Chapter 4: Slings and Arrows
Boromir crouched in the shelter of a tree, his bow bent, an arrow fitted to the string, straining every nerve to catch the tiny sounds from the far side of the clearing. It was very warm for an autumn day and the air was still. The dry leaves above his head barely stirred, and the rustle of delicate feet in the tall, brittle grass carried clearly to him.
A runnel of sweat trickled down his neck. A fly buzzed past his ear and alighted on his hand. Beneath his heavy, mailed jerkin, his shirt stuck to his ribs in a most irritating fashion that made him long to lay down his bow, strip off his outer clothing, and scratch all the places that itched. Only rigid discipline and utter horror at the prospect of facing Legolas' censure, should he miss his shot, kept Boromir poised and still under the onslaught of so many distractions.
They had spent much of the morning tracking the deer to this clearing, and after tramping through half of Ithilien in its wake, Boromir was determined not to let the beast escape him. He would dine on venison this night. And he would prove to Legolas, once and for all, that his brother was not the only marksman in the family.
The creature took yet another step and paused to eat from yet another branch. Boromir had no trouble in placing it, but he could not be sure how large it was or how high from the ground it stood. A misplaced arrow might injure without killing it, and then they would face the grim task of pursuing it through the forest to dispatch it.
The veteran soldier, used as he was to the hard labor of wielding sword and shield, found this silent waiting a trial, and his muscles were beginning to ache from the unaccustomed pose he held, when he at last heard the sound he had been waiting for. As it moved to nibble at another spot, the deer carelessly knocked its antler against the trunk of a tree, giving off a distinctive, hollow tap. An image formed in Boromir's head upon the instant. He twitched his arrow's point down and to the left, aiming for the animal's heart, and let fly.
He reached instinctively to pull a second arrow from the quiver on his back, but he knew, even before he heard the first arrow strike the tree, that he had missed. The fading patter of the deer's feet as it bolted into the underbrush told him that the creature was gone, along with his hopes of a venison supper. Boromir rose to his feet, still holding the unused arrow in one hand and clutching his bow angrily in the other. A stirring in the trees to his right announced Legolas' coming. Boromir cursed under his breath.
"You missed him by no more than a finger's breadth!" the Elf called. "An excellent shot!"
Boromir only grunted at this.
"Nay, I am in earnest," Legolas insisted. "You were betrayed by some treacherous breath of air that carried your scent, that is all. It was naught but ill luck."
"And in consequence, I slew a tree instead of our supper."
Legolas chuckled. "'Tis no matter. The larder at Henneth Annûn is full enough to feed even such a one as you, my friend."
"I am glad to afford you so much amusement," Boromir said, sourly. He wiped the sweat from his face on his sleeve and flexed his stiff fingers, still feeling the cut of the bowstring in his flesh.
"Do not take it so hard. That shot would have done any Ranger proud."
Boromir grunted again and thrust the arrow back into the quiver with an impatient gesture.
"What now, Master Bowman?" Legolas asked, lightly. "Do we resume the hunt? The buck will not run far, and he has left a clear trail."
Boromir frowned at the trees that had swallowed his prey, then shook his head. "Let the beast live to taunt me another day. I had rather find a cool spot to sit, where we can escape these flies."
Legolas hesitated, and Boromir fancied he could feel the Elf's sharp eyes on him, but when he spoke, he sounded as cheerful as always. "As you wish. 'Tis as well we have no kill to butcher on such a hot day."
They found a place to rest and refresh themselves on the bank of a small woodland stream. Boromir lay stretched upon the ground, his head propped on a thick clump of moss. An evergreen spread its branches above him, shading his face from the heat of the sun and filling the air with its heady scent, while beside him, the stream played sleepy music to lull his senses. All was peace and contentment. Even the flies had abandoned him for some other, more interesting object.
Boromir was beginning to truly relax, to let his thoughts drift with the soft gurgling of the water and let go of his restless discontent, when Legolas' voice called him back to the present.
"What ails you today, Boromir?"
He turned his bandaged gaze on the Elf in some surprise and replied, "Naught. I am well."
"Why then did you abandon the hunt? Never have I known you to give up your quarry so easily."
Boromir settled his head back on its mossy pillow and brushed away Legolas' concern with a casual wave of his hand. "I grow soft and lazy with too many hours spent in councils. 'Tis a wonder I can still wield a sword or draw a bow unaided."
Legolas said nothing, his silence a reproach, and Boromir sighed inwardly. He did not mean to hurt his friend or to hold him at a distance, but Boromir found it hard to confide in the Elf. Strong as their friendship had grown in the past few years, and most especially in the months of Aragorn's absence, there were still many things that Boromir could not share with him. He needed Aragorn. He needed the man he trusted above all others, who could open his heart with a word and read his soul at a glance.
He missed Aragorn his voice, his laughter, his firm hand, his ruthless insistence on the truth and his perfect understanding of all that passed through Boromir's mind. He missed him so dreadfully that, at times, it was a physical ache within him. Boromir did not fear that he might fail as ruler in the King's absence. He did not doubt his own ability or the decisions he had made. His need of Aragorn had nothing to do with the governing of the realm. He simply missed him, as he might miss a part of himself that was taken too abruptly from him.
"This is the longest year I have ever endured," he murmured.
Legolas recognized the tacit apology in his words and answered, with his usual ease, "The autumn passes swiftly. Aragorn will soon return."
"Not soon enough to suit me."
Trying another approach, Legolas said, "Beregond tells me that Prince Imrahil is come sooner than expected and bearing news from the South."
Boromir grunted sourly and sat up, reaching for the wine flask he had propped against the nearest tree root. "Aye." He pried the stopper from the flask, drank deeply from it, and held it out to his companion. "He arrived two days ago."
"Is it Imrahil who puts you so out of temper, or the progress of the war?" Legolas asked, as he took the flask.
"What war?" Boromir made no attempt to keep the bitterness from his voice. "There is no war, only waiting and more waiting much like hunting deer."
"Ah. Now I begin to understand."
"I grow weary of the hunt. I chafe at this inaction. If I could but draw my quarry out, lure it to take a single unwary step, I would put an arrow through its throat and be done with war and waiting at one blow!"
"But the Haradrim will not take that step. They do not attack."
Boromir gave a short, harsh laugh. "Nay, they do not wish to die!" Then he added, more soberly, "They cannot attack, with Ciryon's troops among them and the combined forces of Lebennin, Lossarnach and Belfalas barring their passage across the River. Yet they do not withdraw. Beregond keeps watch on the Harad Road, and he reports more men and arms moving west across it all the time, not east, back to their own lands."
"They are amassing a greater force, then, before they move against Ciryon."
"Aye, but slowly. And they make no attempt to bring their army together, to build protected camps, or to prepare for open war. They simply bide their time."
"It makes no sense."
"It does, if they are waiting for something in particular."
"What would that be?"
Boromir fixed his gaze on Legolas, an ironic smile tugging at his lips. "We cannot be certain until it happens, but you and I both have our suspicions, do we not?"
Legolas did not answer for a long moment, and Boromir felt a certain grim satisfaction at having confounded him so thoroughly. Finally, the Elf said, "You are thinking of the broken saddle girths."
"Aye, and the runaway cart that nearly threw me from the bridge at Osgiliath. And the farmer who approached me on the road with a sword beneath his cloak."
"You did not tell me of that!"
"He struck no blow and gave a plausible excuse for going about so armed. There was naught to be gained from spreading the tale. But when all these events are taken together, the message is clear enough."
Legolas' voice hardened with anger. "They mean to kill you, Boromir."
"Aye, but they will fail."
"How many more attempts will they make, before they catch you napping?"
"The Steward of Gondor does not nap unless he has a trusted friend with a sharp blade at his side and stout mail hidden beneath his tunic."
"Yet you wear none today! Why do you risk yourself in such a way?"
Boromir chuckled. "I am not so careless of my skin. 'Tis true that I cannot go clanking and jingling about in chain mail, when tracking forest creatures, but my chief armorer devised a mailed jerkin of sorts that fits beneath my hunting leathers. It is sewn with small plates that do not move or rub together, and so do not betray me. Unfortunately, it is very hot." He shrugged his shoulders, hitching the concealed armor more comfortably into place, then added, with a smile, "The worst an assassin might do is hack off an arm or a leg, not touch any vital spot."
"You make light of it, but 'tis no matter for jests."
"I have survived far worse than the Haradrim can do. Think you I fear them?"
"Nay. I think you relish the danger, and that troubles me."
In answer to the Elf's obvious concern, he dropped his bantering tone and said, wearily, "I am bored, Legolas. Bored with wars that do not come, councils that never end, nobles who flock about me like bejeweled crows and croak their demands in my ears. I want something to do. If the Haradrim would fight, or Taleris would put a foot wrong, I would have intrigues and battles enough to pass the time. As it is, I have naught but the occasional attempt on my life to break the tedium."
Legolas fell silent, and Boromir could feel his keen, troubled eyes on him. At last he ventured, "If you will take counsel from a mere Elf, I may have a way to bring this crisis to a head."
"I would take counsel from a barrow-wight, if it would end this infernal waiting."
"That is well. Come with me to Rohan, Boromir."
"To Rohan?" This suggestion took Boromir completely off guard, and he turned a blank face on the Elf. "To what purpose?"
"I have promised Gimli to pay him a visit at Aglarond, and I mean to spend some days in Edoras as well. Join me, I pray you. Both Gimli and Éomer King would welcome you gladly, and the freedom to ride Rohan's plains, unfettered by kingly duties or assassins, would do you good."
"I cannot leave Gondor."
"Has not Aragorn enjoined you to meet him at Meduseld?"
"He has, but "
"And has Imrahil not arrived in Minas Tirith?"
"Then all is in place."
The note of excitement in the Elf's voice spurred Boromir's curiosity and warned him of deeper schemes afoot. "This is not about a holiday in Rohan, is it, Master Elf?"
"'Tis time to draw out Lord Taleris, tempt him to show his true loyalties."
"Do you think I have not tried?"
"Ah, but you are not the man to do it, my lord Steward. So long as you remain in Minas Tirith, Taleris will do nothing to expose himself. He fears you too greatly, and the place you hold in the King's heart. But were you gone, and the realm left in the care of his old and trusted friend "
"Imrahil," Boromir growled.
"Taleris will feel himself safe."
"Mayhap, but he is too subtle a conspirator to betray himself so carelessly."
"Then set Imrahil to woo him. Let him play upon Taleris' hatred of you and his belief that Imrahil still opposes your Stewardship. Give him an opening to declare himself."
"And if my absence is the signal for war in the South?"
"Then you return at once to take up your Stewardship, and Imrahil goes south to command the armies. But even should aught delay your return, you have provided so well for the defense of Ciryon's borders and placed all your vassal lords in such readiness that the war could go forward without your presence in Minas Tirith. Imrahil, Ciryon and Beregond might, between them, meet any threat from Harad."
Boromir pondered this for a moment, feeling a cold knot form in his innards at the thought of riding away from the city gates, leaving Imrahil and Taleris behind him. It felt too much like turning his back on an armed foe. "All this supposes that I may trust Imrahil."
Surprise sounded plainly in Legolas' voice. "Can you not?"
"My heart would have it so, but my reason urges me to caution," he answered, heavily. "I have not forgotten how he stood up against me before the Council."
"And later swore fealty to you an oath that he has kept in all good faith."
"He calls Taleris friend."
"Would he, if he knew of your suspicions?"
"Would he believe my suspicions?"
"You have not told him of the letters, then."
"I have not."
The Elf stirred uncomfortably. "You are making a mistake, Boromir."
"Am I?" Boromir fixed his bandaged gaze firmly on Legolas, letting a hint of the steel in him show. He valued Legolas as both a friend and an advisor, but he did not relish the note of censure in his voice or the manner in which he questioned the decisions of Gondor's Steward.
"Think you that Taleris will hold himself aloof from his old friend?" Legolas demanded. "Or will he go to Prince Imrahil at once and fill his ears with tales of your unfounded, irrational hatred? How will your orders that Taleris be permitted to touch no document or letter sound, coming from the lips of that embittered lord?"
"Let him tell his tales. Only a great fool would believe him, or one who has already set his mind against me."
"Take Imrahil into your confidence. Then he will be armed against Taleris' poisoned words."
Pride stiffened Boromir's spine and hardened his voice. "I'll not beg my uncle for his allegiance. Either he holds faith with his Steward or he does not."
Legolas flung down the wine flask in a gesture of frustration and cried, "A plague take you, Boromir, but you are a stubborn man!"
"And you are meddling in affairs not your own!"
Legolas' indrawn breath hissed angrily in Boromir's ears, and he braced himself for another tongue-lashing, but the Elf fell suddenly still. After a long moment, in which Legolas remained utterly silent and Boromir glowered in his general direction, he finally said, a trifle stiffly, "I beg your pardon. I did not mean to overstep my bounds."
Boromir shook his head and waved away Legolas' apology with a brusque gesture. Climbing to his feet, he said, roughly, "Let us find the horses. I am done with hunting for today."
Legolas obediently rose to his feet and busied himself collecting their gear. He said nothing, and Boromir felt the tension lying thick between them, but he did not know the words to banish it. He accepted the bow and quiver that Legolas handed him, slung them over his shoulders, and clasped the Elf's offered arm without comment. They set off into the trees together, following the stream down toward Anduin, where Borlas and their horses waited.
As he walked, Boromir reflected on his conversation with Legolas. It had ended badly, for which he was sorry, but much had been said that was of great use to him. Had the words come from a more familiar source, or had the Elf known when to cease his prodding and let a man think, Boromir might have taken his counsel more readily. But for all his long-eyed wisdom, Legolas had little skill in handling the affairs of Men. And it was at times like this, when another, less welcome guide attempted to take the king's place at his side, that Boromir missed Aragorn most acutely.
As if reading his thoughts, Legolas murmured, sadly, "I cannot advise you as Aragorn would, Boromir, and I am sorry for it."
"Do not be." Boromir fought a brief, fierce struggle with himself, then let go of his reserve and added, in a gruff voice, "I beg your pardon for my show of temper. It is not against you or your widsom that I chafe."
"I know it."
They walked in a companionable silence for some minutes, then Legolas said, "You know Aragorn better than any Man and do not need another to tell you what counsel he would give."
A harsh, painful laugh was wrenched out of Boromir at this. "He would tell me to trust in my own judgment and do what I must to safeguard his kingdom."
"What does your judgment tell you of Imrahil?"
The Steward did not answer at once. He let himself indulge in a moment of melancholy, as he listened to Aragorn's voice whispering in his ears and tried to draw comfort from his imagined presence. Then, at last, he said, "That Imrahil will honor his oath to Gondor's King and Gondor's Steward, whatever his true opinion of me."
"So say I."
"Yet I am loath to turn my back on that viper, Taleris, with no surer champion to cover my retreat."
"You will do as you see fit. You know my mind."
They fell quiet once more, but the Elf spoke again before Boromir's thoughts could wander far afield. "Where is the King's company now, think you?"
"The Shire." A pang of longing went through him as he added, "With Merry."
"All our friends are well?"
Legolas' light, musical voice went oddly wistful with his next words. "'Tis a rare gift, that kind of knowing. Few can boast of it, even among the Eldar."
Boromir started and almost let go of his guide's arm. "What mean you?"
"Nay, Boromir, do not bristle at me," the Elf chided, laughing softly. "You did not gain your certainty from any letter, and we both know it."
"You speak in Elvish riddles."
"Very well, I speak in riddles." He laughed again, more brightly, and added, "Yet you will forgive me if I come to you for news of Aragorn, now and then."
Boromir shifted uncomfortably, wishing he could pull away from Legolas without losing himself in the unfamiliar vastness of the forest. "I can give you naught in the way of news. I can only tell you that all is well with him."
"That is enough."
Legolas pressed him no further, for which he was grateful. Though he knew that Legolas would readily understand the closeness he felt to Aragorn, he could not bring himself to discuss it with him. He had not discussed it even with Aragorn, whom he was sure felt it as keenly as he did. It was an essential part of himself, a presence and a warmth that he carried with him always and had come to rely on, no matter how great the distance that lay between them. A piece of Aragorn that never left him. And it belonged only to him not to Legolas or Gil or any of the myriad creatures who surrounded and served him. To speak openly of it was to betray his friendship with Aragorn in a way he could not contemplate.
He did not speak again until they reached the banks of Anduin and struck off west, toward the glade where they had left their mounts in Borlas' care. The air was cooler here and full of the rushing music of the River. The grass was soft under foot, and the scent of dry autumn leaves mingled with the more lively smell of wet earth, mossy stones and the peculiar tang of the water itself.
Boromir felt his spirits lift. He was always more cheerful when in hearing distance of Anduin, for it marked the borders of his lands, and it spoke to him of home. His steps grew swifter and lighter, his back straightened beneath the weight of the mail he wore, and his head lifted. He smiled to himself when he thought of Legolas' larder and the meal they would share in the gracious hall of Henneth Annûn.
Boromir could not enter that familiar place and hear his footsteps echo against the carved stone of the walls without wishing that he could see it once more. He remembered the chamber of Henneth Annûn as a cold and roughhewn place, fit only for a soldiers' camp, with the light of the Window and its waterfall the only beauty it owned. Since his coming to Ithilien, Legolas had much enlarged and altered it, enlisting Gimli's skill in shaping the rooms, turning it from a cheerless refuge to a simple but noble dwelling, fit for an elven lord to call home.
Boromir could feel the changes in it, but he could not draw for himself a picture of how an Elf might fashion a stone chamber to his liking. In his mind, the Elves of the forests lived in trees, as he had seen in Lothlórien. Gimli assured him that Legolas' people lived in a vast cave in Greenwood, and the Dwarf had tried to describe it as his father had seen it many years before, but as Glóin had known only the dungeons of Thranduil's palace, he was not able to paint much of a picture for Boromir. It was one of the small annoyances of his life that Boromir could not see Legolas' home, except with his fingertips.
"I hope you did not overstate the size of your larder, Master Elf," he commented to Legolas, as they clambered over a fall of boulders that spilled from the hillside above into the water. "I am beginning to regret that deer."
"Fear not, my lord Steward. The Elves of Ithilien do not let their guests starve!"
"Then let us make haste. We have an hour's ride yet ahead of us, and I am hungry enough to eat fish raw from the River."
"Ah, the veteran soldier grows soft indeed. Well do I remember our journey through the wilds of Eriador, and how the doughty Boromir walked all the day on a mouthful of bread and a sip of water "
"Only because the halflings ate my share of the rations," Boromir growled.
"Only because you gave it to them."
"Impudent little beggars, the lot of them. I do not recall that you denied Pippin a share of your meal very often."
"Elves need less food than Men, for we carry less weight and waste less energy in talking."
Boromir laughed aloud at this and urged, "On, on, my light-footed friend! I will talk no more!"
"There is no need for such desperate measures," Legolas assured him. The Elf threaded a path between tall, musty-scented ferns, jumped down from an earthy bank, and stepped into the warmth of an open glade. "Here are our mounts, and there is food enough in your pack to sustain you!"
"If my page has not eaten it all. Where is the boy?"
Legolas guided him the half dozen steps to where Fedranth stood, cropping grass in an unhurried way, in the shade of a massive tree. Arod grazed beside him, and as Boromir stepped up close to his faithful mount, the other horse nuzzled his neck, blowing hot, moist air on it. Fedranth greeted him with a soft whicker and returned to his meal.
"Where is the boy?" Boromir asked again.
Legolas, having brought him to his horse, now left him in search of Borlas. "I should think he has found himself a shady hollow and fallen asleep."
"Ho! Borlas!" Boromir bellowed, sending a flock of birds flapping and screeching out of the tree above him.
Legolas chuckled. "You could call the dead from the marshes with that racket."
"So long as my page comes with them. Borlas!"
"My lord!" The call came from the dense trees to the north of the glade, where the ground rose steeply, and was followed by the slither of feet in loose pine needles as the boy half ran and half slid down the hill. "My l "
Even as Borlas' cry was abruptly cut off, Fedranth tossed up his head and snorted in alarm. Boromir instinctively stepped away from the horses, reaching for the dagger at his belt, before a conscious awareness of trouble had touched him. A familiar whine met his ears, and an arrow struck him full in the chest, bouncing harmlessly from the mail beneath his hunting leathers.
"'Ware the trees!" Legolas called, even as a second and third arrow flew at Boromir, and he whipped his bow from his shoulder.
Boromir snatched his dagger free, silently cursing himself for leaving his sword in Borlas' care. He had only the short blade in his hand and the bow on his back, and he was not expert enough in the use of the bow to rely on it for defense. Heedless of the arrows flying at him, he spun around, sweeping the glade with his weapon, straining to locate the archers by sound and the direction of the shots.
Another arrow, this one from lower and to his left, struck Boromir in the back and stuck fast in his clothing. He ignored it, turning to face this new threat, while a cry and a crash in the direction of the first shots told him that Legolas' arrows had found their mark. He heard another arrow cut the air, and pain lanced through his arm.
"You are hit!" Legolas cried.
"A scratch! Find the boy!"
The Elf hesitated for a heartbeat, then obediently leapt up the bank and into the trees. No sooner had Legolas vanished than the lurking bowman to his left came forward to press the attack. Boromir was waiting for him, expecting him to abandon his bow and finish the job with a blade, now that he had his quarry alone and, to all appearances, defenseless.
The man came swiftly and quietly, but not so quietly that Boromir did not hear him. He held his ground, letting the assassin believe that his surprise was complete, until the man was within arm's reach, then he spun on his heel and knocked aside the blow aimed at his exposed neck. The assassin fell back and dropped into a fighting stance, breathing hard enough to betray his surprise. Boromir matched him effortlessly, a grin of satisfaction on his face.
He had no fear. The cool, precise, utterly controlled mood of battle was upon him, and he calmly sorted through the sounds and sensations that reached him, marking them like so many of Aragorn's lists and filing them away, even as he faced his assassin and prepared to dispatch him. The man knew of his hidden mail, so he could strike in only three places the neck, the armpit, or the groin hoping to slip in under his mail shirt and deliver a mortal wound. He had already tried for the neck and failed, so he would choose another spot for his next strike. Boromir knew it as surely as he knew that he could kill this man when and how he chose.
A shift of the man's feet and a catch in his breath warned of his lunge. Boromir parried the blow as it came. His forearm struck the other man's arm aside, and the point of his sword skidded harmlessly across the mail beneath Boromir's tunic. Once again, the man fell back, cursing, and Boromir followed.
Bringing his dagger up in a short, vicious arc, he felt the blade bite into flesh. The other man cried out in fury and wrenched away. With another curse, the man dropped his weapon and fled toward the riverbank. Boromir took two strides after him, listening intently. He heard running feet, then a splash. Still in his cool, detached state, Boromir dropped his own dagger at his feet and slipped the bow from his shoulder. He nocked an arrow with smooth precision, drew back the string, and, after a second's hesitation, let fly.
There was a cry, then a flurry of splashing as the man flailed about in the water, and then silence. Boromir lowered the bow. It had all taken less than a minute.
"He is dead," Legolas said.
Boromir turned to face him, having not heard him approach in the excitement, and smiled grimly. "Aye."
"As are the other two. The page has suffered naught but a blow to the head, but you are wounded."
His left arm burned where the arrow had cut him, but Boromir had forgotten it until that moment. He fingered the bloody rent in his sleeve. "Clearly, they were not Elves."
"No Elf would have missed that shot. No Ranger, either," Legolas agreed, but there was no amusement in his voice.
"They are not of Ithilien?"
"Nay. Haradrim, I should guess, though they wear Rangers' garments. Black-eyed, swarthy, and much slighter of build than the Men of Gondor." Boromir heard him flip the fallen weapon over with his toe. "This blade is of southern make."
"It seems I am blessed with assassins who ever choose the wrong weapon," Boromir said, lightly. "Bowmen who attack with swords, swordsmen who try the bow Mayhap they will send a Dwarf to sail down Anduin after me."
Legolas did not respond to his attempt at humor. "This was a desperate venture. Three unskilled woodsmen against the pair of us."
"They had no thought of returning, I deem. If they could draw you off long enough for one of them to stick a sword in me, they would die honorably, their duty done." Boromir turned to scan the glade with his bandaged gaze. "Where is the boy?"
"Here, my lord," came a sheepish voice from the bank above.
"Have you my sword, Borlas?"
"I have. The blackguard who grabbed me would have stolen it, but Master Legolas spitted him on the end of a knife, and he lies yonder, dead." His voice glowed with admiration for Legolas' prowess and brought a smile to Boromir's face.
"Since Master Legolas has come so magnificently to your rescue, you may help him fetch the bodies down here."
"Nay," Legolas protested, "let the boy stay with you. He has a sore head, and I can carry the dead without his help."
A few minutes later, as Legolas and Boromir worked to bind a dead assassin across the rump of each horse, Legolas asked, "Where will you take this unsightly baggage, my lord Steward?"
"Cair Andros, and on to Minas Tirith at first light. I have a notion that our friends, here, will serve our turn admirably."
"Which turn would that be?"
"The one that leads to Rohan." At Legolas' startled silence, Boromir smiled widely. "This latest and most open attempt at murder gives me a plausible excuse for leaving the city two months early."
"Fleeing assassins?" Legolas sounded incredulous. "None who know you will credit it."
"Taleris will. He holds me enough in contempt to believe that I would flee Gondor to escape my assassins. And if these same assassins follow me into Rohan "
"Then you will know that Taleris sets them on."
"Aye. Only Imrahil, Taleris and Gil will know of my going for some days. We will leave at night, by the stone bridge that leads into the White Mountains and the forests of Anórien, the two of us alone. And Borlas, if he will consent to join me."
"I should be honored, my lord!" Borlas exclaimed, wonder and excitement mingled in his voice. Then he added more eagerly still, "I should not let you go without me!"
"There may well be more blackguards to contend with, Master Page, and I will have no sentry who falls asleep at his post."
"I will not!" Boromir could almost hear the boy's back stiffening proudly. "You may rely on me, my lord Steward!"
Boromir grunted a wordless acknowledgement, turning to thrust his sword into the sheath on his saddle while hiding a smile. Borlas reminded him strongly of Beregond, or how he imagined Beregond must have been as a child, and he felt a strong affection in himself for the boy. His earnest, overly serious mien, that poorly concealed a fierce pride and a lively spirit, made him seem both oddly mature and painfully young. And he had already, in the few months of service to his steward, shown a devotion to Boromir that could not help but win loyalty and liking in return.
At last, when they had their gear stowed properly and the dead men tied securely in place, they paused to wash the blood from their hands and bind up the cut on Boromir's arm. Then they mounted and turned their horses' heads eastward. With Legolas leading the way, they rode toward Cair Andros and the White City.
*** *** ***
"Why did you say nothing of this before?" Imrahil took a hasty turn about the room, halting when his steps brought him near to Boromir's place in the window embrasure. "Through all the summer you have carried this doubt and said no word to me? Your kinsman and the commander of your armies?"
Boromir said nothing, only crossed his arms on his breast and frowned at the outraged Prince.
"'Tis not Taleris alone whom you doubt. I, too, am suspect. Is this not so?"
"Yet you do not trust me."
"I have kept my own counsel. That is all."
Imrahil snorted in disgust and resumed his pacing. Boromir could hear his steps, swift and angry, prowling from rug to stone floor, from the bed that stood at one end of the chamber to the hearth that filled the other. A fire burned lustily on the hearth, filling the room with heat and the smell of smoke. As with all the bedchambers in the Tower all save Boromir's the walls were bare stone, fixed with torches in iron brackets, and candles stood on every flat surface. To Boromir, the atmosphere was unbearably close, hot and choking, and though he knew it made him appear aloof from his kinsman and the discussion at hand, he would not leave the embrasure. Here, at least, with the window open at his back, he could breathe clean air.
Imrahil was not taking his disclosures well, though Boromir had expected naught else from him. The Prince was wounded by his steward's reticence, unwilling to believe in his friend's betrayal and hesitant to credit what he termed baseless suspicions. But in all his protests, Boromir heard no note of deceit, no hint that he was privy to Taleris' treacheries. He was all honest amazement and distress.
"Why do you tell me this, now?" the Prince demanded.
"I need your help."
"Ah! My lord Steward finds he cannot hold all the reins of government alone, does he?"
Boromir smiled sourly at that. "Taleris has been complaining of me."
"He told me that you have taken the care of the southern fiefdoms from his hands."
"Can you blame me, with the South poised upon the brink of war? I am Steward, and in the King's absence, ruler of Gondor. Is it not my duty to lead my people at such a time? In my own person, not through a deputy whose loyalty is suspect?"
"Suspect by you, not by those whom he has served in all faith for longer than you have lived, my nephew."
"Ciryon would not agree with you."
Imrahil fell silent. His steps slowed and carried him toward the table by the fire, where Boromir heard him pour liquid from a flagon into two cups. Silver rang against wood, as he set down the pitcher. "Will you have wine?" He did not wait for Boromir's answer, but carried a goblet across the room to him, saying, "Ciryon finds himself in dire straits and will jump at shadows."
"Do you think him so skittish? Or so reckless as to accuse the first scapegoat that comes to hand?"
"He did not accuse Taleris in his letter."
Boromir took the cup offered him but did not drink. "I have laid what proof we have before you, Uncle. You must make of it what you will."
Imrahil settled into the embrasure beside him, perching on the edge of the deep sill and propping a shoulder against the stone at his side. He seemed calmer to Boromir than before, his anger drained away and dour resignation in its place. "I could wish you had more proof."
"Had I more, Taleris would not be walking free about the city."
Once again, the Prince fell quiet. He sipped at his wine, his manner thoughtful, and in between swallows, he rubbed his thumb absently along the rim of his goblet. At last, he asked, "What is it you require of me?"
"Your services in drawing out Taleris."
Keen eyes fixed palpably on Boromir's face. "You would have me trick and betray an old friend?"
"I would have you unmask a traitor."
"How do you propose I do this?"
"Encourage his confidences. Play upon your old alliance and the petition you placed before Aragorn to strip me of my stewardship. Lead him to believe that you still oppose me and think me teetering on the brink of madness, driven to it by the war, Aragorn's long absence, and my sleeping but ever-present lust for power." Boromir hesitated, then added, more softly, "Use my father's name."
Imrahil started slightly. "Denethor!"
"Aye." Boromir did not press him further. He knew, from the note in Imrahil's voice, that he was remembering all the bitter, incautious words Taleris had spoken over the years about Boromir and his father, and testing them now against these fresh accusations.
After a long moment's thought, Imrahil ventured, "And will you, who kept me in the dark for all these months, trust me now to do your bidding in my own way? Unhampered by your scrutiny and direction?"
"I will trust you in more than this. I will place my city and my realm in your hands, Imrahil, at a time when one ill turn might spell ruin for Gondor and her Steward.
Again, the Prince started at his words. "What mean you?"
"I go with Legolas to Rohan, leaving you to govern in my place. The attack in Ithilien gives me cause to leave earlier than planned." Boromir grinned fiercely at his kinsman, hearing disbelief in his stunned silence. "I flee assassins, Uncle, escaping to lands where the King is my staunch ally and can be trusted to shield me."
Imrahil made a rude noise. "Errant nonsense!"
"Aye, but will Taleris believe it?"
A reluctant laugh was forced from the Prince, as he said, "He will, I deem. Strange as it seems, he both fears and despises you."
"'Tis Aragorn he fears."
"As well he might."
Boromir chuckled. "The King has a long arm, indeed, if he can punish my enemies from so far afield. But I think I will fight my own battle, this time with the aid of my loyal kinsman."
Imrahil laughed with him for a moment, then sobered. "Boromir," he said, laying a hand on the Steward's arm, "I must ask you, for I must know the truth. Do you still hold me in doubt? Do you blame me for the stand I took at the time of Elessar's crowning?"
Boromir answered without hesitation, speaking words he had weighed carefully before coming to Imrahil's chamber. "I know you for a man of honor and a loyal vassal to the Crown of Gondor. I know you stood against me in the full belief that you did right. And I know that you have never, by word or deed, broken the oath you took that day. I would not leave you in possession of Gondor's Citadel, if I did not trust you in this."
"But for yourself, Nephew. In your heart. Do you yet hold me to blame?"
A sigh escaped Boromir, and he dropped his bandaged gaze to the cup he held, avoiding Imrahil's eyes. "For myself, I am not so swift to heal."
"I did only what I thought I must, in the aftermath of your father's madness and the fear that you would shortly follow him."
"I know it."
"And still you doubt me."
"You will allow me the right to some human feeling," he said, wryly. "You are my uncle, the beloved guide and teacher of my youth, the man who gave to me and to my brother some lingering taste of our mother's love when she was taken from us. You have known me since my birth. And yet you stood up before King and Council, degraded me, reviled me, and sought to strip my birthright from me in the name of Gondor's weal." He lifted his blind gaze to Imrahil's face and added, bluntly, "That is a hard thing to forgive."
"It is plain to me that you have not forgiven."
"I have, in large measure. But I will admit to some doubt and some bitterness still."
"You forgive your brother."
"He chose to uphold me and spoke no slander against me. And more to the point, when he made his judgment, he did not form it from whispers, lies or fears. He came to me, talked to me of all that had happened, and did his utmost to understand what was in my mind and heart. He let me have my say, Uncle, and did not condemn me out of hand."
"As I did," Imrahil said, heavily.
"You did what you deemed right at the time. My true concern is what you will do, now."
"My duty," the Prince answered, his manner suddenly stiff with pride.
"That is what I believe and why I entrust this task to you."
"I would have more of you, Boromir. I would have my kinsman's love again."
"As would I. Mayhap it will come, in time. Tell me something, Uncle. In your secret heart, do you trust me?"
"Trust you to do what?"
"Withstand the darkness, the madness and the folly that you once feared would claim me."
"You have withstood it thus far. You have been everything that Gondor and her lords could want in a steward and have bourn your office with honor. You have been your father's son."
"I thank you for that, Imrahil."
The Prince pushed himself to his feet and moved a little away from Boromir, some restlessness evident in his manner. "And I thank you for the trust you place in me, however reluctant." He took a turn about the room, then halted and asked, "When do you leave for Rohan?"
"Three days' time, when the moon is dark."
"Legolas guides you?"
"Aye. He needs no more than starlight to find our road, and he knows the woods of Anórien nearly as well as the Wild Men of the Druadan. We will be in Rohan before any but you and Taleris know of our leaving."
"'Tis a tortuous skein you weave, my lord Steward."
"It was not of my making. I seek only to unravel it, before I find it round my neck." He smiled suddenly. "And, I confess, I am eager to lessen the leagues between me and my king, even if he still tarries in the Shire, drinking the Halflings' ale and thinking naught of me!"
*** *** ***
Aragorn stretched his long legs out before him, his feet towards the fire, and put his pipe between his teeth. Beside him, Pippin blew smoke rings toward the ceiling, laughing aloud at his own prowess, while Sam murmured something about "Old Gandalf" and what he could do with a bit of smoke. Merry, alone among them, seemed melancholy, and Aragorn did not have to ask where his mind had drifted.
It was twilight, and the house at Crickhollow was full of light and warmth. Aragorn had crossed the Brandywine Bridge in his Ranger's gear, alone, and made his way to the little house to share a meal with his Hobbit friends, tired of the pomp and formality of the King's Progress, even if his palace were no more than a pavilion in a field at present. As he strode the lanes of Buckland, slipping unseen through the shadows, he had contemplated the fate of the Shire in the coming Age.
It seemed to the King as if this lovely, sleepy land were poised on the brink of a precipice. One unwary step by a foot too large and heavy would tip it over the edge and bring it to ruin. The time of Men had come in Middle-earth. The time of the Elves had passed, and that of the Dwarves was fading. But for Hobbits, fate was undecided. That the Shire could not remain forever apart Aragorn knew, but he likewise knew that only in staying apart could it hope to endure.
As he had walked, and pondered, and listened to the somnolent gurgles of the Brandywine between its green banks, Aragorn had come to realize that he valued this place as deeply as he did the white towers of Minas Tirith or the mountain fastness of ancient Arnor. The Shire, and the beloved creatures who dwelt there in such supreme ignorance of Kings and armies, was his to save or to lose. He, King Elessar, who knew what it was to love hobbits, must find a way to keep this land apart.
Now, in the company of his old friends, he forgot about the burdens of kingship for a time and did not worry overmuch about preserving the Shire from the might of Men. He thought only of the joy he took in their cheerful talk and in the taste of Longbottom Leaf upon his tongue.
"I do wish you had brought Faramir with you," Pippin was saying, "for he promised me an elvish tale to go with my pipe this evening."
"You shall have your tale another day," Aragorn assured him. "For tonight, I would have my hobbit friends all to myself."
"Tired of being King, are you, Strider?"
Aragorn chuckled at the impudent twinkle in Pippin's eye. "Perhaps. It is true enough that, so long as I go about with Princes and lords in my train, I cannot be simply Strider."
"Well, you are Strider here," Pippin said, smugly. "We will let no one bow or scrape to you in this house!"
"My thanks, Master Took." He lifted his tankard in a grave salute to Pippin, his eyes smiling.
"Still and all, I think we might have trusted Faramir not to show you too much deference!"
Aragorn laughed, and Merry smiled fondly at his boisterous cousin. Sam grunted and snapped, "Let Strider be. I'd as lief have a night with no lords and ladies about, myself."
"You are very quiet tonight, Sam," Aragorn said. "Is something amiss?"
Sam frowned into the fire, his eyes dark with remembered sorrow. "Nothing that can be mended. I was thinking of Mr. Frodo."
"The room does seem empty without him."
"It was just a year ago that he left," Merry said, softly. "Almost to the day."
The smile left Aragorn's eyes, and he murmured, "I would that I could have made the trip West in time to see him again. I will miss him. And Gandalf."
They all fell silent for a few minutes, each lost in his private thoughts of those members of their company who had left them. But inevitably, the younger hobbits' spirits rose again, and talk flowed once more between them. Aragorn let regret and sadness slip from him, holding on to the warmth of remembered friendship and not the sorrow of loss. In truth, he found it impossible to stay melancholy for long in such company.
The night thickened, and the stars came out in force. Merry and Pippin vanished into the kitchen and returned with a snack to sustain them that would have fed a small army seedcakes and crusty bread, cheese, fruit, strong tea, with a bit of cold ham and sausage to fill in the corners. The hobbits set to with a will, giving every sign of not having eaten in weeks, though Aragorn had watched them pack away a fine supper only a few short hours ago.
In the middle of cutting into a seedcake, Merry paused and remarked, "I wonder if one of these could make it all the way to Edoras unspoiled."
"Or uneaten," Pippin added, sagely.
"You need not worry about our provisions, Master Brandybuck," Aragorn said with a chuckle. "We have food enough for the journey."
"I was thinking of Boromir. I want to send a little something back with you for him something of the Shire. He has said, many times, that he would like to sample my seedcakes."
"I doubt such a gift would arrive in any condition to be of use. It is more than two months' journey to Rohan, even should we go by the straight road and make no side turnings."
"What shall I send to him, then? A cask of ale from the Green Dragon?"
"Send him a pouch full of Longbottom Leaf, if you want to make him think of the Shire," Pippin suggested, brightly.
Both Aragorn and Merry turned astonished looks on him.
"For Boromir?" Merry demanded. "He does not smoke!"
"No?" Pippin looked from one to the other, catching their firm, negative shakes of the head, and shrugged. "That is too bad. He is missing one of life's finer pleasures." As if to prove his point, the hobbit sent a stream of fragrant smoke toward the ceiling from between his lips.
The three halflings fell to discussing what gift would be fitting to send to the Steward. Merry chose food, Sam favored samplings from the garden, and Pippin tossed in random suggestions that found little favor with either of them. Aragorn listened in amusement, reflecting that he was pleased to see Merry so involved in the business. Deep as had been his hurt at finding no Boromir among the King's companions, it set Aragorn's heart at ease to hear Merry speak so lightly of his absent friend.
Aragorn was chuckling at Pippin's latest foolishness, when all of a sudden, he felt a cold finger trail down his back. He glanced up and around the room, a frown drawing his brows together, but he saw nothing untoward. Sam gave him an odd look, then turned back to his food without comment. Aragorn fixed his eyes to the fire, still frowning, hunting for the source of his disquiet.
It did not come from the room, nor from the peaceful night that wrapped Buckland. The hobbits were all calm and cheerful, with no shadow upon them. Arwen, ensconced in the King's pavilion on the other side of the Brandywine Bridge, was untroubled, enjoying an evening of music with Faramir and some of her attendants. Whatever the source, it must be farther afield, or deeper within Aragorn himself, and the harder he strained to find it, the more restless and uneasy he became.
Merry's voice broke in on his thoughts, saying, "Never mind, Pip. We have some days yet to think of the perfect thing."
"Nay, Merry." The words were out of Aragorn's mouth before he was even aware of them. "We leave at daybreak."
The hobbits turned to stare at him, blinking in surprise.
"Tomorrow?" Merry asked.
"You cannot leave so soon!" Pippin cried in protest. "What of my elvish story? And Merry's gift to Boromir?"
"I am sorry, Pippin, but it is time that I was headed home."
Sam eyed him narrowly. "You had no such notion when you came here tonight, I wager."
"Indeed, I had not." He smiled affectionately at the scowling hobbit and said, "But all this talk of Boromir and Rohan reminds me that I have duties elsewhere I have long neglected. And if the truth be known, my feet itch to be traveling again."
"As you go on horseback, I should think it's another part of you that is itching," Pippin said.
Aragorn laughed. "I shall miss you, Master Took, and all your impertinent wisdom."
"Then do not go."
The King sobered. "I must. Were I to await my heart's readiness, I would camp forever on the borders of the Shire, but it is not to be."
"Where do you go from here?" Merry asked.
"Rivendell. Faramir has an ambition to see Elvenhome, and Arwen misses her kinfolk."
"Will you take the Redhorn gate and go down into Lórien?"
Aragorn shook his head, sadly. "The Elves of Lórien are scattered gone to the Havens or into Greenwood and Ithilien. The mallorns bloom no more, and I cannot bear to see the Golden Wood so diminished. Faramir must be content with Rivendell."
"From Rivendell?" Merry prompted.
"Home." Aragorn smiled again, but trouble lurked behind the warmth in his eyes. "Home to Gondor."
To be continued