Where History Has Been Fixed
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Long Road Home, The: 10. The Pass At Tarlang's Neck
Boromir escaped Ethring three days later. He left some silver in his room as payment for bed, board and good care, hushed Híril and slipped out of the inn so early in the morning that even Mistress Miluien was not yet awake. He could not bear the gratitude and adulation the Ethring people were heaping upon him any longer. He had stayed for Gladon's funeral, made sure the injured were cared for, and, at the insistence of Môrohîl and Gahir, had partaken in the celebration of their victory.
But where once he would have enjoyed being the hero of astonishing tales or the teller of grand stories, it now made him uncomfortable. There was no heroism or special prowess involved. He had merely done his duty, letting common sense and years of training dictate his actions. And when Môrohîl told him they planned on sending someone to their lord with the suggestion he be asked for command of the town's small militia, Boromir had had all he could bear. He understood their desire; the death of Lord Dervorin had left them without a capable captain -- but they would have to find someone else.
He snuck into the stable to saddle Barangol, pleased to see that the last marks of the animal's injuries had faded, and proceeded to lead the horse through the dark streets as quietly as possible. The clop of the hooves sounded loud and he hoped nobody would wake from his passing. But the festivities had lasted until deep in the night and the people of Ethring slept the sleep of the secure, helped along with good amounts of ale and wine imbibed during the merrymaking. More than a few of the orc-hunters would wake with a pounding head and no memory of their last few waking hours. They had been the center of the celebrations and everyone had joined in the effort to make sure their cups never went dry.
At the edge of town, when he was about to embark onto the main road, the nightwatch challenged him.
"Who goes there?"
"Oh, hello, captain. You aren't leaving, are you?"
Wincing at the honorific he had failed to obliterate from Ethring's vocabulary -- though not for lack of trying -- Boromir replied, "Aye, I am." He lowered his voice. "I am needed in Calembel. Your people are safe, now."
"That they are, thanks to you," the watchman said. "We'll be sad to see you gone. Fare thee well, captain. You be safe too."
Boromir swung himself into the saddle and spurred Barangol into a trot.
He was following the South Road again. The sun rose behind the clouds and the world was revealed slowly. The foliage on the trees displayed a myriad of bright colors: oranges, yellows, reds, deep purples. Gusts tore the leaves from the trees, making them pursue one another in swirling winds. Híril found it fascinating; she snapped at the dancing foliage and often ended up spitting out mouthfuls of leaves. The air was cold and smelled of the snow on the White Mountains. Boromir pulled his wool cloak closer about him. The fair weather had not lasted long and he feared he would have need of his new raincape before long.
By noon, his fears proved well founded. Boromir was immensely grateful for the oilskin Miluien had given him on the night after the orc-hunt. She'd laughed when she offered it, saying she might not be at hand to nurse him back to health with her chicken broth and honeyed teas when next he got himself soaked to the skin in a rainstorm. But he had seen the brief glint of pain in her eyes when she added that the cloak once belonged to her brother, a soldier in Lord Dervorin's small army who had died before the walls of Minas Tirith. It made the gift invaluable in Boromir's eyes. Hers was the only reward he had accepted out of the many tokens the grateful people of Ethring tried to bestow on him, for to refuse it would have been an insult to the soldier's memory.
Calembel was built on a hill, overlooking the fords of the river Ciril. A long, sloping meadow ran from the gates to the river's edge where, across the stream, the dark ribbon of the road twisted westward through hills and groves until it faded from sight in the gray distance. The town was larger than Ethring, protected by an earthen wall topped with a rough palisade. Here and there the tiled rooftops of large merchant houses peeked over the rim of the wall.
Dusk was falling when Boromir nudged Barangol up the hill to the gates of the city. Entering the fiefdom's capital would be risky, the fear of recognition still ever present. But he did not have a choice. His desire to leave Ethring in stealth had prevented him from taking on supplies and he needed provisions. He wanted to cross the mountains over the pass at Tarlang's Neck before the winter snows closed it off. And as far as he recalled, the land between Calembel and Erech was wild and inhospitable, with no inns or taverns and barely any farms along the way.
The rain began again before he reached the gate, giving him the excuse of pulling his hood closer about his face, hiding his features in the shadows. The pair of soldiers at the gate huddled in their guardhouse and waved him through after a cursory glance. A year ago, he would have reprimanded them on their carelessness, reminding them of their duty to their people. As it was, he did not complain and quickly entered the city.
It had been many years since he had last visited Calembel yet he still recalled that the road left of the gate led further up the hill to the citadel where the lord of Lamedon resided. After a glance uphill, Boromir turned right, riding deeper into town until he found a small inn where he took up residence for the night.
The next day dawned cold but clear, the first bright day since the day they killed the orcs. Boromir rose with the sun. If he left early, he could make most of the day's fine weather. He ate a quick breakfast in the common room before he walked to the market. Vendors were busy putting up their stalls and welcomed his early custom. Soon his arms were filled with the necessary provisions.
He stopped last at a stall selling large, red apples.
"Last of the season, sir. You'll find them sweet and juicy."
Boromir bought a sackful and added the load to his other purchases. The apples were heavy but up in the pass little greenery grew and Barangol would be grateful for the addition to his diet of grains and meager forage. Besides, Boromir enjoyed the sweet tartness of the fruits himself. He handed the man his coin.
"Going to Erech? Or will you be traveling to Ethring, sir?"
"Erech is where I'm headed," Boromir said. "Is there aught you can tell me about the road across Tarlang's Neck?"
The man's face turned thoughtful. "You best be careful in the Neck, sir," he said. "I've heard a band of Haradrim waylay innocent travelers sometimes. Lord Angbor has sent out several parties to apprehend them but so far the Southrons have evaded the scouts."
"Aye. Odd, isn't it? With the battles over and all, one would expect them to return to their strange land and leave the roads safe for innocent people." The vendor shrugged. "Me, I never go far from the city. Much safer here. Out there you have those Haradrim, wolves, and who knows, mayhap one of the King's Dead lingers down there by the water." He pointed to the river. "That's where they camped when they came out of the mountains. Still, 'tis best not to dwell on such matters. Here you go, sir." He gave Boromir his change and tipped his hat. "Safe travel, sir."
Boromir accepted the change and well-wishes absentmindedly. Haradrim, this far west in Gondor's lands! They must fled from the Pelennor and believe their way home blocked by Gondorian soldiers patrolling the banks of the Anduin. They would not know of Aragorn's mercy.
Perhaps he should delay his departure and see if he could offer his services to the troops looking for the Haradrim.
No. As soon as the thought entered his mind, he dismissed it. Angbor knew his face. He could not risk discovery. And the lord of Lamedon was a capable and cunning soldier. He did not need Boromir's aid.
By the time he led Barangol across the river, it was near mid-morning. The sun hung low in a pale blue sky, another sign that winter was approaching. The air was brisk, and Barangol's breath gusted in white plumes before the horse's nostrils.
Yet, he was fortunate; though it was rather cold for the time of year, the clear weather lasted for the next few days.
Boromir reached the foot of the pass on the third day, around noon. The sun was growing dim, veiled with thin, high layers of haze. Over the tops of mountains, heavy clouds formed, gathering strength before being pushed in front of the wind over the realm of Gondor. In the few moments during which Boromir watched the clouds, they grew in size, obscuring the white peaks within their gray folds.
He muttered a curse. If he did not hurry, an early snowstorm might catch up with him in Tarlang's Neck. Despite the need for haste, he dismounted. It was important to be prepared for every eventuality, especially when traveling through treacherous mountains.
The timberline was near. Up ahead, where the road ascended the pass, nothing grew but a few scraggly bushes and mosses. Around Boromir, though, small, stunted pines and birches still grew. He did not know their names but their dried, dead branches would burn hotly. And the brown needles on the ground would make for good kindling.
He gathered a pile of deadwood and bundled it onto Barangol's strong back. The horse shied at first at his strange burden but a few calming words and stroking of his neck relaxed the steed. There was no room left for Boromir, though, and he realized he would have to walk.
He glanced once more to the north where the clouds had grown to black masses. Perhaps he should not attempt to cross the pass under these conditions. However, a storm such as was forming in the mountains could linger and keep him pinned down here for days. There was no proper shelter nearby. He could brave the pass and hope the weather would hold long enough for him to reach Erech; or he could return to the lower lands around Calembel. But if he turned back, he might not have another chance to leave until spring. He did not wish to stay in Lamedon's main city for such a long time.
With a cluck of his tongue, he urged Barangol into motion, leading the horse by his guide rope while they climbed the sloping path toward the pass.
Before long, Boromir started to doubt the wisdom of his choice. Within the hour, the ominous black clouds swooped down and obscured the sun. The temperature dropped sharply and a strong wind began to blow. The cold bit at his exposed skin and he pulled the hood of his cloak as close about his head as he could. He moved to the other side of the horse, where the animal's large body would provide some protection against the wind.
Soon the first flakes began to fall. The wind whipped them beneath his hood, the cold sting on his face brief but unpleasant.
The snow thickened and within moments, the world was covered in white, an even layer that obscured landmarks and made it dangerous to continue. The path through the pass was far less-traveled than the road between the capital and the coastal cities, and not so well maintained. It was barely more than a rutted track. It would be easy to stray off the road, have Barangol step into a hole and break a leg. And then where would he be?
Caught up in worries about his horse's well-being, Boromir failed to notice the hidden scree, broken off from the cliff wall at some time in the past, until he planted his foot upon it. The rubble gave way beneath his weight, his right boot slipped, his ankle twisted and he bit down at the sudden pain.
He clutched at Barangol's saddle, trying to regain his balance, and cursed the pain that lanced through his leg when he tried to put his weight upon his injured foot. He would not be able to continue further today. The need for shelter had suddenly grown dire, and he had better find it soon. He squinted into the swirling whiteness dancing before his eyes.
Limping, supporting himself against Barangol every time he needed to put his weight onto his injured leg, Boromir made very slow progress. The sky grew dimmer still; darkness approached, and he began to despair as to whether he would find a suitable place to spend the night. Then, though almost afraid to believe his eyes, he noticed a triangle of deeper gray among the snow-shrouded cliffs.
The cliff did not jut straight up but formed an inverted incline with the top hanging over, providing a sheltered recess into the mountain's side. It was hidden from the wind and most of the snow was carried past it; deep inside the hollow damp black earth still showed in patches through the snow.
Boromir limped toward the overhang and crawled beneath it. Instantly, the wind tapered off, only the occasional gust finding its way into the hollow beneath the cliff. If he could get a fire going, he could wait until morning when, hopefully, the rest made his ankle feel better. And with luck, the storm would have abated also.
A small fire soon burned beneath the cliff wall, its heat reflecting off of the rock and making the hollow a pocket of warmth in a world of freezing cold. Boromir relished the heat; he had not realized how chilled he had become. He put on some water and while he waited for it to boil, he prodded his ankle with a finger, wincing. He did not dare take off his boot out of fear he would not be able to put it back on. His flesh felt tender through the sturdy leather, but he did not think he had broken any bones. Best to keep the boot on for what little support it offered.
The water in the small pot started to bubble and he added some dried meat stores along with spices and a few greens from his provisions. Híril sniffed, inching closer to the delicious smell that wafted up from the stew.
Boromir chuckled. "Hungry, are you?" He dug up another piece of dried meat and gave it to the dog. Powerful jaws closed around it, tearing off a strip, while Boromir rummaged around in his satchel for grains and apples for Barangol.
The hollow was too small to accommodate the horse's body and he hovered outside, as close to the warmth as he could come, his hindside turned outward and his large body shielding the makeshift shelter further from the storm.
With the fire in his face and the smell of broth in his nose, Boromir could almost forget the throb in his ankle or the cold snow that kept falling. Tonight, at least, he would neither starve nor freeze to death.
He was stirring his soup with a wooden spoon, deciding it was almost ready, when Híril let go of her strip of meat and growled deep in her throat. Boromir dropped the spoon and looked at the dog.
"What is it, girl?"
The dog got up, hackles raised and teeth bared. Another low growl reverberated in her throat. Barangol snorted and stamped, tossing his head.
Boromir pushed himself to his feet, careful to rest his weight upon his uninjured foot. He placed his hand upon the hilt of his sword, ready to draw the blade in an instant, and peered around the horse into the deepening night and swirling flakes. He could not see beyond a few feet in any direction and could not tell what danger the animals had detected.
Híril barked at the same instant that Boromir saw two -- no, three man-shaped shadows approaching.
"Who goes there?" he demanded, his voice getting lost in the storm. Of a sudden, he remembered the stall-keeper's warning and he unsheathed his sword. The blade glimmered golden in the flames. The three shapes stopped.
Good. If they feared the sting of a sharp sword, at least they were not phantoms. Men, he could fight, but he'd be helpless against malicious spirits.
For long moments nobody moved. The wind howled, Boromir's fire softly crackled and Híril continued to growl. Then one of the shapes slowly walked closer, until Boromir could see his suspicions confirmed.
The man was one of the Haradrim. He wore long, tattered robes of red silk, lined with purple. Dark eyes, nearly black, peered out from beneath a headdress of the same bright red as his tunic.
"Put down sword, please," the man spoke in halting Westron. "We want food and fire."
"And slit my throat while you're at it, no doubt."
The Southron began to shake his head but Boromir interrupted him. "Do not bother," he said. "I know your kind. I may be alone but I can assure you, I am quite skilled with my blade. And Híril here--" he indicated the dog with a nod, never taking his eyes off of the Haradrim, "--has tasted orc flesh. I do not think she would object to a chunk of Southron meat, do you?"
The black eyes shifted to the dog, who bared her fangs even further, before they traveled back up to Boromir's face. "Please." The man from Harad spread his arms. "No weapon. War over. My friend is hurt. So cold."
Boromir hesitated. Common sense said he chase the Haradrim off, or better yet, run his sword through their bellies and end their threat once and for all. But whereas he never suffered many qualms about killing an orc, it was a little harder to murder a Southron, especially one who claimed to be unarmed.
"Have your friends show themselves."
The stranger said something in his own tongue and Boromir tensed. The other shapes came closer, slowly. When they were near enough, Boromir saw one was leaning on the other for support. His tunic, as frayed as that of the others, was stained at the shoulder with dark, dried blood.
Boromir studied the three men. They were lean, with gaunt faces pale beneath their sun-darkened skin. It gave them a sickly gray look and their black eyes stood out in sharp contrast. Their thin robes were unsuitable clothes for this sort of weather, and they were shivering hard.
He sighed and lowered his sword, resting its tip in the snow. He shifted ever so slightly, transferring some of his weight to the weapon.
"I suppose it will not do great harm to let you share my fire," he said at last. "The war is over, indeed."
The men hunkered as close to the fire as they could without suffering burns. Híril rested beside Boromir, her watchful gaze on the strangers. With the dog's vigilant eyes turned upon them, Boromir felt strangely secure. Any sudden move that might be construed as an attack would have Híril at the attacker's throat in an instant. The three men knew it also, for they took great care to stay to their side of the fire, moving slowly and carefully.
He shared his broth with them, a little startled at the speed with which they devoured their share. While he watched them wolf down the meal, Boromir pondered the strange twists of fate. A year ago, he would not have hesitated to kill the Haradrim. Nor would they have had a moment's doubt before they slew him if given the opportunity. Yet, here he sat sharing a fire and a meal with them.
The one who spoke a few words of the common tongue peeled away a stained bandage from his comrade's shoulder. He revealed a ragged hole in the man's flesh.
"That's an arrow wound!" Boromir said, sitting up straighter.
The Southron nodded. "Aye. Your soldiers, they chase us into mountains. Four days ago." He described the banner the soldiers flew.
It made sense. The fruit seller had said Angbor was aware of the Southron soldiers on his lands, and had spoken of parties sent out to capture the strangers.
He watched while the man cleaned his friend's injury and re-bandaged the shoulder with a new strip of red silk torn from his tunic.
"Why have you not returned to Harad?" Boromir could no longer hide his curiosity. "The war was ended many months ago."
The other man settled himself on his haunches beside the fire and told him their tale. They had been part of a company of archers assigned to one of the mûmakil. They had been safe from harm, high up on their gray mount, until Aragorn and his host of wraiths disembarked from their ships. A stray arrow had killed the animal's handler and it had panicked amid the fray, stampeding off at a gallop, the archers helpless passengers on its back.
Before the beast had collapsed from sheer exhaustion, it had taken them many leagues west, deep into the foothills of the White Mountains, far from the Anduin and their way home. All summer long, the archers -- he said they had been five, but two had died -- had attempted to find their way back, coming up on soldiers time and again. Slowly they were forced further and further west. "We die here," the man said at last. "We will not see our home again."
"Do not be so certain," Boromir found himself saying, as much to his own surprise as to that of his uninvited guests. "There is but one way: you must give yourselves up."
"They kill us!"
"Nay, they will not." His compatriots would not kill unarmed men who came to surrender. "Tomorrow, you must go east. Follow the road until you reach Calembel. Surrender yourselves to Lord Angbor and tell him you will put yourself at the mercy of King Elessar. You will find that the King of Gondor is a good man."
Dawn arrived late the following morning, with dark clouds still hanging low in the sky. The storm had been fierce, but mercifully brief; the wind had abated and the snow had stopped falling. The temperature was rising and soon the white blanket would disappear. Already, the sound of dripping water was everywhere.
Boromir watched the Haradrim, once his sworn enemies, now men like himself in search of a way home, plod through the slush toward the east. He hoped they would take his advice and give themselves up to Angbor. It was their only hope. Aragorn was anything but a spiteful man, and it was more than likely he would have them escorted to the border of Harad, and there set them free.
When they disappeared from view, the trail in the snow the only sign of their passing, Boromir turned west, where his own road was leading him. His ankle was still plaguing him, but the swelling was down, and with most of the wood burned to ashes, he would be able to ride in the saddle today. He planned to reach Erech by nightfall.
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