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End To Innocence, An: 3. Pride Is A Cold Companion
"Indeed, you do not," he said, his voice equally soft. "In the shadow of what we know comes, why are you so unwilling to chance that it will not be?" His hands became gentle on her arms, not gripping any longer, but holding. She took the opportunity to pull away from him, away from that gaze, and crossed the room to the window, turning her back to him again. "You...you fear your own weapons," he said in sudden realization, surprise apparent in his voice. "You needn't," and she choked back a derisive laugh. "Respect their power, yes," he went on, and she heard him take a step towards her, "as you'd respect the power of a sword, or a bow, or any other thing, but do not fear them. They are tools, like any other."
She turned on him. "Tools?" she said, incredulous. "Did you see what those tools did?"
"Yes," he said sharply, "I saw, as I see you wake from nightmares each night, as I see you gaze into shadows as though you'll find some answer there to a question you do not ask. Do you think," he said, striding towards her, and she backed away from him until she stood with her shoulders pressed to the wall, "that the enemies I've killed with my sword are less dead than the enemies you killed with a bit of metal," his voice almost a snarl, "opening in their flesh like a deadly blossom?" She pressed back towards the wall, not afraid of him, but wanting to get away from the anger she saw in his face. "Do you think," he said, his hands clenched in fists on the cool wall to either side of her now, as he leaned in close, "that they died easier? That their deaths were more noble because I cut into their bodies with a steel blade instead of opening them with a flower of steel?" In his eyes the lightning was no longer distant. "Do you think," he said, his voice a harsh whisper as he bit off each word, "that soldiers do not wake from nightmares in every world?"
Her voice shook when she answered. "I don't want those nightmares to be because of something I brought."
He smiled, a grim, bitter smile that reached his eyes like wormwood. "When you've slain someone with the edge of a blade," he said, "felt them open beneath you like meat and seen the life drain from their eyes as you work your steel loose from bone, come and tell me then whose dreams are easier to bear." He paused, and shook his head. "Our soldiers are dying," he said, the anger draining from him and replaced by weariness. "The enemy is strong, and his army fears him more than death. You've seen them - you know." She remembered the Orcs, their powerful bodies wielding wicked, black blades, and the way they hurled themselves at their foes without fear or hesitation. She remembered Boromir, his shoulder pierced by the black-feathered arrow. And now she remembered - now she remembered the bodies, bodies with arrows from Legolas' bow protruding from them like obscene parodies of reeds growing on blood-soaked hills, remembered red wetness that had been hewn from living creatures by the weapons of the Men and the Dwarf. She remembered the Hobbits, so like children, their own blades and hands bloodied, and what would have happened had she not been there. What would have happened. She remembered her dream, Boromir shot through with arrows and falling. She felt her lungs grow tight, and felt tears so deep within her that they would not rise, but stopped her breath.
They stood like that for a long moment, she pressed to the wall, he with his hands on either side of her. Finally she shook her head once and said, "But look, handguns - I don't even think they're any good for soldiers. You need, like, long guns, like rifles or - or machine guns or something. And even if we sent someone now, there's not enough time. They couldn't backwards-engineer it and get new ones forged in time to do any good, and I don't understand how they work well enough to help them out very much."
"Then where's the harm?" he asked, and she could hear something akin to humor in his voice.
"The harm comes later," she replied, looking at him again, "after the ring is destroyed and things are back to normal except that now you have this new weapon that you can carry in your pocket and use to kill someone without ever getting within a hundred feet of them." But her resolve, never very strong, had weakened even further.
With one finger Boromir stroked the skin of her cheek, and she trembled. "Maggie," he said. "Do you not think your coming here may have had a purpose?" His eyes traveled over her face, her hair, came to meet her own again. " You are strong," he said, "and you have courage, but you are not a soldier. You cannot know the things we face, or the risks a captain would take to give his men even a moment's advantage - anything to bring one more soldier home alive, and the enemy defeated." He sighed, a soft sound. "I know you do not trust the future," he said at last, "but trust in the soldiers of Gondor. Trust in her king. And trust in me." She couldn't look into his face another moment, found herself looking at his boots instead, unable to raise her eyes from the ground. She still trembled, from his touch, from his anger, from her own fear. She felt his hand touch her hair. "Look up, little one," he said gently.
After a long moment, he moved his fingers to her chin, pressing her to obey. "Not many people have called me 'little'," she said softly, her gaze resting on his lips, unable to move higher.
He smiled. "It's no surprise. You're as tall as the women of Rohan, and even were you the size of a Hobbit I dare say none would think you small."
Finally she looked into Boromir's eyes, and where before there had been lightning, now they were calm as an evening sky. Before she lost herself in them, she said, "Why did you come to ask me for this, instead of Aragorn, if he's the leader?"
Borormir paused before answering. "Aragorn requested it," he said. "He is taking council with Gandalf and Théoden, and also, we did not want you to feel...."
"Like it was an order?" she asked.
He inclined his head. "Yes," he said. "Aragorn felt - we felt that a request from the heir to the throne would seem less like a request than a request from the one-time heir to the Stewardship." The smallest smile curved his lips.
She thought about that. She thought about telling him that it would have been much easier to say no to the heir to a throne she didn't even recognize than to say no to the man who loved that country more than his own life. She thought about asking why they hadn't sent Legolas, or Gimli, or the Hobbits, or anyone else but him. Finally, she whispered, "Can I just tell you how scared I am?"
To her great surprise, he pulled her close and folded his arms around her, and for the first time in longer than she could remember, she felt safe, and protected. She lay her forehead against his shoulder and closed her eyes, her hands drawn up and resting on his solid chest, letting the warmth and strength of his arms comfort her. After a long moment he said, "You must do as your heart tells you. I will not - we will not take what you do not give freely." He stroked her short hair, his warm, calloused hand coming to rest on the nape of her neck, and they stood there, motionless and silent, as the evening light deepened.
Later, after dinner, she left the others at table and found herself wandering the halls of the King's household, alone. She hadn't answered Boromir, though she knew time was short. The army would ride for Isengard in the morning, and she'd have to know by then what she would do: go with the guns to Erebor, to the home of Gimli's father, and pray that somehow they could make it in time to do some good, or ride with the army, if they'd let her. And as loathe as she was to be parted from him, she knew what she would tell him. He was a captain of men, and his men loved him, trusted him. He would have ruled Gondor as her steward if Aragorn hadn't returned, and she believed he'd have been a fine one. She believed he'd have been a fine King. It didn't matter that she knew he might be manipulating her.
After all, he couldn't fail to know how she felt about him, though she'd tried to talk herself out of it many times. She could still feel the touch of his hand on her neck. "Pheromones," she muttered, her footsteps taking her down a wide staircase lit by torches. "It's got to be pheromones. What do I know about him that would make me feel this way? That he tried to take the ring, that he didn't tell anyone about it 'till he was almost killed. That he loves Gondor more than anything or anyone. That he'd do anything for her."
And that was the heart of the matter. That was what had won her heart to him, from the moment she heard his voice - that love of his people. That willingness to do anything, anything to save them. If he was manipulating her, well, in his place, wouldn't she? When her people were threatened, hadn't she learned to fight, to shoot, to manipulate and deceive, all in order to try and keep them safe? Would she change anything she'd done? No. No, it was that love of his people and his country that overshadowed in her heart any wrong he might have done. She'd give him what he wanted. She'd take the weapons to the Dwarves, and hope that when she returned, he'd still be alive, and that the weapons weren't the only things he wanted from her. She was grateful the ringbearer was gone, because if he hadn't been, she was certain she'd have taken the ring from him herself if that was what Boromir had wanted.
Her footsteps echoed against the stone, and she found herself in a long room, the walls lined with chairs. No fire was lit in the massive stone fireplace, and she shivered in the chill. Then a voice behind her. "Maggie?" She turned, and in the shadows saw the slim figure of a woman. "Oh! Oh, god! Oh god - guys!"
"Mira?" said Maggie, incredulous, and shook her head.
"Guys! I found her - we found her! She's here! Aw, shit baby - where have you been?"
Maggie felt her knees weaken and her heart start to pound. "Mira?" she said again, and took a step forward, and the other woman was at her side in three long strides and then they were embracing. Maggie felt tears come to her eyes at the familiar scent of her friend's hair. "Oh, god, Mira," she whispered. And then Jack, Paul, and Greg were there, and she was surrounded again by the familiar, by the warmth and strength of her teammates, by the fragrance of their skin, tangled together and touching like a pack of wolves separated for too long by the hunt.
She took them, along with a stranger they introduced as Janet, to her room, unsure what the welcome would be from the inhabitants of the castle if they met any, and there they told her quickly what had happened while she'd been gone. They'd come to the bar that night to meet her, as planned, and when she wasn't there, asked the bartender if he'd seen her. He told them about the wizard, and about seeing Maggie vanish - he'd tried to stop the wizard from leaving the bar, but without success, though Grace had known him from around town and told them his name: Keith Walsh. They looked for him that night, and the next day had hired Janet to help them track him down. They'd finally found him hiding out in an abandoned factory, and had come on him while he was in the middle of casting a protection spell against someone he called Sorrow. He'd completed the spell just as Janet had completed her entrapment spell, so he was protected from Sorrow but held by Janet. From him, they'd learned of a talisman he'd stolen from Sorrow, who was himself the will and spirit of a long-dead wizard who had possessed the body of a younger one some ninety years before. Keith had stolen the talisman and fled when he realized that Sorrow, for whom he'd been working, planned to abandon the slowly aging body and take Keith's instead. The talisman, Keith told them, focused the user's power, and magnified it. Keith told them that it was Sorrow who had been sapping the will of the people for nine decades, who had been using his power to magnify the weakness in the world, and dampen the strength, to encourage people to selfishness, and twist good intentions to ill ends. "He wants to rule the world," said Paul, "and he figures his best chance is to get everyone so beat down that they'll welcome him when he rises up to take control. "
"I think he's not far from success," said Maggie regretfully.
Mira nodded. "It explains a lot," she said. "He lives in the Black City, in the old Capital building. He's got, like, three dozen other wizards there, all doing what he says."
"'Sorrow', said Maggie thoughtfully. "And he's in the Black City? It's weird, because there's a guy here called Sauron who lives in 'the black land of Mordor' who wants to do kind of the same thing, though he's not too worried about setting things up so folks are glad he's taking control. And apparently the city between him and us is Minas Tirith, which they also call the White City. Our guys have sent someone with some ring of power that belongs to Sauron to destroy it in some mountain, and if he manages it, Sauron will be destroyed."
"And if he doesn't?" asked Paul. "If the ring isn't destroyed?"
Maggie shrugged. "Darkness, evil, chaos, badness. Everyone dies or wishes they had. Like that."
"Charming," said Mira.
"Sorrow and Sauron," said Greg. "I wonder - I mean, there couldn't be - it's got to be coincidence, don't you think?"
They looked at each other, sitting in a circle on the floor of the bedchamber. No one spoke for a while, and then Mira said, "Um, I know we're right in the middle of a big 'oh you've gotta be kidding' moment, but I didn't pee before we left and it's been sort of a long day - where's the bathroom?"
Maggie showed her, and while the four of them went to freshen up, Maggie left in search of Boromir. She found him, with the help of a passing girl she guessed must be a chambermaid, in his quarters, and knocked softly.
"Come," he said, and she opened the door. His eyes widened when he saw her. "Ah, Maggie," and he stood.
She came in. "Um," she said, hesitantly, "something's sort of happened."
His features clouded and he took a step forward."What is it?"
She paused. "Well," she began after a moment, "you know that other world, the one I'm from?"
"Um." She frowned. "I hope it's not - well, it's just that... there's some more of us here now."
He raised a startled brow. "Oh?"
She nodded. "My friends came looking for me."
"Ah," he said, and glanced away.
There was a long silence.
Finally, Boromir said, "And...?"
She shrugged. "And they're in my room, waiting for me to come back so we can figure out what to do."
"They can return you to your world, though, can they not?"
"So you have not yet decided?"
She shook her head.
"I would think you'd be eager to return home," he said cautiously.
"Not so much," she said, looking away. "I mean, there's still the trouble here, right?"
"But this is not your world, not your war," said Boromir softly.
She frowned. "I'm not actually sure that it isn't," she said, and quickly told him what they'd told her.
When she finished, Boromir spoke. "This is not a riddle I can solve," he said, "nor you, I think. Return to your chamber, and I will come presently." She started to protest, to ask him what he planned to do, but he stopped her with a soft sound. "Do as I ask," he said. "I will be there presently."
A short time later Boromir knocked on her door, and when she opened it, he stood flanked by Aragorn and and an old, bearded man in white, leaning on a staff. She was startled, but at Boromir's glance she stepped back to let them in. She motioned to her five companions, seated here and there about the room. "These are my friends," she said, "Mira, Paul, Jack, Greg, and Janet." She didn't feel like explaining that Janet was less a friend than a hired gun, as it were. Looking from them to the three newcomers, she said, "And these are - well, you must be Gandalf, right?"
"Indeed I am," he answered, and she felt a small thrill at the low, velvety tone of his voice.
"And these gentlemen," she went on, "are Aragorn and Boromir, who I told y'all about."
Janet stood. "Pleased to meet you," she said, and turning to Gandalf said, "I understand you're an awfully powerful wizard." Maggie could see her fingers moving in her pocket as she fidgeted with the talisman.
He inclined his head. "I have not now the means to travel between this world and yours with the ease with which you seem to have done," he said. "To move so easily from one world, or mayhap one time to another, it would require great resources, great strength."
Janet shrugged, and Maggie suspected she wouldn't say more until she knew what Boromir had already told the wizard. "Well," said Maggie then, "come on in, sit down, I guess we probably need to talk." Paul stood from the chair where he'd been seated and offered it to Gandalf, who took it with a smile and a nod. The others arrayed themselves about the room, Maggie moving to stand nearer to Boromir. She caught Mira's gaze, and the other woman glanced at Boromir and then back, and the look on her face would have been inscrutable to anyone who knew her less well than Maggie did; to Maggie, it said 'oh yes, I see why you like it here....' Maggie blushed faintly.
Gandalf spoke. "Boromir has told us of the wizard in your world, this 'Sorrow'," he said. "He has told us of his plans, which seem not altogether unlike the plans that the Dark Lord of Mordor has, but which seem to me more like plans Saruman might make, the one we ride against on the 'morrow."
Janet started. "Saruman?" she said. "Okay, now this is weird." Eight pairs of eyes fixed on her, and she continued, "well, when I was trying to get Keith to tell us what was going on, he mostly called that guy Sorrow. But once," she said, frowning, "once he called him 'the sorrow of man.' I thought he was just being melodramatic, but when I think about it now, he could have been saying it was his name. 'Sorrow of Man.' Saruman, Sorrow of Man. Slur a little," she said. "And then there's the whole 'black land', 'White City', 'Black City' thing."
Gandalf shook his head. "We cannot know," he said, "though it has a hopeful sound."
Aragorn spoke. "We fear that if this threat to your world is indeed the same as the threat to ours from Mordor, that the quest had failed - will fail - and your world is only what ours will come to."
Jack frowned. "I don't think that's the case," he said. "From what Maggie told us, if this Sauron guy wins, the whole world is plunged into serious badness. Our world, it was good for a long time. We had," he hesitated, "we had good schools, and - and democracy that actually worked. And a lot of countries weren't at war. And people took care of each other."
"If the threat to your world is Saruman, instead," said Gandalf, "or some unrelated evil, then there is still hope. Where is this wizard you called Keith?" he asked, and Maggie suppressed a smile at the strange sound of it, like something out of a Monty Python vid.
"I left him with my brother Michael," said Greg.
"With Michael?" Maggie said, surprised. "I thought y'all weren't on speaking terms."
Greg shrugged. "When I told him what had happened, you disappearing and this Sorrow guy, we sorta remembered why we weren't on speaking terms, and it was really a stupid reason."
"So, y'know, there's that," said Mira. "If nothing else, at least we'll get Michael back in the fold." She smiled brightly.
It was late before they arrived at a plan. Nothing pleased all of them, but they had finally come to terms. For now, they would ignore the threat in the distant world, and let things here progress as though there were no connection. As Jack had pointed out, if it were Saruman, if he were spared in the upcoming battle and they destroyed him solely to stop him in their own world, then their own world might be spared a lot of suffering but everything and everyone they knew might also just wink out of existence, themselves included. Better, they decided, to deal with the immediate threat here, and then return to address the problems in the other world. So Mira, Jack, Greg, Paul, and Janet would return home and bring back weapons and Keith. Greg knew of an arms shipment that would be passing through New Washington on its way to the Black City, and he thought they could acquire it, and the trucks that would carry it. Maggie would ride with the army to Isengard, over the protests of both Boromir and Aragorn.
"She has to," Janet had explained. "Keith put her here just at random, and the only reason we got here was because we were focusing so hard on finding Maggie. And when we arrived, we were within a hundred yards of where she was. If we don't have her here, we may not be able to get back, and if you leave her here at the castle and we have to catch up to the army, well, what if we can't get the trucks through, or they don't run in this world, or we run out of gas and have to hoof it? We might not reach your army in time."
"If I'm there, with the army," said Maggie, "then they'll just 'poof' into the general vicinity."
"Um... with trucks," said Jack thoughtfully. "Maybe we'd better send just one person through first, so we can remove our homing beacon to a spot where we don't risk crushing soldiers."
"Good idea," said Mira.
Boromir frowned. "Explain again these trucks? Steel wagons, that move by themselves?"
Maggie nodded. "Basically. I mean, with a driver, but not pulled by anything."
"And they are not magical?"
He shook his head. "What a strange world you inhabit."
They made one short trip that night, returning after an barely an hour to bring Maggie some of her things, including a packed overnight bag and her cleaning kit, a pair of walkie talkies so that Mira could find her if they reappeared further away than they expected, and more ammunition for the Glocks. They also brought, for Boromir and Aragorn, Greg's Glock 32s that he'd bought from the same guy who sold Maggie her 35s, and the cleaning kit for those. "They've got too much recoil for me," she said as Greg showed them the weapons, "but I know how to use them and how to clean them, so I think it'll be fine." The men handled them easily, though carefully, and Greg set about showing them how to load, unload, how to use the laser sights he had acquired for them some years back, and how to avoid firing them. Meanwhile, Paul took one of the walkie talkies and trotted down the hall to test it; moments later the one in Mira's hand crackled and they heard Paul's voice saying "One, two three. Mira? You there?" She responded, and Paul came back. Janet sat quietly on the bed during the experiment, her face pale, her skin covered in a fine sheen of sweat. Paul went over to her and spoke softly, then looked at Maggie. "She needs to rest," he said. "This back-and-forth today has really taken it out of her."
Maggie nodded, and turned to Boromir. "I want them to stay here the rest of the night. Janet's too weak to take them home right now."
"Of course," he said. "Have they eaten? I'll send to the kitchens if not. I should have thought of it earlier."
Mira shook her head and said, "No, that's fine, though we'll take breakfast in the morning if you've got it. Right now I think just sleep."
Jack, Paul, and Greg left with Boromir and Aragorn, to share their rooms for the night - Gandalf had left earlier; Mira and Janet were to stay with Maggie. "Incidentally," said Mira as Maggie stripped to her underwear and lay the grey dress on the chair, "can I just say how awesome you look in that dress? Great color on you."
Maggie smiled and got into bed beside her friend, Janet already asleep opposite. "Thanks. I felt a little weird in it."
"Well, you looked great. That Boromir guy thought so too," she said, closing her eyes.
"Yeah?" said Maggie. "You think so?"
"Didn't you see him eyeing you?" Mira gazed at her friend and smiled. "Whenever he thought you weren't looking. I figured you'd noticed for sure."
Maggie made a short sound. "He just wants the guns," she said, and Mira shrugged.
"I don't think so, babe," she said. "He didn't have that, 'oh baby, give me some of that ammunition' look in his eyes."
Ríma woke them before it was light, and the three women rose, washed, dressed, and gathered their things to leave. Maggie was once again in her own clothes - loose pants of heavy dark cotton, her rubber-soled boots, a tank top, light cardigan over that, and the arm warmers pulled up to her shoulders. "Thank god for layering," she said as she slipped her leather coat on over the whole thing against the chilly pre-dawn air. "At least some things are the same from one world to the next." She slipped the gunbelt on under the coat, wishing she had time to clean the weapons but glad that at least now she had the means to do so. She glanced at Janet, who seemed much better this morning, though sleepy still. "How are you?" she asked, and Janet nodded.
"I'm all right," she said. "Last night it was just - a feeling like you get when you run too long on an empty stomach. Lightheaded, and weird."
Maggie nodded. "Y'know, I know they hired you, but I really appreciate your coming to get me, and doing all this stuff. I know it can't be easy."
She shrugged. "Even if they hadn't paid me, knowing what I know now I think I'd help out anyway. That Sorrow guy," and she shuddered. "What Keith said about him - he sounds just, horrible. Evil. Like, really evil. Not just 'wow, what an asshole' evil."
"Yeah," said Maggie. "I believe it. Well, I'm glad you're along," she said, and smiled.
The three of them trouped down the hall to the stairs, and found the rest of the company in the smaller dining room - Boromir, Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Merry, Pippin, and Gandalf. Maggie also recognized Éomer, and beside him, a lovely, tall woman she'd not seen before. Jack, Paul, and Greg were there as well.
"Ah," said Gimli, "the last of the outworlders. Come and warm yourselves by the fire - the chill in these hallways can be bitter."
"My," said Maggie as they entered the room, "we do make quite a crowd when you get us all together."
Breakfast came shortly after, and the conversation flowed, mostly concerning their two worlds. Maggie learned that the woman was named Éowyn, and was to lead the people of Rohan to the Hold of Dunharrow, and that she wasn't entirely happy about it. Maggie watched her, the way she looked at Aragorn, and realized quickly how the woman felt about him. She wondered if Aragorn knew.
Maggie listened to none of the conversations very intently, but watched the group - the way Boromir laughed with the Hobbits, and how playful they were with the big man; the way Aragorn spoke gently to all, and remained affectionate and respectful with Boromir, yet guarded; the way the Dwarf and the Elf shared an easy companionship, and how Mira gazed at Legolas with an air of one who thinks she's seen something she couldn't possibly have seen. Paul and Jack talked animatedly with Éomer, and Greg seemed entranced by Éowyn - Maggie would have felt bad for him if she hadn't known what a player he was back home. Janet sat by Gandalf and the two wizards spoke quietly, a small bubble of calm in the sea of conversation. But she also saw that Boromir recognized Aragorn's distrust of him, and tried to ignore it, but still there was a clouded look in his eyes. Aragorn was his king. Gondor's king. And Boromir would have been her ruler, as Steward, when his time came, if not for Aragorn. But Aragorn didn't trust him. Maggie knew why - the ring that Boromir had tried to take. But she still hated Aragorn just a little for it. And loved him as well, in spite of it, partly because he was, well, Aragorn. Isildur's heir, a Ranger, the Elfstone, smart, strong, passionate, wise, courageous, noble, and damned fine looking. But mostly she loved him, and hated him, because Boromir did.
"Damned pheromones," she muttered irritably to herself.
It was still early morning when they assembled to see the outworlders off before the army rode for Isengard. "I don't know how long we'll be," said Greg. "My contact wasn't sure when the shipment would be where, but we'll come back as quick as we can."
"And if you can't get the weapons at all," said Maggie, taking the lapels of his coat in her hands and looking up at him, "come back anyway, just so I know you didn't get killed trying to get them."
Greg laughed and kissed her forehead. "Will do, boss," he said.
Maggie kissed each of them on the cheek, and when she came to Mira, whispered in her ear, "Do you want me to kidnap the Elf for you?" and smiled.
Mira laughed and shook her head, then whispered back, "No, he's too pretty - like an angel, or like Eros with his bow and arrow, only deadlier. But," she said, "you gotta tell that handsome man how you feel about him. Do it before I get back or I'll tell him for you."
Maggie laughed, and didn't answer, and the five who were returning gathered together, Janet at the center. There was a long pause, Janet standing still with her eyes closed, and then in a blink they were gone. Maggie caught her breath, gazing for a long time at the spot where they'd been, until Éowyn touched her arm. "Come," she said. "The host makes ready to ride. I have a mount for you."
Maggie let Éowyn help her into the saddle. "I've not ridden a horse since I was little," she said apprehensively, feeling the strength of the beast beneath her.
Éowyn smiled up at her from where she held the steed's bridle. "Annin will not let you fall," she said. "I would trust her with a newborn babe."
Maggie laughed. "Well, that's a comfort. Still, I imagine a newborn babe couldn't do much to irritate her - I'm not so sure about me."
"Have faith, outworlder," Éowyn said, but in her voice the word 'outworlder' managed to sound more like 'sister'. "Trust the steeds and the judgment of the Rohirrim." They spent a little time there, Éowyn instructing Maggie in the most basic elements of horsemanship, until Maggie could nudge the horse forwards, turn her left or right, ride in a little circle one way and then the other, and convince her to stop. They tried trotting, and then, Éowyn mounted beside her on her own steed, cantering, and when Éowyn was satisfied that Annin would indeed not let Maggie fall, she urged both mounts to a gallop. Maggie leaned forward over the silvery grey neck of the mare, feeling the wind on her face and her heart pounding. She deliberately relaxed the grip of her knees on Annin's sides and felt the horse relax as well, and then they were turning, Annin following Éowyn back to the host, which seemed further away than Maggie could have imagined they'd ridden in so short a time. They pulled up again beside Boromir and Maggie thrilled at the way Annin pranced to a gentle stop, lightfooted and sure.
Boromir, who had mounted already and watched their brief ride, leaned close over his mount's neck and stroked the dappled coat. "There now," he said, "we will guide the lady Maggie and let no harm come to her," and he glanced over at Maggie, his eyes sparkling. "Annin will bear you well, and Hanûn and I will make sure you do not stray from the company."
Maggie and Éowyn laughed together - the company was more than a thousand men, spears and shields glittering in the sun. Maggie turned to Éowyn, whose laughter had faded as she looked over the host she was not allowed to join. "Éowyn," she said, and the woman she hoped to one day call friend looked at her. "Thank you, so much for taking the time to show me this stuff. I know you - you must have way too much to do as it is."
She smiled. "I have time enough to help a friend who rides to battle," she said and Maggie caught the faint bitterness that slid beneath her easy words.
"They need you, you know," Maggie said. "They - they really do."
Éowyn smiled absently and stroked Annin's neck. "Yes," she said. "And I do what my people ask of me. What my King asks of me." Maggie saw the brightness in her eyes, and Éowyn took a deep breath. "Mayhap we shall meet again, outworlder," she said, and stepped back as Boromir gestured to Maggie to follow him. She obeyed, but her eyes never left Éowyn, though the woman was already striding towards the front of the column.
The host rode all day, and Maggie's whole body hurt long before evening. She could hardly believe it had only been the previous morning that they'd first met the Riders of Rohan. As the sun began to set, she looked around to find Boromir, or any of the company she'd started this bizarre journey with, finally seeing Legolas some yards ahead. She urged Annin forward.
"Ah," said Legolas, "Maggie. It seems you and I have barely spoken since we met the Riders."
"Yeah," she said with a nod. "Things got a little hectic."
"Your friends are true," he said, "coming so far to find you."
She smiled. "They are," she said. "They're more than just friends," she went on thoughtfully. "They're... well, they're my teammates. We train together - it makes things... closer."
"Comrades in arms," said Legolas.
They rode in silence a ways, and then Legolas said, "We ride to war, Maggie. You know this."
"Many will not survive."
"I know," she said.
He looked out across the fields, the spears red in the setting sun. "Is there not one to whom you should speak your heart, while there is yet time for words?"
She didn't answer for a long time, then said, "I don't know if he'd welcome it."
Legolas turned and smiled at her. "And if he does not? Is what would be lost then greater than what will be lost if you never speak?"
She started to answer 'yes,' but at the look in his eyes she hesitated, and thought about it. Finally, she said, "I don't know."
"You will not lose his friendship," said Legolas, "if that is what stops you. Boromir will not abandon a friend for feeling too much," he said, "nor indeed for any other reason, save perhaps treason against Gondor." Maggie didn't say anything. "And," Legolas went on after a pause, "if it is pride that stops you, lay it aside. Pride never kept away the loneliness of the night, nor warmed a friend in winter, nor bathed a fevered brow," he said softly. "Pride is a cold companion." They rode in silence again as the sun began to dip below the horizon. "Look," said Legolas, "Boromir rides alone." She let her gaze follow the Elf's and saw him, but didn't move to go to him. After a bit, Legolas said something softly in a language she didn't recognize, and Annin broke away from his side and trotted to Hanûn. The two horses greeted each other and Annin fell into step beside the dappled steed.
"Maggie," said Boromir. "Has Annin borne you well?"
"Oh yes," said Maggie, hoping Boromir couldn't see her blush in the dim light. 'Damned Elf,' she thought. "When do you think we'll stop for the night?"
"When darkness falls, we'll stop."
She nodded. "I'm still not used to this camping-out thing," she said. "I don't know how to build a fire, even."
"There will be no fires tonight," he replied. "We know not what may wait ahead of us, or follow behind. Caution is best, even if the night is cold."
After some time, she said, "I wonder if it'd be all right if I made my little camp near you. Y'know, not knowing really what I'm doing."
He chuckled. "Indeed, lady, it would be my honor to teach you the intricacies of camping on a field with a thousand men and horses."
She blushed, and forced a laugh. "Don't make fun of me," she said.
"Oh, I do not," he replied, shaking his head. "I do not. There are indeed intricacies, and traps for the unfamiliar or unwary. For instance," he continued, "there is the need to be mindful of your steed's natural skills as a fertilizer of the soil," and Maggie chuckled, "to say nothing of making one's rations palatable with neither fire nor an excess of water. No," he said, "I do not mock you. I merely remember my own first campaign, which became an endless source of amusement for my brother." She heard the smile in his voice, and relaxed, and some time later the column came to a halt in the darkness and they made camp.
Hanûn and Annin cropping grass nearby, Maggie sat with her knees drawn up and waited for Boromir to return. He'd gone to speak to Aragorn, though she didn't know about what. The night grew colder as she waited, and she wished for a book to read, or someone to talk to. She looked around at the soldiers nearby, small groups of two or three or four shadows gathered about what would have been fires had the way been less uncertain. She could hear the rise and fall of their low voices, but the words were as indistinct as their figures. Finally she heard footsteps, saw Boromir's silhouette black against the blue-black sky and he sat down beside her. "The scouts have seen nothing as yet," he said, "and guards encircle the host. The night will pass without event, I think."
"That's good," she said. He was inches from her now, and she could smell the leather he wore, the pleasant odor of Hanûn mixed with the musky fragrance of his own sweat. She wondered if he found such fragrances as pleasant as she did, or if he'd have welcomed the coming of antiperspirant and shaved armpits for women. "How long do you think it'll take us to reach Isengard?" she asked finally.
"Another day, perhaps a bit more," he said, "if we are not turned aside."
They sat in silence for a few moments longer, weary and sore. "I wonder," she said at last, and felt him turn to her. She didn't face him. "I wonder, if I said to you that I would still like to hear the story of your life, one day, over a drink in a quiet place, while looking into your beautiful eyes," she paused. "I wonder if you'd laugh again."
There was a long silence, and then he reached out to her and cupped her chin in his hand, turned her face towards him in the darkness. "I would not laugh," he said. "I would not laugh."
She felt her breath catch, felt her heart beating for what seemed like the first time, and she raised her hand to his cheek.
He turned his lips to her palm and spoke softly into it. "Your sweet hands are so cold," he said, and her blood seemed to rise to his touch. He pressed his own hand over hers, kissing her palm, so soft, and warm in spite of the cold night. He still held her chin in his hand, and leaning forward, he pressed a kiss to her cheek, to her brow, and then she felt his forehead touch hers, felt the softness of his lashes where they brushed her skin, felt the warmth of his breath. Afraid to frighten the tender moment away she scarcely drew breath of her own, and finally, so slowly, so softly, he touched his lips to hers.
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