The forests of Gondor lay warm and still beneath the midsummer sun. No breeze stirred the trees, and the faint birdsongs seemed muffled by the blanketing heat. The only sound was that of hoofbeats; a single rider, moving at a fast trot beneath the sheltering branches. He had ridden long that day, allowing neither himself nor his mount any rest.

As the figure passed between a line of trees, he slowed the horse to a walk and looked all around him, the faintest hint of a smile touching his features. Although tired and hot from the long day's ride, he felt a certain satisfaction at the quiet solitude of the woods. Solitude was a luxury Boromir seldom enjoyed.

The son of Denethor allowed himself a drink from the waterskin that hung from his saddle, then rode on at a moderate pace. Although the task that had sent him forth from Minas Tirith was not a pleasant one, he still felt an almost-guilty pleasure at the chance to escape the city's confines. Boromir loved the White City with all his heart and soul, there was no question of that; but still, deep inside, he sometimes felt that the pressures of command came close to overwhelming him. Today, he thought, at least I have but one errand to run, and not a thousand...

At times, the call of freedom pulled at his heart, but his loyalty came first. The needs of my people will always come first. He drew a deep breath as he rode through a close-grown stand of tall trees; the air was cooler here, and the deep shade was a welcome relief. Lost in thought, he failed to notice a shrouded figure, watching him silently as he passed...

"Have you perhaps lost your way?"

Boromir immediately reined around at the voice, drawing his sword in one fluid motion. Glancing back sharply, he saw a figure, hooded and cloaked with a bow slung across his back, stepping out from behind a tree. Boromir blew out heavily in exasperation, recognizing the man well before he drew his hood back to reveal his face.

"Faramir," he observed wryly, returning his sword to its sheath. "I see you've nothing urgent to occupy your time?"

The younger man smirked at this. "Not as yet." He walked out from beneath the tree cover, and looked up at the mounted warrior. "My apologies if I startled you."

"You didn't," the other replied quickly, with the barest flicker of a scowl.

Faramir suppressed another smile. "So," he went on, "What brings the greatest champion of our fair city out into the wilderlands?"

Boromir's tone became serious. "I've been told of the strange disappearances that have plagued our armies of late. Our father has sent me to ascertain the cause."

The other's expression darkened at this, and he looked away. "Yes," he conceded. "It is disturbing. There are always losses, of course, but..." He looked back up at his brother, and his eyes were sharp and angry. "Not like this. I fear some devilry is loose in these woods."

"In which case, the sooner I proceed with my search, the sooner I may discover the truth."

Faramir arched an eyebrow. "Alone?"

Boromir's response was more defensive than he'd intended. "Yes, alone. Why not?"

Shifting position, Faramir said, "It would be safer if someone accompanied you. I could spare some men, or come myself."

"Your place is with your company," Boromir replied, as his horse stamped a forehoof, impatient with the delay. "I agreed to this errand, and will pursue it myself."

"Must you take every task upon yourself?" the younger man asked with visible annoyance. "The weight of all Gondor need not rest on your shoulders. Even now, you do far more than you should, with no complaint. Before long, Father will have you patching every roof that leaks when the rains come--"

"Enough!" Boromir angrily jabbed a finger towards his brother and snapped, "Our father is a great man! He honors me with my duties! Perhaps some day you'll live long enough to understand that!"

With that, he spurred the horse on and rode on without a backwards glance. But he could hear Faramir's curt reply fading out behind him: "Someday the burdens you place on yourself will break you entirely! Perhaps you'll live long enough to understand that!" Boromir looked back over his shoulder, but his brother had already disappeared from sight.

He rode for some time, and his simmering anger gradually subsided to a grudging self-reproach. Perhaps he'd been wrong to vent his anger upon his younger brother. After all, he thought uncomfortably, it wasn't Faramir's fault that his words had come uncomfortably close to the truth.

Boromir ducked his head and pushed a low-hanging branch out of the way as he rode on, the forest growing deeper and closer around him. At times he truly did feel like all of Gondor was depending on him, that all would be lost if he ever faltered, or failed...

Forcing the unwanted thoughts from his mind, he concentrated on the task at hand. But he did resolve to make it up to Faramir upon his return. After all, the two might quarrel at times, but neither held a grudge for long. And, he reluctantly admitted, he truly didn't know how searching the woods alone would solve anything. Particularly when he didn't even know what it was he sought.

He'd nearly resolved to go back, and try another day. But then, his mount tossed its head and half-reared, dancing sideways as if afraid to go further. "What is it?" Boromir asked in irritation, spurring the horse onward. However, he'd only ridden a short distance farther when...

...the smell hit him.

The Gondorian knew what it was, and his heart sickened. He'd lived through too many battles not to recognize the stench of recent death. It seemed to come from close by, and though he dreaded learn the source, he knew he couldn't turn back now. Looking around, he saw a sword of Gondorian make, lying abandoned on the ground, and several arrows, buried deep in the side of a tree. Boromir coaxed the unwilling horse forward, rounding a line of close-set trees that barred his path.

Suddenly, he yanked at the reins, jerking the horse up short. It reared and pawed the air with a neigh of fright, then dropped back to earth, snorting and stomping in agitation. Boromir gave a hissing intake of breath at the sight that met his eyes. Then his jaw set in a tight line, his eyes narrowing with mingled disgust and rage.

The clearing was strewn with the bodies of Gondorian soldiers. There were at least twelve, maybe more. They'd been slashed, gutted, dismembered...and at least three looked as if they'd been burned. There were other signs of a recent fire: scorched, barren trees and blackened patches of leaf-covered earth. The air hung heavy with the reek of human blood, and teemed with clouds of black flies. Boromir felt sickened by the carnage, but he steeled himself and urged his unwilling mount forward.

Nervously, the horse trotted a few paces, then shied back, the whites of its eyes showing as it flattened its ears and whinnied in near-panic. "Steady!" Boromir halted his steed and dismounted, leading the frightened animal to a stout tree, where he tethered it. Still nervous, the horse swiveled its ears and pawed the ground. Ignoring it, Boromir cautiously approached the nearest body.

Grimacing with revulsion, Boromir crouched down to examine the corpse. The man was no one he knew. But every time a soldier of Gondor died, their champion felt it in his heart. It was more than the just deaths themselves that troubled him, however. There are no enemies fallen here, he thought, frowning as he stood again. Surely the company was not taken so unawares, that they took no attackers with them! He let his gaze wander around the clearing, and saw no orc-arrows, no weapons of Mordor-make. What had killed these men? And why had some been burned?

Suddenly, his horse reared, yanking sharply at the tethering reins, its neigh a shriek of terror. Boromir looked to it sharply, then turned back as another sound reached his hearing...

"H-help me...please..."

It was a woman's voice, close by. He froze in place, trying to place the direction of the sound. "Where are you?" he called.

"Here...please help..."

The voice was weak and strained. He sprinted towards the sound, scattering leaves beneath his feet as he ran. Rounding a clutch of trees, he came to a sudden halt as he saw a woman lying on the forest floor. Her brilliant red gown, shimmering in the narrow shafts of sunlight, spread out around her like a pool of gleaming liquid. Her long black hair, tangled in ropelike locks, was flung over her face as she struggled weakly to rise. Without a moment's hesitation, he rushed to her side. "Are you hurt, my lady?"

"Unnhh..." she groaned, then raised her face to his. Her eyes were pale gold beneath long, dark lashes, and her beautiful face was drawn and pale. "I am weak...tired...please, help me stand..."

Carefully, he helped lift her to her feet. She leaned on him for support; he could feel her trembling as if in some lingering shock. Boromir asked, "Were you attacked?"

"Yes." The word was bitter, and for a moment, the woman's face twisted in anger. "But I live. They were strong, but could not slay me."

"They? Who did this?" She didn't answer. The Gondorian glanced back towards the clearing, hidden from sight beyond the line of trees. She must not see what lies there, he thought firmly. It is no sight for a woman. "Wait here," he told her. "I will bring my horse."

She nodded, and braced herself upright against a tree trunk as Boromir dashed back to his mount. He undid the horse's tether, and led the trembling animal back to where he'd left her. She looked up at their approach. For an instant, an unrecognizable expression flickered across her face. Then she smiled, and the man felt his blood warm at her gaze. The horse, however, shied and snorted at her approach.

Boromir, annoyed by its irrational behavior, commanded, "Be still!" Then he turned back to face the woman, who was regarding the beast with a cool, appraising look. He said, "I will take you from this place, my lady. You can find sanctuary with my people..."

It occurred to him to wonder how such a richly dressed woman could have gotten this far into the woods on her own. "Have you no companions?" he asked, more out of concern than distrust. "Or were they also..." She turned her gaze to him, but said nothing. "I'm sorry," he amended. "I should not trouble you with questions."

He turned away and adjusted the saddle, patting the horse's shoulder to try and calm its inexplicable panic. Then, from behind, he heard the woman say, "You are kind and gallant, my lord Boromir." He froze as a slow suspicion crept over him; he hadn't told her who he was. "But fear not, I shall recover from your kinsmen's attack...once I have fed."

A sharp blow slammed into the back of his head, pitching him forward against the horse's side with a grunt of surprise and pain. He crashed to the ground, cursing his own foolishness as his sight wavered and faded. The last thing he heard were a horse's agonized scream, and the sounds of ripping flesh. Then the world went black.

--

Slowly, painfully, Boromir returned to consciousness. He was aware of standing upright with his back to a cold, hard surface; which, even in his dazed condition, struck him as an odd way to reawaken. Then he realized that he was bound against a rock wall. Something--ropes?--held his wrists against the wall, above his head. His arms ached from being held upright; he must have been unconscious a long time. More bonds were wrapped around his chest down to his waist, holding him fast. Opening his eyes with a pained groan, he struggled to see past the pounding in his head. All was dark at first, then the scene slowly came into focus.

The first thing he noticed was the bones.

There were hundreds of them, scattered randomly about what seemed to be a small, narrow cave, intertwined with a forest of twisted roots that sprouted from the earthen floor and walls. Broken skeletons both animal and human...some yellowed with age; others still gleaming white. One was a horse's skull, streaked with fresh blood. He had a very unpleasant notion as to where it had come from.

Looking beyond the bones, he saw a strange pool of water. It lay beneath a rocky overhang, several paces in front of him. The water stirred and rippled faintly as it dripped from the rock and dangling roots overhead. If indeed it was water; it seemed to glow from within, with uneven patches of color shifting from blue to green and back again. The stunted plants that surrounded it were strange and distorted, grown into bizarre shapes, as if unable to decide what they wanted to be. An alien scent wafted from the pool, both beguiling and repellent at the same time. Boromir felt strangely torn between hating the sight of it and wanting to fling himself into it and drink till he could take no more.

A shadow moved behind the overhang. Boromir tensed and tried to free himself from his bonds, to no avail. Glancing up at his wrists, he saw that the dark roots that sprouted from the walls were wrapped tightly around them. But there was room for him to move, just barely...if he could loosen them just a bit more, he might be able to escape...

The shadow approached the pool, moving in a serpentine slither. A faint hissing noise met Boromir's ears, along with a sound like scales scraping over stone. A narrow, reptilian head, crowned with dangling black tendrils along its slender, arched neck, leaned out over the pool. Boromir could see the rest of its body, now, coiling and uncoiling behind it as it leaned forward to drink. It was twice a man's length and slender as a snake, covered with gleaming crimson scales. The sinuous spine was lined with rows of needle-thin spikes, and a pair of narrow wings that flared wide as it dipped its muzzle into the pool. The serpentine tail, which terminated in an arrowhead point, thrashed and coiled as if it had a will of its own. The beast drank greedily, narrow jaws sloshing up the water, scattering multicolored ripples across the surface.

A dragon. Boromir felt almost awestruck at the sight. Never had he expected to encounter one of the legendary beasts. Of course, he would've wished to see it under better circumstances, such as when he wasn't unarmed and bound to a wall. Quickly, he averted his eyes as the thing fixed him with a baleful, yellow-eyed glare. He remembered tales of the dragons of old, how to look into their eyes was to fall under their spell...

The creature laughed, a choking, guttural sound. Then it slid its length into the pool, the action suffusing its body with a brilliant light. It half-crawled, half-slithered forward, its contours shifting as the light seemed to consume it like a cold fire. Boromir squinted into the glare, then dropped his jaw in astonishment at the vision before him.

It was the woman he'd seen in the forest, regarding him with mocking eyes as she shook back her long, dank tendrils of dark hair. She made an elegant curtsey, then smiled. "Well met, son of Gondor."

Mind reeling, Boromir could only swallow hard and reply, "Lady, you have me at a disadvantage."

She laughed. "That I do." She took a graceful step towards him, which caused him to take a step backwards; a futile action, as there was nothing behind him but wall. Suppressing a smirk at the man's discomfiture, she went on: "I am Zhyrene. And I mean you no harm."

Boromir frowned. Under the circumstances, he found that quite hard to believe, but his chivalrous upbringing prevented him from saying so. Zhyrene went on: "Had I desired your death, your bones would already lie scattered with the rest."

"Then why do I still live?" He tried to tug at his bonds without making it obvious that he was doing so, an attempt that was doomed to failure. "Why have you brought me here?"

Zhyrene bowed her head to him. "To make you an offer, my lord." She turned and pointed with a slender hand to the strange pool behind her. "Behold the Well."

Curious despite himself, Boromir strained to see past her. "What is it?"

"A source of great power. With it, I have kept my youth and strength for untold years, walked unseen among men and beasts." Zhyrene turned to face him again, and her smile was that of a reptilian predator. "And its power grows, I have felt it. As the darkness awakens in the East, all his works grow stronger in turn."

Boromir stiffened at this. "It belongs to the Enemy, then," he said, his voice tight with loathing.

She chuckled at this. "In a matter of speaking. There are many places in this world steeped in ancient magics; this is but one of them." Her tone darkened as her face twisted with long-remembered hatred. "I found it long ago, when Men slew the greatest of my kind, and drove us lesser ones into hiding."

"Your kind?" Boromir shook his head as if to clear it. "What are you?"

"I am dragon. I am woman. And I am more, much more."

"Speak not in riddles, lady," he retorted, growing impatient with the situation. "You spoke of an offer. Then be plain about it."

His commanding tone seemed not to offend her. "Very well," Zhyrene chuckled. "I will show you what the Well...and I...can do." With that, she walked back to the pool, then gracefully sank to her knees and leaned forward, gathering water in both hands and drinking greedily. Then she turned her face to him, swinging her coils of hair back across her shoulder. Her eyes were alight, glowing like twin coals, and her expression was one of inhuman ecstasy.

With a laugh that turned into a snarl, she dropped to all fours as her entire body glowed and blurred again. Then a slender wolf with red-brown fur stood before him, fangs bared and hackles raised. It--she--began to pace back and forth, paws sending concentric ripples spreading through the pool. "I have stalked the lands of the North, evading the snares of Elves and Men." Shifting again, now she was a magnificent bay mare with tossing mane. "I have run the fields of Rohan, leading the horse-lords to their doom in fruitless chase of me." Again she changed; now a great hawk, beating her mighty wings, blowing Boromir's hair back from his face as he watched in fascinated horror. "I have stooped from the skies upon the lesser spawn of Mordor, tearing them asunder at my whim."

A final change, back to her humanlike form; but she still glowed like a star, and her outline was indistinct. "They have called me elf-maiden and witch-woman, sorceress and demon. No longer am I a mere dragonling, a lowly castoff of the line of Ancalagon. I have a power even the wizard-folk would envy."

The glow faded, and the woman stood before him in triumph. Then she crouched down and cupped a palmful of water in one hand, letting it run through her fingers, then brought her hand to her mouth and tasted it with her tongue. Eyes narrowing, she ended her tale with: "The power of the Well is mine." She looked towards Boromir with narrowed, greedy eyes. "And now, if you choose, it can also be yours."

Startled, Boromir shook himself as if throwing off a clinging nightmare. "Mine?" He shifted uncomfortably in his bonds. His right arm slipped lower, only a little, not enough to get free... "What do you mean?"

Zhyrene moved closer, running her eyes over him with unconcealed lust. "Long have I waited for one like you, Boromir, son of Denethor." Her voice became a sultry undertone. "I have followed you in many shapes, watching you from the shadows." She leaned very close to him. But he refused to look into her eyes, and clenched his jaw as he firmly stared straight ahead.

She whispered, "I have seen your struggle against the forces of Mordor. Your finest warriors perish, day by day. Your father grows old and feeble, and your people whisper against him." At that, he jerked his head around to glare at her. His eyes locked with hers, and he couldn't look away... "But all that can change," she continued. "Only drink of the Well, partake of its power, and all your troubles can be ended."

With a great effort of will, Boromir tore his gaze away. However, the only other thing he could look at was the pool itself, rippling and whispering in the clammy silence, its fragrance both repelling and maddening him. Suddenly overwhelmed with thirst, he swallowed hard with parched throat. His voice was a hoarse whisper as he rebuked, "I do not understand you."

She gave low, sultry chuckle as she slunk around him, placing the palms of her hands against his chest. He shuddered at her touch. She began, "Have you never envied the bear his strength, the wolf his endurance, the eagle his flight?" Boromir felt his skin crawl as her meaning sunk in. Her finger traced a line up his chest, along his neck and jawline, and ran along the top of his ear. "Have you never wished for the Elves' keen senses? Now you can be all that, and more."

He answered dryly, while trying to still the pounding of his heart, "I would not make a very good Elf, my lady."

Zhyrene laughed at that, but her tone was underlaid with menace. Suddenly, she grabbed the sides of his face. With an inhuman strength, she forced him to turn his head till he was looking straight at her. "But there is far more to this bargain, my lord." Her eyes narrowed into slits as she hissed, "You will never grow old. You will never die. Poison and disease will cause you no fear. You will be as powerful as the Dark Lord himself! And you will defeat his forces and save Gondor, I swear it!"

He struggled to free himself from her grip. She released him and took a step back as he angrily rasped, "Why do you tempt me? What care you for the fate of Gondor?"

"I care nothing." She glared at him, then turned away, her face downcast as she seemed overcome by a sudden sorrow.

"I am alone," she admitted finally. "I have always been alone, all my long life. Knowing no creature, no man, worthy to join me. Until you." Zhyrene raised her gaze to meet his again, and her tone grew coaxing again. "You may yet persuade me to aid in your fight against Mordor. Surely you admit this prospect appeals to you." He made no reply. "What reason could you have to refuse?"

Boromir felt his blood rushing in his veins, roaring through his ears. The smell of the waters overpowered him, making it hard to think. His eyes lowered to half-mast as his head and shoulders sagged wearily. Distantly, he felt the roots around his right wrist loosen even further... Through dry lips, he gasped out, "Such power must come with a price. There...there is deception in you, I sense it."

She gave a low chuckle at that. "Do you fear me? Yes, I am strong and cunning, and not easily slain." She approached him again, and nestled against his side. Boromir was too weak to pull away as she ran her fingertips up and down his chest, and her voice dropped to a throaty purr. "But you would be stronger. If I, a mere woman, can wield such power, think of how much more you will have. You could...conquer me, if you chose." She leaned forward to whisper in his ear, her breath hot against the side of his face. "I could be a slave under your command. A plaything for your every whim."

"I..." He shuddered violently and pulled away, trying to throw off the crawling miasma suffusing his mind. "I do not desire what you offer, lady."

Zhyrene growled in brief frustration, then drew away. Her expression became cold, calculating. "Of course not," she mocked. "The noble lords of Gondor are too strong-willed to yield to fleshly temptations." She pirouetted before him, her shimmering dress whispering through the air, her form a scarlet slash against the lurid blue-green of the Well. "Very well," she said flatly. "If you scorn my company, so be it. But think of what else your decision will cost you, my lord." She emphasized this last with a sneer. "Think of how your people will suffer, because you had not the courage to save them."

"No." Boromir forced himself fully upright, his shoulders straightening as he fought to regain control. "Gondor will never be defeated."

"Gondor will be destroyed!" she snarled with sudden violence, striding forward till her face was inches from his. He refused to flinch away. "One day, the forces of Mordor will overwhelm you. Deep in your heart, you know this."

He shook his head in near-frantic denial. "No..."

"Your city will fall. Your people will perish. But you can save them. Join me!"

"No...!"

"With me by your side, you will destroy Sauron's armies. None on Middle-Earth will stand against your power. You will rout the forces of Mordor, turn back the armies of orcs and men, send the Dark Lord screaming into the abyss!"

"I cannot...I..."

"No more of your kinsmen need die pointless deaths in a futile struggle. The glory of your lands will be restored, your people will prosper. And you will reign over them all, a wise and benevolent king. All lands will be yours...Gondor, Rohan, the lands of the North. Men, Elves, Dwarves...all races will bow before you."

"No..."

"Peace and prosperity will endure forever, all the days of your immortal life! All darkness, all strife will be banished! All because of you!" Here she stepped back, and he sagged again in his bonds. "I ask so little in return. Only join with me, be with me, and all your heart's desires will be fulfilled."

He made no reply, and she fixed him with a cold, frustrated stare. "And still you hesitate. Why?"

Why? Boromir fought to gain control of himself, struggled to remember...his mind flashed back to the forest clearing, mangled corpses reeking in the heat... "You...killed men...of my company," he gasped out, struggling to breathe, feeling as if he were drowning. "Fed upon...their bodies. You are a monster...I will not become a thing like you."

At that, Zhyrene laughed, a harsh sound utterly devoid of mirth. "So, you would sacrifice your people rather than yourself. Coward!" He tried to protest, but could find no words. "Or is it something else that holds you back?"

He forced himself to stand fully erect, remaining upright through tremendous effort of will. "I will not..." Boromir choked the words out against tremendous pressure, as if his chest was crushed beneath some unseen weight. "Betray...my father's...trust!"

This seemed to startle her. "You what?" Her tone was incredulous. "You...I offer you the power of a god, and you fear your father's disapproval?" She hissed in fury and raised her hands before her face, fingers curving into talon shapes, as if she meant to rush him and tear at his flesh. Then, slowly, she lowered her hands, and her face grew calm once again.

"But remember, Boromir, your father is old," she said finally. "He will not live forever...but you will." Her expression turned cunning as she softly padded towards him again. "Or is it your brother you fear; he whose men hunt in my woods?"

"My...brother?" The memory seemed distant, faded. He fought to clear his mind, to remember.

Zhyrene chuckled deep in her throat as she leaned against him, wrapping her arms around his neck, entwining her hands in his hair. "Do you fear his jealousy, his resentment? That when he sees your new-found glory, his bitterness will drive him to destroy you? Worry not," she purred. "He will pose no threat to us. After all..."

Here she closed her eyes, and leaned forward, her mouth very close to his as she whispered, "Faramir need never return to the White City alive..."

Boromir brought his knee up in a sudden motion, driving it into her stomach. She wheezed and stumbled backwards, clutching her midsection in outrage and disbelief. Boromir's rush of anger cleared his mind, and gave him the strength to wrest his right arm free as his jailer went sprawling in a heap on the root-tangled floor. As she fell, a sharp-edged root tore the side of her dress, ripping the scarlet fabric in a long tear along her ribs. She hissed like a snake as she reached for it, then drew her hand away marked with a line of dark blood. Baring her teeth in a feral snarl, she glowered up at Boromir, who used his free hand to tear the root-cords away from his left.

Despite himself, the Gondorian had to fight back an urge to apologize to his captor; to do harm to a female went against everything he was. But he firmly reminded himself: She is not a woman, but a demon. She would have murdered my brother to ensnare me. Stiffly, he announced, "I regret having done you violence, my lady." His left arm finally came free of the clinging roots, and he tugged with both hands at the ones that wrapped around his torso, tearing them loose. "But I fear I can no longer enjoy your hospitality."

As Boromir flung the last of his bonds away, Zhyrene clambered backwards, her hands splashing into the Well, creating shimmering, multicolored ripples. Cautiously, Boromir moved to his left, away from both her and the pool. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his sword and shield, propped against the far wall of the cave. He glanced over as he reached for them, taking his eyes off Zhyrene for the briefest instant...

With an animal scream, she lunged for him, tackling him to the ground with a strength that was beyond human. He struggled to get free as she grabbed his face in her hands, still wet with the water of the pool, and pressed her lips to his...

...her mouth was cold, and wet...

...the water seeped past his lips, into his mouth...

A light exploded behind his eyes. Boromir flung her away as he drew a strangled, gasping breath, flinging her bodily across the room with a strength he shouldn't have had. Choking as he grasped his throat, he fell to the ground, crushing the bones beneath him. He felt a feverish heat rush through his veins as the room spun out of focus. Distantly, as if through an echoing tunnel, he heard a low, bitter growl.

"I did not want it this way." He clutched at the ground with both hands, fistfuls of roots tearing free in his grasp. Zhryene's voice went on, tight with disappointment and rage: "I could have forced you at any time. But I wanted you to choose freely, of your own will." Boromir heard faint footfalls approaching him, then felt a sudden sharp pain as Zhyrene kicked him hard in the ribs, once, then again, screaming, "I wanted you to choose me! I wanted you to be mine, forever!"

Stepping around him as he wheezed and grabbed his side, she spoke again. "Yet so be it. If I cannot turn you by seduction, I will do so by force. After all," she laughed wickedly, "Who else will have you...now?"

He could barely raise his head to look at her. His mind whirled as his heart hammered with fear. But his tone was defiant as he spat back, "I will...never be...yours!"

Zhyrene curled her lip in a sneer. "We shall see." Then she looked sharply towards an opening in the cave wall. It slanted gently upward, heading for the surface. Cocking her head to one side, she glanced upward, and gave a mocking smile. "They are calling for you, Boromir. Can you hear them?" And indeed he could; he heard voices above ground, too far for human ears to hear...one of them was his brother...

Zhyrene laughed, a sound that became a shriek as her body shifted. The red fabric of her dress flowed around her, becoming shimmering scales as her body elongated into her dragon form. Leathery wings beat the air as the creature hovered in place above the cave floor. The narrow jaws parted, and the forked tongue darted in and out as she sneered at his efforts to rise. "You have tasted the Well, my lord," she mocked. "But to drink once brings only death. You are bound to it now, and must partake of it forever, lest you die. That is the price we must pay, and the choice you must make."

The dragon glanced upwards, then glared back at him. "Choose wisely, son of Gondor." With that, she twisted in place and surged away in a rush of wings, disappearing into the tunnel and vanishing from his sight.

Boromir was left alone, lying among misshapen roots and discarded bones, in a darkness lit only by the eerie glow of the Well. It seemed to fill all his sight, burning into his mind as the roar of his own blood grew loud in his ears...the cave grew dim around him, everything was going dark...

Choose...

Choose power, or choose death...

No, I cannot do this, it is evil, it will destroy everything I am... Distantly, he could hear the sound of clashing blades, the roar of the dragon, the crackle of flames... Somewhere, a man screamed. But if I die now, they perish as well...I must save them, no matter the cost to myself...

His sight faded, and the sounds slowly died away...

I must save Gondor...

I must...

There was a sound like a rush of wind, and a sudden light assailed his eyes. He flinched away from it, blinking in the glare. His vision cleared, and he saw a sunlit landscape arranged below him, as if he was looking down on it from a great height. Everything seemed vague, unreal; the only sounds were that of the rushing wind, and a heartbeat that might have been his own. He realized he was looking at the land of Gondor from a height far above the tallest mountain, and felt, rather than heard, the beating of immense wings. Was he riding some great creature, or were they his own...?

The city of Minas Tirith filled his sight, resplendent in the morning sun. His heart leapt for joy at the sight of it, eyes stinging with tears in the sharp, cold wind. It was magnificent, a white jewel against fields of verdant green, and the vision of it filled his soul. He could see the woods beyond the city, dark green against the paler fields, and the great river Anduin, glimmering in the sun. All this is mine, Boromir thought, heart bursting with pride. And its glory shall endure forever...

But then, he saw a shadow fall across the city, as if the sun had passed behind a cloud. To his horror, he saw the white stone of the city fade to gray, then black. Darkness spilled out from its base, spreading across the land like spilled ink. The sky above grew black with storm clouds, roiling up out of nowhere into vast thunderheads. In the blink of an eye, the lands withered away, the forests turned to a barren wasteland. The sun was blotted from the sky by the growing storm, and the foundations of the city crumbled to dust.

In his mind, or aloud, he screamed, No...!

And another voice seemed to whisper in reply, Sauron will not destroy the White City...you will...

No! This cannot be true! The sound of wings faded, and only his heartbeat remained, as the horrific sight grew dim before him. Then the voice spoke again:

This is but one destiny, son of Gondor. But there may be another, far worse, if your own darkness yet leads you astray.

The vision blurred, and swam away. Now he was seated on a throne in a mighty hall, with a vast throng arrayed before him. The crowd cheered and waved banners, praising his name, exalting the lord of all Middle-Earth. Part of him wished to silence them, to deny their praise, while another reveled in the glory that was finally his. Long have you desired this, deny it not, he heard himself think. Long have you waited for the glory you have truly earned... Boromir straightened in his throne, peering out from beneath the strange black cowl that covered his head, and raised his left hand as if to proclaim something. The sleeve of the dark robe slipped down his arm, and he saw...

...nothing, where his hand should have been...

...the crowds faded, and the great hall was replaced with a desolate landscape of rock and ash, bleak and empty beneath surging, iron-gray clouds. Boromir raised his other hand, disbelieving...his hand was there, he could feel it as he clenched his fist, but still saw nothing beneath the black robe. Only a plain gold ring, floating in the vacant space where his finger should have been.

Gasping aloud, he gripped the arms of the throne as eight graves appeared in the ground before him, four on either side. Some were man-sized, others were small...for children? And again the voice spoke, echoing across the barren landscape: The Nine are one less. The Nine are one more. And thus is the Lord of Gondor enthroned...

"No!" he screamed, leaping to his feet and flinging away the ragged black robe that clung to him like a grave-shroud. "I did not desire this!" The wind rose, whipping his hair across his face, as swirling gusts of gray ash obscured his vision, covering the graves. Boromir raised his hand to shield his eyes--he could see his hand again, he was himself again--and the voice spoke once again. Are you so certain, Boromir, son of Denethor?

The voice was a woman's, but not Zhyrene's. It was low, and serene, but filled with great power. It echoed his captor's words: You must choose wisely.

Then a bright light appeared, hovering in the air before him. Through it, Boromir could perceive the flickering outline of a regal elf-woman clad all in white. Her eyes seemed to pierce his very soul, and although her mouth never moved, still he heard her voice. These are the fates that lie ahead, son of Gondor, she intoned, should your pride, your lust for power, overwhelm all that is good in you.

He wanted to deny it, to tell her she was lying, she was wrong. But with a sickening realization, he knew he could not. Two choices, tempting you to darkness, the voice went on, the wind growing ever stronger, the light burning brighter until it seemed to consume her entirely. Two evils, which Man can neither rule nor control. But only one outcome; the same doom lies within both. Heed my words! Turn away, or all you love will be destroyed!

"Who are you?" he shouted into the scouring winds. "What do you want? What must I do to save my people?"

Seek for the sword that was broken, she replied cryptically. Then there was a clap of thunder, and the world went black...

--

With a loud gasp, Boromir roused himself, an action that sent daggers of pain stabbing through his head. With a pained groan, he grasped his head, then curled up like a wounded animal as a wave of nausea overwhelmed him. A dream...thank whatever powers there are, it was only a dream... He was still in Zhyrene's cave, lying amongst the bones of the dragon's victims, fighting the poisonous evil of the Well as it seethed in his veins.Vaguely, through his own sufferings, he could hear distant shouts and the sounds of fighting.

Faramir! The horror of his fever-dreams was forgotten in a rush of awareness. I must go to them. The demon will destroy them... He tried to get to his feet, stumbled, came crashing back down. With an incoherent noise of frustration, he tried again. This time, he regained his footing, and staggered to the cave wall, clenching his fists in the dangling roots to keep himself upright. He could no longer hear the fighting above; his senses, formerly heightened, were growing dull, muffled. Whatever powers the water had given him seemed to be fading, as if his life's blood was draining away.

Glancing back over his shoulder, he wiped his hair out of his eyes with one hand and regarded the Well. There it lay, still silently tempting him with all that it offered.

Could I not, he wondered, still struggling to stay on his feet, drink of it without harm? I need not...use it. He shivered at the thought. I need but to live, to protect my people. There was a tightness in his chest now, as his heart and lungs labored to keep him alive. He was ill, maybe dying...the water could save him. And what good would it do Faramir and his men if he died here, leaving them to their doom? Who would save Gondor, if not him?

And the dreams...after all, were they not only dreams? He could not trust to a drugged, fevered vision for guidance, or warning...

Could he?

What should I do? he raged in the silence of his mind. Voice harsh in parched throat, he whispered, "What should I do?"

There was no answer. For a long moment, he heard nothing but his own ragged breathing, and the quiet drip of the water, seeming to mock his indecision. He looked at it.

Then he looked at the bones.

Slowly, he stood fully upright, turned, and snatched up his sword and shield. Half-stumbling to the cave exit, he began the long crawl upward. Not once did he look back.

--

The scarlet dragon had come screaming out of the earth like a nightmare, taking the company completely unaware. Two men had perished instantly, burned alive in the blink of an eye. The rest of Faramir's company had fallen to, but were no match for the creature's vicious claws, its tearing fangs. Now the clearing was littered with the bodies of the dead and the dying. Only Faramir and two of his men remained.

The young nobleman circled warily at a distance, sword at the ready, deliberately keeping the beast's attention focused on himself. The sole remaining pair of soldiers stood back several paces, awaiting a chance to aid him. But neither of them could find an opening to attack; every time they moved forward, they were driven back by the snapping jaws or whiplash tail. Now they stood before the hollow where the dragon had first emerged, its depths hidden by a concealing layer of fallen leaves.

Wings spread wide, the dragon circled in place in the center of the glade. Growling and snarling, its forked tongue flickered in and out as the spiked tail lashed whip-like behind it, scattering leaves at every strike. Without taking his gaze from his adversary, Faramir snapped orders at his men: "Go. Leave me. Warn the others."

"We...we c-cannot leave you, my lord!" one replied fearfully. The other watched the scene in stricken horror, shifting from one foot to the other as if uncertain whether to fight or flee.

The dragon gathered its hindquarters beneath it as if to leap. Its stuttered snarls sounded eerily like a mocking, victorious laugh. "I said go!" Faramir shouted, gripping his sword-hilt in both hands. "I order you!"

In an agony of indecision, torn between loyalty and fear, the soldier took a step back...

...and a human hand thrust itself out of the earth and fastened around his ankle.

The hapless man's shriek was enough to attract even the dragon's attention. But, as the soldier yanked his leg free and danced away in paroxysms of terror, Faramir took advantage of the distraction and rushed forward, aiming a blow at the dragon's neck. It whirled away, evading the blade, then lunged up and clashed its jaws inches from his face. Locked in mortal struggle, neither man nor beast noticed the figure struggling its way free from beneath the earth, gasping for air as he stood, flinging away the dirt and dead leaves that covered him.

The remaining Gondorian soldiers watched in open-mouth astonishment. One swallowed hard, then whispered fearfully, "L-lord...my lord Boromir?"

Boromir looked near-frantically around the scene, his eyes wild. The soldiers stepped away from him as he drew his sword and shield, fearing he might attack them in his apparent madness. But as his gaze fell upon the dragon, now gripping Faramir in its crushing coils like a monstrous serpent, he gave a battle-roar of rage and charged forward.

The creature spun in place, dragging Faramir around as it shrieked in fury and lashed out with a clawed foreleg. Boromir jerked away a second too slow. A single claw laid open his forehead in a glancing line from hairline to eyebrow. With a yell, he stumbled back, raising a hand to the wound to stanch the blood. But he quickly recovered as the dragon released his brother and turned its attention to him. Faramir collapsed to earth, gasping and clutching his ribs as he fought to regain his breath.

Zhyrene--or the monster that had been Zhyrene--launched herself into the air, leathery wings whipping the dry leaves into a frenzy as her jaws parted and let loose a gout of noxious flame. Boromir flung himself sideways, barely evading the blast. The scorched leaves smoldered beside him as she circled around as if for another strike. But instead, she drew herself up and hovered in the air before him, leering at him with parted jaws as he rose unsteadily to his feet.

"So," she sneered in a hideous parody of her human voice. "It is a man who challenges me, with a man's weapons. You have refused my offer, then, fool."

"Be silent, monster!" Boromir's heart burned with shame and anger at the thought of what he'd almost accepted, what he might have become if he had. He roughly wiped away the blood dripping into his left eye and down his face. "You will torment Gondor no longer, I swear it!"

Faramir, unnoticed, had struggled partway up, and saw his brother facing the dragon alone. With lightning speed, he drew a dagger and whipped it through the air at the creature's throat. His aim was true, but the dagger could not pierce the crimson scales, and glanced harmlessly away. However, the blow attracted the beast's attention, and she whirled on him with murder in her gleaming yellow eyes.

As Zhyrene spun away, Boromir saw a narrow gap in the scales of her side--he remembered the beautiful woman stumbling backwards, tearing her dress as she fell--

He rushed forth, and plunged his sword down into the rent--

It sank to the hilt in a tremendous spurt of stinking, dark blood. With a hideous shriek, the dragon thrashed in the air, then plummeted to earth in a writhing coil of scales and spikes. Boromir wrenched his blade back and forth, carving the wound deeper, wider. Zhyrene's wings beat frantically as she gasped and screamed, jaws clashing helplessly on empty air. Boromir twisted the sword one final time, then yanked it free and stood back, breathing hard, his garments drenched in the reeking liquid.

Only a weak flow of blood now spilled forth from the gaping wound, running down the dragon's scaly sides and soaking the forest floor with a crimson stain. Zhyrene's death throes grew fitful, then finally stilled. A faint wisp of smoke rose from her nostrils as her head thudded to earth, and a single slit-pupilled eye swiveled to face him.

He froze, couldn't look away. Her jaws parted, and she whispered, too softly for anyone else to hear, "You...might have...been..." Then, with a last, long exhalation, she lay still.

"I know," he rasped back, "what I might have been."

For a moment, all was still. Then the dragon's body began to glow with a brilliant red light. Boromir shielded his eyes with a shocked exclamation as the dragon burst into flames, then was consumed in a matter of seconds. The flames vanished, leaving nothing but scorched earth and drifting ashes in their wake.

The surviving soldiers remained frozen where they stood, numb with shock at what they'd witnessed. Painfully, Faramir got to his feet, then approached his brother and laid a hand on his shoulder. The other didn't so much as glance up at his presence. He was staring at the strewn corpses of the dragon's victims. "Boromir?" Insistently, Faramir shook him by the shoulder. "Brother. It's over. You've triumphed."

"How many?" Boromir asked without looking at him, his voice a tight whisper.

Faramir was bewildered by the question. "What?"

"How many?" His brother whirled on him in inexplicable rage. "How many men died here today? How many women and children will mourn their loss? By how much has Gondor's strength been lessened, because I failed her?"

"Boromir, calm yourself." The younger man had stepped back in the face of his brother's wrath, but steeled himself and gripped the other firmly by the arms. "The beast is dead. You have not failed!"

"No..." Boromir pulled away and raised his hand to the cut on his head; the left side of his face was streaked to the jawline with his own blood. "I should have come sooner. My choice was the wrong one. It was wrong! If..."

He trailed off, his mouth working silently as his gaze went distant, as if remembering some half-forgotten horror. "If I...I'd taken what was offered, I would not have been delayed. I hesitated, when I could have saved them all..." He tore himself free of his brother's grasp, and whirled around with a gesture of helpless fury. The soldiers cringed as he ranted at them, "I had not the courage to risk myself for my people! I failed you! I let you die!"

His voice died away into silence beneath the stunned gaze of his brother and his men. Slowly, Boromir seemed to compose himself. "I..." He held a hand to his head again, and spoke quietly, almost to himself. "I will never fail you again."

Hesitantly, Faramir took a step forward, his expression struggling between alarm and concern. "Please, come with me. We must return home, and..." He trailed off as Boromir finally met his eyes. The taller man's face was pale and sweating beneath the wash of blood, and his gaze was unfocused as his breathing grew harsh and labored. "Brother, what is it? What's wrong?"

Boromir gave a puzzled frown as if trying to remember some detail, then gave a faint, self-mocking smile. "Oh...yes." He spoke almost nonchalantly, as if he'd been reminded of an insignificant fact which had briefly slipped his mind. "I've been poisoned."

And with that, he collapsed.

--

Time passed around him as he drifted between waking and sleep. Finally, Boromir sensed it must be morning; he could see bright golden light seeping under his closed eyelids. Tossing fitfully, he felt blankets move across his skin. He felt weak and exhausted, and his entire body throbbed with pain; his head pounded and his stomach twisted with hunger. He considered all these things, and concluded they were a fairly good indication that he was still alive.

Yawning, he stretched, then gave a grunt of protest as the action strained the sore place on his side where he'd been kicked. A familiar voice, dry and rather unsympathetic, remarked, "So, it seems you're still with us, then." It was his brother. Vaguely, Boromir wondered why he couldn't see him. Then he remembered he'd yet to open his eyes.

He did so, and immediately squinted them shut again at the bright sunlight. He was in an unfamiliar bedchamber, most likely in the Houses of Healing, though he had no memory of having arrived there. The bright rays of the morning sun shone in through the window to his right. Faramir stood near the foot of the bed, beside the wooden door, calmly regarding him. But the younger man looked drawn and haggard, as if he'd not slept for some time. "I would say you look well, brother," Faramir observed, "but that would make a liar of me."

Boromir pushed his hair out of his eyes, and managed to prop himself up on his elbows, the bedcovers falling down his bare chest. Voice raspy from disuse, he asked, "How long have I slept?"

His brother gestured towards a table that lay beside the bed, on which was placed a pitcher of water and a goblet. Chagrined by the way his hands trembled from weakness, Boromir filled the goblet and began to drink. As he did, Faramir answered, "You've slept but seven hours...and four days."

Boromir sputtered and choked, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, then fumbled to set the goblet back on the table. "Four days?" he coughed.

The young man smirked at his elder brother's discomfiture. Then his expression grew serious, and he looked away. "At first we feared you would not survive the night," he confessed, his voice growing quiet. "You were feverish, ranting..."

Boromir went rigid at this. "What did I say?"

Faramir shrugged. "Nothing of sense." He didn't understand why Boromir was so alarmed, but let it pass. "We brought you here as quickly as we could." Then his mouth set into a thin line as his tone grew cold. "Father has given the healers no rest since you arrived. It will please him to learn that you are well."

"Mm." If Boromir was aware of the bitterness and self-mockery that underlay his brother's words, he gave no sign of it. Shaking his head wearily, he observed, "Not so well, as yet." Running a hand through his hair, he winced as his fingers made contact with the bandaged cut across his forehead.

"That may leave a scar, I'm afraid," Faramir observed. Then he added, "But it should not unduly diminish your appeal to the women-folk."

Boromir gave a skewed expression at that, though not for the reason his brother might have guessed. Lying back with a sigh, staring up at the ceiling, his face became pensive. "I have had strange dreams, I recall. The sky grew dark, there was thunder, and a voice spoke to me..."

"What?" Faramir's response was abrupt, almost sharp. "Have you also...?" He cut himself off, looking uncomfortable. "Let us not speak of such things," he concluded rather lamely. "You need rest."

Boromir shook his head and sat up again, pushing away the covers. "No." He swung his legs over the side of the bed, preparing to stand. "I must see Father. I believe there is..." He trailed off as if in doubt, then said with conviction, "There is someplace I must go. He will not agree to it willingly, but...I must persuade him. Much depends upon it; I know that now."

Faramir didn't look convinced, but nodded. "As you wish. The choice is yours. As always." He watched his brother rise from the bed, waver slightly, then steady himself and stand fully upright. "And Boromir?"

"Yes?"

"Put some clothes on."

Boromir looked down at himself. He paused.

Then, with great dignity, he turned and got back into bed, sitting down and pulling the covers up above his waist. Casting an appraising glance around the room, Boromir observed, "It appears my garments are not here."

"It appears not."

"Might I ask when they will be returned?"

Faramir's expression remained neutral. "At some point."

"Ah." Boromir glanced to his right, and noticed the goblet of water. Matter-of-factly, he said, "I confess, I feel a terrible urge to throw this at your head."

"Mm." The corners of Faramir's mouth quirked in a dry smile. "Then may the people of Minas Tirith sleep safe in their beds, knowing their greatest champion never gives in to his darker nature." With that, he gave a mocking half-bow, and turned to leave. He reached for the door, and...

With a loud crash, a half-full goblet of water smacked into the door, inches away from his head. He flinched violently, then paused. Slowly turning around, he regarded the silent figure on the bed. Boromir appeared not to have moved from his place. He gazed slightly off to one side, attempting to look preoccupied, as if absolutely nothing had happened. However, he was clearly fighting off an incipient smile, and having limited success at it.

Faramir regarded his brother impassively for another moment. Then he stifled a grin of his own, turned and walked silently from the room, and closed the door behind him.