Politics of Arda
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Long Road Home, The: 4. Man's Best Friend
A soft rustle in the fallen leaves that were his bed woke Boromir from uneasy dreams filled with orcs and bloodshed. A small noise was uttered too close to his ear for comfort. Then something cold and wet touched his face.
With a shout, Boromir bounded to his feet and drew his sword. He slashed the air where he expected his assailant to be -- encountering nothing. Blade held in front of him, ready to strike in an instant, he peered into the blackness that reigned beneath the trees. At the height of his knees something growled and Boromir let out a surprised cry when that something latched on to the leather of his boot. Instinctively, he kicked out, and whatever it was that had taken hold of him let go with a yelp of pain.
Once his eyes had adapted to the filtered light of the moon piercing the canopy overhead, he recognized the shape yapping at him from beyond the reach of his boots. White teeth glimmered as the dog growled.
Boromir began to laugh. "You are fortunate you're so small, little mongrel," he said while sheathing his sword. "I might have cut you in two with the first swing. Have you not learned it is dangerous to sneak up on an armed soldier when he is asleep?"
Boromir's offhanded tone calmed the dog somewhat and it sat back on its haunches, watching him cautiously. Boromir walked away from the trees into the open field where the moonlight could cast its silver glow unencumbered.
"Come here, and let me have a proper look at you, you beast."
It remained where it was, head tilted. Its ears twitched, flicking back and forth while Boromir spoke.
He slapped his thigh with the flat of his hand. "Here, then. I am not going to hurt you."
The dog hesitated another moment, then barked and bounded up to Boromir, tail swishing. In the clearer light, he noted that the animal was a young female, nearly full-grown but still a bit gawkish, like a puppy. He did not think she was yet a year old.
"Why are you out here all alone?" he muttered. "What happened to your master?" He glanced over at the farm, and back at the dog.
"That used to be your home, did it not?"
She yipped, and her tail flicked faster. Boromir knelt and she closed the last few feet at speed before she started licking his face.
"Whoa." Boromir laughed, pushing the animal off. "I believe you have seen as few people as I have these past days. Come, girl, let us get some food in you. I assume you will be hungry."
Boromir unwrapped his uneaten dinner, sliced it into smaller pieces and fed them to the dog one at a time. She eagerly gobbled the bits of meat from his fingers. Was she hungry? Or just happy to have found a companion? Poor thing, it was not difficult to imagine the farm's children in happier times, playing with this spirited animal. Renewed anger at the mindless killing of innocent farmfolk surged through him.
No longer tired, Boromir sat down, stroking the dog absently. Her coat was matted, with burrs clinging to her skin, and he tried to pluck them off. She had some scratches on her right shoulder -- from an orc claw, most likely -- but as far as he could tell in the thin light, they had scabbed over and did not seem infected.
She licked her muzzle clean after having finished her meal, and lay down beside Boromir with a contented sigh. In silence, man and beast waited for morning.
As soon as the sky to the east brightened and announced the onset of sunrise in hues of pink and orange, Boromir began his grim task. He started with the orc corpse; it would take all day for a wood fire to consume it. The copse of trees where he had spent the night provided ample dead branches to build a pyre, and he dragged some of the scorched but not fully burned beams from the ruins to add to it. The oak rafters from the house were heavy and dry, and would burn hotly. When the pyre was ready, he set fire to the orc, watching for a moment until the flames took a good hold of the fuel.
How often had he built such pyres and piled up dead orcs, as much as to banish the awful reek of decomposing bodies as to keep them from further staining Gondorian soil?
Too often. Yet not often enough; and the enemy had kept on coming.
The dog growled deep in her throat and danced around the fire while it threw up thick, black smoke. It made Boromir smile a little, despite the horrible work still ahead of him.
"Aye, they are loathsome creatures," he said.
Once the fire burned fiercely and was slowly eating the dead orc, Boromir collected stones from the farmhouse to build a cairn large enough for the dead family. He could not find the rest of the farmer's body; likely, the orcs had taken it with them to dine on. The thought sickened him and he gritted his teeth.
It took him most of the day before he was satisfied. He could have simply buried them and been off on his way by midday, yet that did not seem right. These people had been courageous enough to return to their home, and had died for it. They deserved something more commemorative than a hole in the ground. And a cairn built from the stones of their farm -- it had a certain aptness to it. In a way, they were home.
Boromir put the bodies in the cairn, covered them with the last few stones and gazed down at the pile. He should say something. What were the right words for such a burial? These people were not soldiers but they had died protecting their land just the same.
He spoke the thoughts that were in his heart. "May you find peace after death, people of Gondor. Your valor shall not be forgotten."
The sun was low when he finally mounted Barangol to continue his journey. Black thunderheads were gathering in the south; the presage to an early summer storm, he would not be able to travel far today. Soon, he would have to seek cover and wait out the oncoming storm; but he would get as far away from the farm as he could. He had no desire to spend another night in a place of such undeserved horror and tragedy.
He was directing Barangol down the narrow path back to the main road when a sad whine made him stop and look back. The dog hovered at the edge of the farmyard.Her head was cocked, her ears drooped sadly, and she studied Boromir with large eyes.She whimpered again.
Boromir chided himself; in his desire to leave the graveside as soon as his self-appointed task was finished he had forgotten the creature. But what was he to do? Should he take her along? The last time he had taken up responsibility for another creature, it had not worked out so well. Yet he could not leave her; she would likely starve to death if he did. There was nothing else for it: he would have to bring her with him.
"Come on, Híril."
The following afternoon, the storm had passed, leaving clear blue sky behind, and the seafarers' beacon of Pelargir loomed on the horizon. Boromir halted his horse. He longed to go to the city, report what he had found at the ruined farm and demand that someone find the orcs responsible.
Yet, he could not. He did not even dare enter Pelargir's gate.
The secret of his survival was quite safe; Faramir was the only person who could attest that Boromir had survived the war. Faramir had given him the sad news that none of the rangers who carried him from the Anduin had survived the battle for Minas Tirith, and Boromir had not visited the Houses of Healing since shortly after the end of the siege. But he still needed to be careful; his features were familiar to the army. Soldiers from the southern fiefs filled Pelargir and it would be impossible to pass through without chancing one officer or another recognizing him.
He still feared such recognition. They would not understand. If they learned he lived, they would make him return to the city. The thought of having to face the king before he was ready made his stomach clench.
Turning due west, Boromir left the road, and guided Barangol along overgrown rutted tracks. Ahead were the hilly woodlands of Lebennin. He would have to pass through the forest before he could look for a way across the River Sirith and return to the road.
The sound of Híril's excited barking put Boromir on edge; he tightened his hold on the reins in preparation. Though the horse regarded Híril with wariness and shied when she startled him -- whinnying and stamping his large hooves in annoyance -- the larger animal did not frighten the dog a bit. On the contrary, for Híril chasing the horse was a fun game.
She loved to use Barangol for hunting practice, lying in ambush and pelting out from beneath dense shrubbery when the horse approached, despite Boromir's attempts to teach her differently. This would be the third time in the last hour. Boromir sighed. If she kept this behavior up, she might learn a much harder lesson than his stern admonition if Barangol ever decided he had had enough and kicked her.
For once, however, Híril did not head for the horse. She was chasing after a frightened rabbit, which zigzagged across the track in an attempt to evade the dog's sharp teeth. It vanished beneath the brambles on the opposite side of the trail. Híril followed, uncaring of the thorny bushes, and disappeared from his sight.
Abruptly, her voice changed pitch and turned into a shocked whimper. Boromir's brow furrowed. He whistled. Another helpless mewl answered him but she did not return. Something must be wrong.
He dismounted, tied the reins around a young sapling and cautiously worked his way through the dense growth. It appeared as if every branch and thorn conspired to stop him; he cursed below his breath when his tunic caught and ripped free.
At last, he freed himself from the brambles' grip and reached a small clearing between towering trees. Híril was a reddish shape in the shadows. The dog's snout was to the ground, her tail end sticking in the air, and she was wiggling her behind furiously. For a moment, he looked at her with puzzlement. Then he understood and began to shake with laughter. In her youthful zeal to catch the rabbit, Híril had tried to follow it into its burrow, shoving her nose into the hole with such force that she was now stuck in the hard earth.
Híril whined in protest, this time with as much chagrin at being laughed at as frustration at being stuck. It only made Boromir laugh harder, and he had to hold his sides. It felt good to laugh, and though a part of him thought a man like him did not deserve to feel such merriment, he could not help himself.
Híril, apparently realizing he would be of no help, tried again to wiggle free. Clawing with her front paws at the rabbit hole, she finally succeeded in getting herself unstuck. She sat back on her tail, the look on her face one of such offended disappointment that it sent Boromir into a renewed bout of laughter. Híril shook her head, smacked her lips a few times and rubbed a front paw across her nose to wipe off the dirt. Then she sneezed and directed a couple of angry barks at the rabbit hole for good measure.
"I have thoroughly misnamed you," Boromir hiccuped. He wiped tears from his cheek with the back of his hand. "You are no lady! But you are a bold one, indeed. You certainly make up in courage what you lack in wits."
Híril darted over to him, tail swishing, ordeal already forgotten. He knelt for a moment, chortling as a wet tongue lashed at his face.
"Come, girl," he ordered as he stood back up. "We still have a ways to go today."
Travel was not easy; once he reached the hills, there were no paths, except for the narrow trails of deer or boar. The forest floor was uneven, forcing him to dismount and lead Barangol to warily pick his way among moss-grown boulders, fallen trees and rabbit burrows. But the good weather held, and the sounds of the forest were peaceful and soothing. Birds chirped from early morning until nightfall and small animals rustled among the underbrush after dark. Soft breezes made the leaves of oak and ash and beech swish together, and bluebells and violets lent a sweet scent to the musky forest smell of old leaves and dead wood.
Boromir paid little heed to the countryside. His thoughts often turned inward. The farmer's fate still weighed heavily on his mind, and dissatisfaction about what felt like a dereliction of duty ate at his conscience. If only he could be certain the orcs would pay for their deeds. If he knew where they had gone, he might extract vengeance himself. But he could not. He would have to trust the soldiers to do their jobs and avenge the family for him.
Híril did not much care for his brooding moods. She would draw his attention, chasing after bees or trying to catch flowers waving in the wind, making him smile, despite himself. He shared his meals with her over the evening fires, while at night, she cuddled up against him, and he stroked her soft fur until he fell asleep. Her devotion proved a balm for his raw emotions and he was glad for her company. Before long, he realized he could not imagine journeying without her.
Boromir traveled four days through the forest before he found a place to cross the Sirith and aim for the old South Road again, several leagues west of Pelargir. And three days later, almost a fortnight since leaving Minas Tirith, he arrived in Linhir.
Once a thriving fishing community, the small town at the mouth of the River Gilrain had suffered much during the war. Like most coastal towns, its harbor had endured attacks from the Corsairs of Umbar time and again. Many of the houses showed scorch marks from burning projectiles, and a fire had raged out of control through part of the docks, leaving piles of sooty debris behind. Shipwrecks blocked the harbor, their hulls submerged and masts sticking out of the waves. There were several black Corsair vessels among the wrecks.
Everywhere Boromir looked the people of Linhir were hard at work to clear away the rubble and restore their town to its previous glory. He steered Barangol to the side of the road to allow the wheelbarrows to pass that workers pushed back and forth along the quay. The clop of hammers and axes echoed in the streets. Nobody paid much attention to the traveler or his animals once a cursory glance had ascertained he was neither orc nor a dark-skinned Southron.
In the seamen's district, near the southern end of the harbor among run-down alehouses, boarded-up brothels and empty warehouses, Boromir found an inn that was open for business. The sign above the door read The Merry Fisher. The inn fitted in well among its surroundings; paint was peeling and the windows were coated with salt spray from the nearby sea. But it looked as if it had come through the war unscathed and it would be cheap and inconspicuous.
Boromir dismounted, tied Barangol to a post, and walked through the door. Híril trotted at his heels. Inside, it was dark after the bright light of late afternoon but several oil lamps and candles fought back the darkness. Boromir's eyes quickly grew accustomed to the gloom and he strode to the counter. At this hour, the common room was mostly deserted though a handful of men sat in the farthest corner, their heads close together and their noses buried in mugs of ale.
"How may I help you, sir?" The innkeeper, a tall, thin man with bushy eyebrows and a long nose approached Boromir, wiping his hand on a spotless white apron. His eyes flicked briefly down to the dog, but if he had any objection to the animal's presence in his establishment, he gave no outward sign of it.
"A room, if you have one," Boromir said. "And a place for my horse in your stable."
"Aye, sir, those I can provide. We offer the finest lodgings in the harbor. Mind you," he added, lowering his voice, "'twas many a day you would find all our rooms occupied. But nowadays, with the war scarcely over, we do not see many travelers around this way." He sighed. "We have seen some hard times, sir. Hard times indeed."
Boromir could only nod. His country, his people had endured so much. Although the patron's hardships paled in comparison to some of the atrocities he himself had witnessed, he could imagine they were very real to the man and a threat to his livelihood.
Boromir's nose crinkled at the cooking smells drifting into the taproom. His stomach growled, leading him to matters that were more mundane.
"How about supper?" He pulled a small pouch from his tunic and dug up a few coins.
He had found the pouch in one of the saddlebags and suspected Faramir had put it there. It did not hold much; yet, if he used it sparingly, he could make it last several weeks. Though grateful for Faramir's forethought, he had been glad to see his brother had not provided him with a larger purse; the steward's treasury was better spent on the restoration of Minas Tirith than on his search for atonement.
The innkeeper smiled and accepted the money. "Supper? Of course, sir. 'Tis almost ready. Allow me to show you to your room first." He called for a stable lad and ordered the boy to look after their guest's horse. Then he preceded Boromir up a narrow staircase and through a long hallway.
"By what name should I address you, sir?"
Boromir opened his mouth to give his name, but shut it before speaking. While his face might not be familiar to the commoners in Linhir, his name might be recognized. What to tell the innkeeper?
"Erandír," he said. It was the first thing to come into his mind. "You may address me as such."
The innkeeper stared at him a moment, then shrugged. He opened the door. "Do you find this suitable, master wanderer?"
Though small, the room was surprisingly clean, and a large bed with a soft mattress and white sheets took up most of the available space. A wash basin, a porcelain ewer and some soap waited on a table beside it. The window faced southwest, overlooking the harbor.
"Your price?" he asked, though the bed beckoned after weeks of bivouacking in ditches and fields and Boromir had no desire to try and find another inn.
The man suggested a price that Boromir thought would befit a hostel on the second tier in Minas Tirith. It seemed reasonable.
"The room is excellent," he told the innkeeper.
The man's smile widened and Boromir realized he was overpaying. But his custom seemed most welcome after the dire times of the past so he let the matter rest.
The innkeeper bowed. "I could have the bathhouse heated up for you, sir. It would not cost more than a few coppers extra."
Boromir was tempted for only a moment. "No, thank you." The room was all the luxury he would allow himself; he would need to be frugal with his funds. Cold water would serve as well to wash away the road's dust.
"As you wish." The man's voice held a hint of disappointment. "By the time you have refreshed yourself, supper will be ready. Should you want to dine in your room, or downstairs?"
"Downstairs," Boromir said. He had spent enough time in his own company over the past weeks; new faces and perhaps some innocuous conversation would distract his thoughts for a while.
"Perfect, sir." The innkeeper hesitated, then added in a rush, "I would ask that you leave your sword upstairs, though."
Boromir raised an eyebrow.
The man shrugged. "'Tis house policy, sir. I have no wish for trouble."
"I see." In a way, it made sense. But did he want to abandon his weapon unguarded in his room? It was not as valuable as his own sword, the Captain-General's blade, had been, yet it was crafted with great skill.
"It'll be perfectly safe," the proprietor continued as if he could read Boromir's thoughts. "Nobody comes up here, except the staff, and the overnight guests. We have only one other gentleman staying tonight, besides you."
What harm could it do, really? The war was over; he would have no need for his blade in a seaside tavern. "I shall leave my sword in my room, then," Boromir agreed.
Relief flooded the innkeeper's face. "Thank you, sir. I'm much obliged. And I will ask Cook to spare a bone for your little friend."
"Thank you." Boromir smiled at the innkeeper and leaned down to scratch the dog's ears. Híril gave a short yip of pleasure.
Outside his window, the sun was setting in the Bay of Belfalas in a colorful display of deep purples and fiery crimson by the time Boromir was ready to go downstairs and eat supper. Refreshed and dressed in a spare shirt and a clean pair of trousers, he felt better than he had in many days.
A crowd had filled the common room while Boromir had washed up. Here and there someone sucked on a pipe, adding clouds of sweet smoke to the aroma of strong ale and roast and soup. The scent gave Boromir a sudden pang of longing for the days spent with the Fellowship. Amazing how quickly the northern habit had spread across the South.
Most of the chairs were taken, but Boromir found that the innkeeper had kept him a seat at a small table near the wall, close to the hearth. The fireplace was cold, the early summer weather warm enough that no fire was needed.
"Sir, supper tonight would be roasted lamb, carrots and fresh bread with butter. We also have stew, if you should like it, and wild berries for your dessert."
"Berries?" Boromir asked. Wasn't it a little early in the year for fresh fruits?
"Aye, Master Erandír. We had a mighty fine spring this year. Weatherwise, that is." The innkeeper grimaced.
"Lamb roast and berries, then," Boromir said. "With a mug of ale, if you please."
The innkeeper nodded and scampered off. A few minutes later he reappeared with a steaming plate, a basket of buttered bread, and a foaming tankard. The aroma of lamb roast wafted up and made Boromir's mouth water. He wasted no time, grunted his thanks and dug in.
It wasn't long before he wiped the greasy juices from his plate with the last piece of bread and finished his ale. He leaned back in his chair, suppressing a contented belch.
"I don't think I've ever seen a man enjoy his meal so," an amused female voice remarked.
Boromir looked up. The woman sat one table over, half-hidden in the shadows next to the hearth, watching him with dark eyes. Relaxed after the hearty meal, his guard was down, and he answered her without thinking. "So would you, madam, after enjoying two weeks of my cooking."
"Two weeks?" She leaned forward a little. "Then you have traveled far?"
He wanted to bite his tongue. "Aye."
He examined her a little closer. The dark curls piled high on her head freed a pale throat and a neckline a tad lower than fashion considered decent; the rosy-lipped smile she offered was too studiedly innocent. If not for the gloomy light in the room, the thick smoke, and the fact that he was tired and had just eaten his fill, he would have noticed it right away.
"Do not trouble yourself with the likes of me," he told her. "I have neither the need nor the funds for your company."
She shrugged. "I am mostly keeping myself out of their view." With a nod, she indicated a table further back in the common room, and he turned his head to follow her gaze.
The same fellows were hunched around the same table as when he first arrived. There were four of them, dressed in dirty clothes, faded and torn. They had thin faces, with the deep tans of sailors. They did not look as if they had moved at all. Had they been drinking their ale continuously since the afternoon? If he were a betting man, his purse would say yes.
He turned back. The prostitute was watching him still. Had he not made clear he did not desire her services?
"You should not. They might offer more profitable company than I. Although I doubt they have many coins to spare either way."
She made a noise in the back of her throat and turned away.
Boromir was suddenly uneasy. There was no need for rudeness. He was about to offer an apology when the conversation of the four men caught his ear.
"I'm telling you," one of them, a short fellow with round shoulders, said loudly, "this new king'll be trouble for Belfalas! They say he's going to raise taxes, so he can build 'imself a palace up north."
"Prince Imrahil wouldn't let 'im," said another, taller man, whose chock of dark hair hid his eyes.
A third man snorted. "Imrahil'll do that king's bidding if he knows what's good for 'im. I've heard it whispered that the king killed the old steward, and the steward's eldest son. He made the younger his lackey, who is weak and ill of health."
It took Boromir several long seconds to digest the words he overheard, and when realization struck it took the breath from his chest.
"Those are filthy lies!" he shouted, pushing his chair back. It hit the wall with a crack. He glared at the drunks and his hands balled into fists at his side. Híril sprang up from where she had been dozing beneath the table and bared her teeth. Boromir wished for his sword; he should not have adhered to the request to leave it upstairs. Nothing would please him better than to run the blade through these treacherous orc-sons.
"What d'you know about it?" the short one said belligerently. "Were you here when that pretender came into town, leading an army of dead men? I saw 'em charge friend and foe alike. I lost my boat. He should've stayed north, where he belongs, and let good folk go about their lives."
Boromir clamped his jaw tight. He had already drawn more attention to himself than was wise; everyone in the common room was staring at them. But he could not let these lowlifes slander Aragorn barely a fortnight after his crowning.
"King Elessar has already done more for Gondor in a few brief months," he forced out, "than you will in your entire life!"
Shorty got up, too, his chair falling over. From the corner of his eye, Boromir watched people back away slowly, forming a wide circle around them. A scullion boy put down his pile of dirty dishes and ran back to the kitchen. One of Shorty's companions put a restraining hand on his arm but he shrugged it off and strode toward Boromir.
Boromir stood his ground. He towered over the drunk and wondered why his opponent did not back off. The amount of ale in the man's belly must have made him careless of danger. He swung a clumsy fist, and Boromir intercepted it easily. Shorty struggled against his tight grip, a glimmer of uncertainty appearing in his eyes when he failed to wrench his arm loose.
"I would have you take back your insults against the king," Boromir said in a low voice. The uncertainty turned to fear, battling with drunken defiance. Shorty's teeth gritted while he strained to get free.
The innkeeper came scurrying out of the kitchen, alerted by the scullion boy. He wrung his hands. "Gentlemen, please," he cried. "Have we not seen plenty of strife these past months?"
He threw Boromir a pleading look while he grabbed Shorty's elbow. After a moment's hesitation, Boromir let go. Shorty rubbed his arm unobtrusively. The man should be grateful to the innkeep that a few bruises on his wrist were all he would show in the morning.
"Go home, Ereg." The proprietor tugged on the elbow he held and urged Shorty to the door. His three friends followed. "You've had enough ale for one night. Go home, before your big mouth gets you once again in more trouble than you can handle."
Ereg threw a last black look in Boromir's direction.
Boromir snarled. "Do not show me your treacherous face again, or I might decide to dull my blade upon your skull!"
He fell back onto his chair, struggling to get his temper under control and forcing himself to ignore the looks cast in his direction as well as the muted whispers traveling through the common room.
"You speak as if you have personal acquaintance of this new king." A small hand was placed on Boromir's forearm, and he shook it off, glaring at the woman.
"Not everyone believes as those boatmen do," she added, unperturbed. "Don't let Ereg's lies get under your skin, he just tries to hide his own cowardice. His boat's sinking was his own fault. When the dead came out of the mountains, everyone was very frightened and fled into the hills. But the king's army did us no harm; they only chased off the Corsairs. Those wrecks in the harbor?" She gestured in the direction of the waterfront. "'Twas their work."
Boromir scanned her face. He saw nothing but honest curiosity and he lessened his scowl. "You have guessed rightly," he admitted. "I have seen King Elessar with my own eyes."
"Then, please, I would hear more. Is he truly Isildur's heir?"
Boromir hesitated. He knew he should not engage in further conversation; he had already brought more notice upon himself than was desirable. But the urge to redress the sailors' accusations was strong, the anger still burning in his veins. Around him, the people in the common room slowly returned to their business and conversation picked up. Nobody was watching him any longer. And if he minded his tongue, what harm could it do?
"All right," he conceded. "I can see you bear him no ill will. I will tell you what I can."
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