Chapter 12: Look to the East
Elenard crouched in the deep shadow behind the tent, a bucket of water between his knees. He was stripped to his trews, barefoot, his body filthy from long hours huddled in the burned wreckage of a building and his mouth full of ash. Scooping up a handful of water, he rinsed his mouth and spat onto the ground. Then he sluiced the remaining contents of the bucket over his head and torso.
All about him, the camp was beginning to stir. Dawn had not yet touched the sky to the east, cloaked as it was in brown fumes and shadow, but the stars had gone out and the canopy where they had hung was now a dull grey. Elenard shook the water from his hair and rose to his feet, keeping his body hunched low enough that the tent hid him from curious eyes. Moving with the stealth of an experienced woodsman, he carried the empty bucket back to the pile of gear beside the camp fire, then ducked into the tent.
He shared this tent with three other men, archers from his homeland, who all still snored upon their pallets. A candle stood upon a wooden crate beside the center pole, but Elenard ignored it. He stepped carefully over the bodies in his path, laid his clothing and gear down beside his pallet as silently as possible, then crawled beneath the blanket. There, in the near-darkness, he lay in tense expectation of the first trumpet call that would rouse the army from its rest.
Elenard allowed himself to relax, very slightly, as he realized that he had reached safety. His fellow soldiers would not betray him. He need fear nothing from those who had, if only by their silence, supported his attempt on the Steward's life. It was true that Hirluin had stayed behind in the city, too frightened of capture to risk the guards at the gate, and by now the poor fool was likely in chains. But it would take time to break him, fool though he was, and the Shadow Steward did not have time.
Elenard had no fear of war or death by the sword. He was glad to march with his lord, beneath the King's banner. He feared only the darkness and enslavement of the Enemy, a fate that threatened all, with defeat looming before them and the Shadow growing behind. Elenard could only pray that he would fall in battle, cleanly, and be spared the horror that would inevitably follow. Had he succeeded this night, he might have opened a way for all of them to escape. But he had failed. Failed utterly.
He lay staring at the tent above him, remembering the strange, almost ludicrous struggle in the garden and grimacing at the memory. It should have been so easy to surprise and slay one blind man, caught alone and unawares in the deep night. What sorcery had protected the son of Denethor? What evil genius had guided his hand? Could the Enemy reach so far to aid his chosen one, even into the heart of Minas Tirith?
Elenard shuddered and made a furtive sign against evil. He was lucky to have escaped with his life. The Tower Guard had acted swiftly, closing the gate and searching the city with ruthless thoroughness. Elenard had only saved himself by crawling into the ruins of a fire-gutted building in the first circle, dressed in the stolen garments of a laborer, and coating his face with ash to darken it. There he had waited, until the coming dawn roused the peasantry and the traffic at the gate was heavy enough to offer some concealment.
He had taken a small hand cart from the shed where he had parted from Hirluin. By filling the cart with drag harnesses, hooks, picks, rope and chains - all the paraphernalia needed by the crews still laboring to clear the plains of broken siege engines and breastworks - he had managed to conceal his own garments and weaponry within it. Once the first stragglers began filing through the gate with the imminent dawn, he had simply walked out of the city. A few questions, a cursory inspection of his cart, a measuring glance at his filthy jerkin and patched breeches, and the guards had let him pass unchallenged.
Elenard's only real fear was that he would not get back to the camp before the trumpets called the army to muster. He could not hurry. No man sent to labor on the plains among smoking funeral pyres, open pits of orcish filth and the great corpses of slaughtered mûmakil would hurry to his task. So he moved slowly and reluctantly, head down and shoulders bowed. Once out of sight of the guards, he had abandoned the cart in a siege trench and retrieved his gear. The peasant clothing he had tossed into an unattended camp fire. The coating of ash and dirt had served him well again and helped him to slip past the sentries that patrolled the camp, unseen. At last, he had reached his tent and this brief spell of rest, while he waited for the call to arms.
It came just as the first light of day showed at the tent opening. A clear, piercing call that seemed to wake every other trumpeter in the combined armies. The horns rang out from all parts of the field, and each man listened for the one he knew as his own, then he flung off sleep to answer it.
Elenard greeted the summons with relief. He feigned weariness, stretching and yawning and moving no faster than his companions, but his heart raced with eagerness. Soon they would fall into their ranks and march away, turning their backs on the White City and the traitor's death that awaited him there.
*** *** ***
Merry awoke to the distant music of horns. He opened his eyes to find the room still dim with night shadows, though a smoky orange sunrise was visible through the open window. The hobbit had grown used to the days beginning with such reluctance. Though the sky above Mount Mindolluin was clean and bright, the pall of fumes yet loomed to the east, smothering the new light of the sun and warning of the terrible struggle to come.
He yawned and rubbed his eyes, then he frowned in confusion. Boromir was sleeping in his window embrasure. Merry could not see his features, silhouetted as he was against the growing light, but he knew that he could not be mistaken. No one else would pull a chair up to his window and fall asleep with his head on the stone sill. He did not remember the man being here when he went to sleep. In fact, he distinctly remembered being thrust out of the kitchen and ordered to bed, leaving Boromir very much awake.
He was about to shove back his blankets and leave the warmth of his bed to investigate, when another figure appeared in the doorway. Gil bustled in, carrying a large wooden tray that smelled enticingly of breakfast.
Merry smiled a heartfelt welcome. "How did you know I was hungry?" he asked, in a half-whisper.
"When you are awake, you are hungry," Gil answered. Her voice was dry and colorless, but she had a twinkle in her eyes that betrayed her amusement.
Merry chuckled. "How did you know I was awake?"
She nodded toward the window. "That noise would raise the dead." Then her eyes fell on Boromir, and her brows rose. "But not our Steward, it seems."
"How did he end up here?"
"I brought him."
Merry sat up in bed and regarded Gil thoughtfully, as she carried her tray around the bed to reach the small table that stood to his right. She was a small woman, slight of build, her form well hidden beneath the plain, serviceable garments worn by all the women of this House. She wore an apron of spotless white pinned over the front of her grey robe. A kerchief of the same crisp white covered her hair and framed her face. She might be pretty or shapely, beneath her drab clothing and stolid manner, but Merry could not tell. She kept her head down, her face stubbornly blank, and everything about her so unremarkable that he would be hard put to it to remember what she looked like, five minutes after she left the room.
Gil moved around the foot of the bed and toward its head, the weight of the tray seeming nothing in her slender hands. Boromir sat with his legs stretched out across her path, and she stepped carefully over them. Between the large tray and her long skirts, she misjudged her step and kicked him.
The man came instantly awake. He pulled his feet under him and sprang upright, looking around in bewilderment. His sudden move caught Gil unawares. She tripped over his feet, stumbled, lurched forward to catch her balance, and crashed into the table.
Merry cried out in distress, Gil's voice echoing his an instant later, as crockery, cutlery, tray and breakfast cascaded to the flagstones in a swimming, steaming mess. Scalding tea poured down Gil's front to stain her apron a sodden brown. The teapot smashed into a hundred pieces and sent its shards skittering across the floor. Boromir whirled around to face the sound, his hand reaching for his sword, just as Merry lurched forward in bed and shouted,
"Don't! It's only Gil!"
Boromir froze, and in the tense silence that followed, Merry could see the changing expression on his face as he finally, completely, woke up and started thinking. Boromir's hand fell to his side. "Gil? What is it? What was that noise?"
Gil could not answer. She was breathing in ragged gasps, her hands plucking helplessly at her soaked clothing, her eyes watering with pain.
"My breakfast," Merry said, hoping he had managed to keep the reproach from his voice. This was certainly not Gil's fault, nor Boromir's, but the sight of all his lovely sausages, eggs, and toast lying in a puddle of cooling tea was enough to make him cry.
Boromir started to move toward the sound of Merry's voice, but both Merry and Gil called out, together, "Stop!"
He stopped, scowling. "One of you had best tell me what's going on."
"I dropped the tray," Gil said. "There is food everywhere, my lord, and broken crockery."
"And she spilled hot tea all down her front," Merry added.
Boromir's scowl darkened. "Do you need a healer?"
"'Tis nothing. I must clean this up." She crouched to retrieve the tray.
Boromir opened his mouth to retort, shut it again with a snap, and stepped purposefully toward her. His boots crunched on fragments of crockery and ground sausages against the flagstones. Then his hand found Gil's shoulder. He slid his fingers around her upper arm, pulled her easily to her feet, and scooped her up in his arms.
He laughed at the outrage in her voice, as he crunched and slithered his way out of the mess beside the bed.
"I insist that you put me down!"
"You are not in a position to insist on anything. And if you are too stubborn to admit that my boots are better for walking on broken teapots than your soft shoes, the more fool you. Merry?"
"I need a patch of clean floor."
Chuckling to himself, Merry scrambled to the edge of the bed and caught Boromir's arm to guide him out of the disaster that was their breakfast. Boromir, obedient to Merry's direction, moved around the foot of the bed and halted. He set Gil on her feet, as gently as her squirming would allow, and prudently backed away from her.
She straightened her kerchief and shook her skirts into place with sharp, angry gestures that betrayed how close she was to losing her temper. Merry caught a glimpse of her face and was surprised by the utter mortification that filled it. "If you'll pardon me, lord, I'll bring a fresh tray," she said, in a tight, angry voice.
"You will not." Merry opened his mouth to protest, but Boromir went on, ruthlessly, "Get you to Ioreth and have her tend your burns."
"I am not burned, only scalded a bit."
"Go." He pointed in the general direction of the door, his face unyielding. "Someone else can clean up the mess. You are not the only drudge in the House."
Gil threw him a furious look, gave her skirt a final twitch, and marched out of the room. As she moved out of earshot, Merry thought he heard her mutter something crass about soldiers, but he wasn't entirely sure.
"That was a bit high-handed, wasn't it?" the hobbit remarked.
Boromir followed the sound of his voice over to the bed and sat down upon the edge of the mattress. "It was necessary. Gil is too stubborn by half. She would stand there, bleeding, with her clothing on fire, and demand that we let her mop the floor."
Merry politely refrained from pointing out that this was something she had very much in common with Boromir. "What about our breakfast?"
"She will send someone with a tray. And a mop."
The hobbit considered this for a moment and decided that Boromir was right. Gil would not forget them. "Why did you speak to her that way?" he asked.
"I did not want her in the room."
Merry frowned. "I thought you liked Gil."
"I do, but I could not risk losing a second breakfast." A wry grin spread over his face, as he added, "I know I spilled the tray. It happens every time I get close to Gil - I spill or break or trample something - so I must be to blame for this."
"Do not spare my feelings, Master Halfling. I can suffer the truth. I ruined your breakfast, and you are only just able to forgive me, for the sake of our great friendship. But even the greatest of friendships can be strained too far, and ours would not survive the loss of two breakfasts in one morning! So I think it best that some other drudge bring your food, this time."
Merry chuckled and settled back against his bolster. He felt warm and happy, in spite of his empty stomach and the shadow lurking outside his window. If he had to wait to be fed, at least he had the best of company to distract him. The best of company, and the best of friends.
Then, in the comfortable quiet, he heard the trumpets ring out again. His eyes moved to Boromir's face, and he saw his own distress reflected there. Their moment of forgetfulness was past, the warmth fled the room, and the silence between them turned suddenly melancholy.
Merry abruptly sat up and put his hand on Boromir's arm. He could not speak for the lump in his throat, but Boromir seemed to understand him without words. The man covered his small hand with his own and smiled down at him. They unconsciously drew closer to each other, and they sat together in stillness, listening to the music of war upon the wind.
Two hours past sunrise, on a crisp, bright morning swept clean by a strong breeze, the armies of the West marched. The people of Minas Tirith poured out through the shattered gates to bid them farewell, while those who chose not to brave the bloodied fields of the Pelennor watched from the city walls. They did not sing or cheer or toss flowers to the soldiers. They were silent and grave, moved by the fell beauty of shield, lance, helm and banner, awed by the strength arrayed before them, and saddened by the certainty of defeat to come. Trumpets rang out, and company by company, the vast host turned away from the Tower of Guard and bent their steps toward the looming darkness in the east.
High on the city walls, two figures stood, watching the army march away. Merry had to climb on a stone bench to see over the parapet, leaning his elbows on the rough stone and straining up on his toes to peer down at the plains. Beside him, Boromir was very still, drawn with tension, seeming to loom over the diminutive hobbit as he rested his hands on top of the wall and listened to the distant call of trumpets. The sound depressed Merry, reminding him that people he knew and loved were marching to their deaths. He could not tell what effect they had on Boromir, for the man's face was unreadable.
As the leading companies, riding beneath Aragorn's black and silver banner, wheeled eastward and started down the road toward the gleaming Anduin, Merry sighed.
Boromir turned his black-bandaged gaze on the hobbit and asked, "Do you wish you were marching with them?"
"No. Except, maybe, to look after Pippin."
Boromir quirked a half smile at him. "Pippin can look after himself."
"He needs someone to keep him out of trouble."
"He has Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli for that. If the four of them can't manage it..."
Merry laughed, but his heart was heavy. So many friends marching to war. So many people he loved whom he might never see again. Part of him was grateful to be here, safe on this wall, with Boromir beside him and all the swords of Minas Tirith between him and the Enemy, but another part of him longed to be with his companions, to share their fate rather than face the coming darkness without them.
He sighed and let his eyes stray from the brave panoply below to the grim shadow awaiting them. "The war is coming here, isn't it?"
"And we shall have to fight again."
"So am I, little one."
Merry eyed him narrowly. "You don't look it."
"I am a soldier, with a lifetime of practice at hiding my fear." Boromir paused, then smiled swiftly and added, "But you are right, Merry. At this moment, I am not afraid, only restless. I can taste the coming battle on the wind, and I long to be a part of it."
"You won't go after them!" Merry blurted out, in sudden alarm.
"Nay, I will not."
"Promise me, Boromir! Give me your solemn word, as Steward of Gondor, that you won't go without me!"
Boromir's startled expression dissolved into laughter. "Without you? I will go nowhere without you, Master Halfling. You are my guard and my guide. I would sooner go to war without my sword."
Merry subsided, calmed by his assurances, but he couldn't resist muttering, "You went without me the last time."
"Out of necessity, not out of choice, and I had Pippin along for the ride. Don't sulk, Merry. You won more renown in that battle than all the Men of Gondor together."
"I'm not sulking. I'm tired, and my arm is hurting."
"You should rest."
Merry turned away from the scene on the plains and sat on the bench, his back to the wall. "I will, when they are gone." After a moment's silence, he mused, "I suppose I'll need a sword."
"We'll find you one in the city armory, if it comes to that."
The hobbit's eyes brightened and his head lifted. "If it comes to that? Then you do believe there's a chance we won't have to fight? A chance for victory?"
"There is always a chance, so long as Aragorn and Gandalf stand with us."
In spite of his fear, in spite of everything, Merry laughed in open delight. Boromir looked taken aback at his reaction, which only made Merry grin the wider. "You find hope at the oddest times."
Boromir smiled down at him, his face softening in understanding and affection. "You and Pippin and Aragorn are my teachers. I find it hard to wallow in despair with such friends about me."
Merry shook his head in disbelief. He would not challenge the wisdom of Gondor's Steward on such a matter, and indeed, his optimistic heart warmed to these words of hope, however cautious they might be. But he could not rid himself of the feeling that Boromir was somehow thinking at cross-purposes with the rest of the city. At a time when every soldier of the West looked for defeat, Boromir spoke of victory. At a moment when the darkness in the East threatened to envelop all he loved in the world, Boromir thrust away the darkness that had troubled his own heart for so long to look with hope toward the future. How could he let go of despair at this most desperate time? Did he really believe that Strider and Gandalf could defeat the armies of Mordor with what now seemed a mere handful of soldiers?
A wide yawn suddenly split Merry's face and interrupted his musing. He stretched as he yawned, then he settled back on the bench, feeling unaccountably relaxed. It occurred to him that it didn't matter how strongly Boromir believed his own words or how deep his faith in Strider ran. Merry wanted to believe. Boromir had given him permission to do so. Now he could rest in the certainty that Men of courage and strength, like Strider and Boromir and Prince Imrahil, were fighting to protect Minas Tirith - and the small, tired, frightened hobbit within her walls.
He yawned again, drawing Boromir's attention.
"Get you to bed, little one."
"No, not to bed. I am sick of looking at the same walls. But I will rest, if..." He looked up at his friend in concern, not sure if he should leave the man here alone.
Boromir read his thoughts easily enough. "I have nowhere else to be and would as soon stay here. And you needn't worry about assassins. I am standing in full view of the city, in broad daylight."
"All right, then." Merry rose to his feet and stretched his tired limbs. He saw a carved stone bench standing beside the door of the House, shaded by its walls, surrounded by a carefully-tended bed of flowers. It looked cool and inviting. "I'll go have a nap. Call if you need me for anything."
"I'll not need to disturb you."
Merry did not bother to argue with him. Boromir was clearly in a stubborn and independent mood, sending Merry about his business rather than admitting any desire for his company. He would get over it, given time, and Merry could do with the rest.
With a murmured farewell, the hobbit climbed the path through the garden toward the Houses of Healing. He approached the door that opened on the garden at the same moment that Gil stepped through it. She carried a large basin of water in her hands, which she poured into the flowerbed. Merry walked up to her, smiling, and she turned sober eyes upon him.
"Good morning, Gil." She nodded respectfully to him, without speaking. "What did Ioreth say about your burns?"
"I was not burned. As you see, I am well."
"I'm glad." As he looked up at the guarded face above him, an idea came to Merry. "It's a good thing you weren't hurt, because that means you won't be angry with Boromir."
Her face managed to harden a bit more. "It is not my place to be angry with the Steward."
Ignoring her veiled sarcasm, he smiled even more brightly. "Good. Then you can go look after him, while I take a nap."
"Look after him? What mean you, Master Perian?"
Merry waved a hand toward the wall and the man standing beside it. "I cannot keep my eyes open another minute, and my Lord Boromir won't be sensible and come inside. He ordered me off, and now he's stuck down there by himself. I wouldn't worry about it, except that it was only last night that someone tried to kill him on that very spot. It makes me unaccountably nervous."
Gil set her basin down on the bench, with an angry snap, and planted her hands on her hips. "The Steward is very well able to take care of himself, and he won't thank you for sending me to bother him."
"No, he won't. But Strider - Lord Aragorn, I mean - told me to get plenty of rest, and I won't be able to rest properly if I'm worrying about Boromir." Merry yawned widely, as if to impress upon her the depth of his exhaustion.
"You are shameless, Master Perian."
"No, just tired and determined to earn myself a very long, uninterrupted nap. Besides," he added, in a burst of candor, "I want you to be friends again. Boromir needs all the sensible friends he can get."
Gil responded with a snort of disgust, but Merry could see that he had thrown her off balance. It took him a few minutes more to convince her that her duty lay in keeping an eye on the Steward, rather than in mucking out chamber pots. But eventually, he overbore her protests and sent her marching down the path to where Boromir stood.
Merry sat down on the bench and leaned his head back against the wall of the building, watching through half-closed eyes as Gil approached Boromir. She was all stiff dignity, aloof and humble at the same time, refusing to unbend. But Boromir flatly ignored her ill humor, smiled at her in welcome, and tucked her hand familiarly through his arm. She was fairly caught between her offended sense of propriety and the obedience she owed her lord, and her rigid code of behavior would not allow her to do other than take his arm and walk at his side.
Merry could not hear their conversation, but he had no doubt that each was being as stubborn and perverse as always. Gil was playing the cowed servant, Boromir was teasing her into flashes of temper, and neither was really paying any mind to what a strange picture they made together - the Lord of Gondor and the nameless drudge. The hobbit smiled in satisfaction and closed his eyes. All was well with his friend, and he was free to enjoy his rest.
"You do him no service."
Merry started awake and turned in alarm to find Faramir standing in the doorway to his right. He had not heard the man approach, and his sudden appearance unnerved the sleepy hobbit.
"My Lord Faramir." He made a move to rise, to show Faramir the courtesy that was his due as Boromir's brother and a lord of Gondor, but Faramir stilled him with a quick gesture. The man's eyes strayed back to the figures by the wall, and his face was even more somber and brooding than Merry remembered it from the previous night.
Faramir nodded toward his brother and Gil. "You do him no service to encourage this affection in him."
"They are friends."
"The Steward of Gondor cannot afford such friends."
As sleep and surprise fled, Merry felt his temper rise. "It seems to me that Boromir needs what friends he can find, even in the kitchens of Minas Tirith. He certainly isn't finding them where he ought, among his own rank."
The edge in his voice drew Faramir's full attention, and for the first time since their meeting, Merry felt the power of that keen, grey gaze fixed upon him. A smile touched Faramir's lips, though it did not lighten his eyes. "He has found one in you, Master Perian."
"He has." Merry did not quail beneath the look that seemed to strip away his flesh and bone to expose his most secret thoughts. He had nothing to hide from this man, and everything to gain by winning Faramir's respect.
Faramir searched his face for a moment, then he smiled again, more warmly. "My brother is fortunate in your love."
"A lot of people love him," Merry said, firmly, "and they will not stand by, doing nothing, while those who do not try to take what belongs to him - through treachery or through guile."
Faramir did not miss the warning in his words, but he seemed pleased, rather than offended. "You school me well, small master. I had begun to doubt that my brother still had the power of winning hearts." Then his eyes turned again to the figures by the wall, and his smile faded. "Mayhap he wins them too easily."
"She is his friend," Merry repeated. "Why does that bother you?"
"For many reasons which you will not approve. In your loyalty to him, you do not see the folly... the damage he does, both to himself and to Gondor, when he behaves so much outside his nature."
Merry bit his tongue to control his angry words. He could have read off a long list of reasons why Boromir turned to Gil for friendship - Faramir's own distrust of him being at the top of that list - but he didn't think his reasons would move Faramir, any more than Faramir's reasons would move him. Faramir was focused on the affairs of state and the dignity of his house. Merry was focused only on the welfare of his friend.
Forcing himself to speak politely, Merry said, "We must hold very different views of his nature, my lord."
"Aye, so I think. And this is the heart of the matter. You look at him and see nothing strange in his ways. I look at him, and I see naught but a stranger. He is not the brother I know. He avoids the company of his peers to consort with drudges. He stays within the grounds of these Houses, though he is neither sick nor hurt, and refuses to enter the Citadel where waits his seat of power. His private chambers stand empty, unused, while he haunts the city at night and sleeps no one knows where."
Merry flushed angrily at this proof that Faramir had been spying on his brother. He said nothing, but Faramir read his thoughts as easily as if he had shouted them.
"The Chamberlain came to me, out of concern for his lord. He has had Boromir's chambers prepared for him every night since his return, but my brother has not set foot in them except to change his garments. He neither sleeps in his bed, nor takes his meals within the Tower."
"He likes to sleep under the stars," Merry blurted out. "You should know that! He did it often enough with you, or so he told me!"
"A boy's games. Childish pranks that have no place in these dangerous times. Last night's attack should be proof enough of that, even for one as stubborn as my brother. Boromir is the Steward of Gondor, not a headstrong youth, rebelling against the strictures of his father's court. He cannot go on this way and hope to hold sway over the lords and captains of the West! They will lose all faith in him!"
Merry pressed his lips together and shook his head. He heard as much pain as disapproval in Faramir's voice, and he sensed that the man wanted to be talked out of his fears. But everything Merry said only seemed to heighten them. When Faramir turned to watch Boromir again, his face grew steadily more drawn and sad, his frown more pronounced. A heavy silence fell between them, and Faramir seemed no longer aware of the hobbit's presence.
Merry gazed thoughtfully up at the man beside him. He found himself drawn to Faramir, both by his resemblance to his brother and by his own air of grave nobility, and he could not find it in his heart to condemn Faramir for his doubts. Faramir had not walked the long road from Rivendell at Boromir's side. He had not pursued the orcs across Rohan, braved the flaming pits of Isengard, or listened to his brother's quiet voice through the starless nights in Anórien. He could not be expected to recognize the person Boromir had become or to accept the changes in him, as those did who had made the dark journey with him.
Merry was unwavering in his loyalty to Boromir. He would not listen to anyone, no matter how near in blood, speak ill of the lord he loved and hold his tongue. But he could be fair, as he believed Boromir would be, and give Faramir time to understand all that had happened in the months since he and his brother parted.
Faramir sensed the hobbit's eyes upon him and shifted his gaze from the figures in the garden to Merry's face. He said nothing, but his steady, thoughtful gaze seemed to invite Merry to speak.
"If you'll pardon me saying so, my lord, I don't think you know your brother very well."
A look of surprise swept over Faramir's face. "Do I not?"
"Well, no. You couldn't, or you wouldn't be worrying about... about trivial things."
"You do not think the Steward's welfare is a matter of some import?"
"Of course it is, but you're not talking about Boromir's welfare. You're talking about gossip you've heard from the Chamberlain and the Tower Guard. What does it matter to you where he sleeps? Why do you care who his friends are? He has taken good care of Minas Tirith since he came back. No one can deny that!"
"Aye. He has taken great care of our city, better even than our father would have done."
"Then what is the problem?"
"That is precisely what I want to know, Master Perian. What shadows, what demons torment my brother that, though he rules Gondor with such care, he is so little himself?"
"He is himself. You do not see it, because you choose to see only the outward signs of change. His blindness..."
"Even so loyal a friend as you cannot pretend that my brother's blindness is merely an outward change."
"Of course not, but it has made him no less a man than he was, and no less a soldier or captain or steward... or friend."
"I would never think less of him, because he cannot see."
"But you think less of him, because he befriends kitchen drudges and sleeps in a chair in my room, instead of in his rich chambers."
"I deem these signs of greater changes, greater ills that plague him. He bears wounds far more terrible than the one he now conceals beneath a strip of cloth. Wounds of the spirit. Shadows upon his heart. I see how he suffers, though he thinks to hide it from me, and I fear the lingering poison of those wounds."
Merry looked at him for a moment, weighing his options, then he decided that, with this man as with no other, the truth would be his strongest ally. "You rode beneath the wings of the Nazgûl and felt the Black Breath. Only the King's voice called you back from its shadow. But you don't doubt your own sanity or your own fitness to lead your people." His eyes gazed straight into Faramir's, daring him to protest. "Is Boromir so much weaker than you, that his mind and heart can't be healed the way yours were?"
Faramir looked taken aback, but he did not back down from the challenge in the hobbit's eyes. His gaze remained as frank, thoughtful and constant as ever. "You believe that my brother is healed."
"He's working on it."
Merry felt his temper rise again at the skepticism in Faramir's voice. "Would you be able to forget such horrors, all at once?"
"I know not, for I know not what horrors my brother has faced. How can I judge his fitness...?"
"What gives you the right to judge him, at all?!" Merry demanded, cutting off Faramir's measured words.
Faramir regarded him gravely, and Merry flushed. He would not unsay the words, but the sorrow and regret in Faramir's face made him ashamed of his heated tone. "It is more than my right. It is my duty. I love my brother, Master Halfling, as I believe you do, but I am more than the brother of Boromir. I am the son of Denethor, Captain of Gondor, next in line to the Stewardship, sworn to protect my people to the limit of my strength. No brother can come before Gondor in my care, though he may come before all in my heart."
"You do not need to protect Gondor from Boromir."
"How am I to know that?"
"Talk to him! You'll see!"
Faramir smiled sadly. "He will not talk to me - not about the things that matter."
"When was the last time you tried? You know how Boromir is..."
"Do I?" The slight edge to Faramir's voice told Merry that he had hit a nerve with his earlier remark.
"Well, you certainly should. I can't imagine that he's changed that much."
"I know that he is loath to talk of what touches him most nearly."
"He's as stubborn as a cave troll. But even I know - and I only met you a few hours ago - that you'd be the one person in all Middle-earth who could get him to talk... if you really tried." He eyed Faramir with a mixture of exasperation and sympathy. "I can't tell you the things you need to hear, to put your doubts to rest. Only Boromir can do that. But I can tell you that he wants you to believe in him again."
"I have always believed in him."
Merry waved that away, impatiently. "That's between you and Boromir. You don't want to know what I think. Just go and work it out with him, before one of you makes a stupid mistake that you'll be too proud and too stubborn to take back!"
To be continued...