Chapter 13: Out of Doubt, Out of Dark
Faramir spent much of the morning pondering Merry's words, bitter as they were to him, and slowly coming to acknowledge their justice. The halfling had the right of it. He would not find the answers he needed by skulking about, watching his brother from afar, and listening to the gossip of household servants - or even of close kin. He must talk to Boromir himself and learn the truth of what had happened to him during his months away from Minas Tirith. Only then, perhaps, would he learn to know his brother again.
It hurt Faramir deeply to admit that he no longer knew Boromir. The halfling, a chance acquaintance met upon the road, saw far more clearly into Boromir's heart than his own brother did, and this was a source of great pain for him. The longer he dwelt on the enormity of his loss, the deeper grew his regret, his sorrow, and his longing to find his brother again.
It was this longing, more than his sense of duty or justice, that finally drove him from the House in search of Boromir. To his surprise, he found that his brother had quitted the grounds and, refusing to take a guard with him, gone off in the company of the halfling. The two soldiers posted at the garden gate told him that their captain had ordered them to remain, stating that he only meant to go as far as the Citadel and would need no escort there.
Faramir frowned at this news, worried that Boromir would venture into the city without his guard, but he could not fault the soldiers for following orders nor insist that they dog their Steward's steps against his wishes. If, in fact, Boromir had gone to the Citadel, he would be safe enough. Feeling a mixture of irritation at his brother's careless behavior and curiosity as to what had drawn him to the Tower, Faramir bent his steps toward the seventh circle.
The Tower Guard, resplendent in their black and silver livery, saluted him as he came through the upper gate. Faramir stepped into the Court of the Fountain and hesitated. It was empty, but from the tall, ornate windows of the council chamber at the back of the court, he heard voices. One he recognized as Lord Taleris, his father's chief advisor. Another had all the clipped, formal manner of a soldier addressing his superiors. Then a third and infinitely familiar voice interrupted them, growling,
"Enough! The man has escaped. That much is clear."
Faramir turned immediately to the great doors of the Tower. The thick stone walls muffled his brother's voice, so he did not hear his next words, but Boromir was still speaking when Faramir strode into the council chamber.
"There is only one place a soldier can hide for any stretch of time. If he escaped the city before dawn, he has fled with the army."
"We must warn the King," Taleris insisted.
"Aye." Boromir bowed his head in thought and left the others to wait in guarded silence upon his decision.
Faramir hung back in the doorway, unwilling to force himself into the Steward's business without invitation, and watched the others closely. The great chamber was dim and cool, for no torch or candle was lit, and the afternoon sun had moved behind the tall peak of Mindolluin to cast the windows into shadow. Boromir sat on the deep sill of one of those windows, overlooking the court and the mournful fountain dripping from the branches of the dead tree. Lord Taleris and the Guard lieutenant he had met last night stood close to Boromir, while the halfling sat in one of the carved, polished chairs at the council table, munching an apple and trying not to appear too absorbed in the affairs his lord. He looked absurdly small in such surroundings, swinging his feet a handspan above the floor, dwarfed by chair, Men, and the wide, lofty chamber.
Faramir smiled privately at the picture Merry presented, then he turned his keen gaze on the two men who waited upon the Steward. Taleris and the lieutenant kept a prudent distance between them and shared no glances or whispers, making it clear to Faramir's eyes that soldier and nobleman did not trust each other. The Guard supported Boromir without question. Faramir had seen for himself how loyal was this soldier, in particular. Which could only mean that Taleris had been less than wholehearted in his support of his new Steward and had not been canny enough to keep his doubts to himself.
"A single rider can reach the army before they march tomorrow," Boromir said.
Taleris grunted assent, though he still looked none too happy.
"They have passed Osgiliath by now and will be drawing toward their camp. I will prepare a dispatch for Aragorn, warning him of a possible conspiracy against him among the southern armies."
"I would be honored to compose such a letter, my lord."
"I'll do it."
Taleris bridled at his harsh tone but did not dare to venture a protest. Shifting his ground, he said, "Had the lords of the city been forewarned of this threat, we might have taken counsel with the King ere he marched, mayhap even have delayed that march until the assassin was caught and punished."
"Which is precisely why I did not tell you," Boromir snapped. "The King's business is with Mordor. Mine is with Minas Tirith. No concern of ours can delay him. I am loath even to distract him with unformed doubts at such a time, when it seems unlikely that this assassin is any threat to him."
"You cannot know that!"
Faramir deemed it time to interrupt, before Taleris goaded his brother beyond endurance. As he stepped forward, he caught the halfling's eye and nodded a greeting. Merry immediately got to his feet, rounded the end of the table, and approached him with all the dignified courtesy of a trained squire. The halfling's bow was as precise and practiced as the rest of his bearing, but as he straightened up, a smile lit his face.
Faramir could not resist the creature's charm, however impudent it might be, and he smiled in answer. "You see I have taken your advice, Master Perian," he shot a speaking glance at Boromir and the petulant Taleris, "though I might have chosen my time better."
"I think your timing is perfect. Come, shall I announce you like a proper door warden?"
Faramir's twinkling eyes took in the half-eaten apple and hastily abandoned chair. "Is that your office today?"
Merry shrugged. "Whatever Boromir needs. Hurry, before he gets too angry to listen to anyone."
With a soft chuckle, Faramir followed the halfling up to the row of tall windows. At the sound of their approach, Taleris broke off his latest complaint and all eyes turned toward them. Taleris' face softened with relief when he recognized Faramir, but the young lord moved past him with no more than a cold glance. He had great respect for Lord Taleris' skill and knowledge, but he had never liked the old lord, and he would not now give Taleris any encouragement to count him an ally.
"Your brother is here, my lord," Merry piped up, forgetting his offer of a proper introduction.
Boromir's bandaged gaze fixed unerringly on Faramir, and he got hastily to his feet. "Faramir? I thought you still hostage to the healers."
"I bought my freedom with a promise to return." His keen eyes flicked from the lieutenant's face to the nobleman's, then lighted again on his brother. "This was not my true errand, but I am glad I came when I did and heard of your fears for the King's safety. I have news that bears on this."
"What news? What know you of the assassin?"
Now that it came down to it, Faramir found himself loath to speak in front of the others. This touched his family too nearly, involving as it did a kinsman. Another moment of reflection served to remind him that such treason, if treason it was, could not be concealed, and he said, "Nothing of the assassin himself, but I may know something of those who set him on to murder."
A murmur of surprise escaped Taleris, and the lieutenant's sword hand twitched reflexively.
"I was approached by one near to us in blood," Faramir went on, "and told of a... a conspiracy, for I can call it naught else, to remove the rightful Steward and put me in his place."
This time, the lieutenant's hand closed about the pommel of his sword. "Name the traitor, my Captain! Name him, that we may lay hands on him!"
Boromir silenced the man with a gesture and said, "Who approached you?"
A disbelieving silence met his words, in which Faramir could almost hear Taleris sweating. Only Merry dared move, slipping between the tall men to reach Boromir's side. He stepped in close to his lord, and Boromir's hand dropped instinctively to the halfling's curly head.
After a brief, fierce struggle with himself for some semblance of calm, Boromir asked, "While he was tempting you to treason, did our kinsman mention a murder in the offing?"
"He did not. He spoke only of using my influence with both you an the Lord Aragorn to persuade you to step down."
Boromir ground his teeth together audibly, and Faramir could well imagine the host of angry questions forming in his mind, foremost among them being the demand to know what answer his brother had given Imrahil. Training and caution won out over temper, however, and he held his tongue.
"You called it a conspiracy," Taleris ventured. "Were others named?"
Faramir hesitated, looking for a middle road between his loyalty to his brother and his own sense of justice. There was no way to satisfy both in this unhappy event, but he knew what choice he must make. When he finally spoke, reluctance made his voice hard and his words heavy. "I'll not place another man's life at risk with rumors or suspicions. It was to Imrahil and Imrahil alone that I spoke."
"But the Prince named his confederates," Taleris persisted.
"You have my answer, Lord Taleris."
Boromir spoke again. "Imrahil is gone with Aragorn to Mordor. What of these others? Are they gone, as well?"
"I know of only one, and he, too, is gone with the King."
"Which brings us back to the question of what threat they pose to Aragorn. Will Imrahil and his allies harm him?"
"They will not."
"You sound very certain."
"I am. I cannot be as certain that the assassins were set on by these men, but it seems likely, given the timing and the tenor of the lies that drove them. And if so, the conspirators will do their utmost to protect the King. They want only to end your stewardship, not to threaten the King's reign. Aragorn is safe."
"My Lord Steward, with all due respect, we cannot know what plots and betrayals may threaten the King, distanced as he is from all aid!" Taleris interjected, his face purpling with the strength of his passion. "We must send him more than a hasty dispatch in the hands of an unknowing messenger. I will go to the army. I can reach Osgiliath as quickly as any rider and bring a full report of all that has happened to our lord!"
Boromir ignored Taleris' outburst. Stepping toward Faramir, he held out a hand and said, curtly, "I would speak with my brother alone."
Faramir moved obediently into reach of his open hand and was startled when Boromir took his arm in a firm clasp. When Boromir started walking, Faramir went with him perforce and soon found himself piloting them both through the large, cluttered chamber toward the door. The nobleman and the soldier watched them in baffled silence, while the halfling quietly resumed his seat at the table.
They had nearly reached the privacy of the outer chamber, when Taleris mustered his courage to call out in protest, "My Lord!"
"I am in need of fresh air," Boromir snapped. Then he stepped through the doorway and into the cool, silent grandeur of the Citadel's main antechamber. "Outside," he muttered, tersely, and Faramir turned his steps toward the open doors that let onto the court.
As they crossed the antechamber, their footsteps ringing on the flagstones and echoing into the vaulted ceiling, Boromir spoke in a low, urgent tone, "Taleris is a treacherous cur and likely up to his neck in Imrahil's conspiracy, but he has a point. My King... my friend marches to war with traitors and assassins in his wake, with the Shadow before him and the Enemy at work all around, and I have naught save your word that he is safe to reassure me. It is only the love and trust I place in you, Brother, that keeps me from riding after the army myself to warn him."
"The other is Halbarad." The words were out of Faramir's mouth before he was aware of having spoken.
Boromir came to an abrupt halt and turned to face his brother squarely, gripping his arm with iron fingers. "Halbarad? The Ranger?"
"Aragorn's second in command."
Boromir could only gape at him, at a loss for words.
"You see why I did not speak before Taleris or the guardsman. We cannot spread suspicions of one so near the King without absolute proof, and to cast doubts upon Halbarad would be to cast doubts upon Aragorn himself."
"At a time when all Gondor looks to him for hope. Aye. This is for Aragorn's ears alone."
"You can also see why I have no fears for the King."
Boromir nodded and turned again toward the doors. Faramir fell into step beside him, more readily this time. "Halbarad will not harm Aragorn, whatever his plans for me."
They walked in pensive silence through the great doors and across the court. Faramir led them instinctively toward the western corner of the circle, where the curving outer wall met the shoulder of Mindolluin and where stood the doors to the great library of Minas Tirith. Here, none would disturb them. The sentries were at the far side of the court, the men inside the council chamber well out of earshot, and only the library close at hand.
It was this building that gave the spot its charm for Faramir. He had spent countless hours here, leaning against the stone parapet, staring ever westward and northward, dreaming of what lay beyond the reach of sight. When weary of the burdens he carried and of the sight of Gondor's troubled lands, he could turn his eyes inward and rest them on the cool, white walls of the library he loved, on the carven doors set deep in their pointed arch of stone. It gave him strength and a kind of peace that he knew nowhere else in his father's city.
It was his brother's city, now. Boromir's city. As he leaned his shoulder against the parapet and fixed his eyes on his brother's face, Faramir wondered yet again how he felt about the myriad changes that had been forced upon them, not the least of which was Boromir's homecoming.
The man who occupied his thoughts so completely was lost in his own musings for the moment. Boromir stood with his hands resting on the wall, his black-shrouded gaze turned outward and his face upturned slightly to catch the fitful breeze. He looked weary and sad to Faramir's eyes, as though the burdens of his stewardship were no joy to him. Even in this, his brother had changed.
"So Imrahil is a traitor." There was no anger in Boromir's voice, only sorrow.
Faramir answered in the same quiet way. "For what comfort it gives you, he said nothing of treachery or murder, nothing of using force to gain his ends. He spoke only of persuading you to step aside. He is our kinsman, Boromir, as close in affection as he is in blood. I cannot believe he wishes you harm."
"Yet he traffics with traitors and seeks to draw my own brother into his conspiracies." Boromir turned his bandaged gaze on Faramir, and the younger man had the uneasy feeling that he could see through the dark fabric to read the conflict in his face. "Did he succeed?"
Faramir had been expecting this question, but he still could not force an answer from his lips with Boromir's lined, troubled face before him. Boromir regarded him for a moment, then turned away again with a sigh.
"I am sorry, Brother. For us both."
"I am no traitor, to Gondor or to her lawful Steward," Faramir blurted out.
"Nor is Imrahil, by your reckoning. Tell me, Faramir, what answer did you give?"
"I promised only to wait, to watch, and to consider his words."
Boromir seemed to brace himself against the grief that welled up within him. His shoulders stiffened and his head lifted more proudly, but there was defeat written plain in his face. "I know you well enough to understand such an answer."
"Do you, in truth?"
"You will not choose until you are sure, and you cannot be sure of me." He paused, then murmured, "You never were entirely sure of me, were you?"
Faramir could only stare at him in dumb sorrow, taken completely off guard by his brother's sudden candor.
"I do not blame you," Boromir went on. "You know too well my weakness, my folly, my guilt... You alone, among all those who would condemn me, know the true depths to which I have sunk. You alone have the right to stand in judgement."
"I do not want to stand in judgement on my brother."
"You have no choice. It is not in your nature to turn away from the truth, or to flinch from the burden laid upon you. Imrahil knew that when he came to you and planted the seeds of doubt in your mind. He chose his judge wisely."
"He chose me because I, like him, want no more than to safeguard our King and our people."
"And I do not?"
"I believe you do, Brother, but I am not certain that you can."
Boromir turned to face his brother squarely for the first time, shifting his stance so that his attention was fixed all on Faramir. "My rule hangs in the balance, it would seem. My brother stands before me, poised to let fall his weight upon either side, offering me my stewardship unchallenged if I... what? What must I do to keep my birthright?"
"Nay, Boromir. I am not here to lay down conditions! Nor do I hold your stewardship in my keeping!"
"Prudent Faramir. Ever modest and humble. Do not waste your humility on me, Brother, for we both know the power you wield. Only tell me what I must do."
Faramir studied his harshly drawn features for a long moment, trying to read his intentions and failing. "Would you know, in truth, what I desire?" he finally asked.
"To hear what befell you on your road home."
Boromir's mouth twisted into a grimace of pain. "Will such a tale of horrors help you sleep at night? Or do you seek the means to soothe your conscience, when you condemn me before my King?"
"I seek only to lay my doubts to rest, to still the whispers that torment me."
The grimace turned yet more sour, and Boromir said, "So do I, but not in the memory of my dishonor and downfall."
"I am afraid, Brother," Faramir urged, willing Boromir to hear and understand. "I cannot rest, cannot think beyond the fear that grows daily within me."
"That I will lose you, as I lost my father, to darkness and despair."
"That is your fear? That I will end as Denethor did?"
"Aye. Imrahil mouths lofty phrases about Gondor's weal, but I will not stretch the truth so far. I am not afraid for Gondor. I am afraid for myself, for you, and for the cruel fate that awaits you, should you share Denethor's weakness as you do his pride."
Boromir seemed to regard him steadily through the dark bandage, then the Steward bowed his head. "You are not alone in this. I have wondered, myself, how much Denethor's son I am, and I have toyed with the idea of ending my trials as he did."
The doubt within Faramir congealed into dread at these words, but he said nothing, allowing his brother to reveal himself in his own time.
"How much I am my father's son you know better than any, but there is one great difference between us. And one great flaw in all your reasoning. I have already visited the darkness, already tasted the despair that ended my father's life. I have slept and eaten and dreamed them. I have wept for the weight of them upon me and prayed for death to free me. There is nothing of darkness or despair that you or any Man can teach me, Faramir, for they are my constant companions."
"Even as they were for Denethor," Faramir said.
"Nay, do but consider. I had the chance to die - many chances - yet I live. I may live in darkness, but I live, and the darkness holds no sway over me. Do you not see? I made my choice, as our father made his, and I chose to come home."
Faramir felt tears prick at his eyes, and he made no attempt to hold them back. "Aye, you are home, but at what price?"
"Is any price too dear for the chance to stand upon the walls of Minas Tirith again and hear the music of her trumpets upon the wind?"
"That is said like the brother I know!"
"I am your brother, Faramir, in spite of the scars I carry. I thought that your eyes - the keenest in all Gondor - would see past this bandage to the Man beneath."
"'Tis not the bandage that gives me pause."
"Is it not? I felt you shrink away, when I took your arm."
Faramir forced himself to look straight into his brother's face, into the black-shrouded gaze and the pain that festered so terribly beneath his proud mien. "I did not shrink from you out of revulsion or contempt, but only from surprise and, mayhap, from pity. I need time to accustom myself to your blindness."
"So do I."
The sour humor in Boromir's voice made Faramir's throat ache with unshed tears. He longed ever more desperately to find some connection with his brother, some way to banish the image of the scarred and bandaged stranger in the garden and feel, in his heart, that it was Boromir who stood before him.
"I am grateful that you chose to return to me, Brother" he said, his voice far more calm than he had expected. "I see how you rule our city in the King's absence, and my heart swells with pride. I think of all that you have suffered to find your way home, and I grieve for you. When you speak to me with Boromir's voice, chide me in his caustic way, brush aside my counsel with his arrogant assurance, I rejoice to have him beside me once again. But then you turn away - turn back to your strange haunts, your unfit companions, your lonely brooding - and my brother vanishes. I am left with a man I do not recognize."
A small, bitter smile touched Boromir's lips. "My arrogance reassures you? Here is a strange turnabout. You would chastise me for too little pride, in the company I keep and the places I frequent, when you have so often heaped reproofs upon my head for an excess of that same pride. You, who have urged me to change times beyond count, now draw away from me because I have done exactly that. Change."
"Boromir..." His own voice sounded plaintive in Faramir's ears, but he could not bear the lash of his brother's tongue in silence. Boromir neither shouted nor raged. He spoke in the same low, thoughtful tone that he had used throughout their conversation, but his words burned the very air between them.
"Either I am too proud or not proud enough, too guarded or too exposed. You ask me to tell you of the darkest moments of my life, yet when I turn to you for guidance, you flinch at my touch."
"I am sorry for that!"
"I have said I do not blame you for your doubts, and I do not. I understand that you need time to accustom yourself to me, and I will not press you. But if we are ever to stand together as brothers again, you must learn to accept the man I have become."
"This is all that I ask!" Faramir cried. "I want to know you again. I want to look at you and see Boromir, not a distant stranger with bandaged eyes!"
"I cannot make the bandage go away, even for you."
"But you can let me know the man who wears it, as I once knew my brother."
"Tell me about Orthanc."
Boromir's face tightened, and without moving, he seemed to withdraw from his brother. "Why are you so eager to hear this tale?"
"Those dark moments - the darkest of your life, you called them - lie between us. They cast a shadow upon you that is an agony for me to see. All our lives, we have fought together as brothers, inseparable and unconquerable, but when you fought your greatest battle, I was not beside you. Now the shadow is upon you, and I am left alone."
"You are not alone. I am still Boromir, though I bear scars from battles we did not share."
"I know you are he. But I am lonely and afraid, and I want the closeness that we once had - the utter certainty in each other that upheld me through so many trials. I want my brother."
"How can I return him to you?"
"You mean, bare my wounds to you."
"Trust me, Boromir. I'll not betray that trust."
A long, grim silence met his words. Finally, Boromir lifted his shrouded gaze to Faramir's face and asked, harshly, "Did our father tell you what he saw in the palantír?"
"Some small part, only. He... told me of your capture and your imprisonment. Of your torture at Saruman's hands."
"The stone did not lie. Aragorn and I were taken by Saruman's orcs to the dungeons of Orthanc, where we were tortured for his amusement and to further his treacherous plots. He wanted the Ring." Boromir laughed without mirth, his face hard with strain. "He thought Aragorn would give it to him."
Boromir abruptly turned away from his brother's stark, pitying gaze and rested his hands on the parapet again. His face tilted up to catch the breeze. His voice dropped to a distant murmur, edged with pain. "I remember little of my time there, beyond the horror of Saruman's voice and the agony in his hands. But the dungeon is etched into my memory.
"It is a terrible place, Faramir. The air is hot and thick, so that it seems to crawl over your flesh. Everything is stone and iron and stifling heat. And always, the torches are burning. Burning." Boromir braced his hands on the wall, his fingers digging into the unforgiving stone, and bowed his head. "I cannot abide them."
"Or stone walls or the sound of approaching footsteps... The boots of orcs make a distinct sound against stone floors. Saruman walks silently, but he is never without his orcs, and I can hear them as they come down the passage..."
Faramir shivered, as if a sudden chill had touched his flesh. He fancied, for a dreadful moment, that he could hear the tramp of orc boots in the distance, and with that imagined sound came understanding. "That is why you shun the Tower," he said, shooting Boromir a piercing glance.
Boromir nodded. "I thought that I would die in that noisome pit, hemmed in by stone, choked by fumes and lies. I longed for but one taste of clean air to ease my going."
"Did Saruman promise you freedom, if you betrayed the Ring?"
Another mirthless laugh was forced from him. "What did he not promise me? But it was lies... all lies. Lies so beautiful and vile that they burn like poison in my blood, even now. First the Ring, then Saruman, pouring that poison into my ears, into my heart, until I did not know myself."
"But you did not lose yourself, did not succumb to the lies. How did you withstand them?"
"Aragorn. Aragorn gave me the will to stand firm. I'll not say the strength, for there was no strength left in me, only the certainty that I saw my duty clear and the resolve not to falter in it. I had betrayed my king and my quest once. I could not do it again and live. Nor could I add to Aragorn's torment by letting him see me shaken.
"At the last... at the last, I may have cried out to him. Begged for his mercy. I am not certain. But he was not there to hear it, and I think he would not have blamed me for my weakness. I did not betray him or the Ring, even when Saruman offered me my sight in exchange for that betrayal..."
"He what?!" Faramir hissed.
"He offered to heal my wounds and restore my sight, if I told him where to find the Ring."
A murmur of pain was forced from Faramir's lips. "'Tis no wonder such a lie haunts you! Beautiful and vile, indeed! Does Aragorn know what sacrifice you made?"
"Aye. He made the same choice, before it fell to me. He is a king, Faramir, a true king, and he could do no less. Would you have him betray his people for me?"
Faramir shook his head in wonder. "Nay."
"I'll not pretend it was easy. Sometimes, I deem, hope is the most exquisite torture of them all. Even when it is a lie." Boromir lifted his head again, letting the sun fall upon his face. It seemed to Faramir as though he were weeping, though no tears wet his cheeks. "I will never be free of the memory, though I run all the length of Middle-earth to escape it. The bite of harsh stone in my flesh, the stench of torches, the foul caress of the wizard's voice, and the vision... the vision of white walls soaring above me, gleaming in the sunlight, beckoning me home." He swallowed convulsively and whispered, "It is an agony I will carry within me all my days."
"Are you so certain it was a lie?" Faramir ventured.
"And you trust his judgement?" Boromir nodded wordlessly. "Then so must I, though it grieves me to stand by so helplessly."
"There is naught to be done, Faramir, but to learn to bear it as best I may. If you love me, you will do the same."
"I will try."
Something approaching a smile touched Boromir's lips then faded as quickly as it had come. Faramir immediately sensed that he had exhausted his reserves of strength and courage on this matter, and needed to move on to less charged subjects. Shifting the conversation abruptly, Faramir said, "Mithrandir has told me of the destruction of Isengard, but not of your rescue. How did you escape the dungeons?"
A real smile flickered over Boromir's face. "Better to ask Merry for that tale. He relishes the telling of it, especially Uglúk's part."
Boromir shook his head, brushing away the hopeful question. "Uglúk must keep for another time. Of our escape, I remember nothing save a voice - Merry's, I believe - telling me that Aragorn was safe and well. The rest is darkness... for which I am grateful."
Boromir fell quiet, and Faramir did not press him. He knew that his brother had only touched upon the trials of his journey, but Faramir was content. With this glimpse into the fire pits of Isengard, horrible as it was, he had also glimpsed his brother again. More than glimpsed. He had found Boromir waiting for him beneath the shadows and pain and layers of protection. He had all that he had come for, and he would try his brother's patience no further.
On an impulse, Faramir stretched out his hand to clasp Boromir's arm. The other man turned toward him, a question in his face, and Faramir smiled. "Thank you, Brother."
"For what?" Boromir asked.
"You have already thanked me for that."
"But this time, you are here to stay."
Boromir smiled. His hand covered Faramir's and gripped it strongly. He opened his mouth to speak, then seemed to change his mind as a new thought occurred to him. A quizzical look came over his face. "I meant to ask you, but forgot in all the furor. Do you know the story of Gilthaethil?"
"Gilthaethil?" Faramir asked, dubiously. "Why?"
"'Tis some Elvish legend, is it not? Full of valiant deeds and melancholy?"
"Gilthaethil was an elven princess of the Second Age." Faramir pointedly drew his hand away from Boromir's clasp and planted both fists on his hips. He frowned suspiciously at his brother. "Why do you ask?"
"I was trying to remember if I had ever heard the tale, but they all run together in my mind." He gave a slight, taunting smile. "One elven princess is much like another."
Faramir snorted in disgust, and Boromir chuckled.
"Humor me, Brother. Sit with me of an evening, when the war does not press too closely upon us, and tell me the tale of Gilthaethil."
"I will tell it now, if you like."
"Nay. Elvish stories need Elvish stars overhead. And this is not the time for such indulgence."
"Under the stars, then. But pray, Boromir, why this sudden interest in what you have so often termed 'ancient rubbish'?"
"I have met some of your legends, walking under the sky of Middle-earth, and I have learned a thing or two about them. They are as far above my disdain as are the stars above my head."
"And why Gilthaethil, in particular?"
"Ah, that is for Gil."
Faramir's brows rose in surprise. "Gil? Do you mean the drudge?"
"Aye. Her proper name is Gilthaethil."
Disapproval and reluctant curiosity warred in Faramir, bringing a heavy scowl to his face that made him look astonishingly like his brother. "Do you cherish some vain hope that she is a wandering elf? Or the lost scion of a noble house?"
Boromir laughed. "Nay, I simply want to know the legend."
Faramir glowered at him for a moment, then demanded, "What do you mean to do with the drudge?"
"Do with her?" Boromir's surprise turned to sardonic humor. "Why, set her up as Queen of Gondor, of course. Once I have usurped Aragorn's throne, I will need a suitable partner for my reign."
"I do not find that funny."
"Do not trouble yourself, Brother. I do not mean to do anything with Gil. I like her. That is all."
"Why do you like her? What has a low-born, illiterate, nameless servant in her to earn your liking?"
Boromir pondered his question carefully, his brow knit in thought. Finally, he answered, "She is honest and blunt and practical, with no cunning in her. And not a shred of pity."
Faramir accepted this in perplexed silence. He could not approve Boromir's growing attachment to such a one as Gil, but he had been forcibly shown, more than once today, that he must not judge his brother by outward appearance. Perhaps she was merely a side-effect of his current isolation from his peers and his struggle to regain his place among them. Perhaps she would drop back into obscurity, when he established himself as Steward. Or perhaps their friendship was deeper than reason could explain, and Faramir would simply have to suffer with it. Whatever the truth, he would have to wait and see. He did not have the strength to broach another tender subject, on this day of revelations.
Boromir seemed to hear his thoughts. He reached out a hand towards his brother and, when Faramir clasped it, said, "Get you back to the Tower and our waiting lords. Deal with them as you will. I am not yet ready to brave that thick air again, so soon."
"Peace, Brother. We have both said enough for this day."
"When Aragorn returns..."
"You will have to choose upon which side to throw your weight. Until then, do as you promised. Wait, watch, and consider. I ask nothing more."
Faramir gave his hand a squeezed and turned to leave.
"Send Merry to me!" Boromir called.
He nodded, then remembered that such a gesture was wasted on his brother. "I will." With that, he walked silently away.
*** *** ***
Elenard watched as the rider spurred his lathered horse through camp. The pounding of hooves and the sharp challenge of the pickets had roused him from an uneasy sleep and jerked him upright to search the night with wide, troubled eyes. Dawn had not yet touched the sky, and in the dying light of the campfires, Elenard could not make out the device on the rider's surcote, but he could not doubt from whence the man had ridden in such haste. The great, swift horse between his knees and the leather tube, with its pendant seals, slung across his back marked him clearly as an errand-rider of Gondor.
An errand-rider, pursuing the army through the night 'til his horse nearly foundered, carrying dispatches to the Lord Elfstone. To Elenard's overwrought mind, it could mean only one thing. Hirluin had betrayed him. He had not escaped, after all.
He stared after the retreating figure until it was lost to sight in the darkness, then he lay back on his pallet and fixed his blank gaze on the featureless sky above him. His ears strained to catch any untoward sound from the camp - angry voice, tramping feet, anything that might herald the approach of grey-clad men with stern faces and implacable eyes.
It did not occur to him to run. The Shadow Steward might call him traitor, but he was no coward and no deserter. When the Rangers came for him, they would find him with his comrades in arms, preparing for war, as befit a soldier of Morthond.
Aragorn paced the floor of his tent in a restless circle, his eyes downcast, his hands clasped behind his back. He could feel the others watching him, waiting, their concern washing over him in palpable waves. Imrahil and Éomer, his most valiant generals. Legolas and Gimli, his most loyal companions. And Halbarad, his faithful, grey shadow. They had all come to learn the news from Minas Tirith and offer their lord what support and counsel they might.
Aragorn continued to pace, while Legolas read the dispatch, holding the parchment where Gimli could see it. The dwarf gave a grunt of anger and his hand tightened on the haft of his axe, as his eyes scanned the neatly-penned lines.
Imrahil cast him a frowning glance. "What news, my lord?"
Halting his steps, Aragorn turned stormy eyes on the Prince. "Boromir warns me of a possible threat to my life."
Only Legolas and Gimli, who were privy to the full contents of Boromir's letter, did not react to this. Imrahil and Éomer exclaimed in protest, while Halbarad scowled furiously and crossed to the tent opening. He twitched the canvas open, peering out, as if to reassure himself that no assassin lurked outside.
"Two men tried to assassinate the Steward last night. It seems one of them escaped to the army and marches with us."
Imrahil's face was pale and strained in the candlelight. "The Steward? Who would dare raise a hand against Gondor's Steward?"
Aragorn's lips tightened in anger. "Soldiers of Morthond."
The Prince cursed softly. "And Boromir? How fares my kinsman?"
Legolas answered, "He writes that he is well and took no serious hurt." A smile lightened the elf's eyes for a moment, as he added, "Merry came to his rescue, and they captured one of his attackers."
Gimli twitched the paper from Legolas' hands to study it more closely. "By his account, the villain spouts much of the same nonsense we heard in the camp ere we marched. Superstition and fear, twisted into treasonous lies!"
"Aye," Aragorn said, "It seems I should have paid more heed to those night whispers."
Éomer stepped quickly forward, his face clouded with anger and concern. "My lord, what shall we do? We cannot take this traitor with us into battle, nor can we leave Boromir unaided..."
"We can, and we must. Boromir puts me on my guard, so that no plot will take me unawares, but he neither asks nor expects that I turn back! Do but consider, Éomer. All of this," he flicked his fingers at the parchment in Gimli's hands, "comes to naught, if Sauron defeats us. We must march against him and draw him from his Black Gates, though only a handful of staunch warriors go with us."
"'Tis not a widespread treason," Halbarad asserted. "The Dúnedain would have heard the rumblings among the soldiery."
"I heard rumblings enough," Legolas said, with deceptive mildness.
"Against our King? And you did not bring word to me?"
"I brought word to the King."
"The loose talk in the camp was all against Boromir, not against me," Aragorn said. "I deemed him capable of handling any problem that arose, and clearly, he has done just that. He assures me that the city is secure, the people unaware of the threat to their Steward, and the threat itself of no account."
"But what of you?" Éomer cried. "The assassin is now concealed in your army!"
Aragorn thought for a moment, then shrugged. "There is little likelihood that he will move against me. If he does, we will be ready for him."
"If it is the Men of Morthond who harbor this traitor, I say we place the burden of finding him upon Duinhir! Let him lance the boil on his own backs..."
"Peace, Éomer." Aragorn turned to Imrahil and said, "You know Duinhir well, do you not?"
"Aye, lord. Think you Duinhir is party to this vile act? I cannot credit it."
"I know not, but I agree with Éomer. The Lord of Morthond has much to answer for. Bring him to me when we make camp this night, and I will get to the truth of it. And now, my lords, we must prepare to march. Get you to your tents."
Both Imrahil and Éomer turned to leave, but Halbarad hung back.
"By your leave, Aragorn, I will send my Rangers through the army and glean what news I may. They can pass silent and unseen, and the men will say in their presence what they will never reveal to their own officers."
"And I will double your escort on the march."
"As you will, Halbarad. I leave it in your hands."
The Ranger ducked out of the tent, leaving Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli together. No one moved or spoke until the voices of the sentries had died to silence and Halbarad's footsteps had faded into the camp. Then Legolas stirred. Taking the parchment from Gimli, he rolled it neatly and slipped it into its leather tube.
"You will not tell them the rest?" he asked.
"I will not."
"I find myself loath to believe that any of those present tonight would act against you."
Gimli growled, "Those closest to you, Boromir said. Who, besides ourselves, is closer to the King than those three Men?"
Aragorn began pacing again. "I wish that Boromir had been more plain."
"And risk having that dispatch read by every pair of eyes in this tent?" Legolas' brows rose in surprise. "He is too wise a general for that. He told you all he could, I warrant, and as he says, he has no proof of treason, only rumor and supposition. You would not condemn a man for that."
"Nay. I understand why he gives me no more than a veiled warning, but still I wish for more. I would have just one person - just one traitor - that I could lay my hands on!" He held out his hands, fingers curled to grab and crush, and snarled, "I vow that someone will pay for this!"
Legolas shot a wintry smile at Gimli and murmured, "Our King needs a sword in his hand an a battle to fight."
"Aye," the dwarf said, "we'll find one, soon enough."
Aragorn dropped his hands. The rage in his eyes cooled to his usual grave thoughtfulness. "Until we find our enemy, we must be cautious. We three alone know of Boromir's suspicions, and so it must stay."
"And if Imrahil or Halbarad is plotting against the Steward?"
Aragorn smiled at Gimli. "I notice you did not include Éomer in that list."
Gimli gave a snort of laughter. "Éomer would no sooner harm Boromir than you or I would. Methinks, when you do find your traitor, you will be hard put to it to keep the King of the Mark from hacking him to bits!"
The Ranger's smile widened. "I may let him do it. Come, 'tis time to rouse the hobbit and arm ourselves for the march."
"You did not answer Gimli's question," Legolas pointed out.
"What would you have me say? I need all my allies beside me now, so long as they have courage enough to raise their swords against the Enemy. When the fighting is done, then will the poisons hatch out and the treasons be revealed. Then, if I still live to breathe the sweet air of Middle-earth, will I punish those who dare to harm my friend."
The trumpets tumbled Elenard from his bed and brought him to his feet. Dawn paled the sky, and all about him, the camp stirred. Obedient to the familiar horn calls, he hurried to break camp and pack his gear, but all the while, his eyes scanned the mass of soldiers around him.
He saw nothing to alarm him - no guardsmen in black and silver livery, no grey-clad Rangers with drawn swords. His own officers moved casually among the men, spurring them to greater speed and calling their orders above the din. Elenard saw only one stranger in their midst. A single figure strolled between the camfires, seeming bent on his own business yet in no hurry. He drew near to Elenard's fire, and the archer got a good look at him. For a startled moment, Elenard thought he recognized the stranger, but the other man's eyes passed indifferently over his face, and he continued on his way without pause.
A long breath of relief escaped Elenard, as he turned his head away and bent to his task. It seemed, against all hope, that fate smiled upon him still. He was not found out. He was not bound for the dungeons of Minas Tirith, but for war. He would be granted the chance to die a soldier's death, after all.
Shouldering his pack and slinging his weapons, Elenard fell into place in the long column of men. The trumpets sang out a familiar summons, and, with his head lifted proudly and a smile lingering upon his lips, he began to march.
*** *** ***
"You are thoughtful, my lord, and more silent than is your wont."
The soft voice drew Faramir out of his reverie and turned his gaze to the face of the woman seated beside him. She sat in a blaze of fresh sunshine that turned her hair to liquid light and added a flush of color to her pale cheeks. Against the verdure of the garden, she shone like a polished blade, beautiful and fell. Each time he looked upon the Lady Éowyn, Faramir was struck afresh by her beauty and her sadness.
"Forgive me, lady." He lifted her hand and brushed his lips against it. "In your company, I should be ever merry."
"What weighs upon you?" she asked.
He felt the sorrow that her beloved voice had banished fall upon him again, and he answered, abruptly, "My brother."
Éowyn regarded him gravely, neither sympathy nor condemnation in her gaze. "You shared something of your doubts with me, enough that I know you fear for him and for your people."
"Aye, but I was not thinking of Gondor, just now." He turned his eyes away from her chill beauty, unable to bear it with a heart so full of anguish. "Only of Boromir. I grieve for him."
A heavy silence followed his words, broken when Éowyn said, in a quiet, firm voice, "It is not my place to instruct you in your duty to brother or land, my lord, but I must speak."
"Instruct me as you will, lady. I would hear aught you have to say to me."
"It is merely this. The Lord Boromir is a man of honor. You will not hear me speak ill of him or admit any doubt of his fitness to rule Gondor in the King's stead."
Faramir eyed her in wonder, moved by her words but more by the eager light in her eyes, which he had never seen there before. "You can speak thus of my brother? As little as you know him?"
"I do not know your brother's mind, but I know his mettle. He is all honor, all duty, and all greatness of heart. I watched him rise from a sickbed that nearly claimed his life, to follow his king into the very storms of Mordor. I rode into that storm at his side, together with the holbytla, and I watched him forfeit the solace of Merry's company, rather than allow the young one to break his sworn oath to Théoden King. Neither wished to part from the other, and it meant greater peril for both, but honor and duty demanded it. The holbytla, not versed in our ways, would have cast aside his vow for love of his lord, but Boromir would not hear of it. Because of Boromir, Merry stood with me upon the Pelennor fields, and together, we slew the Witch King."
"Boromir rode away from the battle, leaving a maiden and a halfling to fight alone? That is not like my brother."
"He forfeited his chance for renown upon the field, to bring his sword and his wisdom home to Mundberg and those who most needed them. His ways are not mine. I could not ride away from battle as he did, and yet I know that what he did was meet and wise and wholly honorable. And I esteem him greatly for it."
Faramir sat in silence, weighing her words. Éowyn did not intrude upon his thoughts, but left him alone with them.
At last, he lifted his head and turned his eyes again upon her. "I thank you for your candor, lady. You give me much to consider."
"If you would hear more of Lord Boromir, more that touches upon his heart, speak to the holbytla. They have trodden all the paths from Imladris together, and the love between them is steadfast."
"I have done so. Merry is as eloquent in defense of my brother as you are in his praise."
Again, Faramir fell into private thought. In remembering all that had been said to him since Boromir's return, he now realized that no member of the Fellowship, no person of worth or valor who had journeyed with Boromir would speak against him - not the loyal halfling, not Elf, Dwarf or Wizard, not Éowyn, and not Aragorn himself. Aragorn had passed through the flame and agony of Orthanc at Boromir's side, and now he placed his birthright in Boromir's hands without hesitation.
"Aragorn has chosen him," Faramir mused.
"Aye, and who will gainsay the King?"
"I was prepared to do so. But now..."
He hesitated, and Éowyn prompted, gently, "Now, my lord?"
"Now I know something of what befell them, and I begin to understand. I begin to see through my brother's eyes, a little."
Éowyn almost smiled, the closest he had ever seen her come to it. "An odd choice of words, lord."
"But apt. His is not a pleasant view of the world, nor without pain, and I cannot say that I am comfortable with it."
"Do any of us look upon the world without pain, in this hour of doom?"
Faramir shook his head and, unconsciously, let his eyes stray to the east.
"When the King returns, all will be healed," Éowyn murmured, echoing his silent hope.
Faramir looked at her and felt the her beauty pierce him afresh. "There was something Merry said to me," he murmured, "about Aragorn bringing me back from the Shadow. 'Twas the King's voice called me back, but it was you, lady, who brought true healing to my heart."
Éowyn bowed her head and turned her face away from his intent gaze. "His voice called me back, as well, but I have not yet found true healing."
"That will come with time and with hope, I trust." He fell quiet again, thinking, then murmured, "True healing cannot be rushed. It needs time."
A sudden, brilliant smile lit his face, and he clasped Éowyn's hand, lifting it to his lips in a fervent salute. "I thank you, lady! You have instructed me better than you know!"
Éowyn made no move to withdraw her hand from his. "I will be satisfied to have lightened your heart, my lord."
"You have." He kissed her hand again and smiled into her solemn eyes. "Even in this darkest hour, you have given me hope."
*** *** ***
The seventh day after the Armies of the West had marched from Minas Tirith dawned, cold and drear. All eyes in the city turned to the east, wondering into what peril her lords, her captains and her valiant soldiers had marched, and all hearts were darkened. Some eyed the shadow knowingly, measured the leagues that separated the Tower of Guard from her ancient foe, and cried, "Surely they have reached the Black Gates by now! Surely word will come today!" Others, measuring that same distance, shook their heads sagely and said, "Surely they cannot have marched so far so soon. There is time, yet. All is not lost."
The sun slowly climbed the sky. A feeling of anticipation and dread grew in the people of Minas Tirith, and though they told each other that this was a day like all that had gone before, the fear began to weigh upon them, until all traffic in the city came to a halt. People stood about the streets or on the walls, gazing eastward, straining to catch some glint of light on helms and lances, though they knew the army had passed far beyond their sight. Their doom hung heavily upon them.
Even as the sun reached its zenith, the wind abruptly died and the very air seemed poised in readiness. A taut, expectant silence fell upon the land. Every eye was fixed upon the Mountains of Shadow in the distance, and every voiced was stilled.
Into the dread stillness came a low, ominous rumbling. A vast mountain of black smoke rose into the sky, spreading from the east to blot out the sun, its dark mass shot through with lightning and tongues of flame. And as every heart in Gondor quailed, every throat stopped its breath, it seemed as though the city shuddered upon her lofty seat. The walls trembled. The Tower shook. Then with a sigh, Minas Tirith breathed again.
Throughout the city, men and women gazed up in wonder. For out of the terrible darkness, a cold wind blew, and upon the breast of the wind came a wingéd shape, flying straight from the heart of the Shadow. It was a great Eagle, its wings as vast and powerful as the mountains that bred it. As it circled above the city, it cried out in a voice of gladness,
Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor,
Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard,
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
And the Tree that was withered shall be renewed,
Sing all ye people!*
Elenard heard the Eagle's voice, as it flew westward above the battlefield. He stood among the fallen, his reddened sword hanging limp at his side, and stared up at the messenger of victory. A wild triumph filled him, and he lifted the weapon, shaking it and crying out his joy. But even as the sound left his lips, he knew a sudden, cold horror. He had gambled all on the certainty that he would die honorably, fighting the great Enemy, and thus atone for the necessary evil he had done. But The Armies of the West had victory, the King would march back to Minas Tirith and his Shadow Steward, and Elenard must march with him. To death of a different kind. Dropping to his knees upon the field, Elenard bowed his head and wept for shame.
Hirluin heard its voice in his dark cell beneath the Tower of Guard. He huddled at the locked door, listening to the distant, piercing music, and smiled through his tears. It made no difference to his fate that Lord Elfstone had defeated the Enemy. He was doomed, regardless. But when he thought of the cool forests and sweet meadows of his home, and of his own children running free beneath an untainted sky, safe from the slavery and blight of Mordor, he wept for joy.
Faramir heard its voice where he stood with Éowyn upon the walls of the city. His heart swelled with a gladness too deep for words. Tears wet his cheeks. His eyes shone with the light of Nimloth the Fair at the world's first dawn. And beside him stood the White Lady of Rohan, her hand in his, her pale hair mingled with his upon the wind. As the Eagle swept above them, its shadow falling across their faces, Faramir turned to Éowyn and, in full view of the rejoicing city, kissed her brow.
Merry heard its voice and drew close to Boromir's side. They stood in the Court of the Fountain, where they had waited all the morning, and listened to the song of victory in silence. When the Eagle had done, Merry let out his breath in a sigh and turned tear-bright eyes upon his friend. Boromir neither moved nor spoke, but Merry saw that his entire frame trembled with the force of the emotion that filled him.
The hobbit slipped his hand into the man's and turned his eyes to the east again, to the roiling darkness that marked the end of Sauron's power.
"He did it," Merry said. "He destroyed the Ring."
"The quest did not fail."
With a swiftness that startled the hobbit, Boromir dropped to a crouch beside him and pulled Merry into a fierce embrace. Merry clung to him, tears starting in his eyes, and felt a sudden, enormous happiness that, of all the creatures in Middle-earth, it was this man who was with him at the moment of victory.
"The Ring is gone," Boromir murmured.
Merry laughed for sheer delight. "And the King is coming home!"
To be continued...
* From The Return of the King, p. 298