22. On the River
I think all of us were bad-tempered the first three days out of Lórien. Well, with the possible exception of Gimli. He did not talk but just sat there, smiling sweetly... Yes, dwarves can do that, although it is difficult to recognize because of the beard. But I spent a good part of each day facing him in the boat, so I had time to take a good look. He did smile sweetly.
Now, why did I spend a part of each day looking in the wrong direction?
Simple. The muscles of my arms were not up to paddling all day. Although I could walk all day by now and I also had gained some strength in my arms from sword fighting, I did not have sufficient strength for paddling more than three hours at a time.
Also, Aragorn announced that for the time being we would take things easy. Easy according to Aragorn of course reads: paddle four hours, rest for half an hour; paddle another three hours, rest for an hour; paddle three hours, rest for half an hour; paddle another three hours and simply collapse as soon as you reach the river banks.
I guess it was easy for the hobbits.
But they did not have to paddle at all.
Legolas preferred to partner me, because Gimli kept disrupting the rhythm of paddling. At every break the elf made us change places so that altogether I had to paddle six hours a day.
Although the currents of the Anduin swept us along smoothly, it was hard work to keep our course, that is, to stay in the middle of the river, and that meant paddling, paddling, arms like lead, blisters on you hands...
And Aragorn had no athelas salve left.
Tolkien said about those first days on the river: The dull grey hours passed without event.
There is really nothing to add to that sentiment. Except that I really regretted that Aragorn had no athelas salve left.
On the third day the landscape both on the eastern and on the western banks began to change noticeably.
For the first three days the western shores had been graced with trees yet. No mellyrn, of course, but willows, elms and ash-trees, as far as I could discern. On the third day, however, these last straggling remains of woodland dwindled to green plains.
The eastern shores were desolate and barren from the beginning. On that side of the river was nothing but slopes of brown and withered country with no bush or tree to break the monotony of the landscape at all.
The plains on the western shores were at least green, and it was deep, rich green of high grasses lush with spring. I recalled the maps I had studied at Rivendell. To the east, the lands were aptly called the 'Brown Lands', and the shadow at the horizon behind them was Southern Mirkwood and the evil fortress of Dol Guldur. But to the west, that was the country of Rohan, the Riddermark. Rohan once was a province of Gondor, but it was given to Eorl to hold in his own name after a great battle long ago.
I had read a translation of the Deed of Calenardhon at Rivendell. It had been difficult to read for me, because my knowledge of even the most common elvish runes was sketchy despite Glorfindel's best efforts. But it had been one of those strange moments here in Middle-earth when a small matter made my heart race. It made my heart race, because it made me realize once again that all of this was real: this was a real world, with real history and real laws.
I recalled staring at the curling piece of parchment, then raising my head and looking at the beautifully grained wood of the bookshelves of Rivendell's library. The wood of the bookshelves was dark with purple highlights, the shelves intricately carved in abstract flowing designs. It had been very quiet in the library that afternoon with that atmosphere of reverence inspired by the accumulated wisdom of thousands of books. I remembered how the sunlight slanted into the room, hitting the other end of the long table where I sat, the bright beam of sunlight filled with tiny, glittering motes of dust. From somewhere outside the whisper of elvish voices rose up, the beautiful lilt of Sindarin like faint music in the background...
"Lothíriel, watch what you are doing with your paddle," Legolas interrupted my daydreaming.
I jumped my heart in my mouth. I almost lost my paddle.
"Sorry," I said, my heart pounding, heat suffusing my face.
I turned my attention back to the paddle, the boat and the water.
Today the paddling was easier for me. My body had apparently adjusted to this new kind of exercise. I got used to paddling much quicker than to walking. Perhaps I was just that much fitter. Well, after all we had come through, it was hard not to be fit. It was either fit or dead; Darwin at his best.
Before us, Boromir drove his boat with hard strokes through the water, closing in on Aragorn, then letting his boat drift back again. Even from twenty feet away I could see the tension in his body. At night he would not talk to me or the others but kept his distance. He did not eat and, as far as I could tell, he did not sleep. His movements were jerky, his eyes gleaming with a strange wild fire. Merry and Pippin were afraid of him. Frodo was watching him constantly, obviously growing nervous and shivery himself. It was as if we were traveling with two drug addicts. It was only a question of time until the desire for the drug would overwhelm their sanity. I decided that I would try and talk to Boromir tonight. I knew deep inside that it would not help, but I would try anyway.
The country around was empty and lonely and there did not seem to be any animals apart from the birds. But there were many birds. Water fowl, which lived in the large stretches of reeds growing at the western banks, small song birds, but also ducks and herons, and once I even saw a kingfisher, lithe and silver-blue.
I grew very tired towards the evening. The paddle seemed to be heavy as lead in my hands. My eyes were tired from looking at the swiftly flowing currents all day, and I felt sick from the rocking motion of the boat. I started counting my movements, counting each dip of the paddle into the river. Would we stop for the night before I reached one thousand? Two thousand?
Suddenly there was a great rushing sound in the air above us, and I almost lost the paddle again, ducking to the floor of the boat to hide from any danger. Winged nazgûl! Was that here? But when nothing happened I dared to look up at the sky. There was only a great phalanx of black swans passing over our heads, flying into the west. Their mournful honking cries echoed around us.
"Black swans," Legolas said softly behind me. "They are said to carry the souls of the dead to Eru's halls." I shivered. If you are traveling with men, elves, dwarves and hobbits, you can count on a sad tale concerning any animal or plant or rock you pass on your way. But the cries of the swans were indeed harsh and full of sorrow in these dark and dreary lands, and the times were just as dark and dreary as these lands.
I felt naked in this small boat on the open river, insecure, with no shelter at all from inimical eyes. Sometimes I had the feeling that I was being watched, as if unfriendly eyes were looking at me from somewhere behind. I remembered that according to the books Gollum was following us since Moria. I never noticed anything, of course, being a complete failure as a ranger - even one out of Erlangen - but that did not necessarily mean Gollum was not there, somewhere.
Oh, how I wished for this day to end!
Oh, how I wanted to go to sleep and escape this gloom!
Finally we stopped for the night.
We did not risk lighting a fire because there was no way to hide the smoke. It would have been easy to see for miles around. Our dinner consisted of Lembas, water and a few bits of dried fruit to add some variety to the taste of the elvish waybread.
Boromir had put his things down a few feet away from the others. Now he sat with his knees drawn up, staring across the river. His lips moved now and then.
Frodo and Aragorn shared the first watch. They were huddled at the edge of the river, looking fixedly out on the water as if they were trying to discern some movement in the night.
Gollum. They were probably trying to find Gollum.
I felt an unreasonable anger rise in my heart. All and sundry were being drawn by the ring. I was so sick of this ring. I felt the insane urge to scream something like 'the ring is here, the ring is here, come and get it' or rip it off Frodo's neck and simply throw it into the Anduin.
It's the ring, I thought. It does not only feed our fears, it plays with our dreams and turns them into strange urges and desires. How can anyone still know what is real and what is not in the vicinity of the ring?
I sat down on my sleeping bag and thought of white walls and a blue sky as Glorfindel had taught me to do. This made me remember Rivendell and Glorfindel, and suddenly I felt close to crying. It was so far away! So many days of travel through dark and hostile lands. Dark and hostile lands all around me...
No, I tried to calm myself. Rohan is not hostile. Rohan... Rohan and Fangorn! Gandalf will return! Finally a happy thought. Hold on to that thought, Lothíriel. Gandalf will return!
The thought gave me the courage to approach Boromir. I walked over to where Boromir sat, glowering.
"May I sit down?" I asked politely. He did not look at me, but nodded. He had acted all day as if I was a stranger, as if we had never shared anything. I knew that his sanity was failing. I knew that it wasn't Boromir, who was suddenly so cold and quick to anger, but a stranger who had been drawn from the weaknesses of the man I had shared desperate nights of desire and hidden touches with. But this knowledge did not really help. It still hurt.
Boromir was pale; his hair was tangled and sweaty. When he pushed the dark trails away from his forehead, his hand trembled. He suddenly turned his head around to face me, and I could see that it was difficult for him to focus his eyes. What did he see when he looked at me?
An icy shiver ran down my spine. I wasn't sure I wanted to know what he was seeing.
"What do you want?" he hissed at me.
I swallowed hard, my heart pounding without reason. "I wanted to ask how you are. That is all."
He glared at me. No, not at me. He was looking at the air just next to me. I was scared suddenly. I felt goose bumps all over my arms, and the back of my neck prickled.
"Fine. I am fine. Now leave me alone!"
"Okay, I am leaving. Please, don't get upset." I rose to my feet. I looked at the shivering man with the feverish eyes before me and I felt sickened. Where was the gentle warrior who had made love to me in Lórien?
"Boromir," I whispered and I hated it that my voice was shaking. "It's the ring. You have to fight it. You can fight it. Nothing of it is real. You are stronger than the ring. Please, don't give up! I believe in you!"
But Boromir narrowed his eyes to angry slits, and his handsome face was drawn into a furious grimace as he hissed at me again.
"Just leave me alone! Give me a moment's peace!"
I turned around and ran back to the others, tears running down my cheek, lightheaded with hurt feelings and fear. He was already on the verge of being dangerous. Galadriel and Aragorn were right. It was too late for Boromir. He would try to take the ring. I only hoped that Frodo would be quick enough to escape him. I only prayed that Boromir would throw off the hold of the ring after his ill-fated attempt to get the ring from Frodo.
And the orcs... was there no way to escape from the orcs?
Could I help Merry and Pippin hide from the orcs?
Or would that endanger Frodo?
Would I be able to hide from the orcs?
My stomach cramped at the thought. I crawled into my sleeping bag and closed my eyes. I tried to concentrate on Gimli's snoring and Legolas's muffled curses. Apparently Gimli's snores intruded on elvish dreams. Sam, Merry and Pippin, who were not yet tired, lay next to me with their heads close together, giggling like children on a camping trip.
If I could have forgotten about Aragorn and Frodo looking for an uncanny creature called Gollum and Boromir looking not at me, but at something invisible next to me, I could perhaps have made myself believe in a camping trip, too, and gone to sleep. But as it were, I fell asleep only when the eastern sky was already pale with the coming dawn.
Aragorn decided during the night that we would return to traveling in the cover of darkness.
To adjust our rhythm to sleeping during the day and traveling by night he told us that we would paddle for several hours today, then rest for several hours and so on all through the night and only stop the following day for a prolonged rest.
"Is it because of Gollum?" I asked Aragorn in a whisper as we went down to the boats. He gave me a surprised look, but after a moment's hesitation he nodded.
"He's been following us since Moria, and I can't catch him. I fear that he will alert orcs or other enemies to our passing."
I had not thought about that. I spent an uneasy day and an uncomfortable night always looking back across my shoulder when I was paddling, or staring into the shadows of the river behind us when I wasn't paddling, trying to see... something... pale eyes gleaming in the twilight...
But I never saw Gollum at all.
On the seventh day of our journey the country on either side of the river began to change.
The soft sloping banks grew steeper and rocky; thickets of thorn bushes and brambles now grew in tangled clumps on the slanting banks of the river. Above the banks cliffs began to rise higher and higher as the night passed into morning. The rock faces of the cliffs were of crumbling, weathered grey stone overgrown with creepers and ivy. Now and again I could see areas of raw, almost white rock where recently a part of the cliff had broken away in an avalanche. Behind the cliffs dark ridges of a grey hill country loomed with shadowy forests of firs and pines. The Emyn Muil. I recalled the name of this country, but this time not from the maps I had seen in Rivendell, but from the books, and from the movies, too.
I recalled going to the cinema, the soft red chairs and the sweet smell of popcorn and almost laughed out loud, so strange and exotic the memory seemed to me now as I paddled in the twilight of another grey dawn, now and then joining Aragorn in his apprehensive looks at the many birds which seemed to fly up all around us in alarm as soon as our boats passed their nests.
We made camp in the shelter of a grey cliff face as soon as the sun was up. Aragorn chose the first watch and I could see that he was worried. Boromir kept away from the rest of the company as he had a habit of doing since we left Lórien. I did not dare to approach him anymore. The hobbits sat huddled close together as if they wanted to keep to themselves, too. So I was stuck with Gimli and Legolas. That pair had become fast friends during our sojourn in the woods of Lórien. As a result Gimli was not quite as gruff anymore, and Legolas was much more accessible, allowing to actually show some of his emotions on his face. Before they turned in that morning, they invited me to play a game of knucklebones with them. To my relief it was only called 'knucklebones' and did not actually involve any bones, knuckle or other, but only dice carved... well, probably they were carved of bone. But the dice did not look like bones and I was content with that illusion. We played three times. I won. We played again. In the end, Gimli owed me a favour.
"She'll want all the jewels I ever carved from the earth," Gimli grumbled theatrically. That reminded me of something.
"No," I told the dwarf. "Actually, the jewel I have already, but I would like to have a setting for it, so that I could wear it around my neck." I felt myself smiling. I had only just remembered the jewel I had found in the dirt on the Last Bridge.
"Show me that jewel," Gimli said suspiciously. "It's probably rubbish. Some fake bauble made of glass."
I raised my eyebrows at him but retrieved the jewel from the depths of my backpack.
Now it was Gimli's turn to raise his bushy eyebrows. And Legolas made a small noise low in his throat in surprise.
"But this is an Elvish jewel!" he said.
"I know. Glorfindel left it as a token on the Last Bridge when we traveled from Bree to Rivendell. I found it and Aragorn told me to keep it. When I was told that Glorfindel had placed it there, I tried to give it back to him, but he would not take it." I stared at the jewel gleaming softly on my palm. Would I ever see the elf-lord again? I really hoped so. But even if I did not, I would remember him for all of my life.
"For that I would fashion you a setting even without owing you a debt," Gimli said. "This is a precious jewel. I have seldom seen one that is clearer or more precisely cut and shaped. When this business is over, I will make you a beautiful setting for it. This will be a treasure to pass down many generations as an heirloom of your house."
I carefully wrapped up the jewel again and put it into my backpack. Heirloom... I did not look at Boromir. I suppressed a sigh. When all this - business - as Gimli had called it, was over... I could not but wonder where I would end up when everything was over and done with. And then I did sigh.
We still had a long way to go until this business would be anything like over.
On the eighth day we almost drowned.
Aragorn thought mistakenly that we were still miles away from the rapids preceding Sarn Gebir. If Sam had not shouted with fright as soon as he saw the currents rush foamingly against the sharp rocks of the rapids, we would have been lost. Even so, we had a hard time to turn the boats and get out of the current. Struggling against the power of the river we paid no attention to the shores and drifted closer and closer to the eastern banks.
Suddenly something dark whined past my head and hit Frodo in the boat before me in the back and bounced off harmlessly because of the elvish armour concealed beneath the hobbit's shirt. The hobbit lurched against Aragorn, who turned and exclaimed in anger.
"Orcs!" he cried, even as Legolas called out a warning in his own tongue:
"Yrch! Get down, Lothíriel!"
I threw myself across our luggage, making myself as flat as possible beneath the rim of the boat. The elf strung his bow and positioned an arrow in one swift, flowing movement. Another black arrow almost hit Merry. A third arrow got stuck in Aragorn's hood but did not hurt him. Legolas let go of his arrow. Seconds later one of the dark shapes running towards the water on the eastern bank collapsed with an agonized yell. Legolas hit his aim with deadly precision. The orcs drew back.
"Now get up again and paddle, Lothy," Legolas hissed, for the first time using the nickname the hobbits had invented. "I will try and bring down some more of these vile creatures."
I did as I was told, and laboriously Gimli and I paddled across the river, following the other two boats to the western shore.
Yells and screams in the darkness behind us told us that the elf hit at least three more orcs. Then we were out of reach, and the western shore of the Anduin loomed dark and silent above us. We were about to reach the shore when suddenly a dark shape passed above us, a shadow darker than the night, with wings so huge that they hid the stars in the sky.
Fierce voices on the other side of the river yelled a welcome, but Frodo turned white as a sheet and fell to the ground, clutching his side. I felt cold fear wash over me. All blood seemed to drain from my head in an instant, leaving me weak-kneed and trembling. With a shrill whistling sound I heard the release of an elvish arrow. Seconds later a great croaking scream echoed through the night and many voices were raised in horror and anger on the other side of the river.
Then silence fell.
It was then that I recalled Gollum crying out in the movie: "Ghosts, ghosts with wings!"
A winged nazgûl had come for us.
We waited for a few moments, but when the night remained silent, Aragorn led us upstream a bit further, keeping to the edge of the river. Finally we found a small shallow bay in the cover of a few gnarled trees with a steep rocky bank. We moored the boats and decided to stay in them for the rest of the night. Who knew how safe the western banks still were?
"Praised be the bows of the Galadhrim," Gimli said to his friend munching noisily on a piece of lembas. "That was a great shot, Legolas. And in the dark, too."
"But what was it that I hit with it?" the elf asked, daintily unwrapping a piece of lembas.
"No idea," the dwarf answered. "But it was a shadow, and a shadow on my heart, too. It reminded me of - " He paused. "It reminded me of Moria," he hurried on. "The Balrog."
"It wasn't a Balrog," Frodo said, and his voice trembled slightly. "It was cold. Much colder. I think it was - " he trailed off, his hand instinctively massaging his shoulder.
"What do you think?" Boromir hissed from the other boat and I felt cold at the eagerness in his voice.
"Nothing." Frodo said, and for the first time I noticed a touch of cold in the hobbit's voice, a core of barely concealed steel. "But our enemies did not like that it fell."
"So it seems," Aragorn agreed. He had watched the exchange between Boromir and Frodo with dismay visible on his face even in the still dim light of the barely fading night. "But that does not mean that we are safe here tonight. We mustn't sleep tonight, and keep your weapons ready."
The rest of the night passed uneventful and silent. Dawn came with fog on the river and only a pale glimpse of light in the east.
The time had come to decide how we would go on, turning to Gondor or continuing on the Westside of the river and pass through the Emyn Muil into Mordor. Boromir wanted to enter Gondor and head for Minas Tirith as quickly as possible. But Aragorn desired to at least go to Amon Hen first, from whence he said it was possible to see very far and thus easier for him to judge the situation of the lands around us and the dangers ahead of us. Boromir remained obstinate until Frodo made it clear that he would follow Aragorn where ever the ranger would turn.
I felt sick to my stomach and did not say anything.
After the decision was made to stay with the river for another few miles, Aragorn and Legolas went ahead to find a trail on which we could walk carrying the boats.
They soon came back with the news of having found a wide track leading past the rapids.
Gimli, the hobbits and I carried the baggage. Then Aragorn and Boromir followed with the large boat. But Legolas carried one of the smaller boats on his own.
Luckily it was not far to walk, and the trail was indeed in a fairly good condition. But even so, when Aragorn and Boromir finally appeared with the third boat, the afternoon was already almost over and the shadows were deepening again.
Although Aragorn was clearly unhappy with it, it was obvious that we had to rest for the night. All of us, including Gimli, were exhausted and Frodo looked grey in the face.
Aragorn and I took the first watch.
Tomorrow we would reach the Gates of Argonath.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.