Chapter 3: Poisons in the Mud
The Steward was bored. Gil could see it in the impatient set of his lips, hear it in the bite of his voice, and sense it in his restless, discontented bursts of activity. He spent more and more of his days outside the city, roaming the countryside with the page, Borlas, perched before him in Fedranth's saddle and Master Legolas at his side. His forays into the woods of Anórien or Ithilien always mended his temper, for a time, and for that Gil welcomed them. But his absences were a trial to her, and days such as this one, when he rode out at sunup and left her to her own devices, seemed endless.
It was no part of Gil's nature to indulge her feelings or make them public. If she was lonely without Boromir's company, she did not voice it even to herself. If she hated the atmosphere of the Citadel when he was not in it, she did not betray it by word or look to any creature. If she secretly wished that propriety and her own sense of fitness would allow her to climb into Fedranth's saddle and ride with her lord through the countryside, that she might never have to spend a day apart from him, she squelched that wish as ruthlessly as she did the impertinence of young, unwary squires who thought to make her an easy mark for their raillery.
In one way, Gil enjoyed her solitary days. She liked being in Boromir's chambers when he was gone. They felt comforting and safe, isolated from the currents of politics, enmity and alliance that flowed throughout the Citadel, and filled with Boromir's presence. Gil would not come here when Boromir was in the city for fear that rude tongues might wag and start rumors of indiscretion. But in his absence, this was her retreat, and not even Lord Taleris could gainsay her right to be here.
From her perch in the deep window embrasure, she watched the movement of tiny figures across the plains so far below and strained her eyes for some glimpse of her lord on his magnificent grey horse. Boromir's chambers were high in the Tower, their windows facing the north and east, affording her a wide view of the Pelennor, Anduin and the hill of Emyn Arnen rising from the leafy skirts of Ithilien, with the Mountains of Shadow looming behind.
A ship stood at the quay of the Harlond, sailors and dock laborers swarming over it. The air was still, and the banner at the masthead hung limp, but Gil thought she could glimpse pale blue and deep green among its folds. That would most likely mean that it came from Lord Ciryon in Lebennin. As she watched, great nets filled with cargo swung over the ship's rails. She saw no sign of noble passengers no flash of banners or livery, no armed retinue but one man had left the quay soon after the shipped docked and was already approaching the gates of the city. A herald, she guessed, though she could not make out his dress or device from so far away.
Idly, Gil watched the progress of the work aboard ship. She had no particular interest in goods from the Mouths of Anduin, but she had no duties to perform and nothing pressing on her mind, so this was as much entertainment as she could look for on a sleepy summer day. In between chuckling over the antics of the carters' mules and wondering how many men it took to unload a single net of dried fish bales, she kept track of the herald's progress up through the circles of the city.
At last, he stepped through the upper gate and strode across the Court, a guardsman escorting him. Gil leaned out of the window to get a look at him and saw, unmistakably, the leather tube slung across his back that declared him a messenger. She hesitated for a bare moment, trying to decide whether or not she should put herself forward when Boromir was not here, then she hopped down from the embrasure and hurried from the room.
Bounding lightly down the steps in a way that her drudge's skirts would never have allowed, she reached the first floor of the tower, just as the guardsman ushered their guest up the wide, stone stairway from the main antechamber. Here, one flight up from the Great Hall and Council Chamber of Gondor's Citadel, were the more serviceable and less awe-inspiring rooms where the King actually managed the business of his realm. Taleris had adopted one such chamber as his own, in Lord Elfstone's absence, and it was to his door that the guardsman escorted the herald.
Gil crossed the wide, cool hallway and halted beside the guard, just as the herald stepped up to Taleris' desk and bowed respectfully to him.
"I bear letters from Lord Ciryon of Lebennin to the Steward of Gondor," the stranger said.
"The Steward is not in the city at present. You may give them to me." Gil fancied that Taleris was making an effort to be genial, but his lips were pulled too tightly against his teeth and his eyes glittered strangely when he looked at the device of the leaping fish on the herald's breast. When the man hesitated, he added more tartly, "Come, Master Herald, your letters."
The herald bowed again and handed the tube to Taleris without comment. As the old lord took it from him, his eyes skimmed the guardsman at the door and lighted upon Gil. His face froze and his lips twisted into a cold sneer. Gil was accustomed to this reaction in him, but to her surprise, she saw a new wariness in his eyes when they touched her. A prickle of curiosity and apprehension crawled over her scalp.
"What business have you here, girl?" Taleris snapped.
Her face wooden and her eyes veiled behind lowered lids, she bowed with perfect courtesy and replied, "I saw the messenger arrive and thought I might be of service, as my lord is from home."
Taleris opened his mouth to order her away then seemed to think better of it. "You may indeed be of service." The way he stressed the last word made it an insult. "Take this man to the lower halls and see that he is made welcome."
Gil stepped back, bowed again, and gestured for the herald to walk with her. The guardsman saluted briskly and turned to the stairs, nodding slightly to Gil as he caught her eye. Then he clattered away toward the antechamber and his post in the Court of the Fountain. Gil and the herald turned in the opposite direction, toward the inner stair and the lower regions of the Citadel.
As they started down the narrow, curving stairway, and the open door to Taleris' chamber disappeared behind them, the herald said, quietly, "If my eyes do not deceive me, you are a maid."
Gil answered, neutrally, "You are not deceived."
"Is it the custom now, in Minas Tirith, for women to serve as squires?"
"No more the custom than in Lebennin, I deem."
The man halted, one foot still on the stair above, and caught her arm. "Then you are the one they call Gil. The Steward's Squire."
Gil eyed him warily from behind her wooden mask. "I am."
Letting go of her arm, he reached to the pouch that hung on his belt and prized it open. "My lord charged me to place this in none but the Steward's hands or yours." He laid a small, thick roll of parchment in her hand, turned so that the heavy wax seal was clearly visible. It bore the device of the leaping fish of Ethir Anduin. "Take it and keep it close. None but your lord must hear it."
Gil felt again the telltale prickle of curiosity and unease go through her. With a small nod of understanding, she tucked the scroll into the front of her surcote and smoothed the black velvet over it. It sat against her ribs like a portent of doom. "None will know of it save my lord."
"So I trust." He started down the stairs again, his manner now relaxed and a smile in his eyes when he turned to look at her. "The faithfulness of the Steward's Squire is legend, even so far south as Ethir Anduin."
Gil gave a grunt of amused disgust and pushed open the door at the bottom of the stairs. "Come, Master Herald. Your dinner awaits."
Gil turned their guest over to the Chamberlain and spent the rest of the afternoon in Boromir's chambers, though not to sit and watch the ships at the Harlond or the farmers in their fields. Before she had missed Boromir. Now she chafed with impatience to see his tall, straight figure ride through the gates. She paced the room, her feet silent on the thick carpet, pausing in each circuit at the window to measure the length of the shadows on the fields below. And each time, she would press her hand to the spot where Ciryon's letter lay hidden, wondering what secret it held.
It was dusk when, at last, Boromir returned. Gil was ready for him, having seen his progress up from the gate, and she met him at the door of his chamber where Borlas left him, with his body servant hovering behind her. Boromir strode into the room, bringing the smell of horse sweat and summer fields with him and seeming to fill the room with his presence. He unfastened his cloak and tossed it to Gil, then moved unerringly to the chair that always stood beneath an open window.
"Good evening, my lord," Gil said. "There is water for washing and wine for drinking. Which will you have first?"
"Wine, Gil. Give me wine and help me off with these boots." He dropped into the chair with a groan. "Then we will talk of washing."
Gil placed a silver cup, already filled, in his hand and motioned the servant forward to take his boots.
"A plague take Legolas and all his kind," Boromir said, as the boots came reluctantly away from his feet. "A bow is no weapon for a soldier."
"Did you not hit your mark, my lord?" Gil asked.
"It would serve me better to have hit the Elf," he grumbled, telling Gil that his archery lesson had not gone well. "There must be aught of use in Gondor for her Steward to do, besides shooting arrows at noises in the grass and being tongue-lashed by an Elf. What news have you for me, Gil?"
"There is a ship newly come from Lebennin."
Alerted by her carefully flat voice, Boromir straightened up in his chair and turned his bandaged gaze on her. "Is there, indeed?"
"Carrying a messenger from Lord Ciryon."
"Where is this messenger?"
"In the care of the Chamberlain."
"And his message?"
"In the hands of Lord Taleris."
"Confound you, Gil, I know that voice. Out with it. What's amiss?"
Gil shot a glance at the servant, who had busied himself by the hearth with his master's dusty boots, and said, "My lord, I must speak with you alone."
"Leave us, Emrys," Boromir said, his gaze finding the servant unerringly. "Go to Master Legolas and tell him that I will be delayed, then get you to your own supper."
Gil followed Emrys to the door and bolted it behind him. Then she pulled the letter from her surcote and crossed back to Boromir's chair. "Here, my lord," she said, touching the scroll lightly to the back of his hand, "this is for you."
He turned his hand, in obedience to her signal, and took the scroll. As his fingers slid over the wax seal, he frowned. "What is it?"
"A letter from Lord Ciryon, given me in secret with orders that no one but you should hear it."
Boromir's frown deepened, but he wasted no time with questions his squire could not answer. Breaking the wax with a flick of his thumb, he held the letter out to Gil and said, "Read it."
She took the scroll from him and unrolled the single sheet of parchment. The light in the room was failing, and she could not make out the writing until she crouched by the window and spread it flat on the stone sill. There, the last remnants of daylight fell upon the paper.
The letter began abruptly, without the usual flourishes and greetings, and Gil felt the prickles of unease start again as she scanned the first lines. She could not read quickly or with animation, and she sometimes hesitated over badly-penned or difficult words, but Boromir was used to her style and did not try to hurry her. He merely sat, waiting, until she began to read aloud in her flat, colorless way.
My Lord Steward,
I write to you in haste and some urgency. My borders are beset, my people threatened, and my pleas for guidance from the King have gone unanswered. Thus it is I turn to you for succor in the hope that you are still, as you have ever been, our staunch friend and strong shield arm.
The Haradrim are moving. They gather in the disputed lands to the east in far greater numbers than we have ever seen, and my spies tell me they carry weapons of war. They have not, as yet, done violence to our own people in that region, but it can only be a matter of time, and they draw too near the River for safety. They mean war. Of this I am certain.
I would send my men across the River to garrison the disputed lands and protect our borders, but for the law made by your own father forbidding such action. To my knowledge, the King has not changed that law, and I am loath to take up arms in lands not my own without his leave, but if I hear nothing from you, I will do it. I cannot do otherwise and keep faith with my people.
I must now broach a grave matter to you, my lord. I must place my trust in a man I once, to my shame, bitterly opposed, and I can but hope that you have forgiven me. Bluntly, I believe some treachery is afoot. Twice have I written to the King, once ere he departed west and once since, deeming the first letter lost by some accident and the Steward well able to advise me in the King's absence. I know not to whose hand and eye those letters came. I know only that they did not reach King Elessar, for I must believe that he would not leave me thus, unanswered and unaided.
This letter you now read is known only to myself and my herald, a man I trust implicitly. He has orders that none but you or your squire shall learn of it. Know, by this, that I believe you blameless in the treachery that works against me and place all my faith in you, my Steward and liege lord. If I am wrong, then all is lost. But I am not wrong. Boromir, son of Denethor, would not betray Gondor's lords or Gondor's people. And so I look to the son of Denethor for the help I sorely need.
Give me leave to take armed men across the River and garrison the settlements of South Gondor. Give me leave to summon troops from the fiefdoms adjoining mine and form an alliance with those lords and princes who can best support me. Lastly, give me some assurance that Gondor's Crown will come to the aid of Lebennin, should the war I fear take shape.
I pray you, do not delay your answer. Time grows short. And I caution you to guard your back, my lord Steward. All is not well in the White City.
Ever your servant,
Ciryon, Lord of Lebennin
Gil finished reading and lifted her head to gaze at Boromir. He sat very still, face harsh and scowling, lips pressed tightly together, and hands clenched on the arms of the chair. She could almost hear the anger bubbling up in him, made all the more terrible by his stillness.
"My lord?" she ventured.
Boromir's head snapped around and his blind gaze fixed on her. He bared his teeth in something that was not a smile. "Taleris."
Gil did not answer, for she deemed that Boromir needed none. He flung himself out of the chair and began to pace furiously about the room, keeping to the middle of the floor where he knew there was no furniture to hinder him. His hand opened and closed with every step, as if he missed the weight of a sword in his grip.
"Taleris Taleris so diligent in the sifting and reading of the King's letters. So dutiful. So eager to be of help. Taleris, who stood atop Ciryon's fortress tower and saw nothing moving in South Gondor save wind and sand." He stopped abruptly and turned toward Gil. "There were official letters as well, you say?"
He pulled another fierce grimace. "I have a mind to hear those letters, Gil. I wonder what the diligent Lord Taleris has done with them?"
"Shall I fetch them, lord?"
"Nay, I will fetch them myself."
Gil moved promptly to the hearth, where his boots lay, and picked them up. Crossing back to the chair with them, she murmured, "Your boots, lord."
Boromir sat down and pulled on his footgear. Then he came swiftly to his feet and held out his hand. Gil stepped into his clasp, and together, they moved toward the door.
In the passageway, a servant was lighting candles in the wall sconces at the top of the stairway. Those few candles were the only light on this floor of the Tower, as the King allowed no torches here and no flame at all near the Steward's door. It had taken an army of servants two days of scrubbing to get the smell of torches out of the stone walls, and Boromir still grimaced sometimes at the telltale odor of soot and stale fire. But servants and visitors needed some small measure of light to guide their footsteps, so Aragorn permitted candles at either end of the corridor, far from Boromir's chambers.
Gil matched her stride to Boromir's impatience and brought him swiftly to the head of the stair. He put his free hand on the wall, fingers trailing lightly along the rough stone, and bounded down the steps almost too fast for Gil to keep up. Down and around they went, following the curve of the Tower past many floors, until they reached the one where Taleris kept his office.
When they strode up to Taleris' door, they found it standing open and the old lord seated behind a table stacked with parchment. He glanced up, as Steward and squire walked into the room, and Gil caught a glint of pure hatred in his eyes. But he was clearly expecting Boromir. He pushed back his chair and rose courteously to his feet.
"My lord Steward."
Boromir pinned him with his bandaged gaze and nodded once, curtly.
"You have heard about the messenger from Lebennin, I deem."
"I have," Boromir held out his hand, "and I would see the letters he carried."
"Certainly." Taleris, Gil noted, had the letters sitting directly in front of him, stacked neatly in readiness. He picked them up, rolled them into a loose scroll, and laid them in Boromir's hand, saying, "I knew you would come to fetch them, else I would have brought them to you myself. They bring dire news. All is not well in the South."
"Indeed?" Boromir smiled humorlessly at him and lifted the roll of parchment in a mock salute. "I thank you for the warning."
As the Steward turned for the door, Taleris said, a fawning note in his voice that set Gil's teeth on edge, "I will gladly advise you in this matter, lord Boromir, should you wish it. These are lands I both know and love, and I am loath to see them suffer this way. I am anxious to be of help!"
"I will not know what advice or help I need, until I read the letters." With that, Boromir turned on his heel and strode out, leaving Taleris still standing behind his littered table.
"To Aragorn's study," Boromir growled.
He did not, in truth, need Gil's guidance to find that room, high in the Tower, where Steward and King kept their private sanctum. But he needed her for other duties, and Gil would no more think of leaving him to find his own way than she would push him off the city walls. She brought him to the chamber door and there left him, knowing he could find his way about the room without her, to light a pair of fat candles that stood on the table.
Boromir did not take his usual seat but perched on the edge of the table and turned a grim face to his squire. "What say you, Gil? Did he give us the same letters Ciryon sent?"
Gil took the scroll from his hand and spread the parchment out on the table. She scanned the first document as quickly as she dared, her lips moving in silent speech as she read. It was a letter writ in the usual formal manner begun with lengthy salutations and many titles, and ended with a familiar seal set in green wax but it was essentially the same as the one sent in secret to Boromir. The second document proved to be a list of settlements, headcounts, reports from agents of new incursions from the East and descriptions of weaponry. On an impulse, Gil took the private letter from her surcote and spread it out beside the larger scroll. They were written in the same hand.
"He did, lord, or so I deem. Would you hear them?"
Boromir waved that away, scowling. "Nay, not if they tell the same tale."
"There is much more, here. Lord Ciryon has been watching the movements of the Haradrim for some months and noted it all down."
"You shall read it me, but not now. Not now." His scowl deepened, and Gil sensed a rising excitement in him, on the point of bursting out in a fever of activity. "Why would he give me the letters, if it was he who hid the others?"
"Mayhap it was not he."
Boromir shot her an impatient look. "It was. It could be no other. But why, then "
Swift, light footsteps sounded in the hallway, interrupting Boromir's thoughts and bringing him to his feet. He was already halfway across the room when Legolas strode in. Holding out his hand, he cried, "Legolas! You are come in good time!"
"What is this, my lord Steward? First you disdain my company at supper, and now you greet me as a rescuer!" the Elf said, laughing. "Am I spurned or welcomed?"
"Leave off your fooling," Boromir snapped, though the smile lingered on his face. "This is a serious matter."
"So I gather from your churlish mood. What's amiss?"
"Give him the letters, Gil."
With Boromir hovering and muttering about him, Legolas sat down to read the letters. He mastered them quickly, but not quickly enough to suit Boromir, who was already firing questions and speculations at him before he had laid down the last sheet of parchment. Finally, he slid the papers aside and lifted his keen eyes, no longer alight with laughter, to the Steward's face.
"You are right. It must be Taleris who kept the letters from reaching Aragorn. Was it not Taleris himself who brought the missives back from the southern fiefdoms? The ones that assured Aragorn all was well and it was safe to leave Gondor?"
"Ciryon writes of sending word to the King before he departed on his Progress. That would mean he sent it in Taleris' keeping."
Boromir pondered that for a moment, nodding. "Most likely. There was a letter from Ciryon among those Taleris brought that said naught of threats to the east, but he would have ample time to write such a letter himself and destroy the original."
"And the second one sent, after Aragorn's departure?"
"That would be simpler still. Taleris is deputed to handle all matters concerning the southern lands that do not require the Steward's weight to settle them. No one would wonder at his receiving dispatches from Lebennin. They would not even think to tell me, so natural would it seem. If Gil had not seen the messenger today " He straightened up suddenly, his shrouded gaze turning instinctively to find Legolas. "Ah! That explains it!"
"Be a little clearer, I beg you."
"That is why Taleris gave me the letters tonight, instead of turning me off with a lie. Gil saw the dispatches in his hand, and he knew she would tell me of them."
Now it was the Elf's turn to ponder. He did not frown, pace or chew his lip as Boromir did, but he became very still until it seemed as though he barely breathed. After a long moment, he said, "It seems plain enough. Taleris knew you would demand the letters. Either he did not have time to write a second false letter, to replace these, or he deemed it too dangerous to play the same trick twice, and he gave you the real ones. But this means that you have no proof of his tampering."
"I need no further proof!" Boromir snarled. "I know!"
"What steps can you in justice take, based solely on your knowing?"
"None, as you well know!" The Steward flung himself away from the table and began to prowl the floor like a caged animal. "Had I one scrap of paper with which to condemn him, I would hurl him into the deepest dungeon in all Gondor and let him rot! But as it stands, I can do naught to punish him, the wretched cur!"
"What will you do?" Legolas asked.
Boromir halted and turned to grin fiercely at his friend. "Much to help Ciryon, and mayhap a thing or two to hinder Taleris. Gil!"
"Run quickly and fetch Ciryon's herald. Also, bring me the Chamberlain, Aragorn's chief secretary, and the captain who commands the Fourth Company of the Citadel. Send Borlas for the Guard captain. I want you back here, double-quick.
Gil flew through the Tower in search of the people Boromir wanted. She found Borlas first and sent him on his errand to the Guard barracks, then she plunged into the lower halls to rout out the rest. She escorted the herald to the King's study herself and stood quietly by while Boromir questioned him about his lord's attempts to reach Aragorn. The man knew nothing save what Ciryon had told him upon giving him the letters, so Boromir did not press him.
"You will sail for Lebennin at sunrise tomorrow," he said, "and you will take an answer back to your lord. Wait in the chamber next to this until my squire brings it to you, then go straight to the lower halls with the Chamberlain and stay there. Do not venture into the main part of the Citadel. My guardsmen will escort you to the Harlond come morning."
The herald bowed and left, and Boromir turned his fierce attention on the Chamberlain. His commands were brief and precise, and he sent the man hurrying away to prepare a room for the herald. Aragorn's secretary was set to writing letters, which Boromir rapped out in an even more abrupt style than usual. First the letter to Ciryon, granting him all that he had requested and assuring him of the Crown's aid in any armed conflict that arose. Then another letter, to be copied and sent to the lords of Lossarnach, Belfalas, northern Lebennin, and Dor-en-Ernil, to Imrahil of Dol Amroth and Beregond of Ithilien, commanding them to lend Ciryon men, arms and counsel, and to ward their own borders against threats from the east.
In the middle of composing this missive, he was interrupted by the arrival of the Guard captain. Borlas ushered the man into the room, looking flushed and excited. Gil drew him to one side with a twitch of her head and sat him down on the hearth to await Boromir's further orders. The captain stood to attention in the middle of the carpet, eyeing the Steward with respect and a kind of stiff-legged, bristling devotion that reminded Gil of a dog guarding its beloved master.
"You sent for me, my lord?" the soldier rapped out.
"Aye. You are come in good time. Only let me finish this letter."
"I am yours to command, my lord."
Boromir dictated the closing lines of his letter to the secretary, then he leaned against the edge of the table and crossed his arms, looking entirely relaxed and more than a little dangerous. Gil, who knew his moods and gestures so well, sensed a deep, grim satisfaction in him. "I want three errand-riders sent to me immediately, Captain, prepared to travel at first light."
The captain nodded. "Aye, lord."
"And I want six of your men to escort a messenger to the Harlond, also at first light."
"Lastly, Captain, you will make it known to all Companies, most especially to the Citadel Guard, that any letter, dispatch or message that arrives in Minas Tirith is to come to my hands and my hands only. Lord Taleris is not to touch an official document, regardless of who sent it. The man who puts a letter in Taleris' hands will be discharged and turned out of the city! Do I make myself clear?"
"Aye, lord." The captain looked highly uncomfortable, but at the same time, curious.
"And Captain?" Boromir smiled, and the captain flinched. "Do not be subtle about it. Make certain Lord Taleris hears you issuing the order."
"If he challenges it, my lord?"
The smile widened into a grin. "Send him to me."
As the captain saluted and marched out of the room, Boromir turned to Legolas and said, smugly, "Let us see how long it takes the old cur to come sniffing about my boots."
*** *** ***
Taleris eyed the growing crowd in the tavern sourly, his expression of noble disdain at odds with his merchant's garb. The air was thick with the smoke of tallow candles and the stench of too many bodies in too small a space, the room alive with the sound of ribald laughter. This was market day on the Pelennor, which meant that every laborer, artisan and farmer with a coin or two in his pouch eventually found his way through the city gates and into one alehouse or another. By sundown, every such establishment below the fifth circle would be crammed to bursting. This one had not yet reached that state, but it was far too crowded for Taleris' comfort, and he had to drive off many a poacher from his table in the privacy of a dark corner.
When yet another figure loomed up beside him, Taleris turned on the intruder with a snarl. Then he saw Gabril's black eyes gleaming maliciously at him from beneath his close leather cap, and he relaxed.
"What took you so long?" he grumbled, as the other man turned to signal the barkeep with a raised hand.
"What has put you in such a temper?" Gabril countered. He folded his wiry frame into the chair opposite Taleris and smiled at him mirthlessly. "You are sour as week-old milk."
"The Steward knows."
Gabril blinked at him, taken aback but not visibly troubled by his announcement. "Knows what?"
"That the Haradrim have moved into South Gondor in great numbers and now threaten the borders of Lebennin. You must withdraw your people at once. Pull back behind the Harad Road before Ciryon musters his troops to cross Anduin and finds you where you should not be!"
The man of Harad stared at him coolly and said, "That is not possible."
"What? That Boromir knows of your movements? I tell you he does!"
They fell silent, as the barkeep trundled up to them with a foaming tankard and set it down before Gabril. Only when the man was lost to sight in the smoke and the press of people did Gabril speak again. Leaning toward Taleris and dropping his voice, he murmured with threatening softness, "Nay. 'Tis not possible for the Haradrim to retreat."
"Then you will die!" Taleris hissed.
Gabril shrugged philosophically. "All Men die. If our time is now, then we will embrace it."
"Mayhap the Men of your land embrace death, but I, for one, prefer to live."
The black eyes glittered at him, full of laughter and contempt. "I have marked it."
"I am not willing to die for Harad's cause."
"You do not march with Harad's men; why then should you die with them? You sit safely in your White Tower and collect your fees, while my people perish upon the sands of Harad from hunger or upon the fields of Gondor in battle. What concern is it of yours how many perish?"
Taleris bared his teeth in a snarl and whispered, fiercely, "Your people will die an honorable death, fighting for land and survival. I will die a traitor's death alone, despised, forced to kneel and bare my neck to an executioner's sword! Or mayhap the good Steward will set his tame Elf to put an arrow through me! You choose to mock me, Gabril, call me coward, sneer at the safety in which I live, but you know nothing of my peril! Nothing!"
"Because there is no peril."
"I tell you, Boromir knows!" The wild fury and panic in Taleris' eyes made Gabril sit back abruptly, distancing himself from the old lord. Taleris ignored his retreat and continued to rail, "By some agent, some hidden means, he knows of the letters Ciryon sent. Letters that never arrived. Letters that went astray when in my keeping! He has given orders that I am to touch no official document! Any man who puts such a document in my hand is discharged from the King's service and banished from the city! And I am barred from his councils. I! The King's deputy! Denethor's most trusted advisor and support throughout his years of rule! Left standing outside the Council chamber with the door shut in my face, while the Steward's blind bastard of a son plans a war in my fiefdoms!"
Gabril shot out a hand to grip his arm. "Hsst! Calm yourself! You will end by getting us both clapped in irons, you fool!"
Taleris swallowed painfully and glanced about the room, looking for signs of interest in the drinkers around them. No one seemed to have noticed his outburst. "I am calm." He threw off Gabril's hand and took a swallow of ale to wet his throat. "I am done."
Gabril eyed him narrowly for a moment, then demanded, "If Boromir knows of your part in this, why are you walking free, instead of languishing in some dank hole of a dungeon?"
"He has no proof to set before the Lords of the Council. But he will have proof enough, if he speaks to Ciryon."
"We have already agreed that Ciryon will die."
Taleris shot him a sour look. "You will find him hard to kill, with the armies of Gondor massed along the River to contest your crossing." His face contorted in an ugly smile at Gabril's startled reaction. "From Ringló Vale to Anduin, Boromir has called up the men of the South to defend our borders. I saw the dispatches go out at dawn today, carried by land and by water, too many of them to waylay even if I dared! Your plans are exposed, Man of Harad, your people in danger, your foe warned of your coming and risen against you. And there is another thing to consider."
"Boromir has granted Ciryon leave to send armed men across the River."
The black eyes widened. "That is against your own law!"
"Aye, but what cares Boromir for our law? His father's law? What Denethor deemed wise, Boromir deems inconvenient, and so he sets it aside. And now, my friend, your people will find themselves hard pressed to reach the River at all. They are scattered, trying to hide their numbers, and easy pickings for the men of Lebennin. The Haradrim will never form an army and never cross Anduin. Ciryon will live to tell his tales of me, and Boromir will have my head on a pike as a present for his vagabond king."
Gabril waved off this bitter prediction impatiently. He seemed to have regained his balance, if not his sense of humor, and now chewed thoughtfully on his underlip, eyes fixed on the tankard in his hands. "You go too quickly from hindrance to despair, my lord."
"And you count too heavily upon victory, when your swords are not yet blooded nor your battle lines drawn."
"The troops in South Gondor are a nuisance, no more. We always meant to kill the men of Lebennin. We will simply do it on the eastern shore of Anduin, rather than the western."
"And the army?"
"Ah. The army."
Taleris threw him a wary glance, unsettled by the note of satisfaction in his voice. "This will be no rabble of fishermen and peasants, bearing staves. These are the Men who met Sauron's vast armies upon the Pelennor Fields and defeated them."
"But then they had a leader, a general. A King."
"Boromir wields the power of the King, and he commands the heart of every soldier in Gondor."
"So he does." Gabril smiled, and Taleris felt a frisson of alarm go through him. "I see a way out of both our difficulties, my lord. A very plain way."
"What way is this?" Taleris asked, suspiciously.
The old lord's face froze, his eyes wide with shock and his mouth agape.
Gabril chuckled and took a long swallow from his tankard. Wiping his lips on his sleeve, he smacked them in appreciation and said, comfortably, "All Gondor is thrown into chaos. The soldiery lose their beloved general. Imrahil is summoned in haste to Minas Tirith to rule, where he finds his trusted friend of many years ready to support him. And Taleris' treachery is forever hidden. What say you? Is it not an elegant solution?"
"Elegant?" Taleris pulled his mouth shut with a snap and brought his fist crashing down on the table. "'Tis madness!"
"How madness? Do you not want the cur dead?"
"It matters naught what I want! I will have no part in this folly!"
"Ah." Gabril sat back, his lips curling in a contemptuous sneer. "We are grown timid again. You need not strike the blow, Taleris. 'Tis a simple enough thing a knife in the dark, an arrow from a rooftop Weight the body with stones, feed it to the River, and the deed is done. I have men eager enough to do it."
"Nay!" Taleris was passing beyond anger, beyond fear, into a place of fevered, desperate resolve. "Hear me, Gabril, and heed what I say. Boromir must not be touched!"
"Must not? This is folly, indeed! I am not your servant, my lord of Gondor, nor am I subject to your commands."
"Have you any idea what King Elessar will do to you, if you harm his steward? Better to crawl back into your sandpits and starve to death! Better that you were never born!"
"Now we go from folly to fantasy."
"I was there when he condemned two men for an attempt on Boromir's life. They were dupes of greater men, no true assassins, and they gave Boromir no more than a scratch, yet they lost their heads for it. I saw the King's own kinsman and captain shot down in the street, like a mad dog, because he lifted his hand against Boromir. And not one tear did Elessar shed for him. Not one tear, for a lifetime of love and service ended with an arrow through the neck."
"I do not fear your king's anger. He is far away, and I am but one among thousands of my people, faceless and nameless to him."
"But not to me." Taleris bared his teeth in a humorless smile. "When Elessar rides down upon us, like a storm out of the West, I will not face his wrath alone. I will deliver you up to him."
"Then you are base, as well as cowardly."
"And you are thrice a fool if you think I will suffer for your act!"
"You were willing enough to have Ciryon die, and you call him friend."
Taleris cracked his hand down on the table and snarled, "Enough! We are deadlocked, you and I, and it is time we faced it! You can expose me as a traitor. I can expose you as a conspirator and would-be assassin."
"At least I am no coward."
Taleris' rage boiled over, and he lurched to his feet, knocking his chair over with a crash. He could feel the eyes of the room upon him, but he was beyond caring. Leaning over to bring his face within a hand span of Gabril's, he whispered between his teeth, "Call me that again, and I will kill you myself."
"Or die in the attempt, more likely."
"I am not afraid to try, though you think me such a coward."
"Go home to your master," Gabril said, coldly. "He doubtless needs your help to find the privy."
"Remember what I said, Gabril. It was no idle threat."
The other man gave no answer, only slumped back in his chair and lifted his tankard to his lips. Taleris could not determine, from the insolent, sneering mask of his face, whether he had believed his warnings. With all the room staring at them, he could say no more of the matter. He could only pull the shreds of his dignity about him and stride out of the tavern. He turned once to look back at Gabril, but the thick, smoky air and gloomy shadows hid him from sight, and he left none the wiser as to what the Man of Harad planned for Gondor's Steward.
To be continued