Mary Sue Challenge

End To Innocence, An

5. A Ghost In Ashes

Mira called it her "you suck" voice - and had gently chastised her over and over for listening to it. It whispered to her as she followed Legolas to the caverns. 'You're running away,' it said. 'Any excuse. Like Boromir's even going to notice if you're not there - he's fighting a war, for crying out loud! God, you're so self-centered. If you were who you pretend you are, you'd be back there on the wall, and to hell with Aragorn and his "your place is not in battle" crap. He's not your king, you don't have to do what he says, but no, you're high-tailing it underground to see some guy who's probably sorry he didn't tell you to piss off when he realized how you felt.' And behind the voice, like a ghost in ashes, was the face of the man she'd killed. Hurrying through the stone hallways, the only light from torches spaced too far apart to do more than point the way, she tried to banish both, but both remained, the one berating her for cowardice, the other gripping her heart with cold hands and calling her a killer. It didn't matter that he'd have killed her if she hadn't, there was still the look in his eyes, the shock and fear on his face as he tried to reach the knife with his hands while he choked on his own blood. Even as she held the gun to his head he fought for life, scrabbling weakly against her to reach the blade. She remembered the way the blood had bubbled around it as he'd tried to breathe. He hadn't known what the gun she pressed to his forehead was, but he'd known the look on her face, and he was afraid.

She remembered the way her lips had drawn back, baring her teeth, when her own fear had turned to suddenly to savage rage. And though she wanted to believe it was for the lives he'd taken, the more he'd have taken if he'd lived, she couldn't deceive herself. She felt it in the back of her throat. Her rage was not for others, but for herself. He had hurt her. He'd hurt her, and he'd grinned at her when he'd done it, and he'd have killed her if she'd let him, and her rage was at his arrogance, that he would try to harm her, that he thought he could best her. That he kept fighting, that he wouldn't just die, that he was making her kill him like this. She'd shot him for that, and when she'd pulled the trigger it had been with a foul kind of joy.

She stumbled and would have fallen if Legolas hadn't been suddenly at her side, steadying her, but she pulled herself from his grasp and dropped to her knees, pressing close to the stone wall and clasping her hands behind her head so hard her knuckles shone white, trying to push the images from her mind. She felt a cry gather in the pit of her stomach and forced it back until it emerged as a strangled gasp.

Legolas crouched beside her, touching her shoulder lightly. "Lady, what is it? your injury?"

She shook her head and pressed one hand to her eyes, the other steadying herself against the cool wall. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came. If she could just go back to the fighting, where that voice and those memories could be lost in noise and action. But here in the relative safety of the Deep, all she could see was his face; all she could hear was the voice, telling her she was a coward, and a killer.

"Come then," he said, slipping his arm around her, and she looked up, her eyes unfocused. Others hurried past, no one sparing a glance for the woman and the Elf. "Come," said Legolas softly, pulling her to her feet, "this is not the place."

"Legolas," she said, as they stood, her voice raw, "I - I don't know what to do."

"There is no decision," he replied firmly. "You placed yourself under Aragorn's protection and command when you joined us; your decision was made when he told you to leave the battle and come to the caverns." When she didn't respond to his insistent tug, he turned and pushed her roughly to the wall, his hand on her throat and strong fingers gripping her jaw, forcing her to face him. "There is no decision," he said, his eyes drilling into hers. "You help no one when you allow the things you've seen or done to keep you from your duty - and your duty now is obedience." He pushed harder against her until she brought her hands up to grip his arm, and her eyes focused on him instead of inwards. "You will do as you are told," he said fiercely. "You will drag your soul back from whatever pit it gazes into, and you will do as you are told."

Under the heat of his anger she felt the fog that had surrounded her begin to clear, the voice fade to indistinctness, and she nodded quickly. Just as quickly he released her throat and slipped his arm across her shoulders, and she let him lead her on.

"Thought you were going to smack me," she muttered.

"Would that help?" he asked.

She couldn't laugh. After a moment she said, "How did you know?"

He hugged her tight to him for a moment, but didn't slow his stride. "You are not the first to be so troubled," he said. "It is for good reason that young soldiers are not thrown into the thick of battle so wantonly, unless the need is as great as ours is this night."

They reached the cavern - huge, bigger than she'd have thought possible, filled now soldiers and horses, with refugees, the wounded, women and children. And ahead of her she saw the dappled coat of Hanûn, and beside the him, Annin, and she smiled.

"I'll leave you now," said Legolas, and turned her to face him. "You will not ride at the dawn," he said, and she nodded. "Good then." He was already turning to leave. "Await your soldier here."

"Legolas," she said, and he turned back to her. "Why do you call him - " She hesitated, and Legolas smiled faintly. "Go," she said, "sorry, I don't know what I'm thinking. Go."

She made her way through the press of horses to where Hanûn and Annin stood, and stroked their velvet noses gently, not realizing she cooed to them as she did so. "Oh," she said softly after a moment, and leaned forward, looking for Annin's pommel. She remembered tying the walkie-talkie there as they'd ridden out, the rest of her belongings having been packed and sent to Dunharrow to await the host's return from Isengard. It was gone. Only the tail of its strap remained, still tied to the pommel and torn. "Ah well, no surprise. I hope Janet gets it right on the first try." She leaned her cheek against Annin's neck and slipped her arm around her erstwhile mount, closing her eyes. "You're not mine now," she murmured. "All decked out for someone else to ride. Don't die," she said. "You're a good horse."

That was where Boromir found her. She started when he put his hands on her shoulders, but didn't turn. "Maggie," he said, gently, "Why did you not do as I asked?"

She shook her head. "I couldn't," she replied. "It - there's too much at stake, too many people here -" and she hesitated. "Maybe I couldn't do much, but - " she shook her head. "There was no reason not to try," she said finally, turning in the circle of his arms to rest her cheek against his shoulder. "No reason except I might get hurt. It didn't seem like reason enough, when everyone around me... even, just boys...."

"You were not meant for this," he whispered, and kissed her hair. "You were not bred to it, not trained for it."

She didn't bother disputing him, though he wasn't entirely correct. "Neither are a lot of people who do it anyway," she replied.

He held her tight for a moment, then said, "Come with me," and he led her away from the horses to the back of the caverns, where the wounded and the refugees had gathered. "Who can wield a sword or a bow will ride with the Eorlingas," he said, and sat her down. "You can do neither. You will await us here, with the others."

She took his hand and gripped it, shaking her head. The sight of the vast, terrible army that clamored at the gate clouded her sight, and he shone like gold in the center of it, all else falling away until it was only him, and the enemy's hatred that she saw. "You can't, there's no way," she said, "you - it's.... There are so many of them," weariness and fear turning her voice to a low plea. She raised his hand to her lips, her eyes closed, and felt his touch on her cheek. "Don't go," she said, knowing even as she did what his reply would be.

He didn't give it. Instead, he gently drew his hand from hers, and said "I will return." He raised her chin and she looked into his eyes. "See that you are here," he said, with a small smile, "when I do."

"Unless the enemy gets in here and we have to retreat even further," she answered.

She watched him walk away, and sent a fervent prayer that he'd keep his promise and come back. She didn't know how he could, but for a moment, eyes closed, every cell in her body prayed.

The host departed for the gates. Maggie sat, knees drawn up, her chin on her hands, eyes closed, wondering what Mira and the others would think when they couldn't find her, or if they could get to her even if she were dead. She didn't want to think about them coming here, finding her body, if there was anything left of it to find. In the distance, she heard an explosion and a great crash, and the shouts of the enemy, but then the air was split by the great horn of Helm, and it echoed away and back over the hills, never dying, but sounding more strongly with every blast. Maggie opened her eyes. The dawn had come.

Moments passed, and the sounds of fighting reached them; all the wounded, the women, the children, now sitting forward, tense, weariness forgotten as they tried to tell by sound alone how went the battle. Then a boy, too young to fight, came pelting into the cavern, crying, "Théoden King is away! The Eorlingas rides, and Erkenbrand! Erkenbrand comes with the White Rider! The enemy flees!" A ragged cry went up, and Maggie felt her heart lift with it, and all around her people were embracing. She found herself suddenly someone's arms, a woman, and they held each other fiercely in the crush.

They slept that morning in the Deep, finding space where they could, while the unhurt dealt with the carnage outside. Maggie had started to go with them, but had been restrained by a woman she didn't know, who gave her a drink of something warm and sweet, and told her to sleep. She couldn't find Boromir, or Aragorn, or the Hobbits, or any of the others, so she went back to the spot where Boromir had left her and lay down beside two young soldiers who rested there. "Ah, you," said one softly. "I remember you. The woman not of the Rohirrim." She looked up, and met the eyes of the soldier who'd told her to fly to the Deep. "How do you find yourself here?" he asked.

She thought about it, then finally answered, "I don't really know."

He smiled, a wry smile. "Well," he said, "I'm glad you've lived to see the day come. Your weapons proved useful," he continued. "I saw some of what they can do."

She nodded. "They're no good now - all the ammunition is gone. But they were great while they lasted."

"Perhaps one day," he said thoughtfully, "you and I will meet in better circumstances, and you can show me these things, and where and how a soldier might come by them."

"I hope so," she said, and lay back, closing her eyes. "I'd like that."

Mira and Maggie were training, working on Maggie's base. "You've got to be strong, and balanced," said Mira, "or you can't win. Come on now, let's try it again." Maggie took the mount, slipped easily into a wide, low base; if she stayed relaxed, she should have been very hard for someone Mira's size to dislodge, but in seconds Mira had rolled her and gained position. "You're out of balance," Mira said, and her black hair was pale gold. "You've got to keep your balance, or things won't work. Anyone can do anything to you if you can't keep balanced. Try it again, from the guard." Obediently, Maggie went into Mira's guard, postured up, knees snug to Mira's hips, hands planted firmly in her training partner's solar plexus, and without effort Mira swept her and took the mount again. "See what I mean? What's wrong with your base? why are things so out of balance?" Mira's eyes gazed calmly into hers, and the stars behind her glittered like ice. "You are not of this time," she said, her cool voice as soothing as it was menacing. "You bring confusion. The balance is upset, and the narrow path we should have walked has dimmed. None can see the way ahead." Maggie opened her mouth to speak, but no sound emerged. Mira, her dark olive skin as pale and smooth as alabaster, as soft as satin. "He would have betrayed us all. Yet perhaps all may not come to ruin, if the Fellowship is true," her words like petals on a winter wind, "if you do not betray the ones who trust you." Elven eyes shining in the dark, and Maggie woke to torchlight. Beside her sat Pippin, nibbling on a bit of dried fruit. She reached out and touched his knee, softly, to see if he was real, or part of her dream.

"Ah, you're awake," he said brightly. "Good. I was worried you might sleep the afternoon away, and you and I would have to ride alone to Isengard."

She frowned."You - what?"

"I was sent to look for you. The others are with King Théoden, getting ready. We're going to Isengard after all, it seems," he said, popping the last bit of fruit into his mouth. "To a parley, says Gandalf, not to a fight, and after the way Saruman's army ran off when Gandalf appeared, I believe it, though like as not there'll be some fighting between here and there, I think."

She sat up as the Hobbit stood. "Isengard," she said.

"Come on," and Pippin patted her shoulder. "The others'll be wondering what happened to us if I don't bring you back soon, but you were sleeping so soundly there I couldn't stand to wake you."

"Pippin," she said suddenly, looking up at him from where she sat. "The others. Are they all...?"

"All accounted for," he replied, and his gaze was shadowed. "It almost makes you feel guilty, having all your friends live when so many have died." She took his hand, hating to hear such sorrow in the Hobbit's voice. He looked at her and squeezed her fingers. "All the more reason for us to be strong, and go on," he said with the smallest smile. "Make sure our lives are worth the saving."

Together they made their way back through the dim corridors to the gate, and Maggie squinted in the brightness of the daylight. She could see two mounds had been raised, and she felt tears prick her eyes when she realized they were burial mounds. And down in the Deeping coomb, where before had been clear hills, now a dark forest stood. She blinked, and rubbed the tears away, and said to Pippin, "Was I not paying attention last night? I mean, it was dark and all, but was there a forest there yesterday?"

Pippin shook his head. "They just turned up," he said. "Gandalf said they're Ents."

Maggie nodded. "Ents. Of course. What else?" She considered asking what Ents were, but thought better of it, and together she and the Hobbit stepped out into the afternoon.

"I found her," Pippin called, and Maggie followed his gaze. There Boromir stood with Aragorn and Legolas, and suddenly Maggie remembered that he'd said he'd come back to her, and she felt her heart drop as she realized he hadn't. 'But then,' she thought, 'he didn't actually say he'd come back to me, just that he'd come back, and I should be there when he did. And I was.' That comforting thought didn't clear the chill from her skin, though, nor did the knowledge that in the midst of a war, a soldier wasn't going to have time to indulge in a little idle romance. She followed Pippin over to the group, feeling suddenly very out of place. In the light of day, everything that had happened took on a dreamlike quality, and she wondered - not for the first time since she'd arrived in Middle Earth, but for the first time with a sense that something was very, very wrong - what the hell she was doing here.

"Ah," said Aragorn, gazing at her as they approached, "our most stubborn and disobedient comrade," but he smiled when he said it, so she smiled gamely back.

"That's me," she said, "disobedient, grouchy, and in desperate need of a shower. Anyway," she continued as she and Pippin reached them, "I'm not that disobedient. I did go to the caverns eventually." She didn't add that she'd waited right where she'd been told to wait, until she'd been fetched by a Hobbit, hours after the others had returned. "Seriously," she continued, "if there's time, then is there someplace I could get cleaned up before we head out again?"

She bathed in cold water, but it felt so good to be clean again that she didn't even think about it. The cut on her thigh was red at the edges, and felt warmer to the touch than she liked, but one of the women sharing the bath chamber saw, and brought ointment and fresh bandages. "You should take some with you," she said, handing her a little clay jar and a packet of clean cloths. "Those men you travel with never mind if their wounds scar," and she smiled, "but we women often feel otherwise." She helped Maggie change the bandage over her eye, as well, clucking a little at the severity of the cut. "You should have that seen to by a healer," she said.

"If I have time," Maggie replied. "I don't want the party to leave without me, though."

"They'll not leave," the woman said with certainty. "Come, you'll want clean clothes, and I think I've some you can take. My name is Airn," and she took Maggie by the arm. "And though I'm not of one of the royal houses, I still feel some responsibility that Rohan should see to the needs of those who aid us."

"I can't tell you how much I appreciate it," Maggie said. "I'm Maggie, incidentally. Maggie Dunshay."

"You ride with Isildur's heir, and with Hobbits. and with the most beloved Captain of Gondor," Airn said. "I know who you are," and she smiled. "You travel with legends, friend, and though I envy you somewhat, I would not trade lots with you. Legends often make dangerous traveling companions. Here," she said, reaching into a trunk and pulling out soft grey fabric. "These were my sister's, before she married. I think they should fit you nicely."

She helped Maggie dress, the lacings unfamiliar to her. Leather leggings, tougher than the cotton of her ruined pants but lined with something soft as a mouse's ear, were tucked into her own boots with the knives in their sheaths. Over them Airn added a blouse and tunic, helped her back on with the stained leather armor, and put a heavy grey cloak over all, clasped at the throat with a pin of some dark metal in the shape of a galloping horse. The guns rode at her hips, useless though they were without more ammunition. Tucked into a small grey pack were the rest of the few belongings that had previously ridden in her pockets, as well as the cotton arm warmers she couldn't stand to leave behind.

"There," said Airn, stepping back to look at her. "That's better. You look a proper warrior maiden now." Maggie didn't feel like a proper warrior maiden, she felt like she was playing dress-up, badly. Who wore a gun belt over such a lovely tunic, and with armor, no less? Who wore rubber-soled boots in a world that didn't, as far as she could tell, know what rubber was? But she also felt clean, and warm, so she didn't much care. Vanity was useless when you didn't even have a blow dryer or mascara. "Come," said Airn, "when did you eat last?" Maggie thought about it, and Airn shook her head. "That's too long, then," and took her by the hand. "We'll go to the kitchens - there won't be much, but it'll be better than starting a ride on an empty stomach."

The kitchens were crowded, but Airn made her way through the crush and came back with bread, cheese, and two apples. She and Maggie stood in the hallway, and while they ate, Airn talked, told Maggie about the long friendship between Rohan and Gondor, about Boromir's occasional visits, and how worried they'd been when the horse they'd lent him to go to the council at Rivendell came back riderless. "He's as fine a man as you could imagine," Airn said. "And for all that his father is rumored to love him best, he and his brother Faramir are as close as two brothers can be. Indeed, I think there are none whom either loves more, save perhaps Gondor herself."

"And Aragorn?" asked Maggie, keeping her voice carefully casual. "What does it mean that he's Isildur's heir?"

Airn gazed at her a moment, then laughed. "You must be from far away indeed," she said, "not to know. Why, Isildur is the one who cut the Ring from the hand of Sauron the Deceiver. His bloodline has been gone from the throne of Gondor for, why, a thousand years now, give or take a decade or two. Many thought it had perished entirely. The return of Isildur's heir to the throne of Gondor is a miracle long hoped for."

Maggie didn't pursue it further. What she'd actually been asking was why it mattered that Isildur's heir was on the throne, but it seemed clear that this wasn't the kind of place where you ask why the blood made so much difference.

Finally she thanked Airn again, and said goodbye, then found her way back outside. For a moment she stood there at the gate, watching from a distance as Boromir and Aragorn stood discussing something, their armor glinting in the afternoon light, their mounts nearby. She didn't see the others. The two men seemed at odds, their faces serious, tension in their body language. She wondered what they were talking about, and as she watched, they seemed to come to some sort of agreement, and at last Aragorn lay his hand on Boromir's shoulder, and the other man nodded. They turned then, and, hoping they hadn't caught her watching them, she started down the ramp towards where they were.

"Sorry that took so long," she said as she approached. "We had to change the bandages, and get me some clothes that weren't shredded, and eat, and like that."

"It's well that you did," said Aragorn. "It may be long before we have another chance, and you'd have been cold, with no more than what was left of the breeches you wore last night."

"How fares your poor head?" asked Boromir, "and the cut on your leg?"

Maggie touched her head absently. "Airn - the woman who found these clothes for me - gave me some ointment and some extra bandages," she replied. "I think they'll be fine. She wanted me to see a healer about the one on my forehead, but she didn't seem very insistent when I said I didn't think we had the time, so I'm not too worried." She glanced around. "So," she said. "We're going to Isengard?"

"We are," said Aragorn. Boromir looked away, and Maggie thought maybe she knew what the disagreement had been about.

She paused. "Um," she said, frowning, "I hate to be a pest, but I can't remember where I left my horse. Do either of you...?"

Boromir smiled. "Annin awaits you," he said. "She bore her mount well during our dawn ride, but I believe she prefers a lighter load, and she seemed much pleased when I told her she was to be returned to you. She whinnied," he said seriously, "and stamped the ground, her ears forward. Signs of equine delight."

Maggie grinned. "Annin's okay?" she said. "Yay! She's a lovely horse." Maggie didn't add that she wasn't sure she could have stood it if Annin had died as well.

They rode at an easy pace until they reached the Fords of Isen, and after that they went more swiftly; by midnight the Fords were far behind, and they camped beside the rocky bed where the river Isen had once flowed. Again they lit no fires, but this night she sat with Boromir, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli; the Hobbits, Éomer, Gandalf, and King Théoden a little ways away. Maggie felt profoundly out of her element. She'd been used to dealing with men and women at home who had power, but none who had the kind of power these men had. Princes, kings, kings-to-be, captains of men. And always, at home, she'd been the one they'd eyed warily, never sure what she might do, what she might be keeping back, what might happen if she became angry or took out against them. Here, in the dark of the night, she kept her cloak wrapped around herself and listened.

"Five leagues to the gates of Isengard," said Boromir, "and whither then? It is leagues upon leagues to Minas Tirith, and my brother, my father, they have awaited my coming too long already." Maggie saw him glance at Aragorn, heard something in his voice he didn't say, and she wondered if he'd have had Aragorn come to Gondor more quickly, or not at all.

"We will come to Minas Tirith in time, Boromir," said Aragorn, "and there may yet be means to speed our passage. But for now we go to Isengard to hear what Saruman would say, and see what these 'strange things' Gandalf spoke of may be."

"And if Minas Tirith falls?" Boromir said, and Maggie could hear anger just beneath his voice. "What then for the freedom of the West? Even if the Ringbearer succeeds, all will come to ruin if the White City falls. Saruman and Sauron are not the only evils of the world, and the armies they create may not fall obligingly to dust with their passing."

"Minas Tirith will not fall," said Aragorn, exasperation in his tone. They'd clearly had this discussion before. "Have more faith in your father and your people -"

"I should have more faith?" Boromir said angrily. "I, who have stayed with my people, who have led them, seen their blood soak the earth protecting the freedom of the lands for which you have abandoned us?" Aragorn looked away, his mouth a grim line, then turned shadowed eyes back to Boromir. "And where has the King of Gondor been?" Boromir continued, his voice low, but the bitterness in it hard as stone. "He has been following his heart in the shadows of Elven forests, speaking always and ever of the weakness and failure of Men. You tell me I should have more faith?"

The air was tight and Legolas made to rise. "Captain of Gondor, it is to your king you speak," he said, not yet coming to his feet, and Maggie caught Gimli's gaze. The Dwarf was shaking his head, his eyes hooded.

In the moment's silence before another spoke, Maggie murmured into the stillness, "'...all may not come to ruin, if the Fellowship is true.'" They turned to look at her. "It was a dream I had," she said, meeting Aragorn's eyes, then dropping her gaze again. "I've not been able to shake it. Mira, only she wasn't Mira, she was ... I don't know. Definitely someone. Blond, with skin like white roses...." Maggie paused, realized she'd been biting the tip of her ring finger, and made herself stop. "She told me things were out of balance. She said I wasn't of this time, and something about someone who would have betrayed us all," she paused, "and she said 'all may not come to ruin if the Fellowship is true ... if you do not betray the ones who trust you' except I don't know if she meant just me or the whole bunch of us, or what." She shrugged. "It's probably nothing," she said. "It just struck me."

Around them she could hear the small sounds of people who slept, the murmuring voices of those still wakeful, and across from her Legolas slowly relaxed, as an arrow taken from the string. She wondered why he always seemed to feel such a compulsion to defend Aragorn, to point out to Boromir who was supposed to be the boss. It irritated her.

"Boromir," said Aragorn finally, "Once, I said that if you departed the company for Minas Tirith, no one would think the less of you, and that is true. She is your home; we will find you there if we must. But I must go to Isengard, and I would you came with me. My heart warns against dividing our Fellowship further if the choice is left to us."

Beside her, Boromir was silent for a long moment, and she could feel him struggle with conflicting duties. Finally he said, "One man, more or less, even her 'favorite son'...." and Maggie noted the irony that drenched his voice as he trailed off. After a moment he continued, "I will do as my king bids me."

Aragorn inclined his head, and Maggie guessed he'd thank Boromir later, when there weren't so many people around. She'd seen enough of him to know he'd value the sacrifice Boromir had made, not only of his own wish to go to his homeland, but of his pride, acquiescing to Aragorn's will in front of his companions. She also understood, and knew Boromir did as well, that for Aragorn to thank him now would be inappropriate, whether surrounded by friends or strangers. A king didn't thank his subjects for doing as he asked, even a crownless king to a subject who might have ruled in his place, had he chosen not to return.

"Well," said Gimli at last, pulling his cloak tight around his shoulders and patting the ground behind him. "You four talk the night away if you wish," he said, tossing away a few of the larger stones he'd found, "but I'll sleep while I may. Who knows what will greet us at Isengard, that pit of vipers."

Maggie woke in the night to the sound of the watch crying out. She sat up, her heart pounding at the alarm, and saw, with the others, a great darkness coming towards them on both sides of the empty riverbed. She couldn't see the wizard, only heard him telling the riders to draw no weapons, that the shadow would pass them by, but she had no idea what weapon one might draw against darkness. She sat huddled in her cloak, pulled in on herself as tight as she could. Nearby, Legolas and Gimli were awake also, but no one spoke while all around them they heard whisper and groan, as if gigantic beasts moved slowly over the earth. When it finally passed, she sat still a while longer, waiting for her heart to slow. "What can it have been?" she heard Gimli murmur, and Legolas' low voice in response, though she didn't hear the words. She scanned the night for Boromir or Aragorn, and saw them finally, standing shoulder to shoulder at the edge of the riverbed, their shadowed forms so alike - one taller, but both broad of shoulder, both standing straight as spires. After a while, Aragorn turned and came back to their little camp, but Boromir remained. She watched him watching the darkness.

Aragorn moved to sit beside her. "The dream you told us of," he said quietly. "Did you truly dream it?"

"What do you mean?" she asked, turning to him.

He paused, and she could see he wasn't quite looking at her. "Did you truly dream it, or did you say what you felt needed to be said, and couch it in a dream?"

"I dreamed it," she said, shaking her head. "If I'd thought that was what needed to be said, I'd have just said it."

"I ask," he said, "because I believe it is not just the shadows of your mind that formed the dream. I believe it was a sending."

She looked at him. "A what?"

He clasped his hands. "I believe you've been visited by the Lady of Lothlorien, Galadriel. I do not know what the meaning is, but I am glad you told us of it." There was a silence. "I believe Boromir would have gone to Minas Tirith, if not."

"And I'm not clear on why that would be such a bad thing," said Maggie, turning to face him. "Why have you got him going to Isengard when his home is threatened?"

For a moment she thought he wouldn't answer. Then, finally, he said, "The son of Denethor would have ruled Gondor in my stead, if I had remained only Strider, the Ranger." There was a pause, and when he continued he seemed to be speaking more to himself than to her, his voice low, murmuring. "I do not know what strength is in his blood ... or in mine. I know he would have taken the Ring, and doomed us all, but the same can be said of most who are tested thus."

"So what," said Maggie, struggling to keep her voice low, "this is a test? For what? You're going to take the crown, so what does it matter what kind of ruler he'd have been?"

"Not a test," he said, shaking his head. He drew breath to speak, but paused. She could see him considering. Finally, he said, "I want him with me because Boromir and I, each of us, are stronger together than apart." Maggie tried not to let her surprise show. She didn't know what she'd expected, but not this. "His single-mindedness," Aragorn went on, "keeps me mindful of what's at stake for our people alone," and he paused again, looking away, "and my experiences, likewise, recall him to our greater purpose." His gaze met hers. "This is not an admission I would make to many," he said. "A king - even a crownless one - cannot afford to appear too needful of others."

She thought about that for a while, surprised. She hadn't thought he trusted her enough to confide in her about what he planned to have for dinner, much less something like this. "Why tell me?" she asked finally.

"You care for him," he said. "And I think you may have some influence over him, if you choose to use it, so I would not have you misunderstand my reasons."

"Influence?" she said, startled. "Well, first, I wouldn't try to influence him, 'cause I have no idea what the right thing to do is. And second, influence? What makes you think so?"

Aragorn glanced at her sideways, then paused. Finally he nodded towards Boromir's shadowy silhouette, and said, "He stands alone. Gondor's favored son is much alone, though his men love him - and he them - and the maidens of Minas Tirith would flock to him like songbirds if he but held out his hand." Aragorn regarded his comrade's form thoughtfully, and continued, "Though he never lacks for company if he desires it, there are few whom he seeks out. Yet he sought you," Aragorn said, his eyes turning to Maggie. "At Helm's Deep, when we found you were not within the Wall, Boromir sought for you among the refugees, among the soldiers. And I saw him restrain himself from going to you when we returned from the enemy's defeat. He was needed at counsel, but any could tell that what thoughts he could spare were with you." Maggie didn't know how to respond, and finally Aragorn continued, "He is troubled tonight, lady. He might find ease in your presence."

Finally getting the point, she started to stand, but then paused and turned to Aragorn. "Have you told him what you told me just now? about your real reason for wanting him with you?"

"I have," he said.

"Would he mind that you told me?"

"I do not know," Aragorn replied, "but I cannot believe so. Boromir values honesty, and had I told you all the follies of his youth, I think he would not take it too amiss." He paused, and smiled. "Not so amiss as to bring us to blows, at least."

She smiled at him, then turned and walked to where Boromir was. He heard her approach and she felt his body incline towards her, so slightly, as she reached him. "Hiya," she said.

He was looking at the riverbed. "Here," he said quietly, "the Isen used to flow as clear as any river in an Elven glade. Fast and cold the water ran," he said, "and now, bare stone and the bodies of fish who could not escape their world's calamity." He shook his head. "What has happened here?" he said, and the sadness in his voice made her throat ache.

She slipped her arm through his. She didn't know what to say. She didn't know if it could be made right, or what "right" would even come to, if they did. She didn't know if the river would flow again; right now, she didn't even know if the sun would rise in the morning. Finally she said softly, "If anyone can find a way to fix it, it'll be the Fellowship. You, and Aragorn, and Gandalf - you can make things right if anyone can."

He sighed. "If the Ringbearer succeeds," he said, "then perhaps."

"Believe it," she replied. "You'll succeed, and he'll succeed," she said, "and the world will come back. It will." They stood quietly together for a long time before she said at last, "Aragorn told me why he really wants you to come to Minas Tirith." He nodded, but didn't speak. "I - is it okay with you?" she asked. "That I know, and that that's why he wants you there?"

"That you know? of course," he said, and squeezed her hand lightly. "That this is why he asks me to forsake the path that calls to me for his own? He is my captain, my brother in arms," said Boromir. "And he is my king. I would do what he would have me do."

After a moment she said softly, "Well, yes, but that wasn't really the question."

"He is my king - " Boromir began, anger coloring his voice, and then hesitated. "He is Isildur's heir, yes," he said, his tone now thoughtful, "but that is blood, not proof of fitness to rule." There was a long silence, and she waited. Finally, he continued, "He has wisdom. Courage. He has led us this far." Still gazing into the distance. "He is not without flaws, but no man is, and he is more worthy of respect, of loyalty, than many I have served with before." He hesitated again. "He - I believe he is correct, in his thinking. I do forget our larger purpose when Minas Tirith is at need. I am not certain that he forgets the needs of the people, himself, but I believe that he fears to, and that my presence is a help to him, for whatever reason." They stood quietly, the starlight gleaming dully on the stones of the dry riverbed. "My heart is in conflict," Boromir said finally, "but I know my duty, and I do believe that Aragorn is worthy of it. I will go where he asks. He has my trust, I think, and my sword, I know." He was silent again for a long while, then finally turned to her. "Maggie," he said, "what happened to you during the battle?"

She didn't look at him. "I don't think I want to talk about it," she said.

He touched her chin, raising her gaze to his. "I think it would be better if you did," he replied, his voice, his touch, all gentleness.

She shook her head. "It's nothing," she said. "Nothing like what you've dealt with, or others have."

"Nor like anything you have dealt with before, I think," he replied. "Let me help you bear this. No soldier should have to keep the horrors of the battlefield locked in his own heart." He stroked her hair. "It will fester," he said, "and you will feel it far longer than the wounds to your body."

"It was a battle," she said irritably. "Bad things happen. Which one do you want to hear about?"

"The one that haunts your eyes," he said. "The one that brought you to your knees in the hallway of the Deep."

She snorted. "So Legolas told you about that, huh? Damned Elf."

"He is concerned for you," said Boromir, his voice still gentle. "He knows something troubles your heart, and he would have you unburden yourself to one you trust." He hesitated, then said, "He thought perhaps I might be such a one."

"Oh?" and she felt fear make her voice disbelieving, but didn't know how to change it, and she didn't know why she was so afraid to tell him, unless it was the feeling that if she did, she'd start to cry, and if she started, she'd never stop, and that he'd shun her for her weakness. Anger was easier than grief, and when she looked at Boromir now she saw every man she'd ever trusted, who had betrayed that trust. "Why would he think that?" bitterness like stones in her voice.

He frowned. "You ask for my faith, but will not give it in return? I have told you that I doubt my king, and you will not tell me if you doubt yourself?" His hand on her cheek. "Come, lady," he said, "what reason do you have to mistrust me?"

She felt a glib, angry answer on her tongue and bit it back, felt something welling in her throat. She had wished for this, had wished for this man to be for her all the things the others had promised and failed, but now, faced with it, she found her heart was held in ice. "I - I don't mistrust you," she said hesitatingly. "I mistrust everyone."

"Ah, a lonely world you must inhabit," he said gently, and she choked on a bitter laugh.

"You have no idea," she said.

"Then tell me."

She shook her head. "It's just, there've been a lot of men who wanted me to trust them," she said, "and when I've done it, it's usually been a mistake." She paused. "I like them, they like me, I trust them, give myself to them, and then they leave me." She shrugged. "It makes it hard to want to try it again."

There was a long silence, and she heard the murmur of the wind over the stones of the riverbed, the soft sounds of horses and wakeful men in the darkness far behind them. Finally he said, "Then I must thank them," and she looked up at him, confusion showing on her face. His eyes were fixed on hers. "For though I now have the task of opening your heart, they have left it free for me to open, if I can. They have left it free for one who can see it, and will cherish it, if he can but claim it." She looked away again, tears pricking her eyes, and he turned her face towards him again, though her eyes remained downcast. "But if you will not yet trust me as a man," he said gently, "trust me as a soldier. Trust me as your Captain. Tell me what shadow is on your heart; I will not falter."

In his voice she felt the safety of her teammates, she felt the solid strength of people who fight together, who hold one another's lives in their hands. And there, she trusted him. So she told him. As she did, she started to cry, and by the time she finished, he could barely make out what she was saying, but enough to understand. He pulled her close, and she pressed her body against him, his arms around her and the scent of leather and horses and his skin comforting her. "And - and - I don't know how to make it better," she said at last, through her tears. "I don't know how to undo it, I don't know how to fix what's wrong. He'd have killed me - he'd have killed you if he could have, if you'd been there, but I can't stop seeing his face, and I can't stop feeling like -" remembering the bitter taste of joy in her mouth when she'd fired, and felt his body jerk and die beneath her - "like a monster."

He stroked her hair, holding her tightly. "Oh, my sweet," he murmured, "my young warrior, there are no easy answers, but give it time.... Time will heal you," he said, "time will heal you." And as they stood there in the quiet, shadowed darkness, they heard far away the whisper of water against stone. It grew louder, and they looked to the river bed, Boromir still holding her in his arms, as the whisper turned to a rush. As they watched, the river swept past, white foam dancing at the fore as if it celebrated its own return, and when it passed, the water glimmered silver in the pale light from the stars, chuckling and burbling over the stones as if it had never gone.

This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

In Challenges

Story Information

Author: shadow975

Status: Beta

Completion: Work in Progress

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 07/15/03

Original Post: 01/21/03

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