Faramir slammed the paper down on his desk with a curse. He looked at the man standing in front of him. The ranger was begrimed with the dirt of the road and looked well onto exhausted. "You're certain about this?"
The ranger took a deep breath. "There have been several small skirmishes in recent weeks. As the report said, we only saw the small group of them this time, but they had the makings of being a scouting party. We captured one, to try and question him, but you know what they're like. He gave us nothing. And then he pulled away from the guards and hurled himself off a cliff."
Faramir looked past the soldier, toward his open window. It was still summer in Gondor, but that late summer that held the tinge of autumn to it. The sun was bright in the sky and everything seemed to be at peace.
The King, assuming all had gone as planned, would just be arriving at Edoras, if he wasn't already there, and in a few days, the party would depart for Gondor. Perhaps less than a week and he'd be able to see his beloved Eowyn again.
And now this had to happen.
Faramir turned his attention back to the ranger. "How many?"
"Six that we saw. One escaped, we killed 4 and captured one, though like I said, he's dead now. Maybe the captain was reading too much into it, but...."
Faramir shook his head. "No. These are Easterlings. They never come this far south without a reason. If you saw six, then there's probably a great many more hiding in the northern hills. Six men are not an invasion force. But six men like those you described, in addition to the other skirmishes.... No, there is something bigger going on."
He stood up, trying to ignore the bile in his throat. Couldn't they have any peace?
He opened his door and called to the guard outside.
"My lord?" the guard asked.
"Who is the fastest rider in the Guards?"
The guard thought for only a moment. "Kieran, my lord. He's originally from Rohan and–"
"Good. Find Kieran, send him to me. And send for Prince Imrahil." He closed the door and turned back to the ranger. "You have done well, bringing me this," he said. "Please, take your rest. Then return to the captain and tell him help will come. No, wait." Faramir quickly scribbled off a note to Captain Beregond, telling him to watch but not to attack unless attacked first, and to report if anything changed. He folded the sheet, sealed it, and handed it back to the ranger. "Take this to him. It is my orders for the time being, until reinforcements can be sent."
"Thank you, my lord." The ranger bowed.
"Good luck." Faramir dismissed him.
He paced across his office to stare out the window again. Why now? Why did this have to happen now? Two weeks from now he could deal with, if ever a time for such a thing could be considered good. But not now.
He paced back to his desk and quickly wrote out another message. He was just sealing it when there was a knock on the door. "Come," he commanded and a young man, fair of hair and broad of shoulder, stepped into the room.
"My lord Steward, you wished to see me?" he said, looking nervous.
"You are Kieran of Rohan?" Faramir asked.
"Of Gondor now, my lord," the guard answered, "but I was born in Rohan."
"They tell me you ride fast," Faramir said.
"I do," the guard said without pretense.
"Good. A fast rider is what I need. Take this–" He held the folded paper out. "And ride to Edoras. Fast as you can. Give it to King Eomer, or to King Elessar, if he is arrived. Tell them Easterlings are gathered on Ithilien's northern border. Tell the King to return as soon as he is able.
"And tell the wedding party not to attempt to travel to Gondor. Not until the situation is more stable." Those words clutched at his heart. He was telling Eowyn not to come. He was telling her to stay away.
"Is there trouble on the road to Rohan?" A new voice appeared at his door. His uncle, Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth, stepped into the room.
"The trouble is in Ithilien," Faramir told him. "Easterlings on the northern border. There have already been several small skirmishes and the Company disrupted a scouting party yesterday. I don't like the way the situation sounds."
"Ithilien's a long way from Rohan," Imrahil said.
"True, but I'd rather not risk it. If it were a party of soldiers, that would be one thing. But this is a wedding party."
"This is your wedding party, you mean," Imrahil corrected.
Faramir looked away, then back to his uncle. Then he turned to the guard. "Go now. Ride hard. It's important the King gets this message."
"My lord," the guard nodded and left the chamber.
After his departure, Faramir once again paced the office, stopping and staring out the window.
"Was that truly necessary?" Imrahil asked.
"If the region is set for an invasion by Easterlings, I don't want a wedding party stranded on the road between Rohan and Gondor."
"You don't seriously think the Easterlings will make it all the way through Ithilien to Minas Tirith," Imrahil scoffed.
"I don't know, that's just it. The entire time I was in Ithilien, I never saw anything like this. They marched to Mordor, they followed Sauron. Now they're following their own masters and there's no telling what they'll do. They rejected the terms of the treaty the King sent to them, and that's an invitation to open war.
"But beyond that, I don't want Eowyn to have to sit here in Gondor, surrounded by strangers, if I'm in Ithilien fighting. Better she should remain at home until things settle down here."
His uncle crossed his arms exasperatedly. "It isn't like she hasn't been to Gondor before. And what makes you think you're going to Ithilien?"
Faramir stared at him. "I am the officer with the best knowledge of those hills," he replied. "I patrolled them for years. I know the area better than anyone else in the Company, the current captain included." Beregond was a good soldier, and absolutely trustworthy, but until recently, he had been in the Citadel Guards, a far cry from the wilderness of Ithilien.
"You are Steward of Gondor now, not captain of the rangers," Imrahil reminded him.
"I am also Prince of Ithilien, and it's my lands that are being threatened," Faramir rejoined. "You can't tell me that if some enemy came over the sea to threaten Dol Amroth you would sit back and let your lieutenants take care of it."
"No, sir, it is the same. It is my responsibility to lead Ithilien's forces against the Easterlings."
"It's different because I wouldn't be going to battle right before my wedding," Imrahil countered.
Faramir froze, feeling the knot in his gut solidify. "Don't you imagine how this is making me feel?" he said, his voice rough. "Don't you know how this is killing me? This morning I woke up with the happy thought that I would see Eowyn in less than a week. Now I don't know when I will see her, or even if. If things go ill and this turns from a border skirmish into a war, it could delay things indefinitely. And the thought of that freezes my blood. But as much as I hate it, and as much as I hate to say so, my first responsibility must be to Gondor. To my people. My own happiness must wait.
"Our day will come, Eowyn's and mine. I have to believe that. But it will not be when I thought it would be. Before I can allow myself the luxury of a bride and a home, I must defend my land, so that I can bring my bride to my home in safety. I cannot do it at all, otherwise."
Imrahil considered him carefully for a long moment. "Have you thought what this delay will do to Eowyn?"
Faramir rubbed his forehead. "I'm trying not to. I can only hope she will understand. She understands what being a soldier means, and she understands me. Hopefully, she will see why this is necessary."
He looked at his uncle. "I would not delay if it could be avoided. But I do not see how it can be. If the intelligence is to be believed, and I have no reason to doubt its veracity, the Easterlings are massing on our borders. It is only a matter of time until they attack. And we are still so worn from the War, it will be that much more difficult to defend what is ours."
"They're probably counting on that," Imrahil mused.
"Yes, my thought as well," Faramir nodded. Then he turned away again with a muttered epithet. Outside, the sun still shone, as if in defiance of the devastating news. "We never get lucky, do we?" he said softly.
"On the contrary," his uncle said, coming up behind him and putting a comforting arm around his shoulders. "We've been very lucky so far. We're having this conversation when by rights the world as we know it should have ended five months ago. It didn't. I'll take upset plans over that outcome any day."
"You're right, of course," Faramir sighed, and raked a hand through his hair. But then he thought about Eowyn again, and what this delay might do to her, and his throat tightened. "I feel like a petulant child," he said, blinking back emotion. "Whining because things aren't going my way."
Imrahil simply tightened his grip on his nephew's shoulders. "You're doing better than I would in your stead. I'd probably be throwing things by now."
Faramir laughed, sniffing back tears he refused to shed. "Just wait; it might come to that yet."
His uncle released him and the two men were silent for a time, contemplating just what this probable battle meant to all they'd planned for, all they'd anticipated.
"Lothiriel is due to arrive in another day or two," Imrahil said. "Should I tell her not to come?"
"I doubt you can get word to her in time," Faramir admitted. "I can't even be certain the messenger will get to Rohan before the party departs." He looked at his uncle. "Will she be traveling with an escort?"
"Erchirion and Amrothos are coming with her."
"Are they?" Faramir smiled. "It will be good to see them again." He hadn't seen his cousins in a long time and was pleased they would be here for his....
His smile vanished. There would be no wedding.
"At least she will be well-protected on the road," he said softly.
"And they may be of service to the King, if things go as ill as you think they will," Imrahil added.
Faramir nodded. "What of Elphir?" Imrahil's eldest son was just a few years younger than Faramir and the cousins had been close, once upon a time.
"He remains in Dol Amroth, as he did during the Great War, defending our people, while I stay here assisting Gondor."
"For which I am grateful. Uncle...."
"That is my duty to my King, just as it had ever been to the Steward. And still is, come to that." He put his hand on Faramir's arm. "Courage, lad. All will work out, you'll see."
Faramir managed to find a smile for him. "I hope so."
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