Chapter Twenty Five: Encounters in the Houses of Healing.
AN it's taken a long time to redo the formatting to get this to you. Enjoy
This is all of the story end in one hit so I dont' have to mess with word processing programs and FFNET anymore.
On the third morning after Aragorn and the armies had ridden out, there was still no sign of Haradna or the palantir. Yet the two must be together. And what might Sauron's agent be seeking? Sauron's Eye may yet see much if it only knew where to look. Boromir felt the building tension; everyone in the Citadel knew that Aragorn would reach The Black Gates later today. Boromir wanted to be as certain as possible that Sauron's attention would be anywhere other than on Mount Doom. The Houses of Healing seemed the most likely place to stir the spies from their nest - Haradna must surely have underlings working for him, others who had spread the poison among the wounded. That thought brought returned memories of the horrors of the Demon World. As bad as it had been, they had all escaped relatively quickly. If Aragorn had not arrived to help them their torment would have continued indefinitely and Sauron would not have allowed death to give them release. And then there was the matter of how Sauron had driven Denethor to madness with the twisted visions of the palantir. Boromir could still remember the father he had known as he began his training to fight. Denethor had proudly instructed him in the use of a sword, had been vital and eager to win back Osgiliath, ready to do all in his power to restore Gondor's glory. Instead, slowly yet inexorably, he had been driven to lose all hope until the will to fight faded completely. Sauron used Denethor's grief at the loss of his wife as a cruel knife, forever turning and digging at the Steward's heart. And that in turn had brought needless pain to Faramir.
It was time the score was settled. Boromir finished dressing, annoyed anew as the shoulder sling and bandaging limited his movement. His left arm was numb, useless. He used his teeth to pull on a single gauntlet, then one-handed managed to buckle on his sword belt and scabbard. Servants had offered to help but he would have none of that. He tugged sharply on the hilt of the sword and grunted satisfaction as he settled the familiar weight about his hips. Frustrated at the delay in tracking his enemy, and determined to see that situation remedied, he felt some strength return to his stride as he left his room. At the end of the hall two guardsmen joined his march, flanking him until he exited the Steward's House. Outside the day was as grey and gloomy as the expressions of the two Tower guardsmen who took over from the House Guards. Boromir nodded grim sympathy, knowing they had hoped to ride to battle with the King but had been ordered to stay behind and guard an injured Steward. At least they had the sense to say nothing and to keep behind him a little. He found their unaccustomed presence irksome though he knew it had been standard practice for his father to be so accompanied.
A little further along, close to the Great Hall, he caught sight of Faramir, equally burdened by guardsmen, and also surrounded by a group of arguing city engineeers and stonemasons. It seemed there was some dispute about how best to tackle the repairs to the city walls. "Good morning, brother," Boromir said and bit back a wry smile as Faramir looked up at him with a harried expression that seemed to ask, "Is it?" Boromir lifted his eyebrows and shook his head for all the fuss and Faramir's irritated frown gave way to amusement.
"You are looking well rested, brother," Faramir greeted. "Where are you off to at such a brisk pace? By the look in your eye I'd say the enemy is definitely in peril."
Boromir snorted. "That's the idea! I'm to add some spice at the Houses of Healing," he said cryptically, unable to reveal more in public and knowing Faramir would understand.
"Ahh," Faramir nodded. "Yes, your -- personal attention - to this matter might indeed draw results where nothing else has succeeded."
"Let us hope so, for I have some favours to return to a certain physician." He gripped his sword hilt and lifted the blade a little in its scabbard.
Faramir chuckled. "You never were one to stay long from the fight!" He glanced back to the patiently waiting guardsmen. "And I doubt not that these men are ready for any duty that may ease their disappointment in being ordered to remain here with us."
"No, My Lords!" the Sergeant of Faramir's guard detail said earnestly. "It is an honour to serve wherever there is need."
"Glad to hear it," Boromir said dryly and gave the man a friendly clap on the shoulder, "But speaking for myself, I'd rather be with Aragorn sizing up the Black Gates about now." The other guardsmen, obviously unused to a Steward who would joke with them, traded nervous smiles until a stern look from the Sergeant had them again stiffen to attention. "Other than that task," Boromir turned back to Faramir, "I also hope to meet some of those men who so recently fought at my side."
Faramir's eyes brightened with curiosity. Matters of the spirit world, visions, and messages from the dream realm were normally more his department. He had been with Aragorn in the Houses of Healing when they'd found the men Boromir had named as companions in Sauron's Demon World. "I would almost like to be there to see your expression as you meet them again," Faramir said and added with a gentle smile. "Proof at last, brother?"
Boromir nodded and met his brother's eyes intently. "Yes, it is," he said softly. "And is also a comfort, of sorts." Faramir nodded and Boromir knew they both wondered if their father might at last be reunited with his beloved Finduilas.
"My Lord, Faramir," one of the stone masons who had been deeply absorbed in scribbling a sketch on a piece of parchment stepped closer, "Here. This new easement line should supply the necessary reinforcement."
"Oh?" Faramir broke the intent eye contact to study the new marks. He glanced up quickly to Boromir as he moved off. "Good hunting, brother! You may find Garad somewhere on the sixth level, too."
Boromir snorted and shook his head. "Always one step ahead of me!"
As he exited the sixth level archway and turned to walk through the lovely garden that bordered the entry to the House of Healing, Boromir saw a flurry of white skirts in the tree shadows. The head nurse hurried breathlessly to greet him. "My lord Steward!" she panted. "If we had known you were to grace us with a visit, a proper welcome could have been arranged. I fear Healer Rarned is busy with one of the wounded who may yet lose his leg." Flustered and red faced, the old matron continually bowed and bobbed as she hurried along at his side. Boromir knew her name was loreth and he was glad he had not had to bear with her unending chatter and fuss while he was bedridden. Nonetheless, he was beginning to see the down side to being Steward. In the past he'd always been able to come and go and visit wounded friends without being hindered by formality.
"I prefer not to disturb the healers, Boromir said curtly. "Their attention is best directed to those in need of their help. I am sorry to hear a good man may yet be crippled. Rarned has enough to worry about without me bothering him. I am come to visit one man in particular, perhaps you can direct me to him with speed? Captain Wenarth of the Osgiliath garrison?"
The woman babbled on but thankfully saved Boromir much time in searching the wards. Every room by which he passed was overflowing with wounded men. There were simply not enough beds for them all and makeshift straw pallets were crammed into every corner and took up all available floor space making it difficult for the medical staff to reach them. "Your people are overburdened, loreth," Boromir said. "And I would not have the men so crowded. There are many empty rooms on the Citadel level, with large comfortable beds waiting for lords and ladies who can no longer brave perilous roads to visit us. And the meeting rooms in the Great Hall are light and airy and could easily be made over as places of Healing. Should Aragorn return with more wounded we could also use the lower levels of the House of the Stewards." He frowned again at the pale faces and bandaged limbs of men forced to sleep on the floor. "See that these men are moved there and given greater ease. If you are short of provisions I will leave word with my chamberlain that he is to open the Steward's personal stores to your staff."
"Your own stores! And the guest quarters? But, my Lord Steward!" loreth gasped, her eyes wide with the scandal of such a suggestion. She trotted to keep up with him as he left the room and marched further down the connecting hall. "These are but common soldiers."
Boromir stopped in his tracks so suddenly that the woman only just avoiding bumping into him. He fixed her with a stern glare. "There is nothing at all common about men who have bled and suffered for Gondor, my lady loreth! They will have the best we can find for them! That is my order and you will see it is carried out! With haste! One of my guardsmen will accompany you to see that you are not impeded."
"Yes, my lord!" she bowed and lowered her eyes humbly. "I will see it done immediately." She waved an arm at the next door along the hall. "There you will find Captain Wenarth. There is a wardsman inside who can take you right to him. Will you be needing me further or should I --?"
"I thank you most kindly, loreth," Boromir said more gently and smiled down at her. "You have done well to care for so many so quickly. I mean only to make things easier for both the wounded and those who tend them. I did not mean to upset you. Go along now."
"Yes, my lord!" She turned away happily but still muttered about soldiers being given such 'fancy' rooms. The guardsman seemed to like the idea, however, grinning as he gave Boromir a parting salute. The man turned to smile cheekily at the old nurse who gave him a scowl for his trouble. "Come along!" she snapped. "Don't dawdle. We have our work ahead of us!"
Boromir left his one remaining guardsman by the door, and blessedly alone at last, stepped into the small and somewhat stuffy room. A skeletally thin, grey-haired wardsman with a twisted and bent spine came forward to bow and ask woodenly how he may serve. Boromir gave the man a smile and asked to be directed to Captain Wenarth. All about the room wounded men were pushing themselves up against pillows to stare at him and whisper that the Steward himself had come to visit them. Boromir gave them smiles and stopped at each bed in turn to ask briefly after them. He thought he recognized some faces but couldn't be sure. Then his guide stopped and said, "Captain Wenarth, my lord." The man stepped back. Boromir looked down to find a familiar strong-jawed face, keen blue eyes beneath straight brows and an unruly mop of sandy brown hair. He blinked in amazement. He knew the face so well yet he had never met the man. Or at least had never met him in the waking world.
"My Lord Boromir!" Wenarth tried awkwardly to sit up straight and salute all at once though his right arm lay heavily bandaged and unmoving on a pillow at his side and there was a tented sheet covering his left leg.
"Please be still," Boromir said hastily and moved closer. "I come only to thank you for your assistance in -" he stopped short, suddenly feeling very awkward. "In, that strange other place of heat and torment. I was lost and you came to my aid. I thank you, Captain Wenarth."
"It was my honour, my lord Steward." The man seemed just as astonished and unsettled by being confronted with the reality of the meeting at last. "You remembered my name?" The soldier's puzzlement melted to a smile.
"Certainly. And I would ask that you rather name me Captain Boromir as you did when we last met." He leaned closer to add conspiratorially, "For I fear I will always be a soldier first and a Steward second." He smiled and took the man's left hand in a firm grasp. "And this circumstance is, to say the least, most odd."
"Indeed it is." The man's pale face lit with pleasure. "I thought I dreamed but there are others here who remember also."
"Yes." Boromir regarded him steadily. "I remember we talked before I climbed that last high ridge. You were a great help with those whose strength was gone. You gave a near unconscious man your shoulder."
"So did you," Wenarth said. He stared at Boromir with the same wonder in his eyes. "It was real, then."
Boromir nodded. "At first when I woke, I thought it an unusually vivid fever dream. But I soon had proof from those standing about my sick bed that it was all too real, and most dangerous for it was of Sauron's make."
"I suffered the same uncertainty until I spoke with others here who had the same experience. And now seeing you -" Wenarth smiled suddenly. "We won a great victory even as we lay senseless. There are few who can claim such."
Boromir grinned. "True!"
"The others will want to meet you also." Wenarth sat straighter, turned a little and began calling names and making introductions. Boromir greeted each in turn, remembering them, shaking hands and smiling, pleased to see them safely returned and made awkward by their sincere gratitude. He asked after their wounds and was pleased to hear all were healing well.
Boromir found that standing, and bending down so frequently brought renewed pain in his wounded side and ribs. He rubbed at the soreness a little as he turned and walked stiffly back to to Wenarth. He frowned at the man's injured leg. "You will walk again?"
"Soon, my lord. Thanks to you." A little embarrassed by the sincerity of the soldier's words, Boromir looked away then back again as Wenarth asked curiously, "Is it true? The King himself came to you and gave you his strength that you might save us?"
"He did," Boromir raised his voice so that it would carry not only to the wounded but also to the wardsmen who stood watching intently. "None of us would be alive but for Aragorn, King Elessar. He carried to me a mighty gift of power that has come to Gondor in need, an ancient talisman that Isildur himself once bore." There, he had said it without actually lying to them. The enemy may interpret that as word of The Ring, where the truth was it was the broken blade reforged that had come from Isildur, or at least from his father, Elendil.
"Then we must give thanks to the King as well as to you, my lord?"
Boromir nodded. "It was Aragom who played the greater part." Beginning to feel very tired, he forced a smile and said, "I will leave you now. Rest, regain your strength."
"My lord?" Wenarth stopped him with a gentle touch to his arm. "What of your arm? And your other wounds? You look most weary, and if I may be so bold - it seems most soon for you to have come all this way on foot. Though those here who have two good legs have tried, none are yet strong enough to leave this room. I fear the poison still drains us all."
"I will have the use of this arm, in time," Boromir assured and lifted his left arm in its sling a little despite the pain it caused him. "As for the poison, Aragorn tells me it will linger until the enemy is completely destroyed." He lifted his eyes to give them all a defiant grin, and added, "And this day may yet see Sauron's end. For Aragorn carries much power into battle and I have never seen a better swordsman."
"He truly intends to challenge Sauron himself to battle?"
"He does. And with the protection of the returned talisman, we will soon see the final fall of The Shadow and the dawn of a new age of peace." He held up his right gauntlet with its engraved White Tree and called, "Victory! For Gondor! And for Rohan!"
"For Gondor! For Rohan!" The cheer went up gladly and followed him as he called the wardsman to guide him from the room. The thin man could not stand straight, but walked bent over so that his birdlike eyes seemed tilted at an unnatural angle to peer up at him. "What is your name?" Boromir asked him kindly. "Do you hail from the city or from another region? I hear an accent in your voice."
"I am called Maifen," the man said tersely and avoided meeting Boromir's eyes. "I was born far to the south where there is little work for those who are not so strongly made. I was forced to come to the city or die of hunger."
Boromir frowned. "I am sorry to hear that, and will have you know that all may place any complaint before me without fear of punishment for speaking out. I would see that none in Gondor go hungry."
"Truly?" Maifen's chin jerked up and his small round eyes brightened momentarily. Then he scowled and looked away again. "That's not what the healers say. They keep us working so long."
"Rarned does not seem to me the kind to abuse his workers."
"Twas not Rarned put me to work, but the one called Haradna. He's gone now and left me behind." He halted and waved a hand to the door. "There is the way out, my lord."
"Gone?" Boromir nodded as his guardsman came forward, but he kept his eyes on Maifen. "None may leave the city. Did he say where he would seek lodging? We need all our healers and I would have him return. He need not fear the wizard."
"I know not where he is!" Maifen backed away down one of the narrow aisles, his hands lifted to his face as if to ward off a blow. "Your soldiers have already come with their questions! I know not, I tell you! I ask only to be left in peace!"
"I mean you no harm," Boromir said quickly. "And you will have peace and more for I would see you well rewarded for any answers that may come your way concerning this matter."
Maifen stopped, looked back over his shoulder and grunted. "There are rewards and then there are punishments. I want no more to do with Haradna. His ways are harsh."
"Then I thank you for your time." Boromir nodded and walked quickly through the door. His guard fell into pace behind him and together they crossed through the shadowed garden and on to the Citadel archway. There Boromir left word with the sentries that they were to watch the one named Maifen and report to the Sergeant immediately should he leave the House.
Boromir walked on, his wounds bothering him more and more with each step. It somehow seemed a much greater distance than he remembered from the sixth level arch and on across the green sward with its mournful fountain. But then he normally rode rather than walked. He could not deny he was weary and hurting by the time he arrived back at the House of the Stewards.
B* * *
In the dark of his hiding place, a hollow his men had dug beneath the Healing House basement floor, Haradna smiled cruel satisfaction as he studied the vision in the palantir. Its red orange glow lit his face as Sauron revealed his spy's report. Through the power of The Eye voices could be relayed to Haradna.
"The King himself came to you and gave you his strength that you might save us?"
"He did," Boromir raised his voice and it carried to the wardsmen who stood watching and listening intently. "None of us would be alive but for Aragorn, King Elessar. He carried to me a mighty gift of power that has come to Gondor in need, an ancient talisman that Isildur himself once bore."
"So," Haradna hissed, "The Ring was used as I suspected. Nothing else could have saved them. But where is it now? Sauron sees Aragorn. It is not with him, or if it is he hides it well. "
The light from the palantir whirled in a sudden frenzy with Sauron's compelling voice. The elder son knows! He will reveal all! Bring him to me! I will break him!
Awed, Haradna drew back a little. "It will be so, My Master. I go to him now." He was relieved as the red eye released its hold and the palantir again was closed, a plain black orb of stone. The Healer stood and turned to his henchmen who were gathered stooped in the shadows about their senseless prisoner. "Follow me, and bring him!" He reached into his robes and produced a glass vial of green-black liquid. They could not drag a ranger captain all the way to the Steward's House. And the man would be most useful in getting them past the sentries. Haradna forced the man's mouth open and poured some of the liquid down his throat. He would wake and move, but have no will of his own, at least long enough to see Haradna's plan complete.
"Fools! They are such fools!" he hissed. "The Eye sees all and demands answers!" He waved a hand at his henchmen who hauled the blank eyed man to his feet. "Come! We will have the truth from the Son of Denethor ere this day is out!"
The prisoner sagged a little and his guard slapped him hard across the face. The Ranger Captain uttered a feeble protest, but took his weight and stood straight and tall. Anyone watching would not suspect he was drugged.
"Watch him closely!" Haradna snarled. "The potion should subdue him, but some are stronger than others. He will speak the word that will give us passage into the Citadel."
"Boromir! What news?" Faramir greeted him at the top of the steps. His smile faded to a frown as he added, "You have walked far for one so soon from his sick bed."
"Our prey remains quiet though the bait may yet be taken." Boromir grunted a little with the effort as he climbed the first step and Faramir immediately reached a helping hand. "Did Garad speak to you of a wardsman named Maifen?" Boromir asked.
"Yes. One of Rarned's workers but formerly with Haradna. You suspect him?" Boromir nodded and Faramir said, "Garad didn't much like the look of him either, but could find no fault."
"Maifen seemed greatly unsettled by my visit." Boromir gave his brother a wry smile. "It could be that he needed to hear the story of the 'mighty talisman' from The Steward himself before he deems it fit to carry to his master."
Faramir's brows rose. "You think he may carry it to Haradna today?"
"I do. I've asked the sentries to watch and follow should he leave the House grounds today."
Faramir nodded. "It will be good to have this matter settled before Aragorn returns. I take it you found your friends from the other world?"
Boromir smiled. "I did. And it was most strange to see them in the flesh." He shivered and was forced to lean more heavily on his brother's arm as they climbed higher. There was no denying that the poison was still at work in his body. The long walk had drained him far more than it should. He lifted his head to eye his brother keenly, "I left word of my unusual healing where it would best lure our prey from hiding."
"Garad is hunting them more closely by the hour. They must soon be drawn out for time runs short for them too if they would seek the truth of the rumours. Aragorn will reach the Black Gates before mid afternoon." Faramir looked up at the sky but there was no sign of the sun.
Indeed the day had grown even more unnaturally dark than usual. Boromir shuddered suddenly with premonition of doom as well as cold. He had not felt the evil touch of The Ring since Amon Hen, yet now, he could almost sense its cloying presence again. Its power would be so much the greater so close to Sauron at last.
Faramir looked back to frown at him. "You are shivering and most pale. You should rest. You will note the other wounded are still in their beds."
"They are more freshly wounded whereas I have had many more days to recover."
"You do not consider the effects of the poison."
"I am cold," Boromir admitted. "Perhaps I will sit a while by the fire."
Faramir nodded. "Rest until dinner at least. I hear Beth is making something special for you."
Boromir snorted. "I think she still sees us as small boys to be fussed after!" Faramir smiled agreement. Boromir clapped him on the back and turned to laboriously climb the half dozen interior stairs that led from the foyer to the dining level and its long hall. He was all but staggering with exhaustion by the time he reached the Meeting room in which his friends had so recently gathered.
"Boromir... My lord Steward!" Beth scolded. Boromir turned unsteadily and found her watching him from the dining room doorway across the hall. She hurried closer to take his arm. "What have you been doing? Overtaxing your strength, I say. You are so white! The King will not be happy if he finds we have not cared for you. Come now, sit down, here by the fire."
"That is my intent, Beth," Boromir told her breathlessly. "There is no need to fuss."
"Indeed!" Beth huffed. "Just look at you, cold through to the bone and pinched with pain. I'll brew some fresh tea. Here, put your feet up."
Boromir did not have the strength to argue and in truth was glad at the promise of hot tea. He lifted his booted feet on to the footstool and leaned back into the cushioned chair to rest his aching shoulder. Already he could feel the welcome heat of the hearth fire seeping into him. The day outside was not particularly cold, but he felt as chilled as if he'd just waded through a snow bank. He closed his eyes as Beth bustled out, and then, after what seemed to him bare moments, was startled as she returned.
"Drink it down, now," she commanded.
He smiled wryly up at her. "Your special blend?" She nodded happily knowing he liked the fact she added a swig of brandy when she thought it needed. "Then I will drink it and gladly. Aragorn's teas are all well and good for healing but the taste could use improvement."
Beth snorted. "A King is not a cook."
Boromir took a grateful swallow of the hot tea. "It's good, thank you," he said with a contented sigh, then told her. "Aragorn hunted and cooked for us sometimes during our travels. The meals were not so bad, all things considered."
"Humph!" Beth said. "I'll not have the King surviving on half-cooked venison and rabbits while he resides in Minas Tirith!"
"No, I suppose that wouldn't' do." Boromir shook his head ruefully. He hadn't really given it thought but Aragorn would have a lot of adapting to do to give up the Ranger's life. "Maybe you could give him your recipe for tea, at least?"
"The tea is nothing special," Beth said, though she sounded nonetheless pleased. "But the dinner I'm preparing for you now that's another matter."
"What is it?"
"Oh, no." She took the cup from him as he drained the last mouthful. "It's a surprise. Rest, now, or you won't have the appetite to face it and that would be a shame."
"I will rest, then, in such a good cause, but only until dinner. After -" he was surprised to find himself yawning hugely. "I need to speak with Garad about -"
"You can talk with him over dinner and get yourself to bed all the sooner." Beth sniffed then smiled fondly at him once more before leaving him alone.
Boromir stretched his long legs out before the fire and tried to find a comfortable position to ease his aching ribs and shoulder. Faramir was right -he would be more comfortable if he returned to bed. But he wasn't about to do that while there was yet daylight through the windows.
This room was against the outer wall of the House and stood many hundreds of feet above the ground. It was a sheer drop that kept some visitors from approaching the window for fear of being made dizzy. Today the dark red velvet drapes had been pulled back to reveal what should have been a magnificent view high across the Anduin to Ithilien and the Eastern Mountains. A magnificent view but for Mordor's sour fouling of the sky. The darkness there seemed even more ominous today, gleaming with sullen bursts of crimson fire amid the murk. Boromir wondered what Aragorn and the others were doing right now. It seemed strange knowing they were very close to battle and he was not with them. He sighed in frustration and closed his eyes but could not get comfortable. If he wedged himself slightly at an angle in the wing-backed chair it better supported his wounded left side, but his sword belt dug into his hip. He stood and unclasped the buckle, then hung the belt and scabbard on the hook under the mantle that normally took robes in need of drying. He settled back into the chair and groaned relief as the strain was taken from his wounds. The brandied tea had chased the chill from him at last. He closed his eyes and found the soft crackling and spitting of the hearth fire soothed him further still. Sleep closed gently about him and he did not resist.
"Where are they?" Pippin whispered from his seat before Gandalf. Even Shadowfax seemed unnerved and was shifting restlessly beneath them. The Black Gates were immense, an impregnable barrier towering menacingly above them. Aragorn turned in the saddle and eyed his wizard friend. Then he spurred Brego forward and Pippin swallowed nervously as Shadowfax followed. Eomer and Merry came too, and another solider rode boldy at Aragorn's side carrying the King's banner which flew defiantly open in the breeze stirred by their passage. Immediately before the Black Gates they halted. The ominous silence stretched out. Pippin wondered once more at Frodo and Sam's bravery. They had been here, all alone but for Gollum, and had been forced to turn away and find what apparently was almost equally a perilous path. Pippin was proud and afraid for them all at once. Yet they must somehow succeed or else -- He dared not think it. He started a little as Aragorn broke the silence with a ringing challenge –
"Let the Lord of the Black Lands come forth! Let justice be done upon him!"
Sam sat cradling Frodo in his arms on the slopes of Mount Doom. Ash and steam burned his lungs and stung his eyes. He had tried to fuel Frodo's last reserves by reminding him of The Shire for which they struggled. But Frodo was beyond remembering. It broke Sam's heart to hear it.
"I'm naked in the dark," Frodo gasped, terror and desperation quavering in his thin voice. "There's nothing. No veil between me and the wheel of fire. I can see him with my waking eyes."
Something snapped within Sam. Anger trembled through him so fierce and hot that it burned away all fear and flooded his heart and limbs with a tide of renewed strength. "Then let us be rid of it once and for all! Come on Mister Frodo! I can't carry it for you but I can carry you! Come on!" And somehow he was lifting his friend, heaving him up across his shoulders and striding up the steep, burning slope.
* * *
Faramir smiled as he stepped lightly into the room to see his brother sound asleep in the chair by the hearth, his legs stretched before the fire. Boromir had even seen fit to remove his sword and looked most comfortable. Nodding approval, Faramir left and headed across the hall and through the dining room into the small kitchen. Beth and two servants were slicing potatoes and preparing chickens for dinner. "I thank you, Beth," Faramir said with a smile. "The tea did the trick nicely."
The old cook looked happily up at him. "He sleeps?"
"He does. Have you seen Garad? He said he would meet me here after he left the Houses of Healing."
"I have not seen him. Was he in need of a Healer?"
"He was not. I sent him to watch after my brother and see if our plan bears fruit."
Beth sighed and shook her head. "Danger in the very Citadel itself! It will not do."
"No," Faramir said and leaned to give her a quick kiss on the cheek. "It won't. But I think my brother may yet find the solution when -" He looked up as there were bootsteps in the hall. "That must be Garad now."
He left the dining room and saw three oddly garbed men with their backs to him as they stood together further down the hall. Each wore a floor length black cloak and they seemed to be burdened by a large heavy bundle that resisted their efforts to right it and dragged on the floor between them. Sacks of grain were not delivered through the dining hallway. Yet surely these were servants else they would have been challenged by the guardsmen he could see still on duty at the other end of the hall. The sky beyond the entry stair window was almost solid black now, giving no light and casting the hall into thick shadow. Faramir took a step forward, his hand on his sword hilt. He waved an arm at the two guardsmen silently and urgently signaling them to move closer. They did not move and did not seem aware of his presence. There was a hiss of steel on leather and Faramir turned quickly back, drawing his sword from its scabbard. One of the intruders held a sword at the ready and released his left handed grip on the bundle which thudded to the floor. Not a sack of grain but an unconscious Garad!
"Guards!" Faramir called. Eerie crimson and yellow light flamed through the hallway. Another of the men took a pace forward, pulling back his cloak to reveal the source of the light. A round black sphere, swirling with colour. A palantir? The light flared a blinding red and suddenly Faramir found he could not move. His sword lowered from an arm abruptly gone weak. He could maintain his grip, but only barely. And no sound left his mouth as he tried to call for help. The swordsman took a step toward Faramir and the man holding the palantir strode closer. The black orb was lifted before Faramir's eyes and he could not look away. He heard a voice, so chill and malicious that it sent horror coursing through him. "Ahh. Old Greybeard. I have a token I was bidden to show thee."
Visions swirled in the stone and Faramir leaned forward to see them, drawn against his will. Red-orange clouds parted to reveal Gandalf and Pippin. Their faces were drawn stark and white with great distress. Before them towered a great black wall. Gandalf clutched something to his chest, it gleamed purer than silver. Mithril!
"Frodo!" Pippin's voice, a cry of utter despair.
"Silence!" Gandalf said, stern but empty, drained of all hope.
"The Halfling was dear to thee, I see. Know that he suffered greatly at the hands of his host."
Faramir staggered back as the palantir was abruptly torn from his line of sight. The hooded man who held the Stone flicked him a glance. "Forget him!" he snarled to those who held Faramir in a painful grasp he had not noticed till now, "The Eye wants Boromir!"
Paralyzed as much by shock of what he'd heard as by the spell cast by the palantir, Faramir could only watch in horror as his attacker turned to the open doorway to the room in which Boromir sat sleeping. It was Haradna! Gandalf and Pippin had vividly described the cruel physician's narrow bony face and protruding dark eyes. The traitor had come to finish his deadly work, and worse to see Frodo's quest fail. Anger gave Faramir some power and he took a stumbling step forward. Haradna flicked him an impatient glance and stepped closer. He pulled Faramir's mouth open roughly and poured some foul tasting liquid from a glass vial. Faramir wanted to gag but instead was forced to swallow. His vision faded to a blur of grey shadow. Sounds echoed about him and he knew there were words but could not make them out. A sudden terribly draining lassitude dragged at his will and his limbs seemed made of lead. Was this the same potion they had used on the guards by the funeral pyre? Sauron had claimed Denethor but Faramir was determined his henchmen would not take Boromir too! He concentrated mightily, sweat beading his brow, and took another stumbling step forward. He meant to attack the man but only succeeded in falling hard against Haradna. The palantir fell from the man's grasp even as Faramir fell face first to the floor. Again voices came to him from its depths. Aragorn! Anduril flashed into sight, slicing through the enemy's throat and beheading the foul creature who had been taunting them with Frodo's torture.
"I do not believe it!" Aragorn called, clear and sure. "I will not!"
Hope flooded Faramir. If Aragorn did not believe Frodo captured then nor did he! The vision ended abruptly as Haradna reclaimed the palantir, kicked Faramir in the ribs and disappeared from his line of sight. He was making for the room in which Boromir sat sleeping! Faramir struggled, began moving slowly, crawling across the carpeted hall.
Chapter Twenty SIx -- The Eye of the Palantir.
Illustration by Kim Kincaid
Boromir groaned, restless even as he slept. Visions entered his dreams, visions edged with the same green hues as the gemstone given him by Aragorn.
At Aragorn's back The Black Gates stood fully open and Sauron's massed army streamed toward his small band of men. Some of them were pale, moving back. Aragorn rallied their courage with truth.
"Sons of Gondor! Of Rohan! I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me! A day may come when the courage of Men fails, when we forsake all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day! An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the age of Men comes crashing down! But it is not this day! This day, we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good earth I bid you stand, Men of the West!"
Brego reared up and Anduril blazed silver, held aloft in a salute that was answered by every man before the King.
A dull thump brought Boromir drowsily awake. He shook his head, he could have sworn he had heard Aragorn's voice, summoning him to battle. He peered into the shadows of the room in which he sat. It was darker now; outside the day was fading even more and heavy clouds blotted out the light of the eastern sky beyond the windows. Flickering red fire-light danced about the walls, reminding Boromir of something from his dream and confusing him further. He was sure he had not imagined the loud noise that had woken him. Then, in the brighter light that spilled into the room from the open hallway door a dark figure appeared, quickly flanked by two others.
"Who's there?" Boromir said, and moved stiffly to his feet.
Take him!" a terrible, familiar voice snarled. Haradna!
"Guard!" Boromir called. He reached for his sword belt from the hearth hook. Something struck him a stunning blow to the head and he fell, sprawled on his side on the thick hearth rug. Dazed, he shook his head, and warm blood trickled into his eyes. The object that had hit him lay on the rug where it had fallen - a dagger its hilt engraved with the Eye of Sauron. Engraved in silver, the heavy knob had caught him, not the blade. He tried to push himself to his knees, but a boot landed in his side, winding him and rolling him onto his back. Hands snatched at his right arm and pulled it hard behind him. He went with the pull, throwing all his weight back, then rolled, kicked and struck his attacker hard in the groin with his booted foot. The man gasped and fell to his knees, clutching at himself. Boromir hit him with his right fist, but someone else had come round behind, using the chair as a weapon, pushing it atop him. Then a boot smashed into his face and all faded to darkness.
It could only have been moments before his senses returned. Haradna spat, "No, leave his hands free. Get him into the chair. Hurry! The Master is waiting!"
They lifted Boromir roughly and dumped him back into the chair that had been righted again. The cold dull edge of a blade slid over the back of his neck. He gasped pain as heat burned from the poison wound at its touch. The sling knot gave way and his wounded left arm dropped limply to his side. He blinked and squinted, trying desperately to gather his wits and fight back.
"Where is the Ring?" Haradna demanded.
"With the King," Boromir said and a hard hand slapped him, sent his head snapping back to the headrest.
"The Eye does not believe! Hold him! It would see his mind!"
"What -" Boromir began, then as his vision suddenly returned he looked up into the Healer's narrow face. The man was holding a round black stone that whirled with sullen red light. The Stone of Arnor! The palantir that had betrayed his father. Swirling with red orange clouds, its light was immediately hypnotic. Boromir stared in fascinated horror. He tried to get to his feet but cruel hands dug at his wounded shoulder making him gasp pain as they held him down. Haradna let the palantir drop into Boromir's lap and before it could roll to the floor, the healer grabbed both Boromir's hands and pushed them about the stone's smooth sides.
"Where is the Ring?"
It was not Haradna who spoke, but another, a disembodied, hissing voice that seemed to reach from a great distance to come roaring directly into Boromir's mind. "I see you, Son of Denethor!" Sauron laughed. "I see you! Where is the Ring?"
And there came another voice, Aragorn. "For Frodo!" he said and somehow Boromir knew it was the man's battle cry. His friend and king knew that Sauron's attention was divided. Now was the time to attack.
The palantir burned his hands. Reflexively, Boromir tried to throw the stone from him, but it stuck to his palms and he could not shake it free. Again he tried to stand, but was pushed back into the seat. Pain lanced into his mind and an image came to him of an Eye masked in flame. "The Ring!" Sauron demanded. Boromir struggled to think of anything else, but an immediate image came to him of the Ring on its chain. It was lying in the snow. He bent and picked it up. "So small a thing." His own past words echoed in his head. He tried to focus on the cold of Caradhras, anything other than what Sauron wanted.
"Boromir!" Aragorn called to him, his voice cutting through the other, driving it back. And Boromir saw his friend, not as he had seen him at Caradhras, the ragged Ranger, but rather the King ablaze with power before the Black Gates.
"No!" Sauron hissed. Flames leaped before Boromir's eyes. The Balrog was striding toward them as they ran onto the bridge of Khazadum. Its heat was fearsome. Boromir recoiled and turned to gather his hobbit friends into his arms. "Merry! Pippin!"
Gandalf was falling and Frodo cried out to him. No! The hobbit struggled in Boromir's arms. The trees of Lothlorien, so gold, glowing in the last of the day's light. Galadriel.
The voice in his head retreated. Dazed, Boromir opened his eyes. Sweat and blood was pouring over his brow and making his vision uncertain. He could see nothing but the swirling colors of the stone, the flames of the hearth, his hands. The palantir was burning him. He tried to push it away from him. Sauron lunged again for his mind. "Who carries the Ring!"
"—if you would but lend me the Ring," Boromir heard his own voice, and sickness soured his mouth. No. He would not do it again; he would not try to take the Ring from "Frodo! Run!"
"Boromir!" Aragorn called urgently from amid the clash of swords and the clamor of battle before the Black Gates. "Hold on!"
Boromir struggled to reply. Agonising pain flared in his shoulder. An arrow. Another. He could not breathe. The Uruk-hai archer met his eyes, lifted the bow, aimed the arrow straight at his heart. "The Ring!" Sauron demanded. The pain was unbearable. Boromir hunched forward, fighting for breath. He wrestled with the thing in his hands. It burned and seared through him. He groaned, doubled forward, tried to open his eyes.
Suddenly there was a flash of green cooling light and fresh air stirred about his face as if a giant bird had swept close over his head. He gasped and drew a relieved breath as the pain abated. The voice was gone. His vision cleared suddenly and he found he was staring at the silver wrought green stone brooch. His struggles had broken open the clasps on his tunic and dragged the collar low about his chest into his line of sight. Plainly, Boromir heard Pippin call with hope and joy, "The eagles are coming!"
And faintly behind that voice Boromir could hear Sam. Desperate, anguished, calling to Frodo, "Destroy it! Go on! Now! Throw it in the fire! What are you waiting for?"
They had done it! They had reached Mount Doom! Boromir's elation gave way to a frown. Why had Sam sounded so desperate?
A piercing scream, an inhuman wail knifed through Boromir's mind. "No! It is mine! Mine!" Sauron had seen The Ring. Dizzying images spun in Boromir's sight – the Nazgul winging toward Mt. Doom, Frodo standing perilously close to a great chasm of molten fire. He saw it then, the Ring hanging from the chain that was wrapped about Frodo's fingers.
"Hold him!" Haradna snarled. Unaware his mission was futile, the traitor tried again to force information from his prisoner.
Faramir gasped a great breath of clean air. The drug suddenly fled from his veins and his vision cleared to reveal Garad sitting up and shaking his head dazedly. Faramir stumbled to his feet and bent down to pull the Ranger up. "They have Boromir! Come on!" He tripped on something as he moved. His sword! He scooped it up and with Garad at his side charged toward the door. More of Haradna's men were waiting there, blades drawn and murder in their eyes.
Boromir grunted with pain. With another flare of fire the palantir seared into his mind with enough force to shred his will. "Boromir!" Aragorn called. And another, Faramir, called with equal urgency, "Boromir! Use the eagle stone!" Grunting with effort, Boromir touched the palantir to the gemstone. Something pushed hard into his chest, a sudden terrible wind that hurled him hard backward. He and the chair were hurled across the room. Fire exploded from the hearth where the palantir had fallen.
"No!" Haradna bellowed. Flames raced across the carpet and flowed hungrily up the heavy drapes about the window. Dazed, Boromir squinted into the room. Faramir and Garad were trading sword blows with a half dozen or more dark robed men. There was a loud clang and one of the henchmen grunted and collapsed. Beth stood over him, a heavy frying pan in her hands. Boromir blinked at her in proud but fearful astonishment. "Get out of here!" he shouted and hunted for his sword. It lay close to the flames where it had fallen from its hook. He staggered toward it and fell to his knees. Haradna's dagger whistled by, missing his face by less than a finger width. Powered by the man's enraged will the palantir flew unerringly toward Boromir's chest. Boromir abandoned the sword and instead tugged the green stone gem outward where it still clung to his tunic. As the palantir thudded into him and drew his hands toward it, he touched the green gem light to the angry red swirls of the Seeing Stone.
In a savage eruption of force the two stones repelled one another. Savagely lifted from his feet, Boromir was thrown back and up to slam hard into the wall. He lurched back to his feet amid the flames of the burning hearth rug. They licked at his booted ankles and he jumped clear and bent to pick up his sword and draw it from its scabbard. Something slammed into his wounded shoulder and he cried out. Haradna flew forward and grappled with him, pulling him to his knees. Somehow Boromir kept hold of his sword. He lunged and the traitor cried out in pain. Haradna's hands closed about Boromir's throat and the man rammed all his weight at Boromir, pushing them both into and through the flames. The floor-length window was close at Boromir's back, the drapes burning fiercely, the heat searing at his face and exposed hands.
Sauron screamed once more and the pure fury of it drove the palantir again at Boromir. He had a fleeting image of Aragorn falling, beaten down by a monstrous, armored troll. Distracted, Boromir took the full force as the palantir slammed hard into his chest. Winded, he grunted and was thrown from his feet to fall backward against the window. Glass shattered about him and he wavered, teetering on the edge of the deadly drop. The fire roared, engulfing Haradna and driving Boromir to overbalance completely. He fell into chill air and emptiness, glass shards spinning about him against the red grey sky. Above him he heard his brother's utterly despairing cry, "No!"
* * *
"No!" Frodo said coldly. A twisted smile pulled at his face. "The Ring is mine." He slid it onto his finger. And vanished.
* * *
"No!" Faramir cried. Horror-stricken and helpless, he saw Boromir fall through the shattered window. Faramir lunged forward, driving the enemy back and snarling with rage that they would dare hold him back from saving his brother. He swung the sword with pure fury and sent his attacker's head flying in a spray of blood. A second man came at him and he drove the blade hard into the man's chest. Faramir did not wait to pull it free but charged further into the burning room, crying, "Boromir! Boromir!" Fed by the wind that roared inside, the room burned more fiercely and shrouds of flaming drapes wafted down. The air was thick with smoke and cinders. Faramir coughed and tears stung his eyes. He waved his arms at the fire, shielding his face and trying to force his way forward, but the heat was agony. Hands grabbed at him and he twisted away.
"He's gone!" Garad said. "Come with me! You'll burn!"
"No!" Faramir screamed pure anguish. He forced himself forward and felt his tunic catch flame. "Boromir!"
"I'm here!" Boromir's voice, hoarse with smoke and pain. There was a flash of green light from beneath the shattered window. "Faramir!"
"I'm coming! Hold on!"
Garad dragged Faramir forcibly back and rolled him toward the door, out of the fire. He smothered the flames that ate at Faramir's clothing. "Let me go to him!" Faramir snarled. There were other people in the room now, beating at the fire, but it only roared higher, driving them steadily back. Haradna and his henchmen lay lifeless and bloodied amid the spreading flames on the carpet.
"We can't reach him this way!" Garad pleaded. "But up there! Come on!" He dragged Faramir to his feet and hauled him out into the hallway. Garad smashed his sword hilt into the glass picture window above the stair landing.
Faramir noticed vaguely that the eastern sky was changing continually in an angry swirling of red black storm clouds. Ignoring the glass shards of the broken window, he leaned forward and to one side saw Boromir hanging from the fingers of one bare hand to the stone cornice that ran under the shattered meeting room window. Beneath his desperately scrabbling boots was nothing but thin air and a deadly drop of hundreds of feet. Far below him the mighty Anduin was a gleaming silver thread on brown cloth. Faramir leaned further out, feeling the broken glass tearing into his gloved hands. From beneath the stair window the same stone cornice threaded its way over to where his brother held on desperately. His face was stark white under ash and blood and he was hanging from his good right arm, his left useless and limp at his side. He could not have the strength to hold on like that for more than a moment. Faramir saw then that not all Boromir's weight was pulling at the arm. Somehow he had succeeded in finding a partial grip with his booted feet; perhaps there was a small crevice in the stone wall. Flame and smoke belched above Boromir's head. There was no hope of him climbing back up and inside that way even if he had two good arms.
"Hang on!" Faramir called.
Boromir twisted and looked up at him. "Hurry!"
"Here!" Garad said. "Stand back and I'll throw this to him!"
Faramir saw the man had found a rope somewhere and was looping it ready to throw. 'Won't work," Faramir panted. "He can't catch it." Garad's face fell in dismay as he remembered Boromir had only the one good arm. "I'll climb out to him," Faramir said.
Garad grabbed him. "Tie this about you first." Garad shoved one end of the rope into Faramir's gloved hands and turned about to run to the stair post. There he secured the rope in a tight anchor knot.
"He's slipping!" Faramir cried. Without waiting to tie the rope to his waist, he stepped through the broken window and onto the thin ledge. Glass crunched beneath his boots, wind roared in his ears, and the unsecured rope whipped about his legs as it trailed from his right fist.
Sprawled near senseless, Sam lifted his head and groggily watched as Gollum grappled with an invisible Frodo. Then, a shriek of agony and Frodo reappeared, clutching a bloodied hand. Gollum held the Ring high and danced for joy. "The Precious! The Precious!" Frodo leapt at Gollum and together they wrestled and struggled, Gollum maintaining fierce hold of the Ring. And abruptly both he and Frodo toppled over the edge to fall into the fiery chasm.
Beyond the safety of the hall window a cold wind chilled Faramir's blood, snapping at his long hair and pulling it forward into his eyes before driving it back again. The force of it was almost enough to throw him off balance. He edged carefully along the stone shelving, his booted feet blindly feeling the way as his eyes remained fixed on his struggling brother. Faramir kept his left hand to the wall for balance and with his right he twisted the rope into a quick loop about his waist. Just another pace and he'd be there. "I'm coming! Hold on! Don't let go!"
Boromir's strength was all but gone, his face stark white against the vivid storm sky, his eyes squinted against the smoke and ash that bellowed from the window above him. Suddenly something else appeared there, a burning figure that fell in a ball of fire. Haradna! The traitor clutched the palantir which somehow seemed to have kept him alive despite the flames eating at him. The falling body caught Boromir across the shoulders and clung to him. Boromir cried out in pain and his right hand slipped. His bare and bloodied fingers grabbed and somehow he managed to claw into a weathered crevice in the stone cornice. Haradna should have been dead but he clung viciously to Boromir with one arm, using his own burning body to drag Boromir free of his precarious hold. Haradna's arm was one long length of flame that closed tight about Boromir's head. Blinded by fire, Boromir struggled, cried out, and let go, his desperate right hand still reaching upward. Haradna's burning body dropped away from him like a burning shroud.
"No!" Faramir cried and leaped after his brother. His hand closed over his brother's right wrist and the gloved fingers snapped closed like a steel talon. The rope jerked taut at Faramir's waist, halting their fall. Green light pulsed all about Boromir, pouring from the gemstone caught on his tunic. Its cooling glow swallowed up and choked the flames that had spread to his clothing. Spirallling further and further, it became a living growing vine of green radiance that twined ever tighter about Boromir's form. Then in a final burst of green and gold radiance it took the weight from Faramir's straining arm. Gasping relief, he hooked his left hand into his brother's leather tunic and gasped "Hold on to me!"
Engulfed by molten lava, Gollum disappeared, his outstretched hand still cradling the Ring. The arm and hand were eaten by fire. Still the Ring lay unharmed, suspended on the shimmering red crust of a river of liquid stone. And Sauron's evil spell, the writing wreathed in flames, flared to life one last time.
Above the river of fire, Frodo hung suspended by one hand, his fingers desperately clinging for support. "Don't you let go!" Sam begged above him, stretching down as far as possible to his aid. "Don't let go! Reach!"
And, with one last desperate effort, Frodo's bloodied and maimed hand closed about that of his friend. Beneath them The Ring was eaten, disappearing into the intense heat that had created it. Sauron was no more.
Boromir did not have the strength to speak but Faramir felt the faintest of nods as his brother's head moved against his chest. They were twisted about on the rope and it cut painfully deep into Faramir's waist. He could only pray the tangled knot would hold. Then he felt Garad and his men hauling above them and the rope began slowly to drag them back. "Careful!" Garad warned urgently. "The broken glass is fraying the rope!"
The sky suddenly cleared and the wind veered sharply to come from the south. A huge shape blotted the last of the days' light and a keen high-pitched eagle's cry echoed about them. Giant wings buffeted them as the eagle's enormous body hovered beneath them. It moved still closer and lifted ever so slowly until it took their weight and had them secure. Faramir gaped at the giant bird that seemed somehow to have been summoned by the silver wings of Boromir's green gemstone brooch. The jewel still pulsed with a faint radiance.
"I can see him!" Boromir said breathlessly, swaying a little as he got his booted feet planted on the eagle's back.
"Who?" Faramir said, disbelieving that his brother could notice anything other than the miracle of a giant bird coming to their aid.
"Aragorn!" Boromir laughed breathlessly. "And the others! They've won! Frodo destroyed the Ring! It's gone!"
Faramir turned sharply to stare at his brother in hopeful awe. At the same moment, the eagle turned its head and looked up, as if to gauge the remaining distance. It lifted slightly and Garad's hands grabbed at Faramir's waist, others taking hold of Boromir. Then they were inside, sprawled on the carpet, out of the wind, safe from the perilous drop. The floor felt wonderfully solid and the walls sheltering and warm, shielding them from harm. Beyond the shattered window, the eagle soared by, catching the newly freed sunlight. The clouds were gone and the sky was a clear dazzling blue against the eagle's magnificent gold and bronze feathered wings.
"Sing all ye peoples!" A voice cried joyfully from the sky. Faramir shook his head dizzily - he would have sworn it was the eagle itself that had spoken.
"They've won!" Boromir repeated, panting for breath.
"I believe you," Faramir said. Then he laughed for sheer joy and repeated, "I believe you, brother! I can see it! Look at the sky!" He sat up and drew his dazed and bloodied brother tight into his arms. Exhausted, Boromir lay his head to Faramir's shoulder and seeing Garad looking down at them, gave a wryly amused smile.
"Try to avoid doing that again," Garad said dryly. "You know how I hate heights!"
Boromir spluttered a laugh. "That makes two of us!"
"Three," Faramir said, deadpan.
Boromir grinned at him then weakly he squeezed Faramir's arm. "Thank you, brother. And you, Garad!"
After a moment, Faramir and Garad helped him sit up a little to check for injury. There was a deep cut on his brow and his right hand was badly torn, but there was no sign of any burns – the green light had healed them. Beth appeared and bent down to wordlessly to kiss them both. Then she collected a dampened cloth and began gently wiping blood and ash from Boromir's bloodied and bruised face. "It's all right," Boromir gasped. "I'm not hurt."
"Not hurt, says he!" she said in an effort at scolding spoiled by the tears of relief in her eyes. "Then show me your hand."
"Well," Boromir grinned happily and looked remarkably boyish, "Except for that, and it'll heal." Faramir took another bandage from Beth's basket and began trying to wrap it about his brother's bleeding hand. Boromir pulled away and sat straighter to take Faramir by the arm. "Forget these scratches, brother!" he exclaimed joyfully. "It's over! The Ring is gone! Sauron is destroyed! They've done it! Frodo and Sam have saved us!" And then the laugh became a sob, and Boromir's voice was suddenly thick with tears of exhausted relief. "We've won, Faramir. It's finally over. Sauron is no more. We've won!"
Faramir nodded. "And Frodo and Sam? I caught a vision – a voice saying they had been captured. How?"
Boromir's smile faded. "They must have escaped the enemy. But now – I don't know what's happened to them. The mountain exploded in a great gout of flame and burning rock. They must be saved, Faramir!"
"Use the green stone," Faramir said, calm before his brother's growing anguish even though his own heart was a leaden weight at the thought of the two heroic hobbits dead after saving all Middle Earth.
He watched hopefully as Boromir pulled it from his tunic and closed his bloodied right hand about it to hold it to his brow. He closed his eyes and concentrated. Faramir held his breath.
Boromir flinched, warily expecting the same disorientation and painful reliving he had experienced through the palantir. He exhaled a soft sigh, relieved as he found the brooch was vastly different, it was no more difficult than looking through a window. Or perhaps more accurately, peering underwater while holding one's breath; the images were slightly distorted and sounds greatly muffled. The eagle's wings of the brooch supplied a view as from a height, and at first all he could make out was an army, its banners waving far beneath him. Orcs and other enemy were running everywhere about them and being rapidly swallowed up as great chasms appeared beneath their feet. Boromir leaned down instinctively and could now see that the King's banner and those of Rohan and other allies marked the protected places. There was no sign of the massive Black Gates nor of Bar-dûr and Boromir gaped then grinned as he realized they were no more, swallowed and crushed to dust by the earth. He was beginning to become at ease with this odd method of communication, and found that if he focused on something it drew immediately clearer and larger. Beneath the sable banner with its silver tree and stars Aragorn stood, his head tilted back and a characteristic frown of concentration and worry creasing his brow as he studied the sky. An enormous vivid purple-red bruise slashed diagonally across his face but he appeared otherwise unharmed. About him were gathered Legolas, Imrahil and Eomer. Boromir squinted at the smaller figures close at Aragorn's side and grinned relief – Gimli, Merry and Pippin were unharmed though judging by their bloodied blades, the hobbits too had taken active part in the battle. They stared through red-rimmed and shimmering eyes at the fumes and fire that spouted from what had been Mount Doom. One entire side had blown outward and burning debris continued raining from the furnace. Boromir's smile faded and his throat tightened as he shared his friends' distress. He swallowed hard and only partly managed to choke back a sob of despair.
"Well?" Faramir prompted, and Boromir heard the fear in the word. He had read his brother's reaction as accurately as ever.
"I can see Aragorn and the others," Boromir reported, "They are unharmed. But I can't – Wait, Aragorn is calling to someone and he's grinning, smiling like a loon! Everyone is cheering, even Merry and Pippin but I can't see what – " Then, as he looked where they pointed, he gasped astonished delight. "Do not fear!" Gandalf called. "They are alive!" Three huge eagles were coming in to land, Gandalf riding atop one. The other two gently lay Frodo and Sam to the sand. "They look bad, I know," the wizard said quickly as Merry and Pippin fell to their knees to take their unconscious friends in their arms. "But I am sure they will soon recover."
"They are so thin! And Sam's shoulder is wounded." Pippin cradled Sam against his chest. Merry held Frodo. He checked him for injury and gave a sharp cry of horror. Pippin sobbed as he saw it too. Watching, Boromir gasped a shocked breath. One of Frodo's fingers had been savagely severed, the stump gory and blood trailing from it to coat his hand and wrist. "Look at his poor hand!" Merry sobbed.
Gandalf bent to wrap a clean kerchief about the wound and said calmly, "Frodo will be well. But the sooner we get both he and Sam to Minas Tirith the better. Come now. You will ride with me."
Boromir broke his connection with the vision to give his worried brother a faint smile by way of reassurance. "The eagles have them! Faramir, they're safe! Worn thin and suffering wounds yes, but they are alive and they will heal!" He reached out with his left hand, gripped and shook his brother's arm in celebration. Faramir grinned back at him and lay a hand atop Boromir's and as he squeezed Boromir realized his wounds no longer hurt him and he had full movement in his hand and arm. The poison had vanished as completely as all else of Sauron's domain. "I can hear Gandalf," Boromir added. "He tells Merry and Pippin to climb up beside him. They are bringing Sam and Frodo home to us."
Boromir touched the green gem again to his brow and concentrated on Aragorn's presence. "My King!" he called and chuckled as Aragorn started at the sound of his voice. "I salute you! Our people have life and freedom at last."
"Our victory, Boromir!" Aragorn replied and smiled for Legolas and Gimli's startled and puzzled expressions. "Tend our small heroes well." He began to turn away, but looked back with a wry grin to add, "Oh, and Boromir?"
"Yes, my King?"
Aragorn's smile grew larger. "Be sure you take care of yourself as well. You look terrible!" He chuckled, then said with great affection, "Rest, my friend. You have well earned the right."
"Rest!" Boromir said in astonishment. "Now?"
"Now!" Aragorn laughed but the sound was almost drowned out as his triumphant army saluted him with a great roaring cheer of exultation. King Elessar! Elessar! Elessar!
"What was that about telling you to rest?" Faramir wanted to know.
"Not me, Fara!" Boromir grinned up at him and ignored his brother's amused but suspicious eyes. "He means the hobbits. Now – there's no time to waste!" He lurched dizzily to his feet, steadying himself on his brother's shoulder. The gash on his brow opened further as he moved and blood trickled into his eyes. Beth clucked her tongue at him and leaned closer in an attempt to wipe it away. Boromir laughed and kissed the top of her head, then drew her into a tight hug. She smiled in return even as she scolded him for his impropriety. Boromir smiled at the small group gathered about him; all but Garad looked torn between duty and the desire to run outside and spread the good news. "Come, everyone! We can't welcome our wounded heroes back to a wrecked and burned House! Call Rarned! And find two more small beds. Oh, and send a runner to have the Citadel Heralds trumpet the victory!"
And before they could try to stop him Boromir strode down the hall to begin making preparations for the return of The Fellowship.
Chapter Twenty Six -- The Return of The Fellowship.
Aragorn had thought Minas Tirith beautiful the first time he had seen the city, many years ago, when he had arrived to serve as Thorongil. And when he last saw her, battered and burned, her first level near destroyed and the dead lying silent and broken all about her, still there was beauty – the beauty of courage and defiance and survival. But this -- never could he have imagined Minas Tirith could appear as alive as she was now. Her future potential shone radiant in every face that lined the Pelennor Road, even the weary figures who, covered in dust and filth, had worked to clear away the dead enemy and the fallen animals. Even they looked upon Aragorn and his entourage and hope was born anew in their eyes. The responsibility he carried as their king was daunting, and may have been overwhelming but for those who awaited just outside the temporary, wooden gates. Faramir, resplendent in he formal livery of his newly appointed office, stood beside the much smaller figure of Pippin who was equally handsome in the livery of the Tower Guard. Even from this distance Aragorn could plainly see the hobbit was all but dancing from one foot to the other, his characteristic ebullience keeping him from the proper ceremonial stance of the other guardsmen about Faramir.
Pippin's grin flashed white from beneath the shadow of the silver helm he wore and Aragorn smiled in response, as much from relief as joy. Pippin's smile meant all must be well with the other wounded of the Fellowship, or as well as might be with Frodo and Sam who surely could not be completely recovered. No doubt Merry was sitting vigil with them. Gandalf and his eagles had returned all four hobbits three days ago, immediately after the wizard's miraculous rescue of Frodo and Sam from the erupting furnace that had been Mount Doom. When the eagles had landed to lay their precious cargo so carefully on the sand at Aragorn's feet, he had known a fear the like of which he had last felt for one of Fellowship at Amon Hen. When he feared Boromir could not possibly survive his terrible wounds. Yet Gandalf had reminded him of his healing power and again, somehow, the legend of the power that lay in the hands of the king had proven true. Frodo and Sam, burned, bloodied, exhausted and starved seemingly beyond saving, had breathed more deeply under that touch and the fragrance of the athelas he carried.
"They will live," Gandalf had assured a distraught Merry and Pippin, "Do not fear. All will be well. Sauron's taint is no more. Come now, Merry, Pippin, together we will return our most heroic hobbits to a place of rest, to the White City. Gwaihir and his friends will bear us once more."
Aragorn had spent the following night and day tending the wounded in the makeshift camp about the great chasm where once had stood the Black Gates and the entry to Sauron's realm. It had taken some time for the reality of the victory to truly hit home, to begin to comprehend a future free of the fear of Sauron and the Nazgul. But slowly, gradually, then like a building flood, more and more men began to sing or laugh in a carefree manner the like of which they had never before known. Then the victorious army, well-rested, turned for home. Aragorn had expected the stench of death to sour their mood as they reached the Pelennor. Even though the work teams had laboured long and hard to bury the fallen of Rohan and Gondor within a day or two of the battle, there could be no way of either burning of burying the giant Mumakil, and the many horse carcasses. There was not enough wood to keep warm and feed the living, let alone to allow such a waste for animals and Orcs. Aragorn and his two Stewards were resigned to the knowledge that should a miracle of victory over Sauron be theirs, many might yet fall to disease. There may yet be need of mass evacuation to summer in Rohan and Ithilien.
Yet as Aragorn and his men returned victorious over the Anduin, no flocks of carrion darkened the sky and no sickly stench of death fouled the air. Instead, with growing surprise and pleasure, they found a Pelennor that was cleansed and showing the first touch of green. There were even tiny gold flowers budding at the grassy verges of the road. Seeing this sure sign of the rebirth of beauty, the soldiers had lifted their voices in song so glad and free that it brought tears of joy to Aragorn's eyes. The singing fell silent only now as Aragorn drew rein before the city walls and Faramir stepped forward to greet him formally as King, despite his not yet being crowned. Aragorn did not expect Boromir's presence, indeed had sent orders ahead that the elder Steward was to obey the healer's orders and see to a full recovery by staying in bed. He smiled as he imagined Boromir's scowling response to that command, and was glad it had been a captain of the guard and then Faramir who had had to dare the man's impatient ire. But Aragorn had seen much, in horrifying glimpses, of his friend's battle with Sauron's spies and knew that Boromir had been far from healed even before that fight. Now there was time for rest and Aragorn would see to it, would command, that his friend took that time to properly allow the renewal of strength.
With the formalities of the greeting of Steward and King done, Aragorn beamed a relaxed smile and leaned forward to whisper to Faramir, "I see Boromir has – for once – obeyed my command and stayed abed?"
Faramir snorted amusement. "He has, My King. But not without regular issuing of threats."
Faramir dropped his voice further, and it was difficult for Aragorn to make out the words, as they were further masked by choked laughter. "Merry and Pippin mentioned something about some secret to do with his undershirts?"
Aragorn spluttered delight and winked down at a grinning Pippin. "Very clever!"
"Perhaps someone will enlighten me on this mystery, mayhap during the victory feast that awaits as on the morrow?" Faramir said curiously. "The city's cooks would have been hard pressed to invent savory fare from our limited supplies, but since the news of the victory and of your return, fresh supplies have miraculously been forthcoming from the surrounding townships and farms. "
Gimli, who could never remain silent long, especially when feasting was mentioned, growled, "Y' cannot blame the folk for wanting to horde what is scarce to feed their own. Now they know the days of hoarding and starving are over forever."
Aragorn looked down at the Dwarf and cocked an eyebrow. "Let us hope you are right."
"It's true," Legolas said with smooth contentment, "I feel life brimming all about us, in the soil, the water, the air."
"Speaking of the air," Aragorn asked as Faramir waved him ahead and they walked through the gate archway, their horses clopping behind, "And of miracles, how can the Pelennor be so pure and free of carrion so soon?"
"Ahh," Faramir smiled. "Everyone is asking the same thing this morning. My best guess is that the answer lies with Mithrandir. Certain of Frodo and Sam's recovery, I believe he has become impatient to find a release for joy. There have been some odd things happening in and about the city in the past two days."
Gimli elbowed forward to scowl up at them. "Stop dancing all about and come to the point. What has Gandalf been up to now?"
Aragorn laughed so loudly that the guards looked at him askance then smiled in return. "Disappearing Mumakil carcasses, Gimli!"
"Oh! Right. I see." The Dwarf rubbed at his heavily bearded chin and then frowned anew. "Wouldn't it take a lot of – of magical power to do something like that? What else has he been up to?"
Faramir smiled down at him. "Only such things, I'm sure, as he feels necessary to laying the proper foundation to a victory party fit for a King, my good friend. It would not do to have our King arrive in splendor while gagging on the stench of rotting animals."
"Good point," Gimli barked a laugh. "Good point! It might even put me off eating m' meat!"
"Never!" Legolas declared and the two fell into their now familiar banter. Well, it was familiar to Aragorn and Pippin, but there were, Aragorn noted with amusement, surprised expressions among those in the crowd who watched Elf and Dwarf laughing together. A further sign of a miraculous peace, no doubt. There were even more people gathered here inside the gateway square, all eager to catch a glance of returned loved ones as much as the other more famous figures.
Then, amid growing confusion and delighted cries from behind them, people began turning around to see something or someone as yet hidden to Aragorn and the others. "Make way! Make way!" the rear guardsmen called and growing louder came the sound of galloping hooves on cobbles. The crowd parted and a familiar, magnificent white stallion came charging into view. Shadowfax' mane flew, his neck arched and his step proud and high as he came to a smooth halt in the cleared area. Aragorn gasped and smiled with delighted surprise for it was not as he had expected, Gandalf, but rather Boromir who sat astride the majestic stallion.
"Boromir!" Aragorn called in laughing greeting. "Have you stolen Gandalf's horse again?"
Boromir returned a flashing grin and a jaunty salute. "He neglects my horse friend badly, My King! Someone must see to exercising him!"
Faramir spluttered happy indignation. "I should have known you'd escape, brother! Where's Garad?"
"Garad who?" Boromir said impishly and slid easily from the horse's bareback to land smoothly on booted feet. If the man had been battered and bruised, exhausted and sick after his battle with spies not three days ago, there was no sign of such now. His face shone radiant with vigor and joy, his hair glowed gold in the late afternoon light and his stance was straight and proud. Most importantly and significantly, his left arm was no longer cradled and limp inside a sling. He strode forward, laughter dancing in his eyes. No trace of Sauron's poison remained, destroyed with all his other vile creations.
Aragorn began to move forward to take his friend and Steward in an expected mutual embrace, then paused abruptly, as Boromir instead bowed low and said with smooth and intent pride and nobility, "Welcome home, My King!"
"It is good to be back," Aragorn said, a little uncertain for the sudden formality. Then he caught the twitch of impishness about the corners of his friend's mouth.
"My Lord Steward," Aragorn added, and felt the same ironic smile tug at his own lips. As his eyes locked with Boromir's, he saw there the same memories of long arduous days in the wilderness as they journeyed south. Days when both were begrimed and filthy, hungry and cold, and the idea of them seeing such a day as this could be no more than the most fanciful of dreams. Aragorn bit back his smile to say as sternly as he could, "I believe you were commanded to rest, my lord?"
Boromir's impish smile broke free into such a radiant, carefree grin that Aragorn's breath caught in his throat. But there was more than mirth in the man's eyes as he held Aragorn's gaze and said intently, "I swore an oath, My King. I will stand at your side."
Aragorn nodded. "I have not forgotten." Then, deciding he needed some equally mischievous rejoinder, he asked, "Were there not to be silver trumpets?"
"Trumpets?" Boromir said, forgetting even the pretence of propriety in his confusion. An amused Faramir cleared his throat and his brother hastily added, "My King."
Aragorn's teasing faded to heartfelt emotion as he quoted Boromir's movingly poetic words amid the glade of Caras Galadhon. "Some day our paths will lead us there. Have you ever been called home by the clear ringing of silver trumpets?"
"Yes! It shall be so!" Boromir turned a little to call in a booming voice, "Guardsman Peregrin Took, to me!"
When there was no instant response, Faramir nudged Pippin who was standing grinning up at them, totally lost to the joy of the moment. "Oh right!" Pippin said with a start and stepped forward, "That's me!" He straightened into a smart salute and said, "At your service, My Lord Steward!" He added in a whisper, "Sorry. You've never called me that before!"
"Well, Guardsman Took," Boromir said with a fond smile, "Your first public task for me is to find the Captain of the Tower Guard and tell him not to bother waiting for my signal. I need him to do it now."
Pippin frowned a little. "Do what? Uhh, do what, my Lord Steward?'
"He'll know!" Boromir said with a laugh. "Just –"
A heart-warming sweet music, a flare of trumpets suddenly floated down from the highest towers and carried out toward the Anduin on the flower fragrant, warm spring air. "Never mind," Boromir said with a happy sigh. "He's doing it. Though I don't understand how he knew about the change in plan."
"Gandalf again, no doubt," Aragorn chuckled.
"Probably!" Boromir stood grinning at him. "My King."
Aragorn gave up all pretence of anything other than the overwhelming joy that swamped him. Erupting in laughter he stepped close and drew Boromir into a tight hug. "It is good to see you well, my friend!"
"And you!" Boromir laughed and hugged him in return. They slapped each other on the back a few times and Aragorn held him close a moment longer then stepped back, a hand on each of Boromir's shoulders. The moment was eternal as they stood drinking in the sight as if never to tire of this proof they had survived to see all their hopes fulfilled. "Our people," Aragorn said softly and saw tears brim in Boromir's eyes as he nodded and repeated the words. The Fellowship was whole and victory theirs. They had done it! Aragorn decided then and there that the nine of them, and a few other close comrades, would have their own private celebration in the next few days, away from any need for formality.
Above their heads the trumpets continued their joyous greeting and the sound echoed again and again from the walls to softly return from Mindolluin's snowy heights. Boromir drew a deep breath and the tears of joy in his eyes made Aragorn's own eyes burn with emotion. He squeezed Boromir's shoulder once more to say, "Beautiful indeed. Just as you described it." Boromir nodded wordlessly and turned to greet an increasingly impatient Gimli and Legolas. He bestowed upon his friends the bright smile Aragorn recalled from an impromptu lesson in swordplay with two impudent hobbits. It seemed an age had passed since that day, and it had all happened in another darker, impossibly shadowed world.
Boromir turned back to say impishly, "Shall we ride, My King? I fear my nursemaid guard may be getting cramped, and Garad deserves better than the broom closet."
"You didn't!" Faramir exclaimed and laughed disbelief at his brother's nod of mischievous triumph.
"You may need to empty the brewery to placate him!" Aragorn said with a laugh as he turned and swung up into Brego's saddle. Legolas leapt smoothly to Arod's back and reached an arm for Gimli, while Faramir took Pippin up before him. Boromir turned to mount Shadowfax who snorted and threw his head as if to show off his beauty for the awed crowd. Then the horse bowed low, one foreleg extended as he waited for Boromir, who despite his obvious healing was apparently still not fully recovered to his normal athleticism sufficiently to leap high enough to mount bareback. Aragorn waited until Boromir was seated and drew level with him, and Faramir and Pippin rode at his other side, Legolas and Gimli slightly behind. Together they headed the parade that began to wind uphill amid cheering crowds.
"That's an impressive mount you have there, my friend," Aragorn called teasingly above the noise, "He much resembles Shadowfax but it cannot be for Gandalf assures me the Lord of the Mearas will accept no other rider."
Hearing his name, Shadowfax snorted again then turned his head to gently nudge his rider's leg. Boromir bent forward a little to stroke the stallion's neck. "Yes, well," he said, managing somehow to look both mildly embarrassed and aglow with pride, "Shadowfax and I have had an adventure or two together and he allows me the honour."
Chuckling at his brother's discomfit, Faramir looked across to say with feeling, "Now there's an understatement!" Aragorn cast him a glance and the younger Steward clarified, "They stood together against The Witch King."
Aragorn's eyes widened. "I see."
"But I think he'd already taken a shine to you before that, Boromir," Pippin piped up, then hastily corrected, "I mean, My Lord Steward."
Boromir turned a little to eye his small friend intently. No longer teasing, but solemn and proud he said, "Guardsman Took, it would please me if you were to address me always as friend, and ever call me Boromir as you did during our travels." His voice softened as he added, "I would count it an honour to be addressed as friend by one who has earned renowned in battle and who saved my life, Pippin."
"It would please and honour me, too," Pippin said and sounded suddenly much older. Then he added in a whisper of Pippin of the Shire, "Even in public, you're sure?"
"I'm sure!" Boromir lurched abruptly forward as Shadowfax side-stepped suddenly, avoiding stepping on a child who had run forward, escaping its mother's grasp. Any other horse could not have avoided running down the infant. Wide-eyed the mother nodded gratefully to Boromir. He smiled down at her, but grunted a little with stiffness and pain as he straightened up again.
Aragorn took his arm briefly and said privately, "That is a long way to ride bareback and you have some healing to do yet. I would not have you overtax yourself."
Boromir shook his head. "Ever the healer! Do you think there is anything could have stopped me being here to share this moment with you?"
"No," Aragorn smiled warmly. "Indeed not all the Demons of the Void could stand between you and victory, Boromir!"
"I succeeded only with yours, and others' help."
"I will perhaps concede you that point." He paused and added mischievously, "My Lord Steward."
"My King," Boromir returned an impish smile. "Come, we can move faster than this! There are others who are impatient to see you." Shadowfax apparently agreed, breaking into a smooth canter.
"Frodo? Sam?" Aragorn said as Brego followed the white stallion's lead and drew level, "Surely they are yet sleeping?"
"Sam is newly awake, and –"
"Sam is awake?" Pippin interrupted, overhearing as Faramir's mount kept pace. The hobbit's voice trembled with eagerness and his wide eyes shone with anticipation of the reunion.
"Yes," Boromir said. "He asked Merry right away where you were. He was momentarily alarmed, seeing Merry without you."
Pippin sighed dramatically. "I knew it, I knew that if I left for just a little while one of them would go and wake up on me. I really wanted to stay, but –" He cast a torn glance at Aragorn. "I wanted to be here too."
"Well, no harm done," Faramir put in from behind him. "I'm sure Sam would have wanted one hobbit at least to represent them in greeting the return of the King."
"That's true! He would! And I did! I never thought of it like that." Pippin half turned to give Faramir a grateful smile. "Do you think Frodo might be awake by now as well?"
"Exactly the question I want to ask," Aragorn said. "How is he? And Sam? They looked so bad when I last saw them –" He swallowed hard and finished softly, " I was greatly concerned and would not have been reassured if anyone other than Gandalf had told me they would yet recover."
"Gandalf has not left them for a moment since he, Merry and Pippin arrived with them atop the eagles these three days past," Boromir said. "I can tell you they look much the better for his care." He looked across at Pippin with a fond smile to add, "Gandalf had to threaten the other two before we could get them safely tucked into beds of their own despite their battle wounds."
"It was just a few scratches, Boromir!" Pippin declared, then added with a frown, "Merry was worse, though. He shouldn't really have gone with us in the first place."
"I doubt we could have kept him from your side no matter what we tried," Faramir said.
"Probably not," Pippin looked up at him with cheerful agreement.
"We were very glad to see the four of you returned safely even if by unusual means."
"That was something, I can tell you!" Pippin's eyes widened again with excited remembrance. "Flying on giant eagles' backs! With Gandalf at our side." He shook his head. "No one in the Shire will ever believe it."
Boromir looked across to give his small friend a fond smile. "And that will be just one tale of the many, I would think. Gandalf tells me you may well have saved his life during the battle for Minas Tirith, Pippin."
Aragorn's brows rose. "Truly?"
"Oh well yes. Sort of." Pippin said modestly.
Boromir laughed. "And Aragorn and I argued with him that you and Merry should stay in Rivendell!"
"Did you?" Pippin was indignant.
Boromir shrugged apologetically. "We know you better now." He shared an amused glance with Aragorn. "We won't do it twice."
Pippin sighed happily and settled back in the saddle before Faramir. "Well, that's all right then. You know we hobbits worry about you big folk too."
"You do?" Aragorn asked and suddenly realised he had seldom felt more content than he did at this moment. There was still a niggling concern for Frodo, but other than that, and perhaps some anxiety about his pending coronation, he had never felt more relaxed. He had received word only two days back from Elrond's riders that Arwen was rapidly recovering strength.
"Of course we do! And with good cause. Boromir half scared the life out of me when I first saw him when we got back here with Frodo and Sam."
"I did?" Boromir winced a little as he turned about. "Why so?"
Pippin gaped at his friend with such sincere astonishment that both Aragorn and Faramir chuckled. Brother and friend well knew Boromir's propensity for charging into danger with nary a thought for his own well being. "Why?" Pippin repeated indignantly. "Why!"
"You should have seen yourself, brother!" Faramir said, "Your clothes were reduced to charred rags, you were covered in blood and staggering about like a drunken sailor."
"I did not stagger!"
"True," Faramir amended. "At least not for long. Then you fell down."
"I don't think so!"
"You wouldn't remember." Faramir appeared smugly amused over a deeper expression of past fear as he explained for Aragorn, "Fainted clean away not long after he saw the little ones to care."
"I do not faint!" Boromir insisted, "I go down fighting!"
"Whatever the truth," Aragorn said, "I will admit you gave me several bad moments, too." He met Boromir's eyes to explain gravely, "I caught glimpses of your peril. Your forearm guards seem to have linked us once again." He tapped the vambraces about his arms for emphasis.
Boromir touched his fingertips to the greenstone brooch he wore at his shoulder. "I saw some of what was happening with you, too. " He lifted an eyebrow, then shook his head wonderingly. "I never would have believed it possible."
"No." Aragorn agreed. "What little I could make out showed a deadly-fierce battle. The palantir was involved?"
"Yes, Haradna used it as a weapon to call fire and storm."
There was another ring of trumpet fanfare and Aragorn looked ahead, mildly surprised to find they were about to enter the Citadel Gate. "That is a tale I would hear in full as soon as I might."
"And I have yet to hear all that happened at the Black Gates – " Boromir lifted a hand to forestall Pippin's indignation. "You could not have seen it all busy in the thick of battle as you were, my small warrior friend." Pippin nodded acceptance of the point and Boromir turned to Aragorn again. "There will be tales aplenty, but none more keenly awaited than that Frodo and Sam can tell."
"Indeed." Aragorn said thoughtfully. He had tended Frodo's maimed hand and when he'd queried Gandalf about it, the wizard mumbled something about suspecting Gollum. The darkness of the Citadel Gate tunnel swallowed horses and men and Aragorn repeated in a whisper, "Indeed."
But as they rode clear into the brilliant sunshine and greenery about the fountain everyone gasped in awe, and Pippin cried, "The tree! Look at the tree! It's come alive again!"
The final sign was in place, Aragorn could scarce believe his eyes. Blossoms crowned the White Tree of Gondor and drifted to mound like snow on the green grass.
"It wasn't like that when I rode out," Boromir said in amazement. He turned to stare from his brother to Aragorn. "Our King is truly come home."
After everyone had changed into more comfortable clothing, they continued down the hall to the room where Frodo rested. Outside on a low carved wooden bench by the door sat Sam and Merry deep in conversation. Both were munching contentedly on apples, a bowl holding more balanced between them. Seeing the others approach, Sam gave a delighted cry and ran first into Pippin's embrace. "I knew you'd escape! I knew it!" he said again and again. Then he drew back to study his friend, "Is it true you're a Guard of The Citadel now?"
"It is!" Pippin said proudly. "But I've changed back into my Shire clothes to see Frodo. It seemed more appropriate. How is he?"
"Sleeping," Sam said. "Gandalf says he will wake soon." Sam was no longer paying full attention but was smiling at his other Fellowship companions. "We're all together again!" Gimli laughed and came forward to hug him, followed closely by Legolas.
Aragorn went to his knees and took Sam solemnly by the arm, in a grip given from one warrior to another. "Samwise," he said gravely. "You honour us all, and I thank you for your loyalty and courage."
Sam blushed, and stammered a few indecipherable words before Aragorn took pity and drew him hard into a laughing embrace. "Welcome home, Sam! Welcome to the White City!"
When they drew apart, Boromir stepped forward to smile down at the little gardener. "Sam," he greeted. "You have the heart of a warrior. You have done what no other could. We are, all of us, indebted to you and Frodo."
"Thank you, Boromir," Sam greeted steadily. "I am pleased to see you on your feet again."
"As am I you." As Boromir met Sam's eyes he found a different hobbit altogether to the Sam he had last spoken with in Osgiliath. If Sam had seemed older and wiser there, it was nothing to the depth of experience and knowing understanding in those dark brown eyes now. "I would offer my own congratulations, though the word seems far too small for all you and Frodo have achieved. You have saved all Middle Earth from the brink of death or worse."
At that, Sam's modest demeanor returned. He looked down at his feet and shook his head. "Not me. That was Frodo. He carried that cursed thing all the way to Mount Doom and I will never know how."
"How?" Aragorn put in quietly. "Why because you were with him every step of the way, Sam."
"Oh now, well, that's … I mean, he would have done it anyway." Before anyone could protest that statement, Sam hurried on. "I really should go to him. I'll be very quiet. I won't wake him. I didn't' all the time while he lay healing at Rivendell you know."
"I remember," Aragorn said.
"Not to worry," Merry put in happily over a mouthful of apple, "Gandalf says he's sure he'll wake very soon anyway."
"Really?" Pippin asked eagerly.
"Really," Merry assured. "And Gandalf says he'll want to see us all right away. So he'll know we're all right."
"The four of you should be together again," Gimli agreed. "It doesn't seem natural somehow when you're not talking away all at once. Well," he amended. "Not that Frodo ever talked quite as much as the rest of you!" He frowned. "Nor Sam either now I come to think of it."
Pippin laughed. "So you're saying Merry and I are chatterboxes?"
Gimli snorted. "No! " He waited a beat, then winked and said, "You're far worse than chatterboxes!" When he'd been scolded sufficiently for that remark, he added, "Well, go along then. We'll wait out here for you."
Merry shook his head. "You misunderstand, Gimli. Gandalf said that Frodo will need to see us all together safely together again – not just we hobbits – all of us. The Fellowship, back together again."
"Oh!" Beneath the bushy brows, Gimli's eyes widened with pleasure and understanding. "Oh, right. Yes, of course "
"Yes," Legolas' voice was full of pride and love. "The Fellowship is at last whole again. "
They all regarded one another for a long quietly satisfied moment before Pippin corrected, "Well, that is, we will be when we go to Frodo's side and stand there with Gandalf."
"Yes, yes," Merry rolled his eyes at his cousin. "But the thing is, how shall we do it? Who's going in first?"
"He'd want to see you and Pippin first," Sam said solidly. "He told me how you two cleared the way Illustration by Kim Kincaid for him to escape when the Orcs showed up that day by the lake. That was very brave."
"Well," Pippin and Merry looked at one another. "It just sort of happened and you would have done the same, Sam."
"I would." Sam said, surprising them with his uncharacteristic acceptance of the compliment. "But only if I could have doubled back to be with him again on the long march too. So it was as well he ran into you two first. All this time, we've been so worried about you."
"When I caught up with Master Boromir in that ruined city he told me what had happened and that the others were off hunting for you." He cast a grateful glance at Aragorn and Legolas. "You had it right Master Boromir sir, when you said if anyone could find them Aragorn would. The best tracker in all middle Earth he named you Strider, I mean Aragorn, and so you proved."
"I thank you both for your faith," Aragorn said. "And I had some help from elven eyes and ears." He smiled at Legolas.
Sam looked proudly from Aragorn back to Boromir and he nodded and avoided his gaze a little uncomfortably. Now that it came to it he wasn't sure he had the courage to face Frodo just yet. He'd never forget the fear he'd brought to the Ringbearer's face. His own face burned with shame at the memory.
"But the thing of it is," Sam continued, "there would have been no one alive to rescue if not for you, Boromir."
"Very true." Merry and Pippin said in unison.
"What?" Boromir blinked as the words registered. "The enemy intended to take you alive."
Pippin snorted and shared an exasperated look with Merry. "Oh right! And that's why you had to step in and stop that first Uruk cleaving my head in two with that monstrous great blade of his?"
"I well –," Boromir frowned. "That one must not have been obeying orders."
Gimli spluttered and coughed over an inhalation from his freshly made pipe. From the back of the hall Faramir chuckled and stepped forward to comment, "This is yet another new side to you, brother. You have never before been so loathe to take due credit for a battle well fought."
"I had much to atone," Boromir said so quietly that he might have spoken to himself.
"I didn't hear that," Gimli growled ominously. "And just as well if it's the usual rubbish you spout about what happened that day."
Boromir lifted his head sharply, then tilted it back down again to frown at the dwarf. It was hard to maintain a sour expression though, when the amused chuckles and snorts he heard from the three hobbits so warmed his heart.
"Usual rubbish?" Aragorn asked keenly, "What else have you said against yourself, Boromir?"
"Nothing of any consequence." Boromir was saved from Aragorn's piercing regard and Gimli's beginning elaboration by a happy interruption.
"Here! What's that?" Merry exclaimed and swung about to cock his head to listen at Frodo's bedroom door.
"It sounds like someone laughing," Pippin said eagerly.
"It's Gandalf and –"
"Frodo!" The cousins finished in unison. And without waiting for further invitation they charged through the suddenly and no doubt magically opened door. Leaving his still smoking pipe on the bench, Gimli followed.
Legolas waved an arm at Aragorn. "After you, Your Majesty."
Aragorn gave him a look. "You first, Prince Greenleaf." Smiling, Legolas obeyed. Aragorn took a step to follow him, then stopped and looked enquiringly back at his Stewards.
"This moment is for the Fellowship," Faramir said softly. Boromir caught his brother's intent tone but remained unmoving. Aragorn cleared his throat loudly and asked, "Boromir?"
Boromir shook his head. "No. You go on. I – I'll be along to see him later."
"This is the Fellowship's victory, Boromir," Aragorn said intently. "And it is not a Fellowship entire without you."
Boromir blew out a breath and looked pleadingly at his friend. "I – He will not wish to see me."
Aragorn held Boromir's gaze a long moment then sighed and shook his head. "And why would he not?" He said no more but turned and followed after Legolas.
"Don't you remember what happened at Osgiliath?" Sam urged, looking up at Boromir with sad brown eyes. "It wasn't Frodo who held that sword at my throat. It's the Ring that did the evil. Though," he shrugged and gave a wry lift of an eyebrow, "It took many a day to convince Mister Frodo and he still doesn't – " He cut himself short.
"Forgive himself?" Boromir asked quietly.
Sam nodded sadly and stepped closer to pat Boromir on the arm. "You must see him. He will expect you and be waiting."
"Soon. You go on."
Sam eyed him doubtfully and threw a pleading look at Faramir, but was unable to resist his own need to be with Frodo. He left the brothers and entered the room, pausing a moment in the doorway to watch the scene within.
"Boromir –" Faramir began hesitantly. "You are – as ever – too hard on yourself. It is as Sam said -- "
"No!" Boromir growled. "Do not say it! I have a will of my own! The Ring did not force me to – to do what I did that day."
"Did it not?" A resonant yet quiet voice put in. "Did it not indeed?"
Boromir looked up, anguished, to meet Gandalf's clear blue eyes and was immediately swept up by the odd mix of compassion and pain he found there.
"Boromir, my dear friend," Gandalf went on. "If only you were right. For if you were, if it was true that the Ring could not overpower another's will there would have been no need of the quest of the Fellowship in the first place."
Boromir struggled to find words then simply grunted frustration and scrubbed his hands wearily over his face. "Gandalf, you have never – you cannot understand. You have never turned on a friend the way I did that day. "
"Boromir –" Gandalf began then cast a helpless look at Faramir. "Is he always so stubborn?"
Boromir caught his brother's amused but worried nod, and also read the deep love in his eyes. "I fear so, Mithrandir. He's always been like this. I remember he always took the responsibility for whatever wrong befell me though it was outside his power to change." He paused and his voice was fiercely proud as he added, "Ever Boromir has sought only to protect and defend those he loves."
"A virtue rather than a weakness any would agree." Gandalf stepped closer to lay a hand to Boromir's shoulder. "You are a fortunate man if you have never found need to forgive a friend. Have you not done so many times?"
Boromir stood silent. It was not the same. Yes there had been many instances when he had needed to convince someone that they were worthy of his forgiveness, but that was not the same. Was it?
"Come now," Gandalf continued softly. "Victory was won exactly because of the love that binds The Fellowship. Do not doubt it now." Gandalf waved a hand at the door and suddenly Boromir realized that the merry laughter and joyful cries of greeting from Frodo had fallen silent. There was not a sound to be heard from the open bedroom.
"But where is Boromir?"
It was Frodo's voice, anxious.
"Sam told me he was very badly wounded, but – but that he would soon be safe with the Healers. Why is he not here? Please tell me he is alive!"
"He's alive," Aragorn assured.
Even from the hall Boromir plainly heard Frodo's exhalation of relief. "Then why is he not here with us all? Has he been further wounded? We saw Sauron's army marching for Minas Tirith. It seemed impossible that anyone could stand before it."
"Boromir is unharmed. More or less. A few new scratches." Gimli's gruff and increasingly impatient voice gave way to a loud exclamation of wordless frustration and a bellow that made Boromir jump. "Will ye get yerself in here, laddie! Or would y'have Frodo sicken anew with worry?"
"I would not!" Boromir answered reflexively. He took a pace forward then halted again. "I do not Illustration by Andy Fry mean to cause worry but -- " Some invisible power, no doubt of Gandalf's making, suddenly grabbed Boromir and thrust him forward. He stumbled into the open doorway and caught a glimpse of Frodo who propped himself higher in the bed. He looked set to throw the covers back, get out of bed and come to Boromir if the Man would not come to him. "No, Frodo! Don't!" Boromir cried and flung out a hand in protest. Frodo looked up sharply. Those impossibly large blue eyes locked onto his. And somehow managed to widen still further with delight.
Then still holding Boromir's gaze intently, Frodo smiled. Tears suddenly stung Boromir's eyes. In that smile, in Frodo's no longer weary face, in eyes restored to youth and life, Boromir read all he needed to know. There had been nothing to forgive; Frodo felt only joy at finding him alive and reunited with them all.
With tears spilling unashamedly down his cheeks, Boromir took the last few paces into the room down the aisle made by the rest of the Fellowship. By all those he loved most dearly. All but one.
"It is good to see you again, Frodo," he heard himself say, and suddenly realized he was smiling like a fool. "So good!"
"You gave me a terrible scare," Frodo scolded, then began laughing. He reached up arms that were too thin but no longer marred by the burns and bruises he had borne when Gandalf carried him here to bed. A clean white bandage was wrapped about his maimed left hand.
"What is it you need?" Boromir asked, and looked about in puzzlement to find what it was for which Frodo reached.
Gimli shook his head exasperatedly then shoved Boromir hard behind the knees. Boromir lurched forward and was forced to prop himself on the small bed rather than collapse atop Frodo and Merry and Pippin who sat close by. Frodo's warm, thin arms wrapped about Boromir's neck and a kiss was planted on his brow. "I'm glad you're all right," Frodo whispered in his ear. "The Ring got to me too, at the last, much worse than you know. But we're free of it now, Boromir." He pulled away to smile with wondrous radiance. "It's gone at last. We're free!"
Boromir smiled and nothing had ever felt so good. A huge weight lifted from about his heart. "Thanks to you, and Sam," he said.
Frodo nodded and his smile faded a little. He looked over Boromir's shoulder to meet his most loyal friend's eyes. "Don't thank me, please. It was Sam."
"No," Sam denied immediately.
"Yes." Frodo insisted and added with quiet intensity, "Frodo wouldn't have gone far if not for his Sam. Samwise The Brave!"
"Now Mr Frodo!" Sam laughed, pleased but embarrassed. Boromir realized with a start that he had never before heard the sound of a carefree Sam laughing.
"It's true," Frodo continued with utmost sincerity. Then as Boromir stepped away from the bed, Frodo looked at each of his gathered friends in turn and told them, "I cannot take praise for destroying the Ring when it was Gollum who finally took it into the fire."
"Gollum?" Almost everyone in the room asked at once.
"He didn't mean to," Sam said with a sour snort. "If you hadn't fought him he'd never have fallen and he nearly dragged you in with him. I think my heart stopped when I saw you go over the edge."
Everyone stared in horror but Frodo only smiled. "And I'd never have made it back up without you, Sam." He looked at the others to explain, "You could not have been more right, Gandalf, about the mercy of Bilbo, and about Gollum having a part to play yet. He took The Ring from me and destroyed it by accident. I have a story to tell you about how I lost this." He held up his bandaged hand. "But first," he added plaintively, "I'm hungry!"
Merry and Pippin scattered from the bed to fetch the bowl of fruit from the bedside table. "You can start with these," Pippin said, "They're delicious," Merry went on. "But there's plenty more food if you don't like them."
Frodo took a piece of fruit without really looking at it, his attention drawn to someone in the doorway. Boromir turned to see that Faramir was standing there, watching them all, and the tears that had left Boromir's face damp also shone in his brother's proud eyes.
"Frodo," Boromir said with the same pride, "I'd like you to meet –"
"Your brother, Faramir," Frodo finished. "We've already met."
"Oh," Boromir said. "Of course, at Osgiliath. I'd forgotten."
"We met before that," Faramir corrected as he stepped into the room. "I prefer not to remember the details. If only I had known and could have trusted, I would not have added to your burden, Frodo, Sam."
But Frodo only laughed. "You gave us our freedom soon enough, and meantime we were fed and sheltered! I doubt we would have reached Mount Doom without that respite."
Faramir exhaled a relieved breath and gave a grateful smile. "You are most kind, Frodo," he turned a little to include Sam. "And you, most honoured gardener of the Shire. Though I think you make an excellent bodyguard, also."
"Are there gardens here?" Sam asked with an eager but shy smile. "I would so like to see a garden again."
"Indeed. About the Houses of Healing there are very large gardens. It would be an honour to take you to them whenever you wish. And I go there soon, to visit the Lady Eowyn."
"He goes there often, is what he means to say," Boromir chuckled and clapped his brother on the shoulder. "I think my brother is falling in love!"
Faramir blushed but said quietly and with great contentment. "I am."
"Then we have even more to celebrate!" Pippin exclaimed. "I am glad for you, Faramir!"
"Well," Faramir protested. "Let's not be hasty. I have not even proposed yet!"
"But you will!" Pippin urged, his eyes alight.
Faramir laughed. "I will when I find the courage."
"You have never been short on that, brother," Boromir said and squeezed the shoulder beneath his hand.
"Indeed not," Gandalf said and his eyes swept over each member of The Fellowship, a request plain in his regard. "For without Faramir and Pippin's bravery in daring the flames Boromir would not be here with us now."
"Flames?" Frodo asked.
Gandalf nodded. "A grim circumstance and one with which I will not darken this hour of reunion. The telling can wait. For now glad tidings only." He looked to Aragorn.
"I am pleased to tell you," he announced, "that I have called upon both Boromir and Faramir to stand at my side as Stewards."
"That is wonderful news," Frodo said.
"And we can add it to the list of reasons for celebration!" Merry declared.
"As if you ever needed a reason to celebrate!" Frodo teased.
"Or to eat!" Pippin put in.
"Look who's talking," Sam said with a broad smile.
Boromir listened and watched and felt a warm easing flooding his veins and bringing to his heart pure contentment the like of which he had never before known.
"If you would but let me get in a word!" Gandalf laughed over the noise as Gimli, Merry, Sam and Pippin began arguing over the proper menu for the coming feast. "I have a request to make of you all." He held Aragorn's eyes as he spoke and Boromir knew his friend and king had correctly read the wizard's expression. Boromir held his breath expectantly, for the fulfillment of this request would see all he loved brought together formally at last.
"Well, what is it then?" Merry prompted impatiently.
"Yes, what can be more important than food?" Pippin said with a laugh.
"The Fellowship," Gandalf said proudly.
Merry and Pippin exchanged looks and nodded agreement. "He has us there, Pip!"
"What about The Fellowship?" Frodo said. "It is a wonder and a pleasure to have us all back together again after facing so many perils."
"Indeed it is," Gandalf said. "And now I propose that we add a tenth member."
"Faramir?" Pippin's eyes were round with delight.
"I would like that," Frodo said with a smile. "After all, he saved Boromir's life. " He lifted a sincere gaze to meet Boromir's eyes. "And without Boromir the nine of us would be reduced to eight and our happiness in victory would be marked by grief and loss."
"Here! Here! Well said!" Gandalf clapped his hands together. "To Faramir and the Fellowship!"
"The Fellowship of ten!" Aragorn announced and turned to the brothers.
Tears of pride stood in Faramir's eyes, and Boromir was equally overcome. Since their mother's death Boromir had suffered almost daily seeing his brother made to feel unwanted by their father. To see Faramir welcomed into the Fellowship with love and honour made his happiness truly complete.
Faramir looked long into his brother's eyes, reading the joy there. He smiled and turned to regard each of his new family in turn. "You do me great honour and I accept with pleasure!"
Pippin left off bouncing on the bed at Frodo's side to leap into Faramir's arms and tickle him by way of congratulations.
"Now," Gimli rumbled. "About this celebration feast –"
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