14. Parting Ways
South of Sarn Gebir, the Great River flowed swift and smooth between ever-taller hills. They encountered no more rapids, but the current was a challenge to manage. Frodo felt as though he rode a runaway stallion as he struggled to steer the craft and keep close to the western shore. Sam barely paddled that day, dipping his oar in only when Frodo instructed him, to help correct their course when the river veered them off to the left.
That evening they halted on the steep slope of the west bank, perched on a rocky shelf no more than a dozen feet from the rushing stream. The Gates of the Argonath towered above them, the massive, stern figures of Isildur and Anárion glowering stonily northward.
"The day has come at last, friends. Tomorrow, we must part ways," Gandalf said. "Beyond the narrow cleft of yonder Gate, Anduin spreads widely into a large lake, Nen Hithoel, which sits above the great falls of Rauros. We must each take our separate ways before the river divides upon the steep flanks of Tol Brandir, the great rocky island that sits north of the falls. Upon the west side of the lake is a landing area, a sheltered glade called Parth Galen. Boromir, I assume you and Pippin will make for that…"
The man nodded. "I know it well," he said. "From there, we shall abandon our boat and take the Portage Stair to the base of Rauros, and then veer west to avoid the wide, wet delta of the Entwade. When we cross the Mering Stream we shall have entered Anorien. We will ride from the outpost there to the Great Gate." He smiled at Pippin. "We may well be in the White City in a week's time, my young friend. If we are fortunate, we will arrive in the splendor of morning's first light. Then you shall see a sight of beauty! Ah, my heart aches to know that I will soon be welcomed home by the silver trumpets of Minas Tirith!"
"And may you arrive there safely, and with no further 'adventures', my friends," Gandalf said.
Boromir mused. "No one has used the East Stair in time out of memory. It might be in ruins, or overgrown. What route will you take from the east landing, Mithrandir?"
Gandalf dropped his eyes. "I think it would be best," he said, "That our route from Nen Hithoel remain hidden."
Boromir hesitated, seeming to consider the meaning behind the wizard's words. His frown deepened. "Are you suggesting that I might reveal your whereabouts?" he said in a low voice. "You know not the trustworthy hearts of the men of Gondor, if you believe that!"
"On the contrary," said the wizard dryly. "It is precisely because I know the hearts of men--of Gondor, or of any realm--that I am unwilling to divulge more. Here, now--do not be angry!" he said, as Boromir began to sputter with fury. "I give my trust to none. I would give no answer even to Aragorn's questions..."
Boromir seemed taken aback by this news. "But would it not be best if someone knows which route you intend to take?"
"For what purpose?" Gandalf said sternly.
Boromir's face flushed. "Why, to...to know of your progress... To...to send aid, if need be... "
Gandalf shook his head and sighed. "Your words are proof enough of my worst fear. It whispers to you, as It does to each of us," he said. Boromir stared for a moment before his eyes dropped. "Even now, It tries to trick you into believing that your hidden desire to see It--to know where It is, at all times, to feel It upon your finger--is merely prudence, or common sense...or deep concern for your friends." His eyes fell on Frodo as went on softly. "I hear Its voice, as well. The latter is how It attempts to sway me--through my heart. But I recognize that Voice...and I know It speaks nothing but lies."
The Captain of Gondor seemed unconvinced, and opened his mouth as if to begin the argument anew. But Pippin interrupted him.
"Boromir, please! Let it be," he said, as he placed his small hand upon the warrior's thick forearm. The man gazed at him, and his eyes were troubled. "I don't want to know anything more, so if you plan to keep badgering Gandalf about this, wait a moment so that I can walk far enough so that I can't hear it." The young hobbit's round cheeks grew pink as his voice rose. "The less I know the better. Less chance that I'll slip up, and ruin everything this time."
He turned and walked away; but there was nowhere for him to go, for the rocky slope rose precipitously just ten strides off. Pippin turned his back on the others and sat down hard, leaning against a gnarled fir tree that clung to life amidst the stones. They could just see the ends of his feet peeking out from beyond the trunk.
"'This time?'" Gandalf repeated with a worried frown. "Frodo, do you have any idea what this is about?"
Frodo rose to his feet. "No, but I'm going to find out." He began to walk toward his cousin; Sam followed. "Sam," Frodo said, "I think it would be best if you..."
"You're right, Mr. Frodo. I'll wait here." Sam sat back down beside the wizard and tucked his feet beneath his knees, tailor-style. Boromir said nothing more, but he walked to the edge of the river and gazed south toward the tall statues of his ancestral kings, crossing his muscular arms across his broad chest.
The gardener of Bag End reached down and drew aimlessly in the dirt with his fingertip. "You don't trust anyone, do you, Mr. Gandalf?"
"Not even myself, Sam; not in these matters." He paused. "I trust no one, save you, and Frodo. And, to be quite ruthlessly honest, I only do that because I have no other choice. I truly wish that it were otherwise."
Sam looked up curiously. "What do you mean?"
The wizard gazed back at him solemnly. "I wish with all my heart, Sam, that I need not trust you and Frodo...for with that trust comes a tremendous and perilous burden." He went on quietly. "And yet, I know that although I am forced to do so, my trust in you--both of you--is entirely warranted."
Sam sighed. The Gaffer would have a good laugh at this one... His Sam's got all high and mighty, wishing for exactly the same things as wizards do... "One other thing…and, begging your pardon, sir, but…well, when do you intend to let us in on the secret...of where we're going next?"
Gandalf chuckled. "Tomorrow, Sam," he said. "I promise."
Twilight turned to night, and the stars glinted between the branches of the fir trees. Far off, a low rumble told them that the great falls were none too distant. Wind moaned low through the forest that climbed steeply up the slope. Sam and Gandalf sat in silence, waiting for Frodo to return. Then, just loud enough to be heard above the voices of wind and water, came the laughter of two hobbits, followed by a lilting tenor, raised in song.
There is an inn, a merry old inn
Beneath an old grey hill;
And there they brew a beer so brown
That the Man in the Moon himself came down
One night to drink his fill!
Soon, Frodo and Pippin came striding together, arm in arm. They called to Boromir to join them.
"Frodo and I have a splendid idea for a 'last night' celebration!" Pippin said.
"I just reminded Pippin of a rather embarrassing night... You remember, Sam..."
Sam was grinning. "Seems so long ago, doesn't it, Master Frodo?"
"Not that long ago! Just five months... Imagine what all we've seen since Bree!" Pippin laughed. "Old Barliman would turn white to hear our tales now!"
Gandalf chuckled. "That he would. I've heard a bit about that particular adventure, but I do not think our Captain knows the details, other that the rather sketchy version Frodo told at the Council of Elrond."
Frodo sniffed. "Well, you didn't expect me to tell all those wise and mighty people exactly how I made an utter fool of myself, did you?"
"Of course not!" Pippin cried. "But now, the time has come to pay the piper, dear cousin. You shall go first! But when he's finished, everyone--even you, Gandalf--must have a turn at it!"
"A turn at what?" Boromir asked, a slow grin growing on his face.
"To tell a story of when you've done something so stupid, so silly, that you can hardly bear to think about it," Frodo said. "Something that really makes you groan with embarrassment..."
"And if there's a song--or dancing--involved, so much the better!" Pippin said.
Thus did the Five Companions pass their final evening together. Heedless they were of any unfriendly ears that might be listening. Frodo told the tale of their disastrous night in the Common Room at the Inn of the Prancing Pony, and amused his companions with a repeat performance of the song in question, complete with the same lively, capering dance that had ended with a tray of broken crockery, a vanishing hobbit and a stern lecture from a certain dour Ranger.
Sam spun a story of a lass he was sweet on and his ever more vigorous attempts to catch her eye as she walked by one day while he was fishing. "I leapt up and bowed, very formal-like, with a sweep of my hand, taking my cap off and all." He stood and demonstrated. "That got a giggle out of her…" and from his audience… " So I did it again…And then a third bow, deeper than the last… But what I failed to see was the fishing line all tangled about my big feet!" He re-enacted the fateful slip that ended in his thorough drenching in the Bywater Pool. "And then Rosie…"
"Of course," Pippin interrupted with a laugh. "It had to be Rosie!"
Sam blushed. "Between laughing so hard that the tears fell from her eyes, and tryin' to give me a hand up, wouldn't you know that she went and slipped too…and down we both went, right into the muck!"
Frodo grinned. "And if I'm not mistaken, it was that soaking--and the trip to the Cotton's farm for the two of you to get out of those muddy, wet clothes and warm up by the fire--that sealed it for Rosie!"
Sam Gamgee's face had never been so red; but his eyes were shining as he nodded shyly.
The Heir to the Thain of the Shire amused them with the doings of Tookborough Hall. His parents, Paladin and Eglantine, celebrated their wedding anniversary at Midsummer, and droves of relations and friends were invited every year for an overnight stay. "The year I was just old enough to start sampling ale myself, I got a bit tipsy; but my esteemed Da was, as we put it in the Shire, filling up the corners rather nicely. It wasn't quite midnight, and my mother sent me to search for him, as it was nearly time for the toasting to begin. I found him lying stretched out on a sofa in the library, with his hat pulled down over his face, fast asleep. I saw him lying there and I had the most wonderful idea…"
"Oh yes," Frodo said quietly, as he snickered. "I remember this party…"
"I went round to each room and insisted that everyone come at once, there was going to be a contest… I marched all my cousins and second-cousins and aunts, uncles and sundry relations by the library so everyone could get a good look. Then I gathered them in the dining room, right across the hall, where we could all hear Da snoring like a slumbering dragon. I then set the entire room to composing toasts that had to begin with the line, To the Great Took: May His Thunderous Voice Never Be Stilled."
Pippin was taking great delight in the increasingly insulting results of his contest, which his relatives seemed to find very amusing, when someone tapped him on the shoulder.
"I turned round, and my Da was standing there, looking mightily steamed, and not one bit sleepy. My jaw dropped, for I could still hear those rumbling snores coming from the library!" The room erupted in laughter as Pippin ran across the hall and pulled the hat away, only to discover that his Uncle Eldegard, his mother's brother, had apparently borrowed his father's hat.
"Of course, the rest of us had seen Pallie come in fifteen minutes earlier, stand behind Pip and hear how his only son and beloved Heir was egging them on to do their worst," Frodo laughed.
"Yes," Pippin sighed. "I was forbidden to touch ale for an entire year, and given the chore of cleaning Tookborough Hall's stables for a month! And Boromir, just so you get a sense of how drastic a punishment it was, my Father's stables house three dozen ponies! If I never smell pony droppings again, it will be too soon!"
The men looked at one another as the laughter died down from Pippin's tale. Boromir shrugged one shoulder, and Gandalf's right eyebrow curled upward.
"Come on, who's next?" Pippin cried.
"After you, my friend," the wizard said, just in time to prevent Boromir from saying the same.
The Captain of Gondor cleared his throat, and a hint of pink came into his face. "Well, I do hope my tale isn't too improper…"
"Little chance of that," Pippin smirked.
"I doubt you can shock us, Boromir! We're all of age here, except Pip, and I shall vouch for his…hmm…maturity," Frodo said with a smile.
Boromir scratched the tip of his bearded chin and took a deep breath. "Well, my brother and I were out for a ride on the Pelennor Fields--the lush, rolling farmlands that lie between the City walls and the curve of the River. I must have been, oh, twenty or twenty-one, for I remember that Fari…that's what I call my brother, Faramir…he was still in his teens." The brothers raced their horses in the summer sunlight, and had stopped by a clear stream to bathe away the sweat and dust of their ride.
"I was terrible at that age, always trying to embarrass Faramir, who is much more dignified, intelligent and learned than I will ever be. I began to sing a song I'd learned from our older cousin…"
"Excellent, another song!" cried Pippin. "Let's have it!"
Boromir now flushed more deeply. "It is a rather impolite song called The Lady of Lossarnach…and, well, you see, she isn't much of a lady, which is, of course, the whole point of the song, and why I had chosen it to torment poor Fari…"
"I'm sure that one verse will do no harm, Boromir," said Gandalf, to everyone's surprise.
Boromir cleared his throat again, and half-heartedly began to sing under his breath, slowly gaining confidence to bring his deep baritone voice to full volume as his audience encouraged him. The 'lady' was a girl who was quite free with her affections, as even one verse made abundantly clear. He drew breath for the second verse when Gandalf held up a hand.
"Thank you, I believe we have the gist of it," he chuckled.
"Yes…well, the problem was, that at that age, and after racing about all day and feeling simply flush with excitement, well, even a song about a girl…particularly that sort of girl…would be enough to…well, to bring my 'little soldier' to attention, if you follow my meaning." By the sounds of the hoots and sniggering, clearly the others followed his meaning very well. The man went on to tell how Faramir retreated from the water in embarrassment and pulled on his clothing, while Boromir stood knee deep in the stream, full of life and entirely naked, singing loudly about the lady with a certain reputation.
"I had just scooped handfuls of water up to splash over the top of my head, when Fari started hissing at me. 'Bori! Bori!' he said in a loud whisper. 'What?' I cried, and dropped my hands to look. And who should have chosen that moment to appear, on horseback themselves, but three real ladies, of excellent and noble families of Minas Tirith! Well! As you can imagine, I was dumbstruck! I was the eldest son of the Steward of Gondor, and here I was, in front of a trio of beauties, stark naked, and…er…fully engaged! I stared at them…and they stared at me… I looked down…and so did they!"
"And what did you do then?" Sam said, as he held his sides, aching from laughter.
"I turned and ran!" Boromir laughed as loudly as his audience. "But I happened to notice that while two of the ladies had gaped at me in shocked horror, the third had a sly grin on her face... Ah!" he sighed with a smile. "Today, of course, I would make sure that I had that one's name before I called for a retreat!"
Their laughter wound down, and finally it was the wizard's turn. They looked at him with eager, expectant faces. Slowly a smile appeared on his aged face.
"There was one particular episode… I do not believe I have ever told this tale…"
"Excellent!" Pippin said. "We are all ears!"
The wizard leaned back and stretched out his legs, as if for a long conversation. "Long, long ago, I spent many years…over a century… traveling in the South. I was searching, of course, for clues, for any news…rumors, even…of the Dark Lord." He pursed his lips and his eyes seemed to focus far off. "I learned so much of value...from exploring strange lands and strange folk, and their infinitely varying ways…and how similar people are, even when they appear so differently. I learned almost nothing about Sauron, and eventually I returned to the North, believing that some day, he would emerge and return to his old haunts…as he has, of course."
The others sat in silent attention, for this was proving to be much more than a droll story of an embarrassing moment. He is so much older than I ever realized, Frodo thought, and so much more than he chooses to appear…
He paused thoughtfully. "My journey began in Umbar, where I stayed for some years in secret, seeking out and doing my best to encourage the Faithful that still survive in that beautiful and terrible city…Then I visited the peoples of the great Desert of Harad, where men wrap their heads and faces in lengths of cloth against the searing sun, and where I learned to do the same. It was the people of the Desert who gave me the name I was called in the South: Incanús, which means, 'inquisitive stranger from the North;'spy,' in other words," he smirked. "I went farther yet, into Far Harad, where enormous forests blanket the land, even greater than the largest forests of the North, and beneath those trees live innumerable folk of all description: some much like Men in the North, some as tall as Elves, and others nearly as short as hobbits, but unlike hobbits in all other ways… I came at last to the vast plains south of the girdle of Arda, where one looks up to a sky filled with stars unknown in the North. It was there, in a mud-walled city on a high plateau, surrounded by taller mountains than any north of the Bay of Belfalas, that my tale began.
"By then I had learned that for the Haradrim to welcome one so peculiar looking as myself, I must be willing to adopt their customs as much as I could…"
"Wait," Frodo said. "Sorry to interrupt, but what do you mean, 'so peculiar looking'?" Sam and Pippin nodded; but Boromir said nothing.
"Why, of course I mean the hue of my skin. The people of Far Harad are, almost without exception, very dark in coloration. Only a rare individual—usually someone sickly, who cannot live long beneath their scorching Sun—for Far Harad is closer to the circuits of the firmament—has light-hued skin and eyes. Because they have observed this, time and again—that light skin means sickness and death—they fear to see it appear in one of their own. And slavery is very much alive and well in Umbar, and the people of Harad have been the main victims of that vile trade. The Umbarians, of course, as descendants of Númenor, have skin as pale as Boromir's—another reason the Haradrim might have to fear me. And another thing: their men are, in general, beardless, and grow scant hair on their bodies. What hair they have on their heads is mostly tightly curled and kept sheared close to the scalp, in men and women alike.
"So you see, I was altogether strange in appearance, even frightening to them. All this is to explain how it was that I came to be dressed in little other than a stiff cape of skins, dyed red and purple, with my unruly hair plaited tightly back and tied with a thong of leather, and my beard oiled to keep it from flying about… That was always the worst, trying to tame my beard…"
Pippin couldn't manage another moment of silence. "Just a moment, Gandalf. Are you saying that you were wearing nothing underneath a cape?"
"A purple and red cape, at that…" Sam muttered.
Gandalf gazed back at Pippin steadily. "Other than a strategically arranged skin, about a hands'-span wide, that is correct. Not even boots." He paused, the hint of a smile on his face, while his companions contemplated the image of the wizard in such a costume. "I had come to the court to be introduced to their Chieftain, who was a very great person in those parts, by far the wealthiest, most powerful Chief for hundreds of miles around. Of course, to gain an audience with such a person…equivalent, really, to a King…one had to gain the approval of his foremost advisor.
"Now, while I admit that I have little talent for song or dance…my apologies, Master Took…one skill I do have is that of quickly picking up different languages. I had, by then, after some eight decades in Harad, learned a dozen tongues or more; but one need only walk ten leagues to find people who spoke another language completely unrelated to that used by their nearest neighbors. It was quite bewildering, and in this particular city, I could not speak the language at all. But the King's advisor was quite fluent in another tongue I also knew to some extent. We communicated well enough, and he arranged for the appropriate attire for me to wear, and found an assistant who could help me plait my hair. He offered to teach me a simple phrase or two in the local tongue, a polite greeting that I could recite for the King. I practiced it a few times—there were some tricky guttural sounds in their language that one made in the back of the throat—and he finally nodded and smiled when I had mastered it.
"There I was, in a vast open-walled court filled with fountains and stunningly beautiful carvings, the only light-skinned person that most of them had ever seen, surrounded by a hundred men who all stared at me as though I had two heads. The King and his advisor arrived, and in due time I was brought forward to be introduced.
"I bowed low, and in a loud enough voice to be heard throughout the room, I recited my memorized phrases, expecting that a smile would break out on the stern face of the great man sitting on the throne before me. But when I stopped speaking, instead of smiles, I was greeted with several long seconds of utter silence, and looks of supreme shock." He laughed quietly. "Ah, what a fool I was! For unbeknownst to me, the advisor was, in fact, secretly scheming to overthrow his King, and was looking for any opportunity to create trouble; and he had no qualms about using me in his plots. Suddenly, the King stood and raised his hand to point and shout at me, his face full of rage. In the next moment a half dozen of his guards had me clasped in their grip, with knives drawn and aimed at that strategically placed scrap of leather that I mentioned to Pippin, a minute ago."
He paused to enjoy the look of horror on the faces of his companions. "Later I learned the true meaning of the words I had been taught. Apparently I had declared that the King's mother was known to have virtues similar to Boromir's Lady of Lossarnach, and that the King himself had been sired by a hyena, a vicious, hideous beast of the plains that looks like a cross between the mangiest mutt you can imagine and a warthog." The others started laughing, and the wizard himself began to snicker. "I further suggested that given such deplorable ancestry, the city would be better off if certain parts of his body… small handfuls of flesh that he likely greatly treasured… be violently removed—with a dull blade--and forcefully placed into the most convenient nearby bodily opening!" Gandalf's aged face colored as he went on, raising his voice slightly to be heard over the din of hoots and guffaws. "And to top it off, I ended my polite comments by remarking that only then would the King be worthy to kneel at my feet and perform…well, you can fill the rest in for yourselves!"
Sam was laughing so hard he had rolled onto his side, but Pippin frowned with a look of confusion; clearly he was unable to 'fill in the rest.' Frodo leaned forward and whispered into his young cousin's ear. Pippin's face grew bright red, he gaped at Frodo, and then at the wizard; then he clapped both hands over his open mouth. Gandalf wiped away the tears that were streaming from his eyes. "So, it was no wonder that his guards felt eager to carry out their Lord's command, which was, in essence, to do to me what I had suggested be done to him!"
Boromir howled with laughter. "But how in Arda did you get out of that one, Mithrandir?"
The wizard smiled. "As I had nothing to lose, and everything to gain, I started protesting loudly in every language I had learned in Far Harad…and soon enough, I found one that the King could also understand. He was, in fact, a wise man, and he and I became fast friends, in time. He called his guards off, and was willing to listen to my tale. And I learned an extremely valuable lesson: never recite anything you don't understand!"
The travelers lingered in a circle, talking and laughing into the night. Gandalf caught Boromir's eye and smiled faintly, as if to say, let them have their final night together, for who knows when, or if, they shall have the chance for mirth and song again? Pippin insisted that Frodo sing Bilbo's walking song, and he and Sam joined in. Boromir taught them a merry round that every child of Gondor could sing, and their voices rose above the low moan of the wind and the rush of the river. Finally, when the hour was very late, the hobbits reluctantly agreed it was time to retire.
Pippin drew the first watch. A half an hour passed slowly as he padded quietly along the river's edge, around the perimeter of the trees, and back again. He stood on the high bank, shivering and gazing out at the silver swath of moonlight on the river's ever-moving surface, when he heard the crunch of a boot on stone nearby. Pippin turned anxiously; his shoulders relaxed when he saw it was the wizard.
Gandalf came and stood beside the young hobbit. He was silent for several minutes, as if content to simply share the stark but wildly beautiful view.
"I never tire of watching Moonlight on water," he said at last.
"Yes, lovely, isn't it?" Pippin said with a nervous quiver in his voice. The hobbit felt his face heat up; he had done his level best to avoid being alone with Gandalf for weeks. Those hours with the wizard in the boat, for lessons, had been a torment. He could not release his sense that everything that had gone wrong in Moria was his fault, and that sooner or later, Gandalf would realize it, and would openly express his regret for his decision to let him be a part of the Fellowship. He's been waiting to say it to me, until this last night. Any minute, and out it will come…"You should never have come, Pippin;" that's what he'll say…
But the wizard's thoughts were far away. He studied the silvery gleam, and reflected on the hidden marvels that made up that sparkle: the deep voice of Ulmo, whose music wove the substance of the River; Yavanna's song of growth, for indeed, the Moon's light came from a single glowing white Flower of Telperion, one of the Two Trees her voice had brought to life upon Ezellohar, at the Dawn of Days; Varda's crystalline lantern that protected and preserved that Blossom; and Tilion, whose silver chariot bore the Moon across the sky. He closed his weary eyes. Faint strands of the music that had formed the world filled him, and he sighed. Soon…soon this task will be done…and one way or another…perhaps, at last, I can go home…
Aware of the fidgeting of the hobbit at his side, he opened his eyes and recalled why he had decided to seek him out. Frodo had explained everything.
"Pippin," Gandalf said softly, "There is something I have been meaning to say to you…"
Pippin interrupted sharply. "I know, I know." His voice was shrill and tight. "You don't need to say it. I understand… It was a mistake. You wish you had never let me come, and if it were possible you'd send me home at once…"
The wizard reached out and put his hand lightly on Pippin's shoulder. "No, lad. That's not at all what I meant to say." He looked down, and the hobbit looked up. He could see a shimmer of tears in Pippin's eyes. He has suffered for weeks…I was a callous fool not to notice it…
"It wasn't your fault, Pippin," Gandalf said. The hobbit drew in a sharp breath to speak; but the wizard stopped him. "Let me finish! I didn't know until tonight…although I should have guessed. Looking back, I can see that something was amiss with you… But all that matters tonight is this: you must believe me. That stone you dropped, into the well…" Pippin squeezed his eyes shut and groaned. The wizard smiled and shook his head. "You didn't awaken the Balrog, Pippin."
"But we hadn't seen any trouble before that, Gandalf," the hobbit whispered.
"Oh, really?" Gandalf sniffed. "No trouble, eh? And what, pray tell, would you call being spied upon by flocks of crebain, an attack of Wargs, and the hundred slimy arms of the Watcher in the Waters?"
"But that stone made such a racket! And that hammer tapping: it was a signal, you know it was!"
"Perhaps. Perhaps your foolish Tookish curiosity roused the interest of some Orcs. But I am absolutely certain that you had nothing to do with the rest of it. The Balrog paid no attention to the rattling of a stone. He was only interested in two persons that had invaded his underground realm: the Bearer of a powerful and deadly Object that he coveted for himself…and me."
Pippin's eyes grew wide as he stared up into the wizard's face. "Oh…"
Gandalf nodded. "He knew I was there from the moment I crossed the threshold of the West Door. And the Enemy's device was calling to him. He could not resist. It had nothing to do with you, Pippin. If anything, I should be called the fool for tempting fate so flagrantly, and leading Frodo, and the rest of you, into such peril…for the continued presence of Durin's Bane in the depths of Durin's ancient city was a fact well known to the Wise. I should have known better. I did know better…but we had no other choice, as you recall. And, as you and Frodo and the rest of the Company came through safely to the other side, I would say that we were meant to go there, after all."
Pippin sighed. "All's well that end's well, is that it?"
Gandalf glanced at him sharply; but Pippin was looking away, at the River. "Something like that. Now, why don't you let me take the rest of your watch? I'm quite awake, after the excitement of this evening's entertainment. I might as well be of use."
Pippin smiled and tried to stifle a yawn. "Thanks, Gandalf…for everything…"
Dawn came, and Boromir opened his eyes, realizing in seconds that he had overslept his turn on watch. He sat up and saw the wizard standing, looking southward toward the massive Gate through which they would soon pass. He rose quietly, careful not to disturb the slumbering hobbits, and joined him.
"You did not wake me," he said as he came to the wizard's side.
"I couldn't sleep. No point in disrupting your rest as well."They stood together in silence, gazing at the great statues with their noble, brooding faces. Strange, Boromir thought. Of all the partings I thought might bring a pang to my heart, this one I suspected least…He vowed to do his best, in the time remaining before war was upon them and their attention would be forced elsewhere, to try to convince the Steward Denethor how wrong he was about the Grey Wanderer. Fari is right; it is truly a pity how Father has missed a good friend, and wise council, for so many years…
"Mithrandir," he said. "You were right, yesterday. It is best that no one--not me, not even Aragorn--know more than they must about your journey onward from here. Accept my apology, please."
The wizard turned to look at him. "It was the… It was not you speaking," he said quietly. "No apology is necessary."
Boromir gazed across the river to the far shore. In the east, as upon the west, the foothills of the Emyn Muil rose steeply. Farther off, jagged heights were beginning to catch the first glow of day. It would be nothing short of suicide to attempt to enter from the north. It took two armies seven years to get through that Gate…they will go south, into Ithilien…and that will mean… A shudder went through him as he thought of the other pass into Mordor, the one that faced his own City. I hope Mithrandir has some idea of how it can be done…I must admit I'm glad I need go no further with them…
He thought of his brother, undoubtedly awakening south and east of where he now stood, in the hidden stronghold of Henneth Annûn. Perhaps he stands by the falls, and gazes west and north, wondering where his big brother has got to after all this time… Suddenly, he missed Faramir acutely, and his heart swelled with joy at the thought that he would soon see him.
"Would you do me a favor?" he asked. "If you happen to see Faramir…" He paused and returned the look the wizard gave him. "Not that I have any idea where you might run into him..." A wave of relief rushed through the man as he saw one corner of Mithrandir's mouth curl upward. "…But if you do see him, greet him for me. It has been so long since I've seen Fari…" Boromir's throat was suddenly tight.
"If, by some strange chance, I see your brother," the wizard said, "I will certainly give him your regards." His eyes were twinkling.
Impulsively, Boromir reached out and clasped Mithrandir's right hand in his powerful grip. He let up at once, for he saw a fleeting wince pass over the wizard's face, and he could feel the heat in his flesh.
"Your arm…" he said, as he held him gently and inspected the wizard's hand. It was flushed, and his fingers were swollen. "You should let me have one last look. If it is ready to drain, I should do it; I've done such things in the field often enough." The wizard nodded, and the man gave him a slight squeeze before releasing him.
Boromir looked into imponderably old eyes. "Thank you, Mithrandir. Thank you for…for…everything." He felt the depth of the search that the wizard gave him. Not unlike the scrutiny of the Lady Galadriel… The man saw, then, a nearly imperceptible change come over the wizard's face, as though the sky had darkened with a passing cloud. The Captain of Gondor felt his heart speed up and his breath momentarily catch as he gazed back; but his jaw was clenched with resolve. Whatever he sees… I care not for my own fate… Let it only be that Gondor survives…
Mithrandir smiled wanly at the Steward's son. "Until we meet again, my friend…and we will meet again, someday…may starlight guide your path." He placed a hand on Boromir's shoulder, and the man did the same; and with this half-embrace, they said their final farewells.
The hobbits were stirring, and the men went to finish the sometimes challenging task of rousing them thoroughly. In no time, the travelers had broken their fasts and hidden all traces of their encampment. Boromir called to Frodo and together they unwrapped and inspected Gandalf's arm. The red circle was unchanged, but the ugly streaks seemed to have faded somewhat.
The Captain prodded the puffy flesh gently. "Hmm, I do not think it wise to open it yet. Another few days, at least."
While Frodo wrapped the injury in a clean cloth, Boromir dug in his pack and produced a small thin knife, honed to a razor's edge. "Here; take this, Frodo, and these supplies." He brought out a leather pouch. "Are you familiar with how to drain a festering wound?"
"Er, no…" Frodo said hesitantly.
"But I am," Gandalf said. "I can instruct him, should it be necessary."
Boromir was satisfied with that. He indicated the pouch. "There are sutures and curved needles for deep wounds, bandages, a very tiny tin of soothing ointment, for burns and the like… Not much, and nothing nearly so useful as a Northern Ranger and his Elvish skills, but something, at any rate…in case you have the need."
They divided the food stores, placing most of what remained into Sam, Gandalf and Frodo's packs; for Boromir and Pippin would soon be able to resupply at the northernmost outposts of Anorien. Pippin insisted on taking Frodo and Sam's excess clothing into his pack; they wouldn't be needing their warm things, and after months on the road they had all learned to do with much less. Finally, there were no more tasks to do, and the time had come.
Sam embraced Pippin, and then Frodo did, clasping his young cousin tightly. "You take care of yourself, Pip…and old Boromir, of course!" he whispered. "When you see Merry, tell him I miss him…"
"You'll tell him yourself, soon enough, cousin," Pippin said hoarsely. "Be careful, won't you?"
Boromir leaned down and clasped Sam and Frodo's hands and bowed to them solemnly. Gandalf knelt on one knee and embraced Pippin. The wizard leaned back and gazed long into the young hobbit's face. The smile he gave him was not as full of warmth and hope as those he had bestowed upon Merry, Legolas and Gimli at their parting in Lothlorien; but no one else but the wizard was aware of it.
They launched their boats quickly, and were moving with Anduin's swift current by an hour past sunrise. Gandalf took the stern again, and at his instruction they kept to the middle of the stream. The Gate Guardians towered above their heads, and they rushed through the narrow entrance and into the darkness of the long tunnel of stone. The River screamed all around them, and wind tore at them. They labored to keep the boats from dashing against the rocky walls. Finally a bright doorway of sunlight grew ahead of them. They careened toward it, and then suddenly, they were through.
Nen Hithoel spread out before them, its surface ruffled by a light breeze and sparkling in the morning sun. In the near distance rose three peaks: Amon Lhaw on the left, Amon Hen on the right, and Tol Brandir, tallest and furthest, and directly before them. A wall of mist gathered upon the shoulders of Tol Brandir, and beyond. The roar of the Falls of Rauros was as distant thunder in their ears.
The travelers raised their hands to one another, and without more delay Boromir steered west, and Gandalf guided his boat to the east. Pippin watched Frodo and Sam move away until their boat shrank to a dark mote amid the glittering motes on the waters, or perhaps it was the dazzle in his own eyes; and then they were gone from sight. He sighed and turned forward, and wiping the tears away he put his aching heart to use by paddling as hard and as fast as he could.
. . .
Graga stood amidst the thickest trees on the western slope of the Emyn Muil. He raised his short bow and took careful aim. Below, a man and a boy had landed their small craft on the greensward and were covering it in branches. Best to take the tark first, the Orc thought. The other looks too young to put up much of a struggle; but his meat will be nice and tender, I'll warrant.
"What do you think you're doin'?" Uznak, his companion, shoved his hands against his fellow's arm, disrupting his aim.
"What does it look like I'm doin'?" Graga snarled, as he raised his bow again. "They're an easy shot; I'll have 'em down in a half a second…"
"Fool! Our orders were specific: Do not engage the Gondorians. This is supposed to be a secret operation!" Uznak placed a claw on the shaft of the arrow. "I'll not have you getting us in trouble again, Graga. Who do you think that brute with the shield and the sword is? If he's not a Gondorian, then you're an Elf…"
"But they're such an easy target…"
"Right. And so will you be, when Ugluk gets hold of you. Remember what the bosses said: look for a party of nine, one with a long grey beard. See any long beards down there? Can you count? Does that look like nine?"
"I thought the orders said it was five…"
"Nine, five…whatever they said, it wasn't two, you maggot. Kill all but the Halflings, that's what they said, and do NOT engage the Gondorians! Any Halflings down there?"
Graga peered down the slope to where the Gondorian soldier and his shorter companion were now shouldering their packs and making their way across the grass. They're getting away… "How should I know? Have you ever seen a Halfling, Uznak?"
Uznak grunted. "No."
"Do you suppose they're short, like that one? 'Half-ling'?"
"Pah! You stupid maggot, that's the tark's son…gotta be. Who else would it be?"
"I suppose…There they go. Looks like they're headed for the Stairs…We've lost 'em, whoever they were."
Uznak stared at the now empty glade, doubt suddenly rising in his throat like bile. "Not a word about this, Graga. We didn't see a thing; today was just another boring day on scout patrol. Not a word."
To be continued
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.