Chapter 2: The King's Departure
The tavern was neither the cleanest in Minas Tirith nor the dirtiest, and its ale was of middling quality at best. It resided in a wide, paved alley off the fourth circle, surrounded by thriving shops and frequented by the clerks and artisans who worked in them. The man who stood behind the scarred wooden counter had a jovial face, a broad belly, and a keen eye that did not smile as readily as his lips. He nodded a greeting to the man who ducked through the low doorway and moved to draw a tankard for him.
Lord Taleris paused just inside the door to let his eyes adjust to the gloom. He was dressed as a prosperous merchant, in finery rather too gaudy for the stately Citadel, but no borrowed clothing could hide the nobleman in his face and bearing. Cold eyes swept the room, pausing to acknowledge the barkeep's nodded greeting, then he strode to the back of the chamber. There, in the darkest corner, sat a man clad in the dusty, worn garments of a laborer. His hair was covered by a close cap of leather, his body wrapped in a woolen cloak, the hood pushed back to lie around his shoulders, and his feet shod in heavy boots. He stank of horse sweat and manure, and the merchant wrinkled his nose in disgust as he took a seat opposite this rank specimen.
"Must you go about smelling of the carter's shed?" he asked, his lip lifting in distaste.
The seated man grinned, splitting his dark face with a wide, white swath of teeth. "I come when you call. How I smell is not your concern. Now, my friend, what is so urgent that you must risk a public meeting?"
Taleris waited until the barkeep had set a foaming tankard in front of him and returned to his place across the room, then he shoved the drink aside and leaned over to murmur, "The King's plans have changed."
The carter frowned. "He does not go?"
"He goes, but he takes Prince Faramir with him. The Steward will remain to rule in his stead."
"Ah. But this is good news, surely."
"It is not."
The carter bared his teeth in something that was not a smile. "You are afraid of this steward."
"I am afraid of nothing!" Taleris snapped, though his eyes slid away from the other man's gaze as he said it. "And you would do well to heed my warnings, Gabril."
"You grow timid in proportion to your wealth, but we do not pay you for timidity. Speak your mind, and I will judge whether there is cause for worry."
"The Steward does not trust me. He will watch me at every turn…"
"He cannot watch you," the man called Gabril scoffed. "He is blind. I say it will be easier to deal with the Steward than with his brother."
"And I say you are wrong. Prince Faramir is more trusting, more even of judgment, and more readily swayed by arguments."
"That is not his reputation."
"You do not know the sons of Denethor!" the old lord retorted. "I must deal with them both, day by day, and I say that it would be easier to conceal your movements from Prince Faramir than from that cur who calls himself Steward of Gondor!"
Gabril gazed at him with some humor in his narrow, black eyes. "I say your hatred of Boromir clouds your reason. And I will suggest to you, my skittish friend, that you can take no greater revenge on yon cur than to drag his name through the mire of war, defeat and treachery with his Stewardship. What say you to that?"
The other man stroked his greying beard thoughtfully. "T'would be sweet, indeed. But do not be fooled by that bandage he wears, Gabril!"
"Is this blind man, this Shadow Steward, so formidable?"
"Nay. But he is ruthless when he deems his honor at stake, and he surrounds himself with mewling sycophants who guard his every step. Even the Elf – Lord of Henneth-Annûn they call him! Faugh! – clings to his skirts. It will go hard with you, if any hint of what you are about reaches the Steward or his minions."
"Should that happen, I will turn to my good friend Taleris for help."
"I cannot help you, nor will I go down with you. I have crossed no line that can be seen, put my hand to no proven act of treachery. All is but malice and slander until proof is given, and there is no proof."
"What of the riches piling up in your manor house?"
Taleris grinned mirthlessly. "Go to my estate and look for yourself. You will find nothing amiss."
Gabril leaned closer to him and murmured, a smile pulling at his lips, "And what of the letter?" The other man's face froze. Gabril let him sweat for a moment, then dropped his voice even lower and said, "You destroyed a letter entrusted to you by the Lord of Lebennin. You forged another to take its place. Think you this is proof enough of treachery?"
Taleris licked his lips nervously. "Not if Ciryon dies."
"Ciryon of Lebennin is not your most pressing problem. I am. Do not fail me now, Taleris, or I will make certain both Steward and King know of that letter."
"Why do you waste your breath on threats, Gabril? I have not failed you, nor will I. I only point out to you that the Steward's presence in Gondor will make my task more difficult and force greater caution upon you and your people. He is my implacable enemy. He will thwart me at every turn, simply for the pleasure of doing it, telling me as little of his plans and policy as he in conscience can."
"What does that matter, when the wheels are already in motion? The King knows naught of our movements, or he would not go on this journey and leave his realm in another's hands. The Steward's plans and policies are of no moment to us, once the King is out of Gondor."
Taleris shook his head. "If it were Prince Faramir…"
"Enough! I piss on your princes! One Man of Gondor is much like another, and a sightless one is easier to dupe than his long-eyed brother!"
"Mayhap if I approach Imrahil…" Taleris murmured, thoughtfully.
"Another prince?" Gabril interjected, sourly.
"A friend of many years and one who trusts me. He it was who led the Council in protest against the Stewardship of Boromir. He, alone among the nobility of Gondor, braved the King's wrath to speak the truth of his devoted lapdog. Imrahil is loyal to King Elessar and has kept his oath of fealty to Boromir, but if I whisper in his ear that his kinsman's wits are turning at last, he will believe it. He will believe me. And should Boromir get wind of your plans, he will look in vain to Imrahil for support. Dol Amroth will think him deranged."
The black eyes narrowed into slits in the brown face. "Until the Ethir Anduin is lost and the Steward's suspicions proven right. How then will you keep your neck from the executioner's blade, Master Turncoat?"
"Kill Ciryon of Lebennin, and I am safe. He is the only man who knows – or will determine – what part I have played. As my final payment for services rendered, I ask that you put Ciryon to the sword."
Gabril shrugged and lifted his hands. "He must die in any case."
"Then my guilt dies with him. I will guard my tongue well, speak no word to Imrahil of aught save the Steward's health and my fears for his sanity. When war comes, it will take me as much by surprise as the rest of Gondor, and not by word, look or deed will any man think to condemn me. Any man save Boromir, and none will believe him."
The other man shook his head, eyes veiled and face impassive. His attitude clearly nettled Taleris, who added sharply, "Our agreement has always been that I am an advisor and source of information, no more, so that no hint of blame might fall on me. I put myself at risk when I succumbed to your pressures and destroyed that letter, but I will not do so again."
"So be it. The Lord of Lebennin will die, and you may call yourself a loyal son of Gondor if it please you."
"I am loyal to Gondor," Taleris growled, his haughty face grown sullen and furtive in the dim light, "to the Gondor of my father and father's father, the Gondor into whose service I was born. But she is now fallen into the hands of curs and vagabonds, her beauty tarnished, her Citadel defiled…"
Gabril snorted and sat back in his chair. "I have heard this speech before, Taleris."
Taleris' cheeks darkened and his eyes snapped, but he reined in his temper. "I have no need to justify myself to you, Southron."
"None at all," Gabril replied, easily.
Pushing back his chair, Taleris rose to his feet to loom over the seated Gabril. "Do you stay in the city?"
"For a few months yet."
"Then I will look for you at the King's leave-taking." He smiled bitterly. "All the mean and lowly of Minas Tirith will turn out to bid him farewell and strew his steps with flowers."
With that, he tossed a few copper coins on the table and strode out into the thin sunlight of a spring afternoon. Gabril watched him go, an ironic smile on his face, but made no move to follow him. Instead, he pulled the untouched tankard toward him and lifted it to his lips.
*** *** ***
Aragorn leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands
around the stem of his jeweled flagon, turning it slowly so that silver,
gems and deep red wine caught the candlelight and danced before his
eyes. He was infinitely tired, but it was the weariness of a job well
done, and he savored the heaviness of it in his limbs. In the new light
of morning, he would ride out of the
Lifting the cup to his lips, he let his eyes slide to the man seated at the end of the table to his right. How was he to say farewell to this man in hours, when days or months would not suffice? How was he to ride out on the morrow with a light heart, knowing that a large portion of that heart lingered behind in his friend's keeping? He sighed to himself and drank deeply of the wine in his cup.
Boromir heard the telltale sigh. His bandaged gaze fixed on his king's face and he raised his own cup in salute. "To a journey both safe and swift."
"'Tis not meant to be swift," Aragorn reminded him. "A royal Progress is a leisurely affair."
Boromir grunted and drank, then he lowered his cup and stared down into it, his face and posture full of melancholy.
The expression he wore gave Aragorn a flicker of hope, and he could not restrain himself from saying, "There is still time for you to change your mind, Boromir."
"And disappoint Faramir at this late date? I value my hide too much for that."
Aragorn threw every ounce of persuasion he possessed into his voice and urged, "If you are having second thoughts, tell me. I can set all to rights with Faramir, see that your gear is packed and Fedranth saddled by morning, and even find room in a baggage cart for Gil. Only tell me that you want to go."
"Nay. I do not."
The finality in his words deflated Aragorn's hopes, and he slumped back in his chair again, now more weary than before. "So be it. I had to try."
"You would not be Aragorn if you did not. The most graciously persistent of Men."
Aragorn chuckled. "One of us must be graciously persistent."
"Ah. I detect an insult in the offing. What must the other of us be, pray tell?"
"A mûmak among the flowers, trampling and crushing and terrifying the gardeners."
Boromir made a sour noise in his throat and lifted his cup in another, more ironic toast. "I thank you. Between you and Legolas, my pride is in tatters. Your Elvish nursemaid calls me churlish and full of crotchets."
"So you are." Aragorn hesitated for a moment, then said, "I did not set Legolas to guard you, Boromir."
"I know it."
"And yet, I will admit I was sorely tempted. The first time I rode out of this city, leaving you to hold it for me, you were nearly murdered. I cannot forget it, and each time I pass from the gates without you, it returns to haunt me."
Boromir laughed shortly. "Then you had better take Taleris with you. If anyone is likely to murder me in your absence, it is he."
"Do not make light of this."
"I am in earnest. He considers me a traitor, Aragorn, and blames me for my father's death."
Aragorn straightened up slowly in his chair, a frown pulling his brows together. "Is he a true danger to you?"
"Nay. I can keep Taleris well in hand. But I do not trust him out of my hearing, and I tell you bluntly, my king, that I will tolerate no tricks from him! If he gives me cause, I will lock him in a cell so deep and dark that he will know what blindness is!"
"You will do as you see fit," Aragorn answered promptly.
"I will, indeed, and I will not be gainsaid by a pack of perfumed noblemen."
The King grinned at his glowering steward and said, "I foresee an uncomfortable summer for my court." Then he sobered, as his mind turned to the parting on the morrow and his persistent, if groundless fears. "I know you will not hesitate to act, if there is a need, Boromir. I rely utterly on your judgment."
"There is no need for such grim pronouncements, my king. You do not march to war, and no shadow stalks the streets of the city behind you."
"Who knows what the year will bring?"
"Naught that I, Imrahil, and my Elvish nursemaid cannot handle. And do not forget the Dwarves of Aglarond, Éomer King and his Riders, Beregond and his White Company, the Wild Men of the druadan forest… we are hedged about with allies and rescuers!"
"Will you now accuse me of putting them there to safeguard you?"
Boromir gave him one of his most fearsome scowls and demanded, "Did you?"
"Nay!" Aragorn cried, laughing. "I did not!"
Boromir relaxed back into his chair, his face softening into a glinting smile. Gazing at his familiar, beloved face, Aragorn felt the weight of all the coming months fall suddenly upon him. "Ah, Boromir. Nine months seems an eternity to me, at this moment."
"Aye." The smile turned wistful. "But it will pass, and you will have much to occupy you on your journey. You will not feel the time."
"You will have a realm to govern."
"And Taleris to sharpen my wits. I have thought long about it and decided that it is just as well you are leaving him here with me, so I do not grow complacent and numb with boredom." Abruptly, Boromir set his cup on the table and pushed back his chair. "I feel the need of some fresh air. Will you join me, my king?"
Aragorn thrust back his own chair and stood up. Boromir
rose and moved unerringly to the door, where Aragorn met him. With the
ease of many years' practice, they fell into step together, Boromir's
hand on Aragorn's shoulder and Aragorn one stride ahead of his companion.
Down through the
Aragorn did not need to ask where they would go. He turned for the Citadel gate and the tunnel that led to the sixth circle without speaking a word. The guards at the lower gate hailed them as they strode past, and both men returned their salute. Moments later, they reached the small, wooden gate that opened on the gardens of the Houses of Healing.
Aragorn slipped the latch. Boromir stepped onto the gravel path and started down it without waiting for his guide. He knew this path almost as minutely as he did the interior of the King's study, though he came here less often in these days of constant work and numberless duties. It was the one place where Gondor's Steward could come to be alone and at ease, without the sidelong glances of servants and courtiers upon his back or the smell of smoke and stone to unsettle him. And it was the place that held the deepest, most poignant and most treasured memories for him.
When they reached the bench, set in a curved embrasure of the outer wall, Boromir took his wonted seat in the western corner and leaned back against the cold stone. A soundless sigh passed his lips, and Aragorn fancied he could see the green eyes that he remembered so well, though he had not seen them in four long years, close in relief.
Smiling to himself, the King settled onto the bench beside his friend and leaned his shoulders against the curved wall. His long legs stretched out, ankles crossed, his eyelids fell half closed, his hands lay at rest upon his midriff with no sword, pen or sceptre to grasp, and for a precious time, he was Strider the Ranger taking his ease in The Prancing Pony.
They sat in comfortable silence for some minutes, then Aragorn said, "You are thinking of Merry."
"Aye, and of another night spent on these walls, dreading the dawn. Mayhap I should not have come here, but it makes me feel closer to Merry, and this night is so much the same."
Aragorn understood exactly what he meant and what he felt, both on that night four years ago and now. He felt it in his own breast – the pain of loss, tempered by the certainty that they would meet again and would, through the deep-rooted bond tied them, know of the other's wellbeing. Aragorn could not use the palantír to watch his Steward, for through some trick of the ancient magic that gave the Seeing Stone its vision, when it tried to see the blind man, it too was blinded. Aragorn had attempted it many times over the years, always with the same result. When he bent the Stone's eye upon Boromir, he saw only darkness. So the place in his heart that was ever aware of Boromir came as a great comfort to this far-seeing King, who could keep all Middle-earth under his eye but not the one person in it whom he most wished to see.
"We sat through the night," Boromir murmured, "listening to the stars. Merry fell asleep, but I could not. It was like the night before a great battle, all of me alert and waiting… too aware of what was to come on the morrow to lose myself in sleep. I saved every minute of what time we had left; memorized it. I can still feel his weight against my ribs as he slept, his snores, the warmth of his body through my mail shirt. I prefer that memory to the day that followed. I hear his snores and strive to forget his tears."
"And will you remember this night as keenly?"
Boromir turned to him, his smile flashing in the darkness. "I will."
"As will I."
"Aragorn, will you do something for me?"
Boromir reached to his waist, pulled an object from his sword belt and held it out to the other man. It was a small scroll of parchment, sealed with the device of Anórien, with no name or direction inscribed on the outside. Aragorn took it, turned it over in his hands, then shot a glance at Boromir from beneath his lashes.
"Aye. Give it to him. See that he reads it."
"Is there any likelihood he will not?"
The smile flashed again. "Nay, but he may sulk first."
Aragorn tucked the scroll in his own belt and answered, laughing, "I will put it in his hand the moment we meet. Have you aught for Pippin and Sam?"
"I wrote them letters, as well, but those I have entrusted to your herald with the other documents and dispatches. This one I trust to no one but you."
"I will find the others and deliver them all together."
Boromir leaned back into the embrasure, his head tilting up so that his eyes seemed to gaze at the stars. "My thanks." After a quiet moment, he asked, "Does Arwen not look for you?"
"She knows where I am."
"'Tis churlish of you to leave her alone this last night in Minas Tirith."
"Nay, only consider. She will have me to herself for at least nine months, no kingdom, no nobles, no Steward to disturb us, so she can spare me for a night."
"Will you wait out the darkness with me?"
"Is that not why we came here?"
"Aye." Boromir stretched his legs out and crossed his ankles, in an unconscious imitation of Aragorn's posture, then he folded his arms across his body and rested his head on the edge of the wall. "Are the stars out?"
"They always come out for you, Boromir. It is as if you summon them at a thought."
Boromir gave a grunt of laughter.
"Nay, I am in earnest. Clouds have covered the stars all this month and more, their light never more than fitful and passing. But tonight, when you want them, they are out in all their splendor for you."
"You spend too much time with Elves," Boromir remarked, dryly, "and with my fanciful brother."
"You might enrich yourself by spending more time in such company."
"To what purpose, when I can already summon the stars at a whim?"
Aragorn laughed and flung his hand up in a gesture of surrender. "Enough! What do you want with the stars?"
"I just like to know they are there. Sometimes, in the small hours of the night, they sing to me."
All desire to bait his friend deserted Aragorn, and he tilted his head up to gaze at the massed stars above him. He had not exaggerated when he told Boromir that they were out in all their splendor. Distant and cold, yet so alive that he fancied he could see them moving as they danced their paths across the night sky. Small wonder that Boromir thought he could hear their music. Or mayhap, he really did.
"Have you ever heard them, Aragorn?" Boromir asked, as reading the other man's thoughts.
"Only in dreams."
"Then you do not listen closely enough. Listen."
Obediently, Aragorn closed his eyes and listened.
*** *** ***
An hour past sunrise, the King's procession left the
The people cried out with joy at the sight of their sovereigns, and they wept at the royal duty that now took them so far from Minas Tirith and Gondor. They threw flowers to the Queen and the White Lady of Rohan, called greetings to the beloved Princes who walked in the King's train, and cheered to see the brave soldiers of Gondor who led the way. As the procession passed, they fell into step behind it, singing, so that most of the population of the city flooded out of the gates behind the official party, spreading along the walls and mingling with those who already waited upon the Pelennor fields.
The Dúnedain stood, with their mounts, beside the road that led north from the gates. The servants and carts that were to follow in the King's train were pulled up on the road beyond the Grey Company, awaiting the order to set out. And all the length of the road, from the walls of Minas Tirith to the Rammas Echor a mile distant, was lined with people come to catch a glimpse of King Elessar and his Elvish Queen as they rode by.
Aragorn strode onto the roadway and lifted his hand to halt the procession. The trumpets ceased their music, and the watching throng fell quiet. They waited for him to speak some word of farewell to them, but he turned instead to the man standing quietly at his side.
At the touch of the King's hand on his arm, the Steward stepped away from the squire who had guided his steps from the Citadel and went down on one knee before his liege lord. Aragorn clasped Boromir's hands between his own and bent his head to say, "I leave my realm, my crown and my people in your care, Boromir."
"I will not fail you, my king."
"I know you will not. I have no token to give you as a symbol of the power I entrust to you. The Crown of Eärnur lies in its wonted place, in the House of the Kings. The Sceptre of Annúminas goes with me into Arnor, that my people there will know their King. The white staff of Stewardship you already hold. And yet, I would give you aught by which all Gondor will know her lord and acknowledge the King's love that is ever with him."
Turning to the Captain of the Dúnedain
who stood behind him, Aragorn held out his hand. The man laid a small,
shining object in his palm and stepped back. Then Aragorn held aloft
the token given him by the grey captain, and all those standing outside
the walls could see that it was a star – the very star that he had worn
on his brow when he first rode to the gates of the
"Bear witness, people of Gondor, that I give into Boromir's keeping the Star of the Dúnedain, symbol of my blood and my birthright, and treasured heirloom of my House!" Dropping his voice so only those nearest heard, he bound the silver fillet around Boromir's brow and said, "A fitting gift for the man who summons stars at need."
"Aragorn, there is no need…"
"Peace. I would have it so." He drew the Steward to his feet and pressed a kiss to his brow. "Farewell, Boromir."
"Farewell, my king."
The two men embraced, and though the Steward could not weep at their parting, the King's eyes were bright with tears. Then Aragorn turned swiftly away to find his mount, hiding his face from those gathered about him. Boromir received the Queen's embrace and parting kiss, then stood a moment in talk with Faramir and Éowyn. When at last all the goodbyes were said and the last rider had mounted, Boromir held out his hand and his squire stepped up beside him.
Aragorn urged Roheryn into the middle of the wide, paved road, facing the city gates, and rose in his stirrups. In a great voice that echoed back from the soaring white walls, he cried, "Farewell, people of Gondor! Live in peace and prosperity until I return, and fear no darkness! Your King is ever with you, ever watching and guiding you! No harm will befall you in your Steward's care! Look for me when the Autumn lengthens into Winter, when I will ride once more to your gates and take up my Crown! Farewell, Gondor! Farewell!"
Then he wheeled his mount to the north and urged it forward. As the rest of the company fell into place around him, a song went up from the gathered people, and kerchiefs fluttered from every hand. There were few flowers yet blooming, but every garden in the city and on the Pelennor had been stripped, and a softly scented rain of petals fell about the shoulders of the riders and under the hooves of the horses as they passed. Slowly, Aragorn rode the first mile of his royal Progress to the Rammas Echor, to the sound of his people's farewell song.
Boromir stood quietly before the gates, a pace or two ahead of the watching nobles so that he did not have to speak to any of them. Gil was tense and silent, her shoulder stiff beneath his hand. They stood together for a long time, while the King's train rode out of sight, the people gradually disbursed, and the courtiers at their backs returned to the city. They stood until Boromir heard Gil give a small, wordless sigh and felt her shoulder droop fractionally.
"They are gone," she said.
"Did they reach the Rammas Echor?"
"I think so. The shadows of the forest have swallowed up the Guards' silver helmets."
"Come, then. Let us to work."
Gil turned immediately and lead the way into the city, back to the Citadel and the duties that awaited them.