Sorry this is a little late, various RL complications got in the way. Lots of Fellowship stuff in this chapter-hope you enjoy it!
By the way, this story has been favorited by a number of new readers recently...I'd very much appreciate a review if you're enjoying it. (And of course I love my faithful, long-time reviewers as well!)
Boromir stared at the door for a long moment, gathering his wits after Morloth's precipitous departure. He yanked it open to be greeted by the startled faces of Beregond and the other guardsman. Morloth was nowhere in sight.
He was pondering what to do next when Beregond said stiffly, "My lord, we have had word that the council you called is assembled." The guardsman's tone caught Boromir's attention, when he met his eyes he perceived immediately that Beregond was positively radiating disapproval.
With a growl of frustration he told Beregond curtly, "You. Inside."
As soon as the door closed behind them he turned to the guardsman and said, "I know how it appears but there's no cause to glare at me so, Beregond."
Beregond's response was rigidly formal, "My lord, I would not presume to pass judgment on your actions."
Boromir gave a bitter laugh and began to furiously pace the room, needing an outlet to ease his heartache. "Of course you do, I would too under the circumstances." A chair unlucky enough to be in his path received a hearty kick before the Lord Steward spoke again, "I'll have you know that I asked Morloth to marry me. She said she couldn't and ran out of the room crying."
Beregond blinked in astonishment for a moment before stammering, "You…you asked her to marry you, my lord? And she said no?"
Boromir abruptly stopped pacing and threw himself into a cushioned chair, sighing in frustration and dismay. "Beregond, you are her friend, why won't she marry me?" he asked, his voice cracking. He passed a hand over his face. "I love her, and I had thought that she loves me as well."
"My lord, in truth I can think of no reason why she would refuse you. We…my wife Aerin and I, well…" Beregond reddened and shifted uncomfortably before continuing, "we hoped you would speak now that your father can no longer object." He shook his head, "Aerin would certainly have told me if Morloth had expressed any doubts to her. But I…I suppose I can try to find out her reason for refusing you, if you like."
"Do that," Boromir growled. "Damn it all, I'm late for the council." He shook his head in vexation as he stood and headed toward the door, "I never thought the prospect of marrying me would be quite so horrifying."
Beregond snorted in amusement, "I believe that most would feel that it was not, my lord."
Morloth took a deep breath to calm herself before opening the door to Éowyn's room. The shieldmaiden's healer, her friend Hedron, had pleaded with Morloth to speak to her.
"She is extremely restless and not at all inclined to heed our instructions," Hedron explained. "The lady insists that she is well enough to leave her bed, despite the fact that the Lord Aragorn has bid her to stay abed for a few more days. I do not wish to bother him over so small a matter, can you not reason with her, as one woman to another?"
"Hedron, I don't know why that would make a difference; surely Lord Aragorn would not mind speaking to her…"
"I am told he is in conference for the next few hours and cannot be disturbed. The lady has asked for her clothes and wishes to rise immediately. Will you please try to dissuade her from taking any rash action, Morloth?"
"Very well," Morloth had replied, exasperated. In truth, however, she felt anything but equal to the task. Emotions still raw from her conversation with Boromir earlier, she would have much preferred to find a private place for a good cry. Instead, she schooled her features into her most calm and confident expression and opened the door.
Éowyn of Rohan was sitting up in bed, one arm in a sling. She sighed impatiently when she heard Morloth enter. "At last!" she exclaimed, "I…oh!" Catching sight of an unknown woman in her room she stopped abruptly, demanding, "Who are you? Did you bring my clothes?"
Morloth gave her an appraising look before answering. As reported, she was certainly beautiful, with pale skin and a slender grace that most men would find enticing. Her hair was glorious; silky and golden—sure to be the envy of all the noble ladies of Gondor. Morloth quickly suppressed a stab of pain, recalling ruefully that this was the woman that Lord Denethor had pressed Boromir to marry. Now he would be free to do so if he wished.
"I am Morloth, Hedron requested that I speak to you," she finally replied. "My lady, I know it is difficult to lie abed, dependent on others when you feel that you could be up and active," Morloth said sympathetically, for she had many patients express the same sentiments to her. "But it is vital that you heed the advice of your healer. Your body needs rest after all you have been through." She smiled brightly, "In a day or two you may pay a brief visit to the gardens, if you wish…"
Éowyn crossed her arms, a mulish expression on her face. "I should have known that you would be no help either. Why will no one listen to me?"
The healer swallowed her irritation and said calmly, "My lady, we are listening, but it is the judgment of the healers here—and Lord Aragorn—that you are as yet too weak for any but the lightest activity…"
"I will be the judge of that!" the younger woman replied hotly. "There must be someone who can overrule the healers' decision." Her face lit, and she asked, "What of Lord Boromir, I understand he is Lord Steward now. He is also a good friend of my brother's," she added a little smugly. "Please ask him to attend me."
Morloth's heart sank; the last thing she wanted was to face Boromir again so soon. He was certain to press her for an explanation for her refusal. She thought furiously; Boromir was in conference for now…perhaps there was an alternative she could offer instead.
With sudden inspiration, she remembered Faramir; not only was he close by, but his charm and gentle demeanor might be just what was needed to placate the angry shieldmaiden. "Lady Éowyn," she replied, "Lord Boromir is taking counsel with the other war leaders, including your brother and Lord Aragorn, and will not be available for some time. You will have to wait until he is free. But I suppose…" she continued, letting a note of doubt creep into her voice, "you could speak to Lord Boromir's younger brother, Faramir. He was injured during the battle and is nearby in this very house."
Her ploy worked as she had hoped; the blonde woman nodded decisively, "Yes, that will do, ask Lord Faramir to attend me."
Hiding a smile, Morloth replied meekly, "Yes, my lady."
Boromir had honestly not known what to expect from the council he had called at Gandalf's request—in fact they had no truly good courses of action to pursue in the fight against Sauron. Gondor had survived the first siege by the skin of its teeth and the timely arrival of allies; given the numbers that the Dark Lord could still throw against the walls of Minas Tirith it seemed highly unlikely they could survive another.
Consequently, Gandalf's proposal to take the battle to the Black Gate was a surprise, but a welcome one to Boromir. It was a mad scheme, even suicidal, but it suited his current mood far better than cowering behind the city walls waiting for the end.
Once it was determined which forces would journey to Mordor and which should stay to defend the city, the council dispersed to begin preparations. Boromir paused at the door and caught the attention of Aragorn and Prince Imrahil.
"Aragorn, I must insist on one stipulation for the plan of battle," he said. The ranger gave Boromir a surprised look but motioned for him to continue. "This is no reflection on you, Uncle," he assured Imrahil, "but I intend to take command of Gondor's forces marching to the Black Gate. Faramir has not recovered sufficiently to accompany us, but he is well enough to command the city's defenses in my absence."
Prince Imrahil looked startled for a moment, then murmured, "Of course, Boromir, I would be happy to defer to you if that is your wish."
Aragorn gazed at Boromir thoughtfully, "I cannot deny your right to command, nor do I question your experience or ability. My sole concern is whether you have sufficiently recovered from your injuries. You were able to fight well enough during the siege, but this battle is likely to be far longer and more grueling…"
Boromir met his eyes and said simply, "Try me." At Aragorn's surprised look, he clarified, "Meet me in the practice ring. We have sparred often enough in the past that you should be able to determine whether my skills are close to what they were. Boromir grinned, "Unless, of course, you're afraid…"
Aragorn's eyes narrowed and an answering grin spread across his face, "You, my friend, are on."
Legolas and Gimli had been lingering nearby, watching the exchange. The dwarf chuckled, rubbing his hands together in anticipation, "Oh ho, this should be good!"
Legolas raised an eyebrow and replied, "Indeed, I am also quite looking forward to it."
Boromir led Aragorn to the nearest practice ring, accompanied by a number of onlookers who were clearly relishing the prospect of seeing two such renowned warriors spar.
Before they could take their places in the ring, Imrahil addressed them, "I will not try to dissuade you from this, but I do insist that you use practice weapons. There is far too much at stake to risk either of you being seriously injured, however unintentionally."
Boromir grimaced but did not argue; he and Aragorn had sparred with live steel many times during their travels, but knew that his uncle was correct. Putting aside Anduril and Boromir's weapon, they each chose a blunted sword before stepping into the ring.
After a few warm-ups strokes, they were ready to start. As their swords touched for the ritual greeting, Aragorn paused and met Boromir's eyes, chuckling, "You know, Boromir, that I have absolutely no authority to keep you from accompanying us in any capacity you desire. If you wish, you can simply command it to be so."
Boromir snorted, the challenge in his eyes unmistakable, "I know, but where is the enjoyment in that?"
Imrahil rolled his eyes tolerantly and dropped his hand, crying, "Gentlemen, begin!"
Their swords met with a loud crash, and the two men traded blows, circling each other in search of an opening. It was no surprise to any of the spectators who had seen Boromir spar before that he advanced first; he had ever been a bold and aggressive fighter.
Aragorn met his blows with a smile and pushed back his attack, and soon they settled into a rhythm of attack and counterattack. As was to be expected from two combatants of such similar size, skill and experience, any advantage one might press must wait until the other tired or made an error, so they fought on.
The ranger was soon lost in the dance of stroke and counterstroke; thoroughly enjoying the experience of sparring with a skilled opponent whose fighting style he knew so well. So far, he had seen no sign of weakness in Boromir's attacks or defense, though he did note that his left arm was held rather stiffly at his side. Aragorn was just contemplating whether and how he might exploit this vulnerability and so was not paying full attention when meeting the Gondorian's attacks. Suddenly, his counterstroke went wide, meeting empty air rather than Boromir's blade where it by all rights should have been. Instead of continuing to advance Boromir had taken a step back, catching him off guard. Aragorn staggered and had to sidestep quickly to avoid the next stroke, so close it brushed the cloth of this tunic.
"A touch!" Gimli exclaimed gleefully from the sidelines.
"Not quite," Boromir countered, though the smile on his face said clearly that he knew how near it had been.
"Close enough," Aragorn agreed. "Well done, my friend."
Now it was apparent that Boromir had indeed adapted his fighting style to accommodate his injuries. Instead of continually pressing the attack as he had previously, he began to intersperse his strikes with occasions when he paused and waited to react to Aragorn's move. The ranger immediately saw the advantage of this change; not only was it unpredictable and harder for an opponent to read, but it was less tiring for Boromir since it allowed him brief moments of rest.
The bout continued, with neither man able to gain the upper hand. A short while later, their swords met and caught, bringing the men into a close grapple; too near that either could use their sword effectively. Boromir reacted instinctively, pushing hard with his shield arm to separate himself from his opponent as he had done countless times before. He immediately regretted it as pain flashed through his shoulder and arm. A hiss slipped through his teeth and he staggered back a step, barely getting his blade up in time to meet Aragorn's.
The ranger paused, "Boromir?" he asked, his face drawn in worry.
"I'm fine," Boromir answered tersely.
Aragorn nodded and brought his blade up to guard once again. After a few more exchanges he held up a hand and smiled, saying, "I've seen enough."
It was all Boromir could do not to groan in gratitude for the reprieve; this was the longest he'd held a blade since Amon Hen; his left side and shoulder were on fire, his energy reserves almost depleted. But if Aragorn realized how spent he felt, the ranger gave no sign.
He clapped Boromir on the back as they moved to join the onlookers, "A truly remarkable recovery, Boromir. And to think you were wounded near to death not two fortnights ago!"
Boromir let out a long breath in relief, although he knew it was in the end his decision whether to stay in Minas Tirith or join the march to Mordor, it meant much to him that Aragorn thought him fit for battle.
"But I must confess that one thing still concerns me, my friend." Aragorn continued, shaking his head, "Your shield side is not completely healed—which is only natural, of course, given the severity of your wounds. It obviously still causes you pain when struck, which could easily happen in battle either by chance or intent. I wish there was a way to protect it."
Boromir grimaced ruefully, hating to admit any weakness but knowing that pretending this one did not exist was the height of folly. "Aye, I know, but what can be done? My arm and shoulder are still too weak to bear the weight of my shield; I am told it may take as long as another month before I can hold it easily." He snorted, "The healers suggested wearing a sling to prevent my arm from being jostled and wrenching my shoulder, but if I were to wear one in battle nothing would tell an opponent more clearly of my vulnerability on that side." He ran a hand through his hair in frustration, "It's maddening, just when I most need my shield for protection I cannot use it!"
Legolas and Gimli had joined them, and the dwarf snorted dismissively, "Laddie, you may not be able to bear the weight on your shield arm, but that doesn't mean you can't use your shield!"
Boromir stared at him in surprise, "What…what do you mean, Gimli?"
"It's just a matter of how you carry the weight," he explained. He motioned to get the attention of one of the men who had been at the training ring when they had arrived, and had lingered to watch the bout. "You!" Gimli called, "Bring me stout piece of leather, about two fingers wide and two arms-lengths long. And a shield, too, a good heavy one."
At Boromir's nod, the man hurried off to find the items that Gimli requested, and soon returned with a shield and a piece of heavy leather strapping, such as might be used for a sword belt or baldric. While the group watched with keen interest, Gimli threaded the leather strap through the arm grips on the inside of the shield. He held the shield out to Boromir and had him don it, carefully holding it so the weight of the shield did not fall on the Gondorian's injured arm.
"Boromir is a bit tall for me to reach his shoulder, so if one of you could assist…"
Aragorn grinned, saying, "I see what needs to be done," and stepped up to pull the ends of the leather strap over Boromir's uninjured right shoulder and held them so the shield was in a comfortable position on his arm.
Boromir chuckled, "It's a sling, by Eru!"
Gimli met his eyes, his face merry, "Indeed it is, but for your shield rather than your arm. It should protect your arm without straining it, and no one will be the wiser that you've been wounded on that side."
With some experimentation, Boromir found that he could move the shield easily within the limits of the leather strap with little stress on his arm. Watching him, Gimli noted, "You won't be able to move it quite as freely as before, but it's still a sight better than nothing, I'd wager. Come back later with your armor and shield; your armorer can add a buckle or the like so you can adjust it as best suits you."
Boromir glanced up at him, eyes bright, "This is wonderful, Gimli! You have my deepest thanks, my friend."
The dwarf waved a hand dismissively, "Ach, it was a simple problem." He rocked back on his heels with his thumbs in his belt and cast a sidelong glance at Legolas. "Elves are fine if you need to sing to trees or frolic with wee woodland creatures, but for a problem of bearing weights, ask a dwarf!"
Legolas glared at him, torn between outrage and amusement. He finally confined himself to rolling his eyes in exasperation while the others made a valiant attempt to hide their merriment.
Obviously relishing a chance to show his expertise, Gimli continued, "You will likely need someone to help you don this rig, especially until you become more accustomed to it." He chuckled, "But I believe you know a young Guard of the Citadel who is on fire to prove himself on the battlefield. I reckon he'd be happy to serve as your squire."
Aragorn snorted, "Pippin? Yes, that seems likely."
A new voice added, "It is also fitting that the Shirefolk should be represented at the Black Gate along with the other goodly peoples. It is their fight too, after all." Halbarad strode up to join them, saying with a wry smile, "I came to escort my captain from the council session, but to my surprise I was directed here."
Boromir nodded in welcome, it was the first time he'd seen the ranger since their notable meeting on the battlefield the day before. Addressing him, Halbarad added, "An impressive performance, my lord. There are few indeed who can put Aragorn through his paces as you did, even well and hale."
The Lord Steward waved off his praise, but it was clear he was warmed by it. "My thanks, Halbarad." He motioned with the arm that still held the borrowed shield, "I am more than ready for the day when none of this will be necessary."
"No doubt," the ranger chuckled. He met Boromir's eyes, "I had hoped to see you, my lord, for I feel I failed to sufficiently express my thanks for your timely intervention yesterday." When Boromir began to protest, Halbarad held up a hand, adding, "I am told that there is a tavern here that brews the finest ale in the Southlands. However, I have grave doubts that it would best the ale served at the Prancing Pony in Bree. Now, if you'd like a chance to defend the honor of Gondorian brews, I'd be happy to accompany you to try a few by way of comparison. My treat, of course."
Boromir grinned and clasped his arm, "I spoke truly when I said no thanks are necessary, but I also know a challenge when I hear one! I would be a poor Steward indeed if I failed to champion the quality of our ale. Shall we meet later this evening?"
They fixed a time and a place between them to assemble that evening, and Halbard departed with his Captain to discuss the outcome of the council. Boromir sighed to himself, contemplating the rest of the day's activities. He knew his first priority must be to speak to Imrahil and the other senior Gondorian officers to finalize arrangements for the march to Mordor and the defense of Minas Tirith. After that, however, he was determined to get some answers from a certain beautiful but maddeningly recalcitrant healer.