“That is the custom in Rohan?” Faramir tried to keep the disgust from his voice.
“For certain misdeeds, our law allows it,” Éowyn replied, her breath a stream of frozen smoke. Framed by a hood of white foxskins, her face was bright pink from the cold. “Our lands are sparsely settled, and in times of peace, we keep only a small standing army. How else can an outlaw be brought to justice?”
“It is barbaric and unworthy of your people,” he wanted to say but wisely bit back his words. It was easy for him to forget that she was not a woman of Gondor. Even after a year of marriage, he was still sometimes surprised by the things she did and said.
They hurried across the courtyard, past the rough wooden buildings that rose on ancient foundations. This was the northernmost outpost of Ithilien, a desolate place far from their home in Emyn Arnen. Someday, he would see the palisades rebuilt in white stone, but for now the sturdy beams of oak would have to suffice to keep out the wind and any marauders. It was only the second winter since the shadow had been lifted, and servants of the Enemy still haunted Ithilien, lingering in caves and hidden valleys.
A sentry saluted them as they entered the keep. The bounty hunter and his quarry were waiting for them in the guardroom. A patrol had found them near the northern border and, unsure what to do with them, had brought the pair back to the outpost. Faramir had been loath to ask his young wife to question these rough men, but no one else in the garrison had her command of the language of Rohan.
Bowing low, the hunter greeted them haltingly in the Common Speech. His name was Aelfric son of Aelhere, and he hailed from the West-march near the Isen. Though he carried the arms and armor of a horse lord, his fair hair was cropped short after the manner of Gondor and he had the close, wary movements of a ranger. He was not ill-favored, despite the scars and lines on his face. His prisoner did not look up from where he sat at one of the long tables. His hair, almost as pale as Éowyn’s, fell in unkempt braids down his back. He was garbed in a strange assortment of clothing—a rough Orc cloak, the green tunic and leggings of a Rider, and an ornate pair of Haradric boots. Though he showed no signs of mistreatment, his face was thin and white, and his shoulders were bowed with weariness. His hands rested on the table, and he was staring at the ropes around his wrists.
Faramir nodded toward the prisoner and asked, “What is his name, and what wrong has he done?”
When the bounty hunter stared at him in confusion, Éowyn stepped forward to translate, repeating the question and relaying the answer. “He says that this man is called Wulf son of Wulstan,” she told Faramir, “He abandoned his post and fled Helm’s Deep even before the battle was joined.”
“How does he know that is true?” Faramir’s eyes were fixed on the prisoner as he spoke.
Again Éowyn spoke to the bounty hunter. He seemed surprised by the question. “He says that he was there when it happened. This Wulf struck down a sentry as he made his escape.”
“Was the sentry slain or hurt?”
Éowyn translated the question then replied, “No, he was not.”
“Was Wulf known as a coward before he fled from Helm’s Deep?”
“He says that he never heard it, though the deserter showed his true mettle when he ran and left the folk he had sworn to protect.”
Éowyn turned to the prisoner. “Does he speak the truth? Did you run from the battle?” she asked in the Common Speech. When there was no reply, she repeated the question in the language of Rohan. Still staring at his bound hands, the man answered, his voice barely above a whisper.
“He does not deny it,” she said.
“Ask Aelfric where he captured him.” It little pleased Faramir to think that this bounty hunter was stalking on his lands.
“He says that about a week ago he found the deserter north of here, in the fens of the Entwash. He did not mean to stray so far south as to enter Ithilien, but there are few landmarks to follow. If the lord steward allows it, he means to journey to Edoras.”
“That is a long ride even in the summer, and the river crossing will be made more perilous by the winter rains.” Faramir doubted that the prisoner, who looked exhausted and half-starved, would survive such a journey. It is not my place to interfere with the justice of Rohan, he reminded himself. “Tell him that we can speak of these matters later. Sergeant Angrim will show him the way to his lodgings, and no doubt he wishes to see where his horses have been stabled.”
“He asks where the deserter will be held.”
“Tell him that my soldiers will guard the prisoner until his return.”
After this dismissal, the bounty hunter bowed then left with the sergeant.
“The fault lies with the pupil and not the teacher, but I could scarcely follow a word of what was said,” Faramir told her. Unlike Boromir, he had never learned the language of Rohan, so he had asked his wife to teach him.
“It is no fault of the pupil. Folk in the West-march have their own manner of speech, perhaps because they live so close to Dunland. It is strange even to the rest of our people, and I am teaching you the language as spoken in the east.”
“What happens once the bounty hunter reaches Edoras?” Faramir asked, though he could easily guess.
“Aelfric will be paid according to our laws, and Wulf son of Wulstan will be punished for the crime of desertion. The penalty is death or lesser punishment as the judges deem fit, though I doubt they will show mercy since he fled in time of war and did not return willingly.”
“What if he had been killed instead of taken prisoner?”
“The price is still paid if the slayer can show convincing proof that the outlaw is dead.”
Now that the bounty hunter had left, Faramir asked her to question the prisoner again. “Ask him if he is guilty of this misdeed. Tell him that he must not be afraid to speak the truth. He is in Gondor and subject to our laws, and I am a thane of Elessar King.”
Éowyn seated herself across from the prisoner. She leaned forward as she spoke, trying to watch his face. Again, he replied without looking up.
She shook her head. “He says it is true that he fled from his post in the Hornburg and tried to hide in the fenlands.”
“How did he stay alive for over a year alone in the wild?” It was no mean feat to survive for so long without the aid of comrades or a steady source of supplies.
Éowyn repeated the question in the language of Rohan. “He says that he lived like a bear—sleeping in a cave and fishing in streams—and like a bear, he often went hungry in the winter. He was not the only outlaw in the fens—there were stragglers from the armies of Mordor, and when he had the chance, he killed these others and took their food and gear.”
“How many did he slay?” Faramir asked.
“He did not keep a tally, but he killed perhaps a score, both orcs and Men.”
“That explains the outlandish clothing, but his story makes little sense. How could he fight the Enemy alone and in the open if he dared not face them from behind the walls of the Hornburg?”
Éowyn leaned forward again and spoke to the deserter. This time he looked up when he replied, gazing right into Faramir’s eyes. “He says that he will tell you, though he doubts you will understand. He says he could not help what he did. He felt as if the fortress were a trap closing about him. Or the stone roof of a barrow pressing down on his face.” The prisoner spoke on in a low but urgent voice. Éowyn repeated his words, a look of horror on her face. “His kindred live on small farmsteads in the hills, and he’d never been surrounded by the weight of such great walls. They cut off the view of the open sky and fields, stifled the wind and light. He felt as if the stones were bearing down on his breast, and he must escape them or die from want of air.” The last few words seemed to catch in her throat.
The walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel a wild thing in, Aragorn had said. And then she had fled, deserting her people. He considered for a long moment before he spoke. “There were brave rangers who quailed at staying in the cave of Henneth Annûn. A dread of close places is not uncommon, and in this man’s case, it was coupled with the dread of the oncoming battle. He was no more to blame for his fear than if the Black Shadow had touched him. And he may have fled one duty, but he took on another when he killed the marauders. How many rangers were saved from ambush and death by his deeds?”
“Yet he broke his oath of fealty and abandoned our folk when they needed him.” Her voice trembled. “Can the end result outweigh the beginning misdeed?”
“I too have been called faithless, Éowyn. I knew full well that Denethor would want me to bear the Ring to Minas Tirith, yet I let Frodo and Samwise continue on their quest. Do you doubt that the end result outweighed my disobedience to my father and lord?”
“I do not doubt it,” she said, her eyes bright with tears. With a sudden scowl, she added, “Yet any who call you faithless will have to deal with me.”
“And may the Valar help them.” Faramir smiled. “Do not fear, Éowyn--I will try to see that justice is tempered with mercy. This man is not fit to travel and must stay in Ithilien until he recovers his strength. In the meantime, I will petition Éomer for a lesser punishment.”
“I doubt that my brother will spare him when so many were slain at Helm’s Deep. He still grieves for the Riders who were lost in the War.”
“Elessar King forgave the men who were overcome with fear before the Black Gate. He deemed that they were not made to face that terror. ”
“My brother is kind by nature, but he does not share Lord Aragorn’s gift for reading the hearts of men. And even if he shows mercy, what sort of life will await this Rider? All know him for a deserter and will greet him with harsh words and even blows.” Her voice dropped as she spoke. “None dare harm the King’s sister, but he is simply a Rider of the lowest rank.”
“I will do what I can,” he told her, yet he saw by her face that
this promise was not enough. It grieved him to see her so troubled, but
this matter was out of his hands.