Author's Note: If anyone is still following this story, I hope you enjoy the new chapter. Merry Christmas to Annys and Bookwyrm (I hope you don't mind sharing your present with a few other readers) and Happy New Year to everyone!
Chapter 13: The King's Duty
A polite knock sounded on the door.
Imrahil glanced up from the dispatch before him to see the door open and the page, Hal, very correct in his silver and black livery, step into the room. He bowed with perfect courtesy to the Prince and said, "There is someone below stairs who would speak with you, my lord."
Imrahil frowned at the boy. "Below stairs?"
"Aye, my lord." At Imrahil's startled, faintly reproving look, the page crossed to the table and handed him a small, silver coin. "The Chamberlain thought it best to keep him out of sight."
Imrahil stared down at the talisman, at the Horn and Stars of Anórien stamped into the soft metal, and felt a surge of excitement go through him. For two endless days, since the arrival of Éomer King's messenger, Taleris had stayed safely within the citadel walls, contacting no one and sending no letter that Imrahil did not sign and seal with his own hands. The Prince all but despaired of exposing his treacheries, and with each day that passed he grew more somber and weary, weighed down by his own failure. But the small coin lying on his palm sent the blood singing through his warrior's veins and drove away all weariness.
Pushing back his chair with a thump, he sprang to his feet and came quickly around the table. "I will see him at once."
Striding through the door, Imrahil turned toward the main stairway that led down to the antechamber and Great Hall, and from thence down to the servants' hall. He had passed two floors on his way down when it occurred to him that Taleris' office lay hard by those stairs, where he could see all who moved up or down them. Imrahil knew a brief, ignoble wish that he had taken the back stairs to the kitchens to avoid Taleris' notice, but he banished that thought as quickly as it came. It did not suit the Prince's dignity to creep about the citadel in such a furtive manner, hiding his movements from his own deputy.
He continued down the long, circular stair with the page trotting at his heels, his head up and no sign of urgency about him. As he passed the second level and Taleris' office, he kept his gaze before him, to all outward appearances unconcerned with who was or was not watching him stride past. A last wide, straight flight of steps brought them to the antechamber. The main doors were open to the sunlight, which spilled in bright beauty across the inlaid marble floor.
Ignoring the beckoning sunshine and the smell of Autumn on the soft air, Imrahil turned for the back of the hall, where a heavy tapestry hid the door to the lower levels. His page swept aside the rich tapestry, bowing him through the door. Imrahil stepped past him and took the narrow flight of stairs at a run. After long, frustrating, fruitless months of waiting, he was about to justify Boromir's faith in him and unmask a traitor. This certainty lent his steps a swiftness that belied his age.
At the bottom of the stair, a hallway ran straight
back into the bowels of Mindolluin and
the heart of the
Hal knocked firmly on the door. After a brief pause, it opened under the Chamberlain's own hand. He gazed down at the page and the Prince from his lofty height, then he bowed deeply and swung the door wide. "My Lord Prince."
Imrahil stepped into the room and glanced around it curiously. He saw a spacious room, the walls covered with hanging racks of documents and the floor nearly filled by two massive tables. At one sat the Chamberlain's secretary, with rolls of parchment, pots of ink, quills and seals strewn about him. At the other sat a small, ragged boy, clutching a piece of bread liberally smeared with honey. Both the man and the boy looked up at Imrahil's entrance, and the man got hastily to his feet.
"I would speak to this boy alone," Imrahil said, nodding politely in acknowledgement of the secretary's bow, but according him no more than a glance.
"Of course, my lord," the Chamberlain murmured. With a twitch of his head, he summoned his underling and swept him out of the room, closing the door quietly behind them.
Imrahil found himself confronting a pair of suspicious, faintly hostile eyes gleaming at him from beneath a shock of hair so grimy that he could not determine its color. The boy got slowly to his feet and, after a moment's careful thought, sketched an awkward bow. Then he took an enormous bite of sticky bread and chewed it doggedly, his gaze never leaving Imrahil's face.
"What is your name?" Imrahil asked calmly, trying to mask his eagerness.
The boy looked at Hal, as if asking his permission to speak or hoping for encouragement. In response to this unspoken plea, Hal said, "He is called Durstan, my lord."
Imrahil opened his hand to show the silver coin lying on his palm. "Gave you this token to my page, Master Durstan?"
This time, the boy answered for himself. "Aye."
"Is that how you address the Prince of Dol Amroth, you ruffian?" Hal demanded, sharply.
The hostility in Durstan's eyes deepened, but he muttered, obediently, "M'lord."
"Never mind the courtesies. Tell me why you sent this to me," Imrahil said.
"Gil's orders. M'lord."
A flicker of impatience showed in Imrahil's eyes, but he kept his voice even and his manner pleasant. "What message do you bring me on Gil's orders?"
"'Tis the greybeard. Gil said I was to watch him, when he came out t'gate, and I was to tell none but her or the Prince what I saw. So I come to tell you," a sullen pause, then, "m'lord."
"Aye, go on."
"He come out t'gate."
Imrahil controlled his rising impatience with an effort. "This much I could have guessed for myself. What did he do when he came out?"
"Went down to
"Into a house? Whose house?"
Durstan shot him a sideways glance, clearly relishing the effect of his tale on his audience. Then he shrugged with elaborate unconcern and said, "In he went, and when he come out again, he wore a purple robe with fur on the collar and a gold chain about his shoulders and a velvet cap on his head. Very fine he looked. Like one of those fat merchants. Got me to wondering if maybe his purse was fat, too, but I thought on what Gil would say if I pinched aught from the greybeard and kept my fingers out of it."
"Very wise of you," Imrahil murmured, while behind his impassive face he thought, A thief. A cutpurse, by the sound of it. Gil certainly does choose her allies strangely.
"Aye, well, but I lost a deal in the bargain,
I reckon." Another sly glance elicited no response from Imrahil,
so he went on in his earlier, sullen tone, "I followed him
"What other?" Imrahil's voice sharpened with excitement.
"Couldn't see his face proper for the cowl he wore, but he was dark. Narrow, squinty eyes, black as hate. Dressed like a herdsman, but he walked like a sailor."
"Did you hear what they said to one another?"
Durstan shook his head. He grinned, showing rotten teeth for the first time, and rubbed his fingers together suggestively. "The likes of me be not welcome in a respectable tavern. But I watched through the window, and I saw the greybeard hand a letter to t'other. Angry, he was, or afraid. He put his face right up to t'other's and spat as he talked. The black-eyed man did not like that. He got up from his seat and went out, scowling fit to fry the greybeard in his boots."
Imrahil turned abruptly away from the boy and began to pace the small patch of empty floor. How long had all this taken, he wondered. How long had the little thief sat in this room, eating honeyed bread, while Taleris' letter vanished into the teeming lower streets of Minas Tirith? And where then? To the Harlond, where countless ships rode at anchor, awaiting orders to sail south for the Mouths of Anduin and war?
The page sprang eagerly to his side.
"Send for the commander of the guard at once. And summon the Chamberlain back. We must close the port, hold all ships at the Harlond until this sailor in herdsman's garb is found. I must have that letter."
"He is at the Harlond, I reckon, for I saw him on his way from the lower gate," the grinning thief drawled, "but you will find no letter about him."
"Eh?" Imrahil halted his pacing abruptly and wheeled on the boy. "What is that you say?"
Once again the center of attention, Durstan cast a triumphant glance at both Prince and page. One hand slipped into the front of his filthy tunic and pulled out a scroll of parchment. Imrahil snatched it from him and broke the seal, his eyes scanning the closely penned lines with feverish haste.
Durstan showed his teeth in another smile and went on, more expansively with every passing moment, "I thought as how Gil had told me to watch the greybeard, but it seemed to me that the greybeard had only one place to go, back to the tower, whilst the stranger had that letter in his pocket and all the city to wander in. So I pondered what Gil would have me do, and all the while I was pondering, my feet was taking me right after the stranger. And right about the time I saw he was making for t'gates, it came to me. The letter would tell it all. The letter was what the Prince wanted. And where was the letter? Why, in a pocket, put there by Dame Fortune for the likes of me to find."
He grinned more widely still. "So that is what I did."
Imrahil spoke without lifting his eyes from the paper in his hands. "You did well, Master Durstan, very well indeed. Go swiftly, Hal, and fetch me the Guard Captain."
Hal crossed to the door and pulled it open to reveal the Chamberlain standing just outside. "My Lord Prince has need of you, Sir," the page said, and stepped aside to let the Chamberlain enter.
"Aye." Imrahil glanced up from the letter, his eyes burning with a fierce, martial light. "Signal the Harlond that the port is closed by order of the King. No ship is to leave the docks, and any craft that sailed within the hour is to be turned back, by force if needed. I will prepare written orders, but do not wait for these. Use the signal flags on the outer tower. The Guard will close the lower gate. No man may leave the citadel without a signed warrant bearing my personal seal. Is this understood?"
The Chamberlain bowed. "It is, my lord."
"See to it at once."
The Chamberlain bowed again and departed, leaving Imrahil alone with the grimy urchin who had handed him his victory so neatly. Smiling down at the boy, he said, pleasantly, "You cannot leave the citadel at present, but I will see you fed, bathed and suitably clothed in the servants' hall, ere you go."
Durstan gaped at him in open horror, then leapt to his feet and scurried for the door, his shoulders hunched as though anticipating a blow.
"Stay, boy, what ails you?" Imrahil demanded.
Durstan huddled against the door, afraid to leave against the Prince's express command but clearly frantic to be away. "I did as I was bid," he whimpered. "I brought the letter."
"Aye, and I am in your debt."
"Then let me go from this place. Let me go back to the lower city as I am, and do not punish me for doing as I was bid."
"I do not mean to punish you," Imrahil replied, his brows lifted in astonishment. "I mean only to give you food, clothing and money enough to reward your efforts."
Outrage stiffened the boy's spine, and he left off cowering to confront the Prince with injured dignity. "What chance has a beggar and cutpurse if his clothes be new and his face scrubbed clean? Answer me that, m'lord!"
Imrahil smiled in understanding. "I am chastened, Master Cutpurse. Ask what reward you will, and for the service your light fingers have done me, it is yours."
The little thief regarded him with deep suspicion for a moment, then said, grudgingly, "A hot meal and a tankard of good ale in my belly would not be amiss."
"Is that all the payment you desire?"
"Enough coin in my pocket to jingle when I walk."
"But not so much that it tempt your fellows to rob you of it?"
Durstan grunted his approval. His eyes fixed on Imrahil's face, regarding him steadily for a long moment, and then he added in a voice empty of hostility or wheedling, "And tell Gil 'twas I brought you the Greybeard's letter."
A loud knock on the door sent Durstan scuttling back to his seat at the desk, once more hunched against an expected blow. Imrahil strode to the door and flung it open, to find Hal and the Captain of the Guard standing outside. The guardsman saluted him and said, "The gate is shut, the citadel closed, as you commanded, my lord."
Imrahil nodded his thanks and turned to smile reassuringly at Durstan. "Stay here, Master Cutpurse. I will send someone with your meal and tankard, but you will not leave this room except in my company or my page's."
"Aye, m'lord," the boy mumbled.
Imrahil stepped into the corridor and pulled the door shut. Turning to the captain, he said in a voice too low to penetrate the heavy door, "Form an escort of six men, fully armed. Have them await me in the antechamber, at the bottom of the stairway."
The man saluted and left, his heavy boots and sword clattering up the stone stairs as he went.
A handful of minutes later, Imrahil paced up the wide, stone stairway from the antechamber, his page shadowing him and an escort of the Tower Guard at his back. He carried himself like the warrior Prince he was, full of power and certainty, his face stern, his bearing proud. One hand rested lightly upon the pommel of his sword, while the other clasped the slim roll of parchment that held Imrahil's triumph and Taleris' death enclosed within it.
The door to Taleris' chamber stood wide. The old lord sat behind his massive desk, a pile of maps and dispatches before him, but at the sound of many booted feet upon the flagstones, he looked up in scowling alarm. Imrahil stepped through the door without pause, Hal and the Guard captain on his heels. The escort, resplendent in their flashing silver mail and sable tunics, halted just outside the room and drew their swords.
Taleris lurched to his feet at Imrahil's approach, his face empty of all emotion but unnaturally pale, as his eyes moved to the glittering array of weapons in the hands of the guard. Dragging his gaze from the soldiers, he turned it on Imrahil and, pulling the shreds of his dignity about him, nodded a courteous greeting to the Prince.
Imrahil stared coldly at him, as if at a stranger and said, "Lord Taleris, I arrest you in the name of King Elessar Telcontar."
"Arrest me!" Taleris growled, his voice harsh with strain and his eyes darting nervously to the waiting guards. "What folly is this, my lord Prince?"
"'Tis treason, and you will die for it." Imrahil lifted the parchment, turning it to show Taleris his own seal upon it. "You are condemned by your own hand."
Taleris' eyes nearly started from their sockets, and what color remained in his cheeks fled. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then felt the searing touch of Imrahil's eyes upon him, like the stroke of a blade, and swallowed his words. Lifting his head at a proud angle, he stepped from behind his desk and approached the Prince.
When they stood face to face, only a sword's length apart, Taleris drew himself up stiffly and asked, "Must I surrender my weapons, my lord? Or is my oath that I will neither fight nor flee sufficient?"
"Surrender your weapons." Outrage and disbelief swept over Taleris' face, and again he made as if to speak, but Imrahil forestalled him. Stretching out his free hand, palm open, he said, "Your dagger, my lord."
Taleris fumbled with the ornamental dagger that hung at his belt, struggling to loosen the scabbard from its bindings, blustering as he did so, "You dishonor me, Imrahil, and demean yourself by this. I am a man of my word, a nobleman of Gondor, who has served Gondor's Steward all his life."
"Served him with an arrow in the back?" Imrahil cut in, his voice soft and chill.
Taleris slapped the sheathed dagger across Imrahil's palm, his face reddening with anger. "I place myself in your hands. I demand that you treat me as my birth warrants, with the honor due the King's Deputy and your old friend."
The Prince closed his hand around the dagger until his knuckles showed white, and said through gritted teeth, "You forfeited honor, friendship and the privilege of birth when you betrayed your King. Now you will await the King's justice in a traitor's cell." Thrusting out the dagger to the captain who waited, silently, at his shoulder, he snapped, "Escort Lord Taleris to the dungeons."
Taleris struggled visibly to master himself, dignity warring with rage, until dignity won the day and he straightened his shoulders proudly once more. He fixed his gaze on the open door and the soldiers standing at the ready outside it, vouchsafing Imrahil no glance, no sign of fear or surrender. Imrahil stepped aside, and Taleris strode out to meet his guards, the captain following behind him.
Imrahil waited until the company had moved down the stairs, out of sight and hearing, then he drew Hal nearer with a gesture.
"Send word to the Guard, the gates are to be opened and the doors unbarred. Have word brought to me at once when the spy is found."
"Where will you be, my lord?"
"The King's study."
Hal bowed and moved toward the door.
"Hal." The boy halted, turned to face the Prince. "See to Durstan. See to his comfort, but make it clear to him that he cannot leave the citadel. I rely on you to keep him here, even if it means setting a guard upon him."
"Aye, my lord."
A moment later the boy was gone, and Imrahil was alone.
The Prince moved around the desk and sank into the chair that stood behind it. The desk was piled deep with sheets of parchment, rolled and folded dispatches, message tubes and maps. Letters, lists, orders, reports, troop movements. At once the litter and the lifeblood of war. Which scrap of parchment, Imrahil wondered, might reveal the treasons that had sparked this war? He would sift every page, every word. He must, for he must have the full record of Taleris' crimes laid bare before Elessar returned.
Weariness settled upon him, dank and heavy. He rested his elbows on the desktop and buried his face in his hands, indulging in a moment of grief while there was none by to see it.
How many years had he called Taleris friend? How many years had they labored together to do Lord Denethor's bidding? Through all the long years of gathering darkness, of decay and despair, Imrahil and Taleris had stood with the ruling Steward against the Shadow. They had not dared to hope for victory, and yet they had fought on, scorning surrender. And now, when the Shadow was lifted, when hope shone untarnished in the hearts of Men, when Gondor stood proud and strong once more, his friend was lost to him. Destroyed by a shadow within him that even Sauron's fall could not banish.
Lifting his head, Imrahil opened the letter he still carried and spread it between his hands. It was short and blunt, wasting no words on courtesy and making no effort at concealment. Mayhap Taleris had relied on his friendship with the Prince to save him, should it fall into the wrong hands, or mayhap he had counted the time for caution passed. Whatever his reason, he had sealed his fate with his own words.
The letter was signed only with an Eastern rune that Imrahil did not recognize. He read through it again, feeling the weight of Taleris' betrayal settle ever more heavily upon his shoulders. Then he rolled the paper, tucked it into his belt, and bowed his head.
It was enough. Taleris would die, and Imrahil would prove himself at last to his kinsman and Steward. Boromir would doubt him no more. But at what cost?
Gil looked up at the massive wooden gates from the depths of an exhaustion so profound that it did not allow for wonderment. She sat astride her mount before the gates of Edoras. She, Gil, the foundling brat who had never thought in all her life to set foot outside the Rammas Echor or lose sight of Minas Tirith's walls. Here she waited, a warhorse fit for a lord beneath her, league upon league of Rohan's vast fields behind her, the Golden Hall of Éomer King rising before her eyes atop its terraced hill, and she could think of naught save the ache in her legs and back, the dragging weariness that filled her, and the chill of wet clothing against her skin.
A guard in a silver helm and tunic of grass green barred their way, demanding to know their business. Gil did not hear what was spoken between the guard and her escort. She gazed numbly at the wooden wall towering above her until the horse immediately in front of her started moving again. Then she kicked her own horse into motion, and clung doggedly to the saddlebow as the great beast lurched forward, past the guard and into the shadow of the gate.
Inside the walls, she found herself on a steeply-climbing, stone-flagged street with wooden houses crowding close on either hand. A stream flowed down the hill beside the road, filling the air with its music, and a mob of curious children scampered after the mounted strangers. The men-at-arms who rode with Gil called greetings to the children and to their parents who came running to investigate the noise. Soon they had a sizeable escort following them up the hill.
The paved road ended at the bottom of a green terrace. Here a spring gushed from the hillside and poured into a stone pool, from which the stream spilled and flowed down toward the fields below. A long, straight flight of stone steps climbed the terrace to the hill's flat crest. Gil craned her neck to find the top stair, and saw two massive seats cut from the stone of the hill framed against the grey, rain-swept sky. Men sat upon them, tall and straight, with helms upon their heads and swords in their hands that shone like silver flame.
The doorwardens of Meduseld. On that hilltop, up that long stair and past those proud wardens, stood the Golden Hall, and Gil knew that somehow she must find the strength to climb all those steps to reach it. Her spirits quailed at the thought.
Imrahil's herald, the leader of their company, dismounted first and greeted the crowd of townspeople gathered about them. Soon the men-at-arms were swinging down from their mounts, as well, and the people of Rohan moved among the horses, holding their bridles while they spoke to the new arrivals from Gondor. Gil watched them with dull eyes and clenched teeth, waiting for one of her companions to remember that she needed their aid in dismounting. They had tied her feet into the stirrups to keep her on horseback, and on horseback she must stay until one of them freed her.
A tall, fair-haired, beardless man in worn riding leathers stepped up to take her horse's bridle. He smiled at Gil and said, "Come down now, lad, for your own legs must carry you the rest of the way to the King's door."
She unclenched her teeth, which instantly began to chatter from the cold, and muttered, "I cannot."
The man's eyes moved to her feet and the bindings that held them in the stirrups. His fair brows rose. "Came you all the way from Gondor tied to your own saddle?"
"Aye, or we should have lost her by the first milestone," the herald said, with a chuckle. He waved one of their escort over to free Gil and help her to dismount, while the man at her horse's head stared at her in growing wonder.
"'Tis no lad, then, nor no rider from the look of it." He watched a soldier in the black and silver livery of Gondor lift Gil bodily from the saddle and remarked, "The smallest babe in Rohan would scorn to travel in such a manner."
Gil stifled a cry of pain as her feet touched the ground and said through gritted teeth, "Then give yon beast to your smallest babe with my compliments, Man of Rohan. I want no more of it."
The man laughed, the shadow of contempt clearing from his face. "Who shall I tell him gives such a princely gift?"
"A prince's squire." Turning away before he could respond, Gil limped painfully toward the stairway.
Calenhil, the soldier who had helped from her saddle, walked at her side, taking most of her weight on his arm. He watched in silence as she attacked the stairway with all the grim determination of a soldier attacking a band of Orcs, and let her climb the first handful of steps without comment. Then impatience got the better of him and he exclaimed, "Confound it, Gil, I want my dinner sometime ere nightfall!"
Not waiting for her to answer, he grabbed her arm and swung her bodily over his broad shoulder. Gil uttered a grunt of protest, but she could not fight him without shredding what little dignity she had left. She could only hang over his shoulder, her arms dangling grotesquely and her hip pressing against his ear, while he carried her up the stairs at a trot.
Calenhil reached the head of the stair and stepped between the doorwardens' seats onto a wide, windswept stone platform. As he set Gil on her feet, he backed cautiously away from her and said, "There, now. You are delivered to Meduseld, as Prince Imrahil charged, and our duty is done. Will you take my head off for my pains? Or will you accept my arm as far as the King's hall?"
Two spots of furious color burning in her cheeks, Gil gave her leather tunic a tug to straighten it and put a hand up to check that her long hair had not come loose from its coronet of braids. Only then did she turn to look at proud Meduseld, rising from the hilltop to blot out the pale sky.
Not so lofty as the
Schooling her face into wooden impassivity, Gil slipped her hand through Calenhil's arm and paced with him up a last handful of shallow steps to the open doors. She saw before her a long, wide hall, lined with pillars and lit with many torches in iron brackets. Rich colors she saw, carvings upon the pillars picked out in gold and green, tapestries, banners, trophies of many battles, all glowing in the torchlight. The trappings of a warrior king, she guessed, as she walked the length of the hall between the carven pillars and tried not to gape foolishly at her surroundings.
At the far end of the hall, Gil saw a throne set upon a dais. It was draped with furs and rich cloth, with a brazier standing close beside it to drive out the chill, but no one sat on this high seat. Instead, she saw, a table had been set on the floor below the dais, and three figures gathered closely around it, one of them holding a candle.
The one with the light was a man, tall and fair, whom Gil instantly recognized as Éomer King. The others were too small for men and too sturdily built for children, with curly brown hair upon their heads and even more upon their bare feet. They chattered and laughed, their high voices carrying sharply through the lofty hall, and spoke to Éomer with a lack of restraint or respect that would have shocked Gil, had she not known them for who and what they were. Halflings. Periannath. And if her eyes did not deceive her, the taller one with the lilting smile was none other than Meriadoc Brandybuck.
Gil had lived too many years at the King's court to forget herself or her place, so she did not cry out to the halfling, but her eyes followed the creature's every movement while her mind urged him to look up, to see her, to know her.
"They cannot be traveling as slowly as all that," the other halfling insisted. It was Peregrin, Merry's cousin and constant companion, she now saw. Both had aged a trifle, grown more brown and fit and assured, but Gil would have known them anywhere. "I say they must have reached the road by now."
"Treebeard has not seen them at the ford," Merry said. His finger traced a line across the skin that lay on the table, clearly marking some path on a map that Gil could not see. "There are no roads through Dunland, but there is a village here, on the great road, where they might have taken shelter from the rain. Have your Riders gone this far to the west, my lord?" He looked to Éomer as he spoke, but the King had stepped away from the table to greet the approaching company.
"Welcome, Men of Gondor, to Rohan."
The herald came to a halt before the dais where Éomer stood and bowed deeply. All the company followed suit, though Gil had to cling to Calenhil's arm to keep her balance as she did so.
"Hail, Éomer King, Lord of the Mark," the herald said. "I bring you greetings from Prince Imrahil, and bear letters for you and for King Elessar, if he be here."
"King Elessar has not yet come, but we look for him daily. How fares Gondor? When last Imrahil sent word, the Haradrim were mustering for war."
"The war is begun, Sire."
Eagerness flashed in Éomer's eyes and he held out his hand for the messenger's letters, saying, "Needs he men? Arms? Horses? Rohan will fight, if Gondor has need of us, though I must stay until the King himself comes to Edoras."
Before the herald could answer him, another voice broke in on their exchange, crying out in shrill delight, "Gil? Can it be you?"
Gil flushed in mingled embarrassment and pleasure, as Merry burst from around the table and through the staring company to reach her.
"It is you! I do not believe it! Gil, in the flesh, in Rohan!"
"Peace, Master Merry," she muttered, throwing a nervous look toward the dais and Éomer's startled face. "The King…"
"Nonsense." He grabbed her hand and dragged her toward Éomer, calling happily, "Look, my lord! Did you ever think to see the Steward's squire in your golden hall?"
"Merry!" she protested, as he pulled her ruthlessly away from Calenhil's support. She took a step, felt her exhausted leg buckle beneath her, and gave an undignified squawk of pain. In the next moment, she tumbled to the floor to sprawl at the feet of Éomer King.
"This is an honor, indeed," he said soberly. "You are most welcome to Meduseld."
Gil studied her reflection in the tall bronze mirror, a discontented frown darkening her face. She looked well enough, clad as she was in a long gown of grass green with a silver girdle about her waist, but she did not like what she saw. The household was treating her with the respect due a lady of birth, with a serving girl to wait upon her, an herb-scented bath to soak away her travel dirt, and liniment to soothe the stiffness in her aching muscles. It was not seemly, nor was this garment, which would have better suited the Lady Éowyn than a drudge-turned-squire.
She was not sorry to see her wet and filthy riding leathers hauled away, but she was angry to find her squire's livery gone as well. The servant had assured her that the velvet surcote was dreadfully crumpled and damp, unfit to wear, and that she would be much more comfortable in the gown of soft wool until her own clothing was furbished up and her body less bruised. Gil could not argue with this reasoning, but she hesitated to show herself outside her chamber in clothing as unfamiliar as it was unsuitable.
A soft knock sounded on the door. Gil moved quickly to answer the summons, kicking impatiently at her long skirts when they snarled about her legs. She pulled open the door, preparing to send the serving girl on her way with a curt dismissal, but broke out in a smile instead at the sight of the halfling standing just outside with a heavily laden tray in his hands.
"Hullo, Gil. Were you afraid I was another servant? I have seen them bustling to and fro, with cans of water and piles of clothing, and I knew they would put you in a temper." He held up the tray of food, and asked, "Are you hungry? May I join you for afternoon tea?"
"Come in." She stepped aside to give him and his enormous tray room to enter, then she shut the door and followed him to the hearth. "I am glad to see you, Master perian. With or without the tea."
"Any guest is more welcome when he brings his own provisions, especially a hobbit." Merry set the tray on the hearth, seated himself beside it, and reached for the teapot nestled between plates of cheese, cakes, bread and meat. "Shall I pour you a cup?"
"I am more hungry for news than food."
Merry blinked at her in amazement, then smiled and said, cheerfully, "You won't mind if I help myself, then, will you?"
"Not at all." Gil sat down on the warm stone of the hearth, across the mound of food from her companion, and fixed eager eyes on him. "Tell me how you come to be here, Merry. For yours is the last face I expected to see in Rohan."
"I might say the same of you," he answered, through a mouthful of seed cake. "When you walked into the Hall, you looked as if you had been dragged behind a horse all the way from Gondor, instead of riding one."
"I wish I had been," she said, ruefully.
"Well, you look a deal better now." His gaze traveled from the crown of her head, where her hair hung loose in a shadowy curtain about her shoulders, to the delicately slippered foot showing beneath the hem of her gown, and his eyes began to twinkle. "Though not so much like a squire."
Gil pulled a face. "You taught me too well. I find I cannot abide skirts, now that I have accustomed myself to breeches and boots. I have threatened the drudge who brought me this," she picked at her woolen sleeve disdainfully, "with dire punishments, if my livery is not clean by the time my lord comes to Edoras. I will not greet the Steward in this guise."
"Boromir will be glad to find you here, no matter what you wear."
"As he will you. Tell me, Merry, how you come to be in Rohan."
"A dream brought me."
"Yes." Merry eyed her thoughtfully for a moment, as if measuring her willingness to trust, then he smiled a trifle sadly and said, "Boromir once told me that I would know when he had need of me. It seems he was right."
"Tell me your tale."
Providing himself with a fresh cup of tea and a thick slab of bread and cheese to sustain him, Merry settled down to do just that.
*** *** ***
"The King! The King is come!"
As Aragorn rode at the head of his company up the steeply climbing street, he heard the cry go up and saw children scampering ahead of him to spread the news through the city. People hurried to line the roadway, heedless of the steady grey rain that fell upon them. They cheered the weary, sodden, mud-splattered travelers, rejoicing to see Gondor's King among them at last, when their own good King had awaited him with such eagerness.
"The King is come!" the children shouted, dancing up the street, and the chant was taken up by the crowd now following in Aragorn's wake. "Elessar is come to Rohan!"
They had nearly reached the top of the street and the greensward at the foot of the stair, when Aragorn heard another shout that carried piercingly above the noise of celebration and brought his head up with a start. "Aragorn! Aragorn!"
The voices were high and glad, utterly familiar and completely unexpected in this time and place. Aragorn looked toward the long stone stairway and saw a handful of figures bounding down it. Two of them were fleeter of foot than the others and reached the bottom of the stair by the time Roheryn stepped onto the green. They flew across the open ground, calling Aragorn's name in shrill tones, and fairly hurled themselves at his horse.
"What is this?" Legolas cried in delight. "Hobbits? Here?"
"Yes, yes," Pippin laughed, bouncing on his toes in excitement as he hung on Aragorn's stirrup. "We rode all the way from the Shire to find you, and we thought you would never come! What has taken you so long? And where is Boromir?"
Aragorn swung down from Roheryn's saddle and dropped to one knee on the wet grass, opening his arms to embrace his small friends. "Merry! Pippin! This is a happy chance, indeed! You cannot know how glad I am to find you here."
"It wasn't chance at all," Pippin said, "but Merry's dreams that brought us to Rohan."
"And you aren't half as glad as we are," Merry put in fervently.
Éomer, Gimli and a youth whom Aragorn took for one of Éomer's retainers came up to them in time to hear Merry's remark. Éomer, setting aside kingly courtesies, greeted Aragorn with a chuckle and said, "It has cost me dear in provender and patience to keep these two safe in Edoras against your coming, Aragorn. Master Meriadoc was on the point of riding out to find you a score of times."
"I must see Boromir," Merry said, his face twisting with the effort of holding in his emotion. "Please, Aragorn, where is he?"
Aragorn rose to his feet and turned to watch the rest of the company climb the last, steepest part of the hill. In the middle of the column rolled the blacksmith's cart, a tent lashed across its high sides to keep out the rain, a bedraggled pony laboring between its shafts to pull it, and an ill-tempered goat tethered behind it. He nodded toward the wretched vehicle.
"He and Borlas are in the cart."
Merry gave a cry and started down the hill at a run. The youth, who had stood silently at Éomer's back until now, followed him, and Aragorn caught a glimpse of black hair and a pale, mask-like face as he sped past.
"Here, now!" Aragorn called, startled, and made a move to catch the youth's arm.
"Let her go, Aragorn," Gimli chided, his sturdy frame shaken with laughter. "She has braved her own horrors to be here and has waited more patiently than most for Boromir's return. Let her go to him."
"It cannot be. Gil would not come so far from Minas Tirith, even for Boromir." Even as the words left his lips, he realized how foolish they sounded. He watched Merry and Gil dart around to the back of the cart, a smile dawning on his drawn and weary face. Merry lifted the heavy canvas that covered the cart and scrambled up under it, while Gil fell into step at the cart's tail, keeping pace with the goat.
"The Steward's squire belongs at the Steward's side," Éomer murmured, unknowingly echoing Imrahil's words. "Even if she came there tied to her own horse."
Aragorn sat at a roughhewn wooden table, spread with the remains of a hearty meal. The dishes and cups had been pushed aside to make room for a large map covered with marks and notations, and several rolls of parchment. Legolas and Faramir bent over the map, while Éomer and Gimli, who had seen it often enough before, sat back in their chairs and waited for Aragorn to finish reading Imrahil's most recent letter.
The King read in grim silence, his face growing
darker with every passing moment. When he reached the end of the
letter, he let the parchment curl in upon itself but still held
it between his hands, his eyes fixed on nothing while his thoughts
flew to Minas Tirith. To Imrahil, who strove so valiantly to fill
the place of both King and Steward, while his people fought to hold
back the plundering Haradrim and traitors
stalked the circles of the
"What says Imrahil?" Faramir asked, softly, breaking in on Aragorn's dark musings.
"The war has begun." Aragorn lifted his
eyes to meet those of his friends and counselors, now fixed intently
upon him. "The Haradrim are driving
west, trying to cross the River and attack Lebennin, but Ciryon's
Faramir, his face suddenly pale, sank into an empty chair on the King's right hand. His eyes moved to the map and traced the line of Anduin down to the place where countless colored shapes, arrows, runes and scrawled notes marked the location of Gondor's armies. "Who leads our troops?"
cannot leave Minas Tirith, and Beregond
commands the Rangers of Ithilien, who hold the eastern bank of the River as far as
the Poros, and who act as Imrahil's
Aragorn laid the parchment carefully aside and looked about the circle of grave faces confronting him. "It seems the Haradrim chose their time carefully. They waited until the rumor that their beloved Captain-General was dead had taken the heart from Gondor's armies, and until it was known that the King tarried in the far wilderness on a fool's errand, then they pressed the attack."
Legolas' fair brows lifted, and he exchanged a look with Gimli that was heavy with understanding. "Taleris."
"Aye," Gimli grunted. "It must have been he who sent word of Boromir's loss to the Haradrim."
"So Imrahil believes," Aragorn said. "But when he wrote this letter, he still had not found proof enough of Taleris' guilt to accuse him openly."
"What will you do, Aragorn?" Éomer asked.
The King sighed and pressed his fingertips to his eyes, as if to force away the memory of the words he had read. "Imrahil begs me to ride with all haste for Gondor."
Éomer nodded. "That much is certain. But will you go south to…"
Aragorn's head jerked up sharply and he frowned at Éomer, startling the younger man into silence. "Certain?" he demanded, his voice suddenly harsh. "Certain to you, mayhap, but not to me!"
The others exchanged troubled looks. Then, after an awkward moment, Faramir ventured, "My lord, you cannot leave our people leaderless at such a time."
"Imrahil leads them."
"They need their King."
Aragorn's frowned deepened, and grief roughened voice. "Aye, and the King's duty is clear. But what of my duty as a friend and a healer? When do I give back a measure of the love and loyalty given me so freely, not to my crown or my people, but to my friends?"
"Aragorn." Legolas stretched a hand across the table to clasp Aragorn's arm in a gesture of comfort. "Do not punish yourself for what you cannot change. Boromir will understand."
Aragorn gave a short, harsh laugh that sounded more like a sob, and said, "I do not doubt it, could I but find the strength to ask it of him. But I cannot do it, Legolas. I cannot abandon him, yet again."
"There is no question of abandonment," Éomer said firmly. "He is not lost in the wilderness or languishing in an Orc den. He is safe under my roof and in my care."
"The last time I left him in your care, you gave him a horse and sent him off to war!"
"For which you thanked me in the end!" Éomer snapped, then, controlling his flare of temper, he added, "You know that I love Boromir as a brother, and I would never let harm come to him. You have my oath, as Rohan's King, that I will guard his life with my own."
Aragorn lifted a hand to silence him and lurched to his feet. He began to pace the near end of the chamber, circling from the table to the hearth and back again, while he spoke rapidly in a low, strained tone.
"I do not fear for Boromir's life, and I require no such vow of you, Éomer. 'Tis not his wounds that would keep me at his side, but the memory of the times I have put my duty ahead of the love I owe him. In this very house, I told him that duty called me to Gondor and that he must remain behind. I nearly lost him in that moment. I nearly destroyed a love and fealty that had survived the poison of the Ring, the torture of Saruman and endless darkness. How can I risk such a loss again? How can I look in his face and tell him that Gondor's King must go to war once again without his Steward?"
No one answered him, and he halted his pacing to turn and look at the four staunch friends gathered about the table, all watching him with eyes full of understanding and pity.
"Tell me how to do it, and I will ride for Minas Tirith as soon as my horse can be saddled."
Still no one spoke, until finally Legolas rose from his chair and crossed to where Aragorn stood. Putting out his hand, he clasped the Man's forearm in a soldier's salute and said, in his clear, musical voice, "Of all the evils in this world, the loss of Boromir's love is the last that you should fear. Read him Imrahil's letter, ask for his counsel, and see how swiftly he sends you packing to Gondor to drive the Haradrim from your lands."
When Aragorn hesitated, his eyes still troubled and full of grief, Legolas bent his head to bring his voice closer and dropped it to reach only Aragorn's ears. "Trust him, my king. Trust that his sense of duty and love for his people are as strong as yours."
Aragorn nodded, squeezed Legolas' forearm in gratitude, then dropped his hand and stepped back. Speaking to all of them, he said, "I will seek my Steward's counsel in this matter." He started for the door, adding over his shoulder, "Have the company prepare to ride at daybreak, but saddle no horses and say no farewells until I return."
Then he was through the door and gone, his stride quickening until he was nearly running down the long, stone-flagged hallway.
He dreamed of voices. Soft voices, soothing, cajoling, comforting. Some were those he expected to hear, and so welcome were they in the darkness that they nearly persuaded him he was awake and lying in a wide, warm bed in a quiet room. But then the other voices came, the voices of friends who could not possibly be with him, no matter how he longed for them. Merry, Pippin, even Gil. And Boromir knew that his heart had betrayed him. Then he fled deeper into unconsciousness, where nothing could touch him.
In the middle of such a dream, surrounded by the voices that could not exist except in his imaginings, he felt a hand behind his head and a cup against his lips. Arwen spoke from close above him, urging him to drink. He obediently swallowed the cool liquid poured into his mouth and sighed with relief when she let him settle into his pillow again.
"That is well, Boromir. Rest now, until I bring your supper."
He grunted a wordless reply and pushed his head more deeply into the clean, fat pillow that supported it. A whiff of herb-scented soap reached him, and he frowned in confusion. Arwen did not smell of soap. Nor did his makeshift bed in the cart. And certainly the goat, his constant companion throughout the journey, did not smell so sweet. Something had changed.
Boromir was suddenly alert, certain that he was not asleep and that the quiet warmth in which he lay was real. It was a pillow beneath his head, not a rolled cloak, and a soft bed beneath him rather than the punishing boards of the cart. He could hear no creak of harness, no tramp of hooves, no child coughing harshly in shivering darkness. All was quiet, but for the crackling of a nearby fire and the sound of someone breathing.
He drew in a long breath, tasting the air, and grimaced slightly when the smoke from the fire caught at his throat.
"I am sorry about the fire," Arwen said, "but you need its warmth."
Boromir hesitated for a moment, absorbing the familiar feel of the room, then muttered, "Meduseld."
"You arrived several hours ago," another voice piped in. "We've been trying to tell you, but you kept insisting that we aren't real and going back to sleep."
Boromir gave a start at the sound of that voice, and he reached instinctively to find it, though he knew it could not be there. "Merry?"
"Yes, it's me." Small, sturdy fingers clasped Boromir's, and a weight settled on the edge of the mattress beside him.
The hobbit chuckled. "You needn't look at me like that, Boromir. I'm not a ghost, or a dream."
"I am the ghost, I think. Or I am mad. Can it be you, Little One?" He lifted his hand, still clasped tightly in both of Merry's, and brushed the backs of his fingers against the halfling's face. It was wet with tears but undeniably warm and solid.
Merry uttered something between a laugh and a sob and turned to press a kiss to Boromir's hand.
"Merry." The ache in Boromir's chest threatened to burst his ribs asunder, as his weeks of fear and longing dissolved into gladness. His voice roughened with tears he could not shed, and his fingers tightened convulsively about the hobbit's smaller hand. "My dear Merry."
Boromir could find no other words to say, and Merry seemed to understand. They sat in silence, Merry clutching Boromir's hand to his breast and weeping softly, while Boromir tried to pierce a lifetime of darkness and the cloth that shrouded his eyes to look upon his friend's face once again. He knew it was a fruitless effort, but in that moment of agonizing happiness, a memory was not enough.
"How is it you are here, Merry?" he finally asked, forcing the words out through the thickness of his throat.
"I knew that something dreadful had happened to you, and I had to come find you." The hobbit sniffled loudly and freed one hand to wipe his eyes on his sleeve. "Of course, I came too late to be of any help, just as Pippin said I would, but at least I am here to welcome you home. That is something."
"It is a good deal more than something," Boromir murmured, a smile tugging at his lips. "You should know better than to heed Pippin."
"Well, I do, but it's a long trip from Buckland, and I had no one else…"
Boromir clutched at his hand in surprise, cutting off his words, and said, "Pippin rode with you? Then he is here, and the voices I heard in my dream were real? All of the voices?"
"Yes, we were all here with you."
"Gil." Hope and disbelief warred in him, bringing him upright before he had time to consider his body's weakness. He sat up abruptly, swaying with giddy exhaustion, while Merry and Arwen cried out in protest and caught his arms to keep him from falling. He ignored them both, all his attention fixed upon a third pair of hands and the dry, flat, infinitely welcome voice attached to them.
"Certainly I am here, my lord. Where else would I be?" As she spoke, she tucked a pillow behind his back and plumped it expertly, then she clasped his shoulder and pushed it firmly back against this new support.
Boromir caught her hand before she could withdraw and felt it stiffen in his clasp. "You are the last person I hoped to find in Rohan."
She tried to pull away, but Boromir mustered enough strength to keep hold of her hand, and after a moment of struggle she subsided. Her voice went even flatter, a sure sign that she was embarrassed. "Prince Imrahil gave me leave to come. My place is with my liege lord."
"Aye, so it is." He could hear the emotion in his own voice and knew that he was unsettling his very proper squire, but he could not help himself. He was deeply, powerfully, painfully glad to find her here, and that gladness was strengthened by the knowledge that only devotion to him could have dragged her so far from her home. For a terrible moment, he fought the overwhelming desire to pull her into his arms and hold her tightly against him, as a shield against the darkness and his haunted dreams, but he mastered it and let go her hand with a smile. "Thank you, Gil."
For the space of a breath she did not answer him, then she said, in an uncertain tone that held none of her accustomed dryness, "Like Merry, I could not stay away."
He lifted his hand again, as if to reach for her, but the sound of booted feet against the stone flags outside halted him. Dropping his arm, he turned toward the door even as it burst open and Aragorn strode into the room.
Boromir knew his step, knew the sound of his velvet robe brushing against his leather scabbard with each stride, and knew that he had put off his Ranger's garb to assume the trappings of a King again. He also knew, from the tempo of his movements, that he was angry or upset and not come for idle conversation. Arwen started toward him, a question on her lips, but Aragorn cut her off abruptly.
"I would speak to Boromir alone."
The others responded to the command in his voice, Gil retreating hastily and Merry reluctantly, while Arwen paused to murmur in her lord's ear as she went. Aragorn shut the door on their heels, but he did not turn or cross the room to the bed where Boromir lay. Boromir heard the breath rasping in his lungs and the soft scuff of his boots against the floor when he shifted his weight, and he felt the burden that his King carried, even from this distance.
For a long moment, neither man spoke. Then Aragorn mustered his courage and turned to face his friend. "I am glad to find you awake and more yourself."
Boromir answered him with a low chuckle that had little amusement in it.
"If those two halflings keep you from your rest or tease you into a fever, I will skin them alive."
"They are better medicine than any you can brew, Aragorn." Boromir pondered his dour mood for a moment, then came to the obvious conclusion as to its cause. "You have word from Imrahil."
"Aye." Aragorn moved slowly over to the bed and sank onto the mattress. Boromir did not need to see him to know that his shoulders drooped and his face was etched with sadness. "He bids me return to Minas Tirith with all possible haste."
"When do you go?"
Instead of answering his question directly, Aragorn sighed and said, "I am too weary, too sick at heart to play out this scene again. I vowed that this time I would not put my duty to Gondor ahead of my duty to you, but…"
"That is a fool's promise, and you are no fool, Aragorn." Reaching a hand toward his friend's low, pain-edged voice, Boromir found his arm and clasped it warmly. "You cannot stay for me."
"And yet, I cannot go."
"But what of you?"
"I do not need you hovering about me to heal. Éomer's cooks can brew that miserable pap you call food without your help, the halflings can cheer me with their tales, and Gil can turn my pillows."
Aragorn uttered a choked laugh, but his hand closed fiercely over Boromir's, betraying his agony and dread with his touch. "You must not follow me, Boromir! Not this time! As your King, I command you to stay here in Rohan, heal, and wait for me."
"I cannot climb out of this bed, much less into a saddle," Boromir protested.
Aragorn said nothing, his silence heavy with doubt and his glare hot on Boromir's face.
"I will obey you," Boromir assured him. "I will stay in Rohan, you have my word. But I ask a promise of you in return, Aragorn."
"What is it?"
"That when the battles are won and I am well enough to sit a horse, you will call me home to Minas Tirith to stand at your side once more."
"You have your King's oath on it."
They both fell quiet, Aragorn still clasping Boromir's hand but turning his eyes away so that Boromir could not feel their touch on him, and Boromir resting against his stacked pillows, too weary and content to summon the strength for speech.
"We leave at daybreak," Aragorn murmured at last. "Faramir goes with me, for I need all my Captains about me, but I will leave Arwen as healer in my stead and the halflings for company."
"What of Gil?"
He laughed. "A barrel of Saruman's black powder could not blast her from your side, now that she has found you once more."
An unaccustomed warmth gathered in Boromir's breast at his words, and he smiled to himself. Strange as it seemed, he found Aragorn's going much easier to bear, knowing that Gil would be by him. And Merry. He might chafe at his long convalescence and burn for news of the war's progress, but he would not feel lonely, not with such companions to fill his days.
"Be kind to your squire," Aragorn added softly, "and do not tease her more than you can help. She suffered much to be here, not the least in affronts to her pride. Éomer tells me that she arrived in Edoras tied to her horse and had to be carried up the stair to his door. She ended her journey by falling on her face before the whole company and the King himself."
"Poor Gil," Boromir murmured. "How that must have galled her."
"Aye." He rose to his feet but stayed by the bed, still holding tightly to Boromir's hand. Once again, he fell silent, struggling with emotions too great for words, unable to break the bond between them and walk away.
"Farewell, my King," Boromir said at last, his voice cracking with weariness.
"Farewell, my brother." He stooped to drop a kiss on Boromir's brow, then he let go his hand and took a step back from the bed. "I leave the star of my kindred in your keeping as a reminder of my love and my promise. I will bring you home, Boromir. Soon."
Boromir rested his palm flat over the gem that hung beneath his nightshirt, against his heart, and smiled. "I will be waiting."
Not trusting his voice to utter a reply, Aragorn turned and left the room, closing the door gently behind him. No sooner had his footsteps faded along the stone-flagged corridor, then the door opened again and another, lighter step came through it. Boromir heard the faint clink of dishes rattling, as the newcomer crossed to the hearth and set down a heavily laden tray.
Boromir waited until the footsteps approached his bed, then he mustered a tired smile and said, "Hello, Gil."
"I have brought your supper, my lord."
"What sort of supper?"
"Bread and cheese. Apples. Hot tea."
"None of that foul drink made of milk and eggs?" Boromir asked, hopefully.
"Well, that is some measure of relief. But I want sleep more than food."
Gil moved from her place at the foot of the bed to stand by his shoulder. She studied his face for a moment in frowning silence, then said, "The Lady Arwen prepared the tray with her own hands, and Lord Elfstone left orders that you were to eat every last crumb."
"Eat it yourself, or call Merry in to help you. I cannot. I will fall asleep in my plate."
"As you will, my lord," she sighed, plucking at the pillows that supported him, "but the halfling shall have none of it. I will take it back to the kitchen and fetch it again when you awake."
Boromir pushed away from the stacked pillows and braced himself upright, while Gil whisked them away. He did not have the breath to answer her, so weak and light-headed was he, until she put a hand behind his neck and helped him to lie back on the bed. As he settled into the one remaining pillow, he gave a groan of relief and whispered, "Better give it to Merry."
Gil uttered her habitual grunt of disapproval. She began to twitch his blankets into place, but he caught her hand, making her stiffen in alarm and step hastily back from the bed. He tightened his hold on her and said, "Cease your fussing and sit down, Gil."
"You must rest, lord," she protested.
"I will rest the better with you here."
"What of the tray?"
"Leave it." When she still hesitated, her fingers shrinking in his clasp and her body edging as far from the bed as she could manage without forcibly breaking his grip on her, he snapped, "Sit!"
Her hand went limp in his and her voice flattened. "As you will, my lord." With a clunk, she dragged a chair forward, then she dropped defiantly into it.
"Stop saying that," he murmured, as he tucked her cold, unmoving hand more comfortably into his own and pulled it in close to his side. "You only do it to annoy me."
Boromir merely smiled at this and sank gratefully into a dreamless, healing sleep.