Disclaimer: Once again, I failed to get the rights to Lord of the Rings for Christmas. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for my birthday…

A/N: Once again, a giant THANK YOU to those who reviewed or took the time to add this story to their favorites or alert lists. Seriously—you guys are awesome. Sorry for the slight delay—I had another fic I had to attend to (shameless plug: like Harry Potter fan fic? Check out my fic A Fair Amount of Courage).

Chapter 6: The End of the Beginning

Jane found it very strange and slightly ironic that it was she who was losing sleep over Aria Nightingale's love life.

She had spent her last night in Lothlorien staring into the darkness trying to figure out exactly what she was going to do about Aria's situation. Roger had said in his letter that Aria must fall in love. It was that qualifying statement—'with the right person'—that had Jane concerned.

She did not think Legolas was the right person.

This was not a poor mark on his character in any sense—Jane respected the Elf, despite his habit of asking questions that were difficult for her to answer. But Aria and Legolas didn't seem to go together. It wasn't even a case of opposites attract—it was like trying to pair peanut butter with mayonnaise. The more Jane thought about it, the more she became convinced that the two Elves really weren't destined for a romantic relationship.

"But how can I know for sure?" Jane asked herself. "I thought I knew what I was doing when I wrote Aria and that's clearly not the case. How can I be sure that I'm making the right call?"

It was a question that echoed ceaselessly in her head until sleep finally came and pulled her from consciousness.

*

Jane did not feel alert enough to continue on their quest when morning came. She had half a mind to ask Aragorn to postpone their departure by another day or so. Hell, she had half a mind to ask Aragorn what he thought about Aria's love life. Jane considered both options for a moment and promptly decided that it would be best if she just kept her mouth shut.

Their departure from Lothlorien was not complete without a whole lot of ceremony, all of which Jane felt as though she could have easily slept through. Lady Galadriel surprised her with a gift—as a nonmember of the Fellowship, Jane had assumed she would be excluded from the gift giving ceremony. Her gift was practical—a slim and elegant dagger that was easily concealed at her waist. It was beautifully crafted and there was some sort of inscription at the hilt that Jane thought must be Elvish. She was also outfitted with a new cloak, one of the ones with the leaf brooch and the specially made cloth that helped the wearer blend in with their surroundings.

Aria was also given a gift—however, it was not the gift that Jane had expected her to get. In her fan fic, Jane had planned for Aria to receive a sword—the sort of sword that had a long history behind it, the sort of sword that required research to write about properly. Jane briefly wondered if her as yet incomplete research caused Galadriel to give Aria the necklace. It was a beautiful necklace, but it was definitely the kind of necklace that required a particular wardrobe to go with it—the silver curlicues and the pearly stones weren't particularly suited for the simple tunic that Aria wore. Galadriel fastened the slim chain around Aria's slender neck and said something quietly in Elvish. Aria nodded and placed her hand to the pendant, which hung right by her heart.

There were more words and more gifts and Jane found herself pinching the inside of her forearm to keep herself awake. Finally, it was decided that the company would leave, at which point Jane remembered that they would be using boats, which considerably dampened her spirits.

Jane had never been particularly good at water sports. When she was younger and took swimming lessons at the park district, she was always the kid who swallowed too much water and ended up throwing up in the pool filter. She had been kayaking once and had managed to tip her kayak three times in the course of twenty minutes. She did not feel especially confident about the upcoming boat trip.

Jane would be traveling in the fourth boat with Aria and the rest of the supplies that didn't quite fit in the other boats. She boarded the small boat with much trepidation, immediately disliking the way it rocked beneath her feet. She quickly sat down on the little bench, gripping the edges of the boat with white knuckles. Aria sprang lightly and gracefully into the seat in front of her, scarcely causing the boat to wobble.

They finally set off down the river, Jane gripping her oar as though her life depended on it. Aria was lightly chatting about something—Jane was concentrating too much on keeping her balance to pay much attention. When she finally felt as though she could speak without somehow inadvertently capsizing the boat, they had been gone from Lothlorien for nearly an hour.

"Er…how long do you expect we'll be on the river?" she asked Aria tentatively.

"Probably a week," said Aria offhandedly.

Jane suppressed a groan. This was going to be more difficult than she thought.

*

On her first day on the river, Jane learned that she was prone to seasickness.

It wasn't until she had been on land for a few moments that she noticed the queasy feeling in her stomach. She felt the color drain from her cheeks. She took a deep breath and willed her stomach to remain calm.

"Are you ill?" asked Aragorn.

"I don't have my sea legs yet," replied Jane.

"River legs," corrected Pippin. Jane gave a weak grin.

"Sit down for a moment, it'll get better," suggested Merry with the air of a seasoned expert on the matter.

"You seemed well-informed," commented Aria. "I thought it was said that hobbits disliked the water."

Merry scoffed. "Not all hobbits, my lady. You'll find that the Brandybucks have an affinity for water."

Pippin snorted dismissively. "Brandybucks. Psh."

"We're related, Pip," Merry reminded him cheerily.

Dinner was unusually quiet that evening. Clearly, everyone there wished they were back in the comfort of Lothlorien.

"Come, let's have a story," Aria finally suggested, breaking the silence. Her eyes fell on Jane. "Jane, you've yet to tell a story. Indulge us, won't you?"

"Er, well, I'm not much of a storyteller," Jane said.

"Oh, Jane, don't be shy," cajoled Aria.

"Really—"

"You're rather overdue—everyone else has had a turn."

"No, really, I'm not—"

"Besides, we've heard all of Aragorn's stories," added Pippin.

"You would be very old indeed if you had heard all of my stories, Master Took," said the Ranger wryly. Pippin waved a hand dismissively.

"Well, we've heard a fair number at any rate."

"I would very much like to hear one of your stories, Miss Baker," stated Sam. Jane felt her resolve weaken significantly.

"Jane, really, you can't say no now," urged Aria.

Jane sighed. There wasn't much of an opportunity to back out now, not with Sam looking so much like an eager puppy dog.

"All right, give me a moment to think."

She tried to quickly sort through possible stories in her mind, searching for one that would be appropriate for her audience. Her mind rested on an old standby: Shakespeare. Surely it wouldn't be as beautiful as the original prose, but all she needed was a plot that didn't involve robots or any other modern inventions. Yes, Shakespeare would do.

She cleared her throat tentatively.

"Er. So, imagine, if you will, a very…a very beautiful and rugged countryside very far from here," she began. "It is very…temperate. The winters are…mild and the…er…the summers are cool. This place is called Scotland."

Jane's eyes flicked over her audience, who were listening politely, although not very raptly. She swallowed nervously before continuing.

"Now…imagine a very…a very stormy night. The kind where…where the thunder and lightning crash so loudly that it makes your ears ache and you're certain that the sky will crack down the middle. Quite suddenly and silently, three old women appear. They are ancient and weathered as stone. These women are witches and they will begin our story…"

Jane found that as she went on, her pauses became less frequent and her words came more surely. She found herself becoming involved in the story—the awakening of Macbeth's treacherous ambition, Lady Macbeth's spiraling descent into madness, the inevitable end.

Finally, Jane reached the bloody conclusion of her tale—Macbeth was dead and Malcolm made king. She paused and listened to ensuing silence, wondering if it was in approval or not. Her mouth had gone dry and she now reached for her canteen.

"Wonderful, Jane," declared Aria before anyone could speak. "I've never heard that before—where did you hear it?"

"Oh! Er…well, I er…my father," she lied quickly, mentally apologizing to the Bard. "He…er…often invented stories to amuse us."

"That gave me chills," said Sam. "With all that talk of murder and deceit."

"But it turned out all right in the end," stated Frodo.

"Not without murder," mumbled Sam.

"I liked it very much," declared Pippin. "Madmen make for the best stories."

"He was a damn fool," growled Gimli. "Heeding the counsel of witches."

"Maybe it was his fate?" replied Jane reflexively. Too many college level English courses had embedded that tendency in her mind. She flushed, slightly embarrassed as the Dwarf looked at her skeptically.

"And what do you mean by that?" he asked.

"Er…well…perhaps…perhaps he would have done it anyway," she said lamely. "He was rather ambitious by nature…if the witches hadn't appeared, perhaps he would have thought of it on his own. If he had free will, then he didn't have to follow the witches' prophecy. He could have just gone on with his life. The fact that he didn't suggests that there must have been a…stronger force, like fate at work."

The others were looking at her curiously. She cleared her throat.

"My…er…my father often discussed this…" She trailed off and tried to change the subject. "I suppose it's a rather depressing story, but he could be quite funny as well."

"You know more of your father's stories?" asked Frodo.

"Well—"

"Why then, we must have another tomorrow evening!" declared Aria.

"Well, I…I mean, I might not remember…" protested Jane.

"You'll have all day tomorrow," pointed out Aria. "Rowing makes for good thinking."

"I…er…"

"It's been a long time since I've heard new stories," said Legolas. Jane caught his eye and quickly looked downward. There was a cryptic signal in his gaze, a slight suspicion that made her uncomfortable.

"I would very much like to hear one of his funny stories, Miss Baker," pressed Sam.

Jane thought that it would be impossible for anyone with a heart to resist the eager puppy dog eyes of Samwise Gamgee. In the end, she conceded, and fell asleep that night attempting to remember everything she could about Much Ado About Nothing.

*

Boat travel became easier for Jane with every passing day on the river, although it seemed to her that the improvements were marginal at best. Merry and Pippin were sweetly encouraging throughout the entire ordeal, which made it seem a little easier.

Her arms and shoulders ached from constantly rowing, but Jane tried to tell herself that such pain was good for her, that it would help improve her swordsmanship. When that tactic failed, she tried to console herself with the fact that perhaps her arms would look a little better after this endeavor.

One of the drawbacks to travel by boat was that it severely limited conversation. You could talk fairly easily to the people in your boat, but trying to have a conversation with anyone in the other three boats was hardly convenient or even easy. Jane settled with talking to Aria, though she noted that it was Aria that did most of the talking. Jane didn't mind so much—it was good background noise and made time pass a little more easily.

With the trip down the river came the realization that Boromir's days were numbered. Although Jane did not consider herself close to the man, she was slightly saddened and sobered by this realization. He was familiar and nice enough, even if the Ring had already corrupted him. His imminent death also seemed too close to Gandalf's disappearance (Jane found herself unable to say that the wizard had died while knowing that he would reunite with them shortly). All the same, it seemed too soon to lose a member of the Fellowship, this time permanently. Perversely, Jane found herself wishing that the trip down the river could take just a little bit longer.

She had, of course, briefly entertained the idea of preventing Boromir's death. This was not so straightforward as saving Gandalf had appeared—the upcoming battle would be too irregular, too frenzied for Jane to be able to fathom exactly where her comrades would be. It was not the simple matter of just holding on a little longer or waiting that extra minute before turning your back on the beast. Although the Balrog was considerably more dangerous, Jane found that the Uruk-Hai who would kill Boromir was considerably more difficult to stop with any kind of straightforward plan.

And if that particular Uruk-Hai was dispatched of beforehand, who's to say that Boromir would not meet his end at the blade of another? Despite her musings to Gimli on Macbeth, Jane didn't like to think about fate too much. However, she did believe that there was some sort of strategy behind Boromir's death—Tolkien killed him off for a reason, whether to illustrate the all-consuming power of the Ring or so that the Fellowship could break on the shores of the Anduin. Either reason was possible and although the preventability of the situation loomed tantalizingly before her, she was reluctant, if not unable, to try and alter things. There was also the warning from Roger Morton—try not to meddle too much with the plot.

Jane's retellings of Shakespearean plays were in high demand for most of the journey down the river. Trying to remember the specifics of different plays saved her from brooding about Boromir too much. However, she soon found herself running low on material—she enjoyed Shakespeare, but she was no scholar and had only read a handful of plays. After Much Ado About Nothing, she moved on to A Midsummer Night's Dream and then Twelfth Night. She remembered only the bare bones of Love's Labours Lost and was relieved when Merry requested a darker story. She obliged him with Hamlet, which Sam also described as too dark for his tastes. Mercifully, he agreed to tell a story the following night, which Jane hoped would relieve her of her duties for a while, as she was quickly running out of material.

However, as it turned out, Sam would not get the chance to tell his story.

The day they passed the Argonath, Jane knew they were coming to the end of their river journey. Some time later, they stopped on the western shore. It was familiar and it made Jane's stomach drop unpleasantly. The fight in Moria still seemed all too recent—she was not looking forward to revisiting the horror of battle.

"We cross the lake at nightfall, hide the boats, and continue on foot," said Aragorn once the party had reacquainted themselves with land. "We approach Mordor from the north."

"Oh yes?" said Gimli, clearly agitated. "Just a simple matter of finding our way through Emyn Muil? An impassable labyrinth of razor-sharp rocks? And after that, it gets even better! Festering stinking marshlands, as far as the eye can see!"

Jane had to admit that this did not sound terribly pleasant.

"That is our road," said Aragorn unapologetically. "I suggest you take some rest and recover your strength, Master Dwarf."

"Recover my—" sputtered Gimli angrily.

"We should leave now," said Legolas quietly, looking clearly agitated.

"No. Orcs patrol the eastern shore. We must wait for the cover of darkness," replied Aragorn quietly. Jane pretended to be very interested in the river, so as not to be caught eavesdropping.

"It is not the eastern shore that worries me." Legolas' voice had gone low and was slightly difficult to hear, especially with Gimli grumbling in the background. "A shadow and a threat has been growing in my mind. Something draws near. I can feel it…"

"He's right," added Aria quietly. "I have seen it as well. Aragorn, this place is perilous."

"We will keep our course," said Aragorn resolutely.

"Where's Frodo?" Merry asked, effectively halting the rest of the conversation.

Jane's stomach dropped. Things would go drastically downhill after this.

Chaos seemed to break out after that— Aragorn cursed under his breath and immediately darted off into the woods. Sam was the next to follow. Merry and Pippin took off running in one direction, Gimli the other. Legolas listened intently before running the same way Aragorn had gone. Aria followed him and Jane, having absolutely no idea what to do, followed Aria.

Jane was glad that Legolas and Aria seemed to know where they were going because she sure didn't. The woods seemed familiar and strange at the same time and Jane was infinitely grateful that she did not have to navigate through it on her own. Left to her own devices, she was fairly certain she'd miss the battle entirely.

They ran for a while—Legolas and Aria gracefully and fluidly. Jane was hardly as elegant, but she managed to keep both Elves in her line of vision, which she considered an accomplishment.

Legolas suddenly stopped running and crouched behind a tree, his eyes sharp and alert. Aria was quick to follow. Jane caught up to them panting and was fairly convinced that she had missed something because she could not sense anything wrong.

As her breathing slowed, she heard it—the sound of many feet crashing through underbrush and pounding against the ground. There were a few snarls and growls, all of which were very clearly not of human origin.

Jane felt her stomach rise in her throat. Perhaps it wasn't too late to go hide in a tree.

A voice suddenly rose, shouting as the sharp ring of metal striking metal pierced through the air. Aria and Legolas suddenly sprang forward, their weapons already drawn. Jane took a deep breath and followed clumsily after.

Upon actually seeing the Uruk-Hai, Jane was surprised to feel a surge of pity. They were hideous. It was clear they were created for a purpose and Jane knew that it would be impossible for any of them to deviate from that—a friendly Uruk-Hai would still be visually terrifying. It seemed terribly unfair—to create a sentient being who had little choice but to follow the dark path that lay ahead of him.

But then a few of them caught a glimpse of Jane and the two Elves and started advancing, weapons drawn and Jane was forced to stop musing on the ethics that were abused in the creation of Uruk-Hai.

"All right. Here goes nothing," she thought grimly to herself as she unsheathed her sword.

It became immediately apparent to Jane that this battle would be much more challenging than Moria. She dispatched of her first Uruk-Hai fairly quickly, but there was one right behind it and after that, another. Sometimes there were two or three at once, which she could handle if she were backed up against something solid, like a tree or a stone from one of the ruins. If she wasn't, she found running away to be a fairly effective tactic. She was not as fast as either Aria or Legolas, but she was considerably lighter than the Uruk-Hai and able to change direction much more swiftly.

She took much more of a beating than she did in Moria—she was often thrown to the ground, hit or kicked. She could feel bruises forming on her bruises. About midway through battle, she acquired a jagged gash on her forearm during a particularly drawn out battle with a particularly determined Uruk-Hai. She had failed to block one of his blows properly and his weapon tore through her shirtsleeve and sliced into her arm. She hissed in pain and the Uruk-Hai hissed back in some sort of sadistic pleasure. She saw an opening just then and drove her sword hard into his gut.

Try as she might, Jane would never become used to the sound and feeling of a weapon—of her weapon—ripping through flesh.

Jane had been under the impression that the skirmish would take twenty minutes, at most. But there seemed to be a never-ending supply of Uruk-Hai and she found the entire exchange dragged out much longer. Only the still corpses on the ground indicated they had made any kind of progress

She was again considering running and hiding in a tree when a low bass note broke through the clanging of weaponry.

"The horn of Gondor!" Legolas shouted.

"Boromir!"

Once again, Jane found herself chasing after Legolas and Aria. Aragorn had gone on ahead. Gimli was close behind her, shouting incomprehensibly. It occurred to her that she could not quite remember when the Dwarf or the Ranger joined the skirmish. This was another thing she disliked about battle—the way it fiddled with her memory as though she had been in some sort of trance.

It seemed to take an awful long time to get to that little clearing. The frequent run-ins with Uruk-Hai did not make Jane's pace more efficient. By the time she found the others, Boromir was lying still on the forest floor, Aragorn kneeling beside him.

Aria was in tears, which both irritated and confused Jane. Aria had clearly liked Gandalf much more than Boromir and had not been this distressed when he fell. Jane wondered if this was merely a ploy to get Legolas' attention. However, she didn't get much more time to consider it, as Aria caught sight of her and waved her over.

"He is dead, then," said Jane quietly. Aria heaved pretty sob as Legolas nodded.

Dead. It was strange to say it. Jane had, of course, known that it was going to happen. But it felt stranger this time. She had known the man—not well, certainly, but she had known him more than a character on the screen. She looked up at the sky and worried her lower lip with her teeth.

There was then the awkward matter of transporting his body back to the river where they had left the boats. A makeshift stretcher was hastily constructed out of fallen branches and cloaks. Jane did what she could to help, but she tried to avoid the body itself as much as possible. She had been to her share of open casket wakes and had always been slightly unnerved. Boromir was no exception.

They made the journey back to their campsite in relatively good time, despite the awkward load they carried. One of the boats was missing, as Jane knew it would be. If she looked carefully enough across the river, she could glimpse the two hobbits starting off into the woods. She wanted to shout "Good luck!" or some other kind of sendoff, but it seemed slightly inappropriate. Instead, she gazed across the river quietly. She would not see Frodo and Sam again until the story was nearly at its end.

Boromir was neatly and ceremoniously laid out in one of the remaining boats. Aragorn was the one to push it out into open water. It rode steadily with the current, finally disappearing over the waterfall.

"Hurry! Frodo and Sam have reached the eastern shore!" Legolas was preparing one of the remaining boats. Aria had occupied herself with a similar task with one of the other boats.

"We haven't got time!" she exclaimed. "Jane, hurry up!"

Jane bit her lip and looked to the Ranger. Legolas stepped away from the shore, seeming to understand.

"You mean not to follow them," said he quietly. Color rose in Aria's cheeks.

"Are you mad?" she shouted, stalking away from the boat and angrily approaching the Ranger.

"Frodo's fate is no longer in our hands," said Aragorn simply. Aria's mouth formed into a thin, tight line.

"You would abandon them to death!" she snapped angrily. Jane quickly approached the Elf and placed a hand gingerly on her shoulder.

"This is their path, Aria," she said quietly. The Elf looked at her angrily.

"We swore to protect them!"

"The Fellowship couldn't last indefinitely—you knew this."

Jane was guessing on this last part, but it seemed like the right thing to say. Aria was still visibly upset, but she relaxed a little.

"Then it has all been in vain," said Gimli, his gravelly voice unusually morose. "The Fellowship has failed."

Jane was all too happy to hand over the morale-boosting mantle to Aragorn. She glanced at Legolas. He was regarding her carefully and Jane regretted using the phrase "This is their path."

Luckily, she didn't think the ensuing chase after Merry and Pippin would really give the Elf much time to question her further on it.

"We will not abandon Merry and Pippin to torment and death," Aragorn was now saying. "Not while we have strength left. Leave all that can be spared behind. Let's hunt some Orc."

"Yes!" exclaimed Gimli. Aragorn's speech appeared to have convinced Aria, as she was quick to follow him as he ran into the wood. Jane went quickly after her to avoid Legolas' gaze. She knew the following journey would be long and exhausting. She had been dreading it, but she was ready.

She was also incredibly grateful that she'd had the foresight to join the cross-country running team in college.

*

A/N: Upcoming chapters are going to be considerably more exciting than this one. At least I think so.