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End To Innocence, An: 14. Awake
Boromir now stood by his brother's bedside as Aragorn crushed two leaves of the herb, placed them into a bowl of steaming water, and held it before Faramir. It had been hard, watching the Ranger as he knelt over Faramir's motionless form, one hand to his brow, calling to him softly from time to time, each time more softly. Harder still had it been to watch Boromir, whose face had grown more grave with each moment, as though he feared Aragorn hadn't the strength, after all, to pull Faramir back from the dark places of his mind. But as soon as Aragorn had crushed the leaves of the athelas, it was as if an air as pure as Maggie had ever breathed suddenly filled the room, and a weight that she hadn't known was on her lifted. She felt she was still a child at home, lying beneath the huge old willow tree in her grandmother's back yard, enveloped in the clean scent of earth and grass and new green leaves.
But finally Faramir stirred. As he opened his eyes to Aragorn, his soft voice carried on the still air, saying, "My lord, you called me. I come. What does the king command?"
"Walk no more in shadows, but awake," Aragorn said, smiling, and then glanced at Boromir. "You have been sore missed."
Faramir turned his head then and saw his brother, and gripped Boromir's hand as the elder bent close and kissed his forehead. "Welcome home, brother," Boromir said, and Maggie could see tears on his face.
Faramir smiled. "You weep," he said, and brought Boromir's hand to his lips. "But why? I am with you, and I shall not leave again." Boromir didn't speak, but Maggie saw his throat working, and she knew he struggled to maintain his composure in front of his uncle and Éomer.
"Rest now, Faramir, and eat," said Aragorn then. "Regain your strength. Gondor will have need of you 'ere long, and you must be ready."
"I will, lord," said Faramir, turning back to Aragorn. "For who would lie idle when the king has returned?"
Maggie thought she saw a shadow flicker across Boromir's features at that, but as the Ranger turned to follow Imrahil and Éomer out of the room, he said, "Aragorn, if there is aught this City can provide, you need but name it," and he glanced towards the doorway and back. "You go to tend the Lady of Rohan, and Master Meriadoc?"
"I do," he answered, "and others. But stay with your brother," he said with a smile. "I shall send word of Merry when he wakes."
"Thank you," Boromir replied, and no trace of the shadow Maggie had thought she'd seen was there now.
"My thanks to you, my friend," Aragorn said. "For without your intervention, I fear I would have spent this night in a cell below the City," and he smiled again, and left the room.
Boromir turned at once to Maggie. "Would you thither and find someone to fetch broth, and bread? Faramir has not eaten for too long," and he turned to his brother. "Unless you feel strong enough for something sterner?"
Faramir smiled faintly. "Broth and bread seem stern enough for now, and water."
"Water, we have here," said Boromir, and Maggie slipped out of the room as he moved to the other side of the bed, where the pitcher rested beside the silver cup.
Soon enough she found someone who looked like she worked there, and she touched the woman's arm. "The Steward's son Faramir," she said as the woman turned to face her. "He's awake, and his brother wondered if we could get broth, and bread brought to the room."
A smiled bloomed across her features. "The lord Faramir wakes?" she said, her voice delighted. "Oh, this is good news! Yes, I shall have food brought straight away."
When Maggie returned to Faramir's room the younger brother was sitting up, propped against pillows, Boromir in the chair at his bedside. She slipped in quietly and said, "Dinner will be along shortly."
"Thank you," said Boromir and Faramir as one, and both chuckled.
"Come," said Faramir, gesturing to her, "sit beside me. My brother shall have the hard chair, and you and I shall rest ourselves here while he tells me what passed as I lay sleeping."
Maggie started forward, hiding her nervousness. She'd come to care for Faramir through the eyes of his brother, but apart from one night spent drinking with them, she hardly knew him. She'd thought to slip out again and leave the brothers alone, go to find Greg and Jack, or Janet, but she couldn't very well refuse Faramir when he asked her to stay, so she seated herself on the edge of the bed, and Faramir took her hand and kissed it. "A fair, flowering tree, with roots strong as iron," he said, smiling, and Boromir laughed.
"Oh, I see how this plays," the elder said, his tone mock stern. "Scarcely awake and already you think to charm my lady from my side! Well, you shall not win her easily." His grey eyes sparkled as he regarded his brother.
"Ah, no," Faramir answered, "for any can see that those strong roots of hers reach for the river of your affections," and he smiled broadly at Boromir, "which I know runs deep, and for the most part untapped." He looked at her once again for a long moment, and she felt her nerves calm completely, wrapped in his gaze as gently as a sister before he turned back to Boromir. "Tell me, now, how fares the City? You are both here, and I am here, and the king is here, so I would assume it is not yet overrun."
"Not yet," said Boromir, smiling. "The Enemy has been driven back, for a time at least, and we have retaken the Pelennor."
"I am relieved to hear it." Faramir's grey eyes drifted towards the window, through which Maggie could just see stars in the deep blue-black of the sky. He looked at his brother again. "And how went the battle? Our soldiers?"
Boromir raised his brother's hand to his lips. "There will be time for such news when you have rested," he said, but Faramir frowned.
"I will rest better, knowing."
After a hesitation, Boromir acquiesced. "We fared better than we might have," he said gently. "I have not yet a count of our dead, but there are fewer than there would have been had we not had the fell weapons of my lady and her comrades."
A flicker of dismay crossed the younger man's features, and Maggie felt his hand tighten briefly on hers. "What of the warning?" he asked. "What of Saruman's threat?"
"We had to," said Maggie, and he turned to her, his grey eyes piercing hers, not cruelly, but keenly, as though he could see her entirely, and she understood what Boromir had meant when he'd said his brother could see into men's hearts. "It - we were so outnumbered," she said, and she worked to keep from dropping her gaze. "So many more would have died if we hadn't. They had catapults, siege towers. They know the range of your weapons, and they kept everything just outside it. We didn't have anything that could reach them except what my team could bring." She hesitated. "Faramir," she said finally, "I'm serious. We wouldn't have done it if we hadn't had to. We couldn't just let people die. Not when there was an option."
"They are terrible weapons," said Boromir. "But I think the families of the men whose lives they spared would thank us, no matter Saruman's odd humour."
Just then the door opened and a older woman came in with a tray. Maggie and Boromir cleared out of her way as she set the tray down on the table, fluffed Faramir's pillows, then settled him back again and set the tray across the bed, murmuring all the while about how good it was to see the young lord awake and alert again and with color in his cheeks. Then she made a quick curtsey and bustled out.
Boromir and Maggie returned to the bedside, and as Faramir took a bit of the broth, Boromir went on as though they hadn't been interrupted. "Had the siege engines not been destroyed," he said, "it would have gone ill for us. They had the fire of Orthanc which Saruman used against Helm's Deep. Had they cast it inside our walls, the First Circle would have burned, and many more men would have died than did. And who can say what other missiles they might have thrown against us, or how many of their soldiers might have reached the top of our walls had the towers not been destroyed?"
After a moment Faramir nodded. "You are right, I am sure, my brother," he said, though his voice was doubtful. "It grieves me that our need was so great, and I not with you." After a moment, he said, "And Denethor?" his voice studiedly calm.
"Our father was by your bedside earlier," said Boromir.
Faramir glanced up, startled. "Was he?"
Boromir nodded. "He inquired after you before the battle," he said, "and when I returned, I found him here, with you."
"Yet he was not here when I awoke, when the king called me back." Faramir fixed that piercing gaze on Boromir. "Did they meet?"
Nodding again, Boromir said, "I believe Aragorn arrived somewhat after Denethor."
"And did aught pass between them?"
A moment's hesitation. "A little," he replied.
Faramir's brow furrowed and he said, "Must I ask each question aloud, Boromir? Tell me how they met, and how they left things."
Boromir sighed and dropped his gaze. "They met as they are," he said softly. "One who brings great change to one who does not wish to see all that he has known come to an end."
"Long have the Stewards awaited the King," Faramir replied. "It is no end, but a beginning."
"Our father has seen many hard years," Boromir answered. "He did not look for the coming of the king, and never in the likeness of one who served our grandfather so long ago."
Frowning, Faramir looked hard at his brother. "I do not understand. Do you mean Ecthelion, or Adradhil? And how do you mean - that the king pretends to be one who served our grandfather? Why would he?"
Boromir shook his head, scowling. "I should not have spoken," he said. "It was thoughtless. I trouble you with politics when you should rest."
"Yet I pray you, continue," said Faramir. "I am not so weak that I cannot listen, and consider."
After a moment, Boromir said, "You have heard the name of Thorongil?"
Faramir nodded. "One whom Ecthelion esteemed, and our father...did not."
"Aye," said Boromir. "And you know that some in whom the blood of Númenor is strong - some of these are blessed to live for the lifetime of two, or three men of weaker blood. You know this?"
"You know I do, brother," said Faramir, still frowning. "Do you tell me that Aragorn is such a one, and served Gondor as Thorongil? that he was a man grown before our father even took our mother to wife?"
"So it would seem," Boromir replied, "though I have yet to hear it from the one who would know beyond doubt."
Faramir was quiet for a moment, then said, "You have not told me how our father left things with the king."
"It is not entirely clear," said Boromir, "but as you saw, Aragorn is free."
Boromir shrugged, "He was in a strange frame of mind, though less agitated than he has been of late. It seemed he passed the rod of Stewards to me, and retired to the Citadel."
There was a startled pause. "Denethor? give up the rod of Stewards? Is he so ill as that?"
Shaking his head, Boromir replied, "Not ill, brother, but weary. And being that the rod itself remains in his keeping, I would not think to act too strongly on his words before I speak with him again."
Faramir nodded. "Perhaps simple weariness is a sign of improvement," he said, "after the madness that seemed to take him in the months you have been gone."
"Apart from that I met this lady, I would all together regret the journey," Boromir said softly, and Maggie could see in his eyes that he wasn't thinking only of Denethor and Faramir when he said it.
Faramir smiled slightly, and clasped his brother's hand. "We have not spoken overlong on the events that befell you," he said, glancing at Boromir, but not holding his gaze. "Much must have happened, for you were gone so long, and in such company."
Boromir's eyes were shadowed, and he gently reclaimed his hand and stood, turning to the window. "Much indeed, Faramir," he said. "And much that I would share with you, but perhaps not this night."
Faramir gazed thoughtfully at his brother's back, and the silence stretched almost to discomfort before he finally said, "In the morning then. But tarry here a while longer, Boromir. I have missed your presence."
Boromir turned, smiling, and came back to Faramir's bedside. "And I, yours. Shall I speak of Imladris?" he said. "For there is beauty there that need not wait 'till the light of day for the telling."
Faramir returned the smile. "Then tell me of Imladris. Morning will be soon enough for the weightier subjects we must address."
Just then, there was a soft knock at the door and a young boy came in. "I was sent to bring you word, lord Boromir," he said. "The Halfling has wakened, and sleeps again peacefully, and his cousin is at his bedside."
Boromir drew a breath, then smiled at the boy. "That is good news indeed. Thank you."
"What about the - the strangers?" asked Maggie. "The ones who - " but she hesitated, unsure how to explain it to a child.
"The ones whose dress is strange?" asked the boy, "and who carried the fell weapons which kept the Enemy from our walls? They, too, came back at the king's voice, and sleep now naturally, and I have heard they will heal from their wounds."
"Oh, thank God," she murmured, closing her eyes as the boy slipped out. "Thank God."
The cool of the evening had turned chill by the time Maggie and Boromir stepped out of the Houses of Healing, and she slipped her arm through his as they walked towards the gate to the Citadel. She looked up at him, at his shadowed eyes that gazed into the distance, and said quietly, "Tired?"
After a moment he nodded. "Aye, indeed. It has been a ... a difficult day, though my heart feels lighter for the return of Faramir." He drew a breath. "I have missed him, Maggie."
They passed in silence into the tunnel, and when they came into the courtyard on the other side she caught her breath at the sight of the fountain and the tree glimmering in the starlight. He looked to where she looked, and smiled. "Even withered, it is lovely," he said softly.
"Yes it is," she murmured, then said after a moment, "Should I stay with you tonight?"
"I am too weary to do aught but sleep," he answered, "and I will rise early. There are things Faramir and I must discuss."
"I want to get up early anyway," she said. "I've not seen Greg or Jack yet, or Janet. I thought I'd come down in the morning and do that while you talk to Faramir."
He glanced at her then, a quick smile. "Then yes, stay with me."
Though the night was young, they were both too tired to do more than eat a quick meal and fall into bed, and now lay side by side beneath soft linens. But as happens sometimes with the bone-weary, sleep eluded them. She lay curled around him, her head resting in the hollow of his shoulder, listening to his breathing. A light wind blew through the White City, singing in the stonework, and she tugged the bed linens closer around them both, remembering a night that seemed long ago, falling asleep across the fire from him, wrapped in his cloak. He moved his hand to cup her shoulder, stroking the skin gently with warm fingers.
"Can't sleep?" she asked.
He didn't answer for a long moment. "I wonder," he said finally, his voice low, "what place there will be for me, if we do defeat the Enemy at last."
She didn't speak, but waited for him to continue.
"All my life, I have looked to the Steward as if he were my king," he went on softly, thoughtfully, "for as well he might have been. The line of Stewards is also descended from Elendil, though not direct, but to my mind it matters little. We have governed here since Eärnur went into Minas Morgul and did not return, and have kept the freedom of the West. Thus is fitness proved, by service, not by blood."
"What happened to - to Eärnur?" Maggie asked, stumbling a little over the pronunciation.
"That was never discovered," Boromir replied. "'Twas thought he was taken by the Enemy, though I know not why a more certain answer was never discovered. Perhaps Faramir might know, or my father." He was quiet again. "His Steward had advised against his going, is all the rest of the story that I know. That, and that ever since that dark day we have held Gondor in our hands, and awaited the coming of the king."
She stayed quiet, waiting, but he didn't speak. Finally, she said, "Is that what you want to talk to Faramir about?" knowing it wasn't, but hoping to draw him out.
He shook his head. "No, I would - I would tell him somewhat of the journey from Imladris. I would hear his counsel on how to proceed, though I know in part what he will say."
He made a sound that might have been a sigh, or might have been something akin to a laugh. "He will advise me to celebrate the coming of the king," he replied. "He will remind me of the oath of the Stewards, and he will tell me that he saw in Aragorn's eyes his fitness to rule our people." He did sigh, then, and went on softly, "I have seen so myself, but I wonder if what I see in a man's eyes is reason enough to give Gondor to one I know no better than I do Aragorn."
Maggie stroked the soft skin of his throat, and she said, "It's because he was here before, and didn't stay. Are you worried he isn't really - really in love with Gondor, the way you are? Maybe won't protect her the way you would?"
A long silence passed, and she only knew he didn't sleep because his breath neither slowed nor deepened. Finally, he said, "There are many reasons a claimant to the throne might have wished to keep his name hidden. I was a child when Ecthelion died, and do not know whether he would have welcomed Thorongil had his lineage been known. Indeed," he went on thoughtfully, "I know not whether Ecthelion could have welcomed him, for even the Steward has others to contend with. No leader truly rules alone. The politics of a thousand years ago has always been more to my brother's turn of mind than to mine, but I do know Isildur's line was rejected when last tried. It may be that Ecthelion could not have made a king of Thorongil even if either had wished it. Yet..," and he paused again. "You will think me churlish, but I would that he had told me." His hand was warm on the cool skin of her shoulder. "I fought by his side," he said quietly. "I followed his leadership. He might have thought to mention that he had known my family, served my people. Led my people in battle. Instead, I hear of his lineage from Elrond the Halfelven, and only months later, from my father in his madness, that he is also Thorongil, who overthrew the Corsairs in Umbar, but departed Gondor without again laying eyes on my grandfather whom he served. And who loved him." He took a breath, and she thought she heard it catch. "And he, in love with an Elf maiden. He will marry her, I know, and we will be allied through her to her father Elrond, who has little use for the race of Men."
"Does he?" she asked. "Why?"
There was a pause, and he said at last, "Heed me not, I speak from weariness. Elrond showed me every kindness when I met him, for all he seemed to have much to say on the failing blood of Númenor, while little to say of the aid he swears Gondor has had these dark years. Elrond - " and he hesitated. "The Elves may be no allies of Men, yet neither are they our enemies. But to accept a king raised by them, to have him take an Elf to be his queen - where will his loyalties truly lie? with Gondor, or with his Elven kin?" He hesitated again, then sighed. "I hope that Faramir will have some wisdom to ease my mind," he said. "I wish not to reject Aragorn's claim, but neither do I wish to accept it. My heart is torn between my duty to the throne and my duty to my people." He paused again, and she waited, stroking the soft skin of his stomach, to hear what he would say. "And, I confess it," he continued finally, "my desires for myself. For even if I can welcome this man as my king, I still know not how to place myself in what will come." He shifted then, raising himself on his elbow and looking at her mildly in the dimness.
"Since long before I was a soldier," he said, "I have been the Steward's heir. From the time I could form words, I have known what burden would be mine, and I have welcomed it." He brought his hand to her face, took a lock of her hair between his fingers, curling it idly, releasing it. "This land, her people, they are my heart." His eyes moved to the window, and his fingers rested on her cheek. "And perhaps I am Steward even now," he said, a slight, wry smile on his lips, "though my father yet has the rod of office in his keeping." He laughed softly. "A Steward who holds not the scepter serving a king who wears not the crown. A well-matched pair indeed. Our people will rejoice."
She smiled, and reached up to touch his face, but she couldn't find words to tell him everything would be all right. She didn't know if it would be. Finally, she pulled him close and kissed him. "Talk to Faramir in the morning," she said softly. "There's time yet to figure out what to do."
He nodded, and lay back beside her. "Our first task is to defeat the Enemy," he said at last. "Without we do that, all other questions are answered for us. And all in the hands of the Halfling," he said in a sigh.
There was another long silence, during which Maggie knew his eyes looked far away from Gondor.
"I would have killed him for it, had I had the chance." His voice so quiet she almost believed he hadn't meant to speak aloud.
"You had every chance," Maggie replied softly. "You were with him from Imladris to Amon Hen. How many days and nights is that?" He didn't answer, and she said, "Seriously, it's not a rhetorical question. I really don't know. How many?"
"Many," he replied, "and I take your meaning. You suggest I had ample opportunity for murder."
"And did you take any of those opportunities?"
He turned and kissed her hair. "You are my staunchest champion, love."
"I'm also right." She sat up and looked at him, pale in the watery light that reflected off the white stone outside. "That's what you're afraid to talk to Faramir about, isn't it? You're going to tell him about this terrible failure you had, that I still think wasn't so much a failure as a momentary slip in an abiding victory, and you think he'll think less of you."
"Do not," he said, anger coloring his voice. "Do not reproach me that I take responsibility for my wrongs."
"I don't," she answered. "I just think you take too much responsibility and not enough credit."
He turned his face away from her, towards the darkness of the room. "You are wrong," he said. "That I could - that I could attack one entrusted to my care, one as - as small, as untried as he. It is not an act that can be forgiven. As well I might have attacked a child, for he could hardly better defend himself against even the least of my soldiers. Had he not slipped that wretched thing onto his finger, I know not what I might have done. I have never felt so," and he hesitated, groping for the words, "so mindless with need, so - angry at being thwarted." He turned back to her and she saw again tears in his eyes, and wondered if they would ever see a day when her lover would have no reason to weep. "You did not meet the ringbearer," he continued softly. "I speak of him as though he were a child, but he was not - is not. No child, but one grown to manhood far from the shadow that lies upon my land, and with all the innocence of one who has never seen battle, nor true evil. He carried - he carries a sword, yes, barely as long as my forearm, but in all his life I dare say he never had use for one, nor perhaps even raised one until Isildur's bane came into his keeping. I could lift him with one hand if I had a mind to, and could break his small bones with scarcely more effort than I take to break a branch for firewood."
"So, how did he live through your attack?" she asked softly.
He dropped his gaze from hers and said flatly, "I know not. Perhaps the Valar were with him."
She was quiet for a long time, regarding him, and he didn't raise his eyes. Finally, her voice low, she said, "Why are you so determined?"
He shook his head. "If I cannot accept the blame when it is mine," he answered finally, "I am not worthy of being a soldier of Gondor, nor my father's heir, nor Faramir's brother. As wrong as my action was, to deny my fault in it would be the final dishonour."
Outside, the wind still murmured through the Citadel, and Maggie slipped her fingers over Boromir's cheek, stroked the strong bones of his face with her thumb. "I'm sorry," she said, "I didn't understand. I shouldn't have pushed you like that."
A smile ghosted about his lips then, and he met her gaze. "Lie back, sweet," he whispered. "We have passed many hard days and nights, and there are more to come. Lie back, and close your eyes," and his arms encircled her and brought her to him, "and I shall close mine, and we shall rest. And perhaps even sleep."
The morning dawned clear, and a breeze blew westward through the purpling sky. It was already hard to recall that the light of day had been hidden for almost a week by the shadows from Mordor. Below, on the Pelennor, the work to clear the fields of carnage had continued throughout the night, fires leaping high and sending smoky shadows of their own skyward, but they couldn't hide the approaching dawn. Maggie and Boromir rose with the sun, and soon were on their way to the Houses of Healing. When they stepped inside, Maggie said softly, "Do you have any idea where they'd have put my friends?"
Boromir shook his head, and gestured to a passing attendant, who stopped and said, "Yes, lord? How may I be of service?"
"Can you take this lady to the rooms of her companions?" he asked. "The ones whose dress is outlandish, and whose speech is strange?"
"Yes, lord." he replied, and turning to Maggie said, "They sleep now, all of them, but I shall show you where their rooms are, for we have bedded them all along one hallway for their comfort, and if you will take care not to wake them, I believe a familiar face would be welcome when they wake of their own."
"Thank you," said Maggie, and with a quick smile to Boromir, she followed the attendant.
Shortly, they came to a hallway, and the attendant said, "I know not which of your companions you most desire to see, nor, I fear, do I know their names, but you may search among these rooms, for there are none on this hall but they, and," he added with a smile, "the doors are well oiled. May I leave you here, or is there aught else you require of me?"
"No, no, this is great," she said. "I think I can manage from here."
"Well enough, then," he said, and sketching a quick bow, he turned and hurried back the way they'd come.
Maggie looked down the hall. Three doors were to the left, and four to the right, and very quietly she opened each door in turn until she came to where Greg and Jack lay, their beds separated by a small table and two low chairs. They slept, the room dim, light filtering in through the shutters that covered the windows. Slipping into the room, she tip-toed over to one of the chairs and sat down, leaning back and bringing her feet up to rest on the opposite chair, then stayed there quietly, listening to them breathe. It was a soothing sound, and she could catch the faint, warm odor of their skin, familiar to her as her own from years of training together. She wondered idly, and not for the first time, whether spending so much time sweating on each other during training might have caused them to become a part of one another, caused their scent to mingle with her own, so that really, they were always together. Sometimes when she stepped into the shower in the morning, even if she hadn't trained the night before or even seen them, the steam from the hot water rising up around her would seem to carry their fragrance with it. Theirs, and Mira's, and Paul's. She wondered where Paul was, and Mira, whether they were in the Houses of Healing at all. But it was Jack and Greg who had really scared her, when Mira had said they didn't wake. She wanted to see them awake again. Mira and Paul would turn up eventually, she was sure.
She lay her head back against the chair, and closed her eyes, and her last thought before she drifted into a doze was that if only their mobile phones worked here, she could call them and see where they were.
She opened her eyes again when she heard movement, and sitting up quietly, saw Jack shift, and turn, and wake. He looked around groggily, then saw Maggie.
"Hey there, sleeping beauty," she whispered, smiling broadly. "How you feel?"
He smiled back. "I don't even know. Where the hell am I?"
"The Houses of Healing," she replied. "Hospital, basically."
He nodded, looking around the room again. "Nice hospital," he said. "They don't usually have such impressive. . . tapestries." His expression puzzled, he never the less grinned at her. "So, my insurance is paying for this, right?"
She chuckled softly. "Don't you worry about it, babe. You're covered. They think y'all are the best. You should hear 'em - you're the ones 'who carried the fell weapons which kept the Enemy from our walls.' Heroes, man."
He shifted a little and sat up. "So who was that guy who - " and his expression clouded. "Who - woke me up?"
"I think you must mean Aragorn. Tall, dark hair, kind of scruffy-looking? Grey eyes?"
He nodded. "That's the one."
"It seems he's either the Captain of the Northern Rangers," she said, "which is sort of an elite fighting group, or possibly he's the king. It's not quite clear just yet."
He looked at her. "King."
She nodded. "Maybe."
"Uh-huh. Well." He hesitated. "First time I've met a king. Didn't we get rid of all the kings back home? Expansionist Democracy and all that?"
She shrugged. "There are a few here and there," she said. "Remember Old Jordan. And Northern Russia - they have one too."
"Uh-huh." He pushed his pillows up against the headboard and leaned back. "Well, he's got my vote, if you vote for kings. I don't know what the hell happened, but he got me out of it, and I'm fucking grateful."
She leaned forward a little and reached out to touch his arm. "Where did y'all go?" she asked gently.
He looked at the tapestry that hung across from the bed. "Someplace not fun," he answered. "I - um. Really don't want to talk about him - it. I - " and he looked at her. "I just would really like to go the hell home."
"I'm afraid to," she said. "Sorrow - he's still looking for us."
"I don't care," Jack said. "We've got places we can go. He won't find me. Us."
She stroked his arm, took his hand in hers. "Maybe just stay for a little while," she said. "The enemy's been driven back, we're safe now."
"Safe?" he said. "Those flying things - they can - they could show up again any time. We're not safe," he said, his voice starting to rise, "and this isn't our world. We need to go home."
In the other bed, Greg stirred. She turned to him, keeping her hold on Jack's hand as Greg's eyes opened.
"Maggie?" he said. "Jack - hey buddy. You all right?"
He nodded. "Mostly. You?"
Greg nodded as well. "Who was that guy? The one who did that thing?"
"A maybe king," said Jack.
"A maybe king? What's a maybe king?"
"A king that it hasn't actually been decided yet whether he's king," said Maggie.
"Wouldn't you know that sort of thing?"
"It's a long story," she said.
"Uh-huh." Greg sat up. "Man, my head's spinning."
"You want me to call someone?" Maggie asked, worried.
"Nah," Greg answered. "It's just I've been asleep too long. Why didn't you wake me?"
"They told me not to," she said. "Y'all need to rest."
"We need to go home," Jack muttered.
"Home?" said Greg. "Did we get rid of Sorrow then? Man, I missed everything."
"No," said Maggie, "Sorrow's still a problem."
"Ah." Greg glanced at Jack. "Well, we could go underground," he said. "If you're really serious about getting out of here."
"I really don't think it's a good idea," said Maggie.
"Do you not? or do you just not want to go, yourself?"
She frowned. "Both. Look," she said, "Sorrow's fucking powerful, and there are people here who can help us get rid of him."
"Are you sure?"
She paused. "Pretty sure. And they sure as hell owe us now."
"Yeah they do," said Jack. "But will they care?"
"Yes," she said firmly, but she wondered. "Anyway, we don't even know if we can leave," she went on. "I've not talked to Janet yet, and she may not - " and Maggie stopped herself, then said, "Why don't I go find Janet and see how she's doing?"
Greg and Jack were looking at her, stricken. "Yeah," said Jack. "Would you?"
"Yeah. I'll be back shortly."
Two doors down, she found Janet, awake, and with her Meylari.
"Hey there," she said, stepping into the room with a smile. "How are y'all?"
Janet smiled at her. "Good," she said. "Awake, alert, ready for action. Except Mey tells me the action's over."
Maggie laughed. "Well, for a little while, at least." She came and stood next to Meylari, noticing how gently the woman held Janet's hand. "So, if you needed to use that talisman again," she said, "like, to take some folks home, would you be able to?"
Janet nodded. "I think so. Are we ready to go deal with Sorrow?"
Maggie shook her head. "Not yet, I don't think, but Greg and Jack want to split, and they think they've got it sussed out where they can stay - maybe where whoever can stay - until we can take care of the guy."
Janet glanced at Meylari. "Yeah, I could send them home, if they want to go."
"You don't want to leave too?"
"Not really," she answered, but she didn't go on, and Maggie didn't press her.
"Well, okay then, they'll be glad to hear it," she said. "Though I'm going to see if I can get them to stay anyway."
"Surely they would wish to bide here for a time, at least," said Meylari, "if they still face threat in your own world, and our threat is for the moment passed."
Maggie shook her head. "I'm not sure," she said. "Jack's kind of freaked out, and Greg'll probably go along with what Jack wants before he'd let Jack go it alone. I think it has something to do with the Black Riders, and this - thing they did. The guys were unconscious for a while, and I think it - wasn't a good place."
"I have heard that the king called them back from shadows," said Meylari.
"Yeah," Maggie answered, "but they're just not wild about being in a place where things like that can happen." She shook her head. "You've gotta understand, Meylari. We're not used to this kind of thing. I mean, there hasn't even been magic in our world - well, I mean, that we've most of us known about - for more than a couple of decades. We haven't even managed to make decent laws about it."
Meylari frowned. "You said your enemy had been practicing his art for ninety years," she said. "I do not understand."
"Well, we didn't know," said Janet, and Meylari turned to her. "People started using it in secret when it first came back," she said, "and I don't think anyone's ever pinpointed exactly when it did come back."
"If 'back' is what it came," said Maggie. "I mean, that assumes it was there once, and we don't know that it was. Hell, maybe he brought it. Maybe it was never here - well, there - 'till then."
"But if we do come from - I mean, if this is our past," said Janet, glancing from Meylari to Maggie, "then it was here. There. And if not, then how could Sorrow be Saruman? It'd all just be a big coincidence."
"Maybe it is," said Maggie. "Either way, they can still help us. And they owe us, now." But her voice held far more confidence than she felt.
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