With a little TLC and a lot of being shouted at, my little pc lives again so here's another chapter. Well, until the time when electronic CPR won't revive Ol' Faithful.
This chapter has a good bit of plot, and hopefully it won't be that long until the next one comes along.
Massive thanks to Girl-chama, who has somehow managed not to reach through the screen and strangle me for still not getting how commas work.
The next days were spent clearing the devastation of the battlefield from before the city walls. Before all else the wounded were collected and borne to the great hall for treatment. Sakura had barely wiped the blood from her hands before she had disappeared into the masses of injured men. As Naruto had barely exerted himself he joined the men gathering their dead, while Sai lingered near Sakura's side.
There were too many wounded for even an experienced medic-nin such as Sakura. Not only would she have to limit herself in how well she could heal some so she had energy enough for others, she would have to make hard decisions. Not all could be saved, and the ones who were beyond her care were beyond the skill of any of Rohan's healers. He knew her well enough to know she would spend a little of her precious time to ease their passing, and that it would affect her deeply.
He watched her drawn face as he ate and rested on a low bench along the wall, and made sure she knew he was there. For all her temper Sakura felt as deeply as Naruto, and though her work brought her joy, it also wounded her. Sai still struggled to identify his emotions in situations such as these and so remained a silent presence should she need him.
The sun had set and the lamps had been lit when Naruto joined him again. He ate as well as ever, but his eyes were dulled and his smile hardly reached them. Sai sometimes envied Naruto's empathy. He had never met the fallen men, or their families, but his heart was large enough to feel sorrow for them. It was still such an alien thought to Sai despite all his progress, and he didn't know how to comfort his friend.
Naruto bumped his shoulder to knock him from his thoughts, and said, "Shouldn't you get some sleep?"
"I have slept a little. Sakura is still working," he replied.
Naruto smiled at Sai's unspoken declaration of concern and support for his team-mate, "I'll watch for her, she can't keep going much longer."
"You haven't slept either," Sai said pointedly.
"I don't think I can yet. Once Sakura is done I will," he paused, and lowered his voice despite the fact no one else in the room bar Sakura could understand him anyway, "Haleth was killed."
"I am sorry, Naruto," Sai said, reaching to place a hand on Naruto's shoulder as his friend so often did to him.
Naruto shrugged, staring down at the empty bowl in his lap, "I hardly knew him, but his mother said to me that she could take comfort in the fact he fought well, before he died so honourably."
Sai patted Naruto's shoulder, but couldn't think of anything to say.
Sakura had often undertaken double, triple, and sometimes even quadruple shifts at the hospital, and so was no stranger to lack of sleep. However she could not continue on forever. She had stabilised all the most grievously wounded, and had done as much as she could to ensure that as many as possible would survive the night. Naruto caught her arm as she walked past and settled her between himself and Sai.
"You have to rest, Sakura-chan, you won't be any good to anyone if you collapse," he said gently, repeating Tsunade's advice word for word.
She nodded, her head lolling slightly, as if her neck didn't have the strength to support it fully. Shaking herself slightly she looked over the pair of them, "Are you two alright?"
Naruto and Sai answered in the affirmative. Naturally, she had checked them for injuries in the immediate aftermath of the battle but she liked to be sure. Assured, she slid back against the wall and leaned against Sai's shoulder. Naruto disappeared for a moment before returning with another bowl of the rich, meaty stew the women of the city had prepared.
"Eat up, and we'll go back to the barracks. Théoden said the funeral services will be held tomorrow morning," he said, watching intently as Sakura slowly ate the hot food.
Sai looked over at him, "What do they do with their dead here?"
"They bury them. Éomer said each family has a place in the city's 'Hall of the Dead' so each body has a specific place already," Naruto answered.
"What about the orcs?" Sakura asked, slightly more alert after having eaten.
Naruto shrugged, "I don't think they've decided. Theoden was talking of burning them, but that's a big bonfire."
Sai and Sakura nodded, before the three of them lapsed into an easy silence. The Fellowship would have to move on soon; there was little chance they would be involved in the process of removing the bodies of their enemies.
Once Sakura had finished, the three of them meandered slowly back to the barracks. Frodo, Merry, and Pippin were sleeping quietly, their bedrolls pushed close together around Frodo. The Ring-bearer hadn't yet found sleep, instead toying with the Ring around his neck and keeping a watchful eye on his closest friends. He spared Naruto a wan smile as they entered.
The warriors of the company had already fallen into an exhausted slumber. Boromir's presence had been immediately sought by the king and his council at the conclusion of the battle, and he had returned later than the others. Aragorn had declined the offer to join them, instead focusing his attention on helping the wounded. Gimli had an injury on his arm attended to by Sakura and then accompanied Legolas on the elf's swift scout to ensure there were no more enemies hiding nearby.
An excellent battle, and the knowledge that he had bested the elf in numbers, had done wonders for Gimli's temperament around Legolas. Legolas had something of a pinched look to his features, but Gimli had walked beside him, discussing the battle at length without resorting to unbearable smugness. No doubt their tempers would flare soon enough, but for now it was a welcome respite.
Gandalf remained awake. He sat by one of the small windows smoking his pipe and watching as the city turned in for the night. Celebrations would wait until the dead had been laid to rest. He smiled wearily at them as they retreated to the beds assigned to them. Sakura fell asleep almost immediately, yet Naruto knew she would be awake before any of them to return to the injured. Sai had slept less than he had said as even he slipped into sleep within minutes. Naruto lay awake for some time, looking at the ceiling above him.
Théoden presided over the mass funeral of the men who had died protecting their home. It was a sombre affair that lasted until almost nightfall. The Fellowship stood on the outskirts of the crowd, their heads bowed.
Once all the bodies had been placed with their ancestors, food was prepared, casks of ale were opened and music began playing. Théodred explained that these men had died well, and so their lives should be celebrated, rather than have their deaths mourned. The Fellowship joined the festivities in the Golden Hall with the royal family and their closest generals.
Merry and Pippin were soon regaling the table with their brave exploits in protecting the civilians. Sam kept his eyes on his mug, uncomfortable under the weight of the attention they drew to him. Éowyn directed her gaze firmly at the far wall, and made no reaction to the tale already being spun larger and more entertaining.
Her father, her brother, and her cousin had already lectured her at length about her irresponsibility. She had borne their comments with quiet remorse, but they could not take the memory of the thrill of battle from her. She did regret endangering her fellow women, their children, and even the hobbits as Éomer had been swift to remind her, but she would not regret anything else.
The others had chosen not to say any of this to spare Merry and Pippin, they were new warriors rather than responsible leaders. Boromir, ever the mediator, had said that such experience could not hurt the hobbits. Aragorn had drawn his mouth into a thin line, and watched them closer, feeling his responsibility for their safety. Gimli had rolled his eyes at the rest of them, and told them they should save their worry for what was to come, rather than what had passed.
The festivities lasted well into the night, and it was the easiest night the Fellowship could remember since leaving Rivendell. Even Frodo found the weight on his shoulders lessening, and was able to join in several shire ditties that Merry and Pippin were cajoled into performing. By the time the sun was starting to rise, the Hall was mostly quiet – the revelers had either drifted away to their homes and beds, or had passed out around the sides of the room.
Gimli had fallen asleep resting against the wall near the door, his pipe clutched loosely in his hand. A blanket had appeared over him, and Aragorn was sure he had seen their elf around him at the time. Gimli had encouraged Legolas to weave some tales of his own life, and had listened, and Aragorn wondered if perhaps if the night had been a turning point in their relationship.
Sakura had crept away to return to the wounded, but Sai and Naruto had remained. The Rohirrim had been assured of their loyalties through their actions, and they had been surrounded with interested parties begging for details about their lives. They divulged as much as they felt comfortable, often skirting difficult moral issues to avoid souring the festive atmosphere. It was clear Sai was growing restless in his desire to move on towards their goal, but Aragorn had assured him that they would hold counsel with Théoden later the next day.
As the festivities had continued well into the night, it was almost evening when Théoden was able to hold court with the Fellowship. His son, niece, and nephew joined them, along with Hama, in his private chambers to give them the privacy their quest required.
Théoden listened, grim-faced and bright-eyed, as Gandalf recounted their purpose and their journey so far.
"Isildur's Bane is found at last," he paused to rub his eyes, "I had never thought I would live to see the day. To think, that such evil times should be mine."
Gandalf lit his pipe despite Legolas' quiet protest, and said, "When our quest is complete, it shall be a time of peace and prosperity these lands have not truly known in hundreds of years."
Sai shared a look with Sakura; when Gandalf spoke to them he always used 'if' rather than 'when' in discussing their mission. Sakura raised her shoulder and arm slightly, as if to say their success in battle had left the wizard with a more optimistic view. That was certainly true of the other members of the Fellowship – overcoming such odds had raised their morale immeasurably.
Aragorn tapped the map on the table, "In my heart I believe it to be so, but first the quest must be completed," he said, "We must move through Gondor to reach the lands of Sauron – Boromir, how should we proceed?"
Boromir inclined his head in respect, their bond had been affirmed as they fought together in battle, and he could no longer feel anger on his father's behalf for the man who would take his place.
"Our defences were precarious even as I left, and it has been many moons since then. I do not expect to see any improvement when I return."
"Then we shall join you. Gather all of Rohan to ensure the safety of the free races and ride at your side!" Éomer cried, slapping a palm onto the table.
Boromir grinned lopsidedly at his childhood friend, "Your schemes landed us in more trouble than I care to remember over the years – I fear this may, too. How many men would be willing to make that march? Especially as now the threat has been lifted from their own lands enough to rebuild."
"Lord Denethor has scarcely contacted us in a number of years. Why has he not sent word for aid if Gondor's plight is so great?" Théoden asked, a thread of temper present in his voice.
Boromir couldn't meet Théoden's eyes as he explained, "Father has become," he paused as he searched for a way to describe Denethor's seeming descent into madness, "erratic, of late. Gandalf believes his mind has been corrupted through his use of a palantír, that Sauron has been poisoning him as sure as Gríma sought to do to yourself. He has always been prideful, but now it has become something more akin to arrogance. He would not ask for your help no matter how dire the threat may become."
"Then we will not wait to be asked," Éomer stated firmly.
Gandalf sighed, "You cannot make a man take help he has not asked for. In any case, our mission relies on secrecy. If the armies of Rohan march into Gondor, Sauron will know that there is something more afoot."
Éomer looked as though he would protest, but Aragorn interjected, "Gandalf is right. Sauron would tighten his defences, making our task nigh impossible. Also, he has spies among all fell races – should he be informed your army is on route he may send his forces at Gondor's defences with enough haste to overwhelm them before you arrive."
"We cannot just remain here! The threat of Sauron is to all free peoples, not just those of Gondor!"
Gandalf raised a hand, "I understand your feelings, Éomer, but the success of this mission is the only true way to escape that threat. Are the beacons still in operation? Once the Ringbearer is within Mordor, I have no doubt that we will have to call for your aid."
"How do we proceed? Frodo cannot go to Minas Tirith," Aragorn asked, looking over at Frodo who seemed well-rested and content to allow them to discuss his future.
"I can make contact with my brother and his rangers – they are loyal to him first, rather than father – they know of all the most secretive routes through our lands," Boromir suggested.
"That has merit, but we will need to distract your father, Boromir, there is no telling what he can see through his palantír, if indeed he has one. No doubt he concentrates his efforts within Gondor's borders," Gandalf replied.
There was a moment of silence as all present pondered how this could be achieved. Naruto and Sakura turned to Sai – after all, ROOT had kept their presence a secret from an entire village filled with ninjas.
"How adept are you at lying, Boromir?" he asked, after a pause.
Boromir shrugged, "It is not a skill I have often had to call upon. To whom would I be lying?"
"It will be to your father directly. However, you would have to maintain the facade until the Ringbearer is beyond your father's reach," Sai answered, watching Boromir's reaction.
"Go on," urged Gandalf.
"Your father knows, or at least suspects that the Ring was found, correct?"
"Yes, I didn't understand his urging at the time, until I saw the Ring for myself."
"Then he will know to look for you and your companions. I propose that you return to Minas Tirith alone, or perhaps with any members of the company who feel they can lie convincingly. Those who wish to stay with Frodo will linger near the border until contact is made with your brother. We shall refine the tale you will give your father, but I suggest that you tell him there was a quarrel, perhaps over the fate of the Ring, and you have broken from the group."
"What is your reasoning behind this?" Gimli asked, his straightforward nature in evidence.
"Boromir has told us before that he is the favoured son, so his return should draw Denethor's attention fully. He has also told us that his brother is held in less high regard, therefore Denethor will be less concerned with his actions – allowing Frodo a greater chance of passing through Gondor without being accosted."
"Will you be able to keep your father's attention for the time we will need?" Aragorn asked.
Boromir ran a hand through his hair, "He will be angry that I have not brought him the Ring, but his anger is usually short-lived when it comes to my actions. I shall make him give me every detail of Gondor's defences. That should give you days at least."
"If we wanted to go to Gondor too," Pippin piped up, "what would we say?"
Boromir gave Pippin a fond look; the hobbit had become enthralled with his tales of the White City.
"Perhaps that you agreed with Boromir's plans for the Ring," Sai suggested.
"And so were sent from the group, too," Aragorn followed, nodding as he considered it.
"So, we make contact with Boromir's brother. Then Boromir returns to the White City to distract his father. Frodo travels through Gondor and into Mordor. Then?" Sakura asked.
The Fellowship shared a look of uncertainty before Gandalf smiled at her and said, "Well, my dear, we shall have to see once we reach that juncture. Remember what they say, the best laid plans ..."
There was a ripple of wry laughter through the Fellowship. Their journey thus far had been relatively easy. Their path had been smoothed by the actions of the ninjas, and by the bonds between the members and the other peoples of Middle Earth. However, their relative good fortune could not hope to last when as they approached the evil darkness of Sauron's lands.
"We should make haste," Boromir said, rising to stretch his still aching muscles, "From what little I recall of my brother's schedule he will be near the border soon enough."
"What if we miss him?" Frodo asked, comforted by the surety of his companions.
Boromir grimaced, "Let us hope we do not. Faramir and his rangers move swiftly and silently – catching them would be near impossible."
Aragorn smiled at the pride and fondness in Boromir's tone. It was the same that often coloured Elladan and Elrohir's voices when they spoke of him. "Then let us pack. We shall leave at first light," he announced, choosing to ignore the way the faces of the hobbits fell at the prospect of leaving such good company.
Théodred stood also, putting a hand on his cousin's shoulder, "Allow us to escort you to the border. It is the least we can offer you for your services to us these past days."
Aragorn bowed slightly, "It would be an honour, my Lord."
The days of travel to the border were blessedly quiet and devoid of any danger. Given the shadow that had fallen over Rohan, it had not been a difficult task to find enough master-less horses to allow the company to ride rather than walk. The only members to refuse to use a mount were the ninjas and Gimli. The first because they had little riding experience, and their chakra tended to make animals nervous at such close quarters. The latter had said that it was unnatural for dwarves to be so high off the ground on the large, powerful war-horses of the Rohirrim.
Legolas had snorted softly, but had refrained from commenting – a sure sign that their relationship was improving. Éowyn had convinced her uncle to allow her to join them, to Merry's delight, and he sat in front of her as she taught him how to use the reins. Boromir held his reins in one hand as the other was occupied anchoring Pippin to the saddle as the hobbit moved and chattered. Frodo rode with Aragorn, and had been lulled into a light slumber by the easy movements of the well-trained animal. Théodred had revealed something of interest in maintaining a herb garden for use in their healing, and listened attentively as Sam sat before him, discussing the finer points of gardening.
Even at a slightly slower pace, to accommodate those who chose to walk, the journey was swift. Soon the open plains of Rohan began to give way to the more wooded lands of Gondor. Boromir had advised them to forego the main path into his homeland, and instead directed them to a course leading down by what had once been a river many years previously. He assured them that these areas were part of his brother's regular patrol, and with some luck it would not be long before Faramir passed by.
At the edge of a copse of woods that would provide them shelter, Théodred, Éomer, Éowyn, and the other Rohirrim left them. They begged the Fellowship to remain safe, and promised to return as soon as they were needed. Merry, Pippin, and Boromir lingered the longest to watch their friends depart, before returning to the relative safety of the woods.
"Do we need to create a signal to alert your brother?" Sai asked, as Sakura and Naruto flitted around the area, laying some low-level warning traps.
Boromir smiled broadly and clapped a hand on his shoulder, raising his voice to carry to the others, "No need, my friend, his scouts will let him know before we even know they have been nearby."
Naruto scoffed quietly, sharing an amused look with Sakura who elbowed him in the side to shush him. Sai was slightly unsure on how to respond to Boromir's physical contact, and so nodded to show he understood.
It was late afternoon and, with the prospect of time to adequately prepare, the hobbits were eagerly expounding on the notion of just how many meals respectable hobbits considered to be enough of an evening. While Aragorn and Gimli had been able to escape the domesticity by virtue of having a smoke at the edge of their clearing, Boromir and Legolas found themselves given small cooking tasks. As they ceded to Sam's instructions the ninjas felt an approaching presence, and Naruto sent a discreet clone to observe them.
Both were accomplished soldiers who had oft lived off the land, and they considered themselves well-versed in matters of campfire cooking. However their meals had only ever had to impress fellow soldiers, not discerning hobbits. Sam watched them with an eagle-eye and it was clear from his expressions when he felt they were not performing to his standards.
It was to this strange scene of Boromir showing Sam his chopped vegetables that Faramir and his rangers appeared.
It was as Boromir had said – they moved almost as silently as elves through the brush. They all wore hooded cloaks in muted greens and browns that allowed them to blend into the underbrush with ease. All of them carried bows, and short swords at their sides. Naruto's clone had approached them close enough to see the distinct resemblance that Faramir had, both to his brother and to Denethor from what he remembered from the palantír. With Boromir present they were unlikely to pose a threat, and the less they knew of the ninjas' skills, the better.
"They will make a housewife of you, yet!" laughed Faramir, enjoying the way his brother jumped, almost flinging all his hard work to the ground.
"Faramir!" he cried, laying the plate down and crossing the distance between then to gather his brother into a hug.
They parted, and Boromir held his brother's shoulders to assure himself of Faramir's good health. He looked more tired, more shadowed, than he had ever seen him, and he prayed that this was the fault of Mordor's darkness, rather than their father.
"Do not fuss, Boromir! I cannot tell you how glad I am to see you well," he smiled.
"And I you, brother. Come, you must meet my companions."
The Fellowship was immediately soothed by Faramir's open smile, and the clear joy radiating from Boromir on seeing his little brother once more.
One of Faramir's rangers stepped forward, and told them that there was a cave nearby that they often used when in this area – one that was more comfortable than the open ground. Sam agreed heartily, the slight wind was affecting the cooking fire. Aragorn deferred to his judgement, and the Fellowship followed the rangers deeper into the forest.