Where History Has Been Fixed
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Long Road Home, The: 3. The Journey South
Author's note: 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.
The spring day dawned cold, yet bright and sunny. Even the weather celebrated, offering a clear blue sky and gentle breeze, when Aragorn accepted the crown of Gondor and officially became King Elessar. Not a sound was heard when he sang his vow in a clear voice that reached into the farthest recesses of the city and not a throat remained silent once Gandalf placed the crown of Gondor upon Aragorn's brow. The cheers must have traveled all the way to Edoras and beyond, so loud were they.
After many generations of Ruling Stewards, Gondor had a king at last.
The shouts of joy from the Citadel followed Boromir through the streets of Minas Tirith. The city appeared deserted. Every able-bodied man, woman and child had climbed to the seventh circle to catch a glimpse of the crowning. Nobody wanted to miss an instant of the ceremony, so glorious a moment in Gondor's history. Stories of this day would be told to children and children's children for years to come.
Boromir drew up his shoulders in a vain attempt to fend off the noise. He should have been there, beside Aragorn, to see him accept the crown and rejoice that the kingless era had drawn to a close at last. He would have been there, if he were the honorable man people had believed him to be. But Boromir knew better. He did not deserve to share in Gondor's finest hour. He would never tell his children tales of this day.
He neared the gate, still a gaping hole in the wall -- though it was rumored Gimli's kin had been commissioned to repair it. A small complement of soldiers remained on guard and Boromir kept his head down, trying to hide his face. He nodded at the soldiers, avoiding their eyes.
He need not have bothered. They were paying far more attention to the joyful noises high above than to the lone rider departing Minas Tirith.
After he passed the gate, Boromir turned his horse and rode south across the Pelennor Fields. The sounds of the celebrations quickly fell behind. He had chosen the direction without purpose -- he merely wanted to put many miles between himself and Minas Tirith as quickly as possible.
The first days, he drove his mount hard, trying to outrun the memories. The war was done and Sauron defeated, yet victory had been achieved in spite of him, Boromir son of Denethor. If only he had been stronger; if only he had resisted the ring's call... Shame soiled his name. If he had any hope in restoring it, he would have to make amends.
He rode from dawn till dusk, pushing himself and his horse to their limits. He would have continued through the night except that the moon was new and inky blackness descended over the land at sunset. When it grew too dark to continue, he made his bed on the hard ground, on a mattress made of fallen leaves and soft moss. Though most were still deserted, the people having fled to the city, he avoided the inns and farmsteads, afraid someone might recognize him. The hard riding left him tired, with little energy left to think, and he slept until first light, wrapped in his wool cloak to ward of the night chill. As soon as the sun rose, he was back in the saddle, munching on a chunk of bread or some of the dried meat from his provisions, and washing everything down with water from his flask.
Several hours after sunrise on the third morning, while galloping along the road, Boromir's horse missed a step. Though the animal quickly recovered, the unexpected jolt was enough to nearly dislodge Boromir from the saddle.
Jarred from his reverie, Boromir slowed his mount and slid down. The horse, a dark bay gelding, stood with his head down, flanks heaving. The stable hand had said his name was Barangol, for the color of his coat. He was a young beast, yet stalwart and well trained. Not the kind of horse to trip easily.
Boromir ran his hands along Barangol's legs and led him forward a few cautious steps, fearful of what he might discover. But his hands detected nothing wrong, and the horse was not limping.
"Are you okay, master?"
The question startled Boromir and he whirled around. Two boys, barely in their teens, stood in the yellowing winter wheat near the road, the field behind them half-weeded. They both wore muddied overalls and carried hoes in their arms. They looked like brothers, one perhaps a year older than the other.
"Your horse looks tired," the elder boy continued.
"Aye," Boromir said, "he does."
He turned his face away. The boys were young, still children, and chances were small that they would know the former Captain-General of Gondor but his features were widely known in these parts; he had traveled south often.
"I have been fortunate, it seems," he added while stroking Barangol's neck contritely. The near-accident had frightened him. Such a misstep could have easily turned into something worse, causing a sprain, or even a broken leg. And he had only himself to blame. What need did he have for such hurry?
He dug a handful of oats from the sack he brought and let the horse nibble it off his palm. "I apologize. I have been careless."
Barangol nickered softly, shaking his head.
Boromir waved to the boys, who returned to their weeding. He took the rein and began to lead the horse along the road. He would ride no more today, not until he was certain his haste had not caused the horse injury.
The slower pace allowed him to pay more attention to his surroundings. With the wind no longer rushing in his ears, he could hear the birdsong from the trees, where sparrows twittered and encouraged their newly fledged young to take flight. A woodpecker tapped somewhere in the distance. Far away, sheep bleated in the fields, and cows mooed.
The distant jingle of mail and the clang of weaponry announced the approach of a company of soldiers long before they came in sight. Boromir looked around, searching for a place to hide. He did not wish to meet any soldiers; unlike the boys, they would surely recognize him.
He led Barangol off the road, toward a copse of hazel. The dense shrub, fresh green leaves thickly covering its branches, kept him from sight until the soldiers were gone. They marched by quickly and he waited until the noise of their passing had faded beyond earshot before he returned to the road.
Yet, aside from such occasional companies of soldiers rushing at speed along the road with tasks known only to their captains, there were not many travelers at all.
How unlike earlier days it was. Boromir had traveled the road to Pelargir many times, and memories assailed him. He recalled when wagons filled with merchandise rolled back and forth between the cities and farmers loaded their carts with crops to sell at local markets. The decision to go south had been instinctive, but he already regretted it. Every outcropping of rock, every turn in the road seemed to have some sort of memory attached.
There, in the bend, stood the chestnut that lighting had struck during a fierce summer storm, splitting the tree from crown to root. The strike had frightened his horse and thrown Boromir painfully onto the flagstones.
How long ago had that been? At least five years, he thought. The Corsairs had been very daring that summer, sailing up the river as far as Pelargir, and he had traveled to meet the harbor's garrison commander to discuss their defenses. Like Gondor, the tree had survived the assault, and new branches were growing from the blackened stump.
A little further along the road was The Two Oaks, the inn where he used to stop for a meal. It was abandoned, the windows boarded up. The thatch of its roof was green and moldy, and weed grew thickly among the cobblestones in the courtyard. Boromir did not want to think of what might have happened to the owner.
Once, when they were both little boys, he had shoved Faramir into the mud among the pigs behind the inn. Faramir, little more than a toddler who could barely walk, had been following his older brother every step he took, until Boromir had had enough and lost his temper.
Strange, that he should remember it now; he had not thought of the incident for many years.
His father had not been with them, but the reproach in his mother's eyes, her face pale and strained with the fatigue of travel had hurt him more than any punishment Denethor could have meted out. Remorse had nearly overwhelmed little Boromir then, and he had sworn to himself that he would never turn on someone smaller or weaker again.
He had managed to hold onto that oath for many decades.
The weather grew warmer, though it was still mid-spring. Each day, the sun stood in a clear blue sky with nary a cloud to be seen. At midday on the fourth day since the king's crowning, it became too warm for travel, and Boromir climbed a hill clad in tall oak trees. He found a small clearing with a carpet of green grass covered in dappled shade; it would make a good place to wait out the worst of the heat.
He took off the saddle and placed it beneath a tree. Freed from his tack, Barangol rolled around in the grass, scratching his back, clearly enjoying the respite from hard work. Boromir watched the horse's antics with a smile, glad that his recklessness had not brought any permanent harm to the animal. He stripped down to his breeches and undershirt, took his midday meal from his saddlebags and stuffed cloak and tunic deep inside.
His meal consisted of a hunk of cold roast left over from last night's dinner and a few hazelnuts from the winter's harvest that the squirrels had not eaten. He ate with relish; travel made him hungry, and he finished off his meal with a large gulp of water from his water skin. The liquid, collected early that morning from a cold mountain stream, had grown tepid in the heat. Still, it was wet and banished his thirst. He lifted the skin a little higher and let water drip onto his heated face. Then he sat back against the tree with a satisfied sigh.
Have you already forgotten?
The sobering thought chased off encroaching slumber and his good mood evaporated. Not even a week had passed since he departed Minas Tirith -- what sort of man was he, that he dare lounge in the shade, his belly full, like he had no care in the world?
Barangol snorted, as if sensing the change in his rider's mood. The gelding lifted his head from browsing the grass and flowers, and looked at Boromir with liquid brown eyes.
"Aye," Boromir agreed softly. It would not do to forsake his duty and forget his purpose in this quest.
He made himself relax against the rough bark of the oak -- guilt or no, he would not force his horse to travel in the midday heat -- and gazed across the fields that stretched out from the foot of the hill.
Directly below was the South Road. Further east, near the horizon, glistened the silver ribbon of the Anduin, sparkling beneath the sun. In between were meadows of green grass and colorful spring flowers in red, yellow and purple. Scattered among the plains were deserted patches of farmland, overgrowing with weeds.
Far away, a farmer was urging his oxen to pull a plow, the occasional shouted encouragement drifting on the breeze. Boromir squinted against the bright sunlight. It was late in the season to be plowing the land; the spring grains should have been sowed weeks ago. But farms and villages had been abandoned at the approach of the enemy, their populace seeking protection behind the thick walls of Minas Tirith and Pelargir.
People had been slow to return to their homes. Boromir knew their fears; in Minas Tirith he had listened to the stories the refugees told amongst themselves, of farms looted and burned, of orc bands still roaming the pastures.
When he learned of the stories, Faramir had sent out what was left of the Ithilien rangers. They patrolled the land between the river and the road, scouring the land of the enemy. With their fears seen to, gradually more and more farmers gathered the courage to return to their homesteads. Still, spring was progressing fast and time lost could never be regained.
But it might not be too late. With luck, the summer would be long and gentle, and crops could still be sowed and grown to maturity. If the weather turned bad, however... Boromir would not think of it.
In past years, his father had always made certain there was a surplus stored against bad times and hard winters. Granaries in Minas Tirith had been full. How much of those stores were left? How much had been used in the past year, while Boromir traveled with the Fellowship? How much had gone up in flames during the siege? What sort of inheritance had his father left for Gondor's new king and his own younger son?
Thoughts of his father cast an even darker cloud across Boromir's increasingly gloomy mood. He had seen the madness in his father's eyes. How long had it festered, nipping away Denethor's sanity? What had caused it?
Had he, Boromir, sent his father across the edge? The thought sent a cold shiver down his spine. Faramir had spoken of his fears about Denethor's chosen path. Perhaps, if he had not been so stubborn in his insistence his brother keep his secret... Perhaps, if he had come forward... Could he have prevented his father's gruesome death?
Doubt nibbled at his heart like rats at a cheese rind. Had he exacerbated his sins by hiding the fact that he survived? Had he disgraced himself even further? Perhaps he ought to turn his horse around and ride back to Minas Tirith.
Did he not owe his people that much, that he should go back and face his king, face his former companions? They had suffered much, and yet had helped save Boromir's world from the Shadow. Should he not beg for Frodo's forgiveness, at the least? Was that not the more honorable path, to face renunciation instead of this self-imposed exile? At any event, then, he might keep some of his honor.
Honor! What honor was left him? Would he rob victory of its sweetness with his presence, by reminding his friends almost daily of what happened at Amon Hen, how he had failed their trust? By reminding them how he had nearly caused them to lose their lives -- and their quest?
He had no answers. The questions simply made his thoughts go around in circles. A shiver ran through him and subconsciously he rubbed his arms, slowly starting to realize that his musings had kept him occupied a long time. The afternoon had gone by swiftly and shadows were lengthening. It was time to continue.
He got up and gathered his belongings while he whistled for Barangol. The horse came trotting up across the clearing, eager to continue after the respite in the shade. Boromir saddled the horse, tied his pack behind the seat and led the animal back to the road.
The soft clop of Barangol's hoofs mingled with the late afternoon noises of buzzing insects and the cry of a hawk high up in the sky. Soft breezes made the tall grass rustle and sway in the wind. Boromir set a brisk pace, which ate up the miles but did not overtax his horse. The sun was approaching the western horizon, shadows growing thick, when he caught a whiff of burnt wood.
Boromir's spirits lifted. It pleased him that more and more people were returning to their homes. But when he could make out the silhouette of the farmhouse in the fading light, his heart sank. He soon discovered that what he had believed to be smoke were old ashes stirred up in the evening breeze.
He nudged Barangol off the road, down the path that led to the house, wanting to take a closer look.
The homestead was in ruins. Three walls still stood, leaning against each other at crooked angles. The fourth wall had collapsed entirely, along with most of the roof. The thatch was singed, and a few blackened support beams stuck up against the night sky like accusing fingers.
Boromir dismounted. His trained eye told him the destruction was recent. Maybe a day or three old, certainly not more. What could have caused such ruination? There had been no lightning storms at all.
As he circled the ruins, peering through the growing darkness, he soon found the answer. He stumbled upon an orc corpse, bloated from the sun's glare and stinking worse than a score of living orcs. Embedded in the demon's skull was the blade of an axe. It was not a battle axe, such as a soldier might wield, but a simple blade of steel with a wood handle -- the kind of axe a peasant would use for felling trees and chopping wood.
Someone had killed this orc in defense of their home.
His skin crawled when he imagined what might have become of the brave man standing up against orcs. What would his courage have cost the farmer?
A few feet beyond the orc corpse, he discovered a head.
"Nienna weep for us," he whispered.
The head was severely damaged, but the shape of the skull and the few strands of dark hair still clinging to it declared it had once belonged to a man. Boromir surmised it was the farmer's, defending his home to his death. What had happened to the rest of the man?
He searched among the rubble, and his next find was even worse. Half-hidden beneath a charred beam he found the bodies of a woman and two children, nestled against their mother. These bodies were also burned and mangled, showing teeth marks on exposed bone. He'd seen enough such injuries to know they were orc bites.
His stomach turned, and he swallowed down bile. He had hoped -- no, believed! -- that this sort of mindless butchery was a thing of the dark past.
He lurched away from his find, glad for the darkness that hid the worst of the atrocities from his eyes. He kicked the orc corpse, a cry of frustrated impotence tearing itself from his throat. Crows flew up from a nearby tree, cawing in the night. He cursed, and kicked at the body again, bruising his toes. The corpse shuddered beneath the force, the stench increased; but Boromir no longer cared. His emotions, bottled up for many weeks, had found an outlet at last.
Where were the cursed soldiers? The ranger patrols? Why had they not stopped the beasts? What would it take for the people of Gondor to live their lives in security at last? He realized he had unsheathed his sword without thinking, ready to chop the dead orc to small pieces.
Boromir took a deep breath to calm himself, gagging on the stink. What good would it do to hack at the corpse? The farmer and his family were gone, and nothing he did could bring them back.
If only he had not lingered in Minas Tirith as long as he had... If he had left the city but a few days sooner... he might have come in time to stop the carnage.
But ifs and maybes availed the dead family nothing. In his powerlessness, Boromir swore the vilest curses he knew and withdrew from the property into a cluster of trees a hundred yards east of the farm. He would wait for first light and give the bodies a proper burial. He might have arrived too late to aid the people while alive; he would not desert them in death.
He did not light a fire, begrudging himself its cheery brightness, which would be in such stark contrast to his dismal mood. The hare he had designated as his dinner never made it out of his saddlebag; he felt no desire for food. His stomach was tight with an all-consuming hatred for the orcs who, even after the war, still inflicted destruction upon his country and murdered his people.
He groomed his horse's dark coat, finding some calm in the mindless toil and the animal's clear enjoyment of this treatment. After he was done, he made sure Barangol could not wander off in the darkness and lay down, his head resting upon his saddle while he stared up into the starry night sky.
He had not expected to get any sleep, but in the dark and silent night, exhaustion overtook him, and Boromir drifted off into a restless slumber.
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