24. Fellowship - Part II
"This is a lovely spot," he murmured.
Beside him, Merry crossed his arms on the top of the wall and leaned his chin upon them. His eyes gazed into the distance, full of memory and melancholy. "I spend a lot of time here. It's my favorite place in all the city." He paused for a moment, still gazing outward, then added, "It is strange to think that we may never look upon those mountains again, or see the river running silver across the plain. I've grown so used to all this grandeur that I won't know what to make of the dear, old Shire when I see it again."
"It will be something of a shock to go home, but I'll be glad to see it, all the same."
"I will, and no mistake," Sam muttered.
Both Merry and Frodo turned to look at him, where he pottered and poked through a nearby flowerbed, and Frodo smiled. "Have you had enough of great mountains and cities, Sam?"
"That I have, Mister Frodo. Give me a snug hobbit hole with a proper garden, and you can keep your cities."
"I do miss the gurgle of the Brandywine on a summer evening," Merry admitted, "and the glimmer of light from the windows of Brandy Hall."
"A pot of ale at the Green Dragon," Frodo offered.
"A pouch full of the best Longbottom Leaf."
"The smell of seed cakes baking..."
"...in the kitchen at Bag End!"
Frodo grinned in delight. "It will be nice to get home!"
Merry sighed and turned away from the vista of the plains below to look toward the garden gate. "I wish I felt that way." He sank down on the bench, propping his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands. "I wish Boromir would come."
"What time did he say to meet him here?"
"Dusk, or thereabouts. But he was deep in talk with Aragorn and Imrahil, and to judge by the pile of lists on the desk, they could be at it all night."
"Don't worry. He won't fail us. The Fellowship will have its last few hours together."
As if summoned by his words, the crunch of booted feet sounded on the pathway. Merry knew that step as surely as he did the tall, proud figure that approached and the voice that hailed him, cheerfully. He bounded off his seat before his name had left Boromir's lips and ran up the grassy slope to meet him. Frodo fixed a thoughtful gaze on his back and Sam a doubtful one, but Merry ignored them both, too relieved and delighted at seeing his friend again to care what the other hobbits thought of him.
"Boromir! You're late! Hullo, Gil."
Gil turned to look at him but neither smiled nor broke her stride, merely inclined her head slightly. Boromir's hand seemed to weigh heavily on her shoulder, but Merry knew that it was not the burden of responsibility that made her move so deliberately, only caution. Under his tutelage, she had put aside her drudge's shuffle, but she had not yet learned to walk with any ease in her unaccustomed garb. She pushed her feet forward as though thrusting aside heavy skirts and planted her light shoes on the gravel path with grim finality.
"I am not late," Boromir chided, his free hand dropping to rest on Merry's head, as the hobbit fell into step at his side. "The sun sets even now, and I am here as promised."
"True, but I have been waiting and waiting." He peered around Boromir's large person to smile impishly at Gil. "And worrying that Gil's courage would fail her in the end."
The squire lifted her chin haughtily. "I know my duty, Master Perian."
They moved up to the bench, and Merry guided Boromir to the corner of the embrasure, where he always sat with his back to the curved wall. As the Man settled onto the bench, Frodo stirred, breaking his perfect, hobbitish stillness and bringing Boromir's head up with a start.
"Hello, Boromir," he said.
"Frodo." It cost Boromir a visible effort to relax, as it always did when he found himself in Frodo's company, but he managed it. The tautness of his shoulders eased and the closed look left his face. Then he smiled with genuine warmth. "Sam must be here, as well, I think. Good evening to you, Samwise."
"Master Boromir." Sam left off his study of the flowerbed and moved up beside Frodo. Like Boromir, he approached these meetings with caution, but unlike the Man, he made no attempt to overcome his wariness. Frodo's many assurances that Boromir meant him no harm and was, in fact, a valued friend had done much to allay Sam's doubts but had not made him comfortable in Boromir's presence. Steward and gardener treated each other with a scrupulous, guarded respect. "Begging your pardon, Master Boromir, but who is this boy you've brought with you? Or who brought you here with him, I should say."
"'Tis no boy. 'Tis my squire, Gil, and a lady."
Both Frodo and Sam stared at Gil in frank curiosity, and Merry saw a dark flush creep into her cheeks. Sam saw it as well and gave an apologetic grunt. "I don't know as I've ever seen a lady in such outlandish clothes, but I reckon you make a right proper squire." He bobbed his head affably at her and said, "Samwise Gamgee, at your service."
Gil started to curtsey but realized, too late, that she wore no skirt and turned it into an awkward bow. "Master Perian."
Frodo, with the instinctive kindness and courtesy that never deserted him, began making conversation with Gil, trying to draw her out. Sam climbed onto the bench next to Frodo and listened to their somewhat stilted talk. Merry was grateful to his cousin, both for the attempt to make Gil feel welcome and for giving Merry a chance to talk privately with Boromir. But when the hobbit drew close to his friend's side, apart from the others, he found that he had little to say.
All through the day, the awareness that time was running short and that every hour spent brought him closer to parting had weighed upon Merry's thoughts and tied his tongue. Words of farewell, of loyalty and love and lasting friendship, poured frantically from his lips when Boromir was not by. But when he looked into that beloved face, saw his own sorrow and dread reflected there, the words deserted him. He had a few more hours yet to postpone it. A few more hours simply to sit with Boromir, listen to his voice, feel his touch, and pretend that the morrow might never come.
With a sigh of contentment, Merry sank down to sit on the grass at Boromir's feet. His head leaned trustingly against the Man's knee, and a familiar hand rested upon his curls. A happiness beyond words filled Merry's breast, driving away all fear of what was to come, and he knew that Boromir felt it as well by the gentle, protective quality of his touch. For a precious time, Merry allowed himself to be happy, allowed himself to forget.
The other members of the Fellowship began to arrive, drawn from their various pursuits to this last meeting upon the walls of the White City. Legolas and Gimli came first, climbing the gentle slope from the west end of the garden together, laughing at a shared jest. Pippin said goodbye to Bergil at the gate and ran down the path, calling boisterously to his friends, his voice shrill on the evening air. Gandalf appeared next, from what secret errand none could guess, with his staff and his pipe and a pouch full of good pipeweed to share with his companions.
The last to arrive was Aragorn with, to Merry's surprise, Faramir beside him. Faramir hung back when he saw the company into which the King had brought him, insisting that he did not wish to intrude, but he was overborne.
"Nonsense," the Gandalf said, when he would have withdrawn, "we will have quite enough of our own company on the journey west. You are welcome among us, so long as you can endure the prattling of hobbits."
"And the grumbling of wizards," Pippin countered.
Greetings and warm laughter rang in the air. There could be no constraint between such friends as these, and the knowledge that they would begin another journey together on the morrow only drew them closer to each other, lightening their hearts and loosening their tongues. They found seats upon the grass or atop the stone parapet, making themselves at home, filling the cool southern night with the warmth of their voices and the smell of burning pipeweed.
Gil stayed well out of the group, hiding in the thickening shadows to the west of the embrasure where the others were gathered. All of the Fellowship, save Frodo and Sam, had met her in her drudge's guise, and they likewise knew of her change of state. They treated her with courtesy, the more garrulous among them trying to tease her out of her taciturn mood, but she held herself aloof.
She seemed most nervous at meeting Faramir, but Merry suspected that Aragorn had spoken a few words in the Prince's ear and cautioned him to treat her gently, for he gave her no more than a polite nod in passing. Whatever his private opinions, Faramir was a just man, and he loved his brother. He would do nothing to threaten Boromir's well being, even if it meant that he must tolerate the drudge's presence.
Merry also suspected that Faramir had been brought here for a reason - at Boromir's request, or at least with his consent - for the Steward showed no surprise at his brother's appearance and was as vocal as the rest in urging him to stay. This thought intrigued the hobbit, used as he was to knowing every thought revolving in Boromir's head. Perhaps he simply wanted to enjoy Faramir's company while he still could, since his brother would ride with the King for Rohan tomorrow. But if so, then he stayed strangely silent and made no effort to engage him in conversation.
The talk flowed steadily as the sun sank into the west, and the stars began to glimmer in the velvet sky. Inevitably, thoughts turned to the journey ahead of them, and they began to talk of their planned road. Merry tried to shut out the voices, to hold onto his feeling of peace and contentment, but the fear of what the morning brought crept inexorably back into his heart, causing it to ache afresh.
Suddenly, the words of a song he had known since childhood popped into his head and came, unbidden, to his lips.
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can...
It was not until Frodo laughed that Merry realized he had spoken aloud. He broke off, embarrassed that he had thus shown his melancholy to all the company. But Frodo was delighted.
"Thank you, Merry! Bilbo's old Walking Song is just what we need to start us on our way home!"
"So long as the road goes home," Sam interjected, "and not off on another adventure. I've had my fill of adventures."
Frodo smiled down at him, his eyes looking strangely weary in the growing darkness. "So have I, Sam. I'd like a nice, quiet tramp through Middle-earth in summer, with nothing more to worry about than where to find enough firewood and fresh game for the stewpot."
"And a dry place to sleep, with no acorns in your back," Sam added.
"Let us hope you are granted that much," Gandalf said, his normally gruff tones softened by affection. "You have certainly earned it. All of you."
"You're coming with us, aren't you, Gandalf?" Pippin demanded.
"I am, for part of the journey, at least."
"Then you will look after us."
Gandalf chuckled. "Your faith in me is touching, Pippin, but when have I ever led you away from adventure?"
"Well, there's a first time for everything. And it seems to me that adventures are not so thick on the ground as they once were, since you and Strider and Frodo set things to rights."
"They are of more manageable size, at any rate." The old Wizard drew deeply on his pipe and muttered to himself, "Just about hobbit-sized, I should think."
Merry, who sat close enough to hear, shuddered. Boromir must have felt it and understood his distress, for he abruptly straightened up and asked, his head tilted back as though looking at the sky, "Are there stars tonight?"
Merry looked up at the gorgeous, jeweled display above them and smiled. "Yes."
"Then it is time for me to beg your indulgence and my brother's kind offices."
"What would you have of me?" Faramir asked, amusement and a faint, caustic note of suspicion in his voice.
Faramir laughed. "Nay, Brother. I know well how you pay me for my stories! We are too old for such boys' tricks!"
"You promised me this one. Do you not remember? When we had Elvish stars overhead?"
The smile faded from Faramir's lips. "Aye. The legend of Gilthaethil." His eyes shifted to where Gil's slight figure lurked in the shadows, and Merry caught a fleeting, troubled frown upon his face. "There are others here who would know that tale better than I. Have Legolas or Aragorn tell it, or Mithrandir, who knows the lore of Men and Elves alike!"
Boromir's answer could be heard by all the Fellowship, yet Merry sensed that it was meant for Faramir alone. "It is your voice that I would hear. Please, Brother, ere you leave our city and our home, do this for me."
Faramir hesitated for another moment longer, his gaze shifting again to the silent squire, then his face relaxed suddenly into a smile. "As you will."
Frodo immediately hopped down from his place on the bench and gestured for Faramir to take it, while he joined Sam on the grass. The Man rose gracefully to his feet and moved to claim his storyteller's seat. Merry was struck by his easy assumption of command, by the way all eyes followed him and all attention stayed fixed upon him. Even Gil drifted from her hiding place to stand where she could watch his face as he spoke. The moonlight seemed to gather where he sat, shining in his hair and eyes, throwing his features into pale relief against the night.
"This is the tale of Maeldhuin and Gilthaethil,* as I heard it long ago." Faramir let his eyes fall half-closed, and his face took on a dreamy, far away look. In a soft, almost reverent tone, he sang a few lines in Elvish. Merry did not understand the words, but he heard the sorrow and longing in them. As Faramir let the last notes fade, Frodo sighed softly with regret.
"Do you know all of the song?" he asked.
Faramir smiled and shrugged. "'Tis a long poem and many years since I heard it in full."
"He knows it," Boromir said, promptly.
Faramir laughed. "Mayhap. But tonight, I will do my best to render it in the common tongue. 'Tis a tale of valor and loyalty and deadly peril, a sorrowful tale but still hopeful withal. And 'tis a love story, of a kind."
"Aye, so it is," Legolas murmured thoughtfully. "Of an Elvish kind."
"All of the Elvish stories I've heard end badly," Pippin said, "especially the love stories."
Faramir chuckled again, but his face was soft with melancholy. "You will judge how this one ends, Master Perian, and tell me if it is Elvish enough for you."
He leaned forward in his seat, bringing his voice closer to them all and letting Merry see the gleam of his eyes in the darkness. "You know already the tale of the Rings of Power." All around the group, heads moved in quick, eager nods. "The tale of how Sauron seduced the Elven-smiths of Eregion with honeyed words and treacherous gifts, how he guided them in the forging of many Rings while learning their secrets for his own uses, and how he betrayed them. How he forged secretly in the Mountain of Fire the One Ring to bind all lesser rings to his will. And how, at the moment when The Enemy placed the Ring upon his hand, Celebrimbor perceived his treachery and hid from him the Three which he had wrought."
Faramir paused, letting each of them remember this tale, in which they had played such a vital part, in his own way. Then he went on, solemnly, "Sauron's rage was terrible to behold. His deep-laid plans to enslave the race of Elves had failed, and the Eldar were now armed against him. The Three Elven Rings, the ones he most coveted, were hidden and their power denied him. He could gain nothing now by concealment. And so he threw off his fair guise and mustered his armies to fall upon the Elves.
"Celebrimbor foresaw the coming of the Dark Lord and hastened to fortify his city, but he knew full well that his people's strength lay in their mastery over the riches of the earth, not in their mastery of arms. Fearing the destruction of the city, he resolved to send the Three Rings to the wisest and most powerful of his race who remained in Middle-earth, with the warning that they should never be wielded openly, so long as Sauron held the One. And so, in the pale light of a winter's dawn, three messengers rode from Ost-en-Edhil, bound for Eriador and the hidden realm of Forlindon.
"It is for their part in this desperate quest that Maeldhuin and Githaethil have been remembered through the ages."
Again, Faramir paused. When he resumed speaking, he had abandoned his lofty, somber tone for a more comfortable one.
"Maeldhuin was a herald in the service of the Lord Celebrimbor. He had no skill as a warrior, neither with bow nor blade, and no gift for the working of gem or metal. But he was fleet of foot and could speak many tongues, and greatly did he love both his lord and his city.
"When Celebrimbor chose his messengers, he gave to Falathar, his chief herald, the task of carrying the Rings to Gil-Galad. With Falathar went Maeldhuin and another young Elf who was his kin. The younger elves knew nothing of their true quest, only that their lord had charged them to deliver gifts and messages of great import to the King.
"The three messengers journeyed far into Eriador, nearly unto the Gulf of Lhûn and Mithlond. But ere they reached the Havens, in the place that we now know as the Tower Hills, they were waylaid by orcs, and Maeldhuin's young kinsman was slain. Falathar, fearing another orc attack, entrusted to the fleet-footed Maeldhuin the perilous tokens he carried, extracting from him a vow that he would surrender them into the hands of none but the King himself. Then they struck out on separate paths through the hills, hoping to elude their enemies, and Falathar was lost. Alone, Maeldhuin fled the marauding orcs until, lost and despairing in the deepening twilight, he stumbled upon the hidden sanctuary of Gilthaethil.
"Naught is known of Gilthaethil's family." At this, Merry shot a startled glance at Gil, but she continued to stare unwaveringly at Faramir, her face expressionless. "It is believed that she was born to the Silvan Elves, though none now claim kinship with her, for she loved the green solitude of the forests and sought out the company of beasts. Swift as a running deer she was, gifted in the healing arts, and as secret as an image carved in stone. And though she was not of his people, Círdan the Shipwright, Lord of Mithlond, loved her as a daughter and welcomed her in his lands.
"To her Maeldhuin came in his hour of despair. And in their meeting was the fate of the West forever changed. For the keen eyes of the Elf maiden perceived the burden that was laid upon Maeldhuin and the great love for his beleaguered lord and city that spurred him on, and she was moved to offer him what aid she might. So became Gilthaethil the guide and companion of Maeldhuin.
"They went first to Círdan, seeking his help in reaching the King. But Gil-Galad was in the far north, in Forochel, preparing for war against a new and nameless enemy. Círdan, unsettled by rumors of war in the east, was wary of a messenger who would say naught of his errand but only demand favors of his betters. Paying no heed even to the pleas of Gilthaethil, the child of his heart, he resolved to hold Maeldhuin in Mithlond while he waited upon the counsels of the Wise.
"But Gilthaethil would not suffer Maeldhuin to be imprisoned. She smuggled him from the city, disguised as her servant, and together they traveled up the River Lhûn, into the bleak wastes of Forochel in search of the armies of the King.
"Long and arduous was their journey. Numberless were the dangers they faced. And as they made their slow, perilous way northward, what had begun as a simple matter of shared duty grew into a bond of trust and friendship between them.
"So it happened that, one day, Gilthaethil walked apart in the forest on some errand of her own. While she was away, Maeldhuin was set upon by orcs, and so great were their numbers that he could not withstand them. Knowing himself lost, he cast away the Rings, trusting that Gilthaethil would find them and fulfill his quest by taking them to the King.
"His trust was not betrayed. Gilthaethil came swiftly and silently back to the clearing, drawn by the sounds of battle, to find Maeldhuin gone and the leather pouch that he kept always close to his breast lying in the leaves at her feet. She knew it for what it was and knew that now the burden of the quest lay solely upon her shoulders. Bitter was her grief at the knowledge that she must abandon her friend to suffering and death. But firm was her resolve that he should not suffer in vain. So she took up the Elven Rings and turned her steps toward the encampment of King Gil-Galad.
"She was alone in a cruel land. Her horses were slain or fled in the orc attack, no shelter was to be found, and the very air had turned against her. Sauron, to speed the victory of his Black Captain, had sent the storms of Mordor to harry the armies of Gil-Galad, and terrible was their wrath. Into the teeth of these storms Gilthaethil ran, swift as the woodland deer, tireless as the winds that howled about her. League upon league, through forest, wasteland, rock and flood, day and night, without pause she ran, until more a creature of the storms than an Elf she seemed. Strange and terrible she was to look upon, with her garments and hair flying madly about her, streaming with wet and filth, as her torn and bloodied feet flew over the merciless ground.
"At last, in the dying moments of a foul, sunless day, Gilthaethil came before King Gil-Galad and laid in his hand the gift sent by Celebrimbor. Thus were the Three saved from the wreck of Ost-en-Edhil and brought, untainted by Sauron's malice, to the King of the Elves. And thus was the oath of Maeldhuin upheld."
Faramir's final words faded into silence, but none of those listening stirred, so powerful was the spell of his voice upon them.
"What of Maeldhuin?" Frodo finally asked. "Was he lost?"
"Maeldhuin was taken to the dungeons of Forochel and cast into a pit. There, with other prisoners of all races, he labored to fortify the stronghold of the Witch King, Sauron's chief warlord and greatest captain. When Gil-Galad rode to war against the Black Captain, the prisoners, led by Maeldhuin, rose up, overthrew their captors, and helped the Elven King to defeat his enemy.
"With his armies victorious in the north, Gil-Galad could at last turn his might upon Eregion and the rescue of Celebrimbor's people. To Ost-en-Edhil he sent a great host under the command of Elrond Half-Elven, and to Elrond he gave a powerful weapon, a token of the King's favor to gird him for war against Sauron. Maeldhuin, who longed for his home, bid farewell to Gilthaethil and rode with the host of Elrond into Eregion.
"Grievous was his parting from Gilthaethil. But more grievous still was the sight that met his eyes when he returned at last to his beloved city. Help had come too late. Ost-en-Edhil was in ruins, her people scattered or slain. The might of Sauron had fallen upon the Elven-smiths who had dared to defy him and crushed them utterly.
"Elrond gathered what survivors he could find and rode north, into the wilderlands, to build in secret a sanctuary for the Eldar in the dark years to come. But Maeldhuin did not go with him. The herald of Ost-en-Edhil knew that he would find no healing within sight of the Misty Mountains, and so he turned his weary steps back to the West and the Grey Havens. He came at length to Mithlond only to find that his last hope had failed him. Gilthaethil had gone, disappeared back into the forests from whence she had come."
"He got on one of those grey ships, didn't he?" Sam blurted out. "He sailed away and left her!"
Faramir's teeth flashed in a quick smile. "Nay, Sam, he did not. It was his right as one of the Eldar to sail into the West, should he choose, but Maeldhuin would not leave Middle-earth and the mysterious Elf maiden who held his heart.
"Turning his back on the sea, he rode once again into the winter hills. Long he searched, and of his perils on that road naught is written. But at last he came to Gilthaethil's sanctuary and found her there, waiting for him. On the night of the first snowfall, they pledged their hearts to each other, and for many years they dwelt together in the forest. That much is known, for now and again they were seen, walking together among the trees or riding across a field by moonlight. And Círdan knew much of them, for they came often to visit him.
"But as the years passed and the skies of Middle-earth darkened, they came less and less to Mithlond, until their existence was forgotten by all save Círdan. Slowly, they passed from sight into memory and from memory into legend. Whether Gilthaethil and her beloved still dwell in the forest caves of Eriador, whether they perished in the dark years, or whether they sailed West with the last ships, none can tell."
In the silence that followed upon his words, Pippin gave a small sigh. Faramir smiled down at the young hobbit and asked, "What say you, Master Perian? Is it Elvish enough?"
"More than enough. Why are all the stories of the Elves so melancholy?"
It was Legolas who answered him. "Remember, Pippin, that the life of one Elf can span all the Ages of Men, and in that time, he will know great joy, great sorrow, and much peril. As the tale of years is told, the sorrow begins to outweigh the joy, and the soul becomes weary of the burden. Then his eyes turn toward the sea, his dreams toward the Undying Lands, and the beauty of Middle-earth can no longer hold him here."
"That's why they all leave?"
Pippin shook his head, his expression glum. "I am glad I will not live forever, if it means that even my happiest memories turn sad in the end."
Legolas smiled fondly at him. "Not for you the slow, sorrowful dwindling of the Eldar, Little One. Halflings were made for laughter, not tears."
"And for warm beds and hot meals, not long nights under the stars." The hobbit stretched and yawned, then glanced hopefully at Gandalf and wheedled, "I don't suppose you brought a bite and a drink along with that pipeweed."
The Wizard chuckled. "I could not carry enough food about me to satisfy four hobbits!" He looked up at the stars and moon wheeling above them, measuring their progress across the sky, then cocked a bushy eyebrow at Pippin. "Get you to bed and forget your stomach's complaints in sleep. We must be up before the sun and will not wait for lazy Tooks."
Pippin yawned again. "Tie me to the back of your saddle, Gandalf, and I shall sleep all the way to Rohan."
"Is that any way for a soldier of Gondor to travel?" Aragorn chided, laughing. "Trussed up like baggage? For shame, Pippin."
At the urging of Gandalf and Aragorn, the members of the Fellowship picked themselves up from the grass and turned their steps toward the gate. The spell of Faramir's story and the starlit night lay over them still, and their voices were held to a subdued murmur as they said their goodnights. Only Boromir and Merry remained seated, making no move to leave. Gil rose to her feet but hovered uncertainly near Boromir's side, waiting for some sign from her lord as to what he wanted of her.
Faramir stood and turned to clasp his brother's arm in farewell. "Will you not return with me to the Citadel?" he asked.
"Nay. I am more in need of fresh air than sleep this night." His hand ruffled Merry's curls, and he added, smiling, "Merry will see that I come to no harm."
"What of your squire?"
"Shall I stay, my lord?" Gil asked, clearly in doubt as to whether a night spent on the city walls with the Steward would offend her sense of propriety more than leaving him here without his appointed guide.
"Nay, Gil, get you to bed. Tomorrow will be a long and arduous day." She nodded shortly, murmured a last, formal, 'my lord,' and turned to go. But Boromir stretched out a hand to stop her, calling, "Stay! You have not told me what you thought of the story."
She halted, fixing her steady, frowning gaze on the Steward's face. "'Tis as the perian said, a melancholy tale. But fanciful for all that, with its foundling princess and immortal lovers. I see why Mother Ioreth loved it so."
"And why she chose Gilthaethil as your namesake," Merry added.
Gil gave her customary snort of disgust. "It is foolishness. But even so..." Her eyes moved hesitantly to Faramir, and her face lost its wooden stiffness. "I am glad to know something of my name, though I know naught of myself. I thank you, my lord Prince."
Faramir, looking rather startled at her courtesy, bowed slightly to her in acknowledgement.
"And thank you, lord," she said earnestly to Boromir.
He smiled swiftly at her, then waved her away, growling brusquely, "Have done, Gil! This excess of gratitude will convince me that you are sick of an ague and like to die! Get you gone before I summon the Healers."
She did not smile at this sally, but Merry knew her well enough by now to notice the way her eyes narrowed in amusement. "As you wish, my lord. Good night."
This time, as she turned away, Faramir moved with her. He paced up the path toward the gate beside her, his hands folded behind his back and his eyes fixed on a point well ahead of him, but his voice carried back to Merry and Boromir, saying politely, "If you will allow me, Gil, I will see you safely to the Tower."
The erstwhile drudge answered him warily, her body held even more stiffly than usual. Faramir did not appear daunted by her cold manner.
"It was Ioreth who chose your name? I did not know her to be versed in Elvish lore. What stories did she tell you as a child?"
Boromir waited until the crunch of their footsteps and the murmur of their voices had faded away into the night, then he turned his bandaged gaze on Merry and remarked, dryly, "My brother has found himself a kindred soul."
Merry chuckled. "Do you think he will ever learn to like her? Gil, I mean, not Ioreth."
"I know not." Boromir ruffled the curls beneath his fingers affectionately and said, "Are you tired, Little One? Would you rather spend this night asleep in a warm bed, while you still have one?"
"No. I want to be here, with you, under the stars."
Merry got to his feet and climbed onto the bench to sit beside Boromir. As one, they pulled their cloaks about them and leaned their backs against the wall, stretching their legs out before them. Merry's short legs only reached to the outer edge of the bench, where his toes stuck up from under his cloak, but it was a mild night and the wind felt good on his bare toes.
As they sat together in companionable silence, Merry heard again the words of Bilbo's song in his head. He listened to it, thinking that he had never before noticed how sad it was. But then, he had never before felt sad at the thought of stepping out onto a road. And because he could think of no better way to voice his thoughts, because his own words deserted him when most he needed them, he spoke the familiar lines aloud.
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
"I never asked Bilbo if there was another verse," he mused, "one about staying safely indoors, where the road can't sweep you away."
"Or mayhap one about taking the road home?" Boromir offered.
"Home. Every road leads to someone's home, I suppose."
He paused and swallowed painfully. The night was slipping by him, as the day had before it, and the hours were growing short. All too soon, he would find himself stammering out a tearful goodbye, with Frodo and Pippin and the beloved Shire pulling him inexorably away and no time left for the words that mattered.
Summoning his courage, and trusting that he would find something to say at the moment of truth, Merry opened his mouth and began, "Boromir, I..." But nothing came to him save stinging tears, and he broke off in confusion.
Boromir fixed his shrouded gaze on the hobbit beside him and said, "Peace, Little One."
"It will be morning soon."
"Not so soon. We have many hours of darkness yet to ourselves."
"It feels like barely a moment." Merry's head drooped forward, and tears slid from his eyes to splash on his tightly folded hands.
"Do not weep." Boromir's hand found Merry's where they lay in his lap and clasped them warmly. "We will not say goodbye until we must, and we will not waste these hours with weeping."
"What shall we do, then?"
"Listen to the stars. Be happy for a time. Wait for the morning together."
"And then we'll say goodbye."
"When me must."
With a last, doleful sniff and a swipe of his sleeve across his eyes, Merry settled down next to Boromir to wait. With the solid warmth of the Man beside him, he let go of his grief and relaxed into the beauty of the night that was given to them, untroubled and unafraid. Eventually, his head grew heavy and slid over to rest against Boromir's side. Boromir obligingly drew his cloak about the hobbit's huddled form. And somewhere in the middle of the stars' song, he fell asleep.
To be continued...
*Note: The Tale of Maeldhuin and Gilthaethil was written by Annys. The character of Maeldhuin belongs to her; the character of Gilthaethil belongs to both of us (I provided the name and time frame, she did the rest). I will post the entire story as an Appendix to "The Captain and the King," when it is finished. -- Chevy