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In Empty Lands: 21. Talk of Paths to Be Trod
Written for Keiliss for the LOTR Yule Exchange.
Talk of Paths to Be Trod
Boromir found that the Chieftain of the Northern Dúnedain was sitting alone at a table in one corner of the main dining hall that night. As he approached carrying his own plate, he asked, "May I sit with you this evening?"
The other Man looked up, obviously tired yet with a sincere smile of recognition. "Do so, and be welcome, Boromir. I am told that you have been schooling the Hobbits in the arts of weaponry, and doing a fair job of it, from the reports given me by Master Elrond and Glorfindel. That can only work to the good for us all on this journey, or so I'd hazard. I fear that the further south we go, the greater the chance that we will be forced to close with enemies."
"You do not eat with Lord Elrond and his family this evening?"
"Another emissary has come from Mithlond and the wandering tribes in what remains of Lindon. I fear that all are closeted now with Gandalf regarding the latest threats to the coastline. We of the Dúnedain of Eriador have few people living in their territory, so I can have little enough advice on how to deal with whatever threats they face. I have been allowed a bit of time to myself this evening, and soon enough I shall be seeking yet another hot bath to banish away what chill still remains in my bones before I retire for a good sleep in a proper bed once more."
"Tired, are we?" asked a voice, and Boromir looked up, startled to find that the twin sons of Lord Elrond stood behind him, each bearing a plate of food. Without further ado they settled into two of the other seats at the table and placed their meals before them. The one who'd spoken was considering Aragorn closely. "You went far and far, I suppose, Estel."
"That I did," the Man agreed. "And I traveled through snow and cold rain much of the time. And I must admit that at this time I feel every one of my years, and that I still feel cold through and through."
The other twin looked to his brother. "And in the end he went alone, as is usual with him, sending even Halbarad in company with others that they be best defended while he took the harder path, trusting in his own skill and luck to protect himself from the cold and whatever enemies he might encounter." He turned his attention back to Aragorn once more. "We tell you again, youngling—you do best to travel in company with others that you not render yourself unexpectedly vulnerable to wound, accident, or illness. Most hardy of Men you might be, but you are yet mortal."
Aragorn made a most undignified snort. "Youngling, is it? As if your daernaneth didn't call you the same." He stretched and took a drink from the mug before him. "Youth," he said, setting down his cup once more, "is a relative thing, as you well know. And I am no longer young in the count of mortals."
The two Peredhil shrugged, and turned their attention to their own meals. After a time, Aragorn looked to his mortal companion. "Tell us of your journey here. We may well need to follow the same path backwards once more, although my heart tells me we ought to skirt far around the vale of Isengard, now that Saruman's treachery has been laid bare. I travel oft enough to the ruins of Tharbad, but rarely beyond it, and have not set foot in the southern lands west of the Misty Mountains in more than two score years. What are the defenses that you have seen in the Dunlands or the plains of Rohan? How does Gondor seek to preserve its own borders within Anórien? How would such a group as we be likely to be dealt with should we be forced to travel through their lands?"
Boromir found himself shrugging. "Our defenses have been much weakened by recurring assaults by orcs and brigands who appear to have come south out of Dunland to the west, and from across the river where it is most passable near the Isle of Cair Andros. As for Rohan, there have been many strikes at their northern borders, and far more incursions through the Eastfold and into the Westemnet than have been seen in many generations. The lands just south of Orthanc have ever been in contention between the Dunlendings and the Rohirrim; but it isn't just the odd Dunland incursion that has been happening in the past two years. More orcs have been seen now seeking shelter in the Ered Nimrais, and they often cooperate with those who come down from the north and east. And a new sort has been seen lately—great battle uruk-hai of unknown origin. Tall and muscular are they, and they have taken part in assaults throughout the Westfold and the Westemnet, even into the southwest portions of the Eastfold, which has been much depleted in population. And I must say that we have seen them east of the Mering Stream from time to time as well. They do not bear the Eye, and so do not appear to have come from Mordor. But what their origin might be we cannot tell."
Aragorn's face was thoughtful as he slowly ate the meal before him and listened to what the Gondorian had to say. "A new breed of uruk, eh?" he commented. "That is an unneeded thing—to bring about yet another sort to fight! And I wonder how the Enemy has managed to do this? Not, of course, that he has not had the whole of the past age in which to perfect his own Master's corrupt vision." He sighed, and took another sip of his drink.
The two Peredhil exchanged glances. "I like this not," one said. "Yet another abomination to fight that the Shadow not overwhelm us all?"
"Nor I, Elrohir." Elladan's expression was dark.
Aragorn looked from one to the other. "And I make yet another who is not pleased by such news," he said. He turned his gaze back to meet that of Boromir. "And how would we most likely be greeted by the rulers of Rohan?"
Boromir felt the muscles in his jaw tighten. "I cannot say. I remember when I was younger that we were ever welcomed within Rohan, and I was oft sent by my father as emissary between us to Théoden's court. Never then did I feel aught but welcome and friendship. But this last trip----" He felt the words failing him.
"This last trip?" prompted the Man by him.
Boromir shook himself. "Things were not as they were before. Oh, the King was there and appeared alert enough, but it is as if he were much aged before his time, and as if there were some veil that hid the outer world before his sight. He is not blind nor deafened," he hastened to reassure the others, "but it is as if he does not attend on all that is said to him, and ever he looks to his counselor Gríma ere he will answer what is asked of him, as if the half-Dunland wretch somehow must approve what he would say. His heart darkens within him as it has not since the death of his beloved wife many years since. His son Théodred, whom I once thought of as one of my closest friends, was distant to me this time, and his nephew Éomer stood in the back of the hall and glowered the whole of the time I was there, but not, I thought, at me, but at Gríma instead. Éowyn, Éomer's sister, stood by her lord uncle and tended to his needs as if he were in need of a nurse, although I saw no signs he ought to be overborne by the weight of his years. She glanced at me warily, and then back toward Gríma, whom they privately call 'Wormtongue,' as if in warning.
"I do not understand what it is that happens within Rohan, but I like it not. It was Théodred and not the King who saw a better horse chosen for me than the one I rode from Gondor for the journey north, though he spoke little to me beyond letting me know he gifted this from his own herds. Not that I rode it long. For I was caught in a flood at the crossing at Tharbad, and almost lost my life there."
"So they told me when I stopped among those who even now seek to ride out the winter in the village they are now building atop the ruins of the former city," Aragorn told him. "They told me that the signs were that your horse was able to free itself of the current and made its way southward once more, scraping off much of your goods along the way."
"Even so," Boromir agreed. "Some of what he had borne was restored to me ere I parted from them to continue the journey north. Great of heart I found those who seek to rebuild Tharbad."
"If a half-Dunlandish sort holds the King's ear in Rohan," Aragorn said consideringly, his gaze now fixed toward a distant window, "we cannot look necessarily for welcome should we find ourselves there. The folk of Dunland have no great love for either those of the Mark or for my people here in northern Eriador—too often have we all stood in opposition to one another across the battlefield, and the Enemy has always encouraged them to see those upon their borders as rivals rather than as potential allies."
"You must go warily," advised Elladan.
"And carry a large stick," added his brother.
Aragorn gave them a wry look. "With Narsil forged anew and riding on my hip, I must suppose I shall indeed carry a stick large enough to impress the Rohirrim. Of course, that would be if we had reason to travel within their lands."
"Think you that we will cross the mountains before we go that far?" questioned Boromir.
"As Gandalf has indicated, Saruman is not likely to ignore his presence anywhere within the vicinity of Isengard, and particularly if he comes in the company of the one bearing Sauron's Ring. Too long has he sought It, or so we have learned. As he has declared Sauron his Master, even if in truth he seeks It for himself, Saruman must be seen by us to be as great a danger as any other servant of Mordor, and must be avoided at all costs."
Boromir nodded his understanding, but in his heart hoped they would indeed travel that way once more. He had no wish to see any more Elvish lands, no matter how fair they might be; and the Redhorn Gate had a fell name in the tales of his people. It was said that once Dwarves dwelt in the mountains under it, but that long ago a great evil had erupted in their dark caverns and had slain nearly all who lived there, as well as most who had lived both east and west of the pass. He could not imagine any good to be found in the passage of the mountains over a place with such a dark history.
And that night, in his dreams, he saw Théodred, now King of Rohan in his father's place, riding out to greet him, Éomer behind him as his trusted second, and the Lady Éowyn laughing with delight to see him leading the Fellowship into the land of Rohan on its way eastward to the defeat of the Unnamed One.
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