Author's Note: My thanks to all of you who kept nagging until I actually got this done. And my very deepest thanks to Katrin for all her invaluable medical advice!
"Nay… My lord! My lord Steward!" The lump of fur and wool lying on the camp bed twitched, as Borlas struggled to free his hands from the confining blankets. "Help me, my lord! Do not leave me!"
The cry, muffled as it was by the strange leather contraption covering Borlas' head and shoulders, brought Bergil to his side in an instant. "Peace, Borlas. All is well."
Bergil reached to pull aside the leather but hesitated, casting a questioning glance at the lady Arwen. She nodded once, and Bergil flipped open the makeshift tent. A gush of steam roiled out of it, rising from the pot of boiling water suspended over the brazier that stood at the head of the cot. Borlas' pale face turned toward the light, hollow eyes rolling wildly, and he either did not see or did not recognize his brother bending over him.
"My lord!" he whimpered, eyes sliding past Bergil's face.
"Hush, Brother. Do not be afraid." Shooting a glance at the Queen and gesturing to the steam tent, he asked, "Does he need this still, Lady?"
Arwen slid a hand inside the many layers of blankets and rested it on Borlas' naked chest. After a moment, she shook her head and murmured, "His body warms."
With a soft cry of relief, Bergil knocked away the obscuring leather so he could see his brother clearly at last. The boy looked more dead than alive to Bergil's frightened eyes. His cheeks were sunken and ghastly pale, the skin now clammy from the steam he had been breathing all these hours in a bid to warm him from the inside. As Bergil carefully blotted the moisture from Borlas' face, he thought that his skin seemed unbearably fragile, as if a single careless swipe with the cloth might tear it like old parchment.
Bergil could see no more than his face, swaddled as he was in fur and blankets, even his head, throat and shoulders covered, but the face was enough to tell his anxious brother just how ill he was and how close to death he had come. Bloodless, painfully dry lips moved as Borlas mumbled another plea, and sooty lashes fell to lie against the purpled skin beneath his eyes.
"Do not sleep, Brother," Bergil urged. "You must stay awake."
Arwen lifted the boy's head very slightly and tilted a cup to his lips. Steam curled gently from the liquid inside it, dewing Borlas' face again. "Drink, child."
Borlas shuddered at the touch of metal against his lips and tried to twist away. "Nay! 'Tis foul! I will not!"
"'Tis the King's medicine, brewed by his own hand for you," Arwen murmured soothingly. "'Twill ease the pain. Drink, child, and rest."
"My lord!" Borlas wailed, his head straining back with the force of his cry, and hot tears trailing down his cheeks.
"Lord Boromir is here. All is well, Borlas, and you are safe. I beg you, Brother, do as Lady Arwen asks and drink."
Between the two of them, Arwen and Bergil overmastered Borlas' strength and forced the draught down his throat. He gagged and choked, struggling not to swallow, but his body would not allow him to drown, whatever his addled mind might command, and he drank the medicine. When the cup was empty, Bergil settled him back on his bed and pulled the furs up around his head and throat again.
Borlas lay still with his eyes closed, weeping quietly, the sobs shaking his thin frame in a way that shadowed Arwen's face with concern.
"He does not breathe well," she murmured.
Bergil looked at her in alarm, one hand resting protectively on Borlas' head. "What is wrong with him?"
"Naught that we can help, at present."
"Hush, Bergil. Look to your brother."
Bergil glanced down to find Borlas' eyes open again, fixed on his face. This time, it seemed that Borlas recognized him.
"Aye." He slid his hand beneath the furs to stroke the damp, filthy hair back from Borlas' brow. "Rest easy, now."
"Why are you crying?"
"I am not." Bergil swiped hastily at his cheeks with his sleeve and favored his brother with a watery grin. "Soldiers do not cry, only scrubby little boys."
Borlas frowned up at him in reproach. "I am not a scrubby boy. I am… the Steward's own page."
"So you are," his brother agreed with a fond smile.
"Grave… a grave responsibility… Father said." The glazed, clouded gaze wandered away from Bergil's face as if searching for something, and the boy's frown deepened. "Where is my lord? Where…? I m-must find Prince Boromir."
"Nay, Borlas, be still."
"I must!" He began to struggle against the weight of his blankets again, while the note of hysteria crept back into his voice. "I cannot neglect my duties… I c-cannot! Father will be so angry. Father…"
"Fly, Bergil." Borlas looked straight up into his face, eyes blank with panic, voice scaling up to a higher, more desperate pitch with every word he spoke. "You must not be here! They will find you… kill you… put you in their great pot and… Ah! Bergil! I cannot bear it!"
Sobs wracked Borlas' thin body once again, and he twisted his head away, clenching his eyes shut to avoid the sight of his brother's tormented face. "'Tis foul!" he gasped. "'Tis Éofal's flesh! I will not eat of it… I will not…"
"Peace," Bergil murmured, leaning down to bring his voice close to the suffering child, "all will be well. Only rest, and do not be afraid."
"I will starve with my lord. I will be strong… like the Steward of Gondor. I will serve him to the end… die with him in the black pits…"
With a strangled cry, Bergil scooped his brother up in his arms and clutched him tightly to his breast, muffling his broken words in his own tunic. Arwen uttered a soft protest, but the young soldier ignored her. His arms trembled as he held his brother's body close, and his voice broke with the effort of holding in his pain.
"You are safe now, my brother. You and your lord both. You are free of the pits and the blackness, safe in the King's care." Borlas whimpered, and Bergil lifted a hand to cradle his head. "Do not be afraid. I will let no Orc touch you."
"He must lie flat," Arwen murmured in Bergil's ear. "The cold may have weakened his heart, and he must remain still, undisturbed."
"In a moment."
"You imperil him."
"Where is my lord?" Borlas whispered plaintively.
"Prince Boromir is with the King," Bergil assured him softly. Then to the Queen, he said, "He is quieter when I hold him."
"Aye." She looked at the boy's rumpled head resting against his brother's shoulder, and her eyes darkened with concern.
"His heart beats strongly; I can feel it in my own breast."
Arwen merely nodded, her gaze never leaving Borlas. Soldier and Queen knelt together at the side of the camp bed, neither moving nor speaking, until the bundle of bones and skin in Bergil's arms dropped at last into a deep slumber. Then Bergil laid his brother back upon his bed and tucked the blankets firmly about him to shield him from even the slightest draught.
Arwen's voice, melodious as it was, struck Bergil's ears harshly after the long silence. "His wits wander. 'Tis common, when the body has grown so cold, for the mind falter with it. He will be more himself when he wakes again."
"Did you hear what he said, my lady, about the great pot and the food offered him?"
"Can it be true?"
The Queen's beautiful, serene face tightened with disgust, and a hard light showed in her eyes. "Yrch!" It seemed for a moment as though she might spit to clean the taste of that word from her mouth. "What beastliness would their kind not practice, to the torment of Men? Aye, Bergil, it can be true and likely is."
The young man's shoulders bowed, and his head drooped between them, hiding his face from her gaze. A tremor passed through him, as he fought against the horror that rose to engulf him. Arwen rested a gentle hand on his shoulder.
"Weep, if it will give you ease," she murmured.
He drew in a ragged breath and whispered, harshly, "I am a soldier of Gondor, a man and not a child."
Her fingers tightened their clasp for a moment, and her voice softened. "Even the bravest soldier may weep to see a brother suffer."
*** *** ***
Faramir sat in the warm darkness of the King's tent, cross-legged upon the floor, his elbows resting on his knees and his chin in his hands, his eyes lingering on the face of the man beside him. He could see little by the dull, orange light of the braziers, but there was little enough to see. Boromir slept, unmoving, unknowing, barely seeming to breathe much of the time, while his brother waited and watched in an agony of spirit such as he had never known before.
That he was overjoyed to have his brother with him again Faramir knew in his mind, but the truth of Boromir's return had not yet penetrated from his head to his heart. He had not yet begun to feel it and he doubted, even as he gazed into his brother's face, that this apparition would somehow vanish, leaving him bereft. To lose Boromir again would destroy him. And yet, to have him in this manner was not to have him at all, or so the demon of doubt whispered in Faramir's mind, tormenting him.
Should he weep with joy, Faramir wondered, or with pain? Had he found Boromir upon the stream's bank only to walk the Silent Street beside his bier? And if Boromir lived, what then?
Rising to his knees, Faramir bent over the still form of his brother. Boromir breathed steadily now, and his lips had regained something of their natural color. His face was terribly pale, sunken between the sharp curves of cheekbone and jaw, gashed with fresh wounds and blackened with blood and filth, and yet still so familiar to Faramir that the sight of thickened his throat with pain. He lifted a hand to rest on Boromir's brow, just above the edge of the cloth that bound his eyes, and bent close to murmur,
"Ah, Boromir, my brother. You are cold yet, and so very far from me." Tears stung Faramir's eyes, but he blinked them ruthlessly away. "Can you not hasten back? Can you not speak a word – just one word – to the brother who has waited so long to hear your voice again? I need but a word, Boromir, to tell me that it is you."
The tears slipped treacherously from between his lashes and painted glowing orange streaks down his face. "Do not leave me now, I beg you. I fear our father's fate is upon me, and I will run mad with grief. Speak a word for me. Call me Brother."
Boromir stirred slightly, his head turning beneath Faramir's hand and his breast rising in a deeper breath. Faramir heard the grating of metal as Boromir moved his manacled hands beneath the blankets.
"'Tis I! 'Tis Faramir!" he cried softly, eagerly, but in the next breath, Boromir fell still without giving any sign of having heard.
Faramir bowed his head, struggling to master himself, but the roughness of his voice betrayed his anguish. "I know well whose voice you will heed, whose call you will answer. He who has ever kept faith with you when all the world else doubted, and I, your own brother, wavered. Would that he were here, not I, so that he might call you back from the darkness in which you wander. I am sorry, Boromir! Sorry that I lingered in the empty lands, dreaming of Elves, while you fought to keep Gondor's borders whole and suffered in the Orcs' den. Sorry that my every choice leads you into greater danger and more terrible loss. Sorry that it is not my voice for which you listen, now."
Faramir leapt as if stung, and turned to see a familiar head poking through the flap of the tent. "Legolas!"
"I beg your pardon for intruding," the Elf stepped inside and straightened, showing Faramir the shield he held, like a great curved tray, by its padded grips, "but Aragorn sent me to change the warming stones. How fares Boromir?"
"He sleeps." Faramir got to his feet and crossed the tent to take the shield from Legolas' hands. It held several large stones, and from the warmth that beat up against his face, Faramir gathered that they had only just been taken from the fire. "You do not intrude, my friend. I need the company."
Legolas eyed him narrowly for a moment, bringing a wry smile to Faramir's face.
"As you see, I am indulging in regrets."
"Do not," Legolas urged, gently. He crossed to the bed at Faramir's side, then knelt swiftly to peer at Boromir. "He rests in comfort and shows none of the danger signs of which Aragorn warned us. I just left the page, Borlas. He is in worse case, by far."
"But he lives?"
"Aye. Arwen holds out hope that he will recover, but his smaller body was chilled far more deeply than Boromir's, bringing him that much closer to death. He is in great pain, his mind wanders, and he shows signs already of lung sickness."
As he spoke, Legolas deftly pulled a number of objects wrapped in heavy cloth from the blankets that shrouded Boromir's shoulders and head. Faramir took similar bundles from against his ribs. They opened the wrappings and dumped a number of large stones onto the tent floor, then they used the cloth to protect their hands as they lifted the heated stones from the shield.
"While Boromir lies as one dead," Faramir said, wrapping a stone securely in thick layers of cloth. "And we must ride with the dawn or prepare to do battle with all the Orcs of the Misty Mountains."
At his words, Boromir stirred again, his head turning and his lips moving soundlessly. Faramir dropped the warming stone he held and bent eagerly over his brother, calling, "Boromir! Do you hear me? Speak, Brother, I pray you!"
Man and Elf waited in anxious silence for some response, but Boromir sank once more into his death-like stupor, only the whisper of breath from between his lips betraying that he lived. After a long, quiet moment, Legolas sighed and resumed his work.
"He breathes more quickly than before," Faramir whispered. "Mayhap he is awake, but too weak to answer us?"
The Elf merely shook his head and motioned for Faramir to place the warming stones quickly. They finished their task in silence, tucking the hot stones beneath the blankets and settling them against the injured man's ribs and shoulders. Then they collected the cooled stones in the shield and drew away from the cot where Boromir slept. Halting at the tent opening, Legolas turned eyes dark with pain on his sleeping friend.
"I know not if he can hear us, but I would not trouble him with more talk of Orcs."
"Aye." Faramir, too, gazed at his brother in anxious concern, then turned to Legolas and asked, "Where is the King? Will he not come himself?"
"He will, when the camp is secure and the company ready to ride with the dawn."
"Can he not leave those duties in another's hands? Can he not be a friend and a healer first, for this one night?"
"He is trying his hardest to be a friend tonight, though it tears his heart to do it." At Faramir's questioning look, the Elf gave him a melancholy smile and said, "Yours are the only hands he would trust with such duties, my Prince, but he will not call you away from your brother's side to spare himself labor."
Faramir stared at him, appalled, for a moment, then reached for the shield Legolas held. "I am thrice a fool, Master Elf! Give me your burden, and I will set the stones to heating again. Then I will walk the camp's defenses, speak to the sentries, order up the watch change…"
"Nay, Faramir!" Legolas protested, moving the shield beyond his reach. "Your place is here. Aragorn and his lieutenants have our defenses well in hand."
"The King should be free to care for his patients, when he has an able second to command his troops. I am worse than useless here. I know naught of healing, but I know as much as ever my brother did of how to make war on Orcs!"
The rasping whisper brought utter silence in its wake, as Man and Elf turned to stare at the heap of furs and blankets on the cot. For a breathless moment, they were too stunned to move or to believe the evidence of their ears, but then they both saw Boromir turn his head, as if searching for them in the darkness, and heard him mutter, "All dead."
"Aiiee! Boromir!" Legolas dropped the shield and its load of stones with a crash and crossed to the camp bed in two swift strides. Faramir, who did not have an Elf's reflexes, was a step behind him.
"Boromir?" Legolas cried, as he dropped to one knee beside the cot, "Boromir, my friend, do you hear? 'Tis Legolas, your very own Elvish nursemaid!"
The Steward drew in a slow, labored breath and whispered, thickly, "Legolas."
"Aye." Legolas uttered a burst of silvery laughter that sounded strange in that place of sickness and fear, but it seemed to drive the shadows into the farthest corners of the tent and lighten the very air. "And here is Faramir, as well."
"Faramir. I heard… your v…"
"Rest easy," Faramir murmured, as he slipped a hand beneath the blankets to clasp Boromir's arm. He felt his brother shove weakly against the confining layers of fur and fabric. "You are safe in the King's camp, under his care."
At that, Legolas bounded to his feet, crying, "Aragorn! I must tell him that Boromir is awake!"
"Orcs," Boromir muttered, once more attempting to throw off his heavy coverings. "Tell him… Orcs…"
"He knows of the threat from the Orcs, Boromir, do not fear. They will not take him unawares."
"What is dead?" Faramir asked.
After another startled pause, Legolas laughed again, his voice ringing with delight and relief. "By the Valar, Boromir, I should have guessed it! You have slain the Orcs and left none for us!" He turned for the tent opening, adding half to himself, "And left none for poor Gimli, too, I'll wager. How angry he will be!"
"Legolas…" Boromir rasped, trying to speak strongly from a throat stripped raw by smoke and water.
"Peace, my friend. I go to fetch the King and tell him his battle is already won."
The leather flap fell closed behind Legolas, leaving the brothers alone in the warm, dark tent.
"He is gone, Brother."
Boromir formed the name silently with cracked, bleeding lips, but Faramir heard his adored elder brother's voice, full of warmth and affection, speaking his name as it had countless times, and fresh tears spilled from his eyes. He tightened his clasp on Boromir's forearm, trying not to feel the bones so close beneath the skin or hear the grating of iron chains when Boromir moved to touch his hand.
"It is you, in truth," Faramir whispered. "I could not make myself believe it, until you awakened and knew me."
Boromir's fingers closed over Faramir's, and the younger man uttered a low, gasping sob. Bowing his head until his brow touched Boromir's shoulder, he let the tears come and the incredible, agonizing relief fill him. For some minutes, neither man spoke, and only the muffled sound of Faramir's weeping broke the silence.
Then Boromir stirred, bringing his brother's head up with a start, and asked, in his harsh, ragged whisper, "How did you find me?"
"'Tis a long tale, and one King Elessar or Legolas could better tell."
"Nay." He turned his head away, his throat working as he tried to clear the roughness from it. "Too far…"
Watching him, it occurred to Faramir that he must be terribly thirsty. Elessar had said something about urging him to drink, should he wake, and here Faramir had kept him talking without so much as offering a cup of water. He scrambled over to the nearest brazier and retrieved a silver goblet that stood beside it, drawing warmth from the glowing coals. Slipping one hand behind Boromir's head to lift it, he tilted the cup to his brother's lips with the other, urging,
"Drink, Boromir. It will quench your thirst and ease the pain in your throat."
"What is it?"
"Something of Elessar's making. It will warm you."
Boromir hesitated, his lips pressed firmly shut, while the cup steamed gently and a clean, crisp scent rose from it. At last, he relaxed and opened his mouth far enough that Faramir could pour the drink into it. He swallowed once, painfully, then again with more ease, and gradually he drained the cup.
"Where is Aragorn?" he asked, more strongly, as Faramir settled his head back against the furs.
"Legolas will bring him." Faramir smoothed the hair back from Boromir's brow, ignoring the filth stiffening the strands in the sheer pleasure of touching him again after deeming him lost for so long. "You asked me how we found you…"
"It was Elessar. Aragorn," he amended. Faramir rarely used the King's more familiar name, having met him and come to know him by the formal, Elvish name of Elessar. But the name Aragorn, he knew, conjured up the image of a friend and brother in Boromir's mind. It was Aragorn who had suffered with Boromir in the dungeons of Isengard. It was Aragorn who had greeted him upon the Pelennor Fields, with the blood of Sauron's Orcs smoking upon his sword. It was Aragorn who had named him Steward and stood with him against friend and enemy alike when the nobility of Gondor thought to strip him of his title. And now, it was Aragorn he needed to find beside him, not Elessar.
"Aragorn knew you were in peril," Faramir continued, slipping his hand beneath the blankets to clasp Boromir's fingers once more. "He led us south from Rivendell taking the shortest road to Gondor and to you – or so he thought. Had Legolas not found us and told us of your capture, we would have ridden past you and left you to find your own way home."
"I thought… I would have to crawl all the way to Gondor," Boromir muttered.
A smile born as much of pain as of amusement twisted Faramir's face. "I believe you would have done it. I know not how, but you would have found your way to the very gates of Minas Tirith."
"Glad I did… did not have to."
Faramir opened his mouth to answer him, but the sound of voices and the crunch of booted feet just outside the tent silenced him. He turned just in time to see the tent flap fly open and a tall figure duck swiftly through it.
* * *
Aragorn snapped out orders to the young Ranger and his grey-clad dúnedan lieutenant as he walked along the foot of the eastern ridge, his eyes automatically scanning its top as he went. Even as he gave them detailed instructions for the breaking of camp and stowing of gear, he ran down the list of tasks that still needed doing in his mind. To his dismay, the list kept growing longer, while the hours of the night crept by and his own strength flagged, and still his patients waited for him.
He saw a shadow loom up against the night sky, and a voice called harshly, "Halt, in the King's name!"
"'Tis your King you are halting, Feneldil."
"The password, my lord?"
"Horn of Gondor."
The shadow saluted him and shouldered its lance, turning back to its place in a nest of boulders. Aragorn resumed his walk along the lower path, with the two men trailing him. He had not yet reached the next sentry post, when he heard a familiar voice hail him in a glad tone that halted him in his tracks.
"Here!" he called, trying to hold down the tide of excitement that rose in him.
"You must come at once. Boromir is awake!" Legolas slid to a stop at his side and gripped his arm in powerful fingers. His eyes were so bright that they seemed to shine in the darkness, and his teeth flashed in a wide smile. "He is awake, Aragorn, and he brings strange tidings from beneath the mountains."
Aragorn turned at once to retrace his steps, his officers forgotten. "What tidings? Is he well? Does he seem himself? Did you speak to him, Legolas? Did he know you?" The questions tumbled ever more rapidly from his lips, until Legolas overrode him.
"He has all his wits about him, and if I understand him aright, he has been merrily slaughtering Orcs while we hunted through the wilderness to rescue him." The Elf laughed aloud, throwing back his fair head and turning his face up to the stars. "Boromir has come back to us, Aragorn, and I can almost forget his dreadful wounds or the long weeks of despair in the sheer gladness I feel at this moment!"
An incredulous smile spread over Aragorn's face, as he watched the Elf and allowed himself the first stirrings of hope. "How did he seem to you?"
"You will see for yourself, if you will but hurry a little," Legolas chided, pulling on Aragorn's arm. "And you need not bother about the Orcs, for Boromir tells us that they are dead."
"Dead?" Aragorn stopped in his tracks and turned to look at the two men hurrying along in his wake. "How, dead?"
"I did not stay to ask. Come, Aragorn!"
Aragorn hesitated for another moment, then waved the two men away. "Carry out my orders and continue preparations for the morrow. I will send word if there is a change in plan."
The Ranger and the dúnadan bowed and disappeared into the trees, leaving Aragorn alone with the Elf. He shot Legolas a swift look from the corners of his eyes, then he bounded forward in a great leap, running for the tent where Boromir awaited him. Legolas caught him up in two strides and paced at his side, still smiling, his eyes turned ever upward toward the stars that peeked through the overhanging branches of the trees.
"Faramir is with him?" Aragorn demanded.
"Aye. I thought it best to fetch you with all speed and leave Faramir some time alone with his brother. He suffers, Aragorn."
"I know it, and not from this mischance alone. The last few years have left deep wounds in Faramir that I do not know how to heal."
"Mayhap because you are not the one to heal them."
Aragorn nodded understanding but mentally brushed away his concern for the young prince. All his thoughts, all his energies were fixed on one man. A great ache of longing filled him, and he flung himself toward the small tent in undignified, unkingly haste.
"Fetch me the broth Éowyn is tending," he called over his shoulder to Legolas. Then he whipped aside the flap and ducked into the tent.
Faramir was crouched at Boromir's side, but he turned at the sound of Aragorn's coming and half rose to his feet. "My lord."
"Stay, Faramir. Is he yet awake?"
That word carried Aragorn across the floor in a rush. Faramir sidled out of his way, as he dropped to his knees beside the camp bed and bent over the man lying on it. "Boromir," he said, his voice soft but laden with feeling. "Boromir."
The other man turned his head, and Aragorn fancied that a pair of piercing green eyes were gazing up at him through the black cloth that shrouded them. "Aragorn."
"Boromir," he said, once again, his voice breaking before he could get the name fully out. Then he lifted a hand to rest on Boromir's head and he bowed to plant a kiss on his brow.
The Steward uttered a soundless murmur of relief at Aragorn's touch and whispered, roughly, "It is true, then. You found me."
"Did you doubt me?" Aragorn asked, torn between tears and laughter.
"I can no longer tell dream from waking, so long has the nightmare lasted."
"Ah, Boromir," Aragorn breathed. Peeling back the heavy blankets that wrapped Boromir close, he freed the other man's arms and lifted his left hand from where it lay on his midriff. The chains at his wrists clanked harshly, and Boromir's face tightened at the sound.
"I am sorry that you wear your chains still," Aragorn murmured, as he turned Boromir's hand to lie palm up in his own, "but I have not the tools to strike them off without injuring you. I will free you as swiftly as I may. Do not doubt it."
"I do not."
"And do not doubt that the nightmare is past," he added softly, "that I am as solid, as real as this gem you wear."
As he spoke, he carefully disentangled the chain from Boromir's manacle, loosening it so that the white stone hanging from it swung free. Then he lowered the gem to rest in Boromir's scarred palm. At its cold touch on his skin, Boromir closed his fist about it, holding it as tightly as his weakened fingers could manage. Aragorn closed his own hand over Boromir's, adding his strength to that of his steward, and bent to drop another kiss upon Boromir's brow.
"You carried my love with you into the very bowels of the earth and out again, my brother. I know not what comfort it could give you in such a place, but I pray it was enough."
"Uglúk feared it," Boromir said in a voiceless whisper. "He said he did not fear you, that he would slay you and put your head upon a spear for crows to peck at, yet he dared not take your gift from me."
"Then never was a truer gift given nor a star's light better bestowed."
"Aragorn." Boromir drew in a labored, ragged breath and let it out slowly, visibly struggling to master himself. "Aragorn," he repeated, testing the feel of that name on his lips, then went on in his rasping whisper, "I have run mad, I think. I hear your voice, and Faramir's, and Legolas' – all those I most longed to hear again – and yet it cannot be. I am sinking into my last sleep in the darkness beneath the mountains, while my mind wanders in new and more hopeless dreams. I am an Orc's supper."
"Nay. You are Boromir of Gondor, my most trusted Steward and my dearest friend. You are no creature's supper."
Boromir did not answer him. From the grim lines of his face, Aragorn guessed that he had sunk into some black reverie or grief.
A stirring at the tent's opening drew Aragorn's attention, and he turned to see Legolas and Éowyn step through it. The White Lady held a cup in her hands, but when her keen gaze had taken in the scene before her, she handed the cup to Legolas and drew back, leaving the Elf to approach the bed alone. Boromir either did not hear Legolas' light step, or he was too deeply mired in his own thoughts to take notice of it. He gave no sign of awareness, until Aragorn spoke to him in a low, persuasive tone.
"You must eat now, Boromir, and regain your strength."
"Borlas." Boromir stirred, plucked fretfully at his blankets and looked about him with his bandaged gaze, as if hoping to find his page lurking in a dark corner of the tent. "Borlas… the boy. Did you find him?"
"Aye, he is safe in my care. Do not trouble yourself about him now."
"I gave him my word… I would not let him die in the Orc den. I promised to bring him home."
"You have done so. He will enter the gates of Minas Tirith as he left them, at his lord's side. You have my word on that."
"Thank you, Aragorn."
The King smiled. "'Tis you who deserve my thanks, Steward of Gondor, for Legolas tells me that you slew the Orcs single-handed, and spared us a desperate and bloody battle."
"Borlas helped. And the Wizard."
Aragorn's brows rose. "What wizard?"
"Saruman. Uglúk plundered his caves… hoarded the weapons he found. Barrels of black powder."
"Ah!" Legolas cried, softly. "Saruman's fire!"
"It needed only a touch of flame," Boromir rasped, "to finish them all. Burn them as they slept."
"Is this the same exploding fire that breached the walls at Helm's Deep?" Faramir asked.
Boromir gave a grunt of assent.
"Then the earth tremor we felt was your black powder!"
"Uglúk bragged that he had enough to blow the top off of Redhorn. Or bring down the walls of Minas Tirith."
Aragorn grinned at Legolas, then clasped Boromir's shoulder in warm approval. "That was well done, Boromir. Well done, indeed. Now we are rid of both the Uruk-hai and the threat of Saruman's evil weapons."
"I could not let him… march upon the White City… put your head on a spear and bring down Gimli's fine new gates in ruin."
"What of the others?" Éowyn asked, her voice harsh and cold with strain. At Aragorn's glance, she took a step forward and demanded, "What of the Riders who were taken with you, my lord Steward? What has befallen them?"
"We must know, Boromir," Aragorn urged more gently. "If any of your company yet live, we must find and free them."
Boromir pondered this for a long moment, while dread thickened in the close air of the tent. At last he spoke, with a visible effort, as if struggling to drag a lighter memory up from the depths of his despair and pain. "Éothain and another were not in the cavern. They might have escaped the fire, but I know not what the Uruks may have done to them, before…"
"Still, there is a chance they are alive?"
"Aye." Boromir's face darkened with fresh pain. "But I know not where to look for them. Somewhere to the south. Near to Isengard."
Aragorn looked exultantly to Faramir, and then to Éowyn, reading the taut eagerness in them both. "Gimli rides to Isengard!"
"Aye," Faramir murmured, "but he cannot search all the tunnels of the Misty Mountains in time, even without Orcs to hamper him."
"The Wizard's caves," Boromir whispered. "They found… wine. Set the Riders to moving it." After a moment's thought, he added, more quietly still, his voice fading and roughening with weariness, "Borlas has seen the caves. Ask him."
Legolas leaned forward and pitched his voice for Aragorn's ears, not wanting to distress the injured man lying between them. "The child's wits wander. He is in no fit state for questions."
Aragorn nodded his understanding. "I will see to him shortly. Mayhap I can bring him back to himself." He reached to take the silver cup from Legolas' hand and, with infinite care, slipped his own free hand beneath Boromir's head to lift it. "First I must tend to my steward's needs. 'Tis time you rested, Boromir. Drink. Then you can sleep until morning."
As he spoke, Aragorn tilted the cup to Boromir's lips. At the touch of the warm metal, Boromir obediently opened his mouth, but even as he prepared to swallow what Aragorn offered him, the smell rising from the cup struck him, and he recoiled with a choked cry of disgust. Broth slopped from the cup, spilling down his chin, and he wrenched his head from Aragorn's clasp with another cry.
"Nay! I will not!"
"Peace, Boromir!" Aragorn righted the cup before all the broth spilled, but before he could offer it again, the other man twisted sharply away, turning onto his side and burying his face in the blankets. As Aragorn watched, a shudder wracked his thin frame, and he began to retch.
Legolas, who now crouched closest to his huddled form, placed a calming hand on Boromir's head and bent to murmur in his ear. "'Tis naught but clear broth. It will settle your stomach and give you strength."
"I cannot!" Boromir gasped, another wave of sickness making him choke and gag. "'Tis foul…"
"Nay, my friend. Will you not trust to Aragorn's healing and do as he bids?"
It took Boromir some moments to muster an answer. He lay with his face still hidden and his shoulders hunched as if anticipating a blow. Every breath wracked him, and every swallow was a choke of pain. Legolas kept one hand on his head and with the other clasped his shoulder to steady him, while Aragorn rose from his place on the floor to sit upon the camp bed at Boromir's back. Faramir went to where Éowyn stood like a pale, haunted statue, and drew her into his arms.
Into the waiting silence, Boromir spoke, his voice no more than a ragged whisper, edged with horror. "He slaughtered them, Aragorn."
The King leaned closer to catch his words, his arms now supporting Boromir, as the injured man tried to turn onto his back again and found that he had not the strength to move.
"He worked them as slaves until they dropped, then he… butchered them and threw them in his great stewpot. Four men. Four swift sons of Éorl. Slain to fill the bellies of Orcs."
Éowyn turned abruptly to press her face into Faramir's shoulder, but the others remained frozen by Boromir's terrible words.
"Éofal was the last. His death is on my hands."
"Nay, Boromir," Aragorn murmured.
"I thought to teach an Orc mercy." Something dreadfully like a laugh tore at his throat, and his entire body shook with the force of it. "But 'twas I who learned from him… Wily old Uglúk. A soldier. A general. A medic." Boromir drew in a ragged breath, and hissed, "A butcher and a beast! So I butchered him, in the end. Split his skull open with a lance. Lay in his blood and listened to him die. Then I cooked the rest in their beds… But what creature will eat of their flesh? Mayhap a wandering mountain Orc will stumble upon the feast…"
"Hush, Boromir. Enough."
"I killed him. Éofal. Uglúk had him slain as punishment…"
Aragorn lifted his wasted body with ease and laid him upon his back, settling his head gently onto a thick pad of furs. Then he pulled the blankets up around his chin, hiding the iron collar that still circled his throat. Boromir submitted to his ministrations in silence, his chest laboring as if he were weeping, though no tears wet his cheeks.
"I will find some food that you can stomach," Aragorn went on, while he fussed about, making certain that Boromir was as comfortable as his many injuries would allow, "and I will prepare poultices for your wounds. In the meantime, I command you to rest. You will need all your strength, come tomorrow."
With the harsh grating of iron chains, Boromir reached to catch his hand, halting his movements. "Find them, Aragorn. Do not let them perish like the others."
"And look to Borlas. I gave him my word…"
"Be easy. Leave everything to me." Breaking Boromir's grip on him, Aragorn tucked his arms beneath the blankets and chided, "Sleep, and do not worry."
With a twitch of his head, Aragorn signaled the others to draw away from the bed with him. He retrieved the cup from where he had left it on the floor and crossed swiftly to the tent opening. There, he thrust it into Éowyn's hands and murmured, too low for Boromir to hear, "Take that away, and do not offer it to the boy. We do not want to frighten him further."
"If Boromir will not eat meat…" Faramir began, but Aragorn cut him off with a gesture.
"'Tis too soon to know what he will or will not eat. But for the present, I do not want to press him. I will find something to sustain them both, until their wounds begin to heal and their minds to grasp that they are truly safe. Then we shall see."
"What did you mean about Boromir needing all his strength tomorrow?" Faramir asked. "Do we still ride at sunup?"
"Nay, we will stay here for another day or two, as there are no Orcs to drive us out."
"Then he can rest," Faramir breathed, relief plain in his voice.
"He can rest, once I have finished with that wound in his leg."
Glancing back toward the man lying so still beneath the blankets, Aragorn waved them all out of the tent, where their talk of wounds and Orcs would not disturb Boromir's sleep. They gathered close about him in the chill night, listening intently.
"The wound is black and rotten. It must be thoroughly cleaned, and quickly, if I am to save his leg."
Legolas looked more grim than was his wont, when he asked, "Can Boromir endure such a trial?"
"Not in his present weakened state, but I dare not delay longer than tomorrow – midday at the latest."
"Is there aught that we can do to aid you? Or my brother?" Faramir asked.
Aragorn nodded. "Find my lieutenants and tell them that my order to break camp is reversed. See to the watch change. Warn the men that we must keep the camp secure, perhaps for a number of days, and organize a forage party for the morning. Then collect what foodstuffs we have that contain no meat. There is little enough, I fear, but mayhap our foragers can bring us some late vegetables or grains. And Éowyn, if you would care to send word to your brother by my messenger, make haste to prepare it. He will ride within the hour."
"Aye, my lord."
"Now, I must see to Borlas and glean what information I can from him."
Faramir and Éowyn nodded their understanding and disappeared into the night to do the King's bidding. Aragorn ducked back into the tent and crossed to Boromir's pallet, crouching beside him to gaze intently at his face.
To a stranger's eyes, Boromir's gaunt, ravaged features might have seemed dreadful – a mask of suffering and death. But to Aragorn, they were so familiar and so welcome a sight that he found himself weeping, quietly, with gladness as he looked upon them.
"The nightmare is ended, my friend. Sleep without fear, and dream only of the stars and their music."
Rising to his feet, he stooped to rest his fingertips lightly against Boromir's cheek, then he turned and strode from the tent.
Legolas was waiting for him as he stepped outside.
"All is well with Boromir?"
"As well as it can be," Aragorn agreed.
"Have you an errand for me, my king? Or may I undertake one of my own choosing?" He gestured toward the tent and man sleeping within.
Aragorn smiled and brushed open the flap. "'Tis the very task I had set aside for you. Send for me if Boromir should wake."
With a nod and a swift, bright smile, the Elf disappeared into the tent. Aragorn turned his steps toward Borlas and Arwen, secure in the knowledge that Boromir had his Elvish nursemaid beside him.
*** *** ***
Pippin groaned and pulled his blanket up about his ears. A bird, perched somewhere high up in the tree above him, was scolding furiously, filling the sweet morning air with its racket and dragging a poor, tired, bedraggled hobbit from his well-earned rest.
"Go away, you wretched creature!" he cried, when a fresh outbreak of squawks and shrieks forced him to admit that he would get no more sleep under this tree. Shoving back the blanket, he sat up and fumbled for a rock on the ground beside him. "Leave us in peace, why don't you?"
Cocking back his hand, he let fly with the stone and heard it smack into a branch overhead. The bird, startled by the noise, gave an outraged cry, hopped to another branch, and resumed its scolding.
"Bother." Pippin yawned hugely and scratched his head, looking about him hopefully. "I say, Merry. Where's breakfast?"
Merry did not answer, and Pippin felt a twinge of worry at his silence. Merry never slept past sunrise and always awakened Pippin with his first meal in one hand and the ponies' reins in the other, urging him to make haste. But this morning, there was no fire stoked and crackling, no food cooking, no ponies nudging at him with their velvet noses. There was only the little hollow, with its carpet of dried leaves and moss, the tree, the bird, and the touch of mellow autumn sunlight on his face.
Pippin scrambled from his bed and over to the edge of the hollow. Peering down the slope toward the road, he saw the two ponies still tied where they had left them the night before, munching happily on the leaves of a nearby bush. Merry had not left, then. Or not taken his mount, if he had.
"There you are, Pip."
Pippin spun around so fast that he almost tripped over his own cloak and saw Merry leaping nimbly down the hillside above the hollow, his arms full of dried sticks and branches. It may have been some trick of the dappled light, but Pippin could have sworn that he was smiling.
"I thought you were going to sleep the whole morning away!"
Pulling his mouth closed with a snap, Pippin retorted, "And I thought you had been snatched by bandits or eaten by trolls, when you did not kick and curse me out of my bedroll at first light. What have you been up to?"
"Just gathering firewood."
"But Merry, it is mid-morning already."
"Long past breakfast time. Help me with this fire, won't you, while I slice up the last of our sausages?" Merry handed Pippin the load of firewood and moved off to rummage through his pack without a backward glance. "I don't suppose there is any place to find good sausages in this country. We must wait 'til we reach Edoras, or Isengard at the very least."
A bit awkwardly, with his eyes still glued to Merry's back, Pippin set about stoking up the fire. He singed his fingers twice but barely noticed, so befuddled was he by the change in his traveling companion. Gone were the sunken eyes and haunted look. Gone were the terse manner, the flashes of unaccustomed temper and the restless, almost desperate straining to hurry, hurry, hurry. The Merry before him now reminded him poignantly of the dear cousin he had known and loved all his life. Pippin had nearly given up hope of seeing him again on this bitter journey.
"What's happened to you, Merry?" Pippin asked suddenly. "You changed in the night."
Merry looked up at him in surprise, his knife poised above a fat sausage, his head cocked to one side as he considered his answer. "I think, perhaps, I slept without dreaming." Then he smiled, and while his deep weariness still showed in the circles beneath his eyes and the new lines in his face, his eyes sparkled with some of their old humor. "The only thing I know for certain is that I'm ravenously hungry! So hurry up with that fire."
They ate at their leisure, each of them wiping his plate clean with a hunk of bread left over from their last night under an inn roof. They had only ale and water to drink, but ale suited such a breakfast, and they sat long over their cups. Merry even brought out his pipe and offered Pip a bit of Longbottom Leaf to fill his own, sitting beside his younger cousin in companionable silence, while they blew smoke rings at the noisy bird and privately savored the taste of home upon their tongues.
As they tied the last bundle onto a pony's back and prepared to depart, Merry turned his oddly tired, yet twinkling gaze on Pippin and said, "The mountains look closer than before. We cannot be more than a day's ride from the Fords of Isen."
Pippin groaned and heaved himself into the saddle. "You have said that every day for a fortnight past."
"And will doubtless say it again tomorrow, and the day after that and the day after that. One day, you will see that I am right."
Pippin laughed and clapped his heels to the pony's sides, sending him trotting into the middle of the road. "Come then! Let us make haste to the Fords of Isen and Edoras! And to some nice, fat, sausages!"
"And to Gondor," Merry added, quietly, as he urged his mount forward and fell into step at Pippin's side.
Together, the two hobbits clattered along the road toward the soaring peaks of the mountains and the silver mist that cloaked the Gap of Rohan. And for the first time in many weeks, Pippin smiled as he rode.
*** *** ***
"Make way! Make way in the King's name!"
The cry came from the back of the column. Horses sidled and danced, as their rider's hauled on the reins to draw them to one side or the other. A bay horse galloped through their ranks, sides heaving, lips flecked with foam, a man in the green and white livery of Ithilien clinging to his back. Riders stared in wonder and growing excitement, recognizing one of Prince Faramir's Rangers and a member of the King's company in this harried messenger.
As the Ranger drew near to the head of the column, the two riders in the van halted and turned to watch him approach. They were an oddly matched pair – a Man both tall and fair, with a white crest upon his helm and silver mail glinting beneath his green cloak, and a Dwarf clad in the thick leathers and chain mail favored by his people, with a heavy axe at his belt. The sight of a Dwarf sitting astride a horse of Rohan might have given any man pause, but this messenger knew well the abilities of this particular Dwarf. And his close friendship with King, Prince and Steward.
"Master Gimli!" the Ranger cried, as he dragged back on his horse's reins and fairly flung himself from the saddle. "I come with word from the King!"
Gimli glared down at the messenger from beneath his bristling, fearsome brows and demanded, "What's amiss? Speak, lad! What news from the King?"
A wide smile broke, like sunlight, across the young man's face. "The Steward is found! Prince Boromir and his page are with the King!"
"Great Durin's Beard!" Gimli roared, exultantly. Forgetting how precariously he was perched in his saddle, the Dwarf twisted round to grasp Elfhelm's arm and bellowed, "Do you hear, Elfhelm? Boromir is found!"
"I hear," Elfhelm said, grinning widely enough to split his face, "but I cannot credit it. A man, come alive from the Orc dens of the Misty Mountains? 'Tis beyond belief."
"I'd not believe it of any Man, save Boromir! But he should have been born a Dwarf, that one. As enduring as the mountains' roots, and more stubborn than a nest full of trolls."
Chuckling, he leaned out to slap Elfhelm on the shoulder. In the next instant, arms flailing and feet scrabbling for purchase in stirrups not made to hold Dwarfish feet, Gimli overbalanced and pitched headlong from the saddle.
He landed hard on his back, in a thicket of horse legs. The air flew out of his lungs, leaving him gasping and red in the face. Through watering eyes, he saw Elfhelm leap gracefully to the ground and bend over him, but when the Man offered him a hand up, he swatted it away.
With a wheeze and a grunt, Gimli pushed himself upright and drew in a deep breath. Then he let it out in a roar of laughter. "Do not stand their gaping, Master Horselord! Fetch us a wineskin, and we will drink the Steward's health! Ale would go down nicely just now, but I'll wager you have none handy."
"Nay, friend, I cannot offer you ale," Elfhelm answered gravely, his grey eyes alight with laughter.
"Then wine must serve. Ah! What a pity Legolas is not here to share it with us!" A sudden thought occurred to him, and he heaved himself abruptly to his feet, snatching at Elfhelm's arm when the Rider moved to do his bidding. "But stay. There is naught to be done in the Wizard's Vale. Naught keeping me from my friends. I will not tarry here, but ride for the King's camp at once. Then I may see for myself that Boromir is alive, and raise a cup in celebration with Legolas."
"Nay, Master Gimli!" the messenger interjected sharply. "'Tis the King's command that you ride for Isengard with all speed."
"Eh?" Gimli turned his ferocious scowl on the Ranger and took the sealed letter that the man held out to him. "To Isengard still?"
He broke the seal on the dispatch and spread it between his hands. As he read, his face darkened and his frown grew more pronounced, but there was a fierce marshal light in the eyes he lifted to Elfhelm's face.
"This is fit labor for Dwarves, indeed! Two men trapped in the warren of caves and passages above the Wizard's Vale, and Aragorn would have us free them."
"Men?" Elfhelm said, blankly.
"Two of Boromir's company who may yet live, but who languish in a dark prison without food or water now that their captors are slain." He crumpled the dispatch in one sturdy fist and grinned humorlessly at his companion. "Boromir has left us a task worth doing, Marshal Elfhelm. Are you with me?"
A light as fierce as any Gimli could muster sprang up in Elfhelm's eyes. "I am the King's to command, and yours, Gimli of Aglarond. Do but point me at these caves, and you will see how the Rohirrim can dig when the need arises. We may challenge even your Dwarves to keep pace with us!"
"Come, then. We have not a moment to lose." Gimli caught his horse's reins and would have called upon Elfhelm's aid in mounting, but the Man had turned to the messenger and paid him no heed.
"Do you ride again to the King?" he asked the Ranger.
"Nay, I am for Edoras, with letters for Éomer King." The man smiled wearily. "And mayhap for Gondor, if the Rohirrim have no rider to spare."
"You will not reach the Gap upon that horse. He is nearly spent. Our packhorses are fresh, having little weight to carry, and one of them will take you easily to the doors of the Golden Hall, if you do but treat him kindly."
"What of my faithful Andélan?"
"He will have naught but a few water skins to burden him and an easy journey when compared to yours. Look for him in Edoras when you hear of our return."
"I thank you, Marshal Elfhelm."
Elfhelm clapped him on the shoulder and sent him off to find the packhorses. Then he turned to Gimli, bending to offer his laced fingers as a step for the Dwarf's short legs. With a practiced heave, he tossed Gimli onto the high back of his mount.
"I am sorry that you cannot enjoy your celebration cup, Master Gimli, or the company of your friends."
"We will have time enough for such things, when we have your people safe and Boromir home."
Elfhelm swung easily into the saddle and laced the reins expertly between his fingers. "Think you we can find those men in time?"
"Are the caves not sealed long since? How will we find them, much less open them?"
"'Twas I who helped to seal them, and I remember well where the main entrances are to be found. As for opening them," he threw a grin over his shoulder at the Rider, as he kicked his horse into a canter, "I know just the Ent for the job!"
*** *** ***
He had forgotten the feel of sunlight on his face, the smell of growing things, the sound of men's voices. So long had he dwelt in fetid darkness that these sensations struck him a physical blow and sent his mind reeling. He barely felt the pain of his wounds, as he was carried from the tent and laid upon a pallet by a large, crackling fire, overwhelmed as he was by the rush of openness and life all about him. Even the smell of the fire – the familiar, loathed stink of things burning – seemed almost welcoming in this place.
For some minutes they left him alone, giving him time to grow accustomed to his new surroundings and mentally find his balance. The move from his bed inside the tent to his place by the fire had started his body hurting in new and dreadful ways, and the familiar pain helped to clear his head. Slowly, the confusion of noise and scent about him began to take shape, and he realized that he was lying in the midst of a military encampment, filled with men of Rohan, Ithilien, Gondor and the West. Horses stamped and whinnied in the distance. Armor clanked and swords rattled, as the men strode by him on the King's business. Meat roasted over a fire – not this fire, thankfully – adding its smell to that of tired, sweaty men and horses.
A hand touched his brow, cool and light, drawing Boromir's attention from the camp at large to the group of people gathered close about him, and a musical voice spoke from above his head. "Think you that it is wise to do this now, Estel?"
Boromir recognized Arwen's voice and heard the concern in it. He tried to ask her what it was that upset her so, but he could not muster his strength or frame his words quickly enough to forestall Aragorn's answer.
"I must. The leg festers. 'Tis a wonder his blood is not yet poisoned by it."
"We have not the medicines and tools we need…"
"I must, Arwen." There came a pause, then Aragorn said, more fiercely still, "I will not sacrifice his leg or his life to a wound that I have the skill to heal!"
"You will do as you deem best, but still, I fear for him."
"Boromir can withstand it."
Deeming it time to make himself heard, Boromir forced his battered throat to work and whispered, "Withstand what? What are you about, Aragorn?"
"The business of healing you, my friend. Trust me."
Boromir wanted to deliver an acid reminder that he always trusted Aragorn, even when it seemed a patently foolish thing to do, but he found that he did not have the energy for it. Instead, he let his head sink more heavily into his pillow and grunted a sour, wordless acknowledgement.
What followed did naught to put his mind at ease. Aragorn issued a number of low-voiced commands, and before Boromir knew it, he found his arms crossed over his breast and held down by Faramir's strong grip, a thick piece of sour leather thrust between his teeth, and Legolas pinning his left leg to the ground with all his weight. Aragorn's familiar hands moved gently over him, turning aside the blanket to bare his leg, sponging water over his skin, then murmuring useless reassurances when he flinched away from the stinging heat.
The burning cloth was removed. Then came the soft rubbing of leather against metal and Legolas' voice, curious, asking, "What is that?"
Aragorn gave a grunt of humorless laughter. "A spoon. The smallest dagger in the camp was yet too large for such a delicate task, so I fashioned a surgical tool of my own. It took me all the morning with Feneldil's whetstone to put an edge on it."
Apprehension crawled over Boromir like dead fingers on his flesh, and he struggled briefly to free his leg from Legolas' grasp to no avail. The Elf's hold on him tightened.
Aragorn rested a hand on his thigh and spoke, in his most persuasive tone. "I am sorry, Boromir. I will hurt you no more than I must, but there is no way to clean such a wound without pain. Only trust that I will not push you past your body's endurance, and that when I am done, you will have some relief."
Spitting the leather from his mouth, Boromir asked, "What will you do?"
"Cut the rotten tissue from your leg and cleanse the wound. Then dress and bind it for the present, but it must remain open and be cleaned often to allow for healing."
"And when it is healed? What then?"
Aragorn sighed. "Let us get through this morning and leave such questions for later." The hunk of damp leather touched Boromir's lips again, and Aragorn urged, "Bite this, rather than your tongue."
Boromir obediently opened his mouth, so that Aragorn might slide the strip between his teeth, then he bit down hard on it. The fingers of apprehension trailed over his flesh again, but he fought the urge to shiver and shrink away. There was, after all, nowhere for him to go.
At the first touch of cold metal against his flesh, he shuddered. Then pain such as he had never known before lanced through him, dragging a cry of agony from his tortured throat. He thrashed and fought with all his waning strength, while the terrible blade cut ever deeper into him and the hands of ones he loved held him mercilessly, preventing his escape. The stench of corruption rose in a miasma to choke him, pitching him back into his memories of the Orc den and Uglúk's horny hands upon him. Hot blood gushed over his leg. He screamed again, the sound no more than a harsh croak in his ears, and in the next breath pitched into blessed darkness.
Unconsciousness spared Boromir the worst of Aragorn's surgery. He did not feel the sharpened spoon scraping rotten flesh from sound muscle or boiled, herb-scented water pouring into the gaping hole left in his leg. He knew nothing of his king's ministrations, until the neck of a silver flask was thrust between his teeth and miruvor burned down his throat, bringing him back to himself.
With a sputter and a cough, he twisted his head away from the offered flask and gasped, "Aragorn!"
"Here." A familiar hand touched his face, then moved to rest upon his brow, and calming voice spoke from close beside him. "All is well, Boromir. I am done."
"Aragorn." His breath came in ragged sobs and the hand he lifted toward Aragorn's voice shook noticeably. The King clasped his hand strongly, stilling his tremors and the fear boiling up in him. "I thought, at the last, that it was Uglúk…"
"Nay, Uglúk is gone, and the nightmare is ended, as I promised you." Aragorn's fingers loosened for a moment, and Boromir felt a familiar hard, sharp object press into his palm. Then Aragorn tightened his clasp again, so that both men together held the small gem. "All is well."
"Aye," Boromir sighed. His overburdened mind slipped gently toward the beckoning darkness, and for once, he felt no coldness, no fear at its approach. "Aye," he breathed again, as Aragorn's lips touched his brow. Then he slept.
To be continued…