The Ringbearer looked up from the brightly colored lure bobbing on the silvered surface of the pool to see something he hadn't for many years – Gandalf looking worried.
"Is something wrong?" He asked instantly, and realized almost as soon as he spoke that it was a silly question. They were in Eressea, the Lonely Isle, Westernmost of Mortal Lands under the direct protection of the Powers. What could possibly be wrong here?
But for all that Gandalf's reassuring smile showed definite signs of strain; "No, no of course not. Just something you should see."
Puzzled and uneasy Frodo laid aside his fishing pole and followed the wizard upstream. Woodland gave way to a verdant rolling meadowlands starred with flowers of Elanor and Niphredil. Cradled in those gentle hills was a clear blue jewel of a lake with a graceful swan boat to carry them, without sail or oar, to a small green islet where stone steps led up to an open pavilion, its lacy white dome upheld by slender columns.
Gandalf came to a full stop on the top step. Frodo hesitated, looking up, and the wizard nodded him forward. A low couch stood beneath the dome, dappled with sunlight, and a long figure lay still upon it - dead or sleeping.
Frodo, soft footed, drew closer then gasped in recognition. "Boromir!"
"Yes, Boromir," Gandalf agreed heavily.
The Ringbearer shot him a quick look over his shoulder, then reached out to cautiously touch one of the folded hands. It was warm, and the chest beneath moved softly with the Man's breathing. Frodo whispered wonderingly: "He's alive."
"And soon he will awaken."
The Hobbit looked back at the wizard and was shaken by the grief in his face. "Why is that bad?"
Gandalf closed his eyes and bent his head wearily against his staff for a brief moment before coming forward to stand at the foot of the couch. "Our friend suffered much in his life," he said heavily, "especially toward its ending, he needs peace and healing."
"Isn't that why he's here?"
"No." Gandalf answered quietly. "He is here to prepare for his return to Middle Earth."
Frodo looked from the wizard to his sleeping friend and back again. "But - but I thought that wasn't allowed?"
"It isn't usually." Suddenly Gandalf flashed into anger, stamping his staff on the stone pavement. "Boromir has done enough! It is grossly unfair to ask more of him." His anger passed as quickly as it had come, fading into bitter resignation. "But what other choice do we have? if not him then who?"
"Gandalf," said Frodo, "please, what is going on? What are you asking Boromir to do and why is it so terrible?"
Gandalf sighed and drew a chair woven of ivory hued withy-wands nearer to the bedside and sat down. "In every age, Frodo, the Lords of the West have sent forth emissaries to fight the Shadow in Middle Earth. I was one such, now Boromir has agreed to become another."
"But I thought evil was ended!" Frodo cried in dismay. "Sauron was destroyed with his Ring - wasn't he?"
"Of course he was." Gandalf reassured him. "But though Sauron is forever fallen the Shadow remains. Arda was marred from its very beginning, Frodo, by the malice of Morgoth and its healing is beyond the power of the Valar." he looked at Boromir, lying on the couch beside them, "But not the power of Men."
"I don't understand." the Ringbearer said bewildered. "How can Men be more powerful than the Valar?"
"Because of all the creatures of the world they alone are not bound to it or to its fates." the wizard explained. "And in that freedom lies the power to alter or unmake the designs of the Valar, of Morgoth, perhaps even of the One himself. Men will be the saving of us all in the end - or our destruction – and not even Men themselves can say which it will be."
"Oh." said Frodo in a small voice. Then, firmly: "I trust Aragorn."
"So do we all." Gandalf agreed. "But that's not to say he couldn't use a little help."
"That sounds like something Boromir would want to do." Frodo said slowly. "So why does it make you so sad?"
"Because he will be returning to trouble and strife and sorrow and pain, ending in a second violent death!"
"Oh." Frodo thought about that for some minutes. "I don't think he'll mind." he said finally.
"I know he will not." Gandalf actually glared at the unconscious Man. "But *I* mind on his behalf! He has been misused enough - we have no right to lay this further burden upon him." Then he sighed and smiled wearily at Frodo. "I thought you might want to be here when he wakens, perhaps there are things you would like to say to him?"
"Yes to both." Frodo answered, and dragged up a second chair.
Frodo had been on Eressea long enough to know an Elf or a Maia's idea of 'soon' wasn't anything like a Hobbit's so he wasn't surprised when teatime and dinnertime passed without sign or stir from Boromir.
As suppertime approached he began to worry about Bilbo - who surely must be wondering what had become of him. He was trying to think of some way to send word to his uncle, (why was there never an Elf around when you really needed one?) when suddenly, without fuss, Boromir opened his eyes.
He squinted as he focused on the wizard. "Mithrandir?"
Gandalf leaned forward, forestalling with a firm hand Boromir's attempt to raise himself, "Lie still a moment, it will take time for your strength to return."
The Man's eyes wandered past him and widened at the sight of the Hobbit. "Frodo?" then he was struggling to sit up, pushing aside Gandalf's efforts to restrain him and grasping eagerly at Frodo's hand. "Forgive me, Ringbearer! I failed you, the Fellowship and the quest. I am truly sorry for it."
"It was the Ring," Frodo replied, tears streaming down his face, "it wasn't your fault."
Boromir's response to that was unexpected he gave the Hobbit a look almost of exasperation. "Of course it was!"
"It was." Gandalf agreed, and got an angry look from Frodo but an almost pleased one from the Man. Standing, staff in hand, by the bed he said to Frodo: "Boromir is right to take some of the blame upon himself but there are others more guilty than he, myself not least among them."
The Mortals exchanged a bewildered look. "I do not understand." said Boromir in the resigned tone of one who'd found himself saying those words all too often.
"We who call ourselves the Wise saw your peril and did nothing to help." the wizard told him bleakly.
Boromir shook his head. "That is not true. I see now that both you and the Lady of Lorien tried to warn me but I would not listen."
"Words!" Gandalf stamped his staff impatiently. "What we did not do was the one thing that would have saved you - sent you away."
"That's true," Boromir said slowly, "and it would have spared Frodo as well. Why didn't you?"
"Because we needed you, the quest needed you. Your weakness as well as your strength," Gandalf's voice was weighted with sorrow and shame. "We used you, my friend, to your own hurt."
"I see." Frodo said suddenly. "It was my fault!" Wizard and Man looked at him in astonishment as he continued; "The Lady warned me too, she said the Ring would destroy my companions one by one. I knew I had to leave you all, but I was too afraid. It wasn't until I actually saw the Ring take you, Boromir, that I found the courage - or the desperation - to do what I must. If I had been stronger -"
"This is folly!" the Man interrupted flatly. "Whatever others may have done or left undone the sin was mine and so is the blame!"
"If a soldier sees his comrade matched against a foe beyond his strength and turns away rather than coming to his aid, has he not done wrong?" Gandalf asked gently.
The metaphor was well chosen. Boromir considered it for some moments before he answered at last: "Yes. But there are some battles that must be fought alone. I lost mine."
"No! no, Boromir, you won!" Gandalf protested, "A victory unexpected and unlooked for. In all my long years I have known only one other Man who did the like."
"I wish I could see it so." He raised a hand to forestall the wizard's retort. "Please, Mithrandir, I am neither philosopher nor loremaster but I know what I know and I am very tired of arguing the point!" he turned to Frodo with a sudden grin. "And I find myself very hungry."
The Hobbit grinned in return. "I can do something about that. You're just in time for supper and my Uncle Bilbo's the best cook in the Four Farthings."
Bilbo was bustling around his kitchen, peeking into the oven and assorted bubbling pots to see everything was cooking evenly and setting the table for two, when he heard the front door open and hurried out into the hall wiping his hands on a towel.
"There you are at last, my boy -" he began, then he saw the white robed wizard looming behind Frodo and broke into a delighted smile. "Gandalf! what a nice surprise, we don't see nearly enough of you these days!" Bilbo peered inquisitively past the wizard at the second tall white clad figure. "And who is this then?" Before anyone could answer the elder Hobbit blinked, took a second harder look and his mouth fell open. "Boromir of Gondor? but you shouldn't be here!"
The Man laughed. "I'm inclined to agree with you, Master Baggins."
Bilbo blushed. "I beg your pardon! You're very welcome of course - but I thought Men weren't allowed here. I mean the drowning of Numenor and all that business..." he trailed away helplessly.
"Mortals are not permitted to set foot in Aman," Boromir explained kindly, "Eressea, as you know is a different matter. In any case it was the Powers themselves who brought me here, so the responsibility is theirs."
"It is indeed." Gandalf agreed grimly.
"So this is a Hobbit hole." said Boromir some little time later as they sat over their wine, wizard and Hobbits puffing contentedly at their pipes. "Did you built it yourselves?"
"Oh my no!" Bilbo laughed. "The Elves delved it for us, according to our specifications of course." He beamed contentedly around his dining room with its highly polished wainscoting, the dark oak dresser displaying fine painted china and silver, and a big round window looking out over his little flower garden.
"Everybody has been very kind." Frodo said seriously. "They've really gone to a great deal of trouble -"
"Indeed they have!" the wizard interrupted, eyes twinkling. "The entire island revolves around these two. Why even the weather is arranged to suit them!"
Frodo blushed. "All I did was say that I missed rain. I never meant they should do anything about it!"
Boromir laughed heartily.
Gandalf smiled kindly at Frodo. "The Elves enjoy doing things for you and Bilbo, it gives them an interest in life. Don't hesitate to ask for anything that strikes your fancy - no matter how extravagant it may seem." He glanced at the Man. "And that goes for you too, Boromir. If you think of anything, anything at all, that might make you feel more comfortable here you have but to ask."
"Thank you, but I was told I wouldn't be staying long."
Now it was Frodo's turn to laugh. "Trust me, Boromir, Elves and Maia don't measure time as we Mortals do. You're likely to be here much longer than you think."
"You must stay with us." Bilbo offered hospitably. "We have a Man-sized guest room just down the hall."
"Thank you, but I'm not sure what arrangements have been made for me." Boromir looked uncertainly at Gandalf.
"I see no reason why you shouldn't stay with Bilbo and Frodo," said the wizard, "in fact it would be very suitable - but be careful of your head!"
"I will." the Man promised with a smile.
"As for how long you'll be here," Gandalf continued, "that depends on the judgment of the Powers. They will send you back when they deem the time is ripe." the sadness came back into his face. "And that will be very soon as we measure it – though Frodo is quite right to say it may seem longer to you, a year or so perhaps, or maybe a little more."
The homely aroma of pipeweed floated incongruously down the shining halls of Ilmarin until it reached the nose of Varda sitting among her handmaidens listening to the music of Elven bards. Her radiant brow creased in a troubled frown and she rose. Gesturing for her companions to continue their pastime she followed the scent up the terraced levels of her house to the great pillared chamber, open to the airs of Arda, at the very pinnacle of Mount Taniquetil.
Varda looked sadly at the hunched figure wrapped in a blue cloak sitting on the lowest step of the High Throne puffing gloomily at a long stemmed pipe and said gently: "Try not to grieve so, Beloved. The Man has made his choice, he wants to go."
"To atone for a sin he would never have committed had I not tried him beyond his strength." Her spouse answered bleakly.
"Yet he proved stronger than you deemed in the end." she reminded him.
"And as a reward we lay yet another, heavier burden upon him." Manwe Sulimo, who had been called Gandalf the Grey in Middle Earth, retorted bitterly.
Varda sat beside him on the step, her starry robes drifting about her, and folded one of his gnarled old hands in her own smooth white one. "A burden you yourself bore for nigh on an Age of the World." She reminded him. She studied her spouse thoughtfully. "And I think the Man's reasons are not so different from yours, Beloved."
He frowned at her then smiled wryly. "A case of the pot calling the kettle black, as they say in the Shire! You have me there, Dear Heart. Boromir is not the only one to have erred and feel a need for atonement."
"Or to take over much blame to himself," said Varda.