Chapter 3: The Shadow of the Enemy
He awoke to darkness and a fierce, insistent pain in his head. Heavy feet stumped and stamped around him, while harsh voices called to each other, sounding oddly muffled to his ears. A horse - Ayreth, he was sure - screamed in fury and brought its hooves ringing down on the roadway. Boromir only just swallowed a groan, as the sound sliced through his battered head. He felt as though his skull had been crushed to jelly, and every noise, every vibration in the packed dirt of the road, was an agony.
The men - there were several of them, to judge by their voices - were struggling to restrain an enraged Ayreth and had apparently forgotten all about Boromir. He still lay where he had fallen, with his sword pinned beneath his body and a fold of his cloak over his head. The proud warrior in him wanted to leap to his feet, draw his sword, and cut a bloody swathe through the unsuspecting thieves. The wounded man, alone in a strange place with no one to fight at his side, wanted to close his eyes and slip back into unconsciousness. But it was the wily veteran in him who won the day - the strategist who took what advantages were given him and parlayed them into victory. So he neither moved nor spoke, gave no sign that he even lived, and waited for his attackers to give him a clear opening.
They succeeded in calming Ayreth, by sheer force of numbers, and began to strip him of his baggage. Boromir concentrated on counting the number of voices and placing each of them, in preparation for an attack. Then he heard one voice rise above the rest, calling,
"Search the body, Aglun! Get his purse!"
Aglun gave a short, ugly laugh. "And get that sword of his in my gullet? Nay, I'll not touch that one."
The first voice grumbled something Boromir could not hear, then heavy, booted feet approached him. "He's dead, ye fool. I stove his head in meself."
Another voice chimed in, "That's what ye said about the dwarf, Gerd, and remember how that ended!"
"Huh. Dwarves' heads are made of rocks. This one went down like wheat before a scythe. He's dead, I tell ye." Boromir felt something prod him in the ribs. "Naught but carrion."
"Leave him for the crows, then," Aglund grumbled.
"And let that fat purse go begging? Ye're fools and cowards, the lot of ye." A thick hand closed around Boromir's arm and made to heave him onto his back. Boromir rolled over, seeming to move in obedience to Gerd's grip on his arm, but in truth freeing his sword and brushing the cloak away from his eyes.
"Come on, then, ye great lump o' crow's food. Let's have that..."
Gerd's sentence trailed off in an odd gurgle, as Boromir spitted him on the end of his sword. While the other thieves stood gawking at him, too terrified to move, he leapt to his feet and kicked the body from his blade. Then he whirled on them, his bloody sword coming up to strike. But he had bargained without his own injuries. As he turned, Boromir stumbled and nearly fell. His limbs went nerveless and his eyes dim, as a churning sickness rose in him. He staggered to one side, fighting for balance, and caught his foot on a heavy walking stick that lay in the road. Pain sliced through his body, as he landed hard on his knees, the tip of his sword gouging into the dirt.
A harsh cry of triumph reached him and recalled him to a sense of urgency. He lifted his head to see two shadowy figures darting toward him, sunlight reflecting off the blades in their hands. The soldier in him rose to the challenge. His sword came up in a deft thrust, and a second body lay twitching in the dust before him. Another slash, and the other man dropped his dagger, howling in agony, and scuttled away.
Boromir staggered to his feet again and advanced purposefully on what remained of his assailants. The thieves broke and fled before him. Their courage, while ample for the task of waylaying and robbing a lone traveler, would not sustain them in the face of a fully-armed soldier of Gondor. One of them tried to grab Ayreth's full saddlebag as he retreated, but Boromir nicked him with the tip of his sword, encouraging him to drop his booty and take to his heels to save his skin. A moment later, Boromir stood alone in the middle of the road, the unquestioned victor of the field.
He let the point of his sword drop and leaned heavily on the hilt. His eyes closed in weariness, and he sank down to sit in the road, both hands still gripping the sword hilt and his forehead pressed to the cold metal. He did not move until he heard Ayreth's hooves plodding up to him and felt the horse nuzzle the back of his neck.
Lifting his head, very carefully, he smiled up at the horse and patted his nose. "Not quite crow's food, yet, my friend. It seems I have something in common with the dwarves."
Ayreth tossed his head, and Boromir saw a smear of gleaming, wet redness on the animal's nose. He frowned and started to climb to his feet. Had the thieves dared to harm Ayreth? Then he realized that the blood on Ayreth's muzzle was not Ayreth's own. Sinking back down to the roadway, Boromir pulled off his glove and reached to touch the back of his own head. His fingers came away a brilliant crimson.
With a grimace of distaste, he wiped his hand on the clothing of the corpse beside him, then pulled on his glove again. Gerd lay on his back, his glassy eyes staring at the brilliant, blue sky above them and a look of eternal amazement frozen on his face. Boromir studied his features curiously, then the rough homespun clothing he wore, with the uneasy feeling that he knew this man. It was not until he glanced at the walking stick lying beside Gerd - the one that had tripped him during the skirmish - that he remembered. He had seen that same walking stick, with its head polished smooth from the breaking of many skulls, propped against the table at the inn.
A mirthless smile touched his lips. "My brother would be pleased," Boromir informed the corpse. "He told me my pride would be my downfall, and see how close I came to making him right, yet again. If I had treated your threat as real, back at the inn..." Abruptly, he shrugged, as if throwing off an unseen burden. "No matter. It's merely a headache."
Boromir climbed to his feet, disdaining the support of either his sword of Gerd's discarded staff, but as he straightened his back, the sickness hit him again. A black mist swam before his eyes, his gorge rose, and he staggered drunkenly. Grabbing a handful of Ayreth's mane for balance, he looped both arms around the horse's neck and buried his face in the smooth hide. Ayreth nickered softly, and Boromir gave a choked laugh, muffled in the horse's neck.
"I think we won't go any farther today."
When he could stand without swaying, Boromir released his hold on Ayreth and took a few cautious steps toward the place where his looted baggage lay. Ayreth followed, and he stood patiently, while Boromir lifted each scattered piece of gear, slung it over the saddle, and secured it. The man worked slowly, pausing to quell the sickness that rose after each movement and resting often against the horse's flank. Finally, he had retrieved everything of value. Only the two bodies still lay in the road.
Boromir caught Ayreth's dangling reins and looped them round his hand. With slow, dogged steps, he led the horse along the road to the end of the cutting, where only a low embankment separated the road from the wooded fields beyond. The horse leapt the embankment first, then waited, stolidly, while Boromir scrambled after him, using the reins like a rope to scale the barrier.
A deep lassitude gripped Boromir, draining the strength and purpose from his limbs. He wanted only to lie down on this very spot, roll up in his cloak, and sleep. But the pounding in his head had not entirely driven out good sense, and he knew that it might well mean his death to lie exposed, helpless and unknowing on the verge of the road. Driven by a soldier's reflexes, rather than by his own will, he started across the field toward the nearest clump of trees.
A few minutes' walking brought him to the small wood. He threaded his way among the trees until their branches hid the road from view, then he halted in the shade of a gnarled oak. It was a peaceful place, dappled with cool shadows and warm, morning sunshine, carpeted with Autumn leaves. Boromir did not bother to tether Ayreth. He merely tugged the saddle, with all its burdens attached, from the horse's back, removed the bridle, and recommended that his friend go find something to fill his empty belly. For himself, he wanted nothing but a drink from the water skin he carried and a saddle bag beneath his head to cushion it. Sleep came quickly, and with it, relief from pain and doubt.
It was Ayreth's snort of alarm that woke him. Boromir's eyes snapped open, and he tried to thrust himself away from the ground, to stand upright, but his body would not obey. He succeeded only in re-igniting the pain in his skull and causing the moonlit branches before his eyes to swim sickeningly out of focus. It was deep night. He must have slept through the entire day. He did not know what had disturbed his rest, but his racing pulse told him that, whatever it was, it meant danger.
Ayreth shied and pawed the ground, his eyes showing white with fear in the darkness. Boromir reached for his sword, and though he doubted he had the strength to wield it, the weight of it in his hand steadied him. And then he heard it - the quiet clop of a horse's hooves on the soft earth.
Urgency lent him strength, and he staggered to his feet to confront this new threat. Behind him, Ayreth neighed fiercely. The horse's panic fed his own, though he did not know why this night traveler filled him with such dread. He could hear the other horse approaching through the trees, its bit jingling and its breath snorting.
He was about to call a challenge to the rider, when a sudden wave of cold hit him with such force that he staggered under it. Ayreth screamed in terror, rearing up, his hooves flailing above Boromir's head. Then his forefeet came back to earth with a jarring thud, and he took off running at full speed, into the night.
"Ayreth!" Boromir shouted helplessly. "Stop!"
But the horse did not hear or did not obey. He was gone, and Boromir was alone with the mysterious rider and the hideous cold that gripped him, cutting to the bone, numbing his limbs until his body no longer seemed his own. He resolutely turned to face the approaching hoof beats, setting his face in proud, dauntless lines to conceal the fear in his heart, and waited.
The rider loomed up before him, silhouetted against the rising moon, its face lost in impenetrable shadow. It was swathed, from head to booted heels, in a black cloak, and the hands that gripped the reins were gloved in black leather. It carried no visible weapon, spoke no word, offered no threat, yet dread flowed from it in a chill current, eddying around the man who confronted it, catching at his limbs, dragging him to his doom.
Boromir tore his eyes away from the black hood and the faceless void beneath it, struggling to reclaim his will, to lift his heart and his sword above the deadly current. He did manage to raise the sword, but the brave challenge he meant to utter died undelivered. The creature on the horse pinned him with its unseen gaze, and his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth. The horse took a step closer to him. Boromir dropped to his knees, his sword still raised as though to shield his face, and in the madness of his fear, he could have sworn he heard a sniffing sound from beneath the rider's hood.
The chill gripped him more tightly still, and his hands began to shake. His sword fell to the ground with a muffled thump, and in the space of a breath, Boromir followed it, his body slumping forward to lie huddled at the feet of the terrible shadow. The rider swung down from the saddle and stooped over him.
In some corner of his mind, where the light still touched him, Boromir knew that he ought to strike one last blow for himself and his people - that he ought to drive his sword into the shadow above him and send it back to the greater Shadow in the East. But despair lay upon him in a great, weighted shroud, and he could not raise his arm to strike. Despair and defeat, for the Enemy had found him.
The sniffing sound came again, then a soft hiss. The rider straightened and turned, swiftly, to remount its horse. As it moved away, its cold shadow no longer falling across his body, Boromir felt some semblance of life return to him. He stirred, fumbling for his sword, and pushed himself up on one arm to watch the rider fade away among the trees.
The natural coolness of the Autumn night returned, along with the rustling of leaves in the wind, but no beast or bird moved in the wake of the rider's coming. Boromir strained to catch the sound of hoof beats, either Ayreth's or the black rider's, but he heard nothing. Closing his eyes, he fell back on the ground and flung one arm over his face to shield himself from the watching night.
In his lifetime of struggle against the Shadow, Boromir had fought many battles on the borders of the Black Land. He had walked the sylvan paths of Ithilien, even to the brink of Morgul Vale. He had gazed down on the evil flowers, warped by the power of the thing that dwelt there, that blossomed in the grass and seen the white tower glowing with its own eerie light. And he had felt the echo of a dreadful chill touch him - the same chill that gripped him even now.
He knew this rider. He had tasted its evil before, if only from a distance. This was the power that lurked in Minas Morgul, the terror that the Enemy held in reserve, ready to unleash on Gondor and the West, when his own power was ripe. And now that time was come, for the terror of Minas Morgul stalked the quiet woods of this land, unleashed by its master to the downfall of the West.
Boromir did not know how the Enemy had found him, or why, and in his black despair, he cared not. The end was upon them. His quest had failed. Gondor would fall before the might of Mordor, and all he had fought so hard to defend would pass into darkness. All was lost.
Alone in the woods, where only the stars of the Elves could see him, he wept long and bitterly. But when he had no tears left in him, Boromir pushed himself wearily to his feet, collected what little of his gear he could carry on foot, and struck off north through the woods. He had no heart for his quest and no hope, but he had made a vow to find Imladris and the answer to his riddle, and that vow was binding, even in the face of defeat.
To be continued...