Author's Note: Here at last (and unbelievably!) is the final chapter. And while I'm sorry to bid farewell to these characters with whom I've been travelling for nine years now, it is undeniably satisfying to have managed to tell the story I wanted to tell. I hope, at some point, to be able to get back to the earlier chapters and make some corrections for continuity errors, typos, punctuation mistakes and the like, but I'm afraid I can't make any promises on how soon I'll be able to do that. At any rate, thank you to all who have read this, and I'm glad that you chose to take this journey with Boromir and Svip.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Captain of Anduin

I woke from a sleep that felt only marginally less deep than waking from death in Svip's house.

The morning sun stabbed at my eyelids. Resignedly I forced my eyes to open. When I had blinked myself into reality, I found that I was lying on my back on the floor of my Great Hall.

I struggled up to one elbow and studied the scene about me.

Merry and Pippin lay asleep at either side of me, stretched out diagonally to me as though I were the stem and they the branches of some gigantic rune. Merry still clutched in his hand one of the mithril goblets inlaid with galloping ivory horses, that had been part of Théodhild's dowry. At first glance I did not see that Pippin and I had been using others of the set, but a brief investigation revealed two more of them under the sofa behind me. At some point, I thought, we must have shoved them under there; that, or someone else had done so, to keep us from knocking them over in our sleep. Next to the goblets I found two bottles: a Calenhad whiskey, upright and half-empty, but unstoppered, and an empty wine bottle lying on its side. When I pulled this forth, I discovered it to be one of my cellar's vintages from the reign of Belecthor II. I allowed myself a moment's regret that I couldn't remember drinking it.

I did not remember much, in fact, after our ride home to the White City. Frowning at the goblets, I hoped that I had not become maudlin over them. Being relics of my marriage, and our drinking session having taken place on a day when I had just had a proposal of marriage rejected, Valar knew what tearfulness those goblets might have called forth in me.

Sprawled on the sofa lay Gimli Son of Glóin, rumbling out his guttural snores that were so familiar to me from our journeying together. Curled up asleep in one of the armchairs by the fireplace was Frodo. Appropriately enough, Sam lay stretched out like a faithful dog at the foot of his chair. The gardener looked completely comfortable, despite the fact that his bed was nothing but flagstones. Beside the chair, I noticed two tankards and another open bottle of whiskey.

The occupant of the other armchair was very much awake. Sitting cross-legged, and far too cheerful for the circumstances, was Legolas, bright-eyed and sipping from a cup of tea. When he saw me looking in his direction he raised his teacup in salute and hailed me, "Good morning, Boromir."

"'Morning," I acknowledged, not quite ready to commit myself on whether it was good or not. "What are you doing, being so chipper? I swear you drank more than the rest of us combined."

"There is a simple answer to that," he said. "I am still drunk. Ask for me this evening, and you will find me a thoroughly unhappy Elf."

"That is something, anyway," I grumbled.

I levered myself up from the floor and made my aching way over to Legolas. On the end table beside him I had noticed a steaming teapot, a selection of cups, and a plate heaped high with scones and slices of bread. Legolas obligingly poured for me some tea. I stood there holding the cup in both hands, letting the heat of it bite into me while I surveyed the rest of the room.

In his washtub, near to where my feet had been when I was sleeping, lay Svip, looking entirely peaceful and content. He was snoring his familiar little wheezing snore, and his head was propped on one of the silk-covered cushions from the armchairs. Other cushions from armchairs and sofa lay scattered about on the floor beside the washtub, in varying degrees of wetness. I thought that Dame Weltrude would not appreciate that. But at this point, soaked and water-stained cushions probably held a fairly low rank on the list of my irritating eccentricities.

I asked Legolas, "Do you know what time it is?"

"It must be getting close to the Second Hour now," he said, "based on when I last heard the bells."

"Good," I said. "Then I've still got time before the Council session."

I swigged my tea, put down the cup and grabbed up a piece of bread. "How bad do I look?" I asked, between hasty bites.

The Elven prince eyed me appraisingly and reported, "You look very respectable, considering."

I snorted. "It's that 'considering' that I was concerned about."

Finishing wolfing down the bread, I said, "I'll go get cleaned up a bit and then head to the Citadel." A sudden annoying thought occurring to me, I asked, "You aren't insisting on going to see Aragorn with me too, are you?"

"No," he said placidly. "I think you'll be perfectly able to handle that conversation without me."

"Good. Thank you. If the others start waking up soon, do me a favour and try to delay them from coming after me. This is a reckoning I would like to face on my own."

Scant minutes later I was tromping up the road to the Citadel, cursing the sun a little and trying to will away the pounding ache in my head.

It struck me that it was a damned long time since I had suffered any significant memory loss from drink – as opposed to suffering memory loss from being too long away from the Great River.

Wonderful, I thought. So you have been drinking like a kid again. And now you'll get to feel like a kid again, too, having to own up your faults to Aragorn in the same office where you've endured so many a lecture from your father.

What Aragorn's reaction would be to my story of last night's foolishness, I had honestly no idea. That realisation was a bit unnerving. I thought that I could predict pretty accurately what my father's response would be, down to the precise wording of each scathing comment. But going like a schoolboy to confess my failings to Schoolmaster Aragorn, was an irritatingly unknown quantity.

It will not kill you, I told myself with a sneer. What is he going to do, demote you? So what if he does? You have already tried to resign the Captain-Generalship, which resignation he refused to accept. So if he does strip you of that rank because of last night's idiocy, then so much the better.

I had been certain that Aragorn would be at work already before the Council session, and I was right. I thought it a pretty safe bet that Faramir, too, was even now already at work in his office in the White Tower, although I had no doubt that while he was working, he was cursing his aching head.

Aragorn stood up from his desk to greet me, with a puzzled smile. "Good morning, Boromir," he said. "What brings you abroad so early?"

"I want to give you my account of last night's incident."

Puzzled frown replacing his puzzled smile, he answered, "Very well. Will you be seated?"

"Thank you, no. I prefer to stand."

Looking not particularly pleased at being cast in the role of dispenser of justice, Aragorn returned to his chair. "Go on," he told me.

I began, "Yesterday the Lady Éowyn informed Faramir, Merry and me that she would accept none of our proposals of marriage."

He sucked in a startled breath. "I had not heard that," he said. "I am sorry."

"Thank you. At my suggestion, the three of us went out drinking in Waterfront last night, along with the other Hobbits, Legolas and Gimli, and Svip. We imbibed quite heavily, and I assume that we were fairly boisterous when we left the tavern; at any event, we were singing. On our way to the Harlond stables, we encountered two of your Rangers on Night Watch duty. One was called Halvor; I do not know the name of the other."

"Ah," he said, looking as though the mention of Halvor explained a lot. "I see. Go on."

"The Rangers informed us that we were disturbing the peace, and that if we did not quiet of our own volition, they would be compelled to arrest us. Halvor took the lead in these efforts, and he and I soon exchanged heated words. When he put his hand upon me, I assume with the intention of hauling me away, I struck him."

"Ah," Aragorn said again, noncommittal of voice and face.

"His fellow Ranger and Legolas were able to calm Halvor down, and we parted without further incident. I have come to you to apologise for striking one of your Men, and I await your judgement."

"I see," he repeated, "and I thank you for that. It may surprise you to learn," Aragorn continued, "that your report is the first I have heard of the incident."

"It does surprise me," I admitted. "From Halvor's attitude last night, I would have expected him to report on it to you before the roosters were out of bed."

"Perhaps, in the cold light of day, he recalled that I do not appreciate my Men running tattling to me like boys telling tales out of school. And now, for the gods' sakes," he went on, "will you please sit down? Let us cease being officer and commander, and be simply friends."

"Thank you," I said rather awkwardly, taking a seat. I admitted to myself that if I had attempted to imagine how this interview might go, I was not likely to have come up with this scenario.

Aragorn gave a weary sigh, sat back, and rubbed his hands over his face. "It is unfortunate," he said, "that it was Halvor you encountered. With many another of my Men, there would have been little or no difficulty." After a moment's thought, he went on, "His partner would have been Åsmund, I believe. I assume he took little part in the incident?"

"Very little, save to try to get Halvor out of it. I doubt that things would have escalated as they did, had only he been involved."

Aragorn nodded. "Halvor is a young Man of very strong opinions. One of those opinions which he has frequently stated, despite all evidence to the contrary, is that the Men of Gondor are effete city-dwellers who have spent the last Age living lives of indolence and sloth, while we Rangers of the Northlands have single-handedly held back the dark."

"Indeed," I agreed. "He said something of the sort last night. To be fair, however, he also said that he has had enough of the Guards of the Citadel lording it over him and his comrades. From speaking with them on this subject myself, I am certain that many do precisely that. If Halvor thinks us effete city-folk who've done nothing for the past Age, then many of Gondor's armed forces believe – despite all evidence to the contrary – that the Northmen are jumped-up country yokels who may have encountered an Orc here and there, but know nothing of the true horrors of battling Sauron's darkness."

"Indeed," echoed Aragorn. "So we are back to the same question that we have been wrestling: how to convince our various forces that they are comrades instead of enemies."

"Yes," I said. "It will take time, and it will also require much more thorough integration of our forces, however desperately all involved will resist the process. I have been mulling over an idea on this," I went on, "an idea which will cause Captain Brithnoth to howl like a wolf with its foot in a trap, when he hears of it. Such reactions notwithstanding, I believe the idea has merit. In fact, it is a concept that has been discussed in years past, but has consistently been shelved due to the Citadel Guards' outrage that we might depart from the way things have always been done."

Aragorn smiled wryly, and said, "That sounds like something worth hearing."

"An issue we have faced for centuries is the very nature of the Citadel Guard. All of them are Men who have been recommended for the posting due to their exemplary deeds in other branches of the service. But once they become Citadel Guards, they hold that post for life. And so we find ourselves with some of our finest soldiers being stuck in a posting which can mean that they never sight a glimpse of the foe. By tradition the Guards of the Citadel never are sent forth from the City, except when the Steward himself rides to war. When the Steward does go into combat, some portion of the Citadel Guard does generally ride with him, but the majority of their force is still expected to remain on guard over the Citadel itself. Yet with the exception of thankfully rare occasions such as our recent siege, this means that once they have gained the honour of being posted to the Citadel Guard, many of these Men never see combat again, for the rest of their lives. Indeed, I know of a goodly number of soldiers who have declined the honour of this posting, precisely because they do not wish to condemn themselves to a life of no greater action than standing guard over a pile of stone.

"It has been suggested, many a time, that appointment to the Citadel Guard could become a temporary posting. A Man might serve here for five years, say, and then return to his previous regiment. Thus could we avoid the notion that a posting to the Citadel in fact prevents a Man from fighting for his country. And thus might we also decrease the risk of the staleness that can come from decade upon decade performing the same duty.

"It has been suggested," I continued, "but ever the forces of it-has-always-been-this-way turn their catapults against the concept, and never has anyone been willing to commit to the struggle that would be necessary to force through such a change.

"But now that we face the question of how best to integrate your regiment into the regular forces of Gondor, I think the time is come to face that challenge head-on. Did the Citadel Guard become a temporary posting, with all branches of the service equally eligible including the Northern Rangers, then there would not be a question of trying to shoe-horn your Rangers into an otherwise unchanged body of Men. And there would also not be the major disincentive there is now, when in order to serve in the Citadel Guard, the Rangers should theoretically give up the life that they love in exchange for the dubious honour of never seeing combat more."

Aragorn smiled. "You are right," he said, "it is an idea which we should fight to bring to fruition. And I cravenly hope it will be you who first mentions the concept to Captain Brithnoth, not I!"

I grinned, and suggested, "Is that to be my punishment for striking young Halvor?"

This called forth a thoughtful frown from him. "No," he said, "I have a different notion on that. Let me, instead, ask you to take Halvor under your wing – that should be more than enough punishment for both of you. There is more that I have not told you of Halvor's history. His father was Halbarad – my cousin who, as I mentioned to you, was slain here in battle on the day the siege was broken."

"Damnation," I said. "I see."

"He will, of course, fiercely resist any idea that I am asking you to try and take his father's place. And never would I make that suggestion, for I know it would be worse than useless. But though you do not seek to replace his father, there is no doubt that he will benefit from a more experienced warrior's guidance. It will be no very pleasant duty for you; but you are used to unpleasant duties. If you do seek a judgement from me, then here it is: that you shall continue in your role as the officer most directly involved in the quest to integrate our forces, and that Halvor shall act as your assistant, representing the interests of the Rangers of the North."

"Phew," said I. "That will be fun. I will say this, Sire: you certainly can inflict a stinging judgement. Here I thought you would only demote me, and instead you condemn me to constantly hearing myself referred to as a 'lily-fingered Southerner.'"

He smiled again, but something about what I had said troubled him. Aragorn glanced at the candle-clock in its sconce on the wall, then said, "We have a little time yet to talk before we must head to the Council. Boromir … there is something of which, for some days now, I have wanted to speak with you."

It was my turn now to frown in puzzlement. "Speak," I said.

"It is a theory that has come to me, to explain certain of your actions that have otherwise seemed a mystery. I think," he went on, "you will not care to hear this."

If I would not care to hear what he wished to say, it seemed that Aragorn was equally reluctant to speak of it. He studied me with a gaze that I found difficult to decipher: perhaps an odd sort of mixture of concern, sympathy, and impatience.

He said, "I do not know how close this may be to reality. You alone can know the truth of that. But I have wondered if some of your actions this month past can be traced back to that day at Amon Hen."

At that, I frowned more darkly. I tensed both at the thought that he might be about to take me to task for that day, and at the memories and emotions which that name evoked in me.

Aragorn continued, "It was your mention of demoting you, just now, that made me think of it again. Your resignation as Steward, and your refusal to take any part in the debate on my kingship – and then more recently, your attempt to resign the post of Captain-General: I have wondered if these were due in part to the fact that – perhaps even without your conscious knowledge – you do not believe you have the right to be alive."

I stared at him, startled and robbed of speech.

Automatically I wanted to deny that statement. But I found that I could not.

He pressed onward, "When you told me of your attack on Frodo, you said 'I am sorry. I have paid.' I have wondered if you feel that Svip robbed you of that, when he gave you back your life. If you feel that your return has left your debt unpaid once more. And if you have sought to pay that debt by re-creating the effects of your death.

"Had you remained dead, you could never have taken your place as Steward, nor could you have played any role in accepting or denying my right as king. I have wondered if you are still attempting to pay for Amon Hen, by taking from yourself the rights and opportunities that should be part of your life.

"If there is any truth in this, Boromir," Aragorn said forcefully, "I hope that you will stop it. Your people, your brother, your friends – all of us need you alive. Not trapped by your guilt in some kind of living death."

"I – " I had to swallow and start again. "I do not know what to say."

"Don't feel that you have to say anything," he said. "Just promise me that you will think on it. That is all I ask."

"I can promise you that," I said, the words coming from me in a rush. "I am thinking on it now."

I was thinking on it indeed. And I thought, He is right.

The reasons I had given before, to myself and to Faramir, were still valid. I was certain of that. The public reason I had stated in my resignation – the restrictions imposed on me by my dependence on the Great River – as well as the more petty personal reasons, my desire to be only the Steward I had dreamed of being, and my dislike for the notion of serving as Steward to Aragorn – all of those still held true. Although I had to confess to myself that after these weeks of his kingship, the notion of working as closely with him as the Steward must needs do, no longer seemed nearly such an impossibility as once it had appeared to me.

But yet, I thought now, there was another motivation beneath all of the others. It was a motivation that Aragorn had seen, although it had remained dark to me.

I thought, He saw it. It is true.

"Boromir," said Aragorn, "for whatever my opinions may be worth: I do believe that you have paid. You paid in your fight to save Merry and Pippin, and in your death. And you have paid for it in the guilt and grief that you have put yourself through, since that day."

He gazed at me steadily. "I believe that your debt is paid in full. I hope you can accept that, and can live fully, as a Man who will fight to build the future in which he believes. Not as a Man who will forever be dragged backward by his past."

A small corner of my mind that still automatically wants to be critical of anything Aragorn says went into action at that point, carping that this latest statement of his sounded like the ready-made philosophies one receives from fortune-tellers at village fairs. But I found I had no need to forcibly restrain the words. I had no desire to say them.

There are times in our lives when sarcasm has no value. No matter how hackneyed the sentiment might sound – and no matter how troubled my history with the Man who had said it – his were words that I needed to hear.

And, I told myself, I do not need to disdain whatever Aragorn says.

It is what my father would do.

But – whether this be a cause for satisfaction, or for regret – I am not my father.

I wondered if I could move forward simply by telling myself that I needed to.

And I thought, I have to, for all of our sakes.

I had lingered at Amon Hen long enough.

"Thank you, Aragorn," I said.

With a faint smile, Aragorn remarked, "If what I have said did play a role in your resignation, then I'm sorry if the punishment you've inflicted on yourself robbed me of the chance to have you as my Steward. I love and value your brother," he went on. "He has done nothing to deserve being removed from his post as Steward, a position he fills with integrity, skill and honour. I would never wish to remove him from it. Yet the post was yours. And I cannot help regretting that you may have sacrificed your Stewardship, for the sake of what I can only see as your misplaced guilt."

Stunned and shaken though I felt, at these comments of his I could not help but laugh.

"By the gods," I mused, shaking my head, "why would you want to have me as your Steward?"

"Why would I not?" he asked.

"Oh, no particular reason. Only the fact that ere the first fortnight was out, we'd be very likely to have murdered each other!"

"We did not murder each other on the road with the Fellowship," Aragorn pointed out. "Why should it be worse as Steward and King?"

"On the road with the Fellowship," said I, "we could always stomp to the front or the back of the party, and get as far away from the other as possible, when our company got too much to be endured. Constant stomping away, I think, would not do much for the working relationship of the King and the Steward."

Wryly Aragorn said, "For the sake of my own self-esteem, I will try not to think too much of which of us you are under-estimating. Perhaps, I can hope, both of us." He continued, with a look of greater seriousness, "If you'll permit me to remark, I do not recall that I've noticed over-much shouting and stomping on either of our parts, since I became king."

I felt a weird sort of wistful regret: the regret of the Man who loathes to give up his conviction of how he'd believed things would be – even in the face of the strongest of evidence that he was wrong.

"No," I admitted, with a sigh. "You are right. I have not noticed much of it, either. At least," I added ruefully, "not nearly so much of it as I expected to."

"I do recall," he went on, "your vow to me on Ostoher's Hill, that you will always give me your opinions and advice, whether or not I have sought them out. And I recall my reply that your opinions and advice will be welcome always; perhaps most of all, when I have not sought them. I hope that you intend to keep your side of that bargain. For I fully intend to keep my side of it."

"I do intend to keep that bargain, Sire," I said.

At that last word, he grimaced. "None of this 'Sire' nonsense," he ordered. "Not in private, anyhow. After all that we have endured together, I am certain that you can bring yourself to call me 'Aragorn.'"

Startled anew, I had to grin. "Damn!" I exclaimed. "You certainly do impose challenging tasks upon me. Now I shall find myself biting my tongue, whenever I start to call you 'Sire.'"

"Speaking of imposing challenging tasks," said Aragorn. "I do not think you have yet given me your answer on whether you'll accept my troubled friend Halvor as your assistant in the work to integrate our troops."

"I will, of course," I said. "It is perhaps the least that either of us can expect in recompense for our altercation yesterday. And it will certainly be useful to have someone involved who can give the disgruntled Rangers' point of view on the process. I only hope that he can be induced not to keep trying to arrest me."

"I'll suggest to him that he might want to keep that to a minimum," Aragorn smiled. "And now," he added, glancing at the candle clock again, "we really do need to get to the Council session."

As we walked swiftly along the corridor, the King remarked to me, "Do you know what I regret the most about your incident of last night? It is an unworthy thought, no doubt. But when you spoke of your trip to the tavern, I could not help but think of the fact that by becoming king, I may have condemned myself to never being able to take a quiet drink in a tavern again."

I gave a rather guilty grimace, thinking again of how unwilling I had been to invite Aragorn along on our trip to the Orc's Head.

He continued, "I fear there is now no tavern in Minas Tirith or within the Pelennor where I could long sit unrecognised. And while I cannot claim great intimacy with any of them – not, at least, intimacy of a more recent vintage than forty years in the past – I suspect that in few of our taverns would the customers or staff be over-happy to find the King in their midst."

"There are a few where they would probably not object," I said, "the tourist taverns in the upper levels. But I suspect you would find such places as unsatisfactory as I find them."

"Aye," said Aragorn, with an eloquent look. "I should prefer not to swill over-priced and watered-down ale while sitting on display for the farm families who are treating themselves to a day out in the City."

I grinned at the accuracy of Aragorn's depiction of that particular breed of Minas Tirith tavern. Evidently, those establishments had not changed over the past forty years.

"There may be none within the Pelennor where you could drink in peace," I suggested, "but perhaps along the shores of Lossarnach there may be few enough citizens who have recently sojourned in the City, that your countenance would go unrecognised. We could go on a quest to see how far we must voyage before you regain anonymity – in, of course, that free time that hangs so heavily upon the hands of both of us."

"Indeed," he said ruefully. "I fear it may be years before that quest is fulfilled."

"In the meantime," I said, "I can at least invite you for a drink at my townhouse. It has not quite the ambiance of a good tavern, but there will be fewer people staring at you. And, we can hope, fewer people attempting to arrest us."

"That last, at least, seems certain," Aragorn said. "I will most gratefully accept your invitation. Some other night, perhaps," he added, grinning, "so that your enjoyment of the evening may not be tarnished by your enjoyment of the evening before."

"Thank you, Sire – I mean, Aragorn," I said, bowing to him. "There is the old wisdom that the best way to avoid a hangover is simply to remain drunk, but I fear I am too late to apply that remedy."

I tried to suppress the uneasy suspicion that I had only invited Aragorn to my townhouse in order to assuage my feelings of guilt at not having invited him last night. It was not so, I told myself; I had every reason to believe that he would be an entertaining companion with whom to drink. But I also could not deny I was relieved to find that he himself saw clearly the drawbacks of attempting to visit the taverns, and that he was not trying to invite himself out to the Orc's Head.

We stepped from the King's House into the morning sunshine – and found ourselves faced by a delegation consisting of Frodo and his three fellow Hobbits, Legolas and Gimli, and Svip. The water creature and the two younger Hobbits had all been sitting on the paving stones, but they jumped to their feet when we appeared – or at least, they got to their feet relatively swiftly, considering last night's entertainment and the early hour of the morning.

"I'm sorry, Boromir," said the Elf, "I did my best to hold them back, but they were having none of it. I did, at least, convince them to wait here outside for you."

"But we were about to go in after you, anyway," put in Svip. The look that he cast at Aragorn stopped short of being overtly hostile, but not by much.

"I almost woke up in time to catch you, Boromir," said Frodo, eyeing me sternly. "I think I must have been waking up at just about the time you headed out of the house."

"I am sorry, Frodo," I told him. "I hope you can understand why I felt I had to undertake this alone."

The Ringbearer nodded curtly, but he still looked very far from pleased.

"You haven't done anything too horrible to him, have you, Strider?" piped up Pippin. "It really was all of our faults. It was all of us making the noise. And it was a Hobbit song we were singing. So in that sense, we four may be more at fault than anyone else!"

"No, fear not, my friends," I said, "my punishment should not be too heavy to bear. His Majesty has only condemned me to work on a particular project with Ranger Halvor as my assistant."

There were various startled laughs and exclamations, and Pippin chortled, "What, the Southern bastard working with the whoreson Northerner?"

Aragorn raised his eyebrows at me on that, but only said, "Yes, precisely." The King looked around at our comrades then, and said to them, "Since you have already nobly arisen from your beds – or from wherever you may have been sleeping – would you care to join us at this morning's Council session? I intend to make a proclamation at this morn's meeting which should be of interest to you, seeing as all of you take an interest in Boromir's career."

In surprise, I cast him a questioning frown. But he would vouchsafe me only a faint and mysterious smile.

"You Men certainly know how to have fun," snorted Gimli, with a rather jaundiced look. "Of course, naturally what we all want to do after our first binge of the new Age is to spend the morning trying not to fall asleep in a session of the Council of Gondor." But, with only a few other grumbles, all of them began to trail along with us, I suppose unable to resist the intrigue of Aragorn's veiled statement.

For my part, I could not help but find this hint of his puzzling and annoying. I scarcely thought it likely that he planned to trouble the Council with word of my new assignment with young Ranger Halvor. And yet – if he did not, in fact, intend to demote me – what other proclamation might he make this morning that had a bearing on my career?

I was disagreeably reminded of his way of doing things during the voyaging of the Fellowship, when he discussed his thoughts on what should be our party's next actions a great deal less frequently and openly than I believed they should be discussed. But I firmly quashed that recollection. Now, when Aragorn and I were getting along so well, was not the time to dwell upon past irritations.

As we neared the Tower of Ecthelion, Aragorn remarked, "I must say I will be grateful when the government's schedule attains enough normality that we are no longer compelled to spend the half of each day in meetings."

On that, I entirely agreed with him. "Aye," I said. "It will be a refreshing change to be permitted to actually work, instead of spending each morning talking of what work we're going to do."

Aragorn and I were among the last members of the Council to arrive. Pages hastened about bringing additional chairs for our guests, although Svip declined one and instead sat on the floor by my feet.

Faramir cast at me a rather wan smile as I was taking my seat at his side. He also gave me a look of question as our other drinking companions milled about, waiting for their chairs. But there was not the time to fill him in on any of the details he had missed last night, before the morning's meeting commenced.

The day of which Aragorn and I had spoken was hopefully nigh upon us, for the time drew close when the work of the government should no longer require the full Council sitting in discussion. Indeed, if business went well today, it might be possible for the lords and other representatives from the outlands to set forth for their homelands upon the morrow.

We had, it seemed, near to finished the last wrangling upon the amounts of the payments due from the southern fiefdoms in recompense for their having failed to send their full complements of Men when my father summoned their aid. It was a mathematical juggling act that no doubt had kept many a clerk awake through full many a night, balancing out the reckoning between the payments owed by the fiefdoms, and the payments due from our central government to the families of each Man who had been slain or incapacitated in our country's battles.

Every fiefdom save for Dol Amroth owed something, for Uncle Imrahil had been the only commander from the southlands who brought his full complement of Men at the Steward Denethor's call. Yet the payment owed by some became small indeed, when one subtracted from it the funds that we must pay out for the Men who had been lost.

Least of all was owed from Morthond, whose five hundred bowmen had been near the number due from them, and whose account also reflected the deaths of the sons of their lord. The largest of these debts was due from Ringló Vale, which fact caused Lord Kirilhir to glower like a troll, but against which, in truth, there was little he could say. The three hundreds he had sent under the command of his son were more than several other fiefdoms had mustered, yet compared to the Vale's population, that number fell woefully short. And Ringló had not even the excuse of those lands along the River and the coast, that they had held back the greater portion of their fighting forces to defend their people against the Umbar Corsairs.

Lengthy segments of a number of Council sessions had been devoted to exploring the niceties of these debts, and debating how they should properly be balanced against a multitude of extenuating circumstances. Today, if no lord or representative came up with some new objection to the numbers upon which we had determined, all should be prepared for the commanders of the outlands to begin their journeys home. They would turn homeward armed with the reckoning of the fees that their lands must pay to Gondor, and of the sums they must pay out to their people who had suffered loss, by which amounts the debts that the fiefdoms owed were reduced.

It seemed that no objection was forthcoming. In the absence of such, Aragorn soon turned to the mystery of which he had hinted on our way to the meeting.

He said, "My Lords, Captains and Masters, as many of you will soon depart for your own lands, I wish to make a proclamation while all are still here to witness it.

"All of you, I am certain, have heard of the restrictions imposed upon Lord Boromir by the circumstances of his return from the dead. Those restrictions are what led him to resign the Stewardship that was his by birth, in his concern that he would be unable to perform the duties of his office as he wished to, and as our country deserves. In that same concern for our country, a few days past Lord Boromir offered his resignation as Captain-General. This resignation, the Lord Steward Faramir and I refused to accept."

There was a buzz of whispers in response to this news of my latest resignation attempt. While I wondered again if he were going to accept my resignation after all – even though I assured myself that he would never do that in so public a way without speaking with me of it first – Aragorn continued, "I refused to accept that resignation despite Lord Boromir reminding me that in the days of the old kings, it was tradition for the for the office of Captain-General to be held by the King's eldest son."

Smiling warmly at me, the King went on, "I have told Lord Boromir that when such time comes that I have a son of sufficient age and responsibility to fulfil the office of Captain-General, then if he still wishes the Son of Denethor may step down – after training his successor in the office. Yet though the Lord Steward and I do not accept his resignation, well do I understand his frustration at feeling that there are responsibilities of his office that he can no longer achieve.

"I would answer this by creating a new office, an office that matches his great abilities and the unique resources at his command. For Lord Boromir is not alone restricted by his new relationship with the Great River. He has also gained by it; gained skill in traversing its waters which none other of the race of Men possess, and gained the respect and trust of the River itself. I do not speak this as metaphor, but as literal truth. Boromir's experiences with the Anduin have proved beyond any doubt that our country's River is indeed a deity as the ancient peoples of this land believed."

There followed, unsurprisingly, many a whisper of surprise at that. Aragorn did not allow himself to be drawn into a discussion of our nation's myths and their basis in reality. Instead he continued, "I propose that Lord Boromir be made Captain of Anduin. Let him command all military operations that take place upon its waters, and let him also have supervision of those civic works undertaken on the River and its shores. With your approval, gentlemen, I would this morn hail Boromir as Captain of Anduin, and ask him if he will accept that post at the request of his country."

That approval was swift in coming, in the form of a motion and second by Imrahil and Éomer, and the vote of acclamation by the rest of the Council. I stood and bowed to Aragorn, and voiced my acceptance and thanks. But what he spoke next had a far greater impact upon me than did the creation of this new title that carried with it duties which in all probability I would have undertaken even had that title never existed.

Aragorn said, "The first project that I would ask our new Captain of Anduin to set in motion is the reconstruction of Osgiliath."

I stared at him in astonishment, wondering if I could possibly have heard him aright. Doubtless, many others of the Council were doing likewise. The King went on, "You need not fear, gentlemen; I will not seek to push through irreversible actions on this project without the presence of the full Council to meet upon it. At such a time when our nation's resources are so badly strained, and when we face so many inescapable expenses to rebuild our war-torn country, I know that I would encounter full many a voice of opposition did I attempt now to divert our swift-dwindling funds to rebuild a city that has lain in ruins for more than 1400 years.

"But I have read the reports that Lord Boromir has submitted upon the project, and I believe that he is correct: the reconstruction of the City of the Stars is work that we should begin in our days, although our children's children may well have grown old when that work is not yet complete. As we have stated that we dwell now in the days of a new Age, let one of the ways in which we act upon that change be to commence rebuilding the city which once was the jewel of Gondor, and one of the wonders of this Middle Earth. As the new Osgiliath rises from the ruins, let it proclaim for all to see, both how we embrace our new beginnings, and how we honour the achievements of our country's past.

"I have said that I will not attempt to slip through any expenses on this project while the full Council is not here to approve them. There is work aplenty that can be done upon it before ever the first expense is needed. Lord Boromir and the team he has assembled have prepared the first plans and recommendations for how this reconstruction may be undertaken. I would ask him now to examine in more detail what our first steps should be, what work must commence first to set this process in motion – and of course, what work we may do first that will involve the minimum expense to Gondor."

My brain was spinning slightly as I listened to Aragorn's speech, and I do not think that was the effect of the previous night's drinking. I had more than half a suspicion that I might wake up to find myself still on my Great Hall's floor, and learn that all of this morning had in fact been a dream.

I bowed again and managed to say to him, "My Lord, I will joyously commence this work that has been a dream of mine since childhood, and that has been a fantasy of dreamers in Gondor from Eldacar's days until today."

As was in no way unexpected, many a Councillor was very little pleased to find Aragorn promising his support to this project. But the King's pledge of no immediate expense was enough to quiet their most pressing concerns, and to at least convince them that they could probably return to their lands without fearing that Aragorn and I would drain the treasury the instant they turned their backs.

When the meeting ended, a throng of well-wishers surrounded me to offer their congratulations. First to speak thus was Faramir, who grinned as he shook hands with me and clasped my shoulder, and said, "Congratulations on Osgiliath."

Well did my brother know, better than any other, how much this project meant to me. For it was he with whom, in our youth, I had spent endless hours spinning my fantasies, the solemn-faced boy patiently listening while in my glorious imaginings I rebuilt the Citadel of the Stars.

I grinned back and said, "Perhaps fewer congratulations are due for being told to launch this project without spending any money. I was just telling His Majesty that he seems to enjoy thinking up the most challenging tasks to settle upon me."

The crowds at length dispersed enough that I could snatch a few moments' speech with Aragorn. As I shook his hand in gratitude, I said to him, "We are in public now, so I need not turn myself inside out in attempting not to call you 'Sire' – Sire, I thank you for this with all my heart. I have not quite the vanity to imagine that you have decided on this work simply to assure that I will live fully, as you have urged me to do. But if you did have such a scheme in mind, you could not have found any project better suited to achieve that goal, than this."

Smiling, he said, "In truth, it is not such a scheme. This is work in which I believe, regardless of its effect upon our Captain-General. Yet if it does have that effect, then it needs nothing else to confirm me in my belief that this project is worth our labours."

I spent the remainder of that day buoyed up by delight, which neither the previous night's excesses nor any lingering melancholy at the close of we three suitors' courtships could do anything to dim. Even my interview later in the day with young Halvor Son of Halbarad could not dampen my good cheer.

I had chosen to seek out the young Man in the Northern Rangers' temporary barracks in the Citadel, rather than summon him to my office. I reasoned that whatever working relationship we might be able to develop would get off to a better start if I met with him on something like his own ground. His self-assurance of the previous night notwithstanding, in approaching this interview Halvor was likely to feel that he was on far shakier footing than I.

I had only to face a youth before whom I had appeared in drunk and disorderly condition. Halvor had to face a high-ranking officer who might, if I so wished, have the power to seriously damage Halvor's career.

Aragorn had presumably notified him to expect this meeting, for he greeted my arrival with a grimly resigned mien. The young Man seemed none the worse for our encounter of the night before, save perhaps for the air he had about him of being perpetually on parade for uniform inspection, and the way in which his gaze never fixed on me but instead focused somewhere beyond my right shoulder. But that is the way in which some soldiers always interact with officers, even when they have not attempted to arrest said officer for drunkenness.

Halvor bowed to me, face carefully blank, when I suggested that we walk along the City walls. Figuring that any small talk would only sound insulting, as soon as we were without the barracks I said, "I apologise to you for my behaviour of last night. You were acting within your duty, and it was the amount I had imbibed that prevented me from discussing our differences of opinion in a more civilized fashion."

"Thank you, sir," he said stiffly. "I apologise to you if devotion to my duty led me to act with an excess of zeal."

"Excess of zeal is a fault of youth, if it be a fault at all," I said. "With time you may perhaps learn some moderation, as well as the niceties for negotiating with drunken Men, but you need not apologize for being young. I believe most officers would rather encounter an enthusiastic young warrior who may temper his steel as he grows in experience, than one who errs to the opposite extreme and shirks the performance of his duty."

"Yes, sir," he answered. Looking still mightily uncomfortable at having to speak with me at all, he proceeded to share a confidence that I would certainly never have expected from him, given his attitude of the previous night. I did not think it likely that this change of heart was solely his own doing. It seemed clear that Aragorn had had speech with him between the end of the Council session and this meeting. I assumed that the King had given young Halvor a significant lecture on the need to respect his new countrymen, and on the fact that not all we of Gondor are as lily-fingered as Halvor believed us to be.

Halvor said, "Sir, I will tell you that it was in my mind this morn to ask the King to send me back to our own lands. This is no life for us here. We are not city-dwellers; we have no business here with paving stones under our feet, enclosed under roofs and within walls, where we cannot get air to breathe. But our Lord has informed me that he requires me here, to serve under your command in the work to integrate the troops of the North into the armies of Gondor. I will obey his orders – though I do not see what use I can be to you, when in my heart I believe that none of us should be here!"

I warmed to the youth at that revelation. That warmth built upon the sympathy I already felt for him in knowing that he had lost his father scant weeks before I had lost mine.

It still, at times, seemed something I scarce could accept or even comprehend, to know that I lived now in a world in which my father dwelt no more. Facing that same knowledge when one had barely crossed the threshold into manhood, had a grimness of prospect that I loathed even to contemplate.

So I spoke to Halvor Son of Halbarad, telling him in confidence the same things I had said to Aragorn about the possibility of restructuring the Citadel Guard. He listened with seemingly new interest, thinking perhaps for the first time that there might be something to which he could look forward in this business of working under my command.

When I closed that interview, I did so with the opinion that while I might not precisely have gained a friend that day, at least I need not count young Halvor as my enemy.

As the evening drew near, the thought came to me that my hangover seemed to have a more vigorous hold upon me than I would have expected of it, by this time of the day. And then I remembered that for nearly the first time since the siege of Minas Tirith, I had skipped my daily visit to the River.

I had utterly forgotten that morning ritual in the drink-benumbed state in which I had made my way to Aragorn's office. So Svip and I decided to repair that omission with an end-of-the-day trip to Anduin. Together we set forth from the Office of Rehousing, where I had been skimming through the latest reports and Svip had been helping the clerks to file the records that listed our citizens who had returned to this date, and the locations of the homes to which they were heading.

In a gingerly and rueful fashion Svip attempted his transformation into horse form, there in the street before the Old Guesthouse. He and I both were relieved to find that he could once again manage this change without mishap.

I'll admit that I was a trifle wary when I took the step of trusting myself to his back. As I had on that very first day when I rode upon the shape-shifter, in the hills beside the Falls of Rauros, I imagined that he might not be able to maintain his horse shape for the duration of our ride. But my uncomfortable musings of toppling to the cobblestones off the back of my suddenly shrunken friend, thankfully came to nought. It seemed that whatever hangover Svip might be suffering, it did not interfere with his ability to hold his form.

As we made that ride at a leisurely and perhaps somewhat cautious pace, Svip asked me about hangovers. He asked me what I felt at that moment, to which I answered, "Dry mouth, headache, and a general collection of aches. Though by this time, some of that may be due to not having visited the River yet today. What about you?"

The horse shrugged one great shoulder – a peculiar gesture to witness, and more so when one is riding upon said horse at the time. He said, "I just feel sort of – fuzzy in my head. And all of my skin itches."

That comment caused me to ponder on the question of how differently hangovers might manifest themselves among the various peoples of our Middle Earth. And that, in turn, recalled to me my brief discussion on the subject with Legolas that morn. I chuckled a little as I recalled his prediction of when he would feel his own hangover at its height. If his reckoning was accurate – and it should be accurate, given his many centuries of experience – then he should be feeling the worst throes of it right about now.

We did not race in the River that afternoon. Instead we lazily paddled and floated about. As we sat then upon our steps, I remarked, "It is odd how swiftly a new thing may become routine. Before I knew you, Svip, each morning I spent here at home I would climb to the top of the White Tower and there watch the dawn. Now, scarce two months after you brought me back … it seems a strange thing not to greet the morning at the River, and then to watch the sunset at the Tower, instead."

"We've a little while 'till sunset," pointed out Svip. "We can still go back to the Tower and watch it there."

And so we did, although I was not entirely free from the nagging internal voice that told me I should instead be looking over my papers on Osgiliath, or fulfilling any number of other duties. Mentally I repeated to myself the sort of argument I would make to Faramir, did he speak to me of such a clash between inclination and the supposed call of duty.

It occurred to me as we climbed to the Tower of Ecthelion's peak that mayhap Svip had his own reasons for wishing to make a pilgrimage to this eyrie, reasons that had naught to do with a desire to watch the sunset over the White City. He sped upward over those many steps so swiftly that even with my longer stride, I was hard-pressed at times to keep up with him.

Out in the gentle evening air once again, he stared fixedly at the door to my father's roof-top sanctuary. He gazed so intensely that at length I said to him, "We can go inside, Svip, if you wish. I think there is no harm in it."

"Yes," he said softly. "Yes, I think I would like to. If you think he wouldn't mind."

"He would not mind," I answered. In truth, I did not know whether my father would mind, or not. But as I thought on it, I concluded that he probably would not, under these circumstances – now that the palantír was gone.

I opened the door, no longer locked in the absence of he who had kept these rooms as his own. We stepped inside. Immaculate and sparsely furnished that chamber had always been, and so it now seemed very little altered. Only the bookcases were gone, they and the histories of Gondor they had contained presumably having been moved to the Steward's Library on Faramir's order.

Svip looked about him with a strange expression, wary and yet somehow eager at the same time. At last he glanced upward, with seeming unwillingness, to the ragged hole in the ceiling that had been torn open in the fall of the Seeing-Stone of Minas Anor.

"I think we may go up there, as well," I said.

The shape-shifter nodded and scurried up the stairs to the attic chamber, with me following after. Here, also, nothing seemed different, save for that indefinable sense of emptiness that accompanies the death of a room's master – and save for the absence of the palantír, which seemed almost to have left a half-visible ghost in its wake.

Silently Svip looked around the shadowed little room. Then he gave a quiet sigh and said, "All right. Let's go out again. We're probably missing the sunset."

Down the stairs and out we went, I bringing one of the chairs with me so that Svip could stand on it and see over the parapet. There, with Svip on the chair and me leaning on the battlement beside him, my friend began the tale that had remained untold since he returned from his home beneath Rauros Falls.

He said, "I want to talk with you, Boromir. About your father."

In reply to the questioning look he cast at me, I nodded. I was not really surprised at that statement of his, after the visit we had just made to my father's tower chambers. But when he spoke again, his words followed another path that I did not expect.

Slowly he began, "I haven't told you yet the reason I came back here, back from Rauros. You remember, I said I'd tell you about it – later."

"I remember," I told him. "And you need not tell me of it yet, if you don't wish to. If you are not comfortable with it, the telling can wait. If need be, it can wait forever."

"No," he said, vigorously shaking his head. "No, I want to tell you."

Nonetheless, it was still many moments before he continued.

"I wanted to come back," he said. "I was thinking of it, anyway. The Rangers would have left to go home after resting up for just a day or two, but I asked them to stay on with me for a few days longer. I kept thinking I might do it; I would make up my mind to come back here with them, if I could just work up the courage. But – I haven't told you what made me finally decide I would do it."

He seemed hesitant to go on again without some sort of permission. I nodded and asked him, "What was it?"

"I think … I think maybe I saw your father."

Whatever I might have imagined him saying, certainly that was not it.

I stared blankly at my small green friend. Finally I managed to echo, "My father?"

Svip nodded eagerly, and of a sudden the words flowed from him. "I was asleep in my pool," he said, "and then suddenly I woke up, because I thought it seemed too light in the room. When I opened my eyes I couldn't see any different kind of light, but he was there, sitting next to the fire. He looked … younger, a lot younger, without any grey in his hair. He was wearing his uniform tunic. He looked so much younger, for a moment I thought he was you instead, but it was him. I sat up and stared at him. And he smiled – just a small smile, but a real one. Not like the angry smiles he used to have."

The water creature stopped and looked at me for confirmation, as though asking if I knew the smiles he meant. I knew them all too well.

I nodded again. "Go on, Svip."

Svip took up the story once more.

"'My Lord!' I said. 'Are you all right?'

"He said he was well, and it was his regular voice, just like I remembered, not like a wraith or anything strange, not different at all. I started to get out of the pool, but he said, 'No, don't get out of bed. This isn't a formal visit.' Then he said, 'I hope you don't mind my taking the liberty of coming to your home uninvited.'

"I told him no, of course I didn't mind, and I asked if I could get him something to eat or drink, and started telling him about how much better I've gotten at Men's cooking since I brought you back to life and I didn't know what to cook for you, but he said no again, and he thanked me. He said, looking around, 'I'm glad of the chance to see your house. It is fascinating. It is hard to believe that all of this is a water plant.' Then he told me, 'I hope someday you will work with Faramir on the book he planned to write about your people. It should be written. And he would love to see this.'

"I was staring at him, trying to understand if he was real, but I told him yes, I hoped we'd work on the book, too. Then your father looked troubled, and he said, 'Master Svip, I am sorry for the grief I brought upon you. I'm sorry that my death gave you such pain. It is a poor recompense for the gift you gave to me, in bringing Boromir home to us.'

"I told him it was all right, it wasn't his fault, he didn't have to be sorry. Then he looked at me in that way he had, like he could look straight to the middle of you, and he asked me, 'Are you glad to be home?'

"I didn't really know how to answer that. I told him I was glad to be in my house, and see my collection and everything I'm used to. But I told him – I told him that I missed you. I missed you and Faramir and all of the others. I missed all of you more than I ever thought I would. I told him I'd thought the pain would go away if I left you and went home. But it hadn't. It hadn't. Because now I didn't just miss Lord Denethor. I missed you, too.

"Your father nodded and said to me, 'Boromir misses you. More than he ever expected he would.' Then Lord Denethor asked me if I thought I would consider returning to Minas Tirith.

"'I don't know,' I told him. 'I want to – I think I want to – but I'm afraid. I'm afraid of what will happen, when it happens again. When they leave me. When Boromir dies.'"

Svip broke off his recital at this point and stared down at his feet. Swallowing back the lump in my throat, I reached out and gripped his hand.

"What happened then?" I asked him.

"Your father said, 'I hope you will consider it. For Boromir's sake. And for yours." When I didn't answer him, he said, 'The pain is the price we pay to be close to anyone. But I hope you may find that it is worth the price.'

"'I will consider it, My Lord,' I told him. 'I promise.'

"Lord Denethor smiled at me again, and he said, 'You should go back to sleep. Do you mind if I look about your house a bit more?'

"I told him of course I didn't mind, but I wasn't sleepy at all, and I'd love to show him around. Only maybe somehow he made me go to sleep, because suddenly I woke up again and it was morning, and he was gone."

It was a long moment before I managed to speak.

"Thank you for telling me, Svip," I said to him.

A dream, I thought. A dream, that's all. I am grateful for it, grateful that it brought Svip back. But it was a dream. It couldn't be anything more.

"You think it was a dream," Svip said quietly, a pensive look on his face. "I think so too, sometimes. And sometimes I'm sure it was real. Maybe it was a dream. I don't know. But that morning … that morning, I thought for a while, and then I swam to the Rangers' camp to join them for breakfast, and that's when I told them that we were going home."

Happiness and wonder gripped my heart, to hear Svip speak of Minas Tirith as "home."

For a time we were silent. Together we gazed from the peak of the Tower, over the roofs of the White City and to the shadowed majesty of Mindolluin, dark against the descending sun. We listened to the calls of the wheeling birds, and to the song of the wind that blew to us from Anduin, from the Great River that also was our home.

"Dream or reality," I said at last, "it is true what he said to you. I missed you. More than I can say."

"It's true what I told him, too," Svip answered. "All of it. About missing you. And about being afraid. But when I woke up, I thought about how I would feel if I never saw you again. I knew, then. I knew that it's worth paying the price."

As we gazed over the City, I wondered, Could it really have happened? Did my father truly appear to Svip? Did he give him that advice?

Has my father found that closeness to others is worth the price we pay for it?

I did not know. But I knew that I would hope he had, for the rest of my life.

The morn that followed was a time of parting for many. With the deliberations of the full Council ended for this while, there was no longer any impediment to the forces of the Outlands returning to their homes. When the Council session closed, the remainder of that day they devoted to their preparations for departure. The next morning found all in readiness. And among those who would set forth for their homelands were a thousand Riders of Rohan, with Éomer King and the lady his sister.

Near three thousands of his Men, Éomer was leaving here in Gondor, to aid in guarding the return of our people to the Sunland, and in the efforts to salvage Anórien's crops. But the King of Rohan, Lady Éowyn, Elfhelm the Marshal, and one thousand Riders took their journey now to their own land, the land they had not seen since Théoden King rode from Dunharrow to his final battle.

We who had the Valar's speed to wish to them, gathered at their barracks on the Fourth Level ere the hour of departure. I had enough vanity still in me, despite my being a rejected suitor, that I had briefly considered postponing my daily visit to the River until after the Rohirrim rode forth. But I banished that notion, with a laugh and a shake of my head at the foolishness of the thought.

It would likely make little difference to Éowyn if I appeared before her with damp hair, even if I were still her suitor. Since I was not, I told myself, it made no difference at all.

The lady's beauty that morn was such as to call forth sighs from we who had been her suitors – if we had been willing to let her witness our sighs. She was glorious, with her hair gleaming as brightly as the chain mail that she wore, and with a new, carefree happiness to her smile.

I suppose we could have found it insulting that she seemed so glad to be leaving us. But that look was so good to see upon her, that in no way did I grudge it. I could well understand her relief at no longer bearing the burden of considering the suits of the three of us. And of a surety I understood her joy at returning home.

One additional reason for her buoyancy of mood revealed itself in the fact that she was clad as she had not been since the day she slew the King of the Nazgûl: in the uniform of the Riders of Rohan.

I commented to her upon this, saying with a grin, "Since I am not your suitor, Lady, but simply your friend, I will take the liberty of telling you that you look magnificent in your Rider's garb. And it gladdens my heart to see you looking so happy. Although," I added, "I admit I am surprised that Éomer has permitted you to venture abroad in Men's clothing, instead of locking you in a tower for conduct unbecoming the sister of a king."

She grinned back, and replied, "Since we are setting forth on a five days' ride, I suppose he realised that locking me in a tower was impractical. Besides, I suspect my brother may allow me a little extra leeway for a few days to come. I think he fears what mood might descend upon me, in the wake of announcing my decision to the three of you."

The lady added, "Glad I am of it, too, if he does feel such wariness, and I will seize whatever liberty it may win for me. Much though I love to be a-horseback, the ride from Minas Tirith to Edoras is not one that I relish undertaking when hampered by skirts."

In more serious vein she spoke then, "I have exchanged my goodbyes with Merry already this morn; and I will look forward to seeing both him and Lord Faramir again in a few months' time. Lord Aragorn and my brother have agreed that the body of Théoden King will remain here in state until such time as preparations for his funeral are in hand in our country; then Éomer and a Guard of Honour will return here to escort our Fallen King to his home. But I think it likely that I will not be among that guard. My brother will wish to leave me behind, in charge of the continuing preparations for our uncle's funeral. Lord Aragorn has said that a deputation from Gondor will accompany Théoden's return, and I have little doubt that both Merry and your Lord brother will be among their number. I regret that it will not be possible for you to ride with them."

"Aye, Lady," I said. "I regret it as well. I shall have to content myself with writing to you from time to time, if you will grant me your permission to do so."

"Of course I will grant it," she exclaimed, "and your letters will be most welcome. You had no need even to ask."

Svip had been lingering nearby, and now Lady Éowyn looked to him, smiled and held out her hand. She asked him as he crossed to us, "Will you give me your blessings for my journey?"

"Gladly," said the water creature. He looked a little bashful as he went on, "I have something else to give to you, too. I brought it from my collection. I thought I might need it as a wedding gift. But I'll be happy if you'll take it in memory of how you taught me not to fear the horses."

From the pouch at his belt Svip brought forth a glimmering, water-smoothed object that I soon saw to be the boss of a shield. Éowyn gave an exclamation of delight as she accepted the shield boss from Svip, then she held it out for me to study it as well. From the wear upon it, it had spent full many a year as the plaything of Anduin's currents. But the engraving upon it was still clear to be seen. An interlaced pattern of horses spiralled over the boss, the delicate beauty of the workmanship obscured neither by the centuries nor by a great dent across the centre of it, whether caused by a weapon's blow or by its sojourn in the River, none now could tell.

"It is Rohirrim work," Éowyn murmured, "I am certain of it. And ancient work, at that; I am sure that our smiths have not inscribed such patterns since the days of Helm Hammerhand himself."

Svip beamed. "I asked the Rangers about it,' he said, "and Thorolf said he was pretty certain it was Rohirrim. I'm glad he was right."

"I will treasure this," said the lady, "and I ask you to accept my thanks. Although I require no gift to engrave upon my memory the recollection of so true a comrade."

I parted from her then, with a firm hand clasp and the wish, which we both expressed, that we would meet again. Svip and I went to bid a good voyage to Éomer, whom I noticed watching his sister with a bemused and quizzical gaze.

The King of Rohan said to me, as we shook hands, "I am sorry not to be able to hail you as my brother-in-law. But I am glad and proud that I may still hail you as my cousin and my friend."

"I share both that sorrow and that gladness," answered I, "although I regret still more that I am not the brother of your brother-in-law."

"Aye," Éomer said with a nod, glancing once more at Éowyn. "And I share that regret with you." He sighed and said then, "I think I shall never understand my sister."

I followed his gaze, and saw that the lady was speaking now with Faramir.

Deep engrossed did both of them seem in the conversation, so that her brother and I could watch them openly for that time without fear of their noticing. There was no more outward sign of tenderness between them than there had been in my conversation with her, yet somehow – perhaps through simply my own wishful thinking – I thought that I could see greater softness in her gaze as she looked at him; greater wistfulness in her smile.

My thoughts – or as Faramir would term it, my scheming – raced ahead through the months to the journey to Théoden's funeral. As Éowyn had said, I had little doubt that Faramir would be among the party that escorted the Fallen King, and glad was I of that. It might, I thought, serve perfectly to awaken Lady Éowyn to a deeper affection for my brother – always assuming, of course, that such affection was there in her to begin with.

Being parted from him for these months; having the journey home in which she would have little to do save to reflect, and to perhaps find her thoughts turning to the Lord Steward Faramir, oftener far than she would have expected … And then to see him again, in circumstances so redolent of emotion as her Lord uncle's funeral … I thought that I would be very little surprised were Faramir to return from Rohan as the betrothed of the Lady Éowyn.

Or, I chided myself, mayhap Merry will return as her betrothed, or mayhap, and most likely of the three, she will still be betrothed to no one. Most like she spoke neither more nor less than truth, when she said that she wishes to accept none of you. And most like, my dear Boromir, you have created all of this simpering silliness from out of whole cloth, as relentless in your quest for a tale that ends in a wedding as is any romance-loving schoolgirl.

As I was reaching that conclusion, Éomer said to me, "Let us turn our gaze elsewhere, Cousin, and swiftly, too. I would not care for either your Lord brother or the Lady my sister to discover us watching them."

"Aye, Cousin," said I. "On that, also, we agree."

The few remaining leave-takings of the Men of Rohan were soon said. With the well-drilled ease of those who spend their lives upon horseback, they mounted up and set forth.

A formidable escort rode with them to the edge of the Rammas Echor. Amongst these were Aragorn the King, the Steward Faramir, Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth, the Lord Mithrandir, all four of our Hobbit comrades, Legolas of Mirkwood and Gimli of Erebor.

I could not ride with them, at least not with any degree of ease. The North Gate of the Rammas is for me an uncomfortable distance from the Great River. So it was that Svip and I remained behind.

My musings once more leapt forward, to the day when many of these same comrades would again ride northward escorting Théoden King to his home. I would have sighed, hit by the useless wish that I could go with them – both today and on that day months hence.

But this was not a morning for sighing. It was a morning for work.

Svip asked, "Can we go watch them out of sight from the Prow? Do we have time for that?"

"I think we can take the time," I answered. "It will not be long, in any case; the Citadel will block them from our view soon enough."

Taking the hill at near to a gallop, Svip the horse gave me a ride up to the Sixth Level. Custom did not permit of a horse beyond the door to the Citadel tunnel, not even a shape-shifting horse. So, returned to his own form, Svip and I all but ran through the tunnel, then across the Courtyard to the Prow of the City.

Together there, with Svip standing upon the bench at my side, we followed the progress of our friends until the last horse and Rider vanished beyond the northernmost curve of the White City.

As they disappeared, in my thoughts I congratulated myself at being able to at last spend a morning other than in a session of the Council of Gondor.

"Let us go, then, Svip," I said, smiling as I spoke the words. "To Osgiliath!"

He grinned back, and repeated, "To Osgiliath!"

A message from Master Eppa of the Stonemasons' Guild had awaited me the evening before, when Svip and I descended from the Tower of Ecthelion. Eppa, in delight that seemed fairly to leap off the page, reported that the restoration of the Great Stone Bridge was all but complete. It required only that the last stone be set in place. On this, they were holding off until such time as I could be present for that moment, if I so wished.

Decidedly, I did so wish. I had written to Master Eppa appointing with him that I would join them at Osgiliath as soon as the Rohirrim made their departure. Down the Hill of Guard now we hastened once more. Soon Svip's galloping hooves were eating up the distance of our familiar route along the riverbank to the Citadel of the Host of the Stars.

I had not visited Osgiliath since the afternoon that Lady Éowyn and I spent strolling in the ruins, now some weeks in the past. As the Great Stone Bridge came into view, I drew a startled breath and I would have reined in, had Svip been the sort of horse that one rides using reins.

As it was, I had no need to ask Svip to stop. His pace slowed and then dwindled to a halt, and my friend murmured, "Look at it! I saw it when the Rangers and I passed through here, but that was a few days ago, it wasn't nearly so … Look at it!"

"My gods," I whispered. "By all the gods!"

Like a dream or a page from a history book, the bridge stood before us, its three great arches striding across the River. I shivered a little as I gazed at it. For a moment it seemed that I could see all of Osgiliath shining in glory – as it once had done, and as I prayed that it would someday do again.

I will not say that the entire garrison of Osgiliath was gathered at the bridge – indeed, I could see a few of our Men at their posts on our new east wall, as tiny figures in the distance. But of a surety the great majority of them were clustered there by the bridge's western approach, along with the Men of the Stonemasons' Guild. Cheers rang out as Svip and I rode into view.

Leaping down from my friend's back, and he shifting to his own form an instant later, I hastened to shake hands with the massively grinning Guildleader Eppa. "Welcome, My Lord, welcome!" he declared. "Let me give you my congratulations on a day that I confess at times I feared we would never reach."

"You were not alone in that, Eppa," I said. "My congratulations to you, as well. My congratulations to all of us."

"Now," he continued with a bit of a rueful grimace, "we have only to determine how we can do more work on this place without spending any money, or to conjure up some money from somewhere! But," Eppa added, grinning once more, "let that be a worry for another time."

The guildleader gestured grandly toward the Great Stone Bridge, and invited us, "My Lord Boromir, will you and Master Svip join me in setting the final stone?"

"Lead the way, my friend," said I.

So the stonemason proudly led us to a point at what seemed to be the precise centre of the bridge. Here one gap remained amid the meticulously fitted stones upon which we trod. The block destined for that opening stood waiting at its edge.

"We don't need to make any speeches, do we?" I asked Eppa, when the three of us stopped by this stone.

"I think not, My Lord," the guildleader answered. "I think it will be well if we just shove."

"That is the kind of ceremony I like," I told him, as we turned to the task.

I was glad that I was not called upon to lift that building stone – an endeavour of which, I think, my not-quite-yet-healed broken ribs would not have approved. But simply shoving it posed no difficulty. With Eppa at one side of it and me at the other, and Svip pushing in the middle, we heaved the great stone into place.

A storm of cheers, applause and laughter answered us as we straightened up again, along with a sudden flurry of hats at the western end of the bridge as most members of the Stonemasons' Guild flung their caps into the air.

For a moment we could do naught but stand there and grin. Then Guildleader Eppa offered, "Will Your Lordship be the first to cross the finished bridge?"

"Nay, Eppa," I decided, "it will be of scant interest to the historians of future generations to read that Lord Boromir was first to cross the bridge." The idea came to me, "Let us see if any of the Men care to take part in a foot race to be the first across."

There followed further laughter, cheering, and much debate over who were the champion runners among those assembled, when I announced this race to our soldiers and stonemasons. At length the debating resolved itself with six representatives of the garrison and six of the Stonemasons' Guild standing abreast across the bridge's western end.

Svip scampered across to the east where he took up position atop one of the pillars of the bridge wall, to serve as the judge at the finish line – taking care not to step over the end and thus be the first to cross the bridge himself. Since I had declined the honour of crossing first, Master Eppa insisted that at least I must be one of the officials of the race. And so it fell to me to declaim the "At your marks, be set, away!"

For the interest of posterity I will record that the first to pass Svip at the finish line was Ohtar Son of Barahir, of our troops stationed at Osgiliath. He was followed by his fellow soldier Turgon Son of Rognvald and by the stonemason Ingold Son of Arn.

With the race concluded, amid much hilarity on the part of the runners' comrades, I granted leave for all to cross the bridge if they so chose, before returning to their duties.

"I guess I'll go along with them, My Lord," Eppa said almost apologetically, "though I do feel a bit of an ass to march across the bridge just to turn around and troop back again. At your convenience," he went on, "if you've the time, I'd ask you to meet with me and a few of our guild's lead Men, to discuss your thoughts on how the work here may best proceed."

"Gladly, Master Eppa," I told him. "I will join you shortly."

In truth I had expended a good deal of thought on the question since Aragorn announced his support for this project the morning before.

On one point, I thought, I might do well to speak first to Eppa alone, and attempt to enlist his agreement before his fellow guild members were there to be outraged by it.

It was in my thoughts to seek Gimli's help on this project, and perhaps to bring in some few of his people to act as advisors on much of the stonework we had ahead of us – serving freely, I hoped, from their wish to build closer ties with Aragorn and with Gondor, since I was directed to find ways for the work to proceed with minimum expense.

But I would need to find some means to avoid mortally offending Eppa and his masons by bringing in Dwarven advisors. Perhaps, I thought, another trip to the tavern would soon be in order, this time with Gimli and with Eppa of the Stonemasons.

Leaning on the wall of the Great Stone Bridge, above the westernmost piling, I waited while Svip made his way back to me through the throng of jubilant bridge-crossers. When the water creature reached me, he scrambled to the top of the wall and sat there by my side. He tilted his head and he studied me for some little time.

At length Svip observed, "You're going to have to cross it sometime, you know."

"I know it," I admitted. I smiled at him, a trifle embarrassed to be confessing this. "I suppose it is just that … I've awaited this moment for so very long. I have dreamed of rebuilding this bridge ever since I was a child, when I first heard the story of how the Great Stone Bridge was felled in Steward Boromir's battles to regain Osgiliath. Now that what was deemed impossible has come to pass … I suppose I am loath to let this moment end too swiftly."

Svip nodded and smiled. For a time we simply watched the River.

"It was right about here, I think," I mused, thinking aloud. "It was just at this point of the bridge, where Faramir and I stood in the battle last summer. It was only a wooden bridge that we'd built atop the pilings, but I think … I think we were right here."

It seemed for an instant that I saw, and felt, all of it again. That I saw our foes ranged against us, all fangs and swords and screaming battle frenzy, packed so tightly in their numbers that they scarce could wield their blades. That I felt the blood and sweat streaming down my face, felt the dull weariness of my sword arm, felt that undertone of pride and protectiveness that is always a part of me when my brother fights at my side. And I felt again the stark, all-encompassing terror that swept through us all as the King of the Nazgûl rode at us like a black shadow under the moon.

As I put the memories aside, I murmured, "Sometimes I can still scarce credit – all that has happened. What we have all seen. How much has changed."

By now all but a few last stragglers had made their way across the bridge and back again. The Men were returning now to their work: those of the garrison, to their posts along the walls; the stonemasons packing up any remaining tools and heading for their horses and their wains to return to the City. Those few who were still on the bridge kept a respectful distance from us, walking back to the western shore along the opposite side from where I stood, although two or three of these called out congratulations to us as they passed.

Svip waved at one Man who had hailed us. But despite this gesture, the water creature seemed deep in pondering. At last he spoke, his words halting and tentative as though he sought to give form to what he could scarcely express in even his own mind.

He began, "You know that I'm here to stay. I'm not going back to the Falls. I am staying … if that's all right with you."

"All right!" I echoed. "My gods, Svip! It is so much more than all right."

It was a wondering jumble of emotions that I felt. Joy, disbelief, gratitude and amazement leapt up within me, all of them intertwined.

Svip went on, "I brought some of our house plants with me, when the Rangers and I came back from Rauros. You know the plants grow all along the riverbed, near my home – near my old home. I brought a few of the sprouts this time, to see if I can grow a new house for myself, down here. I wasn't sure how they'd take to the River here; the soil might be different enough, I thought maybe they wouldn't grow. But I've kept the sprouts in the riverbed at the Harlond, and so far they seem to be doing fine. They're not withering at all. So last night – since you're going to be doing a lot more work here at Osgiliath – I went out and got one of the sprouts and I planted it here, underneath the bridge.

"I'll still want to stay at your house a lot, if I can," he hastened onward. "And it'll be a year or so before the house gets big enough to live in, anyway, even assuming everything goes right with the plant liking the water and the soil and all. So we won't know for a while yet, whether it's going to work. But I thought … I thought that, if it works, this is where I want my house to be. I want it to be here, because Osgiliath means so much to you."

Emotion, for a moment, stopped my power of speech. I reached out and clasped Svip's hand.

"I pray that it will work," I said. "But Svip, I want you to know … you are welcome anywhere. Always. At my house, at the Harlond, in all of Gondor. Anywhere. My father gave you the Freedom of the Kingdom of Gondor. I second that, with all of my heart."

And there I might have left it. But the thought whispered to my mind that there was more that needed to be said.

We had another foe we must face, though this battle was one I wished desperately to avoid.

"Svip," I began, "there is more I must say to you. More that I must be certain both of us understand."

I stopped then, as I fought to marshal my words. At last I said, "When you spoke with my father, when he appeared to you … you said that you feared what may happen when I die. I will die again, whether it be the later or the sooner. I will die, and there is nothing I can do to stop it. No matter how I wish that I could. I need to be certain … Svip, I need to be certain that you have accepted this. And that knowing this, you still wish to stay."

The water creature swallowed. He did not speak, for long enough that I came to fear his answer. But then he said, meeting my gaze, "I know it. I've thought about it; I've thought of it a lot. Sometimes it seems I think of nothing else."

He banished that, with a half-smile and a shake of his head. He spoke bravely, yet in a voice that trembled with all that we would never say.

"So when that happens," Svip said to me, "I'll be a friend to your children. And to your children's children. And I will remember you. And I will hope that someday we will see each other again."

Fiercely willing back tears, I tightened my hand about his. "I hope we will," I told him. "By all the gods, I hope so."

No more, then, could either of us manage speech. Gripping each other's hands, we gazed at the silver waters of Anduin, and beyond, to the ruined city and the gleaming, shattered remnants of the mighty Dome of the Stars.

Of a sudden Svip squeezed my hand the tighter and then leapt down from the wall. For a moment more he was solemn as he stood looking up at me. Then upon the long, green face of my friend, there appeared a challenging grin.

"So, then, Captain of Anduin," said he. "Are you crossing this bridge or aren't you?"

I could not help but grin in return. "I am crossing it, My Lord Svip," I answered, and I bowed to him. "Will you cross it with me?"

"Let us go," said Svip.

Side by side, we walked across Osgilialth's Great Stone Bridge.