Where History Has Been Fixed
Playlist Navigation Bar
Long Road Home, The: 18. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
Playlist Navigation Bar