The Son of Gondor

by Linaewen
Chapter 56
Although there was still no sign of the enemy, the travellers grew uneasy, expecting at any moment to be suddenly exposed to attack. At Aragorn's bidding, the Company now paddled for long spells, and the banks went swiftly by. But they saw little of the country, for they now journeyed mostly by night and twilight, resting by day, and lying as hidden as the land allowed.

The country on either side of the River began to change rapidly, the banks rising, growing stony. Soon they were passing through a hilly, rocky land, and on both shores there were steep slopes buried in deep brakes of thorn and sloe, tangled with brambles and creepers. Behind the tangles of thorn stood low crumbling cliffs, and chimneys of grey weathered stone dark with ivy; and beyond these again there rose high ridges crowned with wind-writhen firs. They were drawing near to the grey hill-country of the Emyn Muil, the southern march of Wilderland.

The eighth night of their journey came. It was silent and windless; the grey east wind that had plagued them had passed away. The thin crescent of the Moon had fallen early into the pale sunset, but the sky was clear above, and though far away in the South there were great ranges of cloud that caught the light of the sunset faintly, in the West stars glinted bright.

"Come!" said Aragorn. "We will venture one more journey by night. We have reached a part of the River that I do not know well, for I have never journeyed by water between here and the Rapids of Sarn Gebir. The name Sarn Gebir means 'stone spikes,' and it is a true name; that part of the River is impassable to boats. Once we reach the Rapids, we will have to carry our boats by portage-way; but if I am right in my reckoning, the Rapids are still many miles ahead. Even so, we are coming to dangerous places even before we reach the Rapids, where we may meet rocks and stony eyots in the stream. We must keep a sharp watch and not try to paddle swiftly."

Sam in the leading boat was given the task of watchman. He lay forward, peering into the gloom. The night grew dark, but the stars above were strangely bright, and there was a glimmer on the face of the River. It was close on midnight, and they had been drifting for some while, hardly using the paddles, when suddenly Sam cried out. Only a few yards ahead dark shapes loomed up in the stream and they heard the swirl of racing water. There was a swift current which swung left, towards the eastern shore where the channel was clear. As they were swept aside the travellers could see, now very close, the pale foam of the River lashing against sharp rocks that were thrust out far into the stream like a ridge of teeth. The boats were all huddled together.

"Hoy there, Aragorn!" shouted Boromir, as his boat bumped into the leader. "You are out of your reckoning! The Rapids must be close at hand."

He pushed against Aragorn's boat with his paddle to put some distance between them, but the action only served to bring his boat more directly into the current that was sweeping them towards the rocks.

"This is madness!" Boromir cried. "We cannot dare the Rapids by night! But no boat can live in Sarn Gebir, be it night or day!"

"Back, back!" cried Aragorn. "Turn! Turn if you can!" He drove his paddle into the water, trying to hold the boat and bring it round.

With great effort they checked the boats and slowly brought them about. At first they made little headway against the current, and all the time they were carried nearer and nearer to the eastern bank, which loomed up in the night, dark and ominous.

"All together, paddle!" shouted Boromir. "Paddle! Or we shall be driven onto the shoals!" Even as he spoke, he felt the keel beneath him grate upon stone.

At that moment there was a twang of bowstrings; several arrows whistled over their heads, and some fell among them. One smote Frodo between the shoulders and he lurched forward with a cry; but the arrow fell back, foiled by his hidden coat of mail. Another passed through Aragorn's hood, while a third struck solidly with a loud thump and stuck in the side of Boromir's boat, close by Merry's hand. Boromir thought he could glimpse black figures running to and fro upon the eastern shore. They seemed very near.

"Orcs!" cried Gimli and Legolas in unison.

Boromir's heart sank as he struggled to turn his boat, for the River seemed set on taking them right into the arms of the enemy.

"Paddle!" he shouted again.

They all leaned forward, straining at the paddles. Every moment they expected to feel the bite of black-feathered arrows. Many whined overhead or struck the water nearby; but there were no more hits.

Strange, thought Boromir, even as he labored to bring his boat about. It is dark, but not too dark for the night-eyes of Orcs; we must offer the fiends quite a mark in this star-glimmer! Yet they are missing us. Perhaps Celeborn spoke truly, and these grey Elven cloaks make us a difficult target for unfriendly eyes.

Stroke by stroke they labored on. In the darkness it was difficult to tell if they were indeed moving at all; but slowly the swirl of the water grew less, and the shadow of the eastern bank faded back into the night. They reached the middle of the stream at last and drove their boats back some distance above the jutting rocks. Then, half turning, they thrust them with all their strength towards the western shore. Under the shadow of bushes leaning out over the water they halted and drew breath.

Legolas laid down his paddle, and taking up his great bow, he sprang ashore, and climbed a few paces up the bank. Stringing the bow and fitting an arrow, he turned, peering back over the River into the darkness. Across the water there were shrill cries, but nothing could be seen.

A sudden dread fell on the Company; a dark shape came out of the blackness in the South, and sped towards them, blotting out all light as it approached. It was like a cloud, yet not a cloud, for it moved far too swiftly. Soon it appeared as a great winged creature, blacker than the pits in the night. Fierce voices rose up to greet it from across the River.

Boromir felt a cold thrill of fear; suddenly he was back at the Ford at Tharbad, facing nine Black Riders across the water. The rushing of the waters of Sarn Gebir in the distance only served to strengthen the memory. He bowed his head, fighting to throw off his fear. He heard Pippin whimpering next to him, but he could do nothing, for he could not move. In Aragorn's boat, he heard Frodo moan softly.

Suddenly the great bow of Lorien sang. Above them the winged shape swerved; there was a harsh croaking sceam, as it fell out of the air, and vanished down into the gloom of the eastern shore. There was a tumult of many voices far away, cursing and wailing in the darkness.

They waited in silence, crouched in their boats, for what seemed hours, until the cries of the Orcs faded into the distance. After a while, Aragorn led the boats back upstream. They felt their way along the water's edge for some distance, until they found a small shallow bay. They made no camp and no fire; instead they lay huddled in the boats, and waited. The night passed silently; no voice or call was heard again across the water.

"Praised be the bow of Galadriel, and the hand and eye of Legolas!" breathed Gimli, when it became clear that they had escaped the enemy once again. "That was a mighty shot in the dark, my friend!"

"But who can say what it hit?" said Legolas.

No one would say what they thought; they only knew they were glad that the shadow had come no nearer.

"Our enemies seem to have been dismayed," said Aragorn cautiously. "But we cannot tell what they will do next. This night we must all remain sleepless. Have your weapons close to hand."

**********************

The weather began to change; the air grew warm and very still under the great moist clouds that had floated up from the South and the distant seas. The rushing of the River over the rocks of the rapids seemed to grow louder and closer in the heavy air. The twigs of the trees above them began to drip.

When the day came the mood of the world about them had become soft and sad. Slowly the dawn grew to a pale light, diffused and shadowless. There was mist on the River, and white fog swathed the shore; the far bank could not be seen.

The Company was glad for the fog, for it hid them from the eyes of the enemy. They drew the boats up out of the water, and made camp as best they could against the steep bank, and discussed what they should do next.

"The fog may hide us," remarked Aragorn, "but it also makes it hard to find the path that will take us beyond the Rapids. And we must find that 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 westwards and southwards, 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 Entwash is flat and fenny, and fog is a deadly peril there for those on foot and laden. I would not abandon our boats until we must. The River is at least a path that cannot be missed."

"Nor can we be missed by the Enemy when we travel upon it," objected Boromir. "We are defenseless against their arrows in the open water. And even if you pass the Gates of Argonath and come unmolested to the Tindrock, what will you do then? Leap down the Falls and land in the marshes?"

"No, of course not!" answered Aragorn. "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."

"I do not forget them," replied Boromir shortly. "I know of the high seat and the North Stair; but I see no need to continue on that road. Why keep to the River and the boats? We cannot pass down the River unseen beyond the foot of the Falls. Do you not know, Aragorn, or do you choose to forget, that the Enemy holds the eastern bank? And if you do not yet know your course, will the Seat of Seeing give you counsel?"

But Aragorn would not give way. Boromir held out long against this choice of their road; but when it became plain that Frodo would follow Aragorn, wherever he went, he gave in.

"It is not the way of the Men of Minas Tirith to desert their friends at need," Boromir said proudly, but with a touch of sadness, for he felt strangely alone. "You will need me and my strength, if ever you are to reach the Tindrock and the landing at Parth Galen. That far 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."

Boromir turned away without waiting for a response. He did not want to look upon anyone's face, for fear of what he might see there.

Chapter 57

The day was now growing, and the fog had lifted a little. It was decided that Aragorn and Legolas should at once go forward along the shore, while the others remained by the boats. Aragorn hoped to find some way by which they could carry both their boats and their baggage to the smoother water beyond the Rapids.

"Boats of the Elves would not sink, maybe," he said, "but that does not mean 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. Yet 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 Wilderland down to Osgiliath, and still did so until the Orcs of Mordor began to multiply."

"Seldom in my life has any boat come out of the North; Orcs have long prowled the eastern shore," said Boromir. "If you go forward, your danger will grow with every mile, and you are likely to meet with peril, whether you find a path or no."

"Peril lies ahead on every southward road," answered Aragorn. "Wait for us one day. 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."

Aragorn and Legolas climbed the steep bank and vanished into the mists. Boromir watched in silence as the fog closed in after them, and his heart was heavy.

I wish he would listen to me! he thought. Why does he continually gainsay my warnings and my advice? I am only thinking of his safety, and the safety of the Company.

Boromir tried to shake off his melancholy. It must be the weather that is making me fret so, he thought; he did not like to admit that the winged creature in the night had shaken him.

Yes, that is it, he said to himself. This fog is dampening my spirits! Aragorn can take care of himself; he has done so for many years. It is better that I remain here, to keep watch over the hobbits...over the Ringbearer.

He turned and saw that Frodo, too, was looking up the steep bank after Aragorn; a frightened, worried look was on his face. Boromir swallowed his own fear and forced a smile.

"Come, Frodo," he said, touching the hobbit on the shoulder and turning him back towards the remaining Company. "They will return, do not fear. While we wait, we can be useful, by emptying the boats of our gear."

They set to work removing the goods from the boats, and brought them to the top of the bank, where there was a level space; but they had hardly completed the task before the shadowy shapes of the explorers appeared again. Their search had taken only a few hours and it was now barely mid-day.

"All is well," said Aragorn, as he clambered down the bank. "There is a track, and it leads to a good landing that is still serviceable, though it is rough with stones and brush. The distance is not great; the head of the Rapids is but a half mile below us, and they are little more than a mile long. Some little way beyond them is the southern landing, where the stream becomes clear and smooth again, though it runs swiftly. Our hardest task will be to get our boats and baggage to the old portage-way."

Aragorn glanced up the bank.

"You have done well to move the baggage while you waited," he went on. "That will save us some time. The portage-way lies further up beyond the top of this bank, well back from the water-side here, and runs under the lee of a rock-wall, a furlong or more from the shore. It will be a difficult task to reach the path."

"It would not be an easy task, even if we were all Men," sighed Boromir, looking at Gimli and the hobbits doubtfully. They already seemed weary from climbing up and down the steep bank to shift the baggage.

"Yet we will have to try it," said Aragorn.

"Aye, that we will!" growled Gimli. "The legs of Men will lag on a rough road, while a Dwarf goes on, be the burden twice his own weight, Master Boromir!"

*************************

It was a difficult task indeed. The few remaining goods were taken up, and the boats were drawn from the water and carried up the steep bank. The boats were less heavy than expected; Merry and Pippin alone could carry their boat with some ease along the flat, but it needed the strength of both Boromir and Aragorn to lift and haul the boats over the ground they now had to cross to reach the portage-way.

The land at the top of the bank sloped up away from the River, a tumbled waste of grey limestone boulders, with many weeds and bushes that shrouded hidden holes. There were thickets of brambles and boggy pools that grasped at the feet of the travellers and caused them to stumble and lose their footing.

One by one, Boromir and Aragorn carried the boats from the top of the bank to the portage-way, while the others toiled and scrambled after them with the baggage. At last all was laid on the path. They moved forward then with little hindrance, except for sprawling briars and many fallen stones. Fog still hung in veils upon the crumbling rock-wall, and to their left, mist shrouded the River. They could hear the water rushing and foaming over the sharp shelves and stony teeth of Sarn Gebir, but they could not see it. They made the journey twice before all was brought safe to the southern landing.

There the portage-way, turning back to the River, ran roughly among many large stones down to the edge of the water that swirled down from Sarn Gebir. The Rapids were well behind them upstream, but the sound of the rushing water could still be heard. The water flowed up against a low pier of rock that jutted out into the stream, beyond which the shore rose sheer in a grey cliff; there was no further passage for those on foot.

Already the short afternoon was past, and a dim cloudy dusk was closing in. They sat beside the water listening to the confused rush and roar of the Rapids hidden in the mist; they were tired and sleepy, and their hearts were as gloomy as the dying day.

"Well, here we are, and here we must pass another night," said Boromir. "We need sleep, and even if Aragorn had a mind to pass the Gates of Argonath by night, we are all too tired -- except, no doubt, our sturdy Dwarf."

Gimli made no reply; he was nodding as he sat.

"Let us rest as much as we can now," said Aragorn. "Tomorrow we must journey again by day. Unless the weather changes once more and cheats us, we shall have a good chance of slipping through, unseen by any eyes on the eastern shore. But tonight two must watch together in turns."

*********************

They made camp as best they could amidst the boulders at the end of the path, between the rock-wall and the water's edge. Legolas and Merry took the first watch; Sam and Frodo the second. By the time Aragorn and Boromir rose from their rest to relieve Sam and Frodo on their watch, the weather had cleared, and the starlight shone bright on the water flowing past their campsite.

"So the weather will cheat us after all, and the day tomorrow will be clear," Aragorn said with an irritated sigh. "We must go on in spite of it. Let us hope the enemy on the eastern shore has moved on in the night, and will not hinder us tomorrow."

Boromir walked to the edge of the shingle and gazed up and down the River. He shook his head doubtfully.

"Let us hope!" he said ruefully. "I had my doubts of this path from the first, but we are committed now and cannot go back; it would waste too much time, and would be too difficult for the little ones. Still..."

A movement on the River caught his eye. Boromir broke off what he had been about to say, and quickly stepped back out of sight behind a large outcropping of stone. He peered cautiously around it at the River. A log was bobbing in the stream, rapidly approaching on the current. Even as he watched, he saw a thin arm snake forward on the rough bark of the log, as the creature that hid behind it sought a better grip. Boromir caught his breath as two eyes like lamps shone out briefly in the darkness, then winked out. The log, with its strange passenger, moved smoothly out of the current towards the far shore opposite their campsite.

Boromir sensed Aragorn behind him, but he did not take his eyes from the River.

"Gollum," said Aragorn quietly. "He has tracked us since Moria. I had hoped we would lose him on the River, but he is too clever a waterman."

"How did he pass the Rapids alive?" Boromir wondered aloud, but Aragorn did not respond. He was gazing out across the water to the opposite shore.

Boromir narrowed his eyes, focusing, trying to catch another glimpse of the creature as the log bumped and caught against the rocks on the other shore. After a moment, the log moved on, now empty of its passenger; Gollum was nowhere to be seen.

"If he alerts the enemy to our whereabouts," said Boromir in dismay, "it will make our situation even more dangerous."

He turned to face Aragorn. "Against my wish we are now committed to this river road. But I beg you, Aragorn, to consider this: it is folly to take the Company to the East, now that our presence is known to so many. We must take the western way, and go to Minas Tirith."

Aragorn shook his head. Boromir drew in a deep breath, then stepped forward, gesturing persuasively.

"Minas Tirith is the safer road; you know that!"

Aragorn watched Boromir from the corner of his eye, as if dreading the conversation to come; Boromir hesitated, but only briefly. He knew Aragorn must be tired of his arguments, but he felt he must try to convince him one more time; he could not simply let it go. It was the only choice that made sense, and the safety of the Company and of Boromir's people depended upon it.

"From there we can regroup," Boromir went on; "strike out for Mordor from a place of strength..."

His voice held the faintest hint of hopefulness, but before he could say more, Aragorn interrupted him.

"There is no strength in Gondor that can avail us."

"You have been quick enough to trust the Elves!" responded Boromir heatedly. He gestured angrily upstream, in the general direction of Lothlorien. Aragorn eyed him steadily, his mouth now set in a straight line.

"Have you so little faith in your own people?" Boromir asked in amazement. He was frustrated with Aragorn's seeming determination not to listen.

Aragorn shifted his shoulders impatiently, and it seemed to Boromir that he rolled his eyes. Boromir's agitation grew; he felt he was being brushed aside. He spoke again, with increasing passion in his voice, causing Aragorn to take a step back.

"Yes! There is weakness; there is frailty...but there is courage also, and honor to be found in men!"

It was not enough. Boromir's heart sank when Aragorn looked away briefly, as if exasperated. His temper flared, and even as Aragorn opened his mouth to speak, Boromir cut him off.

"...but you will not see that!" he exclaimed bitterly.

Aragorn spoke no word, but turned away. Boromir felt a sharp stab of anger, and suddenly, his frustration and disappointment rose up into a terrible rage that nearly choked him. How dare he turn his back on me! he thought fiercely, as he grasped at Aragorn's cloak, yanking him back to face him. Boromir let go of the cloak and grabbed a fistful of Aragorn's tunic. Aragorn looked resolutely at the ground and would not meet Boromir's eye.

"You are afraid!" accused Boromir, giving Aragorn a sharp shake. "Afraid of the Ring! Afraid of leading! All your life you have hidden in the shadows, frightened of who you are, of what you are! Why do you not acknowledge your heritage? Why do you not return to your people?"

Aragorn looked up, a frown on his face. After a tense moment, Boromir released him and stepped back. He was breathing hard; he was so angry he did not trust himself to speak again. He watched Aragorn from under lowered brows, glowering and truculent.

Aragorn eyed Boromir with a cold stare as he silently straightened his clothing. He turned without a word, then swinging round suddenly, he advanced on Boromir until he was inches from his face. Boromir stood his ground and did not recoil.

"I would not lead the Ring within a hundred leagues of your City!" said Aragorn furiously.

Boromir stared at him, stunned and speechless. Aragorn turned on his heel and strode away to the far side of the camp, where he wrapped himself in his cloak and sat with his back to Boromir.

Boromir stood still and silent as he watched Aragorn stride away. A small noise from the sleeping Company made him turn; it was as if someone had drawn in a shuddering breath, but quietly, for fear of being heard. Frodo was lying wrapped in his blanket; his eyes were closed and his breathing was regular, but he lay stiffly, as if he were only feigning sleep.

He heard us arguing! thought Boromir in dismay. Now all is lost! For he will side with Aragorn...he will not come to Minas Tirith. The Company will be lost, the Ring will go back to Sauron, and my people will fall into darkness!

Boromir turned abruptly and stalked down to the edge of the River. He stared blindly out across the water, his thoughts in a turmoil.

Lossssst....whispered the Voice. Nooooo......you cannot allow it....

But what can I do? Boromir lamented; his heart had been hot, but now it felt cold and heavy. What must I do...?