Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Adraefan: 15. The Great Tree by Moonlight
After some time, Boromir grunted an apology to Third One, though it was very low, barely distinguishable from a cough. Nonetheless, it was accepted with a grim nod. For did they not all understand? They did, and they could only hope that the suffering would pass and that this cursed night was the last of its kind.
But Boromir knew it was not. For the dream-prologue, Faramir’s warning, had told him:
Two First Born shall pass into the remote lands of death,
one’s pass you will see, the second’s you will hear…
Who was next? Boromir spent much of his time staring at the backs of the elves’ heads as they walked in front of him. Many times during the march, he wanted to scream out at them, tell them to leave, beg them not to fight. For while in the past he had never invested much belief in dreams, he now saw that they were clear signs, harbingers of doom. And walking beside a doomed individual, not knowing who it should be, when, where, or why, was unbearable.
And why should he live? Of all the creatures on Middle-earth, he wanted only to be rid of it. Walking with this in mind, Boromir closed his eyes, sucked in all the dry starry air, and, for the first time in his life, prayed:
Valar-Gods, larger than this earth,
who deal with fate, move it, manipulate it,
where we warriors are just pieces on a board
moving moving moving…
Valar-Gods, I am a Man.
And for this Manhood, for this race,
as it is a doomed race, a damned race,
I will die.
This is for sure.
Lay your holy gaze upon me, Valar-Gods,
and look on the elves before me:
the Exiled Elves of Mirkwood,
for whom I pray.
Cast your judgement as it may,
but they are to live forever,
past my life and the life
of my great-great-great-great-grandson’s son
(should I have one).
They are good, they are wise,
they have honor and courage and strength in battle.
Valar-Gods, this I ask,
I plead, I beg, I desire
above all else:
abolish the dream-prologue’s warning
let them live out in happy days
let them return to Mirkwood
let them survive what is to come.
They are not meant to die,
For this is my prayer:
Hasten my end and remove theirs.
I can tolerate no more.
My heart is full, it shall burst soon
my mind reels, confused with grief
too many have I lost at my hands,
(I am sorry for the Ring,
for the Quest,
for my father and brother,
for Minas Tirith,
for all tests failed.
Forgive me ere I die.)
But do this, Valar-Gods,
do this or I shall be cast down into madness.
That you may hasten my end,
and remove theirs.
With the prayer sent up into the inky sky, hopefully into the ears of the merciful Valar, Boromir exhaled shakily. And surprisingly, he felt better. Never in his life had he prayed, except during desperate times in battle, but those were quick, fierce pleas for help, never premeditated. But in this circumstance, the nagging guilt and ugly premonition had worked away at his heart so much that he knew it was beyond his control and he had to ask for help. Now a small weight had been lifted, and he walked forward knowing that perhaps this was his last, or penultimate, night, but at least it was his and not theirs.
“Ah, there it is,” Radagast whispered. “Behold, the Great Tree by Moonlight!”
The group stopped. Boromir looked up. The elves looked up. There, sprawling wide into the forest and sky, a silvery Tree, here grey, there black, with enormous limbs and drooping leaves. It bent and swayed, creaking and growling, though there was no wind. At once, the hearts of Boromir and elves grew cold with fear. Even if the Tree bore no signs of outward danger, its very presence seemed malevolent.
Radagast, however, seemed untouched by this fear. He stepped forward, arms spread wide. The Tree let out a low groan.
“Beleg Orn an-Ithil: îdh, Orn, îdh! A men îdh erin golfil, an men boe band.”
A few of the higher branches trembled, dead leaves fell. Radagast took a tentative step forward, but saw that the wood of the Tree faded mostly to black. He let out a frustrated sigh and turned towards the others, who watched him timidly, expectantly.
“An Ent would do well, if we had one,” Radagast muttered, ruffled his beard. “Hmm… well, one never knows… Ware, close your ears back there: Bhûl-izgu fulaknar dhûl! Nalmâd-izgu lat!”
The elves stopped their ears at the Black Tongue of Mordor, and even Boromir was shaken by it. The Tree itself responded with an enraged roar as the trunk seemed to twist and vibrate. All except Radagast took a hasty step back. Third One retrieved his daggers.
The roar faded, leaving a horrible echo that bounced off the forest walls. Then it disappeared, and the silence was worse.
Boromir’s breathing was loud, raspy. He looked at the elves with wide-frightened eyes, and they looked back, equally rigid.
“No, then,” Radagast grunted. He raised his head, turned away from the Tree, and searched the other trees, all the while mumbling to himself. “Where is that bird… just when he is needed… Ah! There! Come, friend, we need your help.”
The three followed Radagast’s gaze and saw the familiar owl swoop down from a hidden branch. He arrived, perched himself on Radagast’s staff, and hooted once. The wizard whispered something to the owl, who raised his feathers at the suggestion, twisted his head around to look at the elves and Boromir, and finally hooted in agreement. The bird then spread its wings and flew up into the Tree.
Radagast turned to the others. He smiled. “Spotted grey owl. Very diplomatic.”
The elves smiled at this, a nervous laugh escaped Third One, while Boromir remained scowling. After a few minutes, with muted hoots every now and again, the Tree shuddered slightly, relaxed. The creaking continued, but its demeanor seemed more accepting. Radagast tested the trunk with his staff. He gave it a few taps, and then, satisfied, motioned for the others to join him.
They were loath to near the Tree, but finally, with Boromir taking some decisive limping-steps forward, the elves followed and they approached Radagast at the base. They stepped over huge, trampled roots, wary not to touch the wood. Once they were near, Radagast took Boromir by the shoulder.
“There, good, good, we can sleep here tonight,” the wizard grinned. “I must warn you all, however. The Great Tree by Moonlight bears a black fruit, and any who eat it suffer a very painful, very slow death. The orcs know about the Tree, so they steer clear of it, but some poor fool, now and again, has gone lost at this very site. And so I advise you all against trying the fruit. It should come naturally enough, since I’m told it tastes rather acidic. Also, no knives, daggers, or swords unsheathed. Keep everything hidden away, unless you want a broken head.” He turned, moved to make his way up the trunk, paused. “Ah, and mind the thorns.”
With that, the wizard gathered up his robes, gave Boromir his staff to hold, and climbed up the Tree. The trunk was thick and knotted, so that it was not difficult to find a way up to the higher branches. Once Radagast’s shadowed form disappeared into the first maze of branches, Second One followed. The elf’s graceful movements vanished quickly. Then his face and arm reappeared.
Boromir reached up, holding the staff at its end, and Second One grasped it, disappeared back into the Tree. Boromir looked to Third One, who motioned for him to go first. The Man nodded, swallowed the cold fear fluttering about his stomach, and grabbed the trunk with both hands.
What he felt is difficult to describe. But it is near the feeling one has when one places their hands against another’s bare chest and feels the heart beating. Only that chest is paper-thin. Boromir felt this now, as if the Tree was more beast than plant. It pulsed rhythmically, warm and low against his palms. The bark was tree-like enough, despite its color. Boromir pulled himself up. He avoided the darker stains on the trunk, for he guessed they were better left untouched. His knees scraped the trunk and they stung since they still carried the wounds of his fall into the well. His injured leg trembled wildly from the exertion. His hands were still raw. But in truth, he cared more for the strange beating in the Tree than the pain in his hands, knees, calf.
He reached the first large branch and squeezed himself into a maze thicker limbs, all crisscrossing around, so that he had barely enough room to move himself forward. No light penetrated, and, in that complete darkness, Boromir knocked his head often against unseen limbs. He continued upward, his hands brushing past thorny overgrowth. The Tree groaned and swayed, its limbs bending imperceptibly. As Boromir moved through the Tree, he felt as a fly trapped in a web. He regretted entirely the size of his shield. His feet scrambled to find proper footholds, but often he had to drag himself forward with a knee pushing against a lower branch, a shin resting on another, and his hands grasping at whatever they could find in the dark.
Up ahead, he could hear Second One and Radagast also moving forward, or rather moving to the center of the Tree. He hauled himself in that direction, climbing through branches, under them, over them. There was no risk to fall here, for he could not even see the ground, much less anything else. There was, however, the risk of getting stuck in the interminable maze of limbs. At one point, as he was pulling his injured leg out from a thin opening between two branches, the Tree groaned, the branches closed, and he yelped with pain.
“Ho, Boromir! All well?” a voice further up called.
The branches loosened enough to let him pass, but he felt warm blood spilling down his boot.
“I can see nothing, ‘tis so dense,” Boromir replied, irritated.
“Follow the sound of my voice, we have found a clearing.”
A clearing in a tree? Boromir thought absurdly. He obeyed and clambered through, pushing and pulling, feeling his sword-hilt occasionally dig into his side, or thorns pick at his clothes. His shield got wedged against something, so that he jerked forward, the strap pulling at his stomach. The pain was instantaneous, flashing through his body, and he swayed. He swore an oath, gripped the branches and forced himself to continue.
When he was ready to curse this foul Tree and wished only for Gimli’s axe with which to hack it into oblivion, his hands found air and he fell forward onto a network of limbs which opened up onto a clear patch, like a hole within the Tree. Radagast and Second One were already there, balancing themselves. The branches grew so thick at the bottom that it resembled an uneven floor with random small openings to fall through. It was still very dark, but Boromir’s eyes had adjusted enough so that he could see the two silhouettes waiting for him. They moved forward, helped him stand.
“We cannot light a fire,” Radagast said, “for obvious reasons.”
His bloodied leg trembled uncontrollably, and so Boromir limped quickly, clumsily, to a free space and sat. A rustling of branches and leaves. Boromir heard Third One grunting as he pulled himself into the space. It was too dark to see, but Boromir was pleased to hear the elf stumble and knock his knee against the wood as he twisted out of the Tree’s grip. If e’er I see Faramir again, I will tell him elves are not forever graceful. Radagast and Second One helped Third One to stand, brushed him off. The elf murmured to himself in irritation.
They settled in. Quiet movements as the elves scouted the clearing, testing the limbs, pushing aside thinner branches. Boromir felt blood coursing down his leg and cursed himself for not binding the wound better. His torso ached with each movement, and he felt the familiar bile rising in his throat. Not now, of all times. He pulled off his shield and pack, felt around blindly, wrenched out some dressings, and began working on the leg. The wretched nausea remained, and he was glad now for the dark.
“Second One, see you anything?” Radagast asked, his voice coming from somewhere to the right of Boromir.
“Aye, but little, there are branches in the way. They near block my sight.”
“Wait, here is a spot,” Third One called from further off. Boromir listened to Second One’s gliding movements as the elf passed over him and joined his companion on the far end of the clearing. “See? There is a Wild Man. They have sent more scouts.”
The group fell deathly still. Even though all their movement and talk was easily muted by the surrounding Tree, they nonetheless held their breaths, waited. In that black silence, Third One whispered: “He moves now. I see him wandering northeast. He will not near the Tree.”
“Not if he is wise enough to keep his head,” Radagast murmured.
The elves continued peering through the dense branches. They watched for more scouts moving silently through the forest. Boromir bandaged his leg, feeling the wound with his fingers. He probed, it hurt fiercely. It was deep. He guessed the Easterling’s dagger had touched bone. But now there was no time to properly dress it. Instead, he wrapped it as tightly as he could, enough to stifle the bleeding. A morbid thought occurred to him: that it did not matter if he bound it well or not, that there was no reason to think in the long term.
“We still have a few hours ere dawn,” Radagast spoke. “I would advise that some of us rest while we can. Boromir, tomorrow you wish to march to the very borders of Mordor? Very well. A final confrontation, something to shake the arrogance out of them. It will do well. Mayhap it may buy time for our allies further west. I will begin telling my friends in the wood, and we shall have a formidable army of beasts by morning. There are still Easterlings moving towards the Black Gate, enough to satisfy all oaths of honor.”
Boromir finished wrapping his leg, leaned back against the branches. They moved and adjusted with his weight, until he found himself in a relatively comfortable position. He felt the thorns against his side turn outward, the branches at his feet groaning softly under the injured leg. Leaves brushed against his forehead. All beckoned him to sleep.
“And then to Mirkwood?” Third One’s voice asked. “Truly to Mirkwood? Radagast, think you in your heart that we may return? The exile ended?”
“I am sure of it.”
It was dark, but Boromir gathered the elf was smiling, beaming even.
“My heart dares not think of it,” Third One whispered, so softly it was difficult to hear. “The anticipation is too great…”
The elf cleared his throat, raised his voice, called to Boromir: “And then to Gondor?”
But Boromir was not fully listening. His head rested against the branches, his body nestled in them. At his hand, he had not realized it, there was a round shape. Something unfamiliar to the touch. He brought it up, tried to see in the darkness, felt it with his fingers. It was a fruit, irregular and strangely formed. It was the black fruit Radagast had warned about. Boromir looked at it, saw nothing, brought it to his face, smelled.
The effect was immediate. Like a drug, a wave of heat and then chill fell through him. His fingers fell numb, his hands disappeared. The odor of the fruit – acidic – gripped him, moved into his nostrils, into his head, down his throat. The drugged feeling washed over his limbs, bringing with it an intense lethargy, as well as a muted pain. He closed his eyes; his ears felt as if there were stoppers in them.
Distant and muted, a voice asked: “Boromir?”
Someone approached, knocked the fruit from his grip. The pain and sluggishness disappeared. He felt a hand against his shoulder. Second One clucked his tongue: “It is better not e’en to touch them, Boromir. Their presence unsettles me.”
The elf vanished back into the darkness, taking his place at the edge of the clearing. “The three of you may sleep. I will mind the Enemy beneath us.”
Third One settled down against some branches to the left of Boromir. Judging from the breathing of Radagast and Third One, Boromir could tell none could sleep so easily. All sat, leaned back, waited, lost themselves in thought.
Boromir slipped off into that state of half-sleep which he knew so well. He imagined Minas Tirith, dark pearly white against the deep-blue night sky. Tonight they would be preparing for battle with Mordor, unless that battle had already happened. He wondered for his father and brother, whether they lived, how they died. Had Minas Tirith fallen? Nay, it could not have fallen. For Boromir knew that his heart was inextricably bound to his beloved White City, and that should any harm come to her, he would feel it as a searing pain in the chest. No, no. Minas Tirith still stood.
As he drifted further into his sleepy thoughts, they became mixed up, jumbled. He thought First One was there in the Tree, waiting and watching. Part of Boromir’s mind wanted to warn the elf, because something was wrong with him, some evil had taken place. But he could not understand what it was. What was wrong with First One? Such an arrogant elf. Boromir smiled as he recalled the elf’s dry wit. He almost chuckled upon remembering that pitiful challenge he had forced upon the elf, weeks ago in the forests above Emyn Muil. The duel had been quick, indeed. But Boromir was drowsy now, and confused. Why did his heart tremble to think of First One? He was right there, in the Tree with them.
And then, like an ugly flash, everything rushed back. He saw First One falling, falling, so slow, unnaturally slow, hanging in the air without a sound. Bright crimson blood drooling from the elf’s mouth. The sword, the Easterling sword, cutting through the chest and tearing the elf’s immortal life from his body, so that he died as he fell. Boromir remembered now. And he watched in agony, again and again, as First One fell, dead.
When the elf slammed against the ground, Boromir’s body tensed and convulsed, so that he awoke with a startled, “First One!”
There was some light in the Tree, it was almost dawn. Boromir found his muscles stiff and his heart pounding. Third One placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Boromir, you dreamt,” the elf said.
Boromir, still quite shaken, could only manage, “Yes…”
Not wanting to stay in that Tree any longer, for it sickened him, and he could not but see First One’s death over and over again, he stood. His knees screamed from the movement, and his wounded leg nearly buckled under the unexpected weight. But he clambered, nonetheless, over to where Second One still stood, gazing through the thick branches. In the pale light of dawn, the elf smiled at the Man.
“You have not slept,” Boromir muttered.
“Nay…” Second One whispered, turning his gaze back towards the branches. “’Twas a short sleep, anyway, for you three. The sun will rise in a few moments, and we must make our way out of the Tree before it is light.”
Boromir turned to look at the other two. He could dimly see Radagast’s form, still and silent, sleeping. Third One was seated, organizing his pack and travelling supplies. The Tree was quiet. Was it asleep too?
“What have you seen?” Boromir asked.
“I have counted six scouts,” Second One said. “None ventured towards the Tree. Aye, they feel the evil of it. It is good that we made camp here, else we would have had a bloody night.”
Boromir sighed, leaned forward against the branches so as to relieve the weight from his wounded leg. He could not see through the maze of limbs, but he trusted the elf. Weak sunlight was already spilling over the topmost branches. Soon, it would be day. Boromir heard the rustle of robes as Radagast awoke, began to move about. In the meantime, Third One readied his pack.
“I trust we are all well-rested?” Radagast asked from the other side of the clearing.
“Aye, well enough,” Third One murmured.
“Good,” Radagast said. He searched for his staff amongst the branches and finally found the gnarled object. “We have overslept, I feel. The sun will be out soon and we must be out of the Tree before that.”
The elves nodded in agreement, though Boromir was perplexed.
“Why? What is there to the sun?” he asked.
Radagast did not answer, but simply motioned for Boromir to look at a corner of branches on the uppermost part of the tree, away from the clearing. Boromir followed Radagast’s gaze and, at first, saw nothing extraordinary. The sunlight was poking through, a golden shaft against the darkness of the limbs. But then, as Boromir’s eyes focused, he saw that the sunlight was not simply shining on the branches, it was burning through them. As any branch was touched by the sunlight, it dissolved into the air with a soft hiss. And, as the sun rose over the horizon, the light was moving slowly lower, lower, moving slowly to the clearing.
“So, you understand our haste,” Radagast said dryly.
But Boromir was already racing down after the elves. All four travelers wedged themselves back into the maze, moving through the thick web of limbs with clumsy haste. Once away from the clearing, the Tree was again dark, as if night still lingered in its limbs. Boromir, headfirst and with legs squeezing through the upper branches, was plunged into complete darkness. He grasped blindly for the branches, scraped his face against wood, pulled himself down. The elves slipped through the Tree with ease, for their voices were already considerably farther down. Behind him, Boromir could hear Radagast’s wizened grunts as the old wizard scrambled after them.
“Ho! Boromir and Radagast! On your right!” a voice warned.
Boromir, whose right hand was grasping a thick, thorny limb, had only enough time to look up and see a burst of sunlight burning through. It created a veritable tunnel through the branches, all hissing and snapping as they disappeared. Suddenly, the branch Boromir was holding dissolved into thin air, and his hand clamped down around itself. He lost his balance and nearly fell into the empty air. A hand gripped his cloak and pulled roughly, choking him and bringing him back into the branches. He looked back to see Radagast.
“Ware, down there! I will drop the staff!” Radagast called.
Boromir looked down and saw through the tunnel of disappeared branches. The ground was clearly visible, and it was very far down. Radagast retrieved his staff and pushed it over, into the gap. It plummeted to the ground, landed, bounced back a few times. Boromir caught a glimpse of Second One bending down to pick up the staff. He looked up, back into the Tree.
“Hurry! The sun rises! It will inch towards you in a moment!” Second One called.
Feeling a push from behind, Boromir began to scramble down in renewed haste. Had he not felt the rising panic, he would have found the situation comical. He was wedged between innumerable branches, an arm here, a leg there, pushing and pulling and struggling to get down before the sunlight found him. He heard rustling beside him and saw the Brown Wizard’s form pass, climbing sideways and hurriedly. Boromir followed suit. He yanked his foot free of a small gap, and stretched his arm ahead to grab a thin branch to his left. His heart was pounding madly and his hands slipped off the branches with stinging sweat. The ground was still very far off. If the sunlight caught him now, and he fell –
Perhaps the Valar found these things humorous. Boromir did not.
He heard the elves’ warning too late, and soon, there he was, looking up into the sky and seeing the ground directly below him. The sun glowed red with dawn light. It had caught him. The branches were gone. Disappeared into mist. He had only enough time to see his hands grasp at nothing, and feel the rush of air as he fell, before he slammed against the ground with a sickening crunch.
The elves rushed forward and knelt beside him. Suddenly, all the aching pains and stiffness which had been forgotten in his hasty descent from the Tree returned with new, blistering vigor. He lay for several moments, his head swimming and his eyes blind, not daring to move, for he imagined every bone in his body broken. The elves did not touch him, but waited, worried. Finally, Boromir managed to turn himself on his side with a groan and push himself up.
“Anything broken?” Third One asked, concerned.
Boromir sat up. His head pounded from the violent fall. His knees burned, his leg was bleeding again, his stomach churned, and he felt he would retch in a matter of moments. But no, nothing was broken. He was on the ground again, and for that, he was thankful. Never again would he climb a tree.
“Nay,” Boromir grunted. “Not more broken than it already was.”
As his vision swam back to itself, and he focused on the elves, he saw their faces twisting in thinly veiled merriment. He glared. A nervous, relieved laugh escaped Second One, and soon both elves were giggling with hysterics. Boromir did not find it amusing. Sitting up was too painful, and so he dropped back onto his back. The elves laughed even harder. There was some shuffling and muttered curses as Radagast lowered himself from the last branches still visible in the Tree.
“All well? Did anyone fall?” Radagast asked as he approached.
The elves stifled their chuckles. Boromir, who lay on his back staring at the sky, clutching his stomach in pain, saw the Brown Wizard hover over him.
“Ah, I see noble Gondorian fell,” Radagast grinned. “All well, son of Denethor? Anything broken?”
“Mayhap only my pride.”
“Ha!” Radagast burst. “Indeed! Well, come, we have no time to lie around. Do you not hasten to the next fight?”
Second One, still giggling to himself, stepped forward and, grasping Boromir by the forearm, helped him to stand. There was a general clatter as something came falling through the near-invisible Tree. Boromir saw with chagrin his shield and bedroll tumble out of the disappearing branches. They landed with a crash at the base.
“I believe those are yours,” Radagast said, amused.
Boromir exhaled sharply and hobbled off to retrieve them.
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