Where History Has Been Fixed
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Long Road Home, The: 12. Thieves In The Forest
"'Tis been a long winter, Master Erandír." The innkeep wiped at the table's surface with a piece of cloth, though it shone brightly already, reflecting the candlelight. The common room was empty except for Boromir and the inn's proprietor. Despite the candles, the room was gloomy, although it was the middle of the afternoon. A winter storm howled outside around the corners of the building, whipping sleet through the snow-filled streets.
"Aye," Boromir agreed. The winter lasted long indeed. Long enough for his increasing impatience to slowly become unbearable. He was impatient to be on his way again. Near to four months had gone by since he came down through the pass at Tarlang's Neck to the Morthond vale. Though he had hoped to be able to travel further before winter, the unpredictable weather quickly made him change his mind.
Winters were always long in the White Mountains, with summers hot and brief. This year winter had set in quite early. Two days after he reached the Morthond, on the morning of his intended departure, he had woken up to a leaden sky from which wet flakes drifted down. They cloaked the deserted Hill of Erech in white until in the late afternoon a watery sun melted the snow and left the earth damp. With the cold season so close on his heels, he did not dare risk being caught in its icy claws somewhere in the wilds; although many folk dwelt in the fertile Morthond Vale, the land further west was desolate and sparsely populated.
So, reluctantly, he had stayed in the Morthond vale, where he had found a simple and cheap establishment in a narrow alley near the bridge over the river.
"A very long winter," he repeated. His funds, never much to begin with because he left his summer savings with Nîneth, had quickly dwindled further. He had paid for his stay in kind, providing venison for the inn's tables, hunted during brief spells of bright weather, or doing menial work around the town when he could find it. He did not mind such work -- it kept his mind off of other things -- but his restlessness was increasing until he felt ready to burst with impatience.
"'Tis said that the Vale has not seen such a harsh winter since my Grandda was a young man," the innkeeper continued after a moment.
Boromir cast a look at the man's silver hair and gray beard, and surmised that must have been a long time ago indeed.
"'Tis also said the Dead Host are the cause of it, because they left the Haunted Mountain last spring." The innkeeper gave a shrug. "People've always blamed those phantoms for their misfortunes. I think it's plain bad luck. What say you, Master Erandír?"
"Bad luck, would be my guess also," Boromir answered absently.
The old arrow wounds in his left side ached; mayhap the pain announced a change in the weather. He rubbed the scars through his tunic when a thought occurred.
"What date is today?"
"Today? 'Tis the sixth of Súlimë, sir."
Boromir's flesh crept. Not surprising he was feeling so restless, then. It was a year to the day that he should have died. A year to the day when he had been given a second chance. And what had he so far done to redeem himself? No longer able to sit, he pushed back his chair and began pacing the room.
The snows would melt soon, he could sense it. Spring would be upon them in a few weeks. It would shortly be time to move on.
At least the long winter had provided him many opportunities to study sketchy maps of the country ahead, and make inquiries of the trappers who knew the woods well. He believed he had learned the lay of the lands as well as any stranger could hope to. The old South Road ended in the Morthond vale; from here on his path would lead through wilderness, along animal trails and herdsmen's footpaths. He would follow the foothills of the Ered Nimrais, cross the Lefnui and head for the pass into Drúwaith Iaur. Then he would continue until he reached the Isen. Once he crossed the mighty river, he would have left Gondor's soil and passed into the northern realm of the Reunited Kingdom. Where he would go once he arrived, Boromir had not yet decided; he could not think so far ahead.
Two days later, the storms broke at last, taking winter with them. The sun grew stronger each morning until its warmth melted the snow, and the first shoots of new grass and a few hesitant snowdrops poked their heads through the slush. Boromir began to prepare for his departure. He acquired enough provisions to sustain him during a long journey through the wilderness and discovered Barangol needed his front shoes replaced.
"No problem, sir," the village farrier said after examining Barangol's hoofs.
"I have no coin left to pay you with," Boromir admitted.
The smith frowned for a moment, slowly shifting his gaze from the horse to Boromir, then his face brightened. "You can repay me by chopping some of that into firewood," he said. He pointed to several thick tree trunks.
"Hand me the axe."
Though winter still lurked around the corner, it was warm enoughthat Boromir's shirt clung to his back by the time he straightened after chopping the final block to small pieces. He wiped the moisture from his face with his arm.
"You've chopped the entire pile!" The smith blinked at the neat pile of logs, ready to stoke his fires high. "That wasn't necessary. Your horse only had his front hooves reshod."
Boromir shrugged. Perhaps he had overpaid the smith, but he had enjoyed the physical toil after many long months of being forced stay indoors.
Finally, the day came that he rode out of the town. Soon the Hill of Erech fell behind and he entered the dark forests covering the foothills of the Ered Nimrais. It did not take him long to fully appreciate the earlier ease of riding along a road, even one constructed a long time ago and no longer well maintained. The wet ground, soggy with snowmelt, made for difficult progress and while he was used to traveling twenty miles on a good day on the road, he counted himself fortunate if he made five miles a day through the woods.
One evening, several weeks after he left the valley of the Stone, he made camp beside a nameless stream, which raced out of a narrow gulch it had cut through the hills. Rain had fallen far up in the mountains for several days, and the river was swollen. Boromir managed to find enough dry wood for a fire and it was kindled quickly. Within minutes, a hare was sizzling on a spit over the flames. Boromir was alone with his horse; as soon as he started to set up camp, Híril had run off, following a scent only a dog's sharp nose could detect.
The evening was quiet, almost balmy, whispering promises of warm summer days to come, and Boromir took off his wool cloak. He draped it over a branch to keep it off the muddy ground before he settled back to cooking dinner. Overhead, the clouds were breaking up and while the western sky still glowed dark pink, bright stars sparkled to the east.
Something rustled in the underbrush nearby; startled at the sudden noise, Barangol whinnied. A squirrel darted into the clearing and zigzagged around the horse's hooves before it raced up a tree trunk. Spooked, the horse reared, front legs slicing the air, and he tore loose his picket.
He disappeared among the trees.
Boromir swore at the squirrel as he hurried after Barangol. The last thing he needed was to lose his horse. Fortunately, though the rodent had startled him into flight, Barangol was not easily given to panic and did not run far. Soon Boromir had caught up with the animal. He reached for the reins, uttering soothing nonsense words, and began to lead the horse back to his camp. He re-staked Barangol in a small meadow near the river before he returned to his fire.
As soon as he entered the clearing, he froze, all senses on edge. Something was wrong. His hand drifted to the hilt of his sword even as his mind tried to determine what it was that alerted him. He wished for Híril's presence; her keen nose and sharp hearing oft alerted him to danger. Then he noticed the spitted hare was missing -- as was his cloak.
Thieves? In the middle of a vast wilderness?
Anger surged through him but he kept his temper in check. He did not know how many bandits there were, or what kind, and the first rule of warfare was to know the enemy.
Though he was learning fast, his tracking skills were still slight -- he was like a new recruit compared to Aragorn's abilities -- but he quickly found the tracks and realized they were easy to read. The ground, soft after the rains and covered with soggy moss, revealed a single pair of small barefooted prints. They led away from his camp, following the river uphill.
Daylight was fading quickly, and he should hurry if he were to catch up with the thief before complete darkness was upon him. Once true night fell, he would no longer be able to follow the tracks, clear as they were. He raced up the hill, keeping one eye on the prints and the other on where he was going. His large strides carried him quickly to the summit.
A soft noise, near inaudible over the rushing waters below, reached his ears. He turned his head and caught a glimpse of dark green near the rim of the gulch. His cloak!
"You!" he shouted. "Stop! Or I'll use my blade." The figure froze where he stood.
The thief was small, Boromir noticed, and scrawny. The cloak was several sizes too large for his frame, and the hem dragged in the mud.
"Please, don't kill me." The voice was in tune with the thief's frame, light and trembling with fear. "I'll give you back your cloak."
"And my dinner."
"I... I can't do that. I ate it."
"Already?" Boromir said. "'Twas not even fully done."
The thief turned around slowly, revealing himself as a boy of perhaps twelve winters old. His hair, dark brown, was unruly and matted with dirt. His eyes appeared gray, like those of many of the men in Gondor.
"I was hungry?" he squeaked.
Boromir's anger at being robbed was melting quickly at the sight of the scared, thin child. And while he was pondering how to respond, something red pelted through the undergrowth.
"Híril, down!" Boromir warned. The long hours he spent in Erech training her paid off and she obeyed him instantly, skittering to a stop.
But it was already too late.
Frightened into panic, the young thief let out a long squeal, floundered backwards and tripped on the hem of Boromir's long cloak. The soldier snatched for him but only caught a handful of air. The boy tumbled over the side and plummeted into the river.
"Not your fault, girl," Boromir said absently. A few fast steps took him to the edge. He hardly dared watch and reluctantly cast a cautious glance into the dark gully. Below, downstream from where he stood, he caught a dark blotch bobbing up and down amid the white foam glistening in the moonlight. Incredibly, the boy was still alive and clinging to a pile of rubble lodged in a tree branch that jutted out over the water.
"Hold on!" Boromir yelled. He sprinted down the hill to the river's bank.
"Help!" The child sounded terrified. "Help me."
Trying to find his way through the darkness among the trees was not easy and Boromir concentrated on the sound. The boy was hanging on for dear life but slowly yet surely losing the contest with the current. Boromir grabbed the tree with one hand and leaned forward as far as he could, reaching with the other hand.
"Take my hand," he instructed.
With the last of his strength, the boy managed to do as he was told and cold fingers wrapped themselves around Boromir's. With a mighty pull, he hauled the boy onto the shore, where they both lay panting for several minutes.
Boromir's waterlogged cloak clung to the boy's slim form and he was shivering violently.
"Come on," Boromir said once he had caught his breath. "You need to get out of those wet garments before you catch your death."
He took the boy back to his camp and warm fire, and told him to strip and put on some of his own spare clothes. They hung awkwardly on the boy's narrow frame. Boromir tied a rope around the child's waist to hold up the breeches and helped him roll up the sleeves and pant legs. He looked like he was playing dress-up, but at least the boy was dry.
Boromir heated some water and prepared a thick soup, using some of his precious dried stores. His stomach growled at the smell that wafted from the stew, a reminder he had not yet eaten dinner. The boy eyed the soup with large, hungry eyes and Boromir offered him the first bowl. He ladled it down quickly, not caring that it was hot.
"You seem starved," Boromir said, spooning up the last of the soup himself. "What are you doing here, anyway? There is nary a village near, is there?"
The boy shrugged. "No. My mother died when I was real little so I live with my da. He's a trapper. He left for Erech right after the first frost night. Winter was early this year and he wanted to sell some pelts and buy food before the snows locked us in. I haven't seen him since."
"You survived the winter by yourself?" Boromir did not know what to say. Some mishap must have befallen the boy's father; it was unlikely he would ever return. If the man could, no doubt he would have come back already. At least it explained why the youngster had been hungry enough to steal Boromir's supper.
The boy shrugged again. "I've been alone before."
"Where do you live?"
"We have a house," the boy said proudly. "My da built it."
"Then let us go there," Boromir decided. "It will be better for you than here outside." He scooped some dirt over the fire to extinguish the flames, gathered his belongings and his horse, and gestured for the boy to lead the way.
"Do you have a name?" he asked. "You can call me Erandír."
"That is a good name," Boromir said absently. The name tugged at his memory and he wondered why. Several minutes later, trampling through the darkened forest by the light of a single torch, it came to him: one of his forebears was named Hallas.
A short while later they reached a crumbled dwelling in a small, grassy clearing. It was a shack more than a house and built so low that Boromir could not stand up straight without his head touching the thick beams holding up the roof. The single room was chill, dark, and sparsely furnished. A stuffed mattress covered with a torn quilt lay in the corner. Before a cold, blackened fireplace stood a wooden chair and a small table. One of its legs was crooked, so the table's surface was tilted.
"Let us get a fire going," Boromir said, pointing to the hearth. "You do have firewood, do you not?"
Hallas gave another shake with his shoulder. "Yes. But I used the last of the kindling, and it's been raining for days. I thought my da would be back by now." His voice cracked on the last sentence and he was still shivering, despite wearing some of Boromir's dry clothes.
Boromir grabbed the thin, dirty blanket from the bed and wrapped it around the child's small frame. "We will worry about your father later. First, I need to get you warm."
Full night had fallen, and though the moon was up, it took Boromir a while to find enough wood that was dry enough he might start a fire. Yet at last, yellow flames flickered in the hearth and Boromir heated up water so he could make the boy some tea to warm him up.
Still, as Boromir had feared, the next morning Hallas woke with flushed cheeks and eyes gleaming with fever. Boromir resigned himself to staying for a few days and playing nursemaid to the boy.
The question of what he should do with the youngster once the fever was gone was never far from his mind. It turned over and over in his brain while he cooked hot soup and gently washed a fevered brow. One thing was evident: he could not leave the child to fend for himself. It was a wonder in itself that Hallas had survived one winter; the Valar must have truly smiled on the boy. Boromir doubted the child would be so fortunate again.
"How old are you?" he asked on the fourth day. The boy's fever had broken, but he was weakened and his face was pale.
"That's old enough." Boromir helped him sit up on the thin mattress and handed him a bowl of broth.
"Old enough for what?" A hint of wariness crept into Hallas's voice.
"Old enough to be a squire, of course." Boromir grinned. "I have been traveling alone for a long time. I could use an extra pair of hands and eyes. Or someone to talk to. Someone who does not reply with woof-woof." He imitated Híril in the hopes of bringing a smile to the boy's gaunt face.
It worked. Hallas chuckled, which caused him to cough violently. Boromir quickly grabbed the bowl and waited for the fit to pass before handing the broth back.
"What about my da?" Hallas asked. "What if he comes back, and I'm not here? I have to find him!" He shoved his bowl at Boromir and flung away the blanket.
Boromir set the half-empty bowl down. He reached out a hand to steady the boy, who stood swaying on his feet. Gently, he pushed Hallas back onto the mattress. "Do you not think," he said quietly, "that your father would have returned by now, if he were able to do so? The snow has melted a while ago."
"Are you saying something happened to him? That he died?" Hallas sniveled. " Maybe he is fallen sick and can't come home yet." Maybe... maybe..." The boy faltered, searching for excuses.
Boromir sighed. "Hallas, I do not know what happened. But I do not believe your father will return. You cannot stay here alone."
"You lie! My da will come home! He promised."
Boromir did not know what else to do but draw the child into his arms and hold him awkwardly while the boy cried for his lost father. Twelve years old, and an orphan. What was he going to do with him?
"Here now," Boromir said when the racking sobs abated, "dry your eyes. Squires do not cry. They do, however, learn how to handle a sword." Trying to distract the boy from his grief, he handed over his blade, hilt first. "How does that feel?"
Hallas took the sword in both hands and nearly dropped it. "It is heavy!" he said in surprise.
Boromir laughed. "Aye, it is. It is made of the hardest steel the sword makers of Minas Tirith can produce. The better to cleave orc heads with.
Hallas gazed up at Boromir with curiosity. "Did you kill many orcs?"
"Yes, I did," Boromir confirmed. "Though not as many as I would have liked."
"Did you ever see the king? My da said he came through the Haunted Mountain and was not afraid of the ghosts. He said that he killed the most orcs of all the soldiers."
Boromir's mood sobered at the memories of the war. "Aye," he confirmed reluctantly. "The king did kill many of our enemies. Now, give me that again before you cut yourself." He took the sword from the boy and slid it back into its scabbard.
"Eat your soup. You need to regain your strength if you hope to ever wield a blade like mine."
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