Chapter 5: The King's Grace
The night had grown unseasonably warm. Or perhaps, he had simply stopped feeling the cold as he ought. Lying in a small hollow among the rocks, staring up at the brilliant stars, he felt oddly detached from himself and nearly beyond the reach of his body's pains. The fierce torment of his wounds and the fever that burned in his blood belonged to another man - to the man who had stumbled into this hollow, fleeing the foul taint of death on the air and the furtive rustling of scavengers, only to wait for death himself - not to the man who lay dreaming under the stars.
He did not remember leaving the stone ledge, with its litter of carrion, or wandering the stony heights in search of a sheltered place to rest. He had no idea how long he had searched, how many hours, how many days had slipped by him. He knew only that he had come to the end of his strength and would soon join his slaughtered foes in death.
Above him, the stars were singing, as Faramir had always told him they sang. He gazed up at them, his face calm beneath its mask of blood and dirt, and fancied that they stooped down upon him from their high seats, come to see the mortal breathe his last. Boromir lifted one hand to touch them and was vaguely surprised that his gloved fist closed on naught but air. He opened his hand and watched the stars glimmer between his fingers. So beautiful they were, and so cold. So utterly unmoved by the plight of one beleaguered man, who lay beneath their canopy. What was he to them, but another scrap of fragile mortality?
"I might have been more than that" he murmured, his voice barely carrying past his own lips. "I might have struck a lasting blow against the Shadow, before it smothers us all. Even you."
He trailed his fingers slowly through the air, as though expecting the stars to swirl and dance on the eddies he made. "When the darkness comes, will you remember me? Will you remember the warrior who died with the name of Imladris on his lips?"
His eyes closed and his hand fell to the carpet of leaves beside him. "Imladris," he whispered again, though his breath failed and his voice faded to nothing. "Imladris."
He had vowed to find Imladris or die with its name on his lips, and Boromir knew that he would never find the home of Elrond Half-Elven now. This, then, was the only honor left to him - to mouth a meaningless word in service to his vow, to gaze up at the indifferent stars and pray that Faramir, gazing upon those same stars, knew that Boromir had not broken faith with him.
"Imladris," he murmured, a final time.
"Come with me, if you would find Imladris."
Boromir heard the voice clearly, but caught as he was in his waking dream of stars and death, he felt no fear, no surprise, only a mild curiosity. His eyes drifted slowly open, and he gazed into the face of a stranger bending over him. It was a man, seemingly made of shifting starlight and the shadows of trees visible through insubstantial flesh. His long hair fell to his shoulders, and his cloak lay about his neck like a robe of state. He was neither old nor young, but aged by sorrow and as beautiful as any youth in the first flush of manhood, and his eyes shone with a wisdom that stripped Boromir's soul bare and forgave him for what they saw, all with one, piercing glance.
Boromir lifted a hand to touch the face, and once again, his fingers closed on nothing. He gazed at the stranger in wonder.
"What are you?"
"Come," the stranger repeated, "the hour grows late."
"You aren't real. Am I dreaming?" The stranger smiled slightly. "Am I dead?"
In answer, the man rose smoothly to his feet, from where he had knelt in the leaves at Boromir's side. Boromir pushed himself awkwardly upright, using only one arm, and craned his neck to look up at the beautiful, enigmatic face. "Where are you going?" he asked.
"Am I coming with you?"
"That is your choice."
Then the stranger turned away, and as he moved, Boromir saw something flash upon his brow.
"Wait!" Boromir gasped.
His wounds and weakness forgotten, he leapt to his feet and took a hasty stride toward the stranger. His heart labored in his breast, and it seemed to him as though it would burst with the awe that filled it. For there, glimmering upon the proud head of the stranger, sat a lofty helm with wings of silver and pearl, and seven stones burning like stars in a circlet about its rim. He saw it for only one, blinding moment, but in that moment, Boromir knew it for what it was - the crown of Ëarnur. The crown of Gondor.
Boromir stretched out his hand again, reaching for the insubstantial vision before him, and whispered, "The crown..." He swayed, as though struck a terrible blow, and his fever-bright eyes slid out of focus. "Are you... are you Isildur himself, or one of his heirs? Why do you wear Gondor's crown?"
The stranger only smiled again and headed for the lip of the hollow.
The stranger stepped over the screen of boulders and plunged into the darkness between the trees. Boromir gave a breathless cry and scrambled after him, though the ground seemed to shudder beneath his feet and the trees writhe away when he tried to grasp their trunks for balance. He kept his eyes fixed on the gently shining figure ahead, following it through the drunken night.
The apparition led him up a steep slope, toward the rocky crag at the head of the valley. Boromir scrambled up the hill, always a few paces behind the other's booted heels, never quite losing sight of his guide among the trees and stones. He reached the rocky saddle at the top of the crag and paused to catch his breath. Below him, the stranger picked a narrow, treacherous path down the sheer mountainside that Boromir could not see. Without stopping to consider the folly of his actions, Boromir plunged down the crag after him.
Their way led into a deep, folded valley, then up the face of another barren ridge of stone. When Boromir's steps faltered, the dream vision before him would slow his pace enough to stay within sight, but he did not turn to offer any encouragement. He simply walked, effortlessly, swiftly, his long cloak brushing his heels with every step, and his curiously-wrought scabbard flashing at his side. Only by keeping his eyes riveted on the vision of his king could Boromir force his limbs to climb or his lungs to breathe. And so the stranger drew him on, through the cold, biting wilderness, toward what, Boromir did not know.
Then, with eerie suddenness, the stranger halted. Boromir pushed his way past a gnarled thorn bush, stepped over a line of broken stones, and found himself standing in an open, moonlit space. Only a few paces away from him stood the stranger, and once again, he wore the crown of Gondor upon his brow. Boromir took a step toward the lordly figure, drawn to it against his will or conscious thought. The words he did not believe, yet could not leave unsaid, formed silently on his lips.
The vision heard him and smiled. Then, before Boromir's horrified eyes, it vanished. Boromir gave a tearing cry and lurched forward, to where the image of his king had stood, and stared around him in agonized despair. Tears blinded him. His legs collapsed, and he found himself kneeling on a smooth, hard surface. Placing his gloved left hand carefully on the ground, as though afraid it would dissolve under his touch, he fixed his eyes on the dirt between his fingers. Then he carefully lifted his head, following the ribbon of packed earth and gravel with his eyes, to where it swept around the shoulder of a hill and disappeared.
A small sob of laughter rose in his throat, as he finally realized where he was. The apparition had brought him to the road. The laughter kept coming, and Boromir crumpled slowly to the ground, clutching his wounded arm to his body and laughing, laughing, in feverish, hysterical euphoria. He did not know which direction to take or how far he might be from Rivendell. He had neither food nor water, did not have the strength to lift his head, and was only held here, in this drained and broken body, by the fire of his own will. But he was on the road.
A distant drumming echoed through the ground beneath him, pounding uncomfortably in his head. Boromir recognized the sound as horses' hooves. His laughter abruptly died, as a chilling memory came to him of a cloaked rider on a towering black horse. He tried to stand, thinking to flee the road and hide himself in the darkness of the trees, but he found that he could no longer move. He could only lie in an abject huddle in the middle of the road, waiting for the black hooves to ride over him.
They came swiftly, galloping around the hill's shoulder and into sight, a group of six horsemen. To Boromir, they seemed no more substantial than the night shadows, a rush of grey and silver bearing down upon him. They wore no cloaks or hoods, and he saw the sheen of moonlight on uncovered hair as they drew nearer.
Then they were upon him, the horses checking their strides and dancing away from the body in the road. A low voice called a sharp command. Tall figures swung down from blowing, stamping horses. Booted feet stepped lightly about him, and strange words flew over him.
Boromir tried again to rise, but an ungloved hand clasped his shoulder and held him still. A figure clad in grey and deep green stooped over him and said something in an unknown tongue. As the rider lifted his head to speak to one of his companions, his long hair fell back from his face to reveal a delicately pointed ear. Boromir stared at that ear, immobile, while recognition finally seeped through the hot soup of illness in his mind. Then he smiled and let his eyes fall closed.
They were elves. He had found the elves.
They made camp in a small hollow beside the road. Over the fire, one of the elves set water to boil, while others tended to the horses and laid a simple meal. They moved like flickers of moonlight through the trees - swift, graceful and silent - and when they spoke, their voices were liquid whispers on the night air. Boromir listened to their speech in silence, content to enjoy its music without understanding a word of it. He ate and drank what they pressed upon him, though in his distracted state, he did not notice what passed his lips.
The surge of febrile excitement that had brought him to the road had faded with the image of his king. Now it cost him the last of his waning strength simply to keep his head up and his eyes open, but he might have spared himself the effort. His own illness, mixed with the haunting glamour of the elves, blurred his senses until he could not discern the living creatures about him from the dancing shadows of his dreams.
Their leader - a tall, dark-haired elf with an air of command about him - loomed suddenly up from the darkness beyond the fire and crouched in front of him. He fixed Boromir with intent grey eyes, his face kindly but unsmiling, and held out a silver flask.
"Drink this. It will clear your head," he said, in the common tongue.
Boromir took the flask in his left hand and made no protest when the elf's fingers closed over his, guiding his movements. He could not have lifted the flask to his lips unassisted. The elf allowed him one mouthful its contents, then sat back on his heels to wait.
Boromir tasted the warmth of the liquor on his tongue, rich and fragrant. He swallowed and immediately felt the fever in his blood cool, replaced by a reviving warmth that brought life back to his drained and poisoned body. At the same time, the dark mists lifted from his mind, leaving him alert and aware, but with nothing to shield him from the pain of his wounds.
The agony was as fierce and hot as the moment the wolf's teeth had pierced his flesh, and Boromir reeled under this fresh assault. Darkness clouded his sight, and he began to crumple toward the ground, clutching his arm to his suddenly shaking body. Then he felt the elf's hand clasp his wrist, steadying him and lending him strength. Struggling for control, he straightened himself, and looked up into the grave, ageless face bent over him.
"How old are these wounds?"
Boromir shook his head. "I do not know."
Black brows lifted in a silent query.
"I remember nothing after the wolves, until..." His words trailed off, as the image of a kingly face swam before his eyes again.
"Wolves?" The elf began unbuckling the gauntlet on Boromir's right forearm. "You were bitten?"
"They are fell beasts that hunt these hills. Their bites are foul and poisonous."
Boromir laughed mirthlessly. "I do not need the wisdom of the Eldar to tell me that."
For the first time, a hint of a smile lightened the elf's face. "Mayhap my wisdom can be made better use of than to state the obvious. I have some skill as a healer."
As he spoke, the elf looked down at the gauntlet he held. Surprise swept over his face, and he glanced questioningly from the tooled leather in his hands to the face of his guest. His long fingers traced the device of the white tree.
"Nimloth," he murmured, then he twisted around to call sharply to one of the shadowy figures beyond the firelight. In answer, another elf, as like the first as two arrows in the same quiver, hurried over to the fire. He cast a swift smile of acknowledgment at Boromir, then dropped to one knee beside his twin. Boromir watched them, bemused, wondering if his fever had risen again and his eyes were deceiving him.
The first elf held out the gauntlet to the other and said something in his own tongue. The second looked again at Boromir, more thoughtfully, and said,
"It seems we have found Lord Elrond's missing envoy. You are bound for Imladris, man of Gondor?"
"I am Elladan," the second elf said. "This is my brother, Elrohir. We are the sons of Elrond, out of Imladris. Do you have a name?"
The fine, black brows rose in amazement. "Son of Denethor?"
Elladan's grey eyes glimmered in a smile. "You might have told us that we entertained nobility in our humble camp. It seems, brother, that we are obliged to save his life, after all."
Boromir betrayed a flash of alarm, then relaxed as he recognized the bantering note in Elladan's voice. The elf was teasing him, but he was too tired and ill to appreciate it. He only wanted to stop hurting long enough to sleep.
Elrohir did not respond to his brother's humor, either. He had turned his attention back to the ugly wounds on Boromir's arm and was trying to peel back the sleeve of his mail shirt. It stuck, and Boromir gave a hiss of pain.
Elrohir spoke urgently to his brother in Elvish, then said to Boromir, "These wounds must be cleaned and dressed, but first, we must remove the mail."
His eyes lingered doubtfully on Boromir's drawn, ashen face as he spoke, and Boromir knew exactly what was passing through his mind. He was envisioning the man's reaction, when he tore the chain mail links from the bruised, savaged flesh of his arm.
"Leave it. It will keep 'til I reach Imladris."
"It will not." Elrohir's tone was flat and final. "Brother, your help, if you please."
Boromir started to protest a second time, but he suddenly found himself being ruthlessly and efficiently divested of all his outer clothing by strong, impersonal hands. It was humiliating to sit there, helpless, while a matched set of elves stripped him as easily as if he were a doll. Had he been able to use his sword arm, he would have been sorely tempted to teach them a lesson in respect, but under the circumstances, the only thing he could do was clench his teeth and suffer through their ministrations in silence.
When he was reduced to nothing but his breeches, his mail shirt, and the light silk shirt he always wore beneath the mail, Elrohir gathered up his bloodstained garments and tossed them to another elf with a low-voiced order. Turning back to Boromir, he explained, "It is perilous to travel these woods, with the odor of blood and death upon you."
Boromir realized that the unnamed elf had been sent to do his laundry, and he felt a fresh wave of embarrassment hit him. This pack of elves were taking the utmost care of him, and making him feel like an erring child in the process, a child who had just been gently reprimanded for soiling his good tunic. Avoiding Elrohir's gaze, he nodded at his mailed arm and growled, "If you must take that off, do it quickly."
Elrohir nodded equably and murmured brief instructions to his brother that Boromir could not understand. Once again, the pair began to undress him, sliding his left arm, head and body free of the mail shirt, 'til the full weight of it hung over his right shoulder and only his right arm remained covered. At another low word from Elrohir, Elladan shook out Boromir's cloak and draped it around his shoulders.
"The night grows cold. And this is going to hurt." The elf knelt behind him and looped an arm across his chest, holding him with an unexpected strength. "Try to remain still."
Before Boromir could answer him, Elrohir lifted the steaming pot from the fire and poured scalding water up the length of his arm. Boromir gave a hiss of alarm and instinctively recoiled, but Elrohir's clasp on his wrist restrained him. Then the pain struck. With a wordless, wrenching cry, Boromir fought to tear himself away from the hands that imprisoned and tormented him. Elladan's arm across his chest kept him from pitching to the ground, and Boromir collapsed against the comfortingly solid elf, sick and shaking, his breath coming in ragged gasps through clenched teeth and his eyes closed.
It was not until one of them poured another draught of the heady elvish liquor down his throat that he revived enough to open his eyes and look about him. His bleared gaze fell upon Elrohir, holding up his mail shirt in triumph, and he realized that the arm he clutched so protectively to his body was clad in nothing but slashed and bloody silk. He gave a deep, exhausted groan and let his head fall back against Elladan's shoulder.
"Are you trying to cook me?" Boromir muttered, his words slurring drunkenly with exhaustion.
"Would you rather he strip the meat from your bones?" Elladan retorted, amusement plain in his voice. "The heat softened the wounds and allowed him to free the metal, without flaying your arm."
"Remind me to thank him."
Elladan chuckled softly. Shifting his hold on the limp, nearly insensible body in his arms, he settled Boromir on the ground and put something slightly softer than a rock beneath his head. "Rest now," he advised. "The worst is past, and my brother will tend to your wounds."
For once, the elf did not try to jest with him, for which Boromir was grateful. He was also grateful for the cloak pulled carefully over him and the warmth of the nearby fire. So deep was his weariness that he drifted off to sleep, heedless of any further abuse that Elrohir might visit upon him.
The touch of something cold on his forehead woke him. His eyes drifted reluctantly open, and he saw one of the twins bending over him. He could not tell which one, until the elf spoke and he recognized the grave tone as Elrohir's.
"This is from a wolf's tooth, as well?"
It took Boromir a moment to remember the cut on his forehead, then he grunted wordless assent.
"You were fortunate to find us when you did, Son of Denethor. I have done my utmost to check the poison in your wounds, but they will need the care of Lord Elrond to heal fully." He hesitated, then added in a low, somber voice, "The black breath breeds corruption. I have not the skill to counter it."
"The black breath?" Boromir struggled to push himself upright, a thrill of apprehension running through him, though he did not know why. "What is the black breath?"
"You have met the servant of the Enemy, Boromir, and been touched by his foul breath. I can see the shadow in you, even now."
Boromir shuddered. "The black rider."
"That is how they appear in the mortal world. A rider cloaked in black. Did you not know him?" Boromir shook his head, mutely. "It was a Nazgûl."
Boromir stared at him in growing dread, feeling his skin crawl at the mention of that ancient evil. "The Nazgûl? That is the nameless power in the Morgul Vale? That is the weapon the Enemy holds over us?"
"You have felt it, before."
"Felt it, yes, but never seen the thing that wields it." He fell silent, seeing again the towering form of the black rider and feeling again the deadly cold it exhaled. He murmured, more to himself than to Elrohir, "The Nazgûl. I thought they were destroyed, when the Enemy fell to Elendil's sword."
"So long as the Dark Lord endures, they will endure, and they will ride forth at his bidding. My father has long known the Nine were abroad, and he has been searching for the messenger of Gondor in some anxiety, fearing you had fallen foul of them."
Boromir gazed at the elf in surprise. "You were looking for me?"
"Nay. Our meeting was by chance, alone." Elrohir cast a troubled glance about him, and not for the first time, Boromir sensed the urgency beneath his calm demeanor. "We ride on vital business for the Lord Elrond, and we may not turn aside, even to escort Denethor's son to Imladris. But I can give you a single guide and a horse."
Boromir turned doubtful eyes on the horses that grazed around the fringes of the camp. They were kingly beasts, tall and strong and fleet of foot. To the weary and battered man, their proud backs seemed far out of reach. He shook his head.
"I cannot ride."
"Come the sunrise, you must."
The elves broke camp at dawn, and by the time the sun cast its first rays through the trees, Boromir was seated on the back of a prancing, grey stallion, watching the elves depart. The company wheeled their horses toward the west and lifted their hands in farewell to the man and the fair-haired elf who rode with him.
"Bring him safely to my father," Elrohir instructed the elf. "Boromir, ride swiftly, stay for naught, and you will reach Imladris in good time."
Boromir raised his left hand in salute. "My thanks, sons of Elrond."
Elladan smiled and reached forward to clasp Boromir's arm. "Mayhap we will draw our swords together, and prove our valor on the field of battle. But until such time, beware of wolves!"
"Join me in Gondor, and I promise you all the battles your heart could crave."
"I shall. I've an ambition to see you cleave orc necks with that mighty blade of yours. Farewell, Boromir."
The riders spoke softly to their mounts, and the horses leapt away, vanishing into the heavy morning mists that cloaked the road.
"Come," the elf said, "we must away."
He turned his horse with a word, and Boromir's followed without instruction from him. The two mounts fell into a swift, effortless stride that ate up the leagues beneath their hooves. Boromir found that he did not have to guide the horse - in fact, he could not, without bridle, rein or saddle - and he slowly relaxed into the strange helplessness of letting the horse guide him. The elf, Faranthil, set their pace, and the road marked their path. All Boromir need do was stay astride his mount, and Faranthil assured him that the horse would not suffer him to fall.
They rode in silence, for the most part. A few hours into the ride, they crossed the Hoarwell on a vast, ancient stone bridge, and Boromir was heartened by the sight of this milestone. But the cruel mountains quickly closed in around them, and the forest marched endlessly on either side. By midday, Boromir's wounds had begun to pain him again, and his body ached with weariness, but he said nothing to Faranthil. Some of Elrohir's urgency had infected him, and he thought only of reaching Imladris with all possible speed. Rest did not tempt him. It meant only delay.
As the day lengthened, and the sickness in him grew, he slipped into a kind of waking dream. It was not the warm, fevered dream of his vision, but a cold and comfortless one. The chill around his heart thickened, and dark fogs obscured his sight.
It seemed to Boromir, at times, that his brother rode beside him, silent and grave as a judge. Boromir spoke to him, though he received no answer. And in the freedom of his illness and despair, with his brother voiceless beside him, he was able to express himself in a way that he never had before, without resorting to arrogance or command to carry his point. He told his brother how he admired him, how he valued his wisdom and clear head, how he longed to see Denethor take Faramir's hand and raise him to the place he deserved at his father's side. And how often he had tried to bring this about, only succeeding in angering both father and brother.
At other times, goaded by the disappointment and sorrow in Faramir's eyes, he harkened back to their long arguments about the future of Gondor and her empty throne.
"I would bring back the glory of Numenor to our city and our people," he insisted. And it seemed to his wounded, wishful heart that, for once, his brother heard him. "I would find the Sword that was Broken. I would bring you a king out of legend to sit upon the empty throne in Denethor's hall, and I would bow my head in allegiance to such a king. But the kings of Numenor are lost, scattered, diminished, no longer worthy of the city that awaits them. In their absence, why should I not ascend that throne myself? Why should I not take upon my shoulders the burden of ruling and preserving the city of Elendil?
"It is all I desire, not out of ambition, but out of love and duty. I am firstborn, before you not because I am more worthy of greatness, but because I have the broad back and bright sword that can safeguard our people. You are the soul of Minas Tirith, Faramir, but I am its strength. I would stand as a bulwark between our people and the coming shadows, the first to draw blade and the last to fall. That is my fate. My rightful place."
As he gave this impassioned speech, he thought of the king who had come to him in his direst need. He thought of the strength and wisdom in that face, and he knew that even he, Boromir of Gondor, would gladly bend his knee to such a king. If he could bring that king back to Faramir, then his brother would finally believe in his good faith, and they would bend their knees, together, before the rightful king of Gondor. If he could find that king...
How much of his mental turmoil Faranthil perceived Boromir did not know and would not ask. The elf said nothing, beyond the simplest of instructions, until he called a short halt in the darkest hour of the night. They did not bother to make camp or light a fire. They stopped only because the injured man could not ride farther without rest. Boromir tumbled from the back of his horse into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Faranthil roused him before first light, with a cold meal and a mouthful of the cordial from Elrohir's silver flask - miruvor, he called it. They set out, and once the effects of the liquor wore off, Boromir slipped again into his dark, half-dreaming state, where he saw nothing but the shades of his own imagination and the tireless back of the elf riding ahead of him. Two more days passed in this way, until, on the morning of the third day, they crossed the Loudwater at the Ford of Rivendell. Beyond the river, the road turned into a winding forest track. They slowed their pace, perforce, but the horses scented home and pressed ahead as quickly as the narrow path allowed.
Despite his growing tension, as he neared the end of his long journey, and despite his best efforts to stay alert, Boromir's mind was drifting again, when suddenly, the elf in front of him vanished. He jerked upright in surprise, then his own horse leapt forward and plunged over the lip of a valley that opened precipitously beneath its hooves. They clattered swiftly down a track that was almost a stair, so steeply did it delve into the cloven earth. Clinging to the horse's mane, as much for reassurance as balance, Boromir tried to look in every direction at once, but the silver Autumn trees, moss-covered dells and dancing waterfalls swept by him so quickly that he could not take them in. He got only a fleeting impression of soaring beauty and a sweet, ancient melancholy, filled with the music of elves.
Then he and Faranthil were cantering between graceful, white pillars and into a small glade. His horse thudded to a stop beside a stone fountain, and Boromir slid awkwardly from the animal's back, trying not to strain his useless right arm or betray the extent of his weakness. An elf strode toward him, and Boromir did not need Faranthil's respectful salute to know that this was Elrond Half-Elven himself, Lord of Rivendell. His proud but kindly countenance, midnight hair and piercing grey eyes, so like his sons', warned Boromir before his boots had even touched the grass, that he was about to meet a living legend.
Canny soldier that he was, Boromir kept his injuries and his uncertainty to himself. He held himself as befit the Captain-General of Gondor, back straight, head high, gaze unwavering, as Elrond approached. The elven lore-master wore an enigmatic look, as he halted beside the fountain and inclined his head in greeting.
Boromir bowed, a bit more stiffly than usual but with creditable grace, and said, "Master Elrond."
He had a careful speech prepared, touching on his quest and asking Elrond, in as dignified a manner as possible, for his hospitality, but the elf did not give him a chance to deliver it. In a voice that perfectly blended gravity and amusement, Elrond said,
"Welcome, Boromir, son of Denethor. You are late."
To be continued...