Politics of Arda
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Long Road Home, The: 7. Autumn Falls
Author's note: Thanks to Cheryl for helping with the horsey bits!
"While I could," Nîneth had said. What had she meant with those cryptic words?
For a while, Boromir did not understand but as the days shortened and the nights grew cool, his disquiet increased. He could no longer find peace in lugging bricks. Where he would find the absolution he sought, he did not know but Linhir was not going to provide it -- and neither was Nîneth.
One morning, when the air was crisp with the presage of autumn, he realized it would soon be time to journey on. Rumors had reached the town, stories of orcs hiding in the vales of the White Mountains, terrorizing outlying villages and destroying much-needed crops. Those people had need of his skill with a blade, not his might at carting stone. He could not stay in Linhir; he would travel further west, to Calembel or maybe Erech. He should be able to reach the end of the road before the thick of winter. After that, he was willing to let fate lead him.
How could he explain to Nîneth and Galwion he had to go, though? The question pressed like a weight on his mind, and the more he thought about it, the more the answer seemed to elude him. They relied on him; he could not desert them. And thus he lingered, restless and unhappy.
Shortly after the harvest feasts, while rain threatened on the horizon, he arrived home to find Nîneth waiting for him dressed in her finest gown. His eyes narrowed.
Nîneth smiled when she caught his look. "I believed I should dress my best for the occasion."
"What occasion?" Had he overlooked something important? A birthday? A local custom?
"Your last eve in Linhir."
Boromir shook his head. "I have no plans to leave."
"Yes, you do," Nîneth said. "I've always known you would not stay, and I have seen the longing grow in your eyes."
It was then that he saw his shirts and breeches, all neatly folded, lying beside his saddlebags on the table. His sword, secure in its scabbard, was placed on top of the pile. He sought Nîneth's gaze.
"You're not content here, Erandír," she said softly. "I see you suffer. Few came through the war unscathed but you're still haunted more than most. I don't know what it is you need, but I do know I'm not able to offer it."
He opened his mouth to protest, but she crossed over to him and placed a finger against his lips. "Do not deny it, man of Gondor. You know I speak the truth. You helped me, now allow me to help you. You're free to go, you have made me no promise. Be sure, though, that you will take my heart with you, and that I have warmed myself in our friendship."
Tears sprang into his eyes, tears of sorrow as well as of relief when she lifted the burden of responsibility from his shoulders. He pulled her into his arms. "I shall not forget you, Nîneth," he whispered into her hair.
They stood for a moment, holding each other tightly. Then, with a small laugh, Nîneth eased herself from the embrace and stepped away.
"I have supper ready," she announced. "You better go wash up, unless you want to enjoy your last evening meal in Linhir smelling like a boar!"
He did not want to desert her alone on his final evening in Linhir. But it might be his last chance for a while to send a message and so he excused himself after dinner, saying he had an urgent errand to run. Nîneth looked disappointed and curiosity shone in her eyes, but she did not protest or ask questions.
Boromir took long strides through the darkened streets of Linhir, leather boots resounding on the pavement. At last he found what he sought: the house of a scribe. He knocked, waited a moment and knocked again, rapping his knuckles impatiently against the wooden door.
"Yeh, yeh," a voice grumbled inside. "I'm coming!" The door opened a crack and a white-haired man peered at him over the light of a candle.
"Sorry to trouble you at this hour, master pethran," Boromir apologized, "but I have urgent need of your services."
After thoroughly assessing Boromir's appearance, the scribe stepped aside and opened the door wider, motioning Boromir inside.
"I would have some parchment," Boromir said, "and a quill and ink. Also some wax to seal my correspondence."
"Will you be writing the letter yourself?" the man asked, watching him with renewed interest.
A few moments later Boromir squeezed his large frame into a seat before a small writing desk. Sheets were placed in front of him, along with a tiny bottle of ink and a feathered pen. The surface of the paper gleamed blankly in the candlelight. He stared at it for a long time, unsure how to start.
At last he dipped the quill in the ink and placed the point on the paper.
"To Faramir son of Denethor, Steward of Gondor," he wrote at the top of the page, and a little below that: "Dear little brother..."
Although he had planned the epistle to be short, the watchman cried midnight by the time he signed it with a flourished B and sealed it with a drip of red wax. He had found himself divulging to Faramir not only his adventures so far, but also his deepest thoughts and doubts.
Once he finished the long letter, he took a new sheet, dipped the pen in the ink again, and began another note. Though he also addressed it to the Steward, he did not offer a salutation nor did he sign the second letter. Faramir would know who sent it.
After he had sealed the second document, he handed it to the scribe, along with several silver coins. "I trust you will see that this letter reaches its destination safely," he said.
The scribe's eyes widened when he saw the address, but he nodded without asking questions.
"I shall take good care of it, lord."
Boromir started. "Do not call me that. I am but a messenger."
"Of course," the scribe said. He put the letter away. "A courier headed for the citadel is expected to pass Linhir in a few days, carrying missives from Dol Amroth and Lord Angbor of Lamedon. I'll see that he takes your letter too."
The day of his departure dawned and Boromir rose at first light. Nîneth, already awake, had prepared him a hearty breakfast of eggs and sausages, with bread still warm from the oven. They did not speak much. All the words that needed to be said had been spoken over supper the evening before.
An hour later, Boromir finished tying his pack to his saddle, and he mounted. Barangol pranced as he did so, eager to be off after long months of little exercise. Nîneth watched from the doorway, Galwion clutching at her skirts. The boy's cheeks were streaked with tears.
"Why are you leaving?" he cried. "I don't want you to go."
"Shh, dear son," Nîneth hushed him. "I explained to you yesterday why Erandír cannot stay with us."
Galwion sniffed and wiped his nose with his sleeve. "Will you come back?"
"If I can," Boromir said, his own voice hoarse. The boy's misery tore at his heart. The child had latched onto him like a father, and it would be hard for him to miss the second man he had come to see in such a role. "I promise, if I can, I will come and visit you some day. Now you are the man of the house. You have to look after your mother, all right?"
The boy nodded and visibly struggled to stop his tears.
Boromir turned toward Nîneth. "Remember what I told you: go to Minas Tirith. You can start a new life there, you and Galwion."
He leaned down from the saddle and offered her the long letter he wrote the night before. "Take this. When you reach the City, have it presented to the Steward. The Steward only, do you understand?"
Nîneth's eyes turned round. Her mouth dropped. "The Lord Steward? Erandír, I am but a simple woman. How can I--"
He held up a hand. "Please, I cannot tell you more. But do not worry; he will be expecting you. You should have no trouble getting an audience. Just promise me you will do as I ask."
She looked at him for a moment. "Erandír is not your true name, is it?"
"No," Boromir said. Something lodged in his throat and would not budge, no matter how hard he swallowed. "'Tis not. My true name..." He squared his shoulders. "My true name matters no longer."
Though her eyes softened at the sadness in his voice, Nîneth did not comment. Instead, she gave him an understanding nod. "I will do as you bid me. You have my word."
With a nudge of his heels, Boromir urged the horse into a trot. Híril was bouncing along the street ahead of him, yapping happily at everything that moved. He did not look back; he wanted to be long gone when Nîneth went to tidy up the alcove and his bed and found the heavy purse he had left her, containing most of the savings he collected during his stay in Linhir. They would help her start the new life she dreamed of.
Boromir hoped he would reach Ethring on the River Ringló in five or six days. There was more traffic along the road than when he had departed from Minas Tirith, many months ago, but he no longer felt the need to hide, with the exception of the second day when a company of soldiers approached. Their banners announced that Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth traveled with them and Boromir had no desire to explain to his uncle how he came to be alive. He withdrew into the forest, hiding until the company passed and the dust had settled back on the road.
He quickly established a daily routine once he left the coast behind. He woke at first light to the twitter of birds. After a quick cold breakfast, he would mount a frisky Barangol; the horse was always glad to start the day after a night's rest. He stopped briefly for his midday meal, and then rode again until near to evening when he would set up camp for the night. He ate what he could find along the road, sometimes stopping at a farm to buy bread and cheese; at other times quickly bringing down a hare or pheasant Híril startled into flight. His dried provisions he saved for more dire times.
The land in southern Gondor was rich and fertile. The road wound its way through the hillocks and dales that formed the foothills of the White Mountains. The tall white peaks that gave the mountains their name glimmered farther away to the north, where they rose high above forests of deciduous trees. Far to the south, the hills of Belfalas crowded together on the horizon. In the valleys, small farming villages lay scattered among forests of tall pines or oak offering shade or shelter. Boromir had been pleased to discover that over the months he spent in Linhir, the farmers had returned to their homesteads and were tending the land as if the war never happened. Oxen pulled plows to reveal a deep red earth, while womenfolk and children sowed winter barley and oats. Sheep, their coats not yet fully thickened for winter, roamed grassy meadows, while trees bowed down beneath their burden of sweet apples or fat late-season plums.
Five days out of Linhir, the weather changed. Boromir woke to a gray and dull morning. A leaden sky hung over the land. Low, thick clouds scudded along, driven before a chill wind that blew in from the Bay of Belfalas. Without warning, summer had vanished until it was but a memory; the wind and the clouds preceded the first of many autumn storms that would scour the land before winter set in.
By midday the wind had grown in strength until a forceful gale whipped the countryside. Trees swayed back and forth, their crowns groaning beneath the onslaught. Leaves -- red, gold, and brown -- tore free and danced around in wild circles. Boromir hunched in the saddle, shoulders raised high against the chill biting through his cloak. Barangol struggled to move forward against the strong winds that buffeted the large horse.
Then the clouds opened. Heavy sheets of rain pelted down, the drops flying almost horizontally, slashing at man, horse, and dog alike. They were quickly drenched. At last, when a gust of wind nearly unseated him, Boromir decided he had had enough. He would not reach Ethring today, and it was no use risking his life or that of the animals any further.
He dismounted, and, angling his body against the storm, led Barangol to a grove of leatherleaf some paces from the road. It would be safer to hide beneath the thick, glossy leaves of the bush than underneath an oak or chestnut, which could be dangerous in this sort of weather. A sudden gust of wind might find a weak branch or a rotten trunk to break. But Boromir hoped that the dense evergreen would provide less of a risk and offer some protection from the storm's fury.
He tied Barangol's lead to a nearby birch sapling before taking off the saddle and his belongings. The horse turned against the wind, sheltering his head in the sapling's branches. Rain streamed down his flanks and the wind whipped at his tail and mane.
"Sorry, my friend," Boromir murmured. "I wish I could provide you with a roof over your head, but alas!"
Barangol nickered softly and dropped his head, a picture of abject misery.
Boromir shoved blanket, saddle and bags underneath the shrub and squeezed himself in as far as he could manage. The ground, though damp, was not yet soaked and he drew his knees up to his chest. Híril wiggled herself into the small hollow beneath his knees, seeking his body heat. He wished for his oil skin cape, the one that had kept him dry during many a campaign on the East-borders. But he had lost it somewhere on the journey to Imladris and so far had failed to replace it. It was an omission he planned to rectify at the first opportunity -- although he doubted any coat could withstand this deluge from the heavens. He tugged his wool cloak tighter around his shoulders. It would not do much to keep him dry, but at least it helped him stay warm.
Boromir resigned himself to his discomfort while he waited for the storm to pass. Water dripped down his face, leaving trails on his cheeks. He hated the forced rest. Not so much because of the physical misery -- though that was bad enough -- but because it gave him too much time to think. And as they always did when he had nothing left to occupy himself with, his unchecked thoughts perversely wandered down the too-oft-trodden path of self-doubt and remorse.
Had he done the right thing, leaving Nîneth and Galwion to fend for themselves? What if she had not believed him, despite her promise, and did not go to Minas Tirith? He should have stayed, should have taken her to the city himself, even if it meant giving up his secret.
Had he been selfish?
No! Boromir shook his head violently, disturbing the bush so water droplets flew everywhere and Híril started out of an uneasy slumber. The dog growled and Boromir rested a weary hand on the furry head, scratching her between the ears.
It would be too easy to give in to such thoughts. He had done all he could for Nîneth; he would not abandon his quest. What would his renewed presence offer those he loved most except more grief? No, if he ever wished to return to Minas Tirith, he would need to make amends first.
The storm raged through the night, keeping him awake with its fury. It wasn't until sunrise -- perceived only through the scant lightening of the dark clouds that still obscured the sky -- that the heavy rain began to let up, changing to light drizzle. Boromir shivered, grateful for the meager warmth Híril's small body provided. The dog had burrowed beneath Boromir's cloak some time during the night, nestling herself against his chest, and he had welcomed her presence.
His trousers clung to his body as he crawled out from beneath the leatherleaf. Boromir reached for his saddlebags and tried to pry open the clasps. His fingers were stiff and clumsy with cold but at last he managed to take out the spare set of clothes. They were clammy -- even the thick leather bag had not completely kept out the moisture -- but they were drier and warmer than the wet tunic and breeches he wore.
Breakfast was a cold affair of soggy bread and a few red apples. He longed for a cup of hot tea to warm him but the rains had soaked every piece of wood. Kindling a fire would be impossible.
I should not have lingered in Linhir so long, he scolded himself. I could have reached the end of the road before these autumn rains.
He used his discarded tunic to dry off Barangol as best as he could before draping the saddle blanket over the horse's back. The results did not well please him, but at least the animal's developing winter coat had kept him warm.
Chagrined to find that the tack had suffered the same fate as his clothes and food, Boromir apologized to his mount for using a damp blanket. "I would walk," he said while tightening the straps, "if I had the time. We need to find shelter and warmth. Ethring is about a day's ride away. But I promise you, you will have a nice, dry stable tonight, with plenty of clean straw and sweet oats."
Barangol snorted and shoved him with his head. Boromir chuckled, his spirits lifting a little. "Sometimes, I can believe you understand my every word." He offered the horse the last slices of his apple, which the animal gobbled eagerly, and hoisted himself into the saddle. A cluck of his tongue, a nudge with his heels, and they were on their way.
The road was deserted; anyone with any sense was settled somewhere dry and warm. The clouds continued to leak drizzling rain. Many new streams ran out of the hills and across the road, muddy brooks that formed to drain off the water from the deluge and eventually carry it to sea. Boromir led Barangol gingerly across the slick surface of the road, their speed of travel slowed to such a snail's pace that he began to fear he might not arrive in Ethring that day at all. His black mood darkened even further when he stopped after a few hours of travel and inspected his horse's withers. Though barely noticeable yet, the animal's skin showed the first signs of sores developing where wet straps rubbed his fur. He cursed the autumn storm below his breath. If only it had waited another day, he would have reached Ethring before it broke and he would have been dry and comfortable while waiting out the storm. Now, he was chilled and miserable, and his throat hurt with the onset of a cold. Worse, he was causing injury to his horse.
Mayhap I should seek a farm, he thought, where they will allow me a place near their fire to dry out my belongings and where I can take proper care of Barangol.
Unfortunately, he did not see signs that anyone lived nearby. The road swerved through a dark pine forest of tall trees, on soil sandy and harsh. Nobody would try to farm in such country. Briefly he considered an attempt to start a fire, but quickly dismissed the thought. It was still raining, and everywhere around him he could hear the drips of water trickling through the trees. No, his only option was to go on -- and hope the developing sores would not get much worse until they could be dealt with properly.
Though he knew it was not much use, he tried to shift in the saddle as little as possible in an attempt to relieve the pressure on the sensitive areas of his horse's back. The animal, though wearied, was steadfast and continued along the road as fast as Boromir dared to go. Even Híril's spirits seemed to have dampened in the dreary weather and she never left the horse's side.
Suppertime drew near and the gloomy day was growing even dimmer when the houses of Ethring finally appeared over the crest of a steep hill. Boromir let out a sigh of relief and swung himself from the saddle. He could walk the last stretch and give his horse a respite, however small.
At the bottom of the hill, the road crossed the River Ringló; Ethring lay high on its western bank. He grimaced at the thought of having to cross the cold, wet river -- although in all truth, neither man nor beast could get much wetter than they already were.
After he led his horse down the incline, Boromir stopped at the river's edge. With rising dismay, he watched the ford. The heavy rains had swollen the river until it seemed near impassable; although the river ran level and wide at the crossing, its current was swift and filled with debris torn down from higher elevations. Even as he watched, an uprooted tree almost as tall as a man came rushing past.
Beyond his view, he heard the river tumble headlong down a steep slope further south. The roar of the falls added to his discomfiture. A waterfall of such size would surely kill him and his mount if they lost their footing. He shivered at the memories of how he nearly drowned in the Greyflood when he was riding to Rivendell. He had lost his mount then, and never did learn what had happened to the horse the Rohirrim had lent him.
But it was growing dark. His stomach was growling and the lights of Ethring beckoned on the opposite shore. Their cheery brightness promised fires to drive the chill from his bones, of warm stew for his belly, and of a dry stable for his horse. Another deluge threatened on the horizon where black clouds were gathering strength. If the next storm broke, the river would become impassable for days, maybe even weeks. And Boromir had no desire to spend another night out in the cold and damp.
In the day's dying light, he studied the fords closely, trying to determine the best route across. He would have to hurry, though, for when darkness had fallen completely, it would be a fool's labor to try and cross the angry waters. He tugged on the reins, leading Barangol to the edge of the river, where he swung back into the saddle. The horse danced restlessly, surveying the swift stream with distrust.
"Come on, boy," Boromir urged him. "Remember that stable I promised? Just a little further, and then you can rest." His soothing tone, if not his words, convinced the horse to trust his master and slowly he walked into the river.
Boromir gasped when the frigid water splashed up. Coldflood, indeed; the Ringló was aptly named, he thought glumly. Although he had been cold all day, he was not so chilled he could not feel the icy touch of the river's water slowly seeping into his flesh. He consoled himself with the same promise he made his horse: just a little further, and then he could get rest in a dry and warm place.
Much to his relief, they reached the opposite shore without incident. But as he stood shivering beside his horse, puddles forming around their feet, he realized something was amiss.
"Híril? Here, girl!" He whistled, and was answered with a distant bark. Boromir peered into the dusky evening. His heart sank when it occurred to him that Híril had not forded the river with them but was still on the opposite bank.
"That wretched cur!" he grunted, though it was really himself he blamed. The river was too deep for the dog to wade across and the current too swift for her to swim. If he had not been so cold and tired, he would have remembered it sooner. The only way for Híril to reach Ethring was for him to go back. For an instant, he was tempted to abandon her and give in to the lure of the town's warm fires. But then he sighed and began to wade back into the cold stream. He had no choice; he could not desert the dog.
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