Artwork by Annys
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The Steward's Tale
Chapter 1: Progress
The clash and ring of metal striking metal filled the air, frightening the morning chorus of birdsong into silence. In the wide, empty space of the practice yard, two men circled each other, their booted feet scuffing on damp earth and sawdust, their swords flashing in the pale sunlight as they hacked and lunged and parried. The day was clear and cold, with the bite of winter in the air, yet the men were sweating heavily beneath their gear, warmed by their exercise and the heat of battle in their veins. So intent were they on their contest of arms that they did not feel hunger, thirst or the cut of the wind on their faces.
The slight figure huddled on the wall to watch them, clad in the sober livery of a royal squire, was not so fortunate. With no battle lust to warm her and no combat to distract her from her stomach's complaints, she was both cold and hungry. But she made no sound, offered no protest, and merely pulled her cloak more closely about her shoulders when the wind gusted. She might have no part in the skirmish, but she watched it as keenly as any captain drilling his troops, and when a blade whistled too near a helmed head for comfort, her grip on her cloak tightened until her knuckles showed white.
It would never have occurred to Gil to leave her post and seek shelter from the winter chill. She was the Steward's Squire, sworn to her lord's service and proud to keep her place at his side. Where Boromir went, Gil went before him, and when he reached for her, she was there - even if it meant that she must sit quietly by while he and his brother tried their best to dismember each other.
Faramir's sword came whistling down in a vicious arc toward Boromir's helm. For a moment, it seemed as though he would cleave his brother's head in two, then Boromir's sword came up to parry the blow and caught the blade on his hilts. Swords locked, muscles strained, and mighty arms strove to master those pitted against them.
With a tremendous heave, Boromir at last thrust aside his brother's weapon, and Faramir fell back, breathing hard. He had barely recovered his balance when Boromir abruptly changed tactics and charged in, sword flashing. Faramir moved with startling speed, sidestepping his onrushing opponent and disarming him with a deft twist of his own blade. Even as Boromir's sword went flying, Faramir swept his legs out from under him, knocked him flat on his back, and brought the point of his sword to the Steward's throat.
No one moved for a long, quiet moment. Then Faramir lowered his sword and said, "You were doing quite well, until you tried to disembowel me, Brother."
"How am I to win such a contest if I cannot disembowel my enemy? Or lop off an arm, at the very least?"
Faramir uttered a longsuffering sigh and pulled off his helm to run a hand through his matted hair. "The point of this exercise is not to win a contest of arms but to defend against attack."
Boromir made a disgusted noise in his throat and sat up. "Much good that will do me."
"It may keep you alive," his brother pointed out.
Boromir climbed to his feet, shedding bits of sawdust from his clothing as he did so. "Only if I am fighting you." He looked around the enclosure in exaggerated confusion. "Might I trouble you for my sword?"
Faramir retrieved the weapon and handed it to him, chuckling. His brother's sour mood neither surprised nor daunted him, used as he was to bearing with it whenever Boromir began to chafe at his clumsiness. That he was, in truth, ably defending himself against a concerted attack by the finest warrior in Gondor meant nothing to Boromir, when he found himself disarmed and dispatched, again and again, by his younger brother. Progress was not enough for Boromir of Gondor. He wanted victory, and he wanted it now.
"Come, try it again," Faramir urged, as he donned his helm, "and do not grow over eager. You will succeed in disemboweling me, in time, but first you must prevent me from disemboweling you."
Boromir grunted his assent and swung his blade, testing its weight and feel in his hand. Satisfied, he planted his feet firmly, lifted sword and shield in readiness, and nodded to his brother.
They began again, moving slowly and deliberately at first while Boromir relaxed into the deep concentration needed for battle, then more quickly, more fiercely, as Faramir began to press him. To Gil, who sat very still upon the wall, her eyes never leaving the figure of her liege lord, the combat seemed a thing both beautiful and frightening. She knew nothing of warfare, but she had watched the brothers drill and spar and fight in earnest for several months now - since the first day that Boromir had finally pressured Faramir into undertaking his training - and so she knew much of Boromir's skill with a sword. She had watched the innate grace and strength return to his limbs, watched him remember the artistry learned over a lifetime, and watched with a secret thrill of pride as he threw himself headlong into the joy of battle.
Combat was fairly joined and heating up nicely when the patter of running feet drew Gil's eyes away. She turned to see a small figure pelting down the path from the armory, black cloak flapping behind him in his haste. Gil promptly swung her feet to the outside of the wall, hopped down, and strode swiftly to meet him. He had nearly reached the end of the yard, where a break in the wall gave access to the armory and outbuildings, when Gil caught him. Her hand closed firmly on his shoulder, and she held a finger to her lips, silencing his intended cry.
He was a page, by his dress, and little more than a child. Black hair blew in a snarl around his face, and grey eyes grew round with wonder at the sight of the two men fighting in the yard. Gil recognized him as Borlas, the younger son of Beregond, and newly come to King Elessar's service. He was a well-mannered and intelligent boy, like his brother before him, but had not yet learned the rules that governed life as a royal page - the most urgent rule being that no one distracted the Steward when he had a sword in his hand. Giving the boy an admonitory look, Gil escorted him the last few steps to the edge of the practice ground. There, she stood beside him, still gripping his shoulder to keep him both still and quiet, and waited for the skirmish to end.
It lasted somewhat longer than the previous one. Boromir remembered to stay on the defensive, reining in his temper and the urge to press his attacker, letting the lighter, swifter, more maneuverable Faramir bring the battle to him. Faramir was breathing hard and sweating freely, losing some of the steel in his sinews, by the time he at last succeeded in disarming Boromir. He managed it by shifting his sword to his left hand and coming at him from an entirely unexpected direction. Boromir, with his uncanny prescience for when and where a blow would fall, sensed the blade's movement but not in time to counter it. Faramir sent his weapon spinning across the yard and rested his own sword upon Boromir's shoulder, in readiness to cut his head from his neck.
"Surrender or die," the Prince said, lightly.
Boromir growled and knocked the sword away with a leather-clad forearm. Gil saw that he was about to challenge his brother to another trial and deemed it time to intervene, lest Borlas's message never be delivered. Stepping forward, she cleared her throat loudly.
Faramir's head came about with a start, and he let his sword fall to his side. "What is it, Gil? Who is this?"
"A messenger from the Citadel, my lords."
Boromir pulled the helm from his head and turned unerringly to find her with his blind gaze. "From Aragorn?" he demanded.
She felt Borlas stiffen at the sight of his stern, handsome face and the black cloth that covered his eyes, and she could picture the expression of pale, dry-mouthed fear the page wore without looking. Gil did not understand why others found Boromir's shrouded gaze so unnerving; she thought the bandage as much a part of his face as his neatly-trimmed beard or his rare, brilliant smiles. But nearly everyone reacted in much the same way upon first meeting the Steward of Gondor - with surprise, awkwardness, or outright fear - and the younger the person, the less well he concealed it.
The Steward had worn the black bandage every waking moment for nearly four years, since a blow from an orc blade had crushed his face, destroyed his eyes and condemned him to a lifetime of darkness. Many things had changed since that day, many wounds had healed, and Boromir was no longer the broken, despairing man who had been cast into the dungeons of Isengard. But he was still blind. And out of vanity or pride or courtesy to those who must look upon him, he kept his ruined eyes covered.
Gil glanced down at Borlas, waiting for him to speak, and gave him a nudge when he did not. The boy started violently, then stepped forward, squaring his shoulders and swallowing audibly.
"The King sends his compliments," he recited, his voice squeaking slightly with nerves, "and asks that my lord Steward and Prince Faramir attend him in the Tower at their earliest convenience!"
Boromir grunted and turned away to look for his sword. Borlas, who had clearly expected a more eloquent response, glanced at Gil in confusion. She gave him a humorous look but offered no help.
Summoning his courage, Borlas asked, "Shall I take some answer to the King, my lords?"
"Aye," Boromir said distractedly, scuffing a toe in the dirt, absorbed in his search for the missing weapon.
Faramir retrieved it from where it lay by the wall and returned it to his brother. Then he doffed his helm and turned to the flustered boy. "Our humble duty to the King, and we will wait upon him with all possible haste," he said gravely.
Borlas favored him with a wide, relieved smile, bowed courteously, and sped back up the road toward the city. Faramir watched him curiously, until he felt Boromir's hand close around his arm. Then he started toward Gil, musing, "I wonder to what purpose Aragorn has summoned us?"
"Taleris has returned," Boromir said. "Did you not hear the trumpets at the Harlond, heralding his arrival?"
"I did not mark them." They reached the edge of the yard and stepped onto the sere, winter grass of the greensward that lay before the armory. Turning to Gil, Faramir asked, "Was that not Beregond's son who hared off so quickly?"
"Aye, my lord." She took Boromir's helm from him and fell into step a few paces behind the princely brothers. "He is new to his page's duties and has not yet learned to dawdle."
Faramir, who had learned to appreciate Gil's dry sense of humor if naught else about her, grinned at that. "And he is afraid of my brother, no doubt."
Boromir laughed, a touch ruefully. "I am the ogre in Aragorn's cupboard. He uses me to frighten all the young ones into obedience, and to make himself seem kind by comparison."
Gil uttered a wordless grunt of disgust, and Faramir chuckled.
Halting at the open doors of the armory, Faramir held out his sword and helm to Gil. As the men shed their gear, Gil lugged it inside the building and set it on the large, sturdy wooden table that dominated the room. Swords, helms, shields, leather vambraces and breastplates, padded jerkins. All of it she neatly stacked where the armorers would find it. In a matter of minutes, the men were stripped down to their mail shirts and rough, serviceable garments. Gil dumped the last load of practice gear on the table and retrieved their cloaks from the pegs just inside the door.
Outside, Faramir was bent over a water barrel, scrubbing the sweat from his face and beard. He dried his face on the skirt of his tunic, then accepted his cloak from Gil with a nod of thanks. Boromir took his place at the barrel and, sliding off the strip of cloth he wore, plunged his head in the water. Icy ripples surged over the lip of the barrel, drenching the front of Boromir's breeches and Gil's feet, turning the damp ground to a quagmire beneath their boots. Then he pulled his head out, wiped the water from his face and settled the bandage across his eyes again so deftly that it might never have been moved.
Gil handed him his cloak, keeping to herself the dour thought that a cloak was little protection against the cold when one walked around soaking wet beneath it. Her own feet were quickly going numb, and they squelched unpleasantly in her soggy boots when she moved. Boromir swung the cloak about his shoulders and fastened the silver clasp at his throat. Then his hand dropped to Gil's shoulder.
Strong as the bond was between Steward and squire, they needed to exchange no words. The brief tightening of Boromir's fingers on her shoulder was signal enough to Gil that he wished to leave, and the slight shift of his weight told her in which direction to go. It took her only a few steps to find his desired pace and match her stride to his, and she dropped easily into an even stride that was neither particularly urgent nor leisurely but that carried her lord back to his duties and his king without delay.
Faramir walked at Boromir's side, discussing with his brother the business and concerns of the realm without giving the squire a second thought. Even Prince Faramir, with his deep reservations as to the propriety of turning a healer's drudge - and a woman, at that - into the Steward's most trusted companion, had grown so used to her constant presence that he no longer hesitated to speak in front of her as if he were alone with Boromir.
They spoke of Lord Taleris as they walked, speculating on what news he brought from the southern fiefdoms. Gil sighed inwardly at mention of his name, wishing that he had remained in the south and left them all in peace to enjoy the coming of spring. Taleris always brought strife to the Citadel, for as useful as he was to King Elessar, the Steward openly disliked and distrusted him. Aragorn could neither dismiss Taleris, who had done nothing to warrant such treatment, nor reconcile Boromir to his presence, and Taleris' dislike of Boromir had grown dramatically over the years.
Gil did not presume to judge the King's choice of deputies, but she shared her lord's animosity for Taleris and heartily wished him gone back to his estates in Lossarnach. He had a glaring, hostile look in his eyes that unsettled her, and he muttered a great deal about the Lord Denethor and treacherous sons when he thought Boromir could not hear him. Like many in the Tower, Taleris suffered from the delusion that Boromir, being blind, was also hard of hearing and slow of understanding, and could not hear what was not spoken directly to him. And like many, he assumed that Gil was but a spare limb or garment that Boromir carried about with him - deaf and blind and dumb as an old boot. Thus she heard much that was not meant for her ears and learned much that she would rather not have known. Lord Taleris' opinion of his present and former masters was one such thing.
Her thoughts dwelt uncomfortably upon Lord Taleris, as they walked past armory, smithy, stables and mews, climbing steadily toward the wide gate that let into the city's sixth circle. A small shoulder of Mount Mindolluin thrust out from peak at this level, providing space for these necessary but rather noisy and odorous buildings outside the walls. Just inside the gate were the quarters that housed the errand riders of Gondor and the barracks of the Fourth Company of the Guard. The streets were always busy with soldiers, riders, and the artisans who kept them in tack and gear. Boromir and Faramir could not pass through them without greeting many an old brother-in-arms and returning many a salute.
At last, they came to the main street and the Citadel Gate. The sentries snapped to attention and saluted as the Princes of Anórien and Ithilien strode past, then they were into the cool shadows of the tunnel, their footsteps echoing along the smooth walls.
As they passed through the upper gate and into the thin sunshine once more, Faramir remarked, "I cannot go before the King in all my dirt. I must lay aside this mail shirt, at the least, and scrape the mud from my boots."
Boromir grinned and shook his head. "Aragorn cares naught for muddy boots. He is eager enough to tell us his news that he sent a page to find us. I deem it unwise to keep him waiting."
"And if he is not alone?"
"Then mayhap our smell will drive Taleris from the room all the faster. Come, let us to the King!"
Faramir sighed in mock despair and said, "You will never be a statesman, Brother. You lack subtlety."
Boromir only laughed and quickened his pace, eager to be at Aragorn's side again.
*** *** ***
A peremptory knock fell upon the door, and Aragorn glanced up from his desk with a smile. Only one man pounded on the King's door with such bold impatience, and he was just the man Aragorn most wanted to see. Glancing at the page who lurked at his back, he nodded toward the door. The boy bowed and scrambled to open it.
Lord Taleris stood between Aragorn's seat and the doorway, planted in the middle of the rug on widespread feet, his head thrown back and his hands clasped behind him. The King suspected that the wily old courtier was trying to establish himself at the center of this council, not allowing the Princes to shift him from his place or overawe him with their size and presence. The result was that he effectively blocked Aragorn's view of the door.
Aragorn, who had no intention of craning his neck to peer around Taleris, fixed his deputy with a mild gaze and gestured at the map spread on the table before him. "If you please, my lord, where precisely is this fortification you inspected?"
Taleris stepped up to the table, sidling around its end to reach the proper section of the large map, and realized too late that he had been neatly shuffled to one side. Aragorn's gaze was not on the map, but on the doorway and the two brothers who strode through it, bringing the mud and damp and stink of the practice yard with them and instantly shrinking the chamber to half its wonted size.
Aragorn pushed back his chair and rose to greet them, his eyes twinkling with silent laughter at the look of sour disapproval on Taleris' face. Boromir entered first, his hand resting lightly on Gil's small, straight shoulder, looking every inch the Steward of Gondor in spite of his disreputable clothing and dripping wet hair. He turned his bandaged gaze on Taleris - a habit that never failed to unnerve the other man - and nodded politely to him. Then he grinned at Aragorn.
"We took you at your word, Aragorn, and came in all our dirt to answer your summons."
"So I see. How goes the training?"
Boromir only grunted, his smile turning abruptly to a scowl, but Faramir answered, "Pay him no heed, my king. He will be slaughtering orcs soon enough."
Aragorn chuckled. "With any luck, we are done with slaughter for a very long time."
"It is good news, then," Boromir said. As he spoke, he moved to the chair that always stood at the end of the table to Aragorn's right, needing no guidance to find it. Gil went with him out of habit, watched him take his seat, then drew back to the hearth where she could wait for her lord, unnoticed by the men around the table.
"Aye. Taleris brings me detailed reports from his tour of the larger fiefdoms. All is quiet and secure in the south."
"What of the lands east of Anduin?" Faramir asked, stepping forward to look at the map that nearly filled the great, wooden table. "We have heard rumors in South Ithilien of movement across the Harad Road."
Taleris hunched one shoulder in a dismissive shrug. "There are always rumors, just as there are always orcs in the Mountains of Shadow and brigands in the wilds of Dunland. I rode the western bank of Anduin myself, as high as to Pelargir, and heard no whisper of trouble to the east." He tapped a finger on the map and added, "Ciryon of Lebennin has finished his fortress here, above the Ethir Anduin, and crowned it with a lofty tower. From its top, I could see across the estuary and league upon league into the desert. There is naught stirs in South Gondor, save wind and sand."
"Letters from Ciryon, Imrahil and many of our vassal lords confirm it," Aragorn said. "Our borders are secure, our people at peace and our neighbors occupied with their own concerns. Unless the Haradrim trouble you, Faramir..."
"Nay. As Taleris says, there are always rumors."
Aragorn smiled with genuine pleasure at his answer and sat back in his chair. "Then it is as I hoped."
Boromir heard the note of satisfaction in his voice and asked, with the air of a man who already knows the answer, "Your plans go forward?"
"They do indeed. Your return could not be more timely, my lord Taleris, nor your news more welcome! If we set things in motion today, we will be ready to leave by the end of March."
Taleris blinked at him, nonplussed. "Leave? You are leaving Gondor, my lord?"
"Aye." Aragorn trailed a fingertip over the map, tracing the road through Anórien to Rohan, his eyes gleaming with excitement. "The winter has been mild and spring is already making herself felt. We can likely count on good weather through the southern lands. By the time we reach harsher climes, summer will be upon us. 'Tis very well... very well..."
"I rule two kingdoms, Taleris. I have not set foot in Arnor since I came into my birthright, and I deem it well past time that I did."
"You go to Arnor?"
"More than that. We will make a Progress through all our western realms, that the people of Middle-earth may know their King."
"And this Progress will take how many months?" the old lord asked, his gaze sliding over to where Boromir sat.
"That will depend on many things outside my control, but I expect to be gone the better part of a year. Let us say, nine months." His eyes twinkled mischievously as he added, "Ten, if Master Brandybuck bribes us sufficiently with pipeweed and good, home-brewed ale."
To Aragorn's surprise and private dismay, Boromir did not smile at this sally. Instead, his face grew somber and he turned his shrouded gaze away from his king, a frown tugging at his lips.
"And who, may I ask, do you take with you on this royal Progress?" Taleris ventured.
"The Queen, of course, Prince Boromir, the Dúnedain, a company of the Citadel Guard, and some small number of lords and noblemen who may wish to see the lands of the West."
Taleris' face had relaxed visibly at mention of Boromir, and he now smiled upon his king with perfect affability. "With your southern realm left in the care of Prince Faramir?"
"I shall send word to Imrahil that he is to act as Faramir's seneschal. That will leave two Princes of Númenorean blood and proven worth to safeguard Gondor in my absence."
"Indeed, indeed." Taleris was positively beaming. "Is there aught that I can do to help with your preparations?"
"I'm sure there is, but not just at this moment." Aragorn tried to keep the cynical note from his voice and only just managed it. Taleris' slavering eagerness to send them on their way, now that he knew Boromir was to be one of the party, both amused and annoyed his liege lord. But Aragorn was heartened by the thought that his Steward would not have to endure Taleris' company for many months. That ought to put a smile on Boromir's face if nothing else could, and it would certainly take the edge off of his temper.
But as Aragorn sent Taleris about his business and handed over to Faramir the various documents he had brought with him from the journey south, he noticed that Boromir's mood did not improve. The Steward sat in gloomy silence, saying nothing about the reports and dispatches, giving Faramir no more than a grunt in farewell as he left the room. He did not bestir himself until he and Aragorn were alone with Gil, then he turned to his squire.
"You need not wait for me, Gil. Get yourself a meal and some dry clothes. I will find you, when I need you."
She rose to her feet and moved to the door as silently as a black and silver shadow. Pausing with one hand on the latch, she asked, "Shall I bring you a meal, my lord? You have not eaten since sunup."
"Do not coddle me, girl! Be gone!"
"And tell the page waiting outside that he, too, may go," Aragorn added.
Gil bowed slightly, her calm unimpaired, and left the room. Aragorn turned a questioning look on his Steward.
"Have you not eaten?"
"Leave off, Aragorn. I can look after my own stomach."
Like Gil, Aragorn knew his irascible friend well enough to see through the crusty temper to the distraction and worry beneath. He did not bother to press him further about his eating habits, but cut straight to the heart of the matter.
"What is troubling you, Boromir?"
"This Progress of yours."
Aragorn sighed and settled back in his chair. "So I feared. Very well, then, tell me what obstacle you would throw in my path."
"There is no obstacle," he stirred, as though uncomfortable beneath Aragorn's gaze, "but I would ask you a favor."
The King's brows rose in surprise. It was not often that his Steward asked anything of him, and this request was clearly of great importance to him. "I will grant it, if I can."
"Take Faramir with you in my stead." Aragorn stared at him, mouth agape, taken so completely off his guard that he could not find a thing to say. Boromir waited for an answer, then said acidly, "You can hardly fear that Gondor will come to harm in my care!"
Aragorn shut his mouth with a snap, swallowed once, and said, "I was not thinking of Gondor. I was thinking of Merry's reaction, if I were to ride up to the Brandywine Bridge with Faramir at my side."
The Steward winced. "That was a foul blow, Aragorn."
"No more foul than the one you just leveled at me." He eyed his friend narrowly, trying to read his true intentions in his face. "Why did you wait 'til now to ask this of me? And why would you give your place to your brother?"
"He will take more pleasure in the journey than I. He has dreamed all his life of Elvish songs and legends, but he has always lived in the world of Men, ruled by his duty to Gondor. The one time that duty might have taken him beyond our borders, to the lands of his imagining, I usurped his place. I denied him the chance to see Elrond Half-Elven in the valley of Rivendell or the Lady Galadriel in her Golden Wood. Now those great ones have departed Middle-earth and his chance is lost. But I would let him walk beneath the trees of Imladris while some memory of Elrond yet lingers there. I owe him that much."
"Noble sentiments and an eloquent speech, but not the whole truth, I think."
Boromir stiffened in his chair, his head coming up proudly. He held the pose for a heartbeat, then he suddenly relaxed again, slumping back with a sigh and propping one knee against the edge of the table. "Plague take it, Aragorn, you know me too well."
The King smiled warmly at him. "I do. And I love you too well to lose your company for nine long months, unless I know the reason why."
"Is Faramir's welfare not reason enough?"
Boromir heard the warning note in his voice and relented. "I have no wish to tramp the leagues of Eriador again, " he said, heavily. "My memories of them are not fond."
"There is much of the West you have not seen."
"And would not still, though I traveled with you."
"What of Merry? What of the Shire? Would you not see its beauties through his eyes?"
"Mayhap some day I will."
"He will be bitterly disappointed to find Faramir in your place."
"Do you think I do not know it? Or worse, do not care?" His words were edged with anger, and his hands clenched on the arms of his chair. "I miss him every day, think of him every night when I lie down to sleep and listen to the darkness thicken about me. I would give almost anything to hear his voice again."
"Then come with me."
"I cannot. I am not ready to leave my home, Aragorn, after wandering so long and so far to find it. Merry understood that, when he chose to return to the Shire. He will understand now. I know he will."
"And what of me, old friend? Are you so sure that I will understand?"
Boromir fixed him with his bandaged gaze. "Do you not?"
A wise ruler knew when to surrender, and that time had come for King Elessar. He could command Boromir to join him in his Progress, and his Steward would obey him, but it would serve only to wound a man who had already taken hurts enough in his service. Aragorn could harden his heart to sacrifice his friend for Gondor, but not for his own comfort.
With a weary sigh, he murmured, "Aye. But I will miss you, Boromir."
"And I, you."
"I had hoped your wounds were better healed than this."
"They are, so long as I remain where I belong, doing what I can for Gondor and for you. But what I said about Faramir is true, my king. I did him a great injury, when I usurped his place on the quest, and I have often wondered if that is not why I failed."
"Boromir, we have been through this..."
He lifted a hand to silence Aragorn's protest, then shrugged and offered him a brief smile. "Let us not argue this again. Only believe me when I say that I owe Faramir this chance, and in giving it to him, I will finally heal one of those old wounds that troubles you."
"I hope so."
"Do not be angry, Aragorn, I pray you."
"I am not angry, just disappointed. And I wish you had told me sooner."
"What? And give you longer to wear me down? I am not such a fool."
Aragorn snorted in disgust. "I would do better to teach an orc table manners." When Boromir opened his mouth to retort, Aragorn laughed and slapped a hand on the table. "Enough. You need a meal and a bath, and I need some peace in which to work. Take yourself off before I decide to try my hand at wearing you down!"
Boromir chuckled as he pushed himself to his feet. He moved to the door with the ease of long familiarity, automatically stepping over the frayed edge of the rug so as not to catch his boot heel. In the corridor outside, he found Gil waiting for him against his express orders. She stepped up beside him, murmured a greeting, and ignored his sour demand to know what she thought she was doing lurking outside the King's study. She also did not ask him where he wished to go, but simply started off down the hallway, taking the Steward with her.
They were halfway up a flight of stairs, when Gil suddenly asked, "Will you go with the King, lord?"
"I thought not."
Her normally wooden voice held a marked note of satisfaction that brought a flashing smile to Boromir's face. "What you mean is that you do not want to go, either. Afraid you'll be forced to ride, Gil?"
"A bargain is a bargain," she answered loftily. "I trust my lord Steward will not go back on his word."
"Stubborn creature." As they moved down the curving hallway toward his chambers, their footsteps muffled on thick carpet, he commented wryly, "I stink like the inside of a trooper's helm."
"You were not meant to agree with me so readily."
"Was I not? But then, you do stink like the inside of a trooper's helm."
"What do you know of troopers or their gear, my girl?"
"Naught but what I have learned from you, my lord. I have smelled the inside of your helm many a time." She paused, then added calmly, "And I have ordered a bath for you in your chambers."
"I do not want a bath," Boromir snapped. "I want food!"
"That also awaits you in your chambers," she halted in front of a door and put her hand to the latch, "together with your bath and your body servant. Is there aught else that you require, my lord Steward?"
Boromir grinned at her and gave her shoulder a squeeze before stepping through the open doorway. "You are a gem beyond price, Gil. I would be lost without you."
She stood absolutely still, face impassive, until the door had shut between her and her lord. Then Gil turned on her heel and strode away, her face as blank as ever and her lashes lowered to hide the lurking smile in her eyes.
*** *** ***
Boromir sat hunched over a piece of parchment, gnawing on the feathered tip of a quill and frowning in thought. Through the open window, he heard the trumpet call that announced the change of the guard, and he sighed in frustration. Another hour gone, several more sheets of Aragorn's best parchment ruined, and naught to show for his efforts but the ink stains on his hands and the crumpled, scattered evidence of his failure.
With another sigh, he dipped the end of his quill in the ink stand, then touched it to the parchment where the tip of his finger rested. Before he could pull his finger away, he felt a pool of liquid form beneath it and knew that all the fresh ink had just soaked into the parchment, leaving a tremendous blot - the fourth or fifth such blot in a few ragged lines of writing.
Frustration made him careless, and he jerked his hand away, causing the parchment to skitter out from under his pen. He instinctively tried to catch it with his right hand, but his movement crushed the delicate quill against the table and he felt it snap between his fingers. Uttering a heartfelt groan, Boromir threw the pen away from him and buried his face in his hands.
Footsteps sounded in the hallway outside the door, and Boromir dropped his hands, listening. He hoped they would pass him by. He wanted no interruptions and no offers of help, especially from Aragorn's army of busy servants. Aragorn himself was inspecting the work on the new bridge in Osgiliath and would not trouble him, but he had left an abundance of deputies behind him. In the last few weeks, since the King's announcement that he planned to make his Progress west, everyone from the Chamberlain to the lowliest kitchen drudge had begun to fawn upon the Steward. If he knew no better, Boromir thought caustically, he would suspect that they were trying to curry favor with the man who was to be their ruler for many months to come.
To his dismay, the footsteps halted at his door, and a firm hand rapped quickly upon it. Boromir frowned and clamped his lips together, hoping the intruder would go away with no encouragement. But the door was already swinging open and the tread of lightly-shod feet sounded upon the floor. The smell of sunlight on leaves reached him a heartbeat before he heard a familiar and welcome voice hail him.
"Well met, my lord Steward."
Boromir came quickly to his feet, his face alight. "Legolas! Well met, indeed!"
The Elf crossed the room to him in a few strides, and the two old comrades embraced warmly. As they stepped apart, Boromir remarked, "I had thought you still in Greenwood. What brings you here?"
"I have been back this month or more but hard at work among my people."
"Your people." Boromir grinned at the note of pride in the Elf's voice. "You are grown into a true prince, now that the Elves of Ithilien look to you."
Legolas uttered a musical laugh that did not conceal the pleasure he took in the Steward's words. "Ithilien has a Prince and needs no other," he averred.
"What is it the Rangers call you? Lord of Henneth Annûn?" Boromir settled back into his chair, smiling up at his friend.
"Aye." Legolas perched on the edge of the table, and Boromir could feel his sharp eyes fixed upon him. "What are you doing, Boromir? You are all over black splotches and, unless my eyes are failing, you have bits of feather in your beard."
Boromir sighed yet again and ran a hand over his chin in embarrassment. It was not beyond the realm of possibility that Legolas was teasing him about the feathers in his beard, but that was unlikely, and Boromir had to control the impulse to rub his sleeve over his face in a bid to get it clean. Instead, he dropped his hand and laughed at his own folly.
"I am writing a letter."
"Does Gil not write your letters for you?"
"Aye, but I wanted to pen this one myself. I had hoped it would mean more, in my own hand." He brushed his fingertips across the table top, until he found the sheet of parchment. Then he pushed it toward Legolas.
The Elf lifted the paper and fell quiet as he tried to decipher the writing upon it. Boromir waited, his face heating with chagrin, until he heard the rustle of parchment against wood again.
"He won't get past the second word, I fear." Again, he felt keen, elvish eyes upon him. "It was a good thought, Boromir, but you will soften Merry's heart the quicker if he can actually read your words."
"Did you travel all the way from Ithilien to tell me what I already know?"
The Elf laughed. "Nay, but to save the hapless Merry from confusion and despair."
Boromir brightened visibly. "Will you carry my apologies to him in person?"
"Not I, unless the Halfling can hear me calling all the way from Gondor!"
"I thought you were going with Aragorn."
"I meant to ride with him, as far as Aglarond at the least, but I have changed my mind."
A sudden, unpleasant thought occurred to Boromir at the Elf's innocent words, and he demanded, in a tone of deep suspicion, "And why, pray tell, will you do that?"
"I have much to do here," he answered, placidly. "More of my people arrive in Ithilien every day, and it falls to me to make them welcome. Then there is the garden at Emyn Arnen..."
"Aragorn told you to stay," Boromir growled, cutting him off.
"To what purpose?"
"He has set you to watch me."
Legolas chuckled, causing Boromir's scowl to deepen. "What folly is this? Aragorn would do nothing so ignoble, or so needless, and he would not enlist my aid if he did."
"Hah! Why then did you seek me out today?"
"To tell you that I am to remain in Gondor and would bear you company in the long months ahead. The time may weigh less heavily upon you, if you escape to Henneth Annûn, now and then, for a bit of Elvish hospitality."
"A nursemaid," Boromir growled, with a certain bitter satisfaction. "Legolas of the Elves is turned nursemaid."
The Elf laughed outright. "Boromir, there are times when I wonder why anyone bears with your crotchets! Churlish Man!"
"Secretive, smooth-tongued Elf!"
"I am all of that and more. I am your friend, and I had foolishly thought you would be glad of my companionship." Boromir said nothing to this, but his silence was thoughtful rather than hostile, and Legolas went on persuasively, "'Tis little enough chance we have to ride together, hunt together, sit together and talk of our homes and our people. Do you remember the promise I made to teach you archery?"
"The woods of Ithilien are full of game in the summer and autumn. And the table at Henneth Annûn is always laid for guests."
"Smooth-tongued Elf," Boromir murmured, a smile tugging at his lips.
"And mayhap, when you tire of Elvish company, you will ride with me to Aglarond to try the hospitality of the Dwarves."
"Gimli has tried many times to lure me into his glittering caves," he mused. Then he fixed Legolas with the steady regard that many found so unnerving in a blind man but that seemed to trouble the Elf not at all, and asked, "But who will plead my cause to Merry, if you do not?"
"Make your own apologies, my friend. They cannot fail to move the Halfling. And I will undertake to put them down in a fair hand for you."
Boromir's face lightened with relief. "Would you? In truth, Legolas, I have been cursing myself for a fool this hour past and wishing for a handy scribe."
"There are no better scribes in all Middle-earth than the Elves!"
"And no more modest ones," he retorted, dryly. "I pray you, Master Scribe, to work! I must be done with this before a horde of servants descends upon me again!"
"As you wish, my lord Steward."
The Elf's pen flew as swiftly as Boromir's thoughts, and the letter was done in only a few minutes. Legolas placed it in front of Boromir and guided his pen to the bottom of the parchment sheet, where the Steward scrawled a slightly crooked, but perfectly legible signature. Then Legolas dusted the flowing lines with sand and rolled it into a neat scroll. Among the collection of tools on the desk was a copy of Boromir's seal - the horn and stars of Anórien - so the Elf sealed the parchment with a circle of purple-black wax and fixed the Prince's device in it.
"'Tis done," he announced.
Boromir held out his hand for the letter and turned it over in his fingers, his face thoughtful. "Will it serve, do you think?"
He felt the Elf's long fingers close around his forearm, squeezing gently. "It will serve."
To be continued...