do you think?”

Faramir shook his head and fell in beside Aragorn. As they made their way back toward Legolas, he saw a group of his people who must have returned with Éowyn gathered around the prince. They were gently rolling Legolas onto a makeshift pallet in preparation for the return to the house. Éowyn squeezed Faramir’s hand. “I must aid them, and see to the Queen.” She looked to Aragorn. “My Lord, please ensure that he arrives safely home.”

Aragorn nodded. “I shall, my Lady.”

“My thanks.” She kissed the corner of Faramir’s mouth and then was gone, leaving him bereft of her warm support. Faramir wrapped his arms tightly around himself, casting back for the threads of their conversation.

“How many? I do not know. Legolas might—he seemed to be able to sense the others, once …” Faramir trailed off, remembering that night, and Aragorn shook his head.

“Now is not the time. We will discuss it once you are home and tended. The barricade was well-thought, and likely all we can do without further study.”

Faramir nodded, eyes drifting back to the busy scene. Éowyn was occupied with directing the securing of Legolas’s pallet behind one of the horses. Arwen had mounted already, awaiting the others. Faramir shook his head, wonder returning. A soft chuckle sounded beside him.

“You have questions?”

“No, my Lord! Or, rather … ” Faramir pivoted, bringing his eyes back to the King. “I do, if it is permitted.”

Aragorn smiled faintly. “Ask.”

“I …” He cast another glance at Arwen. The Queen’s weariness was obvious even from this distance, but still she was kind and gracious, speaking softly with a young guard of the White Company who had been stationed to attend her. Faramir shook his head. “I do not even know what to ask, my Lord. Such a display is far from any that I ever expected to see from the Queen. From any. How … ” He winced at the clumsy words, but the King’s eyes lit with understanding.

“Such battles as these are far beyond mortal experience, are they not?”

Faramir nodded, grateful that he would not be forced to flounder further.

“The time of the Elves nears its close, but those among us still are what they are. My Lady is the granddaughter of Galadriel, and the very image of her foremother Lúthien Tinúviel, daughter of the Maia Melian. There is much power in her blood.”

He had known her lineage, of course, but to truly think of what it meant … Faramir shook his head, awed. “We are blessed to have her among us.”

The King smiled again, his own eyes finding the figure of his wife, who was now falling into the line of horses turning for Emyn Arnen. “We are indeed.” Aragorn stirred then, and clapped Faramir’s shoulder. “But I promised your own Lady I would see you safely home, and so I shall. Legolas needs further tending, and I doubt not that you do as well. I am certain that Éowyn saw to it a horse was provided for you. Ride with me and tell me all, so that I may know what we face.”

Faramir sagged limply, relief coursing through him. “Indeed, my Lord. I will be most glad to reach home.”

*****

Epilogue

Faramir slid slowly out of bed, muffling a groan as his abused body sent up a very vivid protest. He did not wish to wake Éowyn, who had been curled into his side deeply asleep for the past two hours. Between assisting with medical care—although thankfully his own injuries had proved little more than strained muscles, deep bruises, and a single cracked rib—and keeping up the more prosaic tasks required of a home’s mistress with visitors of the King and Queen’s stature in residence, his wife was much fatigued and deserved her rest. Perhaps he should be grateful for his bruises, then. If not for those, Éowyn would likely have pillowed on his shoulder and he would have had very little chance of leaving her undisturbed.

The flooring was cool and smooth against his bare feet. He unhooked his robe from the bedpost and pulled it on as he crossed the room, biting back another pained curse. No, his arm was apparently not ready for that particular movement yet. He tied the robe closed and then slipped into the hall. The well-oiled hinges made no sound as he pulled the door gently closed behind him, taking care that it did not click as he released the handle. That done, he turned to the Queen, who hovered near with a single flickering candle in deference to the hour.

“My Lady?”

“I regret waking you.” Arwen smiled apologetically, and Faramir shook his head.

“You did not. With all the sleep I have had in the past two days, I confess I feel the need for no more. I have been lying awake since my wife found her slumber.”

She nodded. “Then you will not mind a brief interruption.” Arwen motioned down the hall, toward the guest rooms. “Legolas has awakened.”

Awake. Though he had put on a patient front, Faramir had been more anxious for his travelling companion to wake than he liked to admit. Seeing Legolas so still and silent after his ordeal was not an entirely comfortable experience, despite knowing that the sleep was a healing one. Ignoring his protesting muscles, Faramir started immediately for the room in which the Elf had been sleeping for the past days. “How is he?”

“Alert and responsive.” Faramir nodded, breathing deeply through his relief. Aragorn had assured them that Legolas’s mind was unharmed and all would be well. Hearing and seeing, however, were two entirely different things. “Aragorn wishes him to sleep for at least another day—he believes that doing so will aid any internal healing that may still be taking place. Legolas desires to speak with you before he returns to sleep, however.” Faramir jerked another nod and picked up his step. Arwen’s grey eyes darted toward him. “We suspected that you would wish the same, and thought it wise to fetch you.”

“Thank you, my Lady. I am glad that you did.”

They reached Legolas’s door, the dark bulk outlined by a flickering light from within. Before Arwen could move to open it, however, Faramir halted.

“My Lady.” She turned her calm grey gaze on him and Faramir straightened formally, his hands automatically seeking to clasp behind his back. When his bruises protested, he dropped them instead to his sides. “We have had very little opportunity to speak over the past days. If I may, I would take this opportunity to offer my deepest thanks for your aid in this matter. We were …” Flashes of forest and hills and pasture, of desperate haste and sleepless nights and frantic struggle, filled his mind and seized his heart. So close. It had been so close… Faramir shook that thought away. It was over now, and they were both alive and whole. It would not serve to dredge up such desperation and terror here in the safety of his home. “Thank you.”

Arwen smiled and reached for his hand. “My aid was most gladly given.” She pressed his fingers, then released him. “But think not that your own part was any less needful. Without your care and guidance, Legolas would not have reached Emyn Arnen.” Her fair countenance darkened. “The spirit was both vengeful and powerful. It is well that you pressed on as you did.”

Faramir’s thoughts drifted back despite himself. “If it had taken me rather than him …” He sighed. “I would not have held out for so long. I would have been lost long ere we reached home.”

“Then all have many reasons for gratitude, do we not?”

He grimaced. “It does not feel right to be grateful that another was forced to bear this trial.”

The Queen studied him gravely. “And yet, this gratitude comes not from cowardice or fear. It comes not from a shirking of friendship, but from simple acknowledgement of a truth. His heritage offers a strength that yours does not. All in the end has worked for the good, has it not?”

Faramir met the eyes of the Queen, and nodded slowly. “Verily, my Lady.”

“Then gratitude is not amiss.” A smile softened Arwen’s features, and she motioned toward the sickroom. “Shall we enter?”

He stepped away from the door, allowing Arwen to lead the way. The room was half-lit, dim enough for sensitive eyes but bright enough that all within was easily discernible. Aragorn stood beyond the bed, mixing a packet of herbs into a teacup. Faramir nodded to his King, then turned his eyes to the bed. Purple hollows painted Legolas’s features, dark even in the flickering light, but his eyes were open and aware. Faramir grinned, the relief of the past days bursting to full-blown elation.

Against all expectation, they had survived.

“How do you feel, my friend?” He crossed quickly to the bedside.

Legolas snorted softly. “I believe I feel as though a houseless spirit has been attempting to dismantle me from the inside out.”

Faramir chuckled. “Indeed?”

“Indeed.” The Elf swept Faramir with his gaze. “And you?”

He hesitated. “I believe I feel the same, though perhaps from the outside in.”

Legolas choked on a laugh. Aragorn glanced up quickly, but the Elf waved him away. “Nay, I am well.” He returned his attention to Faramir, and raised a hand. “Thank you, my friend. I regret that you were harmed in the doing … but I owe you my life, and perhaps my very fëa.”

Faramir seized the proffered hand. “You saved me as well, at the first. And any bruises I suffered were well worth the end result.” Silence fell for a moment, then he shook his head. “In truth, it would be quite time-consuming to locate another Elf willing to take charge of the colony. I have not the energy for the matter.”

The blue eyes danced, merry and free from any shadow. “Ah, I see. It was an economical endeavor, then.”

“What else?”

“What else, indeed?” Legolas’s eyes drifted closed and his grip loosened, but his voice was still strong and light. “In that case, I have been meaning to discuss some manner of hazard remuneration for my efforts here. It seems that I was not fully apprised of the—”

“The two of you have obviously spent far too much time with the hobbits.” Aragorn moved forward, holding the mug with the tea outstretched. Legolas blinked his eyes open and shared a swift, fatigued smile with Faramir.

“I am not certain such a thing is possible.”

Aragorn smiled fondly. “Nor I, in truth.” He waved the mug gently. “Sleep now. There will be time for both thanks and negotiation when you are fully recovered.”

“I am not certain that is wise, my Lord.” Faramir pursed his lips. “Perhaps we should pursue this now, while we still have the advantage. Once he is up and about …”

Legolas downed the tea in two large gulps and tossed the mug onto the nearby table, where it landed with a dull thud amid the laundered towels and the herb packets. “I fear that I am drugged, and unable to fully participate in such discussions at this time.”

Faramir snorted a laugh, then lowered himself carefully to sit on the floor, back resting against the bed frame. “It seems I am overruled.” He leaned his head into the mattress. “Perhaps I will stay, however, until you return to your sleep.”

“I would be glad of the company.” Legolas settled back into the pillow, and his voice was already thick with oncoming sleep. “I am … truly grateful to see you well, Faramir.”

Faramir closed his own eyes, listening with half an ear to the silence—the soft rustle of the King’s footsteps as he crossed the room, the fair music of the Queen’s whisper, the hushed creaking of the bed as Legolas gently resettled. Yes. They had much for which to be grateful.

“And I you, my friend.”

***The End***

A/N: In speaking of the houseless spirits, various internet sources quote HoME vol. 10 as follows: ” … in the contest for mastery the body may be gravely injured, even if it be not wrested from its rightful habitant.”

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