Chapter 22: The Other Side
The hours passed and no voice or call was heard again across the water since the fall of the Nazgûl. The Fellowship huddled in their boats felt the changing of the weather. The air grew warm and very still under the great moist clouds that had floated up from the South and distant seas. The rushing of the River over the rocks of the rapids seemed to grow louder and closer. The twigs of the trees above them began to drip. When the day came the mood of the world about them was soft and dull. Slowly the dawn grew to a pale light, diffused and shadowless.
They peered soberly at one another across their floating nest of grey cloaks and grey boats, faces haunted by the fear wrought in the nighttime. There was mist on the river, and white fog swathed the bank; the far shore still could not be seen.
"I can't abide fog," said Sam; "but this seems to be a lucky one. Now perhaps we can get away without those cursed goblins seeing us." His eyes strayed often to Sting where it lay unsheathed across Frodo's knees, but the blade had offered nothing more than a faint glimmer since the attack.
"Perhaps so," said Aragorn. "But it will be hard to find the path unless the fog lifts a little later on. And we must find the path, if we are to pass Sarn Gebir and come to the Emyn Muil."
"I do not see why we should pass the Rapids or follow the River any further," said Boromir. "If the Emyn Muil lie before us, then we can abandon these cockle-boats, and strike westward and southward, until we come to the Entwash and cross into my own land."
"We can, if we are making for Minas Tirith," said Aragorn, "but that is not yet agreed. And such a course may be more perilous than it sounds. The vale of the Entwash is flat and fenny, and fog is a deadly peril there for those on foot and laden."
Legolas shook his head. "The Halflings would find that path unpleasant indeed, and if you choose the vale, Gimli and I must stay behind."
"I would not abandon our boats," said Aragorn. "The River is at least a path that cannot be missed."
"But the Enemy holds the Eastern bank," said Boromir. "And even if you pass the Gates of the Argonath and come unmolested to the Tindrock, what will you do then? Leap down the Falls and land in the marshes?"
"No," answered Aragorn. "Say rather that we will bear our boats by the ancient way to Rauros-foot, and there take to the water again. Do you not know, Boromir, or do you choose to forget the North Stair, and the high seat upon Amon Hen, that were made in the days of the great kings? I at least have a mind to stand in that high place again, before I decide my further course. There, maybe, we shall see some sign that will guide us."
"More as like you shall see one of the Nine perched there waiting for you," said Boromir. "Aye, Frodo knows now, Aragorn. The Black Riders are once more abroad in fearsome form and there is no choice now to be made. Had you not insisted we keep to your course, we might be gone from here rather than hiding. The far shore is not safe."
"When they cross the River, neither shore will be safe," said Frodo. "I think it will not be long before they do. It does not matter where I run, they will find me."
"And so you would give yourself up?" said Boromir.
"Aragorn wishes to go to Amon Hen and I will follow him there," said Frodo. "After that, I cannot say."
Boromir frowned. "Against my wishes we came this far by this path, and almost you were led to ruin, Frodo. I will not say your trust is misplaced, but will you heed no other guidance?"
"I will go the way that Aragorn chooses," said Frodo again. "None of you are bound to go with us. It is far out of your way, Boromir, and Gondor waits upon your return. Your people need you. I would not keep you from them."
It was kindly intended, but a dismissal nonetheless and Boromir's face darkened. "It is not the way of the Men of Minas Tirith to desert their friends," he said, "and you will need my strength, if ever you are to reach the Tindrock. To the tall isle I will go, but no further. There I shall turn to my home, alone if my help has not earned the reward of any companionship."
Frodo shook his head. "You ask for more than companionship, I think."
Ere more could be said, Legolas stood up in his boat. They watched him gather his cloak about his shoulders. He balanced lightly for a moment and then leaped onto the narrow bank.
"Is it then the way of the Elves of Mirkwood to desert their friends?" said Aragorn.
"The mists are heavy and Frodo's sword tells of no Orcs," said Legolas. "I do not think our enemies will find a way to cross the water near this place. I shall have a look. Gimli will be miserable when he wakes and wanting to know where we are. For my sake, I would like a better answer than 'somewhere upon the River."
"Wait for the light and I will go with you," said Aragorn. "Together we will find a path."
Legolas nodded and then crouched beneath the low brush concealing the bank. Water pattered down on him from dark leaves and he held out a hand, blinking as a few drops touched his face. It mattered little; he was wet through as his companions, though he was not shivering from it as they were. The others marked the traces of blood upon his clothing, dark streaks of it across his breast where the Elf had wiped his hands ere drawing his bow.
"We have suffered this night," said Aragorn. "No more than a fright for most of us, but one of our Company is wounded. We must go on when it is light enough for us to do so, and I cannot say if Gimli will be able to walk far or with any haste. He needs warmth and rest and more care than I can give him here. He is stronger than most, but we cannot ask too much of him; he would feign strength rather than be a burden to us. Legolas and I will seek the swiftest way downstream so that we can know the trail and lead you there directly without doubling back."
"You are leaving us here?" cried Pippin. "What if you do not return?"
"Then you shall make your way without us," said Aragorn. "Take what you can carry and go on."
Frodo shook his head. "We cannot afford to lose either of you. We will wait."
"You do not have the choice to delay," said Aragorn.
"A fair time we'd have of it," muttered Pippin. "We couldn't carry most of what we brought, with the boats and all. What of our packs? It would be shameful to waste the food."
"Aye," said Merry, "and even with Pippin's appetite, it could take some time to eat it all."
"Days, perhaps!" said Pippin. "We might still be at it when you get back."
Ere Aragorn could reply, a heavy voice asked, "Who is leaving… and where are they going?" Gimli had woken.
Legolas got to his feet. The Dwarf cast his eyes about, adjusting to the dim morning light. He saw the Elf standing above him. He wrinkled his nose. "Ah…. And I was having such good dreams."
"You are brave for a Dwarf on his back," said Legolas.
Gimli grunted and thrust away a few of the blankets that were piled on top of him. "What is this? Were you trying to smother me?"
"You were cold," said Legolas. "How do you feel now?"
"As well as I look, I expect." Gimli made a small effort to sit up, but his shoulder stopped him. He winced and swallowed. "It is not so bad," he said, "but I am thirsty."
Merry dug through their things and passed over a waterskin. The Dwarf drank deeply. He drew a hand across his mouth and then noticed the others huddled around in their own boats, watching him. He frowned. "Why are we still here?"
"It has been too dark and uncertain for us to move on," said Aragorn. He shifted and stood. "Legolas and I will go now and discover a path, and then come back for you."
"We will not be long," said Legolas, seeing disapproval on the Dwarf's face. "Aragorn hopes to find a way we can carry our boats and baggage to smoother water beyond the Rapids."
"I've played fish in a barrel," said Gimli. "I should like very much now to play dwarf on dry land. I don't know that I shall be swinging my axe for a day or so, but this feeble blow will not stagger me. I can walk if I must, if the River cannot bear us on from here."
"Stout are Dwarves, and boats of the Elves would not sink, maybe," said Aragorn, "but that does not say that we should come through Sarn Gebir alive. None have ever done so yet. No road was made by the Men of Gondor in this region, for even in their great days their realm did not reach up Anduin beyond the Emyn Muil; but there is a portage-way somewhere on the western shore, if I can find it. It cannot yet have perished; for light boats used to journey out of the Wilderland down to Osgiliath, and still did so until a few years ago, when the Orcs of Mordor began to multiply."
"Seldom in my life has any boat come out of the North," said Boromir. "If you go forward, peril will grow with every mile, even if you find a path."
"Peril lies ahead on every southward road," answered Aragorn. He climbed from his boat and up onto the shore. "Wait for us until midday. If we do not return in that time, you will know that evil has indeed befallen us. Then you must take a new leader and follow him as best you can."
"I have few doubts as to which of us would volunteer for the task," said Gimli beneath his breath.
Legolas heard. His eyes met the Dwarf's. "We will be back ere we are missed."
"Even your feet are not that swift," said Gimli.
Time crawled after Aragorn and Legolas left the Company. An hour passed, though Gimli would have sworn that several had gone by, were it not for the Sun's lazy ascent. The Dwarf began to shiver, chilled by the clammy water and cool air. He tugged a few of the blankets back over himself, trying for some measure of comfort, but there was little to be had. He tested his right arm, lifting it a little, and he caught his breath sharply as his shoulder protested. He let his mind wander away from the pain and closed his eyes, fending off sleep. Sleep was not what he wanted, not with Aragorn and Legolas gone. He drifted and listened to the noise of the water and the hobbits and Boromir as they spoke quietly to one another, but he longed for the voices of the two companions who were not there.
The notion of going on without the Elf and the Ranger was too bleak. He forced his mind toward possibilities when Aragorn and Legolas did come back rather than worrying whether or not they would; he knew that neither of them was capable of getting lost in the wilderness and woe belonged to any orc who crossed their path. Still he feared for them. They had come too close to death in this place. Memory of the attack during the night was hazy in his mind, impressions only of dark water and howling voices, the wraith's scream and the flight song of Legolas's arrow.
It occurred to him that it had been the first shot Legolas had taken with the Lady's gift. Gimli supposed the Elf might have loosed a few arrows to acquaint himself with it, but there had been no game since they left Lorien, no enemies to tempt a restless archer with a new bow. The Nazgûl could not have known its peril.
He let out a breath. His companions vexed his heart and they were a trial on his patience, Legolas most of all, but he had come to hold them all dearer than gold, dearer than life. He thought of Aragorn's dream and recognized its horror: the loss of another of their Fellowship would be a cruel burden; two more, an unfathomable sorrow. Would it come, then, that each would be taken, one by one, until all seven of them were lost to the darkness and Frodo was alone? The augurs of his people deemed seven a number of symmetry, order, but also completion, death. Seven protectors. Seven stars in Durin's Crown. Seven Fathers. Seven kings. Seven Rings of Power for the Dwarf-lords, who had coveted their hoards, yet had never been corrupted….
Merry's voice shook Gimli from contemplation. For a dreadful moment, he thought he had gone feeble and was speaking his thoughts aloud. He held himself still and listened.
"I don't know that I'd like such a thing. The city must be all walls."
"Minas Tirith is no mere city," came Boromir's low reply. "It is a bastion of strength. If no better way can be found, I shall guide you there and you shall see."
"But why build seven? Why not one strong wall, and be done with it?"
"Even the strongest wall can be breached. Each wall surrounds a higher level of the White City. There are seven levels and seven walls."
"So it is built like a layer cake," offered Pippin. His stomach rumbled appreciatively.
There was a scraping sound and Gimli heard something heavy thump against wood. "Seven is meaningful," said Boromir. "The star graved upon my shield has seven points, one for each of the ships that sailed from Numenor to Middle-earth, bearing Elendil and his sons, the founders of Anor and Gondor. The walls of Minas Tirith were not conceived all at once, but it is fitting that there came to be seven."
"Even so," said Merry, "I think I would feel trapped. I have never been anywhere that needed more than one wall to keep out those unwelcome, and most of the towns I know wouldn't even bother with that."
"You have been fortunate." Gimli was stirred to speak, despite the dull agony of his wound. He sat up a little with effort and turned his head toward the hobbit. "I daresay sleep would be sounder in your Shire where there is no need of walls than in any place well surrounded by them."
"Minas Tirith has never known a time of peace," said Boromir with unusual wistfulness. "Only the ebb of war. It has been the Guard City, the City of Stone, a secure fortress that has ever defied the push of the might of Mordor and protected the lands beyond the mountains. Yet for its charge it is beautiful. Hard, but graceful."
"Seven walls and seven gates, and one Great Gate," said Frodo. "It shines bright silver within its setting of the stern black stone of the outer wall. White is the stone of the other walls, pure and brilliant as the snowcaps of Minas Tirith's mountain-train. Keen is the lofty air upon the heights of the Citadel while Anduin brings warm winds from the South to play across the fields, and then it is a delight to stand upon the battlements and breathe the scent of the Sea."
Boromir looked at Frodo in surprise. "You speak as one who knows it!"
"I do know it," said Frodo smiling wanly. "I spent too much time nosing through books while I was growing up in the Shire. I had heard of the Tower of the Sun and the Tower of the Moon in the old songs, and I learned much during our stay in Rivendell. Master Elrond's library is extensive and it contains more than its share of lore about Elendil's sons and their legacies, as you might expect. I know Minas Tirith as I knew Rivendell ere I came there, as I know Mirkwood and the Long Lake and the Havens, though I have not seen these places myself." His smile faded. "Maybe now I never will."
Sam stirred uncomfortably. "Well, I know I would get lost in a city so grand," he said. "You couldn't in a lifetime learn everyone's name."
"Perhaps not," said Boromir, "though it would be a lifetime well spent if you tried. When we were young and eager to prove ourselves, my brother and I would make a game of running the distance against one another from Ecthelion's Tower to the Great Gate after early dusk, when most folk had dwindled away to their homes to sleep." He shook his head. "Then it was a treat to walk the levels and find the solitary places; now there are too few people to crowd the streets even in the daylight hours."
"Has your population dwindled so?" asked Gimli. "How then do you find the men to man your many walls?"
"Those who defend Minas Tirith remain with their families," Boromir said to him. "Brave men we lack not. A siege we fear if Osgiliath is taken from us again, but the Enemy cannot enter the city. Had we a tenth of the men to command, they would be enough. The Outer Wall is nigh impenetrable. The Great Gate has never been broken."
Gimli's face tightened. "Erebor was built beneath a mountain, not fastened to the foot of one," he said, "and still the Dragon found his way in. Were your Great Gate dwarf-made, perhaps it might withstand Sauron's knocking at it, but not forever. What will you do when the Nazgûl come?"
"Fight," replied Boromir, "as we have always fought. We will fight with our backs to Mindolluin until we prevail."
"Or until you are cornered within your stone city with nowhere to go," said Gimli.
Boromir grew angry. "What will the folk of the Lonely Mountain do? Would you lay down your arms and surrender to the Enemy? Would you abandon your home to be overrun?"
"I would not presume to offer Frodo safety there and protection beyond my means," said Gimli.
"Your people would fear to take him in because of what he bears," Boromir returned. "You would refuse him as Elrond did, and send him off into the wilderness to rid himself of it or die, as if he were the carrier of some… pestilence!"
"Enough!" said Frodo. "Enough. I am that." There was deep pity in his eyes, but not for himself. He regarded Boromir and Gimli until they turned away from him and from each other. "The Ring consumes men, kills them or worse," he told them. "No walls would protect you. I thank you both for your courage and your compassion, but do not tempt it by trading angry words. It has been a long night! I am afraid it will be a long day as well, and I am tired. I wish that Aragorn would return."
Gimli felt weariness heavy on his own head. He was ashamed of himself for baiting Boromir. He thought for a bitter instant that he might trade the whole city of Minas Tirith for a fire and a warm, dry bed. The pain in his shoulder was merciless, but he needed the last word.
"It was a hobbit who drove the Dragon from the Lonely Mountain," he said to Frodo. "A hobbit who crept into Smaug's lair and under his guard to uncover the brute's weak spot. My father spoke often of your uncle's bravery, venturing down that tunnel alone and in the dark. Lord Elrond did not send you here without some hope that you could fulfill your task. Nor would Gandalf have let you go. Remember that."
He fell silent then, and the others said naught. The mist grew thinner and the sunlight began to break through to the water. Gimli gave up waiting for Legolas and Aragorn and closed his eyes. Lulled by the sound of his own breathing echoing in his ears, he drowsed and dreamed of dragons slumbering deep in their dens.
That was the battle. Bilbo listening to old Smaug rumble and snore and going on down that passage anyway, whatever waited. He always said everything that came after was not nearly so hard as that. Not nearly, even facing the Dragon himself. It was just a matter of setting his mind to do it.
Thoughts of dragons did not usually inspire cheer, but Frodo was better for Gimli's words; he felt a little braver, if not exactly comforted. He rested his chin upon his hand and looked across the water. So wide it seemed from his point of view, and he wondered if the grey sea would feel as open and empty to him if he were to stand upon its shore.
Sam stirred beside him, glancing nervously at Sting as he had every few moments that morning.
"They will be back soon, Sam," Frodo said to him.