Mablung had stood among the two hundred men who had taken part in the foray, and listened to his Captain questioning Frodo. Almost, he wanted to object that perhaps the Captain was being too harsh, and yet he knew this was not so. When Faramir had broken the news of Boromir's death, Mablung and the other men had gasped themselves in dismay. There had been rumours, and there had been a messenger from the White City, but Faramir's men had held to hope that the rumours were untrue. Now they heard their Captain proclaim this aloud to the halfling. Boromir, dead!
But in spite of the Captain's accusing tone, and the defiant interruption of Samwise, Mablung could not bring himself to believe these small creatures had any part of the Captain-General's death.
It seemed clear that Captain Faramir agreed with him. The questioning ended, and Faramir stood.
"We must move swiftly from this place to our hidden base, men." He turned to the halfling, and told them they must come with him.
He set Mablung and Damrod to walking ahead, about twenty paces; he followed behind with the two halflings, and the other men were about twenty paces beyond that. Mablung suspected that his Captain wished to continue his interrogation of the two, out of his men's earshot. Still, he could not help straining his ears to listen, although it was fruitless. The only words that floated forth to him briefly were "Boromir" and "Mithrandir", which piqued Mablung's curiosity, but did not satisfy it.
They were, of course, making their way west, back to Henneth Annûn. It was a long trek, made longer by the fact that the Captain was abating his stride to accommodate their guests. Soon enough, the murmur of voices behind ceased, and all walked in silence. The men spread out, scouting as they went. After awhile the trees thinned out, and they came to the river that ran through the gorge which led there. They had come nearly three-quarters of the distance. Here, Captain Faramir called a halt, and explained to the halflings that they must now be blindfolded.
Mablung expected that Samwise, at the least, would object. The Steward's messengers always did, when they came. But they acquiesced courteously, indicating that such had been done before, in Lothlórien, a statement that gave Mablung pause: there was a name out of legend!
Mablung and Damrod did the honours. Mablung did not need his Captain's command to be gentle. He drew out a green scarf kept for that purpose, among others, and carefully folded it before tying it about Frodo's eyes, firmly but not too tightly. He pulled the halfling's cloak hood down, for good measure, and saw that Damrod had done the same for Samwise. Mablung took Frodo's hand in his, and was struck with the sense of holding a child's hand. He led his captive slowly and carefully down the steep slope. Soon the path grew narrow, and he moved behind Frodo, placing both hands upon his shoulders. Damrod was in front of him, with Samwise. They were coming to some very rough areas, and it occurred to Mablung that it might be painful for the halflings' bare feet, but he saw Damrod lift Samwise up to carry him over one particularly rough place, so he did the same with Frodo. They had come to the foot of Henneth Annûn. Mablung and Damrod set their burdens down once more, and putting their hands on the halflings' shoulders, they turned them round several times.
For a while they climbed through the winding ledge shaft that led to the landing. The going here was smooth, but hard and cold. The sound of the water was too loud for any speech. Soon enough, they reached the landing to the hewn steps that led to the caverns. At the landing, Faramir signaled the men to pick up the halflings once more. The steps were smooth, and not especially steep, but they were far too wide and deep for the small folk to be able to walk down them. They carried their charges carefully behind the veil of the waterfall, to the ledge behind, where the gate to the caverns was located. Carefully, they set the two down upon the wet stone of the entrance, and awaited their Captain's command.
"Let them see!" said Faramir, and he was smiling.
Mablung and Damrod removed the blindfolds, grinning themselves at the gasped reaction. Mablung looked up, himself. The sunsets were always remarkable from this place, and as many times as he had seen them, they never grew old. Tonight was especially spectacular--the sky seemed to be ablaze!
Captain Faramir gazed out at the jewel-coloured sky. "At least by good chance we came at the right hour to reward you for your patience. This is the Window of the Sunset, Henneth Annûn, fairest of all the falls of Ithilien, land of many fountains. Few strangers have ever seen it. But there is no kingly hall behind to match it. Enter now and see!"
The sun sank, and light became shadow. They passed under the arch into the stronghold behind.
A number of the men awaited them. Half a score, left behind to guard the base and prepare for the return. Mablung raised an eyebrow as he saw several of them gaping in astonishment at the two small guests. Faramir bent down and spoke to them, and told them they could rest. Then he gestured at one of the waiting men, Eradan.
"Eradan, these two worthy halflings are Frodo son of Drogo, and Samwise son of Hamfast. Show them to the cot where they may rest."
Mablung chuckled under his breath at Eradan's expression of gaping astonishment, not much different than the expressions of the other men who had remained at the grotto. He went to stash his gear under his own cot, sparing a glance at the far corner of the cavern, where Eradan had led their guests. They had been given the bed left for the messengers from the City, or the occasional injured man who needed quiet and isolation. The cot was more than wide enough for both of the small ones. Eradan took the blanket which lay folded at the foot of the cot and spread it over them, shaking his head. Then he headed in Mablung's direction.
The men who were there began to prepare the tables for the evening meal. "Mablung!" several of them asked, "what are those creatures, and how did the Captain come by them?" Damrod, Gelmir and a few of the others who had been on the forray also came in for questions as they worked. Mablung and Damrod knew the most, and told of the amazing encounter just before the ambush.
Gelmir added, "They know something about the Captain-General! They travelled from the North with him!"
"Lord Boromir?" several exclaimed softly, trusting that their voices would not carry to the Captain, who had gone to his own alcove to freshen up. "Has the Captain-General returned? Rumour had him dead!"
"Alas," said Damrod, "our Captain has known that rumour to be true. Our valiant Boromir will return no more! But these creatures said he was yet alive when they parted from him!"
"They said they left him alive," added Gelmir.
Mablung shook his head. "The Captain believed them, I trow, or he would not be treating them as guests and not as prisoners."
"But what are they?" asked Anborn. "Can they really be pheriannath, halflings?"
"That is what they said, though they also called themselves 'hobbits of the Shire'. I do not know what 'Shire' is, nor 'hobbits'."
The Captain joined them then, and began to greet and question some of the other returning men. The gossip ceased as the meal was prepared and laid, but the curious glances to the corner did not.
Captain Faramir gave the order to waken the guests, and the meal began. The two halflings sat near the head of the table by the Captain, and Mablung could not hear their conversation, but they appeared to be enjoying themselves.
Anborn, who sat to Mablung's right said, "They are prodigious trenchermen! Look at them eat!"
Mablung smiled. "I think they have been on short rations for a while!"
Eradan, who had the privilege of wakening their guests, chuckled and said "That Master Samwise is a droll one! When I took them water for washing, he put his whole head in the basin! He told me 'cold water on the neck is like rain on a wilted lettuce'!"
"They are winning creatures," said Mablung thoughtfully. "I do not envy our Captain the choice he must make."
"He will not slay them out of hand, our Captain," said Damrod, who sat across from him. "I am sure he will send them to Minas Tirith for judgment. Let his Lord Father deal with them!"
"I wonder," Mablung murmured. "Captain Faramir is not one to shirk his duty. But there is something about them..."
The meal finally ended, and Captain Faramir excused himself, and led the guests back to the curtained alcove that served him as both his office and his private sleeping quarters. As the men saw to clearing up the meal and putting away the tables, they heard the rise and fall of voices as the Captain interrogated their guests. While all were anxious to know what was being said, none there were who would try to intrude or overhear.
Soon enough, the men sat around for a while, and the day's events were discussed--not only the strange guests, but the skirmish with the Haradrim. There was a hush, as they mentioned the two of their Company who had not returned--lost to the rampaging feet of the mûmak. No one else of their number had been slain, and of injuries, none serious enough to keep the injured abed. Three of the men sported recently stitched cuts, and another had an arm in a sling. Mablung was weary; some of the others had begun to seek their cots, and he was ready to do the same, when they heard a small commotion from the Captain's alcove. The halflings had sprung to their feet, overturning their stools.
Captain Faramir was standing tall and forbidding over the two small ones, who had their backs against the wall. Fear was in their faces. The men wondered if they should go to Faramir's assistance, when he sat down again and laughed. Whatever had been wrong had passed.
Wearily, Mablung went to his cot, and removing his boots, he stretched out and fell asleep quickly.
Part I Part III