7. Princely Baggage
"Come, my Lord, drink."
Boromir twisted away from the touch of cold metal on his lips. He did not want to drink. He was annoyed with the voice for disturbing his rest, annoyed with the hands that supported his head and offered him the cup for confining his movements. Sleep sheltered him from frustration and pain, and he would gladly have stayed asleep forever, but the voice would not allow that. And now, awake against his will, he was ordered about like a sick child, his words and his wishes ignored, his sense of helplessness building with each moment.
"Drink, and then you can rest."
He lifted a hand to brush away the cup and muttered, his mouth thick with thirst and the foul taste of stale blood, "Aragorn."
"Do not worry about Aragorn," the voice insisted.
The cup was pressed to his lips, in spite of his best efforts to avoid it, and water poured into his mouth. He swallowed because he had no choice, only half noticing that the liquid eased his parched throat and washed the vile taste from his mouth. When he could speak again, he insisted, "Find him... I must find Aragorn."
"Aragorn is safe. You do not need to find him, now. You need to rest." The voice spoke in a low, soothing tone, as if repeating something it had said countless times, to someone who could neither hear nor understand the words. It's very calmness only irritated Boromir the more.
Anger lent him a new strength, and when the cup touched his lips again, he knocked aside the hand that held it, snarling, "Leave off!"
Silence answered him, and he got the distinct impression that he had startled the owner of the voice. The supporting hand slid from behind his head. The cup was set down with a loud clunk of metal on wood.
Acting on his momentary advantage, Boromir pushed himself up on one elbow and demanded, "Where is he? Where is Aragorn? And... where am I?"
"Boromir?" The voice no longer sounded calm or controlled. It squeaked with something akin to panic, and Boromir had the sudden, unsettling feeling that he ought to recognize it. "Boromir? Are you really awake this time?"
"Aye." He tried to sit up, but his arm felt strangely weak, nearly collapsing beneath him, and his head swam alarmingly. Small hands clasped his shoulders and pulled him upright, then shifted down to grip his arms and hold him steady. He frowned, struggling to make sense of his surroundings and attach a name to the hauntingly familiar voice.
"I'm awake. Unless... This isn't a dream? I'm really lying in a..." he looked around, as though expecting to see through the bandage that covered his eyes, and scowled in confusion, "...in a bed?"
"It's not a dream, and you're really in a bed." The voice gave a slight, breathless laugh, but Boromir distinctly heard tears thickening it. "You're in Edoras, in the house of Théoden King."
Boromir fingered the fine cloth of his shirt, then he lifted his hand to brush his fingertips over the bandage. It was clean and soft, no longer stiff with dried blood.
"This is not Orthanc," the voice murmured, "I promise you. You're safe in Edoras, and so is Strider."
That name struck a chord in his mind, bringing the first whispers of recognition. Unconsciously, he reached to cover the speaker's hand with his own, while amazement and disbelief warred in his face. "Merry?" His fingers closed around the small, sturdy hand that clasped his arm, and at the feel of it, he knew that he could not be mistaken. "Merry! You're alive!"
Merry uttered a low sob and, catching Boromir's hand in both of his own, pressed a kiss to the back of it.
"Nay, Merry, do not!" Boromir protested.
In answer, Merry only held his hand more tightly, clutching it to his breast. Boromir could feel the sobs shaking the halfling's small frame and tears falling on his hand. Surprise gave way to compassion, and he asked, gently, "Why do you weep?"
"I'm so glad to hear you say my name again that it's like a blade through my heart. I did not know joy could hurt so dreadfully."
Boromir opened his mouth to answer, but no words came to him. Amazement and embarrassment held him speechless, while a deep, unaccustomed gratitude welled up in him. Hesitantly, he placed his free hand on Merry's bent head. He felt thick curls beneath his fingers and had a momentary vision of that bright, tousled head bobbing up a green hill in front of him, as they climbed together toward a jagged peak.
"It is I who am glad to hear your voice, little one," he murmured. "I thought you lost on Amon Hen. How is it that you are here?"
Merry lifted his head and gave a prosaic sniff. "We followed you. We chased the orcs all across Rohan, then right into Isengard. I couldn't... I couldn't let you die, thinking that we had simply run away and left you. The way I reckon it, Pippin and I owed you at least one rescue."
Boromir smiled at his last, offhand remark. "Then Pippin is here, too?"
"He was. He's gone to Minas Tirith with Gandalf."
Once again, surprise robbed Boromir of speech. He must have looked remarkably foolish, gaping at the halfling with his mouth half open, because Merry chuckled at him and said, at his most insouciant, "Did I forget to mention that Gandalf is alive?"
Boromir shut his mouth with a snap and gently, but firmly, removed his hand from Merry's clasp. "Don't toy with me, halfling. I am in no fit state for your games."
"It's no game," Merry assured him, seriously, "and I would never joke about such a thing. It's only that you looked so... so..."
Boromir smiled, feeling again the warmth and merriment that the halflings always brought him. Even now, after all that had occurred, he could not listen to Merry's droll remarks or picture the gleam of mischief in his eyes, without wanting to laugh.
"I do not understand any of this," he said, "and I begin to suspect that my wits have wandered. But I am grateful to have you here, Merry. More grateful than I can say!"
"Where else would I be?" Merry asked, with a hint of fresh tears in his voice.
"On the road to Mordor, with Frodo. Or is he here, as well?" Even as he voiced the question, Boromir felt a treacherous thrill at the mere thought that the Ring might be close to him, still. And on the heels of that excitement came the old, bitter shame.
"Frodo is gone to Mordor."
"Without his friends?"
"Sam went with him."
"Alone. Two halflings gone into the Black Land alone."
"That's how Frodo wanted it."
Boromir shook his head slowly, wishing he could deny what he had heard, wishing he could go back to that fateful day beside the Great River and undo the terrible thing he had done. He felt remorse for his act of betrayal - an act that had driven Frodo to abandon the Fellowship and strike out on his own, without guide or protector - shame for the lingering desire that still poisoned his heart, and despair for the ruin to come, when the Enemy reclaimed his own.
"That is not what he wanted," Boromir said, grimly.
"I saw him leave, Boromir. He chose to go."
Summoning his courage to face the halfling's scorn, he lifted his chin proudly and spoke the truth without evasion. "It was a choice I forced on him. I tried to take the Ring."
Merry said nothing for a long moment, and Boromir felt the fear gnawing at his innards. Even a fortnight ago, he would not have believed that he could feel such dread at the thought of losing Merry's trust and affection, but at this time, in this place, with only the halfling's small hands and familiar voice between him and a vast darkness, he found it almost unbearable. And yet, he would not have the words unsaid, for he would not add the name of liar or coward to his list of failings.
When Merry finally spoke, he sounded plaintive, rather than angry. "You didn't hurt him, did you?"
"Nay, I did not. But if I had caught him..."
"You didn't. And I know you could not have hurt him."
"Merry, I attacked your friend, I betrayed the Fellowship, and I tried to take the Ring by force. You cannot know what else I might have done."
A hand closed around his forearm, cutting off his protest, and Merry's voice came to him, low and edged with pain, yet full of certainty. "I do not pretend to understand the power of the Ring, Boromir, but I am sure of this much. You have protected, guarded and cared for us since the day we met. I have lost count of the times you have stood between me and death. I don't believe that you would ever willingly betray us or harm us in any way."
"But I did, and I cannot lay the blame for it wholly on the Ring. Mine was the heart moved to violence and treachery. Mine is the burden of guilt."
Merry paused for a moment, then said, quietly, "And mine is the choice to forgive a friend's mistake."
Boromir bowed his head to hide his reaction from Merry's eyes. He did not understand how his companions could forgive him - first Aragorn, and now Merry - but through his recent trials, he had come to recognize how greatly he valued their forgiveness and how much he relied on their friendship. And in this moment of untainted happiness, he felt almost whole and clean and worthy again, thanks to the simple affection of a hobbit.
"You look as though you're about to faint," Merry said.
Boromir shook his head.
"You'd best lie down. I should not have kept you sitting up and talking for so long."
"No. We have both said enough." He squeezed Boromir's arm in silent apology, then went on, cheerfully, "If you don't behave, I'll get blamed for tiring you out and they'll banish me from your room. Then who will put up with your bad temper, pray tell?"
"Have I been that bad?" Boromir asked, meekly, as he lay back against the bolster in obedience to Merry's prompting.
"A cursed nuisance."
Boromir broke out in a wry smile. "Poor Merry. If I promise to behave, will you sit and talk with me?"
"Haven't you had enough of talking for one day?"
"Nay, I want to know everything that has happened since the orcs took us. I have obviously missed a great deal."
"You are tired and..."
"I am not," he lied, "and I'll not rest 'til I have the tale."
Merry gave a resigned sigh and sat down on the mattress. "All right, then, if it will keep you quiet."
The tale was long in the telling. Merry sat cross-legged on the bed, with Boromir's hand resting lightly on his knee in a trusting gesture that made the hobbit's eyes prick with tears, and talked until his voice grew ragged. Boromir lay quietly through the worst of it, and Merry drew strength from his outward calm. The horror, pain and fear he had felt were still fresh in his mind, but a glance at Boromir's face reminded him why he had suffered through it all and what he had accomplished in the end.
He found that the telling eased some of his lingering distress, but he also found that much of it he could not share. He said nothing of the guilt that had lashed him through the long, fruitless hunt across Rohan, and he shrugged off the horror of his lonely vigil in Boromir's cell, softening it with wry humor and laughing off Boromir's thanks. It did not seem necessary to speak of these things, now that Boromir was found and brought alive from Isengard. The only thing that remained, the only thing that mattered, was the promise he had made himself and his friend. When he felt the time was right, he would tell Boromir of that promise, but not until the soldier, still reeling from his wounds, could accept it as a gesture of love and respect, not of pity.
Of Pippin and the palantír he also said nothing. That was Pip's tale to tell, or to leave untold, as he saw fit. And he was grateful, as he skipped lightly over that part of the story, that Boromir did not ask why Pippin had gone with Gandalf to Minas Tirith rather than stay with his companions.
Oddly enough, after all the perils and agonies they had endured, it was of Théoden that Merry found it hardest to speak. When he tried to tell Boromir of his friendship with the aged king and the vow of fealty he had taken, the words stuck painfully in his throat. He thought of Théoden's kindly smile, his generosity toward a lonely and frightened hobbit, and he felt a stab of remorse. For try as he might, Merry could not deny that he regretted his vow.
He had made it in the depths of his loneliness and despair, when he feared that all his efforts were for nothing, when Pippin was gone and Boromir was lost in a dark dream that it seemed would hold him prisoner forever. When Merry had sat, disconsolate, at the king's table and listened to soldiers talk of a war that he could never join, when he had shivered at the thought of Pippin gone into the heart of the coming darkness and Aragorn soon to follow him, Théoden had clasped his shoulder, smiled at him, and asked him for tales of the Shire to lighten their hearts. And Merry had wept at the unexpected kindness.
They had sat together by the hour - the hobbit and the king - and talked of many things. The Shire, pipeweed, gardens and hobbit lore. Merry had forgotten, for a time, the woes that burdened him. And when Théoden placed a hand upon his head and smiled, Merry had thought that he could do no finer thing than to offer his sword and his heart to the king.
Now, he sat with another great Lord of Men, whose friendship he treasured, and he blushed at his own temerity in supposing that these warriors could want or need a sword such as his. He was naught but very small hobbit, with a very small sword and no skill at war, and yet he had dared to pledge himself as swordthain to a king. Worse yet, he now wished that he could unsay that pledge and give it to another, who had as little use for it as the first.
He was stumbling over his words, lost in a meandering attempt to explain his reasons for what he had done, when Boromir interrupted him.
"You think highly of the Lord of the Mark," he said.
"He... he spoke kindly to me. He offered me a seat beside him at table and listened to my tales of the Shire. I have never met a king, before..."
"Théoden King is different. He is like an aged but kindly father." Merry hesitated, then added, "I am his liege man. I have sworn fealty to him, and to the Mark."
Boromir answered, gravely, "Théoden is a good and valiant man, a wise ruler, and a loyal friend. You could not choose a better lord to serve."
Merry's face flushed, and he bowed his head, muttering, "I'm proud to wear the white horse of Rohan, but I had rather it was the White Tree of Gondor. If I'd thought... if I'd known..." He swallowed painfully and murmured, "I'd rather be your esquire, than the king's."
Boromir fell silent for a moment, digesting the hobbit's words, then spoke very quietly. "I would be honored, Merry, but as it is, I have no need of liege men."
"When you return to Minas Tirith, will you not be Steward?"
"Someday. Perhaps. If I ever do see Minas Tirith again."
"Aragorn will send for you, when the city is safe. I heard him tell Théoden as much."
"He will what?" There was a bite to Boromir's voice that startled Merry.
"He is leaving you here, in the care of Rohan, until he has taken his army to Minas Tirith and cleared the enemy from Gondor's lands. Then you are to come and help him plan the war properly. Théoden felt you should stay here 'til the war is won, but Aragorn pointed out that... well, it most likely isn't going to be won, and he needs all the help he can get, especially from Gondor's Captain-General, if we're to stand against Mordor for long... Boromir, what are you doing?"
Boromir sat up and pushed back his blankets. "What army does Aragorn lead? And when do they ride for Minas Tirith?"
"I'm not sure. They've talked a lot of nonsense about old verses and broken vows and... and something called the Paths of the Dead. He's got his Rangers with him, and Elrond's sons. They all seem to think he must go on these paths or he'll arrive at Minas Tirith too late for the battle." He watched Boromir fling his blankets away and swing his feet to the floor, and cried, "You're not going to find Aragorn!"
"You're to stay in bed and rest. Gandalf was very clear about that."
"Gandalf is not here, and I am not subject to his orders. Are you going to take me to Aragorn, or must I wander around Meduseld alone, 'til I stumble over him?"
Merry heaved a sigh and slid off the bed. He devoutly wished he had guarded his tongue more carefully, but it was too late for discretion, now. "At least let me find you some clothing," he said, miserably. "You can't go demand to get yourself killed, dressed in a nightshirt."
*** *** ***
Aragorn sat in bed, leaning against a heap of cushions and bolsters, carefully flexing his wounded leg. It ached abominably, and the weakness of the damaged muscles worried him, as he knew he would have to sit a horse in another day or two, regardless of the pain. But it was neither pain nor worry that brought the brooding frown to his face.
"You will be ready, Aragorn, fear not. Your time is come, at last. Isildur's Heir will ride forth, with the Dúnedain at his back, to claim his birthright."
Aragorn gazed thoughtfully at the tall, grey-clad man who spoke. "Aye, Halbarad. I will ride." He did not voice the rest of that thought - that he must ride, whether or not his time had truly come, for the currents of war would not wait upon his wounds, or his doubts.
His eyes moved to the furled banner propped against the wall, then to the small, shrouded object and sheathed sword that lay on the table beside it. The King's standard, the palantír and the sword of Elendil. They were the symbols of his birthright, the weapons that would carry him to his throne, and their presence here, with the host of the Dúnedain, made it clear to Aragorn that his fate was pressing close upon him. After countless years of wandering and exile, of waiting and watching, of fighting the Shadow from within shadows of his own, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, would ride to Gondor.
A pang smote him, and he looked again at the face of his beloved kinsman. Halbarad was his brother-in-arms, a man he trusted as he trusted the strength of his own sword. They had fought through the grey years together, and there was none he would rather have at his side, in this fateful hour. Or so he had once thought.
As if summoned by his unvoiced wish, a light tap sounded on his door and two figures strode into the room, both clad in the simple green and white of Théoden's household, and both blessedly familiar in spite of their strange garments. They halted just inside the doorway, their progress barred by Halbarad. Aragorn looked up, amazement written plain on his face, and in the startled silence, Boromir said,
"I would speak with you, Aragorn. Alone."
The grim tone of his voice told Aragorn that this was no time for introductions and idle chatter. Shooting a swift, warning glance at Halbarad, he nodded towards the doorway. The Ranger bowed his head in understanding and vanished through the open door, his feet making no sound on the stone flags as he went.
"We are alone."
"I am glad to see you, Boromir." Aragorn privately reflected that this was a gross understatement, but as neither man was given to colorful speeches, it would suffice. "I wish Merry had told me you were awake."
"I didn't give him a chance."
"That's true," Merry piped in, "he didn't."
Aragorn smiled at the hobbit, then turned his gaze back to the man who stood at Merry's side, one hand resting lightly on his head. Aragorn grinned in unfeigned delight.
"How fare you?" he asked, a glimmer of mischief in his voice.
"Well enough. And you?"
He gave a low chuckle and held out his hand toward the other man. "You know the answer to that. Come and sit with me, Boromir, I beg you."
Boromir stayed where he stood by the door, his face tense and withdrawn, until Merry quietly started toward the bed. Boromir followed him, perforce. When his leg bumped the mattress, Boromir halted and let his hand fall from Merry's head.
The hobbit gave Aragorn a wistful smile. "I have an errand in the kitchens, and you don't need me hanging about, do you?"
"Time for Elevensies, is it, Master Brandybuck?"
"It is." Shooting a look up at Boromir, he added, "I'll be within bellowing distance, if you need me... for anything."
Boromir nodded toward the door and said, "Go on, Merry. You sound hungry."
"I'm always hungry!" The hobbit scurried out the door, pausing to shut it softly behind him.
Aragorn gazed up at his friend, reading the lingering illness and distress in his face, and he knew that this was not going to be a pleasant meeting. Slapping a hand on the mattress beside him, he said "Sit down." Boromir obediently sat on the edge of the bed, and Aragorn went on, in a conversational tone, "You are not here to ask after my health, are you?"
Boromir shook his head, his lips pressed tightly into a frown.
Still, Boromir did not speak. Propping his elbows on his knees, he laced his fingers together and rested his chin on his hands, his shrouded gaze seeming fixed on the far wall and his face hard with pain.
"Come, Boromir. After all that we have survived together, can we not speak plainly to each other?"
"Aye," Boromir answered, softly.
"Then tell me what troubles you."
"You are leaving Edoras."
Aragorn stirred uncomfortably. "Aye. Tomorrow."
"For Minas Tirith."
"Not by the direct road, and it is by no means certain that we will reach the White City."
Boromir bowed his head for a moment, his forehead resting on his clasped hands. Then he looked up and turned to face Aragorn squarely. "It matters not to me what road you take. You ride to Minas Tirith and to war."
"Did you hope to leave without telling me?"
"Hope? Nay, not hope. I feared that I must, for you were ill beyond my power to help and I cannot not delay."
"You need not. I am a ready to ride from Edoras with you, today, down any road of your choosing. So tell me now, to my face, that you will go to Minas Tirith without me."
Boromir's face twisted in a grimace of pain, then he turned away from Aragorn's gaze. "Through all our dark journey together, I thought myself a dead man. Then I awoke in this place and discovered that life had been given back to me, and in a moment of vain folly, I thought, perhaps, I had earned a second chance. A chance to stand beside my king when he placed the crown of Gondor upon his brow."
"There is no other I would have beside me," Aragorn said.
"Yet you would go to Minas Tirith without me." Aragorn did not answer, and Boromir's shoulders drooped visibly under the weight of his distress. "You swore an oath to me, Aragorn, and I took you at your word. I believed you, when you said that I was to be your Steward."
Aragorn gave a soft hiss of pain. "Do you doubt me, now?"
"I do not want to. I know you are a man of honor, a man worthy to be my king and king of all Gondor, but..."
When he hesitated, Aragorn urged, "Speak your mind."
"You ride to Minas Tirith, to war, but you leave me behind. You say you will have me as your Steward, but you do not trust me to stand at your side. How can I be Steward, how can I serve my king and my people, if I am not worthy to fight for them in their greatest need?"
Aragorn breathed a long, weary sigh and leaned his head back against the supporting cushions. He studied Boromir's face from beneath lowered lids, and felt a hard knot of pain gather in his stomach. He had known that he must hurt his friend, that he must wound the soldier's pride as deeply as any blade could wound his body, but knowing did not make it any easier. For all his certainty that he had no choice, Aragorn felt as though he were betraying a trust.
Summoning both certainty and resolve, Aragorn said, "It is because I would have you live to serve both me and our people that I will not take you with me into unknown peril."
Boromir said nothing, merely gazing blankly at the floor between his feet.
"This is not what I want, Boromir, but what I must do. If I were free to follow my heart, I would ride out of Edoras with you beside me, to death or renown or whatever awaits us. But you know that I do not have that freedom. In the dungeons of Isengard, you understood the choices a king must make. Can you not understand them, now?"
Once again, Boromir bowed his head to rest on his clasped hands. He fell still, leaving Aragorn to watch and wonder if he had found the right words to ease this terrible blow for his friend. Boromir must believe him, or all the trust between them would be lost, and the son of Gondor would fall again into despair. Aragorn could not hope to rescue him a second time.
It was long before Boromir spoke again. When he did, he neither lifted his head nor changed his posture, but his voice had turned soft and thoughtful, the edge of anger gone from it.
"I feel as though I'm dreaming, still," he murmured. "Or mad. How is it possible that we've come from Isengard to Edoras? That we're alive and free? It does not seem real."
"It does not seem real to me, either, and I was awake through it all."
"I can still hear Saruman's voice, like poison in my ears. Every time I reach out my hand, I'm afraid I'll touch him. He haunts me."
"You have only just shaken off that poison. It will take time to heal."
He shook his head slightly. "I will not heal. Not this time. Do you... do you understand what he offered me, Aragorn?"
"It was as if I held the Ring in my hand again and heard its whispered promises." Boromir shuddered and buried his face in his hands. "I can hear them still."
Compassion darkened Aragorn's gaze and brought an ache to his breast. "I am sorry, Boromir. I would that I could silence them for you."
"Nothing can." Boromir lifted his head and dropped his hands, allowing Aragorn to see the infinite weariness in his face. "I must live with the whispers, as I must live with... the rest. A foolish part of me longs to know if he could have done it. If he could have given what he promised, or if it was merely another of his foul lies."
"I do not know."
"Perhaps I shall knock on the doors of Orthanc and ask him."
Aragorn smiled sadly. "Do nothing foolhardy, while I am gone."
Boromir's face hardened, and he looked away again.
"Please, Boromir. I ask you, not as your lord, but as your friend. Stay here, in the care of Théoden King, rest and heal, keep yourself well against my need of you."
"I will do nothing foolhardy, and when my king has need of me, I will be ready."
Aragorn frowned at that, painfully aware of all that Boromir had left unsaid, but he knew that he would get no clearer promise. "Thank you."
Boromir nodded and pushed himself wearily to his feet. He swayed unnervingly, and Aragorn caught his arm to steady him.
"You must take some rest."
"Aye." Boromir took a step toward the door, but Aragorn halted him, refusing to let go his arm.
"Boromir?" The other man turned to face him, and Aragorn asked, "Can you live with this? The whispers and the rest?"
"What choice do I have?" Aragorn said nothing, and in his silence, understanding came to Boromir. His face softened into a smile. "Nay, do not fear that. Go to Minas Tirith, Aragorn, and win your crown. When you look for me, I will be there."
With that, he turned and strode quickly from the room, leaving Aragorn alone to ponder the hard choices of a king.
*** *** ***
The Grey Company were mounted and ready to ride from Edoras. They had said their farewells to the king and his household, drawn their horses up to the foot of the green hill upon which Meduseld stood, and now waited only upon their chief. Aragorn, too, had said all that was meet to Théoden and Éomer, had drunk a parting cup with the Lady Éowyn, and was ready to depart. But still he stood apart, with the remnants of the Fellowship gathered about him, loath to give the order that would finally part them.
He went down on one knee before Merry to embrace him and said, "Farewell, Merry, bravest and most faithful of hobbits! Wise was Elrond, when he agreed to your coming, though little did he know how valiant would be your deeds and how great our need of you. We'll not forget you, though we wander through all the lands of Middle-earth before we meet again."
"Goodbye, Strider." Merry made no attempt to hide his tears, as he gazed into the face of the man who had been his guide and guard through so many perils, the man who would someday be his king, if they ever found their way out from under the Shadow. "I wish you would take me with you!"
"Nay, I need you here." He cast a swift glance up at Boromir, then smiled into the hobbit's doleful eyes. "I trust you with that which I would trust to no other."
Merry swallowed his tears and lifted his chin, determinedly. "You don't have to worry about us. I made a promise, and I intend to keep it."
"You lighten my heart, Master Brandybuck." Aragorn kissed him lightly on the forehead, then rose to his feet and confronted Boromir.
The two men faced each other in silence, Boromir grim and withdrawn, Aragorn full of sorrow but resolute. The other members of the Fellowship drew apart, not wanting to intrude on such a private leave taking. Finally, when the silence had stretched to the point of pain, Boromir stirred and held out his hand toward Aragorn.
"Farewell, my king."
Aragorn ignored the offered hand and embraced him, instead. After a moment's hesitation, Boromir returned the embrace.
"I have given you my word," Aragorn said, "and I will prove my good faith."
"There is no need."
They stepped away from each other, though Aragorn kept his hands on Boromir's shoulders and still spoke in a voice too low for any other to hear.
"I will see you soon, in Minas Tirith. Together, we will challenge the power of Mordor. Together, we will see Gondor restored."
"If you come unscathed to Gondor, then she is restored." Boromir paused, then added in a voice rough with strain, "I give all that I love into your hands, Aragorn. Do not betray my trust. Do not let Gondor fall."
Aragorn embraced him again and whispered, "I will not."
As he turned away to join his Company, Aragorn felt a tear slide down his cheek. He resolutely did not wipe it away, but lifted his head to let the sun strike his face. The Fellowship followed him to the side of his mount, and Legolas helped him climb into the saddle without injuring his leg further. He bent to speak a final word to Merry, to clasp Boromir's hand a last time, then he wheeled his horse about and galloped away, the Dúnedain riding silently after him.
Merry and Boromir stood a long time at the foot of the stair. The King and Éomer left them without a word, sensing that they wanted neither comfort nor company, and it was not until all the King's household had left the terrace above, returning to the hall, that Boromir finally turned to climb the stair. Merry went quietly at his side, saying nothing, even when Boromir chose to pace the stone parapet that edged the terrace, rather than return to the hall.
They moved away from the guards at the head of the stair, along the wall that overlooked Edoras and the burial downs beyond its gates. When they were far from both hall and stair, alone on the windswept hilltop, Boromir sat down on the wall. He swung his long legs over it, so that he faced outward, toward the spreading downs, then he fell into a brooding silence that made Merry feel both overlooked and unwanted.
Leaning, apparently forgotten, against the wall, Merry gazed up at the dour expression Boromir wore. It reminded him, painfully, of the time after the Fellowship had left Rivendell, when Boromir strode so silently at the back of the group, avoiding conversation and the eyes of his companions. Merry had sensed, even then, that something gnawed at the man, and now he knew his friend well enough to be sure of it.
"Strider will bring them safely through," he said, certain that he understood what troubled Boromir.
Boromir only grunted a wordless response, his face turned toward the road and the riders that had vanished down it.
"You still want to go with him?"
"To the end of his road, wherever it may lead."
Merry's next question sounded plaintive, even to his own ears. "Have you not seen enough war to content you, Boromir?"
Boromir finally turned toward him, and his face softened into affection. "I have, my friend."
"I'm glad," Merry said, simply, and a wan smile touched his face.
"But that does not alter who I am or what duty I owe to my king and my people." Boromir turned back to the vista of the plains before him. "My place is with Aragorn, yet he rides away to the rescue of Minas Tirith, and I sit here. Shuffled off with the old men and children."
"And hobbits," Merry added, glumly. "You're not the only one whose king is leaving him behind."
"Théoden rides without you? But you're his swordthain, pledged to his service!"
"It seems he doesn't need my sword. You and I are both being packed off to Dunharrow, with the rest of the baggage." Merry crossed his arms on the top of the wall and rested his chin on his forearms to stare, morosely, at the road. In another day's time, he would be headed down that road, but not toward Gondor and his liege lord. His only consolation was that Boromir would come with him to Dunharrow. They were to be packed off together. "That's all I seem to be on this trip. Baggage."
Boromir's sullen expression matched Merry's perfectly. "I am not accustomed to being treated like baggage. I don't take kindly to it."
"At least you're tall enough that they have to pay attention to you. They just look right over my head and pretend I'm not there."
Boromir made a disgusted sound in his throat and said, bitterly, "I think I'd rather that they ignore me. If one more person calls me "my lord" in that fawning, pitying tone and offers to open a door for me, I'll... I'll spit him on my sword!"
Merry, remembering how he had hurried to open the door for Boromir as they left the hall, blushed furiously and muttered an apology.
"Nay, I did not mean you, little one!" Now it was the man's turn to break off in embarrassment. "I beg your pardon. That is not a fit name for a warrior."
"I like it," Merry said. Then he smiled sheepishly and added, "Now that I've gotten to know you better. It used to upset me, but that was when I was frightened of you."
"That is a bare-faced lie, Merry. You were never frightened of me."
"I was. You growled all the time, you see..."
Boromir obligingly gave him one of his best, intimidating growls, which only set Merry off laughing.
"You can't carry us halfway across Hollin, rescue us from the snows of Caradhras, give us your cloak for a tent and half your supper when Pippin whines that he's hungry, then expect us to believe that you don't like us."
"I was simply trying to keep you out of trouble," Boromir snapped.
"If you say so, my Lord," Merry answered, meekly.
Boromir made a sour face at him. "Don't call me that. I am not your lord." He hesitated for a moment, then said, with quiet sincerity, "I have no need of liege men or servants, Merry, only of friends."
"I am that, always."
"Then tell me truthfully, my friend, why do you wish to follow Théoden? Do you hope to prove yourself in battle?"
Merry sighed and let his chin sink back onto his forearms. "I don't know. I have seen battle, and I don't like it. I don't think I'm a soldier at heart. But neither am I a coward, and I should be ashamed to stay behind." He glanced up at the face of the veteran soldier beside him and murmured, "I am only one, small hobbit, and I fear I can do little in such a great war, but for love of Théoden and Strider and Gandalf and all of them, I would try. Is that a foolish reason to go to war?"
"It is the only reason." Boromir's hand tightened on his shoulder, and Merry sensed the passion behind his words. Abruptly, the man swung his legs over the wall and sprang upright. He seemed full of a fierce energy all at once, and his face was hard with determination. "Come, Merry! We have no time to dally!"
Merry scrambled over to him and looked up curiously, as Boromir's hand rested on his head. "What are we going to do?"
"Our duty, Master Swordthain, in spite of our lords."
Merry grinned, finding his mood infectious. "Lead on, my Lord!"
"Nay, you lead on. Take me to Éomer, and we shall see what power the name of Boromir of Gondor wields in Rohan."