Chapter 9: Enemy at the Gates
His guide was swift and his horse sure-footed. Boromir had nothing to do but stay astride his mount and listen to the sounds of the forest as they went. He could feel their path climbing steeply, and often a bough or bush would try to sweep him from the saddle, as the trees closed in more tightly around them. They were deep in the lush forests of Anórien, climbing the slopes of the White Mountains, winding their way toward Mount Mindolluin and home.
The Wild Man walked in silence, leaving Boromir to the doubtful company of his own thoughts. The time lay heavily upon him, for he could find no safe subject for his musings. Just as all paths led to Minas Tirith and war, so all thoughts led to regret, worry and fear. Boromir distracted himself by trying to judge their direction or the passage of the hours. This was so hopeless a task that it kept him busy - if highly frustrated - for much of their journey.
For all his efforts, Boromir found his thoughts turning often to the armies of the Rohirrim and the small halfling who rode with them. He tried to thrust away his wish that Merry had come with him, instead of going into battle. It was unworthy and ignoble of him to put his own fears, his own cowardly dependence on the halfling, ahead of Merry's duty and honor, but he found that he could not help himself. He missed Merry, and he looked ahead to the possibility that he might die upon the battlefield with a cold dread that gnawed at his innards as he rode.
How would he face the long darkness of the years without Merry there to give him light and make him laugh? If Merry fell beneath sword or axe this day, how would he ever sleep again? With a growl of disgust, he threw off these grim thoughts and turned his mind back to counting the thuds of his horse's hooves or the number of branches that slapped at his face and body. But ever, inexorably, he came back to the same, tormenting question. What if Merry died? What if their handclasp on parting was the last time he would ever feel the halfling's small hand in his? What if Merry's tearful pleas to ride with him were the last words he ever heard? What if he and Dernhelm, in their absolute devotion to duty, had sent the gentle halfling to his death?
He had no answers to these questions, but still he asked them, over and over again. The leagues crept by beneath Fedranth's patient strides, the Wild Man paced steadily at the horse's head, the night waned, and Boromir's mood grew ever bleaker.
At last, their path turned downward. It was still heavily shrouded by overhanging trees, still narrow and twisted in its course, but the steady downhill trend told Boromir that they were nearing the end of their journey. They had reached the eastern tip of the White Mountains and the last bastion of stone rising from the wide, southern plains.
As they came out of a deep fold in the mountain, with nothing now between them and Mt. Mindolluin, Boromir heard the clear, distant call of horns upon the wind. He snatched at the reins and pulled Fedranth to a stop, his head up and his ears straining to catch the sound again.
"Horsemen," his guide stated, tersely.
"Aye," Boromir muttered, and in his mind's eye, he saw Merry galloping wildly into battle, perched on Dernhelm's saddle. His face paled and his mouth grew hard with anxiety, but he remained calm and still in the saddle. "The Rohirrim have come to Minas Tirith."
Letting the reins fall slack again, he nudged the horse with his booted heels. The Wild Man went forward, and they wended their way down the forest track. Boromir could feel a change in the wind, though he did not know what it portended. It carried more sounds to him, none of them reassuring, and presently, he caught the smell of burning. If his guide noticed, he said nothing, and Boromir kept his mounting worry to himself. He could not make the way shorter by fretting, though he fairly itched to tear the bridle from the Wild Man's hands, kick Fedranth into a full gallop, and go careering off down the mountain on his own. Folly, he told himself. Madness and folly. And he clenched his fists to keep his hands from the reins.
The winged shadow came upon them with a rush of cold and fear. Boromir was listening to the distant sounds of battle and trying not to let his mind dwell on the fate of one, small halfling in all that destruction, when he felt the chill sweep over him. Fedranth came to an abrupt halt, his warm flesh turning to marble between Boromir's knees. The Wild Man muttered an imprecation in his own tongue and scuttled away. Boromir was left sitting on the terrified horse, hunched over as though he could shield himself from the shadow, his body taut and shaking.
Nazgûl! The Nazgûl had issued forth from Minas Morgul to cast their vile shadow across the sweet fields of Gondor, and through some sorcery of the Enemy, they had wings! Boromir had felt such cold and dismay once before in his life, when he strayed too near the evil Imlad Morgul and felt the eyes of the tower upon him. But only since his travels with Aragorn and his sojourn in Saruman's dungeon did he have a name for it. Nazgûl. The Ringwraiths. The name alone was enough to strike terror into the hearts of Men, and now the things themselves had come to Gondor.
The shadow passed swiftly, circling back toward Mindolluin and the battle on the plains. With its passing, horse and Man recovered their wits and breathed normally again, but a new urgency gripped Boromir. Like the touch of the Black Breath, the realization had come to him that this was the final stand against the Enemy. Sauron had unleashed the greatest of his weapons to crush Minas Tirith and her brave defenders at last, and Boromir, son of Denethor, would be among them when the blow came, if he had to fly to the city on the wings of the Nazgûl themselves!
He heard the Wild Man's footsteps padding up beside him again, and a hand took Fedranth's bridle.
"Evil in the air," the Wild Man muttered.
"Aye. We must make haste." Reckless in his urgency, Boromir kicked Fedranth into a canter, not waiting for his guide to lead the way. The Wild Man scrambled to catch them, and together, they hurried down the winding track.
*** *** ***
Denethor sat in his darkened tower room, his shoulders bowed with age and sorrow, his face lined with pain. The palantír lay in his lap, cradled between strangely thin and still hands, but his eyes did not turn to the glittering surface of the orb. They dwelt only upon the face of his son, and they were filled with longing.
Faramir tossed and muttered on his palette, consumed by fever, unaware of his father's vigil beside him. Denethor strained to catch his broken words, to no avail. In the depths of his remorse, he silently prayed that his son would find one moment of awareness, one word of love or forgiveness for his father, but he knew that his prayers were vain.
A harsh doom had fallen upon the West, and while all Men suffered, none suffered so greatly as the lord of Minas Tirith. His sons were already taken from him. His city would soon follow. Then nothing would stand between Mordor and Middle-earth but a scattered rabble of frightened Men, led by a half-mad wizard and a homeless, vagabond king.
Denethor knew precisely what doom awaited him, for he had seen it in the palantír and could not doubt the evidence of his own eyes. But even in defeat, he did not have to bow to the will of the Enemy. He did not have to go tamely into exile, imprisonment or death at the Enemy's hands. He was Denethor, son of Echthelion, of the blood of Númenor, and he bowed to the will of no creature, not even the Dark Lord himself.
Tearing his gaze reluctantly from his son's face, Denethor turned his eyes to the darkling orb that rested upon his knees. Mists swirled beneath its surface, then parted to show him scenes of the battle raging about his walls. Hosts of orcs, armies of fierce Men, mûmakil with towers and siege engines upon their backs - all the power of the Black Land brought to bear against this one embattled city. They must and would o'erwhelm the pitiful forces of Gondor and her allies, who looked to his eyes as tiny sparks of light in a seething darkness. And then, as if to put a seal on the fate of Minas Tirith and her lord, there appeared upon the waters of Anduin a great armada of ships, all with black sails and hulls.
A strange smile played about the Steward's lips, as he put aside the palantír and rose to his feet. Old and bent with care he seemed, calm, but with a fey gleam in his eyes. Turning to the halfling, who waited in glum silence by the door, he said, "Summon my servants and then go, Peregrine, son of Paladin. I release you from my service. Go, and die as seems best to you."
*** *** ***
The great ship rode at anchor beside the quay of the Harlond. Down its gangplank came a line of proud warriors, clad in mail and armed for war, leading horses as fierce and deadly as their riders. First to set foot upon the quay, first to touch the soil of Gondor, was Aragorn. He felt the shock of that contact through his entire body, as if the very land cried out in welcome. His head lifted and his eyes sought out the pale gleam of the city walls, rising gracefully above the smoke and flame of battle.
Halbarad stepped up beside him, with the sons of Elrond following. The Ranger carried the banner of King Elessar - the banner that had been wrought by the hands of Arwen Evenstar, that had stood furled by Aragorn's bed when he lay in Edoras, and that had lifted upon the wind for the first time, as it flew from the mast of the black ship. Now, it rippled proudly at the top of a tall staff, and the gems fixed upon it caught the fitful sunlight.
Aragorn swung himself into the saddle. All about him, the warriors who had braved the Paths of the Dead at his side now prepared themselves for a test of a different kind. He cast one glance up at the banner above him, then he turned his eyes to the enemy before him and the killing that must be done.
Drawing Andúril, he pointed the blade toward the walls of Minas Tirith but a mile distant and called, in a voice both strong and calm, "There lies our way!"
"And your throne, King Elessar," Halbarad said. "Long have I waited to see you pass through the gates of the White City in triumph."
"We are not yet there, kinsman."
Aragorn found Halbarad's certainty unsettling, though he did not show it. Looking again at the device of the White Tree upon his banner, he allowed himself a small moment of regret that it was Halbarad, and not another, who would enter Minas Tirith at his side on this day. Then he thrust aside the thought, thrust aside all doubts and distractions, to fix his mind and heart wholly on the task that lay before him.
"To Minas Tirith!" he cried, and swept his army behind him into the fray.
*** *** ***
The smell of burning had grown steadily stronger, until it caught at the back of Boromir's throat and soured his tongue. Ash powdered his cloak and hair, making him sneeze. They rode out of the shelter of the trees, and for the first time in many days, Boromir felt sun upon his face. The clouds were thinning and the day was upon them, but before them, all was smoke.
The Wild Man halted Fedranth with a hand upon his bridle. "The Stone-city burns," he said.
"The hosts of Mordor have besieged the city and fired her streets."
"Fire there, at end of stone path. I see flame and smoke. Tall flame. Man with no eyes will find fire on other side of door."
Boromir frowned down at him in confusion. The postern gate at the end of the stone bridge opened into Rath Dínen, the Silent Street. None ever came to the mansions of the dead, except to tend the tombs or lay a lord of the city to rest in their pillared halls. How could fire have come to this most hallowed place, unless the city had already fallen and the orcs set about to plunder and desecrate her? He still heard the distant roar of fighting on the plains, which told him that the battle was not yet lost, but closer still and ominous in its portent, he heard the snap and sizzle of flames.
"Come. Let us hurry," he said.
"Go carefully. Stone path is bad place for horse, bad place for Man. You step wrong, you fall far."
Boromir did not doubt this for a moment, and he felt a moment's gratitude that he could not see the fearful drop on either hand, as they started across the narrow ridge of stone that lead to Mount Mindolluin and his home. They moved slowly and steadily, Fedranth showing no nervousness with the Wild Man's hand upon his bridle. They were halfway across, when the shadow fell on them again.
It came faster this time, and much lower, sweeping over the path in a wash of deathly cold and the foul stench of corruption. Fedranth uttered a scream of terror and reared up, his hooves pawing the air. Boromir, caught all unprepared, tumbled from the saddle to hit the ground with stunning force. He heard hooves striking stone, another scream from the horse, and he rolled instinctively away from the panicked beast.
In the next second, the rock fell away beneath him, and he was sliding over the edge of the precipice. He grabbed at the surface of the path, digging his fingers uselessly into loose earth and gravel, while his feet scrabbled for purchase on the vertical face of the rock, but his weight and momentum dragged him inexorably to his doom.
Suddenly, his left hand found a crevice in the broken rock of the cliff's edge. He snatched at it, pushing his fingers into the narrow space, and took all his weight on that one arm and hand. The old arrow wounds in his left shoulder and side flared with fresh agony, and he gave a tearing cry of mingled fury and pain.
*** *** ***
Merry thrust his sword upward with all his strength and fear behind the blow. The blade pierced cloth and mail to drive deep into the flesh of the creature beneath, and the Black Rider stumbled forward with a dreadful cry. Merry collapsed to his knees, his arm going numb, his sword falling from his nerveless hand.
"Éowyn! Éowyn!" he cried.
The white lady of Rohan, with the last of her failing strength drew herself up against the great shadow and drove her sword beneath its gleaming crown. Cloak, mail, crown and shattered sword all tumbled to the ground, together, and Éowyn sank lifeless upon them. Merry, crouching in terror among the dead, heard the shuddering, wailing cry of the Nazgûl's passing.
*** *** ***
The shivering cry filled Boromir with despair and dread. Clinging to the sheer wall of rock, his body afire with pain and his mind seething with panic, he could only press his forehead to the cold stone and pray that his death would come swiftly. The killing cold of the Nazgûl flowed over him, and the cry seemed to rend the very air. He cried out in answer, screaming his defiance. It seemed, in his extremity, as though the wraith's cry mocked him.
As suddenly as it had come, the chill vanished. Warmth flowed in Boromir's veins again, and new pain with it, but the despair was gone with the shadow of the wraith. With every breath a sob of anger and pain, he struggled to find some purchase for his feet, struggled to haul himself back onto the path. His right toe encountered a small outcropping, and when he let some of his weight rest on it, the relief to his tortured shoulder made him sob afresh.
He was mustering his strength for another, desperate attempt, when a voice sounded from just above him. "Hold fast."
Boromir looked up at the voice, but he did not have the breath to answer. A moment later, familiar horned hands clasped his left forearm, and he felt rope tighten about his wrist.
"Horse will pull you up," the Wild Man informed him.
Boromir had just enough time to clamp his right hand around the taut rope and reflect that this would likely hurt. A lot. Then hooves pawed at the stony ground, the rope bit fiercely into his flesh, and pain exploded within him.
Slowly - too slowly for his abused body - the combined strength of horse and Wild Man dragged Boromir back onto the level ground of the path. When he lay, at last, on the path, he could do no more than take shuddering breaths and hold his numbed left arm to his shaking body. The Wild Man squatted beside him, muttering to himself, while Fedranth nuzzled him curiously, but Boromir ignored both of them. He was alive. He was exhausted and sick with the pain from his wounds, but he was alive.
That thought spurred him to move again. Pushing himself carefully away from the comfortingly solid ground, he used the Wild Man's arm and Fedranth's reins to haul himself to his feet. The horse was calm and patient, now that the winged terror had passed, and he allowed Boromir to clamber awkwardly into the saddle without so much as twitching. Seated on his mount again, Boromir willed away his pain and weakness and forced his back to straighten.
They were within sight of the walls of Minas Tirith. They were on the very doorstep. Only one more small effort, and he would be home. Setting his jaw and lifting his chin, he gave the horse a gentle nudge and started along the path once again.
They reached the end of the stone bridge without incident. In the shadow of the tall, silent wall, Boromir swung down from the saddle and handed the reins to his guide. Two steps took him to the postern gate. He halted with his hand resting lightly on the rough wood of the gate itself and filled his lungs to shout, "Ho, sentry! Open the gate!"
No answering shout came. No scrape of bars or latches opening. Boromir listened intently for a moment, then drew his sword and pounded the hilt upon the door. The wood shuddered beneath the weight of his blows. "Open in the name of the Lord Denethor!"
Still no answer came, and Boromir frowned at the unresponsive door in growing frustration. This postern gate was always guarded. Day and night, at peace or at war, soldiers of the Citadel Guard stood sentry at the gate. It was the only way for an enemy to penetrate the city walls without first crossing the the Pelennor fields, and was therefore the most vulnerable point in the city's defenses. It was never left unguarded.
And yet, at this time of crisis for the city and all Gondor, the gate had been abandoned. The longer he pounded and shouted, the more alarmed Boromir became. He could smell smoke and hear the spitting of flames on the other side of the wall, and a kind of frenzy gripped him. Rath Dínen was burning. The houses of the dead were under attack by some unknown foe, and the very heart of his city was burning.
He gave the door a final blow with his sword, then stepped back, panting. "I must get inside," he growled.
The Wild Man stood patiently beside him, holding Fedranth's reins. "I bring Man with no eyes to Stone-city. I go, before black shadow comes."
"Wait! Stay a little. Please."
"Door is closed," the Wild Man insisted.
"Then we must find another way."
"No other way. Stone walls are hard and high. Cannot climb."
"I did, when I was a boy. My brother and I found a way. When we did not want to bribe the sentries or risk our father's wrath, we would climb the wall, where it lay in shadow behind the guards' shelter. I wonder..."
Stepping up to the gate, Boromir spread his hand flat against the wood and lifted his ruined eyes to gaze at the top of the high wall. "It was to the right," he mused, softly, as he began walking slowly to his right, "behind a tree."
Very slowly, he made his way along he base of the wall to the south. He remembered this path vividly - a narrow strip of bare rock and loose earth that clung to the wall's foot, with a sheer drop of hundreds of fathoms only a single unwary step away. What had seemed a narrow path to a half-grown child proved to be no path at all for a man of Boromir's height and size. By the time he felt the first stiff twigs catch at his sleeve, he was creeping along with his body pressed tight the wall and his heels hanging over nothing.
He grabbed at the sturdy branches of the tree gratefully and pulled himself close to its gnarled trunk. Circling the trunk with his arms, he ducked around it and found safe purchase for his feet on a wider patch of dirt protected by its roots. There, he paused to catch his breath and consider the task he had set himself. And his courage failed him.
He could not scale this wall. The crevices and outcroppings that had served as a ladder for an agile boy would never hold his weight. He doubted he could find them at all, and he knew, with a sick feeling of shame and frustration, that he did not have the nerve to try.
He was leaning against the wall, struggling to summon his courage and begin the climb, when he heard the Wild Man grunting and shuffling along the treacherous path toward him. Boromir drew in as close to the tree as he could to give the man room to stand, but the man chose instead to pull himself into the lower branches of the tree, where he could perch in comfort.
"Man with no eyes cannot climb wall," he opined, sagely.
Boromir gave a sour grunt and turned to run his hands over the rough surface.
"Man will fall. Die on rocks. Become food for crows."
"Must you sound so pleased about it?"
"Wild Men try to climb walls, once..."
Boromir detected the sly note in his guide's voice, and he looked up at him with new interest. "Aye? And did you?"
"Wild Men can climb tallest peak, steepest cliff. Wild Men never fall."
"Then Wild Man can climb wall of Stone-city and open the cursed gate!" Boromir growled ferociously.
"Tall Men kill me with bright swords. Wild Men not go in."
"There is no one inside to kill you," Boromir snapped. "If there were Tall Men inside with bright swords, they would have opened the gate." He hesitated, then went on, in a voice taut with urgency, "I must get inside. My city is besieged, my people are dying, and I am stuck out here, helpless to aid them! I must get inside!"
Silence answered him, while the Wild Man considered his words. Finally, Boromir heard a rustling in the tree above him, and leaves drifted down onto his upturned face. The Wild Man's voice, when it came again, was moving higher in the tree.
"Man with no eyes go back to door. Wait."
Boromir waited. He waited until he heard the Wild Man's horned hands scrabbling at the stones of the wall, then he made his way back to the safety of the rock spur and the barred gate. There, he called to Fedranth and was met with the slow clop of hooves and the horse's warm breath on his neck. He rubbed the offered nose, as much to keep his hands busy as to reassure the nervous beast, leaned against the solid wood of the door, and waited.
At last, when it seemed his over-stretched nerves would snap with the strain, he heard the grate of metal against metal and felt the wood vibrate at his back. He grabbed Fedranth's bridle and turned, just as the portal swung open. Boromir hesitated, overwhelmed by the sudden rush of heat, smoke and sound that poured through the archway to smother him. Then the Wild Man's hand closed on his arm, and he was pulled unceremoniously through the gate.
"Bargain is done," his guide said, firmly. He slapped Fedranth's rump to hurry the reluctant horse through the gate, then he turned to confront Boromir. "Man is inside Stone-city. I climb wall, I open gate, I do as Man asks. Bargain is done."
"Aye, the bargain is done. I thank you."
"No thanks. Kill gorgûn." A gnarled hand touched Boromir's sword, then reached up to brush the cloth over his left eye. "Man with no eyes keep bargain and kill many gorgûn. Make evil darkness go away. Bring sun back to mountains. Bring peace."
"I give you my word as a soldier of Gondor, I will do everything in my power to drive back the enemy and bring peace to your forests again."
The Wild Man said something in his guttural language, then he took Boromir's hand in both of his and touched it to his forehead.
"Farewell," Boromir said.
The Wild Man's footsteps padded back through the archway, and the heavy gate swung shut behind him, leaving Boromir alone among the houses of the dead. His face grim and pale, Boromir fitted his toe into a stirrup and swung himself astride his horse. Fedranth sidled nervously, his skin shuddering when hot ash blew against it, but Boromir held him steady.
"There is only one way out, my friend," he said. "I am trusting you to find it."
He rode the length of the Silent Street in dread, with the roar of flames and the slither of falling stone in his ears. The horse balked, as they drew near the source of the noise and heat, and Boromir had to curb him sharply to prevent him from bolting back down the way they had come. After several false starts, the beast finally obeyed the hands upon his reins and continued up the street, but he shied violently, when a stone wall on their left crashed to the ground in a boiling cloud of dust and sparks.
Boromir cursed and dug in his heels. Fedranth needed no urging. He lunged forward, fleeing the terror of the fire, and Boromir let him have his head. Rath Dínen had but one street. The horse could not go astray, lest he try to climb the steps of the mansions of the dead themselves, and Boromir had no fear of that.
The way lay clear before them, edged with carven images of long-dead kings and graceful marble pillars. It wound up the steep side of Mindolluin, beneath the shadow of the city walls, leading man and horse out of the choking air of Rath Dínen and into the fresh wind that swept the sky clean above them. Fedranth slowed his headlong pace, as they climbed free of the smoke, but he plodded obediently up the steep way.
Suddenly, the horse gave a snort of alarm and danced backward, forcing Boromir to grab his mane for balance. The man lifted his head, testing the wind for clues as to what had upset his mount. He could hear the distant clamor of horns and trumpets, the clash and ring of weapons, and the screams of men and beasts, but all such noise came from the plains far below. The city seemed oddly silent, as though holding its breath in suspense. And he could hear nothing nearby.
"Ho! Porter!" he called. He knew they must be near the door that led into the city's sixth circle. A porter kept the gate and guarded the road into the houses of the dead. He lived in a small house beside the way. "Porter!" he bellowed again, as loudly as he could.
No one answered him. His lips thinned in anger and disquiet, he once again urged his horse into motion, against the beast's better judgement. Fedranth took a few reluctant steps, and Boromir felt his helm crack sharply into stone. He rocked back in the saddle but kept his seat, and when Fedranth moved forward again, he ducked low over the horse's neck.
Cobblestones rang beneath the horse's hooves, and a grim smile touched Boromir's lips. He knew exactly where he was now, for he had just passed through Fen Hollen, the Closed Door, set in the rear wall of the sixth circle of the city. He was in Minas Tirith. He was home.
But it did not feel like home. The strange, breathless tension was thick about him. The streets, if not empty, held only the very quiet and the very frightened. Even the running of feet or the cry of voices sounded furtive. The wind tasted fresh, but it carried the stench of burning and death from the battlefield below and, he guessed, from the lower circles of the city. Minas Tirith was under siege, and greatly must she have suffered in her extremity. Now, with the battle raging about her walls, she had crawled into hiding to nurse her wounds and await her doom.
Boromir gave Fedranth a slight nudge to get him moving, but he let the reins hang slack on the horse's neck. They could go only one way, toward the Citadel gate that led into the seventh circle and the Court of the Fountain. It was ever manned by a sentry of the Tower Guard, and Boromir waited for the sentry's challenge.
None came. They plodded slowly along the curving road until Boromir was sure they had reached the gate, but no voice hailed them. No challenge stopped their progress. This, like the missing guard at the postern gate, the silent porter and the fire burning unchecked in Rath Dínen, filled Boromir with foreboding. Something was terribly amiss in the city. Not the threat of the battle, for Minas Tirith was no stranger to battle. Of a certainty, her people would be frightened and angry, perhaps hiding, perhaps cursing the armies that had failed to drive the enemy from the gates. But the soldiery, the Guards, the officers who led them and the lords of the city should not be shaken by such a familiar thing as war.
Where, then, were the sentries? Where were the soldiers drawn up to guard the Citadel? Why did the city feel panicked and leaderless? Where was his father?
Boromir drew Fedranth to a halt and listened intently. He needed to reach the Citadel and find his father. Surely the Lord Denethor could explain what madness had gripped the city. Surely he had the defenses in hand, the troops deployed, the gates protected... Surely this panic came from Boromir himself, and not from the air about him. But without the sentry to mark the gate for him, he was lost.
Boromir swung himself out of the saddle and stepped in close to the horse's side. He felt oddly vulnerable and unsure of himself, for a man who had just returned to a beloved home after long months of wandering. The city seemed larger than he remembered, and he could not summon a clear picture of the streets in his head. The clamor of battle on the plains below, the stench of burning and of death, the frantic edge in the voices that rang in the streets all served to unsettle and disorient him. He wished, not for the first time, that he had brought Merry with him after all.
Fedranth snorted and tossed his head, catching his rider's mood. Quick footsteps sounded on the cobbles behind them, and the horse sidled nervously away, forcing Boromir to follow. He took a hasty step, felt heavy fabric slap against his leg and stumbled. In the next instant, he fell hard against the running figure. Something large and stiff was crushed against his chest with a sound of snapping straw, then a woman's voice uttered a cry of alarm, and both Boromir and the unknown woman were stumbling backward, away from each other.
Boromir recovered his balance and stepped forward again, his free hand outstretched and an apology on his lips. His foot came down on something that crunched and slithered beneath his boot. The woman's hands pushed sharply against his shoulder, causing him to stumble again and fall against his longsuffering horse, and she cried out, angrily,
"Ah, you great, clumsy oaf! Only look what you've done!"
"I beg your pardon," he said, glad that his helm concealed his flush of chagrin. Then he added, in all honesty, "I did not see you."
"You've gone and crushed my herbs, with the healers waiting and all. I'll have to pick them fresh." Her voice came from down by his knees now, as she scrabbled around on the cobblestones at his feet. "Soldiers everywhere," she grumbled, "clanking about and making a din... No wonder the Houses are full of sick and injured souls, with all you soldiers about."
Boromir edged warily away from her, his innate chivalry at war with his common sense. "Is there aught I can do to help you?"
"Aye. You can get yourself and that animal away from my herbs, before you trample any more of them."
Boromir backed away another few steps, taking the horse with him. He felt both helpless and humiliated, his stomach roiling with embarrassment. He did not want to anger the woman further, but he could not wander through the city without direction, and if he left this circle, he might never find the Citadel gate. She could guide him, were she willing. That thought held him there, in spite of her scornful words.
Finally, he heard the rustle of her basket and her clothing, as she rose to her feet. Her footsteps padded quickly past him, headed away on her errand.
"Wait!" he called, holding out a hand to stop her, but not daring to step into her path again.
She paused. "I am late and will be later, still, thanks to your blundering. What do you want of me?"
Boromir knew a momentary urge to pull off his helm and show her his bandaged eyes, as much to excuse his clumsiness as to gain her help, but he balked at the thought of thus exposing himself. Scorn he could abide. Not pity.
Drawing himself up stiffly to conceal his discomfort, he said, "I, too, am in haste. I must needs reach the Tower, but I do not know the city and have lost myself in the streets. Where is the Citadel gate?"
"To the west, in the center of the wall," she answered, curtly. "You rode right past it." Clicking her tongue in disgust, she turned and strode rapidly away from him, muttering just loudly enough for him to hear, "Clumsy and blind... shouldn't be allowed to carry a sword, that one..."
With a sigh of frustration, Boromir leaned back against the horse's shoulder and doffed his helm to let the stiffening breeze cool his face. He should have known better than to ask such a termagant for help. He should have clapped her in irons for insulting the heir to the Stewardship. Or better yet, wrung her neck. How was he supposed to tell which direction was west? And how was he supposed to find the gate, short of falling through it?
He ruffled his damp hair with one hand, gazing around him as if he could solve the many riddles that plagued him, simply by glaring hard enough at the unresponsive street. He struggled to make sense of the barrage of familiar, yet confused sounds that reached him, struggled for the sense of balance and certainty that had slipped away from him with his entrance into Minas Tirith.
Yet more voices filtered through the din of battle - the voices of men, accompanied by the tread of heavy boots. Boromir straightened up and stepped away from his horse, keeping a firm hand on the reins so as not to lose himself in a rash moment. The voices came nearer, and he turned to face them.
Suddenly, out of the general noise he heard, as clear as a horn call in the morning, the voice of a hobbit crying, "Boromir!"
Boromir dropped the horse's rein and took an unwary step toward the call. "Pippin?"
Bare feet pattered against stone, and Pippin's shrill voice rang out in unfeigned delight, "Boromir! It is you!"
Boromir had only enough time to drop to a crouch, before a small body flew at him, running full tilt and shrieking, "I knew you'd come! I knew it!"
He caught Pippin, as the halfling hurled himself into the man's arms. Pippin flung his arms around his neck in a stranglehold that made it difficult for Boromir to speak, but he managed to croak out a laughing greeting.
Easing his death-grip on Boromir a bit, Pippin twisted around to shout, joyously, "Gandalf! Only look who's here! I knew he would turn up when we needed him!"
"Indeed," the wizard's dry voice sounded from just above them, "and in excellent time. Well met, Boromir."
Boromir gently detached himself from Pippin and rose to his feet. Almost unconsciously, his hand dropped to the curly head of the halfling, and Pippin accepted the touch with barely a flicker of surprise.
"I am glad to find you here, Gandalf." A smile of genuine pleasure lightened his face, and he added, "I am glad to find you alive."
"Likewise, my friend."
For some reason, the epithet did not sound odd on the wizard's lips, and Boromir abruptly realized that he did consider Gandalf a friend. His father might never forgive him for it, but it was true all the same.
"I am all the more delighted," Gandalf went on, "because, as Pippin so aptly pointed out, we have need of you. Your coming could not be more opportune."
"Orcs gather at the gates, and there is none to lead the city's guard against them. I scattered them once, and I can help to drive them back again, if need arises, but I am needed elsewhere."
Boromir gaped at him in amazement. "None to lead them? Where then are the lords of the city? Where is Denethor, my father? Where is Faramir?"
"He is unable to shoulder this burden. It is yours, Boromir, as it has ever been."
"Faramir?" Boromir felt the panic rise in him again. "Where is he? What harm has befallen my brother?!"
"I will explain everything, when time allows, but not now, Boromir. Not now! You need only know that the armies of Minas Tirith fight beneath the banner of Dol Amroth, and the Prince is with them upon the field. None but the Guard remain within the city, and they are leaderless. One who knows them, one who owns their trust and loyalty must lead them against the force that gathers, even now, to storm the shattered gates, or the city will fall. Listen, Boromir!"
All in the group fell quiet, and suddenly Boromir could hear the cries and shouts of orcs carried loud on the breeze. A harsh trumpet rallied them, and wild cheers answered it.
Boromir turned his bandaged gaze on the old wizard, and his face was grim. "I cannot lead soldiers to battle."
"You are their captain. There is no one else."
"They will not follow me."
A stir behind Gandalf drew Boromir's attention, and a new voice spoke to him. "They will, lord, if you will lead them."
Boromir frowned in concentration, knowing that he should recognize the voice but unable to place it.
"I am Beregond, lord, of the Third Company of the Guard. I speak for my company and all who fight beneath the white banner of the Steward. We will follow our Captain-General into battle. We will drive the enemy from our gates."
Boromir's frown deepened, as he pondered what Gandalf and Beregond asked of him. He heard the urgency, bordering on desperation in their voices, and he knew where his duty lay. But he could not shake the fear that his name and rank alone would not be enough to inspire the trust of his men. Once, they would have followed him into the shadow of the Black Gates themselves, but now?
Beside him, Pippin bounced eagerly on his toes and chirped, "I will ride with you!"
Jolted out of his dark reverie, Boromir turned a questioning look on the halfling. "You, Pippin?"
"I am a soldier of Gondor now, sworn to the service of Denethor! It is my duty!"
Boromir smiled down into the halfling's upturned face, his doubts melting in the warmth of Pippin's enthusiasm. "Let us ride, then."
Boromir did not see the relief that swept Gandalf's face, but he heard a new note of energy in his voice, as he called, "Beregond, sound your horn and summon the guard! To the second gate, and quickly, or we will come too late!"
Footsteps ran up the street toward the Citadel, and Boromir heard a clear trumpet call. Gandalf caught him by one arm, Pippin by the other hand, and suddenly everything was chaos and shouting and the stamp of feet all about him. With breathless speed, the wizard sped them down through the besieged city to the second circle, where already the men of the guard gathered. In the shadow of the gate, the wizard stopped to issue low-voiced commands, while others of the Guard swarmed about them.
"Go only as far as the first line of trenches. Beregond will signal the recall, when you have reached them. You must not allow the company to be cut off from the city, Boromir, or Minas Tirith will be left defenseless."
"You need not school me in war, Gandalf the Grey." His words were brusque, but his tone was mild, even amused. "I know my business."
"Yes, but I know the shape of this battle, where you do not. Heed me, Boromir, and do not let pride lead you astray."
Such words, calculated as they were to deflate the captain's conceit, should have angered Boromir, but the knowledge of just how far his pride had led him astray in the past, and the new-found humility that had come with that failure, left no room in him for anger. He merely nodded and said, "I will not."
"Good." Gandalf gripped his arm in a gesture of approval. "You give me hope, son of Denethor. Hurry, now. You must hurry!"
As the wizard and the captain spoke together, and as the companies of the Guard mustered in the street behind them, Beregond quietly busied himself garbing his commander in a manner more suited to a Captain of Gondor than a Rider of Rohan. He tied a white sash - the Steward's color - from his right shoulder to his left hip, nearly covering the rampant horse emblazoned on his tunic. Then he unclasped Boromir's green cloak and hung in its place his own, a great war cloak of deepest black edged in silver.
As Boromir moved to place his helm upon his head, Gandalf halted him. "Leave your head bare. Show your face to the men, that they will know who leads them."
Boromir hesitated for a moment, once again assailed by doubt, then he shrugged and pushed the helm into Gandalf's hands. He reached for his stirrup and swung himself onto Fedranth's back. Stretching a hand down toward Pippin, he said, "Come, soldier of Gondor."
Pippin gave a small squeak of excitement, as he placed his hand in Boromir's and was lifted easily into the saddle.
Trumpets sounded, voices cried orders to the ranks. The drumming of hooves announced the arrival of those few officers who could find horses in the city, and Beregond quietly claimed a position at Boromir's right hand, astride a borrowed mount. Sidling his horse up close to Fedranth, he said, "I have your standard, Captain, the banner of the Steward of Gondor. I beg your leave to carry it at your side."
Boromir thought for a brief moment, then held out his hand. "I will carry it. You will take it after me, should I fall."
Beregond placed a tall, heavy staff in his hand, and Boromir propped its silver-shod tip on his booted toe. He heard the stiff silk move in the breeze, and he pictured the blaze of white shining above his head. How many times had he seen this banner flying above the Citadel of Minas Tirith? How many times had he looked at it with mingled pride and bitterness, wishing it was the King's standard that flew there and not the Steward's? No more. He was done with bitterness and fruitless ambition. He had bought the right to carry this device with blood and pain, and he would carry it proudly for what time was left to him.
His heart told him that he rode to his death this day, for he could not hope to brave the horror of that embattled plain and live, but Boromir felt no pain at the thought. For this was not a wasted or foolish death. This was a chance to save his city, and if it cost him his life, he would die in the certainty that he had, at last, redeemed his honor. He stood in the light once again, in the place where he belonged, and no shadow of black wings or evil storms could daunt him.
Rising in his stirrups, Boromir pitched his voice to carry above the din and called, so that his words echoed back from the walls about them, "Men of Gondor! I am Boromir, son of Denethor, Captain-General of Minas Tirith, come home through flame and darkness and slaughter to fight with you again!" A shout went up from the listening men. "The enemy is at the gates! Our doom is at hand! Will you go now to meet it with me?"
A hundred voices cried out their assent, and a hundred swords clashed bravely against a hundred shields in salute.
Boromir settled back into the saddle and wrapped the reins about his left hand. Leaning close to Pippin, he murmured, "Take the reins, little one. I will hold the beast, but you must guide him."
"How shall I hold the reins and my sword all at once," Pippin asked, nervously.
"Do not draw your sword until I tell you. Trust me, Pippin."
Boromir touched his heels to Fedranth's sides, and the horse leapt away, through the gate and into the shattered streets of the first circle. The other mounted soldiers followed at his heels, with the men on foot running after them. Boromir could taste ash on the wind and smell the foul stench of death and corruption. The sounds of battle were deafening, but they could not drown out the triumphant shrieks of the onrushing orcs.
Suddenly, as they plunged down the wide street toward the gates, Pippin reared back and cried, "The gates are broken! The way is blocked!"
From beside them, Beregond shouted, "Jump the barricade! Jump!"
Boromir dug in his heels, urging the horse on faster. Pippin gave a wild, wordless shriek of mingled excitement and terror, and he hauled back on the reins with all his strength. Boromir instinctively ducked his head, as Fedranth sailed over the shattered remnants of the gate, through the stone archway, to hit the beaten surface of the roadway at a full gallop. Boromir heard the ring of a sword being drawn, and Pippin shouted, his high voice piercing the din of battle, "Gondor!"
The cry went up around them, "Gondor! Gondor!" and the soldiers of the Tower of Guard poured through the gates to fall upon the orcs of Sauron like a storm.
Aragorn had paused for a moment's rest amid the chaos of battle, his captains Éomer, Imrahil, Halbarad, Legolas and Gimli about him, when he saw the troop of soldiers approaching. They marched beneath the white banner of the Steward, and they wore the distinctive black and silver livery of the Tower of Guard, helms gleaming proudly in the new sunlight, lances tipped with fire and blood. It was a brave sight, and one that swelled Aragorn's heart with pride. Then he saw the captain who rode at their head.
The man wore no helm and carried no shield. His tunic and hauberk were those of the Rohirrim, but diagonally across his breast, covering the leaping horse of Rohan, was tied a white sash, and over his shoulders hung a black cloak edged with silver. A strip of black fabric was bound across his eyes. In his right hand, he bore the white standard. In his left, he held the reins of his mount. And before him on his saddle was perched a small, ebullient figure in the full livery of the Guard, waving a sword that dripped with blood.
The horseman rode directly up to where Aragorn sat his own mount, waiting in disbelieving silence. Of all those who watched, only Imrahil, was not frozen in surprise. The Prince caught one glimpse of the captain's face and spurred his horse forward with a cry of welcome.
"My Lord Boromir! Kinsman!"
As the two horses drew together, the Guard fell back. As closely as they had ringed their commander on this battlefield, they knew that they need fear no harm to him in the company of Prince Imrahil. Boromir recognized the voice and shoved the standard into the hands of his nearest companion, so he could return his princely kinsman's embrace.
"Well met!" Imrahil laughed. "Well met, indeed! We thought you lost!"
"But surely my father told you..." Boromir drew away from Imrahil and frowned. "Gandalf has been here before me. He must have told Denethor that I was coming."
At that moment, Aragorn decided it was time to interrupt this meeting and assert his authority. "No one knew you were coming, Boromir." His voice was hard, though his eyes brimmed with laughter. "In truth, as I recall, you were ordered not to come."
Boromir grinned at him, without a trace of chagrin in his face. Drawing his sword, he executed a smart salute that would have taken Pippin's head off, if performed by a less adept hand. "Being ordered not to come and being left behind like a piece of forgotten baggage are two different things, my king. And since this particular piece of baggage has its own legs and its own mind, it decided to follow where it was needed."
Aragorn stared at Boromir in amazement, baffled by his manner and his impudent speech. It was then, as he stared at the wide smile his friend wore and the energy that blazed from him like sunlight on gold, that Aragorn realized he was finally seeing Boromir, Captain of Gondor, as he truly was. Through all the long months of their journeys together, Aragorn had known only the reserved, brooding, troubled or tormented Boromir. Poisoned by the Ring, wracked with guilt, staggering beneath the weight of pain and despair. That was the man Aragorn knew. But this - this man of swift smiles and swifter courage, of fierce determination, effortless command, warlike mien and joyous strength - this was the man Gondor knew. Beloved by soldiers, doted upon by his cold father, revered by allies, feared by foes, and capable of spurring men to war at a word, even now.
A slow, answering smile lightened the Ranger's dour face, and he leaned forward in his saddle to grasp Boromir's arm in welcome. "You are come in good time, friend Baggage."
"And a good thing, too," Pippin interjected. "If we hadn't cleared those orcs from the gate, you wouldn't have a city to rule. I killed half a dozen of them, at least!"
"Then you have my thanks, along with my welcome."
"'Twas nothing," Boromir said, smugly.
"For you, perhaps," Pippin retorted, "because you had a hobbit along to do all the dirty work!"
The lords collected behind Aragorn looked askance at the pert halfling, but Legolas and Gimli smiled, while both Aragorn and Boromir laughed outright. Boromir dropped his free hand to Pippin's shoulder and squeezed it in gratitude.
"True enough, Pippin. My sword is not even bloodied." Then Boromir's face fell, ludicrously. "Not one orc to my credit! How will I face Merry?"
"Let's go find some more," Pip suggested. "I'll leave one for you."
"Halt!" Aragorn bellowed. Boromir obediently reined in his horse, halting his move to gallop back into the fray. "You will not go find more orcs, Master Peregrine. You will accompany Boromir back to the city. And on your honor as a soldier of Gondor I charge you, do not let your lord suffer so much as a scratch. Not one scratch!"
Now it was Pippin's turn to look woebegone. "And miss the war?"
"The war is far from over, Pippin. But for this day, you are done with fighting."
To Aragorn's surprise and immense relief, Boromir made no objection to his orders. He merely smiled and saluted the gathered captains, then he held out his hand for the banner, lifted it proudly above his head, and cantered back toward the city with his men in close formation around him. Aragorn watched them go, a smile playing about his lips.
"So the Lord Boromir is not dead, as rumor would have it." Prince Imrahil had drawn his horse up close to Aragorn's and spoke in a private tone.
"How came such a rumor to be? Did not Gandalf ride to Minas Tirith with the news that Boromir lived?"
"He was not believed."
Aragorn shot Imrahil a piercing look. "Who would gainsay Gandalf?"
"Denethor has never trusted the Grey Pilgrim. And... I know not how, but the Lord Denethor swore that he saw his son fall beneath an orc blade."
"So he did. So too did I. But here we are, as you see, alive and well."
"Well?" Imrahil's voice was carefully neutral, unchallenging, yet cool with disbelief. He pointed a mailed finger toward the group of horsemen, now far in the distance. "Call you that well?"
"I do," Aragorn answered, very softly. He knew what troubled Imrahil. He had expected as much from the nobility of Gondor, but his own determination was unshaken.
"He is alive, certainly," Imrahil went on, "and hale enough. Do not misunderstand me, Aragorn. I am overjoyed to see him again, but..." Imrahil broke off, and Aragorn gave him a long, level stare.
"You doubt his fitness to serve Gondor as he once did?"
"He is blind."
"How can Gondor's armies follow a blind captain into battle?"
Aragorn forbore to mention that he had no intention of allowing Boromir to lead anyone into battle, ever again. He would not so diminish his friend and Steward in the eyes of his peers. Instead, he nodded after the retreating horsemen. "As they did today."
"They did not follow him," Imrahil retorted, "but guard him. How many men died, think you, to protect their princely standard-bearer?"
Twisting around to address the warriors behind him, Aragorn called, "Tell me, my captains, what did you see in the faces of those Men? Fear?"
Gimli gave a bark of laughter. "Pride!"
"The joy of victory," Legolas said.
"Loyalty and love," Éomer said, "enough to carry them to the Black Gates, if he asked it of them."
Aragorn smiled at the King of the Mark. "Would you follow him?"
"Even to the Black Gates, if he asked it of me."
Aragorn's eyes narrowed in sudden suspicion. "Did you give him that horse?"
Éomer grinned. "Aye."
"Then you and I shall have words, later."
"No thanks are necessary, lord," the Rider averred.
Aragorn broke into a wide smile and laughed with sheer delight in battle and friendship and victory. "Enough! Let us to battle, before the hobbits win it for us!"
*** *** ***
Merry staggered as he walked, unable to hold his body upright or see where he planted his feet. He felt no pain, only a deep, numbing cold that deadened his right arm and spread, inexorably, through the rest of his body. Dark mists clouded his sight, and when he lifted his head, he could no longer make out the figures of the litter-bearers or the torches they carried. He meant to follow them. He meant to keep his place at his king's side, even now. But the long legs of Men outpaced him, and the shadows swallowed them up, leaving him alone on the plain of the dead.
He clambered over piled bodies - orcs, men and horses lying heaped together - to reach the gates, and in his befogged state, he did not flinch from the touch of their dead flesh on his feet and hands. Beneath the shadow of the walls, he climbed the broken remains of the city gates, scaling the barricade of twisted wood and metal as uncaringly as he had the piles of dead.
Once inside the walls, he paused to look about him. He knew nothing of the city and had no idea where to go, but he caught a glimpse of torches wending their way up a broad, paved street. So, putting his head down, he set his heavy legs to climbing... climbing... while the cold sank ever more deeply into his bones and the darkness closed in about him.
Merry looked up at the sound of that familiar voice, and the mist cleared from his eyes a little, as they fell on Pippin, running full-tilt toward him, crying, "Merry! Thank goodness we have found you!"
He saw that he walked in a narrow lane, empty but for himself, his cousin, and a tall figure, cloaked in black, standing at the turning of the roadway above. Merry halted and stared, confused, at his surroundings.
Pippin ran up to him and caught both his hands in a warm clasp, though Merry could not feel the pressure of the other hobbit's fingers upon his right hand. "Poor old Merry!" he said. "We have been searching the city for you, afraid that you were lost out on that bloody plain somewhere!"
"Where is the King?" Merry asked, dazedly. "Where is Éowyn?"
"They have been taken to the Citadel."
"I must follow..."
He tried to move his legs, to resume his endless climb, but he had no strength left in his limbs. Pippin slipped an arm around his waist and pulled him gently up the hill. Merry stumbled along at his side.
"I'm cold, Pip. So terribly cold."
"Just a few more steps, Merry."
"It was awful! My sword... it melted right away! And my arm has gone dead. Help me, Pippin!"
"Yes, yes, we will. Don't think about the battle anymore, or the cold."
At the sound of the new voice, Merry halted, swaying with exhaustion, and looked up at the tall figure before him. For a dreadful moment, the black cloak fooled him, and he thought he saw the Lord of the Nazgûl looming over him again. But the voice was wrong, and there was no fearful chill of evil in the air. The chill he felt came from within him, not from without.
The figure took a step nearer to him and knelt to bring his head on a level with the hobbit's. "Are you hurt, Merry?"
Merry blinked the mists away and found himself gazing into Boromir's worried face. He tried to smile, but his muscles refused to obey him. "Boromir. You're here."
Boromir clasped his shoulders briefly, then shifted his hands to the sides of Merry's head. Merry was vaguely aware of an unaccustomed gentleness in his voice and touch. "Aye, where else would I be? Pippin, is he injured?"
"I don't think so," Pippin answered.
"I'm just cold," Merry assured him, "and I can't see properly. Everything has gone dark..." He broke off, and a sob rose in his throat. "I'm sorry, Boromir. Please don't growl at me. I tried to fight as you taught me, but I couldn't... I couldn't save Théoden King, and when I tried to help Éowyn, I only melted my sword."
"Hush." The huge, black cloak settled around Merry's shoulders, and the man's arms lifted him easily. "You did a hero's service, little one."
Merry continued to mumble, in a confused way, "You knew it was her all along, didn't you? She killed the wraith. She drove her sword through its head, and it flew away with the most dreadful cry. I wanted to help her. I tried. I wanted to make you proud of me," he murmured, as he burrowed his head into Boromir's convenient shoulder and closed his eyes.
"You did. Never doubt that. Take us to the Houses of Healing, Pippin. Quickly!"
Merry heard no more. Secure in the knowledge that no winged nightmares could reach him, with Boromir and Pippin there, he let go of consciousness and slipped gratefully into darkness.
To be continued...