In the Rift, in the Void, Silence began as Silencing – the melody of the song meeting its inverse, the two notes silencing each other. Thus the Company of the Ring journeyed still down Anduin, towards the Falls of Rauros, and the orcs, wandering upon the east bank, were aware of them. The Nazgûl still rode the skies above them, to be felled by the bow of Legolas. And decision still loomed before them as an oppressive shadow, but it echoed with the horror of the Void which engulfed all the world….
"Parth Galen," Sam muttered, raising a brow as he surveyed the green sward, with its two hills rising up above them. "Well, it's a nice spot, Mr. Frodo, if we have to stop. Never thought I'd say it, but if those orcs are on our side of the river, I'd rather be floating in the middle of it than sitting alongside it!"
"I know, Sam, but I am afraid we must halt here awhile," Frodo murmured, gazing about and then up at Aragorn who joined them at that moment, as the rest of the Fellowship gathered round. "Do I not guess rightly, Aragorn, that we must decide our path ere we journey farther?"
"Yes, for we are come now to Tol Brandir and the falls of Rauros. The path to the Morannon lies straight east, just north of the mires of Nindalf. Few are the soldiers of Gondor who come so far north, so the risk of detection and detention is slight. He who follows the river beyond Rauros though, will find his journey will become more difficult, if he wishes to pass unseen, as he shall be forced to backtrack through Ithilien and the southern reaches of the fen."
There were some dark and anxious looks exchanged among the Fellowship at that, but none spoke, and eventually, all eyes were turned once more to Frodo. "I fear it falls at last to you, Frodo," Aragorn continued gravely, pinning the hobbit under his sympathetic gaze. "Whither shall you turn? For by your choice, we all are ruled: shall we take the eastward path, or the route to Minas Tirith or elsewhere, if that seems good?"
Frodo was silent then, and the stares of the others pressed heavily upon him, yet he could not speak. Not yet! Looking up once more at the midmorning sky, he sighed. There is no choice before me, truly, but the choice to accept. But the others... shall I command them to come with me? To go? To choose as they will? And where shall I go from here? Through Gondor, or shall I take the path Aragorn advises for those who would be secret? What truly is best?
"Give me some small while to think," he said at last. "At noon, I shall declare myself." With that, he turned and walked a short distance away, followed by Sam.
The others gazed after the two of them a moment, and then by unspoken accord, separated, withdrawing naturally into pairs. Merry and Pippin hovered together just far enough from Sam and Frodo to give the latter two privacy; Legolas and Gimli retreated to the banks of the river some small distance upstream; and though Boromir stared at the hobbits in frowning concentration, seemingly oblivious to all others, Aragorn came and stood at his shoulder.
"Boromir," the Ranger spoke softly, and Denethor's son turned quickly, as if startled. One who knew him well might have recognized the flash of nervous loathing in his eyes, but if Aragorn noticed it, he gave no sign, saying only, "Walk with me a ways, please."
"If you wish," Boromir replied after a breath's hesitation, turning to follow the other towards the woods that lay all about the feet of the hills.
Legolas, standing with Gimli, stiffened as he noticed the two Men departing, and his eyes narrowed.
"At last!" the Elf breathed, laying a hand on his companion's shoulder by way of warning, and Gimli turned to look as well. Just ere the two passed out of sight into the trees, Aragorn paused and glanced back at the others, as if to fix their positions in his mind, and his eyes met Legolas's bright gaze. An almost imperceptible nod answered Legolas's expectant regard, and the Elf raised his chin slightly in acknowledgment.
"Mayhap we shall soon learn what ails Boromir," Gimli muttered, stroking his beard contemplatively.
"Yes… mayhap." Minutes passed, and neither Elf nor Dwarf spoke. But after a time, they began to move unerringly towards the forest eaves.
Aragorn glided through the woods ahead of Boromir with an almost elvish grace, and perversely, Boromir found that unconscious ease irritating. He felt clumsy by comparison, and though he knew it was a ridiculous sentiment, he suspected every bush and clinging weed of slapping or clawing at him. All such annoyance, however, merely cloaked the deep uneasiness that stirred in his heart, for he guessed the other's purpose in bringing him here, and he wanted nothing more in the world than to run. But the Heir of Denethor of Minas Tirith had not the habit of retreating from his enemies.
And besides, Aragorn, Elf though he seems, is mortal as any Man, and no enemy! So reason claimed, and he knew the truth of it, yet that knowledge did not soothe the fear that settled within his breast.
They did not go very far, for the fear of pursuit lay heavily upon all of them after that night upon the water beneath the Winged Shadow – just far enough to ensure that no others could overhear them by accident. Then Aragorn halted and turned to face him, just the two of them alone in a small clearing. For a moment, neither spoke, but Boromir felt tension rise in him as they locked eyes and he felt the other's searching regard like a brand pressed hot against his soul.
Let him read it, the thought entered suddenly into his mind. Let him read all, if he will, and rid me of this festering guilt! Almost, Boromir yielded to the temptation to speak, to confess and let the wounded part of his soul bleed clean through his words. But he had lived with it now too long, and though a part of him keened in horror, pride and distrust reasserted themselves, grinding that impulse back down. His eyes hardened and his jaw clenched as he waited, determined that the other should speak first.
For his part, Aragorn noted the flicker in the other's grey eyes, the sudden tension that rippled through the other's frame, and he sighed inwardly. Now do I regret the more that I let wait this matter for so long. I should have made the time earlier!
But recriminations could change nothing, and so, girding himself unobtrusively, he said, "I think we have both waited on this day for long – to have his path and every other's clear before him. I do not know what Frodo will decide, but if we two should soon part, I would do so in friendship, and with nothing left unsaid between us."
"You say 'if,'" Boromir countered, deliberately ignoring the invitation to speak as a friend, to speak freely of his troubles without fear of scorn. Instead, he focused upon the conditional, trying still to hold Aragorn at arm's length. "Surely you shall go with Frodo?"
"If he will have me," Aragorn replied,as levelly as he could, refusing to rise to the bait. "Of late, I suspect he leans to the lonely path. And above my judgment, I trust that Sam's anxious looks are not for naught."
I trust Sam's anxious looks…. Boromir grimaced slightly as those words pricked deeply at his conscience, arousing envy of that easy trust, and sharp disgust and fear at the reminder of the peril in which all now stood.
"And if Sam's anxious looks prove not for naught?" Boromir demanded.
"That would be a hard choice for us all, should Frodo choose to go eastward alone."
"Hard choice!" Boromir echoed, his voice pitched low but sharply. "A hobbit alone in Mordor… that is not hard, that is madness!" He could not restrain that bitter condemnation, though he rebuked himself the moment it escaped his lips.
"Madness it may be," said Aragorn, slowly, watching Boromir closely now with darkened eyes
"Perhaps it is even truly hopeless, but if so, then no choice of mine can mar or mend the powers that shape these times. Nor can any of yours, Boromir, nor even Frodo's."
"Then are we puppets, and not Men!" snapped the other, fighting against a snarl of disgust that covered over a deeper terror.
"Is that what has troubled you of late?" asked Aragorn, frowning as his eyes searched Boromir's face intently.
"I don't concern myself with useless questions," Boromir snorted, but even as he said it, he felt a sudden thrill of doubt, if only for the way Aragorn was looking at him. Unsettled, he turned away. "What matters it to you what worries I conceive?" he demanded.
"Do you hear yourself?" Aragorn asked, then, tone tinged with alarm. There followed an uncomfortable silence, ere Aragorn said quietly: "I know that we do not agree concerning how we should decide our course. But shall our differences drive us so far from each other that we shall not be concerned for the other?"
"So say you now, yet you have been silent these past weeks – silent since Moria, unless pursued," Boromir retorted.
"I have been remiss," Aragorn admitted, and Boromir silently cursed him for it. "But I would mend my error, if you will allow it." And when still, Boromir said nothing, he continued: "I know you doubt the Council's decision. I do not grudge you that – think you I cannot understand whence stems fear?"
Reasonable the words and reasonable the tone, if one discounted the urgency of the appeal, yet at these words, Boromir turned on the other. "What do you know of my fears?" he snarled, as the resentment of the past weeks came spilling forth then. "You are Isildur's Heir, Aragorn, yet you would gamble that inheritance and the last of our people on this foolish errand? On the teary hopes of fading Elves? If you were any part a Man you would not sit idly by and wait, or trail after Halflings to your death and theirs!"
"What, then, would you do in my stead?" Aragorn asked quietly.
With an hysterical bark of laughter, Boromir shook his head—in denial, in horror, in disgust… he could not say which coursed more strongly in him. Emotions twined themselves so tightly together he could not separate them out. The voice of sanity wailed thin and piercing protest, and yet was impotent before the maelstrom that boiled over. Into his mind blossomed suddenly and with frightening clarity, the image of a thin, golden circle clutched in Frodo's trembling hand.
The Ring! It glittered with an inner fire, seeming to waver almost coyly, aware of its splendor as Boromir bared his teeth in a soundless snarl. So small a thing, and yet the foundation of Sauron's might: the thread upon which they dangled now, and the menace of the world. A mad light, infected with lust and despair, gleamed sickly in his grey eyes, and he drew his sword as he answered with sudden and disturbing calm:
"Take what is mine!"
Aragorn dodged the first blow, but could not clear his own weapon before Boromir sprang at him, slamming him against a tree and pinning him there. Still, he managed to catch the other's wrists in an iron grip and he pushed back, locking the two of them into a grappling stance in which neither could move. The sword's edge lay against Aragorn's throat, but it moved no further: for though Boromir was the broader in build, Aragorn had not less strength for his leanness. Evenly matched, they gazed at each other over the length of steel, and then Boromir leaned closer to whisper in his ear in an obscene parody of intimacy:
"Against Mordor there is but one tower, and one weapon alone can wound the Dark Lord." Aragorn closed his eyes, fairly sick with sorrow and frustration as Boromir went on with smooth urgency:
"The Ring! It shall never reach the Fire in Frodo's hands – you know this! And yet Frodo is our only hope, they say. Let it not come to that then, my friend! Take the Ring. Take it, or I shall!"
"Think you that the Shadow on high shall come again?" Gimli asked, squatting on his haunches under the eaves of the woods and gazing moodily out at the east bank of the river. Legolas had already vaulted to the lowest branch of the tree at his back, seeming to need the comfort of a familiar environment, and the Dwarf fought a smile. Often he forgot that the elven prince was yet accounted young among his people, and he supposed that this eager flight to the treetops was a sign of the other's youth.
Rather like a child who runs immediately to find a spot near the fire whenever storms threaten, he thought. It was an odd insight into the other, but a dear one as well. For ere Lórien, Legolas had remained always earthbound, though he had oft raised his eyes to the treetops with longing. That he gave in to the impulse now, and in Gimli's presence, struck the Dwarf as a compliment of sorts – as if the Elf had permitted him this glimpse into a little-seen part of his soul.
"I know not," Legolas's voice drifted down in response. "But my heart warns that we shall see more of these fell creatures ere the war ends." A pause. "Whither will you go once Frodo has made his choice?"
The Dwarf blew a large, considerate sigh through his mustaches, and scowled thoughtfully. "When we left Rivendell, I swore that I was willing to go whithersoever I was needed, yet I had never looked further than the mountains. Now we are come far south of Erebor, and Mirkwood, too, is many leagues behind. 'Tis a hard choice. What of you, Legolas? Will you return to your home?"
"Once I thought to turn aside after the gate of Caradhras," the Elf confessed. "Yet I remain here with this company, and I do not regret the choice. Indeed, the world is wider than I thought, and there is much to see, even in dark times. Much to see, and more to do, and more still that needs doing."
"I think that if Frodo decides for Mordor, I would go with him, if he asked," Gimli said at last.
"Ah," Legolas replied, and a half-smile curved his mouth, "There you find the heart of the matter. If he asks us to go, who would refuse? Save Boromir, but he has other duties that he may not lightly abandon."
At that, both fell silent once more. Merry and Pippin wandered nearer, and Gimli sighed softly, wondering whither their deliberations led. Of a sudden, there was a blur of motion in the corner of his eye as Legolas landed on the ground beside him. "What is it?" he asked, startled by the other's abrupt descent and even more so by the arrested expression on the Elf's face.
"Listen!" Legolas replied tautly, and the Dwarf followed his gaze into the woods, whence emerged, in a muffled fashion, Boromir's voice, sounding harsh and angry. Gimli bit his lip hard as the words became intelligible:
"— you know of my fears? You are Isildur's Heir, Aragorn, yet you would gamble that inheritance and the last of our people on this foolish errand? On the teary hopes of fading Elves? If you were any part a Man you would not sit idly by and wait, or trail after Halflings to your death and theirs!"
Aragorn's reply was too low and shrouded to make out, but Boromir's response was clear enough: "Take what is mine!" And then came the slither of steel, which all the members of the Fellowship knew too well. Gimli and Legolas shared a horrified look with each other, and then darted into the woods.
"Pippin!" Merry clutched his arm tightly, pointing after the Elf and Dwarf, who fled into the trees.
"I don't like that!" Pippin replied, glancing anxiously at his friend.
"Nor I!" Sam and Frodo had come running up, having seen the other two depart in haste, and now the hobbits hesitated, wondering what might have occurred. And where were Boromir and Aragorn?
A moment longer they wavered, uncertain, and then all plunged after their companions into the woods.
"Take it, Aragorn!" Boromir hissed in his face, eyes alight with an unholy desire, and Aragorn swallowed a groan as he opened his eyes once more.
"No!" he replied, and gritted his teeth, feeling the blade press harder against his throat as Boromir leaned into him. "Are you blind, Boromir, that you do not see whence this comes? I am not your enemy, but the Ring is!"
"Is it?" Boromir snapped. "I see clearly enough the choice before me, and I say that the Ring is less an enemy than are indecision, mad schemes, and blind trust! But I can act, and if you seek to stop me, then…."
"Then?" Aragorn ground out through his teeth when Boromir hesitated. "Will you kill me for this accursed trinket? Is that truly your wish?"
"I warn you again, do not presume too much!" Boromir snapped. "Think you that there is anything that I would not do for Minas Tirith? What is your life, or even Frodo's, weighed against a kingdom?"
"What worth has a kingdom, if it is founded upon murder?" countered Aragorn. But ere Boromir could respond, there came the sound of running footsteps, and for a moment, the other was distracted. Boromir glanced swiftly over his shoulder just as Legolas and Gimli appeared, coming swiftly through the trees towards them.
In that instant, Aragorn attacked. With his back braced against the tree, he drove his knee into the other's groin, then pushed hard as Boromir gasped. Retaining his hold on the other's wrists, he shoved away from the tree trunk, then used momentum to swing round and reverse their positions, driving Boromir back now against the tree. And he pinned the other's sword arm between their bodies, leaning in as if lunging against him, leverage and protection at once. Boromir, though, did not surrender easily, possessed of some strength in that moment whose source Aragorn would not have liked to guess.
Happily, at just that moment, Legolas and Gimli burst into the little clearing, and seeing the struggle afoot, Elf and Dwarf swept quickly forward and lent Aragorn their aid, restraining the swearing, writhing Boromir with their weight.
"Boromir, let it go," Aragorn spoke urgently. "Let it go!"
Whether the others understood his meaning, he knew not, but the sword fell from Boromir's hand as he gazed past Aragorn, stricken with sudden and rigid immobility. With Gimli and Legolas helping to hold the other back, the Ranger risked a brief glance over his shoulder and saw the hobbits, all four of them, standing and watching in uncomprehending horror.
Except for Frodo, Aragorn noted grimly as he turned back to Boromir again. He knows. How could he not?
Denethor's son must also have felt his treason under the hobbit's agonized regard, for he hung his head, and there were tears in his voice as he gave a low, wordless cry. Then, without warning, he slumped to the ground, and Aragorn staggered under the sudden weight as he awkwardly broke the other's fall.
"Do not touch me!" Boromir muttered, drawing his knees up to his chest and hiding his face in his hands, withdrawing as much as he could from the others. Dead silence fell as all hovered about, immobile with shock. Legolas and Gimli looked away, ashamed before the other's shame, but Aragorn could not turn from him. More, he would not – not after he had failed the other so singularly, refusing to see clearly the danger that lay before his eyes.
"Wh-what happened?" Sam's voice, gruff with worry, sounded then, but none could speak. What, indeed, could any one of them have said when each knew the answer to that question? Among the Fellowship a guilty complicity settled, as each saw now in Boromir's fall his own failures, recognizing the divisions that had perhaps blinded them to a companion's need.
"I will go to Mordor," Frodo spoke suddenly, and his voice was grave and grieved, and all turned to look at him. He stood there, clutching the Ring tightly in one hand as it hung upon its chain, and there was no sign of doubt or disquiet, only determination. "I will go, and alone, for I see clearly now that I can delay no longer, for all of our sakes."
"If you're going, then I am coming, too!" Sam spoke up fiercely, and wagged a finger at his master when Frodo began to shake his head. "No, you listen to me a minute, Mr. Frodo! You're right about the danger, but alone in that ugly place, you'll need help. This… thing… it feeds on us most when we're as low as we can get, and you can't get no lower than Mordor, that's for certain. It needs another to help you along."
"I think Sam speaks wisely in this, if I may say so," Aragorn added, lending his support unexpectedly. "Any of us would go with you, Frodo, if you but named him."
"Yes," Legolas said, "You need only ask, or failing that, choose!" There was a heavy silence, as the Fellowship awaited a response. Frodo glanced about, searching each face in turn, even Boromir's, though Boromir would not look at him, ere he sighed and glanced down at the earth.
Finally, after a long moment, he laid a hand upon Sam's shoulder, confirming the other in his station. No words, not even a final look at the others. Only that spare gesture which yet conveyed so much, and then he turned away.
Sam, following obediently and with obvious relief, yet hesitated, turning back to those friends whom he would leave now behind. He raised a hand hesitantly, offering a wavering half-smile in wordless, nervous farewell, and then he, too, was gone.
The remainder of the Company remained silent, unmoving as stones beneath the trees. Thus was the tale of the Fellowship of the Ring ended, though already, things moved that would drag them back into the struggle once more.
For things did move, even in the spreading Silence, and over the Sundering Seas came a small ship to dock at Tol Eressëa, whence strode Gildor Inglorien, bearing lament, and the tale of a woodland meeting, of a heavy charge and of threadbare hope by which hung all the world...