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Emyn Arnen, 2 F. A., April
Faramir reached his house and joined Éowyn, who sat on the couch on the porch. When he came, she put aside the book she had been reading until then. He arrived in the perfect moment; the sun was just setting. He took her hand and together they enjoyed the sight, observing the little clouds in the west changing their colour to pink and gold.
Their house was on the western slopes of Emyn Arnen, about quarter of a mile from the foot of the hills. In front of them a view towards the north opened – towards the fields stretching all the way to the road leading from Osgiliath to the east, and they also had a good view on several miles of Anduin, long white-grey line of Rammas Echor and Pelennor Fields.
Much closer to their house, at the very foothill, a village named Vinhir was situated. It was built in the summer after the War, when he and Éowyn came to live here. People followed them, and together they started to renew this part of Ithilien. The village was constantly growing, and started to turn into a small town. More families came, and children were born. Faramir rejoiced to each baby; war and death remained behind them and now it was time for joy and new life.
The first two years after the War were difficult everywhere in Gondor. They had to rebuild so much – both ruined houses and destroyed fields – and securing supplies for winter turned into race with time. Yet, it seemed the Valar favoured them: the weather was all they could wish for and both harvests were plentiful. So the last year was a little easier.
Three weeks ago spring began and everything started to green, and the days slowly became warmer. Holding Éowyn's hand, he just couldn't stop smiling. Yes, he was glad for all the babies born after the war, but now the one that made him happiest was on the way. Éowyn's other hand rested on her big belly, and the joyful event was to happen in about two months.
"How did the meeting go? Is there any important news?" asked Éowyn, turning towards him.
Ever since the first day of their life in Ithilien she had attended all the meetings with him. They met the people from Vinhir and one other nearby village almost every week, and once in three months meetings were held in which the representatives from all the Ithilien villages were present, as well as Rangers' officers. On those occasions they exchanged all important news and planned future events.
That day it was time for that big council, but considering Éowyn's advanced pregnancy, this time Faramir managed to persuade her to stay home and rest. However, he knew she wouldn't sit idle; the book she had read until his return was about healing of burns, as he notice from its title. During the past three years she had been studying very diligently, fulfilling her decision made back in the days of the War, when she had lain wounded in the Houses of Healing. She now worked as a healer in Vinhir, and ever searched for more books to widen her knowledge.
"Well, as for the everyday life, everything is fine," he replied. "Agriculture and trade progress well. I think we'll have to extend some of the roads, which are actually sweet cares." He smiled. The need to improve the extant roads, as well as to build new ones, really testified that trade developed in big steps – which meant that the kingdom developed in general, too. Then he continued. "Now that longer and warmer days arrived, people will start to build the school in Harchel."
Éowyn nodded. "That is a sweet concern too," she said. "And what do Haldar and Armendil report? Are there any problems?" she asked then. Haldar was the chief commander of all the Rangers of North Ithilien, while Armendil led those in South Ithilien.
Faramir looked at her and saw that she was attentively waiting for the answer. "Why do you think there are problems?" he countered with another question, trying to figure out quickly what to say next.
"A little while ago you said everything was fine 'as for every day's life'," said Éowyn and shrugged. "It suggest that some other things aren't."
Faramir cursed inside, admonishing himself for starting his answer that way and not being more careful in choosing the words. Many times he had seen that nothing escaped her attention, and it happened again now.
And really, there was something that he had found out during the meeting, which he didn't want to mention now, to spare her from worrying. There was always a possibility, though, that she would hear the news from people working in their household, or from those in Vinhir she was in contact with.
But maybe she wouldn't, you idiot, and she wouldn't worry.
"The Rangers haven't found orc tracks in this period either, so everything is fine for that part too," he said lightly.
During the first year after the War, there were quite a few skirmishes with orc-bands, but as the time was passing, there were less and less. Actually, if he thought about the whole period since the War until now, he concluded that they had found even less orcs than he had expected. This last winter was the third season in a row that rangers' patrols hadn't found a single orc on the slopes of the Mountains of Shadow. Of course, the mountain range was vast and the number of rangers was limited, and they couldn't cover the whole region all at once. But Ithilien Rangers were supreme trackers and nothing escaped their attention. Faramir was sure that, on the places they checked, there really had been no orcs; if any remained in some remote, unchecked place, surely there were very few, and he believed they'd soon eliminate them too.
No, there were no signs of the orcs.
But there were some other signs. Very unusual, very mysterious. Worrying. And that was not all; a hunter from the village of Ornost disappeared. Even before the beginning of the meeting, Haldar approached Faramir and the two of them spoke privately for a while. "I know the tracks made by bears or wolves. And no, I didn't see those on the slopes above Ornost. But I did see something. There weren't many tracks because the rain from previous days softened the terrain and erased some of them. They are very weird – narrow, deep, pointy. Almost as if somebody had stung a staff into the ground. For those tracks cannot be of feet. No creature that we know leaves such tracks", Faramir heard Haldar's words in his head again. They imprinted in his mind very deeply.
"But...?" insisted Éowyn and startled him from thoughts.
He looked at her. The blue eyes he loved so much were now serious; it seemed she felt something was wrong.
"Can't I hide anything from you?" he asked with an exaggerated sigh, but smiled afterwards.
Hearing those words she smiled too, and his heart fluttered. He loved to watch her smile.
"No, you can't," she replied mischievously, but right after that her smile disappeared. "Tell me, what else have you found out?"
He got serious too. "About two weeks ago a man from Ornost vanished while hunting. Considering the time passed since, the chances to find him alive have been reduced to almost none."
Ornost was a settlement founded long ago, back in the first half of the Third Age. It was situated at the foot of the Mountains of Shadow, near the road and plains, about fifteen miles north of the Crossroads. During the last few years before the War of the Ring the people were abandoning it because of the orc attacks, and a few months before the War finally all of them had to leave. But after the War the people returned and rebuilt their houses, and the surrounding fields were planted again.
"Oh. I'm so sorry to hear that," said Éowyn and frowned. "Do they suspect an animal attack?"
"Well, as there haven't been orc tracks for quite a while, I don't see what else could cause it," replied Faramir.
"Did they find anything? Any item, his weapons, body part?" she asked.
"They found his bow and a few scattered arrows. That's all."
"Nothing more than that? It's unusual..." she muttered, and he saw she was deep in thoughts.
"I agree. In such situations we usually find some remnant of the victim, especially if wolves are the culprits," said Faramir equally pensive. The whole thing was very strange. However, he decided not to give her all the details and his suspicions, but only the official proclamation. "As the body was not found, the cause is probably not the wolves but the bear, who obviously dragged the man into his den. Now, after the winter's hibernation, they are very hungry, and if this was a female with cubs, it's even more probable that she brought her catch into the den to give it to her offspring too. Most probably, that is the reason why the man was not found," Faramir said, this time very careful not to reveal anything else with his voice. This was the explanation that captain Haldar had given in the meeting, warning the people that they were allowed to go hunting only in bigger groups and not to leave their villages until his squads inspected the area.
Aside from Haldar, a few more rangers included in the search knew the truth too, as well as the chief of the village who was instructed to watch over the conducting the orders. Yet, they decided not to scare other people until they were sure what this was about, and in the end they repeated the warning about dangerous wild animals.
Faramir and Haldar considered another possibility. "Narrow, deep, pointy. Almost like a staff", was Haldar's description. The shape of the tracks left open the probability that someone else had passed there, using the staff to help him or her walk on the difficult terrain. So, was there someone else involved? Did that person attack the missing man, and hide the body afterwards? Was this a personal dispute? A crime? In the end, Faramir ordered two rangers to stay in the village, telling everyone that they were there to continue searching for signs of animal attack, but when speaking to them privately, he told them to conduct a discrete investigation among the villagers.
"Well, let's hope there will be no more attacks. And certainly it can't hurt to increase precaution. The forest can always be dangerous," said Éowyn at last.
"Yes, surely," replied Faramir, perhaps too quickly, because he wanted to change the subject, and this seemed a good opportunity. "But, enough of boring councils. Tell me, how did you spend your day?"
"Peacefully – reading for most of the time," she responded and pointed towards the book she had read earlier. Then she put her hand on the belly. "And now we are a little hungry. But the good thing is that the supper should be served soon."
Faramir smiled. The fact she had used the plural was not lost on him, and he liked very much when she spoke like that. He leaned towards her, kissed her and put his other hand on her belly too.
"You are wonderful. You do so much for our people," he said in a low voice filled with admiration. She devotedly helped everyone, and many times she answered the calls in the middle of the night without a moment of hesitation. "I love you."
"I love you too," she responded gently.
I am the luckiest man in Arda.
She loved these forests around Mindal, her little village. She had been roaming them ever since she was a girl, when she was the apprentice to the old healer and followed him here, getting to know one by one healing herb... one by one slope, little river, hill and dell. The North Ithilien was a combination of all that – a mix of canyons, green vales and mountain slopes. There was almost no part of it that wasn't covered in thick forests.
Before the War, she stayed in Mindal for a long time, not paying attention for ever more often orc attacks and not listening to warnings of the Rangers that it was becoming too dangerous to live here; this was her village. She was among the last civilians who left the village – right before the last, most intense attack of the orcs in which they finally occupied it. And she was among the first ones who returned, in the summer after the War.
It was this period that she had loved most – the awakening of spring. She loved to watch how spring-flowers grew through still partially frozen ground, and later how bushes and treetops became green. If she wasn't occupied with many duties – being both a healer and deputy to chieftain of the village – she would most rather spend entire days walking around meadows and forests.
Yet, because she was a healer, sometimes her duties made that wish come true – taking her into the forests she adored. Every winter and its seasonal maladies thinned her reserves of healing herbs, and this last one was no exception. So these days she started to collect them.
She was diligently filling her big basket, sorting plants by type and purpose. Everything was peaceful; sun shone from the sky, it was nice and warm for this time of the year, and occasional bird song filled the day.
Two days ago, the master of the village announced that nobody should go far alone. The thing was, on the last regular meeting of all the settlement masters he found out that in the forests around neighbouring Ornost a hunter had disappeared, and they suspected the attack of some animal. But she wasn't scared. Yes, there was always some risk, but she didn't consider it very high. Even the biggest animals, like bears, rarely attacked humans. It was dangerous to surprise the animal, and she was always careful to be loud enough to announce her presence to forest inhabitants.
Yes, perhaps it would have been better if Turin – her apprentice – could have been with her. There was some safety in numbers. But the boy fell from the horse last week and broke his ankle, so he wouldn't be able to follow her to these missions to replenish supplies.
Noon passed and the sun started to descend. She headed into the forest early in the morning, so her basket was almost full by now. Observing the small clearing she reached, she looked around and, having recognized the place, realized she went even further than she had planned. It happened often – the herbs and forest occupied all of her attention, and her legs walked without her thinking about it. Now she decided to go back, satisfied with what she had found.
She followed the path towards the village and observed the trees, occasionally touching their bark. As many times before, she wished she was an elf – to be able to talk to the trees and to hear their thoughts. In some moment, she stopped and closed her eyes; she just stood motionlessly and breathed the scents of flowers, leaves and humid soil.
Having opened her eyes, something seemed a little different and more unusual than before. She was puzzled. Was she imagining things? After a few more steps, she discovered her steps sounded louder than earlier. It was very confusing, but she then recognized the reason. The sound of her walking was the same, of course, but it seemed louder because everything was quiet now. The birds had stopped singing.
The path slowly descended and the trees grew on both sides – above and below it. About twenty feet in front of her, on the left side – the upper one – there was a big rock overgrown with moss. The pathway winded left around the big rock and disappeared from her sight, and it wasn't possible to see what was behind it.
Everything was completely quiet and she lifted her head, wondering what silenced the birds. Did they all fly away? Did something scare them?
She then heard barely audible noises from behind the big rock. They were so soft that it could have been a very small animal – maybe a rodent running over the grass. She made a step forward, and the sound was heard again. This time, a little louder.
She stopped again, listening. All right, maybe it's not a mouse but a rabbit or a fox. It wouldn't be the first time she met those critters during her expeditions to the forest. She held her staff a little tighter and hit the ground several times, knowing that the loud noise always chased timid animals away. Her next steps were also deliberately very loud.
When she was about ten feet away from the big block of stone she stopped and listened again, trying to figure out if the animal on the other side – whatever it was – went away. There was still no bird song, but she thought she could discern some other sounds. They were very low, and she wasn't sure how to describe them; they reminded her of scratching. In any case, they didn't sound natural. Suddenly she felt very uneasy. She was standing still, scrutinizing the other side of the path and wondering if she could go down and bypass this part. The terrain was relatively steep, but not impassable.
She gripped her staff, while her heart was pounding a little faster than usually. What could it be? But as she was standing there, observing insecurely the path and the terrain below it, everything silenced. No more sounds came from behind the huge rock.
Don't be ridiculous, she then said to herself. Whatever it was, it had obviously left. She laughed to her own reaction. You scared as a little girl who is in the forest for the first time, you silly! She moved forward. Of course everything is fine.
But while passing exactly by the big rock she was suddenly choked by a terrible stench, and some loud and horrifying scratching came from above her head. She froze in mid-step.
A move, a scream... and then, silence.
P.S. Aranadhel, I don't know if you saw it, but I replied to your questions in my review reply on chapter 1.
I've said it before, but I'll say again: I reply to all the reviews I see. If I didn't reply (immediately), it means that I didn't see your review, because the notification about your review didn't come to my inbox. And knowing the problem of notifications, I do return to my old chapters and stories occassionally, to see if there are new reviews that I missed.
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