1. Stray but a little...
Author's Notes: This was written as a challenge response for the LOTR GFic community over on Livejournal. The goal was to write a story in which one character displays two opposite traits, and all challenge participants were given words to use as those opposites. My words were "compassionate" and "merciless." I'll let you decide which character exhibits those qualities in this story.
Anyway, while batting a few ideas around, I decided to write a sequel to another story of mine called "Beyond the Mountain Passes." I don't think you need to have read that one in order to understand this one, but there are a few ideas and minor plot points coming out of that first story.
Many thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy!
"But this I will say to you: your Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail to the ruin of all."
—Galadriel, The Fellowship of the Ring
Stray but a little…
The breeze carried the promise of dead and rotting things. Under the weak glare of the winter sun, the marshlands warmed enough to whisper of a fouler stench should spring ever return to the swamps. But for Boromir, even the hint of such smells was enough for his mind to conjure images of other dead and rotting things. Of blood and battle and shadows creeping over fertile fields toward a gleaming City…
Boromir fixed his eyes on the River. He had always found solace in water. The Bay of Belfalas, the Anduin, the Falls of Rauros—all served to quiet unsettled thoughts. Where Faramir found peace in the stability of dusty tomes and ancient words, Boromir found peace in the movement of waves and ripples. He suspected his mother had much to do with this. His memories of her were vague and fleeting, but one thing she had clearly impressed upon him was a respect for and a love of water. Enough of Dol Amroth's blood flowed through his veins that even after Finduilas's death, Boromir found himself drawn to seas and rivers.
Water was pure. Untainted. If fouled by Mordor's noxious touch, water could become clean again. Filth could not endure in rolling currents, and moving water seemed to be the one thing Sauron could not spoil. At least, not permanently.
Not so with the earth.
From his seat on a partially submerged log, Boromir looked eastward beyond the Anduin. Mired in a wet and cheerless camp, the Fellowship slept restlessly in their rocking boats. Six days had come and gone since their departure from Lothlórien, and these lands were a stark contrast to the beauty and security of the Golden Wood. Even Boromir, ill at ease in the elven realm, longed to return to the concealing trees. This area was too open. Too empty. Too marred by the power of the Nameless One. Beyond the stony banks of the River's eastern shore rose the Brown Lands, desolate hills now barren of all life. None of the Fellowship knew what sorcery had caused such devastation, but they all recognized the dark feel in the Brown Lands. They might have found more comfort on the drier eastern banks, yet none objected to Aragorn's counsel that they camp in the marshes of the western shore.
It was one of the few things upon which Boromir and Aragorn agreed these days.
His jaw tightening, Boromir glanced toward the man who would be King. Though skeptical at first, Boromir had now traveled and fought beside Aragorn, and he was skeptical no more. Not as to Aragorn's lineage. This was indeed the heir to Gondor's throne. But there certainty ended and skepticism returned. Aragorn's coming might very well bring a change in Gondor's fortunes, but Boromir doubted the change could be sustained. His eyes moved again over the eastern banks. Rushing waters were pure, but if those waters became mired in the stagnant ruin of a failing kingdom… Perhaps that was why the line of Kings in the South had vanished while Aragorn's lineage survived in the North. Aragorn's people were Rangers, never tarrying long in any one place. Always rushing. Always changing. But Gondor stood immovable in the shadow of the Nameless One. As the Enemy choked off all roads to allies, to hope, and even to escape, darkness deepened. Like these marshes, the promise of dead and rotting things hung heavy over Minas Tirith. Were Aragorn to become embroiled in that—
A memory came unbidden to Boromir. The week before he had departed on his search for Imladris, he had helped his brother divide Ranger recruits into various companies. While inspecting the ranks, Boromir had paused once to look—truly look—at those those newly inducted into Faramir's command. He had studied their faces, seeing further and deeper than was his wont, and he had come away sickened. These were not men. These were boys, all of them. Children! They stood tall and straight as Faramir introduced their company commanders, but in their hearts, Boromir perceived terror. And why not? They had every reason to fear their duty! As the Nameless One continued to thin Gondor's defenses, those defenses were bolstered by children, for there were no others to spare. As if children were things to be spared. To be cast away. To be thrown like fodder to an insatiable foe!
Boromir hissed at the thought, his fists clenching with helpless rage. Those boys looked to their captains for guidance and safety, and in return, their captains sent them to the slaughter. Boromir sent them to the slaughter. Powerless to protect the present, he pitted Gondor's future against nightmares and monsters! What could Aragorn do, alone and unaided, to change that? Naught! If anything, he would become party to it! A reluctant participant in the disgrace of Gondor's fall!
A throbbing ache took up residence behind his eyes. Boromir rubbed his brow, weary of war and weary of questions without answers. Despair seemed to grow heavier the closer the Fellowship came to Gondor. Over the last few years, he had wrestled with the bitter knowledge that Mordor would eventually prove the stronger, but that knowledge was harsher still when set against his companions' hope for the preservation of their own homelands. Boromir had mistaken that hope for foolish ignorance, but he knew better now. In Lothlórien, he had seen light standing proud and defiant against neighboring darkness. The gloom of Mirkwood and Dol Guldur pressed upon elven marches only to be thwarted on all fronts. Would that Gondor could be so protected! Would that the arts of the elves could come to the White City! Would that any aid might be made available for his people! And though he knew enough to know he should fear these thoughts, Boromir's duty compelled him to consider all options: if the present and the future were lost, why not look to Gondor's past? Why not look to Isildur's past?
"Do you wish to yield your watch?"
Boromir's breath escaped as a sharp gasp. He sprang to his feet, boots slipping in the muddy fens. But even as he whipped about, he recognized the voice and silently cursed. All was still and peaceful, so naturally Legolas would be up and about, ready to catch mere mortals by surprise. "Two hour yet before dark," Boromir said tersely, wondering how he had missed hearing the elf leave the boats. "Why are you awake?"
Legolas raised his brow. "I desire no more rest. Did I disturb you?"
Not deigning to answer that, Boromir returned to the matter of the elf's first question. "You stood watch yesterday. You need not burden yourself with another."
"I would not have offered if I deemed it a burden. And you look as though you would rather guard your thoughts than guard this company."
Indignation rolled through Boromir. "If you mean to say I am negligent—"
"I said no such thing!" Legolas interrupted sharply, waving his hand. "I simply observed a preference."
Though Boromir could not dispute the other's words, anger was slow to fade. "Whatever my preferences, I will not shirk my duty," he said. "This is my watch. I yield that charge to none."
"Not even to those who might ease your burden?"
Boromir sighed and reclaimed his seat on the log. He did not desire company, but he desired his thoughts even less. "What would you know of my burden?" he asked, opting to continue the conversation.
"I know it is the burden of all Free Folk."
Boromir blinked. "You do not even know what my burden is. By what reasoning make you that claim?"
"By your own reasoning."
The ache behind Boromir's eyes began to spread. Perhaps the company of his thoughts would actually be better than the company of this unfathomable elf. "To my knowledge, I have given no reasoning that would—"
"Your reasoning in Imladris."
Boromir stared at Legolas. Apparently one needed a map to follow this discussion. "Imladris?"
"I do not recall the exact words, but at Elrond's Council you spoke valiantly on Gondor's behalf, impressing upon all that if Gondor fell, Sauron's darkness would swiftly spread. Therefore, all that burdens Gondor also burdens the Free Folk of Middle-earth."
"You assume, then, that my burden concerns Gondor?"
"Rarely does your burden not concern Gondor."
Something in the elf's tone made Boromir bristle. He discerned a note of censure, as though concern for Gondor was something to be shunned. "Legolas, we have traveled far together, and I would fain call you friend," Boromir said slowly, struggling to understand the other's purpose, "but it is arrogance on your part to assume that three months grants you unfailing insight into my heart and mind."
Cool gray eyes met Boromir's challenging stare. "Perhaps," Legolas allowed. "Perhaps it is arrogance. But perhaps not. We are more akin than you will admit, and from your words at the Council, I feel I know the burden under which you labor. In a sense, I may even share it. And I would aid you if you let me."
Up until now, Boromir had never associated Legolas with the pretentious elves who viewed themselves as authorities on all things by sheer virtue of age and race. But Legolas's words echoed the judgment and condescension that had pervaded Lothlórien, and Boromir's blood began to boil. Bridling his temper with effort, he stood and shrugged his arms free of his cloak. "If you wish to aid me, join my watch and take up a post here. I am going scouting."
He should have known that would not be the end of the matter. Elves had a tendency to linger when they were not wanted and vanish when they were most useful. Legolas was no exception. Boromir had not slogged through more than fifty feet of swamp before a light splash beside him heralded company. He cast an irritated look at the elf.
"Gimli will guard the others," Legolas said.
Boromir looked back. The dwarf had left the boats and now claimed a seat on Boromir's vacated log. He nodded at the departing pair, probably to indicate that he accepted responsibility for the Fellowship's safety. Boromir scowled and kept walking.
"You make this harder for yourself."
Boromir gave no answer.
"You are not alone here," Legolas continued. "Nor are you alone in feeling the weight of your people's plight. There are others in this company who know that burden and who understand what you face. I hear the same…"
The elf suddenly trailed off. A chill prickled over Boromir's skin, and he looked over at Legolas. But the other was now behind Boromir, no longer walking. Bewildered, Boromir stopped as well. The Fellowship was far enough away that only elven ears would hear their words, yet Legolas was glancing over his shoulder as though fearful of others listening.
"What do you hear?" Boromir asked, unable to help himself.
"The same whispers," Legolas said, dropping his voice. "The same temptation."
The chill in the air became ice. Boromir's breath caught, and his blood froze in his veins. Both anger and fear flooded his thoughts, making it difficult to respond. To answer the unvoiced accusation now lying between them. "You assume much," he managed.
"If I do, it is because I know much." Legolas's eyes flashed. "I know of a land where the people have shaped their city into a stronghold and a fortress because to do otherwise would invite ruin. And though they call this city home, it was not always so. Their current home was once but an outpost of a much greater city now shadowed and ruined by the Enemy. The people are driven back by slow degrees. Their hands stray to their weapons more often than they stray to their arts. The mountains they had hoped would protect them no longer bar the way. For many lives of men, these people have waged a losing war. Few come to their aid. Few know of their sacrifices. Now the end is nigh, and those who captain the armies feel there is naught they can do to prevent it."
"I commend you for your attentiveness at the Council," Boromir said as anger eclipsed fear, "but if you presume to know my heart by this—"
"The people would flee if they could," Legolas interrupted, and something in his voice made Boromir pause. Of a sudden, his words were strained and grieved. There was a loss in his tone that brought to mind the laments Boromir had heard in both Imladris and Lothlórien. "They would flee," Legolas repeated, casting his gaze on the River, "but there is nowhere for them to go. No place of refuge. Twice already they have retreated, yet now even the land turns against them."
"Twice…" Boromir's anger ebbed. "We were forced from Osgiliath many years ago, and I suppose it may be said that we were forced back twice, first by plague and later by the Enemy. But—"
"I do not speak of Osgiliath."
Boromir frowned. "Gondor's people have retreated from no other home save Númenor—"
"Nor do I speak of Gondor," Legolas said, turning back to Boromir.
"Mirkwood," Boromir murmured with sudden realization.
Legolas inclined his head. "For years, we fought a sorcerer whom we named the Necromancer. Eventually, we discovered him to be Sauron, our foe of old. When he was driven from Dol Guldur, we hoped we might have a reprieve. But the southern forest still bows to the sway of the Nazgûl, and at their bidding, even the trees align against us." Legolas paused, and the muscles in his jaw bunched. "Once, we were great. Once, the forest was great. Greenwood the Great, it was called. No more. Now, we falter. None can or will assist us, and we are not strong enough to hold back the shadows." The elf's tonesoftened. "Do you understand now why I presume to know your heart? Sworn to the service of a failing realm, you cannot help but think of its troubles, for these troubles consume you until there is nothing left of yourself but your duty."
And for a moment, Boromir believed. For a moment, he felt an understanding and a kinship with this elf. He glimpsed his own despair reflected in eyes that saw both too near and too far, and he felt to accept the other's offer. To acknowledge their common bond and share this burden. This frustration. This fear…
But then Boromir glanced across the Anduin where the Brown Lands rose up, stark and desolate. He remembered how near they were to Gondor's northern border. He remembered the untouched beauty of Lothlórien. He remembered the brooding darkness of Southern Mirkwood. Boromir had agreed to join the Fellowship partly to ensure hope for Gondor's people but also partly because it was on his way home. Gondor's plight was such that he could not abandon his people. Legolas, on the other hand… "You are still here," he said aloud. "If your situation is as dire as you say, why tarry with the Fellowship? You cannot presume to understand my people's plight if your duty allows you to remain apart from your own people."
Legolas's eyes became intent. As intent as Denethor's when the Steward descended from the Tower, having discerned the Enemy's next strike. "You also remain with the Fellowship."
"Yes, but every day we travel brings me closer to Gondor."
"Yet there are more direct routes, are there not?" Legolas asked. "You could have broken with us days ago and been well on your way to Minas Tirith."
"The river is a sure course, there is safety in numbers, and—"
"When, then? When will you leave us?" Legolas paused. "Can you leave us?"
Boromir's eyes narrowed. "Unless you are planning to keep me here by force—"
"None of the Fellowship would do the keeping."
And they returned again to the unvoiced accusation. Boromir was determined to keep it unvoiced. "My will is my own," he said sternly. "I come and go by my own choosing."
"Then go now."
The challenge in the elf's voice was unmistakable, and a change came over Legolas's face. No longer were his eyes compassionate. Now they were hard. Dark. Dangerous. Suddenly seeing an enemy in the face of a friend, Boromir had no choice but to respond in kind. "No one has ever refused the protection of my sword," he said coolly. "This company is made safer by my presence."
"Perhaps by your skills in battle, but not by your obligation to Gondor. If you refuse our aid, you endanger this company by remaining!"
The air was no longer cold. It was hot. Crackling. Charged. Boromir's fists clenched at his side. "Then are you not also a danger to this company?" he demanded.
"Yes! Valar, I nearly parted with this company in Lothlórien for fear the demands of my duty would destroy me!" Legolas shot back. "Indeed, I nearly parted and took somewhat with me into the north!"
The admission stunned Boromir. For a moment, shock replaced anger, and he could only listen in mute disbelief.
"A dwarf's wisdom may have saved much in Lothlórien," Legolas continued, his voice brittle. "Had I acted on my duty, I would have fallen. And in my fall, I would have destroyed the very thing I wished to save."
"Yet you are still here," Boromir persisted.
"I am still trying to save my people!"
"Then how can you fault me for the same ambitions?"
"You look to save your people, but you have already made clear that you will leave us," Legolas said, his voice rising. "Therefore we do not have the same ambitions!"
Boromir advanced a step, anger returning in force. "You go too far."
"Nay, I do not go far enough!" Legolas returned, also advancing a step. "You look for hope, but you cannot lift your eyes beyond the ruin of your duty!"
"As you have already observed, duty is all that remains to me!"
"Then find hope! If you do not, duty will demand more than you can give. Find something in which you can trust!"
"This?" With a mirthless laugh, Boromir spread his arms wide. "You wish me to trust in seven wanderers, bereft of their wizard guide? Trust in a Halfling who has never ventured beyond the borders of his own sheltered land?"
"Trust that these things have more chance of success than all the armies Gondor might muster! Leave now, while you still can, and take that knowledge with you!"
"I am the son of the Steward! When I leave, I will take whatever I must to secure hope for Gondor!"
The words escaped ere he could stop them, and the declaration fell like a hammer, silencing all. In the painful stillness, neither Boromir nor Legolas moved. Even the River seemed quiet, as though its churning waters lay miles away.
At length, Legolas broke the silence, moving forward until he was only scant inches from Boromir. "Then know this, son of the Steward," he said, his voice filled with deadly promise. "I will do whatever I must to secure hope for my people. And I have put my hope in Frodo. Tread carefully."
"I will not tolerate threats," Boromir growled.
"Nor will I," Legolas hissed.
They said no more. Indeed, too much had been said already. Legolas turned and walked inland, never looking back. Boromir also turned, his thoughts buzzing. The elf's words haunted and stung, but in their midst rose Boromir's duty. As the Steward's eldest son, his charge was to Gondor. It was not to Mirkwood or Imladris or Lothlórien or the Shire. But if Boromir placed his hope in the Fellowship, those were the lands he would save. Not Gondor. There was not time enough for Gondor! Her end pressed too near. And her end could still mean the ruin of Legolas's people. It could still mean the ruin of all Free Folk, for without Gondor, the enemies in Mordor would roll forth. There was not time enough for any of them!
Boromir pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. Wherein lay his duty? And did not duty demand sacrifice? What if he were to become that sacrifice? Perhaps taking somewhat from the past would corrupt him, as Legolas and others believed. But what was the price of a single life when weighed against the lives of all those who looked to him as a captain?
The chill in the air returned. Alone with the scent of dead and rotting things, Boromir wrapped his cloak tightly about himself. He was again a man weary of war and weary of questions without answers. He sighed, his shoulders burdened and his despair heavy. Until he had answers, he needed to remain with the Fellowship. He had little choice in the matter, for his duty was yet unclear. Thus he would follow the River and pray that the rolling waters cleared his thoughts. And he would pray that his thoughts cleared quickly, for never had the shadows seemed so dark.
And never had ruin felt so near.