Where History Has Been Fixed
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Long Road Home, The: 16. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
'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.
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!"
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