Before we begin...
Author's thankyous: This is my magnum opus, a story that is longer than any I've written to date. The first few chapters have been posted before, as a much shorter story. They have since been reworked and merged with what was originally a sequel. During the process of writing this novel, I met many kind and helpful people who were happy to part with their opinions, knowledge and even the occasional brainchild and thus help me tell a better story. I cannot name them all but be aware I am grateful for all the help. A special mention deserve Lyllyn & Marta & Aeneid & Ann for valuable betawork; Liz & Gwynnyd for even more beta shredding; Cheryl for teaching me about horses; Middle-earth Adventure Riders Association for their incredible travel times chart, and all of HASA's membership.
Note: This story uses elements from book!canon as well as movie!canon.
A STEALTHY ARRIVAL
"I would have followed you, my brother. My captain. My king."
Aragorn had no answer to the dying man's final declaration of trust and fealty. With a soft sigh, the last word left Boromir's lips and his eyes lost their focus.
It was over.
Swallowing hard to banish his tears, Aragorn leaned over his fallen comrade and pressed a gentle kiss on the high forehead. "Be at peace, son of Gondor."
He was about to pull away when he felt it: the softest breath caressed his bloodied face, as faint as the stirring of air beneath a butterfly's wings. Aragorn stiffened. It could not be, could it? Yet, there it was again. A gentle touch, a light caress. Wary, unbelieving, prepared for the inevitable disappointment, the ranger sat up slowly and looked down upon Boromir's body. The soldier's eyes had drifted shut but his chest rose and fell ever so slightly, visible only to a careful observer.
It was not over yet.
Aragorn sprang into action. "Gimli! A fire! Hot water! Bandages! Quick!" The orders were short and clipped; he had no time to waste on the dwarf's sensitive pride.
But pride appeared to be the furthest thing from Gimli's mind. "He is alive?" His voice mimicked the disbelief Aragorn felt.
"Aye. I understand not how it can be, but Boromir is alive still."
Aragorn knew Boromir would not live much longer, though, unless he acted quickly and decisively. Three orc arrows protruded from his body. If he were not treated at once, Boromir would die. There was but a small window of opportunity, a scarce moment in time to do what was needed.
The elf gave no reply and when Aragorn chanced a glance over his shoulder, he caught the slim form disappearing among the trees. He allowed himself a brief smile before turning back to the wounded man. Legolas need not be asked; he would bring Aragorn what he desired most: his satchel of healing herbs, left behind on the beach with the rest of their gear when they went to search for Frodo.
He steeled himself for the grim task of cutting out the arrowheads. He broke off the shafts, removed Boromir's leather vest and maroon tunic, and peeled away the heavy mail. Though potentially lethal, Boromir's injuries appeared not as severe as he had initially feared. "You may have to keep your promise still," Aragorn murmured. "Be strong, my brother, and you will live."
The heavy chain mail had absorbed much of the arrows' impact, and two were lodged in flesh and muscle only. They would be easy to remove. It was the third arrow that worried Aragorn; Boromir's breathing had grown more labored while he assessed the injuries. He eyed the bloody lips and worried about the harm the arrow might have caused to Boromir's lung. Once he started cutting the point out, speed would be of the essence.
It was well nigh thirty minutes later before the arrows were removed to the last splinter and the flow of blood from the wounds had been staunched. Boromir's breathing was a little easier and his fate was starting to look less grim. Yet, as Aragorn looked down upon the soldier's pale and inanimate face, despair again gripped him. His heart was torn in two directions. Which obligation should he heed? To the fallen son of Gondor, whom Death's cold hands might yet take? Or should he be true to the brave hobbits who would certainly suffer a fate much worse than death at the hands of their captors? Left in the orcs' care, the hobbits' prospects for survival grew slimmer with every passing minute. And so much time had been lost already in caring for Boromir.
With a heavy heart, Aragorn made his decision. "We cannot stay with Boromir."
"What?" spluttered Gimli. "You want to leave him? Now?"
"We have no choice," Aragorn said. "We did everything we could for him. His chances to survive his injuries are slim at best, whether we remain with him or not. Merry and Pippin need our help. You do not want them to suffer the fate the orcs have in mind for them, do you, master dwarf?"
"It is not to my liking to leave an injured friend behind," Gimli said. "What say you, Legolas?"
Inwardly, Aragorn smiled. A dwarf asking an elf's opinion! There was hope for Middle-earth yet. "We shall not leave him to his doom," Aragorn said. "One of us will go with Boromir to Gondor while the others pursue the orcs."
"What about Frodo?" said Legolas. "You mean not to follow him?"
"Nay." Aragorn recounted to his comrades the conversation he had had with Frodo on top of Amon Hen, just before the Uruk-hai appeared. "Frodo's fate is no longer in our hands."
After a few moments of contemplation, both Gimli and Legolas agreed with Aragorn's plan. "Who will travel with him to Gondor?" the elf asked. A painful silence followed.
Legolas looked pointedly at Gimli, who glared back at the elf with belligerence. Aragorn sighed; it was up to him to make the difficult decision. All three of them liked the hobbits and were very concerned for their safety. But one would have to place their fate into the care of the others. And logic dictated it would be the one with the shortest legs.
"Gimli?" Aragorn said gently. The dwarf's glare changed direction and struck him. Aragorn looked back, meeting Gimli's eyes squarely.
At last, Gimli threw up his hands. "Oh, all right! I shall see Boromir reaches his home safely. But do not take this as proof that you are right and I would slow you spindlelegs down. Because I see that is what you are thinking. I will have you know a dwarf can run as swiftly as any elf!"
Wisely, Aragorn merely nodded in acceptance of the statement. He was grateful Legolas did not comment either.
Once the decision was made, man, elf and dwarf set to work without further ado. Speed was of great import; the sooner they sent Boromir on his way home, the sooner Aragorn and Legolas could follow the orcs that captured Merry and Pippin.
They carried Boromir past the Falls of Rauros, an arduous journey downhill through dense forest, and placed him in one of the elegant Elven vessels that had brought the Fellowship from Lothlórien to the shores of Amon Hen. They made sure he rested comfortably, and then Legolas went back to the original landing site to gather the rest of their few belongings.
Aragorn looked down upon the fallen warrior. "Fare thee well, my friend," he whispered. "May the grace of the Valar smile upon you. Mayhap we will meet again."
The current was swift and strong and tugged at the boat, forcing Aragorn to hold on tight while he waited for the dwarf to board.
"Stay true to the Fellowship," Gimli told him in a low tone. "Find the hobbits. They are valiant creatures, if rather small."
Gimli reached for the side of the boat and swung up a leg. His boot caught on the gunwale of the vessel, his reach not quite enough to clamber into it easily. He swore when he lost his balance. In a reflex, Aragorn grabbed for the dwarf. The great river, as if sensing its chance, instantly tore the vessel from his grip and carried Boromir off.
"By Durin's beard!" cursed Gimli.
Aragorn could but stare after the boat while it floated away.
They had sent Boromir to his doom.
Faramir woke with a start. His hand clenched tight around the hilt of his sword, ready to slay orc or Wild Man. He forced himself to lie still for a moment, to listen to the sounds of the night. It was calm and quiet beneath the still moon; hardly a sound could be heard, except for the gentle murmur of the Anduin or the rustle of wind through the reeds. Soft breathing indicated where the soldiers of his company lay asleep while watchmen sat guard in silence against possible enemies. Wisps of clouds overhead briefly obscured the moon, but it showed its smiling face an instant later, turning the waters of the river a molten silver.
With the night so peaceful, Faramir turned his thoughts inward to discover what had awakened him. A dream, it was. A dream, in which the Great River bore his brother home. A sob lodged in his throat when Faramir recalled what he had seen in his sleep. He could still picture it in his mind's eye: the strange vessel with its high prow, Boromir's broken body laid out on its bottom, his great horn cloven in two, sword clasped in still hands. A warrior slain on the field of a fierce battle.
What did it mean? What doom had befallen his brother that he should be plagued with such visions? Had Boromir died? No! It could not be so.
Unable to find rest once more, Faramir stood up from the hard ground, more familiar to him these days than the soft, feather beds of the Citadel in Minas Tirith. He walked toward the bank of the river without making a sound.
The ranger on guard confronted him quietly, but was quickly assured that his captain's shadow moving through the night was no threat to the company, and Faramir soon found himself alone, a stone's throw away from his camp. He gazed out across the Anduin, unable to keep himself from looking upstream toward the north.
And while he stood watching in the direction of Rivendell, where his brother's quest had taken him, the dream came to Faramir again. He blinked. Was it possible to dream while wide-awake?
Blinking did not unravel the sight before his eyes. There, riding on the silver Anduin, its high prow gleaming in the moonlight, was the vessel of his dream.
The slim boat was of a strange design that Faramir could not place. It came swiftly on the strong current. It would be but moments before it would pass by forever on its way to Ethir Anduin and the Bay of Belfalas. Fright paralyzed Faramir's limbs when he saw his dream come true, and he urged himself to shake off the lethargy. He strode down the bank of the river and into its depths. The shock of the frigid water was enough to chase off any lingering doubts he might be dreaming. No dream river could be so terribly cold.
He was immersed up to mid-thigh before he reached the boat. A sharp gasp wrung itself from his throat when at last he looked upon its bottom. Another image from his dream was mirrored in reality: his brother, sword clasped in his hands and the horn in two pieces at his side. His brother's eyes were closed, and his face was pale in the moonlight.
"Boromir," Faramir whispered through burning tears, "what terrible fate has befallen you? Who has slain you?"
When he made to drag the boat ashore, a tiny gasp escaped the motionless form on the bottom. Faramir's heart leaped with joy at the sound. "You are not dead, brother!" he cried.
His cry alerted the guards and they helped him pull the boat out of the water. "Lord Boromir is in bad shape," one of his men informed the captain, rather needlessly.
"He must be taken to the Houses of Healing as quickly as we can," Faramir agreed. "I will take him there myself." He would entrust such a task to none but himself.
Orders were passed and carried out quickly, and the new day was still hours away when Faramir set out for Minas Tirith with a small escort, leaving the remainder of the rangers to guard the western banks of the Anduin.
Many hours later, the city came into view just when the sky to the east was finally growing pale. Golden rays of sunshine stabbed through the dark poisonous cloud spewed out by Mount Orodruin and struck the Tower of Ecthelion standing watch over the city. The white tower flared, a beacon in the gloom of daybreak. The banner displaying the White Tree of Gondor flapped in the wind. And there wasn't a man among the rangers, hardened soldiers though they might be, whom the sheer beauty of the radiant city did not awe. Though none spoke out loud, many of them repeated in their minds the words of the oath sworn to their steward and their land, and vowed they would defend its people to their last breath.
Faramir bent forward and leaned over the bier that carried his brother's body. "Behold, Boromir," he whispered, "our city welcomes you."
Much to the captain's surprise and his intense joy, Boromir chose that moment to wake, as if he had been waiting to hear those words. His eyes fluttered open, and they slowly focused on Faramir's face. For a moment he looked confused, then recognition set in.
"I failed our people," Boromir whispered, his voice so low that Faramir had to lean closer to make out the words. "I broke my vows; I shamed us all. Do not tell Father I am here."
Boromir's request took Faramir by surprise. No matter what had happened, Boromir would not have failed in their father's eyes. "He will be so pleased to have you back," he reassured his brother. He should feel bitter about it, except he was too happy to have Boromir home.
"No!" Boromir clutched at a fold of Faramir's cloak. "Please."
Gently, Faramir freed his brother's hand and put it back on the bier. "Peace, Boromir. We will talk of this later. First, we must get you to the healers quickly."
"No healers. They know me... too well." Boromir's fingers wrapped themselves about Faramir's wrist. His grip was cold and weak, yet strong in it urgency. "You must... promise me." He tried to pull himself up and Faramir gently pressed him back.
"Stay down, Boromir. You are too weakened to get up."
"You must... swear. Tell... no one." Boromir's voice was weakening and he was having increasing trouble getting the words out.
Faramir frowned. Boromir did not have the time to waste on such discussion. "All right, I will promise, as long as it keeps you calm. I will not let anyone know you have returned. But I am going to have the Warden of the Houses take a look at you, whether you like it or not."
His last words fell on deaf ears, for his brother's eyes had closed again, and although his breathing was regular, for the time being the cares of the world were no longer Boromir's to bear. Faramir was left to mull over his brother's agitated plea. Whoever had sent Boromir down the river had done so with great respect. They had cared for his wounds, laid him out in the most comfortable position and placed his sword and horn with him. Signs they held him in the highest regard, a soldier fallen with honor. Yet his brother confessed to vow-breaking and failure. Were those the delirious ramblings of a man caught in a fever?
It was best not to act rashly; for now, he would respect his brother's wish, although it would pain him to see their father longing for the return of his oldest child needlessly. Mayhap Boromir had good reason for secrecy. Discussions could wait until his brother was awake and lucid. Then he would convince him to return to the Citadel and report to the steward about his journey. First, it was of vital concern to bring Boromir to the Houses of Healing, where they could nurse him back to health.
Faramir called his rangers about him. "Nobody is to speak about what transpired tonight," he told them. "Captain Boromir's return must remain a secret, for the time being. I want your word you will not tell a soul."
The soldiers exchanged startled glances, but one after the other dipped his head in consent.
"Good." Faramir nodded, satisfied they would keep silent, if that was what their captains wished from them. "Then let us make haste. I fear Captain Boromir is in dire need of a healer's attention."
The guards at the Great Gate waved them through as soon as they recognized the captain of the rangers. They never looked at the injured man on the stretcher. It was early enough in the morning that the good citizens of Minas Tirith were still rubbing the sleep from their eyes. They also barely paid notice to the small band of rangers carrying a bier up the steep streets of the city and the company reached the sixth circle without a problem.
Dark and terrifying were Boromir's dreams. Caught in the grip of a tenacious fever, he could not discern reality from nightmares. What was real? The cool hand brushing strands of hair from his forehead, where they clung to sweaty skin? The soft voice, calm and comforting in its tones, although Boromir could not understand the words? Or the thousands upon thousands of fighting orcs, the Uruk-hai, who came marching down the Pelennor Fields, as unstoppable as the waves of the sea? What was dream, what was nightmare?
Frozen to immobility, Boromir watched orcs break down the Great Gate and pour into Minas Tirith. He was a spectator while the hordes of Mordor brought his city to ruin, murdering the men, raping the women and devouring the children of Gondor raw. "No," he cried, "please! I did not mean to take it." For it was his fault, his alone -- Boromir son of Denethor -- that Gondor fell. "You failed me," Denethor accused him, his voice so filled with loathing Boromir's heart grew cold in his chest. "I tried," he whispered, "I tried."
The scourge from the east spread all across Middle-earth. He traveled with the orcs and stood by while they brought destruction to the beautiful forest of Lothlórien, burning the mellyrn and casting the Elves into the deepest dungeons they could find, pits so dark even the light of Lady Galadriel could not penetrate them. The hordes swarmed through Rivendell and laughed while they trampled the shards of Narsil beneath their booted feet and sent the house of Lord Elrond up in flames. The Shire, that green and peaceful land Boromir only knew from the halflings' tales, fell under the shadow of Sauron, as did Rohan and Mirkwood and Eriador, and all the lands of the free folk.
Faramir visited his brother again the eve before he returned to Ithilien. He watched his sibling suffer in the claws of terrible dreams, and his heart cried. There was nothing anyone could do to lighten Boromir's torment.
"'Tis a strange fever that holds him, my lord," the warden told Faramir. "I know not how to break it. I have done all I can and now we can do naught but wait. Lord Boromir might awaken in an hour, or a month." He paused. "Or he might not wake at all. Perhaps I should send word to--"
"Do not!" Faramir interrupted. "I will inform the Steward myself if all hope is lost and his presence is required. Not before."
Round, blue eyes, filled with mistrust, turned their accusing gaze upon him. Boromir cringed beneath their heat. "I am sorry," he whispered. "I did not see. I failed us all." The eyes changed shape and color, darkening to a deep gray. A kind voice spoke. "You fought bravely. You kept your honor," it said. "No!" Boromir cried. "Do not speak such a lie. 'Tis not true!" He tried to twist away from the gray gaze and hands clasped around his shoulders, keeping him still. "Then make it true," the voice commanded. Boromir finally recognized it and he grew calm, filled with sudden purpose and understanding. "By your command I shall, my king," he whispered.
The warden put his hands upon Boromir's brow and felt his skin. A tiny smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "The fever has broken."
The woman who tended Boromir heaved a sigh filled with relief.
"Aye." The warden looked at her. "He will be thirsty when he wakes. Give him some tea if he desires it. And call me if there is any change in his condition."
She nodded her acquiescence silently. The warden turned back to look down upon Boromir for a moment. For the first time since they had brought him in, his patient's features were not contorted with dread and anguish.
Slowly, reluctantly, Boromir floated up from interminable darkness. It was like swimming through a thick, viscous liquid. His arms and legs felt too heavy to move, and he wanted to stay in this void, this place filled with emptiness. Outside waited pain and torment and despair; which he feared. Inside he was as safe as a babe in its mother's womb. Yet the spark of consciousness refused to obey his desires and go back to sleep, and instead pulled and pushed at him until at last he broke free from the black and opened his eyes.
Sunlight from a window set high in the wall flooded the small room he lay in. Judging by the color of the light -- a warm red -- the window faced to the west, and the sun was close to setting. A furrow appeared between his brows. He had no knowledge of how he came to be here, or even where 'here' was. The last thing he remembered--
A gasp escaped him. "The little ones! They took the little ones." He struggled to sit up but every time he managed to get an elbow beneath him, it buckled and he fell back on the mattress. He let out a frustrated growl. Merry and Pippin had been taken by orcs and needed his help.
Strange hands, gentle but firm, helped him sit up. Boromir looked at the woman who steadied him. She was dressed in the garb of a servant, and the emblem of the Houses of Healing was embroidered above her left breast. So he was in Minas Tirith. Tiny crows' feet surrounded her green eyes, which currently looked down on him with concern, and gray streaked her hair. She was a little heavier than was currently in fashion among the noblewomen, but it made her look kind and motherly, and that was a proper guise for someone who worked in the Houses.
She fluffed up the pillows behind him, and by the time she helped him rest his upper body against them, he was grateful for their support. How could he go and rescue Merry and Pippin from the Uruk-hai when he was too weak to help himself? He closed his eyes in despair.
She tugged on his hand. He refused to acknowledge her and her pull grew more insistent.
He wanted to deny her, wanted to wallow in hopelessness and guilt except his body had other ideas. His mouth was dry and the thought of water made his throat constrict painfully. He forced his eyes open and turned them on the woman by his bedside.
"Will you--" Boromir stopped. His voice, grown rusty from long disuse, sounded like an unoiled wagon wheel.
She put a cup against his lips. It contained cool water and he swallowed several gulps eagerly.
When the cup was nearly finished, he tried again. "Tell me what happened," he demanded, and was pleased to find his voice sounded much stronger. "How did I get here?"
She did not answer. Instead, she shook her head and pointed at her throat.
"You cannot speak?"
The woman firmly nodded.
Was that not the cruelest irony? So many urgent questions he needed to have answered, and they had entrusted him to a mute nurse.
She held up a bowl, a question on her face. A strong, delicious smell drifted from it. His stomach growled. The questions would have to wait.
"Yes, I am hungry," he said. "Broth will be good."
A short while later, Boromir swallowed the last spoonful of soup and rested among the pillows with a contented sigh. The woman put the empty bowl on the bedside table. At first, Boromir had balked when she began to spoon-feed him, but once he learned how heavy a spoon could be, and what hard work eating was, he relented. Now, exhausted and satisfied, sleep threatened to overtake him. He struggled against it, forcing himself to remain awake.
"So, will someone now tell me what has happened? How long have I been here? Who brought me? Who knows I am in Minas Tirith?"
A quick handwave told him to wait and she scurried from the room. A few minutes later she returned with the Warden of the Houses in tow.
"I see you are feeling better, Lord Boromir. Ethiel tells me you have many questions."
"Let me try and answer some of them," the warden said. "You have been ill for many days. A fever held you and many a time we feared for your life. 'Twas your brother who brought you."
"Faramir?" Boromir frowned. He did have a vague recollection of talking to Faramir in his dreams. Perhaps that had not been a dream at all.
"Aye. He never said much, only that he found you, injured and unconscious. We know not what befell you before although orcs must have attacked you, judging by your wounds. Someone cleaned them, someone with great skill at healing. I would desire to meet this person and learn more of his lore."
"Aragorn," Boromir murmured. The last person he remembered seeing was Aragorn. His king, risking his life to keep the Uruk-hai from killing the man who betrayed their quest. He swallowed. He had not deserved such kindness. When the orc stood before him, arrow notched and bow drawn tight, Boromir had resigned himself to his fate. It would have been a fitting penalty for his crime.
"Nothing," he said. "Please, continue."
"There is not much more to tell. You were ill, and you will soon be well again."
Boromir grunted. So much time must have passed since he fell to the orc arrows, and he could not ask about the things he most needed to know, or he would reveal Frodo's quest. He had already betrayed the brave hobbit once; he would not do so again. So he held his peace, and did not ask about Aragorn, or Gimli, or the halflings carried off by the orcs.
A thought occurred to him, a question the warden had not answered yet. "Who knows I'm here?"
"Not many, my lord, and they are commanded to secrecy," he said. "Captain Faramir gave strict orders. We placed you in a little-used wing of the Houses, the servants are instructed to stay away and I am the only one to attend you."
"And the nurse." He gestured at the woman who stood silently near the door, waiting for when her services would be needed. "She knows I am here."
"Ethiel, aye. But as you will have noticed, she is mute. She will not gossip."
"For now, my brother's orders stand," Boromir said. "I would like to continue to keep my presence here confidential." Suddenly exhausted beyond measure, he sank deeper into the pillows. Although the warden could not tell him much, he had a lot to think about and sleep crept ever closer in its attempt to claim him.
The warden caught the weariness in his expression. "You need to rest, my lord. It will be a while before your strength returns. I shall be here if you need anything."
Ethiel helped him lie down and drew the covers up to his chin.
"Thank you," Boromir whispered. He wanted to say more, but sleep took him.TBC