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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 6. Adrift
Anduin the Great glittered bright all about, and Pippin stared out at the land passing swiftly away. After the long days and weeks spent climbing, crawling, scrambling, and walking from Imladris to Lórien, Pippin had well nigh forgotten that any other means of travel existed, and he had never imagined that boats could speed the journey so. As if in response to his thoughts, the water at the prow leapt higher as the skiff surged forward, and Pippin, caught unawares, nearly had the paddle wrenched from his hands.
Boromir again, he thought. Glancing back over his shoulder, Pippin caught Merry's eyes, and the two hobbits shared a brief, puzzled look. Then Merry shrugged minutely, adjusting his own strokes so as not to hinder Boromir's, and Pippin followed suit, wondering at the Man's behavior. Since their departure from Lothlórien four days ago, Boromir had been agitated: it showed in his silence, in the way he watched Aragorn and especially Frodo, and in his fidgeting, which Pippin had never remarked in him before.
Whatever it was that gnawed at him, he gave it no voice but it was palpable, akin to the dread that shrouded Frodo. I think it must have begun after Gandalf fell, Pippin thought, recalling Boromir's subdued hostility towards Aragorn as they had made their weary way towards Lothlórien. But though he sifted his memories through a fine-meshed sieve, he could recall no incident that might have provoked such a reaction in the other. Nor could he imagine why that brooding discontent should linger so long, growing stronger as the days passed.
I should think he would be glad, Pippin reflected. Gondor is not so very far, or so I gather, and one has only to listen to him to know that Boromir misses his home. As we journeyed south, whenever we spoke in the mornings, just ere we retired, he always had some tale of Minas Tirith or his brother to add to Aragorn's stories of far countries. Just as Legolas always had a song for us! Yet the closer we come to Gondor, the more anxious he becomes. Why should that be?
This latest habit – whereby Boromir would suddenly send their boat surging forward, 'til the prow seemed likely to grate against the boat ahead of them – was as unnerving as it was inexplicable to the hobbit's mind. And there was something in the way that Boromir stared at Frodo that bred fear in Pippin's heart, though he knew not why.
"Tell us of Gondor, Boromir!" he said suddenly, hoping to divert the Man from whatever troubled him. Startled, Boromir shook his head slightly, as if coming out of a daydream, and he glanced sharply at Pippin. Yet his tone bore an edge of irritation and his gaze drifted ahead, even as he asked:
"What would you know?"
"Whatever you care to tell us. If we come there, then it shall be useful, but if not, at least I shall know somewhat of it!" Pippin replied, attempting diplomacy.
"This is not the time or the place for travelers' tales," the other rebuked. "Have you some specific question?"
"Er, well," Pippin stammered, sensing his ploy fail. Still, he sought a topic, though it was hard, especially put on the spot so, for his knowledge was quite limited. "What would we do, Merry and I, if we came there? As hobbits, you understand."
At that, Boromir gave a curt and unexpected bark of laughter and replied sardonically, "What indeed? Minas Tirith is an armed camp, Peregrin Took, and if you came there, you would fight when the enemy at last unleashed war." He paused, and then softly, as if speaking to himself, he added, "As will we all!"
Pippin, sitting before him, tried not to cringe noticeably at the other's response, both its tone and its substance. This is not like him, he thought. It is that strange worry that preoccupies him. What can it be? But even Tookish curiosity could be cowed, and though he neither wished to think ill of Boromir nor to leave him prey to whatever troubled him, the young hobbit sat quietly, and made no further overtures while the day lasted.
Unhappily for Pippin, Boromir did not notice his silence, and so did not seek a reason for it. Had he noted it, and been moved to seek its reason, he might have had cause to wonder at his own temper of late. But of late, he had been much alone, and as he grew used to this new distance, it seemed that others, even when present, did not touch him so close with their concerns – and so he did not heed them as he might have once, for he did not notice, and as the world without grew dimmer, his own concerns swelled to fill the void... and cover it over.
Perhaps it would always have been so. Gondor was no small concern, and especially to a son of the Steward. He had thought once, in Imladris, that he could bear it if the Company and he parted ways at Gondor's borders. Elrond's counsel was not lightly to be turned aside, after all. But the counsel of the Wise had turned out to be harder to bear than he had imagined, and so he had come to think that surely, if there were merit to his fears, he could persuade the Company – part of it at least, certainly Aragorn, to pass through Minas Tirith, and perhaps some of them would stay.
And then had come Moria. Gandalf had fallen, and who then would lead Frodo onward? Who with a hope of leading him well, of reaching the mountain? No hobbit, surely, but of those remaining, could he trust Elf or Dwarf not to choose their own people over a journey almost certainly doomed? Aragorn at least was less bound to the North, and if that did not make him Gondor's yet, Boromir could reluctantly admit that he was most likely to serve Gondor's needs. If he would take the duty! It was not clear to Boromir that he would, for Frodo himself had seemed to him most uncertain as to whom he would have accompany him – if any! Surely, though, that was true madness, to rest their hopes on the over-kindliness of hobbits, who knew nothing of war-measure!
The matter had preoccupied him all through their drifting stay in Lórien, 'til he had not been able to bear it any longer. He had argued then with Aragorn about it the day their departure had been set, and had found no satisfaction in the other's response, not least because it put his own course in doubt.
"The decision is Frodo's," Aragorn had insisted.
"That decision decides your course, as well," Boromir had retorted. "Or do your own concerns have so little worth in this matter?"
"My concern is for this quest."
"And you believe it can succeed if you leave it to a hobbit's judgment?" he had demanded.
A shadow had crossed the other's face then. "I do not know," Aragorn had said, levelly, "what will bring success to this endeavor. But I know that even Gandalf feared the power of the One, and what it might breed even in him. Where a wizard fears, a Man should not be overbold. Have I the strength to withstand what even Gandalf thought would be his sorest trial?" The other had looked away then, and his voice had grown distant. "The days grow dark, Boromir; all my choices may run ill – I fear they do already. In this, therefore, I will trust another to judge better than I my worth on the long way to Mordor."
Thus the matter had stood between him and Aragorn, for no argument he had made had moved the other. And it gnawed at Boromir, who had turned his eye to Frodo, in whom Aragorn put such faith. And as the days lengthened, and he watched Frodo's gaze rest ever more upon his companions, as if weighing them for the road, he felt the fear begin to twist in him. For it seemed to him that that assessing gaze grew ever darker with pity, with reluctance – to risk another, to take any on that path.
Frodo would go alone. The thought had grown in him, waxed ever more sure, and with it, his own despair. For I may not abandon Minas Tirith to go with this Company if it chooses the dark path, he thought. But by all that I hold dear, shall I meekly depart, knowing whither the Bearer is bound if Frodo will take no one? 'Tis madness!
It would be madness, if it happened. And since no man was obliged to honor madness, the consideration inevitably arose: Frodo has not the will for this, nor the knowledge. Yet I am to risk Gondor upon his judgment, and his strength? Mayhap were Aragorn the Ringbearer, I would have more faith in his ability to reach Orodruin alive and free, but Frodo? Let it be Legolas, or even Gimli ere we send a hobbit into that wasteland!
Thus his thoughts ran, and beneath the cold calculation of reason, beneath even justified fear and anger, there ran resentment. Resentment that welled up from a depth deeper than the abyss, and he knew not whence it came. Something stirred in him beneath even that – a something worse, he knew not what. Or rather, he refused to know what it was that surged ever against the draconian constraints he imposed upon it, and manifested in the constant question:
Why must it be thus? If this journey be ordained, as so many say, then spare me these thoughts! And unbidden there rose again the memory of that first night beneath Caras Galadhon, and words born of his own anguished, half-acknowledged suspicions: Have we not yet proved ourselves true? The argument with Aragorn had but added to its urgency... and despite the growing gap between himself and others, had undermined what surety had remained him.
And where did that leave him? For Boromir, warrior born and heir to the last bastion of the Dúnedain upon Middle-earth, such uncertainty was utterly foreign and he felt himself drowning. All of his life had been devoted to the protection of Gondor and to the men who served her, and that anyone should question his loyalty was an affront to his pride. Yet Galadriel's bright eyes had pierced him, and Frodo's answer to him that night had touched him close, between them tearing the veil aside and forcing him to see a part of himself that he had shunned.
Now, that furtive darkness, down there beneath even anger, nestled at his core whimpered and whispered incessantly, on the one hand inflaming his wrath and resentment, and on the other miring him in a profound mistrust that was the more vehement for having been exposed. Thus whenever he thought of the likely direction of the Quest, of a hobbit alone in the ash slags of Mordor, that insistent voice demanded, Why not Boromir? Why should I not have a share of this burden? Let others say as they please, must I not trust my own judgment? For if I cannot trust myself, then shall I blindly trust others?
Aye, there is the hook upon which all my doubts catch, Boromir thought with a grim smile that was hidden by the darkness. For if I may not trust others, I must trust myself, for what else have I? Let Aragorn trust where he will, I may not – for I am no wizard, nor a wizard's pupil!
At that moment, a voice drifted back to him, "Turn to the shores!" And he gritted his teeth at the sound of it, for it was Frodo's.
Do I hate him? he wondered then. Surely not! But how can I trust the fate of Minas Tirith to him? Galadriel's face flashed before his eyes, seeming to stab him with her regard once more, and from his depths, he protested: Who is she to hang Gondor's survival from so weak a thread? Or is there indeed anything at all that holds us up? And who is she to judge my loyalty?
Hard upon such angry recriminations, though, came a brooding fear that was more fundamental than any anger. For in spite of his surly temper, he had seen in Galadriel's eyes the terrible grief that racked her. However he might resent her judgments, he recognized that unlike hobbits, one such as she was not given to tears for less cause than the peril of the world. And if she mourns it already, then are we doomed to fail? he wondered. There is a malicious pall upon the world of late, and if this is but the beginning…
Why not try, then? asked the niggling voice that all of Elrond's words had not wholly quieted. Thought's native habit, borne upon that something lying low within him pressed like a needle: Why not take the risk and wound the Dark Lord as heavily as we might? It needs only the Ring, and one willing….
The keel grated on the riparian sands just then, halting his feverish thoughts, and the hobbits fairly leapt from the boat, grateful to stretch their legs.
Or else relieved to escape from me! Boromir thought, seeing the anxious, confused, unhappy look that Pippin turned briefly upon him. Perhaps because it was Pippin, who had never, so far as he could tell, meant to harm ought that wasn't supper, that look pierced through his thoughts and for a moment the world seemed to open. And he felt then chagrin for his curt and unfriendly words to Pippin that afternoon. He had never been a very patient man, but neither was he cruel, and in truth he knew not what compelled him speak so to a comrade. Unless it were weariness of a strange and unnatural sort–weariness born of the conflict within himself that he strove to suppress.
I feel stretched thin as a wire, Boromir thought as, with a soft sigh, he waded through the shallows, dragging the prow of the boat higher up onto the shore. My thoughts fly every direction today, he reprimanded himself then, striving for a wry resignation at the end of the day. For though he feared the trend of his own speculations, he feared even more that others should discover them. Even now, he shot a look sideways at Aragorn, who was performing the same task as he, while Frodo and Sam saw to their baggage. The Ranger glanced up, seeming to feel Boromir's eyes upon him, and the Man of Gondor looked away swiftly.
I should speak to him, he thought, gritting his teeth. But he could not. Not for fear of the contest – Boromir had fought too many battles to flinch from one, however bitter, yet Aragorn was worse than any enemy. For if there were one thing about which he had no doubt, it was that Aragorn would understand him better than any of the others. Ever since he had quarreled with him in Lórien, and Aragorn, with the shadow in his eyes, had looked away, some part of him had recognized the truth – He knows what drives me. He knew, for it drove Aragorn also, and Aragorn, Boromir recognized on some level, knew the name of this thing, this inward foe.
And if Boromir spoke to him, the other might reveal it – and Boromir could not bear to hear it, not least because he did not know which would be worse: that Aragorn should reveal him to himself in contempt... or in pity. Thus since Lórien, he had made every effort to turn the other's regard aside, for if his feelings toward Isildur's Heir had always been ambivalent, of late they had tilted more towards a jealous fear… and shame.
Why must it be thus? some part of him demanded. A sudden loathing seized Boromir then: of the quest, of Aragorn, of war, of peace, of indecision… and of himself. I hate this silence most of all! And yet it endured.
The first watch of the night drew slowly towards it end. Frodo sat quietly on a comfortable tussock of grass and felt the slow, night-time pulse of the earth surge through him, urging slumber and dreaming forgetfulness. But Frodo ignored the temptation, gazing out across the river to the mist-shrouded eastern bank.
There lies my way, the hobbit thought. Soon… soon I must leave this Company. Or let them leave me.
It had been in his mind of late that he could ask the others to simply go, to depart and leave him to his fate, to the task that called him. I might even be able to force them to do it, he thought.
For since that argument with Boromir, he had become more aware of the Ring as it hung upon its chain, secure in its dreadful power. It had silenced one opponent already, but if he dared to draw upon it, Frodo knew that his friends would have no choice but to obey his request. And is that not a terrible thought? Valar help me, this is what Gandalf – may he rest in peace! – warned me against from the beginning!
Sighing, he bowed his head, slouching beneath the weight of the burden and the terrible suspicions he now harbored. Galadriel's evident distress in Lórien as she had spoken of the Song had been as telling a sign as the conversation he had overheard in Moria. More so, even, for with Gandalf's death, Frodo found himself willing to believe the worst… if only someone else would confirm it for him!
Galadriel would not, and he understood why, for they were Ringbearers both, their thoughts having a terrible power to heal or destroy. For himself, he marked that the others had by and large gained some measure of peace while in Lórien, and he did not begrudge them that. So he had held his tongue – or bitten it, rather – out of pity and friendship. But oh, how he wished just one of them would speak of his own fears, and give shape to the dread that Frodo suffered! Then perhaps he might be able to ask what he longed to ask!
The sky darkened as a cloud drifted slowly before the moon, and Frodo stared up at the dimmed stars. Anduin murmured softly before him, but otherwise the night was silent… unnaturally so. Not a cricket sang, nor did bats or owls call out their hunting cries. His mouth gone suddenly dry, Frodo swallowed hard and stood, drawing his sword. In that instant, he heard movement behind him and turned to see Aragorn stirring restlessly.
Does he dream? the hobbit wondered, watching as the Ranger turned away, seeming to recoil from something, and then suddenly pushed himself up on one elbow, breathing quickly. The Ranger looked then toward him; their eyes met in the gloom, and after a moment, Aragorn rose, drawing his cloak about him against the damp chill, and came to kneel by Frodo's side.
"What is it?" he asked in a low voice.
"I know not," replied Frodo. "It seemed to me suddenly too quiet, as if something were creeping nearer." Both of them glanced down at Sting, whose edges glinted. But it was only the faint light of the stars that made it glitter, not the presence of their enemies. Aragorn closed his eyes, as if to shut out all distraction as he took in the sounds of the night.
"I hear nothing," he said at length, though he did not seem reassured by this, and Frodo felt his jaw clench, as the other continued: "Not even those creatures whose domain is the night sound. The land lies silent as if strangled."
"This is no wholesome quiet," Frodo murmured. Then: "Orcs?"
"Perhaps, but I doubt it," Aragorn answered, and the moon glinted in his eyes as he reopened them, and cast his gaze watchfully about. "Not all evil comes of orcs," he added quietly.
"We began this journey under the shadow," Frodo said quietly, "and now the darkness has extended to other senses as well. And it will go on… and on unchecked." The hobbit paused, fixing Aragorn under his gaze when the Ranger did not protest. And since there were no others to hear, he asked then the grim question that had haunted him since Moria: "You knew this, did you not? You and Gandalf both?"
Aragorn made no move, but his surprise – and his dismay – betrayed itself in silence, and Frodo perceived then the other wavering between speech and silence. Frodo shook his head.
"Speak, Aragorn!" he commanded. "For I think that nothing you say will be new to me." And he laid an urgent hand on Aragorn's shoulder. The Ranger sighed softly.
"Gandalf, I think, knew from the start that the Darkness would overtake us," he murmured. "I suspected his silence, but only upon the bridge of Khazad-dûm did I learn the full truth."
It hurt, that confession – and yet Frodo was glad to have it. After so long alone with my fears, that one other shares them – I never thought it could bring such relief!
But relief was not joy, and so Frodo replied sadly, "I thought as much."
"Knowing now this secret of the Wise, what do you intend to do?" Aragorn asked him then.
"I shall continue, of course," he said heavily. "What choice have I? What choice have any of us when the field is set against us? Did not Gandalf say it himself? That in the end, it matters not what fate decrees, but only what we choose, and the manner of our choosing?"
"So you heard us that night." Aragorn's eyes narrowed, and he shook his head. "And you never said aught!" He paused, and for a brief moment seemed to debate with himself ere he said slowly, "You say you shall continue. But how? If you will walk into Mordor, will you go with another, or alone?"
"What do you advise?" Frodo asked, curious.
"Do not ask me that, I beg!" There was a note of sharp entreaty in the other's voice that the hobbit had not heard before.
"Then do not advise, only say what it is in your heart, my friend. Should I take some and go to Mordor? Should I go alone?"
Still, the Ranger did not speak for awhile, and when he did respond at last, it was with manifest reluctance. "Neither," he answered.
Frodo blinked, surprised. "Neither?"
"As your friend, I would not have you dare that path at all, but turn west to Minas Tirith, for I would not have you endure the ruin that is Mordor. I have seen it, Frodo," Aragorn explained, and Frodo felt a chill go through him at the note of dread that crept then into the Ranger's voice. "If there is no hope, then there is no purpose in daring that deadly land."
"You advise me to turn aside?"
"Nay," came the swift reply. "For I know that there are worse things than pain, however unmerited or unprofitable; and I know that were it my own honor, and my own task, I could not refuse the way, nor treat with one who would so advise me. But you had asked me to say what was in my heart, to speak as a friend, not as your advisor." A pause, then: "Have I said enough for you?"
"Enough, and more than that," Frodo said heavily. "Your words, alas, are but the echo of my own reasonings, and yet…." Frodo sighed, unable to continue.
His glance strayed over the still forms of his companions, as Boromir stirred in his sleep. A moment he seemed on the verge of waking, but then, abruptly, he quieted again, sinking deeper into his dreams.
"What of them, Aragorn?" Frodo asked quietly, changing the subject. "Boromir at least will see his home again, whatever I decide. But truly – what of the others?"
"I know not," Aragorn replied, and Frodo thought he could hear the frown in the other's voice at mention of Boromir's name. But perhaps it was only imagination, for Aragorn continued on then: "It may be that we shall go severally to our ends, whatever they may be. But insofar as it is granted me, I would hold all together, for friendship may be our last defense." Another pause, then: "If you wish, I will take the rest of this watch, Frodo," he offered. "Sleep is now far from me, but you have not yet had a rest." After a moment, Frodo nodded his acceptance.
"Thank you," he said, and felt he should say more. But he could not find the words. Aragorn, however, laid a hand on his shoulder and Frodo sensed that the other understood. That was something, at least, and it eased him a little as Frodo lay down beside Merry and shut his eyes.
And Aragorn, watching as Frodo lay down amid the others, sighed inwardly, grieved on Frodo's behalf… on all of their behalves, truly.
So the trial of our wills begins in earnest,he thought. Bitter the thought of Frodo's labors in light of deadly secrets, and more bitter still that Frodo should share in them. I would have spared him that, at least! he thought, and regretted now that conversation in the dark of Moria. Had I known he would overhear...
Perhaps, though, the knowledge of fatal destiny would turn Frodo aside to Minas Tirith, would spare him at least the fruitless journey through Mordor. Yet his heart misgave him in that, and he was not sure whether he were glad of that doubt. For could he truly hope that Frodo would turn aside? Could he wish for Frodo what he would not accept for himself without shame?
He found himself uncertain in the end. As uncertain as he was of his own fate: Whither shall I go? To Minas Tirith or to Mordor? He would go with Frodo, if Frodo asked that of him – there was no question in his mind. But if Frodo made no command, and left it to him to decide... Well, he had thought it best to hold all together, but that depended upon others, and Elrond's words at their parting, to make no vows who had not seen nightfall, weighed heavy against too-hard-fought persuasion.
And of course, there was the other possibility, and despite his words to Boromir in Lórien, he could not quell the part of him that asked: And if Frodo takes Mordor and insists you go to Minas Tirith, what then?
But if the question could not be quelled, neither could it be answered. Shaking his head, he glanced once more at the Fellowship, at friends who were nonetheless withdrawn from each other, and he thought then of Boromir, and frowned in the darkness. For he knew that the Steward's son was troubled – that was no new thing since Imladris, but Moria had left none of them unscathed. Over the weeks since fleeing that dark realm, Boromir had grown more silent. The quest weighed on him, and Aragorn knew all too well how hard it was to leave in other hands a matter that touched so closely on that which one loved best.
Even so, there was in Boromir's silence and in the anger that seemed never far from him, however quiet it might be, something that disturbed, and Aragorn misliked it. He mistrusted it, and mistrusted more the looks that Boromir sent Frodo's way, though that was perhaps unfair. After all, he knew, since their argument in Lórien, where Boromir's doubts lay, and Aragorn could not even dispute their justice. Still...
He ought to speak with him. Quietly, where others need not hear. Privacy, though, was hard to come by, and especially with an Elf to overhear. Even luck seemed to be against them, as they drew ever lots for the opposite watch.
Wake him, then, urged fear. Wake him now!
But days on the road were long and hard, and in a company only half of whom knew their way about a sword, rest was precious. And a surly-tempered, sleepless Boromir would be unlikely to give him much hearing – less, even, than the guarded man who kept his distances of late. So said reason, not unrightly, and yet...
Glancing up again at the shrouded sky, Aragorn grimaced. How hard must this test be?
To that, the stars made no answer.
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