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A Question in the Night

Chapter 1: A Question in the Night

by GirlfromGondolin

A Question in the Night

The ranger stepped gingerly out into the old path. It was a damp night, moonless, and though barely any light fell in the forest, he still felt as if he were surrounded by shadow. He walked slowly and deliberately on the path, once trodden and now overgrown with brush and covered with leaves that rustled dangerously beneath his feet.

He had been out here for hours now, separated from his men and unsure of exactly where he was. He had been tracking some beast whose footprint he had never seen before, and had somehow gone so far afield that he was no longer certain of where their camp was. He was loathe to admit it, but he was lost. A fine picture you are. Faramir, Captain of the Rangers. Lost in Ithilien! He had thought about lighting a flare, loosing a flaming arrow, something to let the others know his whereabouts, but it was too dangerous. If he was anywhere near the haven, it would simply alert others to its location. Ultimately, he had decided he had little choice but to wait until daybreak, when the sun would light his way.

A twig cracked ominously beneath his feet, and Faramir stopped, perfectly still, listening for a possible reaction. But no sound came at all. Not even the woodland creatures stirred on a night like this. He ventured further a few steps, until he came upon the trunk of an ancient tree that looked as if it might offer him a little shelter for the night.

He sighed in slight relief, and leaned wearily against the gnarled bark. He sat heavily, dropping his bow and quiver on to the damp ground next to him. Perhaps sleep will come quickly tonight.

But it was not to be. Barely had his eyes closed when something happened. The hair on the back of his neck rose in warning as he felt a cold hand grab his shoulder. Only his years of training allowed him to master the scream about to escape his mouth. He groped for his bow, but it was too late . . . the weapon was gone.

The cold hand turned him viciously away from the tree and threw him to the ground. In the darkness, Faramir could not make out the shape or face of his attacker, but he knew it had some form. And it had a voice too, because it laughed now, a shrill and eerie sound such as he had never heard before.

Faramir began to speak. "Who . . . what are you?"

The laughter became louder now, more eerie than before, and Faramir found himself shivering, and not just from the cold of the damp forest floor. "Ah, man child. That is a question I must ask you. Who are you? Why are you here?"

"I'm . . . " He considered whether to simply admit he was lost, but thought this foolhardy in the face of an unseen foe. "I'm a soldier of Gondor, and I'm on patrol here."

"You lie! No man, of Gondor or anywhere else, has passed here in many, many years."

Faramir considered this. Certainly, the Rangers did not cover the entire forest, but enough of it that some man of Gondor has almost certainly been through this place before. "No, that cannot be. We are often in the forest, everywhere west of the crossroads."

More laughter now, as loud as before, but Faramir imagined it was less sinister. "You misspeak, man child, for surely even you know that you are well east of the crossroads now."

East? Of the crossroads? No, it was not possible. He could not possibly have walked so far from where he had been before sunset. The admonishments of his first Ranger captain came sharply to his mind. Never venture east of the crossroads, for evil dwells there. He had thought this a reference to the evil that came out of the Morgul vale, but this creature was different, a more ancient sort, left over from when the world was still a magical place.

"Did no one ever tell you, man child, that you must stay west of the crossroads at all times? Or were you told and did not heed?"

Faramir did not answer, and the voice became quiet for a moment, but only for a moment. When it spoke again, it sounded ingratiating, if a faceless creature in the night could be ingratiating.

"Do you wish to return, man child?"

"Who are you? Friend or foe?" Faramir asked the question plainly, now far more curious than frightened.

"Silence, man child. It is for me to ask the questions." The voice became quiet once more, but then added in a more conspiratorial manner, "Indeed, if you answer me just one question, I should be happy to lead you back to your part of the forest."

"You are friend then, not foe."

The voice was unabashedly curious. "How do you know that I am a friend and not a foe?"

Faramir shrugged. "A foe would surely have killed me by now."

At this, the voice laughed, now almost like a normal human laugh. "Very well. I will ask one question. Do you accept the terms?"

"What happens if I cannot answer?"

"You remain here . . . with me, east of the crossroads. Or you die."

Faramir considered that the two options were very nearly the same, and nodded. "Alright. Ask your question."

The voice paused. "You are certain then?"

Faramir nodded, wondering on what the question might be.

"Answer me this, then. What is the greatest wonder of a man's life?"

Faramir frowned, knitting his eyebrows together in concentration. Great wonders in a man's life? Marriage, the birth of children, triumph in battle. He held his head in his hands, pondering the question and dreading the possibility that he might be left here for all eternity.

The voice spoke again. "You are taking too long to answer the question, man child!"

He ignored the voice, knowing the answer was more simple than any he could think of at that moment. He tried to remember what he had read in the great books in the Archives in Minas Tirith, the things told to him by his father, by Mithrandir . . .

Mithrandir! Of course. The answer dawned on Faramir in a flash. He looked up at the place where the voice seemed to be coming from, and smiled.

"The greatest wonder of a man's life is that it may yet end. But until it does, a man may still live each day as if he is immortal."

The voice was deathly quiet, and in Faramir's heart, dread began to form once again. What if this was the wrong answer? He began to speak, but was silenced by a chuckle from the voice.

"Ah, man child. Just when I begin to think your race will never amount to anything, you surprise me. That is a clever answer."

"I have asked this same question to countless man children before you, and yet I have never received an answer that satisfied me. Until now."

And with that, the cold hand released its grip on Faramir, and the forest became as soundless as it had been before. A pale light fell on the path Faramir had been walking, as if lighting his way. His bow and quiver appeared once more on the ground, and Faramir gathered them up and began walking along the lit path.

It was only when he woke in his camp bed the next morning that he began to wonder if it had not all been a dream.