Chapter 15: Once More Unto the Breach
The morning sun, bright with the promise of a hard-earned peace, poured its light through the windows to bathe the tower room. An enormous table dominated the space, its top thickly piled with maps, parchment, scrolls, leather tubes and well-chewed quills. Behind the table stood a large, ornate chair - not a throne, but clearly meant to signify authority. Aragorn, the man who held that authority, had abandoned his chair to pace the room, while his second-in-command lounged in the kingly seat.
Boromir leaned his elbows on the table, disarranging a pile of documents in the process and earning a look of mild reproach from his king.
"Those papers have been carefully sorted," Aragorn remarked, dryly.
Boromir nudged a pile with his elbow, then fingered the top sheet of parchment. "What is all this?"
"Lists. Dispatches. Proposals for my consideration. Reports on the condition of our defenses and allied lands."
"Rubbish," Boromir growled.
Aragorn stopped his pacing to lean in the window embrasure. He smiled slightly, his eyes warm with affection for his irascible Steward. "This coming from the man who so wanted to be King?"
"We all have our moments of folly."
"Now that you have put aside your folly, you can help your beleaguered king with his labors, instead of muddling up his desk."
Perversely, Boromir brightened at that suggestion. "That is easily done! Only fetch me a candle, and I'll clear your desk in no time..."
Aragorn chuckled. "You don't need a candle. You need a secretary to read all this rubbish to you. Then you can be of real help."
"Secretaries!" Boromir's voice dripped with scorn. "Oily voices and soft hands... Gah! I'll have no secretaries about me."
"We'll find one who isn't too unctuous."
"I'll have none of them, I tell you!"
"Perhaps a retired soldier who is lettered. Or a squire you can train to manage these things the way you like."
"You are not listening to me, Aragorn."
"You will need a squire, in any case, and if we choose one with a talent for..."
"If you send me a squire of any sort," Boromir interjected wrathfully, "I'll toss him out the nearest window!"
Aragorn gazed at him curiously, unperturbed by his flare of temper. "When did you conceive this dire hatred of squires? You were one, were you not?"
"Of course I was. All noblemen's sons get their earliest training as squires..." He broke off and scowled blackly in the King's direction. "Do not try to distract me, Aragorn. I know what is in your mind. You will saddle me with a horde of attendants who will guard, guide and help me out of my wits!"
"What choice do you have? Without servants you can trust, how will you fulfill your duties as Steward?"
"I already have people I can trust about me."
"But none who will serve the purpose. Even without the burden of stewardship, your brother will be too busy to read dispatches for you. As will I."
Boromir looked suddenly uncomfortable. "I wasn't thinking of you or Faramir."
Aragorn hesitated for a moment, reading his true thoughts in his face, then said, "Merry is leaving."
"Offer him a knighthood or free run of the royal kitchens, and he'll stay."
"Merry is leaving," Aragorn repeated, firmly, and Boromir's scowl darkened. "He stays only for Arwen's coming and my wedding, then he and others will return to the Shire."
"That is his home, Boromir."
"I know it!" Boromir snapped. "It was a jest. Merely a jest. Merry is no wretched underling, to spend his days trailing at my heels and reading piles of cursed lists."
Aragorn tried to smile again, but he found it difficult. "We will find someone you can tolerate."
"I tell you, I don't need anyone. What I need is a new pair of eyes!" With the last, shouted word, Boromir's frustration came to a sudden boil, and he shoved hard against the edge of the table, upending it with a crash and sending drifts of parchment sliding across the floor.
Aragorn came to his feet in alarm but halted well back from the disaster in the middle of the room. Utter stillness followed Boromir's outburst, as the King surveyed the wreckage and the Steward sat very still in his chair, visibly embarrassed by his own behavior.
After a very long moment, Aragorn spoke in a tone of mild reproof. "Those papers were carefully sorted."
"I beg your pardon," Boromir said, stiffly. "I'll clean them up."
"Do not bother. That's what I have wretched underlings for."
A discreet knock on the door signaled the arrival of one such underling, drawn by the noise in the room and concern for his lord. Aragorn opened the door, being careful not to tread on any of his valuable documents as he skirted the edges of the room to reach it, and found his Chamberlain standing outside. The man bowed slightly, his brow creased with disapproval as his eyes dwelt on the wreckage of the study.
"Is aught amiss, my lord?"
"Nay, all is well." The Chamberlain made a disgruntled noise in his throat and turned to leave, but Aragorn halted him with a raised hand. "We will be going down to the council chamber, when the trumpets sound the watch change. You may then send someone to clean this up. Until then, we do not wish to be disturbed."
"Aye, my lord."
Aragorn shut the door and turned to find Boromir still hunched forward in his chair, staring blankly at the darkness around him with a familiar scowl on his face. Since his meeting with Frodo at Cormallen, Boromir had seemed much more at ease, as if he had found some kind of peace within himself. He smiled more readily, even laughed upon occasion, and when his blindness forced him to accept guidance or help from one of his friends, he did so with a grace that Aragorn had not seen in him before. To watch him slip back into his old brooding state was painful for Aragorn.
"What is troubling you?" Aragorn asked, abruptly. He was learning not to treat Boromir's moods delicately, now that there was a bond of trust between them. Delicacy only gave the stubborn man an excuse to avoid questions, while bluntness drew the truth from him quickly. "Is it Merry's departure, or the Council?"
"Both." Boromir slumped back in the chair, still scowling. After a long, tense pause, he asked, "Have you considered that Faramir may yet side with Imrahil?"
"Certainly I have. What of it?"
"You will find it difficult to face down the entire Council, with Faramir to support them."
"I will not."
"Then it is well that the burden falls on me."
Boromir struggled for a moment, clearly trying to force his words past some barrier in himself. When at last he spoke, his voice was oddly desperate. "Why must it be public, Aragorn? Can you not go to Faramir and sound him out in private? If he sides with Imrahil, and the Council backs them, then I will step aside. It need not be a public display of rancor and division!"
"Nay, Boromir, it must."
"I have said I will abide by Faramir's choice..."
"Enough." Aragorn's tone, mild as it was, silenced Boromir. The King crossed the room to where the great table lay on its side and circled around it, stepping over the outstretched legs. Propping himself against the thick edge of its top, he folded his arms across his chest and fixed a kind but unyielding gaze on his friend. "We will not have this argument again. You are my Steward and you will remain my Steward, regardless of what your brother thinks. Have I made myself clear?"
Boromir laced his fingers together and stared down at his hands, where they lay on his lap, hiding his face from Aragorn's eyes. "Then why the farce of this Council?"
"It is no farce, but a necessary step in establishing my reign. I cannot rule Gondor as a tyrant, nor can I act on this behind the scenes, in the shadows, where lies and whispers grow. The people must see that their King deals fairly with nobleman and commoner alike, and that he faces his challengers in the full light of day."
"And my brother?"
"He must declare himself. I must know where his loyalties lie and hear his reasons for his choice."
Boromir stirred uncomfortably. "While I must listen to him number my faults."
"Is there aught that he or any man can say that we have not already heard?"
"Nothing that bears any truth. You know the worst of me, Aragorn."
"Then you have nothing to fear. Have faith in me, Boromir, and in my love for you. I'll not fail you."
"I know you will not." Boromir stared at his hands for another moment, then murmured, "'Tis I who would fail you, my King. In sober truth, I would rather go away with Merry than stay in Minas Tirith and fight this battle against my kin. I could settle in the Shire, lead the life of a hobbit, and spend my days fishing on the Brandywine."
Aragorn smiled fondly at him. "You would make a dreadful hobbit."
"No worse a hobbit than a soldier or a steward."
"Very much worse!" He paused for a moment, then asked, quietly, "Do you think your blindness would be any easier to bear in the Shire - among strange people and strange customs - than it is here?"
Boromir pondered his question at some length. At last he answered, "I would be a stranger there myself, an unknown, judged only by what I am in the present, not by what I once was."
"Yet still an oddity, for your very strangeness, and an object of suspicion. Far better to stay in Minas Tirith, brave the Council, and wait for the turmoil to die down. When all is done, you will find yourself established as Steward and doing the one thing that will give you fulfillment."
"Caring for my land and people."
"Aye. You are a true son of Gondor, Boromir. This is where your heart dwells."
"Not all of my heart." Boromir lifted his head, allowing Aragorn to read his troubled, doubtful expression. "Some part of that will always be lost to me in the green hills of the Shire, with Merry. 'Tis a hard thing to love someone you cannot keep near you."
A vision of Arwen came suddenly to Aragorn's mind, and with it, the feeling of intense longing, pride and sadness that always accompanied thoughts of his future bride. The sadness was fading at last, as their wedding drew near, but he had lived with it for so many years that he could not relinquish it easily. It was woven into the image of her face, into the musical echo of her voice.
"I know it well," he murmured.
He opened his mouth to deliver a calming speech, giving Boromir the benefit of his wide experience, but the sudden call of a trumpet interrupted him. He crossed swiftly to the window and peered downward at the courtyard so far below. The trumpet sang again, heralding the change of the watch. In the street of the sixth circle, a small company of liveried guards marched toward the gate, while in the Court of the Fountain, a number of men clad in rich fabrics and burnished mail broke up their various conversations and headed for the open doors of the Citadel. The guard flanking the great doors saluted them as they passed within.
Turning back to Boromir, he said, "'Tis time."
Boromir pushed himself to his feet and waited for Aragorn to approach him. As his fingers closed a bit too tightly around Aragorn's arm, he muttered, "Let us be done with this."
"Do not be in such a hurry," Aragorn chided. "We should be the last to arrive, when they have had time to wait and worry a bit."
Boromir made a noise in his throat of mingled disgust and amusement, and a wry smile touched his lips. "The King should make a proper entrance."
Together, they left the chamber and strode down the hallway with the measured tread that Aragorn deemed fitting for his dignity. Beside him, Boromir had assumed the harsh, proud mien that had overawed so many men throughout his illustrious career and now concealed his growing dread. It did not fool Aragorn, but it would serve him well in the Council. Aragorn smiled to himself, confident that together the King and his Steward could meet any challenge, any threat that might be leveled at them.
That Aragorn had timed their entrance aright was clear to Boromir from the swell of voices that poured out of the chamber to greet him. All the council must be gathered, waiting, growing more restless and expectant with every minute that passed. He tightened his clasp on Aragorn's arm and squared his shoulders, resolutely subduing his own nervousness as he stepped into the room at the King's side. A thunderous silence met their arrival, then every chair scraped back from the table and every man rose to his feet in a chorus of creaking leather and jingling metal.
How Aragorn greeted this show of respect, Boromir could not tell, but something about his upright carriage and firm step told Boromir that he had slipped into his lordly role. When he chose to do so, Aragorn could change from a quiet, ragged wanderer to the living image of the ancient Númenórean kings, all in a breath. Boromir had spent the morning in conversation with his friend, Aragorn, but now the gathered council of nobles would face King Elessar. And to judge by the palpable tension in the air, they must all have realized this.
Together, Boromir and Aragorn walked the length of the great table to where the King's chair stood at its far end. Aragorn halted and gently broke Boromir's grip on his arm.
"The Steward's traditional place is at the foot of the table, opposite his King," Aragorn said, "but I prefer to have my most valued councilors beside me. Sit here on my right."
Boromir found the high, carved back of a chair ready to hand. He grasped it tightly and awaited Aragorn's signal that they should take their seats. Under cover of the general noise, as all around the table men settled themselves into heavy, wooden chairs, Boromir pulled out his own and sat down. He did not shift forward eagerly or prop his forearms on the table, as he heard those about him doing, but stayed leaning back in the chair, apparently at his ease, distancing himself from the air of excitement in the chamber. If his hands gripped the arms of the chair more tightly than normal, no one could see it. And if his features were unnaturally hard with strain, less than a handful of the men present would suspect the reason for it.
Aragorn waited for his councilors to make themselves comfortable, then he rose again to his feet. The murmurs about the table died. When he spoke, it was in a grave, quiet tone that thinly veiled a wealth of power and an indomitable will.
"My lords, I welcome you to the Citadel of Minas Tirith and the council of King Elessar. I have called you all here, because I have need of your wisdom at this time. We have won a great victory. Now we must forge a lasting peace that will safeguard our people, a peace that does honor to the blood that was shed and the lives that were lost to bring us here. I look to you to help me forge that peace.
"Those of you who are traditional members of the council may look about this chamber and wonder at what you see. You may ask yourselves what the King of the Mark or Gandalf the White have to do with Gondor's peace. But I tell you that Sauron was not destroyed by Gondor alone, nor will our duties end at Gondor's borders. All Middle-earth is joined with us in the new age that dawns, and the leaders of Middle-earth will ever be welcome at my council table."
Aragorn paused to let the murmurs quiet again. When he resumed speaking, his voice had subtly changed. Boromir detected a note of dryness, of irony, and possibly of warning in it, though the King remained scrupulously polite.
"Before we can begin our labors in the cause of peace, we must settle our conflicts within these very walls. Some of you have questioned my choice of Steward. I do not need to impress upon you how serious a matter this is, for you are all aware what power the Steward of Gondor wields and what responsibility lies upon his shoulders. You have lived beneath a Steward's rule and watched that Steward fall into darkness."
A ripple of tension went about the table, inaudible yet strong enough to set Boromir's teeth on edge. He forced himself not to react, though Aragorn's choice of words struck as dissonant a chord in him as in the others listening.
"Because the horror of Denethor's madness is still fresh in your minds, I do not blame you for your present fears. They are understandable. And I am prepared to hear your arguments against my Steward. But remember this, my lords. The Stewards have ruled Gondor in an unbroken line, from Mardil Voronwë through Denethor II, passing the rod of office from father to son for twenty-six generations. Boromir is the firstborn son of Denethor, the rightful heir to the Stewardship of Gondor, and your liege lord. Had I not ridden out of the West to claim my crown, he would now be your king in all but name."
The sudden rasp of chair legs against stone interrupted Aragorn's words and announced that someone down the table to Boromir's right had risen to his feet.
"My lord King," Imrahil said, deferentially, "none of us here doubts the right of Denethor's son to hold the Stewardship. Nor do we deny that allegiance we owe to him."
"If you would neither deny his birthright nor withhold your allegiance, then what is the nature of your challenge, Imrahil?"
Boromir set his teeth against the dull pain of the words he knew were coming. From the lingering sadness in Imrahil's voice, he guessed that his kinsman did not find them easy to say. "It is not his right, but his fitness that we challenge."
A murmur went around the table, but whether of agreement or discontent, Boromir could not be sure. The man who sat at his right hand stirred and clasped his arm briefly. Éomer's welcome voice sounded in his ear, muttering, "The King will make short work of this."
Boromir tried to smile his thanks, but his face was set too hard with tension. "He cannot. He must hear them out."
Éomer tightened his grip for a moment in a gesture of sympathy, then settled back in his own chair. Boromir sensed the other man's restlessness and knew that, as his staunchest supporter outside the Fellowship, Éomer was itching to shout down the murmurs of the statesmen about the table and vent some of his growing frustration. Like Boromir, Éomer was a man who preferred the direct approach - a drawn weapon, a snarled oath, and a swift conclusion upon the field of honor - to all this polite backbiting. But for once, Boromir knew, a bright blade would not serve his turn. He must sit and listen in rigid silence, while a man he had loved and respected all his life traduced his character and laid bare his faults - both known and supposed - for the inspection of all.
It progressed just as Boromir had feared. The King encouraged Imrahil to lay his doubts and concerns before the council, asking occasional questions but offering no comment and making no move to stem the tide of the Prince's eloquence. Much of what Faramir had said to him - painful as it was coming from his brother - was now repeated by Imrahil and embellished with references to Gondor's weal that lent the whole thing a sordid air, as if Boromir, unbalanced in himself, was likewise unmindful of his people.
Boromir could not remove himself from the council chamber and he would not give his attackers the satisfaction of seeing him flinch under the lash of Imrahil's tongue. Whatever the turmoil within him, he would maintain his outward calm.
Feigning unconcern, he let his head rest against the polished, carved wood behind it. The blank bandage where his eyes should have been gave him a measure of freedom. He did not have to meet the hostile gazes of his enemies or school his own to hide his emotions. He could turn his thoughts where he would, distancing himself from the scene of bitter betrayal that played out around him, and none would be the wiser.
He breathed slowly, opening his hands to rest lightly on the chair arms, forcing his body to assume an outward calm that he did not feel. This was a familiar artifice, a soldier's ruse used to thrust aside nervous distractions and clear his head. It served him in this conflict, as it had in so many others, and he felt himself begin to relax.
Clean air moved softly against his face, and Boromir realized that he was seated opposite the row of tall, arched windows. Someone had opened at least one of them, allowing the telltale breeze to enter. No doubt Aragorn had ordered it done, just as he had ordered all the torches extinguished and the fire left unlit. Boromir could still smell cold ashes from the hearth and the bitter trace of old smoke on stone, but they were subtle smells and easily ignored. Clearly, Aragorn had tried to make the chamber comfortable for him, and on such a bright summer's day, none of the attendant nobles would miss the torches that were wont to line the walls.
He relaxed even more, as the moving air brought the scents of the city to him. Minas Tirith in the summer was a pungent place, but Boromir loved the smells of his city, as he loved everything about it from its lofty towers to its noisome alleyways. Aragorn had spoken the truth when he said that Boromir was a true son of Gondor - more so even than her King, for he had grown to manhood behind these white walls, steeped in the beauty, the pride, the bustle and dirt and stench that was Minas Tirith - and that his heart would ever dwell here.
A stirring at the table interrupted his private musing and forced the Steward to pay attention to business once more. Imrahil was pacing up the length of the chamber to Aragorn's chair. He laid something on the table with the rustling of parchment and the faint tap of heavy wax seals against the wood. Aragorn waited until Imrahil had resumed his seat, then he opened the scroll, spreading it out flat with his hands. Boromir sensed the flare of new tension in the room, as all those who had sat in mute support of Imrahil now prepared to add their voices openly to his.
Aragorn read in silence, deliberately unmoved by the growing unease of his councilors. At last, he let the parchment curl around itself again and gave an audible sigh. Was it relief, Boromir wondered? Had he looked for a given signature on the document and not found it?
"Many lords and many lands are named here," Aragorn said, "but some are quite notably lacking. Morthond, Lossarnach, Anfalas. And of course, Rohan."
Éomer snorted in disgust, making no attempt to mask his reaction from those around him, and Boromir felt a fresh surge of gratitude for the other man's outspoken, unstinting support.
Aragorn took no notice of the interruption. "One name, more central to your purpose than any other, I do not see. What of the Lord Faramir?"
Imrahil answered, "We did not ask that Faramir set his name to that document, my lord. His place is not among the petitioning nobles but in the Steward's chair."
A low murmur rose from the seated men, a subdued chorus of agreement and relief that the words were finally spoken. Those seated closest to Aragorn - those loyal to the King's chosen Steward - maintained a stony silence. Boromir himself felt only cold, choking dread.
"You bid us remember that the Stewardship belongs to the son of Denethor. I bid you remember, King Elessar, that Denethor has two sons, and either one of them may lawfully step into his father's place." Imrahil hesitated for a moment, then he resumed speaking more urgently, his words for Aragorn alone. "You love Boromir and would have him as your Steward, in spite of all the arguments against it. I honor you for that. I am proud to call you my King and to lay my sword at your feet, for I know that you are a man who values your friends and keeps your vows."
"Yet you stand up before my council and bid me be forsworn," Aragorn said, his voice dangerously soft.
"Nay, I ask Boromir to release you from your vow, so that you may, in all honor, choose a Steward more fitted to the task."
"And if he will not?"
"Then you will have no choice but to break it, for Gondor's sake. But I still have hope that my kinsman will put Gondor and her welfare before his own wounded pride and spare his King such dishonor."
A growl rose in Boromir's throat, and he shoved his chair back with a scrape that tore at the charged air. His hands gripped the table edge, ready to hurl him to his feet, and he bared his teeth in a snarl of rage. Suddenly, Aragorn's hand fastened around his wrist, halting his move to rise.
"I have listened long enough to his calumnies!" Boromir hissed. "I will not hear him befoul your name with mine!"
"My name and yours are both beyond his reach."
"He would disgrace you and make me the instrument of it!"
"I have said nothing but the truth!" Imrahil retorted, his voice sharp with anger. "It is no surprise to me that you refuse to hear it! You were ever too headstrong and arrogant to be guided by your betters!"
"My betters!" Boromir surged to his feet, heedless of Aragorn's grip on his arm or the calming words murmured in his ear. "What do you know of my betters, Imrahil, or the counsel they have given me? Ask the King, or Gandalf, or the Ringbearer what they bid me do! It is to them that I look for guidance, not to that flock of carrion crows at your back!"
"Carrion crows?! A fine thing to call your allies and advisors, my Lord Steward! Men who seek only to help you..."
"Aye, help me to a begging bowl and a filthy street corner, all my own!"
"This is what you think of me? Your kinsman, blood of your blood, who has ever been your friend? And what of your own brother?"
Boromir felt his hands clenching into fists, knotting with helpless rage. "Leave Faramir out of this!"
"Is he to be called a scavenger, as well? Scorned and insulted, because he will not follow meekly where you lead him?"
"Nay, Imrahil, I will not. Nor do I need you to speak for me." From the far end of the table - the Steward's traditional place, Boromir realized with a flash of foreboding - came the scuff of boots and the brush of fabric, as Faramir rose to his feet. "I wish, for both our sakes, that I could stay out of this Brother, but I am already in too deep."
Boromir sank into his chair, his hands once more gripping the carved and polished arms as though he would crush the wood to splinters with his fingers. From behind him, he caught the sound of rapid breathing, and he sensed a presence almost at his shoulder. The hair lifted on the back of Boromir's neck, and he thought of the sword he had left in his chambers that morning, deeming it impolitic to come armed to the council. Suddenly, irrationally, he wished he had a weapon ready to hand.
"Since I am left with no choice but to speak for myself, or to become a mute weapon in the hands of others," Faramir said, "I beg the King's leave to address this council."
*** *** ***
The burst of raised voices carried through the open windows, across the court, to where two young hobbits huddled together on a stone bench in the shade of the library wall. Merry flinched at the sound, and Pippin clenched his hands together in his lap. Beside them, Legolas sat cross-legged on the grass, bent over the bow in his hands. He did not react to the angry noises, though his sharp ears could certainly make out the words that were lost on his companions. He remained intently focused on his work, testing the bowstring for wear or weakness, and ignored the furor in the council chamber. Gimli, who was pacing the small greensward with one hand gripping his axe head and the other clamped on his belt, cast one frowning glance toward the windows but did not check his stride.
Merry envied them their composure, and he wished, not for the first time, that he had thought to provide himself with some sort of distraction. His eyes dwelt on Legolas' hands, watching their sure, steady movements and letting the Elf's tranquility soothe him. Then another distant shout twisted his stomach into a painful knot and broke the spell.
"It isn't going well," Pippin said, miserably.
Merry nodded agreement. "That's Boromir. He promised he wouldn't lose his temper, but I suppose that was too much to hope for."
Pippin shivered, then asked, plaintively, "Will Faramir really try to take the Stewardship away from him?"
"I don't know." Merry slipped his hand into Pippin's and gripped it tightly. "I hope not, Pip."
"I can't believe he would do it! Not Faramir! He's a great man, Merry, kind and noble, with eyes that look straight through you and smile all the time. Like Strider, only... warmer. I feel like I could tell him anything, follow him anywhere, face any danger for him. I have only to look in his face to love him!"
Legolas spoke without lifting his gaze from his work. "You have keen eyes, Pippin, and a wise heart."
"Could a man like that betray his brother?" Pippin demanded.
"'Tis not a question of betrayal, but of what Faramir deems right. His first duty is to Gondor and the King, not to Boromir."
Gimli gave a snort of disgust and growled, "Wrap it up in clean linen, if it pleases you, Master Elf. But I call it treachery, when a Man takes what belongs to his brother and terms it duty."
"So do I," Merry muttered.
Legolas let his hands fall still and fixed his piercing gaze on Merry. "Are you so sure that Faramir will side with the conspirators against Boromir?"
"I'm not sure of anything, but I'm afraid. Terribly afraid."
"Of what? You know that Aragorn and Mithrandir will allow no one to supplant Boromir. His place at the King's side is assured."
"I know it."
"What, then, do you have to fear?"
"Faramir." Merry let go of Pippin's hand and wrapped his arms about his own body, holding himself tightly against the chill that gathered in his breast. "You and Pippin are both right about him, but that only makes it worse. Boromir knows what kind of man he is. He can't help trusting him. And if Faramir stands up in front of the council and declares Boromir unfit to be Steward, Boromir will believe him."
"He also trusts Aragorn," Legolas pointed out, "and Aragorn will not let him falter."
Merry ducked his head to hide his face from his friends' eyes. "Between them, they'll pull him to pieces."
A long silence followed his words. Legolas quietly resumed stringing his bow, though the distraction in his gaze proved that his thoughts were elsewhere. Gimli began pacing again. Pippin gazed with pleading eyes at the distant windows, his face twisted with distress. Merry stayed drawn in on himself, alone with his dread, unwilling to share it any further with his companions.
And so they waited.
*** *** ***
"You laid a grievous burden upon me, my lords." Faramir's voice was quiet and grave, but it rang against the stone walls and whispered through the vaulted ceiling, as the gathered nobles hung upon his words in eager silence. "I could not, in good conscience, refuse it, though it may have cost me the one thing in my life most precious to me. My brother's love."
Boromir's hands closed convulsively on the table's edge, ready to push him to his feet, but Aragorn reached out to catch his arm, and this time, Boromir obeyed his unspoken command. He subsided into his chair, his jaw clamped tightly shut and his face rigid with pain.
Faramir went on, steadily, "For Gondor, for my King, I would risk even this most terrible loss. You knew this, when you sent my kinsman to draw me into your conspiracy, and you forced me to stand in judgement upon my brother."
"I asked only that you do your duty," Imrahil interjected.
"And I have done it. I have watched, and I have pondered what I saw. I have weighed your fears against Boromir's deeds, your doubts against the certainty of those who uphold his claim. And I have looked into my own heart, where dwells the thing of shadow and longing that I call by my brother's name, to better grasp my own fears. Now I am ready to lay my judgement before this council, if you are ready to hear it."
It was the King who answered him. "What say you, Faramir? Do you deem your brother fit to shoulder the burdens of Stewardship, or would you take those burdens from him?"
"I say that Boromir, son of Denethor, is the rightful Steward of Gondor - born to it, groomed for it, proven upon the field of battle and in the halls of power, approved by his people and chosen by his King." A hum of startled, angry protests rose at Faramir's words, but he did not falter, merely pitching his voice louder to carry over the din. "He is my liege lord, my Steward, second only to King Elessar in power and second to none in my esteem! I will serve him in all faith and love, as I will my King, so long as I live!"
The room erupted into chaos, the furious protests of Boromir's enemies warring with the triumph of his friends to be heard. The man at the eye of this storm collapsed back in his chair, sick with relief and unable to speak for the tears that choked him. He wanted desperately to weep, to ease the tightness in his throat, to pour some balm upon the festering wound of suspicion, distance and doubt that had poisoned his heart for so long.
He could not weep. Nor could he have private speech with Faramir to vent his feelings another way. But he could feel his brother's gaze upon him, searching, anxious, so he lifted his head and turned to face him. Years of trust told him that Faramir could read his expression from the other end of the chamber and would see the gratitude beneath the strained, white mask he wore.
Suddenly, Boromir felt the lurking presence behind his shoulder draw closer. Under cover of the general din, a soft voice hissed in his ear, "What did you promise him, in exchange for his lies, Shadow Steward?"
Boromir stiffened, turning instinctively to find the speaker, but the man was gone the instant the words left his lips. No sound of his leaving - not the rustle of fabric or the scrape of a boot on stone - marked his passage, but Boromir did not need such betraying noises to tell him where the man had gone. He had recognized both the voice and the import of his words. And he knew, with utter certainty, where to look for the silent, grey shadow that was his true foe, when the time came.
"How is it, Faramir, that you have forgot your duty to Gondor?!" Imrahil shouted, finally stilling the clamor of his allies and drawing all eyes back to him. "How do you reconcile this treachery with your sense of honor? Your allegiance to the truth?"
Boromir opened his mouth, ready to leap to his brother's defense, but Faramir needed no assistance from him.
"You accuse me of treachery?" he demanded, aghast. "When I risked everything I hold dear - the love of my brother and the trust of my King - to do your bidding? I believed that you had Gondor's welfare at heart, Imrahil, else I would not have taken up the charge you laid before me. But you cared naught for Gondor or for the truth. You wanted a standard-bearer to lead your charge, a champion to hand you a bloodless victory!"
"Nay! I looked to you for justice!"
"I have given it to you."
"You have bartered your honor for a brother's favor!"
"And you forget to whom you speak." Boromir felt a chill go down his back at the familiar cold, disdainful edge in Faramir's voice. It seemed that he was not the only one to hear the shade of Denethor speaking those words, for Imrahil was momentarily shocked into silence. "I will not be forsworn or dishonored for any man - not for you, for Boromir, or even for the King. To suggest it is to insult me and demean yourself."
"By the Valar!" one of the lords muttered, and directly across the table from Boromir, Gandalf chuckled.
"Enough, my lords!" Aragorn was on his feet, his firm voice carrying throughout the chamber and bringing instant quiet. "This public rancor is unseemly and solves nothing. The final decision was never yours, in any case."
Faramir murmured, "I beg your pardon," and sat down.
When Imrahil remained standing, Aragorn addressed him directly. "Have you anything more to say to this council, Prince?"
"Nay." Imrahil settled heavily into his chair. "I am done."
Aragorn turned his attention to the row of tense, expectant faces confronting him from both sides of the table. "Do any of you have aught to say in this matter?" No one moved. "Then I have heard all the arguments you have to put forward? There is nothing you would add, to tip the scales of judgement?"
Boromir heard a tell-tale rustling from the darkness to his left, where Halbarad lurked behind Aragorn's chair, but the Ranger did not step forward.
"So be it. You have made your feelings clear to me, now I will make mine clear to you." He lifted the thick parchment, its pendant seals scraping on the table top, rolled it up and tapped it lightly against his palm as he spoke. "I chose Boromir as my Steward when my Kingship was naught but a distant promise. When we journeyed and fought and suffered together beneath the Shadow, with no hope of victory. But do not think I chose him out of pity or despair. I did not. I chose him because I saw in him a Man of honor, valor and deep loyalties, who loves his land more than his life, and who has learned well the price of betrayal. I knew then, as I know now, that there is no Man in all Middle-earth better fitted to serve both Gondor and Gondor's King. And I will have no other beside me, as I take up the burdens of my crown."
To the accompaniment of twitching and muttering from his audience, Aragorn left his place and moved to stand at Boromir's shoulder. "Come, Boromir."
A hand on his arm drew the Steward to his feet and guided him a few steps away from the table. Then Aragorn halted and turned to face him squarely. He caught both of Boromir's wrists and placed his hands together, palm to palm, then he placed his own hands over them.
"Do you remember the words I spoke to you, when we lay upon the plains of Rohan, waiting for death?" Boromir nodded mutely. "I cannot forget them. They were burned into my heart, even as they passed my lips, and their promise will bind me forever. Now, my friend, I would say them once more, make that vow anew before these lords and princes, that they may hear and witness it."
"Peace." Boromir could not see the smile on his friend's face, but he heard it plain in his voice, and he felt the tears gather in his throat again. "I swear to you, Boromir, by the blood of Isildur and Elendil that flows in my veins, by the love I bear my people, and by the wingéd crown I wear, there will be only one Steward in Gondor, so long as I am King. I will have you as my Steward, or I will have none."
Boromir bowed his head, too overcome for words. Suddenly, he heard another voice, one that had not spoken all this while, and he realized that Gandalf now stood at Aragorn's side. "It is well done, Aragorn."
The wizard pulled Boromir's hand gently from Aragorn's clasp and closed it about a familiar object. Boromir touched the smooth, polished surface and instantly knew it for what it was - his rod of office, the symbol of his Stewardship. Before he could react, Gandalf's hands came up to clasp the sides of his head, tilting it downward, and he felt the wizard's kiss upon his brow.
"It is well done, indeed," Gandalf said, in a voice meant only for Boromir's ears. "Never doubt that, son of Denethor, and never forget that you carry with you the love and respect of Gandalf the White. I have great faith in you."
Boromir's smile was twisted by the emotion that gripped him and the tears he could not shed, but he knew that Gandalf would read it aright. "I will not forget. And whether or not you credit it, I am grateful."
Gandalf gave a soft chuckle and dropped his hands.
Aragorn then turned to the men seated at the table and cried, "My lords, 'tis time for you to make a choice! Until this moment, you were blameless, your actions lawful and just. Now I have given you a Steward, and your duty is clear. Acknowledge him, and you will remain blameless, no whisper of suspicion to follow you. Refuse, and you will earn the name of traitor."
Before Aragorn had finished speaking, Faramir was on his feet, striding up to where his brother stood. Boromir hastily shoved the staff he held at Gandalf, freeing his hands to clasp those that reached so eagerly toward him. Faramir gripped both his hands and, to Boromir's bewilderment, dropped to one knee before him.
"Get up, Faramir!" Boromir protested. "Do not kneel to me!"
"Nay, Brother, let me do it." His fingers tightened around Boromir's, and his voice thickened with emotion. "I have waited long enough to offer you my fealty. Let me do it properly." Then, deaf to Boromir's protests, he bowed his head and uttered a formal oath of allegiance, sealing it with a kiss pressed to the back of Boromir's hand. At last, he allowed Boromir to pull him to his feet and embrace him as a brother.
Turning from Boromir, Faramir held out a hand toward his kinsman, who still sat in brooding silence. It seemed that the other men of the council waited upon Imrahil's example, for none of them had moved to answer the King's challenge. Even those who had supported Boromir from the start were waiting, out of curiosity, for the Prince to declare himself.
"Come, Imrahil. I know you are no traitor." Faramir's tone was beguiling, rich with memories of a lifetime of trust and friendship shared with this man.
In contrast, Imrahil's voice sounded harsh and heavy. "I am not."
"Then let go your anger and humble yourself, this once, for Gondor's sake."
Slowly, Imrahil rose from his chair and paced the length of the table. He halted in front of Boromir and stood silent for a moment. Then, with a sigh, he said, "When first I set my feet upon this road, I vowed that I would bend to Faramir's judgement, to follow it or turn aside at his bidding. Almost, I was forsworn. Almost, I let my pride betray me into folly. But let it not be said that Dol Amroth marred the King's return with treachery. Will you take my hand in friendship, Boromir?"
Boromir extended his hand, smiling as Imrahil grasped it in the familiar soldier's salute. "I am ever your friend and kin, Prince Imrahil."
"And I am ever your liege man, my Lord Steward."
One by one, drawn by Imrahil's surrender, they came to clasp Boromir's hand and call him by his hard-won title. Boromir accepted their gestures without hesitation or concern for what bitterness they concealed. Faramir believed in him and Imrahil would stand firm, whatever his doubts, once his word was given. That was enough for today.
Some of the lords who stepped up to greet him harbored no secret ill will. They had taken no part in the conspiracy and were genuinely happy to call him Steward, as Boromir was happy to hear their friendly voices in the throng. Old Duinhir, Golasgil of Anfalas, and Forthond, son of Forlong the Fat who had died upon the Pelennor fields. Éomer came last. He embraced Boromir as a friend and brother-in-arms, openly rejoicing at his victory. When Éomer had done, Boromir turned away and would have found his seat again, but Aragorn halted him with a hand on his arm.
There followed a tense pause, as the scattered lords became aware that the King was not done and broke off their talk. Boromir could not locate Halbarad, so quiet was he, but he sensed that Aragorn had turned toward the cold hearth at the west end of the chamber.
"Will you not give your oath to your Steward?" Aragorn asked.
At last, Halbarad stirred, the soft scrape of metal against leather telling Boromir that he was alive and solid, not a thing of smoke and whispers. "I owe him no allegiance."
Aragorn's fingers tightened painfully on Boromir's arm. "What of the allegiance you owe to me? Will you refuse my commands?"
"Do not press him, Aragorn," Boromir said, "unless you are prepared to break him. It is the only way he will bow to the Shadow Steward."
Aragorn whirled to face Boromir, still gripping him fiercely, and snapped, "What did you say?"
"Naught but what he whispered in my ear, not an hour past. Is that not so, Ranger?"
"Why should I deny it?" Halbarad retorted coldly. "You have been called such before, and with good cause."
Aragorn froze, his body rigid with disbelief and fury. Whatever expression he wore, it must have been terrible, for before he could open his mouth to speak, Gandalf intervened. Moving up beside the King, he leaned close and said, in a penetrating tone that brooked no argument, "I think this is not a matter for the whole council. You had better retire to some more private place."
"Aye." With a palpable effort, the King collected himself and turned to address the gathered nobility. "This council is ended. I thank you for your time and bid you good day. Faramir, is there not a small audience chamber next to the Great Hall?"
"Escort my kinsman there. Gandalf? Will you join us?"
As Aragorn started for the door, threading a path between the scattered groups of men with a firm hand on Boromir's arm to guide him, Imrahil suddenly bestirred himself and called, "This concerns me nearly, my lord! I pray you..."
"Come," Aragorn growled, without breaking stride.
They crossed the wide antechamber, alive with muted echoes and cool shadows, in a tight, silent group. Faramir ushered them into the smaller chamber - one Boromir vaguely remembered as a place where his father held intimate meetings with visiting dignitaries, when he did not want to overawe them with the majesty of the Great Hall or remind them of the empty throne at his back. It stank of smoke - of the countless torches and candles that had burned within its cold walls - and Boromir checked in the doorway, balking at the feel of the enclosed space. Aragorn thrust him bodily into the room and shut the door behind them.
Boromir took two hasty steps across the floor, halting when he felt woven carpet beneath his feet. He did not know the room well enough to move through it unaided, and the tension in the air mixed with the bitter stench of smoke to cloud his senses. He was adrift, with no familiar thing to anchor him. Taking a deep breath that clawed at his throat, he forced himself to relax and to concentrate on the voices around him, to place the others in the room and shrink the darkness to bearable proportions.
"Now you had best explain yourself, Halbarad." That was Gandalf, seated over to Boromir's right and sounding crustier than he had in some weeks.
Halbarad spoke from directly ahead, well toward the back of the chamber. "I do not answer to you, Gandalf the White."
"It seems you don't answer to anyone, of late."
"He'll answer to me," Aragorn said, at his most dangerously soft. He moved forward from the door, brushing past Boromir and approaching Halbarad on a Ranger's feet - silent and deadly. "And this time, he will give me the truth."
"I have never lied to you, Aragorn," Halbarad said, evenly.
"Then it seems I asked the wrong questions."
Faramir spoke up from his place at Halbarad's side, sounding shocked and troubled. "Was it he, indeed, who set the assassins upon my brother?"
"Answer him, Halbarad," Aragorn demanded.
"I plotted no murder."
"Did you start the rumors in the camp that Boromir was a threat to the army?" Halbarad said nothing, and Aragorn growled, "Did you spread tales of the Shadow Steward? Did you sow the seeds of fear and superstition among the soldiery?"
"Why?" The King's voice tightened with a rage he could barely contain, growing louder with each word he flung at his impassive lieutenant. "Why? What did you hope to gain, if not Boromir's death?"
"I did not mean him any bodily harm, though I cannot pretend a remorse I do not feel for what followed. And now I can only regret that the assassins failed."
"Treacherous cur!" Imrahil hissed. Boromir heard the scrape of a sword being half-drawn, then a shout of protest from Faramir.
Halbarad laughed coldly. "You deem your aims loftier than mine, my lord Carrion Crow?"
"I would die by my own hand, before I shed the blood of my kin!"
"Fine words, when you have someone else to do the killing for you."
"Silence!" Aragorn roared. "Enough, Imrahil! Leave him to me!"
Imrahil slammed his sword back into its scabbard and stalked across the room to stand in front of the door, as though he would guard it against Halbarad's escape.
"What did you hope to gain by your slanderous whispers, Halbarad?"
"I sought to weaken Boromir's position with the armies."
"That is all?"
"They were his strength. His one unshakable source of power. Without them, he would have nothing to sustain him when we marched away."
"So you hoped to turn the armies against him and leave him powerless without me to support him."
Aragorn stood in the grip of his seething anger once more, only the sound of his harsh breathing disturbing the silence. When he spoke at last, he was neither King nor canny Ranger, but a man pushed to the limits of his endurance. Boromir had never heard such a note of disbelief and pain in his voice before. "You have betrayed me, Halbarad."
"Nay, not you! Never you, my King!"
His lieutenant's keen distress did not seem to reach Aragorn. He went on in the same raw tone, as though his very heart were bleeding through his words. "You abused my trust in you, hiding your foul crimes behind a face I could not suspect, while you labored in the Enemy's cause."
"Aragorn!" The word was more a gasp of horror than a name.
"I told you once what I would do, if I found that it was you who tried to murder my friend."
"Aragorn, I beg you! Do not end our long kinship in hatred and bloodshed!"
"I have sworn to bring the traitors who threatened Gondor's Steward to justice, and so I will. You are condemned out of your own mouth, and your life is forfeit!"
"Nay, Aragorn," Boromir took a hasty step toward the other man, forgetting that he did not know what might be under his feet in his urgency. "You cannot."
Halbarad gave a hiss of fury and spat, "Do not waste your breath on me, son of Denethor! I want no mercy at your hands!"
Boromir turned a pitying look on him that he knew must rankle in Halbarad's breast more than any taunt or threat could do, but he could not help himself. The desperate longing he heard in the other man's voice, when he spoke to Aragorn, struck a familiar chord in Boromir's memory and stirred the old shame in him. He could not allow his King to surrender someone he loved to the madness of that longing without a fight. Not for Halbarad, but for Aragorn he could not allow it.
His hand found Aragorn's shoulder, and he stepped in close to murmur, "He has acted against your commands, for which he should be punished, but he has done no murder. He did not lift a blade against me, nor did he set Elenard and Hirluin on to do it. You know this is true."
"Whatever his intent, he might have cost you your life, Boromir. For that, I can never forgive him."
"You have forgiven me much worse. He might have caused the death of one man. I might have caused the downfall of all Middle-earth. How is it you can forgive me, and not him?"
Aragorn's hand came up to clasp Boromir's where it gripped his shoulder. "You asked it of me."
"Mayhap he will, too, given time. Please, Aragorn, do not strike such a final blow in anger. Give him time."
Aragorn let go his hand and turned to gaze at Halbarad. His voice was still taut with fury when he spoke, but he had mastered himself again. "Boromir is right. You have acted foully and dishonorably, but you are not deserving of death. I will not take your life Halbarad. But neither will I have such a creature about me."
"What will you do with me?"
Halbarad made a strangled noise somewhere between a sob and a snarl. "Then you have slain me, in truth!"
"Halbarad of the Dúnedain, I name you traitor and exile. I banish you from Gondor and from all lands over which I hold sway, so long as you live."
"Do not do this, Aragorn! Do not!"
"I give you until the New Moon to cross the borders of my domain. If, after that time, you ever set foot in Gondor again, you will die."
"I have lived all my life for you!" Halbarad railed, his voice edged with desperation. "I would have died for you! Now you cast me out and put that son of a cur in my place?!"
"You had a place of your own at my side, had you but seen it. But you chose enmity, subterfuge and festering hatred over my love. Now you must live with your choice - or die with it. I care not, so long as I do not have to look at your face again."
"You fool!" Halbarad hissed, and Boromir felt his innards writhe at the familiar sound.
For a dreadful moment, he thought he heard his own voice spitting those same words at a terrified halfling and saw his own hands reaching to grab the shining thing that lay against Frodo's breast. He shuddered at the agonizing memory, and his hand tightened fiercely on Aragorn's shoulder. "Nay!" he gasped. "I'll not be his weapon a second time!"
Aragorn clutched at his arm, concern for Boromir distracting him from his anger at Halbarad. "What do you mean? Boromir! Are you all right?"
Boromir drew in a ragged breath and fought down the sickness that threatened him. "Please, my King. Do not destroy your oldest friend for me."
"He has destroyed himself. This is not your fault, Boromir."
"'Tis the Enemy at work, even now. Sauron is gone, but his evil still lives in us. I can hear it in his voice..."
Aragorn turned to face Boromir and clasped his arms in strong, reassuring hands. "All the more reason to banish him, before he spreads his poison."
Boromir shook his head. "And what of the day when he realizes his mistake? If the gate is shut behind him, where will he go in his despair? Aragorn, what would I have done, without you to help me find my way out of that darkness?"
Very slowly, Aragorn let go his arms and turned once more to face his kinsman. Heavily, reluctantly, he said, "For Boromir's sake, I will offer you this chance."
Halbarad gave an angry hiss and spat on the floor.
"If you will kneel to us both, before these witnesses, and take an oath of fealty to Gondor's crown - and Gondor's Steward - then I will allow you to remain within the boundaries of my realm. I will grant you lands in the north, between Fornost and the Weather Hills, where you may live in freedom, near to those of our people who yet dwell in Eriador. So long as you keep your oath, you will remain my honored kinsman. But the day that you break it, in word or deed, your life is forfeit. What say you, Halbarad?"
"I say that I want no gift from the hands of Denethor's son. Banish me or kill me, it makes no odds, only have done."
"So be it. Get you gone."
Halbarad started for the door, shoving past Aragorn as he went. "Have I leave to take my horse and sword?"
"Take what you will, only be sure you have passed the Ramas Echor by nightfall."
"Have no fear of that!"
"Nay, Halbarad, think of what you do!" Boromir protested. He made as if to follow the Ranger, but Aragorn caught his arm to stop him.
Halbarad laughed harshly. "Best muzzle him well, Aragorn, lest he turn and bite you!" With that, he slammed out the door.
Boromir wrenched his arm free of Aragorn's clasp and took a step toward the doorway. He could hear Halbarad's booted feet on the flagstones of the antechamber, carrying him away from his lord, his friend, his home, and his last chance to redeem himself. Frustration boiled up in him, and he hazarded another few steps into the darkness.
"Leave him, Boromir. He has made his choice."
"I know what is torturing him. I have heard those whispers in my own mind, and I know how hard it is to silence them! Please, Aragorn, let me talk to him!"
"He'll not listen to you, and he is dangerous in this mood."
"I will make him listen! Who better to reach him than one who has walked that road before him? I must try, my King. I must."
Aragorn gave a sigh of frustration and said, wearily, "Faramir, go with him."
Together, the brothers raced through the antechamber toward the Citadel doors. Boromir could still hear the Ranger's footsteps and knew that Halbarad was too angry to move with his usual silent grace. He was not slinking away, but stalking off in a towering rage, heedless of all around him.
As he ran, Boromir shouted, "Halbarad! Stop!"
The footsteps faltered, then resumed more quickly. "He's outside," Faramir muttered.
"Halbarad!" Boromir broke into a full run. As he burst out of the doors, into the heat and warmth of courtyard, he called furiously, "Are you too much a coward to stop and face me, Ranger?!"
"No man calls me coward and lives!" Halbarad snarled.
Faramir came to an abrupt halt, pulling Boromir up short with him. "He's armed, Boromir. He has a dagger at his belt."
"I know it."
"Come, then, son of Denethor! Come and face me, man to man!"
Boromir let go Faramir's arm and stepped pointedly away from him. "Leave us, Brother. This is not your affair."
Faramir hesitated for a moment, then murmured, "If you wish it. He is just inside the upper gate, straight ahead of you. Be wary. I like not the look of him."
Boromir only grunted and took a step forward. In his mind's eye, he could see the wide, white-paved courtyard, stretching from the doors of the Citadel to the dark archway that marked the upper end of the seventh gate. Nothing stood between him and Halbarad. Of this he was sure. Yet his heart pounded hideously and his breath grew ragged with panic, as he ventured farther and farther into the emptiness. Only a consuming need to reach the other man - to find him and help him - kept Boromir moving against the swirling, treacherous current of fear that sought to overwhelm him.
"Stop there, Steward, if you value your skin." Boromir obediently halted and fixed his bandaged gaze on the Ranger. "Why do you tempt me thus? You know I would have you dead. Why put yourself in my power?"
"You will not harm me, when I am unarmed and alone. Bitter and angry you may be, deceived by the whispers of envy that torment you, but you are still a man of honor."
Halbarad laughed harshly. "And you will gamble your life on this?"
"If I must."
"To what purpose?"
"To stop this evil, now, before it claims another life."
"My life is not your concern."
"It is, if you throw it away out of hatred for me. Think, Halbarad! Why should you give up all you love, condemn yourself to the waking death of exile, only to spite me? You are the one who suffers for it, not I."
Halbarad made a queer noise in his throat, formed of tears and sour humor, and rasped, "'Tis true enough. Why should I pay for that which I have not done?"
"Give Aragorn but one chance, and he will forgive you. But you must do it now, before all the leagues of Wilderland and all the festering pain of betrayal lie between you, or there will be no way back. Do not condemn yourself, needlessly, Halbarad!"
"Have no fear of that! I will see that justice is done!"
As the words left his lips, so too the dagger at his belt scraped free of its scabbard. Boromir heard the sound and took a step backward, empty hands lifted toward his attacker.
But the Ranger was already upon him, landing with his full weight on Boromir's chest and his dagger's point driving up beneath his ribs. The double blow knocked the Steward from his feet and hurled him backward, as pain lanced through him. He fell hard, flat on his back, his head struck the pavement with a vicious crack, and the pain vanished into blackness.
Legolas heard the ring of a blade being drawn, and his head came up with a start. He had seen the Men come out of the Tower, seen Faramir withdraw again, and seen Boromir approach Halbarad. Then he had purposefully turned his eyes away, shutting his mind to the voices that carried so clearly to him, that he might not intrude on their meeting. But such a sound, at such a moment, could not be ignored.
Sunlight flashed on metal, as Halbarad drew back his arm and threw himself bodily at his rival. Legolas sprang nimbly to his feet, to the sound of Merry screaming, and began to run. Boromir was flung to the ground beneath Halbarad's weight and the force of the dagger thrust, and Halbarad leapt neatly over his sprawled body in one bound. Legolas flew across the wide court, his bow already in his hands, but the Ranger could run nearly as fast as an elf, and he was only a few paces from the upper gate.
Even as Halbarad vanished into the shadows of the tunnel, Legolas heard Gimli bellowing, loud enough to shake the windows in their casements, "Ho! Guard! Stop the Man!"
All in an instant, the elf's keen eyes took in the details of the scene. Two guards stood at the Citadel doors, but they carried only lances and swords, nothing that could reach Halbarad in time. Two more guards, he knew, waited at the lower end of the tunnel, just outside the seventh gate. They would come when called, but it would take them time to grasp what had happened, and they would not think to detain Aragorn's lieutenant. By the time they gave chase, the traitor would be gone.
Without breaking stride, Legolas turned and ran directly at the wall. A single leap took him onto the parapet, and he checked himself, balancing effortlessly on the wide stone ledge. His eyes scanned the street below. Behind him, shouts and the clash of arms filled the court, but no one had yet reached the lower end of the tunnel - no one but the Ranger and two confused sentries. Halbarad was fleeing along the curving street, headed for the sixth gate with one sentry in belated pursuit.
As fast as thought, Legolas had an arrow nocked and ready. His eyes narrowed, tracking the flight of the grey-clad Man, and the wicked point of the arrow moved with them. He waited for the sentry to shout a warning, "Halt, in the King's name!" Waited only to see that Halbarad gave no heed. Then he let fly.
The first arrow had barely left the string when he had a second fitted and the bow drawn back. Down the length of the shaft, he watched his quarry turn to pass through the sixth gate, watched him stumble as he ran and pitch headlong through the gate. Then Legolas let fall his hands, and he stared down dispassionately at the figure sprawled in the shadow of the sixth gate.
Halbarad, Dúnedan of the North, lay dead upon the cobblestones in a pool of dark blood, with an elvish arrow through his throat.
To be continued...