She was Poppy. Or Poppy-seed, though she hated that name. She preferred Little Poppy. Among her friends in the kitchen, she was called Pop. Once someone called her Pip-Pop. But that had been a very strange person…
She was nine or ten years old. She did not know her exact age, but it did not really matter. All her life, she had lived in the Citadel, raised by the kitchen staff. She had known only the kitchen and the lower corridors of the Citadel. She did not even know what existed on the upper floors. But she imagined the rooms there to be enormous, all lined with gold and precious jewels.
Sometimes, if she was lucky, Azaelia would take her to the weekly vegetable market. But the elderly kitchen woman always insisted that the streets of Minas Tirith were dangerous for little girls, and so Poppy spent most of her time within the Citadel's safe walls. Poppy had no parents, but she had long ago decided that she did not need them. For she had Azaelia in the kitchens, Gregor in the storeroom, and everyone else in between. Granted, she did sometimes envy the other children who were embraced and spoiled and kissed by their doting mothers and fathers. But Poppy always reminded herself: parents are useless, nobody needs parents.
Today, she was walking along a hallway near the storehouse. Azaelia had sent her to get some spices - they had nearly run out of red pepper in the kitchens. She skipped along, waving to guards and other servants. They smiled as she passed. A few chuckled their greetings.
“Watch your feet, little lady.”
"Has Old Azaelia sent you on another mission, Little Poppy?"
And Poppy would smile and giggle and scurry away without answering. Up ahead, she saw the older boy, Innrod. He had grown very tall in the past year. Poppy remembered when he was younger and smaller and they would play together. But ever since Innrod started working on the upper floors, he had grown so tall and commanding that she was intimidated. But he cocked his head now and smirked as she approached.
"'Lo, Poppy-seed," he said.
"Don't call me that," she retorted. She stopped skipping and walked. “My name is Poppy. I am not a seed.”
"You look like one."
"Well, you look like a big old goblin!"
Innrod threw up his hands and snarled menacing. "Goblin, m'dear! Yes, yes, yes! And we likes the little girls, don't we, yes! We goblins cook them up, don't we! Mmmm!"
He licked his chops theatrically and roared again, stalking after Poppy. She squealed with delight and scampered out of the way.
"Inn-rod! Stop it! Stop!" she laughed.
He lunged again but only feigned to grab her. She dodged away.
"I can't play, Innrod," she said, suddenly assuming a more mature air. "I have kitchen business to attend to."
"Aye, I have business as well. I was just going back up to his Lordship's quarters."
"Did he call you?"
"No," Innrod scoffed. "But I'm the Keeper of Lord Boromir's apartments, you know. I must always be ready."
"You are not the Keeper yet! Master Rúnyafin is!"
"Well, I will be Keeper, once Master Rúnyafin..." and Innrod drew his hand across his neck to mimic a beheading.
Poppy gasped. She struck Innrod against the arm. Innrod laughed.
"Do you ever see Lord Boromir?" she asked.
Innrod shrugged. "All the time. He often speaks with me. We're friends."
"Well, I saw him, too! I saw him once, a fortnight ago, I think. He had an elf with him, Master-Elf-Dínendal. And the elf touched my hand!"
"So! Daft Innrod, if an elf touches you, you become immortal."
"That's not true."
"It is not!"
Innrod barked again like a goblin and lunged for Poppy. She shrieked and dived away. But she did not want to play. She smoothed her small, white apron and assumed again her adult air.
"I served them both,” she wrinkled her nose, “I don't like Lord Boromir, though. Azaelia said he was a very handsome Man, but his face has all those scars and lines. And he is too strange."
Innrod rolled his eyes. "Poppy-seed, you are so stupid. Of course Lord Boromir has scars, he was in the War! And he was tortured by Sauron himself!" When Poppy cringed, Innrod chuckled. Then he sneered wickedly. "Did you know he’s mad?"
Poppy placed her hands on her hips. "Of course I do. Everyone knows that."
Not really. She had not heard that rumor yet. But she had learned long ago that it was always better to pretend to know, rather than be found as the last person on the Citadel's grapevine.
"I saw Lord Boromir talking to himself once," Innrod continued, "and he always drinks and then he yells at everyone. They say he went mad in the Black Land. They say he steals children and cooks them into pies! Do you know he struck one of the periannath?"
"So? Azaelia hits them all the time. They steal things from the kitchens."
Innrod ignored that comment. He paused, as if to consider something, and then grinned wide, "Do you want to see him?"
"Come on. We can sneak upstairs and we can see if he does anything mad."
"Innrod!" Poppy hissed. "You know I can't go upstairs! What if they catch me?"
Innrod shrugged. "Fine. I thought you were brave enough, but I guess..."
"I am brave!" Poppy cried, indignant.
"Well then, come on,” Innrod laughed and went sprinting down the corridor.
Poppy hesitated for a moment. What would Azaelia say? But the opportunity to go upstairs, to see all the gold and jeweled rooms, to spy on Lord Boromir and maybe even see the King, it was too much for a little girl like Poppy. And so she checked to see if the corridor was empty and then scampered after Innrod, calling for him to slow down.
They ran and ran. Innrod led her, taking her through all the new and strange places. Tight staircases, trap doors, hidden rooms. Innrod kept checking behind him and grinning. And Poppy pretended that she knew of this route beforehand, that, in fact, she often used it. But she could not wait to tell all the other kitchen children about all these secret places.
On the third level, they found a dusty, abandoned hallway. Huge cobwebs laced around old, rusted armors. It was dark and quiet. Poppy's skin crawled, and she inadvertently walked closer to Innrod. He was inching alongside the wall, running his hand against the uneven stones. Finally, he found what he was looking for and stopped.
"What - ?"
"Shhh!" Innrod hissed.
"What is it?" Poppy whispered.
"I found this a few months ago," he said quietly. "It's a secret passage. I think the Steward uses it if the Citadel is besieged."
He pushed lightly against the stone and it gave way to a small, rectangular opening. It was just large enough for Innrod and Poppy to squeeze through, and Poppy doubted a large Man like the Lord Steward would ever fit inside. She giggled at the mental image of the Lord Denethor squeezing himself into the tiny opening, with his bottom and his legs hanging out.
There was a low, narrow tunnel inside, just big enough to crawl through. Once they were both in, Innrod pushed the stone back into place. Everything went black. He then began to crawl along on hands and knees, and Poppy heard him scraping away. She followed that sound. Her hands hurt on the dirty, stone ground, but she bit her lip. She did not want Innrod to think she was a little weakling and never take her on an adventure again.
And so they continued along this narrow passageway for what seemed like an eternity. They passed small windows – round and deep – and Poppy would catch sight of the wide, open air. Sometimes, they would pass by a room with people, for they could hear muted voices through the wall to their left. Poppy thought she heard the soft scuttle of rats further on. She shuddered.
The passageway sloped upwards. Their progress was slow, and Poppy heard Innrod say something foul as he placed his hand on a particularly jagged piece of rock. Finally, they arrived at the top of the slope. Innrod hit his head against the stone ceiling, and Poppy snickered.
"Hush!" he hissed.
All gangly and awkward, he twisted himself around into a sitting position. He motioned for her to join him, and then he pointed to a spot on the left wall. She crept forward, squeezing into the tiny space between him and the wall. There was an opening, a peephole, and if she pressed her face against it, she could just see a corner of a room.
The room was large, with ornate tapestries hanging against the opposite wall. Poppy saw the edge of a bed – it had fur covers and piled sheets. Resting against a chair by the bed was an unsheathed sword. It glinted with sunlight, and Poppy guessed there were windows above her and Innrod. She looked back at him. It was very dark, with only the light from the peephole, but she saw a faint smile.
"Where are we?" she whispered.
"Lord Boromir's room," Innrod said softly.
She looked again. It seemed empty, except for the soft snoring coming from the bed. Poppy held her breath. It was too late to still be in bed! She waited. Finally, there was movement. The bed creaked and groaned from some unseen weight. Then a Man appeared. He was dressed in his day clothes and his doublet was partially unbuttoned. She recognized him immediately - the Lord Boromir! His boots appeared first as he swung his long legs from the bed and stood. Then, muttering to himself, he walked diagonally, as if the room was rocking to and fro like a ship, towards their wall. Poppy froze. He approached, coming so close that she could see the scuffmarks on his boots.
"There's a cabinet with liquors right here," Innrod pointed to a corner above and to the right of their heads. They heard glass clinking, something being poured.
"What is he saying?" Poppy asked. "He keeps whispering to himself."
In that moment, the noise stopped, as did Boromir's talking. Both children froze. Slowly, quietly, Innrod pushed Poppy aside and took her place. He pressed his face against the peephole. Poppy sat back, waited. She buried her mouth into her arms so as to stifle the sound of her breathing. She heard heavy, uneven steps as Boromir seemed to stumble away from the wall. There was a thump, like metal hitting wood. Poppy tapped Innrod's shoulder.
"He has his sword," Innrod mouthed.
Finally, they heard Boromir's voice, loud and clear, yet wavering. "Third One?”
Innrod began shaking with silent laughter. Poppy giggled too, and both children struggled to stifle their mirth. Boromir asked again.
The children laughed silently again, covering their mouths with their hands. Innrod turned to Poppy with shaking shoulders. She pushed him out of the way. She wanted to look. Was Lord Boromir really mad? Innrod relented his position and let her peek through.
She saw Lord Boromir standing, sword in hand, staring at some other corner of the room. He was swaying, forward and backward, and he kept his other, trembling hand out, as if in defense. He stood for several moments like that, until, with a shudder, he dropped his sword and threw it against the bed.
There was a sudden clatter, which caused Boromir and the hidden children to jump. But as the Man turned, his shoulders dropped.
"Rúnyafin, you are to knock before entering!" Boromir snarled.
"My apologies, my lord," a voice to the left said.
Master Rúnyafin! Poppy looked at Innrod, and he stared back at her.
"What is it?" Boromir asked.
“Lord Elrond awaits, my lord.”
“I shall be there momentarily,” Boromir muttered.
There was a general shuffle as the doors closed again. Both children squeezed next to each other in order to see. Boromir passed to and fro before their vision. He strode back towards the hidden cabinet, retrieved something, backed away and walked quickly towards the door. As they watched, Poppy could smell Innrod beside her. He did not smell unpleasant. Working on the upper floors had certainly pampered him.
Suddenly, Poppy wondered if she smelled bad. But Innrod’s shoulder pressed against hers, and he did not seem to be recoiling from any stench.
They watched Boromir disappear from sight. A door slammed. Once he was gone, Innrod sat back and smiled.
“I told you he was mad,” he grinned wide.
Poppy giggled. “Where else does this passage go?”
“Come on,” Innrod jerked his head and turned around.
Soon, they were crawling away from that peephole and towards the next one. The passage became substantially larger as they continued, so that, eventually, they could stand and walk in a half-crouch. Poppy’s back hurt a little after walking in this stooped position for what seemed like the entire length of the Citadel, but the passage continued to widen and widen, growing taller and more narrow as they walked on.
Soon it became tall enough to stand upright, though the walls were so close that they had to walk single file, and the uneven stone brushed against their arms on either side. Poppy giggled when it became so narrow that Innrod started walking sideways, almost squeezing himself through the impossibly thin tunnel.
“We can speak freely now,” Innrod said in his normal voice. “Right now we’re right on the edge of the wall to outside. I think the Silent Street is beneath us.” He continued scraping along the wall. “Or above us. I’m not sure.”
Poppy remained silent, smiling. She held her arms in front of her, tucking them in a little, since her shoulders continued to brush against the harsh stone on either side, and occasionally she would touch Innrod’s shirt just to make sure he was there. It was still too dark to see properly, but she was not scared. Quite the opposite, she was rather enjoying this safe, secure feeling of tight walls all around, with Innrod walking only a few steps away.
Eventually, though, she had to ask: “Where are we going now?”
Innrod made a disgusted sound when he took a step and was met with the enraged squeal of a rat. The rat scurried away. Poppy giggled. But then she asked again, “Innrod, where are you taking me?”
The tunnel was becoming shorter and fatter now, so that they had to once again kneel and crawl along.
“To the King,” Innrod replied as he stooped low.
Poppy must have made a particularly awestruck sound, for Innrod laughed. But then – and by now they were once again crawling on all fours – he turned around and hissed a loud Shhh! when the passage began to turn slightly.
They did not crawl far, thankfully. The passage began to slope downwards sharply, and both of them opted to sit back on their bottoms and scoot down, as it was easier. And there, at the bottom of this gentle slope, they found another peephole. Innrod was being extra quiet as he moved near the peephole now, and he laid a soft hand on Poppy’s shoulder to help guide her in the dark. Never mind that Poppy was blushing so hard she thought her head would burst when he touched her. She was just thankful for the dark.
This peephole was wide and thin, so that two people, if they pressed their cheeks together, could look through together. After a moment of awkwardness and some silent giggles, Innrod and Poppy both squeezed into the spot and saw this:
The King’s chambers. A large bed. Tapestries on every wall. Arms and chain mail and cases full of axes and swords and things Poppy did not know the name of. And in the center of the room, they saw the Queen. The elf-queen! Dark hair, and a flowing dress, and a sad, beautiful face. Both children shuddered to see her.
The Queen was standing now, staring down at an unrolled parchment which rested against a wide, oak desk. The children could see but the edge of this desk; they could not see what was on the parchment. Poppy suddenly wondered if Innrod was learning to read, now that he worked on the upper floors. And she was filled with a strange sort of envy to think of it.
In that moment, a door opened, closed. The Queen turned. The children could not see her face, but soon they saw the King – the King himself! – arrive, arms outstretched. The King and Queen embraced. For many long moments, they stood there like that, arms wrapped around each other, the King’s head nestled in the Queen’s neck, while she ran her fingers idly through his hair. Many long moments, and they did not move, or say anything, or breathe, it seemed. Poppy watched, enchanted.
Finally, the Queen pulled back. She took his hands in hers, smiled lightly.
“Man gell, Estel, man gell…”
At the sound of this new tongue, Poppy pressed her face further against the wall, straining against the peephole. Almost thinking that if she could see them better, maybe she could understand them as well.
“Sen na mín sîdh, meleth nín,” the King replied.
The Queen’s smile grew. The King embraced her, leaned back to see her face, smiled as well.
“A si mín na erui…” the Queen cooed. But suddenly, her tone changed, as if she was remembering something, and she stepped back. “Have you spoken with my father?”
The King groaned, rolled his eyes skyward. “Aye…”
“Nay, I did not mean that…” the Queen smiled, her eyes laughing. “I was to ask you of Dínendal Edledhronadbar. Shall he dine with us this evening?”
“If you wish it.”
“I do. Many rumors have reached our ears, and father decided many leagues before Minas Tirith that he wished to meet this Dínendal.”
“Very well. I will send Legolas as messenger.”
The Queen laughed lightly, musically. “You hurt his pride.”
“It would do well to see him humbled now and again.”
The King and Queen chuckled, sighed. The King traced his fingers lightly over the Queen’s collarbone. They did not speak, and soon each fell again into a meditative silence.
But the Queen’s expression grew serious eventually, and the children shivered for it. They had never seen such an expression, they had never felt such light from a smile and such absence from it in a furrowed brow.
“My father tends to the Lord Boromir now,” she said quietly.
This sobered the King as well. He exhaled. “Aye…”
“If what you say is true, though… My father cannot mend such wounds.”
“I know,” the King whispered, and his expression darkened. He sighed. “I know, Arwen.”
They stood for several moments, each lost in thought, arms still entwined, when finally the Queen leaned in with a soft sigh, and kissed the King lightly on the cheek. His eyes brightened and he smiled at her, and then they kissed again, this time – and here, Poppy nearly gasped – on the lips. And soon they were kissing only on the lips, and Poppy and Innrod were straining to see, and they saw the King open his mouth lightly, and a tongue and wandering hands and and and…
Innrod and Poppy could not breathe. They simply stared. Yet just when the King and Queen moved to the bed, hand in hand, the Queen’s gaze drifted over their wall and she smiled slightly. She bent close to the King’s ear, whispered something.
He straightened – they could not see his face – but when he turned he was scowling again.
“Spies?” he asked loudly. “My dear, you have perceived spies in the royal chambers?”
“Aye, my love…”
Poppy nearly shrieked, had Innrod not clamped his dirt-covered hand over her mouth. And the two children were now heaving with strained, frightened gasps, trying desperately to keep it quiet. They wanted to move. They wanted to scurry back down the passage. Yet they were each frozen in fear, and could only stare back at the King who was now squinting in the direction of their wall.
Innrod came back to his senses first. He grabbed Poppy by the arm and practically shoved her down the passage, scrambling after her, and so, without any more heed of how much noise they made, without looking back to see if the King was coming after them, ready to bash the wall in with one of his mighty weapons, they fled. Poppy thought she heard that musical laughter again as they struggled away.
Boromir emerged from the healing chambers with a dark scowl. Whatever the Lord Elrond had intended to heal, he had done nothing save force him to answer inane questions and relive moments he spent most of his time struggling to avoid. The elf had done nothing for his physical pains, had done nothing to relieve the numerous aches and stiff joints from which Boromir perpetually suffered. True, the ache in his knees was now reduced to a strange prickling sensation, but Boromir knew that it was only a matter of time before all the usual pains came washing back, acidic.
And so he strode out of the room without a second glance behind him, without seeing whether Elrond had another thing to say. He strode out of the room with the firm intent of returning to his own chambers and finishing off the bottle of brandy sitting on his cabinet. He prayed he would not see Dínendal or Faramir or anyone, for they would surely ask him, concerned, how it went. And he would be forced to lie, and smile, and find whatever excuse he could to flee their presence and close himself off in his chambers. Nay, he desired solitude tonight.
His intentions were forestalled, however, by an unfamiliar hiss.
Boromir stopped, looked around. For a moment, he thought another fit was coming on, and his heart was already beginning to beat loud at the idea. Sweat beading. Short breaths. He looked around. The hallway was empty, save for a guard he had just passed.
At this, Boromir spun around, intent on finding the source of this noise, already fearing there should be none. But thankfully - thankfully - thankfully - so that the thundering in his chest was muted - Boromir saw Iorlas standing guard at the entrance of one of the many antechambers leading to the Great Hall. The young Man was trying to hide a smile, and Boromir could not help but grin at the sight. All polished armor, laughing eyes, barely contained mirth. Iorlas was enviably youthful.
"Young Iorlas," Boromir rumbled, grinning. "I did not know you had guard duty today."
Iorlas cast a quick glance around the hallway before answering. Once sure that they were alone, he met Boromir's eyes and smiled, relaxing.
"Aye, Captain. 'Tis a punishment, I wager. For old Amlaith assigned the posts as my brother attended to other matters. And..." Iorlas was turning red as he attempted to stifle his chuckles. "And the good lord Amlaith has reason to be upset with me."
An anticipatory smile played at Boromir's lips. He crossed his arms. "Oh?"
"Aye..." Iorlas's shoulders shook. "For I may have neglected to mention, but I did dine with his family not two days past, and - and you know how the good lord Amlaith has a very weak stomach?” He sputtered, his voice shaking with merriment, “He cannot tolerate those fierce Haradrim spices…"
Boromir began to smile.
"Let us say that Lord Amlaith is indisposed at the moment." A burst of a chuckle escaped Iorlas's lips. "And will be for several days, I fear!"
Boromir laughed. "Iorlas, you are cruel."
Iorlas gave a small shrug. Once his giggling subsided, he asked, "And from where do you come, my lord?"
Boromir sighed, irritated at being reminded again of his pointless healing, of his residual aches. He jutted his chin in the direction of the healing chambers further down the hall.
"I had a meeting with the elf-lord Elrond."
"Lord Elrond, sir?" Iorlas asked, his eyes widening with curiosity.
"Aye..." Boromir shifted his weight. "'Twas time wasted." He gave a twisted smile, threw up a hand self-consciously. "Bah! I was to drink away the very memory of it."
"Ah, well!” Iorlas brightened further. “If you should desire to drink away any and all memories, my lord, Ragnor, Eomund, my brother and I were to take an evening of revelry tonight."
Boromir chuckled. "Does the Guard do no work?"
"Not past sundown, sir. Night duty is thrust upon the young and innocent, as is just and traditional, for they would not know how to use their spare evenings," Iorlas half-grinned, cocked his head to one side. "And I would say we have earned it."
"Come, join us, Captain. We were to meet at the south doors an hour after sundown."
"The south doors to the sixth level?"
"Aye, my lord."
Boromir’s grin faded, hesitating.
"Come, Captain, we have not all gone out together since the King's Eve!" Iorlas insisted.
"Aye..." Boromir rubbed his beard thoughtfully. Valar, he wanted to.
"You cannot avoid it, sir. I have made the decision for you!” Iorlas clopped his heels, bowed formally. “And so with thy leave, my most noble liege-lord, I shall inform the others of your attendance, and I would request that you arrive promptly at an hour past sundown."
Boromir resigned himself with a laugh. "Very well, young Iorlas, very well. You have convinced me..."
His palms were sweaty. Over and over, Innrod wiped his clammy hands against his breeches and jacket, and yet never would they dry. At every minute sound, he would twitch, startled. And the drone, that horrible drone in his mind, it had continued since this morning: Stupid Innrod, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid Innrod!
The King. The King had seen him. The King and the Queen had seen Innrod and Poppy. They knew of the secret passage. They knew Innrod and Poppy had been eavesdropping on them. They knew Innrod and Poppy had been in the secret passage. No one was supposed to be in the secret passage. Ever. It was only a matter of time before those fierce, burly guards came for Innrod and dragged him away, kicking and screaming, into the dungeons. And then he would rot there, and they would torment him and ask him who was with him, but he would not tell them. No, he would protect little Poppy. For she was just a young lass, and Innrod knew it was his duty to protect her, whatever happened.
But Innrod could not help envisioning that rainy afternoon when the guards would drag him out of the cell and out into the courtyard by the dungeons where they held executions. And that rusted axe, hacking down into his neck, so that his bones would shatter - just like his older brother always enjoyed describing in gory detail - and all the blood and and and...
Innrod jumped back with a startled yelp. When he turned, he saw Rúnyafin approaching. The old chamberlain was looking at him strangely, his head cocked to one side as he walked down the wide, carpeted corridor.
"Why do you tremble, boy?” Rúnyafin asked as he approached. “You have the look of a guilty mouse. Have you done something wrong?”
"N - no, my lord - sir - my lord, Rúnyafin, sir."
Rúnyafin continued to study him, brow knit. "Well... no matter. Whatever you have done, I am certain you shall eventually be caught.”
"However, I have a task for you.” Rúnyafin adjusted his tight, high collar. “What business did you have for now?”
"I - I was t - to the - the stables, my lord." Innrod wiped his hands against his doublet again. He could feel his ears burning.
"Well, you must go to his Lordship's quarters instead. The cleaning woman says 'tis impossible to remove the stain from the carpet, and so I want you to roll it up and take it down to the storeroom. We'll need to replace it."
"Aye - aye, my lord," Innrod nodded fervently. "W - which carpet, my lord?"
Rúnyafin clucked his tongue. "Daft boy, there's only one carpet in the main chambers!"
"Oh, I had - I had not noticed..."
"That is clear enough,” Rúnyafin rolled his eyes. He took Innrod by the shoulder, turned him around and pointed him in the opposite direction. “Off you go, Innrod. Gregor in the storeroom says he will help you carry it down."
Innrod nodded, adjusted his cap, and was about to go striding back down the hallway when Rúnyafin called after him.
"Ah yes, and do be careful, Innrod!" Rúnyafin moaned. "His Lordship is already suitably inebriated as to cause concern. Remember that the guards are ever within calling distance."
"Aye, my lord. Of course, my lord."
Innrod nearly smiled when he said it. As if his Lordship should worry him! If Rúnyafin knew nothing of Innrod's crime today, then all was well indeed! The threat of being hacked to death by a raging lunatic paled in comparison to a life in the dungeons. And, further on the plus side, Innrod was quite fond of Lord Boromir. He did not truly fear the Man.
So once Rúnyafin was out of sight and around the corner, Innrod smiled to himself. His heart was still beating louder than he would have preferred, and his hands were still tingling with sweat, but if, by dusk, he was not yet condemned, then perhaps there was hope for him yet. Perhaps, at least, he could live as a free Man for one more night.
As he walked down the long corridor, taking the shortcut over a narrow flight of stairs which led to the northeast wing and then down again to the level of Boromir's chambers, Innrod's mind buzzed with plans and strategies. The best thing to do now would be escape. If he could find a way to steal a horse from the stables, he could go barreling out of the Citadel and out of Minas Tirith forever. Perhaps he could live as a goatherd in the Ered Nimrais, like in that story he had once heard. Or perhaps he could slip into one of the many hidden rooms and passages he knew of - certainly not the secret Steward's Way he had used this morning, but there were many others Innrod had yet to explore - and escape through there, scaling down the Citadel walls and out onto the city parapets.
Absent-mindedly, still musing over the image of him scaling down the rugged walls of the sixth circle, with Mount Mindolluin looming over him, Innrod arrived before the familiar oak-paneled doors and knocked. He was still formulating his escape plans - what about Poppy? He needed to warn her; maybe he could take her with him; perhaps she could cook his meals and wash his clothes… - when a gruff reply came from within.
Innrod snapped back to attention, enough to realize that he had forgotten to get Gregor from the storeroom to help him with the carpet. He sighed in irritation – too late now – and pushed open the doors.
The room was poorly lit. One of the lamps had gone out, and it seemed Lord Boromir, or whatever servant had last been here, had neglected to light it. Instead, his Lordship was standing over his case of arms, swaying. He held a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other, and seemed to be gazing at the inscription on a particular sword. The red glow of sunset poured in from the tall windows, yet it was still quite dim to Innrod's eyes.
Once Boromir turned and saw Innrod however, he smiled broadly.
"Ah, young Innrod." Slurred. Innrod cast a quick glance at the bottle Boromir held and saw that it was nearly empty.
"Good evening, my lord."
Boromir backed away from the case, staggered to the nearby divan and plopped down. He began to pour himself, rather unsteadily, another drink. "Well, come in, come in. What news, Innrod? How are you?"
Innrod took a few steps into the room. He glanced around the carpet, trying to find the stain, but it was getting too dark to see properly. He did see, however, that the carpet was spread out under the divan which Boromir now sat at, the low table, and part of the bed. Innrod groaned inwardly at the task at hand.
"I am well, my lord," he said. "I was sent by Master Rúnyafin to retrieve the carpet, my lord."
Boromir blinked, took a long swallow from his glass. He looked around. "Why?"
"He says I am to change it, my lord."
"Aye, my lord."
"But 'tis too big. I doubt a lad your size could carry it alone."
"Aye, my lord. Indeed, I was to call Gregor of the storeroom now, ere I came, but I – I forgot, my lord."
Boromir chuckled softly. He leaned back in the divan, stretched his long legs out. Cradling the glass close, he watched Innrod with a grin.
"Innrod, how old are you?"
Innrod raised his eyebrows. He was not expecting that.
"Thirteen, my lord."
"Thirteen…” Boromir drank. “I was just learning the blade at your age."
"Oh… I did not know, my lord."
"Do you take any lessons in sword fighting? Archery?"
"Nay, my lord."
"Nay, nay, of course not.” Boromir finished his brandy, winced slightly. He considered the glass for a moment before looking at Innrod. “Would you like to?"
Innrod shrugged. "I suppose so." He had never really thought about it.
"Good, then I shall find one of the Guard to teach you."
Innrod stared, stunned. This day was becoming stranger and stranger.
"What, my lord?" he could not help asking.
But Boromir was instead moving to stand. Innrod hurried forth to help him up and nearly stumbled over the table as Boromir got to his feet. The large Man slung his arm around Innrod's bony shoulders, leaning hard. He would not fully straighten his knees, and Innrod nearly cried out at the death grip Boromir was giving his shoulder.
With a scowl, Boromir hissed, "Wretched knees... Innrod, get the bottle."
"Aye, my lord." He leaned over and grabbed the square bottle from the low table. Boromir snatched it from him, drank deeply. He groaned with relief, released some of his vicious hold on Innrod’s shoulder. "Damn these knees...” He chuckled softly, wobbling. “I shattered them with the Easterlings, lad, did you know that?"
Boromir pulled slightly at Innrod's shoulder, urging him forward, and the two went stumbling out of the room. Innrod had no idea where they were going, but he knew better than to ask. As long as it was not to the King or the dungeons, then he could relax. As long as he could avoid rolling up that enormous carpet, even better.
And Boromir, instead, seemed intent on rambling away about these Easterlings, every so often taking a swig from his bottle. Innrod tried to listen, though in truth he spent most of the time just trying to manage the heavier Man's weight, so that they did not knock against the walls or go clattering up against an old suit of armor.
"...a hundred meters, I know not. Nay, nay, a hundred and fifty, at least. For I did count the seconds - the seconds it took for that savage to hit the water - and it were..." Boromir belched. Innrod gagged, turned his face away. "...It were a full minute ere he hit the water."
Once Boromir was occupied with drinking, Innrod cleared his throat, tried to adjust the Man's heavy arm against his shoulder. "My - my lord, where are we going, exactly?"
"To the south doors, lad."
That was a good enough response. Innrod, however, thought it wise to mention: "My lord... I do not think I know where the south doors are."
"Straight ahead, lad. Straight ahead and then down the - ai, no, no," Boromir hissed. "Nay, let us avoid the stairs." He furrowed his brow. "Ah... take the first corner, Innrod. Left."
Innrod obliged, and soon they were walking diagonally - no matter how much Innrod tried to keep them straight - down a narrow corridor with tapestries on every side. Innrod had never seen this hall before, and so he could not help but cast quick, curious glances at the designs. Boromir’s rather large arm against his neck impeded him from being able to look up fully, but he managed to catch quick glimpses anyway. The tapestries. Men in armor and chain mail. Men charging. A dragon. A map. A castle on fire. A great wave.
They turned another corner. Boromir finished his bottle and handed it to Innrod absently. Before Innrod could argue, however, and try to give it back to his Lordship, he saw an uncomfortably familiar figure coming down the hall towards them. Rúnyafin. The elderly servant glanced with wide eyes at the bottle, at Innrod, and then at Boromir. Innrod cringed. Surely they did not make a good sight - stumbling down the corridors, Innrod waving an empty brandy bottle around, Boromir slurring his words.
Yet Rúnyafin only gaped for a few moments - demanding silent explanations from Innrod with his eyes - before finally bowing low as Boromir approached. "My lord."
"Ah, Rúnyafin," Boromir grunted. "Rúnyafin - see to the carpet, will you? I will be in the city this evening, Innrod has agreed to review a local tavern with the Guard and I. But the carpet…” Boromir swayed, nearly swaying into Rúnyafin, causing Innrod to take a few clumsy steps. “I expect it changed ere I return, Rúnyafin."
Innrod's jaw dropped. Rúnyafin seemed equally shocked. Yet he closed his own mouth with a snap and nodded strangely. "Aye - aye, my lord. Of course, my lord."
Boromir smiled. He gave Rúnyafin’s cheek a small slap. "Good Man."
And soon they were around another bend, and Rúnyafin was gone. Innrod was practically beaming with delight. He looked up at Boromir, smiling broadly.
"But - but, my lord, I was to - " He could not finish it, and so he simply smiled again, awestruck.
"Not tonight. Tonight you drink with the Guard, my lad."
"The Guard?" Innrod's heart did a small flip. Surely this could not be happening. Was this a trap? Had the King instructed Boromir in feigning drunkenness in order to lure Innrod away from the chambers - where, indeed, there was an entrance to a secret passage, to a possible escape - and into the Citadel Guard's clutches?
Yet when Innrod looked up at Boromir, and saw the older Man's glistening eyes, warm with laughter, he calmed somewhat. Nay, Lord Boromir would never betray him. They were friends, after all.
And so they reached the south doors, two slim doors which led out onto the balconies and, after a short, steep stairway, down onto the sixth circle by the stables. Outside, the lanterns were already lit, casting everything in a soft glow. And with the warm, summer wind, and the sky above him deepening to a dark blue, Innrod smiled, took a deep breath of fresh air.
He saw three Men waiting for them at the bottom on the stairs. They wore no armor - Innrod heaved a sigh of relief - though they were all large and strongly built - making Innrod feel small and gangly. The first Man, with curly, dark hair and a very wide smile, called forth.
"Finally the Captain arrives, and he is late!"
Beside him, a ginger-haired man with clear, blue eyes was smoking a pipe. He exhaled a puff of smoke, jutted his pipe in Innrod's direction.
"Who do you bring, Captain?" the red-haired Man called.
Boromir was clambering down the stairs, one hand against the railing and another against his stomach, scowling at the pain. He grunted.
"This is young Innrod - " Boromir staggered the last few steps, and the third Man, a tall, blond sort, caught him. "He's the son of an attendant of mine." He straightened, looked down at Innrod who had just descended the stairs after him. "Here, Innrod. Meet the Guard. This is Iorlas, Ragnor and Eomund."
Each Man smiled and nodded, and Innrod grinned awkwardly in return. He was still feeling rather short at the moment. The tallest he could manage was arriving a little past Boromir's shoulder - and that was only because Boromir was the shortest of the Men present, and he was currently half-hunched over in pain.
A warm, soft wind blew by.
"Well, I see Captain's already begun his own private revelry," Ragnor joked with pipe in mouth.
"Ah, leave off, Ragnor..." Boromir grumbled.
"Where to, gentlemen?" Iorlas asked, beaming. He smiled down at Innrod. "Is this your first time out in the taverns, young Innrod?"
"Aye, my lord," Innrod nodded.
"Let us to The Rose Garden," Eomund suggested. "'They have pints for less every Orgaladh."
"Nay, nay," Boromir muttered. "Not The Rose Garden. Ana is angry with me..."
Iorlas laughed, clapped Boromir on the shoulder. "Where shall we go then, Captain?"
"So long as it is not The Skulking Squire," Eomund said. "I am indebted to the innkeeper there."
“The Tree and Tower?” Iorlas put in.
Everyone groaned at that.
"The Laughing Oliphaunt?" Ragnor suggested.
"Aye, so be it," Boromir nodded.
Innrod had watched this entire exchange with wide eyes, not knowing or understanding what any of these names meant, but eventually, once the decision was made, they all turned and began to walk down the sixth circle towards the gate leading to the fifth. Innrod followed, trailing after them, taking extra-long strides in order to keep up with them. He stayed at Boromir's elbow most of the time, leaning forward and listening to the other Men banter and talk and laugh, every so often smiling if he understood a joke.
They walked down the fifth circle - all was becoming dark, and the lanterns were being lit, and Innrod could hear the harsh boom of Men's laughter coming from the open windows - down, down, down - Innrod had never seen more than fleeting glimpses of this circle - until they reached the fourth circle. And here Innrod marveled at all the stores and shops, and the smell of leather coming from the shoemakers, and the young merchants standing under their awnings, smoking and talking. Innrod caught sight of a few grubby children dodging into alleys, and he swelled with pride at being seen with Boromir and the Guard. He was quickly forgetting his early morning crime.
They took a thin alleyway, where all was dark and the air was stale. Innrod walked with the very tall Eomund in front of him, who spoke with Ragnor, and Boromir behind him. The two Men in front stopped abruptly, so that Innrod ran face first into Eomund’s back. And he felt then a large hand clamp down on a shoulder and pull him away slightly. It was Boromir’s.
Ragnor held his pipe in one hand and the door with the other. He pulled it open, stepped aside to let the others pass.
"Aye, nice and quiet tonight," he remarked.
They entered. If this was quiet, Innrod wanted to know what was considered loud. Almost every table was full. The room was thick with heavy smoke, so that Innrod's eyes watered and he blinked. A loud buzz of conversation. Innrod saw huge, burly Men seated at the tables, drinking from impossibly large steins. A weary-looking barmaid threaded her way through all these tables, sometimes carrying five or six full glasses on her tray.
Innrod was squeezed in with this group of Men - pressed in between all these tall soldiers - with Eomund in front of him, Ragnor to the side, and Boromir's almost paternal grip on his shoulder from behind. They found a table in the corner. Innrod took the seat wedged in the corner, with Boromir on his left and Eomund on his right. Iorlas sat opposite him, and Ragnor, meanwhile, remained standing, holding his hand up to beckon the barmaid over.
Innrod must have had a particularly awestruck expression on his face, for when Boromir glanced down at him, he chuckled.
"You have never been in a tavern before?" Boromir rumbled, grinning.
"Nay, my lord."
The barmaid arrived. They all ordered dark ale, and Eomund ordered one for Innrod as well. When she disappeared, and Ragnor and Iorlas fell into conversation, Innrod stole a glance at Boromir. The Man was seated, legs stretched out, arms crossed, staring at some indistinct point on the table. Innrod looked around, studied the others - the easy smiles of Iorlas, the faint scar trailing over Ragnor's temple - when Eomund shifted at his elbow.
"You work in the Citadel, young Innrod?" the tall Man asked.
"Aye, my lord. I am an attendant in Lord Boromir's chambers."
Eomund made a neutral sound.
The drinks arrived. Five tall mugs were placed heavily on the table. Innrod loomed over his drink, staring into the dark, murky depths, seeing the foam cling to the mug’s sides. The others were watching him expectantly, and they smiled when he looked up. Ragnor raised his mug.
"To the King and Queen," he said.
The others murmured their toasts, with Innrod mumbling along, and then all four Men drank. Innrod saw Boromir and Ragnor finish theirs entirely, while Iorlas and Eomund drank nearly half. Innrod had not touched his. Once Ragnor had belched slightly, took a puff from his pipe, he smiled and motioned to Innrod.
"Go on, lad. 'Tis a fine brew."
And so Innrod grasped the mug with both hands, tilted, sipped. Cool, crisp, bitter. He made a face, causing the others to laugh.
"First ale, eh?"
"Ha! I fear it's not to his liking."
"'Tis quite bitter," Innrod admitted.
"Ah, you won't notice after the first two or three," Ragnor chuckled. "Go on, lad, take a long swallow. This is the finest brew in the fourth circle."
And so Innrod drank deeply, eager to see if the taste changed after more than half of the mug. And he leaned back in his chair, unconsciously imitating the other Men's confident slouch, listening to them talk or watching the tavern's activity. Ragnor beckoned the barmaid over again, and they ordered a second round, though Boromir also requested a bottle of the King's Brandy.
After a while, Innrod began to feel light-headed. His limbs felt strange, loose and numb, as if he were some limp puppet without strings. His face felt warm, and he noticed that he would laugh more easily at whatever was being said. When someone - Eomund - asked him of his parents, Innrod candidly admitted that he knew nothing of his father - and while his mother oft told him it was because he died in the War - Innrod was beginning to suspect that maybe she simply did not know who the father was. The Men grumbled and offered their sympathies, but Innrod, feeling suddenly very adult, shook it off with a shrug and another gulp of ale.
Time passed. After his second mug, Innrod felt positively abuzz. Everything had gone blurry - with the candles and the lamps glowing soft and warm - and he was beginning to feel tired. The other Men were still talking loudly - telling some vulgar tale which Innrod could not entirely comprehend, laughing about someone named Amlaith who was apparently ill - while Boromir slowly finished his bottle of King's Brandy.
Hours. Things rocked to and fro, as if the room was tilting with the wind. And eventually, through the haze, Innrod realized that Boromir was talking to him, had been talking to him for who knows how long. But Innrod was beginning to feel strange, the gentle buzz was turning to a clumsier state, and his stomach was beginning to churn and clench, so that, in his own discomfort, he had not noticed Boromir was mumbling to him. But he turned, and Boromir was there, leaning forward, staring at the table, arms crossed, speaking softly:
"...fear. I know, I know, 'tis cowardly. And was I not raised in times of War, from a line of brave and doughty Men? And yet... And yet... Nay, you could not understand, lad. 'Tis impossible... But these Men here, aye, they fought with me, fought for me, and now they have found peace. True peace. But I... all my life, all my life I had lived for War. And now it is all finished... and look at me, these useless limbs..." Boromir snorted, covered his eyes with a quaking hand. "Useless. I can do nothing... Nothing. Nothing but hear that poor, wretched soul, over and over again." His voice shook, whispering, "Ai, me. You wouldn't know, Innrod, dear lad, you couldn't know... You are fortunate. But that poor soul, he was a good friend, and he did not deserve it... Nay, he did not deserve it. Ai, no, I did... not he... 'tis all my fault. And now I have his death on my soul..."
Innrod wanted to listen. He did. He still had sense enough to perceive Lord Boromir's wavering voice and glistening eyes, and he knew that, whatever his Lordship was talking about, he needed someone to listen right now.
But Innrod's stomach hurt. And the room was spinning, and he was beginning to feel sick and sweaty at the same time. Just looking at the half-full mug made him nauseous. And so he concentrated on Boromir's words first, tried to listen, tried to make sense of what the older Man was saying. But as much as Innrod leaned forward, keeping his elbows wide, trying to steady himself and hold himself upright, he could not focus. And so once he was sure that something bad was going to happen, and Boromir had paused to swallow his brandy, Innrod pulled at the man's jacket.
"My lord... I... my lord, I do not feel well."
Boromir set down his glass, wiped his eyes quickly, looked at Innrod. "Aye?"
Innrod nodded miserably.
Boromir turned to the three Men still deep in conversation. He interrupted them: "Ragnor. The lad's going to be sick. Help him outside."
Ragnor looked up, nodded, stuffed his pipe back into his doublet's pocket and stood. And before Innrod knew what was going on, he was being hauled up out of his seat and led stumbling out of the tavern.
Outside. The air had cooled. While Ragnor kept a strong hand on Innrod's shoulder, they went walking quickly down the alley until they reached a small niche. Further on, a dead end. There were no lanterns nearby, and, as dizzy as he was, Innrod could see very little. But Ragnor pulled at his shoulder, stopped him, placed a comforting hand on the back of his neck.
"Alright, lad, how do ye feel?"
Innrod could detect a slightly Rohirric lilt in the Man's slurred voice now. Something he had not noticed before. It made sense, he thought numbly, since Ragnor was a Rohirric name…
Innrod leaned against the wall. "I feel ill."
Ragnor smiled, ruffled the boy's hair softly. "Ah, that's not a surprise. Why, when I had my first ale, they had to carry me home. And you had three!"
Innrod smiled weakly, feeling a small glimmer of pride to hear this. He pushed the hair out of his eyes. "Verily?"
"Aye," Ragnor leaned his shoulder against the wall, facing Innrod. "And that was light ale. Dark ale's much stronger."
And just as Innrod was about to laugh, he began to feel a creeping tide, and, panicking, he doubled over to be sick. Ragnor was instantly at his side, keeping a hand against his back, murmuring soft encouragement. But Innrod did not retch. He spat, and he coughed, and he heaved, but nothing came. Eventually the wretched feeling passed, and he backed away, leaning hard against the opposite wall.
A few moments passed, and he felt the nausea fade. After waiting a little more, just enough to be sure, he wiped again at his clammy brow.
"I don't think I'm going to be sick," he said hoarsely.
"Well, come on, lad," Ragnor guided him away from the niche and back towards the brighter part of the alley. "Have a seat. If it comes, it'll come. Either way, a bit of fresh air'll clear your head."
They walked back towards the tavern and, a few paces from the entrance, sat on a wide ledge where some potted plants were being kept. The smell of soil and ceramic - the cool breeze which lifted away some of the alley’s dankness - Innrod felt somewhat better indeed. Ragnor, in a show of consideration, refrained from smoking, since the smell would not have been pleasant to one in Innrod’s state. And so they sat, quietly, both leaning back against the uneven wall.
Now that Innrod felt somewhat calmer, somewhat better, he could not help but think of what Lord Boromir had been telling him in the tavern. It had left him with a strange dreary feeling - a sort of detached sadness. But he did not know why. In truth, he did not understand. And he had not heard everything Boromir had said.
"Ragnor?" Innrod began, feeling more forward than usual.
"I think Lord Boromir drinks more than is healthy. He had already finished one bottle before we came."
Ragnor sighed, ran a hand over his face wearily. "Aye, that is no surprise... I've heard rumors as well. Vile things."
Innrod nodded, suddenly feeling a pang of guilt for this morning. Not for being discovered in the secret tunnel - nay, that had become almost trivial - but rather for delighting in showing off his Lordship as Boromir the Mad to little Poppy. Innrod scowled, angry with himself. Stupid Innrod! He told himself sternly that he would make amends. He would go to Poppy tomorrow and tell her to forget everything he had said the last morning. And the next time Lord Boromir wished to speak candidly, Innrod would drink no ale and would listen as closely as possible. And then he would offer whatever advice he could think of, whatever measure of help he could give.
"He has changed much..." Ragnor murmured. "Aye, you did not know him ere the War, but he was - different.” He sighed. “'Be content' they say. Be content that he has returned to us at all. Be content that he lives, and that he is not so ruined as to not know himself or his old companions." He gave a bitter smirk. "Ah… but there is little to 'be content' with. He is not the same Man who led us in Osgiliath…"
In that moment, almost as if speaking of him should summon him, Boromir came reeling out of The Laughing Oliphaunt, his face pale and damp with sweat. Both Ragnor and Innrod stood, and Ragnor quickly took Boromir by the elbow.
But Boromir looked down and, seeing Innrod, shook his head, stumbled back. His voice was thick. "Nay, nay. Go inside, Innrod. The lad shouldn't - shouldn't see this..."
Ragnor understood immediately and pulled Boromir down along the alley. Yet they did not get far - for not ten paces off, Boromir stumbled, fell to hands and knees and vomited painfully.
Innrod sat on the ledge, drew his knees up, looked away, felt his ears burning. Once the sound stopped, and he glanced over, just enough to see Ragnor pulling Boromir up, while both went stumbling clumsily to the side, collapsing back onto the ground, Innrod looked away again. And waited.
And then he heard a strangled voice… shaking, high-pitched, and another voice, whispering, soothing, calming. And when Innrod looked again, he saw Ragnor kneeling beside Boromir, trying to pull him back to his feet, while the latter had fallen forward onto his hands, his face nearly touching the cobblestones, his shoulders shaking. Weeping.
And Iorlas and Eomund emerged from The Laughing Oliphaunt in that moment, both chuckling about something. Eomund strode into the alley and, before seeing the others, teased loudly, "You treacherous curs! Left me to pay the bill, once again!"
Yet once Eomund and Iorlas saw what was happening, saw Boromir with head in hands, on the ground, sobbing audibly now, they rushed forward, hastening past the seated Innrod, and quickly helped Ragnor in pulling Boromir to his feet. Yet the Man continued to weep, his chest caving in, pulling vainly away from all of them. Innrod watched now, frozen. He saw Eomund cup Boromir's face in both hands, whispering to him urgently, intently. And at this, Boromir seemed to hush for a moment, listening, before dissolving again into shaking sobs and pulling Eomund into an embrace. And someone placed a hand on Boromir’s crown, and someone else gripped his shoulder, and he wept into Eomund’s shoulder, shuddering, clutching the taller Man's doublet, the fabric muffling his sobs.
And Innrod could hear snatches of talk:
"...rests now. He would not have wanted you..."
"...died as a soldier, ai, and not this, not this..."
"...do not say such things, Boromir..."
"...e'er our brother, I swear, nothing has changed, nothing will change..."
Darkness. Innrod did not know what time he finally returned to his quarters deep in the lower floors of the Citadel. But his home was dark, and he walked quietly across the creaking floorboards, tiptoeing. Feeling his heart heavy. Dazed and saddened and tired.
He stopped. Dead silence. A shadow.
"Innrod, what time is it?"
"Forgive me, Ma. I know not."
"Where were you?"
"Lord Boromir took me to meet the Guard."
"What's that smell? Have you been drinking?"
"Nay, Ma. They were drinking, but not I."
"Well, get ye to bed, Innrod. It's late."
"Aye, Ma. Good night, Ma."