Chapter 5: Nightmares
Boromir lifted his head to test the air and smiled
in satisfaction. He could detect no sign of human habitation – no
smell of smoke from wood or peat fires, of tilled fields or middens,
no lowing of cattle, no ring of axes against trees. There was only
the clean, wild scent of the grasses and the soughing of wind in the
evergreens high on the slopes of the
This suited Boromir perfectly. He had no desire to
bandy words with Dunlanders and no need of a roof over his head. He
might call this a hunting expedition, but it was, in truth, a chance
for Gondor's Steward to strike out on his own and indulge the restlessness
in his heart for a brief time. And to take him a few leagues closer
to Imladris, though he knew well he could not camp on the slopes of
After a handful of days spent in Edoras and another week in Aglarond, Boromir had continued west rather than return to Éomer King's golden hall. The news from Gondor was reassuring. Imrahil wrote in noncommittal terms of his progress, while Gil wrote more bluntly that Taleris had tried no mischief as of yet but was courting the Prince's favor tirelessly. With the certainty that all was well at home – or as well as it could be, under the circumstances – Boromir felt no urgency to return either to Meduseld or to Minas Tirith, and he deemed Imrahil needed more time to allay Taleris suspicions. And so he took himself westward, with him Borlas and the five Riders whom Éomer had sent with him as escort.
"How many of them are there left, my lord?"
Borlas' voice broke in on Boromir's thoughts, pulling his attention to the boy riding before him in Fedranth's saddle. He did not need to ask what Borlas meant by 'them.' He had talked of only one thing since their crossing of the Isen and their meeting with the chief of the Ents.
"I know not," Boromir answered, a touch wearily.
"He was very tall, wasn't he? Are all Ents so tall?"
"I have met none other and can tell you naught of them."
"His hair was very like leaves. And his eyes… they were deep as wells. I thought they might swallow me whole. I should have been afraid, were you not with me, my lord."
Boromir controlled the urge to smile and found some sensible words to murmur in response. In truth, he shared much of the boy's fascination with the Ents. He had never seen one, never met one when awake until Fangorn came down to greet his company at the ford, and he wished that he had leisure to sit and talk with this ancient, unfathomable creature who had once saved his life. It had cost him a pang to refuse Fangorn's gracious invitation to come as his guest to Isengard, but Boromir would go no closer to that cursed place than the ford, even knowing that the Ents had turned it from a hive of orcs and sorcery to a garden.
From the moment that they had said their farewells to Fangorn on the banks of the Isen, Borlas had not ceased chattering about him.
"Tell me again how the Ents destroyed Isengard, lord, I pray you!"
"Nay. You know the story as well as I."
"How grand and terrible it must have been, with the waters pouring in… they are very strong creatures to stand against such a flood, do you not think? And with hands that crumble rock like bread… Ah, how I long to see such a battle!"
"You would not find it nearly so grand as you think, Master Magpie."
"I am not a bird!" Borlas protested. "I am a warrior! And I shall fight many battles, ere I am too old to lift a sword!"
"At present, you are naught but a source of noise."
He could almost feel the blood rise in Borlas' face. "I beg your pardon, my lord."
"There is no need. Only leave off your questions for a while."
Borlas fell silent for some few minutes, while they rode at a leisurely pace over thick grass that muffled the sound of hooves. Then he ventured, in a subdued voice that did little to hide his eagerness, "Will you take me with you, when you go to battle, lord?"
"I do not go to battle."
"But you will! War comes, and you will go south to lead the armies of Gondor! I would go with you, my lord Steward, and ride with you against the enemy, even if I am but a page and a… a chattering magpie."
"Prince Imrahil will lead the armies, or my brother, if he returns ere the war begins."
Borlas twisted around in the saddle to look at him and asked, curiously, "Do you not wish to fight anymore?"
Boromir did not answer at once. He thought about the boy's artless question, weighing the dictates of common sense against the promptings of his heart and the fire of greatness that had never fully died in him. His visions of greatness had changed. He no longer coveted the Crown of Eärnur as he once had. But while his mind knew that peace was a blessing, won by long years of labor and loss, his heart craved the rush and excitement and glory of battle, the thrill of victory like wine in his blood, the heady power of knowing that an army fought at his back, his to command.
Boromir, son of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, did indeed wish to fight again. But wisdom and much suffering had tempered the battle lust in him, and he knew that he could not be that kind of soldier again. The great War of the Ring was over, the Enemy defeated, the Shadow fled, and the brave captain who had known naught but warfare must now learn to cope with peace. And more vital still, this wiser, more sober, more judicious captain knew that he could not ask soldiers to go into battle at the behest of a blind man. They loved him enough to do it, but that only made his position the more precarious. If he led them to victory, they would celebrate him as a hero. If he led them to defeat, they would forgive him. But if he lost a single man through his own misjudgment or helplessness, Boromir would never forgive himself.
He had come far from the first weeks and months of darkness. He had proven himself an able ruler and statesman. He had proven his loyalty to King and people. He had lived down the calumnies heaped upon him by Men who deemed him too weak of mind and will to survive the horrors visited upon him. But he had not proven himself in the one way that would give him the assurance and, in his own mind, the right to lead me into battle. He had not faced defeat and overcome it with his own hands, his own might and ingenuity.
He could sit in Aragorn's Tower room and write dispatches that set troops in motion. He could worm his way into the mind of a traitor and find ways to trip him up. He could frighten away an assassin and shoot him in the back as he fled. That did not mean that he could stand before an armed opponent, intent upon his death or dishonor, and beat it to its knees, shed its blood in the dust, take back his self-sufficiency and his strength at the sword's point. Until he did this, he was no true general. No true soldier.
Borlas, troubled by his silence, turned again to gaze up at him. "Did I say aught amiss, lord?"
"Nay." Boromir clasped his shoulder briefly, then took Fedranth's reins in both hands again. "I was merely thinking of how best to answer you."
"My brother says that, if I would learn to be a great warrior, I must serve under Prince Faramir, who is now Captain-General and first among the fighting men of Gondor."
"Your brother is right."
"I say that Prince Faramir is Captain-General
only because you choose to allow him that honor, but that you
are the greatest warrior Gondor has known since Isildur himself, who
cut the Ring from Sauron's hand upon the slopes of
Boromir felt a warm surge of pride at those words, but he concealed it from the boy, deeming his hero worship too far advanced already and in need of dampening. "Where did you get such an idea?"
"I heard the King say it! And would not King Elessar, the heir of Isildur, know better than Bergil, son of Beregond, who is first among the Men of Gondor?"
"King Elessar is first. Never forget it, Borlas, and never presume to put another in his place."
Borlas hesitated, abashed, then said, "I will not."
"And do not discount your brother's wisdom. I was once the leader of Gondor's armies, just as I was once believed destined to rule all Gondor as my father did. My destiny proved otherwise. I am a soldier no more."
"I do not believe it," Borlas said, stoutly. "You may choose to lay down your sword, but that does not make you any less a soldier."
Boromir sighed inwardly. "You will learn, in time, that not all we do is a matter of choice."
Borlas could think of no pert answer to this, and he fell quiet, leaving Boromir at peace to think of all that they had both said. He was still lost in thought when Éothain, the leader of his escort, pulled his mount in close at Fedranth's side and hailed him.
"It grows late, my lord Steward. We must halt soon, if we would make camp ere sundown."
Boromir nodded, the gesture agreement and dismissal at once. He trusted the Rider to choose a suitable camp without his guidance, and when Éothain rode up to him once again to announce that he had found a comfortable hollow to shelter them, Boromir followed without comment. The company dismounted in the shade of some rather stunted, wind-twisted trees and eased the stiffness from their limbs. Then they fell to work, caring for the horses and preparing camp.
When Boromir settled at last beside the crackling
fire, he could feel night upon the wind. Warm as this season had been,
winter's chill came early to the wilds of Dunland, and the snows of
They stewed a brace of plump rabbits, snared by one
of the Riders at last night's campsite, and ate the last of the bread
bought at a village beside the great
Before long, weariness took them, and they lay down to sleep. Boromir pulled his cloak tightly about himself and rested his head on the slick, warm leather of Fedranth's saddle. He murmured a goodnight to Borlas, then fell quiet, listening to the comforting hiss and crackle of the fire. He had time enough only to turn his mind to that warm and secret place where his awareness of Aragorn dwelt, to reassure himself that his king was well this night, before he slept.
*** *** ***
Merry settled back in his favorite, overstuffed chair and drew deeply on his pipe. It was a lovely autumn evening, of the sort that could only follow a particularly ripe and mellow day, and he had no need of a fire to warm his toes. But the dancing flames added a measure of coziness to the room and gave him ample light for reading, so he pulled his chair a little closer to the hearth before relaxing into it.
In this moment, Merry felt completely at ease and at peace with his life. He drew again on his pipe, then he sent a stream of smoke from his lips toward the open window, where a breeze caught it and wafted it up into the purpling sky. The Shire was the best place in all Middle-earth for a hobbit to be, he reflected, even a hobbit such as himself who might seem at a glance to have outgrown his quiet home. His lordly clothing, gleaming mail and songs of other lands aside, he was yet a hobbit at heart, and he could think of no greater delight than this little house in Crickhollow, the friendly light of the flames upon his hearth, and the taste of pipeweed on his tongue.
His hand went to his breast, where a thick square of parchment rested in his pocket, and he smiled around the stem of his pipe. That piece of parchment always sat close to his heart, as did the words written on it and the Man who had chosen them. Merry kept the letter with him and read it often - to remind himself that he had a friend who loved and missed him, but also that they had both made some measure of peace with the leagues that separated them.
He had thought his heart would crack, when he saw
the King's company drawn up on the
Slipping two fingers into his pocket, Merry pulled out the letter and unfolded the stiff parchment. The words were penned in neat, elegant lines. Not Gil's familiar hand, but Legolas', with the same graceful power in the strokes that marked everything about the Elf.
To Meriadoc, called "The Magnificent," Warrior of the Shire, greetings.
Merry chuckled to himself over this salutation. He had not told Boromir of his foolish title, but no doubt Pippin had let it slip in one of his letters to the Steward. It made him smile to think of Boromir and Legolas sitting together at the great table in the Tower room, bent over a sheet of parchment, laughing as they wrote. And as many times as Merry had read them, the smile still came.
The letter went on in Boromir’s usual style.
My dear Merry,
I tried to write this letter with my own hand, that I might speak to you as freely as when we sat together upon the walls of my city, but alas, it was not to be. In my efforts, I have ruined several sheets of fine parchment, three quills, and my best tunic. Had Legolas not come to my rescue, I would be at it still, spilling ink and cursing my clumsiness.
I fear I am in disgrace with you, Little One. I know not how to ask your pardon, nor to explain why I did not come with Aragorn. You will think me careless of your affection, but it is not so, Merry. I swear it. Could I take myself in an instant from Minas Tirith to Buckland, I would be with you even now, seated at your hearth, drinking your best wine and listening to your tales of valor among the Shire folk, and I would be content.
Merry looked up at his small fire, snapping gaily upon the hearth, and he felt a lurch in his breast at the thought that he might have shared this evening with his beloved friend.
But to join you there I must first brave the paths of Eriador, and it is not yet time for that. Let Faramir take my place, that he might see the lands of which he has dreamed all his life. He will find joy in them, where I would find only weariness and sorrow. Some day I will come to you, Merry, when I can bear to journey so far from Gondor and visit again the places that live so clearly in my memory. Until that time, I am content to remain where I am needed most and I regret naught but the loss of your company.
For your friends in the South, naught has changed since last I wrote to you. Legolas remains in Ithilien to keep watch over me in this perilous time of peace. He denies it, but I am not fooled. I know well the scent of a bodyguard, and Aragorn cannot hide his thoughts from me, try as he might. Gil is well, or so I deem, for she does not tell me otherwise. Gimli labors still in the caves of Aglarond, and I doubt not that Legolas will tempt me thither ere the autumn passes. I have no love of caves, but mayhap, through the Dwarf's fond eyes, I will find some beauty in them. Or mayhap, I will think of the Shire as I walk through them and pay no mind to cold stone walls.
I bid you farewell for a time, Little One, and I wish for you, Pippin and Sam all joy in this meeting of old friends. Think of me as you sit and talk of your travels together, but not with sadness or regret. I am there, though you cannot reach out to touch me, for the largest share of my heart dwells with you always, in the Shire, upon the banks of the Brandywine.
I remain your friend and humble servant,
As always, when he reached the simple closing, Merry felt his throat tighten with emotion. Dear, gruff, reserved Boromir had clearly put great effort into this letter, and the carefully penned lines brought him so strongly to mind that Merry wondered that he could not reach out and touch him in that moment. He wished that he could tell his friend that he understood, that he forgave him, and that he had even managed to greet Faramir with tolerable composure. But he knew, in his heart, that he did not need to tell Boromir any of this. Boromir knew, as surely as Merry knew that the Man of Gondor meant every affectionate, self-mocking, gravely sincere and regretful word he had written.
Folding the parchment, Merry slipped it into his pocket once more. His pipe had gone out while he mulled over the letter, but he did not bother to rekindle it. He was filled with a sweetish sort of melancholy that only seemed to heighten his pleasure in the evening, reminding him as it did of other times and places, when his snug fireside in Crickhollow had seemed as distant and dreamlike as the white walls of Minas Tirith did now.
How he missed Boromir! And Gil, Legolas, Gimli, old Ioreth with her constant flow of talk, and even the great, grey warhorse of Rohan who had carried him away from the city gates for the last time. He missed the very cobbles in the streets and the sun-warmed stone of the walls. He missed the cool, white room in the Houses of Healing, where he had awakened to find Boromir asleep in a chair beside his bed and Gil standing in the doorway with a tray full of breakfast. He missed them all with a terrible ache of longing, and yet, for all of that, he would not leave the Shire. This was his home – this little house, with its cheery fire and overstuffed chair, with the Brandywine sliding by on one side and the Old Forest crowding up to the hedge on the other, with the lights of Brandy Hall twinkling on the hillside at dusk. He would not leave the Shire, even for Boromir.
Merry was still thinking of Boromir, of Minas Tirith and the Shire, when he drifted off to sleep in his chair by the fire.
*** *** ***
A horse snorted in the darkness, startling Boromir awake. He reached instinctively for the sword that lay at his side, his hand closing about the hilt, even as his ears strained to pick up any strange noise in the sleeping darkness. The horse snorted again and stamped its feet restlessly. Another of the beasts tied to the picket line answered the first. Boromir heard the nervousness in the animals, and he sat up, sword in hand.
Soft footsteps approached. "My lord?"
Boromir recognized the voice of the man posted as sentry for the first watch. No more than a few hours could have passed since he had fallen asleep, if this man was still on duty. "What has disturbed the horses?" Boromir asked.
"I know not. Their ears and noses are sharper than mine."
Boromir listened again, intently, but heard only the movements of the tethered beasts and the wind in the night.
"Could it be wolves?" the sentry whispered, the horses' nervousness infecting him.
"They would have to be very hungry to approach so large a company." Even as he gave his reassurances, he remembered another journey through these lands, when the Wargs had attacked a company of nine armed creatures, including an Elvish archer and a Wizard. He wondered if the Wargs still prowled these hills, or if they had disappeared with the passing of the Shadow, and he reflected that he ought to have asked the Dunlanders they met what dangers might threaten them on a ride north.
"Brigands, then," the sentry said.
"That is more likely."
His words were drowned out by a scream of panic from one of the horses. All of the beasts began plunging madly, trying to tear free of the picket line. Boromir leapt to his feet, as all around him, Men stirred and groped for their weapons.
It was not Boromir's ears that identified the danger – he could hear nothing over the chaos of confused men and terrified horses – but his nose. As he gripped his sword and dropped into a fighting stance he caught, clear and unmistakable, a familiar stench upon the wind.
"Orcs!" he bellowed. "On your feet! Form a circle by the fire!"
Before the Riders could obey him, there came a harsh call from the darkness beyond the hollow, then the tinkling of breaking glass. Heat and noise, the like of which Boromir had not known since Isengard, blossomed among the startled men. Flames seared Boromir's face, and he staggered backward, catching his heel on something and pitching to the ground. Another explosion came, and another. Men screamed in agony and terror. Boromir scrambled free of his own bedroll and saddle, fighting to regain his feet, but another blast almost beside him knocked him flat on his back. He felt a stab of pain in his thigh and a gush of warm blood down his leg.
Suddenly, the night was alive with the harsh voices, iron hands, cold blades and stinking breath of orcs.
*** *** ***
The horror of the dream gripped him, made his shudder and cry out. He turned to find the body that lay beside him, reaching for comfort, and found naught but empty air and cool sheets. His eyes snapped open. The dream fled. Aragorn lay, breathing hard, his body bathed in sweat, stretched alone upon his bed.
His eyes slid from the dappled shadows of the bedchamber to the distant, moonlit valley beyond the arched windows. All was quiet in Imladris. All was as it should be. And yet, Aragorn's heart still raced and his lungs labored to draw air into his body, evidence of the terror that had invaded his dreams in this place where nightmares did not come.
Bad dreams? he thought. In Rivendell? Perhaps, with Elrond's passing, the power of the place was waning, no longer able to turn back the currents of the world outside. Or perhaps the thing that oppressed him came from within, not from without.
Disturbed yet more deeply by this thought, Aragorn rolled from the wide bed and padded, bare feet chill on the stone floor, through the nearest archway and onto the balcony. The caress of the night air was delicate upon his face, and it eased the tension in his limbs. He closed his eyes, savoring the feel of it.
Hurried footsteps sounded on the balcony to his left. He turned to see Arwen rushing toward him, her long, grey-blue gown flowing behind her. She wore a look of concern, and in her haste, she had lost some of her wonted poise.
At his glance, she called out, "My lord! Is aught amiss?"
"Nay, beloved." He opened his arms to welcome her, folding her close to his breast. "Where were you?"
"Walking with my brothers."
Aragorn nodded understanding. His Queen needed no sleep of the mortal kind, and while she often chose to spend her resting hours at his side, the lure of Rivendell's woods was more than she could resist. Most nights she stayed only until he slept, then she rose and went out to roam the valley, alone or with her kin.
Arwen's eyes gleamed at him in the darkness, a frown drawing her brows together. "I heard your voice upon the air, calling out in pain." Her hands lay upon his breast, feeling the still-frantic pounding of his heart and the dampness of his shirt. "Some great trouble is upon you."
"I had a dream." At her look of surprise, he smiled, but there was no humor in it. "I cannot remember it, only feel still the clinging horror… We must leave, Arwen. At daybreak."
"Aye, and by the shortest road."
She turned her face up to accept his urgent kiss and settled more tightly against him, lending him calm and strength with her closeness, but even Arwen could not drive the lurking dread from his heart.
"What is it you fear, Estel?" she whispered.
He gazed down into her face, his features masked with pain, and said nothing. To speak was to betray either Arwen or himself – to lie to his beloved wife, or to give voice and shape to his deepest fear and drive himself to despair. Only in silence could he protect them both.
Arwen understood and did not press him. She rested her head in the hollow of his shoulder, avoiding his direct gaze, and stood with him until the tension had drained from his body and he was once more in command of himself. At last, she spoke again, without meeting his eyes.
"By what road do we go?"
"We go south with the dawn."
"There is no road leading south. 'Tis all a trackless wilderness."
"You forget to whom you speak, my love. Am I not Strider the Ranger? Have I not walked every path of Middle-earth half a hundred times? Those years of wandering will serve me now, and I will find ways fit for our horses. The carts, and any of my company who do not relish a long ride through harsh country, may go back by the East Road to Bree and the Greenway. I will follow Bruinen south into Dunland and thence to the Gap of Rohan."
"I will ride with you, my lord."
He smiled again, this time with real warmth, and kissed her fleetingly. "I am certain that Faramir and Éowyn will choose to go with us. And the Dúnedain."
"Mayhap the Guard should ride with those who go by the longer road, as escort."
"Half the company, at the least. I will speak to Faramir about it."
"But not tonight. There are many hours yet 'til morning, and you are weary."
"I cannot sleep." His arms tightened about her again, and he ducked his head to bury his face in the silken, midnight mass of her hair. "There is evil in the night."
"Come, then, my love," she murmured, stepping out of his embrace and taking his hand. "Let us wake Faramir and make ready for the dawn."
"Arwen." He pulled back on her hand, halting her. "Arwen, I am sorry to take you from your home so soon. I promised you some weeks among your kinfolk and now…"
She put her fingers to his lips and shook her head. "Now is the peace of Imladris shattered, its beauty fled. 'Tis time to go."
Aragorn nodded, and together, they stepped through the archway into the bedchamber. In a matter of minutes, the Last Homely House was awake and bustling.
*** *** ***
Boromir lay beside the smoldering remains of the fire, his hands bound behind him, his ankles trussed together, and a heavy, musty, foul-smelling sack pulled over his head. Exactly why the orcs felt the need to cover his face Boromir could not fathom. Most likely, none of them had noticed that their captive was already blindfolded. Fortunately, one of them had noticed his wound and had tied a rag around it to slow the bleeding. He was nearly smothered by the sack, shaken by unwelcome flashes of memory, afire with pain, light-headed from loss of blood, and sick with fury at himself for allowing the orcs to spring their trap so easily. But even so, it could be worse. He could be dead. He did not allow himself to consider that he would rather be dead than in the hands of orcs again.
"How many horses?" a vaguely familiar voice growled.
"Four," another orc answered. Boromir could hear the horses in question snorting and neighing in alarm, their hooves pounding the stony earth as they reared and bucked against their tethers. "Two of the cursed things bolted before we could catch them."
"Good enough," the leader said. "Ghasha, you get this lot loaded up. Start with the dead one."
Ghasha spat into the fire, making the coals hiss, and retorted, "Why bother packing dead meat? I say, we eat it now. Our share of the booty!"
"You'll do as you're told, maggot, or the Chief'll hear about it!"
"Listen to Dúrbhak!" Ghasha taunted. "Thinks he can lord it over us, just because he caught a handful of horse-boys! Well, I say, we've earned a bit of a snack!"
"Ho! That's what you say, is it?"
There was a scrape of metal on metal, then a roar of fury from one of the orcs. Feet scuffled, breath rasped between clenched teeth, and something heavy fell to the ground. Boromir had to roll away from the fire when a shower of sparks went up from it. He could hear Ghasha cursing and howling, as he scrambled clear of the hot embers.
"Had enough?" Dúrbhak panted. "Or shall I give the lads a piece of you to snack on?"
Ghasha snarled something that Boromir could not understand, distorted as it was by the cloth over his head, but it sounded like a threat to eat Dúrbhak's eyes on a bed of entrails. He hoped, briefly, that the orc would make good on his threat, thus eliminating at least one of their captors, but Dúrbhak seemed to have his troop of raiders well in hand for all their squabbling. He cursed, kicked Ghasha with a sound like a stone axe against a tree trunk, and resumed ordering the others about.
Boromir found himself stripped of outer clothing and mail, searched for weapons, and bound over the back of a horse. Another body was tossed up beside him – a slight, seemingly fragile body that could only belong to Borlas – and Boromir cursed himself steadily under his breath at the thought of what he had done to the boy. He should have left him in Edoras. Or better still, he should have turned back at the Fords of Isen, keeping to the lands of the Horse Lords, where orcs did not dare to tread. He was thrice a fool, and he deserved what foul tortures his captors had in store for him, but the Riders and the boy were innocent sufferers for his folly. Their blood would be forever on his hands.
Such thoughts kept him occupied while the orcs finished plundering and destroying the camp. Other, more terrifying thoughts crowded into his mind, turning his innards to water and his blood to ice, but he resolutely thrust them away. Still they came, howling and gibbering from their dark corners, while despair crept about his heart.
The Uruk-hai had taken him again. He had feared as much from the first moment he heard their speech. Now he was certain of it, for he knew the leader of the raiding party. Four years ago, on a night very much like this one, he had sat at the base of a burning tree, listening to Éomer's men being slaughtered all about him, and heard Uglúk call out a name. Dúrbhak. And on another such night, this same Dúrbhak had escaped with Uglúk from the drowning of Isengard, fleeing into the Misty Mountains, carrying an unknowing Boromir as hostage. Only luck and the bravery of a halfling had saved him.
Now Boromir was once more at the mercy of Dúrbhak, and the horror of it was enough to threaten his very reason. He fought against the black tide of memory, lashing himself with guilt for the fate of his companions rather than admitting how utterly, hideously familiar every detail of this night was to him. To surrender to his memories was to invite despair, and in despair lay madness.
"Move it, lads!" Dúrbhak called. "We've nothing to lug but our own carcasses, so no dawdling!"
With much grunting, stamping and shouting, the orc band set out. The horse to which Boromir was tied balked at being led by such a creature, tossing its head and shying away from the noise and the stench. The orc barked a threat in its own foul language, then jerked hard on the lead, forcing the animal to move forward. Its stiff, reluctant gait jarred Boromir's battered body, wrenching a gasp of pain from him that was mercifully muffled by the sack on his head. Furious with himself for such a show of weakness, he clenched his teeth, sank his fingernails into his palms, and willed himself to endure in silence.
Up and up the troop of orcs, men and horses climbed, hour after hour. They halted neither for food nor rest, but trekked onward through the night, until the captives who could still walk were staggering with exhaustion and the horses were on the point of collapse. Boromir slipped into an uneasy doze, brought on as much by loss of blood as by weariness, where he wandered down dark, fevered paths of his own imagining. So it was that the Steward of Gondor passed, unknowing, out of the lands of Men and into the endless night beneath the Misty Mountains.
*** *** ***
Merry awakened with a start and jerked upright in his chair. Breathing hard, his face bathed in sweat in spite of the cold air flowing through the window, he stared through the tatters of his dream visions at the familiar surroundings of his library as if he had never seen it before. The fire had died, plunging the room into darkness. Strange shapes lurked at the edge of sight or crawled across the walls when he turned his head.
He got to his feet and crossed to the window. Outside, the sky was ablaze with stars, and the lights of Crickhollow gleamed softly through the trees. No trace of shadow lay upon Buckland; no evil voice flew upon the night wind. And yet, to Merry, it seemed as if the peaceful night were filled with shivering horror.
Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and willed himself to calm. He must not panic over something so foolish as a dream. He could not even remember what had frightened him so badly, though the fear still coursed up and down his spine, like the stroking of dead fingers. He was safe in the Shire, in his home, where nothing very terrible could reach him. And he would stay here… where he belonged…
Merry turned abruptly away from the window and strode to the hearth, where his tinderbox lay on the mantelpiece. In a moment, he had a lamp lit and had chased the eerie shadows to the farthest corners of the room. Then he moved purposefully about the room, pulling open drawers and throwing open chests, rifling their contents to find what he wanted. From the library he went to his bedchamber, and then to the kitchen. In each room, he collected a few necessary items, wrapped or folded them carefully, and stacked them in the entry hall, just inside the door.
Now dressed in his plainest traveling clothes, Merry returned to the library and knelt down before a large, brass-bound chest that stood against the wall. He unlocked it with a large key and swung up the lid. The lamplight struck dancing sparks from a gleaming metal corselet and a small helm studded with white gems. Folded neatly beside the mail shirt was a tunic of grass green, with the leaping horse of Rohan emblazoned on its breast, and white cloak of the finest wool.
These treasures Merry lifted from the chest and laid aside. Beneath them, he found what he sought – the three objects in all Middle-earth that Merry most valued and the ones without which he would not set foot across the borders of the Shire. First he brought forth his sword, a long, graceful dagger of Elvish make, given to him by King Elessar himself. Next came the silver-grey cloak of Lothlórien, with its brooch wrought in the shape of a mallorn leaf. And last came the most precious treasure of all, the silver-chased horn that was Boromir's parting gift to him.
Merry lifted the horn from the chest and held it lovingly in both hands. He felt a moment's impulse to put it to his lips and blow, to fill the night with its music until Buck Hill trembled beneath it and the trees of the Old Forest lifted up their heads in surprise. The impulse came to him every time he touched the horn, but he had sounded it only once, during the Battle of Bywater, to rally the hobbits to the defense of their homeland. He could still remember its call and still feel the surge of gladness, pride and triumph within him when he heard it.
A melancholy smile tugging at his lips, he slung the baldrick over his shoulder and settled the horn at his side. Then he fixed the sword's scabbard to his belt and fastened the cloak about his neck. Laying the mail corselet and livery in the trunk again, he closed and locked it.
The sky had not yet begun to brighten in the east, when Merry locked the back door of his little house and slipped off through the spinney, a pair of heavily-laden saddlebags slung over his shoulder. In his Elvish cloak, he passed like a whisper of wind in the grass, unseen even by the owls that hunted the fringes of the Old Forest. He gave Buck Hill and the many windows of Brandy Hall a wide berth and struck west for Bucklebury.
A hobbit of much foresight, Merry kept his pony stabled near the Bucklebury Ferry and the road that led to Stock. This was the way to Hobbiton and to Tuckborough, where Pippin now lived with his kinfolk. Merry's many travels usually took him across the river and down the road to Stock, and the lordly young hobbit on his long-legged pony was a familiar sight in these parts.
This early in the morning, with the sun not yet up, Merry found the stables deserted but for a young hobbit sleeping curled in the straw of an empty stall. He did not disturb the child, but went about the business of saddling Strider as quietly as possible. By the time he led the pony outside, the first traces of dawn were beginning to show. Merry swung himself into the saddle, shifted his sword and packs into a more comfortable position, and nudged Strider with his heels. The pony obediently trotted off into the thin morning mist, toward the Ferry and Tuckborough.
To be continued…