17. Out of Doubt, Out of Dark - Part II
Something approaching a smile touched Boromir's lips then faded as quickly as it had come. Faramir immediately sensed that he had exhausted his reserves of strength and courage on this matter, and needed to move on to less charged subjects. Shifting the conversation abruptly, Faramir said, "Mithrandir has told me of the destruction of Isengard, but not of your rescue. How did you escape the dungeons?"
A real smile flickered over Boromir's face. "Better to ask Merry for that tale. He relishes the telling of it, especially Uglúk's part."
Boromir shook his head, brushing away the hopeful question. "Uglúk must keep for another time. Of our escape, I remember nothing save a voice - Merry's, I believe - telling me that Aragorn was safe and well. The rest is darkness... for which I am grateful."
Boromir fell quiet, and Faramir did not press him. He knew that his brother had only touched upon the trials of his journey, but Faramir was content. With this glimpse into the fire pits of Isengard, horrible as it was, he had also glimpsed his brother again. More than glimpsed. He had found Boromir waiting for him beneath the shadows and pain and layers of protection. He had all that he had come for, and he would try his brother's patience no further.
On an impulse, Faramir stretched out his hand to clasp Boromir's arm. The other man turned toward him, a question in his face, and Faramir smiled. "Thank you, Brother."
"For what?" Boromir asked.
"You have already thanked me for that."
"But this time, you are here to stay."
Boromir smiled. His hand covered Faramir's and gripped it strongly. He opened his mouth to speak, then seemed to change his mind as a new thought occurred to him. A quizzical look came over his face. "I meant to ask you, but forgot in all the furor. Do you know the story of Gilthaethil?"
"Gilthaethil?" Faramir asked, dubiously. "Why?"
"'Tis some Elvish legend, is it not? Full of valiant deeds and melancholy?"
"Gilthaethil was an elven princess of the Second Age." Faramir pointedly drew his hand away from Boromir's clasp and planted both fists on his hips. He frowned suspiciously at his brother. "Why do you ask?"
"I was trying to remember if I had ever heard the tale, but they all run together in my mind." He gave a slight, taunting smile. "One elven princess is much like another."
Faramir snorted in disgust, and Boromir chuckled.
"Humor me, Brother. Sit with me of an evening, when the war does not press too closely upon us, and tell me the tale of Gilthaethil."
"I will tell it now, if you like."
"Nay. Elvish stories need Elvish stars overhead. And this is not the time for such indulgence."
"Under the stars, then. But pray, Boromir, why this sudden interest in what you have so often termed 'ancient rubbish'?"
"I have met some of your legends, walking under the sky of Middle-earth, and I have learned a thing or two about them. They are as far above my disdain as are the stars above my head."
"And why Gilthaethil, in particular?"
"Ah, that is for Gil."
Faramir's brows rose in surprise. "Gil? Do you mean the drudge?"
"Aye. Her proper name is Gilthaethil."
Disapproval and reluctant curiosity warred in Faramir, bringing a heavy scowl to his face that made him look astonishingly like his brother. "Do you cherish some vain hope that she is a wandering elf? Or the lost scion of a noble house?"
Boromir laughed. "Nay, I simply want to know the legend."
Faramir glowered at him for a moment, then demanded, "What do you mean to do with the drudge?"
"Do with her?" Boromir's surprise turned to sardonic humor. "Why, set her up as Queen of Gondor, of course. Once I have usurped Aragorn's throne, I will need a suitable partner for my reign."
"I do not find that funny."
"Do not trouble yourself, Brother. I do not mean to do anything with Gil. I like her. That is all."
"Why do you like her? What has a low-born, illiterate, nameless servant in her to earn your liking?"
Boromir pondered his question carefully, his brow knit in thought. Finally, he answered, "She is honest and blunt and practical, with no cunning in her. And not a shred of pity."
Faramir accepted this in perplexed silence. He could not approve Boromir's growing attachment to such a one as Gil, but he had been forcibly shown, more than once today, that he must not judge his brother by outward appearance. Perhaps she was merely a side-effect of his current isolation from his peers and his struggle to regain his place among them. Perhaps she would drop back into obscurity, when he established himself as Steward. Or perhaps their friendship was deeper than reason could explain, and Faramir would simply have to suffer with it. Whatever the truth, he would have to wait and see. He did not have the strength to broach another tender subject, on this day of revelations.
Boromir seemed to hear his thoughts. He reached out a hand towards his brother and, when Faramir clasped it, said, "Get you back to the Tower and our waiting lords. Deal with them as you will. I am not yet ready to brave that thick air again, so soon."
"Peace, Brother. We have both said enough for this day."
"When Aragorn returns..."
"You will have to choose upon which side to throw your weight. Until then, do as you promised. Wait, watch, and consider. I ask nothing more."
Faramir gave his hand a squeezed and turned to leave.
"Send Merry to me!" Boromir called.
He nodded, then remembered that such a gesture was wasted on his brother. "I will." With that, he walked silently away.
*** *** ***
Elenard watched as the rider spurred his lathered horse through camp. The pounding of hooves and the sharp challenge of the pickets had roused him from an uneasy sleep and jerked him upright to search the night with wide, troubled eyes. Dawn had not yet touched the sky, and in the dying light of the campfires, Elenard could not make out the device on the rider's surcote, but he could not doubt from whence the man had ridden in such haste. The great, swift horse between his knees and the leather tube, with its pendant seals, slung across his back marked him clearly as an errand-rider of Gondor.
An errand-rider, pursuing the army through the night 'til his horse nearly foundered, carrying dispatches to the Lord Elfstone. To Elenard's overwrought mind, it could mean only one thing. Hirluin had betrayed him. He had not escaped, after all.
He stared after the retreating figure until it was lost to sight in the darkness, then he lay back on his pallet and fixed his blank gaze on the featureless sky above him. His ears strained to catch any untoward sound from the camp - angry voice, tramping feet, anything that might herald the approach of grey-clad men with stern faces and implacable eyes.
It did not occur to him to run. The Shadow Steward might call him traitor, but he was no coward and no deserter. When the Rangers came for him, they would find him with his comrades in arms, preparing for war, as befit a soldier of Morthond.
Aragorn paced the floor of his tent in a restless circle, his eyes downcast, his hands clasped behind his back. He could feel the others watching him, waiting, their concern washing over him in palpable waves. Imrahil and Éomer, his most valiant generals. Legolas and Gimli, his most loyal companions. And Halbarad, his faithful, grey shadow. They had all come to learn the news from Minas Tirith and offer their lord what support and counsel they might.
Aragorn continued to pace, while Legolas read the dispatch, holding the parchment where Gimli could see it. The dwarf gave a grunt of anger and his hand tightened on the haft of his axe, as his eyes scanned the neatly-penned lines.
Imrahil cast him a frowning glance. "What news, my lord?"
Halting his steps, Aragorn turned stormy eyes on the Prince. "Boromir warns me of a possible threat to my life."
Only Legolas and Gimli, who were privy to the full contents of Boromir's letter, did not react to this. Imrahil and Éomer exclaimed in protest, while Halbarad scowled furiously and crossed to the tent opening. He twitched the canvas open, peering out, as if to reassure himself that no assassin lurked outside.
"Two men tried to assassinate the Steward last night. It seems one of them escaped to the army and marches with us."
Imrahil's face was pale and strained in the candlelight. "The Steward? Who would dare raise a hand against Gondor's Steward?"
Aragorn's lips tightened in anger. "Soldiers of Morthond."
The Prince cursed softly. "And Boromir? How fares my kinsman?"
Legolas answered, "He writes that he is well and took no serious hurt." A smile lightened the elf's eyes for a moment, as he added, "Merry came to his rescue, and they captured one of his attackers."
Gimli twitched the paper from Legolas' hands to study it more closely. "By his account, the villain spouts much of the same nonsense we heard in the camp ere we marched. Superstition and fear, twisted into treasonous lies!"
"Aye," Aragorn said, "It seems I should have paid more heed to those night whispers."
Éomer stepped quickly forward, his face clouded with anger and concern. "My lord, what shall we do? We cannot take this traitor with us into battle, nor can we leave Boromir unaided..."
"We can, and we must. Boromir puts me on my guard, so that no plot will take me unawares, but he neither asks nor expects that I turn back! Do but consider, Éomer. All of this," he flicked his fingers at the parchment in Gimli's hands, "comes to naught, if Sauron defeats us. We must march against him and draw him from his Black Gates, though only a handful of staunch warriors go with us."
"'Tis not a widespread treason," Halbarad asserted. "The Dúnedain would have heard the rumblings among the soldiery."
"I heard rumblings enough," Legolas said, with deceptive mildness.
"Against our King? And you did not bring word to me?"
"I brought word to the King."
"The loose talk in the camp was all against Boromir, not against me," Aragorn said. "I deemed him capable of handling any problem that arose, and clearly, he has done just that. He assures me that the city is secure, the people unaware of the threat to their Steward, and the threat itself of no account."
"But what of you?" Éomer cried. "The assassin is now concealed in your army!"
Aragorn thought for a moment, then shrugged. "There is little likelihood that he will move against me. If he does, we will be ready for him."
"If it is the Men of Morthond who harbor this traitor, I say we place the burden of finding him upon Duinhir! Let him lance the boil on his own backs..."
"Peace, Éomer." Aragorn turned to Imrahil and said, "You know Duinhir well, do you not?"
"Aye, lord. Think you Duinhir is party to this vile act? I cannot credit it."
"I know not, but I agree with Éomer. The Lord of Morthond has much to answer for. Bring him to me when we make camp this night, and I will get to the truth of it. And now, my lords, we must prepare to march. Get you to your tents."
Both Imrahil and Éomer turned to leave, but Halbarad hung back.
"By your leave, Aragorn, I will send my Rangers through the army and glean what news I may. They can pass silent and unseen, and the men will say in their presence what they will never reveal to their own officers."
"And I will double your escort on the march."
"As you will, Halbarad. I leave it in your hands."
The Ranger ducked out of the tent, leaving Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli together. No one moved or spoke until the voices of the sentries had died to silence and Halbarad's footsteps had faded into the camp. Then Legolas stirred. Taking the parchment from Gimli, he rolled it neatly and slipped it into its leather tube.
"You will not tell them the rest?" he asked.
"I will not."
"I find myself loath to believe that any of those present tonight would act against you."
Gimli growled, "Those closest to you, Boromir said. Who, besides ourselves, is closer to the King than those three Men?"
Aragorn began pacing again. "I wish that Boromir had been more plain."
"And risk having that dispatch read by every pair of eyes in this tent?" Legolas' brows rose in surprise. "He is too wise a general for that. He told you all he could, I warrant, and as he says, he has no proof of treason, only rumor and supposition. You would not condemn a man for that."
"Nay. I understand why he gives me no more than a veiled warning, but still I wish for more. I would have just one person - just one traitor - that I could lay my hands on!" He held out his hands, fingers curled to grab and crush, and snarled, "I vow that someone will pay for this!"
Legolas shot a wintry smile at Gimli and murmured, "Our King needs a sword in his hand an a battle to fight."
"Aye," the dwarf said, "we'll find one, soon enough."
Aragorn dropped his hands. The rage in his eyes cooled to his usual grave thoughtfulness. "Until we find our enemy, we must be cautious. We three alone know of Boromir's suspicions, and so it must stay."
"And if Imrahil or Halbarad is plotting against the Steward?"
Aragorn smiled at Gimli. "I notice you did not include Éomer in that list."
Gimli gave a snort of laughter. "Éomer would no sooner harm Boromir than you or I would. Methinks, when you do find your traitor, you will be hard put to it to keep the King of the Mark from hacking him to bits!"
The Ranger's smile widened. "I may let him do it. Come, 'tis time to rouse the hobbit and arm ourselves for the march."
"You did not answer Gimli's question," Legolas pointed out.
"What would you have me say? I need all my allies beside me now, so long as they have courage enough to raise their swords against the Enemy. When the fighting is done, then will the poisons hatch out and the treasons be revealed. Then, if I still live to breathe the sweet air of Middle-earth, will I punish those who dare to harm my friend."
The trumpets tumbled Elenard from his bed and brought him to his feet. Dawn paled the sky, and all about him, the camp stirred. Obedient to the familiar horn calls, he hurried to break camp and pack his gear, but all the while, his eyes scanned the mass of soldiers around him.
He saw nothing to alarm him - no guardsmen in black and silver livery, no grey-clad Rangers with drawn swords. His own officers moved casually among the men, spurring them to greater speed and calling their orders above the din. Elenard saw only one stranger in their midst. A single figure strolled between the camfires, seeming bent on his own business yet in no hurry. He drew near to Elenard's fire, and the archer got a good look at him. For a startled moment, Elenard thought he recognized the stranger, but the other man's eyes passed indifferently over his face, and he continued on his way without pause.
A long breath of relief escaped Elenard, as he turned his head away and bent to his task. It seemed, against all hope, that fate smiled upon him still. He was not found out. He was not bound for the dungeons of Minas Tirith, but for war. He would be granted the chance to die a soldier's death, after all.
Shouldering his pack and slinging his weapons, Elenard fell into place in the long column of men. The trumpets sang out a familiar summons, and, with his head lifted proudly and a smile lingering upon his lips, he began to march.
*** *** ***
"You are thoughtful, my lord, and more silent than is your wont."
The soft voice drew Faramir out of his reverie and turned his gaze to the face of the woman seated beside him. She sat in a blaze of fresh sunshine that turned her hair to liquid light and added a flush of color to her pale cheeks. Against the verdure of the garden, she shone like a polished blade, beautiful and fell. Each time he looked upon the Lady Éowyn, Faramir was struck afresh by her beauty and her sadness.
"Forgive me, lady." He lifted her hand and brushed his lips against it. "In your company, I should be ever merry."
"What weighs upon you?" she asked.
He felt the sorrow that her beloved voice had banished fall upon him again, and he answered, abruptly, "My brother."
Éowyn regarded him gravely, neither sympathy nor condemnation in her gaze. "You shared something of your doubts with me, enough that I know you fear for him and for your people."
"Aye, but I was not thinking of Gondor, just now." He turned his eyes away from her chill beauty, unable to bear it with a heart so full of anguish. "Only of Boromir. I grieve for him."
A heavy silence followed his words, broken when Éowyn said, in a quiet, firm voice, "It is not my place to instruct you in your duty to brother or land, my lord, but I must speak."
"Instruct me as you will, lady. I would hear aught you have to say to me."
"It is merely this. The Lord Boromir is a man of honor. You will not hear me speak ill of him or admit any doubt of his fitness to rule Gondor in the King's stead."
Faramir eyed her in wonder, moved by her words but more by the eager light in her eyes, which he had never seen there before. "You can speak thus of my brother? As little as you know him?"
"I do not know your brother's mind, but I know his mettle. He is all honor, all duty, and all greatness of heart. I watched him rise from a sickbed that nearly claimed his life, to follow his king into the very storms of Mordor. I rode into that storm at his side, together with the holbytla, and I watched him forfeit the solace of Merry's company, rather than allow the young one to break his sworn oath to Théoden King. Neither wished to part from the other, and it meant greater peril for both, but honor and duty demanded it. The holbytla, not versed in our ways, would have cast aside his vow for love of his lord, but Boromir would not hear of it. Because of Boromir, Merry stood with me upon the Pelennor fields, and together, we slew the Witch King."
"Boromir rode away from the battle, leaving a maiden and a halfling to fight alone? That is not like my brother."
"He forfeited his chance for renown upon the field, to bring his sword and his wisdom home to Mundberg and those who most needed them. His ways are not mine. I could not ride away from battle as he did, and yet I know that what he did was meet and wise and wholly honorable. And I esteem him greatly for it."
Faramir sat in silence, weighing her words. Éowyn did not intrude upon his thoughts, but left him alone with them.
At last, he lifted his head and turned his eyes again upon her. "I thank you for your candor, lady. You give me much to consider."
"If you would hear more of Lord Boromir, more that touches upon his heart, speak to the holbytla. They have trodden all the paths from Imladris together, and the love between them is steadfast."
"I have done so. Merry is as eloquent in defense of my brother as you are in his praise."
Again, Faramir fell into private thought. In remembering all that had been said to him since Boromir's return, he now realized that no member of the Fellowship, no person of worth or valor who had journeyed with Boromir would speak against him - not the loyal halfling, not Elf, Dwarf or Wizard, not Éowyn, and not Aragorn himself. Aragorn had passed through the flame and agony of Orthanc at Boromir's side, and now he placed his birthright in Boromir's hands without hesitation.
"Aragorn has chosen him," Faramir mused.
"Aye, and who will gainsay the King?"
"I was prepared to do so. But now..."
He hesitated, and Éowyn prompted, gently, "Now, my lord?"
"Now I know something of what befell them, and I begin to understand. I begin to see through my brother's eyes, a little."
Éowyn almost smiled, the closest he had ever seen her come to it. "An odd choice of words, lord."
"But apt. His is not a pleasant view of the world, nor without pain, and I cannot say that I am comfortable with it."
"Do any of us look upon the world without pain, in this hour of doom?"
Faramir shook his head and, unconsciously, let his eyes stray to the east.
"When the King returns, all will be healed," Éowyn murmured, echoing his silent hope.
Faramir looked at her and felt the her beauty pierce him afresh. "There was something Merry said to me," he murmured, "about Aragorn bringing me back from the Shadow. 'Twas the King's voice called me back, but it was you, lady, who brought true healing to my heart."
Éowyn bowed her head and turned her face away from his intent gaze. "His voice called me back, as well, but I have not yet found true healing."
"That will come with time and with hope, I trust." He fell quiet again, thinking, then murmured, "True healing cannot be rushed. It needs time."
A sudden, brilliant smile lit his face, and he clasped Éowyn's hand, lifting it to his lips in a fervent salute. "I thank you, lady! You have instructed me better than you know!"
Éowyn made no move to withdraw her hand from his. "I will be satisfied to have lightened your heart, my lord."
"You have." He kissed her hand again and smiled into her solemn eyes. "Even in this darkest hour, you have given me hope."
*** *** ***
The seventh day after the Armies of the West had marched from Minas Tirith dawned, cold and drear. All eyes in the city turned to the east, wondering into what peril her lords, her captains and her valiant soldiers had marched, and all hearts were darkened. Some eyed the shadow knowingly, measured the leagues that separated the Tower of Guard from her ancient foe, and cried, "Surely they have reached the Black Gates by now! Surely word will come today!" Others, measuring that same distance, shook their heads sagely and said, "Surely they cannot have marched so far so soon. There is time, yet. All is not lost."
The sun slowly climbed the sky. A feeling of anticipation and dread grew in the people of Minas Tirith, and though they told each other that this was a day like all that had gone before, the fear began to weigh upon them, until all traffic in the city came to a halt. People stood about the streets or on the walls, gazing eastward, straining to catch some glint of light on helms and lances, though they knew the army had passed far beyond their sight. Their doom hung heavily upon them.
Even as the sun reached its zenith, the wind abruptly died and the very air seemed poised in readiness. A taut, expectant silence fell upon the land. Every eye was fixed upon the Mountains of Shadow in the distance, and every voiced was stilled.
Into the dread stillness came a low, ominous rumbling. A vast mountain of black smoke rose into the sky, spreading from the east to blot out the sun, its dark mass shot through with lightning and tongues of flame. And as every heart in Gondor quailed, every throat stopped its breath, it seemed as though the city shuddered upon her lofty seat. The walls trembled. The Tower shook. Then with a sigh, Minas Tirith breathed again.
Throughout the city, men and women gazed up in wonder. For out of the terrible darkness, a cold wind blew, and upon the breast of the wind came a wingéd shape, flying straight from the heart of the Shadow. It was a great Eagle, its wings as vast and powerful as the mountains that bred it. As it circled above the city, it cried out in a voice of gladness,
Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor,
for the Realm of Sauron is ended for ever,
and the Dark Tower is thrown down.
Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard,
for your watch hath not been in vain,
and the Black Gate is broken,
and your King hath passed through,
and he is victorious.
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.
And the Tree that was withered shall be renewed,
and he shall plant it in the high places,
and the City shall be blessed.
Sing all ye people!*
Elenard heard the Eagle's voice, as it flew westward above the battlefield. He stood among the fallen, his reddened sword hanging limp at his side, and stared up at the messenger of victory. A wild triumph filled him, and he lifted the weapon, shaking it and crying out his joy. But even as the sound left his lips, he knew a sudden, cold horror. He had gambled all on the certainty that he would die honorably, fighting the great Enemy, and thus atone for the necessary evil he had done. But The Armies of the West had victory, the King would march back to Minas Tirith and his Shadow Steward, and Elenard must march with him. To death of a different kind. Dropping to his knees upon the field, Elenard bowed his head and wept for shame.
Hirluin heard its voice in his dark cell beneath the Tower of Guard. He huddled at the locked door, listening to the distant, piercing music, and smiled through his tears. It made no difference to his fate that Lord Elfstone had defeated the Enemy. He was doomed, regardless. But when he thought of the cool forests and sweet meadows of his home, and of his own children running free beneath an untainted sky, safe from the slavery and blight of Mordor, he wept for joy.
Faramir heard its voice where he stood with Éowyn upon the walls of the city. His heart swelled with a gladness too deep for words. Tears wet his cheeks. His eyes shone with the light of Nimloth the Fair at the world's first dawn. And beside him stood the White Lady of Rohan, her hand in his, her pale hair mingled with his upon the wind. As the Eagle swept above them, its shadow falling across their faces, Faramir turned to Éowyn and, in full view of the rejoicing city, kissed her brow.
Merry heard its voice and drew close to Boromir's side. They stood in the Court of the Fountain, where they had waited all the morning, and listened to the song of victory in silence. When the Eagle had done, Merry let out his breath in a sigh and turned tear-bright eyes upon his friend. Boromir neither moved nor spoke, but Merry saw that his entire frame trembled with the force of the emotion that filled him.
The hobbit slipped his hand into the man's and turned his eyes to the east again, to the roiling darkness that marked the end of Sauron's power.
"He did it," Merry said. "He destroyed the Ring."
"The quest did not fail."
With a swiftness that startled the hobbit, Boromir dropped to a crouch beside him and pulled Merry into a fierce embrace. Merry clung to him, tears starting in his eyes, and felt a sudden, enormous happiness that, of all the creatures in Middle-earth, it was this man who was with him at the moment of victory.
"The Ring is gone," Boromir murmured.
Merry laughed for sheer delight. "And the King is coming home!"
To be continued...
* From The Return of the King, p. 298
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