An Act of Desperation - Chapter 24- A Battle Lost
Two days later, I was walking about the Houses with Ioreth as she made her morning rounds. As she checked on each of the men still under the healers' care, she kept up a steady stream of chatter about treatments for their various conditions, and the sheer amount of information left me feeling completely overwhelmed and wondering if I had truly gotten in over my head this time. But I was certainly not one to back down from such a challenge, and I reasoned that I could speak with Mithríel later to ensure that I had not completely confused things, if need be.
Ioreth interrupted my thoughts as she busied herself with changing the bandages on a man's arm. "Éowyn, could you check on the lad over yonder?" she asked, motioning towards a nearby bed before lowering her voice. "He took an arrow in his side during the battle, and I fear the wound is not healing as it should." I quickly agreed, grateful for the opportunity to do something on my own.
In spite of growing up surrounded by warriors and accustomed to the ever-present possibility of them falling in battle, my heart still ached as I approached him; he seemed so terribly young, with only the slightest traces of a beard on his jaw to indicate that he had, indeed, left childhood behind him. His pale face stood in sharp relief to his dark brown hair; his skin felt unnaturally warm and his breathing was shallow as I drew back the blanket covering his chest and began unbinding the wound, a task somewhat complicated by my fumbling left hand and my inability to lift him up to aid in removing the bandages. Though Ioreth had consented to allowing me to go without the sling while I was working in order to begin regaining my strength through lighter tasks, she still insisted that my arm be kept splinted and tightly bandaged at all time; between that and the weeks of disuse, the limb was still rather clumsy and tired quickly.
"It is not good, is it?" I turned my head to see that the young man had stirred and was now regarding me solemnly with dark grey eyes.
"I do not know. I have not yet seen your wound," I answered, looking down again.
He continued his quiet scrutiny for a moment, then asked, "You are the lady of Rohan?"
"I am," I answered absently, deciding he was simply trying to make conversation in order to take his mind off of his treatment.
"Are the rumors true? About you and the Captain?"
My head jerked up. "What? I--um...what captain are you referring to?" I began focusing on removing the last of the bandages as quickly as possible.
"Why, Captain Faramir, of course," he answered. I could feel my face heating as a faint grin crossed his face. "Lieutenant Damrod told me when he came to visit yesterday."
I made no reply for a moment. I had not seen Faramir since we had parted in the gardens two evenings ago, though he had sent a note to me the night before apologizing for not being able to come and visit me that day; he had a dreadfully large pile of reports and correspondence to attend to and had not a moment to spare, but he did not wish for me to think that he had forgotten me. I could not help smiling a bit as I thought of it, and the lad took this as confirmation. "Good," he said softly. "He deserves some happiness."
"What do you mean?" I asked, dipping a clean cloth in a basin of warm water and beginning to bathe the wound as gently as I could. Ioreth had been correct; I knew enough about battle injuries to recognize the infection spreading from the wound and across his torso.
"It was no secret that he and the Lord Denethor were often at odds," he answered, wincing at the pressure on the half-healed wound despite his obvious effort to hide the pain. "I do not know much; only what I have heard from the older Rangers, mostly. But it was obvious enough to us that the matter grieved him."
"You are one of his Rangers?" I asked. "What is your name?"
"Haldad, my lady," he answered. "And yes, though I was not with his company long. I had only been under his command for a few months."
I wanted to question him further, but Ioreth joined us then, frowning slightly as she caught sight of the wound. "Thank you, Éowyn," she said briskly. I held back a smirk; as an apprentice healer, she treated me as she would any woman of lesser birth, but if the previous day had been any indication, I knew that once she had decided the day's training was through, she would revert to addressing me in a more formal manner once more. "If you would go get some clean bandages and bring them here--we shall have to make a poultice for him, but I do not wish to leave the wound unbound while it is being prepared."
"Of course," I said, gathering up the soiled bandages for disposal and walking over to the wooden wardrobe standing by the wall. In the larger rooms, I had learned, the wardrobe was used to hold clean linens, as well as some small store of the most commonly used herbs. After placing the dirty bandages in a nearby basin that was already half-filled with them, I opened the wardrobe doors and pulled out an armful of the bandaging strips.
Ioreth thanked me as I returned, taking a larger piece and using it to cover the wound. "We shall return shortly," she announced to Haldad before turning to me. "Come with me, Éowyn."
As we left the room, her expression altered, and she shook her head slightly once we were out of sight of the other patients. I could not help noticing, and though I could easily guess the answer, I hesitantly asked, "It is not good, is it?"
"No, it is not," she answered. "The poultices are not helping--the arrow pierced too deeply, and I fear we were not able to clean it out well enough when he was brought in. I do not believe he has much time left."
"Is there nothing that can be done for him?" I wondered aloud.
Ioreth shook her head. "'Tis too great a risk. If we opened the wound again to try to clean it out again, the shock could very well kill him in his weakened state."
"So you will just let him die, then?" I blurted out, angered at her seeming unwillingness to take any action.
Ioreth's mouth hardened into a thin line. "We shall do all we can for him," she said firmly. "But you saw his condition for yourself; the infection is spreading too rapidly. You should know enough about war to know that not every battle can be won, Éowyn."
I stared at her for a moment, truly seeing for the first time what Faramir had meant when he called her a formidable foe. "Forgive me, Mistress Ioreth," I finally replied, feeling chastised. "I did not intend to question your knowledge in this matter."
Her expression softened once more as she answered, "Do not trouble yourself, my lady. The most difficult thing for all of us is realizing that sometimes, all we can do is try to ease the patient's passing."
"That does not make it easier," I said softly.
"No, it does not," she answered, opening the door to the room where the herbs were stored. I followed her inside, feeling a new respect for the healer. Ioreth began pulling various packages of herbs out. She seemed rather preoccupied to me; normally she would have taken the opportunity to instruct me on which herbs she was using and how they were to be applied to the patient, but now she remained uncharacteristically silent. "There is, perhaps, one thing you can do for him," she finally said quietly. I glanced up at her, and she added, "Undoubtedly, he will wish to speak to his Captain once more."
I nodded. "I will bring him word," I said.
A slightly amused look passed over her face at how quickly I had agreed. "Do you know how to get there?" she asked.
"Of course!" I quickly answered, then paused. "At least, I think I remember..."
"I could escort her, Mistress Ioreth," a third voice said behind us. We both turned to see a dark-haired man standing there. He looked vaguely familiar to me, though I could not place it until Ioreth asked, "What are you doing here, Damrod?"
"I came to see the lad," he answered, a solemn look on his face. "Do not lie to me, Mistress--I have seen this kind of wound before. I know his time is short, and I doubt not that Lord Faramir will wish to be informed. It may make the news easier to bear, coming from someone he knows." He glanced over at me as he said this, and I could feel my face turning red as I remembered where I had seen him last--he had been the man that Faramir had spoken with when we had been caught atop the walls two days before. Thankfully, he seemed not to notice my embarrassment.
Ioreth finally nodded. "Go," she said, then turned to me and added, "Do not tarry, my lady. If his fever grows worse, he may be too delirious to speak with him." I nodded, then Damrod quickly escorted me out of the Houses.
We walked swiftly, though silently, through the city streets for a time, until I turned to the Ranger and asked, "May I ask you something?" He nodded, and I continued, "Have you known Faramir long?"
"Aye, ever since he was first assigned to the Rangers," Damrod answered.
"Is it true..." I hesitated, wondering if it was my place to ask what would undoubtedly be a difficult question to answer, especially since Faramir had rarely spoken of such things himself. But my curiosity got the better of me, and I finally took a deep breath and finished, "What were things really like between Faramir and his father?"
Damrod paused in mid-stride, rubbing at the dark stubble on his chin thoughtfully. When we resumed walking a moment later, he slowly replied, "I believe that he is the only one who can truly give you a satisfactory answer, my lady. He was not in the habit of speaking of it much, nor were we in the habit of questioning him about it, and so I only know what I have observed."
He paused then, and I said, "Please, continue."
"It was no secret among the captains that Lord Denethor had little regard for his younger son," Damrod said. "Whenever the men of Gondor had victory in battle, the credit was always given to Captain Boromir for the most part; whenever the day was lost, especially in Ithilien, Captain Faramir was always first to receive the blame. Those of us under his command never understood why he received such censure; the Captain has a gift for strategy, and many a time his quick thinking in battle was the only thing that saved us from being wiped out completely. But there were those, particularly the lords closest to the Steward, who believed his courage and skill to be far less than that of his brother and were not afraid to speak openly of such things."
"I do not understand," I replied. "Why would he say such things? Especially about his own son?"
"I know not, my lady," he said. "I saw them together on several occasions, when we were asked to give our reports to the Steward. It always seemed to me that Lord Denethor was always quick to find the tiniest flaw in our strategy, and quick to blame our Captain for even the smallest failure. Faramir was never one to openly oppose Lord Denethor, but neither would he blindly follow his will, particularly when it came to giving orders in battle. I remember one time after we had lost a battle in Ithilien, and Lord Denethor rebuked him harshly for giving up that land to the enemy. We had been sorely outnumbered, and so the Captain responded by saying that had we not retreated, we would have been slain to the last man, and given the choice, he would rather give up a plot of land that could be recaptured later than to sacrifice the lives of so many of his people in order to defend it. I will never forget the look on the Steward's face--he was completely enraged. Though we did our best to convince him that retreating had been the only option, we could not sway him. Sometimes we could not help but marvel that Faramir was allowed to remain Captain, though we were grateful that he was; I truly believe that no one else would have been able to hold Ithilien as long as he did, as do all of the Rangers. Not even his brother could have done as much." Damrod then paused, and added, "Perhaps that was the problem all along; Faramir never would have held it against him, for he loved his brother dearly, but in Lord Denethor's eyes, no one could measure up to Boromir."
I could make no response, because we had reached the Citadel by this time, but Damrod's comments left me deep in thought as we walked up the stairs. Two guards stood at the door, but one of them seemed to know Damrod. "Good day, Lieutenant," he said. Damrod returned the greeting as the guards stood aside to let us enter. We walked inside the spacious main hall, which was empty except for a few household servants. One of them, an elderly man, walked up to us and bowed. "May I help you?" he asked.
"We are seeking the Lord Faramir," Damrod answered. "Is he here?"
"I believe that he is in his study," the servant answered, "but I have not seen him today. I will take you there, if you wish." Damrod nodded his consent, and we followed him through the hallway and up the stairs. He paused in front of a closed door. "Would you like me to announce you, Lieutenant?"
"That will not be necessary, thank you," I replied. The servant bowed, then left. Damrod and I looked at each other silently for a moment, until he finally motioned for me to proceed. So I knocked on the door twice, then waited. When there was no answer, I called out, "Faramir?" There was still no response, so I tested the latch. It moved easily, and so I lifted it quietly and pulled the door open.
Behind me, I could see Damrod shaking his head just out of the corner of my eye as we looked into the room. All I could do was blink in surprise. The room was nearly dark; the only light came from a candleholder on the far side of the desk, with the tapers burning low, and heavy drapes blocked the light from outside. Books and documents were piled on nearly every available surface, and I could see why Faramir had been kept so busy. As for the Steward himself, he was indeed in there, but he was slumped over the desk with his head resting on his arm and his dark hair falling carelessly over his closed eyes. A piece of parchment lay in front of him and he still held a quill pen loosely in his ink-stained fingers. "He has done it again," Damrod muttered softly; when I turned a questioning glance upon him, he continued, "He has worked himself to complete exhaustion. I am sorry to say that this is not the first time that such a thing has happened."
I turned back towards Faramir, hesitating. I hated the thought of disturbing his rest, but it seemed that there was no other option. With that, I moved to stand beside his chair, unable to resist smoothing the hair away from his eyes before resting a hand on his shoulder. "Faramir?" I said, shaking his shoulder as gently as I could. He stirred slightly, but made no further response, so I tried again, my voice more insistent. "Faramir, wake up."
He shifted a little, then slowly opened his eyes. As he wearily lifted his head from the desk, blinking as if trying to clear his vision. When he saw me, an unguarded smile crossed his face. "Éowyn," he murmured. I smiled back and squeezed his shoulder a bit.
Suddenly, he was wide-awake. "Éowyn!" he exclaimed, sitting up straight in his chair. "What are you doing here? And at this hour?"
I furrowed my brow. "It is well into the morning," I answered.
"It is?" Without warning, Faramir jumped up, strode across the cluttered study and drew back the curtains, then groaned as the room was suddenly flooded in light. I covered my mouth with my hand, feeling a bit guilty for my amusement at seeing him so flustered for once.
He took a deep breath as he looked out the window, and then turned back to me with considerably more composure than he had shown before, although the light I had seen in his eyes when he first saw me was not quite extinguished. "You still have not told me why you have come," he said. "Did you come alone, then?"
"No, my lord," Damrod answered, not even bothering to hide his amusement as he leaned casually against the doorframe, arms folded across his chest. "Truly, I am sorry to disappoint you."
My face flushed red, and Faramir gave him a stern look for a moment, but his expression quickly softened as he greeted his lieutenant. "Good morning, Damrod," he said before turning to me and saying, "I apologize if he has offended you."
"Not at all," I answered, though I could still feel traces of heat in my cheeks. "But I fear that we do not come with good news, Faramir."
"'Tis Haldad, Captain," Damrod added, reverting back to addressing Faramir as one of the Rangers. "The healers say he does not have much time left, and..."
Faramir ran his hand through his hair, pushing it away from his face. "Say no more," he interrupted. "I will come. I just need a moment."
"Of course," Damrod answered. Faramir gave me an apologetic look, then left the room. I glanced over at the Ranger, but he was not looking at me, so I silently studied the room, absently glancing at the titles of the thick leather-bound volumes on the shelves that took up an entire wall until Faramir returned, wearing a fresh tunic and looking like he had at least attempted to scrub his hands free of the ink stains. He motioned for me to leave the room before him, then he followed with Damrod not far behind.
On our way out of the Citadel, he caught the attention of the same servant who had taken us up to the study. "Maedion," he called out, "I have urgent business at the Houses of Healing. See to it that any matters that come up during my absence are dealt with as quickly as possible."
"Yes, my lord," the grey-haired man answered, bowing. Faramir nodded as Maedion straightened, then offered me his arm and escorted me out. I remained silent as we walked, while Damrod informed him more fully of the young Ranger's condition. By the time he was fully apprised of the situation, we had reached the Houses again.
Ioreth met us at the door. "'Twas good of you to come, my lord," she said, curtseying. "I will take you to him." She then turned to me and added, "My lady, if you would join Aredhel in preparing more bandages--I believe she is upstairs." I nodded, understanding that Faramir would undoubtedly wish to speak with Haldad alone.
I did find the young apprentice healer right where Ioreth had said, and began helping her by rolling up the strips of linen she cut so they could be ready when needed. The task was light enough that I was able to use both arms, which was a great relief to me, and before I knew it, I heard a knock on the doorframe and turned to see Faramir standing there. His expression seemed a bit strained to me, so I quickly bid Aredhel farewell and excused myself. Once out in the hallway with the door closed behind me, Faramir took my hand. "Éowyn," he started, then fell silent, seemingly at a loss for words.
"He is gone then," I said, certain that there could be no other reason he was so subdued. Faramir nodded, and I glanced down, unable to help feeling grieved, especially when I looked back up at Faramir. He was obviously trying to mask it, but I could tell that the young man's passing had hit him hard. Unsure what to say, I released his hand before wrapping my arms around him. "I am sorry," I said softly. Faramir did not answer for awhile, holding me tightly. When he finally drew back a bit, I took his hand once more and said, "Come with me."
He did not resist as I led him down to the sitting room; I knew that it would be deserted during this time of day. Once he had pulled one of the chairs closer and we were both seated, I asked, "Do you wish to talk about it?"
Faramir reached out and took my hand, then began running his fingers lightly over mine, looking as if he were deep in thought. "It seemed that the pain left him at the very end, for which I am grateful. He knew that there was nothing the healers could do, and he had come to terms with it; all he asked was that I send his love to his mother and sisters in Lossarnach."
"He seemed so young," I said.
"He was; he had just completed his training and had joined my company during the autumn." Faramir fell silent, and when he spoke again, there was a far-off look in his eyes. "In Ithilien, we were constantly in danger of being ambushed or overrun by the forces of Mordor. We had to trust each other with our lives nearly every day, and so even the newest Rangers quickly became our brothers."
"I truly am sorry, Faramir," I replied. Though my experience in such things was far more limited than his, I could understand the deep bonds that were often forged in the fires of war; after the battle we had fought together, I knew it would be heartbreaking for me to lose Merry in such a way. And I knew, from watching Éomer and others in his company, how much the loss of even one of their own could affect them. "What is to be done now?"
"Damrod has gone to gather those of our company that remain in the city," Faramir answered. "When he returns, we shall do our best to honor our fallen brother. But until then, I fear I must return to my duties."
"Do you wish me to go with you, when the time comes to bury him?" I asked.
Faramir looked surprised at the question, but quickly recovered. "Nay, Éowyn," he answered.
I nodded, understanding that this was likely something that would be best left between those who had known and fought with Haldad. "Very well. But if you change your mind..."
"I know." He left shortly after that, and I returned to my duties as well. Two of Faramir's men came later to carry Haldad to his final resting place, taking a few of the Rangers that were still healing with them, and night had already fallen when Faramir and Damrod escorted those men back to the Houses. I had gone to my room and did not know of his coming until Mithríel came to inform me that the Steward wished to see me, and was waiting for me downstairs.
When I arrived downstairs, Faramir looked up and greeted me with a faint smile. "I apologize for disturbing you, but I had no wish to leave without seeing you again," he explained, taking my hand once I had moved close enough. "I have missed you lately, Éowyn."
"I have missed you as well," I replied, intertwining my fingers with his. "But I dare not keep you here long; I am certain that you need to rest."
"I dare not stay long," he answered. "I still have several reports that I need to finish tonight."
I furrowed my brow as I looked at him, frowning as I noted how weary he already looked. "Can it not wait until the morning?" I asked. "You look exhausted."
Faramir frowned slightly. "I am the Steward now, Éowyn," he replied. "All of Gondor is now under my care, until the King returns."
"I know," I answered. "But what good can you be to your people if you work yourself to death?"
"Do not be troubled over me," Faramir said. "I am fine."
"You fell asleep while you were working," I retorted, pulling my hand out of his and crossing my arm over my sling. His frown grew deeper, and I sighed and moved my hand again to rest against his cheek. "I cannot help being worried about you, Faramir. Is there no one who can assist you in this task?"
He shook his head. "No one comes to mind. Many of the nobles of Gondor either fell in battle, or are still at Cair Andros with their men. Those who remain near Minas Tirith are already occupied with gathering reports of damage to their lands or learning how their people now fare. I have as many people as I can making reports on the state of the city, but in the end, all the reports must go through me. No, Éowyn, this is a duty I must bear myself."
I fell silent for a moment, thinking. "Is there any way I can help?" I finally asked.
Faramir's expression softened. "I wish you could," he said, pulling me into his arms. "I doubt not that you would assist me as much as you were able..."
"But I am unfamiliar with the affairs of Gondor, and in the end I would likely only hinder you," I finished, feeling frustrated at my inability to lighten his burden.
"I do appreciate the offer," he said, kissing me lightly on the forehead. "But I fear I have lingered here too long; I must return to the Citadel now. If I return quickly, I may be able to keep those accursed reports from taking all of my time tomorrow as well."
"Then I will not delay you here any longer," I replied, tightening my arms around him briefly before stepping back. "But you must try to get some rest tonight, Faramir."
"I shall do my best," he promised. We walked towards the door, where Damrod was waiting for Faramir, and shortly before we reached it, he suddenly leaned over and kissed my cheek. Before drawing back fully, he quietly said, "My dear Éowyn, you have already helped me, more than you realize."
I could feel my face growing warm at the compliment as his eyes searched my face, and attempted to cover my discomposure by weakly joking, "If by that you mean rousing Gondor's Steward from his slumber, then I shall accept your thanks for the small service offered to your country."
Faramir smiled at me fondly before squeezing my hand and bidding me good night. I stayed where I was until he and Damrod had departed, then turned and retreated back to my room.
After the afternoon rounds had been completed on the next day, Mithríel took me to the gardens, as she had for the past few days, to aid me in learning the different uses of the plants that grew there. Though there were several books in the Houses devoted to herblore, she had confided to me that she had always found it much easier to learn when she could see the plants she was studying. And after being in the sickrooms all day, I was grateful for the fresh air. We had barely begun, however, before Bergil burst into the garden.
"Good day, Mother! Good day, Lady Éowyn!" he called out cheerfully as he ran through the door.
Mithríel sighed, though I could see a twinkle in her eye. "Bergil, what have I told you about running indoors?" she scolded.
The smile faded as Bergil slowed his pace. "Sorry, Mother," he answered.
She winked at me before replying. "Since you are now outside, however, you may run as much as you wish, provided you do not get in the way."
"I believe that will not be an issue," a second voice said from the doorway. I was unable to suppress a smile at the familiar voice, and looked back to see Faramir standing there, his eyes sparkling as my gaze met his. "I fear I must deprive you of the Lady Éowyn's company, for now. I took the liberty of relieving your son from his duties for the remainder of this day, Mithríel; I trust this is not a problem."
"Of course not, my lord," the healer answered, curtsying slightly as we rose to our feet. "If you will pardon me, I will take my leave. Come, Bergil," she added. Faramir stepped aside to allow her and her son to go inside.
Once we were alone, I said, "I am surprised to see you, Faramir. I thought your duties were to keep you away for the rest of today, at the least."
"As did I," he answered as he crossed the distance between us, smiling at me so warmly that I could feel my pulse quickening. "But, alas, it seems I cannot be parted from you for so long."
There was a faint hint of mischief in his voice, and so I answered, "If all of Gondor's troubles can wait while you flatter me with your fine words, my lord, then by all means, continue. If not, tell me truly, why are you here, Faramir?"
He sighed in resignation. "As you will, then; you have found me out quicker than I had hoped." I could not help smiling innocently as he continued, "It turns out that I may need your help after all, Éowyn."