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31
Discord

For Armariel and RiverOtter for their birthdays, with much love and respect.


~~~

Discord


It started with a sighting by the Elf of a train of wagons heading north a mile or more west of the path the Fellowship was following southward. Aragorn and Mithrandir both agreed they’d best move up into the foothills of the Misty Mountains, hiding their own presence in the folds of the land. For two days they climbed and scrambled, and then what could be seen to be rain in the lowlands below them fell as snow up in the higher ground they’d reached. They were able to find a hollow in the midst of a tumble of rocks in which to take shelter, but all were cold as they made camp during their third day. The rocks gave them some shelter from the west wind that had blown the clouds across the wastes of Eriador, but during the day the wind shifted to come at them out of the north and down from the heights of the mountain peaks, and it moaned as it sifted through the stones and wrapped itself about them, blowing the drifting snow onto and under their blankets.

“It is no blizzard, but it is certainly persistent,” observed Aragorn as he shook out his cloak and blankets for the fifth time.

“Is there a pass of some sort above us?” Boromir asked.

Aragorn was already shaking his head. “There was, but a major rockslide two years ago that split the peak just south of us blocked it, and the pathway upwards is now unstable. Not that the snows above us would allow us passage over the mountains if it were clear. As was stated when we were in Elrond’s house, all of the passes north of Caradhras and the Redhorn Gate are closed until full spring opens them once more. And I am not certain that the Redhorn Gate itself will be passable when we reach it. The mountains that far south are known for their chancy tempers, and especially Caradhras itself.”

“Then we should go back the way I came, through the Gap of Rohan,” Boromir again suggested.

Aragorn and Gandalf just shook their heads, indicating they would not engage again in that debate.

They were forced to stay a second day in the tumble of rocks, and with a windbreak of canvas constructed on the east side they were somewhat more comfortable. The Hobbits now slept together in a single bed, sharing both their rugs and blankets, with Merry and Sam on the outside on either side of Pippin and Frodo. “So they slept as we made our way from Weathertop to Rivendell,” Aragorn explained quietly, “after Frodo received his Morgul wound. Young Hobbits often sleep in this manner as children, or so Bilbo has told me, sharing warmth and their presence both for physical and spiritual comfort.”

Each of the Hobbits took his turn on watch, and Boromir realized he no longer questioned their fitness for this task. Frodo was allowed to do his part in preparing meals, although the ones they took had little warmth to them, for the Wizard allowed them only the smallest of fires to heat water, and there was little enough of that up here save for what snow they could melt.

Boromir awoke at the end of the second day with a start as he realized his bedding was suddenly soaked with icy water. The Hobbits were also rising rapidly, Merry looking with dismay at his left side, on which he’d been sleeping. “I’m all wet!” he exclaimed.

“The wind has changed again,” sighed Aragorn as he rose from where he’d been huddled in his own blankets. “The snow is now melting and running down through our camp!”

Gandalf, who’d been on watch, gave a cry of dismay and hurried to check his own bedroll. But once the snow above them began to melt, the water seemed relentlessly intent on soaking into everything.

They had no choice but to quit their current camp and head back down to lower ground in search of a place where they could dry out their bedding and much of their clothing. Boromir and Merry were wettest, and had to change before they even moved.

“What a miserable turn of events!” grumbled the Gondorian as he undid the buckle of his sword belt and tossed it to Aragorn. “Oh, the Powers save us!” he exclaimed as he pulled his shirt over his head and the cold wind blew straight onto his mail shirt. “I think my skin is sticking to it!”

“Don’t you have a leather garment to wear under it?” Frodo asked as he held a dry silk shirt ready to pop over Merry’s head once he had the damp one off with Pippin and Sam’s help. “I mean, Bilbo had such a thing to wear under his Dwarf mail.” Unconsciously he drew his hand to his breast before catching himself and returning his attention to his cousin. “Here, Merry—we shall have you dressed and warm again as swiftly as we can!”

“Yes, I do. But it is being made cold by the wind on the mail, and feels as if it will peel away my own skin should I pull on it. And the silk shirt under all does nothing to protect me from the cold!”

Legolas was holding out a fresh shirt, but it did little to warm the Man as he pulled it around him and reached for the thick surcoat Gimli held ready.

“We must get fresh stockings upon your feet,” Aragorn insisted.

But once his bare feet touched the stone floor of the hollow Boromir howled with pain. “I should have put new ones on over the old ones! My feet—they will never be warm again!”

Aragorn declared to the Hobbits, “You four should put on the boots provided for you. This is too much cold and dampness even for Hobbits.”

“We’d best not put them on until we are further down,” Frodo responded, his brow uncharacteristically furrowed as he surveyed the path they would be forced to take. “Only the Brandybucks use them back home, and then only on the flat along the river bank when the Brandywine is running high and there is mud due to flooding or cracked ice underfoot. They would only make us clumsier as we move down over the scree.”

Aragorn finally agreed, but with obvious reluctance. “Then you must take care where you set your feet,” he cautioned them. “Many of those stones are cracked with the cold, and I fear that they might slice through even the thick sole of a Hobbit’s foot. And you are all cold already, especially Merry.”

They nodded their understanding.

Gandalf had readied Bill, and indicated he would guide the pony. “If he should start to slide at least I could do something about it,” he assured Sam.

Aragorn gave a quiet chuckle. “I doubt he will do so, Gandalf. He proved most surefooted as we climbed over the ridges of the Ettenmoors to reach the road to the Ford, even with Frodo upon his back.”

At last they were ready, but even with clean, dry stockings and his boots on Boromir’s feet still ached with cold, and they felt clumsy as they started their descent. He was the first to slip, landing heavily on his hip and sliding better than a hundred paces down the slope before he could stop himself. The Elf reached him first—there was one, Boromir realized with envy, who was unlikely to fall even here on this unstable ground. He took Legolas’s hand and allowed the Elf to help him rise again to his feet, muttering a grudging thanks as he set himself to picking his way downward once more.

For a time they did well enough, although the wind shifted yet again, bringing more rain from the west, a cold rain mixed with sleet that froze as it caught in their hair. The hoods of their cloaks proved useless, for the wind blew them back as swiftly as they were drawn over their heads.

Gimli was the next to lose his footing, and he ended up rolling quite a ways before he fetched up against an upthrust stone that broke his fall. Again Legolas was the first to reach his side and helped him both to regain his feet and to gather up his scattered weapons and his small, round shield and helmet. The Dwarf grunted what Boromir must assume was his own thanks before resuming a slower, more careful descent. It was hard to tell, but Boromir suspected that the Dwarf was limping some with each thoughtful step he took.

The path became more stony, and thus more sure underfoot, allowing them a swifter, surer pace for better than a quarter of a mark. But then the stone gave way to bare earth, and at last Frodo made a misstep as he trod upon wet clay and both his feet went out from beneath him. He was slammed upon his back and went down the slope feet first. Vainly he tried to dig in his heels to stop his career, and then they all heard him cry out in pain even as he finally slowed down as the slope flattened out once more into a wide ledge.

As the rest of the company came even with him Boromir could see red blood staining the brown of dead winter grass. Their chief guide had correctly prophesized what could well happen. Frodo had struck his heel against a shard of obsidian, and was bleeding steadily.

Legolas found a far better place to camp than they’d known up in the heights they’d quitted. It was a depression against the hillside with a screen of tilted boulders to block the wind from north and west. Aragorn and the Elf again used the sheet of canvas to put some sort of a roof over them, and Gandalf allowed a fire to be built sufficient to both warm them and to dry their wet clothing and bedding. “No one will be able to see the fire from any distance with those great stones before us,” he announced, “and we shall not be able to go further without everything being thoroughly dried and all of us warmed completely, inside and out. And we need to see how bad the injuries might be that Boromir, Gimli, and Frodo have sustained.”

The two younger Hobbits went down into a gully below them to bring back firewood, and Legolas fetched water for the use of Sam as he brewed a pot of tea and prepared a warm meal, and for Aragorn as he cleansed Frodo’s foot and checked to see how bad the cut might be.

“It is deep, but it does not require any stitching,” he declared at last. “It should heal quickly enough, and we should be ready to move on after a day or so here. We will soak it for a time in hot water to make certain no sand or dirt remains in the wound, and then I shall wrap it. You will need to wear the boots for at least two days as we travel, however, Frodo.”

Frodo nodded, his face set. He allowed Aragorn to check his rump and the backs of his legs, but refused to allow the Man to check his back. “It does not hurt at all, Aragorn. Leave it be, and see to Boromir. I suspect he has quite the bruise on his hip, and undoubtedly has scrapes and perhaps some gravel on the leg he fell upon.”

For some reason he could not later explain even to himself, Boromir found the Hobbit’s tone of voice to the northern Ranger offensive, even patronizing. Aragorn straightened some at this dismissal, but there was nothing in his expression to indicate that he felt Frodo’s words to be either rude or unwarranted. He merely said, “All right, Frodo, since you are certain that you are unhurt otherwise. Only the cut to your foot requires anything more than cleansing, after all.”

With that he turned to Boromir, who allowed the northern Ranger to attend to him with marked bad grace. He did indeed have a nasty scrape that was easily dealt with, and Gimli had a few bruises, the worst being where he’d landed against the stone; but with the application of some arnica both Man and Dwarf seemed well enough. Frodo soaked his foot as ordered, and once it was wrapped took rapidly to his bedroll, lying turned away from the rest of the Fellowship. As for Boromir, he found his bruised hip aching more as the day progressed, and he sat his watch that afternoon in miserable silence, wishing he could be done with the whole procedure. If only they’d gone back down the Greenway instead of lurking in the foothills to the mountains as they’d done!

They spent not only that day and night resting but much of the next day as well, and all seemed much restored once they gathered up their newly dried clothing and bedding and saw them carefully packed away a few hours short of sunset. Only Boromir was still wont to grumble as he repacked his kit once more, although he did his best to keep the worst of his complaints to himself. But he found himself watching with some satisfaction as Aragorn checked and rewrapped Frodo’s cut foot and saw first stockings and then the boots put on the Hobbit’s feet, Frodo being obviously uncomfortable with the whole affair. “What’s wrong, Master Baggins?” Boromir asked. “Unwilling to follow the healer’s orders?”

Surprised at the Man’s tone, Frodo looked at the Gondorian with wide eyes. “I am fully willing to do as Aragorn has required of me, Captain Boromir,” he answered, his own voice controlled, “but it does not mean that I have to like it. We Hobbits tend to feel most stable with the earth under our feet, after all, and these boots, although comfortable enough, are still foreign to us, even to those of us who use such things during the flood watches along the Brandywine.”

There was little more than an errant breeze as they moved further downward and south once more, unlike the insidious wind they’d known in the higher elevations. The rain had stopped, the clouds a pinkish grey high above them. The way was now smooth enough, although Frodo frequently tripped slightly as the toes of his boots encountered obstructions that everyone else readily accommodated for. Boromir laughed at each stumble, and after a time Frodo began to look back at him with a considering light to his eyes. Aragorn and Gandalf began watching the growing tension between soldier and Ringbearer, but Boromir pointedly ignored them. After the fifth stumble by Frodo and Boromir’s repeated laugh Sam commented to Merry, “He’d best guard himself, Mr. Boromir should, or my Master will set him right soon enough.”

Both Boromir and Gimli were limping at least slightly, although the stolid Dwarf kept his mouth firmly shut regarding his own discomfort. The Man did not complain, either, but his winces as he encountered slight bumps or dips in the path spoke to the pain his hip was giving him.

They crossed the path of the party they’d seen a few days earlier, and Aragorn knelt to check it out. “Rhudaurim,” he said. “Most likely they are some of those who came down from Angmar some three generations or so ago, looking at the style of their boots and the manner in which they coop their wheels. The horses they drive are of local stock—there are a few herds that run wild through the lower hills and upper plains areas hereabouts. One of the horses is lame on the front left leg, and if they don’t remove it from harness soon it will need to be put down within a week. There is nothing to indicate they took note of us at all.”

After that they moved more swiftly and with greater assurance that they were not being watched or stalked.

They paused for an hour not long after the Sun had gone to her rest, taking a short meal of dried meats and cold root vegetables found by Pippin, who’d proved to have an eye for such things. As they prepared to move on Aragorn came to Boromir to offer him a brew of willow bark he’d prepared over the small fire that Gandalf had grudgingly allowed, but the Gondorian refused it.

“You are definitely in pain, my friend, and this should help both with the pain and the swelling where you fell,” Aragorn began, but Boromir interrupted him.

“I am not so badly off I must take a draught,” he insisted.

Gimli, however, looked up, his eyes considering. “If the fool won’t take it, I will,” he said. “I’m not too proud to admit that my side still hurts where I hit that rock.”

After another gesture of rejection from Boromir, Aragorn shrugged and offered the draught to the Dwarf, who drank it greedily enough. “Thank you for this, Dúnadan,” he said. “I shall undoubtedly march the better for it.”

Soon enough they were again on the move. Frodo was now stumbling more frequently as they moved through the darkening night, and at last fell headlong over a tussock of dried grass.

“That is enough of this!” Frodo fumed. “I cannot walk any further across the turf with these foul boots upon my feet! I’ve done nothing but trip and stumble for the last three miles, I swear!”

Reluctantly Aragorn agreed to allow the Hobbit to remove his footwear, although he made certain that the bandage about the cut was tightly and firmly bound into place. Frodo made much better time now that he walked unshod, and he showed no obvious discomfort, so the Ranger did nothing more than to keep an eye upon the Ringbearer to make certain he did not begin limping.

An hour ere sunrise they paused again, and once more Gandalf allowed a small fire, Pippin this time producing a dish involving porridge and pear juice with dried raisins mixed in it. All felt better for the warm food in their bellies, and soon they were walking again, more circumspectly as the light strengthened and they sought good cover for the day’s rest. They were approaching an area where there were many holly trees, and both Aragorn and Gandalf appeared more heartened by the change in vegetation while Legolas lifted his head with interest, sniffing the breeze as readily as was Bill. The grass here was already showing renewed green, indicating spring was creeping steadily, if slowly, into the land, and Pippin and Merry both pounced upon certain greens as welcome additions to their intended menu. At last they found shelter in a stand of mixed birch and fir trees, and with the ground softened by evergreen needles underfoot they would undoubtedly rest well. Aragorn unbound the bandage about Frodo’s foot and indicated that although there had been some minor bleeding, it was nevertheless healing satisfactorily and had taken no serious further injury from the removal of the boots.

Boromir was reluctant to allow Aragorn to check his own injuries, however, and chose to focus on the bleeding reported of Frodo’s wound to criticize. “Why are you insistent on examining me when you have allowed Master Baggins there to go against your orders, Aragorn? If it is sufficiently serious enough to bleed, should he not do as you have instructed him to do—to wear those boots to protect the wound? Should he not have done as you said there as we descended and worn his boots then? Had he done so he would not have cut his foot to begin with!”

“And had I done so,” objected Frodo, “it is likely I should have broken my ankle, arm, or worse rather than merely cut my foot. We Hobbits do not have as tender of feet as do you of other races, but our legs and ankles and other limbs are as vulnerable as anyone’s. You have seen how difficult it has been for me to walk through this grassland wearing such things! Without feeling the land over which I walk with the whole of my foot I’ve done little but stumble. Had I fallen on the scree while wearing the boots it is likely I should have injured myself far more seriously than I did.”

Man and Hobbit glared at one another for a few moments before Boromir turned away to set out his bedroll. Frodo set his bedroll far to the back of their sheltered area, and Sam, Merry, and Pippin set theirs beside his. Aragorn took the first watch, and as he lay down Boromir was aware of the Ranger eyeing him thoughtfully. Gandalf settled away from the others and sat murmuring to himself in some language the Gondorian did not recognize before finally lying down and rolling up in a blanket. Boromir knew he hadn’t shown himself in a good light during the night’s walk, but assured himself that it didn’t matter as he waited for sleep to take him.

*******


Boromir awoke to find himself sitting up, dagger in hand, seeking to protect himself from some enemy that wasn’t there. Frodo paused in the act of rolling his blankets, watching him over his shoulder with concern, and once again the Man found himself resenting the Hobbit’s attention. Gandalf was on watch, and Gimli was stirring up something in a pot over their low fire. Aragorn, who was returning to the camp carrying several of the water bottles and the kettle, all of which he’d just filled, stopped just as he entered the camp area, looking between the Hobbit and Boromir as if gauging whether he might need to intervene between the two of them.

It was Pippin that distracted both Frodo and the Gondorian from their awareness of one another. He returned to the camp from the area where they’d chosen to relieve themselves yawning and refastening the straps that held up his trousers, followed by first Merry and then Sam. “I am so tired still!” the youngest Hobbit said through his yawn. “I had the strangest dreams while I slept, of great, ugly dogs and strange snaky things that came out of the water when I was looking into it in search of frog spawn. But one wouldn’t find any frog spawn here, would one? I mean, it’s far too cold as yet. And the spawn wouldn’t hatch into tadpoles for a month or more, would it?”

“I dreamt of one of the older lads in the Hall deviling you, Frodo,” Merry said. “You’d think you were only in your early tweens, the things I was dreaming of.”

Sam returned to his own bedroll and was preparing it to go onto Bill’s load once all were ready to begin the night’s tramp. What he might have dreamt of he did not tell.

As the party shouldered their packs Boromir could hear Aragorn commenting softly to Gandalf, “I, too, had disturbing dreams during the short time I slept. You?”

Gandalf said even more softly, “I am not happy to hear that the dreams of so many are being disturbed. It indicates that the burden is awakening more.”

Aragorn gave a wordless nod, and moved to speak quietly with Legolas before taking the point for the first portion of the night’s walk.

The few trees they passed were more commonly conifers, both firs and pines of more than one variety, with few of the holly trees they’d seen the previous day. Their travel was unremarkable for over an hour. Frodo’s foot had a fresh bandage upon it, indicating that the Ranger felt it still needed a degree of protection. Gimli’s limp was less discernible, and even Boromir noticed less pain in his hip than the previous evening. His back, however, began to ache as the night grew darker and the air colder. The breeze strengthened and whirled their cloaks about their legs. If they’d been frustrated to have their hoods swept from their heads when they were descending the mountains, they now found them constantly pushed forward by the wind, often obscuring their vision. When it began raining once more all were cursing, even the Hobbits.

When Aragorn suddenly called out, “Hold!” all froze except Boromir, who kept on for several more steps, keeping his eyes on the Ranger even as he passed the Man.

“What is it?” Boromir started to say, only to find his feet were sinking into cold water and mud.

“The river has changed its course since I last came this way,” Aragorn said. “What was solid ground slightly over a year ago is now a mire!”

Pippin’s eyes widened and his ears literally twitched at the expletives Boromir uttered, while Frodo’s cheeks could be seen to pale and the Dwarf openly laughed aloud. It took a few moments for the Gondorian to work his feet free, only to find that the mud had kept possession of one of his boots and the sock he’d been wearing. The expletives doubled in volume as well as content as Boromir finally worked his way back onto solid ground, his right foot now bare save for a decided coating of muck.

The Elf knelt carefully and reached down into the mud in search of the missing footwear, and finally retrieved it. Gandalf eyed it with interest. “I doubt that you will wish to put it on again until it has been thoroughly cleaned, dried, and oiled,” he commented. “Perhaps it is time to wear the other pair and to part with this one?”

The Man agreed, and they had to spend some time retrieving Boromir’s other boots and readying to continue the night’s march.

Legolas ranged ahead and found a place where they could rest in an abandoned house. The roof was mostly sound and the chimney drew well enough, and all seemed much heartened by being within walls and under cover with a cheerful fire and with a warm meal and tea inside them while the wind and rain raged outside. Even Bill seemed happy to find shelter in a lean-to with his nosebag full.

Once they had finished their food and Pippin took the dishes to see them washed, Frodo unrolled his bedroll near the far wall, announcing, “I believe we can all do with a little extra rest, and particularly Boromir, who has been groaning with pain much of the evening.”

Again, for some reason he could not afterwards explain, the soldier felt that the Ringbearer was patronizing him, and he eyed the oldest of the Hobbits coldly as Frodo crawled under his covers and lay on his back, rubbing at his left shoulder as if it ached.

“I’ve not uttered any complaints,” Boromir stated, his tone perhaps harsher than it ought to have been.

Aragorn looked at him with surprise. “No one said that you did, my friend,” he responded. “But seeing you standing with your hands pressed so to your back, the pain is obvious. If you will allow me to give you warm stones to place against it as you rest, it will most likely be less painful once we are ready to move on again. Or, better yet, I could massage it, which could offer more immediate easing.”

Giving Frodo a glance, the Gondorian said, “If anyone needs such a thing, I’d say he needs it more than I.”

Frodo stiffened under his blankets. He glared at the Man, but did not remove his right hand from his left shoulder. “This pain does not slow me down as does the pain in your back,” he retorted.

“If you are saying that I am slowing down our travels—” Boromir began with heat, but Aragorn interrupted him.

“There is no need to speak as if either of you were slowing us down—the weather has done that far more effectively than any distress any of us feels. That and the slips coming down the mountains, for which none of you is responsible.”

“He might have worn the boots as you suggested before we started down,” Boromir pointed out.

“The other Hobbits wore no boots coming down the mountains, and none of the others fell. Anyone might have slipped on that patch of clay that led to Frodo’s slide, boots or not; and, as he said, had he worn the boots it is possible that the final injury could have been far worse. Certainly they proved anything but useful once he was walking over tufts of grass here on what ought to be level ground.

“Now,” he added pointedly, “if you, Lord Boromir, will remove your shirt and mail and lie face down on that pile of bags there, I will see what I can do to ease the pain in your back, after which I will do what I can for Frodo’s shoulder, although I doubt I can do much to relieve the residual pain of a Morgul wound. Merry there is seeing to it that we get another kettle of warm water, at which time I will prepare a draught for each of you, and I will accept no excuses from either of you.”

“Who is on watch?” Boromir asked, crossing his arms across his chest and refusing to do as he was instructed, or at least for the moment.

“Sam and Gimli have taken the first watch. You will have the third, along with me. So, if you wish to get some rest before your watch begins, you will do as I have instructed you.”

The northern Ranger’s tone was such that Boromir did as he’d been ordered, and Aragorn knelt beside him and began kneading the muscles and tracing the line of his spine. He worked for some time before telling Boromir to stretch his arms down at his sides, and he asked Legolas to hold the Man’s head straight as he pushed down with both hands several times, each push further down the spine than the last one. There were several audible clicks and a grunt of discomfort from the prone Man each time the move was repeated, after which Aragorn asked Legolas to fetch him a particular jar from his pack, and on receiving it resumed massaging the other Man’s back with the strong-scented balm it contained.

Boromir was half asleep by the time the Ranger was finished, his back much relieved and the muscles warm, more supple than they’d been in days. He crawled to his bedroll, which Pippin had spread out for him, and fell into it, barely noting the care with which the smallest of the Hobbits covered him over. He could hear a low-voiced argument between Aragorn and Frodo, with Frodo apparently refusing to allow the Man to check his shoulder, although he did agree to rub some of the balm into his own skin. Merry brought Boromir the promised draught, and Gandalf saw to it that Frodo drank his share while Aragorn checked Frodo’s foot one last time. “It is healed enough that I will not require you to wear a bandage tomorrow, Frodo.”

“Thank you, Aragorn,” the Hobbit said with courtesy. “And thank you for the balm—the pain is eased at least some.”

“Then sleep, mellon nín, and be ready for our next march.”

With a soft flicker of flames on the long abandoned hearth to soothe him further, Boromir son of Denethor fell into the deepest sleep he’d known in some time.

*******


When roused to take his watch, Boromir noted that Sam and Gimli were now sound asleep, both snoring audibly as the Man donned his mail, shirt, and cloak once more. Merry had taken the middle watch, and offered the Gondorian a mug of herbal drink to take with him as he went outside.

Aragorn was apparently relieving the Wizard, who merely moved over to allow the Man to sit beside him so that they might speak before Gandalf returned inside for his own allotted rest. It was quiet enough that Boromir could hear a good part of what they discussed.

“Frodo is much on his dignity of late,” Gandalf observed.

“Indeed. He will not allow me to examine his torso at all, and I wonder why he will allow me to check his feet and rear but not his back or shoulder.”

“I suspect that you have an idea as to why that is so.”

“I could check his back with no danger of seeing the burden he bears.”

Burden? The Ring, considered a burden? What kind of burden could a simple ring of gold suspended upon a silver chain be? Boromir eyed the Wizard and the Ranger obliquely, pretending to keep his attention on the horizon but straining the harder to hear.

“I will admit that I rejoice to know he keeps It as secret as he does,” Gandalf observed thoughtfully. “I have no desire to see It ever again. Oh, but It would rejoice to capture me, I think.”

“It would be glad to corrupt any or all of us,” Aragorn said in low tones. “I do not wish to see It again, either. But I do wish It would sleep more deeply. I can sense It at times, and It is not benign.”

“You said that the river has shifted its bed.”

“Yes. It was some leagues further south of where we came out of the mountains the last time I came this way. I suspect that the flood that Boromir spoke of sweeping him from his horse at Tharbad was to blame for the change in the river’s course here.”

“You are undoubtedly right. When I rode north I came through Tharbad myself, and those who work to rebuild the town told me of the flooding in the late summer. I wonder if the Enemy had anything to do with that flood. He has long experimented with controlling the weather.”

“So I have been told as well. Certainly I resent the need to retrace part of our path. Enough of this—you must rest, too. And I will not argue over which route we should take once we are in Hollin proper—certainly not now. Go now, and see to it that Frodo remains asleep, if you can manage that. He has been as restless as our Boromir there.”

Again the Captain-General of Gondor’s armies felt irritation at Aragorn’s tone. He sipped from his mug, noting with disgust that its contents were now much cooled. He ought to have drunk it the sooner. Another mark against the account of Frodo Baggins, he thought, with no realization that Frodo had done nothing to earn the growing level of resentment Boromir knew.

Not long afterward Frodo himself appeared from the house, his cloak drawn close about himself as he headed for the jakes. So much for Mithrandir keeping him in his bedroll, Boromir thought.

When the Hobbit emerged at last he paused at the well to wash his hands, someone having left the well bucket full of water beside the well’s curbing. Afterwards he looked about himself before reaching down to poke his fingers into the earth at his feet. “This must have been an excellent farm,” he commented as he smelled his fingers. “It’s good soil, and most here appears to be in good order. The house wasn’t fired as were so many we’ve seen in our journey, so apparently the farmer and his family weren’t attacked by enemies. And considering one of the seats in the jakes is lower than the other, it would appear there were children here.” He looked up at Aragorn. “Why would they leave the place, do you think?”

Why would he ask the Pretender and not me? Boromir wondered, although he had no idea why this farm might have been abandoned.

“I cannot say for certain, but there are signs that way of a few graves.” The Ranger nodded in the direction of a slight hillock to the west. “I would guess that the wife died, and with no one to watch over the little ones while he worked the fields, the husband decided he should return to where they had close family to help with the children. Perhaps he will return should he remarry or when his children are of an age to assist him.”

Frodo nodded. “That would make good sense,” he said. “I shall return to my rest, then. Thank you both.”

“Is your shoulder paining you?” Aragorn asked.

“Not at the moment, for which I am grateful. I will use a bit more of the balm before we go on, if you think it advisable.”

With the Ranger’s assurance that this would be proper, Frodo returned inside and closed the door.

“How about your back?” Aragorn asked Boromir.

“Much better.”

“That is good. If you wish, I shall use a bit more of the balm on it before we leave. The oils within it tend to warm and ease the muscles, encouraging the back to heal properly.”

After a time Boromir asked, “Have you ever visited this farm before?”

“I have passed it a few times, but never closely. It seemed well run and orderly, and few enough of the Enemy’s creatures tend to come this way. We are too close to Hollin, which at one time was settled by Noldor Elves. The orcs of the Misty Mountains may have followed Sauron when he destroyed those lands, but they still avoid the places that Elves once ruled if they can. Perhaps they are afraid that some of the houseless Elves still linger to exact vengeance on those who slew them.”

Boromir found himself shuddering at the thought. Afterwards he imagined he saw subtle movements at the edges of his vision, but he saw naught when he turned his head.

*******


Sam had a fine meal prepared for them once their watch was over, and they prepared for the next march slowly and with some reluctance on the part of most to leave such a comfortable situation. Only Boromir appeared to feel impatience to be on their way once more. He knew that the Nameless One was readying his next stroke against Gondor, and wished to return home as swiftly as possible so as to warn his father as to what had been discussed in the Council of Elrond before returning to his place at the head of Gondor’s armies. He had responsibilities to return to even if the others had the leisure to contemplate the impossible task of entering the Black Land and finding their way across the plains of Gorgoroth to reach Mount Doom! He shook his head at the irresponsibility and impossibility of such a plan, and turned to checking the state of his weapons so as to not waste his time whilst his companions dawdled in their preparations.

When Aragorn came to apply the aromatic balm once more, however, Boromir felt that the Man was perhaps hasty in his work. Still, he had to admit that his back felt warm as he pulled his mail back into place over the quilted silken shirt he wore against his skin and redonned his outer garments once more. Frodo again applied his own balm, and once again Aragorn offered no comment on this, although now Boromir understood why the other Man made no protest. Boromir, however, could not understand why Aragorn son of Arathorn, of all people, should fear such a thing as the Ring. I refuse to allow such a baseless fear to rule me, he decided.

It was late afternoon when they set out once more. Bill, Boromir noted, had been groomed thoroughly by the devoted Sam. A waste of time, he thought, forgetting that he had sharpened his dagger to fill the time of waiting more purposefully and thus Sam might have done much the same. All of the Fellowship had brushed their hair fully, including the Dwarf, and Aragorn had apparently evened his beard.

They also came away with more provisions than they’d had when they arrived. Merry and Pippin had discovered a root cellar, while Gimli and Sam had found a rock-lined granary, from which they’d taken a goodly measure of oats and corn. Many of their excess bags had been hidden amidst similar items in the barn.

“It would seem,” Frodo commented as they formed their line once more, “that the farmer planned to return within a year or two at most, or I doubt he would have left as much food and seed as he did. I regret we must take so much. So, I left a couple of gold pieces for him within the salt cellar that hopefully he could replace what we have taken.”

“You did what?” objected Boromir. He would have returned within the house to fetch out the money again had the Wizard not restrained him.

“There is no need to refuse to compensate the farmer should he indeed return to his steading here,” Gandalf said.

“But how is it that you have money to leave to absent landlords who may never return to their farms?” Boromir demanded of Frodo.

“Did you think that I left the Shire with no thought taken for taking rooms when the chance offered itself?” Frodo said, plainly offended by the Man’s tone of voice.

“We will undoubtedly use what we have taken, and have compensated him, should he ever return, with the bags and carriers we left him.”

“But he may not have need for bags and carriers, but will undoubtedly need seeds and onion sets and the like,” Frodo pointed out reasonably. With that he turned away and determinedly took his place near Gandalf.

“Do you begrudge Frodo the right to do as he pleases with his own money?” asked Aragorn quietly. “True, it may be pointless to have left the coins, but it does not diminish the rest of us and gives him peace of mind, knowing he has done what little he can to perhaps aid our unknown benefactors in the future. Certainly we cannot look to purchase more supplies, and should not need to do so once we come to Gondor.”

Grudgingly Boromir admitted his fellow Man was undoubtedly right, but still the thought of those gold pieces lying idle in the empty salt cellar within the house niggled at him for the rest of the day and much of the night’s march, and he found himself muttering about it from time to time as he walked. Each time he did so Merry and Pippin, who walked before him, would turn, Merry eyeing him critically and Pippin with concerned glances toward Frodo, apparently hopeful that his older kinsman wasn’t hearing the comments that the Man wasn’t quite keeping quiet. Frodo gave no outward sign he heard anything, but the Ringbearer had already proved to have far too keen of hearing even for a Hobbit, so it was impossible to say how much awareness he might have of Boromir’s continued grumbling. Had he bothered to look behind him to where Sam walked beside Gimli, Bill’s halter rope in his hand, the Man would have seen that Sam heard every mutter he uttered and was growing increasingly angry at Boromir’s attitude. Aragorn had taken the rear guard while Legolas ranged ahead as he so often did, leaving Gandalf and Frodo to lead the rest as they worked their way westward, hoping to find a place to cross the unnamed tributary to the Greyflood whose change of course had stymied them earlier.

Near dawn Legolas led them to a portion of the stream sufficiently shallow to allow them to cross it with relative safety. It was deeper than had been the ford of the Brúinen and the current was stronger, but was nowhere as wide. It was decided that Legolas would lead the way with Frodo at his side, with the Elf to help break the current that might pull at the smaller Hobbit, after which Gandalf would lead Bill across. Gimli would follow with Merry, then Boromir accompanying Pippin, and finally Aragorn would escort Sam, who was the only member of the party who was clearly fearful of the crossing. Gandalf, Aragorn, and the Dwarf would wear their boots and would change once they were across to their other, dry footwear. Boromir, however, had little choice but to take off his own boots and walk across as barefoot as the Hobbits, as he’d already disposed of the boots he’d worn into the mire, a decision he was now ruing intensely.

Legolas carried some of the sacking they’d retained for such use as this, and he and Frodo made it across without any incident that Boromir could see. Once across, Frodo turned back and called, “The first of the way is over rounded pebbles. At about the halfway mark you will step up upon a flattened stone. It was not slimy underfoot, so it should not be too slick for any of you. But when you step down off the stone, the bottom on this side is thick with silt, so be careful. I did not sink any too deep into the silt, but I do believe there might be a branch down there, so you will need to test each step so that you do not injure the soles of your feet. I doubt that Pippin will have any difficulty, Boromir, as small and light as he is; but you are likely to sink deeper than he, so do be ready to lift your foot and find another placement for it if you encounter that branch I suspect is down there.” With that he took the sacking that Legolas was holding out to him and began thoroughly drying his legs and feet.

Bill snorted at the water under his feet, balking briefly and looking back at Sam until Frodo began calling him from the other side of the stream. “Come on, Bill,” he coaxed, and after fixing its gaze on Frodo the pony suffered itself to be led across. It maneuvered its way over the flat stone they’d been warned of, but apparently did not like the feel of the silt once he was over it. All of them expressed relief as the pony scrambled up the bank on the other side and allowed Frodo to fuss over him and dry his hoofs.

“I’m not certain about crossing this stream even with my boots on,” Gimli grumbled.

“We will have one another,” Merry said. “You can always use my arm or shoulder to steady yourself.”

Gimli gave the Hobbit a thoughtful look, nodded with decision, and said, “Then let us begin.”

“Soonest begun, soonest done,” Sam agreed, and after a joint glance at him the Dwarf and Brandybuck together entered the water. Gimli almost lost his balance as they stepped down off the large rock, and clutched at Merry’s shoulder until he was steady again. After he’d floundered up the opposite bank he called back, “Frodo was right about there being something down there in the muck this side of the flat rock. Be careful!”

Boromir had been unlacing his boots and now slipped them off. “I will throw them over!” he called. “Do not let them fall back into the water!” So saying, he balled the pair of socks up together and stuffed them into one of the boots, then carefully threw them, one after the other, over the stream. Legolas caught one and Merry the other.

“We have them,” Merry called back, “and your stockings are in this one!”

Boromir gave a nod. “Then we start now.”

The pebbles felt hard and uncomfortably lumpy under his feet. It was a relief to find the shelf of stone they’d been told of. Before they stepped off the other side, however, Pippin reached up and took the Man’s arm. “If you feel anything under your foot that feels as if it’s the least bit sharp,” he said, “lean upon my shoulder and lift it again and put it down to one side or the other. Frodo taught me that, back when I was a little one. We don’t want your foot injured when you’re still healing from your slide down the mountain. Now, you step down slowly, carefully.”

It was not easy for the Man to accept such direction from the youngest of the Hobbits, particularly when he knew it came originally from Frodo Baggins, but he had to recognize the wisdom in Pippin’s words. “I will do as you say,” he said, suppressing the irritation he felt. He stepped down with his right foot, and managed to find firm footing in spite of the silt beneath his sole. As he shifted his weight upon it, he realized he was indeed stepping upon a sunken branch, feeling the roughness of its bark turning slightly under him. Before he could step down with the other foot Pippin took the Man’s near hand and set it upon his shoulder, then nodded to indicate Boromir should step down with his left foot. It was a good thing this had been done, for the soldier found the sharpened end of a broken branch under the arch, and it was only due to the support he had from Pippin that he could lift the foot some and move it more to the left before putting his weight upon it. Now he turned and lifted Pippin up, setting him down before him, beyond the branch, and the two of them waded safely ashore.

Frodo was smiling with satisfaction as he stood with some of the sacking ready to surrender to the Man. “Well done!” he said, but instead of accepting the Hobbit’s words, again Boromir felt as if Frodo were patronizing him. His muttered response was obviously surly, and Frodo stepped back in surprise, turning to cover how disconcerted he was by focusing his attention on his two cousins.

Sam was obviously anxious as he prepared to cross the stream with Aragorn, and it took a couple of false starts before he trusted himself to enter the water. He was breathing hard and shaking, his face pale with strain, when he finally reached the other side and Aragorn at last released him to the care of the other Hobbits. It took several minutes before all legs were dry and those who wore boots were shod in dry footwear once more. Sam took possession of Bill’s halter rope again, and finally they resumed their march, once again headed southward. But as they walked Aragorn, Legolas, and Gandalf kept a close eye on Boromir, with side glances at Frodo. Frodo’s expression was closed, and he avoided looking at the Gondorian at all. As for Boromir, his expression was grim as he walked behind Merry and Pippin.

*******


They camped in another circle of trees, this time a mixture of hollies and other evergreens. Boromir and Merry went out together to fetch water, and as they knelt together over the stream where they filled the bottles and kettles Merry commented in low tones, “I’m not certain why you are being so critical of Frodo, but I would suggest that you stop it. He is a very patient person, but there are limits to how much disrespect he will tolerate, and I have a feeling he is nearing that limit.”

“And just how am I being disrespectful towards your kinsman?” Boromir demanded.

“For the last three days and nights you’ve barely been civil toward him, and you are still apparently resentful that he left coin to reimburse the people who lived on that farmstead for the supplies we took. I cannot for the life of me understand why you resent him leaving money from his own store—it’s not as if he insisted you do such a thing! Until he mentioned it, you didn’t even realize he had any money with him, after all. Then when Pippin told you it was Frodo who’d taught us how to balance ourselves so we didn’t hurt our feet crossing streams with muddy bottoms and sharp branches or rocks or such your face went all pinched, and you just took the sacking Frodo had ready for you as if he were insulting you. You had best begin being courteous to him. You already know he will avenge himself.”

Boromir felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. He suppressed his unease with an urbane shrug. “I have done naught to earn the ire of the Ringbearer.”

Merry gave a most unmannerly snort.

Suddenly angry, the Man stood up and declared, “On my own head be it if I somehow manage to anger Frodo Baggins!”

Merry shook his head. “Oh, but it will be on your head, my Lord Captain Boromir. Here—fill these two bottles.”

When they returned to the campsite Frodo was setting out the blanket rolls. Boromir murmured, “And did you give yourself the warmest spot, Master Baggins?”

Frodo turned in shocked dismay while Merry’s look would have cut deeply had it been able to hold an edge. Again Frodo moved his own bedding to the far side of the site from where he’d set Boromir’s.

“Frodo, Legolas—you two have the first watch,” Aragorn advised them.

“I will take the first watch for you, friend Legolas,” Boromir said.

“There is no need,” the Elf responded, but Boromir interrupted him.

“I would merely be watching for my own best welfare. Frodo simply has the reputation for seeing to it that others know perhaps greater discomfort than they might have known.”

“And what have you done to perhaps bring Frodo’s anger down upon yourself?” asked Gimli.

Boromir shot the Dwarf a dark glance. “What indeed?” he asked in a tone that made it plain he desired no answer, and he left the camp to take the watch, settling south of the others while Frodo found a place to the northward.

Sam brought him his meal, and the Man detected decided disapproval in the gardener’s attitude, although not a word was exchanged between them. He was close enough to hear Pippin asking, “How long has it been since we left Rivendell?”

“A fortnight tomorrow,” Aragorn responded.

“It feels far longer ago than that,” Merry commented. “What were those ruins we passed during the night?”

Ruins? Boromir had noticed no ruins.

“A watchtower from those who first settled these lands.”

“That tumble of stone—a tower? It wasn’t particularly tall.”

“It was leveled long, long ago, and those who leveled it had wished to leave nothing to mark those who once dwelt here.” Boromir could hear the grief and anger that the Ranger felt toward those who’d attacked the place in days long past.

“How do you know about it?” asked Pippin.

“I have looked over the maps of this area alongside those who saw these as living lands, alongside Erestor, Master Elrond, and others. My Elven brothers have ridden through them at their adar’s side, and they have shared with me the tales they were told then. We are entering lands that once were fair, with marvelous buildings and farms and forges. But now they are desolate and few seek to live here, not with the one who razed the place again seeking supremacy.”

Boromir felt himself shudder.

Gandalf took his place some hours later with but a nod to indicate he should find his rest. Not long after Boromir covered himself about with his blankets and his cloak Frodo reentered the camp and crawled gratefully into the place where the other Hobbits lay together. Legolas had apparently chosen to spell the Ringbearer, for Boromir could see Aragorn lying to one side and he could hear Gimli’s snores. There would be little chance, the Man knew, of Frodo playing at mischief towards him. He was soon asleep, and in his dreams he saw Frodo, much smaller than he was in life and somewhat hunched over, gleefully planting holly leaves and pine needles within the seams of his trousers and boots.

When Boromir awoke it was to a distinct smell, and he realized that Bill had made his way in spite of his hobbles about the campsite and had just dropped a load of dung near the Gondorian’s pack, on which the Man had been pillowing his head. He rose with alacrity and swatted the pony upon its backside. “Off with you, you scurrilous beast!” he cried, awakening the others.

“He didn’t mean nothin’ by it!” Sam objected, rising from his blankets and hurrying to Bill’s side. “Come on, Bill—you shan’t be struck if’n you should stay over here by us Hobbits!” Glaring over his shoulder, he led the pony across the campsite. Frodo had risen on his left elbow, and his eyes were thoughtful as he eyed the Man. Pippin rolled over with a loud sigh, and Legolas, who was stirring up their small fire to prepare the herbal drink for their coming meal, looked at him, then turned away, shaking his head. Gandalf gave a snort and pointed to the small shovel with which they cleaned up after the pony, and although no one save Sam had spoken aloud the Man knew he was under the displeasure of everyone in the Fellowship.

Within an hour they were upon their way again, and this time after their night’s march Aragorn led them to a deep hollow encircled by great holly trees of surpassing beauty.

So, this land was known now as Hollin, was it, and had once been settled by Elves? Dim memories of history lessons long ago were stirred in Boromir’s memory—something about the Nameless One destroying the land founded by one of the Noldor Elves and taking that one’s treasures for his own. And those three mountains stood over the remains of the Dwarves’ first great home? Legolas, Gimli, and Gandalf all knew those stories, too, as did Aragorn. Boromir felt almost as left out as were the Hobbits, of whom he suspected only Frodo truly appreciated the words spoken by the others of the laments of the stones.

The plan was for them to remain here an extra night, and Boromir sensed that the long-standing argument as to which route they would take to come east of the mountains would come to its head today.

Aragorn was restless, and as they ate their supper-breakfast he set his metal plate aside and climbed up under the trees, looking and listening intently. There was a breeze from the north that bore upon it the scent of distant snow—they’d reached this place just in time, or so Boromir thought. He doubted that snow would fall about them here so far south, and hopefully they would swing west toward the Greenway and soon pass through the Gap of Rohan and be within those lands he knew well, where his knowledge would be better appreciated.

That their route would change on the basis of the lack of birds about the region was unwelcome. “Over the mountains?” Boromir muttered to himself as he lay down to rest. “What folly is this?” He was just drifting off when the calls of crebain could be heard from the south, and instinctively he rolled closer under the trees where he could not be so easily seen. He was glad that the three Hobbits not on watch had chosen to lie again pressed together for warmth deeply under the trees. Gimli was nearby the Man, and he obviously also was awakened by the harsh cries of the birds quartering the skies, going stiff and straight in his blankets. Legolas could not be seen, and the Man suspected the Elf had climbed up into the boughs overhead where few eyes, friendly or otherwise, could discern his presence. Gandalf had sat up, grasping his staff, leaning as far back under the spiky leaves overhead as he could. Frodo at least was awake, as he clasped his right hand to his shoulder in what was becoming all too familiar a gesture anymore. Bill had been tied under the cover of the lowest limbs of one holly, a nosebag over his muzzle—Sam apparently was intent that the pony should not leave his mark any too close to Boromir this day. The pony snorted, but made no noise that the birds were likely to hear.

Aragorn hurried back into the dale once the great crows were finally gone, going first to awaken Gandalf, not that the Wizard was asleep after all. “Hollin is no longer wholesome for us; it is being watched,” the Ranger reported.

Mithrandir nodded. “And in that case, so is the Redhorn Gate, and how we can get over that unseen, I cannot imagine.”

Boromir son of Denethor sighed. A climb into the mountains, then, he thought. Well, what must be must be endured. Will they take heed for a fire, for if we climb up into the snow line we shall surely need that.

*******


They camped in another circle of trees, this time a mixture of hollies and other evergreens. Boromir and Merry went out together to fetch water, and as they knelt together over the stream where they filled the bottles and kettles Merry commented in low tones, “I’m not certain why you are being so critical of Frodo, but I would suggest that you stop it. He is a very patient person, but there are limits to how much disrespect he will tolerate, and I have a feeling he is nearing that limit.”

“And just how am I being disrespectful towards your kinsman?” Boromir demanded.

“For the last three days and nights you’ve barely been civil toward him, and you are still apparently resentful that he left coin to reimburse the people who lived on that farmstead for the supplies we took. I cannot for the life of me understand why you resent him leaving money from his own store—it’s not as if he insisted you do such a thing! Until he mentioned it, you didn’t even realize he had any money with him, after all. Then when Pippin told you it was Frodo who’d taught us how to balance ourselves so we didn’t hurt our feet crossing streams with muddy bottoms and sharp branches or rocks or such your face went all pinched, and you just took the sacking Frodo had ready for you as if he were insulting you. You had best begin being courteous to him. You already know he will avenge himself.”

Boromir felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. He suppressed his unease with an urbane shrug. “I have done naught to earn the ire of the Ringbearer.”

Merry gave a most unmannerly snort.

Suddenly angry, the Man stood up and declared, “On my own head be it if I somehow manage to anger Frodo Baggins!”

Merry shook his head. “Oh, but it will be on your head, my Lord Captain Boromir. Here—fill these two bottles.”

When they returned to the campsite Frodo was setting out the blanket rolls. Boromir murmured, “And did you give yourself the warmest spot, Master Baggins?”

Frodo turned in shocked dismay while Merry’s look would have cut deeply had it been able to hold an edge. Again Frodo moved his own bedding to the far side of the site from where he’d set Boromir’s.

“Frodo, Legolas—you two have the first watch,” Aragorn advised them.

“I will take the first watch for you, friend Legolas,” Boromir said.

“There is no need,” the Elf responded, but Boromir interrupted him.

“I would merely be watching for my own best welfare. Frodo simply has the reputation for seeing to it that others know perhaps greater discomfort than they might have known.”

“And what have you done to perhaps bring Frodo’s anger down upon yourself?” asked Gimli.

Boromir shot the Dwarf a dark glance. “What indeed?” he asked in a tone that made it plain he desired no answer, and he left the camp to take the watch, settling south of the others while Frodo found a place to the northward.

Sam brought him his meal, and the Man detected decided disapproval in the gardener’s attitude, although not a word was exchanged between them. He was close enough to hear Pippin asking, “How long has it been since we left Rivendell?”

“A fortnight tomorrow,” Aragorn responded.

“It feels far longer ago than that,” Merry commented. “What were those ruins we passed during the night?”

Ruins? Boromir had noticed no ruins.

“A watchtower from those who first settled these lands.”

“That tumble of stone—a tower? It wasn’t particularly tall.”

“It was leveled long, long ago, and those who leveled it had wished to leave nothing to mark those who once dwelt here.” Boromir could hear the grief and anger that the Ranger felt toward those who’d attacked the place in days long past.

“How do you know about it?” asked Pippin.

“I have looked over the maps of this area alongside those who saw these as living lands, alongside Erestor, Master Elrond, and others. My Elven brothers have ridden through them at their adar’s side, and they have shared with me the tales they were told then. We are entering lands that once were fair, with marvelous buildings and farms and forges. But now they are desolate and few seek to live here, not with the one who razed the place again seeking supremacy.”

Boromir felt himself shudder.

Gandalf took his place some hours later with but a nod to indicate he should find his rest. Not long after Boromir covered himself about with his blankets and his cloak Frodo reentered the camp and crawled gratefully into the place where the other Hobbits lay together. Legolas had apparently chosen to spell the Ringbearer, for Boromir could see Aragorn lying to one side and he could hear Gimli’s snores. There would be little chance, the Man knew, of Frodo playing at mischief towards him. He was soon asleep, and in his dreams he saw Frodo, much smaller than he was in life and somewhat hunched over, gleefully planting holly leaves and pine needles within the seams of his trousers and boots.

When Boromir awoke it was to a distinct smell, and he realized that Bill had made his way in spite of his hobbles about the campsite and had just dropped a load of dung near the Gondorian’s pack, on which the Man had been pillowing his head. He rose with alacrity and swatted the pony upon its backside. “Off with you, you scurrilous beast!” he cried, awakening the others.

“He didn’t mean nothin’ by it!” Sam objected, rising from his blankets and hurrying to Bill’s side. “Come on, Bill—you shan’t be struck if’n you should stay over here by us Hobbits!” Glaring over his shoulder, he led the pony across the campsite. Frodo had risen on his left elbow, and his eyes were thoughtful as he eyed the Man. Pippin rolled over with a loud sigh, and Legolas, who was stirring up their small fire to prepare the herbal drink for their coming meal, looked at him, then turned away, shaking his head. Gandalf gave a snort and pointed to the small shovel with which they cleaned up after the pony, and although no one save Sam had spoken aloud the Man knew he was under the displeasure of everyone in the Fellowship.

Within an hour they were upon their way again, and this time after their night’s march Aragorn led them to a deep hollow encircled by great holly trees of surpassing beauty.

So, this land was known now as Hollin, was it, and had once been settled by Elves? Dim memories of history lessons long ago were stirred in Boromir’s memory—something about the Nameless One destroying the land founded by one of the Noldor Elves and taking that one’s treasures for his own. And those three mountains stood over the remains of the Dwarves’ first great home? Legolas, Gimli, and Gandalf all knew those stories, too, as did Aragorn. Boromir felt almost as left out as were the Hobbits, of whom he suspected only Frodo truly appreciated the words spoken by the others of the laments of the stones.

The plan was for them to remain here an extra night, and Boromir sensed that the long-standing argument as to which route they would take to come east of the mountains would come to its head today.

Aragorn was restless, and as they ate their supper-breakfast he set his metal plate aside and climbed up under the trees, looking and listening intently. There was a breeze from the north that bore upon it the scent of distant snow—they’d reached this place just in time, or so Boromir thought. He doubted that snow would fall about them here so far south, and hopefully they would swing west toward the Greenway and soon pass through the Gap of Rohan and be within those lands he knew well, where his knowledge would be better appreciated.

That their route would change on the basis of the lack of birds about the region was unwelcome. “Over the mountains?” Boromir muttered to himself as he lay down to rest. “What folly is this?” He was just drifting off when the calls of crebain could be heard from the south, and instinctively he rolled closer under the trees where he could not be so easily seen. He was glad that the three Hobbits not on watch had chosen to lie again pressed together for warmth deeply under the trees. Gimli was nearby the Man, and he obviously also was awakened by the harsh cries of the birds quartering the skies, going stiff and straight in his blankets. Legolas could not be seen, and the Man suspected the Elf had climbed up into the boughs overhead where few eyes, friendly or otherwise, could discern his presence. Gandalf had sat up, grasping his staff, leaning as far back under the spiky leaves overhead as he could. Frodo at least was awake, as he clasped his right hand to his shoulder in what was becoming all too familiar a gesture anymore. Bill had been tied under the cover of the lowest limbs of one holly, a nosebag over his muzzle—Sam apparently was intent that the pony should not leave his mark any too close to Boromir this day. The pony snorted, but made no noise that the birds were likely to hear.

Aragorn hurried back into the dale once the great crows were finally gone, going first to awaken Gandalf, not that the Wizard was asleep after all. “Hollin is no longer wholesome for us; it is being watched,” the Ranger reported.

Mithrandir nodded. “And in that case, so is the Redhorn Gate, and how we can get over that unseen, I cannot imagine.”

Boromir son of Denethor sighed. A climb into the mountains, then, he thought. Well, what must be must be endured. Will they take heed for a fire, for if we climb up into the snow line we shall surely need that.

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