14. Night Whispers - Part II
"All is quiet." That earned him another nod and a wordless grunt. "I spoke with the sentries. They have heard nothing." When Boromir still did not speak, Faramir fixed him with a severe gaze and said, "'Tis time you told me what you know of this attack, Brother. Who was it tried to kill you? And why?"
Boromir frowned, nettled by his brother's calm assumption of authority, but answered readily enough, "Soldiers of Morthond, from Blackroot Vale, by their dress and speech. I cannot tell you why."
"The men of Blackroot Vale are archers, not swordsmen."
"Aye. That would explain why I am not now dead, with a sword through my throat. They had courage enough to make the attempt but not skill enough to do it right. They hesitated when they should have pressed the attack. And one of them had the chance to skewer me where I lay, yet he held his hand."
Faramir made a thoughtful noise in his throat, his eyes fixed sightlessly on the table top while his mind raced. "Soldiers, driven by some fierce compulsion, working with unfamiliar weapons and against the promptings of honor. But what compulsion could force them to such a desperate act?"
Merry, who had sat quietly through all of this, on a low stool, munching an apple, could not contain himself any longer. "Nothing could force them to murder their liege lord! They chose to do it."
"True enough, Merry," Boromir said, heavily, "but sometimes, we make ill choices with the best of intentions."
Merry bit off his next words, remembering the moment when he had learned of Boromir's betrayal of the Fellowship, and his own willingness to forgive. He felt no such willingness where the assassins were concerned, but he could understand how Boromir might hesitate to condemn them out of hand. Merry was privately glad that he had the luxury of hating those two men, regardless of their motives, and did not have to deal with them fairly. Kings and stewards did not have that luxury.
"We can rest easy on one score," Boromir went on. "Duinhir of Morthond marches tomorrow, taking his men and our problem with him."
Faramir's head came up with a start, a frown darkening his features, then he jumped to his feet. "We must make haste. The king will want to question Duinhir and find the source of this unrest..."
"Aragorn shall know nothing of it."
Faramir gazed at his brother in astonishment. "You'll not send a messenger to him, telling him of the attack?"
"I will not."
"He must be told!"
"I'll not have Aragorn troubled by what he cannot help. There is time enough for that, when he returns."
To Merry's surprise, Faramir did not seem to hear the finality in his brother's tone. He went on doggedly, in the teeth of Boromir's growing anger, "Surely the king will want to know that murder has been tried within his city."
Boromir's temper snapped. Half rising from his chair, pulling himself free of the healer's hands, he bellowed, "This is not Aragorn's city! He does not yet rule in Minas Tirith, nor do you, Brother! Am I not Steward here?"
Angry color stained Faramir's cheeks, but his control held and his voice remained calm. "Aye."
"Then give me leave to rule, as I see fit!"
"Of course, my lord." Faramir executed a stiff bow. Merry studied the younger man's face for some hint of irony, but Faramir looked to be in grave earnest. "I beg your pardon."
Sinking back into his chair, Boromir rubbed his face tiredly. "Plague take you, Faramir, why must you always push me so far? Do you enjoy watching me play the tyrant?"
"Nay, I do not."
Merry heard sorrow and reproach in Faramir's voice, and he wondered what had upset him so deeply. Did he not know his own brother well enough to see the exhaustion that gripped him? The anxiety and bitter frustration that goaded him to lash out in such a way? Boromir spoke not from arrogance, but from weariness, a lack of patience, and the desperate need to spare his battered city yet another wound, to spare his king yet another burden. It seemed painfully clear to Merry. Why not, then, to his brother?
In the heavy silence that fell between the brothers, they heard the tramp of booted feet in the hallway. The Warden cocked his head to listen, then deftly fastened the last pin in the bandage about Boromir's ribs and crossed to the door. He refused to hurry, even when a fist hammered on the door and made the wood shudder. As he opened the door, he stood squarely in the path of the men on the other side.
Merry caught a glimpse of silver helms and black fabric, then a vaguely familiar voice said, "I seek the Lord Boromir. Is he within?"
"Aye, but he is injured and in need of rest."
"We come on his orders, Warden. We have caught one of the assassins."
"Let them in," Boromir called. With Gil's help, he had managed to don his tattered shirt again and now straightened up in his chair, pulling his authority about him like a war cloak.
Four guardsmen, led by the lieutenant they had met in the garden, clanked and stomped into the kitchen, once more causing the room to shrink alarmingly. Two of them walked with drawn swords, dragging a third man between them. The prisoner's hands were bound behind him, his head bare, and his face smeared with congealed blood from a cut high on his cheek. He was clad in brown leathers, with light chain mail showing at his throat and wrists. His boots were caked with mud. His scabbard hung empty at his side. He had no ornament, no device, no badge upon him, save the clasp on his belt, which was cast in the shape of a deer's head, but loose threads at the shoulders and breast of his tabard showed where some device had been clumsily removed.
The lieutenant strode over to Boromir and saluted, crisply. Then he did the same to Faramir. "We caught this man hiding in a carter's shed, lord, in the second circle. He will give no account of himself, but he wears the garments of Morthond's archers and bears a fresh sword cut upon his face." Taking a naked sword and a leather cap from one of his men, the lieutenant laid them on the table before Faramir. "He surrendered this weapon. It is unbloodied."
Merry studied the face of the prisoner, hunting for something that he could recognize, something that would brand this man as an assassin, but he saw nothing. The man held himself stiffly, proudly, showing no weakness before the sons of Denethor, and only the rapid shifting of his eyes from one brother to the other betrayed his fear.
Boromir turned a cold, harsh face toward the prisoner. "Who are you?"
"Hirluin of Morthond." No one in the room missed the hostility in his voice, or the pointed refusal to acknowledge Boromir's rank.
"Do you know who I am, Hirluin of Morthond?"
"Boromir, son of Denethor, who sits in the Steward's chair."
"And did you know who I was when you tried to kill me?"
Hirluin hesitated, licking his lips in nervousness. "I am a soldier. I kill only at my liege lord's command."
"You wanted to throw me off the wall, so that my body would be found, broken, on the streets. Was that at your lord's command?" The man held his tongue, and Boromir continued, icily, "I may not see your face, Hirluin, but I am not yet deaf or in my dotage. I know you by your voice. You are a traitor and an assassin."
Panic flared in the prisoner's eyes, and behind his back, he made a sign to ward off evil. "I claim the protection of my liege lord! I am not subject to the whims of Gondor!"
"You were summoned to fight beneath the banner of Gondor, and it is to Gondor that you will answer for your treachery."
Hirluin's eyes jumped from face to face, finding no pity, no softening in any. He licked his lips again and tried to hold his proud posture, but the weight of anger in the room overbore him and made him sag in his captors' hands.
"I did what I had to do. I did my duty," he muttered.
Faramir leaned toward him, his grey eyes fierce and compelling. "Do you mean to tell us that you were under orders? Do you accuse the Lord Duinhir, or any of his captains, of this foul deed?"
"Nay, they know nothing! But 'twas our duty, as loyal sons of Morthond, as allies to Gondor's crown..." His eyes rolled wildly in panic, looking everywhere but at Boromir, his words coming ever faster. "The armies will fail! The darkness will come! And where will we flee but to Minas Tirith? Without her, there is no road back from Mordor for any of us! Without her, we are doomed to die beneath the Shadow!"
"Speak sense, man," Faramir urged. "We all know what doom faces us, and we all must fight it as we can. Minas Tirith will stand, so long as there are swords enough to defend her, and she will give refuge to any foe of Sauron who reaches her gates."
"Nay, nay, she cannot, so long as the Shadow stalks her streets!" He pointed a shaking finger at Boromir, and his voice scaled up in alarm. "He brings darkness to all Gondor! He is an omen of defeat, a weapon of the Enemy at our throats! So long as he commands the armies of Minas Tirith, they are doomed to fall! They say his own father dreamt of his coming and went mad with grief!"
The lieutenant reacted swiftly, striking Hirluin across the face with his mailed fist. The prisoner staggered backward but could not fall, with guardsmen holding his arms. "Watch your foul tongue, traitor, or I'll cut it out! You'll not poison the air with your lies!"
"Enough," Faramir said, wearily. "Get him out of here."
"Wait." All eyes turned on Boromir, and the prisoner stiffened in alarm. "You speak of Gondor's doom with such certainty, Hirluin. How do you know what fate awaits us?"
"The signs are clear," Hirluin insisted.
"They are not clear to me. You call me an omen of defeat, yet I have fought all my life for Gondor. How is it that I am now the weapon at her throat?"
Something about the directness of the question and the earnest way in which Boromir asked it drained the righteous anger from Hirluin. For the first time since coming before the Steward, he seemed uncertain, even ashamed.
"I know not," he muttered. "I know only what all the armies know - that you walk in darkness and bring that darkness to us all."
"So you would kill me for the superstitious whispers of soldiers?"
Hirluin shifted uncomfortably, his gaze sliding away from Boromir's face, and clamped his jaw shut.
Boromir leaned tiredly back in his chair. To the lieutenant, he said, "Take him to the Citadel."
The officer saluted smartly and waved the prisoner's escort toward the door. Hirluin, pulling the shreds of his soldierly pride around him again, walked out between his guards with his head high. As the door shut behind them, the lieutenant asked, "Have you any further orders, Captain?"
"Find out where his partner is, if you can, and who planted these fool idea in his head."
"We'll find the other, Captain. The Guard will not fail you!"
Boromir smiled in acknowledgement of his fervent vow, but his face remained grim and strained. "Keep the prisoner under close guard. Tell no one outside your company what has transpired and let no one speak to him without my leave. I want no rumors of murder and treason flying about the city." He gave a small sigh and added, quietly, "Our people have enough to fear in the coming days."
It took an age to get them all out of the room. Boromir did his best to remain calm and courteous, though his body ached and his head swam with exhaustion, but when the lieutenant, at Faramir's urging, tried to saddle him with a pair of guards, he finally erupted in rage and ordered them all away. The Warden left, as efficiently and gracefully as he had come, taking Faramir with him. The guardsmen tramped off to resume their duties. Merry was the last to go and the most difficult to dislodge from his side, but Boromir would not hear his protests. The halfling was staggering with weariness and still weak from his injury. Boromir could hear it in his voice. When he finally threatened to summon Ioreth and have Merry carried to bed, the halfling relented and bid him a subdued good night.
At last, he was alone. Or nearly so. One person still moved purposefully about the room, her skirts swishing against the flagstones, and Boromir found her presence oddly soothing. He could listen to the quiet sounds she made as she worked and shut out the worries that crowded so closely upon him. Slowly, he relaxed, sinking back in the chair and stretching his legs out before him, and a pleasant lethargy settled over him.
A rich, tantalizing scent drifted around him, making his mouth water, and he straightened up in his chair. "What are you cooking?" he asked.
Gil answered, in her abrupt way, "Spiced wine." She crossed the room to him and set something down on the table with a thump of metal against wood. "It takes the sting out of sword cuts."
Boromir waited until she had turned back to her hearth, then he found the tankard she had set before him and curled his hands around it, gratefully. The smell alone seemed to ease the pain in his wounds. He took a sip, and a wide smile lit his face.
"I wonder why I never tasted such medicine, before?"
"You never came to me with your wounds, my lord."
Boromir chuckled. "Come, Gil, join me. You must have some aches this medicine will cure."
"I beg your pardon, lord, but it won't do."
"What won't do?"
"Me having a drink with the Steward. 'Tis unseemly."
Gil sounded prim, but she had not adopted her wooden voice, so Boromir decided that she was not truly offended. Using the mock growl he normally reserved for Merry and Pippin, he retorted, "What is unseemly is to argue with your Steward. Now, get yourself a cup and sit."
"Aye, my lord. If you insist, my lord."
Controlling the urge to laugh, Boromir waited for her to pour herself a tankard of mulled wine and pull a stool up to the table. He found her humility amusing, when coupled with her shrewish tongue and acid temper, but he was by no means sure how she would react to his amusement. He really knew almost nothing about her, and considering the awkwardness of their first meeting, he would do well to tread softly now.
When he heard her take a sip of wine and give a small sigh of contentment, he lowered his own cup and said, mildly, "I thank you for your help, tonight."
"I did naught but my duty, lord."
"You did it with a clear head and little fuss, for which I am grateful."
She gave a short, humorless laugh. "Fussing cleans no wounds and mops no floors."
"You are a very practical woman, Gil."
"I have no time to be anything else."
"Don't you ever wonder what else you could be?"
"Wondering is for the rich and the idle. I am neither. You are in a fanciful mood tonight, my lord."
"I was thinking of the stars and trying to remember the tales my brother used to tell. Elvish tales. Mayhap one of them was of Gilthaethil." He smiled lazily at her, feeling the effects of the wine in his veins, warming his sleep-starved limbs, lightening his mood and loosening his tongue. "Gilthaethil, the Elven Princess. What did she do to earn her place in the legends, I wonder? Did she slay dragons? Defeat armies? Rescue her mortal love from the black pits of Angband?"
"I think I know that one," Gil mused.
"Very likely. I can never keep my elvish heroes straight. But I'll wager she didn't mop floors."
"Those Princesses never do."
The dry note in her voice made him laugh. "Did Ioreth never tell you the story of Gilthaethil?"
"If she did, I've forgotten it."
"My brother would know it. He knows them all. Shall I ask him?"
"Do not trouble him with this foolishness, I pray you."
Boromir smiled again and sipped his wine, letting the subject drop. After a moment of comfortable quiet, he asked, "How did you come to be here, Gil?"
"You woke me with your shouting."
"Nay, not in the kitchen, in this House. How came you to live in the Houses of Healing?"
"I have always been here. It is all the home I know, all the life I know."
"You were born here?"
"Nay, I was left as a newborn babe, on a patch of wasteground, tied in an old sack." Her matter-of-fact tone did not allow for pity. "Ioreth found me, brought me here, and made me what I am."
"And you know nothing of your family? Your people?"
"Then you might be an Elven Princess, after all."
Gil responded to his gentle teasing with a snort of disgust. "That only happens in the tales your brother tells."
"Ah, but they are all true! Ask Faramir. Ask Legolas. Ask Aragorn, King Elessar, who is himself a legend come to life! So might you be."
"Princesses do not mop floors, and I do not believe in pretty tales."
"I beg your pardon." Boromir settled back in his chair, his legs stretched out before him and his cup held cradled between his hands, balanced on the clasp of his sword belt. "Of course, you are right." He paused, then added, "But why did Ioreth give you such a name?"
"She is more fanciful, even, than you."
Boromir chuckled, intrigued by her view of him. He had never been called fanciful in his life, and he wondered what kind of dour, passionless nature would view his as fanciful. Gil did not seem passionless, yet she rigidly denied any kind of emotion, any hint of dreaming or imagination or thought of life beyond the stone walls of this House. In his current state - giddy with exhaustion and warmed by the potent wine - he toyed with the idea of cracking the shell Gil wore and letting out the creature who lived inside it. He could do it, he knew, and he had an ambition to find out just what kind of woman she truly was.
Then her voice came to him, tart, matter-of-fact, recalling him to a sense of propriety. "She thinks I have Elvish blood. Warden says it's possible. He says I have the look of the southern peoples, from the lands where Elvish blood still mixes with human."
"Dol Amroth. 'Tis a noble lineage."
"To claim a lineage, you need family. I have none."
"I could envy you that," Boromir mused, thinking of his own tormented family. Much as he loved his father and brother, there were times when he wished that he had no family, no name, no burden of love or guilt or hope to carry for them. "When I feel the weight of all those generations upon me, the long line of Steward's at my back, all watching and judging..."
Gil set her cup down with a snap, cutting off his murmured words. "You're drunk."
"I am not." Boromir pushed himself straighter in his chair, with some difficulty due to the tenderness of his wounds, and frowned at her. "I am tired. Too tired, perhaps, to guard my tongue. I am not drunk."
"Then get you to bed and rest."
Boromir thought briefly of his private chambers, high in the Citadel tower, and the wide, soft bed that awaited him there. He shuddered slightly and pushed himself to his feet. "A walk in the gardens will clear my head."
Gil started to her feet at the same moment, moving forward with a hand out to halt him. Boromir took an unwary step, and they collided, dashing the contents of the tankards they held down their fronts. Boromir staggered hastily backward, caught his heel on the leg of his chair, and lost his balance. Gil's hand on his forearm stopped him from a bruising, undignified fall, but her strong grip crushed the bandage into his fresh wound and started the blood flowing again.
Boromir gave a hiss of pain, and Gil snatched her hand away.
"I beg your pardon, my lord!"
This was the first time Boromir had ever heard Gil sound anxious - not angry or caustic, but truly distressed - and it made his embarrassment all the more acute. He smiled awkwardly, feeling his face heat. "Nay, as ever, 'tis I who must beg your pardon."
Gil cleared her throat and shook out her skirts. In her usual dry tone, she said, "I am growing used to it. But if you walk about the gardens in this state, you will pitch headlong over the wall and do that traitor's work for him. Why will you not sleep, lord?"
Boromir's features tightened in pain, and he turned away from Gil's sharp gaze. His impulse was to lash out at her, push her away before she saw the despised weakness and uncertainty festering within him, but the thought of what had passed between them this night gave him pause. Gil had, in her own gruff way, let see something of her. She had dropped her guard, forgotten to call him 'my lord' with every breath, allowed him to treat her as a friend, even allowed him to laugh at her. He could not repay that precarious trust with coldness. He could, and he would, tell her the truth.
"I do not sleep well, anymore, especially inside stone walls." He sat down on the edge of the table and let his shoulders droop under the weight of his exhaustion. He unconsciously clenched and unclenched his right fist, pulling against the wounded muscles in his arm, as he spoke. "I cannot relax, if I cannot taste clean air and feel the wind against my face. And when I am alone, my thoughts keep me restless... wakeful. I'll not go into the Tower at night, when all is cold stone and empty halls. I can hear the torches snapping. I hate the sound of torches. And the smell."
Gil said nothing for a long, long moment. Boromir could hear her steady breathing and the soft crackle of the fire on the cooking hearth, but nothing more. What she made of his confession, he could not tell. A woman who had lived all her life in these Houses would know nothing of dungeons or wizards or the terrible stench of burning in closed and airless space. But perhaps she could catch an echo of that horror and understand what drove him to haunt the gardens at night.
"Is there any room in this House where you would sleep?" she finally asked.
Boromir immediately thought of Merry - dear, loyal, longsuffering Merry, who had talked him through the long nights on their ride from Edoras. Merry was in this House. "Merry, the halfling. Does his room have a window?"
Relief lightened his face, and he held out his hand to Gil. "Good. I can sleep there."
Without a word, Gil took his hand, and they walked out of the room together.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.