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In Empty Lands: 20. Return of the Scouts
For Thundera Tiger and J-Dav for their birthdays, and in memory of Roisin.
Return of the Scouts
Boromir awoke feeling restless. It was four weeks from the time of the Council, and still nothing seemed to have been done about sending them forth from Elrond's valley. He worked with the Hobbits daily, but saw little progress. Frodo was the best of the four with forms, but was uncertain when it came to sparring. Sam was finally beginning to hold his sword properly, but he paused too long before using it defensively; the Man despaired of him being able to adequately protect himself, much less to take the offensive against an enemy. Young Pippin showed the best progress in using his weapon, actually; but he was so small and light compared to even the other Hobbits that Boromir wondered as to how he could ever handle himself should they come to blows with an enemy force.
He dressed and went to the dining hall, where he gathered a small plate of foodstuffs he could take with him, and wandered toward the front doors, intent on walking free of the great edifice of the Last Homely House for a time.
The sky was grey as pearls as he emerged onto the fore porch; he deemed it would most likely rain by late afternoon. The wind was cold—far colder than one would know at this time of year in Minas Tirith. "And we are to leave here in such weather," he muttered to himself, "with a northern winter about us!" He found himself shaking his head at the futility of such an act. How would they supplement their diet in such a case? There was a limit as to how much food they could expect to take with them, and there would be little chance to find any greens along the way. He had gone along on a few patrols with Faramir's Rangers, and knew how they depended on the herbs to be found in the forests of Ithilien and in fields gone feral to help stave off the weakness that came from depending solely upon breads and meats for one's meals. Where would they find green stuffs if they must travel through a winter landscape? Deer would be growing thin with their own winter foraging depleted, and many of the birds and animals one might seek to hunt would have sought other lands for the winter, or would be sleeping deep in dens, inaccessible to hungry wanderers within the wild.
The one advantage was that there would be less likelihood of encountering enemies at such a time, as the need for food would be as great a worry for others as for themselves. "Faramir should have been sent on this mission," he admitted grudgingly. "He has always been the more canny hunter, and is better trained to recognize potential for food and shelter in the wilderness. And he is also better at recognizing the camps of enemies than I."
He wandered down the steps and along the paved way toward the bridge that cut the House of Elrond off from the entrance to the vale. At last he sat on a grey stone, and set to eating, looking about himself morosely as he chewed upon a morning roll.
He turned his head at a shrill yet sweet whistle, and realized that an Elf stood on guard opposite himself as a form straightened to listen also to that distant call. The guard caught his eye, and informed him, "A scouting party has just crossed at the fords!" He hurried to the doors and threw them open, calling his news within before returning to his post.
It was quite some time before the expected party actually arrived at the doors of the Last Homely House, however. One of those within the party was a northern Ranger he'd seen at Weathertop, the one called Hardorn; there were two Elves among the Men who'd ridden in with him, neither of whom he recognized. They were welcomed within, and led to the room where the Man Aragorn had received his own reports on the day of the Council. Here the newly come searchers were furnished with food and drink, and Master Elrond and his advisers received their news: the Black Riders had not been seen anywhere west of the Weather Hills, nor had there been any rumors of the feelings of terror or oppression that surrounded them anywhere within the Breelands. Of the Rangers who had been stationed at the Sarn Ford at the time the wraiths entered the Shire, just as Master Frodo was leaving Hobbiton, there were but three survivors, one of whom had been badly wounded and whose recovery was impeded by the feelings of despair he fought. Boromir listened from the back of the room, remembering how many of those who'd stood in the way of the Nazgûl in western Osgiliath had been left laid low by the Black Breath on the day the bridge fell.
He found himself watching the Ringbearer, who stood reluctantly by Master Elrond, Mithrandir behind him with a reassuring hand on his shoulder, duty-bound to hear the reports with the rest. The Hobbit nodded his head as he listened, but his expression remained solemn, his eyes shadowed with concern.
The next morning another party arrived—three Elves who'd followed the Bruinen almost all the way to the Sea. They had found black mantles that had been torn away by the flood, and the corpses of a few of the horses. These they'd dragged from the river and left to the mercies of scavengers. Some of those they'd encountered south and east of the Shire had reported doing similarly with a single steed that had been carried much farther afield. Two swords, one of them with a broken blade and the other badly damaged, had been found; and one displayed a coronet of iron that caused all to blanch. Frodo's face was pale, and Boromir noted that he clutched at his shoulder as if it pained him.
Scouts continued to trickle in. No signs of the Riders had been seen anywhere to the north at all. A hunting party encountered near the last bridge over the Mitheithel had reported seeing a large number of carrion birds some days earlier when they were nearer the Bruinen, and had noted them feeding on what appeared to be the remains of a black horse, competing with a pair of wolves for the prize. No, they had not reported any feelings of distress at the time. North, south, or west—all seemed clear of any report of the Enemy's darkest servants.
The twin sons of Master Elrond arrived at last, although from separate directions. All was quiet in the Ettenmoors, and the next pass to the north, one that was even now closed due to snow and rock falls, was free of any sign of passage of any sort. The other came from the High Pass over which the Road climbed eastward; the Mountain Giants that frequented the high vales were not to be seen, and even the orcs that usually issued from the darker paths leading off the Road had left no signs of any activity. He'd been as far east as the Carrock, and none of Beorn's folk reported disturbances in their lands. Flights of crebain had been noted toward southern Mirkwood, but such was not unusual in such lands. As he'd been returning, there had been an avalanche somewhat north of the Road just east of the summit; he did not believe any could look to come that way until the spring returned.
Among the last to return was Aragorn son of Arathorn, looking gaunt and exhausted, the heel of one boot broken off, his short beard and hair unkempt. He had traveled first west and south to Tharbad, then had scouted the lands of Rhudaur, traveling the Hoarwell valley and searching some of the lesser used passes as he came north. The orcs of the Misty Mountains appeared to have withdrawn into their caverns in the deep places, and save for a few distant sightings of flocks of crows and crebain he'd seen little to indicate any living creatures were stirring.
The morning after his return Boromir was invited again to break his fast in the private dining room where the family appeared to eat when there were no guests within Imladris. Again Frodo Baggins was in attendance, as were his kinsmen and Samwise Gamgee, the Elf, and the Dwarf. Mithrandir entered alongside Lord Elrond and the Chieftain of the northern Dúnedain. The Man certainly looked cleaner, Boromir thought, and both his hair and beard appeared to have been trimmed somewhat and combed free of their formerly matted state. But his eyes were still somewhat sunken, and his skin appeared rather grey.
After the meal had been served and the servants withdrew, Elrond spoke. "The last of the scouts has returned, and it appears that the Nazgûl are no longer west of the mountains. From what has been seen, all is quiet, and even the trolls and orcs have gone to ground. It appears that all will be well for those of the Fellowship of the Ring to go forth soon.
"Tomorrow the smiths of Imladris, assisted by Master Gimli and Aragorn, shall begin the reforging of Narsil. Lord Glóin's design for its remaking has been approved by all. I would ask now what other arms will be carried by the company."
Gandalf straightened. "I shall carry Glamdring and my staff," he told them. "With my eating knife I shall be as capable of defending myself as may prove necessary."
Aragorn said, "Besides the Sword reforged I shall carry my bow and a quiver of arrows, although I suspect I will mostly use them for hunting. I will also carry a dagger and a boot knife. And the scalpels in my healer's kit may be small, but at need they may be used well enough in defense by one who knows the construction of the body well."
The Dwarf, it proved, would go well armed, with his great axe that doubled as a walking staff, two smaller throwing axes, and an eating knife that could easily be used as a dagger. Frodo would carry Sting, and the others each carried the swords they'd brought from the Barrow-downs. Each also carried a small eating knife, and Sam admitted he carried a folding skinning knife with him.
"I would advise, then, that if you can, you should carry it on your person rather than within your pack," suggested Elrond. "And I can provide a knife suitable to scale and filet fish also, should any wish it."
Boromir was surprised to see the Ringbearer himself straighten at the offer. "I should be glad of such a thing," Frodo said. "Mine was in the clothing taken from me by the wight, and it was not to be found when Master Tom freed us from the barrow."
Legolas carried his bow and quiver, which he'd been filling with the arrows he'd been fletching over much of the last few weeks, a belt knife, and a larger long knife with a white handle that he indicated he'd used for many years when he must fight hand to hand. "I assure you," he noted, "that I am very good with it."
"Boastful, is he, our Elvish princeling?" muttered Gimli softly, and Boromir saw the Elf's jaw clench, indicating he'd heard well enough. The Gondorian, however, felt that the statement had been straightforward, and suspected that it was no boast, but merely the factual reporting of a seasoned warrior.
"And I shall carry my sword and shield and dagger, and have a throwing knife in each boot," Boromir advised them all. "So, Lord Aragorn here shall carry a healer's kit? I deem such will undoubtedly be most useful with so many in the party. You can set a broken bone and stitch a wound, then? I have had to set stitches a few times for my men, but admit I am not skilled at it."
"I have seen to it that all who have come to this house for training are trained at least in basic skills in treating wounds and common ailments known by those who must travel," Elrond said. "I assure you that Aragorn is a competent healer, and should prove capable of meeting most situations you are likely to meet." Aragorn himself merely met Boromir's gaze levelly, although a muscle in one cheek tightened slightly.
"I will gather a small store of such herbs as will be most likely to prove useful," Elrond continued. "It cannot be as large a variety or in such quantities as would prove best, perhaps, as you will need to carry all upon your persons…."
"But we'll have a pack pony with us," interrupted Master Samwise. The Hobbit stopped, suddenly realizing how abruptly he'd blurted this out, and flushed a brilliant scarlet. "Please forgive me," he said, ducking his head. "Perhaps I oughtn't to of spoken out so. But we won't be leavin' our Bill behind—wouldn't be right, if I might make so bold. I mean, he's come so far with us and all. And we'll be needing a goodly bit of stuff to make this journey if'n I begin to understand the plans at all. Which," he added in a lower voice, "I have to admit as I probably don't."
Remembering the pony he'd seen in the pasture, Boromir found himself wondering just how the Hobbit could think that it would be able to stand up to such a journey. However, one of Elrond's sons spoke up in support for Sam. "Having seen just how much the Hobbits' pony has benefited by its stay here and how eagerly it greets Masters Samwise and Frodo when they visit with it, I suspect that he is right. The creature has accepted them as its herd, and will be devastated if it is forced to remain behind when they must leave the valley."
"But our ways may take us down paths and roads where a pony may not be able to travel," objected the Dwarf Gimli.
Aragorn was listening gravely to the comments made by Gimli, and then turned his attention back to the ducked head of the gardener before fixing on the troubled visage of Frodo Baggins, who, Boromir deemed, most likely saw the truth of the Dwarf's words even as he appreciated the great love his companion held for the skewbald pony. The Man stroked his chin thoughtfully as he at last turned toward Lord Elrond. "I find I must agree with Sam here," he said at last. "'Trust to their friendship,' or so Gandalf has counseled you before. There is a different friendship here that must be honored—that between the pony and those it has accepted as its rightful masters. I, too, have seen the love that has grown between Sam and the pony Bill, and the protective nature it has developed toward Frodo here."
Frodo's face paled, although his cheeks were a distinct pink now.
The Man continued, "Great heart should not be denied, I think, although I suspect that Master Gimli is all too correct that somewhere along the way our path might well lead where Bill cannot follow. But, if it had not been for the faithfulness of Bill, I doubt we should not have arrived here with Frodo strong enough to be healed. And during the weather we are likely to face during the beginning of the quest, we shall need more provisions at least until we have been able to cross to the east side of the Misty Mountains."
Gandalf was clearly holding his tongue, although knowing him as he did, Boromir suspected that the Wizard sided with the Dwarf in his own estimation of the situation.
Master Elrond was looking from one face to another of those who would comprise the Fellowship. Boromir suspected the Dwarf could well prove right, but kept his own face studiously neutral. It would be a far easier journey, even if it were merely in the first portions of it, if they did not have to carry all they took with them upon their own backs and shoulders. Legolas had a slight smile of sympathy aimed at Samwise, who missed it as he was keeping his own eyes fixed on the backs of his hands where they lay folded together on the table. Pippin, his spoon paused midway from his plate, was looking hopefully at the Master of Imladris, and Merry had one hand on Pippin's shoulder. Frodo was also trying to keep his own expression neutral, while Gimli appeared wholly disapproving. Aragorn's face appeared merely calm, as if having had his say he would accept whatever would be decided with no further argument.
At last Elrond sighed. "So it shall be: the pony will go with the party to carry what extra supplies they will take. It is not a foolish beast—or so it has proved so far. If they find they cannot take it further, I suspect it will be able to find its way back here until they can return."
Sam raised his head, his expression grateful, and Frodo smiled indulgently at him, although when he looked away Boromir caught a glimpse of concern—apparently the Ringbearer was considering the pain his friend would know should they be forced to part with the pony along the way.
Now Boromir spoke up himself. "Then, when is it we shall set out upon our journey?" he asked.
"We need to finish gathering such supplies as we can send with you," Elrond said, sharing glances with his counselors and Mithrandir. "And there is the need to reforge Narsil once more and temper it properly and test its mettle."
The Elf known as Lindir spoke up. "I suspect that the best day on which to begin the journey should be perhaps a week before the solstice. There are storms sweeping toward us even as we sit here now; they should be calm by that time."
"And what route are we to take?" asked the Dwarf. "Should we head directly over the High Pass?"
But one of the sons of Elrond was shaking his head. "Not that way," he advised. "As was reported when we returned, as of this time the passes are all closed. I doubt that any pass north of the Redhorn Gate shall be open for crossing until the spring is well upon us."
"There is the Gap of Rohan," Boromir suggested.
But Mithrandir spoke definitely: "No, we cannot go that way. Once I managed to escape Saruman's clutches—he will not allow me to escape him a second time, and particularly not if I come near him in the company of the Ringbearer."
Frodo's face went pale again with concern, even his cheeks this time.
Aragorn spoke up at last, saying, "Nay—we cannot as of this time predict how things shall be this long before we can even come there. I would advise against making a firm decision as to which path we should take to go east of the mountains until we are within striking distance of the Redhorn Gate. None can say how the patterns of weather might change between now and then, won't you agree?"
So saying, he met Mithrandir's eyes, and the Wizard indicated his agreement. "That is true, son of Arathorn. We will wait until we have reached that pass before deciding on which route we shall take further."
Elrond nodded. "So be it, then. A week before the turning of the year as mortals account time we shall plan to see the Fellowship depart our valley. Use well the time to prepare yourselves, my friends."
And with that, a much subdued company turned their attentions to their meal, each thinking on his own concerns as he ate, only Peregrin Took eating much, Boromir noted.
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