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The Captain and the King
Chapter 1: A Journey into Darkness
"Boromir. Boromir!" The familiar voice came from very near, an urgent whisper in the darkness. He turned his head to find it, as it hissed again, "Boromir!"
"Aragorn?" His entire face hurt, so that he could barely move his lips and could not open his jaw at all. He was surprised when the man beside him understood the muttered word well enough to answer,
"Don't use that name. Call me Strider."
"What happened? Where are we?"
"The orcs took us."
Boromir tried to sit up, but he found that he could not move. The left side of his body felt as if it had been trampled by iron-shod hooves, and a terrible lassitude filled him.
"Lie still," Aragorn said. "They cut the arrows out and bound the wounds, but you shed much blood first."
Boromir collapsed back against the harsh stones and tried to think. To remember. The last memory he had, before waking up in this cold, pain-filled darkness, was fighting for his life among a hoard of foul orcs, slashing and hacking and howling his defiance in the face of their overwhelming numbers. The halflings were behind him, retreating slowly into the trees, reluctant to leave him yet terrified of a foe too great for their small swords.
And then... then the first arrow had hit him, and he had shouted at Merry to run... run while he could... and take Pippin with him! Merry was the sensible one of the pair. He could be trusted to understand the need for flight, and he would protect Pippin.
Another arrow. He remembered another arrow hitting home with shattering force, driving him to his knees, and the look of horror on the halflings' faces as he fell. But he was sure they had run, in the end... if that image was not merely his desperate hope betraying him. He could swear that he remembered seeing them turn their backs and vanish into the trees. Then he had braced himself for the final blow, the death blow.
Why had they not killed him? What was he forgetting? He remembered a voice, deep and harsh, shouting, "Take the Man!" And then? Then a huge figure looming over him, its sword raised to strike, and a slashing blow that fell, not against his neck, but...
Boromir shuddered and turned to find Aragorn beside him. He did not remember Aragorn being in the battle, but he did remember blowing his great horn. Perhaps the sound had brought the Ranger to his aid... and thus delivered him into the clutches of the orcs.
"I'm sorry, Strider," he murmured, hesitating over the strange and disrespectful name.
"Nay, Boromir, it is I who am sorry. I came too late to save either one of us."
Aragorn said nothing of his shock and horror, when he had run into the glade at Parth Galen in time to see the orc chieftain bring the flat of his monstrous sword down across Boromir's face, crushing bone and flesh together, sending blood and gore spurting from beneath the blade, even as the valiant warrior crumpled, lifeless, to the ground. Aragorn had fought his last, desperate battle in the certainty that Boromir was dead. And now, as he lay among the barren stones of the Emyn Muil, holding a whispered conversation with that same man, he could not stifle the tiny, betraying thought that Boromir would have done better to die under that ravening blade.
Boromir lay very still, absorbing his words, then whispered in a fearful tone, "The halflings?"
"They were not taken. I... I do not know for certain what happened to them, but they are not here."
"Please... let them be safely away!"
"You did your best for them, Boromir. It is out of our hands, now."
Before the other man could answer, a huge figure loomed over them and a harsh voice growled, gleefully, "Having a nice chat, lads?"
Aragorn looked up into the flat, scaled, hideous face of Uglúk, the captain of Saruman's forces, and groaned inwardly. "Leave him be, Uglúk," he said.
"Can't do that, can I? Bring the Men alive, that's my orders. And if I leave soldier-boy be, he might die on me." Uglúk fastened a fist in Boromir's collar and hauled him effortlessly away from the ground. Boromir gave an involuntary gasp, as pain ignited in his body and head, and Uglúk shoved the neck of a bottle between his teeth. "Drink up, like a good little soldier."
Boromir had no choice. He had either to swallow or choke on the burning liquid poured into his mouth. He swallowed, then cried out in agony, as Uglúk opened his fist and dropped his limp, battered body to the rocky ground. He was too stunned and sickened by Uglúk's rough treatment to notice, when the orc began peeling up the bandages that covered the arrow wounds in his shoulder and side. Uglúk seemed pleased with what he found, because he jerked the bandages back into place and gave Boromir a pat on the cheek that would have felled a cave troll.
"Splendid. You know, if you hadn't hacked up so many of my lads, I think I'd get to like you, little soldier. Too bad you're only a Man, and headed for the dungeons of Isengard, at that." One wicked claw plucked at the thick bandage on Boromir's face. "Too bad. But Lurtz didn't leave much, anyway."
Uglúk turned abruptly on Aragorn and lashed out at him with one, horny foot. The blow took Aragorn in the midriff, forcing a grunt of pain from him, then a second kick struck him in the face. "Then you went and lopped off his head, curse you!"
Aragorn spat out a mouthful of blood and turned aloof, emotionless eyes on Uglúk. "I'll do the same for you, Uglúk."
"That's gratitude for you, after I save your miserable life and lug you through these cursed hills. Time to leg it, boys!" Turning to one of his band, he waved in Aragorn's direction and growled, "Lugdush, you haul this piece of carrion the first shift. You," he grabbed the front of Boromir's cloak and dragged him nearly to his feet, "can walk."
Boromir staggered and dropped to his knees, earning himself another vicious kick from the orc. This time, the hand fastened on his left arm, and when the orc hauled him upright, he gave a tearing cry of pain that made Uglúk laugh.
"You think it hurts now, wait 'til you've legged it all the way to Orthanc."
A moment later, Boromir felt a loop of rope tighten around his neck, then a tug on the other end of the rope nearly pulled him off his feet again. "Strider?" he called, as the orc holding his leash started dragging him away.
"I'm right here."
The voice came from very nearby, but something about it bothered Boromir. It sounded muffled and was coming from the wrong height. It took him a moment to realize that Aragorn was being carried over an orc's shoulder.
"What did they do to you?" Boromir demanded. "Why can't you wa..." The noose cut off his air and stifled his words, as the orc jerked viciously on the end of the rope.
"'Tis nothing. A sword cut to the leg."
Boromir regained his balance and had the presence of mind to fasten his right fist around the rope, easing the tension on the noose and protecting his throat from his jailer's excess of enthusiasm. "Strider," he called again, "have you any idea where we are?"
"Near the western edge of Emyn Muil, I think."
"Quiet, you," an orc growled from very close by.
"How long has it been?" Boromir asked, ignoring the orc.
"Since the b... No!" Aragorn broke off to shout, real panic in his voice. "Not in the face!"
"I said, quiet!"
Then a sudden, howling agony exploded in Boromir's head, and he crumpled to the ground. For some uncountable time, Boromir knew nothing but terrible pain and a gibbering, shrieking fear that this was death, and he would have to endure an eternity of it. Very slowly, he became aware of his own hands clutching his face, of fresh blood running between his fingers, and of someone or something whimpering nearby. It sounded like a wounded animal - a creature too mortally hurt to make any real sound but too desperate in its pain to keep silent. He wanted to help the creature, to cut its throat and put it out of its agony, but he could not move to find it. His entire body was rigid and trembling, his muscles locked in place, his mind paralyzed. And then he knew. He knew that the dreadful sound came from his own throat, fighting its way up from lungs that would not breathe, past a jaw clamped tight against the rising tide of panic.
Iron-clawed hands gripped his shoulders, forcing him onto his back and pinning him to the stones. Then more claws tore at his wrists, pulling his hands away from his face.
A familiar voice snarled, from somewhere just above him, "Fool! They're to be delivered alive!"
The bottle neck was forced between his teeth again, and Boromir choked on a second draught of the foul orc liquor.
"If you've killed this one, I'll skin you myself, Snaga, and feed you to the lads for supper!"
"You said they weren't to talk," Snaga whined.
"If he talks, you tickle him with your whip! Teach him some manners! You don't kill him, you cursed ape! Now, you get to lug him as far as the stair."
"Gah. These whiteskins are heavy. Too heavy to pack all the way to Isengard."
"That'll teach you to be more careful. Get him up, and get moving, or you'll be tasting my whip fast enough!"
Boromir felt strong arms lift him, then he was flung over a broad, scaled, brutally hard shoulder. His torso hung down the orc's back, both arms dangling over his head and every movement sending a fresh stab of pain through the wounds in his left side. But he was grateful not to have to stand and walk on his own, grateful for the solid strength of the orc supporting him, and grateful to still be alive. He let his head rest against the orc's back and tried to ignore the blood running freely over his face, dripping to the stones below.
The whole troop of orcs set off again at a fast trot that jarred Boromir's aching bones. He bit back a cry of pain and told himself that he could endure this. He could endure anything, if it meant his friends in the Fellowship had escaped the clutches of the orcs.
Uglúk called a halt when the orc band reached the western cliff of Emyn Muil. They had traveled through the night and well into the morning, much to the distress of some of the smaller orcs, and they now faced the threat of the open fields of Rohan. Uglúk wanted to make straight for Isengard, but with the added burden of the two prisoners and the Rohirrim patrolling the plains, he doubted his lads could make it that far. While the orcs rested and debated their road, waiting for the sun to set, their prisoners lay together on the harsh stones and tried to recruit their strength for the next leg of the journey.
For Boromir, the halt was no respite. He no longer felt the jolting of the orc's strides in his wounded body, and he was grateful for this small comfort, but still his only companions were darkness, illness and pain. His thoughts offered no solace, either, for they drifted ever backward, to the glades of Amon Hen, to his moment of weakness and betrayal.
He had destroyed so much, in that one moment, so much that could never be mended. Bitter self-hatred welled up in him, as he saw again the sick horror in Frodo's eyes, heard the fear in his voice, watched the halfling scramble desperately away from his clutching hands. That memory, alone, was enough to make him burn with shame. He needed not the added knowledge that he had broken his vow, befouled his honor and his good name, fallen prey to the whispered lies of the Enemy, and led his king into captivity, perhaps even into death, at the hands of Saruman to spur his conscience. All of that was but salt in the cruelest of wounds.
Beside him, Aragorn stirred, his body grating against loose stones and gravel. A soft grunt of pain escaped the other man, and Boromir wondered, yet again, what wounds he had suffered that he would not admit. It seemed impossible that any mob of orcs could take the Ranger alive, much less hold him captive, yet Aragorn had made no move to escape. So either he had injuries too dire to allow for flight, or he had his own reasons for staying. Boromir did not like to consider what those reasons might be. Such thoughts only added to his burden of guilt.
Aragorn shifted again, until his shoulder pressed against Boromir's arm, and his head lay so close that Boromir could feel the heat of his breath when he whispered, "How fare you?"
"Well enough," Boromir answered, his voice so low that it barely carried past his own lips. "And you?"
"Ill enough." He paused, then added, "The next lap of the journey will be hard. You should take some rest."
"Nor can I."
A silence fell between them, as each man lay listening to the sounds of the orc camp and dwelling in his own thoughts. After a time, Boromir stirred and spoke of what sat heaviest on his mind.
"They have gone on to the Black Land without us. Into the very heart of the Shadow."
"That was always the path they meant to take, whether we tread it with them, or not."
"It is too dark a road for the little ones. They will come to grief. They will be lost to the Shadow. And I... I who should have warded them against all evil..." He broke off, unable to voice his own failure.
"You fought for them, even unto death," Aragorn murmured. "No man could have done more."
Boromir felt the bitterness rise in him at Aragorn's words. He heard the understanding, the desire to heal and forgive in the other man's voice, and he devoutly wished that he was deserving of such generosity. But he was not, and the offer of it galled him. He tried to find the words to tell Aragorn of his treachery, but none seemed foul enough to convey the truth, and he was still floundering in silence when Aragorn spoke again.
"I knew what enemy you faced, and I left you to fight alone. When you called me, I came too late. I am sorry, Boromir. Sorry I failed you."
"You did not. You had orcs enough of your own to fight."
"I do not speak of orcs." He paused, giving Boromir a moment to absorb his meaning, then he repeated, softly, "I am sorry, my friend."
"Nay." Boromir turned his head away in denial, his voice roughening with emotion. "Do not call me friend. You do not know what I've done."
"I do. I spoke to Frodo."
Boromir swallowed to ease the tightness in his throat, struggling to conceal the depth of his emotion from the other man. "I would have hurt him, Strider. I would have done anything, only to hold it for a moment."
The real pain and sympathy in the Ranger's voice only intensified Boromir's distress. "I betrayed the Fellowship. I attacked the ringbearer. I shamed myself and my people. All of this," he gestured vaguely with his hand, "is only what I deserve."
"Do not say such things! There is no shame in being human," Aragorn murmured, his voice heavy with tears. "I, of all men, should know that. And what blame may have fallen on you has been lifted by your willingness to fight and die for your companions. If there is any blame here, it is mine. I was the leader of the Fellowship, responsible for the welfare of every one of its members, including yours. I was the one summoned to battle, who came too late. And I am the one the orcs sought, the one for whom you have been made to pay such a price."
"And I am the one who drew you into their trap." Turning again to face the Ranger, Boromir asked, "Why does Saruman want you, Aragorn?"
"Because I am Aragorn, and Isildur's Heir. He must believe I carry the Ring, or else he hopes to learn its whereabouts from me."
"Then he knows who you are."
"Your face, or your name only? Will he know which of us is his true prize?"
"He will know."
"The orcs do not." Boromir did not phrase it as a question. Common sense dictated that Saruman would tell his minions no more than he must, and the fact that they wanted both men alive proved that they did not know which of them the wizard valued. "Strider, you must not go to Isengard."
Aragorn gave a humorless chuckle. "It seems I have little choice in the matter."
"You must not. Saruman will not keep you long. Sauron will come for you, and you will end your life in torment, in the black pits of Barad-dûr."
"I know what fate awaits me, Boromir."
"You must escape, before we reach Isengard. Perhaps I can convince the orcs that I am Saruman's prize, and they will guard you less carefully..."
"Nay. I will not escape, if it means leaving you to Saruman's mercies."
"You must. I will find a way!"
Aragorn did not answer for a moment, and Boromir got the impression that the Ranger was taken aback by his vehemence. Finally, into the tense silence, Aragorn murmured, "Find one that gets both of us out alive."
Boromir said nothing. He would not argue the point with Aragorn, but he had little hope of escape and even less desire for it. His life, as he had known it, was over - dishonored and debased by his attack on the ringbearer, crushed by the falling sword of an orc - so what did it matter if he breathed his last in the dungeons of Orthanc? So long as Aragorn lived, free, to lead the armies of the West against Sauron, Boromir could count his life well spent.
He lay still and quiet, pretending to sleep, while he turned over plans for Aragorn's rescue in his mind, using this urgent task to shut out all memory. The task gave him something solid on which to lean, a new confidence and purpose, familiar ground under his feet. Plots and strategies, life and death choices, the harsh necessities of war, these were the meat that sustained a commander in the field, and they sustained Boromir now.
At sunset, Uglúk roused his troops and kicked the prisoners into wakefulness. They were fed a hasty meal that neither man could easily stomach. Then Aragorn was tossed over the shoulder of a large orc, while Boromir, now strong enough to stand on his own feet, was tethered to his jailer with a rope about his neck and told to mind his manners. At a shout from Ulgúk and the whistling crack of a whip, the band set off down a steep, rocky cleft in the hills, headed for the sweet plains of Rohan.
To be continued...