Where History Has Been Fixed
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Long Road Home, The: 6. Fate's Admonishment
An hour later, peace had returned to The Merry Fisher's common room. Nîneth had her wish: the room was deserted, the patrons were gone. Servants were picking through the debris of broken tables and shattered chairs, collecting those mugs and earthenware that remained miraculously unbroken. Shards of crockery crunched beneath their feet.
"Why did you interfere?" Nîneth dabbed at a cut on Erandír's cheek and he flinched. "You know how much Ereg dislikes you."
"Aye." Erandír rubbed his fist with a wry smile. "I doubt he will bother you again any time soon, though."
"What made you come downstairs at this hour?" Nîneth was not about to let him distract her so easily. "You never have before."
"I wished to speak with you." He pushed her hand away from his face and took it between his. The calluses on his fingers felt rough on her skin and his knuckles were scraped raw and bloody.
"You are too good for this place, Nîneth, for this work. You are an intelligent woman, caring and gentle, and you have a skill that is going to waste here. You should leave, start anew."
"Do you not believe I want that?" She laughed bitterly and pulled her hands free. "Don't you think I wouldn't take Galwion away from here if I could? Before he is old enough to understand why his friends are not allowed to play with him any longer? I would. I'd like to live in a place where nobody knows us, where we have no past. Where I can work as a seamstress again, and Galwion will be the son of a widow instead of a whore. But such dreams take money. Money I don't have. Money I will not have for a long time and many more men."
He blinked at her outburst, and she took a deep breath. Calmer, she added, "I would leave, Erandír, if only I could. But I can't."
He reached for her again, taking her by the shoulders. "Come with me, Nîneth. I have rented rooms in the stonemasters' district. I am moving tomorrow."
Her throat tightened. So Fimlas had been right; he was leaving. "What are you suggesting?" she asked. "That I be your personal harlot?"
He winced but did not let go. "No. That is not what I meant. I will have need for someone to cook and clean. Someone who does laundry and mends my clothes." He flashed her a smile. "You know I am a terrible sewer."
"You want a housekeeper."
"Aye. You can cook, can you not?"
"Why me? I'm not nearly as pretty as some of the other girls."
The smile disappeared. "Nîneth, I am not looking for a pretty wench to warm my bed, I would never ask it of you. There are two rooms; we will not give the neighbors cause for gossip."
Nîneth grimaced. "What reputation do I have left to lose? It doesn't matter much what people think."
He sighed. "Perhaps. Yet, you have suffered greatly, through no fault of your own. You deserve a second chance."
Did she believe him? She stared into his face, tried to read his eyes. She saw nothing that indicated deceitfulness or insincerity.
"All right," she said. "We will come with you, Galwion and I. You will let me bring my son, won't you?"
His lips curled back into a grin. "That goes without saying."
The tiny apartment Boromir had rented was not much of a home, especially for one used to the vast chambers and long hallways of the Citadel: two small rooms on the second story of a brick building, with a scorch-marked door leading to crooked steps, and small windows looking out onto the wall of the next house. The whole first week after they moved in, Nîneth treated him with more wariness than she ever had during evening meals at The Merry Fisher. Boromir carefully kept his distance; he was convinced she expected he would break his promise to her any day. And though, sometimes, when he thought she would not notice, he did look at her and wonder what it would be like to lie with her, he was determined to keep that vow. When his body threatened to betray him, a long walk served to clear his head from its lustful thoughts and exhaust his body for easy sleep.
His efforts were rewarded, and gradually, Nîneth grew less tense. She had been right about the neighbors, however. It did not take long for the others in the street to learn about her, and they shunned Nîneth and Boromir, forbidding their children to play with Galwion. Nîneth bore their coldness with a grim courage, but Boromir did not mind overmuch. Let them gossip, he thought. At least it spared him from having to socialize and neighbors querying his past.
Time progressed, and summer grew old and weary. The restoration efforts at the docks were well underway. Most of the ruins and debris had been carted off, and though it would be many years before every scar the war had left would be repaired, the harbor was freed of the shipwrecks and overseas trade picked up. Exotic goods from faraway places made their way to Gondor again. Peddlers tried to sell their wares at summer fairs and entertainers displayed their skills to much ooh-ing and ah-ing from the Linhir children.
One eve in late summer, it was still too warm to stay indoors in their tiny home, and after supper Boromir took Nîneth and Galwion to the market, to stroll along the summer fair stalls. The alleyways between the booths were crowded, most people having waited until the worst of the summer heat had passed and evening shadows cooled the air somewhat. The stallkeepers did good business, selling earthenware or intricately worked trinkets made in far Khand.
"Mama, Erandír, come look!" Galwion dragged them to a colorful stall. A small creature sat on the table. A long, thin chain ran from a collar around its neck to the wrist of its owner, a fat man with a thick beard and a skin dark from the sun.
"What is that?" the boy asked.
"I do not know," Boromir answered. The creature vaguely resembled a man's shape, with hands and feet and large, brown eyes. It was covered with hazel-colored fur that darkened near the tips of its ears and tail.
"It's a monkey," the fat man said in a rolling Westron. "It comes from very, very far away, where the forests swarm with these animals."
A monkey! Boromir remembered a traveling menagerie had visited Minas Tirith one summer. He had been eighteen years old and off on his first command; he had missed the entire visit. But Faramir had spoken excitedly to him about the animals. The thought of his brother caused a pang of longing.
"It'll dance for you," the handler continued, "if you give it a copper."
Galwion looked up at Nîneth, eyes shining. "Mama? May I?"
Boromir grinned. This, he liked to see. Faramir had been very impressed with the tricks of the entertainers and their animals. "'Here," he said, and dug a coin from his pocket.
Galwion offered it to the monkey, who snatched it away. The fat man began to play a merry tune on a flute. The monkey jumped to the music, waving its arms. Galwion clapped his hands. "Look, Mama, it's dancing!"
A few minutes later, the performance was over. The creature sat back on its haunches and looked at Galwion, tiny head cocked.
"Can I have another copper? Please?"
"Do not beg Erandír for money," Nîneth said to her son. "It's not seemly."
Boromir chortled. They walked on, enjoying the many displays. Galwion kept throwing glances over his shoulder until they reached a stall where sweets were sold. There were candied anise seeds, small nut cakes, pynade made of golden honey. Boromir spied a shaded pail filled with cold river water. Inside the pail, its rim barely above the water, stood a cup filled with small squares of a smooth dark brown, carefully shielded from the sun, the water keeping it cool. He recognized the rare delicacy from formal state banquets. Finding a few pieces at a summer market in Linhir was a marvel indeed.
"Nîneth?" Boromir said. "Here. You should try some of this."
She walked over to him. "What is it?"
He grinned. "Cocoa nuggets. Candy of kings." He gestured for the vendor to give him two pieces and emptied his purse. "'Tis an unusual find."
The vendor took the silver and handed Boromir the dark candy. "It sure is, sir. This is the first I've seen in many, many years though it wasn't so terribly rare when trade with the south was more frequent. But even then it usually went to the fine lords in their fancy houses." He lowered his voice. "I bought this off a Harad merchant who came with their ambassador traveling to Minas Tirith. I don't think he was supposed to sell it to me but I gave him a fair price." With a chortle, he turned to Nîneth. "You are in luck, madam."
Boromir stepped away from the stall and gave one piece to Nîneth, the other to Galwion. She looked at it for a moment.
"Taste it," Boromir said. "Before it melts."
She slipped the chocolate past her lips. "It's sweet," she said after a moment, surprised. "And bitter, all at once. It's a bit like carob but... different. I like it." She licked her fingers and smiled. "And it's sticky."
"Mmm," Galwion said, smacking. "May I have some more?"
"Nae," Boromir said. "It's a rare treat, and so it should remain." The two pieces had cost him nearly a week's wages, yet he did not regret it. The look on Nîneth's face as she tasted the candy made it money well spent.
That night, for the first time since leaving Minas Tirith, he smiled as he slept, his features relaxed. For the first time in many, many years, Boromir had no other responsibility than to get up in the morning and do the job the foreman gave him. For the first time in his life, he was helping build homes, not defend them. No longer need he lie awake at night, worrying about orcs crossing the east borders, or about the readiness of his troops. No longer did he train new recruits one day, only to see them die terrible deaths on sharp orc blades the next.
The time had come that he could look to Gondor's future, if not his own, and not see death and destruction. The sons of Gondor would have a chance to grow old at last.
Or so he believed, until, one day, the fates reminded him that death always lurked, ever seeking a chance to claim a life.
Boromir stumbled up the narrow, creaking staircase. He shook his head, nearly lost his balance, but the memories refused to let go. Of all the terrible things he had seen in his life, this seemed among the worst. He could still feel the crumpled body of the child in his arms... see the face of the despairing mother...
He flung the door open and crossed the threshold, breathing a sigh. Nîneth looked up from her needlework, surprise on her face.
"You're home early, dinner is not..." Her voice faltered when she took in his appearance. "What happened to you? Is that blood?"
She sprang up, worry creasing her brow. "Erandír, are you hurt?"
What was she talking about? He followed her gaze down his body and for the first time noticed how his shirt was torn, with dried blood staining it. That poor boy.
"No. The blood is not mine. There was an accident. A rope of the scaffolding was frayed. It snapped, the scaffold collapsed. There was--" His voice broke and he swallowed. "There was a boy, one of the bricklayers' apprentices."
"Is he... Did he die?"
"Aye." Boromir paused. "Where is Galwion?"
"Out playing with Híril. Why?"
"The boy that died... He was a mere few years older than Galwion. He had started his apprenticeship last week."
Boromir slumped on a chair, too tired to stand. He rubbed his face, his eyes stinging with dust and unshed tears. His fingertips were ragged, torn with the haste of trying to clear the debris off of the boy's limp body. They had been too late. The boy's family did not live far, and Boromir had carried the child home to his mother. The walk had seemed endless; his thigh was likely bruised where one floppy foot had hit it with every step.
"If the foreman had checked the scaffolding..." he rasped.
It was such a waste of life. He had thought that his years as a soldier had hardened him, but seeing the dead boy among the debris had been like a blow to the chest. The land was at peace, people were not supposed to die useless deaths any longer.
"Erandír, I'm so sorry."
Nîneth pulled him to her, and he went like a disconsolate child. She rested his head against her chest. He closed his eyes, breathing deeply, trying to stem the emotions that welled up and threatened to overwhelm him. Why had the Valar seen fit to destroy this child's life before it had barely started? What sin had the boy committed that he should perish, while he, Boromir, yet lived? Had the world not seen enough needless pain and suffering? It should have been him, not an innocent child, if anyone had had to die today because of the foreman's negligence.
Nîneth was running her fingers through his hair, tugging gently when they got tangled in the disheveled strands. Boromir gradually became aware of the softness beneath his cheek, the slow rise of her chest with every breath, her body heat seeping through the thin material of her summer dress.
He squeezed his eyes tighter, unaware that his breathing had become rushed and shallow. Despite himself, he snuggled closer, wrapping his arms around her waist. So much time had passed since he last held a woman...
He shoved her away, refusing to look at her. He did not want to see her face. "Nîneth..." His voice was raw and sounded strange to his own ears.
"Dear Erandír." Light hands cupped his face and forced his head up until her eyes met his. She smiled, her expression tender. "It is all right," she said softly. "You need this."
For the briefest moment he could not move. A groan escaped his throat and he wrapped his hand in her hair, dragging her down until his lips could meet hers. She responded with an eagerness that shocked him and for a moment doubt resurfaced. She had been a whore, a professional harlot -- was this genuine?
But then her hands slipped down to the fastening of his breeches and all thought fled from his mind. He forgot everything: the past, the future, the boy's death. None of it mattered. All that existed, all there was, was this moment and the driving need to possess her.
He wanted her, wanted to feel her around him, to drown in her vitality and warmth, take it for himself so he could overcome the desolation and loneliness and banish the hurt and guilt.
He clawed at her bodice and her hands came up -- to help or to stop him? -- but too slow, too slow. He shoved her hands aside, uncaring that seams tore beneath his force, or that buttons flew across the room, skittering to far corners.
He mumbled against her throat for a moment, unsure what he was saying, or even if the sounds formed words, before he lowered his mouth to capture the tip of a breast between his lips. Nîneth made a small sound that stirred him into further action. He lifted her up, and she wrapped her legs around his hips, her weight resting easily in his arms.
Not long now. No time. Where... More fabric was in the way and he growled in frustration as he ripped it aside. Then, at last, he sank into her, sobbing on her shoulder while she clung to him, her ankles digging into his back and her fingers tightly gripping his hair. He shifted, shivered, found his release, fast, furious, unstoppable.
When his need finally let go of him, thought slowly returned. Boromir set Nîneth down and backed away, his stomach roiling.
"What did I do?" he gasped. He took in her torn dress, disheveled hair. "I did not mean--"
He turned and fled, tumbling down the narrow staircase and into the street. She called after him, "Erandír!", his false name an accusation of misdeeds, the sound of her voice chasing him. He would not look back, did not dare look back. He ran around the corner into the cool shadows of a narrow alley.
Boromir fell against the rough stone wall and hid his face in his hands. Was this the reason he had left Minas Tirith? So he could betray the trust of yet another who was weaker than he?
He pushed away from the wall to stumble along the alley and through the streets, his stomach tight. He paid no attention to where he was going, merely followed his feet, until he passed an alehouse. Raucous laughter drifted out and Boromir stopped. It seemed like a place where he could forget for a while. He pushed through the door and made his way to the counter.
"Ale," he said. "The strongest you have."
The tavern's proprietor looked him up and down. "If it's strong drink you need," he said, "I have something better than ale."
Boromir's brows lifted. "What would that be?"
The server grinned and held up a small flask. "A special brew from Rohan. Made from barley, they say, and far more effective than ale."
Theodred had offered him one of Rohan's brews once, during one of his rare visits. It had burned itself a path down his throat, Boromir recalled, and brought tears to his eyes. "I will have some of that," he said with a nod, digging up a coin.
The light golden drink was everything he remembered. Soon, a warm buzz spread through his limbs, and his pain dulled to a muted ache in his belly. His repugnant deeds did not seem so horrible any longer.
He could not recall how often the barkeep refilled his glass. When his pocket was empty, the proprietor urged him out of the tavern. Boromir tried to protest, demanding more of the drink but he was no match for the sober barkeep.
"Go home," the man said, not unkindly. "Make up with your woman."
Boromir squinted. "How'd'you know?"
The barkeep laughed. "Because she's all you talked about all night. Now, git!"
With the door of the tavern closed against him, his money gone and the night dark and quiet around him, Boromir did not have much choice but return home. Nîneth should be asleep by now, so he would not have to face her yet. He promised himself he would wake early so he could slip out before she rose.
The staircase seemed to have grown extra steps in his absence and they conspired to keep him out of his house. He snarled a curse when the stairs wobbled beneath him, upsetting him so he fell painfully to his knees.
Above, a door opened and soft light shone in the narrow stairwell.
"Erandír? Is that you?"
Boromir groaned. So much for tiptoeing in unnoticed.
"Aye. What happened to the stairs? They are moving."
There was a long moment of silence. "Are you drunk?" She sounded disbelieving. "I have never known you to drink too much."
Was he drunk? Oh yes, he was. He looked up at Nîneth while attempting to conquer the last few steps, blinking blearily into the candlelight.
"I am sorry," he said. "I broke my promise. I will leave on the morrow."
"Don't speak nonsense," she said. She took his arm and guided him to the alcove where his bed was. He fell on top of the mattress.
"Sleep it off. We can talk in the morning."
He woke to someone hammering steel blades with a heavy mallet inside his skull. Sharp sunlight pierced his eyes as soon as he opened them. Moaning, he squeezed them shut.
"Here, drink this."
He gingerly slitted his eyes open. Nîneth handed him a cup with a dark liquid.
"What is it?"
"It'll help. It'll dull the pain and clear your senses."
Warily, he drank of the concoction. It was bitter, tasted like seaweed, and he shuddered. His face twisted in a grimace he could not hide.
Nîneth chuckled and he glared at her.
"What nasty witch's brew is this?" he said after he had managed to get most of the cup's content down.
"Sailors make a sport out of drinking," she said. "This is something my husband taught me to make. It will make you feel better soon, you'll see."
She was true to her word. Within moments, he felt the medicine do its work. The pounding in his head faded to a distant clop and the sunlight did not seem painfully bright any longer.
Unfortunately, the return of his senses also brought back memories he would rather not recall.
She cut in, "Aye, we should talk." She took the cup and knelt beside his bed. "Erandír, do you believe you forced yourself on me? Is that why you ran off?"
He looked away, not wanting to see her face and nodded.
"Then you are wrong." Her hand took his chin and turned his head until she could meet his eyes. "True, I am not strong enough to stop you should you have decided to take me against my will. But believe me, I would have let you know if I did not want you. What happened, happened because you needed it, and because I wanted it to happen."
He stared at her. She had wished him to bed her?
Her eyes were soft, though they held a hint of grief. "Call me wanton," she continued when he did not speak, "but I desired to be with a man of my choice while I could, if only once. To wipe out the memories..." Her voice died and her eyes swam with tears.
"Mama? Why is Erandír still in bed? Is he sick?" Galwion, small fists rubbing the sleep from his eyes, wandered into the alcove.
Nîneth sobbed a laugh and wiped her cheeks. "No, he is not sick. Just lazy. Come, let's get breakfast ready."
Author's note: I'm aware that whether or not chocolate would have been available in Middle-earth is open to discussion. I decided to go with the school of thought that we have no idea what exactly is being cultivated in the lands far south of Gondor, and thus the existence of chocolate is not unthinkable.
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