22. The White Tree
A familiar voice came out of the darkness from just above him, the speaker's breath warm on his face, as gentle hands clasped his head. "Boromir... my brother..." Then, as suddenly as it came, the warmth of closeness vanished and the voice hissed in a hard, desperate tone, "Curse me for a fool! I should never have left him!"
"Nay, Faramir, the blame is mine," said another voice. It sounded like Aragorn, but with his wits so addled and so much noise assaulting him, Boromir could not be sure of it. "'Twas I who gave him leave to follow, though I knew Halbarad was goaded beyond reason."
Halbarad! With the name came a rush of panic, as agonizing as the impact of his head against stone. He had to find Halbarad, before some great evil befell Aragorn! He could not remember what it was that threatened his King, but he knew that it was terrible. And only the Ranger could prevent it. He had to find Halbarad!
Driven by this one thought, he tried to twist away from Faramir's confining hands and to get an elbow under him for leverage. He managed to turn his head, but the movement ignited a blazing pain in his skull and sent a wave of sickness through him. He groaned softly.
Faramir's clasp on his head tightened, steadying him, and his brother cried, "He wakes!"
"Halbarad!" Boromir gasped.
"Be easy, Boromir. Be easy." Aragorn's voice poured over him like a balm, while his familiar healer's hands gripped Boromir's shoulders to hold him down. "There is nothing to fear."
"Lie still and let me help you."
"...must find him."
"Nay, you must lie still. Gandalf!" A cooling shadow fell across Boromir's face, as the wizard answered Aragorn's summons. "I pray you clear the courtyard. We will do better without an audience. Imrahil, send to the Houses of Healing..."
"No healers," Boromir muttered, trying again to shake off the hands that restrained him. "I need... no healers."
"Boromir, you must lie still!" The command in his voice could not be gainsaid, and Boromir obediently collapsed back against the pavement. "Send to the healers and warn them of our coming. We need a litter here and field dressings for a sword wound."
"'Tis naught," Boromir whispered, as he lifted a hand to cover his bandaged eyes. He was appalled to feel the tremor in his fingers and the weakness of his own arm, and as hard as he tried to remember what had happened to him, he could conjure up only fragmentary emotions. Anger. Desperation. Helplessness. And over it all, the frantic need to find Halbarad. "Only let me up... let me find him..."
"There is no need, my friend."
Aragorn sounded tired and grim, with an edge of grief to his voice that troubled Boromir more than the pain in his own body. What had happened? Why could he not remember?
"I must withdraw the blade before we move him," Aragorn went on, speaking to those who still crowded around, filling the darkness with their fear. "Legolas, take this and be ready to staunch the bleeding. Merry, hold tight."
In answer to his words, Boromir felt small, strong fingers close around his left hand, and for the first time, he became aware of the comforting presence lurking at his shoulder. He turned toward the hobbit, his mouth open to utter a greeting, but a sudden, tearing pain in his left side cut off his breath and sent a shudder through his body. His fingers tightened crushingly around Merry's, even as his free hand reached to clutch at the source of the pain. But Legolas was there before him, brushing his hand away and pressing a makeshift bandage to the wound. Blood ran warm over Boromir's skin.
Merry spoke up, his voice edged with tears. "It's all right, Boromir. It's over."
"Merry..." Boromir drew in a long, ragged breath and exhaled the pain, struggling for control. The clasp of Merry's fingers steadied him, gave him focus and reassurance, as did his welcome voice. "Merry."
"I'm right here."
"He bleeds but little," Legolas interjected, "and breathes freely."
"Aye, so he does." Aragorn sounded bemused. "Look at the dagger."
"It should be blooded to the hilt!" That was Gimli, without doubt. No other could put such amazement and belligerence into one growl. "How is this? What can have turned the blade?"
"'Tis naught... only a scratch..." Boromir muttered. He still did not grasp the full import of their words, but enough of the day remained in his memory to assure him that all this fuss and furor was needless. Did they think Boromir, soldier of Gondor, so lacking in common sense as to walk into the same trap twice?
"You always say that when you're bleeding!" Merry retorted.
Aragorn shifted forward to bend over Boromir. "Aye, but mayhap he's telling the truth this time. Let us see what you have under that tunic, my friend." Deft fingers plucked away Legolas' bandage and worked at the heavy brocade of his tunic. Boromir heard the sound of tearing fabric. Aragorn bent lower, his rapid breathing loud in Boromir's ears, then he abruptly sat back and laughed. "I might have known!"
"What is it?" Pippin asked from his place at Aragorn's side.
"A mail shirt! He is wearing a mail shirt!"
Boromir grunted sourly. "I may be blind... but I'm no fool."
"Thank the Valar!" Aragorn's hand tightened on his shoulder, and another gust of laughter shook him. "'Tis I who am the fool for doubting you! And for putting you in such peril..."
"Not your fault," Boromir muttered, though he had no clear idea of what peril Aragorn spoke. He felt the touch of his brother's hand, resting gently on his head, and he remembered the first words he had heard upon waking. "Nor yours, Brother," he added, softly.
Faramir took a hissing breath and whispered, brokenly, "I thought I had lost brother and liege lord at one blow. And all through my own folly!"
"You won't claim my birthright so easily," Boromir chided, in a weak attempt at humor.
Faramir's only answer was to bow his head and press his lips to Boromir's forehead for a moment. When he straightened again, he had gained command of his voice enough to ask, roughly, "What now, my King?"
"We must bandage the wound tightly, to spare him any further loss of blood. 'Tis ugly enough, though shallow, and cannot be left untended for long. But I deem the blow to his head more serious than the sword cut."
"I don't understand!" Merry cried. "If he's wearing a mail shirt, how did the blade touch him?"
"This dagger is of Elvish make, as are many of the weapons of the dúnedain." Aragorn's fingers again displaced Legolas', peeling up the bandage to probe the wound gently. "Its point was keen enough to pierce the hauberk but could not reach any vital spot. The lung is untouched."
He broke off to bend low over his work, his concentration complete and his hands moving deftly. Boromir submitted to his ministrations in grim silence, his teeth clenched against the pain of even so gentle a touch. He kept a firm grip on Merry's hand and tried to detach his mind from both the King's words and his actions. And in the ensuing quiet, an abrupt flash of memory came to him.
"Halbarad." He tried to sit up, earning him a protest from Faramir and a sharp command from Aragorn. He let his body relax against the paving stones again and said, "I was talking to Halbarad. He was... angry."
"Do you remember what happened?" Aragorn asked, his voice strangely harsh.
Running footsteps interrupted him, sending fresh tremors through the stone beneath his head and drawing a groan from him. In the stillness, with little movement around him, he had almost forgotten the battered and abused condition of his skull. The pounding of booted feet reminded him all too clearly.
"Here are the bandages," Imrahil's voice panted. "The litter comes."
"That is well."
When Aragorn again bent to his work, Boromir felt him cutting away fabric and peeling up heavy chain mail to expose the wound more fully. Faramir kept a hold on Boromir's head, supporting and steadying it for which he was grateful, and Merry clung tightly to his hand. At the strangled sounds of pain that escaped him, Aragorn muttered an apology.
"'Tis my head you are hurting, not my side!" Boromir gasped.
"I know it. But we cannot get you to the Houses of Healing and a nice, soft pillow for your head, until we stop the bleeding."
Through clenched teeth, he asked, "Aragorn... how did this... happen?"
The Ranger hesitated, his hands still busy, then answered tersely, "Halbarad tried to kill you."
So that was the silent fury that gripped them all. That was the despair that put an edge to their voices and made them all crowd so close, so protectively about him. "He has fled?"
"He tried. He did not get far."
"What... what will you do to him?"
"Nothing." Aragorn pulled the bandage tight with a vicious tug. "He is dead."
Boromir's ragged groan was born as much of sorrow as of bodily suffering. "Nay!"
Aragorn said nothing, but Legolas spoke up from close on Boromir's left, his words calm and yet taut with a keen, cold rage. "Pity him if you will, Boromir, but do not hold Aragorn to blame. Halbarad sealed his fate with his own dagger thrust."
Boromir lifted his hand to cover his eyes again, shielding his face from the gazes of his friends. "I know who is to blame."
"Not you, Steward of Gondor."
He shook his head very slightly and, swallowing the tears that clogged his throat, whispered, "I am weary of shadows and bloodshed. When will it be done?"
Aragorn answered him. "It is done. And you at least, my steward, will rest."
*** *** ***
Crumpled leaves of athelas floated in a bowl of steaming water beside the bed, filling the air with their healing fragrance. The smell made Merry think of the Shire in spring - of a Shire lush and beautiful beyond imagining that lived only in his dearest dreams of home - and his heart grew light. He sat quietly on the foot of the bed, his legs curled up comfortably beneath him, and watched the Men work without comment. His sense of well-being suffered a bit when he looked at Boromir's face and saw the pale, strained exhaustion in it, but then he reminded himself of Strider's promise.
"All will be well, Merry," he had said, as he watched Legolas and Faramir lift Boromir onto the stretcher, "you have my word. I will let no harm come to him." Then he had taken Merry's hand and walked with him through the streets toward the Houses of Healing, keeping the frightened hobbit close to his side, protected by his calming presence.
All will be well. The promise of a friend and healer. The promise of a King who had led them all through fire and darkness and despair to a bright dawn. How could he doubt Strider now?
He watched the Ranger's long fingers swab at the wound in Boromir's side and, bolstered by the effects of the athelas, barely flinched. Boromir did not seem to notice the pain, now that he was more himself. The frightening confusion and weakness he had shown in the courtyard had given way to his usual acid temper and grudging acceptance of ills he could not avoid. He had flatly refused to allow any healer near him but Aragorn and had sent his brother off to find Gil, snapping out an order that overrode Faramir's protests. Brother and King had bowed to his wishes and barred the door to all save the drudge. Now, having won that skirmish, Boromir seemed content to let Aragorn take command.
Aragorn tossed a bloody swab into the basin at his feet and nodded at Faramir to hand him the prepared dressing. Together, Faramir and Aragorn bound the wound up tightly, while Gil retrieved the basin and fished a few stray, gruesome wads of cloth from under the bed. At a soft word from Aragorn, she hurried from the room with the foul basin and returned a few minutes later, bearing a large silver cup that steamed gently in her hands.
When Aragorn had fixed the last pin in place to hold the bandage, she offered him the cup. He took it with a word of thanks and set it on the table beside the bed. Gil then busied herself collecting the bits of clothing scattered about the room. Aragorn stepped back to eye his handiwork.
"You can breathe easy, Boromir. We are done with torturing you. I have cleaned the wound as best I may, and now it needs only time to heal."
"I thank you," Boromir said, his voice sounding thin and ragged with strain. "I will be even more grateful if you can stop the pounding in my head."
"Drink this." He lifted the cup, moving to place it in Boromir's hand as he said, "It will ease the pain and hasten sleep."
Boromir, in the act of taking the cup, recoiled sharply. "Sleep?" His face turned wary. "I need no sleeping draughts."
"Do you not trust your King and healer? I brewed this medicine myself, and I will vouch for its effects. Drink it, Boromir. Do not suffer needlessly."
"Nay." He dropped his hands to grip the edge of the mattress, ill concealing the tremor that shook them. "The pain is naught, and I would rather heal in my own time."
Aragorn looked at him with a growing comprehension in his eyes. Boromir kept his face averted and his hands stubbornly locked on the mattress, while his brother glanced from one to the other, an anxious frown creasing his brow. Finally, Aragorn broke the deadlock by setting down his cup with a decisive snap. Then he turned to cast a swift, meaningful look at Gil.
She read the dismissal in that look and promptly turned to leave, with only a quick curtsey and a quiet "my lord," to mark her exit. Neither Aragorn nor Faramir noticed the tightness around her mouth or the hollow pain in her eyes when she glanced in Boromir's direction. Merry noticed, but she was gone before he could offer her comfort - not that he knew what comfort he could give or what she would accept from him.
Aragorn waited until her footsteps had faded into silence down the stone-flagged hallway, then he sat down on the bed and turned to face Boromir directly.
"Why will you not sleep?"
Merry cast a swift glance at Faramir and saw that he, like the King, was leaning forward, anxious to hear his brother's answer. Merry thought it strange that they even had to ask such a question, but then, they had not traveled at Boromir's side through these weeks of darkness and heard the echoes of torment in his voice when it came out of the night. On a protective impulse, Merry edged closer to Boromir, close enough that the Man could feel his presence beside him, and waited to see how he would respond.
"You drive yourself ceaselessly through each day," Aragorn went on, "and haunt these Houses like a restless shade at night. If you go on this way, you will drain your body beyond its power to heal. I would help you, Boromir, but you must tell me how. Tell me why you will not sleep."
Boromir did not answer. He sat with his bandaged gaze fixed on his hands where they lay in his lap, the fingers curling up in a helpless gesture. His face was drawn and grim, but somehow distant, as though his thoughts had wandered far from this small room and the concern of his friends. Aragorn waited patiently. Faramir stared at his brother with open pain in his eyes but said nothing to disturb him. It was Merry who finally broke the stillness by laying a hand on Boromir's arm. The light touch seemed to bring him back to himself. His head came up with a start and something like confusion showed in his face.
"Boromir?" Aragorn spoke softly to him, no longer demanding but pleading. "What's wrong?"
With a visible effort of will, Boromir answered him in a rough whisper. "I am afraid."
"Afraid of what?"
"The darkness. It grows so large when I am alone with it. Especially the darkness of sleep. I am afraid that once I have passed into it, I will not find my way out again."
The look Aragorn gave Boromir caused Merry's throat to close up tight with tears, so profound were the sorrow and understanding in it. And the hobbit suddenly grasped, as he had not before, how deep the bond between the two Men ran. Theirs was a love forged in the fires of Isengard and tested by the Enemy himself. Nothing could break it. And no darkness could claim Boromir, while Aragorn was there to lead him out.
"I will not let you be lost," Aragorn assured him, echoing Merry's thoughts. "Will you trust me, Boromir, and believe that I can guide you back again, should you wander too far?"
"He did the same for me," Faramir said. "When the Black Breath held me prisoner, 'twas the King's voice that freed me."
"And me," Merry murmured.
Boromir's hand reached to cover Merry's, and his fingers tightened convulsively around it. "How will you know if..." He swallowed painfully. "...if I am lost?"
"Someone will be here with you, keeping watch for me. Someone you trust. And we will awaken you every few hours to be sure you have not sunk too deeply into sleep." When Boromir did not speak but stared down at his lap with a look of cold dread on his face, Aragorn added, "You will not be left alone. I swear it."
Boromir took a sobbing breath. "You must think me contemptible."
The eyes Aragorn fixed upon him glittered strangely, and Merry realized, with a start, that they were full of tears. "I think I have put my kingship before the welfare of my friend for too long. And as ever, you are suffering for my choice."
"Nay, Aragorn. I do not look to you to heal my hurts and banish my fears."
"It is as much my duty as the raising of armies or the making of laws. I am Elfstone, Hope of the West, Healer and King, and sworn brother-in-arms to Boromir of Gondor even unto death. I can give you rest and peace, free from all fear, if you will but trust me."
For a long, quiet moment, Boromir sat with his head down and his shoulders bowed, caught in a silent struggle with himself. At last, he lifted his head and nodded once. Faramir broke out in a relieved grin and knelt swiftly to pull off his brother's boots. Merry clambered down from the bed, giving the two Men room to work, and watched them ease Boromir's stabbed, bruised, battered and exhausted body to a comfortable resting place on the mattress.
Much of the color had drained from Boromir's face by the time his head lay upon the pillow. He looked so drained and ill that Merry was frightened, but when Aragorn stooped over him to straighten the coverlet, he demanded strongly enough, "You'll not plague me with healers? Or that old woman who never ceases chattering?"
"No healers, but there must be a guard on your room."
"Merry is all the guard I need."
The hobbit smiled at the familiar words and murmured, "I still haven't got a sword."
"The guards can protect you from assassins and unwelcome visitors alike," Aragorn pointed out. "They will have orders not to enter the room, unless you call for them, and to admit no one without my orders." He took the gently steaming cup that stood on the table and held it to Boromir's lips, but the other man turned his head stubbornly away. "Drink, Boromir. This is the trust of which I spoke and the medicine you need."
"I will drink it, but... not yet. My stomach churns so that I cannot swallow it. Let me lie here a while. Merry will see that I drink it."
Aragorn eyed him consideringly. No more than Merry did he believe that Boromir felt too sick to drink the soothing draught, but he opted not to press the injured man any further. "Very well. But if you have not drunk it when I return, I'll not be so forbearing. You will find that I have ways of enforcing my commands."
Boromir muttered something that may have been agreement, and Aragorn decided to make good his escape before his wayward patient could find anything else to complain about. Clasping Boromir's hand in farewell, he said, "Rest now. Let the athelas do its work. Merry will stay until I come myself to relieve him, but if you need me ere then, only call. I will come.
"As will I," Faramir assured him.
Aragorn turned to leave, but Merry halted him at the door with an outstretched hand. Gazing anxiously up at the Ranger, Merry asked, "Is he truly still in danger, Strider?"
"I know not, and I will take no chances."
"Maybe I should have a sword."
"Aye, mayhap you should." Aragorn thought for a moment, then grasped the hilt of the Elvish dagger thrust in his belt and drew it free. The blade was long and slender, a thing of deadly beauty, and its point was still marked with the blood of Gondor's Steward. As its graceful length slid from beneath his belt, Aragorn saw the ugly stain and hesitated, his face growing hard with revulsion. He would have pushed it back in its place, but Merry forestalled him.
"Is it that good blade?" he asked.
"It is indeed." Aragorn weighed it in his hand, as if remembering the many times he had seen it in the hand of his kinsman - the kinsman he had loved and trusted, not the traitor who had died in the street not an hour past. "This blade has fought bravely through many lives of Men and never, 'til this day, been fouled with cowardice or treachery."
Merry held out his hand, and Aragorn laid the dagger in it. He curled his fingers about the hilt, feeling the balance of the blade and reflecting that his life had taken a strange turn, when he could stand before a King and coolly weigh the merits of an Elvish weapon.
"May I have it?"
"With my compliments." Catching the blade near its guard, Aragorn used the corner of his cloak to polish its tip. "But unlike your King, you should always remember to clean it, Master Swordthain. Now you are well fitted to guard your lord." Then he stepped back and bowed formally to the hobbit.
Merry flushed slightly as he returned the King's salute. He stayed quietly by the door until Faramir had taken his leave of Boromir and both Men had left the room. Then he softly closed the door, padded across the flagstones to the bed, and laid his sword carefully upon the small table beside it. Scrambling onto the bed once more, he sat down next to Boromir and pulled the Man's hand onto his lap, clasping it in both of his own. Boromir smiled briefly at him, but the tension in his face did not ease or the creases smooth from his brow.
"I have a proper sword now," Merry said in a matter-of-fact way, "so you have nothing to worry about."
The smile flickered again, and Boromir murmured, "I'll rest easier with you guarding my back."
Merry could not tell from the tone of his voice if he was serious or poking fun at his loyal, but diminutive, champion. Cocking his head to one side, he eyed his friend suspiciously and asked, "Do you mean that?"
Boromir looked startled. "Aye, of course I do!"
"Good. I thought maybe you were teasing me, because of the cheese knife."
"I would never make a mockery of that rescue. It was an act of supreme bravery, worthy of Gondor's greatest heroes."
"Now you are teasing me."
"Nay." Boromir's fingers closed firmly around his, and for the first time, a genuine smile warmed his face. "I am grateful to you, Little One, and not least for the hours you have spent in just this way - talking and laughing and remembering with me."
Tears started in Merry's eyes and swelled painfully in his throat. He never doubted Boromir's affection for him, nor the trust the cautious and reserved soldier placed in him, but to hear him speak of it so easily and so openly now was like a balm to his bruised heart. Anxiety, fear, anger and outright panic had all left their mark on him this day. He had gone from gnawing tension to cold terror, only to find himself at last in the role of patient companion and protector once again. It made his head ache until tears seemed the only possible release.
Whether Boromir heard his doleful sniffles, or whether his thoughts had turned of their own accord to darker matters, when he spoke again the warmth had left his voice. He sounded tired and sad, with a hint of the old despair creeping into his words. "Soon, our quiet hours together will be naught but another memory."
"I'm sorry." Merry had to clear his throat noisily, before he could go on. "I would give anything to stay here with you, except..."
"Except your chance to see the Shire again."
The dull resignation in his voice fell like a weight on Merry's heart. He knew that Boromir had accepted his decision to go, as far as he was able, but still Merry felt the need to justify it - to win the Man's wholehearted approval instead of this grim, tight-lipped surrender. "Gandalf says that I will be needed in the Shire, before this war is done. I thought it was over and we were going home to rest, but he says that we still have work to do."
"You go at the Wizard's behest?"
"No. I believe him, but even if I didn't, even if all that awaited me in the Shire was a snug hobbit hole and pipe full of the best Longbottom Leaf, I would still go back. It's where I belong, Boromir."
"You are not the same innocent, lighthearted creature who set out from Buckland all those months ago. You have seen the greatest and most terrible events of this age, and you have grown far beyond the simple pleasures of hobbit hole and pipeweed. The Shire may not seem so much like home to you, now."
"Was Minas Tirith any less your home, for the months you spent away from it? Or for what you found when you returned?"
"Nay." He hesitated, then added, softly, "Were she burned black as Sauron's hand, ground into dust, her people scattered through the wilderness, yet would my heart ever dwell in the White Tower."
"Then you do understand."
"Aye." Boromir took a deep, sighing breath, made ragged by the pain of the wound in his side. "I cannot hold you here, and I cannot follow you into the West. So I have no choice but to find my way without you."
"I must find a way, too."
They both fell quiet and yet, in spite of their melancholy thoughts, it was a companionable silence. Merry found that he had no arguments, pleas or advice left to give his friend. Nothing would take away the pain of bidding farewell to Gondor and her beloved Steward, but he could comfort himself with the certainty that her King would safeguard them both. And however sorely he might miss his halfling guide, Boromir would still find his way through the dark paths that awaited him. Merry had no doubt of that. All that remained was for Merry to set his feet upon the path that he had chosen, lonely though it would be, and follow it home.
When Boromir stirred and lifted his free hand to cover his eyes, Merry left off contemplating the weary leagues that separated Minas Tirith from the Shire and turned his attention to the injured Man. The gesture spoke of pain and weariness, and it reminded Merry of his duty.
"Are you ready to sleep, now?" he asked.
Boromir gave a grunt that Merry could not interpret.
"You promised Aragorn that you would drink his medicine."
Merry took the cup, now well cooled, from the table and sniffed cautiously at the contents. "It smells of herbs and honey. Not bad at all."
"You may have it. Sleep, and I will keep watch over you."
Merry chuckled. He made to slide a hand behind Boromir's head, to lift it so he could drink more easily, but the Man cried a protest at his touch and knocked his hand away. Chagrin flooded Merry's face. "I'm sorry! I didn't think!"
"All right... It's all right. Ye gods, but it hurts!" he gasped. "I could almost welcome a drugged sleep to escape it!"
"You know that you can trust Aragorn. He would give you nothing that could harm you. Please, Boromir, drink it and rest."
"For you, I will."
He held out his hand and allowed Merry to curl his fingers about the cup. Together, they tilted it to his lips, and he swallowed the sweet-smelling brew. When the cup was empty, he surrendered it to Merry and let his head sink into the pillow with a soft groan of relief. Once again, he held out his hand to the hobbit. Merry clasped it in both of his own and smiled when Boromir murmured,
"Tell me a story about the Shire, Merry. Something... something warm, that smells of summer."
When Aragorn returned to the Houses of Healing, it was nearly sunset. He found Merry curled in a chair by the window, eating an apple, and Boromir fast asleep. Laying the fresh leaves of athelas he carried on the table, he bent over to look closely at the sleeping man.
"He hasn't stirred in hours," Merry said.
"That is well."
"Do we have to wake him up? He looks so peaceful... I hate to disturb him. And even with your sleeping draught, it took him two hobbit folktales and one of old Bilbo's songs to fall asleep."
"Don't fret, Master Perian. He'll not even remember that we woke him."
Some minutes later, when Aragorn had fetched boiling water from the kitchen in which to steep the athelas and roused Boromir long enough to pour another draught down his throat, the King pulled a chair up to the bed and stretched out his long legs to rest his heels on the mattress. In this relaxed posture, he looked so much like the Strider Merry remembered of old that the hobbit expected him to pull out his pipe and call for a tankard of ale. Only the ragged cloak and muddy boots were lacking.
Eyeing Merry from beneath drooping lids, he said, "Get you to your dinner, Merry. I'll stay by him through the night."
"If you don't mind, I'd rather stay with you."
The hooded eyes gleamed for a moment. "Afraid to turn your back on him, Merry?"
The hobbit grinned shamefacedly. "A little. I'm never sure what he'll do, if I let him out of my sight."
"Tonight, he will only sleep. You have my word."
"It's not that I don't believe you..."
"But you would rather stay." Strider chuckled. "Stay then, Little One. I shall be glad of the company."
Smiling contentedly, Merry took a large bite from his apple and settled down in his oversized chair to wait out the night. He fell asleep to the sound of Strider's slow breathing.
** *** ***
Sausages. Someone was cooking sausages, and the smell was tempting enough to draw Boromir from a light, comfortable doze to full wakefulness. His stomach gave a protesting growl. Rolling onto his back, he pushed himself up on his elbows, barely noticing the dull pain in his side, and cast about the room for some clue as to who attended him.
He knew that someone was in the room with him, for in all the days of his convalescence, he had never awakened to find himself alone. At first, he had sunk into the bottomless sleep of injury and utter exhaustion. When familiar hands shook him awake, he came reluctantly and slid back into the dark abyss as soon as they released him. In that time, he drank what medicines they put to his lips, ate what simple foods they pressed upon him, but could not remember from waking to waking who had spoken to him or even put names to the voices.
As his body mended, his sleep lightened into a more natural, restful slumber. He woke of his own accord, though not often, and he began to pay heed to his surroundings. At last, he recognized the voices that greeted him. Merry, Pippin, Faramir, Aragorn. They all kept watch over his sleep. Once, he awoke to find Gandalf in the chair beside his bed, smoking a pipe and muttering to himself, though he later wondered if he had dreamed it. The old Wizard seemed an unlikely nurse.
On this particular morning, redolent with the smells of summer and frying sausages, Boromir awoke feeling both alert and hungry. This came as a bit of a surprise to him, after days of listlessness, a queasy stomach and a lack of interest in anything outside of sleep. Perhaps Aragorn's potions had at last worn off, and his innards would sit still for a more substantial meal than weak tea and dry toast. Like sausages.
Soft footsteps and the rustling of skirts approached the bed. Boromir pushed himself fully upright, fighting the dizziness that took him, and smiled in the general direction of the sound.
"Good morning, Gil."
The drudge answered, at her primmest, "My Lord."
"I smell breakfast."
She paused, sniffing audibly, and retorted, "What you smell is the manure Mother Ioreth spread on the herb garden."
Boromir started to laugh, but a sudden wave of vertigo hit him, and he swayed drunkenly instead, his face going blank and white. Gil caught him deftly, steadying him with a firm hand on his arm. With her free hand, she twitched at the scattered pillows and bolsters until she had a heap of them at his back. He settled against the pile, tilted his head back to rest on the uppermost pillow, and sighed in gratitude.
"It seems I'll not have sausages for breakfast, after all."
"Hm. There is nothing wrong with you, my lord Steward, beyond an empty stomach and too long a time spent abed. The King sent word that you're to eat a proper meal this morning. Then a wash and clean clothes."
"Then a skirmish with the Easterlings and a raid over the Mountains of Shadow to burn out some orcs," he murmured, lifting his head as Gil laid a tray across his lap. The tantalizing odors of sizzling meat and fresh bread floated up to him. "I must recruit my strength."
"Aye, that you must."
She shook out a napkin and spread it over his chest, then set a cup on his tray with the faintly musical sound of ceramic striking wood. Boromir decided that he needed tea even more than he did food, and he reached for the cup. Just as his fingers touched the smooth china, something heavy and searing hot fell against the back of his hand. Instinctively, he recoiled from the heat, even as Gil checked her movement and snatched away the tea pot. His cup went flying, scalding liquid slopped out of the pot to drench his sleeve, and his start of pain nearly upended his tray onto the floor.
With the lightening reflexes of a Elvish warrior - or a veteran servant - Gil swung the dripping tea pot well away from them both and caught the near edge of the tray, halting its slide into chaos.
"Don't move!" she snapped.
Boromir wisely obeyed, freezing with his right hand braced on the bed, his left knee raised, and his sodden left arm held carefully away from his body. He remained poised in this ludicrous position for a moment, while the rustling of fabric and the clinking of dishes on the table informed him that Gil was putting the tea pot safely out of harm's way. Once she could get both hands on the tray, she grasped it and lifted it from its place on Boromir's knee. He cautiously straightened his leg, then eased himself back against his pillows, all the while keeping his mouth tightly shut and his face averted from Gil's sharp eyes to hide his chagrin.
"Did it scald you?" she asked.
"Nay." Boromir plucked at his sleeve, where the wet spots were cooling rapidly. The skin across the backs of his fingers burned and stung, but he forbore to mention this. After an awkward moment, he added, wryly, "At least it was not the Halfling's breakfast, this time."
Gil uttered a wordless grunt, as she once again set the tray across Boromir's lap. "This time, the meal survived. Eat, lord, before I have to mop it up off the flagstones."
Boromir smiled sheepishly at her and asked, with an assumption of meekness that made her snort in disgust, "Is there any tea left in the pot?"
She took the cup from his tray, stepped safely away from the bed to fill it, then placed it firmly in his hand. He sipped the strong, hot brew appreciatively and waited until the sound of Gil's footsteps informed him that she had turned away. Then he set down his cup and hunted around on the tray for a knife. He did not like eating in front of people - it made him feel awkward and rather childish when he did not know what was on his plate - but even less did he like to admit his shyness or ask for help. This morning, he was too hungry to play games with his watchful nurse, and so the moment she had turned her back, he abandoned caution, found his knife, and speared the nearest piece of food on it. He was in luck, and it turned out to be a fat sausage.
By the time he heard Gil sit down in the chair by the window, he was happily devouring his breakfast and unconcerned with appearances. Gil fell quiet, only the occasional sound of fabric moving betraying her presence. Boromir ate until the empty, lightheaded feeling left him and he began to feel positively cheerful. When he settled back to finish his tea, Gil got up to move the tray and refill his cup.
"Were the sausages Aragorn's idea?" Boromir asked, idly.
"The contents of our larder are not the King's concern," she answered.
"Then they were your idea. I thank you."
As she resumed her seat by the window, she said, flatly, "I serve my lord as best I may."
He made a skeptical noise but offered no comment. After a quiet moment, he again broke the silence. "What are you doing?"
"What, not spreading manure?"
"The manure will still need spreading, when I am done here."
"Do you earn no rest?"
"I have been resting since before dawn. You are not a taxing patient... when asleep."
"Shall I beg your pardon for waking up and disturbing you?"
"You shall do as you like, my lord Steward."
"Confound you, Gil, stop darning and talk to me." Her hands stilled, and Boromir imagined that he could see her expression of blank, dumb obedience fixed upon him. "Have I offended you, that I get nothing from you but stiff courtesies?" he demanded.
"Nay, lord, do not think it." Her voice roughened noticeably. "'Tis only that... I am glad to find you well again."
To a man less familiar with Gil's odd, prickly kind of dignity, this last statement might have seemed irrelevant. To Boromir, it explained everything. It was, in fact, the only relevant thing she had said all morning.
He sat very still, no hint of his thoughts showing in his face, for a long moment. Then suddenly, he smiled with perfect unconcern and said, "Did you say something about a wash?"
Boromir sat on the edge of the bed, gingerly pulling on his boots. Clean, shaved and groomed, he now struggled to clothe himself decently, before Gil broke in on him again. The ties and buckles frustrated him, and he had nearly used up his meager store of strength. But his pride had suffered enough for one morning, and so he persevered in defiance of the weakness that weighed upon him.
He managed the shirt and breeches easily enough, but the tunic, with its intricate clasps, he could not fasten for the tremor in his fingers. And bending over to reach his boots caused his head to swim alarmingly. By the time he had finished dressing, he felt sick and shaken. A swallow of cold tea settled his stomach, but he still did not feel equal to leaving the haven of his bed.
When a stir sounded outside the door, Boromir assumed that Gil had returned. But the visitor who strode into his room walked on booted feet and brought with him the scrape of stiff brocade against leather-clad limbs, not the muffled swish of heavy skirts. He crossed swiftly to the bed and halted within arm's reach of Boromir.
There was a brief pause, then Aragorn's voice came to him, soft and full of laughter, "How fare you, my lord Steward?"
A wide smile lit Boromir's face. "Well enough. And you, my King?"
"Well." He laughed aloud and caught Boromir's arms, drawing the other man to his feet and into his embrace. "Well, indeed!"
As they stepped apart, Boromir smiled at his King bemusedly. He did not need to see Aragorn's face to know that it was alight with joy, yet stern and kingly. He could sense the regal mood upon him again - the blood of Elendil singing in his veins, the pride of ancient Númenor crowning his head with light - but there was more. This was not the King Elessar that Boromir had come to know. This was a man so filled with gladness that he could not contain it all within his mortal body, but spilled and scattered it about him like water from a fountain.
"Something has happened," Boromir said. Then inspiration struck, and he demanded, "Has the Lady Arwen come?"
"Nay, but the day draws near. Nearer even than I hoped, if I read the signs aright."
"What signs, Aragorn?"
"Come with me, and I will show you. I have waited for this day - waited and hoped. Now at last it is here." Laying a hand that trembled with eagerness on Boromir's shoulder, he urged, "Come, Boromir, and look upon our final victory!"
"I will come with you and gladly. But you speak in riddles!"
"Nay, all will be made clear! The sign is meant as much for you as for me. I am certain of it. And the beauty of it... Ah, Boromir, it will heal your heart!"
Staying only long enough for Aragorn to fasten the last few clasps and buckles for Boromir, they left the Houses of Healing through the sunlit gardens and walked the broad street of the sixth circle to the Citadel gate. The guard hailed them and snapped to attention as they passed. As they strode up the slope in the echoing coolness of the tunnel, Boromir asked, "Where are we going?"
"Patience," Aragorn replied.
Through the upper gate they came, and Boromir anticipated that the King would lead him into the Tower. But instead, they crossed the wide Court to the greensward at its center. Boromir heard the music of the fountain and cast a questioning look at Aragorn. Beside him, Aragorn drew in a sharp, elated breath, and his body seemed to grow both taller and straighter than before. The joy in him was now a living presence, vibrating through his frame like a plucked harp string.
Together, they stepped from the stone paving of the courtyard onto the yielding grass. Aragorn gently freed his arm from Boromir's grasp, then caught the Steward's hand, drawing him forward.
At Aragorn's urging, Boromir paced up the sward to the place where stood the White Tree of Gondor. Boromir approached it reluctantly. He had no desire to touch the withered trunk and see again, in his mind's eye, the dead and barren pride of Gondor rotting beside the pool. But as he drew closer, he caught the scent of blossoms in the air. He halted, amazed, and as he listened he fancied that the music of the fountain, always so melancholy to his ears, now played merrily among green leaves and pliant branches.
"I found it on the highest slopes of Mindolluin at the sun's first light," Aragorn said, his voice deep and his tone reverent. "Gandalf led me to it."
"What is it?"
"The sign for which I have waited all my long life."
Again, he drew Boromir forward, and Boromir obeyed him, resistless. His outstretched hand touched smooth bark. Slowly, he let his palm curve about the delicate branch, his fingers sliding over living wood. It was a tiny, seemingly fragile thing, standing no higher than his waist, with a fringe of cool, supple leaves at its tip. And it was alive. Miraculously, gloriously alive.
Disbelief and wonder swelled in Boromir's breast, choking off his breath and filling his throat with tears. He sank to his knees on the grass, his hand still lifted to touch the leaves. "It lives," he whispered.
"Aye, and ever will, so long as Gondor flourishes in our care." Taking Boromir's hand gently in his, Aragorn moved it to where a cluster of flowers sat like a crown upon the sapling's leafy hair. "This is our victory, Boromir. Yours and mine. Growing and blooming in the heart of our city."
"The White Tree."
"It is a sign that our greatest labor has only begun. But if we stand together, we cannot fail."
"Aye." Boromir let his hand linger on the soft petals for a moment longer, then he rose stiffly to his feet and stepped back to take his place at Aragorn's side. "I am ready, my King."
To be continued...