Within moments, the four men were seated around the fire. Gimli was sound asleep in the tent, undisturbed by the new arrivals. Even Imrahil's outburst had not woken him. The dwarf's snores drifted out through the opening, loud in the quiet night. Hallas and Beregond had withdrawn out of earshot and were looking after the horses. Boromir had no idea where Legolas had disappeared off to. The elf did not seem to need much rest, and apparently, Legolas had decided the proceedings did not concern him.
"It is good of you to have come, Imrahil," Aragorn was saying. "I will welcome your counsel."
Imrahil gave a self-deprecating shrug. "When the fate of my nephews and that of my country is at stake, how could I stay away?"
"You keep speaking of doom," Boromir said. "It cannot be as bad as you make it out to be. How does my return to Minas Tirith put the future of Gondor at risk?"
Imrahil sighed. "Think, Boromir. You are, or should have been, your father's rightful heir. Instead, you disappear, leaving everyone to believe you are dead. And then you return five years later. Did you expect that would not have serious ramifications?"
Aragorn held up a hand to silence Boromir's protest. "You will have the chance to explain your decision to your uncle later. First, I want to hear what my steward has to say. I would like to know what is so important that it needs to be discussed here by the roadside and cannot wait until I am returned to Minas Tirith."
Faramir's lips pressed together and Boromir noticed how much his brother seemed to have aged in the five years since he had left. Or was it just exhaustion that made him look haggard?
"There is unrest brewing in the city. Discontented parties are drawing together; they are using rumors of Boromir's imminent return to sow uncertainty." He took a moment to collect his thoughts. "Or for a diversion. Cranthir of Tol Falas has been quietly settling the coast of South Gondor."
Boromir tried to recall who Cranthir was but failed to put a face to the name. Thoughts of the island of Tol Falas brought to mind a soft-spoken man with white hair who had rarely raised his voice the few times he attended council meetings. But then it came to Boromir -- Cranthir was the son; the old lord must have passed away.
"He has always been a hothead; I knew he was not pleased with my edict regarding the southern lands," Aragorn mused. "But I had not believed him capable of such rebellious acts."
"He has been stirring up the people near the Ethir Anduin to join him," Faramir continued, "telling them that as long as the occupied lands are not ruled by proper Gondorian nobles, the threat from Umbar remains. The people in the Ethir Anduin suffered greatly the last decades and they are susceptible to his arguments."
"You have never mentioned such thing to the Council!" Imrahil interjected.
"Aye," Faramir said. "It was only a few days ago that I received confirmation. I hoped the stories were exaggerated. But Cranthir is counting on the Council being too occupied with the difficulties in the City to pay much attention to what is going on in the south. He relies on his lands being too far from Minas Tirith for us to bother. The Haradric ambassador is not pleased. The settlers have been interfering with the trade parties."
Aragorn rubbed his brow, the carefree attitude of a ranger in his element replaced with the burden of responsibility. "I can see I have returned not a day too soon."
"I have drawn up the order to summon Cranthir to Minas Tirith," Faramir said, "where he will answer for his actions. It only awaits your signature. I do not believe he realizes that you are back, yet, for you have been gone without a word for a long time. Some even wonder if you have abandoned them."
"The people of Gondor must learn to accept that they have to share me with their kindred in the North," Aragorn said. "There will come other times that I must go forth for months, perhaps longer. And when I'm gone, you must speak in my stead."
Imrahil sat forward. "That is part of the problem, sire. Not everyone accepts Faramir's orders as yours. Even in the Council, there is often great debate, especially since Boromir's survival has given your adversaries the means to cast doubt on the legality of Faramir's office. Some never fully accepted the change of regime. In your absence, they have seen their chance. Cranthir does not believe Faramir will intervene--"
"I understand, Imrahil," Aragorn said. "Still, I cannot be here at all times to keep the fiefs in check. Faramir, you can not fail to act when--"
"I do not!" Faramir protested, not giving the king a chance to finish. "But the messenger from Rohan said you were on your way. Under the circumstances, I thought it better to have your full authority backing me up. The last thing Gondor needs is a civil war." He paused a moment, looking a little startled at his own outburst, and Aragorn gestured for him to continue. "Rumor says that Boromir is on his way to claim his inheritance. It has given the dissenters the excuse to question my every decision and to rally others who carry a grudge to do the same. I wasted far too many hours the last weeks to rectify what should have been trivialities instead of resolving important matters. But I cannot stop the gossips. It is even whispered that there is an army on the way to set things right and put Boromir in my stead!"
Boromir snorted with disgust. "That is preposterous." He glanced longingly at Barangol, his trusted mount. Life as a drifter had been hard, but it had been uncomplicated and often satisfying. He could barely make out Hallas's shape in the shadows beneath the trees where the boy was keeping himself busy grooming Faramir's horse. The lad's face floated as a pale blur in the darkness every time he darted a worried glance at the group around the fire.
He felt the king's intent gaze rest upon him and he tore his eyes away from the horses.
"You know I have no desire to take Faramir's place," Boromir said quietly. "And I do not wish to be the cause of such problems for Gondor. Perhaps," he suggested, pushing up from the log, "it is better I remain dead. With your permission, I will go and return North so you can concentrate on consolidating your reign." From the corner of his eye, he saw Faramir give a start.
"It might not be such a bad idea," Imrahil observed after a short pause. He met Boromir's eyes. "Do not misunderstand me, Boromir. I am overjoyed to see you are well, despite my harsh words. But to have you return after five years... It upsets the balance wrought in the Council. Cranthir would not have dared such a rebellion if he did not think you would keep Minas Tirith distracted."
Aragorn appraised Imrahil for a moment before he addressed Boromir. "You will not have my permission," he said. "You are still a lord of Gondor, and as such should take up your rightful place. Whatever I decide that is. Sit down, Boromir."
Boromir hesitated a moment before he lowered himself back on the log with a sigh. "I had forgotten how irksome political intrigue can be," he muttered.
Beside him, Imrahil snorted a humorless laugh. "Welcome back, son."
Boromir glanced over at Aragorn. "They cannot compel you instate me as Steward in Faramir's place, can they?"
It was Faramir who answered instead of the king. "No. After the coronation, I did what you, or any other steward, would have done. I relinquished the office. The line of the Ruling Stewards has ended. It was King Elessar who next chose me to be his steward, as is his right. The Stewardship and all it entails is mine, as long as I live or as long as the king wants me to serve."
"'Twould be a sad day when a few wayward nobles could tell me how to rule my kingdom," Aragorn added. "Now, Faramir, I assume you brought the summons with you. Give it to me, so I can sign it. Beregond can take it back to the City and have the guard dispatched."
Faramir started to get up, but as if he had anticipated his lord's need, Beregond materialized from the shadows. In his arms, he carried a small wooden box that he set down beside Faramir.
"Thank you, Beregond." Faramir opened the box to reveal sheets of paper, a writing quill and a small, stoppered bottle of ink.
"Perhaps you would also pour us some of the cider I brought along?" Imrahil suggested. "I believe we have need for some refreshment. I do hope it is still cool enough to be palatable."
"I'm sure it will be, my lord," Beregond said. "There is a small stream running out of the mountains not far from here. I had the bottle placed in the water to keep it cool."
A few moments later, they were all provided with cups of cider and Aragorn signed the order. Once the ink was dry, he rolled up the sheet of paper and put it in a leather tube before he gave it to Beregond. The guard's captain, given loan of Hallas's horse, which was far more rested than his own, led the mount toward the road, where he swung himself up.
"What other dissenters will need dealing with?" Aragorn asked when the sounds of hooves had faded in the night.
"The usual malcontents," Faramir said. "Ramloth of Linhir is stirring up the old grievances about the South Ithilien land deeds. He hopes that questioning the validity of my Stewardship will shed doubt on my decision to deny his claim."
"Does he have any allies?" Aragorn asked.
Faramir shrugged. "He may have gone into consort with Cranthir."
"If he has, he will suffer the same fate," Aragorn decided. "The Stewardship is beyond doubt. I will not have anyone question it again."
There was silence for a moment.
"Ithilien is inhabited?" Boromir asked. The news had come as a surprise to him. It had been before his birth that Ithilien was relinquished to the forces of Mordor and subsequently robbed of much of its beauty. He had not expected restoration efforts to be successful so quickly.
"Aye," Faramir said with a smile that betrayed his love for the fair lands east of the Anduin. "It is hard work to bring it back to its previous beauty but yes, Ithilien is being tilled again. Boromir, you should see Emyn Arnen! You will not believe your eyes." For the moment, Faramir seemed to have forgotten the politics while he told Boromir about the house he had built, or the gardens Legolas had laid out, where flowers bloomed in spring and orchards filled with fruit in the fall.
Aragorn smiled as he watched his steward's enthusiasm and allowed him a short while to stray from the more serious subjects at hand.
"It sounds beautiful," Boromir agreed. "I would love to visit for a while."
The joy disappeared from Faramir's face as if he were suddenly reminded of an old heartache. "You cannot merely visit, Boromir. Emyn Arnen belongs to you. It is part of your inheritance from Father."
"What? But... Youare Gondor's rightful steward, you said so yourself!"
"Faramir speaks the truth," Imrahil said softly. "Emyn Arnen is part of the Húrin estate, and as such it is not necessarily part of the steward's assets."
"But that leaves you with--"
"The second-born son's share," Faramir finished. "The house on Rath Eneg, a farm in Anórien, a few other odds and ends."
"No!" Boromir said forcefully. "No, Faramir, I cannot put you out of the home you built with such love. I will not." He turned to Aragorn as if wanting to plead for the king's support. Much to his astonishment, Aragorn was smiling.
The grin widened at the surprise on Boromir's face. "Did you think, my friend, I had not prepared for this? Often, you have complained to me about your return to Minas Tirith. I know you do not wish to take on the role of counselor in my court. And I would not force you, you would not be happy there."
"My lord!" Imrahil interrupted. From the look on his face, he was as surprised as Boromir. "If you allow Boromir to give up his lands, he will be left--"
"Yes, I know." Aragorn held up a hand. "Let me finish. There are many parts of the kingdom that have not been granted to anyone, many parts that run wild, far from my control. Some of those areas are deserted and I have no interest in submitting wolves and deer to my reign. But other places need to be brought into the fold if we are ever to have peace. I cannot be in all those places at once. I need someone whom I can trust, who is not afraid to pick up the sword when needed, to do it for me. Someone like Boromir."
He tugged his saddlebag closer to pull out a scroll of vellum. He tugged the ribbon that held it close and unrolled it. "I had this drawn up in Edoras," he explained. "How does Lord of Dunland sound?"
"Dunland?" Boromir echoed.
"Yes. Dunland. Nobody seems to want it; they complain it is too far from the citadel. And the Dunlendings are considered too troublesome. Éomer has been keeping them in check for me, but I cannot continue to rely on Rohan to do my work. I thought it would fit you perfectly."
"I-- I suppose it does," Boromir stammered. He tried to wrap his mind around the idea. It would keep him far from Minas Tirith's meddling courtiers, far from the whispers they would exchange behind his back. It would keep Faramir in Emyn Arnen, where his brother belonged -- in spite of what the laws of bequeathal said. And it would give him a chance to really make a difference, to help Aragorn far better than he ever could do as a lone vigilante.
A slow grin broke on Boromir's face. "It would be my pleasure, sire, to serve as your liegeman in Dunland."
"Good." Aragorn scrawled something on the piece of parchment. "I, Elessar Telcontar, hereby grant the tenement of Dunland to Boromir Denethorion. Faramir, Steward of Gondor, and Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth, bear witness to this grant."
Boromir blinked for a moment at the sudden formality, then inclined his head and dropped to a knee. "Here do I swear fealty and service to Gondor, and to the Lord and King of the realm."
The words of the oath, learned so long ago and only spoken once before, came unbidden and natural. "To speak and to be silent, to do and to let be, to come and to go, in need or in plenty, in peace or war, in living or dying, from this hour henceforth, until my lord release me, or death take me, or the world end. So say I, Boromir son of Denethor."
"And this do I hear, Elessar Telcontar, King of the Reunited Kingdom of Gondor and Arnor, and I will not forget it, nor fail to reward that which is given: fealty with love, valor with honor, oath-breaking with justice!"
"This will not allay the fears of those who believe that Boromir is slighted and wishes to reclaim his inheritance," Imrahil cautioned. "They might see it as a further insult or even exile." He looked pleased, nevertheless.
"I realize that," Aragorn said. He sanded the vellum to dry the ink. "That's why we will have to do this again tomorrow in Council, with as much pomp and grandeur as we can muster."
Faramir chuckled as Boromir groaned. "See? I knew I brought you those garments for a reason!"
Not long after Boromir had sworn fealty as the new lord of Dunland the sky to the east began to grow pale. The summer night was short. The moon set behind the mountains and the stars faded while Faramir and Imrahil prepared for their departure. They would need to hurry if they wished to arrive in Minas Tirith before the city woke up.
"Remember, Faramir, I want to see the full council at the noon hour," Aragorn instructed
The time of their return was most fortuitous. Most if not all of Gondor's nobles were currently in residence in Minas Tirith in preparation of the midsummer ceremonies and festivities to be held in a few days. Boromir wondered if Aragorn had timed it so on purpose. Though he knew that his injury had caused the greatest delay, he would not put it past the king to have machinated their travels so they would arrive at the height of the social season. Beneath his sometimes lenient exterior, Aragorn had proved himself an adroit politician.
"Boromir!" Imrahil approached, leading his horse by its bridle. "Boromir, I do not pretend to understand why you did what you did, or to even condone it. But I do believe you meant well. It is good to have you back, alive and well."
Boromir smiled in gratitude when his uncle embraced him. "I am sorry," he said. He did not know if he would have made the same decision now; it was hard to recall his motivations at the time. The times were different now -- he was different.
Imrahil smiled back. "I will see you later in the morning, Boromir. Make sure you look like a proper lord of the realm."
Boromir chuckled. "Do not worry, uncle. I still remember how to impress the Council."
A moment later, the steward and the prince disappeared down the road toward Minas Tirith.
A hand landed on Boromir's shoulder. "Come, Boromir. We should follow Imrahil's advice and make ourselves presentable."
Boromir looked at the king, knowing his own appearance was as unkempt as that of his lord's, with too-long hair that had not been washed properly in too many days, and an untidy beard. Though they had passed several inns along the way from Edoras where they could have stayed in comfort, Aragorn had deemed it wiser to camp in the fields in an attempt to stay unnoticed for as long as possible. Of course, had they known their imminent return was no longer a secret, they could have chosen the convenience of beds and baths over the hard ground.
"Aye, my lord. A good thing Faramir has provided all that is needed."
Aragorn smiled wryly. "Aye, he shows remarkable prudence sometimes," he answered.
They went to work with soap and sharp razors. Slowly yet steadily the transformation from shabby travelers to Gondorian lords was completed. Hallas offered to help Boromir trim his beard, an offer he gladly accepted as Faramir's supplies lacked a mirror, while Legolas braided Aragorn's long hair into an intricate elfish design.
Once cleaned and groomed, Boromir finally had the chance to unwrap the package Faramir had brought. He shook out the clothes and held them up. He was surprised and touched to notice his family's crest embroidered on the chest of the tunic and made a mental note to express his thanks to his brother later. He was even more surprised when his eye caught the tiny mark sewn in the inside of the hem. "Nîneth!"
"Who is Nîneth?" Aragorn asked, having overheard the soft exclamation.
"A needlewoman," Boromir said. "From Linhir. I met her years ago and suggested she go to Minas Tirith. I asked Faramir to make sure she would be all right."
Aragorn looked taken aback for a moment, then laughed. "The small shop on the fourth level! That explains why he sometimes favored her over tailors of far more renown vying for his custom. Boromir, Boromir, I wonder what other mysteries you will still reveal me."
Boromir pulled the tunic over his head and let it fall free. It felt smooth, and the fabric seemed to shimmer in the early morning light.
"Boromir! You look like a rich lord!"
Hallas was looking Boromir up and down. He wore a strange expression that Boromir could not quite put a name to.
"Aye," he grinned. "I do, do I not? You do not look so bad yourself, either."
Hallas shrugged uncomfortably. Faramir had erred on the young man's size and the tunic was a bit wide in the shoulders, the sleeves a tad too long. Still, Boromir could scarce believe his brother had been foresighted enough to bring a page's uniform for Hallas, although he had often mentioned him in his letters.
He chortled at Hallas's discomfort. "Do not fret," he said. "You will be out of those clothes soon enough. Once you don the tower guard's uniform, I think you will find that more to your liking."
Hallas's eyes lit up for a moment at the mention of the army but then his features fell back into the curious expression. "I guess I will not see you much, will I, Boromir?"
Suddenly, Boromir realized why the boy looked odd. He was uncertain about the future, afraid to lose his one friend. "No," he said honestly. "At least not for a few years. You will spend a lot of your time training with the soldiers. And I will be in Dunland. But I will still be your friend, you remember that, you hear?"
Hallas nodded, some of the tension leaving him. "I will."
The sun stood hot and high once more, baking the fields, when they at last approached the white walls of Minas Tirith. Perspiration broke out on Boromir's back and he swung the cloak over his shoulder. It had been a long time since he had worn the full attire of a lord headed for the citadel and even the thin summer silks failed to keep him as comfortable as his linen shirt used to do. A glance sideways revealed that, despite the weather, Aragorn appeared as cool and unperturbed as any king should be and Boromir resolved himself to follow Aragorn's example. But it was hard not to fidget in the saddle when butterflies danced in his stomach and shivers of anticipation ran up his spine.
He turned to look at the others, following at a little distance. Legolas looked unaffected by the heat; it was as if the sun's warmth could not touch him. Hallas rode beside Legolas and he gave a quavering smile when he caught Boromir looking. Boromir could not see much of Gimli, hidden behind Legolas. Behind the pair rode the dozen soldiers Faramir had sent to provide an honor guard. Their armor had been polished to a shine, and Aragorn's banner flapped high over them.
Boromir turned back to gaze up at the towering walls of Minas Tirith, gleaming white in the hot sunlight. The Gates stood open in welcome and though shadows reigned beneath them, Boromir thought he could detect people waiting for them, his brother among them. They were there to greet their liege lord, returned after a long absence. He sat up a little more straight, not wanting anyone to notice his nervousness.
Suddenly, Aragorn held up a gloved hand to stop them. "Listen, Boromir!" he said. "Do you hear?"
Boromir listened and a moment later he did hear what Aragorn referred to: silver trumpets ringing, their song carried easily across the Pelennor on a light breeze.
"I hear them," he said, surprised to find himself without breath. His eyes stung, and he rubbed them. "I hear them."
Aragorn smiled. "Mark their words," he said softly. "Not a one can doubt it now: the lords of Gondor have returned."
Author's note: and with that, a long journey has come to an end, both for me as well as for Boromir. Thanks to Cheryl for allowing me to use her variant of the oath in this chapter. Much, much thanks to Gwynnyd and Liz for helping hammer out the political entanglements! And thank you to all my faithful reviewers here on ff. net who joined me for the journey. Reading your thoughts and comments has been most gratifying. I hope you enjoyed yourself as much as I have.