Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Adraefan: 22. The Return of the King
Aragorn. For all his titles, for all his years, for all his wisdom and experience and strength, he rode now to Minas Tirith with an insecurity nearly all-consuming. He had ridden to the Black Gate. He had seen the Black Tower, in all its malice and awesome hatred, come crumbling down. He had spent two weeks at the Fields of Cormallen to celebrate this victory, enough time for the hobbits to heal. And now, in the last week of April, he was trotting along the Pelennor Fields, back to Minas Tirith.
The city gleamed white against Mount Mindolluin’s rocky grey. From this distance, it looked like a powerful beacon, reflecting the sun and nearly blinding those who dared enter. Aragorn could not help but feel the familiar twinge of fear as he rode back to the White City. He was riding back as its King. And, apart from the natural questions – would they accept him? Would he prove a worthy ruler? – apart from the natural worries – the rebuilding of a city torn by war, the rebuilding of a population’s sense of safety – he had the smaller, human concerns. For the wounded. For his friends.
Cantering along on their ponies, Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee rode beside him. And behind the three: standard-bearers, Meriadoc Brandybuck, Gimli, Legolas, Gandalf, King Éomer of Rohan and thousands of Men. An army, limping home from the last battle. Returning home knowing that this would be their last march for a very, very long time.
Aragorn stole a glance at the hobbits. They were silent. They had spoken little since waking in the Fields of Cormallen. Apart from expressing their immediate surprise and natural relief, they had each then fallen into weary silence. Physically, each had his own share of scars and bruises – but, apart from Frodo’s hand, there was no significant injury. Yet they seemed exhausted, and so Aragorn stalled many of his questions.
And the others? Merry was well enough, his arm had regained all feeling, if not all strength. Gandalf. Legolas. Gimli. And the last Walker, the last Fellowship member, the one who had been dead until very recently: Boromir.
Aragorn’s heart lurched. If there was one concern which stung him particularly it was concern for Boromir. For the Man’s health, for the Man’s acceptance, for the Man’s forgiveness. Aragorn remembered that day clearly, the day they had abandoned him on Amon Hen, abandoned him to death or desertion:
“It is no use,” Gimli grumbles. “He is gone.”
Searching amidst the trees, the corpses, the messy after-battle. Sunlight splayed against dry leaves. Everything is a blur of brown, yellow, red, black. Bleeding mounds of dead Uruk-hai. And the three survivors, the three who still stand – Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli – are now all stooping, all crouched low, searching amidst this mess to find their missing companion. Searching frantically, anxiously, quickly. For there is no time, no time for this, no time.
Aragorn can hear the Uruk-hai band moving south. He even heard Merry’s call over the trees, calling for help, over an hour ago. But they had arrived too late, too late to stop the capture. They had seen the tracks – Boromir’s heavy tread, booted; the hobbits smaller prints, light and fast – they had followed these tracks, down the hill, slipping on dry leaves, down, down, passing dead Uruk-hai mounds, passing patches of black blood, patches of red blood, down, down, down. And they had seen a skirmish in the soil, where Aragorn had identified: “Boromir fell to his knees here.”
And there the tracks had ended, blending into a uniform chaos until thinning into the recognizable prints of Uruk-hai running. So the hobbits had been captured.
Imprints of his knees, and then again the boots. So he had stood. But here the soil grew confused, with shifts in the leaves, great sweeping gashes in the earth. A mess of dirt and soil and uprooted plants. As if Boromir had been dragged down by some great force, as if a Vala had swept a mighty hand against him, knocking him aside, pulling him across the slope. These were not the signs of a stumble, or even a clumsy, near-death fall. These were the signs of more struggle, as if Boromir had fought violently against some fatal surge pushing him into the ground. Burying him too soon.
“He is dead, Aragorn,” Legolas says. “Come, we must hurry. We may yet catch the Uruk-hai.”
“Nay, nay,” Aragorn insists. “If he is dead, let us find the body. He deserves a soldier’s burial, at least.”
“And yet did you not say he attacked Frodo?” Gimli grunts. “We waste time for a traitor!”
Aragorn exhales sharply. “We cannot blame him for his weakness – we all know the Ring’s power.”
They do not speak. But it is clear this search is a hesitant, almost formal consideration. They do it for honor, they do it for respect for Gondor and its beloved son, but not for personal friendship. All that changed when Frodo fled from them. When the Fellowship fell apart as easily as a house of cards.
Legolas has given up the search. He perches himself on a low boulder, clearly listening to the retreating Uruk-hai, straining his ears. Aragorn continues to shift aside the leaves, the roots, the dirt. But the mystery will take time – and here Amon Hen slopes down sharply. It will take time to get down the slope, to search amidst the bottom, near Parth Galen. And they do not have time.
“They are running at full speed, Aragorn,” Legolas hisses. And there is such haste in his voice that Aragorn stops searching, straightens. “If we leave now, we may yet catch them.”
And so Aragorn must make a decision. He casts a glance at the steep decline, hoping to see some blatant hint of where Boromir is. But Gimli cuts in:
“Come, Aragorn,” the dwarf insists. “He has either deserted us, or he is dead. Either way, we can do nothing.”
Ah yes, fled from shame. Aragorn remembers Frodo’s face – bleeding, sweating, pale with fright – when he stumbled upon the halfling at the throne of Amon Hen. And there Frodo had related Boromir’s temptation, and there Aragorn had let Frodo go on alone – an act of folly, madness! – Sam as his only companion.
And Aragorn, with such a weight on his heart! He thought the weight should drag him to the ground, and, in a moment of confused thinking, he had looked down at his feet to see if he was sinking. Such a heavy heart! Alas, so the Fellowship breaks – smashed wide open with death, betrayal, impossible odds.
The Uruk-hai tracks were clear. They could be followed.
Aragorn opened his eyes, stared at some indistinct point up ahead. They had gone after the Uruk-hai, begun their three day pursuit over Rohirric plains, assuming that Boromir had abandoned them. And yet it was they who had abandoned him.
The guilt of such a choice had multiplied tenfold when Boromir was returned to them weeks ago at the Black Gate. Aragorn felt hot anger rise in his throat – boiling, searing, debilitating. Anger, shame, guilt, guilt, guilt. They had abandoned Boromir and Aragorn could only imagine how he had ended up in Barad-dûr. He envisioned various pitiful scenarios – had orcs come upon a wounded Boromir at Parth Galen? Had the Uruk-hai captured both the hobbits and the Man, only to split up and take the Man to Barad-dûr? But why Barad-dûr? For ransom? For information?
Pitifully thin. Ruined. Aragorn had seen the wounds – smelled the vile stench of Barad-dûr, of torture, of bestial imprisonment – on the Man. And he had perceived the same lingering torment that he had sensed in the creature Gollum years ago. To think that such a noble Man – a leader of Men – the White City’s shining prince – could be reduced to a wheezing skeleton, bleeding so much as to soak his skin, a starving beast, and the whip-marks on the back…
Aragorn clenched his jaw. Nay, there was no use in ruminating.
And so he led the armies on, led them back home, while the White City gleamed ever brighter, ever louder, ever grander. As they approached, Aragorn could hear a great cry – a thousand voices lifted high in a collective spree of yelling, shouting, singing, laughing. Minas Tirith was cheering. The hobbits noticed the noise as well, for they perked up, squinting, trying to see what was making that distant roar. And the closer the army got, the louder the city cried.
Aragorn was amazed. The city was as he had never seen it. Crowds and crowds, a city swollen with cheering people. He could see the tiny dots massed on every wall, every balcony, every window. All waving their flags, all crying out. And as Aragorn approached, with the army trailing behind him, and the halfling heroes beside him, he heard a great call – trumpets, trumpets clear, blasting away into the sunny sky – beckoning home their King. Long, thin, silver trumpets bellowing out with a magnificent song – the Lord of Gondor has returned! The King! The King has returned!
Stealing a brief glance at the hobbits, Aragorn saw they were watching the spectacle wide-eyed. He forced back the nervousness in his stomach, smiled at the masses bulging against the city walls, waved. The cheers grew louder, reverberating, shaking, cheers and screaming delight.
And so he had returned, the King was home.
The great doors swung open, creaking wide. The Gate. And from that Gate, a small company, all gleaming silver and polished armor, rode forth with Faramir and Húrin of the Keys at the front. Aragorn stopped, the armies stopped, the cheering ebbed. All waited. The Citadel Guard rode up to them, smiling, while the trumpets blared loud in the background.
Aragorn could see their broad smiles as they rode briskly towards them. Faramir led the group, bearing the Steward’s Rod. Boromir was noticeably absent.
The group arrived. All dismounted. A great hush filled the city before Aragorn and the army behind him. Clanging armors, black and silver, the sun’s sharp glare. Aragorn smiled, and as Faramir walked forth, he murmured low:
“Welcome home, my King. It is good to have you back.”
Aragorn chuckled, and then Faramir turned back towards the city walls, raising the rod high above his head.
“Behold!” he pitched his voice loud, bellowing. “At last, the King has returned! Here is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Captain of the Host of the West, Isildur’s Heir, victorious in battle! And look ye unto the lands, see the Shadow’s end, for he rides the tide of peace, so that our people may be washed in it! Shall he be king and enter into the City and dwell there?”
And such a cheer, such a loud, ecstatic, awesome cheer rose up from Minas Tirith that the walls shook, the mountain trembled, and the Valar smiled. The sun brightened, the clouds parted, and the resounding YEA! echoed over all the lands of Gondor, spreading wide. It is said they heard it even in Dol Amroth.
Aragorn took the rod from Faramir’s outstretched hands, beckoned him to rise, for he had knelt, but then raised his own voice in reply, turning back to the city: “Take this, Faramir, son of Denethor, that the office of Steward shall continue ere the ending of my line!”
And he returned the rod to Faramir, who bowed low and accepted it.
Again, trumpets. Again, cheering. And now the army was cheering as well, and Aragorn saw the hobbits laughing, awestruck. All remounted. The Guard took its position around the King, flanking him on every side, a halo of silver when seen from above, and Faramir dropped his horse to ride near him.
They entered the Gate. From within the city walls, the noise was deafening, so that Aragorn could see Faramir laughing, and see his lips moving, but could not hear what was being said. The streets were choked with people. And the sun, the sun, the bright, eternal sun, it was so bright as to blind Aragorn. He squinted, he smiled, he waved, and the people roared sweet delight, as dazzled as he.
They passed from the first circle to the second. Aragorn caught a brief snatch of conversation – he heard Faramir shouting over the noise, thanking the hobbits, blessing them, laughing with them. And, as the swelling crowds parted to let this great march of peace pass, Aragorn found tears blurring his vision. They rounded a corner – there, looking back, a glimpse of the army, all of Gondor, all of Rohan, snaking around the buildings, snaking in from the Pelennor, the Gate, the first circle, up, up, up. Laughing, joyous, an incredible sight!
And he too began to laugh, so that the tears streamed down his cheeks, and his gut ached, and his heart strained, the emotion all-consuming, and all that was fair and beautiful in the world seemed a thousand times fairer and more beautiful! Yes! This was peace! Sweet Eru, sweet Children of Ilúvatar, sweet land and sky and Sea and sun and wind! Vivid colors, the magnificent song of peace! Let us sing it high, sing it until our throats ache and then sing it on, eternal, our hearts bursting with it, this is what we fought for! Blesséd peace!
The third circle. The fourth circle. The fifth circle. And out of every window, hanging out, Men, women, children, everyone, leaning far out, dangerously far, to wave their banners, to call to their King, to welcome him home! And the radiance, the heavenly light, as if all the Valar had revealed themselves today as light, pure, wondrous, the light of peace!
Imagine this, see this, if you can: White banners with the White Tree, flapping in the warm, spring wind, so that the sun burned bright white through them. Gleaming silver helmets. All finely dressed. All clean.
And: Flowers, flowers, white flower petals, cascading, a thick rain, all white and soft. So that they brightened the day further, and fell in streams from the windows and the rooftops, and lodged themselves into the armor plates of each smiling soldier. Making the horses snort. Carpeting the cobblestone streets. White flower petals, washing down with the sun. White flower petals, singing. So that Aragorn turned in time to see Sam sneeze from them, and Frodo laugh because of it. And the eyes of the hobbits, indeed the eyes of everyone near him, were alight with awe and wonder and joy. But such a joy! Inconceivable for those who were not there, in that moment, on that glorious day! Inconceivable! So that even the Valar were amazed, and Their own divine rapture was fueled!
And now, hush…
The sixth circle.
A respectful quiet, for here were the Houses of Healing, and here were the wounded and dying. So that the noise faded, the cheer dulled to a murmur, a soft roar still reverberating from the lower circles. But here in the sixth circle, all was quiet, gently swaying. The crowds thinned, and by this time, all the army was dispersing, back to their homes, with the order to rest and love their wives, so that Aragorn rode with Faramir, the hobbits, Legolas, Gimli, Gandalf, Éomer and the Guard.
The clopping of their horses reverberated loud against the bleak stillness. Standing outside, in the gardens, at the windows, Healers and aides and drudges, smiling and weeping and pointing. Behold, the King is come! And young Men, soldiers, boys, all wrapped and re-wrapped in white, but this was soiled white, the off-white of old bandages.
Aragorn stopped, and the procession ground to a halt behind him. For he had seen a curly head in a window, just a flashing figure, accompanied by familiar yelps of joy.
“Pippin!” Merry cried.
Frodo, Sam and Merry all clumsily dismounted from their ponies and rushed forward, just as Pippin came bounding out of the House and into their arms. They fell into a laughing embrace, all speaking fervently, rapid-fire, weeping hot tears. Aragorn also dismounted, so that the Guard and Faramir did likewise. Legolas, Gimli and Gandalf watched him, waiting.
“Oh, Frodo! Sam!” Pippin cried. “I never thought I’d see you again!”
“Nor we you!”
Laughter, cries, weeping embraces. Aragorn lingered in the street, looking up at the House. Faramir and Gandalf stood with him, with Legolas and Gimli further off. And all those who watched knew, knew what troubled the King and the brother and the wizard and the elf and the dwarf. And a hush fell about the crowd, waiting, waiting for the King to act, while the hobbits spoke loudly and joyfully. Eventually they too fell silent, and now all eyes watched the King.
And without a word, Aragorn crossed the lawn to the Houses of Healing. Faramir and Gandalf followed him, with Legolas and Gimli joining the group and all the hobbits hurrying after.
They entered the House, where all was a sterile quiet. The Healers and Warden bowed low, stepping aside and inadvertently showing Aragorn the path – three doors down, on the left.
He walked down the corridor. The rest – Gandalf, Faramir, Pippin, Merry, Frodo, Sam, Legolas and Gimli – all trailing behind. And indeed, this was Boromir’s room – for two guards flanked the door, which was left ajar, and through it Aragorn could see someone in bed, asleep. The guards bowed immediately, and Aragorn entered. Gandalf and Faramir followed, with Pippin squeezing in after them. The others stole only brief glances inside before letting the door close again. It slammed shut.
Silence. Birds chirping. Distantly, crowds cheered. And in this room, in this small, simple room, where the window was open, and the breeze wafted in, and all was bland and dim, Aragorn’s heart grew cold and, again, his guilt multiplied.
Remember? Remember the pride and scorn at the council of Elrond? Remember the arguments and frustration on Caradhras? Remember the strength and lightening-response in Moria? Remember the regret in Lothlórien, the silence on the Anduin, the disappearance on Amon Hen?
Aragorn had forgotten the shock, the brutal impact, from the Black Gate. But now that shock replayed itself, and Aragorn again found himself looking at this disfigured, scarred, limp figure – trying, with all his will, to reconcile this figure with his memory of Boromir. It was not working.
Distantly, he registered Faramir speaking:
“…ever speaking of Third One, whom I believe to be the elf who was returned with him. But what paths and choices led Boromir and this elf to end their road in Barad-dûr… I know not.”
Aragorn tore his eyes from Boromir and looked to the others. He saw Faramir and Pippin watching him with barely hidden expectancy, while Gandalf’s eyes were lowered in sorrow. There was a silence as they listened to the crowds still cheering in the lower circles, as they listened to their own even breathing.
The soft wind.
“Is there anything you can do?” Pippin suddenly asked, almost pleading.
Aragorn nodded, smiled, felt his eyes burn with unshed tears. Aye, for was this not all his responsibility? Had it not been his final decision to abandon this Man – his Steward-to-be, his brother-in-arms, his friend – to the horrors of Barad-dûr?
“I will do what I can, Master Took,” Aragorn murmured, rough. He looked up. “Though I should plead the assistance of Mithrandir.”
Gandalf nodded. “And I will gladly give it.”
And so they set to work. Athelas steaming. Windows closed. Bandages checked, wounds examined. Nay. But the physical injuries would mend – even though Aragorn was shaken by the stomach wound – nay, nay, the physical was not the problem. This wound went deeper. Deep, deep, cutting into the Man’s spirit. As with the Black Breath of Faramir – only stronger, more persistent, perverse.
Aragorn could not help the pounding in his heart as he and Gandalf attempted to rouse the Man. He found it difficult to grasp Boromir’s wrist for how prominent the bone was. But once he made contact, he closed his eyes, inhaled, and began…
Fire, machine, dripping, blood. Someone screams out in pain.
A white scene? All white. Peace, superficial, fading…
To set the beast loose, let it slip in through the mouth, passing the teeth and tongue, moving down the throat, thick and swollen, moving down into the lungs, heart, stomach, infiltrating. Finding, digging, asking again and again and again and again and again…
“Mithrandir…” Aragorn found himself saying. A stronger presence joined him.
Skin stretched thin over prominent ribs and a broken gasp shuddering through. Bleeding ears, ears scratched raw, all raw, all bleeding, burning, but still hearing, and he does not want to hear. To hear the screams and the torment and the darkness of this prison, this foul prison and –
Dragged across the stone floor, pulled along by orc twisting grips, pulled along with limp legs, watching the blood and waste leave a wet stain on the black, glistening sick red red red in the flickering torchlight and the right leg, the right leg – they are slicing away the fat and meat, slicing to the bone, cutting from the wound up up up over the ruined knees up up up to the thigh and the pain and –
“Boromir. Hear my voice.”
Aragorn felt sweat on his brow. A prickling sensation in all these perceived wounds – not his, but of his patient – spreading through him, while Gandalf put a hand on his shoulder, steadied him.
After this gasp for air in the present reality, delving again…
Confusion. A whirlwind of thought. Images swirling in disorienting anonymity, meaning nothing, save only fear. Haze. And then a clear face – a clear face – in the darkness – staring back.
Aragorn felt his voice resound loud in his own ears, as if he heard it doubly, twice over. And suddenly the pulse in the wrist he held quickened, and pale, familiar eyes fluttered open with a gasp. And as Boromir’s eyes opened, Aragorn found his own vision focusing, and taking in the scene again, as if for the first time. Movement from behind. Faramir and Pippin had rushed forward to the edge of the bed, crowding away the sunlight.
The Man looked up at the group in obvious confusion – a thousand emotions warring over his scarred features. As Aragorn stood back, Gandalf rumbled:
“Awake to peace, son of Gondor.”
Boromir looked first to Gandalf, then Aragorn, then Pippin, then Faramir. And as soon as he saw them all, and they all stared back open-mouthed, he sank down into his pillow, eyes rolling back. Asleep. Truly asleep. Aragorn found himself suddenly equally weary and he swayed. Gandalf steadied him.
Faramir moved to the side of the bed and knelt.
“My King…” he breathed. “It is done, then? Is my brother returnéd?”
Aragorn leaned on his arm, nodded, “Aye…”
And Faramir took Aragorn’s hand, and he kissed it, and Aragorn felt tears on his knuckles. Yet Faramir was not ashamed, and soon Pippin was weeping as well, and the door flew open, and all the Fellowship spilled in, rushing to the bed, asking, talking loud, gasping. Frodo let out a surprised cry when he saw the wounded Man, while the others all stared, shocked. A silence fell.
“What…?” Frodo breathed.
They all stared at Aragorn, waiting, but he looked to Faramir. The younger Man cleared his throat.
“So my brother returns from Imladris. You know of his time ere Amon Hen, and we know little of it following,” Faramir murmured. “But he came to us from Barad-dûr.”
“Barad-dûr!” Sam exclaimed.
“I do not understand it all – his words were confused, without reason,” Faramir continued slowly. “But he did speak of three nameless travelers – elves, at least, one was an elf – and a wizard, he spoke of Radagast – ah, I know not what it all means.”
His shoulders slumped, his eyes locked on the ground. The others looked to each other, sharing silent exchanges, studying Boromir. Gandalf laid a heavy hand on Faramir’s shoulder.
“Do not overburden yourself, Faramir,” the wizard rumbled. “The mystery shall soon unravel itself. For now, let us enjoy this peace, and plan the days ahead, and rest. For there must be the formal coronation, the King’s return, and the rebuilding of the glories of Man. Eh? Come, let us to the Citadel. Our friend shall not reawaken so soon. He sleeps now in peace, and his mending will be gradual. But he will mend.”
“If it please my King, I beg his leave for now,” Faramir bowed, and again his voice shook. “For I much desire to linger in my brother’s company. Perhaps he shall awake again, truly, nigh the day is done.”
“So be it, my friend,” Aragorn nodded.
And so they left Faramir at Boromir’s bedside, along with Pippin, who had also refused to leave, and continued out of the Houses of Healing and onto the sixth circle and up, up, up, to the Citadel. But no one spoke, nor cheered, nor laughed, in that final stretch – for the Fellowship was finally reunited, just as they had all hoped, but it had proved a grim reunion.
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