Politics of Arda
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Long Road Home, The: 19. 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 five 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.
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.
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 Erandír'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.
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."
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 and 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.
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