Politics of Arda
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Long Road Home, The: 9. The Captain's Company, part 2
Boromir woke an hour before sun-up. He broke his fast by candlelight in the common room where Miluien offered him a plate of sizzling ham and bread with freshly churned butter.
"You cosset me," he said, then hastily chewed and swallowed the last bite, washing it down with a cup of cool cider.
Miluien smiled. "My husband would not begrudge it you. 'Tis the least we can do for someone who is about to walk into danger to keep us safe."
She cleared away the crockery while Boromir examined the edge of his sword for minuscule notches one last time. You take care of your blade, and it will take care of you. That was one lesson his old armsmaster had taught him he always heeded.
Finding the blade sharp along its entire length, he shoved it back into its scabbard and buckled it on. Miluien offered him a package.
"Some meat pies," she said, "and bread and cheese."
He accepted the food with a grateful nod and stuffed it in his pack. "As I said, you are pampering me. But I thank you, mistress. It will be most welcome after a long march."
Gahir hovered near the door, hopping from foot to foot in eager impatience. "Are we going yet?"
"You aren't going anywhere," his mother said. "The stables need mucking, and I would have more firewood. What would your father say if he knew I let you run off to play soldier while there is so much work to do about the house in his absence?"
The lad gave Boromir a pleading look. Boromir remembered his own desire to go to battle and sympathized, but without proper training a lad like Gahir had no place in a war-party routing out orcs. He would only get himself killed.
"Your mother is right." The lad's face fell. "Someone needs to stay and stand guard against any orcs that might slip through our net."
Gahir looked at him for a moment, trying to make up his mind whether he was being patronized or not. Boromir met his stare, kept his features straight, and finally Gahir nodded, if somewhat reluctantly.
Híril sat on the doorstep of the common room. Stirred by the general air of excitement, her tail was swishing with gusto.
"You too, eh," Boromir chuckled when she began to follow him out. "Stay!" he commanded. "A skirmish is no place for a dog." She might alert their foe before he had his troops in place.
Híril cocked her head and offered Boromir a doleful look that made him smile. Even Gahir had to laugh.
"Don't worry, sir," he said. "I will look after her for you. Come here, Híril!"
With a bark, the dog ran to the boy, jumped up and begged him to scratch her ears.
With an amused chortle, Boromir stepped outside and breathed in deeply. The night air was tinged with the cool of early autumn and the sky was clear. Bright stars glimmered in the darkness overhead. He could identify only a few of the constellations; he had never paid as much attention to their names as to how the stars could aid him in navigating unfamiliar land. Yet in the southeast was Menelvagor, still detectable though fading fast while the eastern sky lightened until fiery Borgil was the last to remain visible. And in the north, barely perceptible over the peaks of the Ered Nimrais, hung the Valacirca, the seven stars that formed the Sickle of the Valar.
Boromir grinned in grim satisfaction. It would be a perfect day to go orc-hunting. Not a single fiend would venture out of its hiding on a day as bright as this would be.
He set off in the direction of the market just as the sun peeked over the horizon in a fierce red flame. The rays made short work of the autumn dew, which had gathered on meadow and bush, and for a few moments white mists curled up in the sky.
When Boromir reached the town square, little more than two score of men were gathered. They carried axes or rusty pikes. A few wielded a sword experimentally, and others were testing the strings on their bows.
He frowned. This was a mere fraction of the crowd that had assembled last night and agreed to go after the orc horde. Would their numbers be enough? Was there even a choice, with the orcs approaching the town?
He was not truly surprised; these people were mostly gentle citizens of a small town, and it was much easier to speak bold words after rousing speeches than it was to find courage in the clear light of morning, when one had to say goodbye to wife and child. And what business did bakers or saddlemakers and smiths have in a battle with war-hardened demons?
Among those gathered were the men from the wilds. So they had come, at least. They possessed woodland skills and knew the lay of the land. They also knew how to handle a weapon. Môrohîl and some of his comrades who had fought with Dervorin on the Pelennor Fields were also present. They were not many, but they were good men. If fortune were with them, they might see the job done.
Môrohîl saw Boromir approach and pushed his way through the gathered men to greet him. "Gladon and Tarandor have not yet returned with news. Should we wait for them?"
"No," Boromir said. "We have not the time to spare. The weather is to our advantage but who can say how long it will stay so. We will start out north. We should meet them on the way."
"Then we are ready."
"Good." Boromir nodded and grinned. "Let us be off and kill some orcs!"
It appeared as if the entire populace of Ethring had come to see them off. Women, men and children waited at the fords to watch them cross the Ringló. They shouted encouragement, or passed provisions to the men. Yet Boromir recognized none from last night's meeting; shame held those men home while the company departed.
Once they reached the eastern bank, the townspeople quickly fell behind and the small group began to walk along a narrow path north into the mountains, following the river upstream. Soon, Boromir's gratitude for the presence of the mountain folk grew beyond appreciation for their weapons' prowess -- they managed to find trails where he saw none. The going grew more difficult; oftentimes they needed to make a path of their own when even the foresters could not find a deer's or boar's trail. Brambles and stinging nettles grew in thick clumps, forcing them to go around. Boromir worried his men's strength was failing -- they were not making as quick progress as he wished. They might not reach the orc den that day. And he did not desire to spend a night in the forest with untrained companions and orcs on the loose.
At noon, he called a brief halt. They stopped at a small stream, a tributary of the Ringló that could be crossed without getting one's feet wet. Rocks in the waterbed provided easy stepping stones. On the northern bank they found a small glade with a floor of lush grass where the men plunked onto the ground or mossy hillocks to rest their weary feet.
Boromir, however, could not find the peace to sit. Neither of the scouts had returned and his misgivings about the entire undertaking were increasing by the minute. Was he going to get them all killed in an ill-advised attempt to quell a pocket of evil? Should he perhaps have advised the townspeople to flee while they sent for soldiers instead of leading them to battle?
He wandered to the edge of the clearing, peering into the darker forest, trying to see what lay ahead.
A shadow moved beneath the trees and he stiffened, his hand instinctively going to the hilt of his weapon.
"It is I, Gladon."
"'Tis good to see you," Boromir said and relaxed his stance. "You were keenly awaited."
"I apologize for my lateness," Gladon said while he walked out into the sunlight. "You were right. The orcs have burrowed in the caves. I stayed for a few hours after sunrise to ensure they were not moving. Tarandor is still there, hiding, keeping an eye on the demons."
"How much further is it to the caves?"
"Not far. Another stream runs out of the east hills less than a league from here. After we cross it, we can follow it upstream for a mile, and we'll have reached the glen where the orcs are hiding."
The answer renewed Boromir's faith in the endeavor. It would take another two hours, mayhap three if the terrain remained hostile, to reach the dell. In any case, they would arrive in the clear light of day, long before sunset. He would have time to scout the area, and to rest his men, letting them regain their energy after the march north. By sundown, when the orcs dared venture out, his company would be well rested and in place.
He gave the men a few more minutes before he called an end to their break and gestured for Gladon to lead them out.
When they reached the tributary, the sun was still high, although the shadows were lengthening. Boromir halted his company. Gladon pointed upstream.
"The caves are but a little further east."
Boromir squinted. The forest seemed quiet and deserted. There was no sign of orcs.
They crossed the stream and followed it east. They had not gone far when Tarandor appeared, emerging out of the undergrowth with all the skill of an experienced huntsman. He grinned at the startled gasps of some of the men before he turned to Boromir.
"The orcs haven't moved," he reported. "You'll find a meadow beyond the trees. The caves are a little uphill, on the north cliff face."
After sending Tarandor off to get himself something to eat, Boromir waved Môrohîl close. "Have the men take some rest. I will have Gladon show me the site. We will go over the plan one more time when I return."
"Yes sir." Môrohîl saluted and walked off.
"This way." Gladon disappeared into the undergrowth, moving through the forest making barely a noise. Trying to imitate the mountaineer's stealth demanded all of Boromir's attention, leaving him no chance to dwell on the salute. He found himself admiring Gladon's proficiency; he had never fully mastered the Rangers' skill of stealth, much to Faramir's amusement and his own chagrin.
They reached the treeline. Shielding himself carefully behind a cluster of stunted birch trees, Boromir took in the terrain. A grassy sward with a few scattered autumn blooms amid boulders and debris washed down from the mountain lay between the riverbank and a steep slope. The hill was bare, and at its bottom scree had piled up. Boromir suspected winter avalanches swept away any sapling daring enough to take root.
About halfway up, the incline became steeper and stark cliffs rose vertically. At their feet, dark shadows hung, though the hill itself basked in the autumn sunshine.
Gladon indicated the shadows. "Those are the caves."
Boromir contemplated them. The cliff faced southwest, which meant the sun would light it until it sank below the trees. If I can get them to leave the caves early...
He would change his strategy. He would not wait until nightfall when the orcs abandoned the caves. No, he would lure the beasts from their den and fight them at the time of his choosing. The orcs would be at great disadvantage in the light, facing toward the sun while negotiating the treacherous slope. And his ragtag army needed every advantage he could give them.
"Go back and bring Môrohîl and Tarandor," he told Gladon. "I will stay and watch until you return."
A short while later he heard them come. Or rather, he heard Môrohîl scramble through the forest while the mountain folk were as quiet as wraiths.
"Gladon said you wanted to see us?"
"Yes. I have an idea."
"I thought you explained your plan yesterday?"
"Aye, so I did. This is a new plan." He turned his head to meet Môrohîl's gaze. "A good commander will amend his strategy if the situation calls for it; no plan is ever final before a commander has seen the site for himself."
"Good. Môrohîl, you take half of the men and go up the ridge." He pointed east. "See it?"
"I see it."
"Have your men spread out along the rim. Make sure you take the best archers along, and put them where they have the clearest shot."
Boromir, startled, glanced sideways, unsure how to read the honorific. He cleared his throat before he turned to Tarandor. "You are in command of the rest of the men. See where the slope angles off? And those bushes growing along the edge? That's where you must take them. I will draw the orcs out while the sun is still up. We need to engage them in the glade, where we have room to maneuver. Wait until they reach the bottom of the slope. Then attack upon their flanks. We will crush them between us. Understood?"
"Aye." Tarandor also offered a salute, and Boromir cringed inwardly.
"Do we go now, sir?" Môrohîl asked.
"No," Boromir said. "Wait another hour before moving out. Make sure the men use the respite to relax and get some rest. When the sun is low enough, we will attack. You will know the time to take your positions has come when you see me enter the clearing."
Boromir did not move. His hand rested easily upon the hilt of his sword; his gaze never wavered from the deep shades that marked the caves while he waited patiently for the orcs to notice him. It was obvious they had not set a guard, or they would have spotted him already. He stood in clear view among the lengthening shadows on the grass below the caves, knowing that in the fading daylight he made a prime target. It was a risky ploy, but he had to draw the orcs out of their hiding while giving his men the advantage of surprise. He prayed the orcs would not fire an arrow at him from their hiding place; he was too familiar with the devastating force of those black-feathered darts and the light leather cuirass he wore would offer scant protection against them. But he wagered curiosity would get the better of them. A single man's obvious challenge, like the one he offered, would be too much to bear. As long as there were indeed no Uruk-hai among them...
As the sun dipped low, the waiting ended and he was proven right.
Something moved inside the caves, so slight it would be barely noticeable, but Boromir, who had been staring at the shadows for close to a quarter hour noted it immediately. Black shapes shifted in the darkness. A murmur of guttural voices drifted down, speaking a language he had hoped never to hear again on Gondorian soil. A puff of wind brought the stink of orcs and Boromir scrunched up his nose.
"Foul-smelling beasts," he murmured. He loosened his sword in its scabbard and adjusted his grip.
An orc stepped from the caves. His misshapen features twisted in a derisive grimace. "You must be the local fool!"
"They call me Erandír. I have come to chase you out of this vale, and out of Gondor. These lands belong to King Elessar and the people of the Reunited Kingdom. Be gone, or learn the bite of my sword!"
Other orcs gathered beside the first and they roared with laughter. Boromir knew he appeared absurd, standing here alone and boasting such big promises. But it was part of the lure, and the orcs must fall for it. If they did not...
He could almost taste the tension that wafted up from Gladon, hidden in the tall grass behind him. He hoped the troops on either flank were as ready.
"Bite sounds right," the orcs' leader said. "You'll do nicely for dinner. How 'bout putting man flesh on the menu tonight, lads?"
The other orcs howled their agreement and poured out of the cave. The black horde came bearing down on him, scrambling over the loose rock, careless of their own safety. Encouraged by several successful raids over the past few days, they saw no danger until it was too late.
Boromir drew his sword and held it before him. He counted out loud. "Three. Two. One! Now!"
Arrows flew through the air, firing into the orcs from both sides. Not all made their mark but the unexpected attack threw the orcs into frightened disorder.
"Elessar!" Boromir shouted, charging. "For Gondor! For Gondor!"
Behind him, Gladon jumped up and followed, screaming the name of his wife and sons. From both sides, men ran onto the sward, falling upon the confused orcs.
"For the Vale!" they cried. "For Ethring!"
Within moments, the peaceful clearing turned into a chaotic melee of men and orcs. Swords flashed. Axes fell, hewing through flesh and bone. Arrows flew. Men screamed and orcs howled in pain. Boromir's sword danced among the escapees from Mordor.
Slash! One orc down.
Thrust! A second died on his blade.
Parry! Hew! Another black body fell. The stench of blood mingled with the reek of orc and the screams of men and demons.
Three -- no, four orcs advanced on Boromir. He parried their attacks as well as he knew how, but he was slowly losing ground under the onslaught. His only salvation lay in the fact that they yet failed to combine their efforts in a coordinated attack. He saw a hooked blade descend in a flash of orange sunlight and threw up his sword to meet it. The force of the impact jarred his arm to near numbness. With a double-handed grip, he hewed left, barely seeing what he was doing, and sliced off an orc's sword arm. Blood spurted and the orc fell back, howling with pain. An arrow whisked by Boromir's ear, catching a second orc in the throat.
He did not get the chance to see whose arrow aided him. The two remaining orcs renewed their attack, driven by desperation and bloodlust. The sheer power of their thrusts forced Boromir further backwards. The trees were at his back. He needed to stay in the clearing -- the trees' closeness would limit his freedom of movement considerably.
He aimed his sword at the closest orc's belly and lunged. The weapon connected, and the tip of his blade sliced open its gut.
The last orc growled. "You will die, whiteskin. I will send your severed head to your king as a farewell present."
Boromir laughed. "You would, Mordor spawn."
He thrust forward but his opponent deflected the blade and engaged in a counter attack. The orc blade came swinging down and desperately Boromir brought up his own weapon. He managed to deflect the orc's sword enough that it did not separate his head from his body but the flat side of the blade hit his skull hard enough to make his ears ring.
While he was trying to regain his senses, the orc pushed the advantage and his blade came up again. Boromir was forced to take a step back. His boot caught on a rock, half-hidden in the dirt, and his ankle twisted. The ground rushed up to meet him while a surprised yell escaped him. His sword slipped from his hand.
Boromir's eyes darted around, searching the growing darkness for the lost blade. He looked back up at the orc, panting for breath. The demon bared his fangs in a triumphant grin.
"Prepare to die, whiteskin."
Suddenly, Boromir was transported back to another place and another time -- on his knees, his executioner grinning down at him, taller than this orc but with the same evil gleam in its eyes while it drew back the string on its bow, tightening it slowly, relishing the moment...
So, Death has caught up with me at last.
Another arrow whizzed past. It hit neither Boromir nor his attacker but thudded into a nearby tree, yet it was enough to break the spell. Boromir shook his head, trying to clear the memories. He tore his eyes away from the orc's hideous face and searched again for his sword.
He dove for his weapon the same instant the orc's blade descended; it would have split his head if he had not moved. The orc grunted when its blade met no resistance and instead cut deep into the rocky ground where it lodged firmly.
The orc growled, abandoning its weapon and lunging at him before Boromir could get a firm grip on his own sword hilt. Boromir landed on his back, the heavy orc on top. Yellowed teeth snapped at his face while sharp talons squeezed his throat. He fumbled for the knife in his belt, drove it into the orc's belly. It howled in pain and its grip lessened.
A pale red-golden blur streaked through the air, snarling, striking the orc and tearing it off of Boromir.
"Híril?" Boromir was too shocked to believe his eyes.
The dog ignored him. Her jaws tore at the orc's throat although it was already dying. Once the demon stopped twitching, she let go. She kept continuing to growl at the corpse as if daring it to get up.
"Híril! You disobedient cur!" Boromir grinned. He grabbed the dog's jowls, ruffling the animal's fur. "How did you get here? Did I not tell you to stay with Gahir?"
She reached up, attempting to give him a lick. He pushed her off, having no desire to let her tongue, slick with orc blood, anywhere near his face.
"All right!" he laughed. "All right, you did well. You are forgiven."
Darkness had fallen by the time the battle was over and Boromir ordered a roll call. One man had his hand sliced off, and he looked gray from bloodloss and pain. Another suffered an ugly cut to the leg that might leave him with a permanent limp. Several more men had sustained injuries but most were superficial and would heal easily with proper care. Their losses were not as great as Boromir would have feared; they had been very fortunate.
Only Gladon was found missing.
A quick search among the bodies located the woodsman at the foot of the slope, a hooked black blade buried in his chest. His glazed eyes stared up at the newborn stars, unseeing.
Boromir knelt at his side. He removed the blade and pressed the man's eyes shut. "You have your revenge," he whispered. "Be at peace. May you find your family again."
After a moment's silence, he turned back to the others. "We will make camp down the stream," he said. "Tomorrow we will burn the carcasses so they will no longer contaminate our land." He paused a moment. "You did very well, men of Ethring. You are all worthy soldiers of Gondor."
The men hollered and clapped, looking quite pleased with themselves and with his praise.
They returned to where the small stream met the Ringló. Fires were kindled quickly. Some of the men used the supplies they brought to prepare a thick stew, the smell of which made stomachs growl and mouths water. Their voices were loud, cheerful, while they recounted their role in the skirmish. The tales grew bigger with every telling.
Boromir sat a little off to the edge of the camp with his back against a tree, Híril at his feet. He had pulled out his whetting stone and was slowly running it along his blade.
Môrohîl brought him a bowl. "You should eat something, captain."
"Stop calling me that," Boromir snapped. "I am not your captain. I'm nobody's captain. Understand?"
Môrohîl looked startled at Boromir's vehemence. He opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it and shut it. He gave a hurt little nod and set the bowl at Boromir's feet.
The stew would have gone cold, untouched while Boromir stared off in the distance, if not for Híril's eager tongue.
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