Home With The Fairies

I-Mushi

Chapter 023

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Writer's Note: I totally fail at good angst. I think because it makes me incredibly emotional just writing it, and then I literally make myself depressed over characters and situations I have total control of. Let me know how things are; this chapter makes me nervous. Also, many thanks to Noree again for feedback! These emotional chapters are really killing me. Can we get back to exploring Middle Earth yet?

The conversation between Éomer, Aragorn, and Gandalf is adapted from the chapter, "The Houses of Healing" in The Return of the King.

Regarding the next update, there may be a month-long break because I will be traveling. Apologies in advance for the wait; your patience is much appreciated.

Disclaimer: I make no money from this work. Anything recognizable from The Lord of the Rings belongs to J.R.R Tolkien.

Home With the Fairies

Chapter Twenty-Three: Is There no Fate but What we Make?

It was hours after escaping the seventh level and the wired tension of all the guards that things began to move forward again. Word of the former Steward's death had not been broken yet and likely wouldn't be until Boromir returned, so Pippin and I pretended at normal. It seemed to me that throughout the days of the battle time would accelerate suddenly and then slow to a crawl. It left my nerves overwrought.

I'd gone back down to the Healing Houses so Beregond could deal with things on the seventh level and so I could find something to occupy my mind, otherwise I'd replay the death of Denethor ad infinitum. Any work was better too than waiting for the axe to fall once Boromir heard the news.

While walking back down to the sixth level it also proved an opportunity to ask Pippin what he'd been doing near Denethor's rooms anyway. "Pippin, thank you for coming to save me. But… why were you up by the Steward's rooms?"

The hobbit only looked a little sheepish. "Well I was a bit worried, you see. I remembered Denethor when I met him with Gandalf, and I knew he was mad—the angry kind. So I sneaked up there. The Men couldn't hear the yelling, but I could." He waved a hand vaguely towards his curved ear. The point wasn't as pronounced as an Elf's, but it certainly wasn't human. "That, and I was hoping you might do some magic."

"I can't do magic, Pippin," I reminded him, but he didn't comment on it.

"I thought Gandalf wanted you to help him?"

"I… Gandalf asked me to talk to him. You know how I… know things?" He nodded. "Well Denethor saw some things. Gandalf wanted to know what, because, well, the Dark Lord might have seen the same thing."

"Because the Eye also has a Seeing-Stone." I looked down at Pippin surprised, but he was looking at his feet and all I could see was his curly hair. "I looked into one and saw it. That's why Gandalf and I rushed here," he said glumly.

I hadn't realized Pippin himself had never told me that, and it looked like it was something that bothered him. "I know, Pippin. And you know, you may have helped Frodo by accident. The Dark Lord thought you had the Ring, not Frodo, so he doesn't know Frodo is coming." It felt good to share that detail I did remember. With so much that I had forgotten recently, seeing Pippin's face flood with assurance helped to ease the guilt sitting on my shoulders.

We separated down at the healing wards because Pippin wanted to find Merry, and if Merry was with Éowyn I wanted to make myself scarce. I rather hoped someone would collar me for work and save me the effort of deliberately avoiding her sickbed. However, before any odd jobs could find me I wandered by Fastred's room. I decided after a half-second that I really should be a better person and comfort someone—even if I couldn't quite stomach the thought of seeing Éowyn and Faramir.

When I popped my head in the door, the Rohirrim looked to have regained his color and was sitting up in bed. I couldn't say Fastred had the happiest outcome, but at least somebody was healing. He smiled brightly at me, glad to have a visitor, and was more than happy to fill in my awkward silence at times with chatter about his recuperation and the crutch he'd been given. He seemed to be taking the amputation in stride, but I wondered if it wasn't a front so I didn't worry. People here got all twisted up about the sensibilities of women.

He also was delicate with the subject of Éowyn and Faramir and didn't ask for details, which did make me a little grateful for his sense of tact. I still made poor company, I think, but bless Fastred for not telling me so. I was finding that emotionally I didn't deal well with injured friends.

As we chatted the discussion moved away from the hospital at least, and it turned out that Fastred was fairly up-to-date on the battle, but news of Aragorn's charge hadn't reached him yet, so that was something positive to add. The word had also begun to go around that the fighting had ended and the orcs had retreated, which made lunch even cheerier as we talked about what Fastred might do once the battle was over. His place as a soldier would be gone, but he was familiar with horse breeding and he had a family to return to.

After lunch with Fastred I felt a little more refreshed and found myself swept up in work, especially as the end of the fighting has buoyed the general mood in the wards. I mostly was asked to ferry things around, especially as all the mildly injured made their way up here. Makeshift beds had been set up in the same garden I'd fallen asleep in, and the outer courtyard was full of the wounded that didn't need a bed, just bandages and a hot meal.

As I was carefully putting away empty wine bottles to be refilled—it was used for anesthesia—in a storage room a couple hours after lunch, I kept an ear on the gossip from the women scrubbing bedpans. (When this was all over, I was going to slip it into someone's ear that boiling water was the key.) I was too busy splitting my attention as I tried to overhear something about the archers on the first level in between commentary on some man's appearance in a leather jerkin, that I didn't even notice a healer come in. It wasn't until she spoke up that I even knew she was there.

"There's a better window round the corner to listen," said a voice as creaky as her joints. The elderly woman was only hunched a little, but had sharp, intelligent eyes sunken deep into the folds of her face. She must have been a senior healer, since she seemed to know the storage room (and best eavesdropping places) well as she bustled about.

"Are you the Lady Maddie, by chance? Well? If you are then I'd thank you for buying Lord Faramir some time. If not, then help an old woman carry this." She didn't seem to care if I answered her or not, only handed me a freshly washed mortar and pestle and a stack of clean rags. She gathered together a sack of fresh-cut herbs from the next room that acted as a small greenhouse for some medicinal plants before waving me after her.

"Um, I am Maddie, but I don't think I did anything for Lord Faramir," I tried to tell her as we left the storage room.

"Humble too!" She remarked. "Now perhaps you can help me with this. I've been a healer a long time, and I know when things are beyond my ability. We may have some of the oldest lore of healing in this city, but it cannot do everything."

I wasn't sure what the old woman was talking about and was rather afraid my "magic" was going to be called on again, but I didn't have much chance to argue as she weaved through the hallways. She was clearly highly respected as younger nurses and doctors dodged out of her way, even as she managed to keep up a steady stream of chatter about Gondorian healing techniques versus Elvish ones, with a lot of terminology that went over my head—probably medical jargon.

After a couple twists and turns we ended up in the same hallway as Faramir's room, and as we drew closer to the guards on either side of his door I felt a lead weight form in my stomach.

"Healer Ioreth," one of the soldiers said, dipping his head in a polite bow. "Will you be able to help my lord?"

"I can't answer that 'til I've seen him," she said shortly, and pushed open the door to go in. Both of the soldiers looked at me, but I didn't dare look back at them.

Ioreth had stopped for a half-second in the doorway before she continued in, and I could see why: Faramir looked weaker than before, and the sheets were mused from where he had shifted in fever dreams. His whole face was blotchy red, his hair sweat-dampened, and his breathing quickened in a way that made me very nervous. I knew next to nothing about medicine, but accelerated breathing and high fevers were not good signs.

Healer Ioreth sighed heavily from where she stood by the bed looking down on him. The sags and wrinkles of the elderly healer's face looked deeper than before as she took in the state of Faramir. "I have been a healer all my life, and I helped the sons of the Steward through childhood illness and swordsmanship bruises," she croaked, voice inflected with the weight of her years. "May the gods forbid that he die."

Then she shuffled closer and asked me to bring the bowl over so she could mix together the herbs. Her wrinkled hands were stained and covered in veins but steady as she plucked leaves and broke stems and stalks from the greens. "You are not a healer in your land."

"No, milady."

"There's no lady in here except you," she retorted, but the fire that had propelled her to this room had gone out.

"I am not a lady." She ignored me.

"They say you come from far to the north and east, farther still than the Periannath." She was pounding the mixture into paste now, and I was impressed at the strength of her arms. I used to be exhausted just by mixing cookie dough for five minutes, and I was a quarter of her age.

"Sorry? I don't understand."

"Periannath. The Halflings like the one that came with the Lady of Rohan. The size of a child."

"Oh yes, hobbits," I stumbled, but she wasn't listening to me again. She dipped two fingers in the green-brown paste she'd made and spread it on Faramir's throat at the pulse points, and then again behind his ears in thick patches. Then from the pitcher in the corner she filled a small glass of water and dipped more paste into it, swirling the cup until it had mostly dissolved before expertly maneuvering Faramir's limp form to swallow it.

When she was finished with the procedure, she looked subdued. "This is the strongest fever cure I know, but this is no ordinary fever. Tell me, in your land do you have a king?" She asked me, eyes fixed on Faramir. I don't think we were anticipating any immediate change, but she didn't seem to want to move. "Alas, there is no king in Gondor as there was in ages past. There is a famous saying in our lore: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer."

It clicked.

Just like Frodo, just like the pyre, some circuit completed and I remembered. Aragorn the King. Aragorn the Healer. He had helped Frodo with a magical plant when that Ringwraith stabbed him, and it was probably the same thing that could cure Éowyn. I had no idea if it worked on poison, but anything was better than nothing.

The world stopped moving at a crawl and accelerated again.

"Healer Ioreth, I will be right back with the king," I said in a rush then bolted out of the room.

I raced down the hall and outside into the courtyard, barely seeing the busy workers as I calculated how long it would take me to find Aragorn. He was probably still on the battlefield, and while the thought of all those orcs sent a shudder up my spine, I didn't consider not going. Aragorn was a healer, trained by the Elves with his magical plant, and I grew surer and surer with each second that he was the one who saved Faramir and Éowyn.

I headed for the stables since running through Minas Tirith would take way too long. It took me several minutes to find Thunor's tack among all the various saddles and reins, and I wasn't sure how much it mattered—Éomer was probably gnashing his teeth somewhere as I thought this—but it was probably better to use the same tack he had before.

"Milady, do you need help?" I nearly tripped holding the saddle as a groom came around the corner, spotting me easily as I struggled with the heavy gear.

"Oh yes please. I need to leave as quickly as possible."

"Well if you need a—"

"This is my horse," I interrupted, kicking the door of Thunor's stall to show which one. The destrier bobbed his head up and down like he was in agreement, but more likely he was just excited at the sight of the saddle the way a dog got excited at the leash. I got the feeling Thunor did not stay cooped up well. The groom, to his credit, looked confused, but when it was apparent I wasn't going to be persuaded to change my mind he set aside the rake he'd been using and helped me heft the saddle onto Thunor's back.

With a stool and some finagling, mostly from my end as I had only half an idea of what I was doing, we managed to get the saddle, blanket, reins and bridle on in good time. With the help of the mounting block I easily got up on Thunor's back. The Elvish skirt wasn't as loose as some of the Gondorian dresses, but I really didn't care. The groom looked like he wanted to protest when I swung up astride, but I'd already forgotten him. Thunor quivered beneath me like a bowstring pulled tight and stamped his foot impatiently.

"Milady, where are you going? It isn't safe in the lower levels of the city."

"To the battlefield. If a man named Aragorn comes up here send him straight to Lord Faramir." The groom was completely flabbergasted, but I felt far too rushed to explain. Faramir's feverish face flashed behind my eyes, and I didn't want to waste any time.

I trotted Thunor out of the stable and on to the streets of Minas Tirith where he clip-clopped on the stone. It was a bit strange at first to maneuver in such tight corridors since I'd only ridden on the open plains, but we both quickly adjusted, and I grew more confident to take the destrier faster.

There were guards at the gate to the fifth level, but they didn't look to be paying much attention, so I cantered right by them and ignored their yells. Bigger fish to fry and all that. The fifth level was all but empty, and the fourth level was much the same. There were no guards at those gates anymore, and I didn't spare a second glance as I passed the street that led down to the Kinsey house. The ruined fields outside the city loomed larger as I descended, a smoky black and grey specter.

As I wound downward through the third level the signs of the catapult's destruction began to appear. Bits of wall and stone had been knocked free or crushed, and debris from homes and buildings was spread over the ground. The Elves had taught me how to jump a horse, but I hadn't done it since Rivendell and only sidesaddle, so I weaved Thunor around the rubble as quickly as I dared rather than risk it. When Éowyn recovered I would get her to teach me, I vowed.

As I got to the second level I started to see soldiers. There were makeshift healer's tents and piles of collected swords, shields, armor and arrows. The orc ones were tossed in one pile, the Gondorian ones in the other. I'd never thought about what happened to the leftover weapons and armor, but it was rather ridiculous to assume they were just abandoned on the battlefield.

I halted briefly at the first large tent I found, which looked to be manned by field medics. The men nearby gathered around me asking questions and telling me to go back up, and Thunor pranced in place with agitation. He was channeling my urgency, but I had to make sure I didn't overshoot Aragorn.

"I'm looking for a Ranger of the North. He came on the ships. Do any of you know where I can find them?" No one knew where the northern Rangers were, which didn't surprise me. It looked like most of the main army was still outside the gates and that was probably where Aragorn was—and Boromir, my brain unhelpfully reminded me. I cantered off with a bare goodbye, mind already jumping to other places to check.

The devastation got worse and worse as I got deeper into the lowest levels. There were clouds of smoke and dust in the air along with the wrenching groans of the wounded. I passed by at least two smoking piles of orc carcasses, and the horrible smell of burning flesh stung my nose. My eyes watered terribly, but I kept one hand on Thunor's neck to calm him and the other on the reins to guide him as we hurried our way through the second level and on to the first.

There were crushed houses everywhere and boulders the size of horses sitting on top of them; it was hard not to imagine what Rylan and Adelaide's home looked like. Here men were digging through the rubble, likely looking for survivors. I couldn't go as fast as I wanted because the wreckage was everywhere. Around one corner I saw a pile of shrouded bodies and very deliberately fixed my gaze ahead. I had to focus on saving the living and not on the dead.

As I got closer to the gates I saw more and more men, all asking me where I was going and none of them knowing where Aragorn was (and who he was). There was a crowd of what looked like archers from the wall standing beneath the gaping hole where the front gate had been. I had missed the actual moment it happened, but it looked like the soldiers weren't exaggerating when they'd said the Nazgûl had exploded it. There was nothing but splinters and the giant iron hinges left. Off high above me on the roof of a distant house I could see the contorted metal of one thick band of iron that must have come from it.

As I pulled up short one soldier with a fancier helmet than the others—I really did appreciate how that made differentiating ranks easier—jumped down from the remains of a house to address me. "Ho! What is a woman doing here?"

"I'm looking for a Ranger of the North by the name of Aragorn. Have you seen him?"

"A Ranger? I have not, but most of them are beyond the gates, if he is still alive. If you must, wait here for him!"

"I need to bring him to the Houses of Healing as soon as possible. I do not know how long Lord Faramir has." As I guessed, just the name of the injured captain was enough to get everyone to rethink stopping me. There was a swell of voices as the men traded rumors of what they'd heard about him, and there was genuine worry among the ranks for the fallen captain.

"I can send a man to look for him," the leader offered, and Thunor shifted his weight again as though to remind them I was the one on the horse. "It isn't safe beyond the city walls, milady. Most of the fighting is over, but there are still orcs there. And a battlefield is not something a woman should see."

I looked pointedly over my shoulder at where I had just come from. While orcs had not managed to breach much of the wall here, I had passed a fair number of bodies on my way to the gates, and after two days in the Houses of Healing I had unfortunately seen a lot of gore despite how I tried to avoid it. My stomach was just going to have deal with it.

"Then where is Gandalf?" I asked, figuring that where Gandalf was Aragorn might not be too far. I also needed to tell Gandalf of the news about Denethor—I just hoped Boromir wouldn't be nearby. I couldn't imagine how angry he would be if he saw me on the battlefield, and I already had a host of other problems involving him anyway.

"By the river, milady, but again it isn't safe—"

"If Aragorn comes here send him up to Lord Faramir," I repeated, and when Thunor jerked and whinnied impatiently the men in front of me stepped aside. They didn't initially part, but the big destrier kept shaking his head so the men backed up, and once we were clear of the crush I spurred him into a canter and hurried through what was left of the gates.

The ranking officer hadn't been kidding about the state of the battlefield. By the walls things seemed to have been cleared, but as far as the eye could see there were scattered lumps and piles of corpses where the fallen still lied. A couple burning pyres had been made for the orcs, and those that were alive were checking over the dead. It all flew by me as we cantered across the plain, and yet details kept catching my eye.

What hit me the most wasn't the visual—in fact, war movies gave you a fair idea of what it looked like—but the smell. It's something you can't know until you experience it. A battleground like this has a distinct odor that you won't find anywhere else. It was metal and heat, dirt and sweat. It was the rank of decay and wetness of rot. I'd gotten a taste of it at Amon Hen, but it was a hundred times more concentrated here. And there was more to it too: the buzz of insects as they gorged and the cawing of crows that were circling. The ground was soft with blood and mud, and Thunor squelched through it at the deepest parts—and sometimes crunched when his hoof met cheap metal or bone.

There were horses on their sides unmoving and men caught under them, and I had to go wide around the fallen body of a Mûmak, which Faramir had been right about—it was much, much bigger than an elephant. But the worst part, of course, was the dead soldiers. Bodies were face down, face up, sideways and sprawled. Some looked like they were asleep, others contorted unnaturally. Even as I tried desperately not to look it was impossible not to see. I was thankful so many faces were covered by helmets, because nothing made the dead more real than those open, empty eyes.

I couldn't not see Denethor again, deep red slowly staining his clothes from his self-inflicted wound, just as I couldn't forget that orc's yellow eyes as the blood gurgled around the shaft of the arrow. I'd seen so much death recently that I couldn't wait for this war to be over.

There were men moving among the dead visible from a distance, nearer to the river. As Thunor and I pounded closer I could see colors mixing with the black and silver uniforms of Minas Tirith: greens and reds, those men with the blue uniform with the bird that had brought Éowyn in, gold and even orange. Aragorn hadn't brought the ghost army it seemed, but a hodgepodge of men from southern Gondor.

"Is Aragorn here?" I called to the nearest group of soldiers, who were hefting shields to add to a pile. It looked like the clean-up effort here had already covered the corpses, thankfully, and now they were dealing with loose weapons and armor.

"What? Lord Aragorn?" One man dropped the four shields he had in his arms, and everybody flinched at the echoing clatter of metal against metal. "A woman!"

"Yes, yes," I said, getting really annoyed with all this and rather wanting to just pick Aragorn up and gallop back inside the walls. The landscape here was so bleak, and not twenty yards away there was a small mountain of orc bodies about to be burned. There was nothing safe to look at, and I itched to escape the smell. The only thing holding me here was Éowyn and Faramir. "I'm looking for Lord Aragorn, do you know where he is?"

Three of the men looked stunned to see me still, but one seemed to snap out of it and point further off. Nodding my thanks, I quickly galloped in that direction, jumping from one group of men to another to confirm my direction. I heard more cries of "a woman" or "a lady" than I cared to hear as I galloped on. Finally, after what had to be half an hour of riding and questioning random soldiers, I spotted a white horse that I hoped was Shadowfax. My suspicion proved correct when I could finally see the white robed man standing beside him. My shoulders dropped as some of the tension fled me, and I urged Thunor on faster.

"Gandalf! Gandalf!"

Said wizard managed to be the only person yet who didn't look surprised to see me. "You should not be out here, Lady Maddie!" He said a tad sharply, but I wasn't about to let him stop me from my mission.

"I have to find Aragorn, Gandalf. And I have news for you."

Gandalf gave me one short scrutinizing look before nodding to the men he'd been speaking with and swinging up on to Shadowfax's bare back. He was surprisingly graceful for a man that physically looked about seventy (with wizards who knows though). His robes even managed to stay neatly arranged around him, which was a trick I couldn't do with dresses. "Well let us hear this news. If it has brought you all the way out here I dread to think."

He was grumbling, but pulled Shadowfax up beside Thunor, and I found myself rather disliking the beautiful horse. His coat was glossy despite the fighting, and he rippled and shuddered like the wind as he trotted. It made Thunor look smaller and shabbier next to him, and I didn't like that at all.

"I am here because Aragorn is the one who healed Éowyn and Faramir," I told him a bit breathlessly, as Gandalf trotted us away from the soldiers and closer to the river. There were more clumps of soldiers I could see, including one bunch upriver that was definitely on horseback. Rohirrim?

"So you remembered."

"Yes. Aragorn uses a special herb—the same one that helped Frodo—and I'm sure that's what cures Éowyn and Faramir."

"Athelas, you mean."

"Athelas!" I repeated ecstatically. Yes that was it!

"You only remember this now?" Gandalf inquired, ignoring my burst of elation.

"Healer Ioreth said something about healing hands and king's hands," I explained quickly, too excited to take notice of what underlied Gandalf's comment, "and then I remembered."

"Just as the name Frodo caused you to remember before?"

"Yes," I agreed instantly, before Gandalf's point hit me and my breath escaped me in a gasp. "You think there is something stopping me from remembering."

Gandalf hummed in agreement. "A query for another time though. Is this the news that sent you galloping on to a recently claimed battleground?" Now he looked almost amused but I didn't get the joke.

"Well yes, because Aragorn needs to come heal them. But I also have other news." I dropped my voice a little, not that there was anyone nearby to overhear, and tried to speak quickly. "It's about Denethor."

"Ah yes, you spoke to him. What has happened?"

"He is dead." Gandalf sighed just a little, and even that small movement seemed to add five years to his face. "He was very angry when I mentioned you, and seemed to think you were usurping him with Aragorn."

Gandalf made a thoughtful sound, but didn't seem surprised. I wondered if Denethor had accused him of that before.

"He also thought Boromir was a ghost we'd raised from the dead, and he knew of Boromir's death at Amon Hen, and that Faramir had been shot by a poisoned arrow."

"And the Ring?" Gandalf said slowly.

"He knew of it, I think, but he believes it already lost to the Dark Lord." Denethor's exact words had been about throwing the only chance we had away. It wasn't strictly stated, but the Ring was the most powerful thing we had, and I knew the Fellowship had not brought it to Gondor deliberately. Men were the most susceptible—Boromir had proven that before.

"If that were so then we would know." Gandalf didn't sound as dark about all this as I had anticipated. "And his death? How similar was it to your remembrance?"

Shadowfax slowed to a stop and Thunor followed suit. Far ahead of us there looked to be Elves gathered, the armor a dead giveaway. They had to be part of the company that had gone with Aragorn when he left Rohan. I wondered if Erynion was there.

"There was no fire, but he was certainly as mad as I recall." Again, it was a hazy recollection, but I was sure there were plenty of parallels. "He took his life then, just as he did now. He said… Gandalf, he said it was all inevitable."

The wizard didn't look troubled by the proclamation, but it had shaken me. Denethor had voiced my deepest fears, and while I knew it was stupid to listen to a madman I also knew the story of the prophet Cassandra: doomed to speak the truth that no one would believe.

"Some things may be inevitable. Darkness rises and falls. The sun in the morning and the moon at night…" Astronomical events weren't what I would consider inevitable, but I understood Gandalf's meaning. "Inevitable is relative. Now, at this moment there is a something good about to happen, I trust?"

I was still fumbling through "inevitable is relative" and trying to translate that, but Gandalf's raised eyebrow stopped me for the moment. "Yes, Aragorn will save Éowyn and Faramir."

"Then you'd best find him." Gandalf said solemnly, then pointed at the gathering of Elves with his staff. "It is times like these that Men need hope, and King Éomer and Steward Boromir will need it." Then Gandalf glanced at me one more time with an unreadable look, before he and Shadowfax galloped away.

I put aside the questions Gandalf arose—because every conversation with him left me with more questions than answers—and focused on what he'd said: something good was going to happen; and I would make sure of it. Encouraged now and regaining my sense of urgency, I kicked Thunor into a gallop and headed straight for the Elves.

"Where is Aragorn?" I called out as I got within Elven hearing distance (at least twice as far as human hearing distance). Most of them turned to me, and if I had to guess it looked like there were Lothlórien and Rivendell Elves, based on their different sets of armor and the colors. The Golden Wood ones were dressed in gold and white, while the Rivendell Elves had more light-grays and browns.

"Lady Maddie," one of them intoned. I couldn't see much of his face because of his helmet, but all Elves tended to sound rather alike—with eerily calm, musical voices, though this one was a bit gruffer. He wore the colors of Lothlórien, so I wondered if he knew Erynion. A quick glance around their group didn't reveal that elf, but most of them were still wearing helmets, and there were more clusters of elves off in the distance.

"Do you know where Aragorn is?"

"He is not with us. Were you also upon this battlefield?" Oh I hadn't noticed, I thought sarcastically. I gave him a suspicious look, but the cheek-plates concealed all but his jaw and even his eyes were shaded.

"No, but I do need to find Aragorn."

"There are still orcs here, and I do not see a sword on your belt. Do you fight with fire as the Men have said?" I audibly groaned at not just the small talk but also that stupid rumor. How, how, did gossip get around this fast? Did people in Minas Tirith really have nothing better to do than jabber to each other? Even on a battleground apparently? I stuffed any verbal aggravation away though because being short with Elves never got you anywhere. They literally had the patience to wait you out for years. "No, I have seen no orcs and I don't wield fire. Now I really need to find Aragorn to help Lord Faramir and Lady Éowyn. Do you know which way?"

Even though I had to remind myself the elves could probably hear me grinding my teeth, my politeness paid off. "I believe the Northern Rangers are gathered over there." He gestured to the right, and I nodded tightly to him before swinging Thunor around. If I saw Erynion around here he would be getting an earful.

The group the elf had indicated was indeed a bunch of darkly dressed men who were the complete opposite of the elves in appearance. Compared to the earthy, light colors of the Elven armor, these men were outfitted in dark grays and blacks and with black or dark brown hair. They had to be Aragorn's kin by the similarities in dress and features. Someone must have guessed who I was looking for, because there was a stirring in the crowd and the future King of Gondor appeared. If I hadn't known who he was already, I might have mistaken him for just another Ranger, covered in blood, ash, and dirt like all the rest.

"Aragorn!"

"Miss Maddie," he said as he approached, forehead wrinkling as he saw me. He looked neither tired nor excited, just indifferent. I wondered how many battlefields he had seen before.

"You must hurry to the Houses of Healing on the sixth level. Lord Faramir and Éowyn are very sick, and they need that plant. The one… ath- the one that helped save Frodo. You must come quickly." I shifted on Thunor anxiously, but I could hardly drag the future King of Gondor around, and I didn't know how much of my story he believed.

There was a low murmur among the Rangers, but Aragorn just gave me a long look before nodding his acquiescence. I hadn't realized how nervous I was about convincing him until I didn't have to.

One of his men stepped forward and offered him the use of his horse. Aragorn mounted up smoothly, and I recognized some murmured Elvish he spoke to the beast. He held the reins in one hand as the other palmed his sword while he spoke to his men. "Do any of you carry athelas? I fear Gondor may not use it as they once did."

Men patted pockets and bags, some pulling pouches out from under chainmail and tunics. They emptied what little they had into Aragorn's leather bag and dispersed. Then with a click of his tongue Aragorn turned his horse in the direction of the city. I wasn't sure what to say to him, if anything really, but the Ranger was already working into a canter and soon we were moving too fast to hear each other.

More men were gathered at the gates than before, trying to get into the city and listening to news from the crier. Aragorn slowed as we drew nearer because of the crowd, eventually coming to a stop as we waited for room to get through. Unfortunately, because we had temporarily halted I wasn't able to escape one very angry Steward.

"Maddie!" I didn't hear him the first time he yelled my name, but I certainly did notice the horse that galloped straight up beside me. I jerked back on Thunor to make some space—the English word "asshole" jumping to my lips—before a familiar hand reached out and grabbed my reins.

"Hey!" I yelled, snapping my hand out to get them back, but Boromir wouldn't give them up, and I was afraid to yank on them and hurt Thunor.

"Tell me you were not fighting." His face was drawn tight and his eyes blazed under heavy brows. His voice had taken on a gravely weight that told me he was really pissed. I felt my heart stutter in the face of it, Faramir and Denethor flashing across my mind.

"I didn't fight anything at all, I swear." I gestured at my outfit, but considering I'd been scrubbing and cleaning in the healing wards it didn't really back me up.

"Then what are you doing here." That was definitely an order to talk, not a question.

"Aragorn," I blurted, checking over my shoulder to make sure he hadn't run off at the sight of the furious captain. The Ranger was still beside me on his horse, watching us with interest. Boromir's grey eyes flicked to him for a nanosecond before he was staring me down again. "He can heal Faramir and Éowyn," I said in rush to explain myself before Boromir combusted. "They'll be okay just as long as he can get that herb to them. 'King's hands are best for healing' or something like that. That's what Ioreth said."

That drew the scrutiny off me as Aragorn said something about athelas to Boromir. "Healer Ioreth believes this can help?" the Gondorian looked to me to confirm.

"Yes, and I believe it can help. And you were trained by Lord Elrond, right?" I asked, perhaps a bit desperately as I looked to Aragorn. I didn't really want to be left to deal with Boromir's fury alone, and the man was still holding my reins tightly.

"Yes, and athelas has a long history of healing dark wounds."

It seemed Boromir had been won over. "Make way! Clear a path!" he yelled, and the men who had been watching the drama unfold—fabulous, more gossip—scrambled to part so the Steward and Ranger could get through. "Go Aragorn," he urged. "Lady Maddie and I will catch up."

Before I could get out a reply Aragorn took off, ditching me with a still angry Boromir. The Gondorian tied my reins to his and then spurred both our mounts forward, thankfully hurrying us past the gathered soldiers and back into the city.

"I can ride you know!" I shouted at him, trying to be heard over the clatter of the hooves on the stone as we entered the city. I frantically reached forward to grab Thunor's mane so I'd have something to hold on to. Boromir ignored me or perhaps didn't hear me. We didn't slow until we were through the first level and past the outposts on the second. The city was eerily empty, and while I had rushed through it before without taking notice, now his ire seemed to fill the space as we slowed.

"That land has only just been reclaimed. You do not know what was still out there and you took not a single guard. What if you'd come across orcs? What if you fell from your horse? A battlefield is not something I would wish you to see." He said fiercely, glaring down at me from his horse. Had I been afraid of his anger? It was harder to see it knowing that it was worry that caused it.

"I… I know perfectly well how horrible a battlefield is, and I know there were smarter ways, but Faramir and Éowyn could very well die, and I had to do something," I justified, sitting up just a little more in my seat. Boromir's concern and anger were perfectly understandable, but I still thought I was right. "I made sure to stick to where the soldiers were."

"That does not make it safe, and your recklessness could have gotten you killed."

"Reckless?" I said sharply, then had to take a breath to let go of my immediate indignation before I said something I would regret. He was worried, I had to remind myself. "Would it have been better if I'd let Pippin go in my stead? Neither of us are soldiers, but—"

"Pippin at least has armor and a weapon. You have neither." He snapped back, breathing heavily before he pressed a hand to his eyes in a universal gesture of exasperation. "This is a pointless argument. If I asked you not to go near any field of battle would you listen?"

His hands were clenching the reins with white knuckles before he consciously relaxed them. It drew my attention to his hands, and seeing the little cuts and bruises that marred them reminded me that Boromir, before anything else, was alive. He'd made it through two days of battle and was still well enough to yell at me. Some of the clench in my gut at the sight of him and his fury loosened.

"I promise Boromir, I do not want to go near battle. I am still haunted by what little I have seen. But you know I wouldn't go down there if I didn't have to." I didn't know if I got through to him, but the lividness that had marred his face was gone. He muttered something under his breath, but I couldn't hear it over the sound of the horses' hooves.

We picked up the pace on a flatter stretch of the third level and no conversation was possible until we hit another slope and slowed the horses so they wouldn't be strained. By this time it looked like Boromir had calmed completely, and in fact he'd begun to untie my reins from his. "Aragorn can heal him?" His tone was conciliatory as he gave them back to me, eyes flicking up to mine with an unspoken apology. With everything that he would be learning soon—and my role in all of it—I mutely accepted the reins.

"Yes, he can. I am certain." I hesitated to say more, but I took in Boromir's profile for just a moment and knew it was best to get this out. "Boromir… I- I'm really sorry. I should have known Faramir would be injured, but I didn't remember in time and then it wasn't until Healer Ioreth said something about kings and healing that I even remembered about Aragorn."

I had to take a breath as mine had shortened with trepidation, but I couldn't tell what Boromir was thinking. He kept looking ahead so I floundered to say more.

"I'm sorry I can't remember everything, and Gandalf thinks there's something blocking it but I know that's an excuse and… and I'm sorry I didn't tell you this sooner but I was afraid you'd be angry at me for Faramir and then another thing—"

"Breathe, Miss Maddie." Some of the sternness had gone from his face when he looked at me, but I couldn't keep eye contact. "I am not angry about Faramir; that is not your doing. Wounds in battle are common, and it lifts my heart to know that he can be saved."

I opened my mouth to dispute my blame in Faramir's injury, not sure why I was throwing myself upon the rack but doing it anyway, but Boromir continued. "You asked me as we left Rohan how a man can lead soldiers into battle knowing they will die. And I told you preparation is all you can do. That is not just preparation of weapons and defenses, nor training your men well, but also the mental preparation. Accepting that there will be casualties and there will be sacrifices."

At the pained way he said this, I unconsciously looked up at him, and eyes were piercing. "Do not feel guilt for Faramir's injury." Even as he said it though, it wasn't enough. There was still Éowyn and Merry, and worst of all Denethor.

I don't know what he made of my silence, but he didn't say anything more until we crossed the fourth level gate. "I spoke to Faramir before the battle," he said a bit abruptly and adjusted his grip on the reins. I felt distinctly uncomfortable at what might have been said between the brothers concerning me. A hundred things flashed to mind and a hundred more reactions. "There are many things we must discuss, though now is not the time."

My heart sunk as he said this, and the now familiar feeling of dread hit me. Boromir still didn't know about Denethor, and I wrestled with telling him now or letting Beregond do it later. Would he forgive me for not telling him immediately, or would he accept that it was poor timing? When was it a good time to tell someone their father was dead?

We were able to canter again once through the fourth level, where the road leveled out for a time. I scrubbed my fingers over Thunor's hair, feeling strangely like I wanted to cry but there were tears, and like I wanted to pull my own hair out by the ends. I felt pulled in so many directions when it came to Boromir, and that still didn't account for Éomer, who I feared was the more volatile of the two.

Before I knew it Boromir was dismounting, and we were in the courtyard by the healing wards like I hadn't even left. The battleground was all a blur, and my frantic rush to find Aragorn felt like a second compared to now.

"Come, let us go and find Faramir and the Lady Éowyn." Boromir helped me down from Thunor, his hand resting just a moment on my shoulder though I couldn't say why. Then he turned sharply and strode inside the ward, people scattering when they saw him or dropping deep curtseys and bows. It only seemed to register in me now what exactly they were seeing: It was Boromir, son of Denethor of the line of Stewards, Captain of the White Tower among a dozen other titles, dressed in full plate mail from shoulders to feet (if he had a helmet it was gone). He had a two-handed sword sheathed on his hip, and the White Tree of Gondor bloodied and dirtied on his chest. His hair was a tangled mess barely held off his face, and there were lines of dirt and blood on his neck.

But more than that, what they saw was the Steward of Gondor with head high, uninjured from two days of battle, walking swiftly but proudly. Some of the nerves in me were swept away as I remembered that Boromir was the victor today. He led the city's defense and held off Mordor's forces until Rohan and Aragorn came, and he fought every step of the way.

Thinking in vain that my son alone could save us. You thought to bring him here where he might die a second time at the gates of his city…

That was a prediction of Denethor's that was wrong. The next battle wouldn't be here, and I would stand at those gates just to make sure Boromir didn't die by them if I had to.

Aragorn was already in Faramir's room when we arrived, the guards obviously were eavesdropping, but jumped to attention when Boromir strode quickly down the corridor. The smell in the room when we stepped in was clean and pure, fresh like mint but rejuvenating like mountain air. It had swept away all the staleness of illness that always seemed to permeate the rooms of the sick and left it refreshed. Aragorn had a cup of boiling water in his hands with athelas leaves floating on the top, which was where the scent had to be coming from. He didn't even glance over as we entered, and with Healer Ioreth's help he tipped the mixture into Faramir's mouth. Then Aragorn pressed a hand to Faramir's sweaty forehead, focusing with closed eyes. I wasn't sure if he was praying or doing some kind of Elf magic, but the room was hushed to let him concentrate.

I wanted to grab someone's hand to still my own shaking fingers, but I didn't dare. We waited breathlessly for some sign until Aragorn, a bit greyer around the edges now, leaned back and let out a breath. "The worst has passed. Would that Lord Elrond were here so Lord Faramir might recover all the quicker."

Everyone seemed to exhale at the same moment, and the tension fled the room. The red in Faramir's face was rapidly disappearing, and Aragorn stepped away so Boromir could get closer. I hadn't actually seen the two brothers together before; Boromir's affection was so obvious in all his body language as he leaned over Faramir and carefully smoothed the hair from his face. He truly did dote on his brother, and it brought unbidden a thought of Mackenzie.

"That weed is more powerful than I would have thought," Ioreth commented to me.

And then we heard the clicking of armor as Boromir jerked back. Faramir was beginning to stir, blinking slowly. Ioreth gasped the word 'king' under her breath, but it was lost to Boromir's heartfelt whisper of Faramir's name. When the sick captain smiled up at his brother and his eyes finally focused around the room, I felt like my own heart would explode from relief.

Faramir was saying something quietly about a king, and Aragorn something about shadows, but I was just fervently sending up thanks to whoever and whatever made this possible. Boromir's elation was so palpable it lightened his whole face and erased whatever troubles and responsibilities were laid on him.

"Rest, eat some food and move slowly at first. You have been abed many days, the healer said, and your body must recover." Ioreth was staring at Aragorn with such admiration that the moment he even glanced at her she dropped into the deepest curtsey I'd seen yet—there was no way I could go that low and stay balanced.

"Truly Gondor will be blessed in all its day to come with its true king returned," she murmured. Amazingly Aragorn wasn't flustered at the sudden pomp, not even as Boromir sunk to one knee beside Faramir's bed and bowed his head.

"And as the House of Húrin has for generations in ages past, we will stand beside you as councilors in good faith, supporting and serving the true kings of Gondor," said Boromir formally, one hand crossing his chest. Faramir mimicked him slowly, still weak.

Aragorn looked at the solemn Gondorian men with fondness as befitting a king. The Ranger of the North was already like a legendary ruler even without the crown yet. "You do not have to ask Boromir and Faramir, sons of Denethor, sons of Pelendur. It would be my greatest honor to have the sons of the House of Húrin at my side, defending Gondor as King and Steward as our forefathers once did."

Then Aragorn went over and put one hand on Boromir's shoulder, and when both men were standing the two communicated something through eye contact alone before Aragorn let go. He gave Faramir a serious nod and crossed his right hand over his heart too in a gesture that must have had great significance.

I felt suddenly out of place in all this, unsure where I stood and whether I too should make a vow of fealty or some such, but thankfully Aragorn's attention had moved on. "Lady Maddie, where is Lady Éowyn?"

"Éowyn? She's down another hall. I'll- I can show you." He nodded, and with a quick glance at Boromir who was talking quietly to Faramir, I hurried out behind Aragorn.

"She is not ailed by the same thing." He said as we passed the guards, who all bowed very low as Aragorn passed. If they'd heard even half of what was said in that room then the cat was out of the bag.

"No, she's not. It is the Black Breath—something horrible from the Ringwraiths." I shuddered at whatever dark dreams she must be having. We reach Éowyn's room quickly, but I hung back just outside the doorway though as I realized who else was there.

"Lord Éomer," Aragorn said respectively. Éomer's tangled blond hair was bowed over Éowyn's hand, and he only raised his head marginally in acknowledgement. The Rohirrim looked so broken over her that I was bowled over by my own guilt.

"Lady Maddie," Aragorn called to me, and I flinched as Éomer's head came up again. "I will need a shallow basin of boiling water."

I all but fled, afraid to even look Éomer in the eye and yet knowing that I was worsening it by not facing him. In another room just off the main wards there were several huge vats over large fires kept boiling just for situations like this. Very, very carefully I took one of the clay jugs and dipped it into the water, cringing at the heat and the steam. Oven mitts weren't well designed yet. I snagged a low bowl on my way out, put the jug in the middle, and tried not to drag my feet too much as I went back to Éowyn's room.

"Her will is as strong as steel," Aragorn was saying, and I paused just beside the door to listen. "Her foe was beyond the strength of almost all mortal men, and yet she stood before the wraith and did not quail."

Gandalf had come in while I was getting the water, and I just saw the corner of his robe as he stood by the door. "Indeed," he replied to Aragorn. "Others have long succumbed to this illness, and yet she lives still. Any touched with darkness or unhappiness are the first victims."

"I had heard rumor of the fair maiden of Rohan, and that she was as beautiful as she was filled with dread, for she faithfully tended to her ailing king," Aragorn commented.

"Aye," Éomer replied, and he sounded so grieved that it tore another hole in me. "We both feared for our uncle, but it was her that the duty truly fell upon. I suspected her unhappiness but not once did she complain."

"And as you had the free fields and grasslands of Rohan, she had the walls of Meduseld. That she was desperate to escape that taxing duty I am not surprised, though her fortitude is a testament to your people and your blood, Éomer," Gandalf replied. His words reminded me of the lonely woman I had met in the stable yard of Edoras, who jumped on the opportunity to talk and do something wild—the woman who longed for glory and the freedom that the men didn't share.

I steeled myself and shouldered open the ajar door, knocking it into Gandalf like I didn't know he was there, though I had no doubt he'd known I was in the hallway. I only spared the shortest glance at Éomer, who was watching me guardedly, his eyes suspiciously red and his face dirtied and haggard. Then at Aragorn's bidding I poured the hot water in the basin and withdrew beside Gandalf to let the future king work.

As the leaves seeped and the power of the cleansing herb washed over all of us, noticeably lightening Éomer's face, Aragorn leaned over Éowyn and called her name. Then he pressed two of the leaves between his fingers, letting more of that pure scent steal out and into the room. I felt calmer than I had in days, and while the guilt was still like a noose around my neck it was looser than before.

Aragorn soaked a cloth left by the beside in the steaming water, somehow not flinching at the temperature, and wrung it out before pressing it to her brow, letting it rest for a moment before bringing it to her right arm where she had blocked the blade of the beast. As the fumes began to affect her, she started to breathe more deeply, and Éomer looked about ready to fall out of his seat he was leaning so far forward.

"Éowyn, Lady of Rohan, arise," Aragorn called, and while I was skeptical that "summoning" her from the brink of death was going to work, I could barely breathe as we waited.

When the Ranger encouraged Éomer to join in, Gandalf pushed me forward too. "You are her friend, and I think some of the reason she had the courage to do this great deed."

I wasn't sure if the guilt-tripping was deliberate or not, but I came to stand beside Aragorn feeling a little silly even as Éomer rubbed his sister's hand and said her name earnestly.

Aragorn gave me her other hand and put his own on her brow, and then there was nothing for it. "Éowyn," I said feeling a bit foolish, but how was this any different than talking to her as I did before? "Please wake up Éowyn." I glanced at Éomer, who still looked incredibly distraught and on the verge of tears. His emotion was starting to affect me too. "Éowyn, please, your brother Éomer is falling apart without you."

He glanced at me, and we made very short eye contact before I thought I felt her hand twitch. Éomer leaned forward again, and repeated her name like a mantra until very suddenly her eyes were open and she was looking at him.

"Éomer?" she murmured, and I nearly dropped her hand to cover my mouth to hold in the giddy laughter that wanted to escape. Aragorn relaxed back and before I could think it I had thrown my arms around him and was hugging him, unable to speak past the overflowing happiness that was rushing through me.

The poor man took it in stride and patted my back until I let go, not even a little embarrassed at my exuberance. Faramir and Éowyn were recovered! The guilt that had been eating at me felt infinitely lighter. You could blame me for their injuries, but you couldn't blame me for their deaths, I all but wanted to trumpet.

Éomer was crying when I looked over, holding his sister and rocking her, his face buried in her hair, and it was such a private moment that both Aragorn and I stood up to give them some space. Gandalf had stepped into the hallway and was talking to someone, but as I moved to follow him Éowyn called me back. "Maddie, Maddie please wait."

I went back to her side easily, though still unsure about Éomer, but I had only eyes for Éowyn right now. That athelas was a miracle worker; it had to be. Her color was back, still pale but with the start of a healthy pink glow underneath, and she didn't look half as frail as she had five minutes ago.

"I'm so glad you're all right," I burst out, and then I couldn't contain it and hugged her as tightly as I dared. "I'm so sorry Éowyn, I really am." My eyes were definitely wet, and when I pulled back I wiped at them quickly. Realizing this was my chance I turned to Éomer also to apologize. "I'm sorry too, Éomer. I knew what she was doing and I even encouraged her. I didn't remember she would be injured, otherwise I would have told you and—"

Éowyn soft hand grabbed mine and then Éomer's before I could babble anymore. "Maddie, please don't cry. I wanted to do this. I did not want to waste away in Edoras waiting for an offer of marriage, and then to be shuffled from one prison to the next. I know what freedom is, and now I will never forget the taste, nor let it be taken from me again. And I would have left with the army whether you let me or not, so none of this is your fault."

"The Ringwra—" I started, but she squeezed my hand warningly and looked to Éomer.

"Do you really think, dearest brother of mine, that I would not have done this if Maddie had said no?"

"Éowyn, when I found you—"

"Do you?" Despite having woken minutes ago she looked fierce, and Éomer knew a losing battle when he saw one.

"No, though when I beheld you on the battlefield you were as death." She hugged her brother with one arm at his broken words, the other holding my hand captive until the two pulled apart.

"Maddie, there is no blame to be cast on you, but instead thanks. Truly you are of magic. It was so silent for so long, and then through my dark dreams came your words, and all my fears of Éomer and Merry's deaths were blown away. I heard you speak to me, and the world went from black to grey." I could definitely feel my jaw falling open of its own accord, and I struggled for a response. She could hear me? When I was talking to her with Pippin she remembered?

I was saved from answering when Merry raced into the room and barreled around me to hug Éowyn. He was talking at high speed about the battle, and then Pippin was yelping something to Aragorn and none of it seemed quite real anymore.

"Lady Maddie," Éomer said, holding his hand out to help me up from Aragorn's chair I'd fallen into. Éowyn's forgiveness hadn't sunken into me yet, and it didn't seem to have sunken into Éomer either by his grim expression. "Our uncle used to call Éowyn módigu fola as a child, 'spirited filly' in Westron, and Gandalf spoke true before. Caring for our enfeebled uncle all but destroyed the módigu fola in her—but it was not gone. She is right: she would have done this regardless, and I fear I sought blame in this when truly it is hers alone." The look he shot his sister promised that he hadn't forgotten that, but she didn't look the least bit phased. I wish I could have half her confidence for the eventual conversation between Boromir and I.

"As for our uncle though, I must ask what you knew." I could hear the conversation between Merry and Éowyn fall silent, and I was thankful the others had either left or were occupied with Pippin as my mouth had gone startling dry.

"I… I am so very sorry, Éomer. I knew that he might die. I do not remember how or when, but I knew in the battle he could very well fall." I looked up at Éomer who was utterly blank-faced and felt any shred of resolve crumble. "I should have warned you sooner, or warned the king himself, but I did not remember and that failure is mine."

My eyes fell to Éowyn because I could not stand the look on Éomer's face, but it was almost worse. She looked shocked and grief-stricken, and I realized at the same second this was the first news she had on her uncle. All the gaiety of the room vanished in a heartbeat. I had saved two, but not one.

"He was there," Merry interrupted suddenly, and he was looking almost impertinently at Éomer and me. "He saw Lady Éowyn strike down the Ringwraith, and he asked for her, calling her dearer than a daughter. And then… he said he went proudly to his forefathers, because he killed the great beast the Nazgûl rode."

As Merry relayed some of Théoden's last words Éomer looked torn between his mourning sister and saying more to me, and that was when Aragorn returned. One would have thought this was the kind of matter best kept out of, but he stepped in regardless.

"King Théoden died as he wished to, on the battlefield fighting a foe of great worth that felled many beyond count. Let not your anger and grief sully his memory and cast not blame in anguish. The battlefield is only a place of death, and it is a miracle still that any survive it." Éomer looked a bit stunned, and Éowyn's weeping had ceased. I thought for half a second there that a glowing crown was resting on Aragorn's head before the hallucination disappeared.

"Come Maddie," Gandalf said suddenly, breaking the stillness that had engulfed the room. "The war is not yet over, and I wonder if there is more you remember."

I didn't know if I should curtsey, apologize again, or simply leave, but Éomer was watching me with a heavy gaze and Éowyn was silent and bowed. When Éomer consciously turned away to comfort his sister, I all but ran out of the room.

Two steps out though I hit leather and musk, and the moment Boromir's hands grasped my bruised arms to hold me steady I decided to hell with it, I should just let everyone get their condemnation out in one go.

I pulled Boromir's hands off my arms where his grip was hurting and grabbed hold of them instead, clasping them between my own. He opened his mouth and glanced at the doorway where he must have witnessed that, but I was too focused to let him speak. "Boromir, I am so sorry. I cannot say it enough and I will be saying all my life if that's what it takes to earn forgiveness. When I told you I remembered about Aragorn it is also true that I remembered something else terrible. It was a pyre—a pyre for Faramir, and Denethor lit it. In his madness he had wanted to save you both from the hatred and slavery of Mordor. Then when I went to speak with him he ran from the room and he took his own life by the steps to the White Tower. I couldn't remember until it was nearly too late and I didn't know what to do, and now he's gone the same as before, and I'm sorry that death and injury seem to follow me wherever I go and that it is your father I seemed to have sacrificed along with Éomer's king."

There. It was out. I have no idea if Boromir even understood half of what I'd just said, but it hardly mattered anymore. I just needed to let it be heard, so that some of this unbearable guilt might be lifted.

"I just spoke to Beregond," were the first words out of his mouth, and I deflated some. I hadn't even realized how tense I was at his possible reaction to the news. "He said the same as you, and a part of me knew this may very well be the outcome of this war. My father…" he looked terribly pained at these words but determined to soldier on, "my father was… the Enemy has a will not even the strongest man can match. He was brave but foolish to contest the Enemy on his own grounds."

He was referring to the Seeing-Stone, but I held my breath for the rest. "It was Sauron that drove him to this end. You foresaw it by fire only it came by blade, but madness is not something you can predict. I do not hold you responsible and you should not either," he finished firmly, squeezing my hands, and I had forgotten I had been holding his so he would not hurt the bruises.

"But I knew—"

"Sight is not enough, and you cannot control the outcome of all Man, Elf and Dwarf. What will be will be."

I snatched my hands back, hearing the echo of inevitable in Denethor's voice. "Don't say that!" I snapped, feeling hot inside with helplessness and indignation that quickly fanned to ire. "I worked too hard to make sure that you would survive, that Rohan would be readier than before, and I worried too much about Éowyn and Faramir's chances to hear that it's all inevitable." I said the last word with extra venom to show my derision, and Boromir's face went slack with surprise. "If you must say inevitable at least call it a self-fulfilling prophecy so all our efforts are not belittled." I threw in heatedly, but the stunned silence that followed was suddenly awkward, and when Boromir only looked more cautious than combative did my simmering temper begin to flicker out.

"I apologize, I did not mean to offend."

That blew all the wind out of my sails, and I could sense now that everyone was gathered in the corridor behind me and probably wondering what the hell was wrong with me. "I'm sorry," I said for the nth time that day, now truly knowing the feeling of wanting the floor to swallow you whole. "I don't know where that came from. I apologize, Boromir, I—"

"This has been a trying day for us all," Gandalf said smoothly over my embarrassment, while I gratefully stopped gibbering and tried not to look at anybody. Thankfully Éowyn and Éomer were not out here, but the hobbits, Aragorn, Gandalf, and at least three guards and a group of healers were. "Why don't you take a rest in your rooms, Miss Maddie, and Pippin will make sure dinner gets to you."

I nodded, sure there were bright spots on my cheeks left over from my huff and now turned to mortification, and they probably got brighter as soon as Boromir took my elbow in as gentle a hold as he could and started to guide me down the corridor. No one behind us said anything, and the moment we were around the corner I blurted out "I'm sorry" one more time.

Boromir let go of my elbow and looked like he might pause in the hallway before continuing on. He appeared more revived than earlier though, and he'd taken off the armor, which probably helped his overall look. "If there is anything to be forgiven, then it is forgiven. I know this has been a… difficult day. Now let this subject rest and do not apologize to me again. We have a saying in Gondor: guilt is the maggots of the soul; if you let it, it will become flies."

"What is 'maggots'?"

"Worms that grow into flies," he said easily, and I automatically shuddered at the translation. I didn't have much of an issue with bugs, but I still didn't find them pleasant. His diversion was successful though, and the discomfort from before was mostly gone.

"How is Faramir?"

"Resting, but well." He replied, and his eyes were a bit brighter when he looked at me. "He wanted to thank you, but you had already left. You must visit him tomorrow."

I wanted to ask if Faramir knew about Denethor, but I also didn't want to rock the boat so soon after it had calmed, so instead I stayed silent and ignored Boromir's sidelong glance.

He was leading me through some back corridors instead of the main wards and courtyard, which meant we avoided most of the prying eyes, though I'm sure gossip was spreading like wildfire. I gave half a though to what Clarimond and Oriolda might hear once the evacuees returned, but it only made me feel hollow. Boromir stopped eventually at a door that looked identical to all the others in the hall but somehow he knew it was mine.

"Tomorrow there will be much discussion of the next step in the war. You have already said what we will do though."

"The Gates of Mordor," I supplied, a trickle of worry slipping into my voice again. Even though I had vehemently protested the idea of inevitability just ten minutes ago, I wasn't immune from my fear of it. "Boromir, in case there's no time or I don't see you, please be careful. I know it's battle and anything can happen, but… prove to me that it is not inevitable. That some things can change."

I don't know when I attached my trust in myself and my shaky memories to Boromir, but it was done and now it was too late to reverse. I just knew that if something happened to him I'd be shattered because it would undercut everything I had staked myself on. I didn't know how to articulate that intuitive understanding, nor did I think I could put that burden on him, but it made it that much more important to ask him to be careful.

"All you can ask of me is to try, and I will promise you that," he said warmly, and I felt a rush of affection for him. Friendships in Middle Earth were formed quickly and stayed strong, a sharp contrast to all the empty friendships I'd had before. I'd known people infinitely longer than Boromir and trusted them half as much. "Now promise me that you will avoid the trouble that is your companion. Don't think I have forgotten the orc scouting party or the Ringwraith and the torch." His voice held a hint of warning and he looked more serious, but that was a promise I wanted to keep too.

"I promise to try my best."

There was a heavy pause for just a moment, and I half expected something more to happen, but nothing came of it, and Boromir just inclined his head and wished me a restful evening. I closed the door behind him and collapsed face first on the bed. Don't think, just sleep.

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