20. Once More Unto the Breach - Part I
Boromir leaned his elbows on the table, disarranging a pile of documents in the process and earning a look of mild reproach from his king.
"Those papers have been carefully sorted," Aragorn remarked, dryly.
Boromir nudged a pile with his elbow, then fingered the top sheet of parchment. "What is all this?"
"Lists. Dispatches. Proposals for my consideration. Reports on the condition of our defenses and allied lands."
"Rubbish," Boromir growled.
Aragorn stopped his pacing to lean in the window embrasure. He smiled slightly, his eyes warm with affection for his irascible Steward. "This coming from the man who so wanted to be King?"
"We all have our moments of folly."
"Now that you have put aside your folly, you can help your beleaguered king with his labors, instead of muddling up his desk."
Perversely, Boromir brightened at that suggestion. "That is easily done! Only fetch me a candle, and I'll clear your desk in no time..."
Aragorn chuckled. "You don't need a candle. You need a secretary to read all this rubbish to you. Then you can be of real help."
"Secretaries!" Boromir's voice dripped with scorn. "Oily voices and soft hands... Gah! I'll have no secretaries about me."
"We'll find one who isn't too unctuous."
"I'll have none of them, I tell you!"
"Perhaps a retired soldier who is lettered. Or a squire you can train to manage these things the way you like."
"You are not listening to me, Aragorn."
"You will need a squire, in any case, and if we choose one with a talent for..."
"If you send me a squire of any sort," Boromir interjected wrathfully, "I'll toss him out the nearest window!"
Aragorn gazed at him curiously, unperturbed by his flare of temper. "When did you conceive this dire hatred of squires? You were one, were you not?"
"Of course I was. All noblemen's sons get their earliest training as squires..." He broke off and scowled blackly in the King's direction. "Do not try to distract me, Aragorn. I know what is in your mind. You will saddle me with a hoard of attendants who will guard, guide and help me out of my wits!"
"What choice do you have? Without servants you can trust, how will you fulfill your duties as Steward?"
"I already have people I can trust about me."
"But none who will serve the purpose. Even without the burden of stewardship, your brother will be too busy to read dispatches for you. As will I."
Boromir looked suddenly uncomfortable. "I wasn't thinking of you or Faramir."
Aragorn hesitated for a moment, reading his true thoughts in his face, then said, "Merry is leaving."
"Offer him a knighthood or free run of the royal kitchens, and he'll stay."
"Merry is leaving," Aragorn repeated, firmly, and Boromir's scowl darkened. "He stays only for Arwen's coming and my wedding, then he and others will return to the Shire."
"That is his home, Boromir."
"I know it!" Boromir snapped. "It was a jest. Merely a jest. Merry is no wretched underling, to spend his days trailing at my heels and reading piles of cursed lists."
Aragorn tried to smile again, but he found it difficult. "We will find someone you can tolerate."
"I tell you, I don't need anyone. What I need is a new pair of eyes!" With the last, shouted word, Boromir's frustration came to a sudden boil, and he shoved hard against the edge of the table, upending it with a crash and sending drifts of parchment sliding across the floor.
Aragorn came to his feet in alarm but halted well back from the disaster in the middle of the room. Utter stillness followed Boromir's outburst, as the King surveyed the wreckage and the Steward sat very still in his chair, visibly embarrassed by his own behavior.
After a very long moment, Aragorn spoke in a tone of mild reproof. "Those papers were carefully sorted."
"I beg your pardon," Boromir said, stiffly. "I'll clean them up."
"Do not bother. That's what I have wretched underlings for."
A discreet knock on the door signaled the arrival of one such underling, drawn by the noise in the room and concern for his lord. Aragorn opened the door, being careful not to tread on any of his valuable documents as he skirted the edges of the room to reach it, and found his Chamberlain standing outside. The man bowed slightly, his brow creased with disapproval as his eyes dwelt on the wreckage of the study.
"Is aught amiss, my lord?"
"Nay, all is well." The Chamberlain made a disgruntled noise in his throat and turned to leave, but Aragorn halted him with a raised hand. "We will be going down to the council chamber, when the trumpets sound the watch change. You may then send someone to clean this up. Until then, we do not wish to be disturbed."
"Aye, my lord."
Aragorn shut the door and turned to find Boromir still hunched forward in his chair, staring blankly at the darkness around him with a familiar scowl on his face. Since his meeting with Frodo at Cormallen, Boromir had seemed much more at ease, as if he had found some kind of peace within himself. He smiled more readily, even laughed upon occasion, and when his blindness forced him to accept guidance or help from one of his friends, he did so with a grace that Aragorn had not seen in him before. To watch him slip back into his old brooding state was painful for Aragorn.
"What is troubling you?" Aragorn asked, abruptly. He was learning not to treat Boromir's moods delicately, now that there was a bond of trust between them. Delicacy only gave the stubborn man an excuse to avoid questions, while bluntness drew the truth from him quickly. "Is it Merry's departure, or the Council?"
"Both." Boromir slumped back in the chair, still scowling. After a long, tense pause, he asked, "Have you considered that Faramir may yet side with Imrahil?"
"Certainly I have. What of it?"
"You will find it difficult to face down the entire Council, with Faramir to support them."
"I will not."
"Then it is well that the burden falls on me."
Boromir struggled for a moment, clearly trying to force his words past some barrier in himself. When at last he spoke, his voice was oddly desperate. "Why must it be public, Aragorn? Can you not go to Faramir and sound him out in private? If he sides with Imrahil, and the Council backs them, then I will step aside. It need not be a public display of rancor and division!"
"Nay, Boromir, it must."
"I have said I will abide by Faramir's choice..."
"Enough." Aragorn's tone, mild as it was, silenced Boromir. The King crossed the room to where the great table lay on its side and circled around it, stepping over the outstretched legs. Propping himself against the thick edge of its top, he folded his arms across his chest and fixed a kind but unyielding gaze on his friend. "We will not have this argument again. You are my Steward and you will remain my Steward, regardless of what your brother thinks. Have I made myself clear?"
Boromir laced his fingers together and stared down at his hands, where they lay on his lap, hiding his face from Aragorn's eyes. "Then why the farce of this Council?"
"It is no farce, but a necessary step in establishing my reign. I cannot rule Gondor as a tyrant, nor can I act on this behind the scenes, in the shadows, where lies and whispers grow. The people must see that their King deals fairly with nobleman and commoner alike, and that he faces his challengers in the full light of day."
"And my brother?"
"He must declare himself. I must know where his loyalties lie and hear his reasons for his choice."
Boromir stirred uncomfortably. "While I must listen to him number my faults."
"Is there aught that he or any man can say that we have not already heard?"
"Nothing that bears any truth. You know the worst of me, Aragorn."
"Then you have nothing to fear. Have faith in me, Boromir, and in my love for you. I'll not fail you."
"I know you will not." Boromir stared at his hands for another moment, then murmured, "'Tis I who would fail you, my King. In sober truth, I would rather go away with Merry than stay in Minas Tirith and fight this battle against my kin. I could settle in the Shire, lead the life of a hobbit, and spend my days fishing on the Brandywine."
Aragorn smiled fondly at him. "You would make a dreadful hobbit."
"No worse a hobbit than a soldier or a steward."
"Very much worse!" He paused for a moment, then asked, quietly, "Do you think your blindness would be any easier to bear in the Shire - among strange people and strange customs - than it is here?"
Boromir pondered his question at some length. At last he answered, "I would be a stranger there myself, an unknown, judged only by what I am in the present, not by what I once was."
"Yet still an oddity, for your very strangeness, and an object of suspicion. Far better to stay in Minas Tirith, brave the Council, and wait for the turmoil to die down. When all is done, you will find yourself established as Steward and doing the one thing that will give you fulfillment."
"Caring for my land and people."
"Aye. You are a true son of Gondor, Boromir. This is where your heart dwells."
"Not all of my heart." Boromir lifted his head, allowing Aragorn to read his troubled, doubtful expression. "Some part of that will always be lost to me in the green hills of the Shire, with Merry. 'Tis a hard thing to love someone you cannot keep near you."
A vision of Arwen came suddenly to Aragorn's mind, and with it, the feeling of intense longing, pride and sadness that always accompanied thoughts of his future bride. The sadness was fading at last, as their wedding drew near, but he had lived with it for so many years that he could not relinquish it easily. It was woven into the image of her face, into the musical echo of her voice.
"I know it well," he murmured.
He opened his mouth to deliver a calming speech, giving Boromir the benefit of his wide experience, but the sudden call of a trumpet interrupted him. He crossed swiftly to the window and peered downward at the courtyard so far below. The trumpet sang again, heralding the change of the watch. In the street of the sixth circle, a small company of liveried guards marched toward the gate, while in the Court of the Fountain, a number of men clad in rich fabrics and burnished mail broke up their various conversations and headed for the open doors of the Citadel. The guard flanking the great doors saluted them as they passed within.
Turning back to Boromir, he said, "'Tis time."
Boromir pushed himself to his feet and waited for Aragorn to approach him. As his fingers closed a bit too tightly around Aragorn's arm, he muttered, "Let us be done with this."
"Do not be in such a hurry," Aragorn chided. "We should be the last to arrive, when they have had time to wait and worry a bit."
Boromir made a noise in his throat of mingled disgust and amusement, and a wry smile touched his lips. "The King should make a proper entrance."
Together, they left the chamber and strode down the hallway with the measured tread that Aragorn deemed fitting for his dignity. Beside him, Boromir had assumed the harsh, proud mien that had overawed so many men throughout his illustrious career and now concealed his growing dread. It did not fool Aragorn, but it would serve him well in the Council. Aragorn smiled to himself, confident that together the King and his Steward could meet any challenge, any threat that might be leveled at them.
That Aragorn had timed their entrance aright was clear to Boromir from the swell of voices that poured out of the chamber to greet him. All the council must be gathered, waiting, growing more restless and expectant with every minute that passed. He tightened his clasp on Aragorn's arm and squared his shoulders, resolutely subduing his own nervousness as he stepped into the room at the King's side. A thunderous silence met their arrival, then every chair scraped back from the table and every man rose to his feet in a chorus of creaking leather and jingling metal.
How Aragorn greeted this show of respect, Boromir could not tell, but something about his upright carriage and firm step told Boromir that he had slipped into his lordly role. When he chose to do so, Aragorn could change from a quiet, ragged wanderer to the living image of the ancient Númenórean kings, all in a breath. Boromir had spent the morning in conversation with his friend, Aragorn, but now the gathered council of nobles would face King Elessar. And to judge by the palpable tension in the air, they must all have realized this.
Together, Boromir and Aragorn walked the length of the great table to where the King's chair stood at its far end. Aragorn halted and gently broke Boromir's grip on his arm.
"The Steward's traditional place is at the foot of the table, opposite his King," Aragorn said, "but I prefer to have my most valued councilors beside me. Sit here on my right."
Boromir found the high, carved back of a chair ready to hand. He grasped it tightly and awaited Aragorn's signal that they should take their seats. Under cover of the general noise, as all around the table men settled themselves into heavy, wooden chairs, Boromir pulled out his own and sat down. He did not shift forward eagerly or prop his forearms on the table, as he heard those about him doing, but stayed leaning back in the chair, apparently at his ease, distancing himself from the air of excitement in the chamber. If his hands gripped the arms of the chair more tightly than normal, no one could see it. And if his features were unnaturally hard with strain, less than a handful of the men present would suspect the reason for it.
Aragorn waited for his councilors to make themselves comfortable, then he rose again to his feet. The murmurs about the table died. When he spoke, it was in a grave, quiet tone that thinly veiled a wealth of power and an indomitable will.
"My lords, I welcome you to the Citadel of Minas Tirith and the council of King Elessar. I have called you all here, because I have need of your wisdom at this time. We have won a great victory. Now we must forge a lasting peace that will safeguard our people, a peace that does honor to the blood that was shed and the lives that were lost to bring us here. I look to you to help me forge that peace.
"Those of you who are traditional members of the council may look about this chamber and wonder at what you see. You may ask yourselves what the King of the Mark or Gandalf the White have to do with Gondor's peace. But I tell you that Sauron was not destroyed by Gondor alone, nor will our duties end at Gondor's borders. All Middle-earth is joined with us in the new age that dawns, and the leaders of Middle-earth will ever be welcome at my council table."
Aragorn paused to let the murmurs quiet again. When he resumed speaking, his voice had subtly changed. Boromir detected a note of dryness, of irony, and possibly of warning in it, though the King remained scrupulously polite.
"Before we can begin our labors in the cause of peace, we must settle our conflicts within these very walls. Some of you have questioned my choice of Steward. I do not need to impress upon you how serious a matter this is, for you are all aware what power the Steward of Gondor wields and what responsibility lies upon his shoulders. You have lived beneath a Steward's rule and watched that Steward fall into darkness."
A ripple of tension went about the table, inaudible yet strong enough to set Boromir's teeth on edge. He forced himself not to react, though Aragorn's choice of words struck as dissonant a chord in him as in the others listening.
"Because the horror of Denethor's madness is still fresh in your minds, I do not blame you for your present fears. They are understandable. And I am prepared to hear your arguments against my Steward. But remember this, my lords. The Stewards have ruled Gondor in an unbroken line, from Mardil Voronwë through Denethor II, passing the rod of office from father to son for twenty-six generations. Boromir is the firstborn son of Denethor, the rightful heir to the Stewardship of Gondor, and your liege lord. Had I not ridden out of the West to claim my crown, he would now be your king in all but name."
The sudden rasp of chair legs against stone interrupted Aragorn's words and announced that someone down the table to Boromir's right had risen to his feet.
"My lord King," Imrahil said, deferentially, "none of us here doubts the right of Denethor's son to hold the Stewardship. Nor do we deny that allegiance we owe to him."
"If you would neither deny his birthright nor withhold your allegiance, then what is the nature of your challenge, Imrahil?"
Boromir set his teeth against the dull pain of the words he knew were coming. From the lingering sadness in Imrahil's voice, he guessed that his kinsman did not find them easy to say. "It is not his right, but his fitness that we challenge."
A murmur went around the table, but whether of agreement or discontent, Boromir could not be sure. The man who sat at his right hand stirred and clasped his arm briefly. Éomer's welcome voice sounded in his ear, muttering, "The King will make short work of this."
Boromir tried to smile his thanks, but his face was set too hard with tension. "He cannot. He must hear them out."
Éomer tightened his grip for a moment in a gesture of sympathy, then settled back in his own chair. Boromir sensed the other man's restlessness and knew that, as his staunchest supporter outside the Fellowship, Éomer was itching to shout down the murmurs of the statesmen about the table and vent some of his growing frustration. Like Boromir, Éomer was a man who preferred the direct approach - a drawn weapon, a snarled oath, and a swift conclusion upon the field of honor - to all this polite backbiting. But for once, Boromir knew, a bright blade would not serve his turn. He must sit and listen in rigid silence, while a man he had loved and respected all his life traduced his character and laid bare his faults - both known and supposed - for the inspection of all.
It progressed just as Boromir had feared. The King encouraged Imrahil to lay his doubts and concerns before the council, asking occasional questions but offering no comment and making no move to stem the tide of the Prince's eloquence. Much of what Faramir had said to him - painful as it was coming from his brother - was now repeated by Imrahil and embellished with references to Gondor's weal that lent the whole thing a sordid air, as if Boromir, unbalanced in himself, was likewise unmindful of his people.
Boromir could not remove himself from the council chamber and he would not give his attackers the satisfaction of seeing him flinch under the lash of Imrahil's tongue. Whatever the turmoil within him, he would maintain his outward calm.
Feigning unconcern, he let his head rest against the polished, carved wood behind it. The blank bandage where his eyes should have been gave him a measure of freedom. He did not have to meet the hostile gazes of his enemies or school his own to hide his emotions. He could turn his thoughts where he would, distancing himself from the scene of bitter betrayal that played out around him, and none would be the wiser.
He breathed slowly, opening his hands to rest lightly on the chair arms, forcing his body to assume an outward calm that he did not feel. This was a familiar artifice, a soldier's ruse used to thrust aside nervous distractions and clear his head. It served him in this conflict, as it had in so many others, and he felt himself begin to relax.
Clean air moved softly against his face, and Boromir realized that he was seated opposite the row of tall, arched windows. Someone had opened at least one of them, allowing the telltale breeze to enter. No doubt Aragorn had ordered it done, just as he had ordered all the torches extinguished and the fire left unlit. Boromir could still smell cold ashes from the hearth and the bitter trace of old smoke on stone, but they were subtle smells and easily ignored. Clearly, Aragorn had tried to make the chamber comfortable for him, and on such a bright summer's day, none of the attendant nobles would miss the torches that were wont to line the walls.
He relaxed even more, as the moving air brought the scents of the city to him. Minas Tirith in the summer was a pungent place, but Boromir loved the smells of his city, as he loved everything about it from its lofty towers to its noisome alleyways. Aragorn had spoken the truth when he said that Boromir was a true son of Gondor - more so even than her King, for he had grown to manhood behind these white walls, steeped in the beauty, the pride, the bustle and dirt and stench that was Minas Tirith - and that his heart would ever dwell here.
A stirring at the table interrupted his private musing and forced the Steward to pay attention to business once more. Imrahil was pacing up the length of the chamber to Aragorn's chair. He laid something on the table with the rustling of parchment and the faint tap of heavy wax seals against the wood. Aragorn waited until Imrahil had resumed his seat, then he opened the scroll, spreading it out flat with his hands. Boromir sensed the flare of new tension in the room, as all those who had sat in mute support of Imrahil now prepared to add their voices openly to his.
Aragorn read in silence, deliberately unmoved by the growing unease of his councilors. At last, he let the parchment curl around itself again and gave an audible sigh. Was it relief, Boromir wondered? Had he looked for a given signature on the document and not found it?
"Many lords and many lands are named here," Aragorn said, "but some are quite notably lacking. Morthond, Lossarnach, Anfalas. And of course, Rohan."
Éomer snorted in disgust, making no attempt to mask his reaction from those around him, and Boromir felt a fresh surge of gratitude for the other man's outspoken, unstinting support.
Aragorn took no notice of the interruption. "One name, more central to your purpose than any other, I do not see. What of the Lord Faramir?"
Imrahil answered, "We did not ask that Faramir set his name to that document, my lord. His place is not among the petitioning nobles but in the Steward's chair."
A low murmur rose from the seated men, a subdued chorus of agreement and relief that the words were finally spoken. Those seated closest to Aragorn - those loyal to the King's chosen Steward - maintained a stony silence. Boromir himself felt only cold, choking dread.
"You bid us remember that the Stewardship belongs to the son of Denethor. I bid you remember, King Elessar, that Denethor has two sons, and either one of them may lawfully step into his father's place." Imrahil hesitated for a moment, then he resumed speaking more urgently, his words for Aragorn alone. "You love Boromir and would have him as your Steward, in spite of all the arguments against it. I honor you for that. I am proud to call you my King and to lay my sword at your feet, for I know that you are a man who values your friends and keeps your vows."
"Yet you stand up before my council and bid me be forsworn," Aragorn said, his voice dangerously soft.
"Nay, I ask Boromir to release you from your vow, so that you may, in all honor, choose a Steward more fitted to the task."
"And if he will not?"
"Then you will have no choice but to break it, for Gondor's sake. But I still have hope that my kinsman will put Gondor and her welfare before his own wounded pride and spare his King such dishonor."
A growl rose in Boromir's throat, and he shoved his chair back with a scrape that tore at the charged air. His hands gripped the table edge, ready to hurl him to his feet, and he bared his teeth in a snarl of rage. Suddenly, Aragorn's hand fastened around his wrist, halting his move to rise.
"I have listened long enough to his calumnies!" Boromir hissed. "I will not hear him befoul your name with mine!"
"My name and yours are both beyond his reach."
"He would disgrace you and make me the instrument of it!"
"I have said nothing but the truth!" Imrahil retorted, his voice sharp with anger. "It is no surprise to me that you refuse to hear it! You were ever too headstrong and arrogant to be guided by your betters!"
"My betters!" Boromir surged to his feet, heedless of Aragorn's grip on his arm or the calming words murmured in his ear. "What do you know of my betters, Imrahil, or the counsel they have given me? Ask the King, or Gandalf, or the Ringbearer what they bid me do! It is to them that I look for guidance, not to that flock of carrion crows at your back!"
"Carrion crows?! A fine thing to call your allies and advisors, my Lord Steward! Men who seek only to help you..."
"Aye, help me to a begging bowl and a filthy street corner, all my own!"
"This is what you think of me? Your kinsman, blood of your blood, who has ever been your friend? And what of your own brother?"
Boromir felt his hands clenching into fists, knotting with helpless rage. "Leave Faramir out of this!"
"Is he to be called a scavenger, as well? Scorned and insulted, because he will not follow meekly where you lead him?"
"Nay, Imrahil, I will not. Nor do I need you to speak for me." From the far end of the table - the Steward's traditional place, Boromir realized with a flash of foreboding - came the scuff of boots and the brush of fabric, as Faramir rose to his feet. "I wish, for both our sakes, that I could stay out of this Brother, but I am already in too deep."
Boromir sank into his chair, his hands once more gripping the carved and polished arms as though he would crush the wood to splinters with his fingers. From behind him, he caught the sound of rapid breathing, and he sensed a presence almost at his shoulder. The hair lifted on the back of Boromir's neck, and he thought of the sword he had left in his chambers that morning, deeming it impolitic to come armed to the council. Suddenly, irrationally, he wished he had a weapon ready to hand.
"Since I am left with no choice but to speak for myself, or to become a mute weapon in the hands of others," Faramir said, "I beg the King's leave to address this council."
*** *** ***
The burst of raised voices carried through the open windows, across the court, to where two young hobbits huddled together on a stone bench in the shade of the library wall. Merry flinched at the sound, and Pippin clenched his hands together in his lap. Beside them, Legolas sat cross-legged on the grass, bent over the bow in his hands. He did not react to the angry noises, though his sharp ears could certainly make out the words that were lost on his companions. He remained intently focused on his work, testing the bowstring for wear or weakness, and ignored the furor in the council chamber. Gimli, who was pacing the small greensward with one hand gripping his axe head and the other clamped on his belt, cast one frowning glance toward the windows but did not check his stride.
Merry envied them their composure, and he wished, not for the first time, that he had thought to provide himself with some sort of distraction. His eyes dwelt on Legolas' hands, watching their sure, steady movements and letting the Elf's tranquility soothe him. Then another distant shout twisted his stomach into a painful knot and broke the spell.
"It isn't going well," Pippin said, miserably.
Merry nodded agreement. "That's Boromir. He promised he wouldn't lose his temper, but I suppose that was too much to hope for."
Pippin shivered, then asked, plaintively, "Will Faramir really try to take the Stewardship away from him?"
"I don't know." Merry slipped his hand into Pippin's and gripped it tightly. "I hope not, Pip."
"I can't believe he would do it! Not Faramir! He's a great man, Merry, kind and noble, with eyes that look straight through you and smile all the time. Like Strider, only... warmer. I feel like I could tell him anything, follow him anywhere, face any danger for him. I have only to look in his face to love him!"
Legolas spoke without lifting his gaze from his work. "You have keen eyes, Pippin, and a wise heart."
"Could a man like that betray his brother?" Pippin demanded.
"'Tis not a question of betrayal, but of what Faramir deems right. His first duty is to Gondor and the King, not to Boromir."
Gimli gave a snort of disgust and growled, "Wrap it up in clean linen, if it pleases you, Master Elf. But I call it treachery, when a Man takes what belongs to his brother and terms it duty."
"So do I," Merry muttered.
Legolas let his hands fall still and fixed his piercing gaze on Merry. "Are you so sure that Faramir will side with the conspirators against Boromir?"
"I'm not sure of anything, but I'm afraid. Terribly afraid."
"Of what? You know that Aragorn and Mithrandir will allow no one to supplant Boromir. His place at the King's side is assured."
"I know it."
"What, then, do you have to fear?"
"Faramir." Merry let go of Pippin's hand and wrapped his arms about his own body, holding himself tightly against the chill that gathered in his breast. "You and Pippin are both right about him, but that only makes it worse. Boromir knows what kind of man he is. He can't help trusting him. And if Faramir stands up in front of the council and declares Boromir unfit to be Steward, Boromir will believe him."
"He also trusts Aragorn," Legolas pointed out, "and Aragorn will not let him falter."
Merry ducked his head to hide his face from his friends' eyes. "Between them, they'll pull him to pieces."
A long silence followed his words. Legolas quietly resumed stringing his bow, though the distraction in his gaze proved that his thoughts were elsewhere. Gimli began pacing again. Pippin gazed with pleading eyes at the distant windows, his face twisted with distress. Merry stayed drawn in on himself, alone with his dread, unwilling to share it any further with his companions.
And so they waited.