Author's Note: Happy New Year, and thank you for
waiting so patiently for this chapter! Enjoy!
*** *** ***
Chapter 12: All Roads Lead to Rohan
Boromir sat alone in the quiet of the tent, a cup cradled, forgotten, in his hands as he listened intently to the noises filtering in from the camp. He heard a new note in the usual bustle of activity and knew, without having been told, what it portended. Aragorn had ordered the company to break camp.
Just where the King meant to take them he had no idea. Aragorn told him naught of his plans these days, confining his words to gentle but firm commands and reassurances, and Boromir had not the strength to demand more of him. Mayhap, when he could stay awake for as much as an hour together, Aragorn would treat him as his Steward again, and not merely a patient. In the meantime, he wanted sleep more than he did information.
With a weary sigh, he let his head sink back against the roll of furs that cushioned it and settled himself into a more comfortable position for sleep. Faramir had tampered with his cot, lowering it to the ground and propping up one end to support him, but fortunately, Boromir had learned – first as a soldier, then as a captive – to sleep where e'er he found himself. He could as easily sleep sitting up as lying down and had no need to summon aid in lowering the cot. He had the presence of mind to set his cup on the floor, beside his largely uneaten breakfast, so as not to spill it. Then he rested his hands upon his lap, weighed down as much by weariness as by the chains he wore, and let himself drift once more toward sleep.
The low murmur of voices brought him back to himself an uncounted time later. He awoke reluctantly, called from his rest by the certainty that Aragorn was with him, and heard snatches of conversation held over his head between the King and Legolas.
"You see? He, too, will eat nothing," Aragorn said in a troubled tone. "This cannot go on, Legolas, if they are to heal."
"How can you make them eat, if they will not?" the Elf asked.
Mustering what strength he could, Boromir turned to find Aragorn in the darkness and muttered, "I have eaten."
Aragorn sighed, and Boromir heard both weariness and frustration in the sound. "Three bites of waybread does not a meal make, Boromir. As your healer and your friend, I tell you that you must eat."
"Bring me a bowl of porridge," Boromir suggested.
"Porridge!" Aragorn exclaimed in disgust.
"You cannot live on porridge," Legolas chided.
"I ate naught else in all the weeks of my captivity, and it has done me no harm."
"It has done you a great deal of harm," Aragorn retorted. "You and Borlas both are near to starving! The wonder is that you could come so far from the Orcs' den, weak and sick as you are, and in all truth, I know not how you find the strength to sit up and talk to me even now. For you will not let me help you!"
The King paused to collect himself, then went on in a milder tone, "I have made a rich stew of fresh-caught fish and greens, with no smell of meat about it. I will sit here beside you, my friend, and watch you eat every drop. If you do not, then I will feed it to you myself, and the devil take your pride."
Boromir's stomach roiled at the thought. "'Tis not my pride that chokes me, Aragorn."
"I know it." The King's voice softened still more but did not lose its note of finality. "But you must know that more than your own life depends on what you do now."
Boromir frowned, confused by his words and feeling the first stirrings of unease. For himself, he feared nothing. He was safe in his king's care and knew that his own strength would suffice him. But his intimate knowledge of Aragorn's methods warned him that the cunning warrior was about to back him into a corner and force his surrender at the sword's point.
"Your page is gravely ill," Aragorn said, unexpectedly. "He suffers from lung sickness, brought on by cold, exhaustion and long weeks of near starvation. He burns with fever, which hastens the wasting of his body, yet he will eat naught but waybread soaked in water. Such a diet cannot sustain him, Boromir. He will die, and soon, if he goes on this way."
Boromir turned toward him, frowning, and his voice sharpened in alarm. "Why have you not told me of this before?"
"You have been in no fit state to hear it, and we hoped that his brother could bring him round, that we need not call upon you to help."
"What would you have me do?"
"Persuade him to eat as he should. He speaks often, in his delirium, of remaining faithful 'til the end, of dying with his lord. All his thoughts are of you and your refusal to eat man-flesh at Uglúk's command."
Boromir ordered himself not to shudder at these words, forced himself to say, with deceptive calm, "If he thinks himself still among the Orcs…"
"Nay, I will bring him to you when his mind is clear and he knows himself. Then, if he sees you eat the food I have prepared, he may agree to eat it, as well."
"And if I cannot?"
"You can." Aragorn's hand closed on his arm, lending him strength of purpose. "You have all your wits about you, and you know that what I offer you is not tainted. Your body may revolt, spurred to it by lurking memory, but you can overcome it for Borlas' sake."
For Borlas' sake. What had Boromir not overcome already for Borlas' sake? Darkness, fire, biting cold and merciless stone. The blades and whips and chains and cooking pots of the Orcs. Wounds and exhaustion. Horror and despair. To prove himself the warrior his loyal page so ardently believed him to be, he had slaughtered an entire nest of Uruk-hai and dragged a dying child out of the very bowels of the Misty Mountains. And was he now to cower in fear before a bowl of soup?
Pride stiffened Boromir's spine, and he gave a wordless nod of assent. Aragorn squeezed his arm in gratitude.
"I will fetch the boy," Legolas said, rising at once to his feet.
A moment later, the slap of canvas on canvas told Boromir that Legolas was gone and he was alone with the King.
Aragorn, who had begun to rummage in his ever-present pouch full of medicines, let his hands fall still and turned toward the sound of Boromir's voice. The touch of those keen, grey eyes, so familiar to Boromir through so many years spent at Aragorn's side, was warm upon his face and told him that he had his king's undivided attention.
"How ill is Borlas, in truth? Will he die?"
"He is gravely ill, but he may yet live."
"If he eats?"
"Aye. And if he finds the strength within himself to fight for his life."
A wry, pained smile lifted one corner of Boromir's mouth. "He is a soldier of Gondor. He will fight."
"So I believe."
Boromir heard the smile in Aragorn's voice, even as he felt sure, gentle fingers begin to daub healing salve upon his wrist. Aragorn lifted first one hand, then the other, to smear his soothing, herb-scented medicines over the gashes that circled Boromir's wrists. The salves were cool against burnt, torn, bruised flesh, and the smell reminded him of the high slopes of Mount Mindolluin or the green depths of Ithilien. He felt the tension drain from his body, leaving him limp with exhaustion but at peace, content to rest in his lord's expert hands and dream of home.
"There is no sign of infection," Aragorn murmured, drawing Boromir's mind from its peaceful wanderings. He felt cold air and Aragorn's deft touch on his leg, felt the familiar throb of his old wound. "It will heal faster when I can leave it open to the air, but I dare not in the dirt and bustle of the camp."
Something like a laugh was wrenched from Boromir. "After Uglúk's treatments, you need hardly fear honest soldiers' dirt."
"Whatever else Uglúk may have been, he was a skilled surgeon. He saved your leg."
Aragorn laid a dressing across the gaping wound and bound it lightly in place. "You will keep it, Boromir," he said, with soft insistence. "This is a hurt I can heal."
"To what end?" Boromir could not keep the edge of bitterness from his voice. "That I might wake in pain each morning, and drag it uselessly behind me through each day, always wishing that you or Uglúk had hacked it off?"
A hand clasped Boromir's arm, and the King's beloved voice spoke from close beside him. "Your leg will never be whole again. The wound is too deep and the damage too great. But I swear to you, by the love I bear you and the faith I have in you, Boromir of Gondor, that I will not suffer you to lose another part of yourself." Fingers brushed the bandage over Boromir's eyes, then rested on his head. "My Steward may walk with limp, but he will walk at my side again."
"Pretty words, but you cannot promise me so much."
"Do you doubt my word?"
"Nay, only your power to fill the cavern in my leg by sheer force of will."
What answer Aragorn may have given him was interrupted by the sound of voices outside the tent, warning of Legolas' return. Aragorn rose swiftly to his feet and headed for the doorway, saying, "I must help them with the boy."
Before Aragorn reached the tent flap, it opened, and a confusion of noises met Boromir's ears. Legolas he recognized by the smell of green things he always brought with him, and by the low, musical note of his voice. Others followed him into the tent, a woman to judge by the swishing of her skirts and a soldier dressed in leather and chain mail. Boromir was frowning to himself, trying to make out the names of his visitors, when he heard a terrible, rattling cough that drove all other thoughts from his mind.
"Aye, my lord." The boy drew nearer, carried in Legolas' arms, and Boromir could now hear the labored sound of his breathing even over the hum of voices around them.
"Peace, child," Legolas said, as he knelt at Boromir's left hand and lowered his burden to the ground. "Let us settle you and see to your comfort, then you may talk your fill with Prince Boromir."
"I am well enough," Borlas whispered in a voice made rough with much coughing, "only my chest aches so."
"I have a salve to ease your breathing," Aragorn assured him.
"And I have the meal Lord Elfstone promised you," a new voice said. Boromir recognized it instantly as Éowyn's. He heard her light step and the brush of her skirt as she moved up to his pallet and knelt beside him. With her came a less welcome sensation – the smell of cooked fish and pungent herbs – that made Boromir recoil slightly from her.
"Is the stew of your making, Sister?" he asked, in a weak attempt at humor. In all her years as Faramir's wife, the martial lady of Rohan had acquired many womanly skills, but she had never learned to cook. On some days, she took her husband's and brother's ribbing on the subject in good part. On others, she made them repent of their fun at her expense.
"Nay, my lord," Éowyn replied, gravely, "for you are ill enough already."
Boromir smiled at this sally, but he did not reach for the bowl she lifted from the tray to offer him.
"You must eat," she urged.
The steam from the offered bowl touched Boromir's face, and he turned his head away, muttering, "When Borlas is ready."
On his other side, Aragorn, Legolas and the soldier, whose voice was familiar but whose name escaped Boromir, busied themselves about Borlas, fussing with bolsters and furs and salves. Borlas coughed again, more weakly, and protested when the King pressed a cup of medicine upon him.
At last, Aragorn sent the others from the tent and crouched at Borlas' side to murmur, warmly, "Here is your lord, as promised, my lad. Now you may rest and cease your worrying."
"My Lord Steward." A small hand touched Boromir's arm, and Borlas' soft, rough-edged voice sounded close beside him. "The Lady Arwen said that you were well, but I feared…"
"You doubted the word of your queen?" Boromir chided.
"They would not let me see you." He coughed painfully, his fingers clutching at Boromir's sleeve, and whispered between labored breaths, "I… I heard Orc voices in the darkness. I dreamed that I was in Uglúk's pen and you were gone and I was alone… and then I feared… feared it was not a dream."
"Peace, Borlas." He moved to cover Borlas' hand with his own but halted when he felt the pull of the chain and heard its ugly rasp.
Borlas gave a cry of dismay. "Your chains!"
Then the boy began to cough in earnest, his frail body shaking so hard that Boromir could feel his hand tremble and the fingers close helplessly on his sleeve. Forgetting the weight of his shackles, Boromir clasped the claw-like hand firmly and drew Borlas close. The boy's body fell against his side. Boromir lifted his chained hands over Borlas' head, then put an arm around him to support him, while the dreadful coughs still wracked his frame.
"Breathe easy," Boromir murmured, as he held the shaking body to him. "The Orcs were but a dream, and I am real. There is naught to fear, now. The King will take us home. You will see your father again. You will ride with me across the Pelennor and through the cool woods of Anórien, and we will forget the black pits of the Orcs. We will stand on Mindolluin on a winter's night, breathe the clean air of home, and listen to the stars sing."
Slowly, under the spell of Boromir's words, Borlas' terrible spasms began to ease. His coughing ceased, and while his breath sounded painful to Boromir's ears, he no longer struggled to draw air into his tortured lungs. When he could summon the strength to speak, he asked, plaintively, "We are going home?"
"We leave at dawn tomorrow," Aragorn said.
At the sound of the King's voice, Borlas started and made as if to push himself away from Boromir. "I b-beg your pardon, my lord King," he gasped.
"Do not. Only be still and rest," Boromir said.
"It is not seemly…"
Boromir gave a soft snort of amusement. "I will be the judge of what is seemly. Who taught you to say such things, I wonder? Would it be my esteemed squire?"
"I do not want to hear what Gil said." Even as he spoke, Boromir privately reflected that he would dearly like to hear anything Borlas could tell him of his squire, so terribly did he miss the sound of her dry, flat, infinitely welcome voice, but he could not allow the child to trouble himself with Gil's nonsensical scruples at such a time. "'Tis I, your steward, to whom you owe your allegiance, not my squire, and I say that you will lie still. The King will think none the less of you for it."
"Aye, lord," Borlas murmured into the fabric of Boromir's shirt.
The Steward felt his page's weight settle against him once more, felt a small head rest in the hollow of his shoulder, and he smiled to himself. "Have you satisfied yourself that the Lady Arwen spoke true, and that I am well?"
"Aye. But your chains… Why must you wear them? They are dreadful!"
Forcing his voice into a semblance of bantering humor, Boromir said, "Would you have the King strike them off with his own sword? He'd as like take off my hands with them. Nay, I will wait until he finds the proper tools, and gladly, rather than sully Andúril's blade with such as these."
"They are dreadful," Borlas repeated, softly. A finger touched the raw wound torn in Boromir's wrist by the iron that circled it. "How do you bear them so lightly?"
"I trust in Aragorn. If he bids me wait, I wait." Drawing his arm from about Borlas' shoulders, the Steward set his teeth and added, grimly, "And if he bids me eat, I eat. As will you, Master Page."
"M-my lord?" Borlas faltered.
Aragorn stirred suddenly, and Boromir heard the soft rasp of a bowl being lifted from a wooden tray. In the next moment, that bowl was pressed into his hands, and the smell of cooked fish rose on a curl of steam to choke him. Stubbornly, he swallowed his rising gorge and forced himself to speak evenly.
"You and I both must put our trust in the King."
"You would have me eat that… that…"
"Fish stew. There is naught foul in it."
"I cannot." The boy's voice was thick with tears and loathing.
"Can you not?"
It took every particle of strength Boromir possessed to lift the bowl to his lips, but as always, Gondor's Steward summoned what strength he needed to face his enemy, and no flicker of revulsion showed in his face as he tilted the bowl and drank. Hot, thick soup filled his mouth. His throat tightened painfully, refusing to let him swallow for a moment, but his stubbornness won the day again, and he forced a mouthful of liquid down his gullet. Still with no hint of sickness his face, he lowered the bowl and turned to his page.
"You see, Borlas? You need fear naught that the King offers you."
Borlas did not answer him, but sat in numb silence, while Aragorn moved around the pallet to give him his own bowl. Boromir heard the doleful sniff he gave, and then the low grunt of disgust as he recoiled from the smell of the food. "Must I, in truth, drink this?"
"If you bid me, my lord…"
"Aye." Boromir swallowed another mouthful, more easily this time, though his stomach churned in protest at being forced to hold such rich stuff after weeks of emptiness. "I bid you. Drink."
Borlas obediently sipped at his bowl, gagging slightly when he tried to swallow. Then he coughed harshly and whispered, "I will obey you to the death, my lord. Though I fear I will be sick…"
"Drink slowly," Aragorn urged. "Give your body time to remember what food is for."
Boromir took yet another sip, then waited for Borlas to do the same. He fancied that he could feel the boy's gaze on him, following his every move and mirroring what he did. For every mouthful that Boromir ate, Borlas managed one of his own, until Boromir set aside his bowl at last. It was not yet empty, but he deemed that one more sip would bring all that he had eaten back up, and he would have to begin the ordeal again. Not to mention that he would shame himself before both his king and his page. So he put his meal aside unfinished and lay back against his supporting cot with a small sigh of weariness.
"I am done, Aragorn," he muttered.
The King chuckled quietly, as he placed the bowls on the tray and slid it away from Boromir's pallet. "Aye, you are done. Rest now, my friend, and let my medicines do their work."
"What of Borlas?"
"He will stay here, with you, until we break camp. Mayhap you can persuade him to eat his breakfast as readily as he did his supper."
Borlas stirred and laid a hand on Boromir's arm. "It did not taste of Orc meat," he murmured sleepily, "but I had rather have porridge."
Aragorn said something more, but Boromir could not make out his words. He was nearly asleep, his body weighted down and his mind clouded with exhaustion. He could still feel Borlas' hand on his arm, and he knew when Aragorn clasped his shoulder in farewell, but he had barely enough time to wonder how he could possibly ride as far as Minas Tirith and to tell himself that Aragorn would solve that problem, too, before the painless darkness claimed him.
*** *** ***
The stone broke with a great, rumbling crash. Dust and debris boiled up from the falling rubble, briefly choking the sunlight that poured through the hole behind it. Gimli paused, leaning upon his pick, to wipe the grit from his eyes, then he squinted at the huge, leafy head silhouetted against the autumn sky.
"My thanks, Quickbeam."
The Ent lifted one hand and casually tore another chunk of rock from the side of the hole he had made, crumbling it between his long fingers. "Is this light and air enough for your task, my friend?"
"Aye, for the present."
"What of the western dig, Master Bregalad?" Elfhelm asked, coughing to clear the dust from his parched throat. "Have you word from Fangorn?"
"Ha, hmmm. We shall see." Quickbeam twisted gracefully to face outward, toward the green bowl of Isengard, and lifted his hands to form a kind of horn about his mouth. "HOOOOM HOMMM!" His voice rang through the valley, echoing off its steep sides and sending birds flapping up from the trees that filled its bottom. After a moment's pause to let his trumpeting call die away, he called again, forming words that had no meaning to the Dwarf and Man listening but that brought a deeper, distant call in answer.
Quickbeam listened intently, then he turned and spoke to the pair awaiting his news inside the tunnel. "Fangorn has found the westernmost doorway but no sign of Men."
Elfhelm sighed and scrubbed at the filth on his cheek with one sleeve. His hands were black with dirt, bloodied where his skin had torn under the assault of wooden pick handle and remorseless stone. Battle-hardened as he was, this Rider had little experience of such labor as this, and all his eagerness to reach the trapped Riders could not give him a Dwarf's horned hands or tireless arms. He seemed to wilt at the Ent's words.
"We lost three days upon our journey and have searched in vain for two nights and a day since."
"And will search on for another fortnight together, if we must," Gimli growled.
"Aye, but to what end? How long can Éothain and his companion live, trapped in these caves without food or water?"
"I know not." The Dwarf hefted his pick and began to plow a path through the rubble that littered the tunnel floor, making for the end of the passage and yet another of Saruman's storage caves. "But I will search, though all hope is lost."
"As will I." Elfhelm swung his pick to his shoulder and moved after the Dwarf.
Behind them, Quickbeam hummed and hoomed softly to himself, while he idly pulled away bits of rock from the thick walls.
The light from Quickbeam's hole illuminated a long stretch of the passage, overwhelming the light of the torch carried by the young Rider who followed on Elfhelm's heels. But the lad did not douse the flame, knowing that it would cost him precious minutes to light it again when they moved deeper into the tunnel.
Elfhelm found a door, just where the flood of daylight faded into dusk and the torch began to flare more brightly. He paused outside it, knocking lightly upon it with the handle of his pick. It gave a muffled thud, telling the Rider that the wood was both thick and strong. The Wizard had built his doors well, no rot or pests eating away at the wood to weaken it and aid those seeking to break it, but most of the locks had long since been sprung by Orc axes and most of the caves emptied.
By the light of the torch, Elfhelm studied the iron latch. "The Uruks have been here."
Gimli grunted and tugged at the remains of the rusted lock. The door swung ponderously outward, groaning on its hinges, to reveal a dark, musty cave, empty but for a litter of discarded junk on the floor. Elfhelm stepped inside, but Gimli turned away in disgust. He did not care to solve the riddle of what Saruman kept in this hole that the Orcs had found useful. Any curiosity he might have felt had long since faded, as he tramped through chamber after chamber, tunnel after tunnel, always finding more to investigate but no captives to free.
He did not need much light to move in the tunnels. His dwarfish eyes could see in far darker holes than this. So he left the youth and his torch with Elfhelm and ventured down the passage alone. It ended only fifty paces on, at yet another low wooden door. This one bore the mark of Orc axes upon it, and the latch looked to have been wrenched from the wood. A rough beam, possibly torn from another door, was braced against it where once a lock had been fixed to the wood, the other end driven hard into the stone floor of the tunnel.
Gimli tested the strength of the beam with one hand, then turned to bellow down the passage, "Marshal Elfhelm! Bring your light!"
Elfhelm came running at his call and skidded to a stop beside him, the torchbearer only a few paces behind him. Before Elfhelm could speak, Gimli pointed to the beam and asked, "What do you make of that, eh?"
"A lock," Elfhelm answered, promptly.
"Aye, but a lock to keep something inside the room, not to keep Orcs out."
Hefting his pick in both hands, Gimli swung it round in an arc to bring it up beneath the beam, with all the strength of his mighty arms behind the blow. The beam's end scraped up the door, gouging splinters from the surface, then it tumbled to the side and fell to the floor with a dull thud. Eflhelm snatched the torch from the youth's hands and, by its light, studied the door for some handhold.
"Stand back," Gimli ordered. The Riders drew away from the door, and once again, the Dwarf swung his pick with all his might. The point sank deep into the wood, just above the latch. Bracing his legs wide, Gimli heaved on the pick, and the door began to groan upon its hinges, moving reluctantly outward. The moment the edge of the door cleared its jamb, Elfhelm thrust his fingers inside to grip it and added his strength to Gimli's. Between them, they flung the door wide.
Flickering torchlight moved over stacked barrels, bottles, skins and chests. Empty bottles and limp wineskins littered the floor, along with the hard rinds of old cheese and a lump of bread well-chewed by rats. The cave stank of sweat, filth and wine, overlaid by the stench of Orc, so that the young Rider fell back from the doorway, gagging. But Gimli and Elfhelm pushed into the room, holding the torch aloft.
Something rustled in the shadows. Elfhelm stepped toward the sound, then froze when he heard a groan and saw a sudden movement in the torchlight. The hand that held the torch shook visibly, making the light dance, and a disbelieving cry was torn from his throat. For there, gazing up at him in wonder, eyes narrowed painfully against the light, was a pale, filthy, twisted face – the face of a Man.
"Éothain!" Elfhelm lunged toward the sprawled figure, reaching to clasp his emaciated arm and pull him into an embrace that threatened to crush his bones to dust. "'Tis you, indeed! Éothain, my friend!" Suddenly, he recoiled, his face showing his distress, and gasped, "Ye gods, you reek of wine!"
"He's drunk," Gimli said. Turning to the other figure lolling behind Éothain in the darkness, he sniffed cautiously and added, "As is his companion. Phew! The stink of them would stun a troll!"
Éothain's vacant, bloodshot eyes rolled to Gimli, and his mouth fell slackly open. Pulling it shut again, he murmured, "I have drunk myself to madness, at last, or else that is a Dwarf out of Aglarond." His body slid from Elfhelm's clasp and sagged to the floor, as his eyes drifted closed. "Pass me another skin, I pray you… I would hear him speak again…"
"And so you shall, Master Éothain," Gimli rumbled, his voice unwontedly gentle, "without the need of drink. Leave off the Wizard's wine, and come with us, back into the world of Men. Come."
With that, he stooped to lift the other Rider over his broad shoulders, bearing his weight easily, though the Man's long legs touched the floor. Elfhelm and the youngster supported Éothain between them, and together, they made their slow and staggering way up the passage to where Quickbeam awaited them. As the Ent took him in his long-fingered hands and lifted him into the sunlight, Éothain uttered a tearing sob and went suddenly limp.
"Hoom," Quickbeam remarked, his eyes laughing and triumphant, "this one needs an Ent draught to revive him."
Gimli clambered through the hole in the tunnel wall and out onto the path that cut across the hillside. Lowering his burden to the ground, he turned to gaze at the deep vale of Isengard below and breathed deeply of the fresh, chill air, a smile of satisfaction on his face. "Let us to Orthanc, Master Ent, and quickly." His smile widened, and his eyes gleamed as brightly as the Ent's. "I must send word to Edoras, and to Aragorn. Then may we all share an ent-draught and drink a pledge, to a job well done!"
*** *** ***
It was near dusk, and the wind blew bitterly cold from the north, when Aragorn reined in at the top of a steep, treacherous slope to gaze intently at a dark smudge against the sky. Beside him, Faramir lifted a hand to shade his eyes, then grunted with satisfaction.
"Smoke. That would be Gimli's village, I deem."
Aragorn nodded, his eyes still fixed on the distant smoke.
"I had begun to fear that we had missed it among these cursed hills."
"We have traveled but slowly," Aragorn murmured.
Too slowly, Aragorn thought, but he kept that to himself. No need to worry Faramir with what could not be mended. They would press on, not halting to make camp, and mayhap sleep beneath a solid roof tonight. For himself, Aragorn cared naught for roofs and beds, but for Boromir and the boy, shelter might mean life.
Four days they had toiled their way southward. Encumbered as they were with the horse litter that carried Boromir and the sick boy lying bundled in Legolas' arms, they picked a tortuous path through broken hills and barren dales, never at more than a walking pace. As gently as Aragorn treated his patients, and as often as he halted to give them rest in spite of his own fretting to be gone, the strain of the journey told on their weakened bodies, which only slowed the company's progress. Borlas' lung sickness lingered, his fever burning unchecked, while Boromir slipped into a stupor of pain and exhaustion from which Aragorn could seldom rouse him.
The King knew that he must find shelter, medicine, better food and a warm place to rest for both Steward and Page, or they would perish ere they reached Edoras. The hamlet that Gimli had described to them was mean and poor, with little to offer a king's company, but it would be enough. He would find what he needed there.
Nudging Roheryn with his heels, Aragorn turned the horse about and trotted slowly back toward the group of horsemen waiting in the winding valley below. Faramir fell in at his side.
"Can we make it that far by nightfall?" he asked.
"We must." They reached Legolas and Bergil, waiting at the front of the column, and Aragorn called, loudly enough to be heard by all, "The village lies south and east a league, as the crebain flies. Our road is longer. Follow me."
Without further ado, he pointed Roheryn's head to the east, along the narrow valley, and urged him forward. The company fell in behind him, and they rode into the gathering dusk.
* * *
Aragorn splashed across the stream and into the yard of the smithy with Legolas beside him. Light gleamed from the open doors and windows of the building, painting bright patches on the ground and beckoning to the travelers in the thickening darkness. A great block of a man, as brown as if he had sprung straight from the earth, stood framed in the wide doorway, his thumbs hooked in the ties of a greasy leather apron, his face in deep shadow and unreadable. The dog at his side growled and bristled, making feints at the horses.
Reining in a circumspect distance from the dog's snapping teeth, Aragorn nodded politely to the man and said, at his mildest, "Good evening to you, Master Smith."
The man grunted and jerked his head in curt acknowledgement of the greeting, but he moved no closer to the mounted strangers, nor made any attempt to restrain the great beast at his side.
Aragorn swung himself from the saddle and handed his reins to Legolas, then he stepped forward, into the light spilling from the smithy's open doors without regard for the threatening growls of the dog. "My companions and I ride south, for Rohan. We have been many long weeks upon the road and would beg your hospitality for a night or two."
"Companions?" the smith said, his dark gaze flicking to where the Elf still sat his horse in placid silence.
"The others follow, with our wounded."
"This be no inn."
"It be a stout building with a roof and a hearth. We need no more than that, my good Smith, and will pay for what we use."
"Be ye horse-breeders?" the man growled, his mouth contorted as if the words soured his tongue.
"Nay." Aragorn hesitated, uncertain which of his many names to give, then shrugged inwardly and spoke the simple truth. "I am Elessar of Gondor, and this is Legolas the Elf, Lord of Henneth Annûn." Even in this benighted place, the name of Gondor's King might command some little respect, and though Aragorn had no wish to frighten the man or compel his service, he also deemed that he could not pass himself off as a mere Ranger, in spite of his plain garb, with Princes, Elves and men-at-arms in his train.
The smith seemed more suspicious than cowed by the lofty names given him, and he eyed Aragorn with growing disfavor. "King of Gondor, is it?" He hawked and spat into the dust at his feet, then opined to the air about him, "Ar. I'll believe that."
Legolas smiled, his teeth gleaming in the darkness. "Believe as you like, my friend, it makes no odds to us. But tell us, where might we stable our horses and house our sick and wounded?"
The man waved one hand toward the sharp hills that closed off the valley to the south. "Get you to the Great Road, yonder. There be inns and taverns enough for any king."
At that Legolas leapt gracefully from Arod's back and stepped up close at Aragorn's shoulder. His face was stern, no smile lingering upon it, and his eyes hard. "We cannot ride so far nor wait so long to aid our friends. Would you turn honest travelers, who ask naught of you but shelter, from your door?"
"We Dunlendings look to our own."
"And to naught else, it seems."
"We have no truck with strangers, be they Lords, Elves," his gaze shifted Aragorn, "or Kings."
When Legolas would have answered in kind, Aragorn silenced him with a hand on his arm. "Very well, Master Smith. We'll not compel your kindness. But ere we go, I have need of a smith's skill, for which I will pay what price you deem fair."
The man's head came up sharply. "Eh?"
As if summoned by Aragorn's words, the sound of riders came to them from the deep fold of the valley, and a torch gleamed out of the night. Aragorn saw the smith's face tighten in sudden alarm, and he lifted a hand toward him, open to show his empty palm. "Nay, do not fear them. You have the word of King Elessar that we will take naught from you by force nor do any violence to your people."
Turning to look over his shoulder, Aragorn saw the small group of horsemen approaching through the village, drawing slowly abreast of the smithy. Faramir came first, mounted on his own horse and leading the first of the two packhorses that carried the litter. A squire in the white and green of Ithilien rode beside him, holding a torch aloft, while Bergil kept pace with the litter. He held a bundle of blankets on the saddle before him, a tousled black head poking out of them.
Legolas stepped forward to meet Faramir, as the weary horses splashed across the stream and into the yard. He took the packhorse's reins from Faramir's hand and murmured, "There is no welcome here for us, my prince."
In the flickering light of the torch, Faramir looked suddenly haggard. "What means the King to do?"
Legolas shook his head and drew the horses forward, into the largest patch of light spilling from the smithy, so that it fell upon the litter and the man lying upon it. Aragorn stepped quickly up to Boromir's side. His face was drawn with concern, but his hand was steady as he let it fall gently upon the hair of the sleeping man.
The Steward gave no sign of life, but the smith loomed suddenly up on the other side of the litter, and Aragorn heard his startled intake of breath. Glancing up at the man, wondering at the strangely intent expression he wore, Aragorn said, "These chains upon his throat and wrists, can you strike them off?"
"Make haste, then, for we must make camp and prepare a place for him to rest, ere the night grows colder."
"I know this man. Taken by Orcs, he was. Or so said the Dwarf."
"Aye, so he was," Legolas said, "but he slew the Orcs and came out of the mountains' roots alive, for even the evil spawn of Saruman, the Fighting Uruk-hai, could not hold him."
"He is Boromir, son of Denethor, Steward of Gondor and my dearest friend," Aragorn said, in a tone so laden with sorrow and love that even the dour smith could not miss it.
Wide, dark eyes lifted to Aragorn's face, and the voice that spoke to him held no suspicion, no anger, naught but wonder and dawning belief. "Ar, and you be, in truth, the King?"
* * *
Aragorn knelt on the floorboards of the tiny room, his head barely clearing the low-pitched roof, and watched his patients with anxious, frowning eyes. The room was warm, too warm for Aragorn's comfort, thanks to the stone chimney that filled one wall and the heat of the forge that rose from between the wooden planks of the floor, and it was lit only by a single tallow candle fixed in an iron bracket on the chimney. Not since his days as a Ranger in the wild North had Aragorn found shelter in such a poor and unwelcoming place, but the warm, quiet darkness seemed to ease the rest of both Steward and Page. They lay quietly upon their pallets, deeply asleep, their faces peaceful in the flickering light.
White showed at Boromir's throat and wrists – the white of clean linen bandages – and the sight of it brought to Aragorn's mind the earlier scene in the smithy. He saw again the smith's powerful hands wielding his chisel and hammer, saw bright steel bite into cold iron, and felt again his innards clench when the chisel's blade cut hideously close to Boromir's throat. But the smith's aim was true, his skill undeniable, and the shackles fell at last from his friend's body to lie in the filthy straw. Boromir was truly free, and Aragorn could heal his hurts without the foul, orcish iron to impede him.
Gently, Aragorn settled Boromir's arms beneath the coverlet and pulled it up about his shoulders. He crouched between the pallets for another moment, satisfying himself that both of his charges slept in comfort, then he edged backward through the hole in the floor that gave access to the attic room. His feet found the iron rungs set into the wall, and he climbed nimbly down into the smithy below. Faramir awaited him there, staring anxiously up at the hole, clutching the two empty wooden cups that Aragorn had tossed down to him some minutes before.
"All is well?" he asked, before the King's feet were firmly on the ground.
"Aye. Boromir sleeps."
"And he drained his cup. This is a good sign, is it not?"
"It is, but they both need more sustaining foods than my draughts. I will speak to our host about what provisions we may find in the village."
Faramir pulled a wry face, as they strode toward the door that let into the kitchen. "'Tis not much of a village. A collection of goatherds' huts, I deem, no more."
"Goats. Hmm." Halting just outside the door, his hand on the latch, Aragorn turned to ask, "What of the company? Have they found a suitable camp?"
Faramir nodded. "By the north pasture. There is water enough and some fodder for the horses."
"So long as we remember that we are guests here, and these folk have little enough for themselves without extra men and horses to feed."
"Legolas and Arahael will see to it that we take naught from the villagers and do no damage to their grazing land."
"They have returned to the camp?"
"Aye, with Éowyn and young Bergil, though I doubt he will stay away from his brother for long."
"Speaking of brothers," Aragorn cocked an eyebrow at him and smiled, wearily, "I know you are anxious to be at your own brother's side."
"I am, if you need me not, my lord."
Aragorn's smile widened and his eyes softened with affection. He waved a hand toward the metal rungs of the ladder. "Get you to Boromir. Mayhap you will actually sleep, if you are near enough to hear his snoring."
"My thanks, Elessar."
Aragorn nodded and waited until Faramir had clambered up the ladder, disappearing through the hole in the ceiling. Then he opened the door and stepped into the kitchen.
The room was nearly as small as the attic chamber in which Boromir slept, though it's ceiling was high enough that Aragorn could stand upright without touching the heavy beams that supported it. A packed dirt floor was strewn with rushes, and an open stone hearth filled one wall, a fire burning merrily upon it that smelled unpleasantly of peat. Clearly, the smith wasted neither space nor scarce fuel on his living quarters, though the tiny kitchen was as clean and orderly as the smithy.
In the middle of the room, seated at a roughhewn table, looking regal and as serenely beautiful as ever, was Arwen. She kept her hands folded on the scarred wood before her and followed the smith with clear, smiling eyes as he shuffled about and cast embarrassed glances at her over his shoulder. Ten minutes in Aragorn's company had served to banish his wariness of Gondor's King, but no passage of time would allow him to feel easy in the presence of Arwen Undómiel.
Arwen looked up at Aragorn's entrance, and her face shadowed with concern. "You look weary, Estel."
"I could sleep a day and a night together, I think." He sank down on a stool and propped his forearms on the table, letting his head droop between his shoulders for a moment. "Give me a piece of floor and a blanket, and I will do just that."
"Eat, first." She pushed a cup toward him. "And drink. Master Cael's ale is most excellent."
The smith grunted without turning around. Aragorn caught a delicious whiff of roasting meat from the hearth, and his stomach gave a loud, rumbling demand. He raised the cup and took a long swallow to appease his empty stomach.
"A fine brew," he agreed, as he lowered the cup again. "Do you make it here in the village?"
Cael turned from the fire, a wide wooden platter between his hands. On the platter lay a roasted haunch of pork that sizzled and steamed in a manner so inviting that Aragorn's stomach promptly made itself heard again. The smith plunked it down in front of Aragorn without ceremony, then slapped some tin plates, a loaf of bread and a clay pitcher of ale onto the table with it.
Always ready to conform his manners to his company, Aragorn did not hesitate to pull out his own dagger and begin carving the meat. He quickly filled three plates, pushed one to Arwen, another to Cael, and pulled one in front of himself. Arwen tore the bread into chunks, while Cael fetched more cups from the wooden shelves at his back and poured the ale. In a matter of minutes, they all three were eating steadily, too intent on their meals to bother with conversation.
Aragorn had not realized how hungry he was until he smelled the cooking meat, and now he forgot his kingly dignity in the sheer pleasure of filling his belly. There was something to be said, he reflected as he mopped the juices from his plate with a hunk of bread, for living the Ranger's life. No linens to soil, no courtesies to be observed, just quiet companionship and a hearty meal.
He was just beginning to feel comfortably full when the smith remarked, around a mouthful of bread, "I trade for the ale. Nowt to make it from hereabouts."
It took Aragorn a moment to remember what had spurred this seemingly random remark, then he nodded understanding and took another swallow of the brew. "You have not the land for growing grain."
"We get what ale and beer we can in trade, and we drink Old Morag's mead, when we've nowt else."
"Mead." Aragorn's head came up sharply. "From honey?"
"Ar. Keeps bees, does Morag. Only beasts in all Middle-earth will go next or nigh the filthy old crone."
"Master Cael, I have great need of some honey. Where might I find Old Morag? And what might I offer her in trade that would tempt her to part with a few jars her honey?"
"There's no saying with that one. But say nowt of crowns or lords, and send no fine ladies to treat with her," he bobbed his head at Arwen in a kind of bow, "meaning no disrespect to the Queen."
"I quite understand," Arwen murmured, with a smile. Then, to Aragorn, she added, "The honey is for Boromir's wound?"
"Aye. 'Tis just the medicine he needs to ward off infection. I had not hoped to find any in so remote a place, but mayhap we can barter with this Morag for enough to last the journey south."
Arwen mulled this over, and then offered, "Send Faramir. There is no crone living who would deny him."
Aragorn laughed softly and lifted his cup in a salute to his wife. "Such wisdom and such beauty. I am a fortunate man, indeed." He felt much of his weariness fade with this new hope, and it was with a good deal more vigor that he turned to the smith and said, briskly, "Honey is but the first and most worrisome of my needs, Master Cael. I have also great need of milk, eggs, healing herbs and, if there is one to be had in this benighted place, a sturdy cart."
The smith raised his heavy brows at that, continuing to chew his food with slow deliberation, while Aragorn waited. At last, he pushed his plate away and braced both his hands upon the table's edge. "You'll not be wanting much then, will you, King of Gondor?"
Aragorn met this dry sally with a chuckle. "Nay, not so much. What say you, my good smith?"
"A cart I have, but 'tis not such as a king would ride in. Nor can I sell it, even to you, my lord, for 'tis needed here."
"Loan it me, then. I can leave one of our packhorses as surety against its return, and send it back laden with goods from the rich southern plains."
"Hmph." Cael scowled thoughtfully into the depths of his cup, gnawing on his underlip, until finally he heaved a tremendous sigh and rumbled, "Ar. That I will do."
"My thanks, Cael! My most sincere thanks! I will see to it that your village prospers by your generosity. And now, for the rest. I saw chickens enough when we rode in; are there eggs to be had in the village? Milk? Have you a healer who brews simples and the like?"
"Eggs there are aplenty. For the rest, ask the goat girl."
* * *
The goat girl proved to be a woman of uncertain age, who lived in a hut of mud and straw halfway up the side of the valley. Her goats did not graze in the meager bit of pasture to the north, with the hamlet's other beasts, but shared her hut and roamed the hillsides with her in search of food. She wanted naught to do with kings or soldiers, and would speak no word to Aragorn when he came to treat with her. Éowyn had more success. She returned to the smithy with a fat milk goat and a pouch full of medicinal herbs, for the goat girl was the local healer, as well as the local oddity.
Old Morag softened to Faramir's grave courtesy, just as Arwen had predicted, trading him several stone jars of honey for his best fur-lined cloak. Then she added a dozen fresh eggs to the bargain when he smiled his thanks, causing the smith to declare flatly that Faramir must have bewitched her.
"She's never given nowt but curses for the asking," he said, eyeing the Prince with mingled respect and suspicion. "Belike the eggs are poisoned."
Untroubled by his host's fears, Aragorn beat the raw eggs into fresh milk, sweetened it with honey, and persuaded Boromir to drink the concoction. Borlas followed his lord's example, as always, and drained his own cup without a murmur. Then they slept again, and awoke to another cup of Aragorn's filling mixture, the dressing of their wounds, and another undisturbed night in their warm attic room.
They remained in the village for three days, by which time Borlas' cough had lessened, his fever abated, and Boromir shaken off the terrible lethargy that had claimed him on the journey. The Steward now had the strength to sit up and take notice when Aragorn paid him a visit, and even to offer his opinion of the new dressing used on his wound.
"It attracts flies," he said, through gritted teeth, as Aragorn smeared honey around the cavern in his leg.
"I will post Faramir at your bedside, night and day, to brush them away," Aragorn answered.
Boromir gave a grunt of laughter, then tensed at the feel of Aragorn's fingers against his inflamed, swollen flesh. "He'll not thank you for that."
"Ah, but he will. He wants naught but an excuse to fix himself at your side and forget his princely duties all together."
"While I would trade this bed for a host of duties in a… Ah! Plague take you, Aragorn! What are you about?"
"I am sorry, but I must get honey inside the lips of the wound. I am nearly done."
Swallowing another cry, Boromir fell back against his pillow and flung one arm up to cover his face. "At least I can move freely again," he muttered, when he could catch his breath.
"Aye." Aragorn glanced up from his work to gaze sadly at his friend's drawn, pale face for a moment, then he ducked his head again. "The chains were a burden to us all."
"I dreamt of them, the sound of them, grating in my ears like Orcs' voices." He fell silent, shuddering as Aragorn slid a sticky finger into his wound, then spoke again in a quiet, pain-edged voice that was muffled by his sleeve. "Chains and claws and stone and the stink of cooking flesh. I fear I will never escape those dreams, now."
"Mayhap you will not, but think on this, Boromir. Those Orcs are dead, slain by your own hand, and can torment you no more. You do not wear their chains. You did not eat of that tainted flesh."
In answer, Boromir lowered his arm and reached, instinctively, for the white gem that hung once more about his neck on a leather thong. His fingers closed fiercely about it.
"When the Orcs come into your dreams," Aragorn murmured, "remind yourself of these things. How can their shadows defeat you, when the Orcs themselves could not?"
After a long moment of silence, Boromir asked, "Do you ever dream of your own captivity, Aragorn? Of the dungeons of Orthanc and Saruman's voice?"
"A king has little time for sleep and less for dreams," he quipped, but the look on Boromir's face sobered him, and he added more seriously, "It has never haunted me as it does you, mayhap because I saw those horrors with my eyes alone, and my eyes now look upon fairer things."
"What if you were to see another such dungeon?"
"Then would I recoil as fiercely as you do from smoke and stone." Laying a hand on Boromir's shoulder, he said, "I shall tell you that which even Arwen does not know, since you, of all men, will understand."
"What is it?"
"That I, King of Gondor, have not once set foot in the dungeons of Minas Tirith since my crowning some four years ago."
"What king frequents his own dungeons?"
"Ah, but it was not my kingly rank that held me back. 'Twas my churning stomach and sweating palms. So you see, Boromir, that you are not the only one who still bears the scars of that battle."
Boromir regarded him steadily, as if he could still read Aragorn's face with his ruined eyes. "We are both fools to be haunted by shadows."
"Well do I know it."
"There is naught in Minas Tirith to harm us. Or will not be," he temporized, "when Imrahil has thrown that cur, Taleris, into the very foulest of your dungeons."
"If he has not by the time we return, you may have the pleasure."
"Not if we have no more proof of his treasons than when I left…"
"Peace, Boromir. Let us not talk of treason just now. I cannot cover the leagues from here to Minas Tirith any faster for worrying, and I would not speak of what I cannot mend."
"Then let us go at once," Boromir urged. "Do not linger here on my account, Aragorn. I am strong enough to travel and as eager as you are to be home."
"We leave on the morrow."
Relief washed over Boromir's face, looking much like pain in one so drawn and weak. "For Minas Tirith? Ah, Aragorn, I cannot tell you how I have longed to be within her walls again!"
"So you shall, but not all at once. First to Rohan, and then, when we are safe beneath Éomer's roof, we will talk of Gondor, Taleris, the war and how best to aid our people."
With this Boromir had to be content. He slept the night, undisturbed by dreams, and on the morrow found himself bundled into the blacksmith's cart with Borlas, wrapped thickly in furs, supported by bolsters and pillows, surrounded by jars of honey and other provisions bartered from the villagers for their journey. A goat bleated piteously nearby, and the pony harnessed to the cart whickered in reply. Faramir and Legolas sat their restive mounts at either side of the cart, trading jokes and casual talk with each other and with Boromir, when he bestirred himself to answer them.
Then came a shout from the head of the column, a terse farewell from the smith, and the cart lurched forward. Boromir stifled a cry, as one wheel jolted over a stone and his wounded leg bounced against the hard wood of the cart, then he set his teeth and steeled himself to endure the long, rough journey in silence.
*** *** ***
"I say, Merry! Look there!"
Merry followed Pippin's pointing finger to where a glint of moving silver showed through the trees. Clapping his heels to his pony's flanks, Merry urged his mount into a trot that carried him quickly out of the copse through which they rode and into the slanting afternoon sunshine. To his left rose the southernmost peaks of the Misty Mountains, to his right the outflung northern spur of the White Mountains, while before him, sloping gently down for league upon league to the stony banks of the Isen, lay a carpet of soft, brown autumn grasses. The Gap of Rohan.
Pippin reined in beside him, breathing hard with excitement, and cried, "The Fords, at last! We can reach them before sundown, I am sure. Let us cross the fords, Merry, and camp tonight in Rohan."
"I should like to sleep on friendly ground, for a change. All right, Pip, let's push on."
They rode side by side, Pippin whistling as they went, and Merry smiled to himself. With the rain gone, at least for the moment, and no nightmares to torment his sleep, the world seemed a rich and lovely place, and his earlier terrors foolish. They would sleep tonight on the sweet grass of Rohan and soon, very soon, Merry would kneel in homage to Éomer King, his liege lord. Then on to Gondor, where Boromir would welcome them, Gil would scold them, Aragorn would smoke a pipe and laugh with them. He and Boromir would sit upon the walls of Minas Tirith and watch Andúin the Great flow down to the sea, talking of the adventures they had shared and those they had braved alone in the years since their parting, content simply to share a stone bench and a starlit sky. Content in each other's company.
These thoughts kept Merry occupied and smiling as they covered the final leagues to the ford. The sun rode low in the western sky, throwing long shadows across their path, when they came at last to the Fords of Isen and drew their ponies to a halt. They stood upon the crossroads, where the ancient highway to Orthanc met the Great North Road, and saw before them the familiar stony bed of the Isen, with its swift-running current and flat stepping-stones. In the middle of the riverbed rose a small islet, crowned with a smooth burial mound and a ring of half-rotted spears.
Merry swung down from the saddle and led the pony down to the very edge of the water. The current was strong and half the stepping-stones submerged or too wet and slippery for safety.
"The rains have swollen the river," he remarked, but Pippin was not listening. The younger hobbit sat astride his pony, head tilted at a sharp angle, as if straining to catch an elusive sound, and eyes searching the trees to the north. "What is it, Pip?"
"Hush! Can't you hear?"
Pippin grinned saucily at him and chided, "You are grown too old and staid for adventuring, my dear Merry. Your ears must be stuffed with wool!"
"What is it?" Merry demanded, testily.
"An Ent. Singing. And he's coming this way."
Then Merry heard it, the joyful Hoom Hom! of an Ent chanting a walking song, and his heart leapt within him. He turned to stare northward, straining his eyes for a glimpse of the creature, and broke out in a cry of delight when he saw a gnarled, ancient, wonderfully familiar figure come striding toward them along the verge of the old highway.
"Treebeard!" the Hobbits called together.
"Hoom, now." The Ent broke stride and regarded them for a moment, his eyes unreadable in the deepening shadows. "What have we here? Little Orcs?"
Merry and Pippin abandoned their ponies at the crossroads and ran, laughing, to meet him, crying, "Not Orcs, Treebeard, Hobbits! Merry and Pippin!" And just as the Ent caught them up in his enormous, many-fingered hands, Pippin added, "Good, old Treebeard!"
"Hobbits it is," Treebeard rumbled, eying first one of them, then the other. A gold light flickered like laughter in his green eyes. "What errand brings two young Hobbits so far from their holes, even to the shores of Isen and the lands of Éomer King?"
"We are on our way to Gondor," Pippin said, "to see Boromir. Merry had a terrible nightmare and decided that Boromir needed his help, so we set off from the Shire nearly two months ago to find him, only Merry's dreams have stopped so perhaps Boromir doesn't need him after all and we came all this way for nothing. But what are you doing way down here, at the Fords? I thought you Ents kept to the forest."
"Hoo! Root and twig, but I had forgotten how hasty you are. Let us tell one story at a time, my lad." He set the Hobbits gently on their feet and gestured toward the ford with one branch-like arm. "Ents guard the borders of these lands for the Lord of the Mark, as he guards our forests from axe and fire. I come here to the ford now and then, to see to the trees and watch for unwelcome travelers. I have an ent-house in yonder woods." He pointed northward, where trees grew thickly upon the slopes of Nan Curunír and overshadowed the road. "Now, my young Hobbits, what is this of dreams and Gondor's Steward?"
"It is too long a tale to tell, I'm afraid," Merry said, "for we must cross the river and find a place to camp before nightfall."
"There are fresh leaves for your beds and ent-draughts to wet your throats for the telling of long tales, if you will but come with me," Treebeard rumbled.
"Ah, Treebeard," Merry cried, "I would that we could! But I cannot delay, even if Pippin is right and this is all for nothing! I must find Boromir, I must!"
"Ha Hoom. Find him, eh? Then you are headed in the wrong direction, Merry, and making haste to no purpose. If you would find your lost Steward, you must seek him in the Golden Hall."
"Meduseld!" Merry's heart leapt within him, and he turned eagerly to find his pony, all else forgotten in the rush of joy he felt at this news. "Boromir is at Meduseld!"
"No, not so hasty." Treebeard caught him easily with one hand and set him down at Pippin's side again. "Come now. You will not find him there, yet."
"Boromir and the King are bound for the Golden Hall, but they travel slowly, through the wilds of Dunland where no road guides them. They will come in good time, Merry, in good time. Hoom hm."
"I know why Aragorn is in Dunland," Pippin chimed in, "but Boromir did not travel west with him. What is he doing so far from Minas Tirith?"
"Hmmm." The Ent regarded them both thoughtfully, his eyes flickering, and murmured in his deepest, most rumbling voice, "It would seem that I have a long tale to tell, as well. Ha hm. A very long tale, indeed."
"You are certain that Boromir is not yet at Meduseld?" Merry pleaded.
"I am. Hrum hoom, yes, I am certain."
"Then we might come with you to your ent-house, just for tonight, and still reach Edoras in time to meet him?"
"That would be best." Treebeard put a hand on each of their heads, turning them gently this way and that to study them, then he mused, "Young Hobbits are in need of an ent-draught to help them grow strong and tall again."
Merry laughed at that, his heart suddenly light. "If we grow any taller, we shall be mistaken for Men! But I should dearly like to share an ent-draught with you, and hear your very long tale."
"Hoom! And so you shall. Come, my friends."
The Hobbits ran to where their ponies waited and, grabbing up the reins, led them off the road into the long grass at its verge, where they set off northward in the wake of Treebeard's enormous strides.
*** *** ***
Prince Imrahil sat at the great table that dominated the King's study, a pile of dispatches at his elbow and a map spread before him upon the table. A pot of ink and well-trimmed quill stood ready to hand, together with several clean sheets of parchment, an unlit candle, and the remains of his midday meal. Afternoon sun spilled through the tall windows and across the table, making the colored markings on the map glow as if the ink were still wet and reminding the warrior prince of the bright armies they represented. His armies. His soldiers. His people marching to war without their general at their head.
War was upon them at last. The Haradrim had not yet crossed Anduin, driven back from its banks time and again by the fierce valor of Ciryon's troops, but they would break through the last defenses soon. Mayhap even now, as Imrahil sat idle in this tower room, the beasts of Harad were swarming over the sweet fields of Gondor, slaughtering as they went. Mayhap the beaches of Belfalas and Dol Amroth were already wet with the blood of valiant men.
Imrahil did not sigh or rake his fingers through his hair at this thought, for he was too old and battle-hardened a campaigner to give his feelings such outward show. But his lean face hardened and his eyes smoldered as he gazed down at the map in growing frustration.
The markings upon it were days old, at best, and the intelligence from South Gondor uncertain. He must send orders to the captains waiting in Lebennin, but he dared not, until he had fresh reports from Beregond's spies upon the Harad Road. They would tell him whether the garrisons manned by Ciryon's troops were holding, whether the Haradrim marched east or west, away from battle or toward it, and how many spears the armies drawn up on Anduin's banks would face when the garrisons broke at last. He must wait. Always wait.
Ah, what he would not give to have Elessar back again! The King must come. And Faramir. He had no hope left in him for Boromir, though it pained him beyond words to admit it, but the King and Faramir would not fail him. They would not leave Gondor leaderless at such a time.
A slight stirring at the window brought the Prince's eyes up for a moment, distracting him from his brown study. A small, black-clad figure sat in the window embrasure, her legs drawn up and her feet wedged against the stone casement in a most unladylike manner that made the Prince smile to see it. He had grown insensibly used to Gil's presence of late and come to rely on her, in spite of her oddities of manner and dress, for he could trust her as he could no one else. In this time of subtle plots and treachery, when even his oldest friends were suspect, this strange, blunt, graceless drudge, in her preposterous boy's clothing, was his staunchest ally.
She leaned farther out of the window, straining to see something on the plains below, and Imrahil had to bite his tongue to stifle his remonstrance. He still thought of her as a female, if not precisely a lady, and disapproved of her boyish tricks even as he smiled at them.
"A messenger comes, my lord Prince," Gil said, without taking her eyes from the scene below.
Beregond! he thought and half rose from his chair. The Captain of Ithilien sends word at last! But Gil's next words throttled that hope, even as they brought him more quickly to his feet.
"He wears a silver helm, crested with horsehair, and his cloak is green."
Imrahil crossed to the window and peered over her shoulder. His eyes found the glint of silver and green moving swiftly along the road from the north, now nearly at the gates, and his heart leapt. He knew from whence this green-cloaked rider came.
"Éomer King sends us a messenger in haste." He looked down at the squire perched in the window before him, and their eyes met in swift understanding. "Are your spies in place, Gil?"
She nodded abruptly and turned back to watch the Rider approach the city gates.
"Then we will let yon herald deliver his letters to Lord Taleris. If they contain news of the King's coming, they will throw him and his plots into confusion, and mayhap he will betray himself at last."
"And if he does not?"
"Then Elessar will deal with him."
"The King will come, think you?"
"What other news could such a messenger bring?"
The tightening of Gil's face betrayed her thoughts, and Imrahil felt a sudden flare of pity for her. He knew that she, alone of all the household, yet hoped for Boromir's return. That hope was more cruel than the blackest despair, but he could not bring himself to crush it.
Gil, her eyes now blank and her face closed, uncoiled from her seat at the window and moved toward the door on silent feet. Imrahil did not stay her, but watched as she opened the door and gestured for the page standing outside to enter. The boy obeyed, stepping through the door and bowing courteously to the Prince.
"My Lord?" he piped in his child's voice, but even as he spoke to Imrahil, his eyes slid to Gil.
She beckoned him farther in and shut the door behind him. "Who is on duty at the lower gate, today, Hal?" she asked, as she took a small, silver coin from the pouch at her belt.
"The Baker's boy. I saw him playing jackstraws in the corner at the wall's turning, when I came up from the stables."
Gil handed him the coin, on which Imrahil could see the Horn and Stars of Anórien stamped, and said, "Show him this token, and tell him that once the Rider in green passes into the citadel, he must not take his eyes from the gate."
The boy nodded and slipped the coin into surcote, his eyes bright with excitement. "He will not. We know well our duty, Gil, and will not fail!"
"Go then, and quickly. Do not let Lord Taleris see you."
With another nod and another bow to Imrahil, the boy turned on his heel and slipped out the door. Gil bolted it behind him, placing herself with her back to the carved wood like a sentry. Imrahil cast a final glance out the window to see the herald now climbing the steep street to the third gate, then he returned to his seat behind the table and prepared to wait.
He had ample time to contemplate the risk they were taking, in letting Éomer's letter pass first into Taleris' hands. Once before, when news had come from Rohan that struck at Gondor's very heart, Taleris had used it to strike another, even deadlier blow against his own land and people. Imrahil could not prove it, but he knew with sick certainty that Taleris had sent word of Boromir's fall to his allies among the Haradrim, spurring them to war. The first attack upon Ciryon's garrisons had come too swiftly upon the news, while Minas Tirith herself had only begun to hear and believe it, to be a matter of chance. Taleris knew that Boromir's death would cut the heart from the armies of Gondor, knew that the King and Faramir lingered in the wilds of Dunland on a fruitless search. He had picked his time well, the cunning old soldier.
Had they only thought to rally Gil's army of small spies in time to catch that first crucial letter, Taleris might even now be locked in the deepest hole beneath Minas Tirith, awaiting the King's vengeance. But it was not until after the war had started and the damage was done that they had found the means to put a watch on Taleris. Often, in the sleepless hours of the night, when he lay thinking of what Elessar would say to him about his bungled stewardship, Imrahil cursed himself for not taking that step sooner. Gondor's rule and Gondor's weal fell upon him, in the King's absence, not upon the slight shoulders of a drudge in boy's clothing. But it was Gil who had found the weapon to avenge Boromir's fall. Gil who had rallied the secret army to catch a traitor at his own game.
They were pages, servants, street urchins and beggars' brats. Unnoticed in their livery or their peasant rags, they could follow Taleris into any chamber, corner or closet within the Tower, trail him through the streets of Minas Tirith without drawing even the most indifferent glance, shadow him from the moment of his waking until he locked his chamber door behind him at night. They bowed to Prince Imrahil, but they looked to Gil – Steward's squire and erstwhile drudge – for their orders.
Would they catch the traitor at last? Imrahil wondered. Would he have that small victory to hand the King, when he returned with no Boromir at his side?
Steps sounded on the flagstones of the passage. Gil stiffened. Imrahil lifted his head, and his face was as stern as ever, with no hint of his doubts visible. They both waited in tense silence, until a heavy fist pounded on the door and Taleris' voice called out, harshly, "I would speak with you, my lord Prince!"
Imrahil lifted his hand in a signal to Gil. She turned promptly to unbolt the door and hold it open for Taleris. He strode past her without a glance, all his attention fixed upon Imrahil, and approached the table, holding a leather message tube in one hand.
"A letter from Éomer King, my prince." Taleris held out the tube to him.
Imrahil accepted it with a nod of thanks and lifted the top, noting as did so that the seals upon it were broken, but the parchment inside appeared untouched. Settling back in his chair with an assumption of ease, he broke the wax seal on the scroll and spread it between his hands. His eyes scanned rapidly over the formal greetings, hunting for some mention of the King, but of a sudden, he saw a familiar and beloved name writ upon the page, and he froze.
"My lord?" Gil moved took a cautious step toward him, her dark brows drawn together in a frown of concern. "Are you ill, my lord?"
He lurched to his feet and fixed burning eyes upon Gil's face. His thoughts still limped in numb disbelief, refusing to accept the truth of what he read, but his lips did not wait for his mind's leave to speak. They blurted out the impossible news before he could stop them. "Boromir is found! Alive!"
Taleris gaped at him for a stunned moment, then blurted out, "'Tis not possible! This is some jest, some device of the enemy…"
A swift, killing glance from Imrahil cut off his words and brought his teeth together with a snap.
"'Tis writ in Éomer King's own hand and bears his seal," Imrahil said, with an effort at control, conscious even now that he must continue to play the smiling dupe and show no hint of anger toward the treacherous Taleris. "We cannot doubt his word. Boromir is alive."
"But the Orcs!" Taleris began, only to be silenced once again, when Imrahil leapt suddenly from his place behind the table, circling it at a run.
"Gil!" the Prince cried, catching her arm. "What ails you, girl?"
She stared at him with glassy eyes, the pupils widened until no grey showed in them, and her bloodless lips moved but could form no words. He felt her arm trembling in his grasp and feared, for a moment, that she was on the verge of some violent fit. But as she drew a long, sobbing breath, her eyes came into focus and recognition flickered in them. The vibrating tension in her arm eased. She licked her lips, drew another, more even breath, and whispered so low that only Imrahil could hear, "He lives? In truth?"
Imrahil let go her arm and turned to find the letter he had dropped upon the table, but he saw that Taleris now held it. The old lord read intently, brows knit, unaware that Prince and squire both watched him. When at last he looked up to meet their gazes, he had schooled his features into their familiar harsh, disdainful lines, and his eyes were hooded.
"He says naught of when the King returns, but it must be soon. Elessar and Prince Faramir are bound for Meduseld, where the King will learn of the war's progress and know that he is needed here." Letting the parchment curl in upon itself, he handed it to Imrahil and executed a precise bow. "With your leave, my lord, I will prepare dispatches for Ciryon and the Southern captains. They must hear at once of our Steward's rescue and our King's coming."
Imrahil nodded gravely. "See it done."
Taleris turned on his heel and strode out of the room, shutting the door firmly behind him. Imrahil waited for a handful of seconds, listening to the sound of Taleris' retreating footsteps, then he let his breath out on a long sigh and fixed kind, worried eyes on Gil's face.
"Would you read the words for yourself?" he asked, more gently than was his wont, and offered her the roll of parchment. "Mayhap it will help you to believe."
She shook her head, mutely.
"Let me pour you some wine. Ye gods, girl, you look like death!"
Gil lifted a hand to her forehead and squeezed her eyes shut. She did not open them until Imrahil pressed a goblet of wine into her hand and bade her drink. Then she obeyed, meekly, while her eyes wandered to the letter that now lay upon the table.
Imrahil watched her in frowning silence, waiting for her to collect herself and resume her usual stolid manner. He found a white and trembling Gil disconcerting, well though he understood her reaction, and he could think of no way to help her but to wait.
Finally, when she had drunk half the wine, she moved over to the table with her deliberate stride and set the goblet down. Then she turned a pale but composed face to Imrahil and asked, "Do you send riders to Edoras, my lord?"
She hesitated for a moment, her lips tightening, then said stiffly, "I beg your leave to go with them."
Imrahil's brows rose in surprise. "You? To Rohan? But you do not ride, Gil, and I send no carts or litters."
"I will learn to ride."
"By sunrise? Nay, girl, there is no time for such folly…"
"Then tie me to the saddle like a bedroll," she hissed, "for I must be in Rohan when he comes!"
"Gil." He clasped her arm, thinking to lend her comfort, and her head came up sharply, her gaze meeting his. She did not weep, but the pain and the eagerness in her eyes touched him more deeply than any tears.
"He is my liege lord, and so long as he lives, I am sworn to serve him. I beg you, my lord, let me go."
"Aye." He let go her arm, let her step away and free him from the terrible spell of her gaze, then he said, softly, "The Steward's squire must be at the Steward's side."
To Imrahil's surprise, Gil dropped swiftly to one knee before him and clasped his hand in both of her own. Pressing her lips to his fingers, she cried, "Thank you, my Prince!"
He goggled at her for a moment, at a loss for words, then spluttered, "Enough, girl. You must make haste, if you hope to depart at sunrise. You will need proper riding leathers, a traveling cloak and gear, boots, provisions…"
"I know it! I will be ready!" Leaping to her feet, she strode to the door.
"Ah, Gil! What of your pack of spying urchins? Will they know to come to me with word of Taleris' movements?"
But Gil already had the door open and was stepping through it, with no time or attention to spare for his concerns. "Trust them! They know what to do!" Then she was gone, flying down the corridor toward the main stairs, calling back a final, "Thank you, my lord!"
To be continued…