23. Fellowship - Part I
He heard Merry's parting words in his mind again and wondered at how far he had fallen, when his friends feared to leave him unattended for an hour or two. "Are you sure this is a good idea?" Merry had asked. "I hate to leave you here alone." Then he had pleaded, "Do try to stay out of trouble, Boromir!"
As if he could find trouble in this peaceful garden, in broad daylight, with all the city at its revels in the streets below. The Steward of Gondor did not need a keeper to guard his every step!
It occurred to Boromir, as he settled his shoulders against the curved wall and tilted his face up to catch a wayward breeze, that a keeper was exactly what he needed. But he thrust that thought away from him, before it could begin to rankle too bitterly, and willed his mind to empty. Willed himself to ignore the familiar cold knot of loneliness that tightened in the pit of his stomach when Merry walked away. After the noise and bustle of the Tower, he did not want company. He wanted nothing but quiet, solitude and peace in which to rest.
Below him in the streets of Minas Tirith, the singing went on as it had since daybreak, as the people of Gondor welcomed their new Queen, and with the swell of voices came the thick, sweet scent of flowers borne on the hot summer air. Music and perfume. They had surrounded him throughout the day, clinging to his flesh like the folds of his velvet cloak, weighing upon him like the chain mail he wore beneath his wedding finery. He found them oddly oppressive, even as he savored them for the joy they heralded.
The Steward knew that his own weariness and dejection had little to do with the day itself. In truth, this had been a glorious day, a day of wonders to rival even that on which Aragorn had claimed his crown. All the city celebrated the union of Elessar and Arwen Undómiel, rejoicing in their King's long-delayed happiness, and Boromir shared his people's joy in full measure. But beneath his gladness lurked a quiet, aching melancholy that he could not banish.
By all rights, he should be as elated as Aragorn on this day. It marked a beginning - not just for the newly wedded couple, but for all Gondor and all the race of Men - and for none so much as for Boromir, son of Denethor.
His hand strayed to the heavy brooch that secured his cloak at the throat, and he touched it with something akin to reverence. His fingertips brushed over smooth enamel, marked by a sprinkling of hard, sharp gems. Tiny they were, like stars scattered across a midnight sky. And at the center of the oval face, faint but unmistakable, was inlaid the familiar shape of a great horn. He could feel the cool threads of silver set into the warmer enamel, tracing the contours of the horn where it lay among the star gems.
Of all the day's wonders, this small gift was the greatest. Boromir could still hear the warmth in Aragorn's voice as he pinned the device to Boromir's cloak with his own hands and said, "The Horn of Gondor is not broken. It lies amidst the stars of Anórien, and I give both into your keeping. I name you Boromir, son of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, Prince of Anórien."
Tears thickened Boromir's throat at the memory. Aragorn had given him Anórien. And to Faramir had gone Ithilien, that green and secret land that his brother loved as no other. The King could have chosen no gifts that would touch the brothers more deeply or bind them more strongly to him, had either of them needed such outward tenders of his love.
Boromir traced again the graceful curve of the horn, and he swallowed painfully to ease the growing ache of the tears he could not shed. Prince of Anórien. The title conjured up in his mind an image of soaring mountains clad in purple shadows and crowned with snow, of trees black in the moonlight, of a midnight sky glimpsed through twisted branches, strewn with stars.
His hand fell to his lap, and he curled his fingers into a tight fist, as if to keep close the memory of what they had touched. As he had all this day, Boromir felt at once proud and disheartened, glad and sorrowful, for this peerless gift came at a price: the loss of his brother.
Faramir, too, had a princedom to rule and naught to hold him in Minas Tirith save a brother's love. Duty and inclination bound him to Ithilien. He would make a princely home in Emyn Arnen and grace it with a wife worthy of its beauty. Éowyn, White Lady of Rohan. Faramir's joy at this prospect was palpable, his regret at leaving the White City and Boromir no more than an echo of sadness, quickly overwhelmed and forgotten. Boromir could not fault him for his happiness, nor could he diminish it with his own sorrow.
Deep as was his love for Minas Tirith and strongly as his heart was rooted here, Boromir felt increasingly as if he were being set adrift in the city, anchored nowhere, guided by no one. Aragorn remained, but Boromir could not look to him for support. Indeed, it was the Steward who must support the King, not the reverse, and Aragorn would expect Boromir to be at his side, ready, when the press of duties grew too much for one man to bear. But how was he to take his place at the King's side, when he had no friendly hand to guide him there?
That was the heart of the matter, the source of his melancholy and the fear that lurked around each dark corner for him. All those he loved and trusted were leaving him, in one way or another, to muddle through as best he might with none but strangers to aid him. Perhaps this was Aragorn's way of forcing a final decision upon him, of stiffening his resolve to accept the harsh necessities of his life, rally his courage, and step forward without brother or friend at his side to protect him. If so, then the loss of his brother was meant for his own good, and he should be grateful. But for the moment, he could find no gratitude, only grief and loneliness.
The voice jolted him rudely from his reverie and brought him halfway to his feet in alarm.
"My lord, are you ill?"
He sank back on the bench, feeling his face heat with embarrassment. So deeply had he lost himself in thought that he had not heard the crunch of feet on gravel or the rustle of heavy skirts. Now he found himself torn between laughter and chagrin at being caught unawares.
"Gil. I did not hear you approach."
"I am sorry if I intrude."
"Nay. 'Tis only that you startled me." Struggling to regain his composure, he leaned back against the parapet and fixed her with his bandaged gaze, a wry smile tilting his lips. "You should know better than to creep up on me like that, Gil. I might have spit you on my sword before I knew you for a friend."
"I am more afraid of being trampled, scalded or knocked headlong over the wall," she retorted sourly.
The smile widened into a full grin, as he relaxed into the familiar sparring of a conversation with Gil. "Dare you come any closer?"
"I am safe enough. I brought no teapot with me." Abruptly, Gil left off her banter and said in a voice of genuine concern, "You have been sitting here for close on an hour, my lord. Is there aught you need? Where is Master Merry?"
"Merry is at the feast, in attendance upon Éomer King. He would have fled the party with me, but he has a duty to his liege lord that he cannot shirk."
"Then you are alone."
"Aye, by choice."
"I beg your pardon. I will leave you now," she said stiffly.
"Nay, do not!" His words halted her move to depart, and he heard the scrape of her feet in the gravel as she turned to face him once more. Rising swiftly to his feet, he offered her a courteous bow and his most charming smile. "I pray you, walk with me a while about the gardens. Do not leave me to the mercy of my own thoughts!"
"My lord, I..."
He crooked his elbow, invitingly. "Come, Gil. Will you not join me?"
Gil gave a snort of disgust, just to let him know that she was not beguiled by his courtly manner, and slipped a hand through his arm. "You needn't play off your tricks for me," she scolded. "I am bound to obey you."
With a chuckle, Boromir turned to his right, away from the Houses of Healing, and set off along the curve of the wall. Gil fell into step beside him and let him set both their pace and their direction, guiding his steps only when some obstacle threatened. Together, they strolled down the gentle slope of the lawn to the west.
They walked in easy silence, and Boromir made no attempt to break it, content merely to enjoy the smell of warm grass, the feel of sunlight on his face, and Gil's company. With her beside him, he had no desire to dwell on loss or sadness. He felt his spirits lift and the aching knot of sorrow in him ease. In truth, from the moment her voice had startled him out of his brooding, he had not thought of princedoms or partings, but only of the comfort he drew from a friend's welcome presence.
In this state of quiet contentment, he made no effort to examine his heart or consider where it might lead him. He did not want to consider how absurd his friendship with Gil must look in the eyes of his peers. Nor did he want to think of the duties that would inevitably keep him mewed up in the Citadel, far from the Houses of Healing and this garden. That a common drudge had no place in the Steward's life was a fact - unpalatable, but inescapable - and somewhere within himself, Boromir knew that he must soon accept it. Then would come another parting, another friend and guide lost.
As if echoing his thoughts, Gil suddenly spoke. "I did not think to see you here again, my lord. You have not visited us for many days, not since Lord Elfstone came for you."
He responded lightly, without thinking, in his wonted teasing manner, "Is that a reproach? Why, Gil, can it be that you missed me?"
She flinched and made a move to withdraw her hand, but Boromir forestalled her. His hand clasped hers, holding it firmly against his arm, and he said softly, "I am sorry. I did not mean to offend you."
"You did not."
"I did, but it is foolishness, Gil. You need not be afraid of me."
"I am not," she asserted, her voice trembling.
"I missed you." Even as the words left his lips, the truth of them struck him with the force of a cudgel blow, stopping him dead in his tracks and rocking him back on his heels. He had missed her. He had missed her dreadfully, and the thought of never walking at her side again or hearing her low grunt of laughter or engaging in another skirmish of caustic wit with her formed a cold lump of loss within him. In that moment he knew that he could not bear to bid farewell to yet another friend.
"Gil." He turned to face her squarely, reaching to catch her by the arms. She stiffened alarmingly beneath his touch, and he felt as though he had grasped a marble statue between his hands. Recklessly, he tightened his hold on her and refused to back away, though he knew that he was teetering on the brink of utter disaster. "Gil, did you not miss me just a little?"
Her voice came as a hiss of outrage and panic in his ears. "Do not ask me that, my lord!"
"I must, for I tell you honestly that I missed you, that I am glad to be with you again and loath to leave you, knowing that it may be weeks or months or an endless time before we meet again." Easing his grip on her arms, he let his hands drop away, freeing her. "I cannot command your trust. If you will not give it freely, will not look upon me as a friend, there is naught that I can do to compel you. But know that you have mine in full measure, and trust is something I do not give lightly."
"You cannot call me friend. You are the Steward of Gondor, and I am a drudge. A menial."
"I know well what you are, for you will scarce let me forget it. I know what I am and what gulf yawns between us, and that is why I must keep you near me. I must not lose you in the darkness."
"I do not like this jest, my lord! I beg you, have done!"
"'Tis no jest." Carefully, so as not to startle her into instant flight, he lifted a hand to rest on her shoulder. "I should have seen it before, had I not been so intent on licking my wounds and bemoaning my fate. How simple it now seems!"
"What is simple?"
"Aragorn has charged me with finding a squire to be my guide and chief attendant. I delayed in the vain hope that some inspiration might come to me, some escape, but I have been thrice a fool! Gil, my dear, crusty, obstinate Gil, you are all the guide I need!"
A tremor ran through Gil's body, and Boromir knew that only a lifetime of rigid discipline kept her from taking to her heels, leaving him stranded in this unfamiliar place. "You are cruel to mock me so!" she hissed.
"Indeed, I do not. I am in earnest."
"Your wits have turned."
"Then must you humor me in my madness."
"I will not. It is folly! Wicked folly!"
Gil floundered for a moment, making strangled, inarticulate sounds as she hunted for a telling argument. At last, she blurted out, "Squires are noblemen's sons!"
"Aye, so they are."
"What am I? A baseborn creature with no name, unlettered and untrained in the ways of the court? A woman? A nice figure I should cut among the highborn of Gondor, in my drudge's apron and kerchief!"
Almost he laughed, so great was the need to relieve the apprehension and urgency building within him. But he controlled the impulse and said, his voice trembling slightly, "We might find you garments more fitting to your station."
"I know my station. And I am properly clothed for it."
"For a drudge, perhaps, but not for the Steward's squire. Your skirts would most likely prove awkward, especially on horseback."
"Horseback!" Gil recoiled from him, jerking her shoulder out of his grasp, and cried in horror, "You have truly run mad!"
"Do you not ride?"
She shuddered. "Nay, I do not. Nor do I mean to get anywhere near one of those beasts!"
"Horses are not so bad, once you learn to handle them," he remarked, letting a note of entreaty creep into his voice.
"I will not learn. I will not." Boromir opened his mouth to speak, but she overbore him, nearly shouting, "The King himself could not make me do it!"
"Very well." In contrast to her burgeoning panic, Boromir sounded unnaturally calm and reasonable. He knew it for the calm of desperation, but Gil did not. "I shall find a groom to ride with me."
"Ride with you?" she demanded, scandalized. "You would put me up on a horse... with you?"
"Nay, we have agreed that you will not ride. And mayhap you are right to refuse. It would not be seemly to go about with a young woman perched before me in the saddle, no matter what garments she wore."
"It certainly would not!"
"But I still deem a tunic and breeches more suited to a squire's duties than skirts."
Gil tried to laugh, tried to match his apparent ease, but failed utterly. "Do you think I would make a passable boy?"
"I know not. Would you?" Her only answer was a wordless snarl, and Boromir instantly abandoned his attempt at humor. "I am thinking only of your comfort, Gil. You are accustomed to moving about the Houses and garden, dressed in your drudge's weeds, unnoticed and largely unseen."
"I like it that way."
"Aye. But were you to stand among the squires and pages that throng the court dressed as you are, every eye in the Great Hall would be drawn to you. Dressed as a squire, though any fool would know you for a woman at a glance, few would bother to cast even that first glance in your direction. You would be as nameless and faceless to most of the city as you are now."
"Until all Gondor began to whisper that the Steward's squire was a foundling brat."
"Are you afraid of whispers? I am not. I will protect you from them and defend your honor as I do my own."
She hesitated, and Boromir could sense her doubt in the way she shifted restlessly from one foot to the other and wiped her palms against the rough fabric of her skirt. He made no move to touch her, giving her space enough to breathe freely and the chance to flee if she wished, but he had to fight the urge to grab her, shake her roughly, and tell her not to be such a blind, stubborn fool. He knew full well how he would respond to such treatment, and he knew Gil well enough to be certain she would do the same. So the only course open to him was to wait and to pray that she trusted him enough to consider his words.
"You would... fight for me?" she whispered, at last.
"Assuredly I would. It is my duty as your liege lord and my privilege as your friend."
"Because you are my friend. And I am your Steward, whether or not you choose to become my squire."
Again, she paused, then asked with a quiet, fierce intensity, "Why is this so important to you, lord?"
His hands closed into fists, clenched tightly against his thighs, and his face hardened with strain. He knew that he had touched Gil, had goaded her into revealing herself, into asking for the truth. And now he must give her the truth in return. Nothing less would suffice, though the necessity of it turned his innards cold with fear.
"I need your help, Gil." His voice sounded harsh in his own ears. "I cannot shoulder the burdens of my stewardship without it, and if I cannot be Steward in truth as well as in name, then I am nothing. Broken and useless. Fit only to beg on a street corner, as my enemies would have it."
"There are others more fitted to help you."
"But none I trust as I do you."
Boromir held out both his hands and waited until he felt Gil's fingers rest on his palms. They were cold and they trembled slightly, but she made no move to withdraw them when he tightened his clasp. The touch steadied him and gave him courage. "Can you understand what it means to be surrounded, hemmed in by strangers? To feel that all your life is governed by your need of them?" His voice shook, and he paused for a moment, struggling for a measure of control. "It is a fearful thing to realize that your safety, your honor, your integrity as a Steward and Prince lie in the hands of faceless strangers."
"You can learn to trust them."
"I have no time to learn. I must take up my duties and entrust myself to a legion of secretaries, squires, body servants, grooms... They will have the sifting and reading of every letter, the penning of every dispatch, the guiding of my steps and the serving of my food. I cannot dress myself without a servant by me to choose which cloak and boots I wear!" He shook his head angrily, feeling a familiar, gnawing bitterness well up in him. "If just one of my attendants is lax in his work, corrupted by ambition, or too rash in his judgements, 'tis I who must answer for it. And my King who must set my blunders to rights. Nay, I have no time to learn trust, as I have no leisure for mistakes!"
"What would you have of me? I cannot read or write. I will neither ride with you nor attend you in your chambers. You would still need your host of attendants, whether or not I am among them. I do not understand how I can help you."
"You can be the friend who stands with me, the welcome voice in the darkness, the arm that does not flinch from my touch. You can make the rest of it endurable."
"That... that is truly how you think of me?"
Boromir bowed his head, shielding his face from her gaze, and spoke quietly, from the depths of his bruised and weary heart. "Each time I take another creature's arm and let him guide my steps, I am placing myself in his hands. It is not something I can choose to do or not to do. It is the only means I have of moving farther than a few strides from where I stand. And each time I do it, I am reminded how fragile and vital is trust. Even the strongest friendship or family bond becomes doubtful in that moment, when I must swallow my pride and place my trust in that other, unseen creature.
"There are only a few whom I can trust so completely without fear or strain. Aragorn, Merry, Pippin, my brother. And you. Do not ask me how you came to be among those few, for I cannot explain it. Perhaps it is as simple as a lack of pity. You have never shown me pity, and your fear is of my title, not my blindness. Whatever the reason, I can take your arm, follow your steps, listen to your voice chide me for my clumsiness, and feel myself at home in your company. That is more than important to me, Gil, it is everything. Without it, I am lost and alone and... afraid."
Gil stood in silence, pondering Boromir's words and struggling with her private doubts, while Boromir waited. He could do no more than wait, his spirit turned to lead within him, his nerves aching as if they had been scraped raw with a dull sword. When Gil stirred, letting her breath out on a long sigh and returning the clasp of his fingers very slightly, he knew that she had come to a decision. Her voice sounded flat and wooden in his ears, but her words were music.
"I believe it wrong for you to place such trust in me, but if you would, then I am willing and honored to have it so."
Relief and gratitude flooded him, lighting his face with a brilliant smile. He felt a momentary urge to embrace her but contented himself with lifting their clasped hands to his breast and saying, simply, "Thank you, Gil."
"Are you certain that this is what you want?"
"Without a doubt."
"And we are agreed... no horses."
He laughed, but it came out closer to a sob. "No horses."
As she proceeded to number all the things she could not or would not do, she seemed to regain her composure. He voice took on its wonted crispness and her words became demands. "You know that I cannot read or write."
"You can learn. Or are you as leery of words as you are of horses?"
She gave a small, neutral grunt, then added, "I'll not enter your chambers after you retire or before you breakfast."
"I will give the servants no food for gossip!"
"Nor will I."
"And I must have your leave to deal with the other squires in my own way. Boys are a pesky lot, and only get worse as they get older. If I am to hold my own among them, I must win and keep my place!"
"Only tell me of any trouble from that quarter and I will..."
"Nay, that is my battle." A new thought suddenly occurred to her, and she asked in alarm, "Where am I to live, my lord? I cannot sleep in the squires' hall!"
"I will find you a private chamber in the Tower. The Chamberlain will know best where to put you."
"Is there aught else that troubles you, Gil?"
"All of this troubles me. I called it folly, and folly it is, but... I have said that I will do it."
"Perhaps it is folly, but I hope it will bring us both a measure of content. You may find that you enjoy being more than a drudge."
"Or I may not."
"If you are truly unhappy, tell me of it. I will not hold you to a bargain that injures you. But if your fears and hurts are such that I can mend them, I will. Trust me, Gil."
"I do. That is why I have agreed to this madness."
Offering her another unguarded smile, he lifted one hand to drop a light kiss on her knuckles. Gil's hand twitched in his, trying to withdraw, but he held her firmly, drawing her to his side and tucking her hand in the curve of his arm. "Come then, let us to the Houses and speak to the Warden. We will ask his leave and the King's before we dress you up as a boy and turn you loose on the unsuspecting court."
As he spoke, Boromir turned so that the ground sloped uphill before him, and he began walking. Gil moved with him out of habit, but when they had gone only a few paces, she halted and drew her hand from his arm.
"Stay, my lord, this is not meet. You would not offer your arm to a squire. How is it you walk with the halfling? Or with your brother?"
"When you wear breeches, I will treat you as a squire. But while you still wear your skirts, I will treat you as a lady."
"But I am not..."
"Be still. The first lesson you must learn is not to argue with everything I say."
Her voice held a suspicious hint of laughter when she asked, "What is the second."
"Not to ask impertinent questions."
Gil uttered her customary grunt and put her hand on his arm again. "Aye, my lord."
"I expect I will soon grow heartily sick of those words."
She paused, then said, demurely, "Aye, my lord."
Boromir was still laughing as they set off through the gardens together.
*** *** ***
"Don't shuffle," Merry cried in exasperation, "and keep your head up!"
The slim figure, clad all in black and silver, halted its pacing to stand glaring at him. "I do not shuffle, Master Perian."
"You do," he retorted, making no effort to soften his tone or curb his annoyance. After most of a morning spent in company with the Steward's squire, trying to accustom her to her new station in life and her new clothes, he had learned that bluntness served him better than courtesy. "You walk like a drudge."
"I am a drudge."
"You are not. You are a squire, with some standing at court, and you must carry yourself with dignity."
"A real squire may have standing - a noble father and a chance at knighthood, at the least - but I am..."
"You stand higher than any of them." Hopping down from his seat in the window embrasure, Merry crossed to where Gil stood and glowered up at her, daring her to contradict him. "You wear the Steward's livery."
Her hand moved to touch the front of her garment, fingering the device stitched upon her breast, and her scowl turned thoughtful. "Aye. But it does not make me a true squire."
"Then you must learn to be one, for Boromir's sake and your own. Now try it again. And don't shuffle."
She favored him with a parting glare but obediently began to walk the length of the chamber again, her movements an odd mixture of hesitant and defiant. Merry watched her critically, shaking his head, a frown of concentration on his face.
He had spent much of the morning with Gil, here in the great council chamber. It offered them privacy and room to move freely, and Aragorn had ordered that they not be interrupted while they worked. It was now late morning, and the sun rode high above the plains, barely touching the tall, arched windows with its beams. Bars of light fell across the stone flags just beneath the windows, but most of the lofty chamber remained in shadow and comfortably cool.
Gil, in her dark livery, looked like a living part of those shadows. She was both small and slender, and from a distance she strongly resembled the noble youth that her clothing proclaimed her to be. It was only when he looked in her face and saw the mature woman gazing suspiciously back at him, or when he watched her move in her peculiar, hunched, heavy way that Merry recognized the drudge in this boyish figure.
If she could only hold herself upright and step forward with confidence, Merry thought, she would look the part to perfection. But of course, she could not. She had spent all her life as a menial, scurrying about her work with her head down, avoiding the feet and eyes and notice of her betters. She had spent only a few days as a squire, and that in name only, for she would not assume her duties while Merry remained in the city to attend her lord. Nor would she show herself in public until her garments were ready - the boy's surcote fit to her woman's body and the Steward's colors blazoned upon the black velvet.
This morning had, at last, left her no excuse for delay. With her livery hanging, finished, in her servant's cell, and with Merry due to leave at daybreak on the morrow, the time had come for the Steward's squire to take her place at his side. Even her claim that Ioreth could not spare her for another day had been belied by Ioreth herself, who had marched Gil up to the Tower and forcibly installed her in her new quarters. The old woman had wept tears of joy when she saw her foundling child clad in the rich livery of a royal squire, with the Horn and stars of Anórien upon her breast and the band of white silk edging her black tunic. As a final gesture of love and pride, Ioreth had dressed Gil's hair with her own hands, braiding it and twisting it about her head into a shining coronet that she covered with a velvet cap.
It was this creature made up of contradictions who now stood before Merry, hunched defensively, her eyes dark and wary in the cool shadows. Neither young nor old, part elvish boy and part stolid drudge, fragile-seeming yet unbroken by years of labor, possessed of a dignity that had nothing to do with her worth in the eyes of Men. She glared at him from behind her blank, wooden mask that was a kind of defiance in itself, and demanded,
"What say you, Master Merry? Am I a disgrace to our Steward?"
Merry sighed. "You do look odd when you walk that way, but I don't suppose Boromir will notice."
"Unless you tell him I am not fit for a squire."
"Why would I do that?"
Heaving a sigh of her own, Gil sat down on the edge of the hearth. Merry crossed to her and boosted himself up on the hearthstone to sit beside her. She looked so dejected that he wanted to touch her hand, to offer some comfort, but he restrained the urge and kept his own hands firmly clasped around his knees.
"Is that what you want, Gil? For me to tell Boromir that you can't do this?"
"It matters naught what I want." She crossed her arms in a protective gesture and seemed to draw her head down between her shoulders, retreating into herself. "He would think it a betrayal."
"No... not that, exactly..."
Merry knew well how much Gil's help meant to Boromir. He had seen the relief in his friend's face, heard the tentative dawning of hope in his voice when he spoke of taking Gil as his squire. And for the first time, Merry could think of leaving Gondor without feeling the cold clutch of despair at his heart. If Gil took fright and deserted Boromir now, Merry knew that he would not find the courage to ride away from the city gates, come dawn tomorrow. And if he did not go tomorrow, he would never go.
"It will not serve, Master Perian. You know it will not."
"Please don't say that."
"This is folly."
"Whatever it is, it must work. It must." In desperation, Merry dropped his guard and let loose the emotions he had kept under tight rein all through the morning. Pain welled up in him, tears stung his eyes, and his voice took on a frantic edge. "I beg you, Gil. If you won't do it for Boromir or for yourself, then do it for me. Promise me that you will stand with him, as his squire and his friend. Promise me!"
She lifted her head and fixed her intent gaze on him. "For you? This is what you want?"
"'Tis you who should stand with him, not I. You love him as no one else, and he loves you. How can I hope to fill that place?"
"Promise me," Merry whispered, doggedly.
"And if I do not..." He shook his head helplessly, too choked by tears to answer her. To his surprise, she reached over to clasp his hand in strong, slender, callused fingers. "Will you not stay and serve him, Merry?"
"I cannot." He swallowed convulsively and forced the words out past the lump in his throat. "I must go home."
"Even if it tears your heart in two?"
"It will not, if I have your word that you won't leave him."
Gil did not speak for a long moment, and when she found her voice again, it had dropped to a soft murmur. "Does it mean so much to you?"
The single word held a wealth of conviction and feeling, and Merry could see Gil struggle beneath the weight of it. For a moment, fear and longing blazed openly in her face for Merry to see, but then she turned away, shuttering her thoughts behind heavy eyelids and the blank expression he knew so well. At last she said, with a touch of wry humor, "Then I must strive not to disgrace either one of you."
"You won't," he assured her, somewhat damply. Wiping his nose on his sleeve and giving a prosaic sniff, he climbed to his feet to stand on the high hearth. "At least, you won't so long as you don't shuffle. Let's try it again."
Gil shot him a swift, humorous look and stood up, bringing her head on a level with his. "How long will you keep flogging this lame horse, Master Perian?"
Merry smiled, relief shining through the tearstains on his face. "Until the horse learns to walk."
"Or falls down dead of exhaustion."
*** *** ***
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.