Chapter 14: To the Day's Rising
A golden Summer lay upon the fields of Gondor, as the Steward rode from the city gates to answer the summons of his King. Merry, swordthain of Éomer King, rode with him, as did a company of men at arms and a train of carts, laden with goods for the army camped about Cair Andros. Fedranth, grey stallion of Rohan, carried both Man and Halfling to this celebration of victory, as he had carried them both to war, and Merry rejoiced to be mounted on his back again in the company of his friend.
Aragorn's letter had removed the last of their cares, for he had assured them that all whom they loved had come through the battle alive, and those who had suffered some hurt were mending in the King's care. Only one shadow still darkened Merry's joy - the unanswered question of Faramir's choice.
This was none of Merry's business, and he had not spoken of it to either brother since his talk with Faramir in the Houses of Healing. But now Boromir rode out of Minas Tirith, leaving his Stewardship to his brother's care, and Merry, who allowed no consideration to come before Boromir's welfare in his mind, could not be easy with this decision. Merry had watched Boromir lay the white rod of office in his brother's hands and had held his tongue. Now, as they rode away from the gates, he turned in the saddle to gaze at the tall, princely figure standing just outside the walls - so like his brother and so unlike - with all the nobility of Gondor gathered at his back, and the hobbit felt a twinge of worry.
Turning away from the troubling sight, Merry asked Boromir, in a low voice, "Was it wise to hand your birthright to your brother that way?"
"It was Aragorn's command," Boromir answered, calmly, "and my wish."
"He has not made a public choice to support you against Imrahil and..."
The hobbit glanced around to be sure none of their escort had overheard him, then he shrugged. "Surely the Guard all know of... of your kinsman's part in the conspiracy."
"Mayhap they do, but I'll thank you not to blazon it about, all the same." His hand clasped Merry's shoulder in understanding, and his voice lost its sharp edge. "Be easy, little one. Faramir will not usurp my office. Whatever his final choice, he will serve as Steward in all honor and give me back what is mine when I return. You need have no fears on that head."
Merry gave this due consideration and finally decided that Boromir was right. Faramir was not a man to steal his brother's place through subterfuge and treachery. If he decided to claim the Stewardship for himself, he would do it openly, before King and council, and only because he felt it was right.
With his mind relieved of cares, if only for a time, Merry's spirits soared. They had not yet ridden beyond sight of the city, when the hobbit's high, clear voice was lifted in song, mingling with the deeper notes of the Men who rode and sang about them. There was a festival mood about the company, though they went as soldiers, armed for war, and their laughter rang out as brightly as any trumpet call.
Only Boromir rode in silence, his face stern and unsmiling. Merry wondered at this, but he did not intrude on Boromir's thoughts to demand an explanation. The Man had been strangely moody and unpredictable since the messenger had come from Ithilien, bidding them to join the King. Some new trouble had fallen upon him that made him one moment alive with gladness and the next brooding and silent. Merry had thought him unwilling to leave Minas Tirith in Faramir's keeping, but clearly, that was not the problem. Whatever it was, it grew heavier upon him the closer they drew to Ithilien and Aragorn.
They came at midday to Osgiliath, where a ship waited at the quay, among the sad ruins of that once-great city. Merry looked about him in wonder at the shattered bridges and broken, empty streets. He could see the ghost of the city as it once had been, and he grieved for the desolation that it now was. They boarded the ship and weighed anchor, riding swiftly away from Osgiliath upon the breast of Anduin the Great.
Oar and sail brought them ere nightfall to Cair Andros. On the north bank of the River, directly across from the island, lay a wide, green field, glowing richly in the dying light, with tents and banners and men in shining mail all about it. As they sailed round the shoulder of Cair Andros and into sight from the far shore, a trumpet call rang out, and a great stirring was seen among the host. The ship turned for the northern shore and slid up to the quay to be met by a guard of honor - soldiers of Minas Tirith clad in black and silver, with winged helms upon their heads and the White Tree of Gondor upon their breasts.
Merry stepped from the ship into a world of color and pageantry such as he had never seen before. Everywhere were the trappings of an army, but not the army at war that Merry had known. Here all was gladness, glittering ceremony, lances wound about with garlands of flowers and the scarred faces of veterans alight with merriment. Heralds cried out upon their coming, and their escort marched them to the field above where waited the Armies of the West.
The magnificence of the scene overwhelmed Merry. He had not known that Men could look so warlike, so terrible, and so joyous all at once. He drew in closer to Boromir's side, into the shelter of his presence, and eyed the array of great men before him in awe.
Merry recognized the standards of Dol Amroth and Rohan among the blaze of color that fluttered above the field, along with dozens of others that had fought on the Pelennor before the gates of Minas Tirith. At the center of the field, lifting bravely upon the sweet-scented wind, was the great standard of King Elessar. And beneath it, his head bare, his gleaming mail shrouded in a sable and silver cloak, stood the King himself, smiling a welcome.
Their honor guard fell back as they approached Aragorn, and Merry led Boromir across the open space alone, his knees shaking at his own temerity. Then his gaze met Aragorn's and the fear left him. This might be the King of Gondor, but it was also Strider, Ranger of the North, his friend and guide. Aragorn's lordly mien softened with affection as he looked upon the hobbit, and he stepped forward to meet the new arrivals.
"My Lord Steward and Master Swordthain, I bid you welcome."
To Merry's utter astonishment, Boromir dropped to one knee before Aragorn and bent his head. "My King."
"Nay, do not." Aragorn clasped his arms and drew him to his feet again. "I do not wear the crown of Gondor yet."
Aragorn's grip on Boromir's arms tightened, and a smile of such warmth lit his eyes that it startled Merry even more than Boromir's obeisance. Of a sudden, acting on the same impulse, the two men moved together and embraced.
"How fare you, Boromir?" Aragorn asked, his voice trembling with laughter.
Boromir hesitated for the space of a breath, then answered, dryly, "Well enough! And you?"
The laughter burst merrily from Aragorn's lips. He stepped away from Boromir but still gripped his arms strongly, as though loath to break the contact between them. "The Shadow is fallen and our Fellowship is made whole again! How can I be aught but well?"
Boromir's smile faltered. "Frodo and Sam?"
"They sleep and heal. You need have no fears for them."
"Then all is indeed well."
Aragorn at last released his friend, and as if it were a signal of sorts, the crowd about them erupted in noise and activity. Friends and noblemen surged forward. Aragorn dropped to one knee to embrace Merry, and before he had time to gain his feet again, Pippin was upon them in a flurry of black velvet, silver mail and bubbling enthusiasm. Hard on Pippin's heels came Legolas, Gimli and an oddly mellow Gandalf. All was gladness and welcome. In this green and smiling place, with his companions about him and the music of laughter in the air, Merry felt the long months of darkness slipping away from him, like the memory of a bad dream.
From his camp upon the wooded hillside, Elenard watched the arrival of the Steward on the field below. The Armies of the West were spread along the River, some of them camped on Cair Andros or the southern bank, some of them farther back from the water in the woods of Ithilien. When the archers of Morthond were placed so close to the main camp, within sight of the generals' pavilions upon the field, they had accepted this as a tribute to their bravery in battle and a sign that the new King valued Morthond as he should. Only Elenard, with his festering suspicions and guilt, doubted that the Lord Elfstone was offering them a compliment by keeping them so close.
The grey-clad Dúnedain haunted the camp. They spoke pleasantly to the soldiers, sitting round their fires of an evening and reminiscing about the long years of war that had plagued Gondor, but it seemed to Elenard that they listened more than they talked. These Rangers had an uncomfortable way of looking at one, with eyes that saw more than they should, and they asked seeming-innocent questions that loosened men's tongues. Elenard did not like them, and he did not trust their sudden interest in the Men of Morthond. They were Lord Elfstone's eyes and ears about the campfires and another warning sign to Elenard that the King knew from whence the threat to his Steward had come.
Now the Shadow Steward himself was among the armies, bringing with him the one creature in Middle-earth, besides the unfortunate Hirluin, who could label Elenard an assassin. The halfling. The halfling had seen his face, even crossed swords with him. The halfling could bear witness against him and condemn him to a traitor's death.
Elenard's eyes dwelt intently on the tiny figure who walked at the Steward's side, and his fists clenched in helpless fury. He knew a moment's impulse to draw his bow and put an arrow through the creature's throat, thus avenging himself in some measure and giving him a brief time of safety in which to breathe easy. But the impulse passed as quickly as it had come and his anger faded.
The halfling had thwarted his attempt on the Steward's life, but he had done it in all innocence, out of love for his lord. Elenard could not blame him for that. Nor could he wantonly slay a guiltless creature to protect his own skin. Assassin and traitor he might be, but he was not devoid of honor. He had turned his sword against the son of Denethor in the firm belief that he did what was right and necessary, and because, in his grieved heart, he believed that the blind man's presence on the battlefield had caused the deaths of the Lord Duinhir's sons.
Now victory over the Nameless One had robbed him of any chance to retrieve his honor. No one would believe that Boromir of Gondor was a curse visited upon his own people. No one would hold him accountable for the slaughter of valiant men on the Pelennor Fields or the spread of fear and darkness through Minas Tirith. No one would believe that Elenard had acted on his conscience and his duty, when he tried to kill the Shadow Steward.
Crouching by his fire and staring morosely down at the distant figures of King and Steward, Elenard pondered his fate at the hands of those two men. They would execute him as a traitor, and that was a bitter end for an old soldier. If he had less pride, less loyalty to his liege lord and the crown of Gondor, he would feel the shame of it less. But then, he would not be here, waiting for the sword to fall upon his neck. He would run, vanish into the lush forests of Ithilien and from thence into the trackless Wilderland, where a man of courage and resource could live without King or Lord, city or stone walls. He would barter his honor for his life.
Elenard's face was drawn and grim, as he finally rose to his feet and stretched the stiffness from his limbs. His gaze dwelt on the ranks of officers and soldiers upon the field, their lances, mail and helms bravely catching the last rays of the setting sun, and there was a longing in his eyes, a sorrow that only made his features look harsher in contrast. He bent to lift his weapons from the grass, slung his bow over one shoulder, and turned his back on the panoply below. With heavy steps, he began climbing the hill.
*** *** ***
"What say you now, my friend?" Aragorn leaned forward to reach the wineskin that lay near Gimli's feet and shot a look full of humor and some sympathy at Boromir. "We have dwelt at great length upon the battle, the valor of the armies, Pippin's encounter with the troll and the natural beauties of Ithilien. Have we left out anything of importance?"
Boromir smiled slightly at his bantering tone but said nothing. He sat on a camp stool, near to the fire, his elbows resting on his knees and an empty flagon in his hands. All the rest of the Fellowship, save Frodo and Sam who still slept in Aragorn's tent, were grouped around the fire with the two Men. They sat on stools or on the grass, sipping wine, smoking pipes, and gazing up at the bejeweled sky as they talked.
The warmth and camaraderie of this time together was very different than what they had shared the night before the armies marched. There was no melancholy in it, no imminent parting to darken their hearts, no Shadow looming ahead of them. They knew a peace and a contentment that was strange to the warriors among them. But not all their battles were won, and Aragorn was not ready to hang up his sword just yet.
"I have allowed you to draw us out and distract us with your questions, but my patience has its limits," Aragorn said. "It is my turn to ask and yours to answer."
Still Boromir said nothing.
"Boromir." The other man responded to the note of command in Aragorn's voice and turned to look at him. Aragorn reached over to fill Boromir's cup and said, more quietly, "I have not forgotten the warnings you gave in your dispatch. Nor did I miss the coldness with which you greeted Imrahil. What can you tell me of this conspiracy? What threat do we face upon our return to Minas Tirith?"
"You face none."
Aragorn gave soft snort of disgust. "What threatens my Steward threatens me. Do you think I will stand aside and allow the nobility of Gondor to order my Kingship as they please?"
"What if they are right, Aragorn?"
"I will decide. I will choose the partners of my rule, and I will stand behind those I choose." Aragorn eyed Boromir thoughtfully, wondering what had spawned this doubt in him. There was more to this than political maneuvering among his rivals. Keeping his voice level and mild, Aragorn said, "Now tell me what it is you are trying so steadfastly to avoid."
Boromir sighed. He rolled the cup distractedly between his palms, his shrouded gaze fixed on it and his face drawn with weariness. "I wanted to discuss this with you alone. It is ugly talk for a gathering of friends."
"Where better to speak of treachery than among those you trust?"
"There is no proof of treachery. It is all rumors and whispers."
Gimli brought his fist down on his knee with a thump and said, angrily, "'Twas rumors and whispers that nearly cost you your life, Boromir!"
"Aye, and would you have me do the same to another guiltless man?"
Gandalf pulled his pipe from his mouth and said, his voice gruff but kind, "We will not judge any man on whispers. We know the difference between suspicion and knowledge, between rumor and fact. You can speak to us without fear."
An expectant silence met these words, as all eyes fixed on Boromir, waiting. The man hesitated, still uncertain, then he turned in Aragorn's direction and said, harshly, "If the whispers speak true, those we love best would betray us."
Aragorn felt a chill dread gather in his innards. "Go on."
"Imrahil has approached my brother and asked him to take my place as Steward of Gondor."
Pippin gave an audible gasp. "No! The Lord Faramir would not do such a thing!"
"Yes, he would," Merry murmured.
Aragorn shot the halfling a piercing glance, then turned his gaze back to Boromir. "What says Faramir?"
"He has not yet made his choice."
"It is not his choice to make. Does he forget that Gondor has a King?"
Boromir shook his head. "I do not believe that my brother will ever act against the King's commands. Imrahil and his allies do not seek to remove me by violence, but to persuade me that I must step aside in Faramir's favor, and Faramir is to be their mouthpiece. If I am persuaded, they are certain that you, too, will be persuaded."
"Ah. I begin to see." Aragorn frowned at him in deepening concern. If Faramir were pressing him to renounce his Stewardship, then Aragorn could well understand the new doubt that plagued him. Of all the Men in Middle-earth, only Aragorn himself would be more difficult for Boromir to withstand than his beloved brother. "How fortunate that I am not so easily swayed."
"Do not underestimate them, Aragorn. You may yet meet with an argument you cannot dismiss. Or a messenger."
Legolas sat forward, his eyes gleaming with intelligence in the firelight. "Of what messenger do you speak, Boromir? Who is to betray Aragorn?"
Boromir hesitated, and the dread within Aragorn congealed into certainty. He knew what name he would hear before it rose to Boromir's lips, but still it struck him a vicious blow. "Halbarad."
The elf's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Halbarad..." he hissed.
"How do you know this?" Aragorn asked, and his voice sounded alien in his own ears - harsh and full of cold rage.
Boromir answered, "I do not know it. I have only my brother's word that Halbarad is involved."
"Then it may be a mistake. Or Halbarad's part may be as innocent as Faramir's."
"They may all be innocent, Aragorn. You cannot call a man traitor, because he disagrees with the King's policy."
"You can call him traitor when he incites others to murder!" Gimli retorted. "Only consider. Who in all this vast army would be better able to spread fear and discord than a Ranger? They move at will throughout the camps, welcomed as the companions of Lord Elfstone, and what they say is believed by the common soldiery."
"No man would dare spread slanders against my Steward in my name!" Aragorn snapped.
"He need not use your name. He need not even let them know him for a Ranger. How difficult would Halbarad find it to change his cloak, shroud his face, and slip unchallenged through the ranks of weary, frightened soldiers with deadly lies upon his lips?"
Boromir opened his mouth to protest, but Gandalf forestalled him. "Will you condemn a man on whispers, Gimli, son of Glóin?"
It was Legolas who answered him. "I will pass judgement on no Man, and I am as loath as Aragorn to think ill of one of his kindred - a man so close in blood and love to our King. But I will tell you this much, and you may make of it what you will. I have not been easy in Halbarad's company since we marched from Minas Tirith. There is something in him that unsettles me, and I mislike the way he speaks of Aragorn - as if the King of Gondor belongs to him, and we loyal companions who have fought at Aragorn's side even before the Black Gate have no part in his victory, no claim on his affection and no right to call him friend. There is a shadow upon him, Aragorn. It grows darker when all else around us grows light. I do not trust him."
"It is always best to heed the warnings of an elf," Gimli interjected, sagely.
"Thank you for that wisdom, Master Dwarf," Gandalf said, his tone infinitely dry. His gaze swept the troubled, angry faces of his friends and came last to Aragorn, where it lingered. "It is best to heed an elf's warnings, when you have one handy to advise you. But even our long-eyed Legolas cannot tell you if Halbarad has betrayed you. That you must judge for yourself, and not on the strength of rumors."
Aragorn held the wizard's eyes for a long moment, trying in vain to read Gandalf's thoughts and glean some hint as to how best to proceed in this crisis. But the old, bearded face was as inscrutable as always and the keen eyes full of nothing but sympathy. With a sigh, Aragorn turned his gaze to the fire.
Anger, hurt, resentment - these emotions and more warred in his breast. Boromir's news came as no surprise to him, but anticipation did not soften the blow or help him accept it more readily. Like Legolas, Aragorn had sensed something amiss in his lieutenant. But unlike Legolas, Aragorn had been aware of it almost since the arrival of the Dúnedain in Edoras. Since he had told Halbarad of his trials in the dungeons of Isengard. Since Aragorn himself had planted the seeds of it with his warm words of praise for a man whom Halbarad had always despised for his parentage and now feared as a rival.
Aragorn felt a familiar pain gather about his heart, as he pondered yet again the heavy burdens of a king. Once again, his quest to free Middle-earth and claim his birthright had brought those he loved into deadly peril. He could not abandon that quest or relinquish his birthright, but neither could he deny that Halbarad, like Boromir before him, was suffering for his devotion to Isildur's Heir. Had he remained Strider, Ranger of the North, and left Gondor to her Steward's able care, how much might he have spared these men?
Shaking his head to banish such fruitless imaginings, Aragorn looked up to find Pippin's eyes fixed on him. Under that pleading gaze, he realized that Pippin was looking to him, to his friend Strider, to sort out this mess so that no one he cared about was hurt in the process. Pippin still believed in him, and the hobbit's simple faith must not be broken.
Aragorn came to an abrupt decision. "We will learn the truth of this from Imrahil. He it was who approached Faramir, so he must know something more of those involved. Pippin, get you down to my tent and..."
He broke off in surprise, as a grey-clad figure suddenly appeared at the edge of the firelight. None save Legolas had heard the Ranger's tread on the soft turf, so his coming had the effect of a wizard's trick, and even Aragorn was startled by it.
The Ranger nodded an informal salute to his captain and said, "Duinhir of Morthond would speak with you, lord. I told him you were resting this night and did not wish to be disturbed, but he is adamant."
"Let him come," Aragorn answered promptly, "and send word to Prince Imrahil that I have need of him."
The man nodded again and vanished into the night as soundlessly as he had come. Aragorn rose and moved around the fire to greet the Lord of Morthond with due courtesy. Unlike the silent Ranger, Duinhir heralded his approach by the jingle of mail and the creak of leather, and Aragorn was not surprised to see half a dozen men with him. The old lord strode into the circle of firelight, tall and proud, with his hand on the pommel of his sword and the leaping hart of Morthond blazoned on his breast, but with something akin to fear in his eyes. He halted well back from Aragorn and bowed stiffly.
"My Lord. I beg your pardon for intruding, but this will not keep 'til morning."
"You do not intrude, my Lord Duinhir." Aragorn's eyes moved to the escort at his back, and the smooth words of greeting on the tip of his tongue died. "How can I serve you?" he asked, simply.
"'Tis I who wish to serve my King, and I hope, in so doing, to wipe clean the name of Morthond." Gesturing sharply at the men behind him, he said, "You laid a task upon me, lord. It is done."
The escort parted, and out of their ranks stepped two men - an officer and a prisoner. The prisoner came forward willingly, obedient to the officer's hand on his arm, though his own hands were bound behind him and his face was set in harsh, resolute lines. He wore the brown leather and light mail of Morthond's archers, with the leaping hart badge on his shoulder, and he carried his large frame with the easy assurance of a veteran soldier. The officer thrust his prisoner to his knees before Aragorn.
"This man is your escaped assassin, Lord Elfstone," Duinhir ground out savagely. He motioned to another man who handed him a naked sword. Holding the sword out to Aragorn across his palms, he said, "I surrender him to your justice and ask only that you look upon Morthond as your loyal ally in this, and in all things."
Aragorn accepted the sword, his eyes fixed on the kneeling man. "How did you find him?" he asked Duinhir.
"He came forward and admitted his guilt." A murmur of surprise ran around the listening Fellowship at this. "There can be no doubt that it is he who planned and carried out the assault on the Steward's person. Details of place, time and action he gave me, all in accordance with your knowledge of it."
"I will hear it from him," Aragorn said.
A movement behind him drew his attention, and he turned in time to see Legolas placing his stool within reach. He nodded his thanks and sat down upon it, unconsciously falling into his most regal and awe-inspiring pose with the prisoner's sword across his knees. The rest of the Fellowship ranged themselves behind and to either side of him, creating the instant impression of a formal audience. Boromir stood to his right, with Merry close beside him, and Aragorn could not resist a quick, searching look at his face to read his reaction. His Steward looked as impassive as he hoped he looked himself.
Turning cold eyes on the kneeling man, Aragorn asked, "Who are you?"
"Elenard of Morthond, my lord."
"Elenard of Morthond, did you seek to murder the Steward of Gondor?"
"Aye." Elenard's gaze shifted to Boromir, and he seemed to divine that the blind man wanted to hear more of his voice. Obligingly, he went on, "The night before we marched, I and my companion found the Steward in a garden, somewhere in the upper part of the city. He was alone - unguarded, we thought - and ripe for the killing. We attempted it and failed. That little creature, there," he nodded in Merry's direction, "tripped us up."
Before any of the great men present could speak, Merry leapt forward from his place at Boromir's side, his face suffused with anger and his eyes blazing. "You coward! I know you! You're the villain who wouldn't fight me! Well, I've got a proper sword now, and I'll teach you to murder my friends! Only let him loose, Aragorn, and give him his weapon..."
"Peace, Merry." Aragorn's low command stilled the hobbit's outburst and sent him back to his place, but the fire of vengeance still burned hot in Merry's eyes. "Boromir? Is it he?"
"Then there can be no doubt. You are a foul traitor, Elenard, and you disgrace the proud name of your homeland."
Elenard bowed his head and waited in silence.
"Your life is forfeit. There can be no pardon for your crime, and I will make no empty promise of mercy. But if you would die with some semblance of honor or make amends for the evil you have done, I will give you that chance."
"I do not expect mercy," Elenard growled, and for the first time, Aragorn heard a note of defiance in his voice, "but even you cannot strip my honor from me. I am loyal to my liege lord and to the crown of Gondor! I am no traitor!"
"Who rules Gondor in the absence of her King?" Aragorn demanded, his own anger rising dangerously. "To whom do you owe your allegiance, if not to that man? You cannot raise your sword against Gondor's Steward and call yourself loyal to Gondor's crown! For what you have done, I would gladly slay you with my own hands, and were I not a king with a duty to my people that demands sober justice, even for the likes of you, you would not leave this place alive!"
His impassioned words rang into silence, and none about him dared to break it, so heavily did his rage hang in the air. Elenard kept his eyes downcast and his shoulders bent, all defiance gone from his bearing. Duinhir's men shifted uncomfortably, their eyes seeking the safety of the night beyond the fire, shying away from the unmoved, unforgiving faces of those ranged behind the King.
Aragorn stared down at the traitor's bent head and reminded himself that this man was but a tool, a dupe of the Enemy. He had surrendered himself to his liege lord, knowing that it would cost him his life, rather than flee in ignominy, and it was Aragorn's duty to treat him fairly. Justice before vengeance. Duty before all things.
"Who acted with you in this?" he asked, coldly in control once more.
Elenard hesitated for only a moment. "Hirluin, also of Blackroot Vale."
"That is the man we hold in Minas Tirith," Boromir said.
Aragorn acknowledge this with a nod but did not take his eyes from Elenard. "Were there others?"
"Nay, my lord."
"None who helped you plan your treachery or conceal it upon your return?"
"Very well, I will accept that answer for the present. Now Elenard, I give you one chance to justify what you have done."
"What would you have me say?" the soldier asked.
"Tell me why you sought to murder my friend."
The soft menace in Aragorn's voice made Elenard flinch, but his composure held, and he answered stoutly enough, "I did what I deemed right, to drive the Enemy from the city and give our armies some hope of victory." He hesitated, then added, gruffly, "And to avenge my young lords."
"Your lords?" Aragorn looked to Duinhir and saw shocked grief in his face. The old lord turned quickly away to conceal his emotion.
"The sons of Duinhir perished before the gates of Minas Tirith, when the Shadow Steward rode among us," Elenard growled.
"Did Boromir slay your lords?"
"'Twas the orcs of Mordor who slew them, but 'twas his presence upon the field that sealed their doom! They would not have died, had he stayed within the city walls, his sword sheathed and his ill-omened face hidden, as befits the broken and useless remains of a soldier!" A low murmur of anger went up from those listening, but Elenard ignored them. For the first time, he spoke directly to Boromir, and it seemed to Aragorn as though the two men were alone, locked in a contest of wills that had nothing to do with the rest of them. "How could you, a veteran of many wars, bring such a curse upon us? How could you cast your darkness over us at such a time?"
"What would you have done in my place?" Boromir demanded. "Would you have kept your sword sheathed and your face hidden, while the orc host poured through the city gates? I fear no curse, Elenard. I bear no blame for your lords' death. But if I had let the White City fall to the Enemy and had lifted no hand to protect her, then would I indeed be a curse upon my people!"
"Aye. You drove the orcs back from the gates. But what of the omens? What of the signs?"
"What of them? Sauron is fallen, Minas Tirith is free, and I live. What sign do you read in this?"
"The King defeated the Nameless One. The Lord Elfstone, come out of legend to save us from the Shadow. Not you, son of Denethor."
Boromir shrugged. "True. But neither did I plunge Gondor into darkness nor defeat the Armies of the West by walking among them. As curses go, I seem to be rather pitiful."
Elenard's answer was lost in the stir of Imrahil's arrival. The Prince strode up to the fire, followed closely by his escort, a single Ranger who moved soundlessly in his wake. As the two men stepped into the light, Aragorn saw that the Ranger was Halbarad. The King eyed him warily, not sure whether to be glad or annoyed that his lieutenant had taken it upon himself to join the informal council in progress, but he made no comment.
Imrahil halted abruptly some paces away from Aragorn and the kneeling prisoner, and his eyes darted about the group in surprise. "You sent for me, my lord?"
"Aye. Thank you for joining us so promptly."
Imrahil nodded, a frown contracting his brow as he looked at the bound man. "Who is this?"
"Our missing assassin." Imrahil's frown turned thunderous, and he started forward, his mouth open to speak, but Aragorn halted him with a raised hand. "I cry you patience, Imrahil. When I have dealt with this man, I will tell you why I have summoned you here."
Imrahil subsided, falling back to stand with Halbarad. Aragorn privately noted the way the two men drew together in the tense atmosphere. Turning to Elenard, he said, "It is clear that you have been an unwitting tool of other, more subtle minds in this, and I can even find it in me to pity you."
"All the armies know that the coming of the Shadow Steward portends defeat and darkness! Ask any soldier around any campfire, and you will hear the same!"
"I know I will, for you have all paid heed to the same whispers. Now pay heed to me, Elenard of Morthond. Am I not the Lord Elfstone, come out of legend to save you from the Shadow?"
"Then give ear to me and believe what I say. There is no such omen, no such old soldier's tale. This false portent was spread among you to feed upon your fears and overmaster your reason. It is a lie, Elenard. No more. Because you believed it, you have forfeited your honor, befouled your good name, and condemned yourself to a traitor's end."
Elenard licked his lips nervously and shot a furtive glance at Boromir. "Mayhap... mayhap I have doubted... since our victory before the Black Gates."
"Is that why you surrendered yourself to Lord Duinhir?"
The man hesitated, then gave a twitch of his head that passed for a nod.
Aragorn leaned forward on his stool. "Look at me." Elenard reluctantly lifted his gaze to meet the King's, and Aragorn stared deeply into his eyes, searching for some hint of falsehood or concealment. "Who fed you this lie?" he asked, softly.
Elenard shook his head. "No one. I know not!"
"Do not hope to deceive me, Elenard. Tell me who whispered this poison in your ears."
"I heard it all through the camp. From the night after the battle, when the story went round about the young lords' deaths and the Steward's ride from the gates... It was on every soldier's lips!"
Aragorn held his eyes for another moment, then sat back with a sigh. He gazed thoughtfully at the prisoner, then he glanced up at the crowd of pale, strained faces regarding him. Duinhir and his men looked particularly shaken. "One question more. Did you see any stranger in your camp that night, or at any time before we marched from Minas Tirith?"
"Aye." Elenard frowned at him in confusion. "Many. We were among an army of comrades-in-arms. Men of Anfalas, Ethir, Lamedon... all moved freely among the tents and stopped to talk with friends."
"Any who wore devices unknown to you? Or whose presence you questioned?"
"Not that I remember, my lord."
"Very well." Rising from his stool, Aragorn handed Elenard's sword to Pippin and stepped around the fire. He approached Duinhir with his hand outstretched. The Lord of Morthond returned his handclasp gratefully. "You have done me great service, Duinhir, and I thank you, but I have one more task to lay upon your shoulders."
"I will gladly serve you in any way open to me."
"Talk to your men. Find out who first brought the tale of the Shadow Steward to them and trace it to its source. Ask also the lords of neighboring lands, whose borders march with yours and whose men walk freely through your camp. I do not believe that you and yours have spawned this foul treachery, but it was among your archers that it came to light, and so we must begin our search with them."
"I will do aught I can to unearth your traitors, my lord."
"I know you will. And now, return to your tents with my thanks and leave this wretch to me."
Duinhir bowed and turned to leave, his men falling in behind him. As their footsteps faded into the night, the scene around the fire visibly relaxed. Legolas and Gimli moved to flank the prisoner, their hands resting casually on their weapons and a certain calm alertness in their manner. Pippin carefully laid Elenard's sword upon the grass, then he found his wine cup and an empty stool and sat down to watch the others in comfort. Gandalf, too, took a seat, but he did not so far forget the serious business still ahead of them as to rekindle his pipe.
Boromir would have withdrawn from the fire and found himself a shadowed place in which to wait, but Imrahil forestalled him by laying a hand on his arm and asking, "Is it true, Boromir? Is the assassin caught and the treachery unmasked?"
"The traitor's weapon is unmasked, if not the traitor himself," Aragorn said, more sharply than he had intended.
Imrahil turned swiftly from Boromir to Aragorn. "What mean you, my lord?"
Aragorn ignored his question. Coming back around the fire, he approached the prisoner, and for the first time, there was no anger in him as he looked upon the bound man.
Gesturing toward Imrahil, he asked, mildly, "Do you know who this man is, Elenard?"
"'Tis the Prince of Dol Amroth, my lord. Many's the time we've fought alongside the standard of the Swan Ship." The archer bobbed his head in a small bow to Imrahil. "My Lord Prince."
Imrahil frowned down at him without acknowledging the courtesy.
"Have you ever had speech with the Prince?"
"Have you ever seen him in Morthond's camp, talking to any of your comrades?"
"Nay, lord. Until tonight, I'd never seen him but on the battlefield, and that from half a league off."
"What folly is this?" the Prince demanded.
"Patience, Imrahil. I am nearly done." He shifted his gaze from the Prince to the silent Ranger, who stayed well back at the edge of the firelight. "Come closer, Halbarad."
Halbarad moved like a shadow upon the grass, drawing into the light and up to Aragorn's side. His face was smooth and untroubled, his eyes full of naught but curiosity as he gazed at Elenard.
"Do you know this man?" Aragorn asked the prisoner.
"Aye, 'tis one of your Rangers, my lord."
"Have you ever seen him in your camp?"
"Many a time."
"Throughout the march on the Black Land. The Rangers haunted our camp - looking for me, so I thought - and he was one who came often."
"And before we left Minas Tirith?"
Elenard regarded the still face thoughtfully, then shrugged. "Mayhap. I do not remember."
Halbarad showed no reaction, but Imrahil was growing angry. Color stained his cheeks, and his eyes snapped, as he said, "Are we now to stand examination by a traitor? I ask you again, my King, what means this?!"
"It is well you remember who I am!" Aragorn retorted, letting some of his own anger flare up. "Be careful what names you throw about, Prince Imrahil, lest they come home to roost! Elenard, you will go with this Elf and this Dwarf, who will deliver you to your jailers. You will remain under close guard until we reach Minas Tirith, where I will decide your fate. You will speak to no one without leave, and you will make no attempt to escape, or you will be slain out of hand. Do you understand me?"
"Aye, my lord."
"Good. Legolas, Gimli, take him to Éomer. I deem he will be safe and well guarded among the Men of Rohan."
Gimli gave a snort of laughter. "Not if Éomer gets wind of who he is!"
"You will tell Éomer, from me, that I trust he will deliver my prisoner to me in the Tower of Guard, unscathed. And tell him that it is because I trust him so implicitly that I place this burden upon him. Get him up, Legolas."
Legolas grasped Elenard by the arm and hoisted him easily to his feet. The archer bowed to Aragorn and, after a moment's hesitation, to Boromir and Imrahil. Elf and Dwarf caught his arms and marched him away from the fire, Gimli tossing a last, threatening glare at Halbarad over his shoulder as he went.
Aragorn tore his eyes away from the retreating figures to find Boromir standing close beside him. The King's gaze dwelt on his Steward's face for a moment, reading the strain and weariness there, and Aragorn felt a sudden desire to spare the other man any more conflict, at least for this one night. He had not realized, until he saw the pain etched into those familiar features, just how deeply it wounded Boromir to be the cause of such upheaval and the object of such disdain.
"You need not stay for this, Boromir," Aragorn said. "You and Merry have traveled far today and should take some rest."
Boromir smiled mirthlessly, making his features look even more drawn. "I'd like to hear what my kinsman has to say." He held out one hand toward Merry, who was never more than a pace or two from his side, and the halfling stepped quickly up to him. "Are you tired, Merry? Mayhap you and Pippin would like some time to yourselves."
"No." Merry slipped his small hand into Boromir's large one. "I want to hear this, too."
"So do we all," Gandalf interjected, gruffly. "You have much to explain, Dol Amroth."
Imrahil looked from face to face, seeing only implacable eyes and hardened features, with little sympathy visible anywhere. His own cheeks were unnaturally pale, for understanding had done away with his outrage. "You have spoken to Faramir," he said at last, his voice full of sorrow.
Boromir answered, "He has told me of your conspiracy."
Imrahil's head reared back proudly, and his posture stiffened. "Conspiracy? That is a foul word for a lawful alliance of men in a just cause."
"Call it what you will, the end is the same. You seek to wrest my birthright from me and bestow it upon my brother, against the rights of blood and the wishes of your King."
"I will do nothing against the wishes of my King, but it is my right and my duty, as his loyal vassal, to air my concerns to him in such a matter. If my words bear no weight with him, then so be it. I will bow to him in this, as in all things. But I will not stand idly by and make no move to influence his choice in something that touches so nearly the welfare of all Gondor!"
Aragorn fixed the Prince with a steady, neutral gaze that he knew well could be as unnerving as open rage. "That is a fine speech, Imrahil, but it does not answer the question of treason."
"What treason?" Aragorn could see the bewilderment under his affronted pride. "What have I done, except speak with a trusted kinsman about his brother's welfare?"
"I know not. What else have you done?"
Imrahil shifted his stance uncomfortably, but he held Aragorn's gaze without flinching. "If you spoke to Faramir, then you know all my part in this."
"I will ask you directly, Prince Imrahil, and I require a direct answer. Did you spread rumors among the armies of the south to incite the men to violence against Boromir?"
Imrahil's eyes widened in dismay. "I did not."
"Did you have speech with any man who suggested such an action or boasted of having done it?"
"I did not! Ye gods, Aragorn, what do you take me for?! Boromir is my kinsman! Think you I would raise a hand to harm him, or allow another to do so?"
"You would deprive him of his birthright."
"To protect him! To spare him the horrors his father suffered!" Turning to Boromir, he stretched out a hand and half pleaded, "You know that I would never do such a thing, Boromir! You cannot believe it!"
"I do not wish to believe it," Boromir answered, his voice low and rough with emotion, "but nothing has been as I would wish it since my return. I came home to lay my sword and my life before Gondor, as her devoted son, to find that she does not know me."
Imrahil's face paled and his mouth tightened. He dropped his hand to hang limply at his side. "I swear to you both, on my honor, that I did not do this vile thing."
Aragorn held his eyes for a moment, reading the sincerity in them, then nodded shortly. "I will hear your concerns about my Steward, when I hold council in Minas Tirith. Until then, I look to you to support him in all duty and honor. Remember, my Lord Prince, that I do not yet wear the crown of Eärnur. I am not yet your King. It is to Boromir, Steward of Gondor, that you owe your fealty."
"I have not forgotten."
"That is well."
"Make I take my leave now, Lord Aragorn?"
"Tell me one thing more. Who is in this... alliance with you?" Aragorn saw Imrahil hesitate and read the suspicion in his face. "I hold you guiltless of treason, Imrahil, as do I all who stand with you and act in good faith. But violence has been done against one I value as I do myself. I cannot let it go unpunished."
"You have your assassin."
"You know as well as I that Elenard was merely the tool of other, more clever men. It may be that I will find those others among your confederates. It may be that I will not. But I must begin looking somewhere."
Imrahil considered his words for another moment, then he finally nodded acceptance. He gave Aragorn several names, representing many of Gondor's noble houses and a fair number of her more distant allies, including Lord Taleris and Faramir. When he had done, he cast a burning look at Halbarad and said, "'Twas your own kinsman who first approached me and urged me to seek out Faramir."
Aragorn did not look at his second in command as he spoke, for he was unsure of his own strength at such a moment and would not lose control in front of Imrahil. Keeping his eyes firmly on the Prince, he said, "I thank you for your help."
Imrahil gave him a stiff bow. "I sincerely hope that you find the man responsible for this outrage." Turning to Boromir, he added, "And I hope that you understand my reasons for what I do, Boromir. Like you, I want only to protect my homeland."
"We'll not debate it now," Boromir answered, quietly.
"Nay, we will not. I bid you all a good night." With another stilted bow that encompassed all the remaining members of the Fellowship, he spun on his heel and strode proudly into the darkness beyond the fire.
Almost before the Prince had moved beyond hearing, Gandalf was on his feet. He smiled own at Pippin, his eyes twinkling with their usual wry humor, and said, "Come, Master Took. Let us find a grassy bank on which to prop our tired backs and smoke a pipe together."
Pippin climbed off his stool and slapped at his pockets. "I've left my pouch in the tent."
"Then we shall stop and get it, if you have any Longbottom Leaf to share with an old friend." The wizard shepherded the hobbit toward the edge of their firelit clearing, casting Aragorn a sober, understanding look as he went. "Merry? Boromir? Will you join us?"
Boromir ruffled Merry's hair in an unconscious gesture of affection and said, "I'll to Rohan's camp. Éomer will have a patch of ground for me to sleep on, and I've a mind to pass the night with the Rohirrim. What of you, Merry?"
"I'll go with you," said Merry. "The King offered me a place at his table and a warm bed in his tent, if I want them."
"Come then, Master Swordthain."
With murmured farewells to Aragorn, the four companions quickly departed. Aragorn was both grateful and perturbed to see them go. He did not want any of them to witness what was to come, but he felt the lack of their support and restraint. He kept his gaze fixed on the night shadows that had swallowed them, while he struggled to make sense of his own conflicting emotions and find the words to address his kinsman.
Behind him, Halbarad stirred and spoke, his voice utterly calm. "I must see to the changing of the sentries."
"Nay, do not go!" Aragorn turned abruptly and saw that Halbarad had not moved. His eyes met Aragorn's straightly, gravely, and though his hand rested upon his sword hilt, there was no threat in the gesture. It was the poised and ready stance he always used when awaiting his captain's orders. Aragorn stared back at him, making no attempt to hide his distress.
This was Halbarad who stood so composedly before him. This was a man he knew almost as well as he knew himself - a man who had fought and suffered beside him through countless years of exile, who had supported him through the darkest moments of his life and never wavered in his loyalty. They were kin. They shared a common destiny and an uncommon love. When a shadow fell upon one, the other felt it. And now, when most they should rejoice in that bond of affection, they were unaccountably wounded by it.
That his beloved kinsman might have betrayed him was a torture to Aragorn. And that Halbarad's love for his king might have been the motivation for that betrayal made it all the more bitter for Aragorn to swallow. It was true that the Ranger had done nothing yet to warrant the name of traitor, so far as Aragorn knew, but his part in this league against Boromir proved him capable of a pettiness and jealousy that Aragorn found appalling. Even if Halbarad proved innocent of any wrongdoing, Aragorn would never again be able to look upon him with the same trust and unreserved love.
Halbarad must have read the conflict in his eyes, and certainly, he knew how to anticipate Aragorn's thoughts by now. A small, wry smile disturbed the perfect dignity of his face, without touching his wintry eyes. "You would question me, as well? Where was I at such a time? With whom did I speak?"
"I must." Aragorn's voice sounded strangely flat in his own ears. "I must know where you stand, Halbarad."
"I stand with you, as I always have. If you can doubt that, then you are not the man I have followed across the length and breadth of Middle-earth."
"One of us has changed. That much is clear." Of a sudden, the bitterness and pain welled up in Aragorn, shattering his control and forcing a tormented question from him. "How could you betray me thus, Halbarad? Why?"
Halbarad's face hardened into a furious mask, and his eyes blazed. "Have you forgotten whose son he is? Have you forgotten the insults, the disdain, the contempt you suffered at his father's hands?"
"Boromir is not his father!"
"He was raised by him! Petted and doted upon and encouraged in his vile ambitions by him! How can you look in his face and not see the pride of Denethor writ large there? Remember Thorongil and do not trust the son of Denethor!"
"I remember, Halbarad. More than all the rest, I remember the bitterness you felt, when Denethor's hostility made it meet for Thorongil to leave Gondor. But I told you then, as I tell you now, the time was not ripe for my coming. It was better that I leave Minas Tirith to her rightful lord and wait until I could win my crown openly, upon the field of battle, defeating our common enemy. I followed Gandalf's counsel and have never regretted it."
"Aye." Halbarad's hand tightened around his sword hilt, as he battled his seething anger. "You value Gandalf's counsel above all others."
"Will you tell me now that you do not trust Gandalf?"
"I will remind you that it was Gandalf himself who first cautioned you against Boromir."
"You are mistaken."
"He told you that Boromir was too much his father's son to be swayed by the teachings of the Wise. Has not Gandalf always looked to Faramir for the weal of Gondor? By his own reckoning, Faramir is a man of wisdom, compassion and sound judgement, where Boromir is a man of pride, ambition and selfish disdain!"
"Gandalf has since changed his mind. But you... you know nothing of Boromir! Nothing of what he has suffered and overcome to earn his place at my side."
"I know that you have allowed pity to cloud your judgement."
An anger as great and heedless as any Halbarad felt rose to choke Aragorn. Bitterness, hurt, sorrow - all were burnt away in the heat of that anger. But unlike Halbarad, he did not rage and storm. He became very still, his face as hard as adamant and his voice low and dangerous. Only his eyes still lived in his cold face. They glittered fiercely in the firelight, and for a terrible moment, Aragorn wished that he could flay the other man with his gaze alone, peeling away flesh and fabric to bare his soul and read his guilt.
"You forget yourself, Halbarad."
The Ranger flinched slightly, recognizing the peril in that soft voice, but he held his ground. "I will never forget what I owe the Heir of Isildur. I will serve you until my dying breath, whether you accept my service or no, and I will fight with the last ounce of my strength to protect you!"
"If you have roused loyal vassals of Gondor to violence against their Steward, you are a traitor, but you will not meet a traitor's end."
Doubt flickered in Halbarad's eyes. "What mean you?"
Aragorn took a step closer to him, bringing with him the silent menace of his anger. "You will not die with Elenard and Hirluin. You will not make it to the execution ground. If I find that you tried to murder Boromir, I will kill you with my own hands."
Halbarad swallowed, and so thick was the tension in the air that the sound seemed painfully loud. "And if I did not?"
"Then you are no traitor." He did not elaborate, for he did not know what more he could offer his kinsman. The words between them were too raw, too bitter, and the possibility of betrayal too real for any warmer gesture.
"Will you believe anything I say to you? Or has your love for Denethor's son poisoned you irrevocably against me?"
Aragorn felt his face tighten, and he saw the new fear in Halbarad's eyes. "Speak the truth, and I will know it."
"I did not set Elenard on to murder," the Ranger said, a belligerent note in his voice that he could not control. "I spoke no word to any man with that intent, nor did I wish the lawful ruler of Gondor dead. All that I have done and will do is for your weal. I want nothing more than to bring you safely to your crown and to see Gondor rest easy in your hands."
Aragorn watched his face intently as he spoke, and he knew that Halbarad was telling the truth. He did not fail to notice the careful wording of his statement, nor could he help wondering what other, less palatable truths lay behind those precise phrases, but he held his tongue. He had no proof that Halbarad was hiding something from him and no reason to suspect him beyond his own doubts. For tonight, his bald truths, however unsatisfactory, would have to stand.
"What say you, Aragorn?" his kinsman asked. "Have I given you the truth?"
"You have." Aragorn turned away from him, suddenly too weary to bear the touch of his gaze any longer. The next words stuck in his throat, but he forced them out. "I thank you."
Halbarad said nothing for a long moment, and Aragorn could feel his good sense warring with his injured pride, pulling him first one way then another. At last, sense triumphed, and the Ranger spoke in a level tone that betrayed none of his emotion. "I will see to the sentries. And since you deem that the archer is not your true enemy, that some traitor yet walks free among us, I will strengthen the guard upon your tent."
"There is no need. I am safe enough."
"No harm must befall our King." He executed a slight, stilted bow that Aragorn acknowledged with a nod, then he turned on his heel and strode crisply away.
Aragorn sank down on the nearest stool and buried his face in his hands. He remained thus, unmoving, for and endless, silent time, while he marshaled his strength and strove to master himself. Finally, he lifted his head. The flickering light revealed a face at rest, calm and untroubled, with only the heaviness of his eyes to betray what this peace had cost him. He got easily to his feet, brushed the cloak back from his shoulders, and walked into the night.
*** *** ***
Frodo sat at the great table, with Sam on his right, Gandalf on his left, and a feast fit for a king spread before him. The King himself presided over the joyous gathering, though his chair was no loftier and his garments no richer than those of others in the throng. To look upon Aragorn's face was to look upon the very greatest of Men. More than once, Frodo caught himself staring at the lordly figure in black and silver, with the circlet upon his brow and the green elf stone gleaming at his throat, wondering where his old friend Strider had gone.
All that long and wondrous day, Frodo had felt as though he were caught in someone else's dream. Familiar faces crowded about him, but they were full of a strange light and lined with a new wisdom, and they gazed at him as though he were some princeling out of legend, not Frodo Baggins of the Shire. Songs filled the air, praising the deeds of warriors, heroes, and kings. His own name fell from the minstrel's lips more often than any other, but still Frodo could not listen to the music and think of his own dark journey. He enjoyed the songs as he would the lays of the Elves - for their stirring beauty and far-off tales of valor - without any feeling that he was part of them.
Beside him, Sam drank it all in with wide, awestruck eyes and a rather embarrassed smile on his face. Dear Sam. The one piece of reality in all this bright, fantastic dream. When he looked at Sam, Frodo felt solid and whole again. When he looked away for long, the eerie lightness came upon him again, as if he were Galadriel's phial, drained of flesh and blood and filled to the brim with clear starlight.
He did not mind the sensation. It was made of gladness, of the blessed absence of pain, and of relief from a terrible burden that he had borne so long he no longer remembered a time when he did not suffer beneath it. Now, at last, it was gone. And with its passing came this lightness, this emptiness that could only be filled with light. Or with pain, if pain should come to him again.
Here, on this green field, surrounded by an outpouring of joy, Frodo could not dwell on the possibility of yet more pain. But the knowledge that it could return to him was never far from his thoughts. The space left in him by the Ring's destruction was born of pain, fashioned for it, a haven for it that would, inevitably, be filled again.
Frodo applauded the singer, accepted another helping of food and tossed a laughing remark at Pippin, who was standing at Aragorn's elbow with a flagon of wine. It all felt very easy and delightful. And Frodo allowed himself to accept it as it came, for the time being at least, without fear or questions. He was among friends, with no shadows to darken his heart.
His eyes moved around the near end of the table, taking in all the Fellowship who sat close about him. Only one face among the group wore no smile, and Frodo could not help turning to gaze at that familiar, yet altered face more often than any other. Boromir sat at Aragorn's right hand, but he did not seem comfortable there. He neither smiled nor laughed, he ate and drank almost nothing, and when no one engaged him in conversation, he seemed to draw in on himself, as though he wished he could disappear.
At first, Boromir's presence had made Frodo very uncomfortable. He could not forget how they had parted on Amon Hen. Frodo knew - none better - how the Ring could warp the minds and wills of those who stayed too long in its presence or listened too closely to its whispers, and he did not blame Boromir for his actions. But he could not be easy in the Man's company, especially when he did not know how the loss of the Ring and the war that followed had affected him.
But as the day wore on and he had more time to watch Boromir, Frodo's nervousness passed. For one thing, Boromir stayed scrupulously away from him. He stood behind Aragorn through the formal ceremonies of the day, just as he sat beside him now, but whenever possible he kept in the background, leaving Frodo in peace to enjoy himself without worrying about Boromir's state of mind, and giving the hobbit ample time to observe him.
The more he observed, the more convinced he became that Boromir was not the same man who had attacked him on Amon Hen. It was not just the black fabric bound across his eyes - horrifying to Frodo at first, now a source of sadness - but his whole demeanor that had altered. Had Frodo looked upon him with less discernment, he might have feared that the Shadow still held sway over Boromir, so dark and withdrawn did he seem, but Frodo was not deceived. He knew pain when he saw it. And he suspected that he knew the source of that pain.
He was sitting at the table, gazing thoughtfully at Boromir, when Sam stirred restlessly beside him and made a disgruntled noise in his throat. Frodo turned to him, his eyebrows raised in question.
"Is something the matter, Sam?"
Sam cast a darkling look toward the head of the table. "Like a great, black crow he is. Sitting there scowling. He puts me off my dinner."
"Master Boromir. The Steward, I should say. I don't like the look of him, Mr. Frodo, and so I shall tell Strider if he asks me. Which he won't."
Frodo smiled slightly. "No, he won't, and I don't think you should tell him anything of the kind. There's nothing wrong with Boromir, Sam, any more than with me or with you. We've all walked a bit too far on dark roads, and some of us have forgotten how the sunlight feels. But we'll remember." His eyes lingered on Boromir's face, and he repeated, softly, "We'll remember."
Sam grunted again. "All I can say is he'd better not come next or nigh you, or he'll have me to deal with."
"I'm sorry you feel that way, because I'm going to talk to him, if I get the chance."
"Now Mr. Frodo, don't you go stirring things up! Master Boromir is behaving himself nicely, for all he looks like he'd rather be off killing orcs. So just you let him be!"
Frodo couldn't help chuckling at that. "Is it me you're trying to protect or him?"
"I haven't forgotten what he did, even if you have."
"I haven't forgotten." Frodo sipped his wine and cast another glance at the silent Man. "But I understand it better, now."
Sam let that pass with no more than a snort and went back to his meal. Frodo turned his attention to Gandalf and the story he was telling Pippin, and he thought no more of Boromir while it lasted. He was not surprised when the Steward got up to leave the table early. The feast was still in progress, the minstrels still wandering the tables and pavilions, singing their songs of valor and renown, when Boromir pushed back his chair and got to his feet. Merry appeared instantly at his side, and together, they left the pavilion.
Frodo said nothing, though he watched them until the silk of the tent hid them from his view. When Merry returned alone, he was tempted to ask him where Boromir had gone, but he doubted Merry would tell him. There was a bond of affection between the hobbit and the man that Frodo had seen with some surprise and still did not fully understand. It came before Merry's duty to his sworn liege lord, Éomer, whom he left with no more than a word when Boromir needed him. And it meant that Merry would do nothing against Boromir's wishes. Boromir clearly did not want to have private speech with Frodo, and Merry clearly would not tell Frodo where to find him. So, Frodo would have to go looking on his own, when the time was right.
Slowly, the revelers drifted from their tables beneath the pavilions to seats upon the grass, under the open sky of Ithilien. Wineskins and flagons were passed about. The minstrels were plied with drink and urged to start their songs anew. Talk flowed as merrily as the wine, and many was the voice lifted to join the more practiced music of the minstrels.
Frodo let Sam lead him to where the rest of the Fellowship had gathered. He sat with the other hobbits, listening to Gandalf, who was unusually expansive today, telling of the glory days of Moria when the Dwarrowdelf shone with the light of many torches and rang with the music of many hammers. Gimli did not seem to think that the old wizard did his forebears justice and frequently interrupted him with some more eloquent description, which earned gentle laughter from Legolas and an acid retort from Gandalf that he, who had walked the halls of Moria at their height, was better suited to tell the tale than Gimli, son of Glóin.
Only when the others were deeply engrossed in their talk and paying little heed to him did Frodo slip away. He did not want to worry them, and he did not want Sam to follow out of a misguided desire to protect him. But at last, Sam was nodding over his cup, a happy smile on his face, and Frodo could make good his escape.
He did not have to go far to find his quarry. The King's pavilion was pitched near the northern verge of the field, where the smooth turf rose to meet the boles of the first trees. Among those trees, seated against a wide trunk, his body still and his face more peaceful than Frodo had yet seen it, was Boromir.
Frodo approached the Man where he sat alone on the grass and halted a few paces from him. He waited for a brief moment, to see if Boromir was aware of him, then cleared his throat politely. Boromir's head came around with a start, his face suddenly wary.
"May I join you?" Frodo asked.
Boromir stiffened, and he seemed to withdraw from the hobbit's quiet presence as if from an open flame. "Frodo!"
"I want to talk to you."
The man looked around for help that was not forthcoming, then he shrugged and tried to smile. It came out badly awry. "They are singing about you. Would you not rather sit with the others and listen?"
"No." Frodo sat down, cross-legged, beside him, without waiting for his leave. For a long moment neither spoke, while the strains of the minstrel's song washed over them. Then Frodo said, very softly, "You have been avoiding me."
"Surely that was for the best." The man hesitated, then added, with an attempt at humor, "Did not your faithful Sam warn you against me?"
"Of course he did. But Sam... Sam does not really understand."
Boromir cast him a swift, keen look that made Frodo forget, just for a moment, about the cloth bound across his eyes and the months of darkness that had passed since their last meeting. "Understand what?"
"That it is too late to protect me." A wistful smile touched Frodo's lips and sounded in his soft voice. "The damage is already done."
The fierce intelligence left Boromir's face, and he seemed to draw in on himself. He was once again the brooding figure that Frodo had watched throughout the day, wrapped in sorrow and regret, bowed beneath the weight of his pain. "Aye, the damage is done and cannot be undone. That is why I have tried to avoid you." He turned his head away from Frodo's steady gaze. "This is your time, Frodo. Your triumph. You should enjoy it, without ugly reminders of the past to darken it."
"You are not an ugly reminder of anything to me, Boromir. You are - or you once were - my friend. Is that gone, now that the Ring is gone?" He saw Boromir flinch at his mention of the Ring, and his eyes grew sad. He understood what lay between them, or thought he did, and was afraid that no power on Middle-earth could tear down that barrier, but he had to try. "I had to destroy it."
Boromir looked surprised at his words. "I know you did. You saved us from the Enemy. You did something... something no Man could have done."
"But its passing is like a wound that never heals, a hole that cannot be filled." Frodo bowed his head, as tears pricked his eyes. "I'll feel the pain of it forever."
Boromir lifted a hand to touch him, wanting to comfort the hobbit, but changed his mind and dropped his hand again. Frodo looked up at him with sympathy and understanding in his eyes.
"I know that the Ring touched you, too, and if you can't forgive me for destroying it..."
"Forgive you? Frodo, I am the one who needs forgiveness, not you."
"No. That wasn't you. You were not to blame for what the Ring did."
"I was, and I am. I drove you away from the Fellowship, and I forced you and Sam to go alone into peril. I betrayed you, broke my vow, destroyed the Company, and nearly brought ruin on us all."
Frodo laughed. He knew it sounded strange, in light of Boromir's tortured confession, but he could not help it. Relief welled up in him, filling him with laughter that simply could not be contained. "Ruin? It was the saving of us all!"
Boromir only looked the more grim. "Aye, through the strength and courage of others."
"Had I stayed with the Fellowship, we would not be having this conversation, for there would be no victory to celebrate and no leisure to decide guilt or innocence. And had you not forced me to go, I would never have found the courage."
"It matters not how things worked out, Frodo. I still must bear the blame for what happened at Amon Hen."
Frodo gazed at the proud, handsome face, now drawn with sorrow and scarred beyond repair. He had wondered often, during the long trek into shadow, what had become of this man. He had never thought to see any of his companions again, so he had resigned himself to never knowing their fates, but his thoughts had returned ever more frequently, as the Ring's presence grew in his mind, to the one who had gone that way before him. Now he knew that Boromir had survived both the war and the poison of the Ring. The only wound yet unhealed was the guilt of his betrayal, and only Frodo could heal it.
Propping his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands, Frodo let his voice fall to a soft murmur, meant only for Boromir's ears. "Can I tell you something that no one else knows? No one but Sam?"
"If you wish it."
"Yes, I do. They're all singing songs about what I did, but they don't know that... I didn't do it. I didn't destroy the Ring, Boromir. I couldn't. When the time came to cast it into the fire, I put it on my finger instead and tried to claim it as my own. The Ring took me, and if it hadn't been for Gollum, Sauron would have it now. So you see, you're not the only one who couldn't resist it. You said I did what no Man could, but you're wrong. It was Gollum - Gollum and blind chance that destroyed the Ring, not me. If you're to blame, then so am I. If you betrayed the Fellowship, then so did I. Me, Nine-fingered Frodo! The one they're singing songs about!
"I'll tell you what I truly believe, what I always believed, even on Amon Hen when I ran away from you. I believe that none of us was strong enough to withstand the Ring. The ones who escaped it were lucky enough to get away before it took them. That's all. You and I were not so lucky, and now we have to carry the burden of what it made us do, as well as the wound of losing it, for the rest of our days. And I'll tell you something else, Boromir." The hobbit laid a hand on Boromir's arm, making him start in surprise and turn his bandaged gaze on Frodo. "That wound is punishment enough for any crime."
Boromir struggled with himself for a moment, his face hard with strain, then he murmured, "I listen for its whispers in my mind. They are gone, and I rejoice to be free of them, but still I listen. And I... miss them."
"Yes. It is a dreadful kind of loneliness, to miss something that gave so much pain when you had it near you."
"Frodo..." Again, he seemed to force the words out past some barrier in himself. "Can you really forgive me so easily?"
"There is nothing easy about it, for either of us, but yes. I forgive you."
"Because you think it was the Ring, and not I, who wronged you?"
"Because I know exactly how you felt, when you realized what you had done and knew you could not stop yourself. And because I know exactly how you feel this very minute, sitting here, listening to me tell you it wasn't your fault when your own conscience is torturing you. I don't think you need my forgiveness, Boromir, but I know why you're asking me for it. So I'll make a bargain with you. I'll forgive you for trying to steal the Ring, if you'll forgive me for throwing it in the Cracks of Doom and leaving us both to suffer for it."
"But you had no choice..."
Frodo grinned up at the perplexed warrior, seeing the slow dawning of understanding and relief in his face. "Do we have a bargain?"
Boromir gave him a rueful smile. "Aye."
"I'm glad." Frodo felt the last, lingering bit of tension drain from his body. He stretched his tired limbs and chuckled softly. "Now the Fellowship really is whole again."
"You'd best get back to your songs and tales, before they miss you."
"Won't you come with me? The Nine Walkers should be together on this, of all days, to celebrate their victory."
Boromir sat in thoughtful silence for a moment, then he suddenly smiled, and his face was transformed. He got swiftly to his feet, moving with the old energy and grace that Frodo remembered. Even his cloak seemed to swing more jauntily from his shoulders. "Very well, but you must promise to shield me from Sam's wrath. I have not my sword with me."
Frodo scrambled up, laughing. "I will."
He waited, feeling suddenly awkward and unsure what to do. Boromir stood beside him, his manner equally uncertain, and Frodo got the distinct impression that Boromir was afraid to touch him. Thrusting aside his own nervousness, Frodo slipped his hand into Boromir's and started walking. Boromir fell into step with him, but after a moment, he gently detached his hand from Frodo's clasp and placed it instead on the hobbit's head. In this way, they moved easily down the gentle slope toward the tents and revelers below.
*** *** ***
The Armies of the West marched home in triumph. When they came at last within sight of the city walls, they found Minas Tirith decked out in all her finery to greet them. Banners, flowers and lengths of bright silk, embroidered with the arms and devices of all the victorious lords, flowed from her battlements. Gaily dressed people massed along the walls and poured out of the gates - people from every land to the south and west, who had flocked to the White City to welcome their King - and they sang as they waved to the soldiers or threw flowers onto the roadway where their mailed feet would tread.
Faramir stood apart from the throng, with Húrin, Warder of the Keys, beside him and a group of liveried Guard behind. They waited, solemn amidst the riot of celebration, for the Captains who rode in the van of the army to draw near. At last they came. Aragorn, astride Roheryn, clad all in black mail girt with silver, a cloak like new snow about his shoulders and a star bound to his brow. Boromir and Merry upon Fedranth, with Éomer, Legolas and Gimli beside them. Pippin, Frodo and Sam, with Gandalf and the Prince of Dol Amroth as their escort. And thirty Men all clad in grey and silver, their faces stern yet fair to look upon - the Dúnedain of the North.
As the great army ranged itself in lines that filled the Pelennor with sharp lances and shining helms, this small company dismounted and continued forward on foot. They moved into the wide, empty space before Faramir and the ruined gates, and as they came, an awed hush fell upon the gathered host.
Faramir stepped out to meet them. In his hands he carried the white rod of Stewardship, and his tunic was of white silk that blazed in the sunlight with no device upon it. He bowed to Aragorn with deep respect, but it was Boromir whom he approached. When he reached his brother, he bowed again and held out the symbol of his office.
"Welcome, Brother. I have fulfilled your commands and kept your city against your return. I now offer you back what is yours, Steward of Gondor."
Boromir stretched out his hand, and Faramir placed the staff in it. "I thank you for your care of our people and our city." The brothers embraced, and Boromir added, so that only those closest to them heard, "And I thank you for your welcome."
When they moved apart, Boromir turned to face Aragorn and knelt before him. Holding out the staff across his palms, he said, "The last Steward of Gondor begs leave to surrender his office."
"That office is not ended," Aragorn replied, as he placed the rod firmly back in Boromir's hands and closed them about it. "Take from the hand of Gondor's King that which is yours by right of blood and worth. Take it and my undying gratitude, Boromir, son of Denethor, Steward of Gondor. Rise, and do your office."
Then, with due ceremony, was Aragorn, son of Arathorn crowned King of Gondor by the hands of those who had labored most to bring him to his throne. Boromir spoke the formal words of introduction to the people, bidding them recognize their rightful King. Faramir lifted the wingéd crown of Eärnur from its great black and silver chest, where it had rested through many generations, awaiting this moment. Frodo took the crown from Faramir's hands and bore it to where Aragorn knelt in readiness, then Gandalf the White, mightiest of wizards, wisest of the Wise, placed the crown upon Aragorn's brow.
When he rose to his feet, every voice upon the field and the city walls was stilled, and all eyes gazed in wonder at the King. It seemed to the people of Gondor as if the legends of the ancient Sea-Kings had come to life before them, and the figure that stood upon the field was no Man at all, but one of the great heroes of old, come back to lead them out of the Shadow. Then the Steward turned his blind gaze upon the King, and all those who watched thought that even he must see the light that wrapped the King about and shone from his lordly face as brightly as from the gems that adorned his crown.
Lifting his arms, Boromir cried aloud, "Behold, the King!"
At his words, every trumpet rang out from the city walls and the people burst into song. Amid the tumult, Aragorn signaled that their horses be brought and all the company mounted again. They all turned toward the gates of Minas Tirith, but they hung back, leaving the King to ride alone onto the roadway.
Aragorn urged Roheryn forward only a few paces, until the horse's hooves trod on a thick carpet of flower petals, then he halted and lifted his head to gaze up at the tower gleaming so high above him. He saw the banners snapping in the breeze, heard the trumpets ring out, and gazed at the white walls that rose so majestically from the knees of Mindolluin. A smile touched his lips, and he twisted in his saddle to look behind him.
Holding out one hand, he called, "Boromir!"
The Steward looked askance at his summons and did not move. But Merry, who sat before him in the saddle, saw the imperative gesture Aragorn gave, motioning them closer, and he obediently urged Fedranth forward. They rode to where Aragorn waited, and Fedranth sidled up beside the other horse.
Aragorn reached over to catch Boromir's arm. "Do you hear them? The trumpets?"
Boromir lifted his head, exactly as Aragorn had done, and his friend knew from the expression he wore that he was picturing the lofty towers, bright banners and soaring walls just as Aragorn now saw them.
Aragorn's fingers tightened on his arm and tears of gladness started in his eyes. "Come. They are calling us home."
And together, Steward and King rode through the gates of Minas Tirith.
To be continued...