Húrin of the Keys, Warden of the City, watched as Denethor paced back and forth in front of the charcoal brazier, as if to release a surfeit of anger or distress. Húrin had come to the Steward's private chamber to report on the state of the City and the status of the evacuation of her inhabitants, but though he knew Denethor was eager for this news, he also knew well his lord's moods. This was a time for patience and not for interruption, in spite of his concern for the Steward. Denethor's aggravation would work its way out soon enough, and Húrin was sufficiently patient to wait it out.
At last, there was a pause in the pacing, and Húrin spoke.
"I am most sorry to see that you are distraught, my lord Denethor," he said, approaching the Steward until he stood beside him. "What has upset you so? Did Faramir bring you ill tidings?
"Ill tidings, indeed!" replied Denethor bitterly. "The tidings he brought me is the worst news I have yet to receive, since word came of the death of my Boromir. I am unexpectedly betrayed!"
"Surely not!" cried Húrin in surprised concern.
"It would seem so," Denethor answered, nodding grimly. "It was most unexpected, and it has greatly shaken me."
He stood silent for a long moment, then with a shrug, he lowered himself heavily into his chair and grasped his cup of unfinished wine.
"You do not ask who has betrayed me," Denethor said quietly, staring into the cup.
Húrin moved forward to the table, and picking up the decanter of mulled wine, he refilled Denethor's cup.
"You will tell me when I have a need to know," replied Húrin calmly, setting down the wine. "But whether you tell me or no, I am at your service."
Denethor smiled and some of the bitterness left his face.
"Your faith in me is still strong, then. I am content! Long has it been since we two fought together, I as your captain and you as my right hand -- yet you remain steadfast in your support of me. And your sword arm? It is as weighty as ever?"
"Fear not! I have not neglected my training, my captain, nor have my duties as Warden of the Keys softened me."
"That is well," nodded Denethor, "for this is no time for softness."
"A formidable pair we are, as ever, Lord Denethor. Between us, the city is well in hand!"
Denethor smiled in return, and though the smile was faint, Húrin could read in it his Steward's pleasure at the statement.
"Shall I proceed with my report?" he asked, with a respectful bow.
"Yes, Húrin, proceed with your report and omit no detail. When I have heard all you have to share with me, we will take thought together concerning tomorrow's Council session..."
Merry lay quietly at the edge of the encampment, gazing up at the long draping branches of willow trees above him. He found himself thinking of his encounter with the willows of the Old Forest, so long ago; he was surprised to realize he felt no fear at the memory. So much had happened since then, and the fear of that time now seemed more like a dream than reality. He had known then that the journey ahead would not be easy, but he had never anticipated he might come to a place where the journey would continue without his close companions at his side.
The sounds of a vast army of Men and horses were all around him, drowning out the creak of willow branches and the sighing of the river beside which they camped. Thousands of people were all around him, yet he still felt strangely alone. There was no one to talk to, not even his riding companion, Dernhelm, who was keeping to himself and conversed little. The others were strangers who ignored him or were oblivious to his presence. There was little comfort to be had for a lone hobbit in the midst of an army of Men.
He wished the Man Hirgon was still with them. The errand rider had reminded Merry so much of Boromir, it had been pleasant to have him nearby, even when they did not speak much together. But Hirgon and his companion had been gone for many hours now, returning to Minas Tirith with the news that Rohan was riding to the aid of the City.
Thoughts of Minas Tirith brought Pippin to mind, and Merry could not help but sigh a little, for he missed his friend keenly. How he wished he could talk to him of their friends who were far away -- Frodo and Sam, and Aragorn and the others. And of course, Boromir, too. He did so wish to speak to someone about Boromir, for somehow it seemed easier to bear the loss and the separation when someone who understood was nearby.
I wonder if any of these Riders even knew Boromir? Merry thought, and sighed again.
The sound of a boot scuffing on turf interrupted his thoughts, and he turned to see Dernhelm kneeling beside him, unrolling his blanket.
"Is all well with you?" Dernhelm queried softly, his eyes filled with concern. "You sigh as though you are in pain. The ride did not hurt you in any way, I trust? We did not travel far this first day, but perhaps you are not used to sitting astride a horse such as mine?"
"No, no, I'm fine," Merry assured him. "At least, I'm feeling well enough after the ride... I'm just feeling rather lonely, I suppose, and missing my friends."
"Ah!" replied Dernhelm thoughtfully. "Yes, it is difficult to be alone, even amongst many. Which of your friends holds your thoughts now, that you sigh so heavily?"
"Well, I miss them all very much, and I'm very worried about how they are doing. They're all so far away right now, and each one of them in danger of one kind or another. I don't even know what's happening with them, and that makes it worse! But just now, I was thinking of my friend Boromir. That rider Hirgon from Gondor reminded me of him, and now I can't stop thinking about how much I miss him, and how I wish he weren't dead!"
Dernhelm nodded, his face sadly sober.
"His death is a blow to us all! He was a mighty warrior, and a great friend to Rohan."
"You knew him?" exclaimed Merry in surprise.
"Nay!" answered Dernhelm hurriedly. "I did not know him. But I have seen him, for he came at times to Meduseld. A strong man and bold, I thought him -- a man worthy to be called the hope of Gondor in these dark times. I... I have heard that he and the king's son were friendly. Alas, that two such warriors should be lost to us!"
"Alas!" agreed Merry fervently. "I'm glad to hear you knew of him, though; that makes me feel better. Would you... would you mind if I talked about him a bit? It would help me not feel so lonely, I think, if I could talk to someone..."
Dernhelm bowed his head in grave assent.
"If it will help you, then let us speak of him. Perhaps... perhaps my heart, too, will be eased as we speak of your companions..."
The Grey Company camped for the night in the midst of the open plain, and took what rest they could in the face of the urgency with which they pressed forward, and the presence of the Dead all around them which disturbed their slumber.
Legolas was not plagued by that restlessness, nor did he need sleep, so he walked the perimeter of the camp and watched over the sleeping Company, awaiting the dawn when they could move forward once again. He noted that Gimli did not sleep, though he lay upon the ground, resolutely facing away from the shadowy host. The Dwarf seemed determined not to look at them, nor let down his guard against the fear of the Dead that threatened to engulf him.
"Rest, Gimli," he said, as he stooped to sit next to where his friend lay. "The Dead will not harm you. They obey Aragorn, and will not trouble us who are the means by which they may fulfill their oath and have peace."
"I'd like some peace from them! They make me feel cold to my very bones!" muttered Gimli. "It's easy enough for you to say the Dead won't harm us. You're an Elf! I suppose Elves have no fear of such creatures?"
"No, I do not fear them," replied Legolas.
Sensing movement behind him, Legolas turned to see Aragorn approaching.
"The Dead are indeed fearsome, Gimli," Aragorn said as he sat next to Legolas. "We all feel it -- except Legolas, of course! In truth, they mean us no harm, though the dread they instill in the heart is difficult to bear. The Oathbreakers will serve our needs well, for that dreadful terror will soon be turned against our enemies, and not against us."
They sat quietly without speaking, taking comfort in the presence of one another. After a time, Legolas broke the silence with an uncharacteristic sigh.
"Alas for this storm from Mordor," he lamented. "The land through which we pass must be pleasant to behold in the daylight. Can you not smell the sweetness of flowers in the green grass? And there is also a tang in the air that speaks to me of the Sea. Do we draw nigh to the Great Water, Aragorn?"
"No," Aragorn shook his head. "We are not yet close to the Sea, Legolas. You have a keen nose if you can smell the salt air at this distance, with no breeze to stir the shadows from Mordor!"
"Then our road does not take us to the Sea?"
"Not to the shore itself, but we will come very close. If fortune smiles upon us, we shall reach the town of Linhir tomorrow, which is some twenty miles upriver from the Bay of Belfalas. There we will see battle, I fear, for at Linhir is a key crossing over the river and the enemy will surely take steps to hold it against Gondor. Did you note the smouldering beacons on the southern slopes of the mountains as we passed through the vale of Tarlang's Neck and the uplands of Lamedon, before Mordor's shadow fell? And again upon the northern bluff of the Hills of Tarnost that lay to the west of where we took our noon meal?"
"I saw the beacons," said Legolas. "They are an effective means of alerting people of danger, in time for them to flee. That would explain why there are so few people in these lands, which must usually be heavily populated. They have been warned, and they are either hidden away in places of safety, or they have gone to fight, those who are able."
"You say there will be battle on the morrow, Aragorn?" Gimli asked, as if welcoming the thought.
"Yes," answered Aragorn heavily. "I do not think we can go much further now without encountering the enemy."
"Shouldn't you be resting, then, lad?" Gimli answered back. "You don't want to come to the battle weakened by little rest!"
"I could say the same to you," replied Aragorn with a smile, "though I suspect you will tell me that Dwarves do not need as much sleep as do Men."
"And you would be right!"
Legolas, ignoring the interchange between the two, leaned forward and looked keenly at Aragorn, noting his drawn face.
"Aragorn," he said thoughtfully. "You are more weary than you ought to be, perhaps! You have pushed yourself hard in these last days, and yet it is more than simple weariness here that troubles you, I deem. What has taxed you so?"
Aragorn was silent for a moment.
"Do you recall when we stopped at the crossing of the Ringló to rest and take our noon meal?"
"Yes, you went aside alone for a time, saying you needed time to yourself for thought."
"That I did," agreed Aragorn. "Not only that, I needed news, and the only way to obtain it was to use the Orthanc stone once more."
"You looked in that cursed Stone again?" cried Gimli. "Is that why you are so weary?"
"I did look," said Aragorn quietly. "And yes, it taxed me -- but I was in no danger, for it is not cursed for my use. And I saw much that was helpful to me, of the movements of the Black Fleet in the south, and the gathering of the enemy in the north beyond the White Mountains. I saw much that fills me with fear and dread, but I also saw things that bring me such hope, I can scarce speak of it!"
"What is it?" pressed Legolas. "I sense you are strangely stirred! Did you speak with the Dark Lord again?"
"Nay! I did not look that way, for I have not the strength to meet him again; not yet. Though I suspect his thoughts are elsewhere now, for he has begun his war upon the West. Even now Mordor moves against the White City!"
"Tell us everything!" demanded Gimli.
"You shall hear it," smiled Aragorn. "Why else do you think I am here sitting with you, wakeful when I should be resting? There are things you two must know, to warn you of what is to come, as well as to lighten your sorrow. I would have told you sooner, but I felt the need to ponder for some hours all I have seen, for it would not do to speak before I was certain. But now I am certain."
He drew in a deep, steadying breath before continuing.
"The Stone shows many things, and often the visions it reveals are by chance -- random and unexpected. One who is not skilled in its use or who lacks the necessary strength to exert his will over the visions cannot control what is seen, nor can he withdraw one noteworthy sighting from among the confusion of other visions for a closer look. However, one who has the necessary skill and strength can see much, particularly when driven by need or concern, and aided by information already available. My skill is not, perhaps, as honed as it should be, but my strength has been sufficient so far, and my right, as well as my need, is not in doubt.
"Chance and desire have revealed something to me, something other than news of the Black Fleet and the situation in Minas Tirith, or even the coming of Mordor to the plains of the Pelennor. I have seen something that gives me great hope in spite of all the darkness that is arrayed before us!"
Legolas and Gimli stared at Aragorn, whose face seemed lit suddenly by great joy. Slowly, an idea formed in both their minds, and they spoke it out simultaneously.
"Not... not Boromir? Does he live?"
"Did you see aught of Boromir, by chance? Alive?"
Aragorn smiled broadly, and laughed, so that Halbarad, who slept nearby, sat up startled and reached for his sword.
"Just so!" exclaimed Aragorn joyfully. "I did indeed see Boromir, alive! And he is coming, making his way to Minas Tirith!"