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The Long Road Home

Revelations

Faramir sympathized with the man quivering on his knees before King Elessar. The messenger had no reason to be afraid; yet to be brought before a powerful king in such a splendid palace would be overwhelming for most everyone, let alone a simple traveler from Bree.

Aragorn gestured for the fellow to get up. The man climbed back to his feet and darted quick glances at the doorwardens, the servants bustling about, and the pages awaiting errands. He did not dare look up at the king or the steward.

“What news from the North do you bring?” Aragorn asked. His lord kept his tone light in an attempt to put the traveler more at ease. Yet, Faramir knew the king was anxious for news from his hobbit friends.

“Letters, sire. From the Shire-folk. And — and a message from Master Gamgee. He said to tell you that the Shire is fine, and for you not to worry.”

Aragorn grinned. “That does sound like Sam, indeed. Is everyone well?”

“Aye, Lord. They were when I departed Bree with the mail. Although that was many weeks ago. I assume they have since returned to their homes.”

“Where are the letters?”

“I gave them to the Lord Steward, Your Majesty.” The man’s eyes flicked briefly toward Faramir.

Aragorn cast his steward a look as if to find confirmation. Faramir held up the handful of envelopes. One was even addressed to King Strider and he suspected it came from Pippin. Aragorn accepted the letters and pondered them a moment. Unbidden, Faramir’s hand drifted to the inner pocket of his tunic where another sealed letter waited for his perusal. He was eager for the audience to end so he could find some privacy and read it.

“Good.” The king nodded and turned his attention back to the visitor. “I thank you for carrying these. What else can you tell me? How fare the good people of Bree? I have visited oft, in the past.”

The visitor blinked, not suspecting such an admission from the ruler of the vast lands that comprised the Reunited Kingdom.

“How is Master Butterbur, for example?”

“Alas, Lord King. About Barliman I have sad tidings. An orc band beset him last winter, and he was killed.”

“Orcs?” The king straightened and his voice took on a sharper tone. “Is there no end to the mischief of Sauron’s fell creatures?” He turned to Faramir. “How many soldiers have we dispatched to Arnor?”

“Two companies, my lord, to aid the northern Rangers.”

“Perhaps we should send more. I will not abide any of the people of Middle-earth to continue living beneath the terror of orcs.”

“‘Tis not as bad with the orcs as a few years back,” the Breelander ventured shyly. “Only during the winter, they sometimes come far from the Misty Mountains, all the way to the South Downs and Bree.” The messenger stood straighter. “Your Majesty need not worry. The soldiers are doing their best. And sometimes the people call on the aid of Master Aranmegil. He destroyed the orcs who killed Barliman Butterbur, although he came too late to save him.”

Aranmegil? The King’s Sword?” A pensive expression formed on Aragorn’s face and his eyes seemed to gaze in the distance. “Rumors of such a swordsman have reached me before… So he went north.” He seemed to be speaking to himself. Faramir tensed; his full attention was focused on his liege while the letter burned in his pocket. At last, Aragorn addressed the messenger again. “Is that what he calls himself, Aranmegil?”

“Nay, Lord. He calls himself Erandír. But the people give him other names. Sometimes they call him Longsweard or Agân-‘nUruk.” The messenger looked worried. “He is no trouble, Lord. He keeps to himself mostly, traveling the northern lands with his dog and a youngster, and lending his sword where help is needed.” He lowered his voice. “They say he slew twenty orcs by himself once.”

Aragorn gave a soft snort. “I have seen many great warriors, yet I know few who could accomplish such a feat. Tell me. Have you seen this mighty soldier yourself?”

“Yes, sire. He gave me a letter for the Lord…” The Breelander’s voice died down when Faramir caught his eye but it was too late already.

“Lord who?” Aragorn asked. “If there is someone at my court corresponding with this mysterious stranger, I would know who.” His voice was commanding and not even the doughtiest soldier dared stand up to him when he spoke so. A man from Bree was no match for the king’s might.

“The L-Lord Steward, Sire.”

Aragorn raised a questioning eyebrow at Faramir and the steward tried not to wince beneath the scrutiny, unsure what, if any, words to speak.

The king remained silent a moment, mulling things over. “I thank you for your news,” he said at last to the messenger. “And for carrying these letters.” He waved one of the pages forward. “Take this man to the chamberlain and tell him I wish him well rewarded for his services.”

“Thank you, Lord King.” The man bowed and hurried to follow the page from the chamber, relieved to depart the presence of the powerful lords and the tension that had crept into the room at his slip of the tongue.

Aragorn leaned back in his seat, stacked his fingers beneath his chin and spent several minutes deep in thought. Faramir tried to think of an excuse, a matter of state that needed his urgent attention so he could leave. He dreaded the questions that were, without doubt, coming. Honor would not permit him to lie; yet it was honor, also, which had forced him to silence all this time.

At last Aragorn looked up and gestured at the servants, the guards, and the squires. “Leave us. I wish to speak to my steward in private.”

The servants obeyed and a minute later Faramir found himself alone with the king.

“Secret correspondence, Faramir?” Aragorn asked lightly. “With a man who claims to act as my sword, no less! Yet, I do not recall sending such a man. Should I believe that you conspire against me?”

“Nay! Never, my lord.” Unsure whether his liege was jesting, Faramir was horrified he might consider such a thing. “You have nothing to fear from this man. He is a friend to Gondor.”

“I would be the judge of that,” Aragorn said. His tone was still mild but held an undercurrent that Faramir did not much like. “Many stories have I heard about this man. I thought him the substance of rumors, of myth, tales created by bards for whom the war’s grim reality was not heroic enough. But here I find he is real after all. So, will you tell me who he is?”

Faramir shifted his stance in discomfiture; he could not help it. Not even many years of attending council meetings and watching political maneuvering had prepared him for a day like this. With the passing of the years, the promise to his brother had grown an ever heavier burden. Never had he fully agreed with Boromir’s reasoning, believing his brother was mistaken — and watching King Elessar’s benign reign only confirmed this impression. Yet, he had kept the secret for so long; his tongue tied itself in knots when he tried to speak. In the end, though, Faramir could only give one answer: the truth.

“He is my brother.”

For long minutes, neither spoke. Only the crackle of the fire in the hearth broke the silence. “Boromir?” said King Elessar at last. “Are you talking about Boromir?”

“Aye, sire.” Faramir did not dare look at his king. The weight of the lie had been lifted from him at last; yet, what consequences might revealing the secret have?

When the silence lengthened, he risked a quick glance at Aragorn’s face. The news had visibly stunned him; the king looked pale and his eyes, unfocused, glittered strangely. Faramir could not determine if his revelation pleased or angered his lord.

“Sire?” he said at last.

Aragorn blinked, and his gaze settled slowly upon his steward. His eyes smoldered with emotion. “How long have you known this?”

Faramir cleared his throat. “Since I pulled his boat from the Anduin.”

“Are you telling me,” Aragorn said, his voice low and calm — and Faramir found this more disconcerting than any overt passion would have been — “that you have known all these years that Boromir survived his injuries, and yet you allowed everyone to believe he had perished?”

“It was Boromir’s desire, not mine, to hold the truth from you.” Faramir’s answer was but a whisper. He kept staring at the flagstones on the floor, unable to tear his gaze away. He felt like a thirteen-year-old called to task for mischief rather than like the Steward of Gondor. His eyes found the missing chip, the same flaw in the stones he had always sought during his father’s lectures on his shortcomings.

“Why, pray tell, did you decide to adhere to such a cruel request? Do you trust me so little, my steward?”

“No. That is not it at all.” His head whipped up and he stared at Aragorn in dismay. When had the room grown so cold? “I had no joy in keeping the secret. I would have mentioned it, if I could. But Boromir swore me to silence. I gave him my word. I promised him I would not speak. Not unless someone asked me about his fate.”

“Boromir wanted me to think he was dead?” Aragorn sounded puzzled, and more than a little hurt. It was the first clear indication of his feelings, but it did not make Faramir feel any better.

“My brother was ashamed, my lord. It weighed heavily on him that he had broken his vows. I suppose he no longer felt he deserved your friendship. He could not bear the thought of facing you again.” While he spoke, a new insight into his brother’s mind dawned on Faramir, Boromir’s reasons suddenly clear; Boromir had never had to deal with personal failure, real or perceived and when at last he found himself not up to the task, he simply was not equipped to handle it.

Aragorn swore violently, startling Faramir from his introspection and alarming him with its vehemence. King Elessar was a man of restrained temper who hardly ever raised his voice. Not even the many minor nobles of the kingdom, begging for his favor in their petty schemes, could draw him out. To see him so upset was frightening.

Aragorn had started pacing. “Is there no end to that man’s foolish pride? I told him on Amon Hen, while his blood stained my fingers, that he had not lost honor in my eyes. And yet he believes I would denounce him? And you!” He turned to the steward, as if suddenly remembering Faramir’s presence. The king’s gray eyes blazed with fury and Faramir took an unbidden step backwards.

“You allowed your love for your brother to cloud your judgement. Your duty should have been to trust me, your king and friend, to do right by your brother, not to keep this foolish vow of silence.”

Faramir wanted to cry out in denial. He wanted to explain how Boromir insisted, how he refused care until Faramir made his promise. But the words failed to come.

Suddenly the king’s anger faded, and Aragorn the man was left. His shoulders slumped with sadness and when he spoke again, Faramir had to strain to hear him. “‘Twere my hands that let the boat slip prematurely. For years, I have believed I was to blame for Boromir’s death. Many a night have I spent fretting over my guilt.”

“Lord, I–” Faramir began, not fully understanding the king’s words but sensing the enormousness of his mistake. Aragorn silenced him with a curt gesture.

“Leave me,” he ordered. “Go home, spend some time with your wife and son. Do not mention to anyone what secret you revealed me, I will send for you when I have need of you. And tell the captain of the guard to send messages to Legolas and Gimli. I wish to see them at their earliest convenience.”

o0o

Time passed at a crawl. For long days, the steward awaited the summons of his king. None came, and he grew more and more harried. He found no joy in either his beautiful wife or the antics of his son, Elboron, who was just learning how to use his stubby legs for crawling and had turned into a menace on four limbs.

“He will send for you,” Éowyn assured him on the morning of the fifth day. Faramir sat in the window, staring out across the garden of their house in Emyn Arnen. Far in the distance, across the glittering Anduin, the tower of Minas Tirith gleamed in the light of the rising sun. His eyes burned from lack of sleep.

“Aragorn is not a vengeful man. Give him time.”

“How much time does he need?” Faramir murmured. “He will have to denounce me as the Steward soon. Before the people of Gondor hear that he has banished me from his presence. The news of such a chasm between king and steward will create unrest; it might lead to strife and civil war.”

“Aragorn knows you are no threat,” Éowyn said. “The people would be wrong.”

“Mayhap.” Faramir turned away from the window. “Yet not everyone favors King Elessar as you do, my love. Some will wonder what terrible deed I have done, Steward from a house that ruled Gondor for many generations, and that ruled it well. They might use the opportunity as an excuse to question Aragorn’s kingship. Or even his sanity. They will ask, ‘what dreadful crime has the steward committed?'” He raised his eyes to meet Éowyn’s. “I hurt him terribly, Éowyn. But I did not know. If I had known he blamed himself so, I would have told him the truth a long time ago, despite my vow to my brother.”

Éowyn pulled him into her arms, and he rested his head against her breast, aware of the reassuring beat of her heart beneath his cheek.

“He knows that,” she whispered into his hair. “If not today, he will remember it soon, when he has had the chance to think about it. Faramir, my husband, do not forget you are a good man. They placed an unfair choice upon you, your brother and your king. Whether you spoke or not, you would have failed the trust one of them put in you. The king will come to realize this, I know it in my heart.”

o0o

Whether Éowyn was right, or whether Aragorn also feared the rise of gossip and the emergence of civil unrest, Faramir did not know, but just before midday a rider came from the city, bearing the order Faramir awaited so eagerly.

“The King wishes to see you right away, Lord Steward.”

It must be a good sign that it was a court messenger bearing the summons, and not a company of soldiers with orders to throw him into the deepest dungeon of the citadel. Still, Faramir could not keep his heart from trying to jump in his throat when he knocked on the door to the king’s study and awaited entry.

“Enter!” The wood of the thick doors muffled Aragorn’s voice and it gave no indication of his liege’s mood.

Taking a deep breath, Faramir opened the door and walked in. The room felt empty with none of the usual courtiers milling about. Only three people were present: the king, and two members of the former Fellowship.

“King Elessar, I am at your service,” Faramir said, bowing deeply, more formal in his greeting than he had been in years.

Not until Aragorn acknowledged his presence did he greet the other two in the chamber. “Prince Legolas, Lord Gimli.”

Legolas nodded at him, looking unperturbed in the way of the elves, but Gimli gave him a dark look full of recrimination.

Faramir made himself meet the dwarf’s gaze. It took a conscious effort to hold on to his wife’s wise words, but Éowyn had made a valid point. No matter what action he would have taken — be it to remain silent or to speak out — he would have betrayed a trust placed upon him by one very dear to his heart.

“Tell us everything,” Aragorn ordered. “From the moment you discovered Boromir’s boat upon the Anduin.”

It took Faramir the better part of the afternoon to relate Boromir’s tale up until his departure on the day of the king’s crowning. He left nothing out. He told them of Boromir’s illness, his feelings of guilt. He mentioned how his brother fought in the garb of a footsoldier during the siege of Minas Tirith, eliciting a grunted comment from Gimli. And he told them of the letters, infrequent and always long in coming.

By the time he was finished, his throat was parched and he wished for a goblet of water. Silence fell upon the chamber. Faramir risked a glance at the faces of his audience. Their expressions were the same: a myriad of conflicting emotions.

Legolas spoke first. “I do not know what to feel,” the elf admitted softly. “Should I feel angry that this was kept from us, or be relieved that our fellow warrior is still alive?”

“That bull-headed fool,” Gimli said, “I have never met a creature more obstinate!” This brought a chuckle from Legolas but Gimli did not even notice.

Aragorn looked at his friends, then at his steward. Faramir held his breath. The king’s expression did not give anything away. When he finally did react, however, it was in the least expected way: Aragorn began to laugh.

“Gimli, my old friend, you are right. Boromir has ever been stubborn. He could put the stubbornness of dwarves to shame.”

Gimli harrumphed and a smile appeared on Legolas’s face.

“But he is also a man of great valor,” the king continued. His mirth vanished and his expression grew more serious. “One I ever held in high regard.”

“My lord?” Faramir could no longer keep still. “What did happen after my brother was overcome? He never told me how he came to be on the Anduin in a boat of elven design.”

Aragorn blinked, pulled back to the present. “We dressed his wounds,” he said softly, “and carried him to the boat. Gimli was to travel with Boromir, to care for him when needed.”

“Except I was too clumsy,” Gimli added with a grumble.

“And I allowed the boat to slip from my hands before Gimli had the chance to climb in,” Aragorn finished.

For a long moment nobody spoke, each apparently occupied with his own thoughts.

“Have you decided what shall be my fate for failing you?” Faramir broke the silence at last.

“Your fate?” The king directed his gray gaze to his steward. “What would you suggest to be a just penalty?”

“‘Tis not my place to say. I put my future in your hands, my liege, as I have ever done.” Faramir sank to one knee, getting as close to begging for understanding and forgiveness as his self-respect allowed.

“You ought to be tarred and feathered and chased through the streets of Minas Tirith for this foolishness,” Gimli said. “Permitting me to believe it was my doing that led to your brother’s death. I have been feeling guilty for naught!”

“Gimli!” Legolas looked shocked. “You are talking about the Steward of Gondor. And none was at fault for what happened at the foot of the Rauros.”

Gimli snorted, apparently not quite convinced. He continued to glare at Faramir.

Aragorn chortled. “Tarred and feathered, eh? It would be hard to conduct a council meeting after presenting such a spectacle. None would take such a steward seriously.”

Were they jesting about his sentence? Aragorn caught Faramir’s expression and the smile faded.

“I have no desire for a new steward,” he said. “You have ever served me well. At least when your allegiances are not rent in two opposite directions.”

Hope flared in Faramir’s heart. Did his liege comprehend? He sighed with relief when he caught the gentle understanding in Aragorn’s gray eyes.

A twinkle of humor appeared next. “I have a most suitable doom for you,” Aragorn continued. “The pressures of my kingship oft weigh heavily on me. Long have I desired to return to the wilds, if only for a little while. And my queen tells me I enjoy the food that graces the tables a little too much. I fear she is right. So, Steward Faramir, I have decided to leave the care of the kingdom in your hands for a time, while I go off to find your wayward brother and bring him home. Leaving it to you to judge the squabbles among the nobles, or to negotiate trade agreements with the ambassador from Harad is a penalty befitting the transgression, would you not say?”

o0o

The king’s household was in chaos, the servants thrown into confusion. The chamberlain gave instructions to pack trunks with clothes and tents only to have his orders countermanded as soon as Aragorn got wind of them.

“It is not befitting for a king to travel in squalor,” the chamberlain complained to Faramir. “Please, my lord, he must take my advice in these matters. King Elessar will need valets, and cooks, and pages to run errands. A full complement of servants, nothing less will do.”

“Your advice is duly noted, Chamberlain Malbeth,” Faramir said. “Yet it is the king’s wish to travel light and unobtrusively. I do not think that anything you or I could say will change his mind.”

Muttering to himself, the chamberlain left Faramir’s office.

The captain of the tower guard was also displeased with the arrangements. “At least take a guard detail along, sire,” he said on the night before Aragorn’s departure. “For your protection.”

Aragorn chuckled. “The world is a much safer place these days than it used to be, captain.”

“But, my lord–”

“No. I shall travel with Gimli and Legolas for company, and none else. No harm shall come to me.”

“I must concur with the captain,” Faramir said once they were alone. “It would ease my mind if you took some soldiers with you. Or a company of the Ithilien Rangers. They can be inconspicuous if they want.”

“I have survived in the wilds alone for more years than you and the captain combined,” Aragorn said. “And how well would you rate my chances of finding your brother if I traveled with a company of guards? Rumors of my imminent arrival would race ahead and they could chase Boromir into hiding again.”

“Or they might not. He might reveal himself. His letters… I think he would want to come home.”

“Mayhap. But I am not taking any chances. He disappeared on me once, I will not let him do so again.”

Faramir held up his hands in surrender. Nothing he said would sway the king from his chosen path.

“That is settled, then,” Aragorn said. “Let us go over the state’s business one last time. I have drawn up orders granting you full authority to act on my behalf. Do not hesitate to use it.”

“Aye, my lord.” Faramir ran down the list of current matters in his mind. Was there anything he needed to discuss before the king left?

“I would know your mind on Cranthir of Tol Falas before you leave. His father’s sickness proceeds, and I received a second and more reliable report today that Cranthir is seeking the support of the fisher-folk of Ethir for his designs to resettle South Gondor. I do not doubt he will raise the matter again if his father passes before you return.”

“My decree stands,” Aragorn said. “The status quo in South Gondor must be maintained until we can work out an agreement with regard to the Haradric settlements. For now, I wish you to concentrate on further improving trade with Harad. If we can come to a mutually beneficial commerce relation, other affairs will be far easier to deal with. Cranthir will have to learn patience.”

o0o

The midnight hour had been called long since when Faramir finally departed the king’s house to return to his town residence. It was dark and quiet, with most of the staff gone to bed. His manservant was waiting for him with a single candle.

“The lady Éowyn has arrived from Emyn Arnen today,” he said. “She said she would wait up for you in your private chambers. I had some warm wine and fruit cakes sent up earlier.”

“Thank you.” Faramir smiled. It had been a week since he last saw his wife. The preparations for Aragorn’s journey had taken much time, too much to make the trip to Emyn Arnen, and mere thoughts of her nearness revitalized his spirit.

“Would you be needing anything else, my lord? I can wake up Cook, if you are hungry.”

“No, that is not necessary. It is late. Go to bed, I can manage.”

“Good night, then, my lord.”

The bedchamber was cold, the fire in the hearth allowed to burn low, its glow casting oddly shaped shadows. Éowyn lay on the bed, asleep. Her hair was loose and spread across the pillow. Faramir took a moment to admire her gentle beauty before he tiptoed over to draw the covers closer about her.

As soon as he touched her, Éowyn opened her eyes. “Faramir?”

“Shh,” he said. “Go back to sleep. ‘Tis late. We can talk in the morning.”

But she pushed back the covers and reached for her robe. The mulled wine had been placed near the hearth in an earthen jug and she touched it with the back of her hand. “It’s still warm.” She poured a goblet and handed it to Faramir.

“Aragorn has kept you busy?” she asked.

“Aye. He is leaving tomorrow. I doubt I will find much time to come home to Emyn Arnen while he is gone.”

“I know. That is why I returned to the city. Should I send for Elboron too?”

It would be nice to have his family near, so he could spend what little free time he had with them. “Aye.”

He held the goblet between his hands, enjoying the warmth that seeped through the pewter. “I wonder where Boromir is now,” he said softly. “What he is doing.”

Éowyn offered a chuckle. “Sleeping, I have no doubt.”

He answered her laugh with one of his own. “No doubt.”

Wrapped up in his cloak beneath a starry sky, most likely, his dog close to his side for warmth. Curious how their roles seemed to have reversed. Boromir was leading a ranger’s life, while he had taken up the stewardship, something he always believed would be Boromir’s one day.

“Do you think Aragorn will find him?” Éowyn nestled herself against him, seeking his body heat.

“If anyone can, it will be him.” He absently ran his fingers through her long hair. What would it be like to have Boromir home? To hear his boisterous laughter echo in the halls again? To share their worries, large and small? So much had changed since his brother left.

“What will happen if he does?”

Faramir could barely hear the question, muffled as her voice was against his neck. Her breath was warm on his skin.

“Aragorn wants to bring him home. Beyond that, I have no idea. There will be consequences. Political, and personal. Boromir is my father’s eldest son, his rightful heir. I have no right but to the second born’s share.”

Éowyn pulled back and looked up. Her eyes were wide. “We could lose Emyn Arnen? Our home?”

Faramir turned away from her and took a long swallow of the cooling wine. “Mayhap. We would still have the lands I did not yet return to those families holding it in fief before Ithilien was deserted. And I would own some property in Anórien. That might not be a bad place to make a home.”

“Faramir, you worked so hard to restore Emyn Arnen. ‘Twould not be right for Boromir to take that from you. Not after all this time. Not after you have kept his secret for so long.”

“My love, he would have every right.” Faramir was startled to hear the bitterness in his voice. He had poured his heart into bringing the estate back to its former glory and Éowyn had toiled many long hours to build the herb garden. They had earned the right to Emyn Arnen.

“The law of inheritance is clear, there is not much I could do about it.”

Not much, other than ask Aragorn to declare Boromir forfeited his rights when he disappeared. Would his brother truly cast him out of Emyn Arnen? What would it be like to have Boromir home?

Loss in the Weather Hills

Boromir woke from cold drizzle numbing his face. He sat and pulled his cloak tighter around him to ward off the chill. Much to his irritation, he discovered that, in spite of careful banking, the fire had gone out during the night, leaving the charred wood damp and cold. Hallas was nowhere to be seen. He suspected the lad was off checking the snares set last evening. Without a fire, however, it would be a cold and miserable breakfast, whether the traps were full or no.

He pushed himself up from the clammy ground and looked around the clearing, squinting to see beyond, among the dense trees. He was not even aware what he was searching for, until he pursed his lips in preparation for a shrill whistle.

He caught himself and cursed inwardly, letting out the deep breath slowly.

Híril was gone.

He had buried her with his own hands, and he was a fool for expecting her to come bouncing out of the undergrowth, yapping and jumping up to lick his face. But the wound was raw. For years, she had been a companion, had made him laugh, and kept him warm on cold nights. Countless times had she rescued him from doom without paying heed to her own safety — until her luck ran out at last.

Her death had happened mere days ago, in the rolling lands between the Ettenmoors and the Weather Hills. Investigating herdsmen’s gossip of a large monster stealing sheep in the deep of the night, they had come across clear footprints in the forest. Though vaguely human in shape, the prints were toeless, two inches deep and very, very big. Boromir needed both hands to cover their breadth and measured the tracks as more than three handspans long.

“A troll,” he muttered.

Hallas whistled between his teeth. “A large one, too.”

Boromir checked if his sword was loose in its scabbard. Though not smart, trolls were dangerous enemies. They were incredibly strong, hard to kill, relentless. A cave troll had come frighteningly close to killing Frodo and wiping out the Fellowship in the depths of Moria before they could stop it. It would not do to underestimate the danger such a creature could pose.

Darkness was about to fall when they reached the hole where the troll was hiding. As they approached on silent feet, Boromir could hear it waking up inside its lair, lumbering around, unaware of its enemies drawing near.

Using low-voiced commands he had fine-tuned over long usage, Boromir told Híril to stay back and keep quiet, then waved Hallas to the other side of the cave where the lad could hide in a growth of shrubbery.

Once his companions were in place, Boromir walked in front of the den. “Hullo, Ugly!” he called, bringing a muted snicker from Hallas. The inside of the cave grew silent and Boromir could almost picture the expression of dumb confusion on the troll’s face. He used the time to move further away from the cave and tighten his grip on the knife in his right hand.

Finally the insult passed through the troll’s brain and an angry roar rolled from the cave, followed by a stampeding mountain of flesh covered in dark green scales. Boromir swallowed as he got the first good look of his opponent, towering high above him. He didn’t waste time, though, and let fly the knife, aiming at the troll’s right eye.

Without checking to see if the weapon hit its mark, he drew his sword and dove for the troll’s legs. Behind the creature, Hallas sprang from his hiding place and added his sword to Boromir’s. Both weapons drew blood, yet neither disabled the troll. It howled in pain, mindlessly stamping around and kicking at anything that moved. Boromir swore while he ducked to avoid an arm as thick as an oak tree. He had hoped to incapacitate the troll in the first attack, but instead had only succeeded in enraging it further.

Híril danced around the monster on light paws, baying, her voice barely audible amidst the din of the troll’s howls. She was making sport of the attack. The troll whirled in circles, swatting at the dog the way Boromir would wave away an annoying fly.

A hidden root snared Hallas, and he tripped, arms scything like the troll’s in an attempt to keep his balance. He failed and fell face-forward into the beast’s path with a cry. His sword clattered uselessly from his grip to come to rest a few feet from his hand, out of reach. The troll hollered in triumph and raised one enormous foot, ready to trample the lad and ground him into the dirt.

Boromir’s blood froze.

“No!”

Mindless of his own safety, he rushed forward, blade held out. Híril was quicker. She howled and sprang up at the troll, aiming for its throat.

But she never reached it. A fist the size of a small boulder snatched her away and flung her across the clearing.

Boromir flinched as she crashed through the trees, whined once, then was silent. With an inarticulate shout of rage, and an agility he had not known he possessed, he clambered onto the troll’s shoulders and stabbed his sword down. The sharp steel sank between the scales; it disappeared almost to the hilt into the meaty neck. The beast let out a final growl before it tumbled forward in a mass of quivering limbs. Hallas rolled away just in time to avoid being squashed.

Panting and covered with the troll’s sticky blood, Boromir stumbled away from the corpse, into the trees.

“Híril?” he called. “Where are you, girl?”

He whistled, then stopped to listen. Somewhere to his right, a pain-filled mewl answered him. He tore through the shrubbery toward the sound and stopped short. Híril was lying on her side, gasping in quick little bursts, and in the dying light he could see her snout was wet with blood. More blood bubbled from her nostrils with every breath.

“Why?” he asked her. “Why did you have to do that?” Heartache made his voice harsh.

The dog whimpered and one leg pawed aimlessly for him as if begging for forgiveness. Boromir blinked to force back his tears and rested one hand atop the dog’s head.

“It is all right, girl. You did good.”

“How is she?”

“She is not well,” Boromir whispered, stroking her soft fur. She was dying; he knew she was in pain, and he knew the kindest thing he could do for her was to speed her along to the world beyond this one. But he was not yet ready to say farewell to the animal. She had been his first companion on his journey, a friend who gave affection with no expectations in return.

o0o

They buried her far from the troll’s cave, in a patch of forest where the ground was soft and grassy, and where Boromir suspected many flowers would bloom come full spring. The kind of place where Híril would have happily chased bees and butterflies, or dozed lazily in the patches of sunshine afterward.

If only his knife had flown true. If only his first sword thrust had slashed the creature’s tendons. If only Hallas had not tripped over the confounded root. If only…

He shook himself back to the drizzling present, startled and a bit chagrined to find his cheeks wetter than the rain could account for. It was no use to dwell on what-ifs. It would not bring her back, no matter how much he scoured his brain to find things he might have done differently. She was just another creature fallen victim to the black curse that lay on the land still. One of the many victims he had failed to save.

He cleared his throat, glancing around furtively for Hallas. But the lad had still not returned. Judging by the empty feeling in the pit of his stomach, Boromir believed it to be past sunrise, although it was hard to tell beneath the gloom of the pine trees and the dark clouds overhead. The boughs of the trees drooped, their branches heavy with moisture. Off to one side Barangol and Hallas’s pony stood, their heads down.

He would have to replace the pony, he reminded himself when his gaze landed on their mounts. Hallas had outgrown the animal. He could scarcely believe how quickly the lad had grown in the few years since Boromir had found him, alone in the woods near Ethring. If they had been in Minas Tirith, the boy would have entered into training with the army.

He rubbed his left side. The cold and damp made old wounds ache, providing a miserable reminder of why he was not in Minas Tirith, and why Hallas would not join Gondor’s armed services any time soon. Though he had left the city in search of atonement, at some point during the journey his purpose had changed; no matter how far he traveled, Boromir never found the forgiveness he sought. Still, time softens all hurts, and it was no longer a broken vow or guilt that kept him in exile, but duty. During his travels, he had seen many new things. He had traveled from the Grey Havens to the Ice Bay, and from the Blue Mountains to the Misty Mountains. He had met many peoples, been told about many different and strange customs, which he would likely have held in quiet contempt a few years ago. He had learned to love all peoples of Middle-earth, be they elf or dwarf, hobbit or man. He had found that the long fingers of Mordor’s evil reached into the farthest corners of the Reunited Kingdom. And although he knew Aragorn was doing the best he could from his kingly seat in Minas Tirith, sending forth armies and Rangers to free his people from fear, they bowed beneath the threat of surviving mountain orcs, cave trolls or Uruk-hai. So Boromir stood fast, frequently the only sword between innocent folks and gruesome death.

Still, he was growing weary of fighting and oft feared its futility; for every orc slain, two more seemed to appear from the Misty Mountains. Though that should be no surprise to him: with his own eyes had he seen the infestation of goblins within the halls and tunnels of Moria. It would be many more years before all orcs were killed. He could not resign his self-appointed mission, not while there were still so many foul creatures roaming the lands.

And even if he slew them all, still he would not be able to return to Minas Tirith. Not when so many years had passed since his departure. Everyone believed he had died during the Ring War. What could he tell them, should he return? Why upset the order of things? What would it gain him?

Though the depressing thoughts kept Boromir’s mind busy, his hands were not idle. He searched for dry sticks, finding them buried deep beneath dead leaves and pine needles. Soon, he had a small fire going, feeding it carefully with larger, slightly damp branches.

“Breakfast will be ready soon,” a voice said behind him.

Startled, Boromir whirled around to see Hallas grinning down at him, holding up the furry bodies of two rabbits with a triumphant grin. Boromir offered him a wry nod. Stealth came as natural to Hallas as breathing; he was truly a trapper’s son and a skill learned as a child was something one never forgot. With Híril gone so she could not spoil his fun any longer, the lad seemed to make it a sport to sneak up on Boromir unnoticed, despite the dire warnings that one of these days Boromir would spit him on his sword before realizing he was no enemy.

“Good.”

Boromir moved away from the fire, leaving it to Hallas to skin the rabbits and prepare them. Since he had proven to be the better cook, the lad usually took care of their meals. Boromir grimaced at the thought of more roasted rabbit for breakfast. Yet, he chided himself, he should not complain. Even unseasoned, roasted rabbit far outrivaled the few crusts of moldy bread in their saddlebags . Those would have been their morning fare if the boy’s traps had remained empty. But he longed for a true breakfast, for sausages sizzling with fat, and fresh eggs, and buttered bread still warm from the oven. Soon, he promised himself.

There should be a village called Gowan among the South Downs, less than a half-day’s travel away. They could rest there for a while, enjoy such breakfasts as he longed for, perhaps even sell the pony and purchase a horse for Hallas.

And have a decent bath, Boromir added silently, his nose wrinkling when he caught a whiff of himself. He stank worse than an orc-burrow; and so did the boy.

o0o

Gowan proved to be farther than expected, and it was long past noon when they crested the last hill. Below, in a vale covered with winter’s brown grass, the village sprawled.

It wasn’t much of a village. Too small, even, to have any defensive works beyond a rudimentary earthen wall that would not be of true use in case of an attack. A single rut track ran through the settlement. Most dwellings were low-roofed homes made from plastered wood and clay, small lean-tos for animals crouched against their walls. Scattered among the tenements stood a handful of two-storied stone houses with thatched roofs. Smoke drifted from chimneys. In the cold, damp weather, the smoke promised warmth and a chance to dry out. Boromir’s stomach rumbled, reminding him they had not eaten anything since breakfast.

Without exchanging a word, he and Hallas urged their mounts into a trot. Even the horses perked up a little at the thought of dry stables and soft hay underneath their hooves and they quickly reached the bottom of the slope. A gaggle of small children, busy kicking a leather ball back and forth, stopped their play and turned to look with large eyes and unsmiling faces at the strangers. One little girl stuffed her thumb into her mouth while she stared unabashedly.

A man appeared in the opening of the nearest building. His sooty face and stained apron marked him as a blacksmith, yet he gripped the handle of a long ax in his hands while he studied the horsemen. Boromir sighed at the veiled hostility. It was the same everywhere in the north: people were very suspicious of strangers, on their guard and cautious. He longed for the day when such wariness was no longer of first priority and people felt secure enough to approach strangers with cordiality.

“A good day to you, master smith,” Boromir greeted the man. He tried to appear as harmless as possible, tugging his cloak closer about his sword so as not to further alarm the villager with its sight. But he knew it was difficult to allay the suspicion. He and Hallas were shabby and unkempt, and he could not hide that he was a tall, hard-muscled man with the look of a soldier, or that Hallas was growing into a stout young fellow.

“I am called Erandír, and this is Hallas. We have traveled far and are weary. Pray tell, is there an inn or lodging house in your village where we might find bath and bed and food? Or a hayloft will do, as long as it’s dry.”

The man’s stance relaxed a bit at Boromir’s courteous address and he took in both travelers from head to foot. The children inched closer, whispering amongst themselves in a Westron dialect that reminded Boromir somewhat of hobbit voices or the Bree folk. At last, the smith nodded, and Boromir felt they had passed muster.

“Ask the widow Gooseberry,” the man said. He pointed out one of the stone houses to Boromir. “She has a room she sometimes lets to travelers, those few that journey this far. You might find lodgings with her.”

“I thank you, master smith. One other question, before I leave you to your work. My companion is in need of a proper horse.” Boromir grinned. “As you can see, he has outgrown his pony.”

The smith nodded with a slight smile of his own. “You could ask old Frayr. Mayhap he has a horse fit for riding that he’s willing to sell. But don’t let him know how desperately the lad needs a new mount, or he’ll drive up his price.”

o0o

The Gooseberry home had seen better days. The thatch on its roof was gray-green with moss and the shutters beside the windows could do with a lick of fresh paint. Yet the glass was clean, the stoop was swept, and an orange glow flickered behind one of the windows.

Two children ran up. Boromir recognized them from the group playing in the dirt at the edge of the village. The girl, perhaps six years of age, no longer sucked her thumb but still looked at them with open curiosity. The boy was a little older, maybe ten years old. One glance told Boromir they were siblings; their likeness was too obvious to overlook. They both had dark curls — the girl’s longer than her brother’s — and deep blue eyes.

The boy spoke first. “Would you be needing lodging, sirs?” he asked.

Boromir nodded. The boy nudged his sister. “Go get Ma. Tell her there are travelers at the door.” The girl hopped up the stoop and disappeared into the house.

“Shall I take the horses, master?” the boy asked. “We have a small shed behind the house, where they will be dry and warm. I’ll take good care of them.”

“Please do.” Boromir dismounted and loosened his saddlebags. After a moment, Hallas followed his example and slung his pack over his shoulder.

“They will be pleased to be out of the rain.” Boromir handed the boy a copper coin. “Feed them some oats, if you have it. Or grain.”

“Aye, sir.” The boy waited until both travelers had finished unloading their packs and began to lead Barangol and Hallas’s pony around the house.

“I could have looked after the horses,” Hallas murmured.

“I know you could,” Boromir replied. “They can use the money, though.”

At that moment, the front door to the house opened and a woman bustled through. She appeared to be in her late thirties, with a few gray hairs streaking through her dark locks — curly, like the childrens’. “My daughter tells me you need lodging?”

“Aye. Are you the widow Gooseberry?”

“That I am,” she confirmed. “My husband, bless his heart, passed away some years back. I have been taking in the occasional lodger to provide some extra income for my children. With Gowan not having a proper inn and all– But I am babbling, while you are out getting wet in the rain. Please, my apologies. Come on in.” She stepped aside and waved Boromir and Hallas inside.

Boromir did not think the drizzle could make them any wetter than they already were, despite their oilskin capes, but he was glad to be out of the damp and chill. The room he entered was warm, with a cheery fire crackling in the hearth. Hallas went straight to the fire, holding out his hands and rubbing them together in an attempt to get warm. Almost instantly, his wet clothes began to give off steam, pervading the room with the unpleasant smell of wet wool.

“Please, sit by the fire where it’s warm,” Mrs. Gooseberry urged, barely refraining from shoving Boromir to join Hallas near the flames. “I’ll make up your room, and Alvin here will draw you a bath.”

A big, hulking man filled the doorway. The frizz in his dark hair and the blue of his eyes marked him as another family member. Something was odd about the man, though. He shuffled his feet, and stared at Boromir and Hallas with the dull eyes of a simpleton.

“Alvin?” Slowly his gaze traveled to Mrs. Gooseberry. “Be a dear, and go heat up bathwater for our guests.”

Alvin nodded before he trudged off deeper into the house.

She turned back. “My brother, he was born that way,” she said softly. “He grew up all muscle and no brain. He wouldn’t harm a fly, though, big as he is, unless that fly would threaten me or the children.” She smiled fondly.

Boromir nodded. With a brother like Alvin to watch over her, she was safe enough, even when letting strangers sleep beneath her roof.

“Gertie?” Mrs. Gooseberry called. The little girl appeared in the doorway.

“Gertie, honey, bring our guests some posset and a bowl of broth from the kitchen.”

At the mention of broth, Hallas’s insides growled so loudly that it could be heard over the crackle of the fire. The lad gave an embarrassed shrug and Boromir chortled.

“Mistress Gooseberry, you seem to know exactly what we need.”

She blushed a little. “‘Tis my job, sir. We take good care of our guests here, few as they are.”

While their hostess scurried away to prepare their room, the fire warmed Boromir on the outside while the posset and soup took care of his insides, quelling the hunger pangs for the moment. Hallas gulped down the soup quickly, and was happy to accept Gertie’s hesitant offer for another bowl. The little girl giggled shyly when he thanked her profusely and Boromir hid a grin behind his cup of wine.

A pity he would never have the chance to introduce Hallas to Gondor’s courtly ladies. The lad’s charms would not be lost on the flighty creatures.

o0o

‘Twas not long ere Mrs. Gooseberry announced the bath was ready. “I am sorry,” she told Boromir with a regretful shake of her head. “I have only one tub so you and your friend will have to take turns.”

Boromir exchanged a glance with Hallas. The lad, enjoying his second mug of posset and third helping of soup, grinned mischievously.

“You go first, Erandír. You’re bigger than me so you are in need of a bath more.”

“Mind your tongue, boy,” Boromir growled in mock anger. “You are not yet big enough that I cannot put you over my knee.”

Gertie’s eyes grew round at his words and Boromir winked at her before he followed Mrs. Gooseberry through the narrow hallway to a room in the back of the house.

“If you would give me your garments, sir,” she said while opening the door, “I shall have them cleaned and mended ere the morrow. You can leave them outside the door.”

“You are a most gracious hostess,” Boromir said. “I will gladly avail myself of that offer.”

The room Mrs. Gooseberry showed him to was not very large, and the wood tub filled with steaming water took up most of the space.

“There is soap and a towel on the stool,” she pointed. “If you need aught else, please let me know.”

“I shall,” Boromir said. He eyed the tub with longing. Sweet-scented mist rose from its surface, fogging the room and condensing upon the windowpane. So eager was he to immerse himself in the inviting bath and wash off the mud and dirt that he could barely wait for Mrs. Gooseberry to leave. As soon as the door shut behind her, he stripped off his tunic and breeches, and dropped them on the floor in the hallway. He shoved his saddlebags roughly out of the way into a corner and lowered himself in the tub.

A deep, contented sigh escaped from his chest when the hot water enclosed his weary limbs. It dragged the chill from his bones, and as his muscles relaxed, the old wounds stopped aching. He rested his head against the rim of the tub and closed his eyes, enjoying the pleasure of warmth for as long as he could.

Not until the water began to cool did he reach for the soap and lathered up. He shuddered with disgust when he noticed the spatters of dried troll blood that cold mountain streams had failed to wash away. He was dunking his head beneath the surface to rinse the suds from his hair when shouts rose outside. He sat up, frowning and straining to listen more closely.

While water dripped onto his bare shoulders and his exposed skin pebbled with the chill, more shouts and screams came to him. To a soldier of Boromir’s experience, the noises were unmistakable. Frightened cries. A woman screaming. And amidst it all, the guttural shouts of orcs.

Orcs!

He growled a curse and scrambled out of the tub. Heedless of the puddle he made on Mrs. Gooseberry’s polished floor, he snatched his sword from its scabbard and flung open the door, reaching for the pants he had put out a short while before. But his hands only touched bare floor boards. Perry or Mrs. Gooseberry must have already taken them away to be cleaned.

Spirits, what to do? For a moment he hesitated, looking around in a near panic, searching for his pack and debating whether he should take the time to dig his spare breeches from his bags, when another shriek filled with terror made up his mind.

Not wasting another second, he snatched the towel from the chair, dragged it around his hips, raised his sword, and bounded down the hallway and out the front door.

He found the village in an uproar. It had stopped raining but darkness had fallen and the confusion was great. Through the flickering light of torches, he saw several gnarled shadows, the flames glinting off breastplates and hooked swords. The orcs were dragging villagers out of their homes, casting them in the mud of the street, all the while laughing and cursing in their native tongue.

To the left, an orc raised a howl that cut off abruptly and Boromir’s head whipped around. Hallas stood panting over a twitching form, his sword dripping with dark blood, a satisfied smirk on his face. The lad was unaware of a second orc approaching from behind, ready to skewer him with the blade of his black sword.

Boromir let out a shout of warning, slipping through the mud to Hallas’s aid, knowing he was too far away. Looming over the pair, Alvin hulked from the shadows; he snapped the orc’s neck with his bare hands, roaring something unintelligible while he dropped the body in a heap of black armor.

Boromir breathed with relief. Yet, he was given no chance to thank the man, orcs came upon him from three sides. His sword slashed in wide arcs, seeking the foul creatures without discrimination. The sharp blade danced among the attackers and cut through flesh and bone, turning surprised cries quickly into angry curses and screams of pain.

“Elessar!” he shouted. “Gondor!”

Those battle cries had grown legendary among the orcs of the northern reaches, causing terror and dismay in those who heard it and this band was no different. They had expected a village filled with shepherds, farmers and craftsmen to be an easy prey; they found fierce and deadly resistance instead.

The orc captains called the retreat and they stampeded off, leaving Boromir standing in the middle of the street.

Boromir rested the tip of his sword in the mud, leaning on it while he tried to catch his breath. His hair hung in limp strands, clinging about his face, eyes still burning with battle fever.

A giggle, quickly growing in volume, caught his ear. Hallas stood a few feet away, a gash over his right eye dripping blood onto his cheek. Yet he was grinning like a mad man and for a long moment, Boromir stared at him, wondering if the boy’s mind had snapped. Then Hallas pointed.

“Erandír! You–” More giggles stopped him from speaking. “You are naked!”

Boromir gazed down his own body, realizing the boy was right. Streaked with blood and gore, only a miracle protected the last smidgen of his dignity where the towel still clung to his hips. In the heat of the fight, he had all but forgotten about his state of undress. He looked up, ready to retort, but found himself in the middle of a circle of goggling villagers and the words died on his lips. Inwardly, he groaned. Had they never seen a naked man with a sword before?

But then he saw their eyes. Those eyes were wide and filled with something that held both fear and respect. It was not the kind of look he would expect in response to his nudity and for long moments he was confused.

“‘Tis him,” a woman whispered. “Agân-‘nUruk, the Slayer of Orcs.” A shock rippled through the crowd.

At once Boromir understood. It was not his state of undress that caused the villagers to gawk; it was his reputation that preceded him. He was not convinced the other would not have been preferable.

I am no hero! he wanted to shout. I do not deserve your worship. But it would be of no use to tell them so. People believed what they wished to believe.

A wail cut through the whispers, silencing them.

“Gertie? Gertie? Oh dear Eru, they took my baby!”

Reunion

Dusk was falling fast, turning the shadows a deep black-blue. Bree-hill rose from the surrounding flatlands, a black shape silhouetted against the darkening sky. Little dots of light sprang up at the hill’s foot as the people of Bree lit lamps to ward off the night. Aragorn reined in his horse and waited for Legolas and Gimli to catch up.

“How much further do you plan to travel today?” Gimli asked. “It is getting late and my insides are grumbling for sustenance.”

“And they do not do so in silence,” Legolas added.

Gimli snorted in response and shifted in his seat behind the elf. He grimaced as several of his joints made a popping noise. “Soon my bones will take on the shape of this horse’s back.”

Aragorn grinned at the grouchy dwarf. He had learned long ago that Gimli’s bark was far worse than his bite.

“It is not much further,” he assured Gimli. He pointed at the cluster of lights. “Only to the town. We must make haste, though, or we may find the gate closed for the night.”

Gimli harrumphed. “Aragorn, you are the king. If they have closed it, you can simply order them to open it. They would not dare keep you out.”

“Mayhap not. But I prefer to continue keeping my presence unknown. If Boromir should learn of our coming–”

“He had better not run again!” Gimli interrupted. “I have no wish to chase his accursed hide all over the known world. I am a dwarf, I am not made for riding.”

“We shall find him, my friend,” Legolas said. “The rumors tell us he is near.”

“Yeh, yeh. But time’s awasting! Let us not tarry any longer. Go, Legolas. Get this beast moving. Warm beds and hot food are waiting for us.”

o0o

They reached Bree a quarter hour later. The gatekeeper was preparing to close the gate when the hooves of the horses echoed on the bridge spanning the protective dike that surrounded the town.

“Oi, hold up!” Gimli cried. “Let us pass first.”

The guardsman stopped shoving at the gate and grabbed his torch to cast a light onto the travelers. He appraised them with a long look.

“Well, my!” he said, startled. “It’s not oft one sees the little folk travel with men. And on horseback, no less!”

“That is not by choice, I assure you,” Gimli said. “No offense to this fine beast, of course.” He reached to pat the horse’s flank. “But I must correct you. I am not a hobbit. I am of the race of dwarves.”

“A dwarf, say you! I beg pardon. I’ve never seen one of the Stone-masters. I must say I did think you were a mite tall for a hobbit.”

“Hmm.” Gimli sounded placated. “I bet you have never seen an elf either, have you?”

“Gimli!”

Even as he spoke, Aragorn knew the caution came too late. And it did not matter, really. The people of Bree would learn of them soon enough; to see a man, elf and dwarf travel together and visit their quiet village was bound to set tongues wagging. He would just have to hope that they found Boromir before word of their presence reached him. Boromir might have been a fool for leaving, he was not stupid. He would know who they were, and might disappear quietly again. Gimli was right about one thing: they could not chase Boromir all over the kingdom.

“An elf, master dwarf?” The gatekeeper raised his torch a little higher, closer to their faces. “By the spirits! You speak true.” His eyes had widened and his tone was a curious mixture of awe and alarm. He gave Legolas a bow. “My apologies to you also. I have never seen such as you either.”

Legolas did not seem perturbed in the least by the man’s behavior. He gave him a quick nod and an enigmatic smile.

The gatekeeper turned toward Aragorn. “And you, sir? Are you a man, as you appear? You understand, I mean no offense but I must ask these questions or I would be remiss in my duties.”

“I am as I appear,” Aragorn said. “A man, like yourself.”

Gimli gave a soft chuckle, earning him a glare from Aragorn.

“I traveled to Bree often in my younger days. Pray tell, does the Prancing Pony still serve the finest fare in town?”

“Aye, sir, that it does.”

“Then would you let us pass already?” Gimli growled. “I have a strong desire for good food and a soft bed tonight.”

“Oh. Yes, of course. Beggin’ your pardon.” The gatekeeper scurried aside and waved for them to enter. Roheryn squeezed through the small gap, barely wide enough for a single horse, that was left between the gate and its post. Arod followed closely.

Aragorn glanced back over his shoulder once they were in the streets of Bree. The gatekeeper was staring after them, his job and the gate momentarily forgotten. Aragorn sighed. News of their arrival would have reached every household in Bree by midnight. At least the gatekeeper had not recognized him as the ranger Strider. Aragorn did not know how widely spread the knowledge was that Strider and the new king in distant Gondor were one and the same person, and for the time being he had no particular desire to find out. It would complicate their search greatly.

They trotted further up the road, leaving the Westgate behind, until they reached the Prancing Pony. To Aragorn’s pleasure, the inn appeared much as he remembered it; if anything, the three-storied building looked even more inviting to a wearied traveler than it had before. The whitewashed walls of the stables were clearly visible despite the darkness of the night. The windows of the common room glowed with a warm yellow light. Muted laughter and snatches of song drifted out to mingle with the aroma of roasting pork from the kitchens.

“Ah,” Gimli sighed. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. “That smells delicious! I hope they have made enough; I am so hungry, I believe I could eat a horse — oh!”

The last was a startled cry when Arod sidestepped abruptly, nearly unseating the dwarf. Only a quick grab for Legolas’s cloak kept him from falling off.

Legolas leaned forward and stroked the horse’s neck. “Avaro naeth, mellon nín.”

Twisting in the saddle, he added to Gimli, “You should watch your tongue. Arod might refuse to carry you any further. And how will we ever find Boromir if we have to travel at the pace of dwarven legs?”

Gimli glared at his companion, muttering something below his breath. Aragorn’s sharp ears could not quite make out the words, but he thought he detected something about being glad to never see the backside of a horse again. Out loud, though, Gimli said, “I did not say I would eat a horse, I said I could.”

Aragorn chortled and urged Roheryn to pass under the archway into the courtyard. He was happy to see it was Bob, the hostler of old, who greeted them and promised to see to the horses. Bob did not seem to recognize him either, but then Aragorn had never had much business in the stables during his ranger days; he usually visited Bree on foot.

Once assured that the horses were in good hands, he led the others back through the archway and up the steps to the inn’s entrance. He froze at the top of the stairs. For a moment he was unsure why, yet certain that something was not as it should be. Then it came to him. The letters above the door: they read The Prancing Pony by Archibald Butterbur. Aragorn felt a pang of sadness, mixed with a smidgen of guilt. Barliman Butterbur, the old cheerful innkeep, was one of many he had failed to keep safe from danger. He knew the thought was foolish, that nobody expected him to be personally responsible for every single subject of the kingdom, but still, he felt blameworthy.

“Aragorn? Is something wrong?” Legolas’s voice was soft behind him.

Aragorn gave a start. “No. Not wrong. Just… different.”

“What’s the holdup?” Gimli complained from the bottom of the steps. “Let us go sample some of that roast. Some fine ale would not go amiss either, I would say.”

Legolas chuckled and said softly so only Aragorn could hear, “You best continue, my friend. Or I fear Gimli will go through both of us to get to the food.”

The common room was packed to capacity. Aragorn stopped again in the doorway, watching the crowd enjoy pints of ale. Red-faced maids waved their way through the mass of bodies, their arms filled with tankards as they tried to keep up with demand.

“C’mon laddie,” came Gimli’s voice from the hallway. “Keep moving.” He shoved past Legolas and Aragorn so he could see for himself why the others had stopped once more.

“Oh.” He sounded disappointed. “I do hope they slaughtered a big enough pig.”

Aragorn laughed at the dwarf’s singlemindedness regarding his dinner. It reminded him of the hobbits they were to meet in Bree, how they managed to eat enough food for someone thrice their stature, and in the direst of circumstances too.

“Do not worry, Gimli. If memory does not fail me, today has been market day. Most of these folk have come only for drink and will soon go home for dinner. We merely have arrived at the busiest time.”

“So you have indeed, good sirs!” a cheerful voice broke in.

Aragorn turned on his heels to watch the newcomer. He was a short, thickset man with a ruddy face and wearing a white apron upon which he was wiping his hands.

“You must be Archibald Butterbur.”

“Aye, so I am, indeed. How may I help you?” Butterbur replied.

“We are looking for lodging,” Aragorn said. “And dinner. My good friend Gimli here,” he placed one hand upon the dwarf’s shoulder, “has not stopped talking about your pork roast ever since he first caught a whiff of it out in the street.”

Butterbur gave a hearty laugh. “You will find it to your liking, I can assure you! I fear you may have to wait a spell, though. As you can see, our common room is full. It will be perhaps another quarter hour before we can properly set out a table.”

“I believe,” Aragorn said, forestalling the protests he feared from Gimli at any further delays, “that you have a private dining room available?”

Butterbur’s brow furrowed. “We do, indeed. But I am afraid it is already occupied. I have some of the little folk visiting, and I feared they might get trampled in the crowd, so I put them up in the other room.” He gave an apologetic shrug and was forced aside when two burly farmers exited the common room and made for the outer door.

“G’night, Butterbur,” they said.

“Goodnight, Alden, Woody,” Butterbur replied absently, his mind still on how to best serve the interests of his new guests.

“Those little folk,” Legolas asked, “are they from the Shire, by chance? If they are, they might be the friends we were hoping to meet here.”

Butterbur’s face brightened. “Aye, they did come from the Shire, sir! Come, come, let us see if they are your friends.”

Pleased at the prospect of being able to keep everyone happy and not having to make his guests wait for their dinner, Butterbur scrambled ahead. Many lamps lit the hallway, reflecting off the wood paneling that was polished to a shine, casting the inn in a cheerful light. They turned a corner and the din from the common room faded to a dull roar, occasionally broken by a burst of loud laughter.

Butterbur stopped before a door and rapped his knuckles on the wood. “Pardon the intrusion, little masters,” he said while opening the door, “but these gentlemen believe they might be friends of yours.”

He put himself out of the way and allowed Aragorn a good look of the room and its occupants. Sam, Merry and Pippin sat around the table, their chins barely clearing the surface though thick cushions had been put on their seats. The table was laden with enough food for a state banquet and mouthwatering smells rose from the dishes.

“Strider!” Pippin slipped down from his chair and raced over, waving a half-eaten chicken leg around. “And Legolas! And Gimli!” He reached with his free hand and gently tugged the dwarf’s beard.

“Eh! Watch it!”

Pippin chuckled, his grin widening. “Just making sure my eyes aren’t deceiving me.”

“Hmm. Next time, go… go…” Gimli threw a desperate look around, searching for an alternative. “Go pull on the elf’s pointy ears!”

“Can’t.” Pippin giggled. “He’s too tall.”

“Arrumph.”

Aragorn bit his cheek to keep from laughing. He felt his insides warm in the glow of friendship and bonds forged through shared hardships. It was the kind of bond that would never break; it would last over many, many years, and it would not matter if they visited each other’s home often or not. Still, it was good to see the hobbits and he was doubly glad he had decided to make the journey.

“You look well… sir,” Sam said, adding the honorific a little hesitantly.

“Hush, Sam,” Aragorn said. He cast a look over his shoulder, but Butterbur had already disappeared, no doubt to see to his many guests in the common room who were clamoring for another keg of beer to be brought out. “Call me Aragorn.”

“Yes, Sam,” Merry said with a smile, “He’s in disguise, remember?”

Sam looked unhappy. “‘Tis not right, I say,” he muttered.

“Is that pork roast I see?” Gimli said, changing the subject to what was dearest to his heart. He pointed at one of the dishes on the table.

“Aye, it is!” Pippin said. He gave an exaggerated bow and a wide sweep of his arm in invitation. “Though we missed dinner, we are happy to share our supper with you, Gimli. There are chicken legs, also, and smoked ham and pie and apples, and lots of other tasty dishes as well.”

o0o

While they enjoyed their evening meal, they exchanged news and gossip. Aragorn kept quiet, listening mostly, simply enjoying the uncomplicated camaraderie. He had not fully realized how burdensome the responsibilities of his kingship could be until he shed them, however temporarily. He sometimes missed the simple ranger’s life, where one’s worries often did not extend beyond where the next meal would come from, or where to make a bed at night.

The hobbits divided an entire meatpie among themselves before handing Gimli the plate with a few left-over crumbs. Aragorn hid the smile that formed unbidden as he caught the look of dismay on Gimli’s face. It would never cease to amaze him how much food the hobbit-kind could devour, and then still be hungry for more. It had been a source of endless amazement ever since he first encountered their race.

Not about to be outdone, Gimli snatched the last chicken leg from beneath Pippin’s hand. Pippin looked taken aback for an instant, then he shrugged and reached for an apple.

There was a soft knock on the door. It opened a moment later, and Nob entered. He held a large pitcher of ale in one hand and a plate of steaming sausages in the other. Behind him one of the kitchen boys carried in a tray filled with more sizzling dishes. “Master Butterbur thought you might want some more food,” he said.

Gimli’s face lit up. “And he is most right! Come, come, put those here.” He rapped his fingers on the tabletop in front of him. “Those hobbits are robbers; they would steal the food from a dwarf’s mouth if given the chance.”

Nob frowned for a moment at Gimli, not sure if the dwarf was jesting or not. He placed pitcher and plate on the table before his gaze fell upon Aragorn. Recognition dawned on his face.

“Oh, hello, Mr. Strider. It’s been a while since…” His voice trailed off and he gave a puzzled look. He cast an uncertain glance at the hobbits, who were too entranced with the new dishes to notice.

“They,” Nob indicated the hobbits with a dip of his head, “told the old Mr. Butterbur that you are…” Again he stopped himself short.

Aragorn could easily read the thoughts on Nob’s face and took pity upon the hapless hobbit. Though he wished to remain unknown as long as possible, he was not about to deny who he was. “What they said about me is true,” he said. “But you would earn my gratitude if you kept my presence quiet. Not many here would still know to associate me with the ranger of yore and thus recognize me for who I am. And for the moment I like it that way.”

Nob, who had turned pale at Aragorn’s admission, nodded his head vigorously. “Of course… sire. My lips are sealed.” He made an awkward leg and was about to turn away when he stopped. “My lord… Have you come to help with the search?”

Aragorn had not an inkling what Nob was talking about but the hobbit looked at him with such eagerness to hear the answer that he didn’t have the heart to say so. “Tell me more about this search.”

Relief spread over Nob’s face. “Oh, I knew help would come!” His outcry was loud enough that it silenced the conversation of the others. They turned their attention to Aragorn and Nob.

“I told Mr. Butterbur the rangers have never let us down. And with the king himself to help–”

“Hush, Nob,” Aragorn admonished him. “Nobody is to know, remember?”

Nob blushed deeply. “I’m sorry. It is just such a comfort to have you here, sire. One of them is my cousin, you see. His name’s Willy, Willy Sandybanks.”

“Tell me everything,” Aragorn ordered. Nob was not making much sense but his distress and relief were genuine. Aragorn worried if he had tarried too long in Gondor and should have traveled north sooner. “And start from the beginning.”

“First we heard of it was when folk started traveling up the Greenway,” Nob began, wringing his hands. “Some of their townsmen disappeared and were never seen or heard from, they said. We Bree-folk did not pay much attention at first. People from the south have always been a bit odd, you know. But then people around here started disappearing. My cousin, he’s from Staddle. He went to the forest to collect spring onions, but he never came home. Folks say it’s orcs that took them. Just like they took old Mr. Butterbur!” He burst into tears and rubbed his face with a slip of his apron. “Poor Willy. If that’s true, I will never see him again.”

Yrch,” Legolas muttered in a voice filled with disgust. With the single word, he managed to convey the age-long hatred his people harbored for the twisted elves from Mordor. Aragorn gestured for him to keep quiet.

“How long ago is it that your cousin vanished?”

“Four days, my lord. His friend Drogo went missing at the same time. There is talk in the common room about mounting a search party.” Again, he wiped his eyes. “But I fear that’s the ale talking. On the morrow, they will not be so brave.”

“Aragorn will find your cousin,” Pippin said. “Will you not?”

Aragorn hesitated. Searching for missing hobbits and chasing after orcs was not what he had envisioned when they embarked on their journey north. But how could he resist the look of trust in Nob’s eyes? And had he not felt guilty over not being able to protect all his subjects mere moments ago? What sort of a king would he be, if he did not help his people when he was needed?

He gave a curt nod, and Nob exhaled in relief. “I will try,” Aragorn said. “If your cousin is still alive, we will find him.”

“Thank you, my lord!” For a moment, Aragorn feared Nob would drop to his knees and embrace his ankles in gratitude but then the hobbit pulled himself together. “I will not tell anyone who you are,” he repeated before he rushed from the room.

“Well, that is just splendid!” Gimli grunted. He pushed his empty plate away and leaned back. “I thought we had come all the way here to find that misguided fool. Now I learn that the plans have changed and we are going off on an orc chase.”

“Are you not pleased to see our friends, then?” Legolas asked quietly. “That alone should have made the journey worthwhile.”

Gimli’s face darkened beneath his beard. He blinked, chastened. “Well… Of course! Gladly I would have traveled twice as far to see our fair hobbit friends. But… but…” He glared at Aragorn for a moment, then sighed as a satisfied belch escaped him. “Ah well. It has been a while since my axe tasted orc necks. Might as well give it something useful to do while we’re here.”

“That is settled then,” Legolas said.

A pungent scent began to permeate the room. Merry and Pippin had lit up their pipes and were puffing contentedly. Pippin pushed a leather pouch in Aragorn’s direction.

“Here, Strider. Have some.”

“Tis Longbottom Leaf,” Merry said through a cloud of smoke.

“First harvest in four years,” Pippin added. “And still the best in the South Farthing.”

“So, indulge yourself, my friend.”

“Or has your lady made you give it up?” Pippin’s eyes gleamed with mischief.

Aragorn laughed. “She has tried,” he admitted. He pulled his own pipe from his tunic, ignoring the pained look on Legolas’s face, and began stuffing its bowl with a clump of pipeweed. “But it was one thing I would not give up. So we have an agreement: I do not smoke indoors, and Arwen will not complain when I do so elsewhere.” He passed the pouch on to Gimli. Legolas’s expression turned even gloomier.

Pippin nodded pensively as he blew out another puff. “That sounds like a kingly arrangement.”

“Pippin!” Sam heaved a deep sigh. “Stop poking fun at… at Aragorn. It is not seemly!”

“I will,” Pippin said around the stem of his pipe, “if he tells us what was so secret that it could not be said in a letter.”

“Aye,” Merry agreed. “I take it that is not orc hunting!”

Aragorn felt the smile melt from his face. The time had come; he could no longer avoid the reason why he had come, and he did not relish the thought. He had no idea how the hobbits would react to the news of Boromir’s survival. He still was not sure how best to tell them, although he had had many weeks in the saddle to think on it.

“The news I have to tell you will be as startling to you as it was to us when we first learned of it, not three months ago.”

“Then perhaps,” Merry said, “we should send for another pitcher of ale first.” He upended his pipe and emptied the ashes onto one of the dirty dinner plates.

“I shall go,” Gimli offered.

Aragorn pondered what he would say long enough for Gimli to return with not one but two full pitchers of frothing beer. Legolas raised an eyebrow. Gimli placed the pitchers on the table before he shrugged at the elf. “I thought two pitchers would be better than one. We might have need for it.” Legolas nodded in understanding.

“Aragorn? You’re beginning to frighten me.” There was not a trace of humor left in Pippin’s tone and he looked grim. “Is it such bad news that you dare not tell us?”

“No. No, ’tis not bad news at all. I am just unsure how to say it.” He cast a quick glance at Legolas and Gimli but that one look told him they would be of no help. He sighed. He recalled how difficult it had been to explain what Faramir had finally revealed to him. He remembered their response, such an echo of his own — anger intertwined with relief, joy, disbelief, the sense of betrayal — and knew there was no gentle way to break the news to Sam, Merry and Pippin.

“‘Tis about Boromir,” he said softly. “I have learned that he did not die when we sent him down the river.” Gimli made a soft noise and gulped down a large swallow of ale. “Boromir survived. He lives still.”

For long minutes, the room was utterly quiet. Behind the closed door, Aragorn could hear muted sounds from the common room and the clink of dishes being stacked in the kitchens. The three hobbits did not move; they seemed frozen. Pipes and tankards were forgotten, the beer slowly going flat as they stared at Aragorn. Only their faces betrayed their thoughts, and an entire spectrum of feelings crossed their features.

Finally, as if on cue, Merry and Pippin unfroze and jumped up at the same instant. “What? How? What happened? Where is he?” The questions came flying at last.

“Why would he do such a thing?” Sam asked, his voice much quieter. “Mr. Frodo would have been so pleased to know. And now I can never tell him.” He looked sad and his eyes glistened. Even with Frodo gone from Middle-earth forever, Sam’s first thought was to his master’s well-fare. It tore Aragorn’s heart and for a brief moment, his anger at Boromir flared anew.

“Because he is a stubborn fool,” Gimli snorted. He had not forgotten the needless guilt Boromir had caused him to feel for many years.

“He was ashamed,” Aragorn said. “He did try to take the ring from Frodo. He blamed himself for your capture at the hands of the orcs. In Boromir’s eyes, it meant he had failed when he was most needed.”

“But that’s ridiculous!” Pippin cried. “Boromir defended us. I will never forget how hard he fought so we could flee. And I have always believed he died trying to help us.” He dropped back onto his seat, hard, looking suddenly older than his years. “That’s what I told his father.”

“He did not die that day,” Aragorn repeated. He was stunned with the sudden realization that they had never fully spoken about what happened on Amon Hen or about Boromir’s fate. At first, too many urgent things had demanded their attention to take the time. And once the war was over, the exact details no longer seemed to matter. What was done, was done, and dwelling upon it too painful. They had mourned Boromir’s passing together, even if the exact method of that passing was different in everyone’s perception. He regretted never having talked in more detail with his small friends.

“I saw him fall,” Merry muttered. “Pierced with many arrows.”

“Aragorn saved him,” Legolas said.

“Aye,” Gimli added, “and then we lost him again when we let the boat slip.”

“Boat?” Merry asked, confused.

Aragorn gave a quick account of what happened. He explained that they had found Boromir on the brink of death. He told how he had managed to stop his bleeding and keep Boromir alive, and how they had placed him in one of the elven boats for quick transport toward Minas Tirith where they might help him better. Gimli looked at the floor when Aragorn mentioned how the boat had escaped from his grasp.

“I presumed him perished,” he concluded, “and never dared discuss it again. Denethor held the broken Horn of Gondor and I assumed that was all that was left of Boromir. I am sorry for not speaking sooner.”

Silence again reigned, as the three hobbits tried to come to grips with this unexpected turn of events.

“So, where is he?” Merry broke the silence at last.

“Yes, where?” Pippin added. “I have a few choice words to say to him!”

“You will have to wait your turn, laddie,” Gimli said.

“We know not where he is, exactly,” Aragorn said. “He is not far from Bree, that much we have learned. It appears he spent the last few years here in the north.”

“He must miss Gondor terribly,” Sam said. His eyes were distant, as if he were again feeling the desolation of being far from home, never knowing if he would ever return.

“We know by what name he goes,” Legolas said. “Erandír.”

“I have heard that name mentioned,” Sam said. “That is the man they say avenged Mr. Butterbur. The old Mr. Butterbur, I mean.”

“That was Boromir?” Merry asked.

“Yes.”

“So, now what?” Pippin said. “How are we going to find him?”

“I do not know,” Aragorn admitted. “First, we must help Nob and find those missing hobbits. We shall look for Boromir afterwards.”

The Rescue

“They took my baby!”

Gasps filled with horror rippled through the crowd of villagers. Mrs. Gooseberry dropped to her knees in despair. She wrung her hands before her breast, while she lamented for her daughter.

Boromir walked to the woman’s crumpled form, and the crowd split before him like river water before a boat’s prow. It made him uneasy, but he pushed the sensation to the back of his mind. More important matters than ill-considered reputations required his attention.

“Mistress?” He crouched before her, awkwardly aware of the towel. “You shall have her back.”

She looked at him with a tear-stained face. “Do you promise?”

“I promise,” he said. A sob escaped her, and she flung herself into his arms, clinging to him desperately, her tears hot on his chilled skin. With his sword still in one hand, and the other needed to hold the towel, Boromir could but let her pour out her grief onto his shoulder.

“Mistress Gooseberry?” Hallas came to his rescue, although the boy’s eyes still sparkled with mirth. “Please, let me take you inside. My master will get your little girl back, but you must let him get dressed first.”

Alvin came near. The big man had one large hand on Perry’s shoulder, keeping the boy near, and he stared at his sister with an anxious look of incomprehension. Boromir gestured them closer. “Help Hallas get Mrs. Gooseberry inside.”

“Is there aught we can do to help?” someone asked. Boromir recognized the blacksmith’s deep voice.

“Aye,” he said. “Hallas and I will need fresh horses. The fastest ones you can find. Ours are tired from the long journey.”

“I will get them for you.” The smith turned and ran off.

“I shall prepare you some food for the journey,” a woman offered.

“And I’ll gather some haversacks for the horses,” said another.

o0o

Once Boromir had dried himself and put on some clean clothes, he returned to the sitting room. Mrs. Gooseberry was in a chair by the fire. She looked calmer but stared at the flames with unseeing eyes. Hallas offered Boromir his cloak and he donned it quickly, suppressing a shiver; though the fire had done its best to dry it out, it was still damp.

“I want to come too,” Perry said.

“You cannot,” Hallas said. “It’s too dangerous.”

“She is my sister!”

His mother let out a whimper and cried out for her son.

“I understand.” Boromir rested a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “But your mother needs you at her side. I will return with your sister, or I will not return at all.”

Perry stared at Boromir for a long time. When his mother called for him a second time, he nodded gravely. “She is my sister,” he repeated in a whisper, of a sudden no longer a boy on the verge of adolescence and trying to be a man, but a child, frightened by the sudden twist of fate that had upturned his life. He ran to his mother and flung himself in her arms.

Boromir looked at them for a moment, then strode out of the door. Hallas followed without a word. Outside, the smith was waiting with fresh horses. The woman who had spoken earlier offered them small knapsacks. “Here is some bread and cheese,” she said. “‘Tisn’t much but–”

“Thank you, mistress.”

“Please bring Gertie back safely,” she murmured, her voice breaking.

“Don’t worry,” Hallas assured her. “My master will. He always keeps his promises.”

Not always, Boromir thought darkly.

He swung himself into the saddle and the horse cantered off into the darkness. Behind him, he heard the clop-clop of hooves as Hallas followed. The villagers had gathered near the edge of the town, looking on in silence as the two swordsmen left in search of one missing girl.

o0o

For the first hour, Boromir had no trouble following the orcs’ trail. As they fled in a panic, they had left a clear path through the undergrowth and trampled grass on the meadows. But once the trail entered a thick forest of dark pine trees where the moonlight did not penetrate, it grew too dark for the hunters to follow any longer.

Gritting his teeth in frustration, Boromir dismounted and tied his horse to a tree. “We have to wait for first light,” he said. “The risk of losing the trail altogether is too great to continue.” Inwardly he chafed at the delay. The spirits only knew what terrible fate might befall a little girl at the mercy of orcs. Boromir’s only hope was he had scared them so badly that they would continue to flee and as such would not have much time for mischief.

They saw to the horses, making sure they could not wander off, and settled themselves in a small hollow. The floor was soft and covered with sweet smelling pine needles. They ate some of the provisions the unknown village woman had given them, then pulled their cloaks further round them to wait for daylight.

“I’ll take first watch,” Boromir told Hallas. “You get some sleep. I’ll wake you in a few hours.”

Soon, the only sound in the cold, dark night was the soft breathing of the lad, at times interspersed with a horse’s soft nicker. Those were sounds Boromir was familiar with, and despite his misgivings and worries, falling back into their regular routine was soothing.

o0o

The following morning, as the first light of day crept in through the pines, Hallas shook Boromir’s shoulder. He started from a fitful sleep and was on his feet in an instant. There was no time to waste on a proper breakfast and he told Hallas to saddle the horses. They ate the last of the bread while they rode. Boromir leaned down to keep an eye on the orcs’ muddy footprints.

“At least the trail is clear,” Hallas said.

“Aye.” Boromir stared ahead. The orcs had cut a swath across the needle-carpeted floor that was too obvious to miss in the clear light of the new day, even if he had not had years to practice. It would be child’s play to follow the trail.

“How far ahead do you think they are, Erandír?”

“Too far for my liking,” Boromir said, “yet not far enough that they are safe from our blades. Let us make haste.” He urged his horse into a quicker pace.

Orcs were fast on their feet, but the villagers had provided them with good steeds. The terrain made for easy travel; the pine trees provided such a dense canopy that not much grew beneath and the horses covered the leagues with ease and speed.

Around midday, the distant sound of growling voices and a whiff of the orcs’ stench carried on the wind warned them that they had caught up with the kidnappers. The dark forests had ended a league or so behind them; around them lay gently rolling hills covered with groves of birches and ash intermingled with smaller brush.

Boromir tightened the reins and held up a hand. He listened intently for long minutes. Then he dismounted and with a gesture told Hallas to do the same.

“We best hide the horses among the trees,” he said, keeping his voice low. “We are downwind. If we take them any closer the stench might agitate them. We cannot risk alerting the orcs to our presence before we are ready.”

Hallas tied down the horses while Boromir searched for a path through the undergrowth. They would need to be careful; the shrubbery did not provide much cover. The trees and bushes were still bare after the long winter, but branches and twigs were heavy with fat buds ready to sprout new leaves. Spring would arrive soon.

They found the orc camp not far ahead. The orcs had burrowed down in one of the dales, a narrow valley filled with tall trees and a small brook running along its length. It was not a bad place for a camp, Boromir thought, especially if one was an orc and detested daylight. Two steep hills shielded the valley from most of the daylight and added their shadows to the meager shade the bare trees cast.

In Boromir’s experience, orcs were not very disciplined, and this group was no different. The creatures were clustered in twos, threes, or fours, lazing in the shadows or roaming around under the trees. Boromir and Hallas studied the encampment for several minutes.

“There seem to be more than in the raiding party, yet I see only fifteen of them,” Hallas whispered at his right shoulder. “And some are injured. Let’s go and kill them.”

“No. Not yet. See those bigger ones?” He pointed. “Those are Uruk-hai. They are smarter and stronger, and it will not do to underestimate them. They may have posted guards. And we do not yet know where they keep the girl.”

He did not fear the mountain orcs. If those had been the only orcs in the band, Hallas would be right; the odds were good. They had two skilled and sharp blades between them, a lot of experience fighting as a team and the orcs would be drowsy during the day. But the Uruk-hai gave Boromir pause. He had not come up against the larger, cleverer orc-breed often since Amon Hen and he would not engage them lightly.

While he watched the camp and tried to devise a plan of action, voices rose and a scuffle broke out in the valley. Two of the smaller orcs were at each other’s throats, growling and spitting dark curses. One of the Uruks lashed them with his whip, hollering at them to break apart. A few more lashes were needed before the pair obeyed his orders. Bloody from fist and whip, they let go, although they continued to glare at each other. It was truly amazing that this race of misshapen beings could have caused the army of Gondor so much trouble. But what they lacked in discipline, they made up for in boldness, sheer strength and viciousness.

Careful to stay downwind, Boromir and Hallas inched in a wide half-circle around the camp. They moved in silence. Hallas was born for slinking through forests, and Boromir’s long years in the bush had given him skills to match an Ithilien ranger. They stayed on the southern hill’s edge, looking down into the camp and soon found the orc captains had failed to set guards to watch their perimeter. Undisciplined rabble, the soldier in Boromir grumbled, none too displeased. It would make coming up with a workable plan of attack so much easier.

A gentle tug on his sleeve drew Boromir’s attention. When he turned, Hallas pointed down.

“Erandír, look.”

Boromir’s eyes followed the boy’s outstretched finger. Once he saw what excited Hallas so, he could not stop the soft intake of breath. A few crooked branches, roughly thrown together and tied with coarse rope, formed a makeshift cage. Inside the cage sat little Gertie, along with four other frightened-looking children.

“She’s still alive!”

For now, yes, she was. Boromir shuddered at the thought what the orcs might have planned for the youngsters. With difficulty, he suppressed his every instinct to draw his sword and run down the hill to kill all orcs in sight. The children’s lives were more important than his desire to mete out dark wrath and vengeance; he had to be certain of success before making his move.

“What do you want to do?” Hallas asked.

“We wait until an hour before sunset,” Boromir said. “When the mountain orcs are weakest from a long day of sunlight is when we attack. But we must go for the Uruk-hai first. They are the cunning ones, the leaders.”

“What about those children?”

“We will make our attack here. It will put us between the children and the orcs,” Boromir said. “We must keep watch and make sure the orcs do not take them prematurely.”

“I’ll bring the horses closer, then,” Hallas said. “I’ll be back shortly.” With only a soft rustle of leaves, he turned around and slithered back through the underbrush. Boromir watched him go with pride. The lad had learned a lot since he took him under his wing four years ago. He did not want to think of how lonely his life would have been without Hallas as his companion. He usually tried not to dwell on it too much but he knew deep down he considered the boy the son he never had the chance to have.

Shaking his head to clear it from the distracting thoughts, Boromir turned back to further study the cage with the children. The orcs did not pay much attention to them; for the time being, they were safe enough. Any untoward moves on the part of their captors, and he would be ready to discard all plans and attack at once. He’d be damned if he let anything more happen to them.

There were five children, packed together tightly in the makeshift prison. There was Gertie, of course, with another girl and three boys. At first sight, they all appeared to be close to Gertie’s age, perhaps a year or two older, but when Boromir peered closer, he frowned. There was something odd about two of the boys; something that appeared strange and yet familiar at the same time. But he could not grab hold of the nibbling thought. Both boys had frizzy hair and large eyes in round faces. They wore dark pants, and dirty shirts that once upon a time had been white. Both boys were barefoot and…

“Hobbits!” he gasped in surprise. The two boys weren’t children at all — they were halflings, kin to Merry and Pippin, and Sam and Frodo. With the realization, memories assaulted him. Memories long since buried, though not forgotten, of that fateful day at Parth Galen. He had erred gravely then, and he was at fault for Merry and Pippin falling into the hands of orcs.

He forced himself to banish the memories. This time, he swore, it would end differently. In a few hours, he would see that the children were to be returned to their parents unharmed. And he would rescue the hobbits, ensure their safe return to their fair Shire.

He glanced up at the sky to see how much time was left until sunset. The clouds had broken open, allowing a watery, pale sun to peek through. It had passed its highest point, and nightfall was mere hours away. Boromir was pleased with the sunlight. It would work in his advantage, tiring the mountain orcs even more.

o0o

During the afternoon, Boromir and Hallas alternated between keeping watch and dozing to catch up on last night’s missed sleep. Their plans were made, the battleground scouted as well as could be from their vantage point; all that was left was to conserve their strength for the fight to come. As expected, the orcs did not leave their camp but waited in the shade for nightfall. They left the children alone, much to Boromir’s relief. Sunset was a little over an hour away and the sky to the west had turned a fiery orange when he began to prepare for the assault on the orcs’ encampment.

With a last stroke of the whetstone, Boromir finished sharpening his sword. He did not need to test it; he knew it was sharp enough to shave with, should he so desire. The blade would cut through orc flesh and armor like a knife through freshly churned butter. He uttered a satisfied grunt and sheathed the weapon carefully before putting the stone back in his saddlebag. Hallas checked the horses a final time, making sure they could not stray or run and leave their riders stranded in the wilderness. Then he turned to Boromir.

“All is ready.”

Boromir studied him. “You are not wearing your armor.”

Hallas sighed. “That leather thing is so heavy. And it hinders my movements.”

“Your movements will be hindered even more if you get riddled with arrows or cut in half,” Boromir said dryly.

“You never wear one,” Hallas protested. “Why do I have to?”

“Because I say so.” Boromir offered the lad a stern glare, hoping to forestall any further argument. It was a discussion they had increasingly often as the boy grew older and more self-assured. Still, it wouldn’t do for him to go battling orcs without some protective leather. Hallas was Boromir’s responsibility and he would be cursed if he let harm come to the lad.

With the exaggerated sigh only a bold, overconfident youth can utter, Hallas allowed Boromir to tighten the straps of the stiff leather cuirass. He shifted, rolling his shoulders until it settled comfortably.

Now all is ready,” Boromir said. “Let us go and rid the world of those orcs.”

o0o

The battle was fierce, bloody, and brief. The orcs, confident of their safety in the wilderland far from the nearest town, were caught unprepared. Soon, while the western sky colored from bright orange to deep red, dark orc blood soaked the earth. Misshapen bodies lay crumpled where they had fallen, gutted, stabbed, limbs missing. Only a few were fortunate enough to escape with their lives and ran into the deepening night.

Boromir ordered Hallas to let them go. It was with regret — one of the Uruk-hai captains was among the fugitives — but for the moment, their priorities lay elsewhere.

“Let’s get those children out,” he said. “And the hobbits.”

“Hobbits?”

Boromir realized he had never told the lad about his discovery.

“Aye. I first thought they were children too, but they are not.” They walked across the field, stepping over bodies as they made their way to the cage.

“Fear not!” Boromir called when they approached the makeshift prison. The valley had grown dark and he did not want to frighten the children. “You are safe now. Stay back from the bars.”

He gripped the cage and wrenched. His muscles bunched, the branches that formed the prison’s bars groaned but they did not give. The orcs’ handiwork was more sturdy than it looked.

“Here.” Hallas offered Boromir his knife and they quickly slashed through the ropes holding the cage together. Boromir pulled again.

With a crack that echoed in the night, the cage gave, breaking apart. The children and the hobbits scrambled out. Gertie threw herself at Hallas, clinging to the lad while she sobbed. The other children and the two hobbits watched the rescuers with a little more wariness.

“Well,” one of the hobbits spoke at last, his gaze drifting away from Boromir and across the field littered with orc bodies. “I’d say you killed them good, you did.” He grinned. “I am Drogo Whitfurrow.”

“Call me Erandír,” Boromir said. “And this is Hallas.”

Drogo’s eyes widened and so did his grin. “Aye, that is good fortune indeed!” he cried. “To be rescued by the glorious knight from myth and tales, and his faithful squire.”

Boromir shuffled uneasily. He knew people talked about him; the villagers of Gowan had not been the exception. He had heard some of the stories and the praise made him uncomfortable. He merely did what a soldier of Gondor should do: keep the people safe from harm.

“Oh yes, we have heard of you, master swordthain,” Drogo said when he caught Boromir’s discomfort. “But I must apologize, I forget my manners.” He dragged the other hobbit near by his sleeve. “This is my friend, Wilibald Sandybanks. And for your information, we are hobbits. From–”

“The Shire,” Boromir finished, glad for the change of subject. “Yes, I know.”

“You know of our kind?” Wilibald spoke for the first time. “Not many Men from elsewhere do.”

“I have met a few of your kin along the way,” Boromir said noncommittally. From the corner of his eye, he noticed how Hallas’s gaze shifted from him to the hobbits and back. He knew there would be questions later. The lad’s curiosity knew no limit. And although their travels had sometimes taken them near to the Shire, they had not yet met any of the halfling kind. Until today.

“We must beg your pardon, sir,” Drogo continued, “but not all hobbits live in the Shire. We do not. We are from Staddle, a village near Bree. You did not know this?” Boromir shook his head; he had believed all hobbits lived in the Shire. “‘Tis our cousins who live there. Many of them, indeed.”

Boromir longed to hear news of several of those Shire-hobbits, yet he dared not ask. Much as he wished to know how they were faring, he feared what he might hear more.

Something tugged on the hem of his tunic. When he looked down, a tear-stained face looked up at him, with dark, round eyes. It was the little boy. “Can we go find my mommy now?”

With a pang of guilt, Boromir realized that in his excitement over meeting the hobbits he had forgotten his purpose. He picked up the child and settled him on his arm.

“Yes, we will take you back to your mother,” he said gently. “We will. But first, let us leave this dreadful field. We will discuss our options elsewhere. We have some food left with our horses. Perhaps Hallas can do something about dinner.”

Hallas grinned. “I can make a meal with anything,” he boasted.

“Food.” The hobbits sighed wistfully. “We haven’t had a decent meal in six days. Oh, how I miss Dora Brownlock’s apple pies.”

“Or your mama’s lamb stew!” Drogo told Wilibald.

“Yes. And what I would not give for…” Their voices faded as they followed Hallas up the hill.

Boromir chuckled. They may not come from the Shire, they were true hobbits all right. Halflings could discuss food like none other.

The moon was slowly rising over the trees while they picked their way carefully. Ahead, the two halflings were happily chattering away, still discussing the merits of various dishes, and before them, Hallas was taking Gertie to the horses. The silver light cast strange shadows and turned the orc bodies into monstrous shapes, giving the place an otherworldly feel. The scent of orc and death was heavy in the air. The other girl began to cry and Boromir lifted her up to carry her in the crook of his other arm. She hid her face against his neck and sniffled softly in his ear. He could barely see where he was going and it was hard to maintain his balance on the rocky ground with two small children clinging to him, but since it seemed to reassure them he would gladly suffer the small discomfort.

All of a sudden, a soft whistle pierced the air and something thwacked him between the shoulder blades. The impact was strong enough that he stumbled to his knees, letting go of the children, who tumbled across the mossy ground. Amidst a chorus of shocked voices and startled outcries, Boromir rested on hands and knees and tried to catch his breath. He wondered why breathing had suddenly become so much harder. He told himself to get up, that something was very wrong, but his body demanded a moment more. And another. Then…

“Erandír!” Hallas screamed. The children’s cries changed in pitch, from startled to frightened. Slowly, ever so slowly, feeling as if the very air was keeping him prisoner, Boromir turned. Behind him, towering high, loomed the Uruk-hai captain. The creature threw away his bow and drew his blade; the crude sword glistened black in the moonlight, and his crooked teeth were bared in a grin.

“Not so mighty now, are ye,” he spat, hefting his weapon. “Killed my lads. But at least they’ll be avenged. Agân-‘nUruk, pwah.

Boromir struggled to draw his own sword, but it felt terrible heavy and seemed somehow to be stuck in its scabbard.

The dark blade started to come down. Through the encroaching darkness, fading in the distance, Boromir heard Hallas shout, “No!”

He managed to spare a moment’s thought for the odd coincidence, that he should die at an Uruk-hai’s hand while rescuing a pair of halflings.

Then the thought dissipated and the world turned black.

In The Nick Of Time

Pippin climbed to the top of the knoll and shaded his eyes with his hand against the setting sun. He appraised the land before him. Despite the balm of the first spring evening, he could not fully suppress a shiver at the gray bleakness ahead. The Lone Lands were aptly named. Who would live in such barrenness, where nothing grew but stunted trees and scraggly bushes clinging to the rocks? A few cheerful spring blooms, ignorant of the desolation, added a bright splotch of color here and there. Pippin did not believe they would last long.

They had passed Weathertop several hours ago, on the trail of the orcs that kidnapped the hobbits. At first, it had been easy as the orcs had left a wide path through the forest. But once the trail crossed the Great East Road, it had become harder and harder to follow when vegetation grew more and more sparse. If not for Aragorn and Legolas, Pippin believed they would have lost the trail long ago.

He turned away from the view just in time to see Aragorn push himself up off the ground where he had been studying for tracks close up. Aragorn slapped the dirt off his knees. “We are gaining on them,” he said. “We must leave the horses and continue on foot. They are not far ahead, and though they are but few, I do not want to give warning.” He glanced up at the sky where the first stars appeared. “Mayhap we should wait for the morning.”

Pippin studied the faces of his companions. The other hobbits looked grim, much as he felt. Legolas’s face betrayed none of his feelings, as usual. But Gimli looked almost eager. The dwarf tested his axe with a thumb.

“Let’s not dally,” he grumbled. “There is plenty of daylight left, and my axe is hungry. Who knows what mischief those orcs might get up to in the night.”

Pippin suppressed a grin and checked if his small sword sat loose. It had been a while since he carried it but he had become reaccustomed to its presence quickly. The last two days in the wilderness had been eerily familiar, yet completely different from his memories. Only a little over four years had passed since he had traveled this same land in the company of Strider and his friends, yet it felt as if it happened in another lifetime. Then, he had been a frightened, naive hobbit without a clue as to what fate had in store for him; today, he was a trained soldier, armed and determined to deal with the orcs that took his kindred. Today, he was the hunter, no longer the hunted.

It had come as a surprise to learn that orcs still roamed, albeit less freely than they once did. Perhaps life in the Shire was too sheltered and tranquil. Was he losing touch with the rest of the world?

Still, that surprise had paled beside the discovery that Boromir was alive.

Pippin allowed his thoughts to wander on the subject that he had avoided for the last few days, while his hands were busy tying down his pony so it would not stray.

Boromir was alive!

He was still not sure how it made him feel. He rejoiced at the thought and wanted to sing with happiness, yet at the same time could not suppress the feelings of hurt and anger. It was very confusing. Why had Boromir not revealed himself? If Lord Denethor had known, perhaps he would not have burned himself at the pyre. And Faramir! Keeping the secret!

Men. Every time he thought he was beginning to understand their race, they did something that puzzled him.

“Pippin! Are you listening?”

“Yes, Merry?” Pippin realized his cousin had called his name repeatedly.

“Where are your thoughts?” Merry asked. “You look upset. And you did not even hear me. We will find Nob’s cousin, don’t you worry about that.”

Pippin shook his head. “I was thinking about Boromir and Faramir. I don’t understand why they would keep this secret.”

Merry sighed. “Strider explained it. Faramir had no choice, he was bound by oath.”

“I know. Still,” Pippin said, “he should have said something!” Angrily he tightened the straps of his sword belt.

“It is easy to condemn a man for his deeds,” Aragorn said softly as he approached, “when you do not have to wear his shoes.”

Pippin looked up at Aragorn. “I suppose you are right,” he said. “But it hurts, you know.”

Aragorn smiled. He placed a light hand on Pippin’s shoulder. “I know.”

“What are we waiting for?” Gimli interrupted. “You can discuss Boromir’s foolishness as much as you want later. We have orcs waiting.” He glanced over to Legolas. “What was the score again?”

“I believe we left it even,” Legolas said absently. He was peering intently ahead, where the trail ran through a strand of crooked birches before disappearing into a shadowy ravine. “Aragorn is right, they are very close. I can smell them.” He started forward without a sound as he passed among the trees. He looked deceptively at ease, but Pippin could see the tenseness in Legolas’s shoulders, ready to draw his bow in an instant.

Pippin raised his head and sniffed. His sense of smell was not nearly as strong as the elf’s, yet he did believe he detected a whiff of the foul orc stink. Gripping his sword hilt, he fell in behind the others.

They did not get far before Legolas stopped so abruptly that Gimli, walking behind the elf, nearly bumped into him. He raised a hand to tell everyone to keep quiet, then nocked an arrow onto his bowstring. Gimli hefted his axe while trying to peer around the elf. Behind him, Pippin could hear the soft hiss of Andúril being drawn from its scabbard. Cautiously, Pippin wiggled his own blade free.

The shrubbery rustled. Branches shivered and swayed for a moment, then creaked when a dark figure came crashing through, bearing down on them, groaning and wheezing. With a cry, it tipped over and landed not far from Legolas’s feet. Instantly, the orc was surrounded, deadly weapons pointing at it from all angles. It did not move.

“What is the meaning of this?” Legolas muttered.

Aragorn booted the orc’s shoulder and it rolled over onto its back, limbs flopping.

“That’s new,” Gimli said. “It is only half an orc.”

A nervous giggle escaped Pippin and he bit his bottom lip to keep quiet. Gimli had a point. The orc’s right arm was missing from just above where the elbow joint should have been. Its chest showed deep gashes and cuts. It had bled to death while fleeing whatever it was that killed it.

“I would say someone else has taken offense to orcs kidnapping innocent hobbits,” Merry muttered.

Pippin exchanged a hopeful glance with his cousin. He could tell from the look on Merry’s face that they had the same idea. Could it be — but no, that would be too much of a coincidence to hope for. There were rangers about, also, and the soldiers that Aragorn had sent north to rid his realm of miscreants. Still…

“Should we go on?” Sam asked.

“Aye, Master Samwise,” Aragorn said. “But be very cautious now.”

They tried to walk even more silently than before. Aragorn and Legolas moved through the grass without making a single noise; the others were not so adept and occasionally a twig snapped beneath an unskilled foot. Soon, however, they learned their diligence made no difference. They came upon other orc corpses, mutilated bodies that had died where they had fallen.

Gimli grunted. “There is no fun in this chase. I do hope some are left for my axe.”

“I would not count on it,” Legolas said. “Look.” He pointed.

A narrow valley lay before them. Though the sun had sunk low and the ground was coated in shadows, they could still see the carnage. Black, crumpled bodies lay hither and yon. A puff of wind carried the orc stench up to where they stood, mingled with the smell of fresh blood.

“Ew,” Merry said. His nose wrinkled in disgust. “I had hoped to never smell that again.”

Pippin agreed. “Be glad they are dead already. The only good orc–”

“– is a dead orc,” Gimli finished. He chuckled. “Very true, laddie.”

Pippin relaxed and locked his sword back in its scabbard. Clearly, there would be no fighting today. He did not relish the thought of having to search among the fallen bodies for the missing Staddle-hobbits, though.

Suddenly, Legolas shoved him and Pippin nearly tripped as he stumbled. “What–” he began but the protest died on his lips. Legolas whipped up his bow and in one fluid motion let fly of an arrow. The same instant the dart cleared the bow string, a cry echoed through the ravine.

“No!”

o0o

Hallas found it impossible to move. Frozen in horror, he watched Erandír topple forward. A black arrow was sticking up from his back. The two children tumbled across the ground and rolled over before they came to a dazed rest. Hallas did not pay them much attention. His gaze was glued to the body of his friend and protector, and to the orc that had materialized to stand over his master. When the orc captain slowly raised his blade, Hallas found his voice at last.

“No!”

He knew how futile the cry was. The orc would be insensitive to his plea and he was too far away to do anything but watch helplessly.

Then, out of nowhere, another arrow hissed through the air and struck the orc in the throat. Dark blood spurted. The orc made a gurgling noise; it tottered, its sword arm coming down harmlessly as the blade slipped from its grip. The orc tried to keep its footing and took two stumbling steps before it slowly fell sideways and landed with a soft thud half on top of Erandír.

For another agelong moment, Hallas stared at the unmoving bodies. He failed to comprehend what his eyes were telling him. A dismayed cry wrung from his throat and he ran to Boromir’s fallen body.

“Please, Erandír! Be alive!” he pleaded, tears streaming down his face. He shoved the dead orc aside and dropped to his knees. His hands hovered uselessly over Erandír’s still form; Hallas did not dare touch him for fear he might make matters worse. He wished he had paid more attention to the lessons in rudimentary battleground medicine. Never in his darkest dreams had he imagined he would be called upon to administer such aid to his friend. “Please!”

“Step aside, lad.” The voice that broke through his grief was gruff, yet not unkind.

Hallas looked up and in a blurry vision, he saw several people. Some were clearly hobbits, others were taller. One wore a scraggly beard and carried a large, wicked-looking axe. Another carried a bow and quiver, and Hallas instantly understood he was the one he needed to thank for coming to Erandír’s aid.

“Step aside,” the bearded one repeated. “Aragorn will see to him.”

A small hobbit hand tugged at his sleeve. “He will be in good hands. Aragorn is the best healer I know.”

Hallas allowed himself to be pulled away though he kept a wary eye on the dark-haired stranger that took his place. But it seemed the hobbit spoke the truth. With deft hands that looked quite capable, Aragorn gently prodded the area around the arrow’s point. A moan escaped Erandír and Hallas let out a sob of relief. He was alive!

“How is he?” the archer asked.

“The wound itself does not worry me,” Aragorn said. “See where the arrow deflected on Boromir’s shoulder blade? It is a superficial wound. But the dart was poisoned. Sam!”

“Yes sir?” said another of the hobbits.

“Remember the athelas plant?”

“Kingsfoil? Of course.”

“You should be able to find some here. I need as much as you can gather. Gimli, Merry, start a fire. Get some water from the stream boiling.”

Hallas watched as they dashed in different directions to do as Aragorn ordered. They did not seem to need many words and looked as if they had done this a thousand times before.

“Legolas,” Aragorn told the archer, “I will need your help to remove the arrow. Pippin?” The hobbit that had pulled Hallas away looked up. “Will you look after those children?”

It was not until Aragorn spoke of them that Hallas remembered the rescued children. Startled and frightened, they huddled where they had fallen and were crying quietly. He glanced at them, wanting to make sure they were all right yet reluctant to leave his master’s side. He was glad when Drogo and Willibald spoke up.

“We’ll take care of them,” Drogo said. “Please, make sure the man will be all right. ”

Pippin blinked and pointed a finger at Willibald. “You must be Willy Sandybanks.”

It was Willibald’s turn to blink. “I am he. How did you know?”

“Your cousin Nob. He told us you had disappeared. I see a strong resemblance.” Pippin grinned.

“Nob!”

The voices grew dimmer as the hobbits wandered away to take care of the children. Hallas turned his attention back to Aragorn.

“You will not die on me now, Boromir.” Aragorn’s voice was a soft murmur while he sliced Erandír’s tunic and prepared to cut out the arrow.

“His name is not Boromir,” Hallas said hesitantly. He was not sure if it was a good idea or not. For all he knew, this Aragorn would refuse to help when he found out the injured man was not who he thought he was. “His name is Erandír.”

Aragorn gave him a quick look before he peered down at the wound again. Legolas rested a hand on Hallas’s shoulder.

“Aye. But before he was Erandír, he was Boromir. We wish to restore his name.”

“If I can keep him alive long enough,” Aragorn murmured. “Sam!”

Hallas was not sure what to make of these people. His master’s name wasn’t Erandír but Boromir? He sensed there was more to the story than Legolas’s simple version. But right now was not the time to start asking questions.

“Sam! Make haste!”

Sam came running back, his arms filled with plant stalks. He dropped his load near the fire. “This is all I could find,” he gasped, trying to catch his breath. “If you need more, I will need a light. It is getting too dark to tell kingsfoil from nettles.”

“This should be enough,” Aragorn said. He began sorting through the pile. “Thank you, Sam.”

Soon, a fire burned high and water boiled in a tin pan. Hallas watched Aragorn steep the herb in the pan, surprised at the soothing scent that rose in the steam. Aragorn cleansed the wound with the sweet-smelling water and lathered it with an ointment he had prepared with the rest of the kingsfoil. Then he bandaged it and gently turned the wounded man over onto his back. Sam placed a rolled up blanket beneath his head and Merry covered his body with another blanket. Hallas found himself only capable of watching; his limbs felt so very heavy and it was a struggle to keep his eyes open long enough to see Aragorn lean forward over his master.

“I have done all I can,” he said, his voice so soft it was near a whisper. Hallas did not think he would have been able to understand the words if he had not sat so close by. He realized Aragorn was not speaking to them but to Erandír. “It is up to you now to live or die. Do not fail me, my brother.”

“Is he going to be all right?” Hallas asked. Erandír looked peaceful as he slept, his chest rising ever so slowly with every breath.

Aragorn looked up. “I cannot promise you that, yet. The next days will be critical. But I can promise that I have done my very best.”

“You better,” Gimli said gruffly. “I would be very displeased if he were to die now. I still have a few words to say to Boromir.”

Hallas blinked. He did not like Gimli’s tone. He shifted a little closer. “What are you?” he asked. “You’re not a hobbit, right?”

Gimli rolled his eyes. “Do I look like a hobbit?” He pulled himself up to his full height and Hallas realized that, though not as tall as a man, Gimli was taller than Drogo or Willy, or any of the other three hobbits.

“I,” Gimli said formally, “am a dwarf. Gimli son of Gloin is my name.”

“Oh.” A dwarf! Hallas could scarcely believe his ears.

“What is the matter with you men?” Gimli continued. “Are you blind? Next you will tell me you have not noticed Legolas is an elf.”

Hallas’s eyes grew round and his gaze searched out Legolas. He stared. How had he failed to notice Legolas was not like any man he knew? Today was turning out quite remarkable. Elves, dwarfs — creatures he had believed to exist in myth only. If not for Eran–, or no, Boromir being so badly injured, it would have been quite exciting.

Gimli caught his look and snorted. “As I said, blind, all of you.”

“You should get some rest,” Aragorn said. “There is nothing you can do for Boromir now. And it has grown too dark to travel. We will leave on the morrow, find a place where he can rest and heal.”

“There is a village a few hours from here,” Hallas offered. “That’s where we were when the orcs attacked and took Gertie.” He nodded at the sleeping children. “She’s the curly-haired little girl.”

“We shall take her back to her village, then,” Aragorn decided.

Soon, the camp grew quiet. Opposite Hallas, across from the fire, Gimli lay snoring loudly. The hobbits had also wrapped themselves in cloaks and blankets. Only Aragorn and Legolas were awake, one gazing into the fire while occasionally checking up on Boromir, the other moving silently among the trees, keeping watch.

Despite feeling exhausted, Hallas found it hard to catch his sleep. So much seemed to have happened in a single day. He worried about Boromir still, despite Aragorn’s assurances that there was nothing they could do now. And he had learned so many new things his brain was trying to catch up.

Even so, the silent night, with the gentle crackling of flames broken only by the occasional loud snort from Gimli, was soothing and Hallas found himself drifting off. But then, in the realm between wakefulness and sleep where the subconscious takes over, a thought came to him. He sat up with such a violent start that across the fire Gimli awoke, disoriented, his hand reaching for his axe before realizing they were not under attack.

“The stories…” Hallas gasped, suddenly wide awake again. “The songs…”

“What songs?” Pippin asked sleepily. He sat up and rubbed his eyes.

Hallas tried to recall the words of the song he had learned long ago from the Rohirrim. The memory had faded because his companion would never let him sing the song out loud, for reasons he refused to explain.

“The songs the soldiers sang,” Hallas said, “I can’t recall all the lines, but there was a verse about and elf-lord and a dwarf with an axe.” He pointed at Sam and Merry. “You have the same names as the hobbits in the song!”

Sam made a noise in the back of his throat. Merry punched his shoulder. “Don’t complain, Sam. I know very well you secretly like being in a song.”

“So, it’s true, then?” Hallas asked. “You are this… Fellowship?”

“Oh, aye, it’s true all right!” Pippin said. “That’s us.”

“But… there are only six of you?”

“Seven,” Gimli said. He indicated Boromir’s sleeping form. “There’s your Captain-General. We proved the song untrue today.”

“Erandír was part of your fellowship? But why would he… He never said anything. Though he always hated that song.”

Aragorn sighed. “We will need to have a long talk, you and I. There is much I would know. And I will have to tell you the tale of a man who was a hero yet believed himself unworthy. There will be plenty of time later, however. For now, get some sleep. You will need to guide us to that village tomorrow.”

o0o

Long black fingers clawed for him. Nebulous hands, yet firm enough to grab and sear his flesh with their touch. He struggled to avoid them but they seemed to be everywhere, forever shifting and drifting, reaching for him when he did look elsewhere. He wanted to scream and nearly choked when the cry lodged in his throat, tears streaming down his face as he tried to gasp for air. Frozen in time, he could not move. His limbs refused to work. He could only watch as the hands closed in on him, closer and closer, surrounding him, suffocating him…

Then a voice. It came from so far away, it seemed a mere whisper. But it was soothing, calm, achingly familiar. “Do not fail me, my brother.”

It was the same voice that called him once before. It offered strength, purpose and he renewed his struggles to fight the clawing fingers. And he was successful. One after another the hands dissipated, turning into foggy wisps that disappeared into the thin air, until nothing was left but a calm gray, a featureless plain that went on forever and ever. There was no sound, no smell, nothing to stimulate his senses.

Boromir started walking in the direction he believed the voice had come from. He walked for a long time. Strangely, neither thirst nor hunger plagued him. He did not tire, he just put one foot in front of the other, left, right, left, again and again. Once he looked back but the field behind was as featureless as the land in front of him. Not even his footprints were to be seen beyond the first two or three sets. He hoped he was not walking in circles.

And while he walked, he began to hear voices. Voices he knew, voices that he loved. The voices brought memories crashing back, bringing tears to his eyes with their loveliness. He heard Merry and Pippin, squabbling over a piece of apple. Sometimes he heard Hallas’s voice, imploring him to not give up. And sometimes, worst of it all yet the most hopeful at the same time, he heard Aragorn’s voice. His king.

Many More Reunions

Boromir woke in the manner he had perfected many years ago: instantly. There was no slow transition from sleep to wakefulness, no lingering in a peaceful doze. His was the way soldiers woke: alert and ready in the blink of an eye.

He kept his eyes closed, though, aware that something was not as it should be, and tried to determine what it was that alerted him. His breathing remained slow and steady, so nothing would give away that he was no longer asleep. He used his senses to take stock of his surroundings. He was surprised to find himself in a soft bed — when had that happened? A pillow supported his head and he was shrouded in sheets that felt crisp to his touch. The sheets held a vague scent of rose blossoms. It was a bright day, so the glow behind his closed eyelids told him. He felt strangely light on the feather bed, almost floating, as if he were still drifting in dreams he failed to remember. The single dissonant note to the peace he found himself in was a dull throb between his shoulder blades.

A sudden soft noise made him tense — there was someone in the room with him! His eyes popped open. At first he could not make out more than a black silhouette — the light was even brighter than he had imagined and it hurt his eyes, so long used to darkness. But gradually his vision adjusted and he began to make out details until the shape came into focus.

Boromir gasped in shock and instinctively tried to sit up. But he was too weak and after a feeble attempt fell back against the pillow, his heart thudding and his sight wavering. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment before opening them again. The specter was still there — if he was dreaming it was a remarkably persistent dream.

Then the figure smiled.

“Welcome back, Boromir. For a while I feared we had lost you, just when we found you again.”

“My lord.” Boromir hardly recognized his own voice, it was so hoarse. He made another attempt to sit up and found he could neither lift his head nor raise more than a limp hand.

“Shh,” Aragorn said. He took a cup from a side table and brought it to Boromir’s lips. Sweetened cold tea slipped down his throat and he swallowed with gratitude. “There is no need to talk. Not yet. You have been quite ill and are very weakened.”

“What… happened?” Boromir’s brow furrowed as he tried to grasp the jumbled memories. The last thing he could recall was little Gertie’s smile.

“You do not remember?” It was Aragorn’s turn to frown. “You took an orc arrow in the back. It had been steeped in poison that nearly killed you.”

“Oh.” Boromir fought to keep his eyes open but the lids had grown heavy. Terribly heavy. There was so much he wished to ask Aragorn, so much he needed to tell him. But the words would not form in his brain and the outside world grew blurry. Aragorn seemed to dim before his eyes.

“Sleep, my friend.” Aragorn’s voice came from very far away, across a great chasm. “We shall talk later.”

o0o

The next time Boromir awoke, night had fallen. Candlelight lit the unfamiliar room. He let his gaze drift around, hoping that it would trigger a memory. But all thought of his surroundings was forgotten when his eyes landed upon the still figure of his king, sitting at a small writing desk and studying a piece of paper.

It had not been a dream, then.

He could not fathom how Aragorn came to be in this simple room with him. He longed to beg for forgiveness but, unsure, did not know where to begin. So much time had passed since they had last spoken.

“My lord?” Boromir was glad to find his voice sounded less raspy than before though it was still raw from disuse.

Aragorn got up from his stool. “How are you feeling?”

“My king, I cannot– I must–” Boromir stopped, breathless already and still undecided about how to start what he wished to say.

Aragorn smiled. “Hush,” he admonished gently. “I will not have you waste what little energy you have to speak about things that can wait. First, we need to get some nourishment in you. You have lost a dreadful amount of weight.”

He turned from the bed and stuck his head out the door. “Tell your mother,” he said to someone unseen, “to bring up some of that soup she’s been preparing. Oh, and some more honeyed tea, if you will.”

“Aye, sir.” Quick feet pattered away.

The voice had belonged to a boy — Gertie’s brother. Boromir suddenly knew where he was: in Mrs. Gooseberry’s house in Gowan.

A few minutes later — minutes, which to Boromir seemed long and burdensome when he had so much on his mind he wanted to tell his lord but could not — the door opened and Mrs. Gooseberry walked in. She carried a tray that she placed on the small desk. On it stood a bowl from which a spicy scent drifted up. The smell made Boromir’s mouth water. He realized it must have been quite a while since he last had food in him.

Mrs. Gooseberry turned toward him. Unshed tears glimmered in the candlelight. “I thank you,” she whispered, “from the depth of my heart for bringing back my little girl.” She brushed at her eyes. “I don’t know what I would have done…”

Boromir cast a quick, embarrassed glance at Aragorn. He stood near the door, grinning. Boromir turned his attention back to Mrs. Gooseberry. “‘Tis nothing,” he tried to shrug. “I am glad to hear she is well.”

The woman sniffled and smiled through her tears. “Thank you,” she repeated before fleeing from the room.

Aragorn closed it behind her. He dragged the stool over to Boromir’s bed. “I hear you have done a lot of such good works,” he commented while reaching for the bowl and spoon. “Now, eat, Boromir.” He spooned up some of the soup and brought it to Boromir’s mouth.

Boromir’s eyes widened with dismay when he caught his lord’s intention. He tried to grab for the spoon. “I can–”

“No, you cannot,” Aragorn interrupted. “You have been gravely ill. You can barely lift your head, so how do you think to handle a spoon?”

Reluctantly, Boromir had to agree. Aragorn was right. He was as weak as baby. If he tried to eat the soup himself, he would make a mess of Mrs. Gooseberry’s sheets. And he did not dare imagine what embarrassment Aragorn might put him through during the changing of the covers. Left without a choice, he opened his mouth. As soon as the soup hit his palate, he forgot his embarrassment. It tasted delicious, better than anything he had ever eaten before. Aragorn chuckled at his eagerness to eat.

“How long?” Boromir asked between spoonfuls.

“Three weeks,” Aragorn said. “The poison gave you a fever. It took a long time to break.”

Three weeks! That must be why he was feeling so weak and why the food tasted so good. The spicy soup seemed to bring a little strength to his limbs and once he had finished it, he managed to sit up a little straighter. Aragorn placed the bowl back on the tray and poured another cup of honeyed tea from the pitcher.

“My lord,” Boromir asked, “why do you extend me such care I do not merit?”

Aragorn gave Boromir the cup. “See if you can hold this.” He stayed close, ready to intervene should Boromir drop it.

“I told you once before,” he said when it seemed Boromir was strong enough to hold the tea clasped between his hands, “you have lost no honor in my eyes. Where you failed was not on Amon Hen but when you had no faith in your friends.”

Tears burned in Boromir’s eyes and he was glad he could hide behind the cup of tea. “That is what Faramir said, also. But I could not bear the shame. Frodo was so small and brave, and I, who should have been his protector, attacked him.”

“Your brother is a far wiser man than people sometimes give him credit for,” Aragorn said. “The only shame there is, is the shame you imagine in your own mind. To learn you trust us so little that you rather disappear and let us believe you had died than stay and talk hurt far more than anything that happened during our journey.”

Boromir turned his head away. He could no longer bear to meet Aragorn’s gaze. Often in the past years had he thought the same thing, and sometimes he had longed to return to make things better. But always something had held him back. Until so much time had passed he did not dare rake up the past. And now, his past had caught up with him.

“Boromir, look at me.”

Slowly, incapable of disobeying the soft command in Aragorn’s voice, he turned his head back. Instead of the fierce look of disapproval he had expected, Aragorn’s gaze was warm and gentle with just a hint of the hurt he spoke of.

“Can you ever forgive me?” Boromir whispered.

A smile formed around Aragorn’s lips. “I already have, my brother. Welcome home.” He leaned forward to lightly kiss Boromir’s forehead.

And with those few words, with that simple gesture, Aragorn lifted a weight of Boromir’s shoulders, a heavy burden he did not know he carried until it was removed. A sob escaped Boromir’s lips and he squeezed his eyes shut to banish the tears.

A voice cut through the turmoil of thoughts whirling in his brain.

“Aragorn may have forgiven you, but I will not so lightly forget what you put me through.”

Boromir’s eyes flew open, tears forgotten. “Gimli?”

Gimli stood in the door, looking exactly as Boromir remembered, with a long, scraggly beard and dark glittering eyes. Boromir started to smile but faltered when he noticed the scowl on Gimli’s face.

“Gimli, I–”

“Erandír! You’re awake!” A happy shout interrupted Boromir.

Hallas raced into the room, unceremoniously shoving Gimli aside and grinning from ear to ear. He staggered to a halt beside the bed and gazed down on Boromir. Then he raised a finger. “See,” he said, doing a frighteningly accurate impression of Boromir at his sternest, “this is what happens when you don’t wear your armor.”

For a moment, the room was deadly silent. Then Aragorn exploded into laughter. Gimli’s face twisted with the struggle to keep his scowl before he started to guffaw also. Boromir wanted to laugh with them but the sudden intake of breath hurt his lungs and he began to cough instead. The pleased smile fled from Hallas’s face and he appeared worried.

“You are going to be all right, are you not, Erandír?”

“Yes, lad, he will be.” Aragorn had taken the cup, refilled it and handed it back to Boromir. He took it and gulped the cool liquid down his throat. Taking a cautious breath, he managed to quell the coughing.

“And, laddie,” Gimli added while he placed a hand on Hallas’s shoulder, “you should learn to call him Boromir. That is, after all, his true name.” He winked at Boromir. “‘Tis good to see you again. And see you, hmm, somewhat well.”

o0o

It took the better part of another three, frustrating weeks before Boromir had mended enough that Aragorn would allow him to leave Gowan and head for Bree. In a way, Boromir was glad for the change. The confinement, first to his bed and small room, then to the small village, had chafed. He had pushed himself to regain his physical strength but it had not been an easy task. As soon as he went out of the door, he could feel the eyes of the people follow him and hear them whisper in awed tones. He would be glad to escape their adulation. If only Aragorn had told the townspeople who he himself was, that would certainly have diverted their attention. But Boromir was hardly in a position to fault his king for wanting to keep such a secret.

Yet, though he would be happy to leave the small farmers’ community behind, the thought of traveling to Bree also left him anxious. Bree would be his first step on the road home, to a return to his City and reclaiming his position. He was not sure he was ready. He was not sure he would ever be ready.

And there was another issue weighing heavy on his heart. In Bree the rest of the Fellowship would be waiting. The reunion with Aragorn and Gimli had gone far better than Boromir could have ever hoped or dreamed, yet he could not be certain the others would judge him as mildly.

For days after he first woke from his fever he had not dared ask how they fared for fear of what he would be told. Then, one morning, after he had cautiously made his way from his room for the first time, he found Aragorn and Gimli sitting outside on a wood bench in front of the house. They were enjoying the morning sunshine and smoking their pipes.

“Sit, Boromir.” Aragorn patted the bench between himself and Gimli.

“Before you keel over,” Gimli added. “You look as white as a sheet.”

Indeed, after the arduous journey down the hallway, Boromir was shaking and dizzy with fatigue. He wiped his forehead when he realized it was pearled with perspiration. He was grateful for the chance to rest his trembling limbs.

A tendril of tobacco smoke drifted up his nose, and Boromir coughed, though it was more for appearances’ sake than that the smoke truly bothered him.

“Hmph,” Gimli snorted around the stem of his pipe. “You are no better than Legolas.”

Boromir hesitated only a moment, then took the offered opening. “How is Legolas?” He tried to make the question sound off-handed.

Aragorn gave him a sidelong glance. “I never did tell you, did I? It was Legolas who fired the arrow that saved your life. If not for his swift action, we would have come too late.”

Images flashed before Boromir’s eyes. A smirking orc, a raised blade. Then, a sudden arrow, blood spouting. He gasped. “You were there?”

“Aye,” Gimli said. “Did you think we would let you have all the fun? We were there, and so were Merry, Pippin and Sam.”

“The little ones came too?”

Aragorn smiled. “None were more eager to find you, once they learned of your survival.”

Boromir closed his eyes briefly against the renewed stab of guilt. How could he ever make up to them? “I am sorry,” he whispered.

“Hush,” Aragorn said. “It is all water down the Anduin now.”

“Then…” Boromir hesitated. “Why have they not come to see me?”

“Is that what is worrying you?” Aragorn tapped his pipe against the side of the bench to empty it. “Once they learned you would live, I told them to return home. They did not want to leave but I knew it would take a long time for you to recover, and there was naught they could do. Those two hobbits you rescued wished to go back to Staddle and I did not want them to travel alone. And Legolas took the other children back to their parents.”

“So… They are not upset with me?”

“That, I cannot promise,” Aragorn said. “You will have to find out for yourself. Once you’re well enough, we will go to Bree. The hobbits will meet us there.”

“And… after Bree?”

“We must return to Gondor,” Aragorn said.

“And you will come with us, of course!” Gimli added.

Gondor… The land of his people. With Minas Tirith, his beloved White City, surrounded by the green fields of the Pelennor. The tower of guard, all pearl and silver, with banners flapping in the wind. The images came sudden and unbidden, stealing Boromir’s breath with the unexpected pain of homesickness.

“I do not know that I can,” he said at last, quietly.

Aragorn gave him another sidelong look but did not speak. Gimli snorted.

o0o

Boromir tightened the cinches on Barangol’s tack and tested they were secured properly. In a few more days, he would learn the hobbits’ opinion of him. And after that, he would have to make a decision — although he did not think he truly had a choice. He knew he would go with Aragorn to Minas Tirith and face up to whatever fate had in store for him.

“Sir?” Mrs. Gooseberry was standing behind him, but it took Boromir a few moments to realize she was talking to him. It was strange how the people of Gowan had started showing deference to him while Boromir himself was having trouble adjusting to his newfound status. For so long had he been simple “master” that the sirs did not feel quite as indubitable as they once had. At least they did not call him ‘lord’, as they were doing Aragorn, instinctively sensing he was more than he appeared. Hallas was the only other person who seemed to have as much trouble adjusting to Boromir’s refound name; the lad kept slipping and calling him Erandír. For that, Boromir was strangely grateful.

“Sir?” Mrs. Gooseberry repeated when he did not reply.

“How can I help you, Mrs. Gooseberry?”

She held a small bundle wrapped in cloth in her hands. Her children stood beside her, Gertie shy behind her mother’s skirts. The girl had never fully thawed in Boromir’s presence, but he could not blame her. She had been through a frightening experience, and he had been at the center of most of it.

“I baked you a meat pie,” Mrs. Gooseberry said. “For your journey.” She offered him the bundle. He accepted it with a smile, touched. It was still warm.

“Thank you, mistress. I am sure I will enjoy it much after long hours in the saddle.”

She smiled and was about to turn away when she hesitated. Much to Boromir’s dismay, she flung her arms around him, clutching his shirt, tears staining his tunic. He juggled the pie in one hand and awkwardly stroked her back with the other.

“Here, here…” he muttered, wishing she would stop crying.

“I can never thank you enough!” she sobbed. “You brought back my little Gertie!”

“‘Twas my pleasure, mistress,” he said. “Take good care of her now.”

Mrs. Gooseberry laughed through her tears and let go of him. “Ah, don’t you worry ’bout that! I certainly will!”

She seemed embarrassed at her outburst and flushed red when her eye caught the tearstains on his shirt. Boromir quickly turned away and ruffled Perry’s hair. “You look after your mother and sister, all right?”

The boy puffed himself up a bit. “They will be safe with me, sir!” he promised.

Boromir laughed. He put the pie in one of the saddlebags and hoisted himself up on Barangol. He grimaced as it tore at the newly healed scar but quickly settled in his seat. Aragorn, with Gimli behind him, and Hallas were already waiting and within moments, they set out on the trail that led north.

o0o

Aragorn insisted on setting a slow pace. Secretly, Boromir was relieved. The time abed had seriously cut back on his saddle-endurance. They reached the Great East Road shortly after noon and the smooth surface made for easy riding. Still, Boromir was grateful when Aragorn called an early halt.

Aragorn had picked a small clearing for their camp, a little off the road. Hallas quickly kindled a fire while Gimli trotted to a nearby brook for fresh water. Soon the smell of stew filled the clearing. Boromir unwrapped his pie and broke it in four pieces, three of which he placed carefully upon the cloth. He sat chewing slowly on the fourth piece, watching the fire morosely while the others busied themselves around him. He was feeling rather useless but they had adamantly refused his help.

“What is on your mind, Boromir?” Aragorn sat down beside Boromir and reached for a piece of pie.

Boromir swallowed down his last bite and brushed the crumbs from his beard. “‘Tis my brother,” he confessed. “It was unfair of me to demand his silence, to ask him to keep such a dishonorable oath. I hope you do not hold it against him.”

Aragorn remained quiet for a moment. He put another log on the fire before he answered. “I will admit I was quite angry with Faramir when I first found out about the secret you and he kept from me.”

“As was I,” Gimli interjected. He stirred the broth with more force than was necessary.

Aragorn smiled. “But we have come to realize you left him no choice. Your brother loves you very much, Boromir. He will be pleased to see you return home at last.”

o0o

They reached Bree two days later, late in the afternoon. The gatekeeper at the South Gate gave them a cursory glance. Not even Gimli’s presence seemed to elicit surprise in the guard. Perhaps he had heard the gossip from his fellow guardsman at the West Gate. Or perhaps he simply thought it was too hot to bother. Spring was in full swing and the weather unseasonably warm for the northern lands, with the sun glaring down from a clear blue sky.

Aragorn steered his horse along the street and into the courtyard of the Prancing Pony. “Hello Bob,” he said as he threw the reins to the stable hand.

“Good afternoon, sirs. And welcome back.”

They walked up the stairs to the common room. As soon as they were through the door, Archibald Butterbur descended upon them. “Welcome, welcome!” He turned to Boromir. “You must be Master Erandír. I have heard what you did for my uncle, and Nob’s cousin. And for those poor children!” He wrung his hands. “What horrors they must have suffered. I have reserved the best room for you, just so you know!”

“I was not alone,” Boromir muttered.

“Of course, of course. Best rooms for all of you!” And with that promise, Butterbur bustled off, calling for Nob.

Boromir shook his head while he stared after the proprietor’s back. “I wish people would stop being so effusive,” he muttered. “I’m only doing what I do best.”

Aragorn laughed. “You did not used to be so self-deprecating,” he said.

Boromir shrugged. ‘Twas true he used to take more pride in his achievements. But pride had not had a place in his life these past years. His pride, at the least, had died on Amon Hen.

“They are merely grateful for your help,” Aragorn continued. “And I am glad for their talk. Your reputation allowed us to find you. We just had to follow the stories.”

“And some stories they were!” Gimli added.

Boromir groaned inwardly. “I can imagine.”

“Will you tell me some of those stories, Master Gimli?” Hallas asked, grinning.

“Of course. But not right away. First, we have important business.”

Aragorn proceeded into the common room and there was nothing left to do for the others but to follow him. The room was quiet; it had not yet filled with Breelanders come for their evening ale. Only a few guests were seated at one of the tables.

As soon as Boromir stepped over the threshold, he froze. Those guests turned out to be four dear friends that for many years he had not expected to ever see again. Though he had known they would be waiting, laying eyes on them still came as a shock. A thick cloud of pipe smoke surrounded the three hobbits, while Legolas sat a little apart, out of the path of the drifting smoke. Pippin grabbed Merry’s arm as soon as he caught sight of Boromir. They dropped their pipes and stared. Boromir could not think of a thing to say.

Then Pippin’s face broke in a grin. “Boromir!” He hopped down and made a quick beeline for Boromir, his arms open wide. Boromir knelt and caught the hobbit in his arms. He could not stop the grin that formed on his face.

At last, Pippin pulled away. “You look much better than the last time I saw you,” he said earnestly. “The bedrest has done you well.”

“Aye, ‘thas,” Boromir admitted. He straightened to see the others crowd around them. Legolas smiled and grasped Boromir’s shoulders.

“It is good to see you up and well,” he said.

“I hear it is you I must thank for my well-being,” Boromir replied.

Legolas shrugged. “It was an arrow well-spent.”

“Come, Boromir, sit!” Merry was tugging on his sleeve. “We were so happy to hear you were alive. But then you gave us a pretty scare. You must tell us all that happened to you.”

Boromir laughed. “All? That would be quite a lengthy tale, Master Meriadoc.”

“Oh, we have time. As long as Butterbur supplies us with ale and food.”

They put him in a chair by the cold fireplace and seated themselves around him. Sam poured ale from a large pitcher.

“Will you explain to us whatever possessed you to pretend you were dead?” Pippin cut right to the heart of the matter as soon as everyone was seated and provided with a pint.

“I tried to take the Ring from Frodo,” Boromir said softly.

“And?” Merry demanded after long seconds had passed. “So would many other people, had they been given the chance. Is that a reason to disappear altogether?”

“Well, no…” Boromir fell silent again. Truth be told, he could not fully recall the reasons why he made the decisions he had, though they seemed to make perfect sense when he did. Time and distance had changed his perception; he had often regretted those decisions but believed it was too late to change anything. Yet here he found out it was never too late. He looked up. “Where is Frodo? I should like to speak with him.”

“Mr. Frodo is gone,” Sam said softly. “The quest had taken too much of a toll on him. He sailed west with Lord Elrond and the Lady Galadriel. So did Mr. Bilbo.”

“And Gandalf, too,” Pippin supplied. “We are all that is left of the Fellowship.”

Quiet descended upon the room once more. In the distance, they could hear Butterbur ordering the kitchen staff around. Outside, a cart rattled past. The sun was sinking; soon the common room would fill. Boromir’s heart felt heavy; for some things, after all, it was too late.

Then Gimli raised his pint of ale. “To the Fellowship.”

The others raised their goblets as well. “To the Fellowship,” they echoed.

Roadside council

Nîneth tied off the final thread and held up the tunic for a critical last look. She allowed herself to feel a moment’s pride in her handiwork and satisfaction in a job well done. The tunic was cut from a dark blue silk; silver trim gleamed along the collar and cuffs while a plane tree leaf embroidered in white adorned the chest. The steward should be pleased. The garment was among her finest work.

She had labored hard to make it so, with little time to spare for food or sleep. A mere two days ago the Steward had shown up near suppertime in the small workshop on the fourth level that she had bought when the previous owner retired. Nîneth had been most surprised, and a little worried. Although he and his lady wife occasionally commissioned garments from her — curiously enough always when business was slow and she was struggling to get by — he had never set foot in the shop before. In fact, in the years since the interview upon the eve of her arrival in Minas Tirith, she had not exchanged a single word with him.

But he had quickly put her concern to rest. “I want you to prepare a full suit of clothing,” he had said without many preambles.

“Of course, my lord.”

She brought him to the corner where bales of fabrics were waiting for her clientele. He instantly picked out the midnight blue silk that had arrived from Far Harad the day before.

“A very good choice, my lord. This material is supple and light, you will enjoy wearing it. It goes well with the silk velvet for a cloak I have here.”

“Oh,” he said, “it is not for me!” He had frowned, and Nîneth remembered thinking to herself that he looked tired. She did not envy his task: the king had been gone for several months and the city was growing restless in his absence. People believed that trouble was brewing. The very morning of his visit, at the market, she heard a conversation that still send chills of fear along her spine as she recalled it.

“Best buy extra stores today, when prices are still reasonable,” one woman had advised another while she picked up an orange squash and turned it this way and that to appraise it.

“Why’s that?” asked the other.

The first woman had lowered her voice but Nîneth could not help overhearing standing right next to the pair as she was. “My sister’s neighbor’s cousin works in the household of the merchants’ guildsmaster. She says that her master is very concerned there may be a war because Captain-General Boromir is on his way to the City.”

“Boromir?” the second woman exclaimed, and the first quickly hushed her to quiet. She continued in a softer voice. “But I thought he had died in the war.”

“Aye,” said the first woman. “That’s what they wanted us to believe. But it’s whispered he’s been kept prisoner somewhere up north and is now returning with an army to take back what belongs to him.”

The second woman shook her head. “But the king–“

“Don’t you see? The king’s not even here!”

“I suppose you will need to know what size to cut the cloth,” the steward had continued after a moment, bringing her back to the present. “Picture a man as tall as I am, but a little broader in the shoulders.” He stopped there, his gaze growing distant. “It’s been so long,” he murmured before he turned back to Nîneth. “Make it as you would for me, and it should fit him. Be sure to do your best work. Anyone who sees the clothes must know the wearer is an important man and a member of the House of Húrin.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Oh, and you must make haste. I want it to be finished in two days’ time at the latest.”

Nîneth hesitated only a moment. “Of course, my lord.”

He had smiled, then, though not at her, and muttered, “I cannot wait to see his face.”

She had had work into the night to finish the clothes in time. But she had managed, and he would be pleased. It did not matter that her back hurt from being hunched over for so long, that her eyes stung or that her fingertips had gone numb from pushing the needle through the cloth countless times. She owed him a debt of gratitude and was glad to be able to repay it.

Almost as if her thoughts summoned him, the bell over the door rang and the steward strode in. He seemed even more worried and rushed than he had on his first visit.

“Is it done?” he asked, again without prelude.

“Yes, my lord. Just let me wrap it up for you.”

“Thank you.”

A few minutes later she had wrapped the tunic, a matching pair of breeches and a light summer’s cloak in a piece of burlap and tied it with a string. “Here you go, my lord.”

“Thank you, Nîneth.” He left a purse on the table that looked far too heavy, even for the swift work she had done, and quickly departed before she could find the words to protest that he was overpaying her. The soft chime of the bell echoed for a moment before the shop went silent again.

o0o

The air was heavy and still. The sun was a white-hot ball that burned the sky to a pale blue and made the horizon shimmer in the distance. High overhead, a bird of prey was flying lazy circles in search of its midday meal. The road was deserted, except for the small traveling party and their horses, although far off Boromir could see people busying themselves on their land; dust rose where they worked. It hung in the still air for a long time.

He squinted at the peaks of the Ered Nimrais silhouetted sharply against the sky. The white snow glistered in the sunlight. In the privacy of his mind, he had been calling the peaks by their names as they slowly fell away behind them. Halfirien, Calenhad. Eilenach towered over the Druadan forest and Amon Din rose up not far ahead. Soon, Mount Mindolluin would appear over its shoulder. More than four years had passed since he last saw those mountains, the silent watchers over Gondor’s history. Unlike he, they had not changed at all.

So much had happened during those years. So much he had missed. His brother married. Mithrandir departed. Frodo gone. And Sam–

“Is something amiss, Boromir? Is the wound paining you still?” Aragorn pulled up beside him, a slight wrinkle marring his brow.

“Eh?” Boromir realized his horse had used his master’s absentmindedness to stop walking and nibble on some of the grass growing at the edge of the road. He thought he must be looking rather foolish — sitting still atop a horse that was not going anywhere, gazing up at mountaintops. “No, everything is fine. The wound has healed nicely, due to your care. I was thinking about the little ones.”

After the initial awkward reunion in Bree, he had spent several weeks catching up with the latest news in the hobbits’ lives while recuperating further, before Aragorn said it was time they head back to Minas Tirith. It was during their farewells at the bridge over the Brandywine river — which was as far into the Shire as Aragorn was willing to travel — that Sam had presented him with the tiniest, prettiest little girl child Boromir had ever seen.

“This is Elanor,” Sam had said while the toddler clung to his knee. “My daughter.”

Boromir had blinked, overwhelmed with a sense of happiness. He could not recall what he had told Sam but the hobbit had blushed with pleasure and pride before taking the girl back to her mother — a rather pretty hobbit herself, Boromir had thought.

“Ah,” Aragorn replied, pulling Boromir back to the here and now. The king gave a half-smile. “You need not worry. They are a sturdy people that can take care of themselves.” He handed Boromir his water skin. “Here, have a drink. It is a hot day.”

Absently, Boromir accepted the flask and took a deep swallow. “Thank you.”

Aragorn was right, of course. The halflings were living normal, happy lives, with sweethearts and wives and children. It had turned out well, all things considered. Still, he wished he could have talked with Frodo one last time. No matter how often Sam assured him that Frodo had understood why Boromir tried to take the Ring, had understood better than anyone, it would have been nice to ask for his forgiveness. Frodo’s pardon would have bolstered his determination to return home at last and finally face up to the consequences.

“Boromir?” There was laughter in Aragorn’s voice. “You are daydreaming again. We will never reach home if you keep indulging in reveries.”

Boromir’s cheeks glowed with embarrassment and he was glad for the heat so the blush would go unnoticed. “I apologize. It is just–” He stopped, uncertain of what he wanted to say.

“Do you not wish to return?” Aragorn asked, more serious now. “Or do you fear the reception you might receive?”

Boromir blinked, for a moment taken aback that his feelings were so apparent to the king. But he should not be surprised; Aragorn had always been able to read him well.

“I am concerned,” Boromir admitted. “It will be a great pleasure to see the walls of Minas Tirith, to lay eyes upon the Tower of Guard again though I had given up hope. But I worry my return might cause strife. Not everyone will be pleased to see I still live.”

Such worries had been plaguing him ever since Aragorn had made it known he wanted Boromir to return to Minas Tirith. When he had left, Boromir had not given much mind to the consequences of pretending to be dead. But now, with his name reclaimed and his position about to be reinstated, there were many legalities that needed to be dealt with. He was his father’s oldest son, and his heir. And what was worse, Faramir had known his brother was alive, yet still had accepted their father’s inheritance. Boromir feared what his return might mean for his brother more than anything else.

Aragorn nodded sternly. “Aye. But you are alive. And I will not have you deny that again.” The king’s expression softened and he smiled. “Come, Boromir. We must hurry to catch up with the others. Who knows what nonsense Gimli is putting into the boy’s head right now.”

Putting deed to word, he nudged his horse into a trot. Quickly, Boromir brought Barangol to follow. Up ahead, the two horses carrying Legolas, Gimli and Hallas were about to disappear behind a bend in the road.

It took them several minutes to catch up. Gimli was talking animatedly to Hallas, using both hands to underline the point he was making. When Boromir pulled up, Hallas turned in the saddle.

“Gimli says that you and Lord Aragorn killed a water monster that was ten times as big as you. And that it had twenty arms!”

Aragorn chuckled below his breath and Boromir shot the king a brief glare. “Gimli exaggerates,” he said.

The dwarf harrumphed. “That’s not exaggeration,” he protested. “A dwarf knows how to tell a tale well, that’s all there is to it. And I found your young friend here has quite a few stories to tell of his own. Perhaps Aragorn would like to hear about the spectacle you inflicted upon the unsuspecting village women when the orcs attacked.”

Aragorn raised an eyebrow. “I have not heard about such a thing. Please, Hallas, tell me more.”

“Aye, my lord. It happened when…”

Boromir groaned and rolled his eyes. He allowed his horse to fall back out of earshot. He had no wish to hear the story; he had many other, more important things to think about.

Overhead, the sun was still fiery white. Ahead, Mount Mindolluin came into view, wavering in the heat.

o0o

They were still several leagues from the Rammas Echor when darkness was falling. The sun had disappeared behind Mount Mindolluin and though the sky overhead was still a dark blue, the road was shrouded in the long shadows of the mountains.

“We will not reach Minas Tirith before nightfall,” Legolas said. “Aragorn, what do you wish to do? Do you want to continue in the darkness? It is nearly full moon and the sky is clear so we should have enough light to travel by. Or shall we make camp here?”

Aragorn pondered for a moment. “We will make camp,” he said. “I do not want to arrive after nightfall and cause a commotion when the guards recognize me.”

Legolas turned back in his saddle and peered ahead intently.

“What do you see?” Gimli asked, attempting to peek over Legolas’s shoulder and failing.

“A fire,” Legolas said. “Someone else has set up a camp.”

“Then let us go join them,” Gimli said. “We might share a meal.”

“Or frighten them witless when they recognize their king,” Boromir said.

Aragorn was shaking his head. “I doubt that they would,” he said. “If they are from Anórien or the Pelennor, they would not be making a camp. If they are not, chances are, they do not know me by sight. And I can blend in well, as you know.” He smiled. “Besides, I would like to know why someone would be camping out in the wilds instead of finding themselves an inn in the city.”

“Perhaps they also could not reach the city before nightfall?” Hallas suggested.

“Perhaps,” Aragorn said absently. “We will know soon enough.”

As they approached the fire, they could see the camp was small. A single tent stood pitched a few yards from the road in a small clearing between the trees. An unsaddled horse stood not far from the tent, nibbling on the leaves.

A lone man sat on a log beside the fire but he jumped up when the riders approached. He was dressed in light leather armor and had his sword halfway out of its scabbard before he fully stood. “Who goes there?” he challenged.

“It is I, Beregond,” Aragorn said as he rode into the circle of light and dismounted. With a start, Boromir recognized the man as the guard who had saved his brother from the pyre.

“My lord!” Beregond dropped his sword back in its scabbard and took a deep bow. “I apologize, sire. I did not recognize you. I am glad to see you.”

“‘Tis dark.” Aragorn shrugged off the apology. “Tell me, what are you doing here?”

“The Steward, sire. He received King Éomer’s message that you were on your way. He sent me to ride out and intercept you.”

“Why would Faramir do such a thing?” Aragorn frowned. “Has something happened in my absence?”

“Not that I know of, sire. But the Lord Steward told me to inform you that he politely requests you visit his house in Emyn Arnen before you return to the City.”

“He would keep me from going to my city?”

Beregond looked shocked at the suggestion and forgot himself for a moment. “No! He says there are issues he urgently needs to discuss with you first.”

Aragorn’s frown deepened. “And where is Faramir now?”

“In Minas Tirith, sire. I am told to go get him, while you ride to Emyn Arnen.”

“Perhaps we should do as Faramir asks,” Boromir said softly while he stepped closer to Aragorn.

“Lord Boromir? Is it truly you? Lord Faramir said that… But I never thought… I believed…” Beregond grinned broadly. “In any case, it is good to see you, my lord.”

Boromir returned the grin a little awkwardly. “Thank you, Beregond. It is good to be home.” He turned back to Aragorn. “Faramir must have good reason for his request. And I believe I can guess what it is about.”

“So can I,” Aragorn muttered. Louder, he said, “Ride back to the city. Tell Faramir I am waiting for him here.”

“But, sire–”

“I will not give fuel to the gossips by sneaking around the Pelennor at night,” Aragorn said, “or by having private meetings at the steward’s country residence. Someone is bound to read too much into it. Tell Faramir I will meet him here tonight, or speak with him tomorrow when I reach the city.”

“Yes, sire.” Beregond bowed. “With your leave, I best be on my way, then.” He turned briskly and went to saddle his horse.

Within moments, Beregond was galloping away along the road at a dangerous speed. He quickly disappeared in the encroaching night. Boromir listened as the footfalls of the horse echoed against the mountains and slowly fell away.

“Boromir? What’s happening?” Hallas appeared at his elbow.

“Politics,” Boromir said. He turned to Barangol and started unstrapping his belongings before taking off the tack and saddle. “I told you that Faramir, the Steward of Gondor, is my brother. He is also five years my junior. That means it is I who is my father’s heir with regard to the Stewardship, as well as many other things, and not Faramir.”

“But they thought you were dead!”

“Exactly,” Boromir said. He began to brush down Barangol’s coat until it gleamed in the firelight, finding the mindless activity soothing. “And now they will learn I am not. It makes for a rather complicated jurisdictional entanglement and could cause grave problems for Faramir or King Elessar.”

“But how–”

“Enough,” Aragorn interrupted. “We will discuss this further when Faramir arrives. Now, off you go, lad, and see if you can snare us a late night supper. I fear it is going to be a long night with little sleep.”

o0o

“Someone is coming,” Legolas said softly, several hours later. Boromir pulled his eyes away from the flames and strained his ears. It was five minutes later before his hearing could confirm the elf’s observation. Distant and muted at first, he detected the sound of horses on the smooth surface of the road. The noise carried far through the night and grew louder gradually.

Though it was close to midnight, it was not very dark. As predicted, the moon had come up not long after Beregond left. It was a near-perfect circle, missing a sliver so small it could fool the eye into believing it was full. Thousands upon thousands of stars sparkled around the moon in the velvety black sky. Together, they created an ethereal atmosphere where the silvery gleam leached the color out of the world. The fire had been allowed to burn low as the summer night was warm, and it cast a small circle of brighter yellow light.

Another five minutes passed before three riders came into view. In the moonlight, they were nothing but dark shapes with ghostly pale faces. It was hard to tell who they were. Yet Boromir’s heart began to beat a little faster when he recognized Faramir by the way his brother sat his horse. No longer able to remain seated, he got up, waiting expectantly. He barely noticed when Aragorn came to stand beside him.

The second rider soon revealed himself as Beregond. Boromir felt like he should know the third rider also, somehow, but before he could further discover who the man was, Faramir had hopped off his horse and closed the few steps to Boromir and Aragorn.

“You look well, my lord,” he said to Aragorn.

“You, on the other hand,” Aragorn replied, “look harried. Are the Harad emissaries giving you so much trouble?”

Though he said it with a laugh, Boromir knew the king well enough to see the concern beneath his easy manner. And he had to agree with Aragorn. Close up, Faramir still was pale, and there were shadows beneath his eyes. He appeared like a man who had not had much sleep, lately.

Faramir did not smile back. “Those,” he said, “I can deal with. Other issues have kept me up late. I am glad you are returned.”

He then turned to Boromir who grinned in greeting.

“Hello, little brother,” Boromir said.

Faramir looked him up and down for a long while, his face betraying little of his emotions, and Boromir’s grin faded. He had always been able to read his brother but now he was not sure what Faramir was thinking. Then Faramir’s eyes met his and his face split in a grin. He wrapped Boromir up in a hug, thwacking his back.

“‘Tis good to see you again, Boromir! And you look well. Although a bit frayed around the edges, I have to add. A good thing I brought you some decent attire to wear. Cannot have my brother enter the city looking like a vagrant.”

Boromir glanced down, noticed the worn cuffs of his simple linen shirt, the sewn-on patches on his oft-mended breeches, and gave a rueful grin. “These clothes have served me well and long.”

“Far too long, I should think,” said a deep voice.

Boromir looked up, startled. “Uncle Imrahil!” He knew suddenly why the third rider had been familiar.

Imrahil’s eyes flashed with suppressed anger. “What were you thinking, boy? Running off like you did?”

“I–” Boromir began but his uncle was not done.

“Have you any idea how much grief you caused? How much trouble you put your brother in? I should put you over my knee, big as you are!”

There was a suppressed snort somewhere off to Boromir’s left. A quick glance told him Hallas had made the sound but he could not tell if the boy was frightened in the face of the angry lord, or if nervousness made him snicker at the mental image. He felt his own anger rise.

“I do not think–” he protested.

“Apparently not,” Imrahil cut him off. “I thought you were smarter, Boromir. I expected more sense from you.”

“I did what I thought best for Gondor,” Boromir said stubbornly. “It was my choice, a personal matter, not anyone’s business but my own.”

“Did not your father teach you anything? For one of the high houses of Gondor, and even more so the House of Húrin, personal matters are matters of the realm. By blood, you are one of Gondor’s nobles. You cannot come and go as you please and expect it to have no consequences.”

“Imrahil, I think that will do,” said Aragorn, placing a hand on the prince’s shoulder. “‘Twas I, who asked Boromir to come home. Come, we have important matters to speak of. Then, when all is settled, I give you leave to do to Boromir as you must.” He flashed a quick smile designed to ease the tension.

For a moment Imrahil continued to glare, then his shoulders slumped. “Ah, well, it never did him much good in the past. No reason why it should do now. And the damage is done.” He turned to Aragorn. “You are right, of course, my lord. Let us concentrate on minimizing the consequences.”

Aragorn preceded Imrahil to the logs around the fire. Faramir began to follow but Boromir held him back. “Uncle seems really upset,” he said softly. “Are things truly as bad in the city? How much trouble did I put you in, exactly?”

Faramir shrugged. “I am not sure. I tried to keep your return quiet until you and Elessar arrived but word has gotten out anyhow. I had not even told Uncle about you until the messenger came from Rohan with the news that you were in Edoras and on your way home. He has not had much time to get used to the idea and I think he is as angry with me for keeping your secret as he is with you. He will come around, you shall see.” He gave a soft smile. “You were always his favorite nephew.”

“Second favorite, Faramir. Second favorite.”

They followed Aragorn and Imrahil to the fire.

Homecoming

Within moments, the four men were seated around the fire. Gimli was sound asleep in the tent, undisturbed by the new arrivals. Even Imrahil’s outburst had not woken him. The dwarf’s snores drifted out through the opening, loud in the quiet night. Hallas and Beregond had withdrawn out of earshot and were looking after the horses. Boromir had no idea where Legolas had disappeared off to. The elf did not seem to need much rest, and apparently, Legolas had decided the proceedings did not concern him.

“It is good of you to have come, Imrahil,” Aragorn was saying. “I will welcome your counsel.”

Imrahil gave a self-deprecating shrug. “When the fate of my nephews and that of my country is at stake, how could I stay away?”

“You keep speaking of doom,” Boromir said. “It cannot be as bad as you make it out to be. How does my return to Minas Tirith put the future of Gondor at risk?”

Imrahil sighed. “Think, Boromir. You are, or should have been, your father’s rightful heir. Instead, you disappear, leaving everyone to believe you are dead. And then you return five years later. Did you expect that would not have serious ramifications?”

“Yes, but–”

Aragorn held up a hand to silence Boromir’s protest. “You will have the chance to explain your decision to your uncle later. First, I want to hear what my steward has to say. I would like to know what is so important that it needs to be discussed here by the roadside and cannot wait until I am returned to Minas Tirith.”

Faramir’s lips pressed together and Boromir noticed how much his brother seemed to have aged in the five years since he had left. Or was it just exhaustion that made him look haggard?

“There is unrest brewing in the city. Discontented parties are drawing together; they are using rumors of Boromir’s imminent return to sow uncertainty.” He took a moment to collect his thoughts. “Or for a diversion. Cranthir of Tol Falas has been quietly settling the coast of South Gondor.”

Boromir tried to recall who Cranthir was but failed to put a face to the name. Thoughts of the island of Tol Falas brought to mind a soft-spoken man with white hair who had rarely raised his voice the few times he attended council meetings. But then it came to Boromir — Cranthir was the son; the old lord must have passed away.

“He has always been a hothead; I knew he was not pleased with my edict regarding the southern lands,” Aragorn mused. “But I had not believed him capable of such rebellious acts.”

“He has been stirring up the people near the Ethir Anduin to join him,” Faramir continued, “telling them that as long as the occupied lands are not ruled by proper Gondorian nobles, the threat from Umbar remains. The people in the Ethir Anduin suffered greatly the last decades and they are susceptible to his arguments.”

“You have never mentioned such thing to the Council!” Imrahil interjected.

“Aye,” Faramir said. “It was only a few days ago that I received confirmation. I hoped the stories were exaggerated. But Cranthir is counting on the Council being too occupied with the difficulties in the City to pay much attention to what is going on in the south. He relies on his lands being too far from Minas Tirith for us to bother. The Haradric ambassador is not pleased. The settlers have been interfering with the trade parties.”

Aragorn rubbed his brow, the carefree attitude of a ranger in his element replaced with the burden of responsibility. “I can see I have returned not a day too soon.”

“I have drawn up the order to summon Cranthir to Minas Tirith,” Faramir said, “where he will answer for his actions. It only awaits your signature. I do not believe he realizes that you are back, yet, for you have been gone without a word for a long time. Some even wonder if you have abandoned them.”

“The people of Gondor must learn to accept that they have to share me with their kindred in the North,” Aragorn said. “There will come other times that I must go forth for months, perhaps longer. And when I’m gone, you must speak in my stead.”

Imrahil sat forward. “That is part of the problem, sire. Not everyone accepts Faramir’s orders as yours. Even in the Council, there is often great debate, especially since Boromir’s survival has given your adversaries the means to cast doubt on the legality of Faramir’s office. Some never fully accepted the change of regime. In your absence, they have seen their chance. Cranthir does not believe Faramir will intervene–”

“I understand, Imrahil,” Aragorn said. “Still, I cannot be here at all times to keep the fiefs in check. Faramir, you can not fail to act when–”

“I do not!” Faramir protested, not giving the king a chance to finish. “But the messenger from Rohan said you were on your way. Under the circumstances, I thought it better to have your full authority backing me up. The last thing Gondor needs is a civil war.” He paused a moment, looking a little startled at his own outburst, and Aragorn gestured for him to continue. “Rumor says that Boromir is on his way to claim his inheritance. It has given the dissenters the excuse to question my every decision and to rally others who carry a grudge to do the same. I wasted far too many hours the last weeks to rectify what should have been trivialities instead of resolving important matters. But I cannot stop the gossips. It is even whispered that there is an army on the way to set things right and put Boromir in my stead!”

Boromir snorted with disgust. “That is preposterous.” He glanced longingly at Barangol, his trusted mount. Life as a drifter had been hard, but it had been uncomplicated and often satisfying. He could barely make out Hallas’s shape in the shadows beneath the trees where the boy was keeping himself busy grooming Faramir’s horse. The lad’s face floated as a pale blur in the darkness every time he darted a worried glance at the group around the fire.

“Boromir?”

He felt the king’s intent gaze rest upon him and he tore his eyes away from the horses.

“You know I have no desire to take Faramir’s place,” Boromir said quietly. “And I do not wish to be the cause of such problems for Gondor. Perhaps,” he suggested, pushing up from the log, “it is better I remain dead. With your permission, I will go and return North so you can concentrate on consolidating your reign.” From the corner of his eye, he saw Faramir give a start.

“It might not be such a bad idea,” Imrahil observed after a short pause. He met Boromir’s eyes. “Do not misunderstand me, Boromir. I am overjoyed to see you are well, despite my harsh words. But to have you return after five years… It upsets the balance wrought in the Council. Cranthir would not have dared such a rebellion if he did not think you would keep Minas Tirith distracted.”

Aragorn appraised Imrahil for a moment before he addressed Boromir. “You will not have my permission,” he said. “You are still a lord of Gondor, and as such should take up your rightful place. Whatever I decide that is. Sit down, Boromir.”

Boromir hesitated a moment before he lowered himself back on the log with a sigh. “I had forgotten how irksome political intrigue can be,” he muttered.

Beside him, Imrahil snorted a humorless laugh. “Welcome back, son.”

Boromir glanced over at Aragorn. “They cannot compel you instate me as Steward in Faramir’s place, can they?”

It was Faramir who answered instead of the king. “No. After the coronation, I did what you, or any other steward, would have done. I relinquished the office. The line of the Ruling Stewards has ended. It was King Elessar who next chose me to be his steward, as is his right. The Stewardship and all it entails is mine, as long as I live or as long as the king wants me to serve.”

“‘Twould be a sad day when a few wayward nobles could tell me how to rule my kingdom,” Aragorn added. “Now, Faramir, I assume you brought the summons with you. Give it to me, so I can sign it. Beregond can take it back to the City and have the guard dispatched.”

Faramir started to get up, but as if he had anticipated his lord’s need, Beregond materialized from the shadows. In his arms, he carried a small wooden box that he set down beside Faramir.

“Thank you, Beregond.” Faramir opened the box to reveal sheets of paper, a writing quill and a small, stoppered bottle of ink.

“Perhaps you would also pour us some of the cider I brought along?” Imrahil suggested. “I believe we have need for some refreshment. I do hope it is still cool enough to be palatable.”

“I’m sure it will be, my lord,” Beregond said. “There is a small stream running out of the mountains not far from here. I had the bottle placed in the water to keep it cool.”

A few moments later, they were all provided with cups of cider and Aragorn signed the order. Once the ink was dry, he rolled up the sheet of paper and put it in a leather tube before he gave it to Beregond. The guard’s captain, given loan of Hallas’s horse, which was far more rested than his own, led the mount toward the road, where he swung himself up.

“What other dissenters will need dealing with?” Aragorn asked when the sounds of hooves had faded in the night.

“The usual malcontents,” Faramir said. “Ramloth of Linhir is stirring up the old grievances about the South Ithilien land deeds. He hopes that questioning the validity of my Stewardship will shed doubt on my decision to deny his claim.”

“Does he have any allies?” Aragorn asked.

Faramir shrugged. “He may have gone into consort with Cranthir.”

“If he has, he will suffer the same fate,” Aragorn decided. “The Stewardship is beyond doubt. I will not have anyone question it again.”

There was silence for a moment.

“Ithilien is inhabited?” Boromir asked. The news had come as a surprise to him. It had been before his birth that Ithilien was relinquished to the forces of Mordor and subsequently robbed of much of its beauty. He had not expected restoration efforts to be successful so quickly.

“Aye,” Faramir said with a smile that betrayed his love for the fair lands east of the Anduin. “It is hard work to bring it back to its previous beauty but yes, Ithilien is being tilled again. Boromir, you should see Emyn Arnen! You will not believe your eyes.” For the moment, Faramir seemed to have forgotten the politics while he told Boromir about the house he had built, or the gardens Legolas had laid out, where flowers bloomed in spring and orchards filled with fruit in the fall.

Aragorn smiled as he watched his steward’s enthusiasm and allowed him a short while to stray from the more serious subjects at hand.

“It sounds beautiful,” Boromir agreed. “I would love to visit for a while.”

The joy disappeared from Faramir’s face as if he were suddenly reminded of an old heartache. “You cannot merely visit, Boromir. Emyn Arnen belongs to you. It is part of your inheritance from Father.”

“What? But… You are Gondor’s rightful steward, you said so yourself!”

“Faramir speaks the truth,” Imrahil said softly. “Emyn Arnen is part of the Húrin estate, and as such it is not necessarily part of the steward’s assets.”

“But that leaves you with–”

“The second-born son’s share,” Faramir finished. “The house on Rath Eneg, a farm in Anórien, a few other odds and ends.”

“No!” Boromir said forcefully. “No, Faramir, I cannot put you out of the home you built with such love. I will not.” He turned to Aragorn as if wanting to plead for the king’s support. Much to his astonishment, Aragorn was smiling.

The grin widened at the surprise on Boromir’s face. “Did you think, my friend, I had not prepared for this? Often, you have complained to me about your return to Minas Tirith. I know you do not wish to take on the role of counselor in my court. And I would not force you, you would not be happy there.”

“My lord!” Imrahil interrupted. From the look on his face, he was as surprised as Boromir. “If you allow Boromir to give up his lands, he will be left–”

“Yes, I know.” Aragorn held up a hand. “Let me finish. There are many parts of the kingdom that have not been granted to anyone, many parts that run wild, far from my control. Some of those areas are deserted and I have no interest in submitting wolves and deer to my reign. But other places need to be brought into the fold if we are ever to have peace. I cannot be in all those places at once. I need someone whom I can trust, who is not afraid to pick up the sword when needed, to do it for me. Someone like Boromir.”

He tugged his saddlebag closer to pull out a scroll of vellum. He tugged the ribbon that held it close and unrolled it. “I had this drawn up in Edoras,” he explained. “How does Lord of Dunland sound?”

“Dunland?” Boromir echoed.

“Yes. Dunland. Nobody seems to want it; they complain it is too far from the citadel. And the Dunlendings are considered too troublesome. Éomer has been keeping them in check for me, but I cannot continue to rely on Rohan to do my work. I thought it would fit you perfectly.”

“I– I suppose it does,” Boromir stammered. He tried to wrap his mind around the idea. It would keep him far from Minas Tirith’s meddling courtiers, far from the whispers they would exchange behind his back. It would keep Faramir in Emyn Arnen, where his brother belonged — in spite of what the laws of bequeathal said. And it would give him a chance to really make a difference, to help Aragorn far better than he ever could do as a lone vigilante.

A slow grin broke on Boromir’s face. “It would be my pleasure, sire, to serve as your liegeman in Dunland.”

“Good.” Aragorn scrawled something on the piece of parchment. “I, Elessar Telcontar, hereby grant the tenement of Dunland to Boromir Denethorion. Faramir, Steward of Gondor, and Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth, bear witness to this grant.”

Boromir blinked for a moment at the sudden formality, then inclined his head and dropped to a knee. “Here do I swear fealty and service to Gondor, and to the Lord and King of the realm.”

The words of the oath, learned so long ago and only spoken once before, came unbidden and natural. “To speak and to be silent, to do and to let be, to come and to go, in need or in plenty, in peace or war, in living or dying, from this hour henceforth, until my lord release me, or death take me, or the world end. So say I, Boromir son of Denethor.”

“And this do I hear, Elessar Telcontar, King of the Reunited Kingdom of Gondor and Arnor, and I will not forget it, nor fail to reward that which is given: fealty with love, valor with honor, oath-breaking with justice!”

“This will not allay the fears of those who believe that Boromir is slighted and wishes to reclaim his inheritance,” Imrahil cautioned. “They might see it as a further insult or even exile.” He looked pleased, nevertheless.

“I realize that,” Aragorn said. He sanded the vellum to dry the ink. “That’s why we will have to do this again tomorrow in Council, with as much pomp and grandeur as we can muster.”

Faramir chuckled as Boromir groaned. “See? I knew I brought you those garments for a reason!”

o0o

Not long after Boromir had sworn fealty as the new lord of Dunland the sky to the east began to grow pale. The summer night was short. The moon set behind the mountains and the stars faded while Faramir and Imrahil prepared for their departure. They would need to hurry if they wished to arrive in Minas Tirith before the city woke up.

“Remember, Faramir, I want to see the full council at the noon hour,” Aragorn instructed

“Aye, sire.”

The time of their return was most fortuitous. Most if not all of Gondor’s nobles were currently in residence in Minas Tirith in preparation of the midsummer ceremonies and festivities to be held in a few days. Boromir wondered if Aragorn had timed it so on purpose. Though he knew that his injury had caused the greatest delay, he would not put it past the king to have machinated their travels so they would arrive at the height of the social season. Beneath his sometimes lenient exterior, Aragorn had proved himself an adroit politician.

“Boromir!” Imrahil approached, leading his horse by its bridle. “Boromir, I do not pretend to understand why you did what you did, or to even condone it. But I do believe you meant well. It is good to have you back, alive and well.”

Boromir smiled in gratitude when his uncle embraced him. “I am sorry,” he said. He did not know if he would have made the same decision now; it was hard to recall his motivations at the time. The times were different now — he was different.

Imrahil smiled back. “I will see you later in the morning, Boromir. Make sure you look like a proper lord of the realm.”

Boromir chuckled. “Do not worry, uncle. I still remember how to impress the Council.”

A moment later, the steward and the prince disappeared down the road toward Minas Tirith.

A hand landed on Boromir’s shoulder. “Come, Boromir. We should follow Imrahil’s advice and make ourselves presentable.”

Boromir looked at the king, knowing his own appearance was as unkempt as that of his lord’s, with too-long hair that had not been washed properly in too many days, and an untidy beard. Though they had passed several inns along the way from Edoras where they could have stayed in comfort, Aragorn had deemed it wiser to camp in the fields in an attempt to stay unnoticed for as long as possible. Of course, had they known their imminent return was no longer a secret, they could have chosen the convenience of beds and baths over the hard ground.

“Aye, my lord. A good thing Faramir has provided all that is needed.”

Aragorn smiled wryly. “Aye, he shows remarkable prudence sometimes,” he answered.

They went to work with soap and sharp razors. Slowly yet steadily the transformation from shabby travelers to Gondorian lords was completed. Hallas offered to help Boromir trim his beard, an offer he gladly accepted as Faramir’s supplies lacked a mirror, while Legolas braided Aragorn’s long hair into an intricate elfish design.

Once cleaned and groomed, Boromir finally had the chance to unwrap the package Faramir had brought. He shook out the clothes and held them up. He was surprised and touched to notice his family’s crest embroidered on the chest of the tunic and made a mental note to express his thanks to his brother later. He was even more surprised when his eye caught the tiny mark sewn in the inside of the hem. “Nîneth!”

“Who is Nîneth?” Aragorn asked, having overheard the soft exclamation.

“A needlewoman,” Boromir said. “From Linhir. I met her years ago and suggested she go to Minas Tirith. I asked Faramir to make sure she would be all right.”

Aragorn looked taken aback for a moment, then laughed. “The small shop on the fourth level! That explains why he sometimes favored her over tailors of far more renown vying for his custom. Boromir, Boromir, I wonder what other mysteries you will still reveal me.”

Boromir pulled the tunic over his head and let it fall free. It felt smooth, and the fabric seemed to shimmer in the early morning light.

“Boromir! You look like a rich lord!”

Hallas was looking Boromir up and down. He wore a strange expression that Boromir could not quite put a name to.

“Aye,” he grinned. “I do, do I not? You do not look so bad yourself, either.”

Hallas shrugged uncomfortably. Faramir had erred on the young man’s size and the tunic was a bit wide in the shoulders, the sleeves a tad too long. Still, Boromir could scarce believe his brother had been foresighted enough to bring a page’s uniform for Hallas, although he had often mentioned him in his letters.

He chortled at Hallas’s discomfort. “Do not fret,” he said. “You will be out of those clothes soon enough. Once you don the tower guard’s uniform, I think you will find that more to your liking.”

Hallas’s eyes lit up for a moment at the mention of the army but then his features fell back into the curious expression. “I guess I will not see you much, will I, Boromir?”

Suddenly, Boromir realized why the boy looked odd. He was uncertain about the future, afraid to lose his one friend. “No,” he said honestly. “At least not for a few years. You will spend a lot of your time training with the soldiers. And I will be in Dunland. But I will still be your friend, you remember that, you hear?”

Hallas nodded, some of the tension leaving him. “I will.”

o0o

The sun stood hot and high once more, baking the fields, when they at last approached the white walls of Minas Tirith. Perspiration broke out on Boromir’s back and he swung the cloak over his shoulder. It had been a long time since he had worn the full attire of a lord headed for the citadel and even the thin summer silks failed to keep him as comfortable as his linen shirt used to do. A glance sideways revealed that, despite the weather, Aragorn appeared as cool and unperturbed as any king should be and Boromir resolved himself to follow Aragorn’s example. But it was hard not to fidget in the saddle when butterflies danced in his stomach and shivers of anticipation ran up his spine.

He turned to look at the others, following at a little distance. Legolas looked unaffected by the heat; it was as if the sun’s warmth could not touch him. Hallas rode beside Legolas and he gave a quavering smile when he caught Boromir looking. Boromir could not see much of Gimli, hidden behind Legolas. Behind the pair rode the dozen soldiers Faramir had sent to provide an honor guard. Their armor had been polished to a shine, and Aragorn’s banner flapped high over them.

Boromir turned back to gaze up at the towering walls of Minas Tirith, gleaming white in the hot sunlight. The Gates stood open in welcome and though shadows reigned beneath them, Boromir thought he could detect people waiting for them, his brother among them. They were there to greet their liege lord, returned after a long absence. He sat up a little more straight, not wanting anyone to notice his nervousness.

Suddenly, Aragorn held up a gloved hand to stop them. “Listen, Boromir!” he said. “Do you hear?”

Boromir listened and a moment later he did hear what Aragorn referred to: silver trumpets ringing, their song carried easily across the Pelennor on a light breeze.

“I hear them,” he said, surprised to find himself without breath. His eyes stung, and he rubbed them. “I hear them.”

Aragorn smiled. “Mark their words,” he said softly. “Not a one can doubt it now: the lords of Gondor have returned.”

***

Author thankyous
This is my magnum opus, a story that is longer than any I’ve written to date. The first few chapters have been posted before, as “Gondor’s Son”, a much shorter story. They have since been reworked and merged with what was originally a sequel. During the process of writing this novel, I met many kind and helpful people who were happy to part with their opinions, knowledge and even the occasional brainchild and thus help me tell a better story. I cannot name them all but be aware I am grateful for all the help. A special mention deserve Lyllyn & Marta & Aeneid & Ann for valuable betawork; Liz & Gwynnyd for even more beta shredding; Cheryl for teaching me about horses; Middle-earth Adventure Riders Association for their incredible travel times chart, and all of HASA’s membership.

Chapter notes:
The Journey South: I owe a great debt to Marta for her text suggestions involving Boromir’s reflections. She managed to get into his head much better than I did and phrased things much clearer. The ‘pig incident’ that Boromir remembers at The Two Oaks is told in Life Lesson.
Fate’s Admonishment: I’m aware that whether or not chocolate would have been available in Middle-earth is open to discussion. I decided to go with the school of thought that we have no idea what exactly is being cultivated in the lands far south of Gondor, and thus the existence of chocolate is not unthinkable.
Autumn Falls: Thanks to Cheryl for helping with the horsey bits!
Enmities: If some of this sounds familiar, you’re right. A more extended version of Drukh Skullgrinder’s tale can be found in the stand-alone story Enmities.
Riders Of The Mark: I’m indebted to Lyllyn who let me borrow (and mangle!) her wonderful Drinking Song To The Fellowship. The full and actual version is available here.
Homecoming: Thanks to Cheryl for allowing me to use her variant of the oath. Many, many thanks to Gwynnyd and Liz for helping hammer out the political entanglements!

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2 Reviews

  1. nancylea57
    Posted September 3, 2008 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    great story. i do wonder what boromir thought when he met his nephew, but i can see that he really never ‘got’ the family idea. i hope you consider writing out the next story in this cycle, if your tired of boromir you could go with hallas as his heir.

  2. peersrogue
    Posted December 10, 2008 at 1:46 am | Permalink

    I read ths wonderful story in one sitting. Amazing and very moving, I love stories in which Boromir lives and you have give us not simply a story but a book. You should be very proud of this great work. Many thx S

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