"There is a riddle perplexing me," said Denethor without looking up from the parchment in his hand, "The second set of footprints that leads away from the guard-post: to whom do they belong?"
"Hirgon, my lord," Boromir answered. "He returned from an errand early this morning. He brought me a flask of the hot wine that he'd prepared for his own restoration after his journey."
"Hirgon, Hirgon …" Denethor ran a finger under a line of text in the manuscript. He still did not look up. "Hirgon?" A note of inquiry crept into his voice. He liked to feign forgetfulness of the names of those who served him. At least, Boromir assumed it was feigned, given the prodigious quantities of lore that his father had memorized over the years and could recount without flaw. "If you had to recall the knowledge and bear the cares that I do," he'd said once, pressed by Boromir about his habitual negligence, "you might also find niceties nudged aside by necessities," as though the lore that constituted his wisdom were a big-elbowed bully supplanting mere and feeble courtesy in the mess line.
"Hirgon is your newest errand-rider, the son of the swordmaster." Boromir kept his voice even.
But not even enough, it seemed, for the keen ear of his father. Denethor looked up at last from the manuscript with a gaze as razored as the arm-long icicles growing from the eaves, a gaze known for cutting away the flesh over a man's heart. But Boromir was not without skill of his own. "You would be pleased with him," he said in the same even tone. "He is progressing nicely. I expect he may become one of your most trusted men."
It would serve you well to recall his name.
"Take care, my son" was all the reply Denethor gave.
For two days the snow persisted. Boromir checked the errand-riders' list and saw that Hirgon was due to return that day, calculated the anticipated delay because of the weather, and as the time neared, went to relieve the man on watch in the guard-house at the fifth circle where the road climbed to the stables and the errand-riders' quarters.
Watches had been doubled because of the weather and the fear that the Dark Lord might be using it as cover to come forth and attack the city. Boromir found the man--one of his father's younger guards, wed within the last year and newly a father--shivering in the guard-house as he squinted into the swirling snow. He was grateful to return home to his wife and baby, his warm bed and roaring fire. He clasped Boromir's hands twice in thanks and traipsed back a third time to bestow a blessing upon him that he'd composed himself and wanted to voice before forgetting. Boromir accepted it with the warm sincerity his men had come to expect--and learned to love--from him.
The wind and freshly fallen snow had erased both of their tracks by the time the thin wooden door to the road banged open and admitted an eddy of snow, a blast of icy air, and Hirgon. "The men are already trumpeting the seemingly boundless kindness and generosity of Boromir, son of Denethor," said Hirgon, bowing low, "sending home a lowly guard to his wife and newborn. The bards are being called; the songs already being composed. Mayhap they would follow you even to Mordor, my lord. In the songs if nothing else."
Hirgon had always been a sharp-tongued youth, and familiarity only honed his inherently sarcastic nature near to the point of mockery. Boromir's heart squeezed--with what? Hirgon's audacity? His own complicity in accepting it? Or the truth behind it? Or the flush rising to the young man's face, visible even in the meager lamplight; the suggestion of his thin, hard body beneath the green cloak?
"Come in and shut the door if you mean to stay" was all Boromir dared to reply, despite the fact that Hirgon was already trying to shove the door shut upon the drift of snow that had spilled inside.
"What would they say if they knew," he said as he kicked at the snow, "the true reason for your generosity tonight?"
"The songs would be decidedly different. How was your journey?"
"Bitter," Hirgon replied. From beneath his cloak came a skin of wine, the steam rising off it; two wooden cups; a glimpse of the thin, hard body--
"But the message was delivered?"
He had learned it from his father: the recourse to duty in the place of emotion. His celebrated generosity and sincerity to his men was fabricated in imitation of the heroic songs for which he'd had an insatiable appetite in his youth. It, too, was a decoy for emotion. When one of his men fell, he completed the necessary rituals and courtesies while his father sat on his high chair in the White Tower, but he never wept, he never grieved. There were many things he'd never allowed himself to feel. He downed the proffered wine quickly. The snow wrapped the guard-house in near-obscurity; none would dare the streets tonight. This sort of openness was never afforded them otherwise.
Hirgon poured more wine and peeled away his gloves. His hands were warm. It was not the first time they'd slipped beneath cloak, beneath layers of tunics like that but never before within the walls of Gondor, only in the wild, outside the city, where such meetings occurred, unspoken, with more regularity than anyone would admit, driven by the need brought about by lengthy missions away from home. Never before with his father slumbering in the halls just overhead, where the man Boromir had dismissed was probably just now lying down beside his wife, where a faint, comfortable whiff of woodsmoke carried up from the nestled houses below: never before like home, like love, like the many things he'd never allowed himself to feel.
When the darkness paled to gray, Hirgon slipped away. Bell-toll, and a bleary-eyed guard gave a surprised salute to the captain he had not expected to relieve at his post. When only a short while later, dawn allowed enough night for the sharp eyes of Denethor--the tale of his firstborn son's generosity already in his ears as though carried there by dreams--to discern the road beneath the Citadel, two sets of tracks led away from the guard-house.
Boromir paced while his brother read the letter. Outside the window, the snow had all but receded, remaining only in stubborn patches in the shadows beneath houses and trees. A few birds offered hesitant chirps, as though mistrustful of the warm breeze ruffling their feathers. The blossoms that had emerged in time for the first snowy days of Víressë hung brown and blighted upon their branches. Unopened buds remained shut tight, as though keeping secrets. The Steward's horticulturalists buzzed in the place of bees around the trees in the Citadel, assessing the damage and trying to formulate words not entirely devoid of hope but unlikely to get them reprimanded or dismissed if the trees did in fact prove irrevocably damaged.
"What do you think of it?" he asked.
Faramir glanced up. "I am not finished yet," he said mildly.
Faramir shared their father's inclinations toward lore and normally read quickly, and Boromir wondered what took him so long this time. Was the letter worthy of being savored? Or so awful that he was even having trouble making it through?
"Is it awful?" he asked.
"I am not finished yet," Faramir repeated.
Boromir caught himself biting his nails. He stuffed his hands behind his back and resumed pacing. He was not light-footed, but Faramir did not complain; he had their father's ability to sink into a text and forget the world without. His eyes crawled evenly back and forth across the lines of the letter, his face betraying no emotion. At last, he sat back with just his fingertips upon the parchment.
"It is not awful. Some of your metaphors are … awkward."
"Sometimes awkward, sometimes cliché. They could be improved, in any case. I can help you with that."
"I am not--it's just--I don't--"
"You are better at this than I am."
"You have just never had the occasion. Until now."
Boromir had turned forty this year, and for all of those years, he had remained not only unmarried but unmoved by love. When he was seventeen, he'd been briefly betrothed to the accomplished and beautiful daughter of one of the wealthy merchants of the city. It had been one of those glacial political matches motivated primarily by her father's considerable fortune and Denethor's growing dread of the Dark Lord's lengthening shadow. She played soulless tunes on her harp for Boromir under the unwavering gaze of her chaperone, he dedicated bouts with the sword to her, and they danced at arm's length at the feast held in honor of their betrothal while he stared at her forehead to avoid the awkward truth that she was looking out the window most of the time. Within three months, she was dead of pneumonia.
Still sorrowing over the death of Finduilas, Denethor projected more grief onto his eldest son than Boromir actually felt. Boromir stopped short of saying that he was relieved by his betrothed's untimely death--as all young lords do, he'd visited the women of the secret streets in the lowest circle of the city and knew he would be able to perform his husband's duty, love or no--but the rituals of mourning he observed came from the force of habit rather than any emotion actually felt. When his mother had died, the dark clothing and somber observances had served as a bulwark, keeping away those who would press upon him too hard in his grief, but this time, he found himself bored and using the time for solitary practice with his sword or studying the accounts of ancient battles that his schoolmaster had collected for him. But he kept to the rigorous observances, carrying them on even a little longer than required, and if Denethor saw the truth in his son's heart, he did not let on. Marriage was never mentioned again, by father nor son.
But as last year's summer had waned, his father had hosted a lady of Dol Amroth and her youngest daughter Lalaith. Nineteen at the time, she was spritely and given to wearing bright colors, the sort of woman who became the centerpiece of the room without even trying. She was athletic--an accomplished dancer but just as likely to be caught riding out fast with the first light of morning--and even once (or so rumor had it) took a few not-entirely-unschooled passes with a sword at a lord's son. All of the sons of lords of the royal court had her name on their lips throughout the autumn after her departure, until the dour, bitter winter seemed to quash even the memory of her. Boromir hadn't heard her name mentioned since. He'd forgotten her himself. But since the snowfall and the long-overdue arrival of spring, Boromir--who had laughed with not a little scorn at the younger lords' affection for the radiant Lalaith--endured recurring thought of her at several unexpected moments: enough time to convince himself that he might at last be in love. He had seen enough of others in love--Faramir, in particular, was prone to infatuations with entirely unsuitable young women--to know the course one should follow, and he'd resolved himself on a sudden this morning to following it. He'd penned a letter--which Faramir was now revising for him--that made what he hoped were subtle overtures and flattering comparisons between her and the coming spring--never mind the blossoms sagging fetid and brown upon the trees. She was at the age when her mother would be trying to make a marriage for her, and she could hope for no better match than the heir of the Steward of Gondor. The mother would say yes--Boromir knew that--but he also wanted Lalaith to want her to say yes.
Faramir handed the letter back to him, corrections made. "Should I rewrite it myself," Boromir asked, "or have one of the scribes do it?"
"Write it yourself. It will be more sincere, more meaningful that way."
Boromir called over his shoulder for a servant, dipped his pen, and began to carefully rewrite the letter in his tidy script. He heard the servant arrive and didn't look up as he said, "Send to the errand-riders' quarters. Have them ready Hirgon."
Hirgon had been Boromir's brother's project in their youth. Born just two years after Faramir, Hirgon was the youngest child of the swordmaster, having arrived after both his parents were gone gray and their other children were grown. He came without expectations or a sense of place, the swordmaster having sons enough already trained to replace him, and was given to mischief in the streets when Faramir coaxed him into a friendship with the promise of teaching him to read and write, enticing because it was discouraged, if not forbidden, for one of his place to become literate. As Faramir approached manhood and became increasingly devoted to romance and to lore, Hirgon took to the heels of Boromir instead, already a man by that time with his betrothed long in the ground. Boromir had little need for Hirgon's company but, like Faramir, pitied the youth and so suffered his company. Boromir's lack of interest in women and romance, his bluster and his conspicuous bravery, his physicality made him a paragon to the young, neglected son of the swordmaster. With the fervor of adolescence, Hirgon liked to forswear any attachment to women or the soft arts or to tender emotions. Boromir ignored this; he knew the lad's extremity would moderate itself with time.
It was Faramir who recommended Hirgon for the post as an errand-rider as soon as he was old enough, recognizing that otherwise the youth might well become dissolute. It was not until Hirgon had passed his training and matured into manhood and yet showed no signs of capitulation on the matter of romance that Boromir came to realize the reason for the errand-rider's disinterest in women.
Hirgon had been one of those boys who was slow to grow a beard and, when at last it came, it was thin and patchy on his cheeks. But no matter. Errand-riders were known for their lack of fastidiousness, since most of their lives--including their meals, their diversions, and even their rest--were accomplished astride a fast horse. It was said that they were deemed ready to begin their training when it became a natural act to urinate off the side of a mount moving at a gallop. Hirgon showed little care for his appearance and frequently stunk. But today, he'd shaved off the patchy beard on his cheeks, leaving a tidy ring around his mouth like a lord might wear, and his hair was washed and combed.
The others were teasing him about it when Boromir arrived. "Hirgon must have a favorite in the low circles! Or one he is trying to weasel out of paying!" one brayed. "Next he will be wearing tights and strumming a harp."
Hirgon was tearing off pieces of brown bread and eating them fast with fingers still not entirely clean. "No," he said around the bread. "I had to shave my beard. Your sister complained of the scratchiness between her thighs." The other riders roared with laughter and Hirgon shoved another piece of bread into his grin.
The others noticed Boromir then and scrambled to their feet in a clumsy show of deference before Boromir waved them back down again. Only Hirgon didn't rise. "Ready?" he said, swallowing whole the last bit of bread and washing it down with a swill of ale. Boromir thought again of the ready contempt that came with familiarity with Hirgon and felt that same uncertain squeeze. He wondered at the young man's sudden care for his appearance. Perhaps he wasn't the only one nurturing hopes of love along with the hopes of spring, only he was fairly certain that Hirgon had no real interest in what money could buy in the low circles of the city, not unless it was found in the darkest, narrowest alleys that Boromir knew only from rumor but never dared enter himself, no matter the stirring he felt at the mere thought.
He followed Hirgon out to the stables, where his horse stood ready. He watched while Hirgon checked the girth and buckles, then swung into the saddle without need of a mounting block and held out his hand. "This is useless if you don't give me the letter." But Boromir suddenly didn't want to part from it. In the rainy afternoon light, Hirgon looked almost noble, young and possessing a sharp beauty.
Boromir placed his hand just above Hirgon's knee. "I may be gone to Osgiliath by your return." He had the sudden urge to draw his knife and slice away the fabric of his breeches to feel the firm, warm flesh bared. His lips quivered to imagine feeling it too.
"Then I will look for assignments to Osgiliath at my return." And the letter was passed into his hand.
Boromir waited until the sound of hoofbeats had receded and stepped toward the stairs to the Citadel. The light spring rain had turned to sleet.
Denethor's council was obsessing over the weather. The streets were strewn with branches that had begun to leaf only to be pulled down by the weight of ice. The early-flowering trees bore only crumpled wads of rot-colored blossoms. The spring fruit harvest, the chief horticulturist gloomily foreboded, was almost certainly imperiled and would yield little, if anything at all.
A white-bearded old man who played at being wise stood to say in a voice tremulous with a sense of its own importance that, yes, he had looked in the records and, yes, this year was an anomaly. Nothing like it had been reported in hundreds of years. Snow and ice were infrequent enough in Gondor but in the month of Víressë! Unheard of!
"I do not see the point of that manner of inquiry." Boromir heard a bold, brash voice and, with a start, realized it was him. He was dragging himself to his feet, standing with his fingers steepled upon the tabletop. "I do not see the point wasting hours to rename what we all feel in our hearts and bones. What is the purpose of further emphasizing our misery? We are all aware of it! Rather, we should speak of solutions, or we should not speak of it at all."
Boromir sat down again, well aware by his father's dour expression that he was displeased. He valued lore for the sake of lore and valued anything that made the case of their particular persecution by the Dark Lord. Faramir, too, was leaning forward in a way that suggested he might hold forth further on the matter of the value of dismal, redundant lore had it been anyone else but Boromir who'd spoken.
Only the old man dared to laugh at the words of the Steward's eldest son: a quick wheeze that might have been a cough. "And what do you propose as a solution, my lord?" he asked. "Weather-witching?"
At that, Denethor spoke. "We are devolving into folly," he said. "The point is not that we should change the weather but rather that this signifies the power and the reach of the Dark Lord. There is no doubt that this is his doing, to not only imperil our crops but to blight our spirits as surely as he blights the symbols of renewal and spring! We must allow him not an inch further, not to even set foot in the Anduin, and we must work to retake the eastern shore, to drive him back and show that more than just a cold rain is needed to dampen us!" He stood and waved his hands to signify dismissal of his council. "None of you have told me anything I need to hear! You bring only cold counsel. My son Boromir is right: You say only what we all know and expect praise for it! We must look to solutions! Now go! I will speak to my son concerning Osgiliath."
By son, of course, he meant Boromir but Faramir feigned naïveté and lingered under the pretense of also being his son. Faramir was prone to such small rebellions. The brothers cast a look between them.
Denethor unrolled a huge map on the table. His councilors having departed, he suddenly looked smaller and weaker than Boromir had ever seen him. His fingers trembled, and the map escape him twice and rerolled itself before Boromir stood to assist him. Servants waited by the doors, and conscious that they might notice his father's weakness, Boromir busied himself with taking over from Denethor in securing the map at the corners with paperweights. Troops and formations and logistics were discussed and swiftly settled. Faramir chimed in at times and was mostly ignored until Boromir managed to repurpose his brother's best suggestions for their father's almost certain acceptance.
At last, Denethor fell back into his chair and said, "Faramir, that is all."
"Father, my brother is apt in strategy and has made many--"
"What I have to say does not concern your brother. Rather, riddles remain to which I seek answers. Faramir. That is all."
Denethor's piercing gray eyes prevented any exchange of words or even glances between the brothers. Faramir departed swiftly. Denethor spread his hands on the tabletop upon the map. One lay upon Mordor, growing frail and gone gray with cold.
Riddles remain. This was not his first allusion to riddles in the conduct of his best-beloved son. Boromir recalled the week prior, the snowstorm on the first day of Víressë, the inquiry over the pair of footprints in the snow--
"I summoned Hirgon to me earlier."
"Hirgon?" Startled from his thoughts, Boromir swallowed the nervous laugh that suddenly rose in the back of his throat. "What of Hirgon?"
"I summoned him upon your recommendation of his quality but was told that he'd already been sent out on an errand. By you. To Dol Amroth." He leaned forward onto the map, and now his elbow ground into Mordor. The gray, veined hands, so feeble just a moment before, now twisted upon each other like wires, stubborn and strong. "Now the riddle that perplexes me is to wonder what is the nature of your correspondence with Dol Amroth that you seek not to inform me of it, much less obtain my approbation?"
"I saw no need, Father, for my intent was personal, not political. I only meant to renew acquaintance with Lalaith, the lady who visited us this summer past. I thought--"
"To what purpose, Boromir?" He slammed the flat of his hand onto the table. "We are preparing for war and you are writing to maidens! I expect such folly from your brother, but you? To what purpose?"
"Why, marriage, Father." At his father's astounded stare he hastened to continue. "It is because of the war. Neither Faramir nor I have an heir, and we must face the possibility that both of us should fall and what then? Gondor, bereft of both king and steward and no hope for the return of either? The city would fall for sure!"
Denethor surprised him by laughing, laughing with mouth open wide enough that Boromir could see where he'd had the tooth pulled last fall and loud enough that the servants by the door were visibly startled. Boromir flushed with shame. His father looked a madman. "We stand on the verge of annihilation and you worry over an heir? Have you not looked? Do you not see?" He held a tremulous hand toward the window. "There will be nothing left for an heir!"
Frost had bloomed across the window, lovely and deceitful.
He regretted sending Hirgon to Dol Amroth. His father was right. What would a woman like Lalaith want with the Steward of a city nearly under siege? He imagined her bright upon the gray stones of the city. A corona of warmth and light attended her and flowers sprang under her feet.
Yet it was Hirgon's return for which he longed.
While he waited, he penned his next letter to Lalaith. He tried to make it neither awkward nor cliché.
Long, poetic excursuses flowed from his pen to mark the passage of time. The rattle of dice, the flutter of cards being shuffled. A man's laughter. A deep cough. The flat, gray course of the river. A flake of snow, a scrim of frost, a receding of the ice in a sudden burst of sunlight, a roiling of the clouds back to cover the gap like flesh knitting over a wound. On it went.
When I see the swirl of the frost on the windowpane before me, I imagine you dancing, as though the ground beneath your feet is left more graceful for your passing. Your skin, white as the snow, yet harbors blossoms beneath, and would I place my hand upon it, I believe you'd melt beneath my touch …
On it went. The afternoon rains froze overnight in a paper-thin sheet over the stones. One of the young soldiers misstepped and was sent onto his ass to the sound of laughter. A group of three wizened soldiers knelt in a circle, leaning on their spears; one was carefully lifting away the tracery of ice to uncover something beneath. Boromir went to look at what they'd found. In the crevice beneath the stones, a seed had split open and rooted itself in the dust of crumbling stone, its tiny green back pressing up against the ice.
I imagine the sun just then, when it carved itself a place from the gray, was you, at the receipt of my letter. I imagine that if you were to come here, the mere touch of your slipper upon the stone would banish the gray, and it would be bright banners on blue skies once more, the Enemy but a rumor and the mountains between us …
It cannot all be darkness and war? My life cannot be all darkness and war. Life and beauty flourish in the most unexpected of places. I imagine this tiny green thing we found will unfurl into a rose of myriad colors. The kiss of your sunshine made it possible. I believe that. I would pick it for you, send it to you over the miles, in Hirgon's saddlebags, but that would be a cruel irony, would it not?
Boromir kept the letters folded in his pack, a sign of his small rebellion. He thought to feed them to the river and even wandered down to the shore under the pretense of reconnaissance of the eastern bank but found he could not let them go.
He'd earned his father's disapprobation just once: age twelve, having befriended the stableboy two years his elder who seemed to possess wisdom greater than those meager two years would suggest and, unlike most older boys, did not become guarded and possessive of it around Boromir, who was only just beginning to blossom beyond boyhood.
The stableboy took Boromir to the hayloft and showed him many things, at first just on himself for Boromir to try when alone in his bed at night. But, eventually, he turned his water-gray eyes on Boromir and offered, "I will try it on you?" The affair went on long and might have gone undetected until they grew bored of each other, but they grew careless and neglected lessons and chores to slip to the hayloft, sometimes twice, three times in a day. One afternoon, one of the equestrian instructors found them, having spent ten minutes calling the stableboy without answer, and dragged Boromir, his clothes put hastily and clumsily to rights, by his ear before his father.
"It is a normal enough thing at his age," the instructor said, "but I fear these two are developing a taste for it."
Denethor dismissed the instructor with a nod and summoned the largest of his men at arms. He ordered Boromir to strip and the man at arms to whip him bare with a belt, sparing no strength of arm. "I will do what I must," Denethor said and Boromir clenched the table edge and willed himself the courage not to cry out, "that you lose your taste for it." The first blow snaked across his back. It wasn't until the seventh--when the belt couldn't help but come into contact with already raw flesh--that his resolve failed and he cried out. He soon lost count and forgot what his father had ordered, although doubtlessly, the man completed his duty. When Boromir cringed and cried but no blow came, he looked up and saw the man at arms threading his belt back around his waist and his father gone. "He would not hear you cry," the man explained, and left. What happened to the stableboy was never spoken of and never asked about, but Boromir never saw him again.
The fortnight that Hirgon was gone passed slowly and brought with it Víressë at last. The river ran high with the upland thaw and the trees took on a golden-green haze, as though someone had passed a paintbrush lightly across their famished, upraised branches. The first brave little flower had been forgotten and trampled but no matter: There were first dozens, then hundreds more like it, tracing verdant life amid the stones of Osgiliath.
Faramir came and brought replacements for the soldiers, who were invigorated by the mild southern breezes and the promise of their homes and wives awaiting. "This company," Boromir heard one of them say, "will all be blessed with sons just after the Yule's passing!"
Faramir came to sit beside his brother along the river. Boromir was folding and unfolding the well-worn parchments from his pack. "I should like you to read these at your leisure," he said, "and tell me what, if anything, is salvageable. I have tried not to be cliché. I humor myself that some of it is quite good--an improvement for me, in any case. Hirgon should return soon, and if he brings me a reply, I should like to answer it quickly. I will take your first watch for you."
Faramir glanced at them but said nothing, forcing Boromir to announce to him, "I have decided to pursue a troth with Lalaith. No matter what Father says. He should have insisted I marry decades ago."
"And you would have likely listened then just as you are listening to him now," said Faramir. "Why now? You have never cared for marriage, or even much for women, if we are being honest with each other." He paused to see how that was received, and Boromir was careful to give him no satisfaction of a response. "So why the sudden interest now? I feel supplanted. It has always been my duty to irritate Father, not yours."
"I have no intention of irritating him," Boromir snapped. "I am more than old enough to make my own decisions in this matter. The truth is--"
he should be grateful that I am not pressing my case with one I believe I could actually love
"--precisely what I said in the council: It is long past time that I--you, too, if we are being honest as you say--take interest in preserving the continuity of our office. That--" he gestured toward the black cloud creeping over the mountains in the east, devouring the innocent blue of a Víressë morning-- "presses me toward action. My life should be but halfway over but I sense my mortality, and I will not see the city I love abandoned to ruin by the folly of an old man who wishes for there to be no hope."
"I do not think he wishes for there to be no hope," said Faramir in a rational tone that lacked conviction. "Besides--and here you should take the advice of one more experienced in such matters--Father is a difficult man to thwart, and you have a way of making him come around in time to see what you wish him to see. If you force him to battle over this, I fear you will not win. He has more resources at his disposal."
"Ah, but I have Hirgon! Hirgon will take my letters for me, and once I have made my proposal, even Father wouldn't dare demand it rescinded."
"Are you certain that Hirgon does not have his own interests at heart?" Faramir asked.
"I am certain that Hirgon is loyal to me. Aside from you, I'd trust no one more."
"Well then," said Faramir in that even, insincere voice again, "so be it."
Having reached the apex of the city, he handed off his horse to a groom and went to report to his father.
Coming down the stairs from the White Tower was Hirgon.
"I returned last night," he said when Boromir inquired, "but I was immediately sent for by your father, who wants me to carry a message south for him. Here--" a folded parchment with a blue swan seal was pressed at him-- "this is for you. I could not get away or you would have had it yesterday. Your father, as you well know, can be very … insistent." The neat beard he'd trimmed before departing last had overgrown into its usual patchy disarray, and by the visible road dust lining the creases in his neck, Boromir expected that he was back to smelling as he usually did as well. Gloved fingertips touched, briefly, electrically, as the letter changed hands.
Letter in hand at last, Boromir's heart hammered in his chest. Why? Did he actually love her? Or was it the act of rebellion implied by mere possession of the letter that he must now answer? Or the insolent glint in Hirgon's eyes, knowing he'd held a letter for the Steward's firstborn son longer than duty required, and knowing he'd bear no reprisal for it?
"I had wished you to carry a letter for me," Boromir said, "back to Dol Amroth."
"Well if your ardor can bear just the briefest of delays, I will continue on to Dol Amroth after delivering your father's message. And I will say nothing of it to anyone."
"That is well. Come to my rooms then, as soon as you can." The latter was so gravid with implication that Boromir was already settled down in his rooms to pen his reply to Lalaith before it occurred to him to wonder how Hirgon knew ardor was involved and why he suspected the need for secrecy.
Hirgon had trimmed his beard again, although the shape was a little lopsided this time, and rather than his usual tunic and weatherworn coat wore a blue doublet embroidered with white thread that must have passed for opulent to him. It fit him poorly: borrowed, Boromir quickly surmised.
The door had barely shut behind the porter before Hirgon strode up to Boromir, seized his chin in his hand, and forcibly turned Boromir to look upon him.
"You are insolent, you know," Boromir chuckled, forcing his tone to remain light although he felt that uneasy squeeze again. "A less kind master would have you whipped."
"You send me where you will. You care not how long I am gone from my home; you care not whether the roads you demand I take will claim my life as toll. And yet--" he laughed low in his throat-- "in those weeks when I am gone from here? From you? I have more power over you then than you realize."
Boromir stood and pressed Hirgon toward the door to the bedroom. So close to him, the tang of the strong soap the commoners used stung sharp in his nose. The doublet, the trimmed beard, the sudden interest in bathing--Boromir laughed. Hirgon was trying to impress him, to seduce him. "You fool," Boromir growled. "Your every thought is of my whims."
Hirgon offered no resistance through the door and to the edge of the bed. Knees backed against the mattress, he suddenly stood firm. He claimed a rough kiss. Then he allowed himself to be toppled.
An hour later, Boromir lay abed, covered only by a sheet, and listened to the sound of hoofbeats receding, heading south.
Nárië, 20th Night
Boromir looked east, grasped his sword tighter, called to his men to hold, hold. The Orcs swarmed across the river.
A half-week prior, Denethor had emerged from the top chamber of the White Tower in a state of agitation. Boromir lounged at the council table, pretending to read a report. Save Hirgon's infrequent returns and despite the overtures of a summer resplendent enough to make up for the cold Víressë, his life had grown dull. After her initial effusive reply, Lalaith had responded no more to his letters. When Hirgon returned a third time with no answer, Boromir stopped writing. Hirgon had passed entirely into the service of his father and become a sudden favorite.
"Get up! Get up! You must rouse as many men as can be spared and ride for Osgiliath immediately!" Denethor was frantic.
For all of Víressë and Lótessë, they had kept heightened patrols in Osgiliath. Boromir sighed. He'd had this conversation with his father many times since getting Denethor to reluctantly agree to withdraw the extra troops at the beginning of the month. He tried again. "It is no use, Father. There has been no unusual action on the opposite shore and the men become bored and dissolute when they have nothing constructive to do. Morale suffers, and I fear that when the threat does come--"
"You fool. It is coming."
"How do you know?"
Denethor laughed. "When have you ever done otherwise than leave the knowing to me?" He laughed again and there it was: that mad, ragged glint like a sword that bit the hand it served as it bit the enemy it wounded. There was a sudden fierceness in his eyes. "Like how you never even bothered to ask if I found the answer to my riddle!"
Boromir sighed. "I told you the answer to your riddle. To both riddles. I have never done anything else but tell you the answer to your riddles."
Denethor grinned. "But you did not answer all, dearest son! Your answer did not account for two sets of footprints equally fresh, when the errand-riders' logs noted Hirgon's return four hours prior. But I found my answer to that!" He chuckled. "And Hirgon was easy enough to persuade after that. It was to both our distinct advantages that he be persuaded. And now Gondor may yet prevail!"
Boromir knew not what to say. He walked across the council chamber while Denethor shouted after him, "Make haste, my son! They are coming!"
And now all was in its place. Denethor in his tower, watching from afar as the Orcs breached the river. Hirgon in a thunder of hoofbeats, doing his bidding in some wasteland far away. Lalaith beside the sea, knowing nothing of the cares of him whom she'd for the merest moment loved.
Faramir, resolutely brave, looking at Boromir to await command. The Orcs, the glint of stifled moonlight now visible in their eyes. Boromir: sword raised, sword falling, voice thunderous against the heavy stillness of the cloud-cloaked night. For Gondor!