Author's Note: This chapter is a birthday gift for Annys, and a get well gift for Bookwyrm (the bugs are just for you, Kathie!). Thank you for sticking with me when I'm slow to write, and for encouraging me when I get stuck. I hope you all enjoy the chapter!
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Chapter 14: Into the Open
The howl of orcish laughter sounded in his ears, and the stink of cooking flesh choked him. A child sobbed hysterically in the darkness. He snarled a protest and tried to throw off the horned hands that gripped him, but his captors were too strong for him. They dragged him remorselessly closer to the fire and the foul pot that bubbled over it. A knife scraped from its scabbard, and cold iron touched his throat.
"Time to spill your guts on the floor," a hideously familiar voice hissed in his ear. "Die well now, little soldier!"
He uttered a furious cry and tore his arm from the Orc's clasp. As he staggered back from the pot, his wounded leg crumpled beneath him. Blood ran hot over his skin. Pain seared through him, dragging a scream from his tortured throat.
Boromir awoke with a gasp of pain and shock, his leg throbbing and his body damp with sweat. For a dreadful moment, he did not know where he was, and the laughter of the Orcs still rang in his ears, squeezing his heart with fear. Then recognition seeped through the horror of his dream, and he knew that he was safe in Edoras.
Collapsing back into his pillow, he uttered a soft groan and pressed one hand to his breast, where the Star of the Dúnedain hung on its leather thong. Beneath the gem, his heart pounded frantically and the breath sobbed in his lungs. He lay very still, listening to the sleeping quiet of the house, waiting for the fear to pass, but the pain of his wound only grew and his pulse quickened yet more. He had fallen asleep with the leg as comfortable as Arwen's ministrations could make it, the wound cleaned and dressed with honey, left uncovered as Aragorn had instructed, the blankets held away from it by a framework of wooden sticks that formed a kind of tent. Now, as he moved restlessly in the grip of his pain, he felt the sheet rub against his torn flesh and a sharp, stabbing pain in the wound itself.
Pushing himself up onto his elbows, he freed one hand and flung aside the heavy blankets that covered him. Cold air flowed over his body, making him shiver as he reached for the source of his pain. His fingers brushed wood, knocking aside a piece of the collapsed framework that lay upon his open wound, and he gave a startled cry as a fresh agony shot through him.
He lurched upright and clamped one hand hard to the muscle of his thigh, leaning all of his weight upon it. With his head bowed, breathing fast through clenched teeth, he struggled to swallow the panic and roiling sickness within him. The pain of it was terrible, but he had grown almost accustomed to it in these weeks of ceaseless torture. It had been his constant companion through the long trial of his captivity, and now it was a reminder to him that he had indeed survived, that he could still hurt and bleed and weep with all the race of Men, even if he shed no tears.
At this moment, he wanted desperately to weep, or to shout until he woke the house and brought Merry or Gil running to him, but pride and stubbornness held him silent. He did not know why all his friends had left him tonight, but he scorned to call for them like a frightened child, no matter how he shivered with cold or burned with pain. He was a soldier of Gondor, the son of Denethor, veteran of many wars, brother-in-arms to King Elessar, slayer of Orcs and leader of Men…
The litany calmed him, and he slowly straightened his back, easing his death grip on his burning, throbbing leg. Resting both hands lightly on the grotesque swelling of his thigh, he let the cold of his touch soothe the pain. The window stood open, and a bitter wind off the plains blew steadily through it, chilling him to the bone, but his leg still felt hot beneath his hands. He eased them cautiously downward, closer to the wound itself, hoping to cool it still more, until he felt his fingers slide in melted honey.
A queasy mixture of disgust and curiosity rose in him, as he hesitated with his hands poised just above the wound and wondered what he would find if he dared touch it. In all the weeks since his injury, this was the first time he had found himself alone and unguarded, with the wound uncovered and his hands unbound. He was free to examine the wound, to measure its full extent for himself, without Aragorn there to chide him for his lack of faith. All he need do was touch it, if he could summon the courage to face this fresh horror. Boromir of Gondor had never lacked courage, he reminded himself stoutly, and setting his teeth against the bile that rose in his throat, he forced his hands to move.
His fingers skimmed lightly over skin and muscle, tracing the contours of the wound. He paid no heed to the sticky, sweet-smelling honey that quickly covered his hands, nor to the pain that burned hot at his touch. All his mind was focused on seeing the ruin of his leg through his fingertips.
It felt to him as if a great dollop of flesh had been scooped out of his leg, leaving a hole larger than his fist. He could not tell how deep it went, as even he, valiant soldier of Gondor, did not dare to reach inside the gaping cavern, but his mind conjured the ghastly white glimmer of naked bone in its depths. Beneath the skin, the hole widened even further, the rotten flesh and tissue cut away to leave a collar of skin, taut and sunken, with no meat to support it. The lips of the wound were raw and painful where they had been both torn and cut repeatedly, and they had not yet begun to thicken with scar tissue.
In his many battles, Boromir had seen every kind of destruction that steel or iron could wreak upon vulnerable flesh. He had watched men die in screaming agony, held their hands while battlefield surgeons hacked off their limbs, and bound up their wounds when no surgeon was at hand. He had pulled orc-blades from their guts and assured them that they would live to fight another day as they bled into the dirt. And he had wept over the mangled bodies of those comrades who had not lingered to hear his comforting lies. Now, as he finally grasped the enormity of his own injury, he marveled that he yet lived to feel the pain of it. By rights, he should have died in the Orc den when the fever took him. Only the questionable mercy of Uglúk and healing hands of the King had spared him. But could Aragorn's skill keep him whole, as well?
His hand went instinctively to the gem that hung round his neck. He clutched it in trembling, honey-smeared fingers and muttered, "Ah, Aragorn! Tell me again that this is a wound you can heal. Tell me that I will stand at your side once more."
No answer came to him, but he felt himself comforted nonetheless. Dragging the snarled blankets up to cover himself as best he could, he sank back on his pillow and held tightly to the Star that had guided him through so many dark places. A reminder, Aragorn had called it, of his love and his promise. Boromir did not doubt his love and needed no outward symbol of it, but he found it hard to believe in the promise just now. The stone steadied him, and the certainty that Aragorn would come for him, whether or not Boromir could stand on his own feet to welcome him, took the edge off of his fear.
He could not banish the fear all together, nor make himself comfortable enough to sleep, but he could wait out the long watches of the night with Aragorn's promise warm and solid in his hand.
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The sound of the door opening broke the long quiet and dragged a sigh of relief from Boromir. He knew it was Gil before he heard her familiar step on the flagstones; Gil woke him each morning, with her pottering and fussing and straightening of blankets, then she stoked up the fire and brought him the breakfast he did not want but was obliged to choke down to please her. Cold and weary as he was after his sleepless night, with his leg burning and his head aching, he wanted nothing more than to hear his squire's flat voice scolding him and to feel her deft hands settling him comfortably once more. He would even eat without a battle, so grateful was he that she had come at last.
"Is that you, Gil?" he called softly, trying to mask the rough edge of exhaustion in his voice.
"Aye, my lord."
"I am glad you are come."
Gil moved toward the bed, but halted abruptly. In the startled silence, Boromir fancied that she had guessed all that had passed in the night, simply by looking at the mess he had made of the bed. Giving a low grunt of disgust or distress – he could not tell which – she dropped the load of linens she carried on the foot of the bed and strode over to the window.
Gil swung the shutters closed with a resounding thud, drowning out his words, then she grabbed an iron poker from its hook beside the hearth and jabbed it into the glowing embers of the fire.
"Gil! Stop that at once. Open the window."
"I beg your pardon, my lord, but I cannot." She threw a heavy log into the fire, sending sparks flying and snapping.
Boromir grimaced at the smoke that billowed into the room and demanded, "Are you trying to choke me, girl?"
"The cold will make you ill again, lord, if it has not already. You have a feverish look. I must fetch Lady Arwen."
"One does not fetch the Queen, as if she were a serving girl!"
Gil did not seem to hear him. She hesitated at the door, calling back to him in a commanding tone, "Do not move, my lord."
"Confound it, Gil…" But she whisked out of the room without paying any heed to him, leaving him to fume helplessly and tug at his stubborn, honey-smeared bedding.
A moment later, he heard her pounding on another door nearby. Voices spoke in the hallway, too low for him to catch their words, but he recognized Merry's voice. Then the halfling came pattering into his room and up to the bed.
"Hullo, Boromir. Gil said you had a bad night." Merry sounded worried, and Boromir silently cursed Gil for upsetting him. "Can I do anything for you?"
"Be a good fellow and open the window."
"I will not. This room is freezing! And the wind is blowing straight off the mountains, bringing winter with it."
"I cannot breathe with all this smoke."
"Well, you must, for a while, anyway," Merry said matter-of-factly. "You're positively blue with cold! What have you been doing?"
Boromir tried to smile, but his face did not want to cooperate. Merry began tugging at his blankets, trying to disentangle them from his limbs, and jarred his injured leg. Boromir ground his teeth in pain, muttering, "I am beset with meddlesome nurses. Will you leave it be?"
"I'm sorry." Merry immediately quit pulling and said, remorsefully, "I only wanted to get you warm."
"Nay, Merry, I am sorry for my ill temper. I slept but little, and my leg hurts."
"You look dreadful. I should never have left you, but Arwen was certain that you would sleep through the night undisturbed. She and Éomer King seemed very anxious for me to sleep in my own room, though why I don't know."
This time, Boromir managed a proper smile. "Perhaps they fear you are endangering your own health in worrying over mine."
"Humph," Merry snorted. "I can sleep as well in here as in my own room; these chairs are nearly as big as a proper hobbit bed. And you would not have spent the night cold and in pain, if I had been by you."
Boromir privately agreed with the halfling, sure that Merry's presence would have kept his nightmares at bay, but he did not say as much aloud. Lifting one hand to find the smaller one that still clutched a fold of the coverlet, he said, "You cannot be with me every moment, Little One, and I would not ask it of you."
"Well, one of us can. That is why we came, after all, Pippin and I. To help." The hobbit's hand turned in his, returning the fond pressure of his fingers. Then Merry pulled sharply away from him and demanded, "What is that on your hand?"
"Ah, Boromir, what have you done?!"
"Naught but what I must, Merry." He tightened his hand on the halfling's, moved by the raw distress in his voice, and murmured, "I had to see it for myself."
Merry did not answer him at once, and when he did speak, his voice was thick with unshed tears. "I know. I only wish you had waited to let it heal a bit more."
If it heals at all, Boromir thought, and something in his face must have betrayed his doubts to his friend, for Merry insisted, "Aragorn says that you will walk again, and I believe him. He has never lied to me."
"Nor to me."
"Then he will heal your wound and have you on your feet again, as he has promised! But you must follow his instructions and take care not to undo all his hard work."
"Wise words, and kindly meant," a light, musical voice called from the doorway, and Arwen swept into the room, bringing the scent of fresh woodlands and spring rains with her. She also brought the smell of medicines and boiled bandages, not so pleasant to Boromir's mind, but not unexpected either. In recent days, he had come to view Aragorn's gracious Queen with a distrust bordering on dismay, as her arrival heralded painful treatments, unpalatable meals and unwelcome orders.
"It would be well if you heeded them," she added, as she approached the bed and set down the tray she carried on the table beside it. "Good morning, my lord Steward."
"My lady," Boromir said, with wary courtesy. He could hear more footsteps bustling about at the hearth and guessed the Gil had come with the Queen, but he did not vouchsafe her a greeting. All his attention was fixed upon Arwen and the atrocities she planned to visit upon him in the name of healing. "I should skin Gil for summoning you at such an hour to no purpose."
"Do not blame Gil." She stooped over his leg, gazing intently at the great hole in it, and said, a smile glimmering in her voice, "She did not put her fingers in your wound or smear you with honey."
"I passed a restless night," he growled through clenched teeth, as she probed his wound, testing the soundness of the flesh around it, "and snarled the blankets about my leg. When I awoke… ah!"
Arwen left off prodding him at his cry and said, "The flesh is torn here. It is bleeding still."
"It was those confounded sticks you used to hold up the blankets. I moved in my sleep and crushed them into my leg."
Her cool handed rested on his thigh, where the swelling and heat were fiercest, and for the moment her touch was soothing. "I am sorry, Boromir. I meant to give you ease, not to cause you greater pain."
"It was the dream," he muttered, embarrassed by her saddened tone. "It addled my wits, or I would not have touched the wound at all."
"Well, you have done yourself no lasting injury, and a simple cleaning will keep the wound from infection. For today, I will bandage it, so you may rest and move about, unhampered."
Boromir wanted to ask of her what she had meant by move about, but Arwen did not leave him time or breath for conversation. With all the cool authority of an Elf Princess, a Queen among Men and a healer combined, she swept her helpers into motion and set about tormenting Boromir for his own good. He had grown used to the twice-daily cleansing of his wound and had surrendered to the necessity of it, but acceptance did not lessen the pain or the humiliation of being reduced to no more than a useless lump of meat, scoured and dosed and dressed and bandaged, bundled about by firm, efficient hands, while his body trembled and his mind reeled into gibbering darkness.
He came back to himself to find a stack of clean pillows supporting his back and warm blankets tucked close about him. A bandage covered his wound, and the agony in his leg was fading to a dull, insistent ache. Merry sat on the bed to his right, wiping the last of honey from his fingers with a warm, wet cloth. Boromir breathed a sigh of relief and pressed his free hand to his brow in an effort to force back the pain that pounded in his skull. His fingers still shook slightly, but he took another calming breath and willed them to steadiness.
"Rest now, Boromir," the Queen said, her voice low and soothing. "Gil has gone to fetch your breakfast, and when you have eaten, you may sleep the morning through undisturbed."
She sank down on the edge of the mattress and clasped his wrist to draw his hand away from his face. Boromir did not resist her, but let her take his hand in both of her own and rest it on her knee. He turned to find her with his bandaged gaze, puzzled and moved by the gentleness of her touch. He had known Arwen for many years now, but he had never known her in this mood.
"Get you to your own breakfast, Master Perian," she said lightly, "and shut the door, I pray you. I will keep the Steward company until Gil returns."
Merry obediently hopped down from the bed and left the room, calling a farewell to Boromir as he went. The door closed firmly behind him, and Boromir was alone with Lady Arwen. He fixed her with the steady regard that seemed to unnerve most who faced it, and waited for her to break the silence.
"You have seen the wound," she said at last.
"Aye," he answered, his own voice sounding harsh following so soon on the Queen's musical tones.
"It is terrible, but it is not beyond Aragorn's skill to heal." He said nothing, and Arwen's voice grew sad as she continued, "Take the halfling's words to heart, and do not despair. Your King and brother would not deceive you."
"Unless he first deceives himself. Tell me true, my lady, could you heal such a wound and make the leg sound again?"
Her voice grew sadder still. "I could not. But I have not my father's gift for healing, nor Aragorn's. I am but his nurse and helpmate."
"And I am but a soldier, who has watched Men die – strong, valiant Men – of lesser wounds than this. I have no strength left in me, lady, and my valor is spent. How is it that I yet live?"
"You live, because you are too stubborn to die, and because valor such as yours is never spent."
Boromir smiled wearily. "You speak as Aragorn teaches you."
"I speak from my own heart, of what I see with my own eyes. I have only begun to learn the ways of Men, 'tis true, but this I know beyond doubt. That in all the race of Men, there is none so valiant as Boromir. Greater men there are, and wiser, those more just and fair, those keener of eye," she chuckled softly, the sound brimming with affection, "and stouter of limb. But in stubbornness and valor, there is none to match him."
"Lady…" he began, uncomfortably, but she overrode him.
"You survived your captivity, and you slew the Orcs," she said firmly, "and were all your life besides an empty vessel, with no deed of renown to fill it, this alone would earn you my undying gratitude and respect. Boromir, do you know aught of my mother's history?"
His discomfort increased tenfold, and only through a supreme effort of will did he prevent himself from squirming away from the Queen and her searching questions. "Aragorn has told me a little," he replied.
"My mother, Celebrían,
the daughter of Galadriel and Celeborn,
was waylaid by orcs when she traveled through the
"We Men cannot flee our torments in such a way. We must endure them, or die."
"Or take up your sword and strike them down. Destroy them." The smile returned to her voice for a fleeting moment, like the sun peeping from behind a cloud. "Burn them as they sleep."
"The Orcs burn; the memories of them do not. I do not think the less of your mother for escaping them where she could."
"Nor do I. Please understand me, Boromir. I do not speak of these things to burden you with the sorrows of my younger days, but to show you how deep is my gladness at the victory you have won. Elf though I am, no Man and no soldier, still I see clearly enough into your soldier's heart to know that only by slaying the Orcs and bringing the child Borlas alive from the darkness has the valiant Steward of Gondor earned the right to live in hope again. It is a victory that was denied my own mother, and all her kindred suffered with her for it. I rejoice that you and all who love you will be spared that same kind of suffering. And I do not doubt that you will once again walk in the clear sunlight, unshadowed by that evil which you have conquered."
Masking his discomfiture with sour humor, he said dryly, "Do you not mean crawl in the sunlight? Or perhaps hobble?"
Arwen laughed outright at that, the sound filling the room with silver light. "Oh, faithless Boromir! Well, then, let us begin with the smallest of steps. Let us say that you will sit in the sunlight, and this very afternoon."
Boromir gaped at her for a moment, then demanded, "Do you mean to drag the sun into my chamber?"
"Nay, I mean to drag you out of it, if the weather holds and the sun still shines at ."
A thunderous frown darkened his face, and he spoke through gritted teeth. "You will not! I'll not be carted about like a helpless cripple!"
"Certainly, my lord Steward, you may walk out of the Hall upon your own two feet, if that is your desire."
"You know that I cannot!"
"Well, mayhap not this day," Arwen agreed calmly, "drained as you are from the journey and a poor night's sleep, but ere the week is out I will have you up and walking."
Something about her tone of serene assurance robbed Boromir of words. He could feel his mouth opening and closing in a foolish manner, and recalling himself to a semblance of dignity, he shut it with a snap. What was Arwen about to taunt him in this way? Had she some purpose for angering and humiliating him? Or did she yet know so little of Men that she thought him amused by her banter?
"I am in earnest, Boromir," she said quietly, her voice now low and firm, with no hint of laughter in it. "I do not speak so to torment you with what cannot be. I speak only of what you must do, if you would find both strength and health again. Your weeks in the darkness beneath the mountains have sapped you of both, leaving your body weakened and your bones brittle. The warmth and power of the sun will speed your healing. And only by forcing them to bear your weight can you strengthen your bones. You must walk now, if you would walk at all."
Boromir heard her in rigid silence, his face a frowning mask, while his mind reeled under this fresh assault. He did not doubt her word. She was Aragorn's lady, Elrond's daughter, and a healer of some skill in her own right. What he doubted was his courage to face the challenge she laid before him.
"Do not dwell upon tomorrow's trials," she urged. "For today, you need only rest and enjoy the touch of the sun, so long denied you. And put your trust in Aragorn."
"This is his command?"
"Then I have no choice but to obey."
The door opened upon his choked, reluctant words, and Gil came through it with a laden tray.
"Yet more of my King's commands?" he said, waving a hand in Gil's direction and trying valiantly not to sound as bitter as he felt. "Enough food for an éored, and I must eat every last crumb, though I burst in the process."
"Aye." Arwen let go his hand and stooped over the bed to give his pillows a final plump. "Every last crumb, and do not think of giving it to the halflings. I will hear of it from Gil, if you do."
He made a disgruntled noise in his throat and muttered, "Setting my own squire to spy upon me. I thought the Eldar were above such stratagems."
Arwen merely laughed and drifted toward the door on her light, nearly soundless feet. "All Meduseld is full of my spies, my lord Steward. Do not hope to deceive me. I will leave you to Gil's care, now. Rest well."
She swept out of the chamber, taking the smell of Rivendell with her, and Boromir sank back into his heaped pillows with a small sigh. He was deadly tired, his body full of pain and his mind crowded with shadows. While his reason told him that Arwen was right and he should rest in the quiet warmth of his room, the smell of smoke and flame troubled him even when awake. He feared to brave sleep again and the haunting of his dreams.
Gil approached the bed with her tray and set it on the chest to his left. It smelled innocent enough, and he even thought he detected a whiff of hot porridge mingled with the scent of tea brewing. He smiled faintly at Gil and murmured, "Have you brought me porridge today?"
She placed a wooden bowl in his hands, waiting until he had closed his fingers firmly about it before she let go. "'Tis more fit for a drudge's meal than a Steward's. But as you will eat nothing else without a battle…"
"Bless you, Gil. Now, if you will open the window shutters…"
Uttering a sour, disapproving grunt, she ignored his request and plunked down in the chair beside the bed, preparing to do Arwen's bidding and watch him eat every bite of his breakfast.
Boromir lifted the bowl to his lips and took a judicious sip of the thick, warm, fragrant mixture. "You need not stare at me so. I am behaving." He took another, larger mouthful, swallowed it, and said, "Will you not reward me for my obedience? Talk to me. Help me to stay awake."
"Talk of what, lord?"
"Tell me a tale, one of those Elvish stories Ioreth taught you. Or sing a song."
"I do not sing, lord, as you well know, and I do not tell Elvish tales. But I will not let you fall asleep until you have finished your meal."
"It is not my meal that worries me. It is after I am done with eating and my body betrays me out of weariness." A frown darkened his face for a moment, as the memory of his dreams in the night came to him. "I would not sleep."
"You must, my lord, or you will not heal."
"Enough!" he snapped, only just controlling the urge to throw his bowl at her head as frustrated rage boiled up in him. "Am I naught but a mass of injuries and illnesses, to be coddled and jollied and poked and dosed, until I run mad? Must every breath I take be measured by how it will hinder or speed my healing? I thought you my squire, not my wet nurse!"
Even as the words left his mouth, Boromir knew that he was acting out of a blind anger that had naught to do with Gil, and that he was basely attacking one who could not defend herself against him. Shame swept over him, cooling his anger on the instant and cutting off his tirade. He turned a frowning look in Gil's direction, sensing in her utter stillness and silence the depth of her hurt.
For a moment, he struggled to master himself, then he spoke in a voice roughened by remorse. "I did not mean it, Gil. You know I did not."
Still she said nothing, and Boromir's chagrin deepened. In all the years Gil had spent at his side, he could not remember a time when he had lashed out at her in such a way or when she had taken his flares of temper so much to heart. Was he indeed going mad from all his weeks of imprisonment, first by his chains and then by his injuries? Or had Gil forgotten what he was during his absence, lost her armour, become vulnerable in ways he had not yet learned to see? Whatever the truth of it, he had hurt the most loyal and devoted of his friends.
He set the bowl on his lap and held out his hand to her. "Forgive me, Gil. I should not have spoken so."
"You may speak as you please, my lord Steward," she said, in her flattest and emptiest voice.
"Nay, do not give me leave to abuse you." Still he held out his hand to her, waiting for her to take it and accept his apology. "Please, Gil. I am sorry."
A cold, stiff hand rested lightly on his upturned palm, and he clasped it, painfully aware of how thin and weak his own fingers were in contrast to Gil's.
"You should know better than to pay heed to my tempers," he said, quietly.
Gil drew in an audible breath, her fingers twitching slightly in his grasp, then asked in the same uncertain voice he had heard when he first awoke to find her beside him, "Why will you not sleep, my lord?"
"Stone walls and the stink of smoke bring me evil dreams." He tried to smile, but it slipped badly awry. "Voices hold the dreams at bay, and the music of the stars. The stars do not sing within these walls, so I must rely on my friends."
He felt her begin to rise from her seat. "I will fetch Master Merry to you."
"Nay." He tightened his hold on her hand, drawing her back into her chair. "Your voice is as welcome to me as Merry's. Sit with me, I pray you, and lighten the hours with your company."
"As you will, my lord."
He let go her hand and lifted his bowl again. "Very good. You sound like my squire again. Now tell me of your journey from Gondor, while I eat this most excellent porridge."
A small, resigned sigh answered him, and Gil began to talk in her dry, infinitely familiar way of her long, painful, humiliating ride. Hiding a smile behind his raised bowl, Boromir settled in to enjoy her tale.
*** *** ***
The touch of the sun was warm and welcome on his face, just as Arwen had promised, and Boromir felt himself relax as he had not in countless days. He sat on the hilltop terrace, close by the parapet on the western side of the Hall, his chair turned to catch the full warmth of the sun as it slid down the sky to the west. Rain had pounded the fields of Rohan for many days, and the dampness of the wind told Boromir that more rain was coming, but for today, the clouds had blown away and the pale autumn sun shone brightly.
The strain of getting from his bed to this chair had frayed Boromir's temper to the breaking point and drained his body of all its meager strength, but now that he was here, he was glad that Arwen had not yielded to his threats and left him in his stifling chamber. Borlas sat beside him, and while the child did not cough so much or so hard as before, Boromir could still hear the breath rattle in his chest. Neither boy nor man had much strength or inclination for talk, and they sat in companionable silence, wrapped in thick furs against the cold, savoring the taste of the clean wind and the open sky.
Bare feet pattered on the flagstones, heralding the arrival of the halflings. Pippin came first in a burst of energy and chatter.
"Hullo, Boromir," he said, "So they have let you out at last, I see."
"Carried me out, against my will," Boromir corrected him, smiling to take the complaint from his words. "Then left me to the mercy of impertinent halflings."
Pippin laughed. "You will be glad enough of our coming, when you see what Merry has brought you."
Merry, coming up more slowly behind Pippin, now stepped up to the parapet and set something down with the grate of metal on stone.
"What have you there, Merry?" Boromir asked.
"A gift from the lady Arwen, to drive out the cold." A moment later, Boromir felt a light touch on his arm, and he obediently drew it from beneath the furs to accept what Merry brought him. "The cup is hot. Do not drop it."
Boromir only curled his hand more firmly about the silver goblet and smiled at the marvelous scent that wafted to his nose. Mulled wine. "Oh, most noble hobbits," he said, lifting the cup in a salute before he drank, "I am glad indeed of your coming."
"There is a cup here for you, too, Borlas," Merry said. "Drink it while it's nice and hot. It will ease the tightness in your chest."
"My thanks," the boy whispered roughly.
"I saw your brother off with the King's company," Pippin remarked to Borlas. "He looked very fine in his soldier's gear, though I thought it strange that he rode with Faramir's Rangers and not with the Tower guard, when he was dressed in black and silver."
"Prince Faramir has taken him into the White Company." Borlas paused to catch his breath, then added, "He is very happy."
"Yes, he always loved Prince Faramir and must be glad to serve under his standard at last. Bergil and I are old friends, you know. We met during the dark times of the Great War."
Boromir turned his attention from this exchange, certain that Borlas would be well entertained and Pippin kept out of trouble for a little while, to find Merry. The halfling was standing at the parapet close by Boromir's chair, and Boromir guessed that he was leaning out over the stonework to peer down at the city and the fields below. He sipped his hot wine in silence for a moment, giving Merry time with his own thoughts, then he heard the hobbit sigh.
"What troubles you, Little One?" he asked.
"I was remembering the last time we stood at this parapet together." Merry turned from the view below to face him and spoke in a sad, subdued tone, "It seems a very long time ago, and yet so much the same. Are you wishing you could follow Aragorn to war, as you did the last time?"
"Wishing?" Boromir smiled faintly. "In a small, secret corner of my mind, perhaps. But it is no more than a wish, and I would not break my word to Aragorn, even were I able to sit a horse or wield a sword."
"I'm glad you do not mean to go," Merry murmured, "for I would have to go with you, and I have had my fill of war."
"That is reason enough for me to stay quietly in Rohan," Boromir said gently.
Merry said nothing, and Boromir regarded him thoughtfully with his bandaged gaze, fancying he could see the halfling's cheerful face puckered in a frown.
"It worries you, my tame acceptance of Aragorn's commands. You would have me storm and rage and chafe at my confinement, burning to ride forth to glory and prove myself upon the field of battle."
"I would be less afraid for you, if you did."
Boromir dropped his blind eyes to the cup in his hands, rolling it between his palms absently as he sought for the words to ease his friend's fears. Before he could find those words, Merry spoke again, his voice soft and edged with pain.
"You never speak of it."
"Speak of what? My captivity? Of the whips and chains, the cold and the stench, the screams of dying men? The less said of them the better, I deem."
"How did you survive it?" Merry asked in a haunted whisper.
Boromir uttered a grim laugh and retorted, "Our good Queen would have it that I am too stubborn to die." The halfling gave a doleful sniff, and Boromir dropped his caustic tone, reaching out to find his friend and crying, "My dear Merry! Do not weep for things past and done."
"I can't help it. When I think of you in that dreadful place, it all comes back to me – the coldness and horror of my dreams, only worse than before, because now the dread has a shape and a name. I do not sleep at night, for fear I'll dream again and see Uglúk and Dúrbhak and their great stewpot."
The memory of his own dream rose like a cold shadow in Boromir's mind, and he stirred uncomfortably in his chair, trying to dispel it with a jolt of pain from his leg.
Merry caught his movement and must have read his thoughts in his face, for he asked softly, "Is that what you dreamed of last night?"
"The nightmares will pass, as they did before. It needs only time," Boromir assured him, though his lurking doubt sounded plain in his own ears.
"Until they do, we'll sit together through the night hours, as we used to, and hold off each other's dreams."
"Aye." He smiled his gratitude at the halfling. "And when I am strong enough to walk the distance from my bed to this terrace, with only your shoulder for support, we will slip out at night to sit beneath the stars and listen to their song."
"Then we can both sleep properly. Speaking of which," Merry went on, shaking off his somber mood and returning to his usual light-hearted manner, "Borlas does not seem to be troubled with dreams. He is fast asleep in his chair and snoring like an old gaffer."
Boromir cocked his head to one side, listening, then he remarked, "Master Peregrin is unusually quiet, too."
"Oh, Pippin has gone off to exchange news with the doorwardens. He's become very friendly with all the household guard since we arrived." Merry broke off for a moment, his attention held by something behind Boromir, then he exclaimed, "I say, here comes Gil in a hurry!"
Boromir could now hear her familiar step approaching. "My lord!" she called, as she ran across the wide terrace, "Letters from Gondor, my lord!"
"Did you see the messenger?" Pippin cried, breathless with excitement, as he arrived on Gil's heels. "He must bring word from Aragorn and Faramir!"
"Nay," Boromir said, frowning in thought, "Aragorn could not have arrived in Minas Tirith so soon."
"From Prince Imrahil, lord." Cool, dry parchment touched the back of Boromir's hand, as Gil offered him a scroll. "It bears his seal, not the King's."
Boromir automatically took the letter and ran his fingers over the seal to assure himself that it was unbroken. He deftly broke the seal, then held it out to her again and asked, "There is but the one letter?"
"The one for you, lord, and… and one for me."
She sounded awed and more than a little nervous to be receiving letters from so exalted a person as the Prince of Dol Amroth, and it occurred to Boromir that this might very well be the first letter Gil had ever received from anyone. "Then go and read it," he said. "Merry can do your office this once, and read my letter."
Awe turned to outrage, and she nearly snatched the scroll from his hand. "Nay, lord, he will not!"
Striving to subdue his grin, Boromir sat back and waited for his squire to master the contents of his letter. She took her time, as always, and her voice dropped into the flat, emotionless tone that betrayed the effort it cost her to read aloud.
Gil paused, and Boromir felt her gaze upon him. He drew in a long breath, willing himself to calm, but his heart beat wildly with triumph and his limbs sang with the urge to hurl him out of his chair, to draw his sword, to carry him in a single stride to the gates of Minas Tirith that he might strike the blow that severed Taleris' life and paid him fittingly for all his treacheries. Only his weakness, and the awareness of his friends standing all round him, watching him with anxious concern, kept him from springing to his feet even now in spite of his wounds.
After a moment of expectant silence, Gil read on.
Boromir heard the scrape of heavy parchment, as Gil let the scroll curl in upon itself, and he held out his hand for the letter. She laid it across his palm. He closed his fingers about it, holding in a close, protective clasp the treasured words. "It is done, then. Taleris is proved a traitor."
"And will die a traitor's death as he deserves, the filthy cur," Gil said, her voice edged with grim satisfaction.
"As he should!" Pippin declared hotly. "Taleris will get what's coming to him when Aragorn reaches Minas Tirith, and I say good riddance."
"Aye," Boromir murmured, "but I should like the chance to face him once more, to throw his treacheries in his teeth and show him how completely he has failed. I should like to stare him down and feel him squirm, one last time. It was all the pleasure his company ever afforded me."
"I'm sure you can find someone else to terrify with your inscrutable gaze," Merry said, his voice trembling on a laugh.
"But no one I despise as I do Taleris." Turning upon his squire the bandaged gaze that struck fear into the hearts of so many, he smiled and said, "What of your letter, Gil? Are you not anxious to read it?"
"Aye, lord. I cannot think why the Prince would write to me. He can have naught to say to such as I…"
"Do not stand wondering, you infernal girl, read it!"
Her voice faltered. "To you, my lord?"
"Nay, not to me! 'Tis your letter. Take it away at once, where these inquisitive halflings cannot pester you and I cannot distract you with my demands, and read it in peace. I will not need you again until I am back in my room and Arwen has another meal for you to stuff down my gullet." When Gil hesitated still, he growled, "Off with you! Be gone!"
She mumbled incoherent thanks and hurried away, her footsteps fading in the direction of the Hall.
"I wonder why Imrahil did write to her?" Pippin mused. "And what was that he said about her agents bringing him the letter?"
"I expect she'll tell us all about it, in her own time," Merry said reasonably. "She's not nearly so prickly as she used to be, nor so close-mouthed. Wearing breeches seems to agree with her."
Boromir gave a disbelieving snort, and Merry laughed.
"If you ask me, it's not the breeches," Pippin said dryly, then he made a whooping noise, as if something had struck him a hard blow to the ribs, and he abruptly changed the subject. "Your wine has gone cold, Boromir, and you're looking decidedly peaked. You need food. The woman who rules Éomer's kitchens is a particular friend of mine, so I'm sure I can wheedle a sustaining bite or two out of her. Enough for all of us."
With that, he strolled off, whistling, leaving Boromir alone with Merry and the sleeping Borlas. Merry perched on the edge of Boromir's footstool, being careful not to jar his injured leg, and together they listened to the boy's heavy breathing, content to rest quietly in each other's company. How much time passed Boromir did not try to count. He was exhausted from the strains and excitement of the day, left chill and empty by the ebbing of his great tide of emotion upon hearing the letter, and he briefly wished that he was back in his bed chamber – smoking fire, stone walls and all.
"How do you feel, Boromir?" Merry asked, breaking the long quiet.
"I hardly know. I am too weary to take it all in, and what happens in far off Gondor seems unreal to me here, on this windy hilltop."
A smile crept into Merry's voice as he replied, "It will sink in soon enough, and then it will be all that Gil and I can manage to keep you from leaping into the saddle and riding off to Minas Tirith as fast as Fedranth can carry you."
"Mayhap you are right. I count on you to curb my wilder impulses."
"This news ought to speed your healing, at least."
"Aye." Boromir smiled at him and held out his hand. When Merry placed his small hand in Boromir's much larger one, their fingers clasped warmly, saying much of friendship and deep loyalty that they did not need to speak aloud. "And ease my sleep."
"Maybe we can both sleep easier now," Merry said quietly.
*** *** ***
Aragorn sat in his kingly chair, his hands resting upon its carven arms, his eyes fixed on the figure standing in chains before him. The clear light of an autumn morning spilled through the tall windows of the tower room, setting the gems and gold embroidery on the King's garments afire and throwing the filthy, ragged state of the prisoner's clothing into sharp relief. The faces of both were impassive, closed, with shuttered eyes that gave no hint of their thoughts, but where Aragorn's was washed clean of its travel stains and smoothed by a night of rest, Taleris' was as lined, dirty and careworn as his robe, every one of the nights he had spent in Minas Tirith's darkest dungeon stamped roughly upon his visage.
The great and noble hearts gathered now to witness Aragorn's judgment upon Taleris were of a kind easily moved to pity. Faramir, who sat on the King's right hand, was revered through all Gondor as the most just and merciful of Men. Legolas and Gimli, standing in the shadows by the cold hearth, were neither cruel nor vengeful, but generous in all things. And Imrahil, with his long years of friendship for the prisoner, might well have softened to Taleris now. The sight of so much wretchedness, in any other creature, would indeed have moved them all, but Taleris had left no room in them for aught but anger. His haughty silence and arrogance before the King he had wronged so deeply hardened their hearts still further against his wan and twisted face, his heavy chains.
In the lengthening silence, a many-legged creature, startled by the bright sunlight, crawled from Taleris' beard and scuttled into the open neck of his surcote. He twitched uncomfortably but refused to humble himself by lifting his manacled hands to scrabble at it. Aragorn watched the thing burrow into the crushed and fouled velvet with interest, then he raised his eyes once more to the other man's face.
"Have you no greeting to offer your King,
Lord Taleris?" he asked, in a voice as frozen and unyielding
Taleris struggled with himself, clearly undecided whether or not to dignify the King's presence with his notice, but outrage subdued pride in the end and he grated, "I owe you no such courtesy. You call me by my noble title, but you treat me like the basest villain! Hurling me into an eyeless pit to gnaw stale crusts and sleep with vermin!" He spat onto the floor at Imrahil's feet. "The Gondor I served would not use her lords thus."
"Beware, Taleris," Imrahil growled. "Do not try the King's patience too far."
Aragorn quieted him with a raised hand, never taking his eyes from the prisoner's face. "A traitor is a traitor, be he Prince or peasant. You have come by your deserts."
Taleris assumed his loftiest stance and proclaimed, loudly, "I am no traitor."
Aragorn's mouth twitched in something that was not a smile. Holding out his hand to Imrahil, he said levelly, "The letter."
Imrahil placed a small, slender roll of parchment in Aragorn's hand. The King turned it to show Taleris the broken seal of blue wax upon it and said, still with no trace of emotion in his voice, "Your own words give you the lie. Shall I read them out to you? Have you forgotten what you set down with your own hand?"
The prisoner clamped his lips shut, summoning his pride once more to armor him against the King's piercing regard, and refusing to meet his eyes.
"Who was meant to receive this letter?" Aragorn asked. When Taleris refused to answer, he tried again. "What is the name of your confederate among the Haradrim?" Still he received no answer.
Setting aside the scroll, Aragorn gave weary sigh and let his gaze drop from Taleris' obdurate face. "You are a fool, as well as a traitor, I see. Your death is certain, my lord, but still there is time to mend some of what you have maimed and earn yourself better than a traitor's end. What say you? Will you die in shame to protect the enemies of your own people? Murderers, thieves, marauders?"
"They are not!" Taleris blurted out, then bit his lip in anger at his own weakness.
"Not murderers and thieves? Are they not, even now, killing Men of Gondor so they might steal their lands and their homes?"
"Their people are starving," the old lord muttered. "They seek land fit for growing the crops to feed them. You would do no less, were your children weeping with hunger and dying upon the barren sands."
"So they take at the sword's point what they might have had for the asking, had they treated with me as an ally. Nay, I will not pity their weeping children, Taleris, for they have not pitied ours. Nor will I believe that you aided the Haradrim out of pity or to right a wrong. What were you paid for your services? What had the starving Men of Harad to offer the King's deputy that would tempt him to treachery? Was it gold?"
Taleris let his gaze slide away from Aragorn's to roam the circle of faces turned upon him. He licked his lips nervously but said nothing. After a long moment, Faramir answered for him.
"Vengeance, I deem. Long has he plotted to rob my brother of his office and dignities, in payment for imagined wrongs against our father. And you, Elessar, were meant to suffer for your loyalty to him, and for claiming the crown that was yours by right of blood."
"Is that it, Taleris? Were you promised Boromir's blood and my crown?"
"I raised no hand against you or your Steward," Taleris snarled, his fragile composure rapidly crumbling. "You cannot take my head, because a blind fool lost himself in the wilderness, and his harlot, that beggar's by-blow who calls herself a squire, points her claw at me and screams that I am to blame!"
"Peace, Taleris," Aragorn said, warningly. "This has naught to do with Gil, or with Boromir's capture by the Orcs."
"Naught to do! Naught to do!" He threw back his head and uttered a bark of laughter. "What cares King Elessar for aught but his precious Steward? He holds all Gondor as naught beside the love of that slinking cur, that blind bastard…"
"Enough!" Imrahil crossed to Taleris in a single stride, whipping out his dagger and pressing it up hard beneath the prisoner's chin. "Speak another word about my kinsman, and I will cut your lying throat!"
Taleris' eyes rolled wildly to where Imrahil's face hovered so close to his own, and a ghastly smile stretched his lips. "Aye, that is the way to keep your head, my friend. Good, good! But do not forget the harlot, for 'tis she who holds the dog's leash! Speak sweetly of her, too, if you would escape his bite!"
"Is he mad?" Gimli demanded of Aragorn, "or does he counterfeit to stay your justice?"
"Mad, I think," Faramir said, heavily.
"Nay, only desperate," Aragorn retorted. "He sees his own death approaching and must strike out at us, squirt his venom in our ears, while he still can."
Taleris looked to the King, his head forced up by the pressure of Imrahil's knife, his breath hissing through his bared teeth. Some measure of rationality crept back into his eyes, as Aragorn continued,
"This is the first time that you have spoken the truth to me, is it not, Taleris?"
The prisoner took a rasping breath and tried to throw off Imrahil's hands, uttering a wordless growl.
"Your words sicken me, but I cannot condemn you for speaking them, when I have waited so long to hear the truth from your lips."
"You… you do not condemn me?" He went suddenly limp in Imrahil's grasp, as the Prince took his knife away, and his voice cracked with disbelief. "I may yet live?"
"Nay. Your life is forfeit." A shudder went through Taleris' body, and his eyes dropped to the floor, avoiding Aragorn's gaze. "But you will not die for your hatred of Boromir, or for the foul slanders you heap upon him and his faithful squire."
Staring at Taleris' bent, grey head with saddened eyes, he went on, "You believe that I care for naught but my Steward's love, and you blame his misfortunes for your approaching death, but you are wrong. I know you will not believe it; you will die in bitterness, convinced that Boromir is to blame, and lay yet another crime at his door as you quit the circles of this world. But I say to you now that it is your betrayal of Gondor that costs you your life, not your hatred of Gondor's Steward. And for that reason, I offer you still the chance to mend some of the damage you have done and earn a measure of mercy in return."
"An honorable death, the preservation of your estates and your family. That is all I have to offer you."
A long silence answered his words, broken when Taleris asked in a low, despairing tone, "What must I do?"
"Answer my questions."
The prisoner took a deep, sobbing breath and blew it out on a sigh that seemed to come from his very boots. "Ask what you will."
"Who was meant to receive this letter?"
"I do not know his right name. He went by Gabril, and he concealed himself in the City as a carter, but he is a great chieftain among the Haradrim, I deem."
"He is not the man you met in the tavern to give the letter? The man we have in the dungeons even now?"
"Nay. He went south when the news of Boromir's capture by the Orcs came to us. The man you hold is a messenger only."
"What other letters have you written?"
"None but what you have." Lifting his head as if it were too heavy for his neck, he nodded toward the scroll that lay on the table before Aragorn. "That, and the one I brought from Ethir Anduin when I returned to the City in the spring."
"You destroyed Ciryon's original letter."
"Aye." His head dropped again.
"What of the second letter Ciryon sent? The one that arrived after I had departed on my Progress?"
"I destroyed it."
"And the third?"
"That I could not destroy. The girl saw it in my hands and spoke with the messenger who brought it. I knew she would tell Boromir of it, so I gave it to him."
"That was when you decided to slay him."
"I did not." It was a measure of how far Taleris had fallen that he showed no flash of anger or of defiance at Aragorn's words. He spoke in the same beaten tone in which he had answered every question, without lifting his eyes from the floor. "Gabril hatched that plot, thinking to sap the strength of Gondor's soldiers with the fall of their beloved Captain. I told him he was a fool, that Boromir's death would only hasten your return and his doom. He… called me a coward and spat on my counsel."
"You did not warn Boromir of the threat to his life?"
"I could not." He hesitated for a moment, then added, gruffly, "I would not. For I hate him, and I would not speak a word to save him from death. That is the truth, my lord King. All the truth and all my guilt. Do with me what you will."
Aragorn sat for a very long time in silence, staring at Taleris' bent head, his eyes hooded and his face an unreadable mask. No one in the roomed dared move and break the stillness save Taleris himself, who lifted a hand to scratch at the vermin on his skin. The grating of his chains when he lifted his hands sounded unnaturally loud, but he seemed not to notice.
At last Aragorn stirred, shifting forward in his chair to place his hand on the map that covered the table before him. "In three days' time, I sail for Ethir Anduin with the armies of Minas Tirith and Anórien. You will sail with me, my lord."
Taleris looked up, startled.
"I want this Gabril, and you will find him for me. That is your task. When it is done, you will have won your measure of mercy."
"A nobleman's death?" Taleris rasped out, his throat working painfully.
"For Gabril's head."
"For him, and for your obedience."
The old man stared into his King's eyes reading the promise in them, then he bent his head in an awkward bow. "My lord King."
Flicking a glance at Imrahil, Aragorn said, "Get him a bath and fresh garments. He may sleep in his own chambers, with a suitable guard."
Imrahil bowed. "And the chains, my lord?"
Aragorn's face hardened. "He wears them."
With another bow, Imrahil clasped Taleris' arm and drew him toward the door. Taleris shuffled along with him, looking neither left nor right, his shoulders sagging with a weariness that had naught to do with the chains he wore.
When the door had shut behind them, Aragorn sank back in his great chair and put a hand up to cover his eyes. In that moment, he looked as broken and exhausted as his prisoner.
"My lord?" Faramir said, pushing a cup of wine toward him.
Aragorn dropped his hand and took the wine, drinking deeply.
"If we are to depart in three days' time…" Faramir began, but a glance from Aragorn silenced him.
"I go, Faramir, and those of my friends who would fight beside me again." He looked to where Gimli and Legolas stood, catching their solemn nods. "You must remain in Minas Tirith."
Hurt and disbelief flooded the Prince's face for a moment, then he mastered himself and said, with admirable calm, "Imrahil is not to remain as Steward in Boromir's place?"
"Imrahil has done his duty and held himself aloof when war threatened his own borders. Now his people fight under Ciryon's banner, and he longs to fight with them. I cannot deny him that, when he has done me such service."
"Nay." Faramir's shoulders drooped fractionally. "You cannot."
Laying a hand on his friend's arm, Aragorn said quietly, "You do not love war, Faramir,"
"But I love Gondor and Gondor's King. I would draw my sword with yours, Elessar, and defend what we love."
"You will do me better service to stay here,
in the Steward's chair, and rule Gondor in my stead until I return.
From here, you can direct your own troops in
Faramir's eyes widened. "Rohan?"
"Close enough to allow for visits, when your duties are light."
A wide smile lit his face. "I thank you, Elessar. Gladly will I sit in the Steward's chair and hold it against my brother's return."
Aragorn pushed himself forward in his chair, his eyes going to the map spread on the table before him, once more filled with the purpose and strength that his friends knew so well. "Then let us to work. We have a war to win."
*** *** ***
"'Tis only a step, my lord," Arwen chided.
One more step. So she said now, but when he had taken that step, there would be another, and then another, and his exhausted limbs cried aloud in protest at this abuse. Gritting his teeth against a sour rejoinder that he could not spare the breath to utter, Boromir merely grunted and adjusted his grip on the staff he clutched in his right hand. His palm, slick with sweat, slipped on the polished wood, and he had a brief, hideous vision of his leg buckling as his crutch slithered from his hand. The vivid memory of tearing flesh and tortured muscle struck him, and Orcish laughter rang in his ears, sapping the last of his strength.
"Trust me. I will not let you fall." Arwen's soft words banished the harsher voices in his head and told him that his Queen had, once again, read his thoughts with unsettling ease. She reached up to clasp his left hand, where it rested on her shoulder.
Leaning most of his weight on Arwen's deceptively slender shoulders, Boromir lifted his sound foot from the floor and hazarded a step. As he dragged his injured leg forward, he growled, "The leg will hold. I know it will. 'Tis the rest of my body that betrays me. Ye gods!" He halted, swaying, and let go of Arwen's shoulder to clutch at his brow. "My head reels so that I cannot find the floor, and my limbs are weak as water."
"You have been too long abed. Come, lean on me." She pulled his arm across her shoulders once more and slipped an arm about his waist to steady him. "I have set a chair beneath the window, and when you are safely in it, I will open the shutters. It rains again today, so you cannot venture out of doors, but you may sit in the wintry blast from the window until you have cleansed the foulness of smoke and stone from your lungs and are rested enough to walk back to your bed."
Bolstered by the promise of the taste of sweet, clean air, Boromir once more forced his limbs to move. He had spoken the truth when he said that he knew his leg would hold. It had borne his weight often enough in the Orc den and would not fail him now, he was certain. But his long weeks of imprisonment and his longer illness had left him in a pitiable state – his muscles trembling and his heart laboring within the fragile cage of his ribs – so that his tiny prison of a room seemed, in his extremity, longer than Éomer King's great hall. It took every ounce of pride and determination he possessed to cross it, and he felt as though he had been locked in mortal combat for countless hours when he heard Arwen say,
"One step more."
A gasping laugh was torn from his throat. "So you said half a hundred steps ago!"
Even as he spoke, he stumbled into the chair and nearly pitched over it. Dropping his staff, he reached for the chair's arms and, helped by Arwen, sank gratefully into it.
"You should not doubt me so, my lord," the Queen chided.
"Never again. And never again will I move from this spot." He could feel the chill of the stone wall to his left, and he let himself fall sideways against it, propping his shoulders and head against its welcome solidity. "I will sleep here tonight. I have had less comfortable beds."
"When you are weary enough, you will think better of it, I deem."
"You are as bad as Gil…ah!" He broke off with a cry of pain, as Arwen lifted his injured leg to rest on a footstool. Then he groaned in relief and sagged more heavily against the wall, muttering, "As bad as Gil, always certain that you know what I want, paying no heed to what I say."
"Why should we pay heed to arrant foolishness?"
Boromir reflected bitterly that the Queen sounded far too much like his squire for comfort, but he kept his thoughts to himself. Arwen had wrapped him closely in a heavy fur and was now throwing open the wooden shutters that covered the window. Turning eagerly toward the sound, Boromir felt a rush of cold, wet, rain-scented wind against his face, and he smiled in genuine delight. He drew in a deep, glad breath and let it out on a sigh, banishing pain, exhaustion, haunting dreams and demons of memory with the lingering taste of smoke.
With a rustle of light fabric, Arwen sat down upon the edge of his footstool and leaned close to speak in her softest, warmest tone. "It eases my heart to see you smile, Boromir."
He turned to her, startled, a question in his face.
"I take no pleasure in tormenting you."
"Your company is never a torment, lady."
She laughed, and for a moment, Boromir fancied that he sat on a terrace in Imladris, with an Elvish rain falling on leaves of silver in the valley below. "Now I know how to tame your temper. A breath of fresh air, and you are all courtesy."
He tried to smile in return, but chagrin made him shift uncomfortably and turn away from her keen gaze. "I am sorry for my churlishness. I would not have you think I am ungrateful, or that I do not know why you suffer with my fits and tempers."
"For Aragorn's sake. Because he asked it of you."
"Aye, but had he not asked, still I would brave your rages to aid in your healing." She rested a light hand on Boromir's knee, taking care not to touch the painful swelling about his wound. "Are we not friends in our own right, Boromir?"
"I hope so, lady."
"Then believe that my care of you is as much for friendship's sake as for love of my lord."
This time, Boromir's smile came easily, and he made no attempt to avoid the touch of her gaze. "Believe that I am grateful, even when I forget the courtesy due my friend."
Satisfied, Boromir let his head sink back against the wall and the tension drain from his battered body. As the winter wind off the plains soothed him, his mind wandered from his stone prison on the hilltop toward the distant city where his heart dwelt and his King labored without his Steward to support him. His hand strayed unconsciously to the gem that hung at his breast, and he fingered it, as if its touch bound him to Aragorn and gave him some small part in the mighty deeds to come.
Arwen saw the gem in
his hand and understood at once where his thoughts had flown.
"Think you he has reached the
"Aye." Boromir paused, conjuring a vision he had never seen with his eyes but had long treasured in his imagination. "Perhaps he is, even now, seated in his study behind the great table, with Faramir at his side, tallying lists, signing dispatches, marshalling his captains, juggling the thousand bits of parchment, steel and flesh that make up an army on the march. Readying for war."
"I look daily for a messenger from Gondor, bringing word from my lord, though I know it cannot come so soon," Arwen murmured wistfully.
"He will not forget us. The messenger will come." Holding up the Star so that it dangled by its chain between them, he added with a smile, "I have his promise."
"The Star of the Dúnedain," she breathed, echoes of deep memory and great wonder in her voice. "'Tis a mighty gift."
"More than you, or even Aragorn himself, might guess. It has given me hope in the midst of despair and lighted my very darkest paths."
"Hope was ever Aragorn's gift."
"Estel he is called," Boromir closed his hand tightly about the gem, clasping it to his breast, "which is Hope."
"You speak the Elvish tongue?"
"Naught but the few words my brother has pounded into my head," he said ruefully, wishing now, for this lady's sake, that he had listened more closely to Faramir's teachings.
"Know you the word for star?"
Boromir thought for a moment, recalling the names and legends told him in his youth, certain that he had heard the Elvish word for star and ought to remember it, but it eluded him.
Before he could answer, Arwen rose to her feet and moved around his chair toward the door. Pausing beside him, she laid a hand on his shoulder, bent close and murmured, "It is gil."
Boromir sat in startled silence as the Queen walked to the door and opened it. Halting on the threshold, she turned back to add, "Aragorn spoke true when he said that you could summon the stars at will, for you have one always about you."
Then Arwen was gone, and Boromir was left alone to ponder her words. He tried to fathom his Queen's purpose in telling him the meaning of Gil's name, but he could not focus on this question for long. His thoughts kept turning to Gil herself, to the star that had walked at his side through his long darkness, lighting his steps and warming his heart with her steadfast love. For Gil did love him; he knew this, though he had not examined it before or considered the shape that love took. It had not mattered to him, so long as she was beside him. Of the three friends he valued most in this world – Aragorn, Merry and Gil – she was the one most with him, most necessary to his comfort. He thought and spoke least of her, not because she was least among them, but because she was always at his side and need never be missed or regretted. And the one time he had left her behind, riding off into the world without her, a light had gone out for him. The light of his constant star.
For an uncounted time, Boromir sat alone at his window, holding the Star of the Dúnedain in his hand, waiting for night to fall and the stars of the heavens to begin their song, and wondering how he could have been so blind.
*** *** ***
Night lay thickly over the vale of Anduin. Shreds of cloud blew fitfully across the moon, shrouding her light and casting the moving waters into shadow, only to blow away again and leave her shining silver above the huddled tents and brooding fortresses that lined the River's banks. On the eastern shore, stretched in a ragged line from Poros to the head of the Ethir Anduin, were the garrisons built by Ciryon's troops to hold back the Haradrim. Torches burned atop ramparts of wood, and armored men patrolled the walls, keeping tireless watch on the dim, featureless lands stretching endlessly to the east.
On the western shore, the Men of Gondor camped beneath their many banners. Soldiers from Lossarnach, Lebennin and Ithilien, whose lands lay along the River. Still more from farther west, summoned to fight in aid of their neighbors and to protect their own lands from invasion: Dor-en-Ernil, Belfelas, Lamedon, and the Knights of Dol Amroth, together with the lesser kingdoms and fiefdoms under their sway. The men slept in tents or pavilions, in cots made of wood and turf, clustered around fires where guards warmed their hands and stared eastward toward their unseen enemy.
In the very darkest hour of the night, when men slept without dreams, the peace was rudely shattered. A garrison fort, near the center of the defenders' line, erupted in flame as burning arrows shot over the walls and hoards of southrons in soot-darkened armor poured after them. Weapons clashed, men screamed in rage and pain, and the wooden palisade, soaked with oil by the wily Haradrim, threw flames hundreds of feet into the sky.
This was a long-awaited signal. At the sight of those towering flames, all along the eastern bank of Anduin the Haradrim flung themselves upon the forts and slew the soldiers of Ethir Anduin.
Across the River, men awoke suddenly to the familiar clash of arms in the distance. Horns blew a wild alarm, and soldiers reached blindly for their weapons, stumbling out of their tents to stand, amazed, their faces turned in horror to the false-dawn that blazed in the east. Down to the shore they streamed, still carrying swords and lances in the vain hope of lending some aid to the doomed garrisons on the far bank, and there they halted, thwarted by the wide expanse of swiftly-moving water. Some waded into the shallows, brandishing their weapons, peering fruitlessly into the darkness that shrouded the river.
For an agonizing time, naught moved upon the water. The soldiers who had tumbled from their beds without boots or cloaks were shivering with the cold, and those who had ventured into the water had clambered back onto the shore to join their comrades, when an archer among the men of Lamedon, toward the northern end of the line, sent up a cry.
"Boats! Boats upon the water!"
A howl from the far shore announced that the Haradrim had seen the boats as well, and a storm of arrows hissed over the water. Men plunged into the shallows, some firing arrows uselessly at the enemy on the far bank, while others struck out for the approaching boats. Soon others, whose eyes were not as sharp as the archer's, could see the first boats struggling against the currents of Anduin the Great to reach safety.
They came in ragged groups, huddling together for comfort if not for safety, fleeing in whatever craft they had managed to find in the retreat from the burning forts. Wounded, exhausted, hollow-eyed men pulled at the oars with a strength born of desperation, while those too sorely injured to help lay moaning and bleeding between their feet, and they cried out in relief when they saw the hands of friends reaching out of the night to tow them ashore.
As the sun rose at last in a lowering haze of smoke and fume, a messenger on a lathered, foundering horse clattered into the courtyard of Ciryon's great tower. Ciryon himself greeted the man as he slid from the saddle and took the message tube from his hand, breaking the seal without bothering to withdraw into the tower.
The red morning light stained the paper in his hands as if with blood, the blood of men slain in the night by a foul and treacherous enemy. A fitting light by which to read the news that his garrisons were destroyed, his men slaughtered and the last defense of his lands gone. Only Anduin now stood between the Haradrim and the sweet fields of Gondor.
Rolling the parchment loosely in his fist, he turned to his Captain-General and said, "War is upon us, Beryan, my friend."
"Will the King come, think you?"
Ciryon shrugged and smiled wearily. "I pray he does, but with or without him, the Haradrim will come. War is upon us."
Turning for the tower, Ciryon draped an arm about his friend's shoulders and walked with him up the broad steps to the wide, oaken door. He walked like a man with a great burden upon him, but he did not falter. The enemy was at his very gates, and he had a war to win.
To be continued…