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Falathar urged his horse through the wood, doing his utmost to conceal his seething impatience. “You, men, fan out to the north,” he instructed the four soldiers under his command. “Cast a wide net. If one of us stirs the villain, we will soon catch him.”
The soldiers did as he commanded, spreading through the trees and undergrowth. Falathar gradually increased the distance between himself and the nearest of them. If his true errand was successful, he certainly had no desire to be observed.
He had no way of summoning Radhruin now, and absolutely no knowledge of his whereabouts. It was enormously frustrating for him, but doubtlessly ideal for the corsair. All he could do was make himself visible and hope the man would reveal himself.
After several hours of combing the forest, Falathar began to despair, but suddenly a well-aimed pebble struck him across the breastplate. He drew up his horse and spied Radhruin in the mottled shadows beneath a spruce, caked in mud and leaves.
“What have you been playing at?” Falathar hissed. “Everything has gone wrong. You have ruined us all!”
“I have risked enough already for his folly of yours,” Radhruin retorted. “Clearly, Faramir is fated to live in spite of both of us. The guard around him is impenetrable. Take what remains of your silver,” he said, tossing the leather purse onto Falathar’s saddle. “My only concern now is to escape this country and leave you to consider doing the same.”
“Wait!” Falathar insisted as the corsair turned to disappear into the trees. “Something may yet be done to right all this.”
Radhruin paused, obviously anxious to be gone. “Nothing can be done to right this madness,” he said, “not if you had an army at your command. Your gamble has failed, Falathar. There is nothing left for you in Gondor but a grave.”
King Elessar’s return to Minas Anor could not have been more different from his recent departure. There were no flowers, no music, and no laughter. The citizens who had remained turned out to greet him, but none dared to speak. The King’s mood was obviously foul, and there was no need to wonder why. The celebratory banners still hung incongruously from the walls, and there seemed to be some disagreement about whether it would be worse to leave them or take them down.
Thranduil was in no humor to give consequence to anyone, and his surly expression betrayed it. The narrow glances the Elvenking received from the people told Imrahil that his unnaturally swift recovery had only unnerved them further. He seemed to neither notice nor care.
While the wounded were settled into the Houses of Healing, the King and the rest of the royal party returned immediately to the Citadel to address the business at hand. The great hall was strangely empty, and Elessar was met by the Captain of the Citadel Guard.
“My King,” he said, bowing deeply, “Lord Baldor has been apprehended fleeing into Lamedon. We have him under guard in the Steward’s House.”
“Well done,” Elessar commended him. “Now perhaps we may have the truth of this. Bring him before us at once.”
The captain left to fetch the prisoner. The King scowled for a moment, and then turned to climb the stairs to his throne. “Imrahil,” he said, indicating the Steward’s chair. “Thranduil. We all shall hear his testimony.”
The Lord of Lamedon was not bound when he was brought to face his judges, but the tight formation of soldiers around him left no doubt that he was not present of his own volition. Imrahil felt the gall rise in his throat at the sight of him. The disruption this man had begun had escalated out of all proportion, and for that, at least, he must bear the blame.
“Lord Baldor,” Elessar addressed him severely, “you were arrested returning to Lamedon in defiance of my summons. Why did you feel compelled to flee the King’s justice?”
“I was not aware that I required the King’s permission to return to my own country,” Baldor protested, still truculent despite his obvious anxiety. “And, as I suspected, the King’s justice in this affair seems decidedly unjust. I am innocent of the charges made against me.”
“Do you deny that you willfully spread discord throughout this realm?” Imrahil demanded, perhaps a bit out of turn.
“For that I need no defense, because I have broken no law.” There was more confidence in Baldor’s voice than there was on his face. His eyes were restless and seemed continuously drawn to Thranduil, though the glowering Elvenking made no move to speak. “My duty and first loyalty is to Gondor, the land of my fathers.”
“Do not offend me with protestations of your loyalty,” Elessar snapped. “Your reckless posturing has brought us to this. Thirteen are dead! My Steward has been gravely wounded! This, Baldor Angborion, is treason, and you have been implicated. Can you defend yourself?”
Baldor immediately paled. “My king!” he stammered. “You know me! I have only ever lived to serve Gondor! I have done nothing in secret, and would never willfully endanger my countrymen. I had no foreknowledge of this plot, nor was I present on the field that day. You know my reputation. You cannot believe me to be a murderer!”
Elessar said nothing, and the silence was painful.
“I do not know you,” Thranduil said icily, “nor am I obliged to believe anything of you. I only know what I have seen of your conduct, that you are a fearmonger and a teller of vicious tales. Even so, Baldor of Lamedon, you will find that not all unflattering legends about me are untrue. If you have visited this atrocity upon me and my people, your blood will be required of you.”
The raw force of the Elvenking’s anger could almost have darkened the room. Transfixed for a moment, Baldor tore his eyes away and looked to Elessar, perhaps expecting him to reprimand the foreign king for his audacity, but still Elessar was silent.
“My King!” he pleaded again. “I am innocent!”
“Look at me!” Thranduil commanded. “Look at me, and tell me!”
“That man is innocent,” Thranduil said at last, when the prisoner had been removed, “though I am loathe to admit it.”
“I agree.” Elessar had come down from his throne, looking tired and dispirited now that his indignation was momentarily spent. “He comes from a proud family, and if this had been his doing, he would have owned it.”
“Are we to continue the search at Cormallen?” Imrahil asked.
“We must continue to search everywhere we can,” Elessar said, “although our forces are sadly thinned by the effort. Someone must have seen something. Set a guard on every bridge and road from Cair Andros to the Poros crossing. I will have a reward offered to anyone who will betray the culprit to us, and send word of it to our friends, Éomer, Thorin, and Bard.”
Thranduil retired with his guard to the quarters prepared for him in the King’s House in search of some solitude. Imrahil stayed on with Elessar as Steward to address the remaining business of the day. There was little enough of that, as the customary horde of petitioners seemed wise enough to leave the King largely unmolested during this difficult time. When their duties were concluded, Elessar retired as well, and Imrahil went in search of his family.
He found his sons in the training room attached to the armory of the Steward’s House. Elphir, shirtless and covered in perspiration, was giving vent to his frustration by bludgeoning a straw dummy, while Erchirion oiled his sword. They each paused to solemnly acknowledge their father’s entry.
Imrahil waved away the formalities. “I have been so consumed by our concern for Faramir and Beleg that I have not been able to look in on you two,” he apologized.
“We can hardly hold that against you, father,” Elphir insisted. “Marien has been badly shaken by it all, but she has been obliged to spend herself comforting our son. Alphros has not wanted to be alone since it happened, and he has compelled me to promise many times that we would find the guilty man and help cousin Faramir to regain his strength.” He sighed. “I hope I have not promised in vain.”
“As do I,” Imrahil agreed darkly. “Elessar will be setting a bounty on the murderer, whoever he may be.”
“As well he should.” Erchirion scowled. “Any one of us could have been in Thranduil’s company that morning. It could have been Elfírien or Alphros!”
“The thought had occurred to me,” Imrahil said, his jaw tightening. “It could have been me, or indeed Elessar himself. Such recklessness will not go unpunished.”
“Then, why are we here, father?” Erchirion demanded. He had always been the most outspoken of his sons. “We feel superfluous. Why are we not scouring the country for these murderers?”
“You are here because you are my sons,” Imrahil said sharply, “and because the princes of Dol Amroth wait upon the command of the King of Gondor. It is not your place to wander the plains and byways because you have been prepared for greater responsibilities. If you are frustrated, imagine how the Elves must feel!” He stopped himself, realizing he was unjustly releasing his tension upon his family. “Bear your lot with me now,” he said, “because I suspect that Elessar will have abundant need of our skill in the days to come. When the King calls, I expect you to be ready.”
“Yes, my lord,” they said, in crisp military unison.
“Very well.” Abandoning all formality for the moment, Imrahil put his arms around them both. Life was so fragile. They could not afford to take anything for granted, not even the miraculous peace of this Age for which they had all risked so much.
The next days passed uneasily in Minas Anor. Nothing was heard from any of the captains commanding the manhunt, because they had been told not to waste time and resources reporting anything other than success. Several men who openly sympathized with Lord Baldor’s cause were denounced and arrested, but none could be proven to have anything to do with the crime.
Imrahil visited Faramir regularly in the Houses of Healing. The attentive care he received had not been in vain, and his arduous recovery had begun well. After several days of painful coughing, his lungs had begun to clear, and he was finding it easier to breathe normally. He was restless as well, but there was not much he could do before his fractures and burns healed. Diligent cleaning had kept the morbidity out of his wounds, though the process was unpleasant and caused him a great deal of pain.
“I never thought I would live to say it,” Faramir confessed, “but I think I will soon be sick of the scent of athelas.”
“I can understand why,” Imrahil said. “You have been overindulging of late. I suspect they have gleaned almost every sprig of it within two leagues of the city.”
“I am not here by choice, I will remind you,” Faramir laughed. He coughed and spat into a cup, as had become routine. “I cannot recall ever being quite so thoroughly fussed over in all my life. Look what the Elves have done for me this morning.” He carefully pushed up the sleeves of his robe to reveal that his burns had been dressed in fresh fish skins rather than bandages. “They are much less painful now, I am pleased to say, and I will never again suffer a burn to be dressed in anything else.”
“Very innovative,” Imrahil agreed, admiring the Elves handiwork. “We must have our own healers instructed in this method. I am glad to hear of anything that can spare you pain. I hope you will be fit to resume your duties soon. I have been a bit overwhelmed, minding your concerns as well as my own.”
Faramir smiled. “I doubt it. There is no need to comfort me with tales of my indispensability, Uncle. I am certain you have managed it all quite well.”
“Regardless,” Imrahil insisted, “we shall all rejoice to see you on your feet again.”
A page boy was approaching them, apparently hesitant to interrupt. Faramir waved him closer. “Come on, boy. Someone of your profession cannot afford to be so timid.”
“My lords,” he said, bowing stiffly, “the King summons Prince Imrahil to the King’s House at once. There has been news from Ithilien.”
“How intriguing,” Faramir smiled. “Go and find out what it is for me, Uncle.”
“Any more of this indulgence will soon make you insufferable,” Imrahil warned him mischievously. “Peregrin, see that he does not strain himself with all this intense relaxation before I return.”
“I shall do my best,” the Hobbit promised, a bit short of breath. He had just reappeared dragging a small cart laden with all sorts of provisions from the local taverns. “There is not a shopkeeper in this city who would see Lord Faramir want for anything.”
Imrahil left them to enjoy their spoils. He hurried back up into the Citadel to hear the King’s news. He dared to hope for some word of success. There had been no significant development for so many days that they were all feeling restless. But, as he entered the King’s House and found Elessar together with Thranduil, their grim expressions told him at once that it was not to be.
“Imrahil,” Elessar said somberly, “Elvish scouts in Ithilien have discovered the remains of a corpse near the Morgul Vale. It was badly ravaged, but they feel certain the body is that of Beleg, your sister’s husband. They collected what they could, and have removed it to Emyn Arnen.”
Imrahil felt his heart sink. He had suspected the worst, but now it was unavoidable. “Ivriniel must be told,” he said mechanically.
“Indeed,” Elessar agreed, “but not by you, I am afraid. However intolerable Beleg’s murder, the condition of his remains has revealed a more immediate concern. The Elves are certain the body was desecrated by Orcs.”
Imrahil understood at once, and shook himself out of his melancholy. An incursion of Orcs into Gondor could not go unanswered. “Do you wish me to lead a force into Ithilien to seek them out?” he asked.
“I think that would be expedient,” Elessar said.
“I will go as well,” Thranduil decided, then stopped himself with obvious and growing impatience, and added, “if the King will allow it.”
Elessar seemed placed in an awkward position. “I would not risk your blood in Gondor’s troubles,” he said.
“My blood is mine to spend where I will,” Thranduil insisted. “I am wasted here. Gondor’s concerns in Ithilien now impact my people as well, and I have never refused to share any peril of theirs.”
“I will gladly welcome your assistance, my lord, if you offer it freely,” Elessar agreed, “but I would never presume to command it.”
“For the duration of this crisis,” Thranduil said, his eyes alight with bloodlust, “consider it yours to command.”
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