1. Both Beholden
Thunder rumbled overhead, and a moment later, lightning split the sky open. The windblown branches of trees were, for one moment, sharply illuminated, and the rain that played upon their leaves glittered brightly. Then the light faded to the dull orange of the campfire around which a cluster of men huddled close for warmth. It was not much of a fire: the smoke was thick and dirty even by the light of its own poor, sputtering flames, which gave little heat for the wood was very wet and the makeshift shelter they had fashioned by stringing a rough sort of tent in the midst of a little clearing could not keep out the rain entirely, thanks to the wind. But on such a night, any comfort at all was worth the pains to acquire it; it was, after all, better than nothing.
Within that circle of flickering light, Boromir hunched in his cloak, hood up, and fretted about the rust that was doubtless collecting even now on his sword. All day it had rained—a dull, soft, ceaseless drizzle that had become much more the downpour as the day had progressed. Not content with soaking the group of hunters, the storm had sent small floodcrests chasing merrily after them, until Greyflood's rising waters had forced them from its banks, thwarting their purpose. For any tracks that escaping Nazgûl might have made had most certainly been lost, if ever there had been any to begin with. After a trying day spent slogging through muddy mires, with the wind knifing through them the while, and nothing to show for it but chill exhaustion, Boromir thought that even his companions were frustrated.
It was, however, somewhat difficult to be certain of this, Boromir thought, as he glanced round at the others. Four of his fellow travelers sat about the fire, and two others paced the camp's perimeter, well beyond the edges of the fire's light, keeping watch against the wolves whose howls had sounded the past few nights. But there was no chatter, no whispered talk, nor even complaints, as one might expect of soldiers off their watch—only a mute forbearance. Rangers, all of them, they made an art of reticence, and where the light fell upon solemn, weathered faces, it revealed nothing, which was rather discomfiting.
Boromir rarely found himself feeling out of his depth in the arena of war and the warriors who fought it, and he did not much care for the feeling. Even accustomed as he was to the stoicism of soldiers, these seemed a rather cheerless lot—grim with years, perhaps, of such patrols, over lands more broad than even Faramir's men watched, and no expectation of anything better than this. And although he had learned their names easily enough when they had been introduced to him, after ten days' journey with them, he still knew very little of them beyond those names and their unquestionable skill. They were unfailingly polite if ever he asked anything of them, and took good care to warn him of the treachery of the terrain when warranted.
But otherwise, they spoke little unless spoken to, and mostly with each other; and such conversation as they had wandered in and out of a Sindarin inflected with a rather different sound from what he was accustomed to hear in Gondor. Nevertheless, they seemed to understand him well enough, whichever tongue he used: questioned about their families, they would speak with a certain spare eloquence; about their business in Eriador, they were evasive as to the particulars; and if ever he mentioned their Chieftain, they fell silent altogether. Then most clearly, he sensed the closing of ranks against him. He was not one of them in the end, and an outsider, though he had arrived in Aragorn's company, had no claim on their confidences.
They are but common Rangers in any case, Boromir reminded himself, wiping a damp strand of hair from his eyes. It is a poor captain who would press a man about one of his officers, unless the matter were grave. So said reason, and twenty-five years' worth of service in one capacity or another in Gondor's army. And in fact, he admitted that even the youngest of the Rangers on this journey showed a commendable restraint, for if Boromir had neither his father's nor his brother's gift for words, he was not lacking wholly in subtlety and persuasiveness.
And yet, the matter was grave, so far as Boromir was concerned; therefore he could not rest easy with the silence of his new companions where Aragorn was concerned. And therein, doubtless, lay the very trouble, Boromir thought wryly. From beneath the hem of his hood, he watched them watching him, and the doubt in their eyes came not from any uncertainty as to his measure at least. Rather, they had his measure all too well. War did not tolerate divisions, particularly divisions of loyalty, and though he had no quarrel to speak of with these men, individually or taken together, Boromir's oath to Gondor brooked no rivals. And if his mission to Imladris had enabled him to discharge such duties to her as he had foreseen, it had also given rise to new and graver ones.
In the first place, there was the matter of this quest the Council had adopted—in its wisdom, as Boromir had repeatedly to remind himself. In any such quest, if there were to be messengers or companions upon the road east, Gondor ought not to be denied one of her own. For 'tis not Imladris that has stood upon the very threshold of the realm of Him that we name not and kept the borders for so long! Surely, then, Gondor's interests should be present upon this journey, and Boromir was the obvious candidate, yet Elrond had been only politely non-committal when pressed. So also, to his surprise, had the Ring-bearer.
"Gandalf said Elrond would choose them, mostly, and also Stri—that is, Aragorn," the hobbit had said.
"Surely you have some sway in the choice of your own companions," Boromir had said, and Frodo had spread his hands.
"I fear I know very few of those who might go, and even fewer of them well. Master Elrond, though, is wise, and though I have known him but a little while, Aragorn seems a man of sure judgment," Frodo had replied.
Which was far more trusting than Boromir would have been in his position, but then again, hobbits, as he had learned, did not war and knew nothing of the needs of any stealthy campaign, or indeed, any armed campaign whatsoever. But the interview had not been without profit. So "Strider" shall choose for the Ring-bearer, shall he? he had thought to himself as he had left the Ring-bearer in search of Aragorn.
And it had seemed to him a certain stroke of fortune, for if he hoped to persuade Aragorn to take up his cause with Master Elrond, the man himself was the object of perhaps an even deeper obligation.
"He is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and he is descended through many fathers from Isildur himself," Elrond had said at the council, and so made a king of the lowly-seeming swordsman. If the Elf-lord's word had ever been subject to doubt, it had been harder to doubt the evidently ancient tomes of Elrond's library that had laid out the history of the line of Isildur and its fortunes after the defeat of Angmar, right down to the latest son to bear the title "Heir of Isildur". Faramir would have found it a fascinating account in and of itself, but Boromir was a man of a more practical bent. Well and good that Aragorn was Isildur's Heir, and of the senior line of the House of Elendil, but he was not a king yet. He was not even of the South. What did he know of Gondor, then, and her needs? More to the point, presuming he had some knowledge, what were the South's troubles to him?
Ten thousand years may not suffice to make a steward a king, Boromir thought, but it needed less than twenty to teach me my duty. Gondor needs no petty princelings upon her throne while I live and breathe! However, in the event that he should fail to fulfill those rather vital conditions, there was still the matter of what sort of 'princeling' Aragorn might be, and it behooved him to discover his mettle as quickly as possible. Happily, with Frodo's words in mind, the opportunity to make one end serve the other seemed verily to thrust itself upon him, and Boromir, as was his wont, had seized upon it immediately.
He thought that Aragorn had been surprised when he had insisted upon accompanying him on the search for the Ringwraiths. Surprised and skeptical, but Boromir had been prepared to argue his case: he had spent his life in the field, had certainly proven himself capable of a long journey on foot in the wilds, and as for the Nine:
"How many can you count among your people who have stood against the Nazgûl before, Aragorn?" he had demanded.
And Aragorn, after a moment's consideration, had said simply, "Too few. We leave in the morning for the Angle." Which swift accommodation Boromir supposed might be accounted a good thing—a captain ought not to dither in uncertainty, and the man certainly knew his own mind and also necessity when it confronted him, or so it seemed. Alas, though, if Boromir had thought that he might use the journey to sound Aragorn out further, he had been thwarted by the presence of Lord Elrond's sons, whom Aragorn had introduced as his foster brothers.
"They shall accompany us home, and aid in our search, at least until the Angle," Aragorn had explained, and the twins had each given him an identical, fathomless stare, as if they knew very well Boromir's purpose and were amused by it, as parents might be amused by a child's efforts at subtlety. That had made for a rather silent journey down the Bruinen, for Boromir would not give the two the opportunity to inveigle themselves into business not their own.
But there are other ways to learn a man's measure than by words, Boromir had reminded himself, bidding himself to remain patient. Nor even was it a question of skill: Aragorn's prowess as a hunter, whether ahorse or afoot, was evident, as was his skill with a sword in their practice bouts, yet what of it? Boromir could name a dozen Rangers of his brother's company, good trackers, canny fighters all, none of whom he would have trusted to command a skirmish, let alone a kingdom. Nay, best to see him among his own, to learn how he manages them, for a lord is not his own man.
So he had thought, and still believed, but there again he had been thwarted. For upon arriving in the Angle, Aragorn had immediately sent one patrol off to scale the mountains near Gladden, then drawn together another twelve men and commenced to divide them into two patrols: one that would search the western banks of Mitheithel, and one that would search the eastern. The former he had put under the command of his lieutenant, Halbarad, and the latter he had taken for himself. But to Boromir's consternation, he had been assigned to Halbarad's group.
"If, as Gandalf believes, the Nazgûl have been weakened, they are likely to make for Mordor," Aragorn had said. "Therefore I shall take the eastern watch, and Lord Boromir, who has also stood against the Nine and knows their sign, shall go with the western patrol."
For his own part, to contest such impeccable logic would have achieved nothing save to give Aragorn reasons to believe that the Ring-bearer could dispense with his services on the journey east, and so Boromir had bitten his tongue. But if there had been any protests over this arrangement, Boromir had not heard them, although he had seen the lieutenant speaking earnestly with Aragorn a little later on, and wondered whether the man were attempting to talk his lord captain out of the more perilous position. If that were so, then Halbarad had failed in his bid, for here they sat upon the western shore, wondering how the eastern patrol fared.
And thus despite his rather short temper and frustration this evening—Or perhaps because of it!—Boromir found himself rather in sympathy with the lieutenant. Halbarad could not possibly be happy with his lot tonight: no lieutenant could be whose lord risked himself where he could not come to his aid, or who had been given the care of the Captain-General of Gondor. Not that Boromir was particularly concerned that the patrol might be overmatched by anything but overwhelming numbers or the Nine, but should aught happen to him, it would be on Halbarad's watch, a prospect that could hardly please the man. And if the miserable weather could hardly be blamed upon anyone for rendering their hunt futile, no lieutenant liked to feel he had failed in the duty assigned him.
It is, after all, a lieutenant's task to accomplish the impossible when his captain requires it, Boromir thought, grimly amused. The man kept an admirable composure before the others, but as Boromir poked gently at their fire with a spindly, damp stick, a captain's shrewd eye read the signs: Halbarad was most definitely brooding.
Across the way, the lieutenant, seeming to feel his gaze, raised his head, and something flickered in those grey eyes as they fixed on Boromir. Wariness, and a curiosity that was only deceptively vague—Boromir knew very well the other watched him; it was only a question of whether he did so also at Aragorn's command, and Boromir wondered, as he had a hundred times since joining this company, whether he preferred to think the lieutenant under orders in his surveillance or not. A lord should have some caution, after all, he thought, and yet found himself discontent with that.
But if Isildur's Heir remained enigmatic in his motives, Halbarad was simple enough to read: Look if you must, but naught shall you find, those limpid eyes said; For my loyalty is given. And it was most emphatically not given to Gondor, even as Boromir's loyalty was most emphatically not given to one Aragorn son of Arathorn. On this matter, if no other, Ranger lieutenant and Captain-General understood each other perfectly. And so the very man who, in his absence, must surely lie at the heart of their common sense of frustration this eve served also to hold them apart.
Which was a pity, Boromir found himself thinking more often of late, despite that frustration. For beneath that taciturn reserve that made Halbarad, despite his rank, just one more Ranger, Boromir thought there might be something more; every so often, during their little staring contests, he caught a glimpse of it—a particular, challenging gleam that intrigued him, that seemed almost to invite a confrontation, to dare him to open some more substantial game than courtesy permitted, wherein perhaps even kings might be spoken of.
Seems, he reminded himself. He is not that easy to read! Which was also a pity, for although Boromir knew better than to press his inquiries to the point that he threatened the discipline of the group with distraction, short of a slip by one of the Rangers, there was clearly no other way that he would learn what he desired from them about their Chieftain. An honest confrontation would be welcome, but if Halbarad harbored any kindred desire, he had not acted upon it, and Boromir was unwilling to risk it and such bare trust as the men gave him without some clearer invitation. Not while they had still other, more immediate business to attend to.
And so he had the silence to contend with, and while he supposed he might count that in Aragorn's favor, the longer it endured, the more it troubled him. For tyrants, too, may inspire silence, he thought. And are not the Haradrim disciplined soldiers, whether under Mordor's captains or their own? The hall of kings stretched long in memory, but upon the eastern wall, there came eventually a break—an empty pillar, draped in black. And for one brief moment, as Boromir gazed back at Halbarad, unwilling to forfeit this little contest of wills, something other than the campfire's reflection seemed to shimmer there: light glittered on the river's surface, as a vision of warships upon Anduin came suddenly into his mind, and he heard his brother's voice reciting long ago lessons:
In the days of Eldacar, there arose a great captain—Castamir of Pelargir, who brought to pass the Kin-Strife of Gondor...
The blink of an eye, that vision, and then he found himself facing Halbarad's sharp stare once more. Boromir shivered beneath his cloak. Only once before had he ever dreamed true, and that time at least he had known what he dreamt—and that he dreamt. What, then, was this? Had it been memory? Or a moment's fearful imagining? He did not know. Discomfited, feeling a sudden, intense need for such solitude as was to be had, Boromir stood abruptly, and after casting an unenthusiastic eye over his muddy bed, excused himself from the huddled company and stalked off into the darkness of the woods.
The copse was not deep, but the Rangers had chosen their camp with care, and between the brush and the sheltering tarp, there was nothing to tell of its presence once one left the trees. As pitch-dark as it was, Boromir had to feel his way along. Moving carefully from trunk to trunk, wincing as the clinging, thorny underbrush caught at him like cat's claws, he pressed on until his outstretched arm found no further guidance, and the freer play of wind and rain told him he had reached the edge of the little wood. With a sigh, Boromir drew his cloak close about himself and leaned back against a sturdy tree, while his mind's eye cast uneasy visions against the night's wet canvas.
Somewhere in the darkness, an owl called and got an answer, but Boromir paid it no heed, worrying over those words and the image of ships upon Anduin—ships bearing the king's standard that had sent Gondor into fifteen years of violent interregnum. Like a splinter in his mind, they touched on raw nerves and Boromir cursed under his breath, wishing futilely that Faramir were here to pronounce upon this matter. Faramir, ever quick to see the irony in any matter, would have found it only fitting recompense—a dream for a dream. But Faramir was in Ithilien most likely. And who knows whether he dreams this night or no, or whether even he could say what so brief a vision—if vision it be!—means? Though in truth, if it were foresight, the meaning did seem clear enough...
"My lord?" a low-voiced query startled him, and he glanced quickly to his left. It was too dark to see aught, but he thought he heard the shift and squelch of someone moving through the mud and rain.
"Lieutenant," he said after a moment, and stifled a sigh. "Here."
More rustling and squelching in the darkness as the other approached, and then a hand touched Boromir's shoulder, just a swift brush of fingers confirming flesh instead of bark before Halbarad lowered his arm.
"In the North, 'tis perilous to cross the sentry line unheralded. My captain would not thank me for the news that you had been spitted by the watch," Halbarad said mildly, by way of rebuke.
Boromir grunted. And despite his earlier silent sympathy for the other, it was frustration that claimed his voice now, holding him to but two words and neither an apology as he replied: "No doubt."
A silence followed, as Halbarad digested this terse response, and after a little while, he tried a different tack: "This is no night to wander alone in, my lord." But:
"More pity me, for I fear I have no mind for company," Boromir replied.
This time, it was Halbarad's turn to grunt, and he sighed as he answered, "More pity us both, then." And proceeded to go nowhere, to judge by the absence of footsteps.
For a time, they said nothing more, only stood there beneath the eaves of the trees, listening to the spatter and hiss of the rain, watching as clouds lit overhead in patches as lightning played leapfrog amongst them to thunderous acclaim.
Finally, however, Boromir spoke again. "What is it you want, lieutenant?" he asked.
Halbarad did not respond immediately, though it was but a short while later he said: "Among other things, a little less rain." A pause, then Boromir stiffened as he felt gloved fingers curl about his arm and the Ranger lieutenant beckoned: "Come with me a ways."
The Steward's heir was not an uncongenial man, but few would be so bold in Gondor as to lay hands upon him without his invitation. Even fewer would have done so with the presumption to issue him a command. Offense welled up immediately, threatening to brim over, and it was on the tip of Boromir's tongue to refuse that summons. Yet something in the other's voice stilled the impulse—years of learning to hear that breaking point in men, perhaps, of learning to recognize when matters could go no further without a resolution. And so after but a brief hesitation, he therefore suffered Halbarad to lead him back into the woods again.
They did not go far, however: Halbarad slowed to a halt when Boromir judged they were but halfway between the guards and the camp. The lieutenant released him, and Boromir folded his arms across his chest, waiting for the other to speak.
"Do you feel aught of the Nine?" Halbarad asked, and in the darkness, Boromir blinked.
"No," he replied, somewhat shortly.
"You are certain?"
"Quite," Boromir said, frowning. And his frown deepened as a point of light flared suddenly. Halbarad shook the match out but a moment later, though the pipe bowl glowed dimly, a glimmer in the blackness that sank towards the earth to the sound of damp friction—Halbarad sliding down a tree's rough bark to sit upon the wet carpet of fallen leaves.
"Sit then," Halbarad said, and that faint light drifted briefly closer as the lieutenant gestured with the pipe towards Boromir, who, after a moment, obeyed with but a slight grimace for his dank seat.
"Were you not concerned but a moment earlier that we would be discovered, whether by friend or foe?" Boromir asked, a slight edge to his tone.
"You sense nothing of the Nine, the sentries sense no evil in the night and know we are here, the wolves we hear are plainly east of the river, and the brush is thick. 'Tis safe enough," Halbarad replied, though he kept his voice low. Another silence followed, and the dim light kindled an eerie spark in the other's eyes as Halbarad regarded him. The next question, when it came, wafted across the distance between them on the sweetish scent of pipeweed: "What have you seen?"
Boromir cocked his head slightly, surprised, for this was not the direction he had looked to see things take. And beyond that, he found himself somewhat shaken by the precision of that question, when he himself was unsure of the answer. Almost in spite of himself, he found himself answering, even if only to temporize: "Other than the night?"
"Foresight is a common gift among us in the North; I know the look of one taken by a waking dream be it ever so brief," said Halbarad, with an oppressive certainty that sent another shiver down Boromir's back. "So I ask again: what have you seen?"
What indeed? Boromir wondered, and wondered, too, how he should answer. Would he know the name of Castamir? Should I trust his surety that this was a vision? Do I wish to have this conversation? He could hardly answer the first question short of asking, and as for the second... His surety is less important than the matter, be it visionary or no, the ever practical captain in him declared. Moreover, had he not desired a frank discussion? And there are no others to hear us, no fear, then, of distracting the men; if ever I wished to press him on the matter of Aragorn, now is the time!
And so he replied with a certain asperity: "Black-sailed ships upon the river—the Corsairs, under the banner of the royal house." A pause, then even more sharply: "Fifteen years of civil strife we had under Castamir. Not every heir of Elendil has done well by Gondor."
There sounded a long sigh, then Halbarad lowered his pipe. "I see," he said quietly. And indeed he seemed to, if tone meant aught, even as he lapsed into silence once more. Boromir found himself staring at the dim outline of the other's hands as he slowly turned the pipe about in them in an anxious, meditative fashion. At length, Halbarad asked, "And would many of your people follow you in your fears, and see in Aragorn a reason for such warring?"
"Perhaps. Much would depend upon him, I imagine," Boromir answered pointedly.
This time, rather than a sigh, he got a wry chuckle, and the other shifted, a rustle of wet leaves and a thin trail of light that ended closer to Boromir than it had been before. "Much indeed! And yet he is not here to answer to you," Halbarad replied, and the faint glow from the pipe nevertheless showed up a slight smile. "Ten days—have we yet feinted enough, Boromir?" he asked.
"And that," Boromir replied archly, "would rather depend upon you, I should think."
"Ask to the point then," Halbarad replied immediately, seeming unoffended. "Although as Aragorn's lieutenant," he added, "I know not what answer I might make that would satisfy you, if you mistrust Aragorn so already."
"An honest one would suffice to begin with," Boromir replied, then added, "Since you stand in his place, do then your duty, lieutenant." A rather taunting challenge, to be sure, but so be it—if he must judge only by the men Aragorn commanded, in the absence of the man himself, then he would not spare the occasional barb. Let Halbarad reveal, then, by his own conduct, what sort of man he is who would have him as lieutenant, he thought.
And it seemed that one might say Aragorn must be patient, if his lieutenant's response to Boromir's provocation were telling of aught. Halbarad merely inclined his head and gestured minutely with the pipe for him to commence with questioning. And so, guardedly, Boromir obeyed.
"Tell me firstly, then, about this Chieftain of yours," he said. "What I know of him amounts to little more than what he has said of himself in council, but it seems he has been often away from his charge, first in Imladris and then in other fields perhaps stranger. A hundred and ten days it took me to find Elrond's haven, and he tells me the distance between Gondor and Imladris is but a small count of miles in the many he has traveled. Do men account this a good thing in the Angle?"
"That is not a question that admits of a simple answer," Halbarad warned, and then, seeming to anticipate misunderstanding, hastily added, ere Boromir could say aught, "I have not said I will not answer it, only that I cannot say only yea or nay." He paused a moment to puff upon the pipe—Or perhaps to conjure his story, Boromir thought, eyes narrowing slightly—ere he continued:
"In Aranarth's day, the kingship was laid aside—after such wars as we had seen, to hold that the kingdom of the North, Elendil's seat, existed still seemed a mockery of truth. Unless you have read the accounts, you cannot imagine how low we were laid. Ah!" Halbarad admonished, even as Boromir warned sharply, "Do not think to evade me with history lessons!" "Hear me first, Captain-General," he urged.
And since plainly he would not be moved on this point, Boromir sighed, very deliberately folded his hands together in his lap, and then added for good measure, "Your pardon, lieutenant. Continue, then."
"Thank you. In the last war, Angmar spared nothing, neither the living nor the land nor even the dead. We were a shattered people. There were not men or means enough that Aranarth could serve as a king ought, and so he released all townsteads to attend their own needs." A pause, as another faint, silvery cloud glittered briefly in the night ere disappearing, leaving nothing to tell of it but the scent. Then: "As the years passed, even this did not enable towns to live, and so men abandoned their homes and gathered where Aranarth kept still garrisons—small companies, none large enough to face an army outright, but sufficient to scout, give warning, and lend assistance to a town's own muster. It was Aranarth's custom to ride a yearly circuit among these garrisons and the towns they served, and to spend winter only in Annúminas. Thus did his people know him and what he did for them, little as it often was in the aftermath of Angmar, and that custom long endured.
"So you must understand," Halbarad concluded, "the Chieftain of Arnor has ever been a wanderer. That is a part of his charge, and the men who rode with him were called his Rangers, where once they would have been the royal guard. As the years passed, it came to be that all men who took up arms in the North were called Rangers, for we learned to fight our wars from ditches, and to slip away to harry again in secret. Among such companies, the Chieftain stands first and as Arnor's people dwindled, men abandoned such divisions as those holding between the Chieftain's men and the town's men, and the distance between a Chieftain and an ordinary captain of Rangers, who might as readily walk alone in the Wild as any of his men, grew ever less. It is not his charge, nor ours, to remain ever at home, and we who remember such history have come to accept it."
"But?" Boromir interjected, voicing the word that lurked at the edge of this speech.
"But," Halbarad conceded, "it is true that Aragorn has been further and longer abroad than any Chieftain hitherto. Moreover, he came late to the Angle when he had already twenty years. Save for a few earlier visits in his brothers' company, where he spoke little and was ever watched by them, he had never been among us. None of our Chieftains had been raised as an Elf, though nearly all had been fostered for a time in Imladris. It was difficult at first for him to feel at home among us, and for the Dúnedain to feel claimed by him.
"Then, too, we have for many long years gone east to Erebor and Dale, and then Lake-town, but no Chieftain until Aragorn had ever passed the borders of Gondor and gone into the South, nor East further than Dorwinion. Nor had any Chieftain laid aside all claim to title to serve foreign lords. Some there are who do not account these things good, and account them worse when he remains unwed and without an heir should he fall. 'Tis foolhardy or worse, they say."
Which was an unexpected point in common—Boromir knew full well the minds of certain councilors in Gondor where his own unwed state was concerned, particularly in light of his refusal to lead Gondor's armies from the rear—but he did not comment upon it. For his attention had caught upon an earlier point that sparked an unpleasant tingle, akin to anticipation, and he frowned as he asked, "Aragorn has served foreign lords, you say? And not under his own title?"
"Whom did he serve?"
"King Thengel for a time, and then Lord Ecthelion," Halbarad replied. Which but confirmed unhappy suspicion.
"Thorongil," Boromir murmured darkly, and bit his tongue lightly against a curse as he considered this revelation.
"That was the name he took in Gondor, yes," Halbarad replied. The pipe tilted slightly—the Ranger cocked his head at him, then said carefully, after a moment, "You are troubled by this."
"'Troubled' does not concern you," Boromir said, rather sharply, thinking of the whispers in the Seventh Circle. Indeed, not only in the Seventh Circle—rumor, precipitated by Thorongil's abrupt departure, stole insidiously down from the heights in such sensational matters. Even in the lowest level of the City, men speak of a feud or contest between the present Steward and his erstwhile captain!
"Does it not?" Halbarad asked.
"There are others who will be far more than merely 'troubled' should Thorongil return to Gondor!" Boromir retorted, and he shook his head, as he continued with some heat. "'Tis no secret among us that Denethor and Thorongil were rivals, and where there is rivalry among the high, there will be partisans among the lesser. If it were known Thorongil intended to return, not all Gondor would welcome him."
He paused then, wishing his gaze could pierce the darkness, the better to see the other's face, as he finished, voice low and taut: "And he must know it."
Another sweet-scented exhalation filled that tense space between them, ere Halbarad too calmly said, "He does."
"Then if you can say as much, whence this seeming surprise that I should be troubled by this news?" Boromir demanded.
"I did not know your mind on the matter ere now. But," Halbarad said, and shrugged slightly, "perhaps I might have guessed. You are Lord Denethor's son."
The other spoke blithely, and for several moments, Boromir stared speechless at him. But when at last he regained his tongue, it was with icy deliberation that he replied, "I am, lieutenant, the Heir to the Steward of Gondor and her Captain-General. The matter of honor aside, you do your Chieftain no service to take that lightly, if only because he will take not one step beyond the gates of Minas Tirith if he has not my support."
So he said, and then fell silent, staring at Halbarad, who, after a moment's pregnant pause, said simply, "Good." Boromir blinked. What answer is that? And in the face of the satisfaction he sensed in the other, his eyes narrowed, then closed briefly as he bit back on a groan.
"Beware the man who answers questions too readily," his father had said once; "For you may be certain he has his reasons for doing so." More fool me! Boromir thought, cursing inwardly at having been outmaneuvered by such a goad, and wondering what precisely he had been lured into giving away. And he wondered, too, precisely how long Halbarad had been laying this particular ambush. Ten days, perhaps? he thought, recalling Halbarad's earlier words as he gave the other a baleful look that was likely wasted on the darkness.
But baleful looks would bring him no closer to what he desired to know, and so he asked coolly, "Any further feints?"
The dull glow of the pipe rose as Halbarad held up a hand, acknowledging the hit, and when he spoke again, Boromir found himself amazed by the change in his tone. Not that Halbarad had ever raised his voice, but the quiet of it took on a wholly different quality, a note as transparent and fluid as the rain that whispered in the night. "I am sorry to test you so, Boromir. A Ranger is slow to trust, I fear; appearances oft deceive, fair words even more so, and in this matter, I wished to be certain."
Certain of what, he did not say, and it occurred to Boromir, in a fleeting thought, that for one who claimed that trust came slowly, such silence was in itself a remarkable act of faith. A brief, bare flicker that realization, for on its heels came flooding insight swift as it was sure, putting words to the other's silence, rendering speech unnecessary: Certain that what I love best is well-bestowed.
"Steward of the High King," he murmured, in sudden kindred recognition, and heard the snort in the darkness, though Halbarad did not deny it.
"More than three score years have I known him, and so long, too, is my service," Halbarad said softly then. "But my heart tells me that the time draws near when he shall need me less than others." He paused, then his voice grew once more wry, and 'twas not the embers alone that lit his eyes as he said, "A strange chance then, if it be such, that you should come hither, all the way from Gondor, only to be delivered into my hands."
"Strange, indeed," came Boromir's uneasy reply. Then after a moment, he said slowly: "All my life, so long as I or any can remember, there has been Gondor and the Steward who keeps her. But now, whether we triumph or the Enemy does, those days are at an end; and though fate may have brought me to you, I cannot say our speech together reassures me."
"Does it not?" Halbarad asked. "If the Captain-General of Gondor and the heir to the Steward's rod stands with Aragorn, do you believe that it shall come to strife?"
"It would be folly..." Boromir trailed off, thinking of captains and lords and loyalties. Imrahil, Faramir, Forlong—the south and seas, the east, and the midlands. His uncle and brother would surely hear him first, would not rise against him. Which meant Forlong would not, either. And I hold the north and Minas Tirith. As for Denethor...
"It would be folly," he repeated at last, but he added, "But you do not know that I shall stand with him."
"Perhaps not," Halbarad said, and leather creaked as the other reached and blindly sought his hand. Boromir grasped it, and they drew each other to their feet. Together they stood in the darkness, hands clasped, faceless as they faced each other, save for the telling press of fingers as Halbarad finished firmly, "But you are not your father's son, as your own speech has shown me, and well I believe it, for it sounds in you—Gondor claimed you first, and that is enough for me." Halbarad paused then, and he seemed on the verge of speaking further. But instead, after a moment, he released Boromir with an air of decision, saying only, "Come, we should return."
And so they went, Halbarad leading the way, a thoughtful Boromir falling in but a step behind. Soon enough, the campfire's glow could be seen behind the silhouettes of trees, though as yet, no voices could be heard. Which was why Boromir reached out and caught Halbarad's shoulder, stopping him. The Ranger turned, and in the dim light, Boromir could see the raised brow this time.
"You said you knew not what answer you could make me that would have any worth if I did not trust Aragorn already. I still do not trust him," Boromir said bluntly. "For I do not know him. And yet you are certain of me, it seems. A strange confidence, that, and if you know aught, I would hear it now."
At this, Halbarad grunted softly, lowering his gaze a bit, and his eyes grew distant, as if in mind he walked elsewhere, either in memory or some vision of things to come. And when he spoke, it was from that other place, it seemed. "If my confidence seems strange to you, you know already the reason for it: you do not know Aragorn, and no tale I could tell would bring you closer than knowledge of him. Whereas," he said, and raised his eyes to gaze levelly at Boromir once more, "I do know him. And this I will say, for what peace it may give you: knowing him, and knowing what I know of you, I have no doubt that when the choice comes, you will stand with him, Steward of Gondor."
A moment longer he held Boromir's eyes, then turned away, picking his way through the wet brush to rejoin the others. Boromir, however, stood there silently for some time, thinking, feeling of a sudden drained, as if he had labored hard for long, and the chill of sodden clothes and skin was as a weight. Time passed. The drizzle of rain became a trickle, then a drip, and finally a heavy mist that the night breezes scattered. Overhead, the clouds parted to let a little moonlight through, but it was the familiar owl's hoot that roused him, and the answering call that came swiftly, and then again.
Has it grown so late? he wondered, glancing achingly up at the moon that peeked through the treetops. Evidently it had, and with a sigh, Boromir made his way back to the camp, arriving just ahead of the sentries. Nestled about the fire, all lay sleeping, even Halbarad, and once the guards had wakened the next watch, they made themselves comfortable in the warm wallows the others had left. Within moments, they, too, lay curled against each other beneath their cloaks, dreaming who knew what dreams.
Despite his weariness, however, Boromir did not rest, but sat content to tend the fire 'til the grey light of dawn stole through the trees. Men stirred, emerging from beneath cloaks and blankets to face the clear cold of a winter's day. Halbarad gave him a long look, but it lacked the opaque reserve of earlier days, and Boromir returned that look with a nod. Breakfast was swiftly attended to, as was the striking of their camp, and in short order, the patrol stood ready to continue the hunt.
"We have another two days until Tharbad," Halbarad announced, glancing round the circle at each man. "Let us use them as well as we may. Fall out!" Without a word, the Rangers obeyed, disappearing at a trot into the trees. Halbarad and Boromir watched them go, the Ranger lieutenant wandering forward a few steps to stand there just at the edge of Boromir's vision.
"Is there anything—?" he began to ask, but Boromir cut him off.
"No, all is well," he assured the other. Then, after a slight pause, he said, turning towards the other as he spoke, "You have my thanks, Halbarad."
Upon hearing which, Halbarad glanced at him, looking him up and down a moment. Then, with a chuckle, he clapped a hand on Boromir's shoulder. "Come, they shall miss us if we linger," he said, shepherding Boromir forward a few paces, ere he let fall his arm. But as they broke into a swift jog in the wake of the others, he added, "You are welcome, my friend." With that and a brief flash of a grin, he was off, and Boromir was hurrying to catch up with him.
As the sun's first rays came slanting over the eastern horizon, they broke from the cover of the trees, sending up a startled flight of bullfinch as their heralds. Another day's toil lay ahead, and in pursuit of the Shadow, they turned their course into the light.
"He is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and he is descended through many fathers from Isildur himself"—"The Council of Elrond", FOTR, 240.
Ten thousand years may not suffice to make a steward a king—See Faramir's tale of a young Boromir's questions on kingship in "The Window on the West", TTT, 352.
"Since you stand in his place, do then your duty, lieutenant."—I'm sure many readers won't need this note, but 'lieutenant' literally means 'holding (a) place', i.e., 'place-holder'. Boromir is being pedantic to see what Halbarad will make of being goaded. I, on the other hand, have no excuse...
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