8. Shrive Me Graceless on My Path
How long the remainder of the Fellowship remained frozen in place, hardly able to accept that indeed, Frodo was gone, that their days together were at an end – and so horribly ended! – none could say with certainty. It seemed an eternity ere Legolas at last shook his fair head and glanced once more with concern at Boromir, who yet refused to meet anyone's gaze.
"Well, now must we decide our own paths," said the Elf. Still, no one moved, and the silence stretched on.
Aragorn, deep in his own thoughts, was aware of the leaden shock that still draped them, and sought a means to lift it, or at least to escape it for a time. But as his mind raced, his attention caught suddenly on a noise, as of many creatures moving through the forest. His head jerked up, and the others, startled by his sudden motion, looked up in surprise.
"Yrch!" Legolas was first to recognize the threat, and even as he rose, realization struck the others as well. Boromir grabbed his sword off the ground and stood, while Gimli laid his hands on the haft of his ax. The hobbits drew nearer their taller companions, and the remainder of the Company pressed close, facing outward in a defensive knot. Harsh voices cried out as the first dark shapes appeared amidst the trees, and then that fell company turned toward the remainder of the Fellowship.
"Curse the luck," Gimli grated, and left unspoken the concern that all shared: Frodo and Sam could not have gone so very far, and might still be at risk, especially without the protection that numbers offered. Aragorn and the Dwarf exchanged a grim look, knowing that whatever passed next, they could not allow the orcs to break past them without a fight.
Not that that seemed to be at issue, for their foes were streaming about them, cutting off all avenues of escape, calling to each other in their harsh tongue as they came.
"Moria again!" Merry groaned, gripping his Barrow-blade tightly.
The orcs yelled out a harsh war cry, and the Company braced itself as its enemies swarmed forward, surrounding the six of them. Boromir's horn blast startled them, and for a moment they hesitated, which let Legolas shoot four in swift succession. But such diversions could not save them: as the echoes died, the battle was joined in earnest as the orcs closed in from all sides.
If the orcs, however, had anticipated a quick and easy victory, they swiftly learned their error. Boromir and Aragorn, by unspoken agreement, stood directly behind each other so as to best exploit their greater reach, while Legolas bent his bow, with Gimli before him, axe in hand to give him room to shoot. Merry and Pippin huddled to either side of Boromir, determined to help their friends as best they could.
Thus when the orcs closed, they faced no confused assortment of warriors but found themselves repelled with brutal efficiency. Within the first few exchanges, Aragorn had acquired a shield from a fallen orc, and Legolas's bow thinned the ranks. Boromir, veteran of many campaigns, laid low any who dared approach him, and the haft of Gimli's axe soon was bloodstained. Even Merry and Pippin proved formidable as they fought to buy their friend and cousin time enough to escape….
And perhaps a half a mile away, just on the banks of the Anduin, Frodo and Sam went rigid as Boromir's horn call reached their ears, clear and defiant through the trees.
"But we only just left them!" Sam protested, looking back anxiously at the woods.
"Aragorn feared there were orcs on this bank," Frodo replied, and then turned quickly to the boats. Throwing his pack into one, he grabbed Sam's and, with a grunt, managed to heft it over the edge. "See to the other boats, Sam!"
"Sir?" The other hobbit frowned, uncomprehending for a moment. Then he sucked in a breath. "But won't the others – ?"
"Sam, whatever befalls them, they shan't need the boats again, but our enemies may realize what we have done and come for us if we leave them intact. It need not be anything fancy, just keep them from floating!" Frodo ordered, and began to drag their chosen boat off of the shoals and into the water.
Samwise watched him a moment, then drew his Barrow-blade with a sigh and went to work. It seemed wrong somehow to damage something that came of elvish hands, yet his master was correct. So as the sounds of combat drifted downwind to his ears, he resolutely began to cut through the bottoms of the little boats, a task which proved far easier than he would have guessed it to be. Perhaps, he thought, they knew somehow of his intentions and let themselves be mauled....
Nonsense, Sam, that's a bit of absurdity there! Boats don't think nothing. And yet, when he had finished, he felt constrained to bow politely ere he turned to join Frodo in the shallows.
"Well, it's done. But I can't feel right about it, nor about leaving the others like this," Sam said worriedly, glancing back at the lawn and the ominous trees. "Poor Merry and Pippin! Do you think they'll be alright, sir?"
"I hope so. They have Strider and Legolas to look after them, and Gimli and Boromir would never leave them. That I know, whatever else may be said," Frodo muttered, and then his mouth tightened as he clutched the Ring. "But we cannot concern ourselves with that now. If they live, then they must away to the end that awaits them."
"And if they do not?" Sam asked softly as they began to paddle out into the deeps.
"If they do not, then we must not let their deaths mean nothing at all!" Frodo grated harshly, hating to say so when he knew very well that the Darkness covered all and that hope, unless wholly unforeseen, lay smothering beneath that dreadful veil.
We must not look now for a final victory, he thought. I must take what small ones I can find, and if the others die to let us get only as far as the Black Gates or even the other shore of Anduin, then that must be counted as a triumph, however temporary. At least if they fall, it is an end for them, and a release.
The hobbits watched the eastern banks grow before them, and though Sam cast a final, regretful look back, the west seemed dim indeed.
Beneath the trees, blood sprayed hot, arcing in an obscenely graceful fountain as an orc fell back before Andúril, and immediately, another grim-garbed soldier leapt in to take his place. Though only a small number of their enemies could engage them at any one time, it seemed that the orcs waited for one of their number to fall, crowding each other in the hopes of having a chance at the Fellowship. They were hemmed in tightly now; so much so that Legolas, having put up his bow once more, had added a long dagger to his elven-blade and wielded both with graceful lethality as still, the orcs pressed in.
And though it was difficult at the moment to be thankful for such bloodthirsty determination, at least the group had not split into two to search the area in spite of the fight. Aragorn held that thought firmly in mind as he fought.
For however much they delayed the orcs, the Ranger knew that there could be but one outcome, for six against a hundred is not a battle to be won by skill and courage alone. He hoped indeed that Frodo and Sam were at least crossing the Anduin now, if not already upon the eastern shore….
Of a sudden, something whistled past his face, and as he jerked to one side, an orc's blade found its way past his defense, though he felt nothing.
"Archers!" Legolas cried, and Boromir cursed at the same moment. The company drew closer together, trying to find some shelter behind the shields that the two Men bore, but they could only retreat so far without hindering each other. Aragorn bounced a few arrows off the iron-rimmed roundel, and let the orcs close in a bit further. It was a risky maneuver, yet if he could hold them at a closer range, the archers might not shoot for fear of hitting their own.
Or they might shoot through them, he thought grimly, for he had seen that before, too, and some of these orcs were both unusually large and of a company he had never encountered hitherto. They were certainly more disciplined than those of the Red Eye, and Aragorn was surprised to catch a straight broadsword against his shield. But there were few options, and so he took his chances.
And surprisingly, risk seemed to pay in reward, as the arrows thinned on his side. And as time wore on and still they survived, surprise quietly became a wordless scrutiny, for Aragorn had fought too many battles to believe that the continued survival of the remaining Fellowship was due to their own efforts in such desperate straits. Hard-pressed as he was, still, it seemed to him that the orcs held back. Indeed, the orcs seemed… disinterested, almost, as if killing were not their first aim...
All such speculations flitted swiftly through his mind on a level just above instinctive, yet he grasped their implications and risked a glance to either side of him. He and Legolas and Gimli were struggling, yes, but the current of orcs told that their enemies' attention lay more upon Boromir… and then he felt his blood run chill.
Not upon Boromir, he realized, but upon those closest to him!
The Ranger spared a brief glance over his shoulder to where Merry and Pippin stood in desperate combat just as another rain of arrows poured down. Most struck Boromir's shield and fell harmlessly to the earth; others, indeed, hit orcs who stood too close; but a few found their way through and Legolas snarled as one grazed his back. And in that interlude, as the Company was forced to cover as best they could, the orcs charged in, bearing down on the hobbits. Aragorn found himself borne back by the press of his foes, until he collided with a beleaguered Gimli, and then Boromir, too, was shoved hard against him, cursing as a blade raked his flesh, making him falter a moment.
A moment was all that was needed.
"Merry! Pippin!" the Steward's son cried out, watching helplessly as the better part of their enemies broke away with the struggling hobbits in hand. Hard-pressed, he could do nothing but save his own life. More arrows rained down to cover the retreat, and Boromir ducked under his shield, cursing. Gimli staggered as one deflected off his hauberk, and it was pure good fortune that that misstep sent him under the swing of an orc's sword; Legolas howled an eerie, Sindarin war-cry and lunged, his blade finding a mark ere both he and Gimli retreated together to stand back to back against Aragorn and Boromir.
"We cannot win against even this many if the archers remain," Boromir said grimly, voice taut, and Aragorn shot him a hard look. The Man of Gondor met his gaze briefly, and a fierce, sad smile lit his face an instant. "Take care of them!"
And then, ere Aragorn could protest or question that command, with a bellowed cry, Boromir cut past the thinned ring of orcs, bludgeoning those in his path with his shield—and then he turned straight into the hail of arrows and charged the line of archers.
"Boromir!" Aragorn cried out after him, but it was of no use, and in the end, the Ranger knew that the other had the right of it. One of them had to deal with the archers if any of them were to survive, yet he who did so was unlikely to live. Struggling to do the work of two in their knotted defense, he caught a brief glimpse of the archers as they retreated before Boromir's onslaught, ere he had to attend the task at hand.
Without the deadly distraction of orcish arrows, the three remaining companions fought simply to hold their place, and as the orcs' numbers dwindled, their surviving foes drew back, unwilling to continue the fight. At last, Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn stood together in a wedge, and they gazed across the bloody field at the seven or eight orcs that hovered out of reach. For a brief interval, the two sides simply stared, and no one seemed willing to make the first move, whatever it might be. Suddenly, one of the orcs hissed, and Aragorn knocked the thrown dagger aside with his blade. But there came no fresh assault: the last few orcs simply fled, scattering into the woods.
Wary still, Legolas and Gimli stood silent a long moment, but Aragorn, after casting a glance round out of habit, darted forward, following in Boromir's path. He soon came upon the first of the bodies—a decapitated orc bearing the sign of the Red Eye—and he followed the trail of destruction some distance further 'til he came to a small clearing not unlike the one in which they had been assailed. Several orcs lay there, but he guessed that equally many had escaped to trail after their fleeing fellows. Arrows littered the area, buried in the boles of trees or dug into the ground; some were trampled and others splintered by the force of their impact.
Upon one tree, at somewhat less than a man's height, there was blood aplenty smeared in a gory trail down the length of the trunk… and nestled at its base was Boromir.
Aragorn knelt wordlessly at the other's side, letting fall the shield as his eyes flicked over the other's body, noting the cluster of arrows embedded just below his heart, in his stomach, shoulder, leg. The wood of the tree was scored, and Aragorn felt wrath and disgust flare hotly, realizing what he saw: He was done before this—they could have slain him, but they took their time, shot him at close range, and in the end they left him to die like a wounded beast! And yet, Boromir still clung to life, his breathing shallow and pained as the Ranger reached out and laid a gentle hand upon the other's shoulder. "Boromir," he called softly.
The dying man's eyes opened and focused with difficulty upon Aragorn's face.
"Tell… the others…'twas madness…." Boromir paused, and blood trickled from the corner of his mouth.
"They know," Aragorn assured him.
"…'m sorry, Aragorn," the other whispered. "My… brother…father… they wait for… me. You must… tell them. Go! Save our people!" At that Boromir reached weakly and clutched the Ranger's arm, and Aragorn covered that pale hand with his own as he nodded.
"Strange," Boromir gave a ghastly smile as he gazed up at the other, grey eyes beginning to dim. "'Tis so dark here! The Valar forsake us… but I would… would be forgiven nonetheless!"
"Then be comforted, for of me you need ask no pardon. Rest you gentle, my friend," Aragorn murmured, and drew the other into an embrace, wishing he could be certain that indeed there was nothing to forgive. But we are forsaken, as he says. What grace we find here must be of our own crafting first. Mayhap it will still be enough to move Nienna to tears!
Boromir's head rested against his chest, and Aragorn fought his own pain to shelter the other this first and final time. Ere long, he felt the hand on his arm tighten, and Boromir gave a soft gasp as if in surprise… and then there was silence, and Aragorn was left holding Boromir's still form, weeping quietly.
After a short while, he felt another's hands upon his shoulders as Legolas came and knelt beside him in wordless consolation, and he glanced up to see Gimli squatting on his haunches across from him. The Dwarf's dark eyes glittered and he murmured something under his breath in his own tongue ere he said, "A bitter end for us all!"
"Bitter indeed," Aragorn replied, seeking some measure of composure as he carefully laid Boromir down and glanced over his shoulder at Legolas's drawn face. "And we know not yet whether his sacrifice is in vain!"
"Think you that the orcs may have taken more than Merry and Pippin?" the Elf asked worriedly.
"I doubt it, given their behavior," Aragorn sighed. "Yet it would be foolish to be certain until we have seen what remains of our camp."
"And what of Merry and Pippin?" Gimli asked. "If the worst has happened, must we abandon them utterly?"
"Let us not look too far ahead," Legolas interjected ere Aragorn could respond. "We must see to Boromir first, for whatever our course after this, we may not simply leave him thus."
"Nor may we go far without having tended to you, Master Elf," Aragorn replied, and Legolas turned a startled look on him. "Even a glancing blow may slow you if there be poison on the edge of arrow or blade, or if the road proves long." The elven prince reached behind himself, as if suddenly reminded of the injury.
"I think it is not too deep, and the pain is not too severe," he replied. "Later will be soon enough for me, for we have other tasks to attend to."
"Well, let us be about them then," Gimli sighed as he rose and took his ax to hand once more. Eyeing the bloodied tree, he muttered, "At least we shall have a fitting bier!"
While Gimli busied himself with crafting a travois of sorts, Aragorn and Legolas gathered what they could from the bodies of the orcs. Arrows, at least, were not difficult to come by, and the Elf emptied an entire quiver into his own, frowning as he held one of the dark-feathered shafts up to his arm, measuring the length. The Ranger, in the mean time, stooped and picked up a helm, grimacing in disgust as blood dripped out of it and stained his hands. A red-flecked "S" rune, forged in white, stood out clearly against the dark metal, and Aragorn cast his gaze about, tallying up the number of orcs that bore the same symbol.
"Red Eye and White Hand," he said aloud, frowning. "I do not like this!"
"What think you of this?" Legolas called from the other side of the clearing, holding up a sword fashioned after a Mannish, rather than orcish, style: though the edge had been worked in a ripple-pattern, it was not a scimitar by any means.
"Some of the orcs in the other clearing bore similar weapons," Aragorn replied. "But that they are somewhat too short for most Men, I would say that they were stolen."
"Aye. These arrows, too, are nearly a match in length for my own," the Elf said. "And the bows are long bows, not the cross bows or short, hunting ones common to the orcs that plague Mirkwood."
"What make you of this mystery, then?" Gimli asked, joining them. "What are these orcs of the White Hand?"
"Here!" Aragorn lobbed the helmet at him, and the Dwarf caught it, gazing thoughtfully at the rune. "Saruman, it seems plain to me, is behind this. For Sauron's token is the Red Eye, and he has no need of any other. White, too, is not a color he would use, but we know well that Saruman is called 'the White.'"
"But there lie here and yonder also servants of Sauron," Legolas protested. "Why then do you guess that this is only Saruman's plan? And what was their intention in all of this?"
"That we shall have to discover, though I have my guesses already. This only will I say and stand by: the orcs of Isengard commanded this attack, though I cannot say whether Mordor's soldiery agreed to such leadership in advance or simply lost it to the great orcs. And we were not ourselves the object," replied the Ranger. "But now we must hasten! Let us return with Boromir now to the camp and see what may be seen."
Determinedly, but with dread anticipation, they made their slow and grim way back to Parth Galen.
A/N: Vocabulary lesson of the day: Shrive: verb. (noun = "shrift", as in "short shrift") The act of formally forgiving someone, usually connected to the Roman Catholic sacrament of repentance. In the bad old days, it was considered a Bad Thing to die unshriven and go to face one's maker with one's sins unconfessed and unforgiven by a priest. There's nothing equivalent in LOTR to an organized religion, but I think Boromir has an understated spirituality that comes out at the end. It's just too bad for him that at the moment, the Powers That Be in Arda seem not to be listening. Hence the "graceless" part of the title.
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