Chapter 17: Fellowship
Boromir listened to the soft padding of bare feet, moving inexorably away from him, and pictured the halfling's bright head bent in dejection as he walked. He should call Merry back. He should throw off this somber mood, muster his courage, and return with Merry to the wedding feast where Aragorn and all the great ones of Middle-earth celebrated together. Instead, he slumped back against the sun-warmed stone of the parapet and listened to those dragging, reluctant footsteps head back to the Citadel without him.
He heard Merry's parting words in his mind again and wondered at how far he had fallen, when his friends feared to leave him unattended for an hour or two. "Are you sure this is a good idea?" Merry had asked. "I hate to leave you here alone." Then he had pleaded, "Do try to stay out of trouble, Boromir!"
As if he could find trouble in this peaceful garden, in broad daylight, with all the city at its revels in the streets below. The Steward of Gondor did not need a keeper to guard his every step!
It occurred to Boromir, as he settled his shoulders against the curved wall and tilted his face up to catch a wayward breeze, that a keeper was exactly what he needed. But he thrust that thought away from him, before it could begin to rankle too bitterly, and willed his mind to empty. Willed himself to ignore the familiar cold knot of loneliness that tightened in the pit of his stomach when Merry walked away. After the noise and bustle of the Tower, he did not want company. He wanted nothing but quiet, solitude and peace in which to rest.
Below him in the streets of Minas Tirith, the singing went on as it had since daybreak, as the people of Gondor welcomed their new Queen, and with the swell of voices came the thick, sweet scent of flowers borne on the hot summer air. Music and perfume. They had surrounded him throughout the day, clinging to his flesh like the folds of his velvet cloak, weighing upon him like the chain mail he wore beneath his wedding finery. He found them oddly oppressive, even as he savored them for the joy they heralded.
The Steward knew that his own weariness and dejection had little to do with the day itself. In truth, this had been a glorious day, a day of wonders to rival even that on which Aragorn had claimed his crown. All the city celebrated the union of Elessar and Arwen Undómiel, rejoicing in their King's long-delayed happiness, and Boromir shared his people's joy in full measure. But beneath his gladness lurked a quiet, aching melancholy that he could not banish.
By all rights, he should be as elated as Aragorn on this day. It marked a beginning - not just for the newly wedded couple, but for all Gondor and all the race of Men - and for none so much as for Boromir, son of Denethor.
His hand strayed to the heavy brooch that secured his cloak at the throat, and he touched it with something akin to reverence. His fingertips brushed over smooth enamel, marked by a sprinkling of hard, sharp gems. Tiny they were, like stars scattered across a midnight sky. And at the center of the oval face, faint but unmistakable, was inlaid the familiar shape of a great horn. He could feel the cool threads of silver set into the warmer enamel, tracing the contours of the horn where it lay among the star gems.
Of all the day's wonders, this small gift was the greatest. Boromir could still hear the warmth in Aragorn's voice as he pinned the device to Boromir's cloak with his own hands and said, "The Horn of Gondor is not broken. It lies amidst the stars of Anórien, and I give both into your keeping. I name you Boromir, son of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, Prince of Anórien."
Tears thickened Boromir's throat at the memory. Aragorn had given him Anórien. And to Faramir had gone Ithilien, that green and secret land that his brother loved as no other. The King could have chosen no gifts that would touch the brothers more deeply or bind them more strongly to him, had either of them needed such outward tenders of his love.
Boromir traced again the graceful curve of the horn, and he swallowed painfully to ease the growing ache of the tears he could not shed. Prince of Anórien. The title conjured up in his mind an image of soaring mountains clad in purple shadows and crowned with snow, of trees black in the moonlight, of a midnight sky glimpsed through twisted branches, strewn with stars.
His hand fell to his lap, and he curled his fingers into a tight fist, as if to keep close the memory of what they had touched. As he had all this day, Boromir felt at once proud and disheartened, glad and sorrowful, for this peerless gift came at a price: the loss of his brother.
Faramir, too, had a princedom to rule and naught to hold him in Minas Tirith save a brother's love. Duty and inclination bound him to Ithilien. He would make a princely home in Emyn Arnen and grace it with a wife worthy of its beauty. Éowyn, White Lady of Rohan. Faramir's joy at this prospect was palpable, his regret at leaving the White City and Boromir no more than an echo of sadness, quickly overwhelmed and forgotten. Boromir could not fault him for his happiness, nor could he diminish it with his own sorrow.
Deep as was his love for Minas Tirith and strongly as his heart was rooted here, Boromir felt increasingly as if he were being set adrift in the city, anchored nowhere, guided by no one. Aragorn remained, but Boromir could not look to him for support. Indeed, it was the Steward who must support the King, not the reverse, and Aragorn would expect Boromir to be at his side, ready, when the press of duties grew too much for one man to bear. But how was he to take his place at the King's side, when he had no friendly hand to guide him there?
That was the heart of the matter, the source of his melancholy and the fear that lurked around each dark corner for him. All those he loved and trusted were leaving him, in one way or another, to muddle through as best he might with none but strangers to aid him. Perhaps this was Aragorn's way of forcing a final decision upon him, of stiffening his resolve to accept the harsh necessities of his life, rally his courage, and step forward without brother or friend at his side to protect him. If so, then the loss of his brother was meant for his own good, and he should be grateful. But for the moment, he could find no gratitude, only grief and loneliness.
The voice jolted him rudely from his reverie and brought him halfway to his feet in alarm.
"My lord, are you ill?"
He sank back on the bench, feeling his face heat with embarrassment. So deeply had he lost himself in thought that he had not heard the crunch of feet on gravel or the rustle of heavy skirts. Now he found himself torn between laughter and chagrin at being caught unawares.
"Gil. I did not hear you approach."
"I am sorry if I intrude."
"Nay. 'Tis only that you startled me." Struggling to regain his composure, he leaned back against the parapet and fixed her with his bandaged gaze, a wry smile tilting his lips. "You should know better than to creep up on me like that, Gil. I might have spit you on my sword before I knew you for a friend."
"I am more afraid of being trampled, scalded or knocked headlong over the wall," she retorted sourly.
The smile widened into a full grin, as he relaxed into the familiar sparring of a conversation with Gil. "Dare you come any closer?"
"I am safe enough. I brought no teapot with me." Abruptly, Gil left off her banter and said in a voice of genuine concern, "You have been sitting here for close on an hour, my lord. Is there aught you need? Where is Master Merry?"
"Merry is at the feast, in attendance upon Éomer King. He would have fled the party with me, but he has a duty to his liege lord that he cannot shirk."
"Then you are alone."
"Aye, by choice."
"I beg your pardon. I will leave you now," she said stiffly.
"Nay, do not!" His words halted her move to depart, and he heard the scrape of her feet in the gravel as she turned to face him once more. Rising swiftly to his feet, he offered her a courteous bow and his most charming smile. "I pray you, walk with me a while about the gardens. Do not leave me to the mercy of my own thoughts!"
"My lord, I..."
He crooked his elbow, invitingly. "Come, Gil. Will you not join me?"
Gil gave a snort of disgust, just to let him know that she was not beguiled by his courtly manner, and slipped a hand through his arm. "You needn't play off your tricks for me," she scolded. "I am bound to obey you."
With a chuckle, Boromir turned to his right, away from the Houses of Healing, and set off along the curve of the wall. Gil fell into step beside him and let him set both their pace and their direction, guiding his steps only when some obstacle threatened. Together, they strolled down the gentle slope of the lawn to the west.
They walked in easy silence, and Boromir made no attempt to break it, content merely to enjoy the smell of warm grass, the feel of sunlight on his face, and Gil's company. With her beside him, he had no desire to dwell on loss or sadness. He felt his spirits lift and the aching knot of sorrow in him ease. In truth, from the moment her voice had startled him out of his brooding, he had not thought of princedoms or partings, but only of the comfort he drew from a friend's welcome presence.
In this state of quiet contentment, he made no effort to examine his heart or consider where it might lead him. He did not want to consider how absurd his friendship with Gil must look in the eyes of his peers. Nor did he want to think of the duties that would inevitably keep him mewed up in the Citadel, far from the Houses of Healing and this garden. That a common drudge had no place in the Steward's life was a fact - unpalatable, but inescapable - and somewhere within himself, Boromir knew that he must soon accept it. Then would come another parting, another friend and guide lost.
As if echoing his thoughts, Gil suddenly spoke. "I did not think to see you here again, my lord. You have not visited us for many days, not since Lord Elfstone came for you."
He responded lightly, without thinking, in his wonted teasing manner, "Is that a reproach? Why, Gil, can it be that you missed me?"
She flinched and made a move to withdraw her hand, but Boromir forestalled her. His hand clasped hers, holding it firmly against his arm, and he said softly, "I am sorry. I did not mean to offend you."
"You did not."
"I did, but it is foolishness, Gil. You need not be afraid of me."
"I am not," she asserted, her voice trembling.
"I missed you." Even as the words left his lips, the truth of them struck him with the force of a cudgel blow, stopping him dead in his tracks and rocking him back on his heels. He had missed her. He had missed her dreadfully, and the thought of never walking at her side again or hearing her low grunt of laughter or engaging in another skirmish of caustic wit with her formed a cold lump of loss within him. In that moment he knew that he could not bear to bid farewell to yet another friend.
"Gil." He turned to face her squarely, reaching to catch her by the arms. She stiffened alarmingly beneath his touch, and he felt as though he had grasped a marble statue between his hands. Recklessly, he tightened his hold on her and refused to back away, though he knew that he was teetering on the brink of utter disaster. "Gil, did you not miss me just a little?"
Her voice came as a hiss of outrage and panic in his ears. "Do not ask me that, my lord!"
"I must, for I tell you honestly that I missed you, that I am glad to be with you again and loath to leave you, knowing that it may be weeks or months or an endless time before we meet again." Easing his grip on her arms, he let his hands drop away, freeing her. "I cannot command your trust. If you will not give it freely, will not look upon me as a friend, there is naught that I can do to compel you. But know that you have mine in full measure, and trust is something I do not give lightly."
"You cannot call me friend. You are the Steward of Gondor, and I am a drudge. A menial."
"I know well what you are, for you will scarce let me forget it. I know what I am and what gulf yawns between us, and that is why I must keep you near me. I must not lose you in the darkness."
"I do not like this jest, my lord! I beg you, have done!"
"'Tis no jest." Carefully, so as not to startle her into instant flight, he lifted a hand to rest on her shoulder. "I should have seen it before, had I not been so intent on licking my wounds and bemoaning my fate. How simple it now seems!"
"What is simple?"
"Aragorn has charged me with finding a squire to be my guide and chief attendant. I delayed in the vain hope that some inspiration might come to me, some escape, but I have been thrice a fool! Gil, my dear, crusty, obstinate Gil, you are all the guide I need!"
A tremor ran through Gil's body, and Boromir knew that only a lifetime of rigid discipline kept her from taking to her heels, leaving him stranded in this unfamiliar place. "You are cruel to mock me so!" she hissed.
"Indeed, I do not. I am in earnest."
"Your wits have turned."
"Then must you humor me in my madness."
"I will not. It is folly! Wicked folly!"
Gil floundered for a moment, making strangled, inarticulate sounds as she hunted for a telling argument. At last, she blurted out, "Squires are noblemen's sons!"
"Aye, so they are."
"What am I? A baseborn creature with no name, unlettered and untrained in the ways of the court? A woman? A nice figure I should cut among the highborn of Gondor, in my drudge's apron and kerchief!"
Almost he laughed, so great was the need to relieve the apprehension and urgency building within him. But he controlled the impulse and said, his voice trembling slightly, "We might find you garments more fitting to your station."
"I know my station. And I am properly clothed for it."
"For a drudge, perhaps, but not for the Steward's squire. Your skirts would most likely prove awkward, especially on horseback."
"Horseback!" Gil recoiled from him, jerking her shoulder out of his grasp, and cried in horror, "You have truly run mad!"
"Do you not ride?"
She shuddered. "Nay, I do not. Nor do I mean to get anywhere near one of those beasts!"
"Horses are not so bad, once you learn to handle them," he remarked, letting a note of entreaty creep into his voice.
"I will not learn. I will not." Boromir opened his mouth to speak, but she overbore him, nearly shouting, "The King himself could not make me do it!"
"Very well." In contrast to her burgeoning panic, Boromir sounded unnaturally calm and reasonable. He knew it for the calm of desperation, but Gil did not. "I shall find a groom to ride with me."
"Ride with you?" she demanded, scandalized. "You would put me up on a horse... with you?"
"Nay, we have agreed that you will not ride. And mayhap you are right to refuse. It would not be seemly to go about with a young woman perched before me in the saddle, no matter what garments she wore."
"It certainly would not!"
"But I still deem a tunic and breeches more suited to a squire's duties than skirts."
Gil tried to laugh, tried to match his apparent ease, but failed utterly. "Do you think I would make a passable boy?"
"I know not. Would you?" Her only answer was a wordless snarl, and Boromir instantly abandoned his attempt at humor. "I am thinking only of your comfort, Gil. You are accustomed to moving about the Houses and garden, dressed in your drudge's weeds, unnoticed and largely unseen."
"I like it that way."
"Aye. But were you to stand among the squires and pages that throng the court dressed as you are, every eye in the Great Hall would be drawn to you. Dressed as a squire, though any fool would know you for a woman at a glance, few would bother to cast even that first glance in your direction. You would be as nameless and faceless to most of the city as you are now."
"Until all Gondor began to whisper that the Steward's squire was a foundling brat."
"Are you afraid of whispers? I am not. I will protect you from them and defend your honor as I do my own."
She hesitated, and Boromir could sense her doubt in the way she shifted restlessly from one foot to the other and wiped her palms against the rough fabric of her skirt. He made no move to touch her, giving her space enough to breathe freely and the chance to flee if she wished, but he had to fight the urge to grab her, shake her roughly, and tell her not to be such a blind, stubborn fool. He knew full well how he would respond to such treatment, and he knew Gil well enough to be certain she would do the same. So the only course open to him was to wait and to pray that she trusted him enough to consider his words.
"You would... fight for me?" she whispered, at last.
"Assuredly I would. It is my duty as your liege lord and my privilege as your friend."
"Because you are my friend. And I am your Steward, whether or not you choose to become my squire."
Again, she paused, then asked with a quiet, fierce intensity, "Why is this so important to you, lord?"
His hands closed into fists, clenched tightly against his thighs, and his face hardened with strain. He knew that he had touched Gil, had goaded her into revealing herself, into asking for the truth. And now he must give her the truth in return. Nothing less would suffice, though the necessity of it turned his innards cold with fear.
"I need your help, Gil." His voice sounded harsh in his own ears. "I cannot shoulder the burdens of my stewardship without it, and if I cannot be Steward in truth as well as in name, then I am nothing. Broken and useless. Fit only to beg on a street corner, as my enemies would have it."
"There are others more fitted to help you."
"But none I trust as I do you."
Boromir held out both his hands and waited until he felt Gil's fingers rest on his palms. They were cold and they trembled slightly, but she made no move to withdraw them when he tightened his clasp. The touch steadied him and gave him courage. "Can you understand what it means to be surrounded, hemmed in by strangers? To feel that all your life is governed by your need of them?" His voice shook, and he paused for a moment, struggling for a measure of control. "It is a fearful thing to realize that your safety, your honor, your integrity as a Steward and Prince lie in the hands of faceless strangers."
"You can learn to trust them."
"I have no time to learn. I must take up my duties and entrust myself to a legion of secretaries, squires, body servants, grooms... They will have the sifting and reading of every letter, the penning of every dispatch, the guiding of my steps and the serving of my food. I cannot dress myself without a servant by me to choose which cloak and boots I wear!" He shook his head angrily, feeling a familiar, gnawing bitterness well up in him. "If just one of my attendants is lax in his work, corrupted by ambition, or too rash in his judgements, 'tis I who must answer for it. And my King who must set my blunders to rights. Nay, I have no time to learn trust, as I have no leisure for mistakes!"
"What would you have of me? I cannot read or write. I will neither ride with you nor attend you in your chambers. You would still need your host of attendants, whether or not I am among them. I do not understand how I can help you."
"You can be the friend who stands with me, the welcome voice in the darkness, the arm that does not flinch from my touch. You can make the rest of it endurable."
"That... that is truly how you think of me?"
Boromir bowed his head, shielding his face from her gaze, and spoke quietly, from the depths of his bruised and weary heart. "Each time I take another creature's arm and let him guide my steps, I am placing myself in his hands. It is not something I can choose to do or not to do. It is the only means I have of moving farther than a few strides from where I stand. And each time I do it, I am reminded how fragile and vital is trust. Even the strongest friendship or family bond becomes doubtful in that moment, when I must swallow my pride and place my trust in that other, unseen creature.
"There are only a few whom I can trust so completely without fear or strain. Aragorn, Merry, Pippin, my brother. And you. Do not ask me how you came to be among those few, for I cannot explain it. Perhaps it is as simple as a lack of pity. You have never shown me pity, and your fear is of my title, not my blindness. Whatever the reason, I can take your arm, follow your steps, listen to your voice chide me for my clumsiness, and feel myself at home in your company. That is more than important to me, Gil, it is everything. Without it, I am lost and alone and... afraid."
Gil stood in silence, pondering Boromir's words and struggling with her private doubts, while Boromir waited. He could do no more than wait, his spirit turned to lead within him, his nerves aching as if they had been scraped raw with a dull sword. When Gil stirred, letting her breath out on a long sigh and returning the clasp of his fingers very slightly, he knew that she had come to a decision. Her voice sounded flat and wooden in his ears, but her words were music.
"I believe it wrong for you to place such trust in me, but if you would, then I am willing and honored to have it so."
Relief and gratitude flooded him, lighting his face with a brilliant smile. He felt a momentary urge to embrace her but contented himself with lifting their clasped hands to his breast and saying, simply, "Thank you, Gil."
"Are you certain that this is what you want?"
"Without a doubt."
"And we are agreed... no horses."
He laughed, but it came out closer to a sob. "No horses."
As she proceeded to number all the things she could not or would not do, she seemed to regain her composure. He voice took on its wonted crispness and her words became demands. "You know that I cannot read or write."
"You can learn. Or are you as leery of words as you are of horses?"
She gave a small, neutral grunt, then added, "I'll not enter your chambers after you retire or before you breakfast."
"I will give the servants no food for gossip!"
"Nor will I."
"And I must have your leave to deal with the other squires in my own way. Boys are a pesky lot, and only get worse as they get older. If I am to hold my own among them, I must win and keep my place!"
"Only tell me of any trouble from that quarter and I will..."
"Nay, that is my battle." A new thought suddenly occurred to her, and she asked in alarm, "Where am I to live, my lord? I cannot sleep in the squires' hall!"
"I will find you a private chamber in the Tower. The Chamberlain will know best where to put you."
"Is there aught else that troubles you, Gil?"
"All of this troubles me. I called it folly, and folly it is, but... I have said that I will do it."
"Perhaps it is folly, but I hope it will bring us both a measure of content. You may find that you enjoy being more than a drudge."
"Or I may not."
"If you are truly unhappy, tell me of it. I will not hold you to a bargain that injures you. But if your fears and hurts are such that I can mend them, I will. Trust me, Gil."
"I do. That is why I have agreed to this madness."
Offering her another unguarded smile, he lifted one hand to drop a light kiss on her knuckles. Gil's hand twitched in his, trying to withdraw, but he held her firmly, drawing her to his side and tucking her hand in the curve of his arm. "Come then, let us to the Houses and speak to the Warden. We will ask his leave and the King's before we dress you up as a boy and turn you loose on the unsuspecting court."
As he spoke, Boromir turned so that the ground sloped uphill before him, and he began walking. Gil moved with him out of habit, but when they had gone only a few paces, she halted and drew her hand from his arm.
"Stay, my lord, this is not meet. You would not offer your arm to a squire. How is it you walk with the halfling? Or with your brother?"
"When you wear breeches, I will treat you as a squire. But while you still wear your skirts, I will treat you as a lady."
"But I am not..."
"Be still. The first lesson you must learn is not to argue with everything I say."
Her voice held a suspicious hint of laughter when she asked, "What is the second."
"Not to ask impertinent questions."
Gil uttered her customary grunt and put her hand on his arm again. "Aye, my lord."
"I expect I will soon grow heartily sick of those words."
She paused, then said, demurely, "Aye, my lord."
Boromir was still laughing as they set off through the gardens together.
*** *** ***
"Don't shuffle," Merry cried in exasperation, "and keep your head up!"
The slim figure, clad all in black and silver, halted its pacing to stand glaring at him. "I do not shuffle, Master Perian."
"You do," he retorted, making no effort to soften his tone or curb his annoyance. After most of a morning spent in company with the Steward's squire, trying to accustom her to her new station in life and her new clothes, he had learned that bluntness served him better than courtesy. "You walk like a drudge."
"I am a drudge."
"You are not. You are a squire, with some standing at court, and you must carry yourself with dignity."
"A real squire may have standing - a noble father and a chance at knighthood, at the least - but I am..."
"You stand higher than any of them." Hopping down from his seat in the window embrasure, Merry crossed to where Gil stood and glowered up at her, daring her to contradict him. "You wear the Steward's livery."
Her hand moved to touch the front of her garment, fingering the device stitched upon her breast, and her scowl turned thoughtful. "Aye. But it does not make me a true squire."
"Then you must learn to be one, for Boromir's sake and your own. Now try it again. And don't shuffle."
She favored him with a parting glare but obediently began to walk the length of the chamber again, her movements an odd mixture of hesitant and defiant. Merry watched her critically, shaking his head, a frown of concentration on his face.
He had spent much of the morning with Gil, here in the great council chamber. It offered them privacy and room to move freely, and Aragorn had ordered that they not be interrupted while they worked. It was now late morning, and the sun rode high above the plains, barely touching the tall, arched windows with its beams. Bars of light fell across the stone flags just beneath the windows, but most of the lofty chamber remained in shadow and comfortably cool.
Gil, in her dark livery, looked like a living part of those shadows. She was both small and slender, and from a distance she strongly resembled the noble youth that her clothing proclaimed her to be. It was only when he looked in her face and saw the mature woman gazing suspiciously back at him, or when he watched her move in her peculiar, hunched, heavy way that Merry recognized the drudge in this boyish figure.
If she could only hold herself upright and step forward with confidence, Merry thought, she would look the part to perfection. But of course, she could not. She had spent all her life as a menial, scurrying about her work with her head down, avoiding the feet and eyes and notice of her betters. She had spent only a few days as a squire, and that in name only, for she would not assume her duties while Merry remained in the city to attend her lord. Nor would she show herself in public until her garments were ready - the boy's surcote fit to her woman's body and the Steward's colors blazoned upon the black velvet.
This morning had, at last, left her no excuse for delay. With her livery hanging, finished, in her servant's cell, and with Merry due to leave at daybreak on the morrow, the time had come for the Steward's squire to take her place at his side. Even her claim that Ioreth could not spare her for another day had been belied by Ioreth herself, who had marched Gil up to the Tower and forcibly installed her in her new quarters. The old woman had wept tears of joy when she saw her foundling child clad in the rich livery of a royal squire, with the Horn and stars of Anórien upon her breast and the band of white silk edging her black tunic. As a final gesture of love and pride, Ioreth had dressed Gil's hair with her own hands, braiding it and twisting it about her head into a shining coronet that she covered with a velvet cap.
It was this creature made up of contradictions who now stood before Merry, hunched defensively, her eyes dark and wary in the cool shadows. Neither young nor old, part elvish boy and part stolid drudge, fragile-seeming yet unbroken by years of labor, possessed of a dignity that had nothing to do with her worth in the eyes of Men. She glared at him from behind her blank, wooden mask that was a kind of defiance in itself, and demanded,
"What say you, Master Merry? Am I a disgrace to our Steward?"
Merry sighed. "You do look odd when you walk that way, but I don't suppose Boromir will notice."
"Unless you tell him I am not fit for a squire."
"Why would I do that?"
Heaving a sigh of her own, Gil sat down on the edge of the hearth. Merry crossed to her and boosted himself up on the hearthstone to sit beside her. She looked so dejected that he wanted to touch her hand, to offer some comfort, but he restrained the urge and kept his own hands firmly clasped around his knees.
"Is that what you want, Gil? For me to tell Boromir that you can't do this?"
"It matters naught what I want." She crossed her arms in a protective gesture and seemed to draw her head down between her shoulders, retreating into herself. "He would think it a betrayal."
"No... not that, exactly..."
Merry knew well how much Gil's help meant to Boromir. He had seen the relief in his friend's face, heard the tentative dawning of hope in his voice when he spoke of taking Gil as his squire. And for the first time, Merry could think of leaving Gondor without feeling the cold clutch of despair at his heart. If Gil took fright and deserted Boromir now, Merry knew that he would not find the courage to ride away from the city gates, come dawn tomorrow. And if he did not go tomorrow, he would never go.
"It will not serve, Master Perian. You know it will not."
"Please don't say that."
"This is folly."
"Whatever it is, it must work. It must." In desperation, Merry dropped his guard and let loose the emotions he had kept under tight rein all through the morning. Pain welled up in him, tears stung his eyes, and his voice took on a frantic edge. "I beg you, Gil. If you won't do it for Boromir or for yourself, then do it for me. Promise me that you will stand with him, as his squire and his friend. Promise me!"
She lifted her head and fixed her intent gaze on him. "For you? This is what you want?"
"'Tis you who should stand with him, not I. You love him as no one else, and he loves you. How can I hope to fill that place?"
"Promise me," Merry whispered, doggedly.
"And if I do not..." He shook his head helplessly, too choked by tears to answer her. To his surprise, she reached over to clasp his hand in strong, slender, callused fingers. "Will you not stay and serve him, Merry?"
"I cannot." He swallowed convulsively and forced the words out past the lump in his throat. "I must go home."
"Even if it tears your heart in two?"
"It will not, if I have your word that you won't leave him."
Gil did not speak for a long moment, and when she found her voice again, it had dropped to a soft murmur. "Does it mean so much to you?"
The single word held a wealth of conviction and feeling, and Merry could see Gil struggle beneath the weight of it. For a moment, fear and longing blazed openly in her face for Merry to see, but then she turned away, shuttering her thoughts behind heavy eyelids and the blank expression he knew so well. At last she said, with a touch of wry humor, "Then I must strive not to disgrace either one of you."
"You won't," he assured her, somewhat damply. Wiping his nose on his sleeve and giving a prosaic sniff, he climbed to his feet to stand on the high hearth. "At least, you won't so long as you don't shuffle. Let's try it again."
Gil shot him a swift, humorous look and stood up, bringing her head on a level with his. "How long will you keep flogging this lame horse, Master Perian?"
Merry smiled, relief shining through the tearstains on his face. "Until the horse learns to walk."
"Or falls down dead of exhaustion."
*** *** ***
Frodo stood on the stone bench, leaning over the parapet to watch the shadows lengthening upon the fields below. The sun was sliding behind the peak of Mindolluin, casting the Pelennor into gloom and gilding the distant curve of Anduin with its last rays. Beyond the river towered the Mountains of Shadow, painted rose and gold in the dying light, with the shimmering, secretive green of Ithilien at their feet.
"This is a lovely spot," he murmured.
Beside him, Merry crossed his arms on the top of the wall and leaned his chin upon them. His eyes gazed into the distance, full of memory and melancholy. "I spend a lot of time here. It's my favorite place in all the city." He paused for a moment, still gazing outward, then added, "It is strange to think that we may never look upon those mountains again, or see the river running silver across the plain. I've grown so used to all this grandeur that I won't know what to make of the dear, old Shire when I see it again."
"It will be something of a shock to go home, but I'll be glad to see it, all the same."
"I will, and no mistake," Sam muttered.
Both Merry and Frodo turned to look at him, where he pottered and poked through a nearby flowerbed, and Frodo smiled. "Have you had enough of great mountains and cities, Sam?"
"That I have, Mister Frodo. Give me a snug hobbit hole with a proper garden, and you can keep your cities."
"I do miss the gurgle of the Brandywine on a summer evening," Merry admitted, "and the glimmer of light from the windows of Brandy Hall."
"A pot of ale at the Green Dragon," Frodo offered.
"A pouch full of the best Longbottom Leaf."
"The smell of seed cakes baking..."
"...in the kitchen at Bag End!"
Frodo grinned in delight. "It will be nice to get home!"
Merry sighed and turned away from the vista of the plains below to look toward the garden gate. "I wish I felt that way." He sank down on the bench, propping his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands. "I wish Boromir would come."
"What time did he say to meet him here?"
"Dusk, or thereabouts. But he was deep in talk with Aragorn and Imrahil, and to judge by the pile of lists on the desk, they could be at it all night."
"Don't worry. He won't fail us. The Fellowship will have its last few hours together."
As if summoned by his words, the crunch of booted feet sounded on the pathway. Merry knew that step as surely as he did the tall, proud figure that approached and the voice that hailed him, cheerfully. He bounded off his seat before his name had left Boromir's lips and ran up the grassy slope to meet him. Frodo fixed a thoughtful gaze on his back and Sam a doubtful one, but Merry ignored them both, too relieved and delighted at seeing his friend again to care what the other hobbits thought of him.
"Boromir! You're late! Hullo, Gil."
Gil turned to look at him but neither smiled nor broke her stride, merely inclined her head slightly. Boromir's hand seemed to weigh heavily on her shoulder, but Merry knew that it was not the burden of responsibility that made her move so deliberately, only caution. Under his tutelage, she had put aside her drudge's shuffle, but she had not yet learned to walk with any ease in her unaccustomed garb. She pushed her feet forward as though thrusting aside heavy skirts and planted her light shoes on the gravel path with grim finality.
"I am not late," Boromir chided, his free hand dropping to rest on Merry's head, as the hobbit fell into step at his side. "The sun sets even now, and I am here as promised."
"True, but I have been waiting and waiting." He peered around Boromir's large person to smile impishly at Gil. "And worrying that Gil's courage would fail her in the end."
The squire lifted her chin haughtily. "I know my duty, Master Perian."
They moved up to the bench, and Merry guided Boromir to the corner of the embrasure, where he always sat with his back to the curved wall. As the Man settled onto the bench, Frodo stirred, breaking his perfect, hobbitish stillness and bringing Boromir's head up with a start.
"Hello, Boromir," he said.
"Frodo." It cost Boromir a visible effort to relax, as it always did when he found himself in Frodo's company, but he managed it. The tautness of his shoulders eased and the closed look left his face. Then he smiled with genuine warmth. "Sam must be here, as well, I think. Good evening to you, Samwise."
"Master Boromir." Sam left off his study of the flowerbed and moved up beside Frodo. Like Boromir, he approached these meetings with caution, but unlike the Man, he made no attempt to overcome his wariness. Frodo's many assurances that Boromir meant him no harm and was, in fact, a valued friend had done much to allay Sam's doubts but had not made him comfortable in Boromir's presence. Steward and gardener treated each other with a scrupulous, guarded respect. "Begging your pardon, Master Boromir, but who is this boy you've brought with you? Or who brought you here with him, I should say."
"'Tis no boy. 'Tis my squire, Gil, and a lady."
Both Frodo and Sam stared at Gil in frank curiosity, and Merry saw a dark flush creep into her cheeks. Sam saw it as well and gave an apologetic grunt. "I don't know as I've ever seen a lady in such outlandish clothes, but I reckon you make a right proper squire." He bobbed his head affably at her and said, "Samwise Gamgee, at your service."
Gil started to curtsey but realized, too late, that she wore no skirt and turned it into an awkward bow. "Master Perian."
Frodo, with the instinctive kindness and courtesy that never deserted him, began making conversation with Gil, trying to draw her out. Sam climbed onto the bench next to Frodo and listened to their somewhat stilted talk. Merry was grateful to his cousin, both for the attempt to make Gil feel welcome and for giving Merry a chance to talk privately with Boromir. But when the hobbit drew close to his friend's side, apart from the others, he found that he had little to say.
All through the day, the awareness that time was running short and that every hour spent brought him closer to parting had weighed upon Merry's thoughts and tied his tongue. Words of farewell, of loyalty and love and lasting friendship, poured frantically from his lips when Boromir was not by. But when he looked into that beloved face, saw his own sorrow and dread reflected there, the words deserted him. He had a few more hours yet to postpone it. A few more hours simply to sit with Boromir, listen to his voice, feel his touch, and pretend that the morrow might never come.
With a sigh of contentment, Merry sank down to sit on the grass at Boromir's feet. His head leaned trustingly against the Man's knee, and a familiar hand rested upon his curls. A happiness beyond words filled Merry's breast, driving away all fear of what was to come, and he knew that Boromir felt it as well by the gentle, protective quality of his touch. For a precious time, Merry allowed himself to be happy, allowed himself to forget.
The other members of the Fellowship began to arrive, drawn from their various pursuits to this last meeting upon the walls of the White City. Legolas and Gimli came first, climbing the gentle slope from the west end of the garden together, laughing at a shared jest. Pippin said goodbye to Bergil at the gate and ran down the path, calling boisterously to his friends, his voice shrill on the evening air. Gandalf appeared next, from what secret errand none could guess, with his staff and his pipe and a pouch full of good pipeweed to share with his companions.
The last to arrive was Aragorn with, to Merry's surprise, Faramir beside him. Faramir hung back when he saw the company into which the King had brought him, insisting that he did not wish to intrude, but he was overborne.
"Nonsense," the Gandalf said, when he would have withdrawn, "we will have quite enough of our own company on the journey west. You are welcome among us, so long as you can endure the prattling of hobbits."
"And the grumbling of wizards," Pippin countered.
Greetings and warm laughter rang in the air. There could be no constraint between such friends as these, and the knowledge that they would begin another journey together on the morrow only drew them closer to each other, lightening their hearts and loosening their tongues. They found seats upon the grass or atop the stone parapet, making themselves at home, filling the cool southern night with the warmth of their voices and the smell of burning pipeweed.
Gil stayed well out of the group, hiding in the thickening shadows to the west of the embrasure where the others were gathered. All of the Fellowship, save Frodo and Sam, had met her in her drudge's guise, and they likewise knew of her change of state. They treated her with courtesy, the more garrulous among them trying to tease her out of her taciturn mood, but she held herself aloof.
She seemed most nervous at meeting Faramir, but Merry suspected that Aragorn had spoken a few words in the Prince's ear and cautioned him to treat her gently, for he gave her no more than a polite nod in passing. Whatever his private opinions, Faramir was a just man, and he loved his brother. He would do nothing to threaten Boromir's well being, even if it meant that he must tolerate the drudge's presence.
Merry also suspected that Faramir had been brought here for a reason - at Boromir's request, or at least with his consent - for the Steward showed no surprise at his brother's appearance and was as vocal as the rest in urging him to stay. This thought intrigued the hobbit, used as he was to knowing every thought revolving in Boromir's head. Perhaps he simply wanted to enjoy Faramir's company while he still could, since his brother would ride with the King for Rohan tomorrow. But if so, then he stayed strangely silent and made no effort to engage him in conversation.
The talk flowed steadily as the sun sank into the west, and the stars began to glimmer in the velvet sky. Inevitably, thoughts turned to the journey ahead of them, and they began to talk of their planned road. Merry tried to shut out the voices, to hold onto his feeling of peace and contentment, but the fear of what the morning brought crept inexorably back into his heart, causing it to ache afresh.
Suddenly, the words of a song he had known since childhood popped into his head and came, unbidden, to his lips.
The road goes ever on and on
It was not until Frodo laughed that Merry realized he had spoken aloud. He broke off, embarrassed that he had thus shown his melancholy to all the company. But Frodo was delighted.
"Thank you, Merry! Bilbo's old Walking Song is just what we need to start us on our way home!"
"So long as the road goes home," Sam interjected, "and not off on another adventure. I've had my fill of adventures."
Frodo smiled down at him, his eyes looking strangely weary in the growing darkness. "So have I, Sam. I'd like a nice, quiet tramp through Middle-earth in summer, with nothing more to worry about than where to find enough firewood and fresh game for the stewpot."
"And a dry place to sleep, with no acorns in your back," Sam added.
"Let us hope you are granted that much," Gandalf said, his normally gruff tones softened by affection. "You have certainly earned it. All of you."
"You're coming with us, aren't you, Gandalf?" Pippin demanded.
"I am, for part of the journey, at least."
"Then you will look after us."
Gandalf chuckled. "Your faith in me is touching, Pippin, but when have I ever led you away from adventure?"
"Well, there's a first time for everything. And it seems to me that adventures are not so thick on the ground as they once were, since you and Strider and Frodo set things to rights."
"They are of more manageable size, at any rate." The old Wizard drew deeply on his pipe and muttered to himself, "Just about hobbit-sized, I should think."
Merry, who sat close enough to hear, shuddered. Boromir must have felt it and understood his distress, for he abruptly straightened up and asked, his head tilted back as though looking at the sky, "Are there stars tonight?"
Merry looked up at the gorgeous, jeweled display above them and smiled. "Yes."
"Then it is time for me to beg your indulgence and my brother's kind offices."
"What would you have of me?" Faramir asked, amusement and a faint, caustic note of suspicion in his voice.
Faramir laughed. "Nay, Brother. I know well how you pay me for my stories! We are too old for such boys' tricks!"
"You promised me this one. Do you not remember? When we had Elvish stars overhead?"
The smile faded from Faramir's lips. "Aye. The legend of Gilthaethil." His eyes shifted to where Gil's slight figure lurked in the shadows, and Merry caught a fleeting, troubled frown upon his face. "There are others here who would know that tale better than I. Have Legolas or Aragorn tell it, or Mithrandir, who knows the lore of Men and Elves alike!"
Boromir's answer could be heard by all the Fellowship, yet Merry sensed that it was meant for Faramir alone. "It is your voice that I would hear. Please, Brother, ere you leave our city and our home, do this for me."
Faramir hesitated for another moment longer, his gaze shifting again to the silent squire, then his face relaxed suddenly into a smile. "As you will."
Frodo immediately hopped down from his place on the bench and gestured for Faramir to take it, while he joined Sam on the grass. The Man rose gracefully to his feet and moved to claim his storyteller's seat. Merry was struck by his easy assumption of command, by the way all eyes followed him and all attention stayed fixed upon him. Even Gil drifted from her hiding place to stand where she could watch his face as he spoke. The moonlight seemed to gather where he sat, shining in his hair and eyes, throwing his features into pale relief against the night.
"This is the tale of Maeldhuin and Gilthaethil,* as I heard it long ago." Faramir let his eyes fall half-closed, and his face took on a dreamy, far away look. In a soft, almost reverent tone, he sang a few lines in Elvish. Merry did not understand the words, but he heard the sorrow and longing in them. As Faramir let the last notes fade, Frodo sighed softly with regret.
"Do you know all of the song?" he asked.
Faramir smiled and shrugged. "'Tis a long poem and many years since I heard it in full."
"He knows it," Boromir said, promptly.
Faramir laughed. "Mayhap. But tonight, I will do my best to render it in the common tongue. 'Tis a tale of valor and loyalty and deadly peril, a sorrowful tale but still hopeful withal. And 'tis a love story, of a kind."
"Aye, so it is," Legolas murmured thoughtfully. "Of an Elvish kind."
"All of the Elvish stories I've heard end badly," Pippin said, "especially the love stories."
Faramir chuckled again, but his face was soft with melancholy. "You will judge how this one ends, Master Perian, and tell me if it is Elvish enough for you."
He leaned forward in his seat, bringing his voice closer to them all and letting Merry see the gleam of his eyes in the darkness. "You know already the tale of the Rings of Power." All around the group, heads moved in quick, eager nods. "The tale of how Sauron seduced the Elven-smiths of Eregion with honeyed words and treacherous gifts, how he guided them in the forging of many Rings while learning their secrets for his own uses, and how he betrayed them. How he forged secretly in the Mountain of Fire the One Ring to bind all lesser rings to his will. And how, at the moment when The Enemy placed the Ring upon his hand, Celebrimbor perceived his treachery and hid from him the Three which he had wrought."
Faramir paused, letting each of them remember this tale, in which they had played such a vital part, in his own way. Then he went on, solemnly, "Sauron's rage was terrible to behold. His deep-laid plans to enslave the race of Elves had failed, and the Eldar were now armed against him. The Three Elven Rings, the ones he most coveted, were hidden and their power denied him. He could gain nothing now by concealment. And so he threw off his fair guise and mustered his armies to fall upon the Elves.
"Celebrimbor foresaw the coming of the Dark Lord and hastened to fortify his city, but he knew full well that his people's strength lay in their mastery over the riches of the earth, not in their mastery of arms. Fearing the destruction of the city, he resolved to send the Three Rings to the wisest and most powerful of his race who remained in Middle-earth, with the warning that they should never be wielded openly, so long as Sauron held the One. And so, in the pale light of a winter's dawn, three messengers rode from Ost-en-Edhil, bound for Eriador and the hidden realm of Forlindon.
"It is for their part in this desperate quest that Maeldhuin and Githaethil have been remembered through the ages."
Again, Faramir paused. When he resumed speaking, he had abandoned his lofty, somber tone for a more comfortable one.
"Maeldhuin was a herald in the service of the Lord Celebrimbor. He had no skill as a warrior, neither with bow nor blade, and no gift for the working of gem or metal. But he was fleet of foot and could speak many tongues, and greatly did he love both his lord and his city.
"When Celebrimbor chose his messengers, he gave to Falathar, his chief herald, the task of carrying the Rings to Gil-Galad. With Falathar went Maeldhuin and another young Elf who was his kin. The younger elves knew nothing of their true quest, only that their lord had charged them to deliver gifts and messages of great import to the King.
"The three messengers journeyed far into Eriador, nearly unto the Gulf of Lhûn and Mithlond. But ere they reached the Havens, in the place that we now know as the Tower Hills, they were waylaid by orcs, and Maeldhuin's young kinsman was slain. Falathar, fearing another orc attack, entrusted to the fleet-footed Maeldhuin the perilous tokens he carried, extracting from him a vow that he would surrender them into the hands of none but the King himself. Then they struck out on separate paths through the hills, hoping to elude their enemies, and Falathar was lost. Alone, Maeldhuin fled the marauding orcs until, lost and despairing in the deepening twilight, he stumbled upon the hidden sanctuary of Gilthaethil.
"Naught is known of Gilthaethil's family." At this, Merry shot a startled glance at Gil, but she continued to stare unwaveringly at Faramir, her face expressionless. "It is believed that she was born to the Silvan Elves, though none now claim kinship with her, for she loved the green solitude of the forests and sought out the company of beasts. Swift as a running deer she was, gifted in the healing arts, and as secret as an image carved in stone. And though she was not of his people, Círdan the Shipwright, Lord of Mithlond, loved her as a daughter and welcomed her in his lands.
"To her Maeldhuin came in his hour of despair. And in their meeting was the fate of the West forever changed. For the keen eyes of the Elf maiden perceived the burden that was laid upon Maeldhuin and the great love for his beleaguered lord and city that spurred him on, and she was moved to offer him what aid she might. So became Gilthaethil the guide and companion of Maeldhuin.
"They went first to Círdan, seeking his help in reaching the King. But Gil-Galad was in the far north, in Forochel, preparing for war against a new and nameless enemy. Círdan, unsettled by rumors of war in the east, was wary of a messenger who would say naught of his errand but only demand favors of his betters. Paying no heed even to the pleas of Gilthaethil, the child of his heart, he resolved to hold Maeldhuin in Mithlond while he waited upon the counsels of the Wise.
"But Gilthaethil would not suffer Maeldhuin to be imprisoned. She smuggled him from the city, disguised as her servant, and together they traveled up the River Lhûn, into the bleak wastes of Forochel in search of the armies of the King.
"Long and arduous was their journey. Numberless were the dangers they faced. And as they made their slow, perilous way northward, what had begun as a simple matter of shared duty grew into a bond of trust and friendship between them.
"So it happened that, one day, Gilthaethil walked apart in the forest on some errand of her own. While she was away, Maeldhuin was set upon by orcs, and so great were their numbers that he could not withstand them. Knowing himself lost, he cast away the Rings, trusting that Gilthaethil would find them and fulfill his quest by taking them to the King.
"His trust was not betrayed. Gilthaethil came swiftly and silently back to the clearing, drawn by the sounds of battle, to find Maeldhuin gone and the leather pouch that he kept always close to his breast lying in the leaves at her feet. She knew it for what it was and knew that now the burden of the quest lay solely upon her shoulders. Bitter was her grief at the knowledge that she must abandon her friend to suffering and death. But firm was her resolve that he should not suffer in vain. So she took up the Elven Rings and turned her steps toward the encampment of King Gil-Galad.
"She was alone in a cruel land. Her horses were slain or fled in the orc attack, no shelter was to be found, and the very air had turned against her. Sauron, to speed the victory of his Black Captain, had sent the storms of Mordor to harry the armies of Gil-Galad, and terrible was their wrath. Into the teeth of these storms Gilthaethil ran, swift as the woodland deer, tireless as the winds that howled about her. League upon league, through forest, wasteland, rock and flood, day and night, without pause she ran, until more a creature of the storms than an Elf she seemed. Strange and terrible she was to look upon, with her garments and hair flying madly about her, streaming with wet and filth, as her torn and bloodied feet flew over the merciless ground.
"At last, in the dying moments of a foul, sunless day, Gilthaethil came before King Gil-Galad and laid in his hand the gift sent by Celebrimbor. Thus were the Three saved from the wreck of Ost-en-Edhil and brought, untainted by Sauron's malice, to the King of the Elves. And thus was the oath of Maeldhuin upheld."
Faramir's final words faded into silence, but none of those listening stirred, so powerful was the spell of his voice upon them.
"What of Maeldhuin?" Frodo finally asked. "Was he lost?"
"Maeldhuin was taken to the dungeons of Forochel and cast into a pit. There, with other prisoners of all races, he labored to fortify the stronghold of the Witch King, Sauron's chief warlord and greatest captain. When Gil-Galad rode to war against the Black Captain, the prisoners, led by Maeldhuin, rose up, overthrew their captors, and helped the Elven King to defeat his enemy.
"With his armies victorious in the north, Gil-Galad could at last turn his might upon Eregion and the rescue of Celebrimbor's people. To Ost-en-Edhil he sent a great host under the command of Elrond Half-Elven, and to Elrond he gave a powerful weapon, a token of the King's favor to gird him for war against Sauron. Maeldhuin, who longed for his home, bid farewell to Gilthaethil and rode with the host of Elrond into Eregion.
"Grievous was his parting from Gilthaethil. But more grievous still was the sight that met his eyes when he returned at last to his beloved city. Help had come too late. Ost-en-Edhil was in ruins, her people scattered or slain. The might of Sauron had fallen upon the Elven-smiths who had dared to defy him and crushed them utterly.
"Elrond gathered what survivors he could find and rode north, into the wilderlands, to build in secret a sanctuary for the Eldar in the dark years to come. But Maeldhuin did not go with him. The herald of Ost-en-Edhil knew that he would find no healing within sight of the Misty Mountains, and so he turned his weary steps back to the West and the Grey Havens. He came at length to Mithlond only to find that his last hope had failed him. Gilthaethil had gone, disappeared back into the forests from whence she had come."
"He got on one of those grey ships, didn't he?" Sam blurted out. "He sailed away and left her!"
Faramir's teeth flashed in a quick smile. "Nay, Sam, he did not. It was his right as one of the Eldar to sail into the West, should he choose, but Maeldhuin would not leave Middle-earth and the mysterious Elf maiden who held his heart.
"Turning his back on the sea, he rode once again into the winter hills. Long he searched, and of his perils on that road naught is written. But at last he came to Gilthaethil's sanctuary and found her there, waiting for him. On the night of the first snowfall, they pledged their hearts to each other, and for many years they dwelt together in the forest. That much is known, for now and again they were seen, walking together among the trees or riding across a field by moonlight. And Círdan knew much of them, for they came often to visit him.
"But as the years passed and the skies of Middle-earth darkened, they came less and less to Mithlond, until their existence was forgotten by all save Círdan. Slowly, they passed from sight into memory and from memory into legend. Whether Gilthaethil and her beloved still dwell in the forest caves of Eriador, whether they perished in the dark years, or whether they sailed West with the last ships, none can tell."
In the silence that followed upon his words, Pippin gave a small sigh. Faramir smiled down at the young hobbit and asked, "What say you, Master Perian? Is it Elvish enough?"
"More than enough. Why are all the stories of the Elves so melancholy?"
It was Legolas who answered him. "Remember, Pippin, that the life of one Elf can span all the Ages of Men, and in that time, he will know great joy, great sorrow, and much peril. As the tale of years is told, the sorrow begins to outweigh the joy, and the soul becomes weary of the burden. Then his eyes turn toward the sea, his dreams toward the Undying Lands, and the beauty of Middle-earth can no longer hold him here."
"That's why they all leave?"
Pippin shook his head, his expression glum. "I am glad I will not live forever, if it means that even my happiest memories turn sad in the end."
Legolas smiled fondly at him. "Not for you the slow, sorrowful dwindling of the Eldar, Little One. Halflings were made for laughter, not tears."
"And for warm beds and hot meals, not long nights under the stars." The hobbit stretched and yawned, then glanced hopefully at Gandalf and wheedled, "I don't suppose you brought a bite and a drink along with that pipeweed."
The Wizard chuckled. "I could not carry enough food about me to satisfy four hobbits!" He looked up at the stars and moon wheeling above them, measuring their progress across the sky, then cocked a bushy eyebrow at Pippin. "Get you to bed and forget your stomach's complaints in sleep. We must be up before the sun and will not wait for lazy Tooks."
Pippin yawned again. "Tie me to the back of your saddle, Gandalf, and I shall sleep all the way to Rohan."
"Is that any way for a soldier of Gondor to travel?" Aragorn chided, laughing. "Trussed up like baggage? For shame, Pippin."
At the urging of Gandalf and Aragorn, the members of the Fellowship picked themselves up from the grass and turned their steps toward the gate. The spell of Faramir's story and the starlit night lay over them still, and their voices were held to a subdued murmur as they said their goodnights. Only Boromir and Merry remained seated, making no move to leave. Gil rose to her feet but hovered uncertainly near Boromir's side, waiting for some sign from her lord as to what he wanted of her.
Faramir stood and turned to clasp his brother's arm in farewell. "Will you not return with me to the Citadel?" he asked.
"Nay. I am more in need of fresh air than sleep this night." His hand ruffled Merry's curls, and he added, smiling, "Merry will see that I come to no harm."
"What of your squire?"
"Shall I stay, my lord?" Gil asked, clearly in doubt as to whether a night spent on the city walls with the Steward would offend her sense of propriety more than leaving him here without his appointed guide.
"Nay, Gil, get you to bed. Tomorrow will be a long and arduous day." She nodded shortly, murmured a last, formal, 'my lord,' and turned to go. But Boromir stretched out a hand to stop her, calling, "Stay! You have not told me what you thought of the story."
She halted, fixing her steady, frowning gaze on the Steward's face. "'Tis as the perian said, a melancholy tale. But fanciful for all that, with its foundling princess and immortal lovers. I see why Mother Ioreth loved it so."
"And why she chose Gilthaethil as your namesake," Merry added.
Gil gave her customary snort of disgust. "It is foolishness. But even so..." Her eyes moved hesitantly to Faramir, and her face lost its wooden stiffness. "I am glad to know something of my name, though I know naught of myself. I thank you, my lord Prince."
Faramir, looking rather startled at her courtesy, bowed slightly to her in acknowledgement.
"And thank you, lord," she said earnestly to Boromir.
He smiled swiftly at her, then waved her away, growling brusquely, "Have done, Gil! This excess of gratitude will convince me that you are sick of an ague and like to die! Get you gone before I summon the Healers."
She did not smile at this sally, but Merry knew her well enough by now to notice the way her eyes narrowed in amusement. "As you wish, my lord. Good night."
This time, as she turned away, Faramir moved with her. He paced up the path toward the gate beside her, his hands folded behind his back and his eyes fixed on a point well ahead of him, but his voice carried back to Merry and Boromir, saying politely, "If you will allow me, Gil, I will see you safely to the Tower."
The erstwhile drudge answered him warily, her body held even more stiffly than usual. Faramir did not appear daunted by her cold manner.
"It was Ioreth who chose your name? I did not know her to be versed in Elvish lore. What stories did she tell you as a child?"
Boromir waited until the crunch of their footsteps and the murmur of their voices had faded away into the night, then he turned his bandaged gaze on Merry and remarked, dryly, "My brother has found himself a kindred soul."
Merry chuckled. "Do you think he will ever learn to like her? Gil, I mean, not Ioreth."
"I know not." Boromir ruffled the curls beneath his fingers affectionately and said, "Are you tired, Little One? Would you rather spend this night asleep in a warm bed, while you still have one?"
"No. I want to be here, with you, under the stars."
Merry got to his feet and climbed onto the bench to sit beside Boromir. As one, they pulled their cloaks about them and leaned their backs against the wall, stretching their legs out before them. Merry's short legs only reached to the outer edge of the bench, where his toes stuck up from under his cloak, but it was a mild night and the wind felt good on his bare toes.
As they sat together in companionable silence, Merry heard again the words of Bilbo's song in his head. He listened to it, thinking that he had never before noticed how sad it was. But then, he had never before felt sad at the thought of stepping out onto a road. And because he could think of no better way to voice his thoughts, because his own words deserted him when most he needed them, he spoke the familiar lines aloud.
The road goes ever on and on
"I never asked Bilbo if there was another verse," he mused, "one about staying safely indoors, where the road can't sweep you away."
"Or mayhap one about taking the road home?" Boromir offered.
"Home. Every road leads to someone's home, I suppose."
He paused and swallowed painfully. The night was slipping by him, as the day had before it, and the hours were growing short. All too soon, he would find himself stammering out a tearful goodbye, with Frodo and Pippin and the beloved Shire pulling him inexorably away and no time left for the words that mattered.
Summoning his courage, and trusting that he would find something to say at the moment of truth, Merry opened his mouth and began, "Boromir, I..." But nothing came to him save stinging tears, and he broke off in confusion.
Boromir fixed his shrouded gaze on the hobbit beside him and said, "Peace, Little One."
"It will be morning soon."
"Not so soon. We have many hours of darkness yet to ourselves."
"It feels like barely a moment." Merry's head drooped forward, and tears slid from his eyes to splash on his tightly folded hands.
"Do not weep." Boromir's hand found Merry's where they lay in his lap and clasped them warmly. "We will not say goodbye until we must, and we will not waste these hours with weeping."
"What shall we do, then?"
"Listen to the stars. Be happy for a time. Wait for the morning together."
"And then we'll say goodbye."
"When me must."
With a last, doleful sniff and a swipe of his sleeve across his eyes, Merry settled down next to Boromir to wait. With the solid warmth of the Man beside him, he let go of his grief and relaxed into the beauty of the night that was given to them, untroubled and unafraid. Eventually, his head grew heavy and slid over to rest against Boromir's side. Boromir obligingly drew his cloak about the hobbit's huddled form. And somewhere in the middle of the stars' song, he fell asleep.
To be continued...
*Note: The Tale of Maeldhuin and Gilthaethil was written by Annys. The character of Maeldhuin belongs to her; the character of Gilthaethil belongs to both of us (I provided the name and time frame, she did the rest). I will post the entire story as an Appendix to "The Captain and the King," when it is finished. -- Chevy