Chapter 15: Of War and Healing
From the battlements of Ciryon's great watchtower, Aragorn could see league upon league in every direction. To the east spread South Gondor. It's fallow fields could show a shabby, unkempt green in springtime, but now at the onset of winter, all was drear and brown. To the south, just beyond the Tower keep and the town that sprawled around it, Anduin the Great widened and broke, throwing an arm to the west. A busy wharf lined this western channel, crowded with ships of every size and men intent upon their lord's business. Westward stretched the sweet, rich fields of Lebennin, to the distant highlands of Dor-en-Ernil and the Bay of Belfalas. Northward, Anduin wound like a ribbon of grey flecked with silver in the sunlight, beyond the reach of even so keen an eye as that of Gondor's King, until it vanished into the shadows beneath the feet of Ered Nimrais. Even the sky above his head seemed wider and clearer and more far-reaching from this vantage point.
Everywhere that Aragorn looked he saw the rumor and the wounds of war. At the wharf to the south rode the ships that had carried the King's armies from Minas Tirith, while the armies themselves marched in flashing ranks about the feet of the tower. The winter-dry fields to the west were marked with great, ugly tracks like scars, where baggage trains and marching men had torn the earth, while all along the shore of the Great River Gondor's armies camped, their banners brave against the dun of field and sand. Smoke hung over the water in a pall, still rising sluggishly from the heaps of smoldering timber that had once been garrison forts, now turned to funeral pyres. It cloaked much of the eastern shore, staining the pale autumn sky and hiding the movements of the Haradrim from the King's eyes.
Aragorn stood long at the parapet, gazing in every direction, but turning most often to the east and the threat of the Haradrim lurking beneath the veil of smoke. Ciryon stood close beside him but did not speak, unwilling to disturb his king's thoughts. At length, Aragorn turned his back on the sight of his wounded and embattled fiefs and gestured for Ciryon to follow him down from the rooftop.
They descended a flight of stone steps and found themselves in a large, square chamber, furnished for the comfort of a lord but now serving as a command center. The rich carpet was stained with wax from many candles and with mud from many boots, the table was strewn with maps, and the cold hearth was piled with parchment and message pouches. Ciryon's war banners stood rolled and cased in one corner, awaiting the day when he unfurled them in battle, while his sword, helm and shield hung on the wall above them.
Seated at one end of the table, his wrists still weighted with chains and a sullen glower upon his face, was Lord Taleris. Imrahil bent over the table, studying the largest map but keeping one hand on his sword hilt as a silent warning to his prisoner. As Aragorn and Ciryon came down the stairs, both men looked up to follow the King's progress. Imrahil's grey eyes burned with eagerness, while Taleris' were dark and distrustful. Aragorn strode over to the table and turned the great map about to face him.
As he had on the rooftop, he fell into deep thought, leaving his captains waiting upon his pleasure, and when he finally spoke, it was more to himself than to them.
"Where will they come?" His eyes traced the line of Anduin painted on the hide map. "Where will the blow fall first?"
"Mayhap they will not come at all," Ciryon ventured. "They have fortified positions, easily defensible. Were I the chieftain of the Haradrim, I might well stay upon the eastern bank and wait for Gondor's armies to bring the battle to me."
"They cannot," Aragorn stated, without lifting his eyes from the map. "The fields of South Gondor have not been tilled or husbanded in many long years. There are no stores of food, and what might be gleaned from the wild will be gone ere winter comes in earnest."
"My men abandoned stores of food when they fled the forts."
"Not enough to feed the armies of Harad through the winter, I deem."
"Nay. For a month, at most, if they tighten their belts."
"They will cross the River, then, and soon," Imrahil said.
"Aye. For all their purpose in this was to take the southern parts of Lebennin for themselves."
The Prince shook his head. "'Tis madness. How could they hope to hold one part of your lands against all Gondor?"
Aragorn's eyes slid to the man sitting, chained, at the end of the table. "It seems they hoped to control the coastline and the Ethir with their fleets, bringing great numbers of their people here by ship to swell their armies and colonize the land. With enough warriors on land and ships at sea, they might force us to treat with them. It was a fool's hope, but desperate men are often foolish."
"Their fleets will never reach the Mouths of Anduin," Imrahil said with a grim smile. "My swan ships are but a small part of the force gathered in the Bay of Belfalas against them."
"And my ships sail with the tide to join your fleet," Aragorn murmured, his eyes on the map once more and his thoughts turning away from these matters that had long since been decided. All his care now was turned upon divining the plans of the enemy and choosing the place where the Men of Harad would cross the River.
"Beregond holds the Crossings of Poros and the meeting of the two rivers," he murmured, thinking aloud once more. "They cannot cross north of Poros. Nor can they cross the delta, without becoming mired in its many channels. Your fisherfolk guard those waterways, do they not?" he asked Ciryon, with a glance from beneath his frowning brows.
"Aye. No Southron boat will cross Ethir Anduin."
"Then it is between the Tower keep and Poros that they must come."
"They will attack the Tower, surely," Imrahil opined.
"The keep and the wharf will be their ultimate goal, for only by taking Ciryon's stronghold can they capture him and claim his lands, but that will be only one arm of their attack, I deem." He ran a finger down the map, following the line of Anduin south from the place where the River Poros flowed into it. "Poros is fortified and further strengthened with a thousand men-at-arms from my force. South of Poros, the western bank is high and rocky, difficult to scale in numbers."
"Aye, but still there is a narrow strip of beach along the water's edge. When the spring floods come, the water will drown it, but at this season, a small craft could land anywhere along this stretch of the River." Ciryon's finger followed Aragorn's, then paused at a spot some ten leagues north of the Tower, where a symbol inked on the worn hide indicated fortifications. "Here, the river forms a cove, and the strip of sand becomes a sizable landing. A ravine cuts through the bluff, where a stream has worn it away. I have blocked the head of the ravine and thrown breastworks across it at the top of the bank. A company of archers from Morthond man the fortifications, and a larger force with spears and swords camps behind. North and south of this place, men patrol the upper banks, but in no great numbers. Our hope is in denying them the beach and ravine."
"Is there moorage to the south of the cove?"
"Not for two leagues, at the least. The bulk of our armies are camped to the south, where the river's banks sink down, until a man might step from boat to shore without wetting his feet."
Aragorn fell once more into a brown study, leaving his companions to wait in anxious silence. At last, he tapped the drawn fortification with a fingertip and said, his voice more certain than his heart, "This is where they will come."
"They cannot land an army on that little beach!" Imrahil protested. "A small diversionary force, mayhap, but not a concerted attack! It must be on the keep that the blow will fall."
"One blow, certainly, but not the first or the most vital. If the Haradrim can take this fortification, they open a way through our defenses. An army might land, crossing the River in small craft, debarking in handfuls along the northward shore, then march down to the cove and gain the upper bank. Then we have enemies on two fronts, threatening to crush us between them, as they assail the wharf and keep to the south and march down upon us from the north."
He tapped the small cove again, more decisively. "This is where the Haradrim will think to strike us hardest."
"I will send men north at once to strengthen the garrison!" Ciryon said.
"Not openly, and do not place them on the fortifications. We do not want to alert the enemy that we have divined his plans, thus forcing him to change them and likely surprise us. My counsel is that we leave the garrison unchanged but march a great force of men-at-arms north under cover of night. We will position them to cut off the march of the Haradrim south."
"You mean to draw the Southrons across the River into a trap," Imrahil said.
"Aye, for I want all their armies committed to the attack and none left on the eastern shore to harass us later."
Ciryon said, eagerly, "We can hide a small troop of men with pikes or axes in the thickets, along the shore north of the landing. Once the Southrons have taken the fortifications above, these men can hole the boats, thus cutting off their retreat."
"Good. Very good."
"If the Haradrim attack both the keep to the south and the beach to the north, we must needs split our armies to meet both threats," Imrahil mused, his eyes on the map.
"We have men enough."
"Aye, but where will the King fight?" He raised his eyes to Aragorn's face, and they gleamed with a martial light. "The banner of King Elessar Telcontar will rally the soldiers of Gondor and put strength into their flagging arms, but by the same token, it will draw the fiercest fighting and the most terrible of Harad's champions. On which front will it fly, my lord?"
Aragorn smiled. "On both." He tapped the square on the map that indicated the keep, surrounded by symbols of many colors for all the lords and armies gathered there. "My household guard and the companies that sailed from Minas Tirith with me will remain here, and they will carry the jeweled banner of my kingship into battle at their head. But the King himself will ride north to seal the trap."
Imrahil's smile now matched his lord's. "And the King himself will be banner enough to make valiant the hearts of our soldiery."
"So I deem." Turning to Lord Taleris, who had listened to all of this in brooding silence, Aragorn said, "What say you, my lord? Will the Haradrim fall into our trap?"
"I know not," the prisoner growled, "but if they do, Gabril will lead the men assaulting the beach and fortifications. His pride will not accept less than to win the day with the might of his own arm."
"That is as I hoped. You will come with us, then, so you may confirm his capture or death."
Taleris bowed his head.
"By your leave, my lord King, I would remain with my men at the keep and order its defense," Ciryon said.
"That is where you can best serve both Gondor and Gondor's King. I gladly place the weal of your land and people in your hands, and place my own army under your command."
Ciryon bowed deeply.
"As for my lord Prince," Aragorn said, turning to Imrahil, "I give him leave to choose where he will wield his sword. Long have you sat idle in Minas Tirith, chafing at the duty that held you there while your own lands are threatened by a fearsome enemy. No more, my friend. The enemy comes. Where would you meet him?"
"At your side, my king," Imrahil answered without hesitation.
"Some, at least, of the Knights of Dol Amroth must remain here to bait the trap."
"Those I leave gladly under Ciryon's command and ask only a company of the most valiant to ride with me."
"So be it." Aragorn straightened up and regarded the others, eyes alight. "We ride at nightfall and have much to do ere the sun sets. First, I must see to the disposition of my own armies and the making of my camp. Ciryon, have you scribes and errand riders handy?"
"In plenty, my lord."
"Send them to my pavilion and get your horses saddled. We have no time to waste. Come."
With that, he led them from the chamber and down the long stone stairway, past a number of rooms full of bustling men, to the main hall and the courtyard beyond. Legolas and Gimli awaited him there, together with the captain of his guard and a number of lords who had sailed south with him from Minas Tirith.
Legolas held Roheryn's reins; he offered them to Aragorn. "Whither away, my king?"
"To victory, my friend. But first, to the King's encampment, where I must write many letters and make many lists."
The Elf gave a musical laugh. "'Tis well, then, that Boromir is not with us! He cannot abide the making of lists!"
"Aye." Aragorn's smile turned wistful for a moment, then righted itself. "He is better where he is." The King leapt into the saddle, wheeled his mount and rode from the keep, followed by Elf, Dwarf, Prince and a host of Men.
*** *** ***
Merry sat at a small table, pulled up close to the hearth for warmth, working his way through a generous supper of roast mutton. Very good mutton, he thought, munching happily, though not up to the standard of his table at Crickhollow. No grazing in all Middle-earth could rival the sweet fields of the Westfarthing, and none of the Big People had the knack of cooking the meat to crisp up the fat just so. But still, a very respectable meal, even for a Hobbit.
He had just taken another large bite, when he heard a knock at the door. He chewed and swallowed quickly, washing the meat down with a gulp of ale, and was spluttering slightly when he called out to his visitor, "Come in!"
The door opened, and Gil slipped into the room. "The Steward has finished his supper, Master Perian," she said, impossibly stiff as always. "You can go to him when you like."
"Already?" He looked ruefully down at his own loaded plate, then up at Gil. "I've only just begun. He must have eaten very quickly, or… Did he throw it at your head?"
"Nay. He ate it all, without protest. Almost without pause."
The frown she wore made Merry raise his eyebrows at her. "That ought to make you happy. Why do you look so worried?"
"It was mutton."
Merry paused with his fork halfway to his mouth, his jaw sagging open in surprise. "Mutton? Boromir ate mutton?"
Gil nodded lugubriously.
"How did you manage that?"
"I did not manage it. I put the tray in front of him, and he ate it."
Merry whistled, then took another bite of his own supper and munched it while Gil watched him darkly, as if offended by his hearty appetite in the face of such dire trouble.
"Well," Merry offered, between bites, "reckless as it was of you to serve Boromir mutton for his supper, I think it's a good sign that he was willing to eat it with so little fuss."
"I had rather he had flung it in my face."
"So I see." Merry pushed aside his plate, wiped his fingers on his napkin before folding them in his lap, and turned his full attention on Gil. "The question is, why? I should think you'd be relieved that Boromir is finally mellowing a bit."
Gil sank down on the hearth, allowing her to face Merry directly. "'Tis not mellowing, but surrender. He has lost the will or the strength to fight even the smallest battle." The distress radiating from her was palpable, and as she began to voice her fears, the words came out in a rush. "Do you know that he has not spoken a hasty or rude word to me in days? He does not resist me. Me. His squire! His servant! Whom can he bend to his will, if not his own servant? And yet he turns meek at a single sharp word from me!"
"I wouldn't call Boromir meek, precisely."
She brushed that away with a peremptory wave, then began to wring her hands. "I saw how the smell of that meat sickened him. He should have flung it in the fire or bellowed at me to take it away. Instead, he tamely ate what I gave him, no matter how foul he thought it."
"Is that not what you want? To see him eat his supper?"
That brought a flicker of a melancholy smile to her troubled face. "That is what the Queen wants. I want my lord back as he was, with all his stubborn crotchets and rash words. I want the horror of these last weeks forgotten, his body mended, his thoughts turned to Gondor and his duties there. And when he teases me, laughs at my odd ways, calls me a fool, I want it to be because he has won, not because he draws back from hurting me."
Merry reached across the small table to place a hand on her arm, squeezing it in sympathy. "Perhaps he's simply too tired to fight. Even a man as strong as Boromir can reach the end of his endurance. If he surrenders to your will, perhaps it's because he knows he can trust you to make the right decisions and pick the right battles for him."
"I am only a foundling brat, turned squire. It is not my place to pick the Steward's battles or impose my will upon him."
"Nonsense," Merry said, bracingly. "You are one of Boromir's closest friends and the person he depends upon the most. Who better to guide him now?"
Gil shook her head and, pulling awkwardly from Merry's clasp, turned to stare blindly into the fire. The sight of her distress troubled him as her ranting about meekness and surrender could not. "You are truly worried about him, aren't you?"
She spoke without turning to meet his eyes. "I have been his faithful squire and guide since the day I first donned this livery. I have been happy beyond my dearest hopes, Merry, and I prayed in my heart that it would never change. But is has changed; he has changed. The way he treats me. The way he speaks to me. Everything is different, and it frightens me."
Merry did not know what to say to this. He pondered her words, her fears, as he bid her goodnight, finished his meal and smoked his evening pipe. He was still pondering them when he left his own chamber and went down the passage to Boromir's door. Giving it a single, warning tap, he pushed it open and slipped into the room.
Boromir sat quietly in his bed, leaning back against a heap of pillows, doing nothing in particular so that Merry might have suspected that he was asleep had he not known his friend's habits so well. Boromir always waited for Merry after supper, unable to relax enough to sleep without the halfling near him. They spent a companionable hour or two together, talking, listening to the sound of the wind or rain against the window shutters, remembering, until both Man and Hobbit were ready for sleep. It was the most pleasant time of day for Merry and, he suspected, for Boromir as well.
"Hullo, Boromir," he said cheerfully, crossing to the bed and clambering up onto the high mattress. "Did you enjoy your supper?"
Boromir lifted his head to glare in the Hobbit's direction and snorted with disgust. "I need not ask if you enjoyed yours, so long has it taken you to eat it."
"Gil stopped by for a visit." Merry hesitated, then added, "You upset her very much."
"What have I done, now?" the Steward demanded in exasperation.
Merry laughed. "You ate your supper a little too readily, it seems. She thinks you're going into a decline."
"Devil take the wench, there is no pleasing her," Boromir grumbled, settling his head back into the pillow once more.
From this close, Boromir looked a trifle sick, as if the mutton had not agreed with him, but otherwise entirely himself. His growling responses reassured the Hobbit, driving away visions of his friend pining away into a premature dotage. Whatever had caused the change in his behavior toward Gil, it was not meekness or surrender. Not even simple weariness, if Merry was any judge.
Crossing his legs and settling comfortably into his usual place beside his friend, Merry shot Boromir a measuring look and asked, with seeming innocence, "You mean to please Gil, then, by bending to her will?"
"I mean only to keep the peace," Boromir said, sounding more than a little peeved. "I am beset with her champions, all urging me to be kind to her, to have a care for her feelings, to reward her faithfulness with soft words – as if Gil wants soft words from me!"
"She does not," Merry interjected firmly. "You would do better to ignore the well-meant meddling of her many champions and treat her as you always have."
Boromir sighed, a frown creasing his brow. "That is what she wants, I know, but I fear I cannot give it to her."
"I have changed, Merry, and Gil has changed, though she does not see it. I hold her dearer than any treasure or crown, and I would gladly give her aught that she asks of me. But how can I wipe away the pain of these months and forget all that has happened, even for her?"
"You can't, of course."
"How, then, am I to give back to her the Boromir she has served and loved so faithfully?"
Merry gazed at him for a long, quiet moment, then said, "You have figured out that much, at least."
"I am not a fool, Merry."
"Not most of the time," the hobbit retorted, "but I was beginning to wonder how long you could live side-by-side with Gil and not see how she feels."
Boromir turned a wry smile on him and said, "A man of honor does not look for love in his servants."
"Gil is not a servant!"
"She would tell you otherwise."
"And you listen to her? Now you are being a fool," Merry snapped.
Boromir sighed and appeared to sink more deeply into the pillow. "Mayhap I am."
"Boromir, why don't…" Merry began, but he broke off in sudden embarrassment. He thought he understood what had prompted Boromir's sigh, what had altered his manner toward Gil, and what prevented him from going back to their comfortable ways of the past, and if a Hobbit was any judge of the hearts of Men, it had nothing to do with his suffering at the hands of the Orcs. Merry also understood, as he had not before, what had frightened Gil so much. He understood, and he pitied her, for he could see no way back for either of them.
Reaching out to take his friend's hand in a familiar, comfortable gesture of affection, Merry fell to thinking.
"Is it a clear night?" Boromir asked some uncounted time later, startling Merry out of his reverie.
The hobbit looked toward the open window, where he could see a square of night sky and stars glimmering through thin veils of cloud. "For the moment. More rain is coming soon, I think."
"Will you walk with me, Little One? I feel the need of open sky and the stars' music."
"Are you sure you can walk so far?"
Boromir smiled. "If you will lend me your support."
Merry still hesitated, not sure that he should encourage the injured man to wander about the hilltop on a winter's night, but Boromir's smile and the steady clasp of his hand wore down the hobbit's resistance. "I'm sure the lady Arwen would not approve."
"'Twas she who sent me a plate of mutton for my supper. She has forfeited any right to my allegiance." This forced a laugh from the hobbit, and Boromir's smile widened into a grin of triumph. "Come, Merry, let us enjoy the night and each other's company. Bring your pipe."
"You don't want to smell my smoke!" Merry protested, even as he slid off the bed to fetch Boromir's warmest clothing.
"The wind will blow it away, ere it can poison me with evil dreams."
Surrendering to a will stronger than his own and a love that could deny his friend nothing, Merry helped the Steward dress for the cold, then he ran to his own chamber for his cloak, pipe and pouch full of Longbottom Leaf. He returned to find Boromir standing beside the bed, leaning on the tall walking stick Arwen had provided for him. He looked so much like the man who had set out from Rivendell to tramp the leagues of Eriador and Wilderland with the rest of the Fellowship, that Merry was almost surprised to see the black cloth covering his eyes. It seemed for a moment as if the years had fallen away, and Boromir of Gondor was whole and hale again.
Then Boromir took a painful step toward him, leaning heavily on his staff and reaching a hand out to find him in the darkness, and the vision passed. Merry bounded up beside him, happily accepting the weight of his hand, and they started for the door.
"You have grown taller, Merry."
"It is the Ent draughts," Merry laughed. "Pippin and I drank with Treebeard, when we visited his ent-house near Isengard, and you see the result!"
"I must cease calling you Little One, for soon you will be as tall as a Man."
"I would still be Little One to you, were I as tall as the King himself. Lean on me, Boromir. I won't break."
"Indeed, you will not. Lead on, my dear Merry. The stars await us."
*** *** ***
The Haradrim chose a moonless night of mists and fogs in which to launch their attack. the stars were veiled, wrapped in a dank shroud that allowed no glimmer of light to touch the breast of Anduin, sliding between her sleeping banks. They came in skin coracles, small boats, rafts built of scorched logs taken from the garrison forts, any craft that could float and carry a man, his armor and his weaponry. In muffled silence they poured across the River to fetch up on the narrow strip of sand and gravel that ran along the water's edge. There they tied their boats to the bushes that trailed their roots in the water or, where no better moorage could be found, to one another and then clambered from boat to boat to gain the shore.
A dozen of the most seaworthy of these craft made straight for the beach below the ravine. There, they disgorged half a hundred warriors, all tall men with gaudily-painted armor and many tokens of victory dangling from their spears. The tallest and fiercest of these wore a helmet adorned with fantastic spikes and horns, and gold gleamed at his throat, ears and wrists. Even the dark braids of hair hanging from beneath his helm were woven with gold.
This great chieftain was the first to set foot on the beach and the first to scale the steep bed of the ravine. He it was who led the assault on the fortifications, hurling himself against their earthen battlements and clawing a way over them to bring his curved blade against the necks of the hapless defenders. Men of Gondor fell, and Men of Harad swarmed up the ravine to follow their chieftain through the breach. By the time the men landed to the north reached the beachhead, the fortifications were theirs, and no sword stood between them and the wide fields of Gondor.
The Haradrim, led by the gold-bedecked champion, marched away from the River before the first blush of dawn had touched the sky to the east. They gave no thought to the boats left tied to the shore – the boats that offered their only means of escape should their attack fail – nor to the slaughtered defenders left lying upon the battlements behind them. They did not stay to count the dead and so did not realize that most of the bodies they left to rot were no longer there when the sun rose.
From his perch atop the fortifications, Legolas the Elf watched the boats streaming across Anduin, and his sharp eyes could count the very knobs upon the invaders' armor in spite of the darkness. He watched them land, listened to their attempts at stealth as they moved down the shore, and counted the number of the enemy as accurately as if watching them parade before him in bright daylight. When the assault came, he paused to dispatch a few Haradrim, then, as ordered by Aragorn, slipped away to find his horse and ride for the King's bivouac. So word came to Aragorn of the exact number of the enemy troops and the success of his trap.
The sun rose in a sea of mist, turning the world a soft, shadowless grey, to find the Haradrim marching triumphantly away from the Great River. Their march took them westward, through glades and thickets netted with silver dew where naught challenged them, and not even the birds marked their passing, so quiet and still were the fields of Lebennin on that winter dawn. As they came down from the rocky highland through which Anduin cut and onto the wide, tilled farmland behind, they turned south, planning to circle behind the pickets posted nigh to the River and come upon the King's army unawares. They moved with great speed, more like to a company of Orcs than of Men, trampling the dry grasses with their heavy boots and hacking at anything in their path for the joy of watching it fall.
An hour after sunrise, the mists were thinning and turning to gold, when the Haradrim reached a kind of bottleneck. A small woodland crowded their ranks upon the west, while the final bulwark of the highlands to the east thrust stony fingers across their path. The great chieftain who strode at the head of the army did not slow his pace, secure in the knowledge that the Men of Gondor knew naught of his march and would not dare to bar his passage if they did. Behind his cruel mask, his black eyes were bright with the lust of battle and hard with contempt for an enemy that had proved itself so pitifully weak.
The Haradrim had nearly passed through the narrow defile between rock and wood when Aragorn sprang his trap. Archers suddenly leapt up along the stony ridge and sent a rain of deadly arrows into the packed ranks of southrons. Horsemen galloped from the wood, swords flashing in the new light, to cut off their retreat and ride down the rearguard in blood and ruin. On the wide plain beyond, the chieftain found himself assailed by the very army he had not believed would dare to challenge him. And at the head of that army rode a man with no standard above him, no guard about him, but who wore his kingship like a crown of flame upon his brow and wielded a sword more fell than the sorceries of the Black Land. An Elf and a Dwarf rode on his right, and upon his left a Prince of Men with the blood of the Eldar in his veins and death in his hand.
The Men of Harad did not break and run; they had no where to go and no means of escape. Their only hope was to fight as they had always fought, with no thought of retreat or defeat, crazed with bloodlust and the fierce joy of battle. Long and hard the Men of Gondor struggled to reclaim that bloody field, and dearly did they pay for it, ere Prince Imrahil cut down the last banner around which the fiercest champions rallied. Among the heaped dead, the great chieftain of the Haradrim hurled himself at Imrahil, but the Prince hacked through his wrist and sent both his fell hand and smoking sword tumbling into the dirt. Disarmed and grievously wounded, the southron could fight no more and suffered himself to be dragged away to join the remnant of his army, now prisoners of Gondor's King.
It was not yet midday, and the battle was done. Aragorn sent messengers south to bring the news to Ciryon, then he rode over the field to count the dead and assess his victory. Beside him rode Legolas, Gimli and Imrahil, all unhurt but all weary and grim-faced, their eyes bleak as they gazed upon the piled bodies of friend and enemy alike.
The army of Harad was destroyed, nearly two-thirds of its number dead and most of the rest injured in some manner. Aragorn's losses were less, but heavy still, and he begrudged the cruel Haradrim every drop of Gondor's blood spilled upon her land. There was no mercy in his heart when he rode up to where the prisoners sat and lay in a huddled, miserable mass near the edge of the wood.
Eyeing them coldly, he gave orders for food and water to be brought and field dressings offered to the injured. "Sort out the leaders and bring them to my camp. Do the same with the dead, once you have succored the wounded and sorted the bodies. I want to see every captain, chieftain and champion that marched with this army, dead or alive. Do you understand?"
Imrahil bowed and said, "I will undertake this labor. I know their manner of dress and rank, and I can find the leaders for you."
Aragorn nodded his thanks and, wheeling his mount, rode back to the tents where his healing skill was so desperately needed. When the moon had sunk into a bank of mist over the western vales and the battlefield lay in weary darkness, the King at last left his labors among the wounded and returned to his own encampment. There he cast himself down on his pallet and slept like one of the dead piled upon the field, taking no heed to the group of prisoners under guard outside his tent.
Morning brought another pale, watery sunrise, and Aragorn arose with the first light to greet a messenger from Ciryon who galloped up on a lathered horse before the King and his companions had shaken off the remnants of sleep and broken their fast. The messenger leapt from his horse and dropped to one knee before Aragorn, offering him a scroll sealed with the leaping fish of Ethir Anduin. Aragorn broke the seal and quickly scanned the few lines inked on the parchment.
Turning a grin of triumph on Legolas and Gimli, he offered them the letter. "Ciryon has won the day! He holds both keep and wharf, and the main army of the Haradrim is beaten back."
"His losses are light, compared to ours," Legolas said.
"Aye, but some hundreds of the enemy fled back across the River," Gimli growled. "That is ill news."
"Mayhap that is why his losses were so few. The Haradrim could retreat, so they fought with less ferocity." Aragorn gazed thoughtfully at the middle distance, pondering this news, then snapped his fingers and exclaimed, "We will pursue them across Anduin and finish them! I will not leave the enemy camped upon our borders, even in such small numbers or with winter coming apace to starve them out. This war has dragged on for far too long already, and I'll see it done."
Legolas flashed a smile at him and asked, hopefully, "Do we take ship at once?"
"Nay," Aragorn laughed, "not so soon, I'm afraid. We have much to do on this side of the River, before we deal with the other."
"Speaking of which," Gimli interjected, "the most pressing task to my mind is breakfast. If I am to spend my day burying corpses or carting wounded southward, I must have a proper meal to fortify me."
"Will cold meats and ale serve?" Aragorn asked.
Before the King could summon a servant to fetch the meal, they all heard the guard outside speak a challenge and a familiar voice answer. Then Prince Imrahil ducked inside and bowed to the three companions.
"I beg your pardon for intruding, my lord, but I have brought the prisoners as you commanded. The dead have been sorted, as well, and those I deem of high rank laid out for your inspection."
"Ah, that is well!" Aragorn clasped Imrahil's arm in gratitude and headed for the tent opening, breakfast forgotten. "Bring Taleris to me."
Legolas and Gimli followed Aragorn from the tent, while Imrahil hurried to his own pavilion, where Taleris stayed under the Prince's vigilant eye.
Aragorn found a score or more of prisoners lying on the grass outside his tent, surrounded by soldiers of his household guard and lashed together on a long tether. None now wore their fantastic armor or carried standards strung with trophies as was their wont, but all bore signs of high rank and great prowess in war. As Aragorn walked slowly down the line, gazing at each in turn, they glared sullenly back at him from eyes circled with black and red paint and bunched the great muscles in their scarred arms as if gripping the hilt of a curved sword to hack and maim him. He said naught, offering no threats or promises, but took in each face and made his own judgments as to who had truly led this assault and who had followed in the hope of slaughter or plunder.
Imrahil returned quickly with Taleris in tow. The traitorous lord had remained safely in Imrahil's camp throughout the battle and now looked both well rested and well fed. His clothes were rich, his beard trimmed and his hands clean. But still he wore the chains upon his wrists that Aragorn had refused to strike off, and as he walked through the bustling camp full of soldiers, he tried to hide his shameful burden in the folds of his surcote.
As he drew near to the King, Aragorn called out to him, "Come, my lord, it is time to redeem your promise. Look upon these men, living and dead, and tell me who it was conspired with you to rape my lands and slay my people."
Taleris looked from the ragged line of prisoners, now being dragged to their feet by the guards, to the row of silent corpses laid out upon the grass beyond, and ducked his head.
"Will you do your duty and earn your measure of mercy, Taleris, or will you betray Gondor and Gondor's King even now?"
"I will do it," Taleris answered dully.
Without waiting for permission from Aragorn, he moved first to the row of cold corpses and looked carefully at each still, ghastly face. When he had studied them all, he shook his head and turned to the prisoners. Aragorn saw his shoulders stiffen, saw the reluctance in him to face these living men with his double treachery, and he understood Taleris' eagerness to find Gabril among the dead, first. Had Gabril died upon the field, Taleris might have pointed to his body and walked away, without ever meeting the eyes of those he had helped to this dismal end.
Face them he must, however, so he did it rapidly, striding down the line of bound men until caught and held by one fierce, black, hate-filled gaze. Halting in his tracks, he nodded toward the prisoner and snarled, "That is your man."
Aragorn stepped up behind Taleris to look at the man who had cost him so much in blood and pain. He was small for a chieftain of the Haradrim, shorter than Aragorn by more than a head, but the old battle scars upon his body and the gold he wore proclaimed him a great champion. His right hand was gone, struck off at the wrist, and half a dozen fresh wounds showed through the rents in his clothing, yet he stood tall and met Aragorn's measuring eyes proudly. He did not appear to feel his wounds or to notice his ragged, filthy, bloodstained condition. He might have been decked out in ornate armor, with a scimitar in his hand and a jeweled standard above his head, to judge by his bearing.
For a long moment grey eyes met black, and neither man backed down. At last Aragorn spoke, his voice hard as adamant. "Does Taleris speak the truth? Are you the one who calls himself Gabril?" The southron said naught but looked away, unable to hold the King's eyes longer. "Are you the man who crept, disguised, into my city to win a war by foul treachery and murder that you could not win by force of arms? Speak now and tell me, are you he? Or keep silence and die for him, be you he or no. Die at a traitor's word."
The contempt in Aragorn's tone stiffened the prisoner's back and brought his head up sharply. Eyes snapping with hate and fury, he hissed, "I do not fear death! Do as you will, King of Gondor!"
"So be it." Turning to Imrahil, Aragorn said, "Put him in chains and place guards upon him. He will return to the keep with us, where I will have him executed before our combined armies. I want every soldier who fought and bled this day for Gondor to see him die."
Imrahil nodded toward the line of bound men. "And these?"
"Put them with the rest of the prisoners. I will decide their fate ere we ride south."
As the King headed toward his tent and his breakfast, Taleris called out to his retreating back, "And what of me, King Elessar? What is to be my fate?"
Aragorn halted and fixed cold, emotionless eyes upon the other man. "You have done your duty. Your family, estates, and noble name will not suffer for your treachery, though you have caused the most profound suffering to all Gondor. I keep my word, Lord Taleris, even in this."
"You will not parade me before the army in chains, or have me bare my neck to the headsman?"
"How, then, am I to die?"
"I must take counsel with Lord Ciryon and with Prince Imrahil, those whom you have most injured with your betrayal, and together, we will decide the manner of your death. But be comforted, my lord. You have earned your measure of mercy."
Taleris bowed his head, and his stooped shoulders began to shake. Aragorn watched him in silence for a moment, knowing that the tired, broken old man was weeping and finding no pity in himself. Without a word, he turned and ducked into his tent.
*** *** ***
It was raining again. Boromir had grown heartily sick of the sound of rain over the last weeks, bringing as it did the promise of another day shut up in the Golden Hall with no chance of smelling free air or feeling the wind upon his face. He had lain in his bed all day, listening to the storm raging against the closed window shutters, growing ever more restless and irritable, until desperation drove him out of his room. Now he paced the chill passages of Meduseld, leaning upon Gil's shoulder and his tall staff, hounded ever by the stink of torches and the incessant drumming of the rain.
Gil guided him down two shallow steps, gripping his arm tightly to help him navigate this small but painful obstacle, then started along yet another hallway. He felt the touch of cold, wet air upon his face, heard wind rattling heavy shutters, and knew that they had come once more to his favorite spot inside the Hall. This corridor ran along the outer wall, with chambers on the one hand and a row of large, deepset windows on the other. In good weather, the windows stood open to the wide hilltop terrace, and stone benches set in the embrasures gave him a pleasant seat on which to rest his aching limbs. Even in bad weather, with the windows closed, Boromir felt nearer to freedom here. The eddies of winter air that crept around the shutters cut the smell of smoke and allowed him to breathe more easily.
"Are you tired, my lord?" Gil asked, when Boromir slowed his pace.
"Nay. I am enjoying the fresh air."
Gil made no answer, merely turning away her head and matching her steps to his more precisely. She had grown more taciturn of late, rarely speaking unless prodded and never offering an opinion. Boromir could not remember the last time she had chided him for his temper. He missed the sound of her voice, and her unwonted silence formed a strange heaviness about his heart.
They had covered half the length of the hallway, when a new set of footsteps approached. Boromir recognized the clatter of heavily booted feet on stone and the scrape of riding leathers, but the intruder did not move like a man of Rohan. His stride was heavier and firmer than that of the light-footed Rohirrim. He was nearly running as he came down the two steps that Boromir had taken so painfully.
The Steward whirled around in surprise, nearly losing his balance and clutching at Gil for support. He knew that voice better than his own and had longed to hear it again through many a lonely day of his exile. "Faramir?"
"Aye, Brother!" Faramir sprinted up to him and threw his arms about Boromir, embracing him warmly. Boromir laughed as he dropped his staff to return the embrace, and Faramir laughed with him, both men shaken with the joy of this meeting. Stepping slightly away, Faramir caught his brother's arms and held them tightly enough to hurt, but Boromir did not protest. "Ah, Boromir, it heals my heart to see you so well!"
Boromir grinned teasingly at him. "You did not believe my letters? You feared I was spinning pretty tales for you, while I languished upon a bed of pain?"
"Nay." He tightened his grip for a moment in an excess of unspoken feeling. "Nay, but it is one thing to read the words, written in another's hand, and an entirely different thing to see you before me, on your feet, walking, laughing… I never thought…" He broke off in confusion, tears thickening his voice.
"Enough, little brother, or we will both grow maudlin. I am healing, as you see, thanks to Aragorn and Arwen and Merry and my ever-faithful Gil. You need have no fears for me. But what brings you to Rohan in such foul weather? You have not taken the time even to put off your wet clothing or wash the smell of horses from you, so you must be in some haste. What news do you bring?"
"All good!" Faramir assured him. "Elessar sends word from Lebennin that the Haradrim are defeated, their armies broken and their chieftains his prisoners. He has executed the man who conspired with Lord Taleris and put the other survivors aboard a ship for Harad, stripped of arms, armor and honor. The war is all but won!"
Boromir laughed again. "Was there ever a doubt that Aragorn would bring us victory? You need not have ridden so far to tell me this, but I am glad to see you, whatever your errand." He clapped Faramir on the shoulder. Then, catching his arm, he turned the younger man about and stepped up beside him. "Lend me your shoulder as far as my chamber, and tell me all that you know. How did Aragorn order the battle? What of Legolas and Gimli? Which of them slew the greater number of Haradrim in this new contest?"
"Stay!" Faramir cried, torn between dismay and amusement. "Before I can tell you aught, you must tell me where we are going! I do not know the way to your chamber, having come straight here from Éomer's presence."
"Gil will lead us."
Gil promptly moved from the window embrasure, where she had retreated upon Faramir's arrival, to her usual place at Boromir's side. She placed Boromir's staff in his outstretched hand, then she said, at her most wooden, "If you will follow me, my lords."
Faramir started after her, with Boromir leaning heavily upon his shoulder and the staff, dragging his left leg as he struggled to keep up with them. He was more tired than he had realized, and standing still in the chill winter air had stiffened his injured leg alarmingly.
Faramir immediately slowed his own steps and said, his voice full of concern, "Shall we not find a place to sit and talk in comfort? Your wound must pain you."
"It always pains me, but that is no matter. I will rest the better and listen to your news with more pleasure in my own bed."
"Why are you not there even now? When Éomer told me that you were wandering about on such a night, in the cold and the wet, I thought him mad."
Boromir chuckled. "The Lady Arwen commands me to walk, and so I must walk. When I protest, she threatens me with Aragorn's wrath and demands an extra lap about the Hall. Do not let her lofty, Elvish ways and caressing voice fool you, Little Brother. She has a heart of cold iron, our gentle Queen."
Faramir maintained a doubting silence, causing Boromir to wonder if he had offended the younger man, though he did not think his brother could have missed the warm affection in his voice when he spoke of the Queen. Faramir held all of the Elvish race in such esteem that it bordered on reverence, and Arwen's place as Elessar's queen only elevated her further in his eyes. He would not understand how any man might tease or spar with such a creature, nor how Arwen herself might allow it.
They reached the end of the corridor, climbed the stairs, and turned their backs on the row of shuttered windows and the muffled drumming of the rain. Boromir's chamber was close now, and he could count the steps to its door. He could not quite smother a sigh of relief when he took that last step and heard Gil push the door open upon its brass hinges. A blast of heat struck him in the face, telling him that the servants had been stoking the fire without instructions from him. Bracing himself against the familiar shudder of revulsion that came with the smell of burning, he stepped into the room.
Faramir guided him to the bed and helped him sit down upon the mattress. Gil approached with a goblet of mulled wine, which she handed to him as she relieved him of his staff. She offered Faramir another goblet, but he murmured refusal and turned his attention to pulling off Boromir's boots. Gil hovered nearby, palpably distressed by having another – and a Prince, at that – usurp her role, but unwilling to voice a protest in front of Faramir.
Boromir offered her a smile of understanding and said, "I can manage, with my brother's help. Get you to your bed, Gil, and tell Merry not to wait up on my account. You might take him a cup of wine, however, to warm him and help him sleep."
Gil stepped back, bowed and murmured, "As you will, my lord Steward. My lord Prince." Then she turned on her heel and strode out of the room. Boromir heard the door thud shut.
For a moment, Faramir knelt on the floor at his feet, all movement arrested in surprise. Then he tugged once more on Boromir's boot and asked, "What ails your squire?"
Boromir frowned at the shut door, hearing again Gil's distant voice and retreating steps. "She has grown moody and quiet of late. Mayhap she pines for Minas Tirith and a rest from nursing duties."
"No doubt you are right."
Boromir heard the note of feigned innocence in his brother's voice and turned a pointed scowl upon him. "If you think I have done something to upset my squire, say it outright!"
"I? How should I think anything of the kind? And what business is it of mine what occurs between you and your servants?"
Boromir grunted sourly and started tugging at his heavy outer clothing. Faramir quite wisely did not offer his assistance, but waited until Boromir had unclasped and cast aside his various unwanted layers and climbed beneath the heavy blankets piled on the bed. Then he pulled a chair up close to Boromir's left hand and settled into it.
"Are you comfortable? Is there aught that I can do for you?"
"Nay, I am well enough. Give me all the news from Lebennin and from home. But first, tell me of our friends and kinsmen. Were any lost or wounded?"
"Cuts and bruises only. Legolas and Gimli killed prodigious numbers of the enemy, coming through unscathed themselves, and Imrahil brought down a great chieftain of the Haradrim, the very man who bought Taleris' loyalties. All are unhurt. But I begin at the end!"
With that, Faramir picked up the tale of the war with Aragorn's arrival in Minas Tirith and regaled his brother with every detail he had gleaned from letters and dispatches. Boromir interrupted him frequently to demand details Faramir could not give and vent his own frustration with being left so very far behind when his king and his people went to war.
Faramir ended by saying, "One stronghold of the enemy remains on the eastern shore. They have fortified the northernmost garrison, building a redoubt and manning its walls with those who escaped the battle."
"Aragorn must take it," Boromir stated. "He will not leave a nest of Haradrim on our borders."
"He purposes to attack the redoubt before the year's end, burn out the remaining enemy, and secure or destroy the garrison forts."
"He might have done so already. In the days it took you to ride here, word may have come of his final victory."
"I thought you would want to hear of the war from my lips." Faramir sounded aggrieved. "Would you rather I had stayed kicking my heels in Minas Tirith and sent a letter to you in my stead?"
"Nay, Little Brother, I am glad you are come. But I chafe at these long delays – waiting for letters to travel from Ethir Anduin to Minas Tirith, and then from Minas Tirith to Edoras. The miles are long, and the time weighs heavily upon me." When Faramir said naught, only sat in a gloomy silence, Boromir smiled wryly at him. "It chafes you, too, does it not? Waiting for news of battles you ought to be fighting?"
The other man stirred uncomfortably in his chair but answered evenly, "I am content to fill my brother's boots for a time and do my king's bidding."
"Aye, you sound most content."
"I must be. In truth, had Elessar given me a choice, I would have gone south with the army of Anórien or joined Beregond in defending Ithilien's borders, but he did not give me a choice, and mayhap that is for the best. My choices have too oft proved ill."
Boromir turned a frowning gaze upon him. "What mean you by that?"
Faramir seemed only then to realize what he had said. Giving an awkward laugh, he drew himself up straight in the chair and said, "Do not regard it. I must be more tired than I thought, and my tongue is running away with me."
Boromir's frown deepened at the sorrow lurking behind the other man's brittle tone. "Your tongue never runs away with you, Faramir. You never speak without a purpose. Pretend it is weariness makes you careless, if you will, but do not pretend your words are empty."
"Mayhap they are not. Mayhap…" Faramir hesitated, his breathing harsh and quick in the sudden quiet, then he sighed and said, "I have long sought for the right words to bridge this gulf between us and unburden myself to you. Mayhap this is the time."
"Faramir." Boromir held out his hand, waiting for his brother to take it. When he felt the familiar clasp about his wrist, he closed his own upon the other man's arm. "There is naught between us but the love we share. Unburden yourself, and do not worry about what words you choose."
"I have been a poor brother to you, and I am sorry for it."
Boromir raised his eyebrows above the edge of the ever-present bandage, but he said naught, waiting for Faramir to go on.
"I say that I am sorry, and I am. More sorry than words can truly express. But it will never be enough to lift this weight from me, or to do away with my regret and shame."
As his brother spoke, Boromir heard the gnawing pain in his voice, reminding him of another time when guilt had poisoned his very thoughts and wrapped his heart in shadow. The memory made him shiver.
"You have done me no injury," Boromir said.
Faramir uttered a sour grunt of laughter with no humor in it, and he released Boromir's hand to throw himself back in his chair, distancing himself from the man in the bed. "You say that, lying there, with a bandage over your eyes and a hole in your leg the size of Merry's head."
"The one Saruman gave me, the other a band of Orcs. You are to blame for neither."
"I did not wound you with my own hand, but with my ill choices, my selfishness…"
"Enough, Brother. This is folly. I took the road Imladris against your protests and our father's, imposing my will upon you both. What befell me on that journey is laid entirely at my door. As for the Orcs." Boromir shook his head in disgust. "Had I stayed in Minas Tirith or in Rohan, where I belonged, I should never have run afoul of Uglúk.
"But you know all of this." He turned his piercing, bandaged gaze upon his brother and insisted, "Your conscience is overly nice, but so is your sense of justice. You would not punish any other man for my actions, so why punish yourself?"
A restless stirring came from the chair, and another sigh more weary than the last. When Faramir spoke, he sounded as if the words were dragged from him, tearing at his throat as they passed. "I did you great wrong, Boromir. I doubted you. I let the whispers of others cloud my eyes, and I dared to place myself in judgment over you. My brother. My Steward and liege lord. I thought even to claim your birthright for myself, when Imrahil offered it to me."
"But you did not," Boromir reminded him gently.
"The words of others stayed me. I listened to the halfling, to Éowyn, and to Elessar. But not to you. At my own urging, you tried to tell me what was in your mind and heart, but I did not hear it. I was too consumed with the fears planted in me by others and by my own mistaken pride. Duty, I called it. Gondor's weal. But it was all pride, the very pride I have so often decried in you."
"Whatever the path you took, you arrived at wisdom in the end. You stood before the Council and renounced the Stewardship, handing it to me with your love and fealty. That is a gift I will not forget, Faramir."
"Aye! After I had wounded you to the quick! And that was only the first of my follies. How often have I thought of myself as your protector? Wiser and stronger than you, simply because I can see the flagstones beneath my feet? Is this wisdom? I deemed you too weak to shoulder the burdens of Stewardship. When you proved me wrong, I then decided that you were too vulnerable to bear arms, to lead men, to take the reins of State, and as you mastered each task, scaled each barrier, I smugly congratulated myself upon guiding your faltering steps. Boromir, I have treated you like a child and told myself it was out of love for a helpless brother! Even now, as I tell you these things, I choke on my pride, for I see that you are the wiser and the stronger man and I am, once again, the little brother who comes to you for succor."
Boromir listened to this outpouring of guilt in startled silence, unable to muster his thoughts to interrupt it.
"How you must despise me!" Faramir cried, now thoroughly caught up in his wrenching confession and seeming oblivious to Boromir's presence. "First I belittle your strength and skill, then I abandon you to rule unaided, while I wander through the wilds of Eriador, dreaming of lost ages and long-dead heroes! Where was my duty to protect you then? Where was my much-vaunted wisdom, when I forgot my brother's weal to satisfy my childish longings?"
"Wait!" Boromir protested, finding his voice at last and cutting off the flow of Faramir's impassioned words. "You must choose, Brother, what guilt you own. If you have failed me by doubting my strength and ability, then you cannot also injure me by giving me the chance to try that strength. Are you to blame for cosseting me, or for allowing me to wander, hapless, into the clutches of the Orcs?"
"I am to blame for forfeiting your love."
The words fell like lead between them, leaving a heavy, aching silence in their wake. Boromir listened to it for a moment, hearing the sincerity of this last, agonized confession and recognizing it as the true wellspring of all the suffering Faramir had inflicted upon himself for his brother's sake.
Holding out his hand once more, he said, with quiet certainty, "You have not, nor could you, so long as we both draw breath."
Faramir did not take the offered hand but rather seemed to retreat farther into his chair. When he spoke, his voice rasped painfully in the stillness of the room. "I was with the King's Company when he found you after your escape from the Orc den. I sat in his tent and listened to your breathing as you slept, praying with all my strength that the sound would not stop, that you would not leave me again. And when you awoke…" He drew a shaking breath, his throat thick with unshed tears, and finished doggedly, "I heard Aragorn's name upon your lips."
"Ah." Boromir's hand dropped to the coverlet, and his blind gaze fixed on his own toes. "Are you jealous of my love for Aragorn?"
"Nay, for I know well how deserving he is of that love. I only wish that I had been as worthy." Boromir opened his mouth to protest, but Faramir hastily cut him off. "I was there, Brother. I heard you call for Aragorn, and I saw the relief in your face when you knew he was beside you. My presence could not give you such comfort, brother though I am, nor my hands heal your wounds. 'Tis not a token of mine that you wear, even now, by your heart. Nor was I the one to sense your danger and bring a band of Men riding through the pathless wilderness to find you. I have been supplanted in your love, and I cannot blame anyone but myself! But I can tell you that I am sorry for the weakness, pride and selfishness that brought us to this place."
"That I love Aragorn like a brother I will not deny. Our bond was forged in the dungeons of Isengard and is as strong, as enduring as the very stones of that ancient citadel."
"You need not tell me," Faramir said, a hint of bitterness creeping into his voice.
"But you are my brother, Faramir, and no love I feel for Aragorn, or for any other creature, can lessen that bond. Do you love me the less for having found a wife, fathered a son, or given your fealty to the King?"
"Then why may I not love my King, my friends, even my cantankerous squire, without diminishing my love for you, my true brother?"
"Because I have betrayed that love and broken faith with you."
Boromir laughed harshly. "And I have not? You forget my failings more quickly than your own, I deem."
"Do not make light of this," Faramir snapped, his tone hardening.
"I speak of my betrayal of the Fellowship and the failure of my quest. Think you I would ever make light of such things?"
"Nay, nay." Faramir's anger subsided once more into brooding misery. "I am sorry. I should not have spoken so, should not have burdened you with any of this. I am thrice a fool for ever opening my mouth!"
"For pity's sake!" Boromir exploded, throwing his hands up in disgust. "I may be blind and crippled, Brother, but I am not yet so fragile that a few words will crush me. You have unloaded your great burden of guilt upon me, and yet here I am, unbowed, so do not hold back now. If you are angry, say it. If you are jealous, admit it. If you have yet more failings to expose, tell the tale now and be done. For this night, I will let you lacerate yourself to your heart's content and place it on my account. But when you walk out that door, I am done with nursing your queasy conscience."
Faramir gave a shaky laugh and said, "Now you sound like my brother."
"Angry and impatient?"
"Aye. It is a welcome change. It puts me on familiar ground."
"You and Gil, you are a pretty pair. Never happy unless you have me in a rage." He went on quickly, before Faramir pounced upon Gil as a distraction. "But let us return to the matter at hand. What further crimes do you have to charge yourself with?"
"Naught," Faramir assured him, "you have heard it all."
"You do not blame yourself for Taleris' treachery? For the plots of the Haradrim?"
"For Halbarad's attempt on my life?"
"Well, I should not have left you alone with him," the younger man murmured, apologetically.
"But his hatred of me, his refusal of Aragorn's mercy… These were not your doing?"
"Nay. Boromir, you mock me when I am in deadly earnest. I have done you wrong!"
"Aye, but I have long since forgiven you."
"I know well you have. 'Tis not your forgiveness I need, but my own, and that I have not yet found."
"This night's work will help. Trust me, Little Brother, for I walked this road long ere you did, and I remember it well."
"How did you reach the end of it?"
"Frodo showed me the way, as I would show you, if you will take me as a guide."
Faramir chuckled. "How often have I acted as your guide over the last five years?"
"Turn about is fair play."
Boromir heard his brother sigh yet again, but this time, it sounded more wistful than despairing. "I do trust you, Brother, and I hope you can guide me better than I have myself. I am tired unto death and want only to rest without regrets to prick me."
"Then get you to your rest. A good night's sleep in one of Éomer's excellent beds will set you to rights. We will talk again in the morning."
"Not of guilt and forgiveness, I pray you!"
Boromir laughed and waved him toward the door. "Snuff the candle, as you go, and when you find Merry lurking in the corridor, tell him that I do not need him."
"As you will. Good night, Brother."
* * *
As Faramir stepped into the corridor and closed the door behind him, another door to his right flew open. Merry came out, looking expectant. He caught sight of Faramir and bowed courteously.
"Hullo, Faramir," he said, abandoning courtesy for cheerful familiarity.
"Greetings, Master Perian."
Merry cocked his head, studying the Prince with bright, knowing eyes. "You look done in. It's hard work talking Boromir to sleep, if you're not used to it."
Faramir's answering smile was wan and weary but heartfelt. "I did not succeed in talking him to sleep, but he talked me into utter exhaustion, as you see."
The halfling's face brightened, and he trotted swiftly down the hallway to Boromir's door. "I would offer you a goblet of mulled wine and more relaxing conversation, but if Boromir is awake…"
"Nay, he said that he did not need you tonight."
"Oh." Merry dropped his hand from the latch and hesitated, pondering whether he ought to check on his friend in spite of his orders to the contrary. Then he shrugged and turned back for his own chambers. "Come, then, and share my fire with me, my lord Prince. If you are not too tired."
Faramir teetered upon the brink of refusal, wanting naught so much as a set of dry clothes and a warm bed, but then thought better of it. He had not shared private speech with Merry since his brother's return, and he was eager to hear the halfling's opinion of Boromir's progress. "I thank you. A cup of mulled wine would go down very nicely."
He followed Merry into a small, cozy chamber, dominated by a bed far too large for one little Hobbit. A chair and table stood close to the hearth, where a fire burned merrily and a flagon of wine stood for warmth. Merry gestured to the chair and said, "Please, sit down. Help yourself to a bit of cheese and fruit, if you like. I was just enjoying a bedtime snack."
Chuckling to himself, Faramir took the offered seat and pulled the tray of food over for closer inspection. Merry poured two goblets of wine and handed one to his guest, as he seated himself on the hearth to sip the other. The Hobbit and the Man both set to, enjoying a hearty late-night meal and eyeing each other thoughtfully as they did. Neither spoke until the level in their wine cups had sunk considerably and only the rinds of the cheese were left on the tray. Then Merry refilled their goblets, and Faramir settled back in his chair with a contented sigh.
"When did you arrive in Edoras?" Merry asked, by way of breaking the long, companionable silence.
"Only a few hours ago."
"And went straight to Boromir without a bath or a meal, I'll wager. Shall I send for another tray? Something more substantial that will stick to a Man of Gondor's ribs?"
"Nay," Faramir patted his stomach, "a halflings light snack is more than enough for any one Man, be he of Gondor or of lesser stock. I am well fed, and I thank you for your generous hospitality."
Merry gazed at him with twinkling eyes and opined, "When I am away from Gondor for long, I forget how formal and courteous your speech is."
Faramir laughed. "And I forget how comfortable and pleasant is the company of halflings. I feel my weariness passing away already."
"That wasn't weariness. It was hunger. Have some more wine, my lord Prince."
Faramir held out his goblet for Merry to fill it again. He meant to drink sparingly, aware of how quickly the heated wine would go to his head in his current condition, but it's warmth spread so soothingly through him that he could not resist it.
"How did you find Boromir?" Merry asked.
"I turned left at the bottom of the stair and…" He broke off, suddenly aware that the wine was loosening his tongue and making a fool of him, and he lifted his eyes to meet Merry's across the table. The halfling was most definitely laughing at him. He flushed in chagrin.
"I beg your pardon, Merry. This wine has addled my wits."
"Don't worry. I won't tell anyone that you make jokes when you're drunk."
"I am not drunk! Merely a little too relaxed."
"Well, I won't tell anyone about that, either," the Hobbit assured him. "But how did you find Boromir?"
"Well enough. Better than I had hoped." Faramir frowned into his drink, conjuring an image of Boromir standing in the hallway, propped up by Gil on one side and a walking stick on the other, grinning heartily in welcome and yet looking so fragile that a hard fall of rain might knock him senseless. "He is too thin."
Merry nodded agreement.
"And he is changed. His manner, his speech, the way he treats his servants."
"Do you mean Gil?"
"Aye, there is some trouble between them. I saw it at once and marked how oddly he treated her."
Merry gazed at him consideringly for a moment, then said, quietly, "Boromir has come to find that he loves Gil, and it has placed him in a terrible position."
"Loves her!" Faramir blurted out in protest, before he could stop himself.
"Yes, but he cannot act upon it, you see, or even tell Gil how he feels. And she grows every day more miserable, because she marks the change in him and fears it."
"He would not – could not take such a woman as…"
"She would run away, if he tried," Merry said, matter-of-factly. "A single kind word from him sends her into a panic. Anything more would drive her to flight. Boromir knows this, and so he holds his tongue."
"To keep her by him." Faramir thought his sour disgust might choke him. "That is why he hesitates, not for the sake of his honor or his rank."
"Oh, he thinks of that, too. He knows the nobility of Gondor would never countenance Gil as his wife."
"Wife?" This time Faramir did choke, spraying wine across the table as he coughed and spluttered.
Merry looked at him in surprise. "You thought he might take her as his mistress?"
"That is more likely than taking her as wife, I deem!" he gasped, still struggling for air.
"Then you do not understand at all how Gil's mind works, to say nothing of your brother's."
Faramir could not repress a shudder. "It does not bear thinking of."
"Well, you needn't, because Gil would never allow it. Even if you do not trust Boromir to keep the line, you may trust Gil."
"It seems I have no choice in the matter."
"Unless you plan to march into Boromir's room and forbid him to love her."
That wrenched a laugh from Faramir and eased the knot of anxiety in his breast.
"In truth," Merry went on in a wistful tone, "I wish Boromir could marry Gil. It would make him happy to have her always with him and no guard set upon his heart. But it cannot be." He sighed and sipped from his goblet. "I am terribly sorry for them both."
"You love him well, I deem."
The halfling looked up swiftly to meet Faramir's intent gaze. "He is my dearest friend."
"Almost, you make me wish that I could see my brother and his troublesome squire as you do."
A grin split Merry's brown face. "You would have to grow shorter by several feet to do that."
"I doubt your opinion of Boromir has aught to do with his great height. You do not seem the sort to be impressed by a tall man with a bright sword."
"Not by a sword, I grant you, but his height worked very much in my favor. He often carried me upon his back, when the stones of Eriador bruised my bare feet. A shorter Man could not have done so, and a lesser Man would not have deigned to do it. Boromir made light of the burden."
"Ah! I surrender! I cannot answer you, for you turn my words ever upon me!" Pushing himself to his feet, Faramir held out a hand to the Hobbit. Merry clasped it warmly, returning the pressure of his fingers and smiling up into his face. "I, too, love him well, Merry. And I, too, wish him happy."
"I know you do."
"Then we are not so far apart in this."
"No." As he led Faramir to the door and politely opened it for him, the halfling said, "I speak out of turn, my lord, and don't always show the proper respect, but I think of you as a friend."
"You honor me, Master Perian."
"Then you will forgive my pertness?"
"There is naught to forgive. I bid you good night, Merry, and I thank you for both your hospitality and your frankness."
"I always have plenty of both! Stop by any time."
Faramir nodded his thanks and started down the hallway toward his own chamber, his steps slowed by weariness and his head so full of all that he had heard tonight that he doubted his could bear its weight. No sooner had he disappeared around the first corner, than Merry left of his chamber and approached Boromir's door on silent Hobbit feet. He scratched once, lightly, upon the wood, then slipped through the door without waiting for an answer.
When Gil came in the next morning with the breakfast tray, she found the halfling curled in an armchair by the fire, fast asleep.
*** *** ***
"Taleris wants an audience?" Aragorn stared blankly at Imrahil, brows raised. "What can he want of me?"
"I know not, lord. He would not say. But he begs leave to speak with you at once."
With a shrug, Aragorn dropped his eyes to the dispatches before him on the table. "Bring him."
Imrahil bowed and hurried from the chamber, his booted feet clattering upon the stone stairway. Legolas, Gimli and Ciryon exchanged wary looks that signaled their distrust of Taleris' reasons for demanding the King's ear, but Aragorn did not offer them a chance to speak. The man himself would come before him soon enough, and all would be known. In the meantime, he had other work in hand.
Imrahil returned shortly with Taleris in tow, and two other men whom Aragorn did not recognize. They strode in upon Taleris' heels – tall, young men with brown beards and keen eyes, clad in the black mail of Lossarnach, with long swords at their sides and great shields slung at their backs. Aragorn eyed them in some surprise, as they crossed to the middle of the chamber and halted, bowing deeply before the King.
Nodding courteously to the strangers, Aragorn turned a questioning look on Imrahil.
"Taleris' grandsons, my lord," the Prince explained. "They rode into the fortress with the dawn, asking to speak with Lord Taleris. I saw no reason to deny them."
Turning his compelling gaze on the proud, upright figures of the two young men, Aragorn said, "By your arms and emblems, you are soldiers of Lossarnach. Your companies are camped far to the north, about the mouth of Poros. Have you your captain's leave to seek me here?"
"Aye, my lord King." The elder of the two men moved swiftly toward him, dropping to one knee before the table and offering a folded, sealed square of parchment.
Aragorn signaled for Legolas to take it. The Elf carried the paper around the table to where the King sat, breaking the seal and scanning the brief lines of script as he went.
"All is well," Legolas murmured, dropping the parchment on the table.
At another sign from Aragorn, the kneeling man rose and stepped back to join his kinfolk. The three men drew together under the pitiless gaze of the King, and Taleris, who knew well Elessar's indomitable will and implacable temper, began to shuffle his feet. None dared to break the silence, until Aragorn spoke at last, his eyes sweeping the two younger men.
"Why are you come to Ethir Anduin? To sue for Lord Taleris' life?"
"Nay, King Elessar." The elder once again spoke for them. "We know well that his life is forfeit, and we do not seek to stay your justice. We come but to stand with our grandsire, as his only kin and heirs, to hear your judgment spoken."
"That is well." To Taleris, he said, "You begged this audience, my lord. What would you ask of me?"
Taleris cleared his throat awkwardly, his eyes sliding to where his grandsons stood, then back to Aragorn's stern face. "I have done as you asked, my lord, and delivered my accomplice to you."
Aragorn nodded, his expression unreadable.
"The charge you laid upon me is fulfilled, and my death is at hand, I deem."
"Then I would ask this of you, my King." He lifted his hands, showing Aragorn the chains he yet wore, and let a note of pleading creep into his voice. "Strike these bonds from me, put a sword in my hand, and send me across the River with Ciryon and Imrahil. Let me lead the assault on the redoubt. Let me spill the blood of our enemies to wash the stain of treason from my name, and if the Valar smile upon me, let me die there a soldier's death."
Aragorn said nothing, gazing steadily at the old lord's twisted, grief-wracked face, and Taleris lifted his hands toward him in supplication.
"I have spent my life in the service of Gondor. Three sons I lost on the Pelennor fields, a daughter in childbirth and a wife to grief. These two proud warriors," he looked to his grandsons, who watched him impassively, "are all that is left of my family. Let me die as I have lived, and do not force these children of my blood to watch me bow beneath an executioner's sword."
"You would have me endanger my troops and generals, instead? Think you that I would trust you with a sword and a clear path to the enemy's fortress? I am not such a fool, Taleris."
"Ciryon and Imrahil know of my treasons. They will strike me down in an instant, if they deem me dangerous to them or their troops, and I would expect naught else from them. Then you may stick my head on a pike and proclaim me traitor to all the lands of Gondor, and none could call you forsworn! Do but give me this chance, and I will prove myself a soldier unto the end!"
Before Aragorn could speak, Taleris' grandsons stepped forward together and dropped to their knees. "Give him leave to go, lord King, and we will serve as hostages to his honor!" the younger man cried. "If he be forsworn, then are our lives forfeit!"
"You would offer your lives as surety for the word of a traitor?" Aragorn demanded.
"Traitor he may be," the elder said, "but yet he is our grandsire and near to us in blood. We owe him our love, our allegiance, and in this extremity, our lives if he require them."
Then the younger added, "We do not doubt his word nor fear your judgment, my lord."
With a flick of his hand, Aragorn commanded them to rise. "I do not take hostages. Get you back to your company and serve Gondor well. That is where you true allegiance lies."
"What of Lord Taleris?"
Aragorn turned eyes dark with contempt upon the bowed head of his captive and snapped, "I will consider his request." To Imrahil he said, "Take him back to his tent and guard him well."
"My lord," the younger man began, but Aragorn cut him off with a swift glance.
"Say your farewells and be gone by nightfall." His face softened slightly as he looked upon their haughty yet tormented faces. "'Tis easier thus. You cannot change what is to come, and it will serve no purpose to watch it unfold."
The two men bowed, eyes downcast, and followed Taleris from the room. When all were gone, and Aragorn had only his most trusted captains about him again, Gimli asked what all were thinking.
"Will you give that treacherous swine his chance at a clean death?"
"If Ciryon and Imrahil will have him." Glancing up at Ciryon from beneath lowered brows, he prompted, "What say you, my lord?"
Ciryon grunted in disgust and kicked savagely at a chair leg, sending the unoffending piece of furniture bumping across the floor. "I long to see his guts spilled upon the grass! An honorable death in battle is too good for him!"
"Yet I have promised him such a death. If not in battle, then in some quiet way, with no shame attached to his name or blood. I do not urge you to accept him into your army; I simply ask. Will you take him?"
"Aye, if Prince Imrahil agrees. But if he so much as twitches at the wrong moment, I will take his head from his shoulders!"
"That is well."
Legolas spoke up, his tone deceptively mild. "What if Taleris should return alive, having acquitted himself well in the assault?"
The King's face hardened dangerously, and his eyes cut swiftly back to Ciryon's face. "See that he does not."
Ciryon bowed in acceptance of this command. Then, by silent agreement, they all bent once more over the pile of dispatches awaiting their attention.
To be continued…