Where History Has Been Fixed
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End To Innocence, An: 16. Two Days' Time
How was she supposed to accept this? Pippin did. Even Faramir. How?
Maggie sat in the gardens of the Houses of Healing, oblivious to everything around her, her brow furrowed, chewing on her thumb. Her mouth was dry, her mind raced, and she felt like she'd been kicked in the stomach.
There had to be something she could do.
Two days' time.
She'd promised to stay behind. Now, not half an hour later, she couldn't understand why. Pippin had asked her to, but Pippin was going, and he wasn't even full-grown for a Hobbit yet. Her friends? They'd be safe enough in Minas Tirith, and Janet could take them home if things got bad.
There was the thing about not wanting to die. But sitting here now, her own death didn't seem even a remote possibility.
None of this seemed a remote possibility. Her own world, this world, both seemed equally impossible, and the only real thing was that Boromir existed and that he loved her. No drama, no rants about psycho ex-girlfriends, no mixed signals or "I love you but things are too weird for us to be together" speeches - though for once that argument might have actually made sense. He just loved her. It was in every touch, every glance. Everything was impossible, and nothing seemed real except for him.
And in two days' time he was leaving. There had to be something she could do. But what? what could she possibly offer him that would convince him to stay?
Nothing. There was nothing. He loved her, but this was his country, his land, his home. His people. If she could compete with that, make him leave and abandon them.... If she could do that, she wouldn't have wanted him.
Slowly, sounds began to penetrate her awareness, and she looked around to see where they came from. Nearby, a woman knelt in front of a little patch of earth, a tray beside her with several small plants on it, their root balls wrapped in what looked to Maggie like cheesecloth. As Maggie watched, the woman reached into the tray and removed one of the plants, unwrapped the cloth, being careful not to lose the dirt that clung to the roots, and tenderly placed the plant into the first of the small holes she'd dug. Maggie could smell the earth, its fresh, loamy scent.
The woman glanced up, catching her gaze, and smiled. "Athelas," she said. "When it proved such an effective cure, the herbmaster sent us door to door throughout the City to find it growing, and we came back with these five plants." She held one out to Maggie. "Come and smell," she said. "'Tis a lovely fragrance."
Maggie moved to kneel beside the woman and cupped her hands around the proffered plant, inhaling the scent of earth and grass and new green leaves, the willow in her grandmother's backyard, the smell of childhood and safety. Sitting back, she watched as the woman finished planting all five, carefully patted the earth into place around them, wet it with water from a can she'd brought; continued to sit there on the flagstones, even after the woman had gathered up her tools and gone.
She didn't have anything that would make Boromir stay, but she did have something that might make other people come. The question was whether she could part with it. She stood, finally, and moved to the wall, looked out over the Pelennor, looked at the Anduin glinting in the sunlight. They still had to deal with Sorrow - she couldn't abandon her own world so completely. But each time she tried to imagine going home and staying, giving this up, giving him up, for that bleak world of ash and violence and apathy, ex-lovers and power struggles and machinations she sometimes barely managed to keep ahead of, she felt sick, and pale. She couldn't do it. And she couldn't let him leave her here in this stone city, either, while he rode towards death.
Twenty minutes later she'd spoken with Janet, had found Chip, and had dragged him into an antechamber where they stood arguing in low, heated tones.
"Goddamn it, if you want to save him, do something practical! Don't fucking go off with him - bring him back with us!"
"He'd never leave here, Chip," Maggie replied with a scowl. "Come on, help me out."
"Never leave here?" Chip said. "I never said you should give him a choice."
Maggie raised an eyebrow. "What - kidnap him?"
Chip shrugged. "It's safer back home than it is here, looks like. And hey, he's a bad-ass warrior guy - maybe he could help us."
She laughed. "He'd kill us all to get back here, Chip, don't doubt it."
She shook her head sadly. "Chip, if I did something like that.... Yeah, even me, if he had to, and I'd hardly blame him."
"Dunshay," he said quietly, with a wry smile. "Lord. What happened to the pragmatist I met two days ago?"
"She's right here," Maggie replied, "doing the best she can."
Chip hesitated, looking at his hands. "What's in it for me?" he asked finally.
"I've got a farm in Iowa," she said, and Chip raised his eyes to hers, his expression inscrutable.
"A farm?" he said. "You have land?"
She nodded. "I inherited it when my grandmother died."
"You're offering it to me?"
Shaking her head, she said, "Not so simple as that."
"I'll sell it, and for every volunteer you get eleven thousand dollars. Do what you want with that - pay 'em, buy weapons, buy a congressman, I don't care."
"Eleven thousand?" he said, his eyes narrowing thoughtfully. "Make it fifteen."
"They're good people, Maggie," he said, "and you're saying they may not come back."
She hesitated. "I know, Chip. But the more of them come and the better armed they are, the more likely they will." Another pause. "Thirteen."
"You're making us mercenaries," he said.
"Pragmatists," she replied.
"I can't do it," she said. "Thirteen five is as high as I can go."
He considered. "Who pays for the ammunition?"
"I need you to front that," she said, "but I can pay for it when I sell the land."
He shook his head, frowning, and she opened her mouth to try to change his mind, but before she could speak he said, "You'd really do that? sell land for this place?"
"Yeah," she said. "I would."
"Why didn't you tell me about this when we first got here?" he asked with a half-smile.
She laughed. "I didn't need to," she said. "You'd already agreed to help."
"But how have you held on to it all this time?" he asked. "God, things have sucked so bad and you've been sitting on land?"
She nodded. "I could have sold it," she said, "yeah. But the value just kept going up, and there's a little income from it. Made more sense to keep it and barely get by than it did to sell it and lose future profits."
"That's not what I meant," he said. "I meant why the fuck have you been living in New Washington if you had a farm you could go to?"
Startled by the question, she shrugged and replied, "New Washington was my home. I had friends there. Responsibilities. And nothing in Iowa but a farm I don't know how to work anyway." She laughed, and shook her head. "All I could have done was asked the tenants to let me live in the spare room," she said. "They would have, but what would I have done with myself? Watched the corn grow?"
"Lived someplace where there's not a murder on every street corner," he answered. "What would it matter what else you'd do?"
She chuckled. "You exaggerate. It's only on, oh, every third street corner, I think, at most. And it'd matter. It'll all come to Iowa eventually anyway, and everywhere else."
Chip didn't say anything for a long moment, looking out the window of the antechamber. Finally he turned back to her. "Are you lying to me?"
"No," she said, "I'm not lying. While you get the equipment, I'll come and get the paperwork dealt with. There's been a standing offer on it from a big corporate outfit that owns the land around it, so the money'll be yours before we even come back. You might want to give someone power of attorney or something in case you don't live through this little expedition."
He laughed. "I'll be giving it to the guy I'm getting the equipment from, I imagine," he said. "We can work out the details when we're there. I'll send Michael and Gus to deal with getting the equipment and you and I will go see your lawyer together." He hesitated, then said cautiously, "So you're not even going to make me wait until after the fight? How do you know I won't double-cross you, and not bring 'em, or take 'em all home before the fighting starts?"
"It's the dying thing," she said. "If I die here, how'll you get paid? And you know I'll kill you - or someone else will - if you double-cross me," she finished with a smile.
He laughed. "Yeah. And same to you." His eyes caught hers, and his smile faded. "So, you're not planning on coming back from here, are you?"
She didn't answer at first, then said, "There's still Sorrow. I'll be back long enough to help deal with him."
"You're taking a hell of a risk, staying," he said.
She looked away. "Well, yeah. I know."
After a moment, Chip said, "The value keeps going up? and there's income?"
She nodded. "Not much. Maybe nine thousand dollars a year in good years. Maybe five in bad. After taxes."
He paused, considering. "Then give it to me outright."
Startled, her eyes narrowed and she looked at him strangely. "You want to own it?"
He nodded. "Land, Dunshay," he said. "It's - " and he looked around. "You've kept it all this time, and you're not wrong. You want my soldiers, give me the land. I can take a loan out on it if we need the money, but we'll have a place we can get to if we have to. You won't need the money - you'll be here."
She paused. She'd planned to convert dollars into something useful here, something she could sell, but the idea of the land staying whole, even if not hers, tugged at her. "Conditions, then," she said finally. "Keep the same management, and the same tenants. Let them keep working it."
He frowned. "They would have had to go anyway when you sold it."
"But now I'm not selling it," she said. "They're good - you won't find better, so you might as well keep them. And if I do come back, you've gotta let me live there, reasonable rent, if I want to."
He laughed. "If you come back and want to, you can live there free of charge. It's in Iowa - it's not like you're gonna be sharing my bathroom." He shook his head, smiling, and said, "Done. You've got your equipment, and your soldiers. Your friends are going to be pissed, though."
"Yeah," she said, smiling ruefully. "All of them."
She looked for Boromir all the way from the Citadel to the Gate - or rather, where the Gate used to be - but couldn't find him. About a mile out across the Pelennor she saw the tents of Aragorn and his entourage, and hesitated. She knew Boromir would be angry if she went to Aragorn first, but maybe he was already out there. And although she tried to pretend it wasn't her reason for going, she thought Aragorn would be easier to convince. She looked around. The stables on the Sixth Circle had been empty, and she didn't know where there might be others. After a moment, she struck out across the field.
The field itself was still a mess, trampled and torn, but the sky was blue, and the air was fresh, and cool - perfect early spring weather. She counted her steps silently as she walked, an old habit that kept her thoughts from straying too far. Here and there she'd slip in a patch of mud, but on the whole the walk was easy as long as she avoided the more broken ground. 'Eight twenty-one, eight twenty-two, eight twenty-three, eight twenty...,' and a little skip over a torn patch, 'four, eight twenty-five, eight twenty - "
Hoofbeats, and she stopped and looked back to see a figure riding towards her. She turned as the rider drew close, and to her surprise and dismay, recognized Beran, slowing his mount to a walk as he reached her. She smiled brightly, trying to convey an ease she did not feel, her stomach knotting, remembering the throne room. She'd been walked in on before, but never under such fraught circumstances, and she hadn't been able to get a handle on what Beran had thought of the situation.
"Lady," he said, giving her a nod and an answering smile. "May I walk with you a while?"
Startled, she answered, "Of course."
Beran was a big man, heavily built but fluid in his movements, with the dark hair and grey eyes so common in Minas Tirith. His beard and hair were flecked with grey as well, and Maggie realized he was probably older than Boromir. She wondered if it ever caused problems between them, the elder taking orders from the younger. Beran leading the horse, they continued towards the tents.
"It's a gorgeous day," she said.
"Indeed, it is, and all the more for the shadow that has passed."
"Are you coming out here looking for someone?" she asked, then mentally kicked herself. Of course he was.
"I have an errand," Beran answered, "minor enough, but I dare say it is a pleasant thing on such a day to be sent on an errand across our Pelennor. And you? What brings you afoot this far?"
She smiled. "I need to see Aragorn, and Boromir if he's out here. But I couldn't find a horse."
He nodded. "They can be hard to come by," he replied, and she couldn't tell if he was being sarcastic."The Captain is in the City, though, taking counsel with his father. Though I believe the Ranger is indeed with his encampment." He paused. "Perhaps I should not speak of this," he went on, "but I wish you to know that your reputation is safe."
Startled, she said, "Thank you. I didn't doubt it - Boromir told me how much he trusts you." She hesitated, but then plunged ahead. "I don't want you to think badly of me, Beran," she said quickly. "It's not just some thing, between us - some meaningless fling. I wouldn't - " but she couldn't tell him that she wouldn't do that with someone she didn't love, because she had, and if she left here, and left him, she probably would again, though she would regret it afterwards. "I love him," she finished at last. "That's all."
There was a long pause before Beran spoke. "It is not my place to think well or ill of my captain's lady - of the Steward's lady - but I do not think ill of you. You are a soldier, that much is clear, and soldiers have rules that gentle society does not understand, and so is kept from knowing." He paused, then said, "No, I do not think ill of you, lady, nor will any speak ill of you in my hearing, unless you bring hurt to my captain."
She took a deep breath and said, "Thank you for that. I'll try not to."
She'd learned long ago not to make promises she couldn't be sure of keeping.
They walked on in a companionable silence for a while, but the tents were still far and time was pressing. Just as Maggie was opening her mouth to ask Beran if he could give her a lift, she heard a beep, and then a phone rang nearby.
Halting in her tracks, astonished, she looked for the source of the sound, and saw, clinging to a weed in a tuft of somehow unspoiled grass, a red-winged blackbird. It raised its head, its throat working fast as the familiar but long-forgotten song trilled through the air, and she held her breath with a sudden, vivid memory of home, of the farm, the vast windswept landscapes of midwest corn country and the short, gnarled, blackened trees like old men in the sun, and in their branches, these black birds slashed with crimson on the wing. The sweet smell of the air, the pungent soft odor of the cows the tenants kept. The grey kittens that had been there the last time she'd made it up to see the property, just old enough to be hunting bugs. Straight-tails, the woman who kept the house had called them, laughing. "Little straight-tails, but they'll be good rat-catchers when they're grown." Little straight-tails pouncing on beetles in the grass under the willow behind the house. Her grandmother's house.
She pressed a hand to her mouth, hard, biting, feeling a scream rise in her chest from the weight of everything she had just, in the space of half a dozen words, given up. Beran stopped as well, glancing first at Maggie and then at the place she gazed.
"Ah," he said, "a scarlet herald - harbingers of spring. Have you seen one before?"
She nodded sharply, the world swimming in the tears that flooded her eyes. "I - not here," she said at last, her voice breaking. "Home. Home." She lowered her hand and rubbed the flesh where her teeth had left their mark, relishing the sting that brought her back to herself.
"The Captain has told me you come from a place far distant," Beran said. "Another world entirely, perhaps, or another time. And yet, inexplicably, we share birds." She turned to him and he was looking at her, his expression gentle, then he turned back just as the bird took to the air, a flash of black and crimson in the sun. "'Tis the smallest things, sometimes," he said quietly, "which clutch our hearts the hardest. Come," he said then, gesturing her forward, "shall we ride for a time?"
Mounted behind him, Maggie tried to let the thud of the hooves on the turf work like counting steps, tried to forget herself in the roll and sway of the animal's gait, in the now-familiar scent of horse and man, but her tears didn't slow until the tents loomed close.
Bringing his mount to a halt near Aragorn's encampment, he said as she dismounted, "Shall I fetch you back to the City when are finished with the Ranger?"
She looked around and said, "Well, I don't know how long I'll be, but - let's say if I'm around when you're getting ready to leave, I'll ride with you, and if not, don't worry. It's not too far to walk." She smiled up at him, "Thank you, though. For everything."
He gave her a quick smile back. "Your servant," he said, then turned the horse's head towards the tents of the King of the Mark, and cantered off.
She watched him go, then looked to where a guard stood outside the flap of the largest tent. Rubbing the heels of her hands across her eyes to try to clear away what she could of the wetness, she made her way through the broken ground to where he stood and said, "Is the - is Aragorn here?"
Wordlessly he ducked inside, and after a moment was back, holding the flap open for her to enter. Aragorn was at a small folding table, flanked by two identical Elves, deep in consideration of the maps that covered the table's surface and draped over the edges. He glanced up and smiled as she entered, and met her gaze, and for a moment she felt stricken. His eyes, always penetrating, seemed sharper than ever, and she felt as though he could see into her the same way Faramir could. But his eyes were mirrors turned outward, and she couldn't see anything of him in them. He was a stranger in the guise of one she hadn't known quite long enough to think of as a friend. An acquaintance become king. Or almost. And he was the man also called Thorongil, who had never told Boromir about his history, and who would in all likelihood take away from her lover everything he held dear, as surely as his father would have. She remembered what Boromir had said, days ago that seemed like months - had said he would surrender to Aragorn. This, I will do. It is commanded of me by history, by blood, by my own treacherous heart. Had the revelation about Thorongil changed that? I will not have you drive us into civil war - but he hadn't said he wouldn't do so himself. She wished suddenly and violently that he were here.
"Maggie," said Aragorn, jerking her out of her thoughts, "come in. We have not had any chance to speak since - oh, since Isengard, I suppose. Please, sit," and he scooted a fourth chair back from the table and moved another set of maps off it to the floor. "These are my brothers Elladan, and Elrohir," he said as she seated herself, "the sons of Elrond, my foster-father. This is the lady I spoke of, Maggie Dunshay," he said to the Elves.
"It is a pleasure to meet you at last," said Elladan, and she tried to hold his gaze without flinching. "Aragorn has told us something of you," he went on, but she missed a certain amount of what he said, trying to accustom herself to his voice, and his eyes. She'd often been surprised by Legolas' beauty and strength, but overall she'd gotten used to it. She'd been so shaken and confused when she met him that it had taken her a little while to realize just how inhuman he really was, but these two - and two of them! She felt overwhelmed. And while they seemed oblivious to their effect, Aragorn had clearly noted it, she thought, judging by the slight smile he wore as he watched her. She wondered if he knew how irritating he could be, and she wondered what he was thinking. Under his gaze, and caught in the music of the Elf's voice, she felt herself growing lightheaded, and thought she might drift away altogether. Beneath the table she dug her fingernails into the palm of her hand, hard, in the same spot she'd bitten earlier, and the slight pain brought her back into her body as Elladan finished, "...owe you some measure of gratitude for helping hold the City long enough for us to arrive."
"Oh," she said, "I think they would have held it without us, but we were glad to help."
"And you suffer a similar evil in this strange world you say you come from?" asked Elrohir.
She nodded. "It looks that way," she replied, noting that he'd said 'the world you say you come from.'
They seemed to be waiting for her to continue, but now was not the time, she thought, to get into it. When the time did come, she wanted to be ready with arguments that would get her the help they needed - it wouldn't do her any good to sit chatting idly about it as though it were just an interesting fact about her world, like their shared birds. "So, you're from Imladris?" she said finally. "I hear it's beautiful."
Smiling, they allowed the subject change, and for a short time Elladan and Elrohir traded off telling her this and that about their home, until finally Elrohir said, "Of course, that was before Estel came to live with us."
"Yes, it has been in shambles ever since," Elladan finished with a small smile.
Aragorn laughed. "Enough, you two," he said, smiling broadly and turning to Maggie. "Believe nothing these ones say about me," and he threw an amused glance at his foster-brothers, whose expressions remained mild, but whose eyes crinkled with mirth. "Come, tell me what has passed since last we met."
"Oh," she said, "this and that. You know. We got here, the City was still standing. My friends came, and there was that unpleasantness with the siege. But things are good." She met his gaze. "I'm a little concerned about this plan you've got to ride into Mordor, though."
She couldn't read his expression. After a moment, he nodded to the Elves, who stood, Elrohir saying, "We must take our leave of you, lady. But perhaps we shall speak again - I would like to hear something of your home."
"Absolutely," she said, agreeable from long habit of making nice with people she didn't know but whose goodwill she needed. "I'd like that." And then they were gone, and she was alone with Aragorn.
They sat for a moment before Aragorn said gently, "I am the same man you met when you first arrived."
Puzzled, she said, "What do you mean?"
"You seem nervous," he answered. "I had not thought to inspire nervousness in you."
"Ah," and she nodded. "I'm scared as hell," she said, "that's probably what you're picking up on. And if I thought about it that far, you'd be part of it, I'm sure, but right now, I've got too many other things to be scared of." She had no intention of admitting to him that Aragorn-slash-Thorongil made her nervous indeed.
"Would it help you to speak of them?" he asked, and the compassion she heard in his voice brought sudden tears back to her throat, and she dug fingernails into the palm of her hand again to still them.
"I've talked with Chip and Janet," she said, steadying herself and ignoring his implicit offer, hauling her thoughts back to their present problem. "In return for some property I have at home, he's going to bring soldiers and weapons, and we're going to go with you into Mordor. Janet said she's well enough to get them here, though she said she'd like it if your wizard could help."
He smiled slightly. "I am not certain you understand the situation," he said. "We do not intend to defeat the Enemy there. We know we cannot."
"I know," she said, nodding. "Boromir explained it. It's a feint. But the better weapons we can bring might mean more of your cannon fodder comes home alive."
He looked at her for a long moment, and she worked not to drop her gaze. Finally, he said, "What property?"
"My grandmother's farm," she answered.
He shook his head. "No, lady, we cannot ask it of you."
"You're not asking," she said, "I'm telling you. This is what we're doing."
Another long silence, as he considered. "Does the Steward know?" he asked.
"Boromir?" she asked. "I couldn't find him."
"He will not approve."
"It's not his decision."
"What of your other companions?"
"Not theirs either."
"And what of me?" he asked.
"You tell me," she replied. "Can you stop me? And even if you can, I think you'd be an idiot if you did."
He smiled. "You do not mince words," he said. "Tell me of the weapons you intend to bring."
"Chip said there's a guy in New Washington who's been building an army," she began. "He's got everything Chip wants to bring. Big guns, too, not just the little stuff we had. Squad assault weapons, which won't be much good out there but we can leave a couple here at the gate to discourage anyone who wants to take advantage of the army's absence. Light armor weapons, shrapnel grenades, as well as the usual M16s and grenade launchers. Also some particularly nasty ammo - flechette rounds, incendiary rounds, dumdum bullets. The guy owes him," she said, "and he thinks he can get enough for quite a little assault."
"Light armor weapons?" said Aragorn.
She groped for a way to explain. "They're these - big shoulder-mounted tubes, basically," she said. "They fire rockets, which are - well, really destructive. Like grenades only a lot moreso." She hesitated, noting his puzzled gaze. "The light armor that the name refers to," she said, "isn't armor like what someone would wear. It's like armored vehicles, big steel wagons, sort of. Anyway," she said, "you can't fire those within twenty feet of a person, because of the flames that shoot out the back."
Aragorn raised an eyebrow. "Flames? for twenty feet to the rear?"
He leaned forward then, pulling one of the maps from the bottom of the stack and turning it to her. "This is the area before the Black Gate," he began, and for the next little while they talked strategies and positioning. Finally, Aragorn said, "I know the small weapons you bear are deadly," he said. "Tell me how these 'em sixteens' are different."
"Well, for one thing," she said, "they fire at a greater rate of speed. You can set them to fire three rounds at a burst, or to be fully automatic, but either way, they hold more ammo and go through it faster. Also, you can't shoot to wound with an M16. Not that you should try to with a pistol."
She shook her head. "The standard M16 round is a tumbling round, which means it tumbles end over end, and if it hits a bone, it ricochets inside the target. You can hit someone in the leg and it could exit through their shoulder, tearing up everything in between. Even a crappy shot can be pretty sure of killing someone if he hits him."
"And these other three types of missile you mentioned,'" he said, his brows furrowing. "What did you call them? flechette, incendiary, and dumdum? Explain them."
"They're nasty," she said. "There are two kinds of flechette rounds, and I think they're both illegal, but it's not like it'd be legal for us to have any of this stuff anyway," and she shrugged. "So one's made up of tiny segments that slide apart on impact. You'll see an neat enough entrance wound, but exit wounds coming out all over the place. The other kind has thousands of these little metal darts, about about as long as my thumb," she said, idly tracing the lines on the map with her finger as Aragorn watched her. "They scatter over about a three hundred by one hundred meter area so they're good for hitting groups. The trick with those'll be if they're wearing hard armor, but they should be fine against chain mail or exposed skin. Plus," she said, cocking her head thoughtfully, "remember that it doesn't have to kill them, just take them down, out of commission. It's usually better to wound an enemy than to kill one, 'cause it takes six people to care for a wounded soldier and only two to deal with a dead one. At least, if they deal with their dead and wounded soldiers." She paused, considering. "Anyway, incendiary rounds," she went on, "have a chemical that ignites either on impact or on contact with the air, and continues to burn even after it strikes the target." Glancing up, she found that Aragorn's expression had become worried, and she continued cautiously.
"Dumdum bullets have these little -"
"You would use these on a living creature?" he asked gently, cutting her off.
She sat back. "Well, they'd be wasted on a dead one."
He shook his head, and said, "You seem much changed from the young woman who had never killed before she arrived in the forest near Parth Galen."
Maggie touched the Glock that rode at her right hip, its sister opposite on her left. Remembered spreading dirt and leaves over her sickness, remembered the heavy bodies that had seemed to bear her to the ground, though all were dead around her, and she untouched. Remembered the face of the man she'd killed at the breach, and though she tried, she found she couldn't recall the faces of any others after him. None she'd shot from the wall at Helm's Deep, none she'd helped push from the wall, none she'd shot from the walls of Minas Tirith. The realization was struck her like a blow, and she closed her eyes against a wave of dizziness that washed over her, and brought her hand to her mouth.
After a moment, Aragorn said softly, "There is cruelty in war beyond what you have seen, beyond even what you have offered to me. Tell me, lady," he said, and she looked at him. "Have you yourself seen the results of the weapons you would bring?"
She shook her head, lowering her gaze from his to look at her hand, at the raw skin where she'd bitten. She rubbed at the stinging redness there, and said, "No, I haven't. But does it matter?"
He shrugged. "To me?" he asked. "Not a great deal, I suppose. But to hear you speak so casually of such cruelty," and he hesitated. "I know you very little," and he leaned forward and took her hand, touching the bitten spot gently. "But it seems ill-suited to you."
"Because I'm a woman?" she asked, but her anger lacked conviction.
He met her eyes, rubbing the spot gently, and said, "No, lady. No, not because you are a woman."
Just as Maggie opened her mouth to answer, the guard ducked through the low opening of the tent. "My lord," he said, "The Steward would see you."
Aragorn nodded, and it was Maggie's turn to pale. Boromir stepped in.
"Aragorn," he said, "I have taken counsel with Denethor and - " but he hesitated then, noticing Maggie. He glanced from one to the other, his expression puzzled.
Aragorn released her hand and sat back, gesturing to Boromir to come in. "Your lady has come with an offer," he said.
"Oh?" Boromir replied, taking the chair across from Maggie.
Aragorn nodded to her and said, "Would you relate to the Steward all that you have told me?"
Boromir was quiet for a long moment.
"I see," he said finally, and Maggie fixed her gaze on the maps that covered the table.
"I didn't - " she began, then hesitated. "I - when I said I'd stay, I just - "
Boromir glanced at Aragorn. "Do you approve of this?" he asked, his tone hard.
Aragorn didn't answer at first, then said, "The weapons she has offered may give us an advantage. They are cruel, but this enemy is not concerned with our suffering, nor is he susceptible to reason, nor compassion, nor does he show compassion." His eyes narrowed and he looked towards the maps, but it was clear he was seeing something far distant. "We have had close experience of the cruelty of the Orcs of Mordor and of the White Hand, my friend," he said at last, "and of the Southrons, and the Easterlings. I would not inflict needless cruelty, but neither would I reject an advantage."
"And of the lady joining us?" Boromir asked.
Aragorn's smile was without humour. "She is not in my command," he replied. "If anything, she is in the command of the Captain-General and Steward of Gondor, though I wonder if even that is so, given that she was neither born here nor lives here now."
Boromir gave a derisive snort. "If she were in my command she would not be offering so easily to go against my wishes."
Maggie made a small sound, hardly realizing she'd made it, and Aragorn stood. "I shall return shortly," he said. "We shall continue our discussion then, if you would both await me here." Maggie watched him go, and turned back to find Boromir gazing at her.
"Boromir," she said, "I can't. I can't just stay here," and she felt the tears that had swelled in her throat begin to break through. Unable to meet his eyes, she went on shakily, "You talk about this thing like it's somehow okay for you to ride off into what you think is going to be - on what you think is this doomed mission, and I just can't." She drew a whistling breath and pressed her hands to her face, muffling the sound, feeling her heart as tight and painful as if it were clutched in a fist.
In a moment he was beside her, his arms around her, and she turned towards him and pulled him into her embrace, holding him tightly as though to keep him from being torn away entirely. They stayed like that for long moments, Maggie unable to keep back the sudden sobs that wracked her, though she struggled to repress them. Boromir held her close, stroking her back and pressing gentle kisses to her hair and face.
Finally, her fists clenched behind him, she whispered fiercely, "I am not letting you go, I don't care, I'm not. God, it feels like I've lost everything," she cried, the tears threatening to break lose again. "Home isn't home anymore - I can't bear the idea of going back there and losing this place, but this isn't home either - no place is home anymore except you. Christ," she whispered, her face buried in his dark hair, "when I'm in your arms it feels like no place ever was, and I'm not letting you go. I don't care if I haven't even known you a month, I don't care if this is the stupidest thing I've ever done, I don't care what people say about affairs that start during wars or - "
He pushed her back stopped her with a finger to her lips, his other hand on her face. "Shhh, love," he said softly, his eyes on hers. "Breathe, sweet," he said, and she tried to obey, her breath hitching in her throat. "Nothing need be decided this moment," he said gently. "We are safe this moment, and we are together," and he smiled and kissed her lightly. "And though I am angry indeed that you would do this thing, I do not intend to abandon you, to this world or any other."
Tears sprang to her eyes again, and without thinking she said, "But you hardly know me. How can you - "
"Shhh," his finger to her lips again. "We have known each other a short time, it is true," he said, "but how long does it take for love to blossom? For two who are not meant for each other, an age would not suffice, but for two who are, days might be enough."
She smiled ruefully, remembering when words like that had been spoken to her - though not so sweetly - by one who had left the next month. "I want to believe it," she began, but he cut her off.
"Then do," he answered. "In the short time since we met, we have seen difficulties most never face, and yet here we are. Do you regret us?" She shook her head and he smiled, stroking her cheek gently. "I have known a great many women," he said, "both gentle ladies and valiant warriors. I am not rash in my affections. You are a match for me, lady, and I am uninterested in giving you up, or in losing you to your doubts about what 'people' say."
Just then, heavy footsteps outside warned them of another's approach, and with a discreet cough Aragorn re-entered the tent. "I would give you days to discuss this in privacy if I could," he said as he entered, "but I fear we have not the luxury of time." He seated himself again in the chair he'd abandoned, and turned to them.
"I would have you stay here," Boromir said to Maggie, "and sit with Merry, and aid my brother if you can, and help to defend the City if it is attacked. I would not have you ride with us to what may well be death."
Maggie inclined her head. "Chip may not go if I tell him I'm staying behind," she said on impulse. She thought it might even be true.
Boromir turned to Aragorn then, his eyes dark. "Will you do nothing to stay her?" he asked.
Aragorn sighed, and seemed about to say something, but then looked at Maggie. Raising an eyebrow, and said, "Lady, if I commanded you to stay in the City, would you obey me?"
She thought about it a moment, considering his expression. Finally she shook her head.
Leaning wearily back in his chair, Aragorn murmured, "Disobedient outworlders," smiling faintly. "You see?" he said to Boromir. "She listens not." Turning to Maggie he went on, "Perhaps if I were to tell you I am Isildur's heir, you would be more pliant?"
Maggie smiled shakily. "I'd heard that about you," she said. "It's cute and all, but I don't really care."
Aragorn shook his head sadly, glancing at Boromir with a teasing glint in his eye. "So many do not," he said, sounding grieved. "Aie, me."
Boromir chuckled. "The king of Gondor could not have more of my loyalty than you do, Ranger," he answered, and smiled. "In truth, he could not."
The other laughed, and said, "But how much loyalty would the king of Gondor have, my friend?"
Smiling, Boromir answered, "The true king? proven in his worth?"
Aragorn inclined his head, grey eyes meeting grey eyes. "Aye," he said, "the true king, proven in his worth."
Boromir hesitated, then grinned. "When I have a proven king before me," he said, "then I shall know."
A moment passed, tension suddenly heavy in the air, and Maggie's breath stopped in her throat, watching the two men watching each other. Then Aragorn laughed, and leaned forward to clap Boromir on the shoulder. "When you have a proven king before you," he said, "perhaps we shall both know."
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