Chapter 10: Star of the Dúnedain
Boromir lay sprawled upon Uglúk's body, gasping for breath. He was soaked with the Orc's blood, the smell of it filling his nostrils, the steaming wetness clinging to his face and hands. He knew that his captor, tormentor and sometime companion was dead – slaughtered by his own hands in the very heart of the Orcs' dark kingdom – and that he must bestir himself if he hoped to avoid the same fate. But he could not force his battered, exhausted limbs to move or quiet the rushing in his ears. He could not think beyond the relief of drawing breath.
"Oi! Chief!" It was Dúrbhak again, drawn by the sounds of their scuffle. "What's all the noise about?"
Boromir pushed himself upright and hunted about for his lost weapon. He found it still sticking from Uglúk's gaping mouth and so deeply embedded in the dead Orc's skull that it would require the strength of several men – or of desperation – to pull it free. He abandoned it, knowing that he had neither the time nor the strength to retrieve it.
"That whiteskin giving you trouble? You want me to teach him some manners?" Dúrbhak called, and Boromir could hear the relish in his tone.
He had no weapon to hand, no way to defend himself against an enraged Orc, so Boromir's only hope was to keep the creature from entering the chamber. Filling his aching lungs with all the air they would hold, Boromir pitched his voice low, using the damage done his throat by Uglúk's clutching fingers to roughen and disguise it, and snarled the foulest orcish curse he could bring to mind.
There came a tense pause, then Dúrbhak grumbled, "I only wanted to help," and stomped away, muttering under his breath as he went. Boromir collapsed onto Uglúk's corpse again, shaking in reaction.
How long he lay there he did not know for certain. The body had begun to cool, and the blood on his skin had congealed to a foul, clotted mess by the time he stirred. Pushing himself away from the stiffening corpse, he wiped his hands and face on the cloth of Uglúk's cloak. Then he began to search the body for weapons or useful tools, more to keep himself busy while he formulated a plan than through any hope that the Orc chieftain carried the key to his escape about his person. As he worked, he listened to the sounds that filtered through the curtain, hearing only the snores and grunts of sleeping Orcs.
He found many things tucked into the crevices of Uglúk's armor and the pockets of the rough garments he wore beneath it – things he could not identify, things he did not wish to identify – that he quickly discarded. A pouch of withered leaves that may have been, in some former age, akin to the halflings' pipeweed made him wrinkled his nose in disgust and cough when the evil smell caught at the back of his throat. But it brought Merry so strongly to mind that he felt a pang of longing, even as he tossed it away. A long, double-edged dagger of the kind made by the Dunlendings he laid aside to keep, but he had no belt or sheath in which to carry it.
He was investigating the contents of a small, wooden box taken from a pouch on Uglúk's belt – a tinderbox, by the feel of it – when he heard the sound of weeping. His head snapped up, and he turned instinctively toward the curtain and outer cavern, orienting on the soft noise. It went on and on, miserably, the unmistakable sound of a child sobbing out his heart in loneliness and fear, and almost before he knew what he was about, Boromir began dragging himself toward it.
He left the tinderbox beside Uglúk's body and took the dagger with him, clutched in his left hand, while he levered himself across the floor with his right. The rasping of his body against the stone, littered as it was with garbage and loose gravel, seemed hideously loud in his ears, but the Orcs' snores continued, unabated, and the child's weeping did not falter. At last Boromir reached the curtain and stretched out flat on his stomach, head tilted so that his ear lay just where the hide brushed the floor, listening.
Nothing moved in the great cavern. The snores were thunderous from this close. Boromir knew that a drunken Orc could sleep through a Nazgûl attack, but the knot of fear in his belly would not allow him to touch the curtain and risk disturbing the sleepers with even so slight a sound. Then Borlas gave a woeful sniff and swallowed another sob, so clearly struggling to master his tears that it went to Boromir's heart like a blade, and he could wait in fear no longer.
Still lying flat on the ground, he lifted the lower edge of the curtain. A blast of warmth and foul air struck him in the face, and only his many weeks' familiarity with that stench kept him from retching. A nearby Orc shifted on his stony bed, muttering in his own language, then fell still and added his snores to the rumbling chorus.
Boromir edged forward on his elbows, until his head was through the curtain. He could hear Borlas to his right, the soft sounds very close. Easing his weight off of his elbows, he reached out toward the weeping boy. His fingers touched rusted metal, and he knew he had found the makeshift fence that enclosed the pen – the same fence he had smashed when Uglúk had hurled him against it. This portion of the barrier still stood, and a quick investigation told him that it was formed of broken sword blades, spear shafts and fragments of wood, bound together with rope and half-cured hide.
Sliding his fingers between two of the mismatched posts, he took a firm grip on one and heaved his body closer to the fence. Then he pulled his hand away from the small, uneven gap and put his mouth to it instead. "Borlas," he hissed.
The boy's breathing hitched.
"Borlas." He thrust his fingers through the hole once more and wriggled them to attract Borlas' attention.
There came a rustling of limbs and fabric, then a small, claw-like hand closed desperately over Boromir's fingers. "My Lord Steward!" Borlas gasped. "I thought you dead!"
The boy fell quiet, only the harsh rasp of his breathing and the clutch of his fingers betraying his presence. Boromir strained his ears for some telltale noise from the Orcs, but he heard naught but snores.
Putting his mouth to the gap in the fence and holding his whisper to little more than a sigh of breath between his lips, he asked, "Are you bound?"
"Chains?" he asked, praying that his ears had not deceived him, and Borlas wore no metal about him.
Boromir flashed a swift, grim smile of triumph. He tried to pull his hand free of Borlas' grip, but the boy uttered a sob of fear and clung more fiercely to him.
"Do not go, my lord!" he whimpered. "I cannot bear to be alone in this place!"
Boromir gave a soft hiss of warning and whispered, fiercely, "Be still."
Borlas obediently choked back his ragged sobs, but his hold on his lord's hand did not ease.
"Let go my hand, Borlas. Trust me."
There came a tense pause, then the clutching fingers opened, and Boromir drew back his hand. He still held the dagger in his other hand, and now he slid its haft through the gap in the fence, flinching when the metal hilts scraped against the rusted iron of the old sword blade. After a moment of startled confusion, Borlas grabbed the dagger from the other side and helped him to work it through the hole.
When the opening was again clear, Boromir leaned close to whisper, "Cut the rope."
"Aye," Borlas breathed, and Boromir heard him begin to saw at the tough rope with the blade.
It took the boy an agonizingly long time to cut through the rope, so weak were his arms, but he kept at it, while Boromir listened to the sounds the Orcs made as they slept and wondered how deep their drunken stupor was. Could he walk through the cavern to the main tunnel beyond without waking them? And if he made it to the tunnel, how would he find his way out of the orc burrows? The Uruk-hai knew these passages as well as Boromir knew the streets of Minas Tirith. They would find it a simple matter to hunt down, catch and slaughter two slaves stumbling about in the dark.
Boromir was still turning over the various possibilities in his mind, when he heard Borlas give a grunt of satisfaction and rise to his feet. Boromir whispered fiercely, "The knife!" but Borlas paid him no heed.
The boy moved, not toward Boromir but away from him, toward the main cavern and the mass of Orcs sleeping there. Boromir opened his mouth to protest but stopped himself when he heard light, sure feet treading carefully on loose boards. Then he remembered the broken fence.
With triumph surging up in him again, Boromir got his elbows under him and edged back through the curtain, crawling as silently as he could manage on the loose gravel. When the curtain fell closed in front of his face, cutting off the flow of warm, foul air from the outer cavern, he rolled onto his side and pushed himself upright.
He had barely time enough to catch his balance before the curtain flew aside and another body collided with his, nearly pitching him over backward.
"My lord!" Borlas cried.
Painfully thin arms went about his waist, and a damp face pressed into his midriff, as Borlas gave a single strangled gasp and burst into tears. Boromir lifted his chained hands over Borlas' head and wrapped his arms around the trembling, sobbing boy.
They sat for long minutes, Borlas clinging tightly to Boromir and weeping into his shirt, while Boromir held him in silent comfort. Finally, the boy made an effort to master himself. Lifting his head, he sniffed loudly and murmured,
"I beg your pardon, lord."
"Do not." Boromir stroked the filthy hair back from Borlas' face with one hand, and he felt no surprise in himself at the ease of the gesture.
"I forget my place."
"Nay, Borlas. Had I the eyes to do it with, I too would weep." He felt the thin shoulders convulse with fresh sobs and hardened himself against the urge to comfort the boy further. Catching Borlas by the arms, he pushed him firmly away and said, "Have done with tears and listen to me."
Borlas sniffed loudly and wiped at his face with his sleeve. "I am done."
"Uglúk is dead, and we must be gone or we will soon join him."
Borlas clutched suddenly at Boromir's sleeve, and asked, breathlessly, "Can we truly go home, my lord? Do you know the way?"
"I will find it." And in that moment, Boromir knew that he would. That he must. "I will not let you die in this place. I will find the way home, but I cannot do it alone."
Boromir could sense Borlas straightening his back, bracing himself and gathering his courage to meet his lord's demands. "Tell me what I must do."
"Is there light enough in the cave for you to see by?"
"Nay. 'Tis black as pitch in here."
"Then you must light a fire. Uglúk had a tinderbox about him. I left it by his body." Borlas stiffened and gave a choke of distress. Boromir reached to find his arm, closing his fingers about it in a steadying clasp. "He is dead and cannot harm you. Do not fear him."
Borlas swallowed audibly and murmured, the quaver in his voice belying his words, "I do not."
"Good." Letting go Borlas' arm, he groped for the lower edge of the curtain, whispering, "Once I lift the curtain, make no sound and speak no word. The Orcs will hear. Only find the tinderbox and what kindling you can, and get a fire lit. Then we shall see what weapons old Uglúk has left us."
Boromir waited only to hear Borlas' soft assent, then he lifted the hide curtain and let firelight spill into the cave from the main cavern. Borlas climbed to his feet and moved uncertainly toward the back of the chamber, hesitating where Boromir judged Uglúk's body to lie. He waited there in silence so long that Boromir began to fear he would not have the courage to approach and retrieve the tinderbox. But even as the man gathered his own strength of will to leave the doorway and drag himself across the cave once more to help the frightened boy, he caught the furtive pad of bare feet and the faint scrape of wood against stone as Borlas lifted the box.
Boromir breathed a soundless sigh of relief and let himself sag against the wall at his back, propping his forearm on his bent knee to support it. His arm trembled with the effort of holding up the curtain, reminding him of his own disgraceful weakness, his unfitness to attempt such a task as he had set himself. He had killed Uglúk. He had promised Borlas escape. Now he had no choice but to go forward, though every passing moment deepened his certainty that the plan taking shape in his mind was reckless folly, born of desperation and doomed to failure. He must go forward or die in ignominy and despair, taking an innocent boy with him.
The sharp clink of flint striking steel reached Boromir, drawing him out of his dark thoughts and bringing his head up to listen. It came again, more loudly, followed at length by the faint crackle of flames. Boromir abruptly dropped the curtain, breathing a sigh of relief as he did so, grateful to have even so flimsy a barrier between himself and the Orcs. Then he began pulling himself across the floor, toward Borlas and the fire.
Borlas pattered up behind him and slipped his small arms under Boromir's, struggling to lift him. "Let me help you, lord."
"Nay. Find me a staff, Borlas, and fetch my cloak."
Borlas hurried to obey, making far more noise than Boromir would have liked, and by the time Boromir neared the fire was there to meet him with a sturdy lance and the ragged remains of his cloak.
Boromir accepted them from his page's hands and sat, running his fingers up the length of the spear shaft, marshalling his thoughts. At last he lifted his head to confront the boy kneeling so expectantly before him. "It is time for us to speak plainly, Borlas, to face the truth without fear. Can you do this?"
"Aye. I am not afraid anymore."
"That is well. There is a way out of these mountains for us, I deem, but we cannot leave this nest of Orcs alive behind us. If we do, they will hunt us down and slaughter us, with no Uglúk to soften their rage with reason. Then they will take their swords and their exploding fire to Rohan, to the villages and cots of the Westfold, and there do great harm ere Éomer King can destroy them."
Borlas swallowed nervously. "We must kill them," he whispered. "All of them."
"How will you do it, lord? Stab them as they lie sleeping?"
Boromir could not help smiling at that, though he saw little humor in their predicament. "They are not so drunk as all that, I fear."
"We will use the weapons of Saruman against them. Uglúk once boasted that he kept enough of the Wizard's black powder in this cave to blow the top off of Caradhras." He smiled again, with even less humor than before, and added, "I do hope it was merely boasting, for if the old villain spoke true, then we will die along with our captors."
"You mean to blow the peaks off the mountains?" Borlas whispered in awe.
"I mean to destroy the Uruk-hai. What else may happen I know not."
Boromir could feel the boy shivering and hear the breath hiss between his teeth. He reached out and clasped one thin, chill arm in fingers as wasted, cold and filthy as Borlas' own, hoping that their touch could still lend strength to another when they had naught of their own.
Borlas shivered again and asked, in a small voice, "Think you this black powder will burn hot enough to kill all the Orcs?"
"Then I will not fear. I will die with you, my lord Steward, if that be my duty and my privilege."
"Let us not talk of death, just yet. Let us lay our trap and pray that fortune will smile on us this once." Tightening his hold on Borlas' arm, Boromir urged the boy to his feet and gripped his staff in preparation to stand with him. "See you the barrels stacked to the left of the doorway?"
"Those are full of Saruman's black powder." Boromir heaved himself awkwardly to his feet, leaning hard on both the staff and Borlas' thin shoulder, then he paused to catch his breath while pain coursed through him and his head swam sickeningly. Borlas' clutch on his arm steadied him, and Borlas' voice called him back to himself.
"There are but six of them, lord. How can such small barrels, and so few, kill all those Orcs?"
"I know not," Boromir gasped, "but a single glass vial of that powder killed a Rider and knocked me into oblivion long enough for the Uruks to take us. We can only trust that six barrels of it will cook the Orcs in their beds."
"And us," Borlas added, dubiously.
"Mayhap." Boromir let go Borlas' shoulder, unable to use his staff properly and keep hold of the boy with his hands manacled, and ventured a step away from the fire. "But if my ears have not deceived me all this while, there is a tunnel that leads from this cave to a nearby stream."
"I know that stream!" Borlas exclaimed, forgetting for the moment that he dared not speak above a whisper and earning him a warning hiss from Boromir. Dropping his voice again, he added, "I have fetched water from it often enough."
"Through this cave?"
"Nay, from the main passage that the Orcs use. The stream crosses it."
Boromir halted his slow progress and lifted his head, straining to catch the familiar, almost forgotten sound of running water. "There is a tunnel somewhere in this cave. Can you see it?"
"I…" Borlas mumbled, hesitating.
"It must be here," Boromir insisted, his voice soft but fierce. "From the first moment I came to this place, I heard the music of moving water. I know it is here."
Excusing himself with a word, Borlas left Boromir standing alone in the middle of the floor and pattered away. Boromir heard him shifting something on the wall opposite the doorway, then a long silence. He dared not call out to the boy, but he was twitching with impatience when Borlas finally returned.
"I have found it, lord," Borlas whispered, slipping up beside Boromir and clasping his arm. "I cannot see far along it, but I can hear the stream. 'Tis close."
The knot of fear in Boromir's stomach eased. His hope had not betrayed him; the path to freedom lay open. Taking a firmer grip on his staff, he started once more toward the stacked barrels.
The barrels of black powder proved small enough for Borlas to get his arms around them, but heavy. The boy abandoned the attempt to lift one when it nearly slipped from his grasp. "I cannot, my lord," he gasped, struggling to push the barrel back into its place atop another, before it fell.
Boromir dropped his staff, leaned his weight against the wall for support and caught the barrel in both hands. Slowly, clenching his teeth against the pain in his wounded leg, he lowered the barrel to the floor. Then he straightened up, breathing hard.
"I will lift them," he said, when he could master his voice. "You roll them to the doorway."
"But quietly, Borlas," he urged, when he heard the barrel's rim begin to crunch over the stone.
He waited until Borlas had moved off, grunting under his breath as he struggled to steer the barrel around the litter and gravel that would make its progress too noisy, then Boromir shifted to the next stack. He lifted the second barrel down and was placing himself to reach the third, when his right foot came down on something hard and sharp.
Boromir's first impulse was to jerk his foot away and curse this fresh source of pain, but he controlled it. He felt cold, clean facets bite into his flesh, the sensation so familiar that it brought a gasp of recognition from him. In the next breath, he dropped to one knee on the floor, searching the rough stone with his fingers, wounds and weakness forgotten in his sudden, blazing hope.
He touched a thin line of chill metal – a chain – snaking over the floor, and caught it between his fingertips. Lifting it, he felt a solid weight swinging from it, and he turned his hand so the dangling object fell into his palm. A sob rose in his throat, and tears that he could not shed gathered to choke him. Closing his fist tightly about the small, perfect gem, Boromir pressed his lips to the backs of his fingers where the chain twisted around them. Hope and gratitude welled up in him, burning in his throat and aching in his chest, while the warmth of Aragorn's presence flowed out of the hidden place deep within him to thaw the coldness from around his heart.
He had almost forgotten that his king was with him. He had almost succumbed to despair, even as he struggled to gain his freedom. But the white gem in his hand was proof that he was not alone, that Aragorn had never left him, that hope was not a lie and escape not merely a fool's dream. He had the Star of the Dúnedain to light his steps, though no eyes but his could see that light.
"My lord?" Borlas sounded frightened, his voice a small, hesitant whisper in the fetid darkness. "Are you ill?"
Boromir lifted his head and turned toward the boy, his hand opening to show him the gem that lay glittering on his palm. Borlas' utter silence spoke eloquently of his shock and confusion.
"He told me that I could summon the stars at need," Boromir rasped out, his throat roughened by his unshed tears. "He gave me this as a reminder of it." Reaching up with both hands to catch the boy's head between them, Boromir pulled him close and planted a kiss on his forehead. Then he gave him a slight shake and said, "The stars are with us, Borlas."
"Is that a star?" Borlas asked, wonderingly.
"Aye. Come, let us hurry."
Pushing himself once more to his feet, Boromir wrapped the broken chain about the manacle on his left wrist, so that the gem hung against the back of his hand. Then, thrusting aside all awareness of his body's frailty, he set himself to the task of moving the heavy barrels. He paid no heed to the throb of agony in his leg or the weakness of his arms. The time had come to act upon his plan, to be the warrior Borlas believed him to be, to fight his way to freedom and think not on failure or despair.
A grim, weary time later, Boromir took the last barrel from Borlas hands and lifted it onto the new pile they had made just inside the curtain. Stacked three high, the barrels of black powder nearly filled the archway. Boromir gave himself a moment to rest, then he sent Borlas scrambling for his cloak and any other bits of fabric and tinder lying about the cave. These they wedged tightly about the base of the pile, stuffing the cloak into the cracks between barrels and placing fragments of wood over the fabric. When the tinder was laid to Boromir's satisfaction, he drew back to where Borlas' small fire still smoldered in the middle of the cave.
Borlas stood beside him, regarding their efforts curiously. "What next, lord?"
"We light it, and we leave."
"How long 'til it burns through to the black powder?"
"I know not, but the wood is sound, the barrels well-made. Let us hope they burn slowly."
They both fell quiet, as Boromir pondered the enormity of what they were about to do. He felt no pity for the Orcs. The only creature among them who had shown him aught of compassion already lay dead; the rest were bloody, foul, and conscienceless animals, deserving only of death. But the sheer, impersonal brutality of what he planned was sobering.
To slaughter an entire community by tossing a brand onto a pile of rags… Mayhap to blow the very peak off the mountain. If a single Man – blind, wounded, chained, with only a child to aide him – could do so much with such weapons, what might not a King do? Or a wizard? Or an Orc chieftain? What might not Uglúk have done, given one year more to think on it? A cold finger of dread went down Boromir's neck, and he shivered. Mayhap it was best that he destroy Saruman's stockpile, regardless of how many died in the attempt, Orc and Man.
Turning to Borlas, he said, very softly, "'Tis time. Wait until I have gained the tunnel, then thrust a brand into the pile and follow swiftly."
He did not wait to hear Borlas' soft murmur of assent, but turned at once toward the sound that had beckoned and taunted him for so long, just out of his reach. The sound of water. He limped as fast as his battered and drained body could manage, across the cave, into the smaller tunnel, where the air was cold and thin, with no trace of orcish foulness to taint it, and the stream's soft chuckling seemed to beckon him on. The floor sloped gently downward beneath his feet. The air grew ever colder. His left shoulder brushed stone, warning him that the tunnel curved, and he turned with it. Still no sound came from the cave behind him, no whisper of movement from Borlas.
The ground sloped more steeply downhill, and the stone felt damp to his bare feet. Boromir could hear nothing but the rush and gurgle of the stream, which he guessed could be no more than a few dozen paces along the passage. He halted, head lifted, straining for a telltale sound from the cave.
He was on the point of turning back, when he caught the light patter of feet on stone and Borlas came around the bend in the tunnel, breathing hard with excitement. Boromir smelled smoke and felt heat on his face, as Borlas stepped up beside him and took his free arm in one clawlike hand.
"What is that you carry?" Boromir demanded.
"A brand to light our way, at least as far as to the stream," the boy answered, sounding highly pleased with himself for his ingenuity.
"Lead on then, Master Torchbearer, and quickly."
Together, they moved down the rough passage to where it ended on the stony banks of a small underground stream. The noises here were confusing to Boromir, surrounded as they were by bare rock and branching tunnels, with the broken surface of the roof reflecting the sound in every direction. He halted, daunted by the chaos he could not sort cleanly in his mind.
Borlas took another step forward, his feet splashing in the stream, then lifted his torch to look about him. "The tunnel ends here, my lord. We are trapped!"
"Nay, the stream is our path, Borlas. It will lead us out." Or down into the very bowels of the earth, Boromir added to himself, but he squelched that thought before the boy could sense his doubt. "Follow the current."
Borlas clasped Boromir's arm and guided him the long step down, into the freezing waters of the stream. "What if it takes us to a great, underground lake at the mountains' roots?" he asked, as he started forward, obeying the tug of the current against his legs.
"Then we will turn around and follow it the other way," Boromir answered with a certainty he did not feel. "But think you of the streams and rivers of Anórien. Always they flow down from the mountains, out of the dales and valleys at their feet, seeking the lower ground."
Boromir gave the boy's shoulder a squeeze to silence him, then shifted his hand back to his makeshift staff. He needed both hands on the spear shaft to support him now, so exhausted was he by their labors. Clenching his teeth against the persistent agony of his wound, he dragged himself forward through the chill water, following the gurgling footsteps of his page.
"I knew a man once," he said, forcing the words out to hold back the looming darkness, though his voice sounded weak and breathless in his own ears, "my father's Master at Arms, who chased his hunting dog into the caves beneath the White Mountains. Three days he was lost, with nothing to eat but the stale bread in his pouch and the raw meat of the dog's kill. He would have died there, and none the wiser, had he not stumbled into a stream such as this and followed it out again. I saw the crack in the earth through which he crawled and the water flowing fromit, leaping down through the vale to the river below… water gleaming and dancing in the sunlight…"
A sudden trembling in the rock beneath his feet brought Boromir to an abrupt halt. He dropped his staff and reached for Borlas.
"My lord!" Borlas cried, clutching at his arms in panic.
Boromir pulled the boy roughly against him and fell awkwardly to one knee in the water. A low rumbling filled the air, seeming to come from the rock itself, and the ground lurched again, more violently.
"Hold fast, Borlas!" he shouted, even as a tremendous rush of heat struck him a hammer-blow in the back and sent him sprawling on his face with Borlas pinned beneath him. He felt an instant of searing pain, then his head cracked against stone and he tumbled into darkness.
*** *** ***
The rain clouds had at last blown away and the sun come out of hiding. Aragorn felt the warmth of it on his neck, as he bent low, his eyes searching the muddy ground all about the broken thorn bush. He was glad of the brief respite from rain, but in the unexpected heat his damp hunting leathers turned rank and clammy. Thrusting all awareness of his own discomfort from his mind, he concentrated on the small patch of dirt and scree before him.
"'Twas torn from a shirt, I warrant, and a fine one," Faramir said.
Aragorn grunted a wordless assent, his keen eyes lifting briefly to the scrap of white cloth caught on one wicked thorn. Then he returned to his fruitless task. Even well beneath the bush, the earth had been so thoroughly watered that no sign of who or what had passed here remained, save the shred of cloth and the bent, splintered branches of the thorn bush. At last, he sat back on his haunches and gazed up at the Elf and Man standing over him.
"Some creature passed through this thicket, headed east and north toward the mountains' feet, that much is certain."
"The Orcs of the Misty Mountains do not wear linen shirts," Legolas said.
"Nay, but their captives do."
Rising to his feet, Aragorn lifted a hand to shade his eyes and looked back at the remains of Boromir's camp, marked by a ring of lances, their bright pennons just visible through the trees. Then he turned, following the supposed path of the marauding Orcs, from camp to thicket and on toward a deep, roughhewn valley that seemed to cut into the very roots of the mountains.
Nodding toward the valley, he said, "If they did not turn aside, the way into their burrows must lie yonder."
"And if they did?" Faramir asked.
"We will answer that question when we must. Let us search the valley and…" Aragorn broke off abruptly, as the ground beneath him shuddered and an ominous sound, like the muttering of distant thunder, reached his ears.
"Earth tremor!" Legolas cried, and he leapt easily onto a pile of boulders, heedless of how the rock trembled beneath his feet.
Faramir and Aragorn stood poised, their feet braced against the shifting of the ground, their eyes moving instinctively toward the mountains, with their lofty peaks and snow-clad slopes. After a long, tense moment, the ground stilled and the thunder beneath their feet died away. They both breathed quiet sighs of relief and smiled at one another, their eyes reflecting an unease they would not voice.
"A small one," Legolas said, from his high perch. "It did not disturb the mountain."
"All the same, I am glad we were not under the mountain when it came," Faramir said, wryly. "Call me coward if you will, but I like not such grumblings and shakings, either under my boots or over my head."
"Nor I." Aragorn gave the looming peak one more long, thoughtful look, then let his gaze slide down its flank to the valley that was their goal. The sun was at its zenith, shining fully on the frosted peaks of the mountains but not yet far enough to the west to strike the folded depths of the valley. The cool shadows played tricks on Aragorn's eyes, dazzled as they were by the brilliance of the sunlit snow above, and he fancied that he saw something moving lazily in the air. Something drifting up from the very feet of the mountain. He watched it, wondering, and then in the next breath was leaping up the rocks to where Legolas stood.
"What see you, Master Elf? There, at the valley's head?" he called as he climbed.
Legolas narrowed his eyes and peered intently at the dark plume, now rising above the protecting sides of the valley and streaming south on the wind. "Smoke. And birds… nay, bats! The mountain smokes, driving the creatures from their sleep and into the sunlight!"
"My lord!" Faramir called, his voice sharp with urgency. "My lord, look! To the south!"
Aragorn turned swiftly to look where Faramir pointed and saw another plume of smoke rising into the air. "That is where the stream comes forth. But the Orcs' road lay that way," he pointed at the thinning smoke to the north, "and so must ours."
Leaping down from the heap of boulders, Aragorn clapped Faramir on the shoulder and turned to sweep the ground to the east with his keen gaze. "Choose those men who are swiftest of foot and longest of eye, and send them to that valley as advance scouts. They must find and mark the door, ere the sun sets."
"And for the rest?" Faramir asked, his manner as carefully controlled as ever but his building excitement betrayed by the fierce light in his eyes and the pallor of his cheeks.
"We return to camp and prepare for a march upon the Uruk-hai. The main force leaves at first light."
"You are certain we will find a way into the mountains at the head of that valley?"
"I am. Go, Faramir, swiftly. The scouts must lose no time or they will lose the light."
Faramir nodded once, saluted, and strode away to do his king's bidding.
Legolas joined Aragorn on the ground, but his gaze lingered on the dark smudge that marked their goal. "You are certain?"
"As certain as mortal man can be, and my heart will brook no more doubt or delay." He gave his friend a strained smile and added, "If we move swiftly, mayhap we will meet Gimli as he comes in the southern door and save him the effort of clearing out the Orcs' nest."
"The Dwarf will not thank you for that."
"I will save one for his axe – a particularly large one."
Legolas chuckled softly to himself, thinking of Gimli and his patent disapproval at riding so fast and laboring so hard for the pleasure of killing but one Uruk. Still smiling, he fell in beside Aragorn and turned his steps toward the camp.
*** *** ***
The shock of icy water pouring down his throat, into his lungs, brought Boromir back to himself with a lurch. He reared up, struggling to breathe, then collapsed onto his side with a curse and began to cough. The air was thick and foul with smoke, still uncomfortably hot against his skin, and it burned his throat where the water of the stream had chilled it a moment before. Every part of him hurt, from his splitting head to his throbbing leg, and he felt as if his back had been flayed raw. He lay for a moment, stunned by mingled amazement that he yet lived and horror at what power he had unleashed, until full awareness and memory returned to him.
Springing upright, he groped about in the shallow stream until he felt a chill, slippery arm under his hand. He snatched at it and pulled with all his strength, hauling the limp body of his page across his lap.
"Borlas!" he gasped, still choking on water and smoke. "Borlas, wake up!"
The boy did not stir. Boromir placed a hand flat on his chest and waited, holding his own breath in fear, until he felt the slender cage of bone slowly rise and knew that Borlas lived, then he let the air out of his lungs on a groan.
"What do I do with you now, boy?" he asked the unknowing page. "Drag you all the way to Edoras?"
He lifted his hands to clutch at his head, fighting pain and despair and the creeping lethargy of the deep cold in his limbs. A familiar weight fell against his forearm, and he reached for the gem that hung from his manacle with his other hand, holding it tightly until he felt the sharp facets dig into his flesh. With its touch, a kind of weary, resolute defiance filled him. It was not precisely strength, but in his extremity, Boromir knew that it would serve him nearly as well.
"So be it," he muttered. "I said that I would find the way home, and I will, if I have to crawl out of this filthy hole."
Borlas gave no answer, but Boromir had expected none and did not hesitate. Tearing a sleeve from Borlas' ragged shirt, he used it to bind the boy's wrists together, then he pulled the looped arms over his own head. Borlas now lay inert against Boromir's chest, with his thin arms stretched up to clasp the man's neck. With the small body resting so trustingly against his own, Boromir could feel the labored breaths shake it and the cold seeping into it. Borlas did not have much strength left in him, and Boromir regretted the harsh treatment he must mete out to the ill, mayhap dying child, but he could find no other way to bring them both out of this miserable place. He had no reserves of strength of his own to call upon, naught but the force of his own will and a stubborn refusal to die, and he could only hope that Borlas had a measure of that stubbornness as well.
Heaving himself forward, onto his hands and one knee, Boromir let Borlas' weight fall away from him until the boy lay on his back in the stream, his head and shoulders lifted from the water by the pull of his bound arms. Then he slowly, painfully, began to drag himself and the deadweight hanging from his neck forward, following the stream's current toward freedom. Or so he hoped.
* * *
How long his nightmare journey lasted, Boromir had no way of knowing. He crawled through an endless, freezing, pain-shot darkness with no awareness of where he went or how he managed to make his limbs move again… and yet again. The cold both helped and hindered him, making him slow and clumsy even as it numbed the agony in his leg and allowed his mind to separate itself from the torture of his body.
Twice, when he feared that Borlas had stopped breathing, he climbed out of the stream, finding a dry ledge or boulder on which to sit, and chafed at the boy's chill limbs until they warmed slightly under his hands. Then he lowered himself once more into that icy current and crawled onward.
Several times he ran headfirst into an outcropping of rock or a low place in the tunnel roof, bloodying his face and jolting himself more fully awake with the pain of it. And for an agonizing, terrifying time, he had to wriggle through an ever-shrinking hole, with his face half in the water and his raw back scraping on the stone above. He shoved Borlas ahead of him, praying that the water was not deep enough to wash over the unconscious boy's face but helpless to aid him if it did.
When at last he squeezed through a jagged crack and found himself in a wide cavern, Boromir flung himself down on the bank of the stream and rolled out of the water, where he collapsed on the harsh stone floor, holding Borlas tightly to him and shaking in reaction. Borlas still breathed – far too slowly and with too much effort, but he breathed – and this alone goaded Boromir back into that hellish stream once again.
So far gone in cold and exhaustion was he that Boromir almost missed the moment that they passed out of the mountain. He was struggling around a fall of rocks in the stream, too drained even to curse at the obstacle they posed, when he felt a thin, fugitive warmth touch his face. He lifted his hands to grope his way around the largest rock, hunting for the middle of the current and ignoring the brief caress of warmth on his face. Then he heard, clear and unmistakable in its ugliness, the cawing of a rook. He paused. His head came up slowly, wearily, and he tasted the air.
Sunlight. It was sunlight, not flame, he felt against his skin. From the deep recesses of his mind, Boromir dredged up the memory of sunlight, of clean wind, of fresh air and Autumn rains and the smell of damp earth. They were all about him now, flowing with the shaft of sunlight into his dark, dank, fetid prison and beckoning him forward. In that same deep place where beloved memories lived, a part of Boromir began to weep in wild, frantic joy. But outwardly, he merely lowered his head again, leaned into the dragging weight about his neck, and forced his limbs to move.
*** *** ***
Aragorn had not yet gained the top of the ridge when the call came, forcing him to halt his climb and turn back to acknowledge the man hailing him from below. It was one of Faramir's Rangers, detailed to run errands for Arwen while she cleaned and stowed Aragorn's gear for the march. Aragorn lifted his hand in a signal for the man to speak.
"Your lady Queen would know if you have your silver flask about you, or if she should look for it among the baggage!"
Aragorn clapped a hand to the pouch at his belt to be certain the flask rested within in it, though he knew already it was there. The flask held his dwindling store of miruvor, now trebly precious since those of the Eldar who knew the secret of its making had forsaken Middle-earth. No more than a few swallows now remained, and Aragorn kept it always near him.
"I have it!" he called down to the Ranger. "Tell my lady that she need not find a place for it in my pack; I will carry it!"
The man signaled his understanding and slipped back into the shelter of the trees, leaving Aragorn alone again. He resumed his climb up the steep gully, grabbing at moss-covered rocks and the few hardy plants that sprouted along the banks of the stream, his feet slipping on the muddy slope. Several of his company had come this way in the last hours, as all those who were to march with him on the morrow filled their water skins, cleaned clothing and gear, or simply explored the lonely countryside as a way of keeping their minds off of the dark road ahead. The waters of the stream were muddied by their hands and the banks slippery from the pressure of many boots, making his climb all the more dirty and difficult.
Aragorn, like his men, felt the cold breath of the Misty Mountains upon his neck, unsettling his thoughts, and he found that he could not sit idly in his tent while the last hours of the day crept by him. Nor could he, with his customary efficiency, cope with the many details of tomorrow's campaign. Unquiet of mind, restless of body, troubled of heart, he sought the only kind of solace and peace a Ranger of the North knew – to stretch his long legs over open ground, prowling the wilderness, until his strides had out-paced his worries.
With this goal in mind, he left the preparations in Faramir's capable hands and made for the high ground at the top of the ridge, where he hoped to lose himself in the tumbled rocks, gnarled thickets and hidden gullies of that unforgiving land. But it seemed that he was doomed to drag his kingly duties with him like so many chains. The messenger from the Queen was the third such who had accosted him on his progress from camp to ridge, and even as he pulled himself over the lip of the gully, onto flat ground, he heard yet another voice call out to him.
Smothering a sigh of annoyance, he waited for Legolas to leap nimbly up the slope that he had scaled a moment before with such effort, and nodded a greeting as the Elf stepped up beside him.
"You have the look of a man thwarted in his escape," Legolas remarked, his eyes full of sympathy. "Shall I take myself off again?"
Aragorn smiled fleetingly. "I am ill company, my friend. I feel more the Ranger today than the King, and my royal robes chafe me."
"Then I'll not keep you. You need only know that those men detailed to stay behind and guard the camp have been chosen, much to their chagrin, and that Faramir has persuaded Éowyn to remain with Arwen."
Aragorn gave a grunt of humorless laughter and said, "Let us hope he also thought to hide her sword." Then he asked, with a hint of bitterness in his voice, "Is there aught else that demands the King's attention?"
"Nay. I have a host of messages for you, but none are pressing."
With a nod and a faint smile of thanks, Aragorn turned his back on the camp and his old friend, calling over his shoulder as he strode away, "Do not look for me 'til dusk!"
He walked for five minutes in solitude, following the course of the stream along the upper bank, occasionally leaving the stream to avoid small parties of men returning to camp with water skins slung on their shoulders. The sun, though dropping low toward the trees and obscured now and then by clouds, was warm enough to make him sweat in his close leathers, and after he had covered a fair bit of ground, he made for the stream again. Sliding down a muddy bank on his heels, he crouched over a clear pool to drink.
His hand, cupped to hold water, was halfway to his mouth when he heard the shrill cry.
"My lord King!"
He let fall his hand and swore under his breath.
"My lord King, come quickly! My lord!"
This time, Aragorn recognized the voice and heard the edge of panic in it. He responded without thinking, leaping to his feet and starting upstream at a run.
"Bergil?" he called, as he ran.
"Here, my lord!"
Abandoning the choked and treacherous bank of the stream, Aragorn plunged into the water. It was shallow, not rising above the tops of his boots, but he splashed recklessly through it, sending icy water splashing in every direction, including into his breeches and boots. By the time he rounded a shoulder of mossy rock to find Bergil, he was well soaked from the middle of his thighs down, and his feet were beginning to tingle with the cold.
The young man knelt upon the southern bank of the stream, where the gully widened to create a small patch of damp, stony ground. A body lay before him - the body of a Man in torn breeches and a ragged, filthy shirt that may once have been white - the head and shoulders resting on the muddy bank and the long legs trailing in the stream where the bare feet showed starkly blue-white. Bergil held another body in his arms, that of a child so thin that he looked like no more than a bundle of dry sticks, and he cradled a dark head against his shoulder.
Bergil's head came around with a snap, his grey eyes wide and blank with shock as they met Aragorn's. "My Lord!" he gasped, his voice a lash of dread against Aragorn's flesh.
With a wordless cry, Aragorn flung himself the last few paces to the stream's bank toward the still body of his Steward. He did not need to see Boromir's face to know that it was he. The horror in Bergil's eyes and the agonizing twist of recognition in his own innards were enough. It was Boromir. It was his dearest friend, his partner in rule, his brother at heart and at arms…
He dropped to his knees in a freezing puddle and bent to look, at long last, into that beloved face. For a blissful moment, he saw naught of wounds, illness or approaching death. He saw only Boromir, and a joyous, incredulous pain flooded him.
"Boromir," he murmured.
"I found them… lying together at the water's edge," Bergil said in a ghostly whisper. "I had to cut Borlas' hands free to part them."
Aragorn glanced up briefly from Boromir's face to see Bergil's eyes fixed pleadingly upon him. "Your brother?" he asked.
Bergil nodded. "He breathes, but there is no warmth in him."
"Wrap him in your cloak," Aragorn ordered. "Keep him close to your body."
As he turned back to Boromir, the veil of wonder was torn from Aragorn's eyes, and he saw his friend as he truly was. Wasted by hunger and illness, his cheeks deathly white, his lips blue with cold; a blackened wound in his thigh and fresh gashes on his face that bled sluggishly; an iron collar about his neck and manacles at his wrists, the flesh torn and bruised beneath the harsh metal. Where before Aragorn had seen only the man he knew and loved so well, he now saw only suffering, and another sort of pain filled him, making his eyes sting with tears.
"Ah, Boromir," he breathed, reaching for the place beneath Boromir's jaw where his blood ran close to the skin and wincing when his fingers brushed the cold iron about his throat. He had to close his eyes and concentrate, straining all his senses to find the slow pulse of life in Boromir's veins, but it was there. His heart still labored within him.
Throwing off both wonder and horror, Aragorn scrambled to lift Boromir's feet from the cold waters of the stream. He unclasped his cloak and spread it over the other man, taking care to wrap it close about his chilled limbs. As he worked, he spoke to Bergil in a low, urgent tone.
"Take Borlas back to camp and give him to the Lady Arwen. She will know how to care for him. Tell her I need a litter and blankets. And tell Prince Faramir that his brother is found." At that, he glanced up to find Bergil's haunted gaze fixed upon him. "Go, Bergil, swiftly. Every moment is precious, if you would save your brother and his lord."
Bergil sprang to his feet and lifted Borlas' wasted body in his arms, gathering the trailing ends of his cloak firmly about the boy, but he hesitated to leave King and Steward. "Will Prince Boromir live?" he asked.
"I know not."
"What of… what of the others who were with them? There were six men…"
"I know not, Bergil, but our best hope of finding them is to ask Boromir where to look." He glanced up at the young man. "And if Boromir dies, he cannot tell us."
With a nod of understanding, Bergil spun away and splashed into the stream. Aragorn did not bother to mark his going but bent once more over his friend.
Gently, with a care to keeping the cloak swathed about him, Aragorn lifted Boromir from the mud, pulling his still body close and resting its weight against his own breast. The Steward felt as light and fragile as a child in his arms, his tall, proud frame wasted to a shadow of its former strength and the commanding, fiery spirit that had once animated it sunk into cold ashes. Aragorn shuddered at the feel of him and tightened his hold protectively.
Freeing one hand, he pulled the silver flask from his belt and worked the stopper loose with his teeth. Then he tilted the flask to Boromir's lips and coaxed a bit of liquid between them. The miruvor ran uselessly from the corners of his mouth, into his beard.
Bowing his head to bring his voice closer to the injured man, Aragorn murmured, "Come, Boromir, drink. 'Tis miruvor. It will warm you." He poured another tiny dram of the priceless cordial into Boromir's mouth and urged, "Will you not drink for me? One swallow only. For me, for Aragorn..."
He heard a slight choking sound and saw Boromir's throat move, as he swallowed the mouthful of Elvish liquor. Aragorn swallowed himself, trying to clear the thickness from his throat, then he whispered, hoarsely, "Now, wake."
A slight tinge of color stole into Boromir's deathly pale cheeks, and his lips moved, forming soundless words, but in the next breath, he fell still again.
"Nay, Boromir, do not sleep! You must not sleep!" Setting aside the flask, he laid his hand on Boromir's brow then slid it down to cover his eyes. "The cold will take you if you surrender to it. You must do as I say. You must obey your king. Wake, Boromir, and speak to me!"
He began to rock with the rhythm of his frenzied words, unable to contain the urgency of his need and unable to help his friend in any more tangible way. "I charge you, as you love me, wake! You have not come all this way to fail me now, Boromir! Boromir!"
The lifeless body in his arms did not move, yet Aragorn felt a tremor pass through it, felt the exhausted lungs strive to expand more fully and draw a deeper breath. A barely perceptible sigh of pain passed Boromir's cold lips, and Aragorn uttered a cry of relief.
"That is not enough," he said, sternly, as he laid Boromir back against the ground and scrambled down to kneel at his feet. "I want to hear your voice. I command you, Boromir, as your king and your friend, wake up and speak to me!"
Reaching beneath the folds of the cloak, he grasped one of Boromir's bare feet and began to chafe it. The flesh was deathly cold and lifeless beneath his fingers, and he rubbed hard in a desperate bid to bring warmth and blood to it again.
"This cursed cold…" He switched to the other foot and continued rubbing. "Where is the help Bergil was to summon? Where are those blankets? I must get you warm and dry, or I will have no chance to mend your hurts. How long have you lain in this water, I wonder? And where is Faramir?" He glanced up at Boromir's face, then winced at the sight of his ruined eyes turned up to the sky. For himself, Aragorn felt no horror at the scars his steward bore, but he had grown so accustomed to Boromir covering them to spare the feelings and stomachs of others that the exposed eyes were nearly as hurtful to look upon as the fresh wounds on his face. Aragorn silently promised himself that he would bind them up, as Boromir preferred, at the first opportunity. But for the present, his steward's life mattered more than his pride.
The sound of booted feet pounding over stone and mud reached Aragorn, and he twisted around to peer over his shoulder without halting his ministrations. "Faramir?" he called, knowing that Boromir's brother would have flown here ahead of all others.
"Here!" Faramir came around the shoulder of rock at a run and skidded to a halt, panting, his eyes over-bright and wild. "I saw Borlas! Saw him with my own eyes… Ah! Gods!" This last was wrenched out of him, as he threw himself heavily to his knees beside his brother and reached out an unsteady hand to touch his face. "'Tis true. Boromir… Boromir, my brother…"
Aragorn said naught to disturb him, watching in silence as Faramir gathered his brother's insensible body in his arms and crushed it to him, speaking his name over and over again, as if he could conjure up the man he remembered with this single word. When he saw Faramir's bowed shoulders begin to shake, he left off chafing Boromir's foot for a moment to say, gravely, "He lives, but I know not how or for how long he will endure this cold. We must get him back to camp and warm him, before I can treat his wounds."
"I can feel him breathing," Faramir gasped, his voice thick with tears. "When I hold him tightly enough, I can feel it, and I almost believe…"
"Help me, Faramir. Rub his hands and arms to warm his blood. You need not let him go, only do what you can to warm him."
Faramir shuddered at his words, his back still turned to Aragorn as he struggled to master himself. Finally, he settled onto the ground and shifted his hold on Boromir, so that brother's torso lay across his lap. Aragorn could now see his face and the bright streaks of tears on his cheeks. Pulling aside one fold of the cloak, he bared Boromir's hands but abruptly halted his move to touch them, recoiling at the sight of the manacles he wore.
"What is this iron at his wrists? And about his throat?"
"The chains of his captors."
The younger man's face twisted in a grimace of pain. "I have lain awake, night after night, sick with fear at the thought of what he might be suffering. I have sworn a thousand times to find him and avenge every moment of his torment. But I could never have dreamed it thus."
He clasped Boromir's hand where it lay upturned upon his lap, the fingers curled inward, and his touch was infinitely gentle. Clenching his eyes shut against a fresh onslaught of tears, he bent his head to hide his face in Boromir's hair. Aragorn heard him murmur his brother's name again, his voice full of agony and pleading, and out of courtesy, dropped his gaze. His eyes fell on the brothers' hands, still clasped upon Boromir's lap, and he abruptly rocked forward onto his knees.
"Faramir." The sharpness of his call brought Faramir's head up with a start. "What is that in his hand?"
Faramir curled his fingers about Boromir's and straightened them, opening his hand to expose the small, white gem that lay gleaming against his scarred and filthy palm. Both Aragorn and Faramir stared at it in disbelief, and Faramir muttered, "It cannot be."
"He has it still." Aragorn moved as in a daze, crawling up to kneel at Boromir's side, opposite Faramir, and bending low over the jewel in his hand. "Sweet Valar, he has it still!"
From this close, he could see the slender chain wrapped twice about the manacle on Boromir's wrist and threaded through the gem's mounting. The chain was broken, yet Boromir had found a way to carry it and had brought it with him from the very bowels of the earth. The Star of the Dúnedain. Aragorn touched it reverently, marveling at its enduring beauty, as yet unmarked by the horrors that had nearly destroyed the man who bore it.
Then he gently closed Boromir's hand about the stone again. "Keep it yet awhile, Boromir of Gondor, as a symbol of your king's love. Soon you will not need such tokens, for you will wake to hear him speak it from his own lips." He bent to plant a kiss on his steward's cold brow, and as he straightened, tears began to slip from between his lashes to paint his face as brightly as if they, too, were jewels.
To be continued…