13. Night Whispers - Part I
The night before the Armies of the West were due to march, Aragorn summoned his old companions to his tent. The Fellowship would separate again on the morrow, but for this last night, they could sit in comfort and talk of the long, dark road they had traveled together. Their talk rarely turned to Frodo and Sam, but the ringbearer, his faithful servant, and the desperate hope they carried with them were a palpable presence among their gathered friends.
A brazier burned in the tent, and the taller members of the Company pulled chairs around it, while the hobbits opted for a patch of earth with a rug to sit on. They shared skins of the best wines the city's cellars had to offer. The drink warmed their tired limbs and loosened their tongues, and even the crusty Gandalf relaxed into the mood of camaraderie. Only Merry, still drained from his illness, and Boromir, who had always held himself somewhat aloof from the Company, remained quiet. Their friends set it down to discontent that they would not ride with the armies on the morrow and did not press them.
By the time they had drained the last wineskin, it was deep night, and their voices had fallen to wistful murmurs. Aragorn stood and stretched, a fond smile lingering on his face as he gazed around the circle of familiar faces.
"Duty calls, my friends. We must be up and moving before dawn."
Gimli have a bark of laughter. "Men must sleep before they march. Dwarves only need a full stomach and a clear road beneath their feet."
"And while they are filling their stomachs, the Elves have already reached the end of the road," Legolas retorted.
Pippin yawned hugely. "Hobbits need sleep and full stomachs. I've been dreaming of my bed this hour past."
"Then get you to it, Master Peregrin," Aragorn said, with a chuckle.
Gandalf rose to his feet and picked up his staff. "We must all to our beds. The morrow will be upon us before we know it, and we must be prepared to face it with stout hearts, as well as strong limbs. Merry, Boromir, I bid you farewell and the best of luck. I hope that we may yet meet again in Middle-earth. I trust we may. But if we do not, take the love and friendship of Gandalf the White with you into whatever doom awaits you."
Turning to Boromir, he clasped his arm and murmured, privately, "Remember what you have learned, Steward of Gondor, and have faith in the Man you have become. I look to see you place the crown of Ëarnur upon the King's brow, ere this is done. Farewell." Then he stooped to embrace Merry and offer him a handkerchief to blot his tears.
Slowly, the members of the Fellowship bid goodbye to the comrades they must leave behind. Merry drew himself closer and closer to Boromir, as if he could dull the pain of this parting by distancing himself from the others. He wept bitterly, when Legolas went down on one knee to salute him, gravely, and when Gimli solemnly pledged his axe to Merry's service, should the halfling ever need it. The four hunters, who had raced the length of Rohan to save their friends, would hunt together no more.
Gandalf departed, and behind him went Legolas and Gimli, who spoke of taking the air and seeing how Men of the South girded themselves for war. That left only Merry, Pippin, Aragorn and Boromir in the tent. Pippin looked around at the others and gave a doleful sniff.
"I don't think I'm ready to say goodbye. Come, Merry, let's walk about a little. Have you seen the great tents of Lossarnach? I'll show them to you."
"Do not go far, Pippin," Aragorn cautioned. "The camps are safe enough, but they are vast, and you may lose yourself in the darkness. One fire is much like the next."
Boromir said, "We must return to the city soon."
"Yes, I know." Merry wiped his eyes on his sleeve, momentarily forgetting about Gandalf's handkerchief. "I promise I won't be long. It's just... well, somehow, this was easier when Gandalf swooped down and snatched Pippin, without giving me time to think about it."
Aragorn smiled in understanding. "Take a stroll and have a proper chat. But be back soon."
The hobbits trudged out of the tent, leaving Aragorn and Boromir alone. They both sat down and leaned close to the brazier, letting the silence lengthen between them, while they thought of the parting to come and what this last meeting could mean to them. It was Aragorn who spoke first, his voice soft and a bit sorrowful.
"You know what we face, how slender are our hopes."
"And when we fail, the war will come to you."
"We will be ready."
Aragorn sighed. "I wish, with all my heart, that we could fight this last battle together. That is how we fight best, you and I. Together."
"As Captain and King."
"Always that." Boromir bowed his head for a moment, and when he lifted it again, he looked to Aragorn as though he were weeping, though no tears could fall from his ruined eyes. "I am ready to die for my king. If you ask it of me, I will ride with you tomorrow."
"Nay, Boromir. You may yet die for Gondor, but not at my side. I need you here."
He nodded heavily. "My duty lies here, as it always has, but I will miss you, my friend."
"And I, you."
Boromir took a shaking breath and spoke in a voice rough with strain. "Tomorrow, you ride to your death. How do I bid you farewell, knowing this?"
"Do not. And do not despair. We may yet meet again."
"And if we do not?"
Aragorn swallowed to clear the tightness from his throat. "I leave Gondor in your hands. It is the best hope I can give her."
"You are her best hope. You are Gondor."
Tears started in Aragorn's eyes at his words. "Then you will fight for me, as you have fought for Gondor all your life, with your whole strength and whole heart."
"You know I will."
"I know it," he reached over to clasp Boromir's arm, fiercely, "and I thank you."
"You will return, Aragorn. I must believe it. We will ride together through the gates of Minas Tirith and hear the trumpets calling us home."
"The Lords of Gondor have returned..."
"I will hold Minas Tirith for you. I will safeguard your people. And I will await your coming, my king."
*** *** ***
Aragorn paced the tent in thought, his mind bent on the morrow and the hopeless battle his armies faced. He tried to relax and put aside his worries, to invite sleep, but he could not. There was a whisper of warning that breathed upon his neck, chill and inescapable, and kept him from rest. Something was amiss in Gondor this night.
The tramp of booted feet and low voices reached him. The sentries called a challenge, which was answered in a low murmur. Aragorn turned swiftly, expecting to see Halbarad ducking through the tent opening, but it was Legolas who entered, followed closely by Gimli.
"There is strange talk in the camp tonight, Aragorn," Legolas said by way of greeting. "The soldiery is restless and afraid. They fill the darkness with their muttering."
Aragorn gave a humorless smile. "They do not want to follow their lords into certain death, and who could blame them?"
"Nay, they will follow the banner of King Elessar to their doom and gladly. 'Tis not against the march that they mutter, but against that which they leave behind."
"Folly!" Gimli growled, before Aragorn could ask for a clearer explanation. "Superstitious nonsense! Pah! Men!" He invested the name with such contempt that Aragorn stared at him in open amazement. The dwarf caught his eye and gave an awkward grunt that might have been an apology.
"What is this superstitious nonsense that has you so outraged, Master Dwarf?"
"'Tis treason, is what it is."
"Nay, Gimli, not treason," Legolas temporized, "merely ignorance and fear. All men grow fearful at such times."
"I ask again," Aragorn said, with exaggerated calm, "what talk is this?"
Legolas silenced his irate friend with a stern look, then turned to Aragorn. "There is much talk that your choice of Steward has doomed the city."
"I did not choose the Steward," Aragorn protested. "The Stewardship is Boromir's by right of blood and birth!"
"Be that as it may, the common soldiers fear that his blindness is an ill omen, a curse that condemns the city to darkness under the great Shadow in the East. They say that the King plans to abandon Minas Tirith, desert her in her hour of need and withdraw the armies that might protect her. He will let her fall into darkness with her Steward."
Aragorn resumed his pacing, his head down and his hands clasped behind him as he walked. "An ill omen, you call it."
"Aye. We heard it repeated many times - a blind man among the troops is an omen of defeat. I saw soldiers bartering for talismans and tokens to ward off evil. Do you know aught of this superstition? Some ancient foreboding of Men, perhaps?"
Aragorn shook his head impatiently. "I have never heard it. Where has it sprung from, I wonder?"
"From treacherous tongues," Gimli snapped. "'Tis willful mischief, no more, to spread disquiet through the armies and breed strife among the people. Do not believe in this ancient foreboding, Aragorn."
"Of course I do not. The point is that the soldiers believe it."
Legolas nodded. "Many of them."
Aragorn abruptly halted his pacing and turned piercing eyes upon the elf. "Which of them, exactly?"
"The Men of Gondor, of Dol Amroth and of Lossarnach did not join in the whispering. They appeared calm and sure. Those from farther afield, and those of simpler birth were most troubled. I do not know all the banners, and the names of their captains were strange to me, but I recognized the tribesmen of Lamedon and the fisherfolk from Anduin's mouths. Some there were who blamed Boromir's presence on the Pelennor for the deaths of their lords."
"But the Men of Gondor remain unmoved."
"They would," Gimli asserted. "They know him, don't they? He has led them into battle often enough. What man among them would believe such errant nonsense?"
"You comfort me, Gimli." Aragorn visibly relaxed, and a rueful smile touched his face. "What man, indeed, who has fought at Boromir's side will doubt him? And it is such men who stay behind to hold the city for him. The Tower Guard. His own troops."
"Not the Guard, alone," Legolas cautioned.
"They are the main part of the garrison, and they protect the Citadel. We must put our trust in them and in Boromir. He can take care of himself."
*** *** ***
Boromir and Merry walked slowly up the winding street through the city. It was deep night, and few people other than the Guard, whose duty required it, were out and about. Yet, Minas Tirith did not sleep. She lay in a tense, expectant silence, watching the stars wheel above her white towers and listening to the whispered voices of her beloved sons, her soldiers, as they prepared to march away to war.
Merry felt the watchfulness of the city crawl over his skin, and it made him shiver, but it did not make him afraid. Instead, it saddened him, as he knew that the hearts and minds of Minas Tirith were girding themselves for mourning and death. The city was wakeful as a tribute to the men she would lose on the morrow.
Merry himself was deadly tired. His arm ached with cold, and his body felt leaden. He wanted to ask Boromir to carry him up the endless street to his warm, safe, welcoming bed, where he could crawl beneath the coverlet and block out the grief in the very air about him. The city felt huge, and he felt unbearably small within it. But Boromir could not navigate the streets on his own, and Merry knew that the man was as weary, as saddened and worn down by the thought of what lay ahead, as was the hobbit. Merry would not ask him to carry two such heavy hearts this night.
And so, with dogged steps, they climbed the long way from the Pelennor to the sixth circle of Minas Tirith and the Houses of Healing. Merry hesitated at the Citadel gate, prepared to escort Boromir inside to his chambers in the lofty tower. The sentry at the gate called a crisp challenge that Boromir answered. Then the Steward turned away from the gate and the guard, telling Merry quite clearly that he did not want to enter the Citadel. Merry obediently continued on his way to the Houses of Healing. They passed another pair of guardsmen as they went, patrolling the circle, but the small, white, wooden gate that let into the gardens was unattended. Merry was unaccountably cheered by this sign that war had not come to this peaceful spot - not yet, at any rate.
They went through the gate and down a gravel path to the outer wall. Here, a stone bench was set into a small enclave in the wall. A man of Boromir's height could sit on the bench, rest his shoulders against the parapet, and gaze out over the lower circles of the city and the Pelennor, past the distant, silver curve of Anduin, to the looming shadow in the East. A hobbit had to climb on the bench and hoist himself up on the parapet to see over it, but that did not trouble Merry. He had no desire to gaze out at their threatened doom tonight.
When they reached the bench, Boromir shifted his hand from Merry's head to his shoulder, and he gave it a grateful squeeze. He propped one knee on the bench and leaned back against stone.
"You are yawning fit to crack your jaw, little one. Get you to bed."
As if to prove his point, Merry gave an tremendous yawn. "A snack first, then bed. Are you hungry?" Boromir shook his head. "You want to stay here?"
Boromir answered his question with another. "Are there stars tonight?"
Merry craned his neck to look upward, and he blinked in amazement at the glorious array of stars, strewn like gems across the black velvet sky above him. He had not noticed, in his preoccupation, that every star ever born had come out to dance tonight. Had they come to bid farewell to the armies of Men? Had they come for one, final look at Middle-earth, before the Shadow blotted it from their sight forever? Or was it simply that the beauty of this world went on, unknowing, regardless of the suffering of its mortal creatures, and even on such a night as this, the stars danced?
"Yes," the hobbit murmured, in wonderment, "more stars than I've ever seen before."
Boromir tilted his head up, perhaps savoring the cold, clean touch of the wind on his face, perhaps listening for the music the stars made. "Good. I'll stay here. Rest well, Merry, and thank you."
"Don't thank me." Merry yawned again and bent his steps toward the House that slept behind them in the darkness. "Just don't wake me in the morning. Good night."
The patter of bare feet faded down the path, and Boromir knew he was alone. With an inward sigh, he leaned back against the curve of the embrasure and turned his face toward the East. Toward the road his king and his friends would take, come the dawn.
He was tired, so unutterably tired that his very bones ached with it, but he was not yet ready to brave the struggle for sleep. The night was lonely and cold, full of sadness, thick with the tears of Gondor's children, but even such a night as this was preferable to the chill confinement of stone walls, wooden doors and smoking torches. Shut doors, the muffled tread of feet on flagstones, still air tainted with the scent of burning... They belonged to any house, to any citadel, but in Boromir's mind they recalled only one place, and he would not willingly go back there even in his imagination. Better a lonely, wakeful night on the battlements of Minas Tirith than a princely bed with the cold breath of prison walls upon his body.
Slowly, wearily, he sank down upon the bench and tilted his head back to turn his bandaged gaze on the stars. He tried to picture them as he had seen them so many times over the years, when he lay sprawled upon his back in a pile of leaves and bracken, staring up through black branches, listening to his brother's voice murmuring beside him. Faramir had told him countless tales of elves and stars, had sung songs in languages Boromir did not know and laughed when he asked to hear them in his own tongue.
"There is nothing common about the songs of the elves," Faramir had taunted. "They cannot be rendered in common speech."
"Then what use are they to me?" he had snapped back, nettled by his younger brother's air of superiority.
"They teach of greater things than Gondor and Minas Tirith and the fate of Men."
"If they do not concern the fate of Men, they do not concern me!"
Such arguments always ended the same way - with mock battles and laughter and Faramir shouting defiance as his larger brother pinned him to the ground and demanded his surrender. Elven songs were forgotten, and the stars were once again nothing more than distant lights.
Boromir wanted to hear the songs and tales again. He wanted to listen to his brother's voice in the darkness, weaving images of ancient power and beauty and sorrow, and to feel the eyes of the Eldar upon them. Most of all, he wanted to show Faramir that he believed, as he never had before, in those legends. But Faramir lay sleeping in the Houses of Healing, Boromir stood alone on the city walls, and between them lay a gulf of pain, regret, guilt and wounds that could not be shared. Boromir did not have the strength to reach across that gulf tonight - he was too tired and too leery of yet more disappointment - but he had the night and the stars and a memory of the tales Faramir loved so much.
Willing himself to relax and concentrate, Boromir tried to conjure up the sound of his brother's voice, the cadence of his words as he wove his tale. Cold and loneliness retreated from his awareness. He no longer listened to the telltale sounds of the city at night, but only to the fragments of remembered legends in his head.
With his mind closed to the world around him, Boromir did not hear the gate creak open. He paid no attention to the new arrivals, totally unaware of them, until they were nearly upon him. Suddenly, the harsh rasp of breath and the crunch of booted feet on gravel reached him, and he snapped out of his reverie. Instinctively, he turned to face the approaching sounds and made as if to stand. That movement saved his life.
The sword point, aimed to slide up between his ribs, tore clothing and flesh and grazed across bone but did not bite deep, as his body twisted beneath its edge. Boromir's momentum carried him to his feet, while his turn brought his right arm down and across his attacker's sword arm, deflecting the main force of the blow. Rage flooded him, with the familiar pain of a blade in his flesh, and his soldier's reflexes rose to his defense.
Without thinking, he lashed out with his right fist, not caring what he struck, only wanting to keep his attacker off balance. He hit bare flesh that recoiled from his blow, but the swordsman held his ground. Then his own feet were under him, and Boromir kicked hard with his right foot. His boot landed solidly, hammering into muscle and bone, and the man grunted in surprise, staggering back, his sword swinging wide.
Boromir snatched his own sword free of its scabbard, even as his ears registered the rapid breathing and shuffling steps of a second attacker to his left. He leapt onto the bench and swept his sword in front of him defensively. The two men hesitated, perhaps caught off guard by his resistance or perhaps simply afraid of the bright blade that threatened them. Boromir knew he had only seconds before they pressed their attack again, and he could not hope to fend them off alone.
"Do you know who I am?" he demanded, to buy himself time and make them reveal their positions. "Would you die a traitor's death for a night's thievery?"
The first man, the one poised to his right, spat and growled, "How we die matters naught! It's how you die that matters, Steward!"
"Just do it," the other man hissed, fear plain in his voice. "Push him over the wall. Let them find his body broken on the street."
His partner gave a grunt of laughter. "They'll think he fell. Fate took a hand to save the army, eh?" He laughed again.
Boromir kept his sword moving in an erratic manner, giving the two men no chance to predict where its point would be at any moment, while he coolly tried to find a way out of this trap. The gash in his right side sent blood down his skin in a hot stream, and the pain of it burned through him, but he pushed these distractions aside to focus on the demands of the moment. He had a wall and a long, killing drop behind him, assassins' blades to either side, and an empty garden before him. His only hope was to alert the Guard patrolling the streets, but the moment he opened his mouth, fear would overcome caution in his attackers and they would be on him.
"You're both fools and traitors!" Boromir snarled.
The one on the right answered him, bitterly. "We do what we must to bring victory - and to avenge our young lords."
As he spoke, the man lunged forward with his blade. By sheer, dumb luck, Boromir was sweeping his own weapon to the right and his blade engaged the other as it came. Metal slithered on metal, then the attacker's sword broke through his clumsy guard to tear up his forearm and sink into the muscle just above his elbow. At the same instant, Boromir heard the man on his left move forward to attack, and he knew he was caught.
Abandoning all attempt at defense, defying all rules of combat, Boromir ignored the blade in his arm and the men converging on him. Intent only on escape, he gathered himself and leapt forward with all his strength, into what he hoped was a space between his assassins. The blade ripped free of his arm, even as he felt a second blade catch at his tunic. Then he was past them, falling, landing hard on the damp grass, fighting for balance, and shouting at the top of his lungs,
"Guard! Guard, to me!"
Something heavy struck his legs. His knees buckled, tumbling him to the grass, and Boromir knew that they had out-guessed him. His attackers were upon him, cursing and spitting, pinning him to the ground, grappling for his sword. He managed one more frantic call of "Guard, to me!" Then a hand drove his head downward, pushing his face into the grass to muffle his voice, and a booted foot slammed down on his wounded forearm. His sword slipped from numbed fingers.
Merry sat in his bed against heaped pillows, a wooden tray across his lap, contemplating the bedtime snack Gil had provided for him. The woman must be part hobbit, he reflected. How else could she know that fresh bread, ripe yellow cheese and a foaming tankard of ale were the perfect way to end a day? A smile lightening the tired shadows in his face, Merry bit into the cheese with his knife.
He had a generous helping of bread and cheese halfway to his mouth, when he heard the distinctive ring of metal on metal. His eyes flew to the window and the garden beyond, even as his mind identified the sound as the clash of swords. He had grown all too familiar with that sound, of late, and he knew he could not be mistaken.
Pushing back tray and blankets together, he scrambled from his bed and ran to the window. Outside, all was darkness, but he could see movement at the foot of the garden, by the wall, where he had left Boromir. Indecision gripped him for a moment. Then he saw a flash of silvered light - starlight on a polished blade - and heard Boromir's voice cry out, furiously, "Guard! Guard, to me!"
With an answering cry, Merry threw off all hesitation and all caution. He had no sword, since his had melted on the battlefield, but that would not deter him. The cheese knife still lay on the bed, and Merry snatched it up. Then he ran for the window and climbed into its deep embrasure.
A moment later, he was leaping to the grass below his window, running full tilt down the gentle slope toward the struggling, shadowy figures by the wall.
"Boromir!" he shouted, his shrill voice piercing the night. "Boromir, I'm coming!!"
One of the shadow figures detached itself from the struggle and moved toward him. Merry caught an impression of a large, stocky man in dark leathers and chain mail, then his eyes fell on the sword and the blood darkening its blade. Fury filled him, and he raced to meet the swordsman, brandishing his ridiculous knife as if he held Andúril itself.
The man checked his stride when he saw what manner of creature assailed him, but Merry would not let him withdraw. Charging up to the man, he cried, "Stand and fight me, you coward!"
The man almost laughed, but a lunge with the cheese knife wiped the smile from his face. "All right, then, come on and die with your master."
Merry shot a horrified look at the body sprawled on the grass, a second leather-clad assassin kneeling on his back, and his eyes burned with sudden tears. Gathering himself to leap on the man, he cried out, in defiance, "Gondor!"
But his act of suicidal bravery was rudely interrupted by a shout from the gate. Hobbit and assassin both turned to see two soldiers, in the livery of the Citadel guard, with their swords drawn, come running into the garden. The assassin cursed foully under his breath. Turning contemptuously away from Merry and his pitiful weapon, the man grabbed his partner by the cloak and hauled him to his feet. Then both men were running, slipping into the deep night, away from the bright blades and flickering torches of the approaching guard.
Merry ran a few paces toward the soldiers and pointed frantically after the fleeing men. "They went that way! Down the garden to the west!"
"Who went that way?" one of the guard demanded, his voice suspicious.
"Two men... assassins! They've killed the Steward!"
"Nay, they have not."
Merry spun around to see Boromir pushing himself stiffly away from the ground. With a relieved cry, the hobbit flung himself at the seated man and threw his arms around his neck in a crushing embrace. Boromir caught him with his uninjured arm, and Merry burrowed his face into Boromir's shoulder to mask his tears from the watching guards.
"I thought you were dead," Merry mumbled into the fabric of Boromir's tunic.
Boromir only tightened his hold on the hobbit's small frame, his attention fixed on the guards. "Search the garden and sixth circle. Two men attacked me and fled to the west, when you came. They cannot have gone far."
More guards had joined the first pair, one of them an officer. He now sent some of his men off to hunt the assassins with a curt gesture. Then he stepped forward to address his commander. "Did you see their f..." The officer broke off and cleared his throat, awkwardly. "Did you recognize anything about them, Captain? How will we know them?"
"They're soldiers, but not of Minas Tirith. Their accents were southern."
"They wore brown leather, with no devices, and chain mail," Merry added. "And they wore caps."
"What kind of caps, Master Perian?" the officer asked.
"Close-fitting, made of leather, I think, with a flap of leather hanging down to their shoulders."
Boromir gave a grunt of recognition. "Morthond. Look for soldiers of Morthond. None were posted to the garrison, so none should be in the city tonight."
"That will make our search the easier. Are you injured, Captain?" the officer asked.
"Naught but a few scratches. I'll have the healers tend to them, while you find the men responsible."
"With all due respect, Captain, you must not go unguarded about the city."
"Merry is all the guard I need. He'll keep his sword and his wits about him."
Merry let go of Boromir and sat back on his heels, tucking the cheese knife out of sight behind his back. He blushed furiously. "I haven't got a sword." All eyes turned on the hobbit.
"No sword?" Boromir said. "What, then, did you use to drive off my attackers?"
His flush deepened. "A knife. A... cheese knife."
The Guard officer laughed, as did a few of his men, but Boromir only regarded the hobbit thoughtfully. "You charged two armed soldiers with a cheese knife?"
"Well, it was all I could find in the... the heat of the moment."
Boromir grinned at him. "Bless you, Merry. You are worth a dozen armed guards."
"But I'm not. I don't have a sword, so I can't really protect you if the assassins come back. It was more the element of surprise than the cheese knife that did the trick, this time."
"I see your point." Levering himself painfully to his feet, Boromir turned to the officer, his manner brisk and commanding. "Post sentries at the gate and the door to this House. Send a troop to the main gate and let no one leave the city without being searched and identified. Any soldiers without written orders are to be held inside the walls, 'til their commanding officers are found and their business in the city confirmed. Look especially for men of Morthond. If you find the assassins, bring them to me, here." He broke off his instructions and looked around helplessly. "I have dropped my sword."
One of the soldiers retrieved the sword from where it lay on the grass. As he held it up, Merry saw that the tip was black with blood.
"Here it is, lord," the soldier said.
"Did you wound one of them?" Merry asked.
"I do not know." Boromir held out his hand for the sword, then ran his finger up the flat of the blade until he felt the metal grow sticky. Smiling slightly at the officer, he said, "Look for a man who is bleeding."
With a curt nod of his head, Boromir sent the Guard about their tasks. Merry waited patiently, while Boromir cleaned his sword on an unbloodied corner of his own tunic and sheathed the blade. Then the hobbit stepped quietly up beside him and smiled as the man's hand came to rest on his head.
"Into the House?"
"Aye, as quietly as possible."
Merry started up the hill toward the House, matching his pace to Boromir's. He sensed that the man beside him was both tired and in pain, and while Boromir walked steadily enough, with his back straight and his head up, his step did not have its usual swift energy.
"Are you badly hurt?" the hobbit asked.
"'Tis only a scratch." At Merry's skeptical silence, Boromir grinned and added, ruefully, "Several scratches, and rather large. Don't fret, little one. Give me some hot water and a few clean bandages, and I'll set it to rights in no time."
"You mean, the healers will set it to rights."
Boromir made a disgusted sound in his throat and growled, "Healers! I need no healer's help to bind a sword wound! I've been doing it since I learned to wield a blade. And mind you, Merry, you're not to tell anyone of what happened tonight! I don't want word of the attack to get out until we've caught those men, nor do I want a lot of people fussing around, being helpful and getting in the way. Understand?"
"I understand, but..." Merry broke off and swallowed nervously.
"But what?" Boromir demanded.
"I think it's too late to avoid the fussing part."
Merry had never laid eyes on the Lord Faramir, but there could be no mistaking the man who stood in the open door of the House, his nightshirt hanging loose over a pair of hastily-donned breeches, his long hair tousled with sleep and his grey eyes wide with alarm. He held a candle in one hand and a naked sword in the other, and his resemblance to his brother was striking.
As the man and the hobbit drew near, Faramir called, sharply, "Boromir?!"
Merry glanced up to see Boromir's mouth tighten in annoyance. He quickened his pace, forcing the hobbit to scamper on his short legs, and he reached the doorway in time to forestall a second shout.
"Do not wake the House, Brother."
"What happened? Are you hurt? I heard shouting and..."
Boromir cut him off with a sharp gesture and a low, urgent, "I beg you, Faramir, not here."
Faramir instantly fell silent and stepped back, giving Merry and Boromir room to pass through the door. As they entered the hallway, Merry saw that Faramir was not alone. Gil, the drudge, waited just behind him, holding another candle.
"Where can we go that will not disturb the House?" Boromir asked, his voice harsh with a weariness and strain he could no longer conceal.
"The kitchen," Gil answered, promptly.
Boromir turned toward the new voice, a frown creasing his brow. "Gil?"
"Aye, my lord."
"Don't you ever sleep?"
"Not when soldiers are yelling and fighting outside my window. Will you come to the kitchen, my lord? Or will you stand and bleed on my clean floor?"
"The kitchen it is. Lead on, Merry."
They reached the kitchen without waking anyone. Gil led Boromir to a chair near the stove and sat him firmly in it, while Merry shut the door and made as if to bolt it. Before he could actually throw the bolt, a knock sounded loudly on the door, and a low voice called,
"My Lord! My Lord, is aught amiss?"
Merry flung the door wide and stared, amazed, at the woman on the other side. In the soft light of the candles, clad only in her night shift and a loose robe of white wool, with her hair streaming loose down her back and her sword arm resting in a sling, the Lady Éowyn's beauty was startling - exquisite and cold.
She lowered the hand she had raised to knock again and gazed down at Merry, unsmiling. "Well met, Master Swordthain."
"Well met, lady."
"I am come to see the Steward."
"Éowyn?" Boromir sounded grumpy - as well he might, Merry reflected, with Gil picking at the fabric that covered a slash on his arm and drawing fresh blood from the torn flesh. "Leave us, lady, I beg you. This is not your battle."
Instead, Éowyn strode into the room, her eyes fixed on the sword cut Gil had exposed. "You are wounded."
Boromir gave a longsuffering sigh. "Merry, bolt that door. Brother, as you love me, kill the next person who comes in here. Gil... must you do that?"
"Nay, my lord. 'Tis for a healer to do." Gil got to her feet and headed purposefully toward the door. "I'll fetch one to you."
"You will not!" Boromir half rose from his chair, his face full of outrage. "Faramir, kill the next person who leaves this room!"
Faramir shot him a disapproving look and laid his sword firmly on the table, making certain that Boromir heard the metal strike wood.
"This is beyond my simple skills, lord." Gil insisted. "I am a drudge, not a nurse or a battlefield surgeon."
"Then give me the bandages, and I will bind up my own cuts."
Gil's face went blank and her voice wooden, as she turned her back on Boromir and put her hand on the door latch. "'Tis my duty. I'll not fail in my duty to the healers, or to the Steward." With that, she slipped the bolt and vanished into the dark hallway.
Boromir dropped back into the chair, cursing softly. Merry read the weariness and frustration in the slump of Boromir's shoulders. He could not ease the burden of his friend's duties or worries on such a night, but he thought he might set his mind at rest on one score. Keeping his voice mild, he said, "Gil is sensible. She won't make a fuss. And it will be better if the healers see to your wounds."
"The holbytla speaks wisely," Éowyn said, as she moved up to the table that filled the middle of the floor. Setting her candle down on the scarred wooden surface, she steadied herself against the table with her free hand. In the flickering light of the candle, it seemed to Merry as though all color had drained from her face. Her flesh was as white and chill as marble, her eyes deadened by pain and despair. Yet even in her illness of spirit, she found strength enough to stand straight and proud, and to look upon Boromir's wounds with concern. "Tell me, lord, how were you injured thus?"
"Do not trouble yourself. I am not much hurt, and there is no danger to anyone in this House."
Éowyn drew herself up haughtily. "I fear no danger. I came only to see if I might aid my sometime brother-in-arms."
Before Boromir could answer her, Faramir interjected, "Your heart does you credit, lady, but 'tis you who are ill, or grievously hurt." His eyes, dark with sorrow and anxiety, took in her bandaged arm, the unnatural pallor of her face and the slight tremor in the hand that rested on the table. "Let me escort you back to your room, for I deem you are a patient in this House, as am I, and not fit to be up and about."
Éowyn regarded him gravely for a moment, then shook her head. "Waste not your care on me, lord."
"I regret I cannot do as you ask." With a bow and a wistful smile, he said, "I am Faramir, son of Denethor, brother to the Steward."
"I am Éowyn, sister-daughter to Théoden King."
"And Dernhelm, Rider of Rohan," Boromir added. "It was Dernhelm who brought us from Edoras, when Théoden and Éomer would have sent us into hiding."
"Then I have to thank you, lady," Faramir said, with another bow. "You have done me and all Gondor great service."
"A service some other has tried to undo," Éowyn said. Turning her remote, yet troubled gaze on Boromir, she asked, "Who would dare attack the Steward of Gondor, within his own walls?"
Boromir told them of the night's events in a few clipped, concise phrases. He said nothing of Merry's attempt to fight a fully-armed soldier with a kitchen knife, for which the hobbit was grateful, ending only with the simple statement that Merry had interrupted the attack and saved his life.
Faramir's face was pale and drawn. "The Guard are searching for these... these assassins?"
"And you are certain they were not simply thieves, hoping for a rich purse?"
"They called me Steward."
Faramir let the air out of his lungs in something akin to a groan. "Who would bring murder to Minas Tirith, and at such a time?"
"Traitors," Éowyn said, her voice hard with anger, "and cowards, to attack from behind in darkness..."
"But why?" Merry could see in Faramir's eyes that this question, more than any other, tormented him. "Why seek to slay their liege lord?"
"Does it matter? It was an act without honor, an act of betrayal, at a time when all the free peoples of Middle-earth prepare for war beneath the banner of Gondor. Whatever reason they might give, the truth is clear. They are traitors and tools of the Enemy."
"As was I, once," Boromir murmured, so low that only Merry, who stood close to his chair, heard him.
"It always matters why men are led to evil," Faramir answered, softly. "How else can we guard against it in ourselves?"
"And yet, it is still evil that they do. These men are traitors and without honor."
At that moment, the door swung open, and the Warden strode into the room. Behind him came Ioreth and Gil, and with their coming, the large kitchen felt suddenly very cramped and over-full. The Warden paused in the doorway to sweep the room with clear, calm eyes, then he stepped toward Boromir's chair and offered the Steward a respectful bow.
"My Lord. I am told you are in need of my skills."
"'Tis naught," Boromir said, with gruff courtesy. "There was no need to disturb your rest."
"There was every need. I hear rumors of violence and murder in my gardens, of patients leaving their beds to walk the halls with drawn swords, of the lords of the city secreted in my kitchen to talk of treason... It is not often these Houses see such stirring events. Would you have me sleep through them?"
Boromir grinned ruefully up at the Warden, the tension visibly draining from his body. Then Ioreth spoke, and he instantly stiffened again.
"Ah, such goings on! 'Tis a disgrace and an outrage! Our own lord not safe on the grounds, while the king camps before the gates, like any common vagabond. And you, my Lord Faramir, you ought not to be out of your bed at such an hour... if you'll pardon me saying so, my lord."
Ioreth paused to take a breath, then she launched into a new series of protests, observations and asides, while she swept purposefully about the room. As quickly as her words came, so too came all the paraphernalia of the healer's craft - bandages, salves, needles, knives and pots to heat water. The other people in the room watched her in bemusement, but none dared to interrupt her constant flow of speech and activity.
While Ioreth went about her business noisily, the Warden went about his in relative quiet. He drew Gil over to where Boromir sat, and the two of them quickly divested the man of his various layers of outer clothing. By the time Ioreth slapped the last pot of salve on the table, Boromir was clad only in his breeches and bloodstained shirt.
The old woman came to an abrupt standstill, planted her hands on her hips, and turned bright, knowing eyes on Éowyn. "Get you to bed, my lady, while you can yet walk so far."
Without looking up from his work, the Warden said, "Quite right, Lady Éowyn. You must take some rest, if you are to heal. The Lord Aragorn was most clear on that point."
Before Éowyn could protest, Faramir stepped forward and said, "Allow me to escort you to your chamber, lady."
"I need no escort," she protested.
Faramir, with the grace and aplomb that was second nature to him, answered, "For this night only, lady, let me do you this service. There may be more ruffians about, and your sword arm is injured." As he spoke, he lifted his sword from the table and saluted her with it, gravely.
Éowyn, outnumbered and sped on her way by a firm, courteous farewell from Boromir, allowed Faramir to bow her out of the room. As the door shut behind them, Ioreth bustled over to Boromir and began to hand the Warden his tools, while keeping up a steady stream of chatter.
The Warden let her ramble for a few minutes, until he noticed the rigid frown on Boromir's face and the way he flinched at the sound of Ioreth's voice. Then, in his mild, authoritative way, he cut off her flow of noise and said, "Many of our patients were stirring, as we came in. I think it best that we calm and reassure them, before they think to seek us here and disturb the Steward's counsels. Go you, Ioreth, and see them settled. Tell them what tale you will, but do not let them leave their rooms."
"And say nothing of swords or assassins!" Boromir added, sharply.
"Swords and assassins!" Ioreth threw a hand up in shocked protest. "Frighten our sick and injured with tales of swords and assassins? I shudder to think of it, my lord!"
"Good," Boromir grunted.
The Warden smothered a smile and waved Ioreth out of the room to do his bidding. When the door had once more closed, leaving the kitchen in blessed quiet, Boromir sank back in his chair with an audible groan.
"For pity's sake, Gil, why did you bring that woman?"
"I brought her," the Warden answered. "She is an able nurse and a remarkably wise woman, beneath all her dithering."
"Very, very far beneath," Boromir muttered.
Having vented some of his spleen, Boromir fell quiet and let the healer work, uninterrupted. In the middle of the process, Faramir slipped back into the room, his sword still in his hand. Boromir greeted him with a nod but seemed unwilling to break the silence. Faramir laid his weapon on the table, drew up a stool, and sat down with a weary sigh.