2. Of Doubt And Things That Are Not Wolves
The danger eased once they were two nights' hard ride from the wastes of Eregion. "If the dwarves indeed dwell under that mountain," Eomer grumbled over a mid-morning meal, "I cannot speak highly of their taste in neighbors."
"I daresay dwarves enjoy the company of orcs as little as we," Boromir replied absently. He was stirring the cookfire with a stick, his mind far away to the south. It had been months now since he'd set out from Minas Tirith, on a warm summer day with pennants snapping in the breeze from the Anduin...
It felt like a lifetime ago. Did his city still stand? Were his father and his brother still alive? He and Eomer followed no road, and thus they had no word from their blighted homelands. After having been immersed in the daily routines of his father's rule for as long as he could recall, he felt cast adrift...as if this long ride was but another dream.
Eomer was humming something complex under his breath as he repaired a rip in his tunic. He'd set aside his riding mail and was stripped to the waist, enjoying the dual respite from road and shrieking horde. Boromir eyed him in vague annoyance, sweltering in his own ornate apparel. Eomer glanced over and grinned. "If you wish me to turn away to protect your maidenly innocence, you have my word of honor..."
"Were I a blushing maiden, I would hardly trust this 'honor' you claim to possess," Boromir retorted, but for once his heart was not in the bantering game. "Eomer...do you not miss your Golden Hall? You offered a fortnight to my fools' errand, and it has been far more than that..."
The Rider finished mending the tear, bit off the knotted thread, and set the armful of cloth aside. Boromir's words struck deep, but when he considered his friend's misery he decided that his own worries were of little concern.
"My oath may have been rash, but it was a promise made and it shall be a promise kept." He sighed ruefully. "I am already in poor grace at my uncle's court, but my cousin has faith in me. I believe he already suspected that my 'leave' might spill over into the winter months. If there is any unrest caused by my absence, I trust Theodred to smooth the matter aside.
"Ah, but I am merely a captain of horsemen, easily replaced and easily dismissed from my lord's wandering thoughts. What of you, Steward's heir?"
Boromir was still staring into the fire, tapping sparks from embers. "I have no doubt you are sorely missed by your men and your people," he rebuked gently. "But I am glad of your company and would selfishly keep it for as long as you can spare it.
"As for my own obligations..." He hesitated, then sagged as if losing some long-raging inner conflict. "You might have enjoyed my brother's company better than my own. I am beginning to believe that I have usurped his rightful quest. He is the dreamer, the visionary. The riddle came to him. He should be the one riding away from doom to seek the advice of elves, not I...
"No, that did not sound right."
He paused to collect his thoughts, rubbing the bridge of his nose with one hand. Eomer held his tongue and waited patiently, trying not to keep his own thoughts from turning toward his sister alone in the dark halls of Edoras, like a lily wilting under stone. Theodred would look after her. Eomer had faith in his cousin. That had to be enough.
"I did not mean to imply that Faramir is a coward," Boromir ventured at last. "It is just that I wish we lived in softer times, so he could spend as many hours in the library as his heart desires. He should be allowed to charge off on gallant quests to hunt for legends. He is a great captain of men, yes...but I regret the necessity. If he were not so desperately needed in Ithilien..."
"You lied about sharing his dream." Eomer suddenly understood. "You took this quest because you thought your land needed him more than it needed you."
Boromir hung his head wearily. "My father is...not always correct," he admitted with difficulty, as if the words were treasonous. "I am staunch with a blade, and perhaps I shall make a decent Steward someday, but in truth Gondor needs my brother's fine mind far more than she needs my strong sword-arm.
"However, I now find myself besieged by doubt. I thought I was sparing Faramir from danger by shouldering this task on his behalf. What if I merely abandoned him to danger instead...? That great terrible dark thing we could not face when Osgiliath fell..." He shuddered. "It is loose in our land now, and I...
"I rode away to look for elves."
He fell silent, bitterly, and regretted speaking of his gnawing doubts at such length.
Eomer was quiet for a moment, respecting his friend's downcast turmoil. Then he said, deliberately, "I am willing to wager, had all your what-ifs come to pass and were I sharing this fire with your dear brother, he would be saying very much the same of you...but he would use far longer words, and I would be half-dead of boredom. Thus I am grateful for the fate which has befallen us instead."
Caught off-guard, Boromir guffawed. "I suspect you are closer to the truth than I like! Are you dispensing ancient Rohirric wisdom again, o great sage of the plains?"
"If you care to call my impertinence 'wise,' I shall not gainsay you. After all, I have already suffered my share of your lofty advice as well...and much of it has consisted of 'if you attack that, you idiot savage, you will die.'"
"Hah! It was true, was it not?"
"Eh!" Eomer waved his hand dismissively. "An ill-informed opinion from a southern dandy. You have not yet had the privilege of beholding my skill in battle."
A grinning Boromir rose to the bait even as he captured his well-roasted meal before it charred. "If this fabled fighting prowess of yours is worth even a tenth of your arrogance, I should be too cowed to even think of drawing my paltry sword in your shining presence..."
The conversation took a long, jovial, boasting turn, and Boromir slept more soundly that afternoon than he had for weeks. This pleasant mood was only slightly dampened when they rode headlong into a low wet mist that evening; however, the fog deepened over the next two nights of their northward journey until it was impossible to find safe footing a'horse after the moon set.
The land was rising, becoming rockier and more scrubby; when Firefoot stumbled and skidded alarmingly down a scree slope on the third night, they were forced to wait for daylight to resume. They spent the next night wary and tense, expecting attack, but morning dawned serene. It seemed that they had, indeed, left the goblin infestation behind in the desolation of Eregion.
Boromir had been yearning for some variation in the endless trot-canter-trot pace of their journey so far, but now that they'd slowed to a careful crawl -- picking around deep ravines, wending through tree-studded outcrops, pausing again and again to remove stones from the horses' shoes. Now he found himself yearning for a long hard gallop.
Even Eomer's sunny disposition was fraying around the edges. He'd hum absently at times, but he no longer whistled or passed the time regaling his companion with endless sagas about dubious ancestors.
It was getting colder, too. Winter was almost upon them. The leaves had fallen in a thick red-gold carpet and great clouds of plump waterfowl occasionally winged past overhead, fleeing unseen ponds for warmer climes. Both men regretted the lack of a bow. Rabbit was plentiful, but snares were unpredictable and the hardtack was running low.
They halted late one afternoon on the brink of a small stream -- hardly more than a ribbon of icy snow run-off, but enough to refresh the horses and wash off some of the grime. Water, at least, was in plentiful supply. While Smokechaser pawed fussily at her reflection, Boromir sat down on a rock and smoothed out the aged map.
"I doubt it has changed since last you studied it," Eomer teased from where he was splashing water on his face and neck. "When we reach the Bruinen, we shall know."
"I am not so certain of that. How shall we tell one river from the next in this untracked land?"
"Well, I do not think it is this one," the Rider replied lightly. He shook himself, wet braids flying, then caught Firefoot's bridle and tugged him away from the stream before the stallion could drink himself sick. In some matters, Firefoot lacked sense. The middle of nowhere was no place for a bout of colic.
Boromir peered towards the setting sun, sighted along the snow-heavy mountains, then packed the map safely away. "For now, I believe we are still on the right course...though I wonder if we should veer westward. I would rather cross the Bruinen too far west than miss its headwaters entirely by hugging the slopes too close."
"A point well taken. Should we do so now, before night falls? Yet I would rather we remain here and camp early tonight. I like this place well enough, and there are signs of deer on the landing."
"And how would we take one without bows nor hounds?" Boromir pointed out practically. However, the thought of venison (though wasteful, with no way to preserve the uneaten meat) was a tempting one. Perhaps the right sort of snare? He was handy with simple woodsman's traps, though he'd never set one for something so large before...
Eomer was about to reply when the hair on both mens' necks prickled. Something howled in the distance, mountainward and south...something that was answered faintly in the southwest, then again from due south. Both horses nuzzled close, snorting and stamping.
"Wolves?" Eomer hazarded in low uncertain tones; no large predators roamed his native plains.
"There are wolves in Ithilien, and they do not sound like that," Boromir replied in the same manner. He immediately felt a little foolish. The creatures which had uttered those unnerving cries were far away, certainly not close enough to overhear voices, and they were unlikely to approach. No wild hunter would bother with two mounted, armed humans when the woods were stocked with fat game...
More wailing howls rose to the south, this time in a dissonant chorus. Boromir had hunted with hounds in his youth; he knew that note. It meant death for whatever prey the beasts now scented.
"Let us hope it is not we who have attracted such attention," Eomer muttered, obviously thinking the same.
"I would rather not place false trust in that hope and be rudely mauled in my sleep." The Gondorian was already on his feet and climbing back into the saddle; not an easy task, for Smokechaser was sidling anxiously. Unlike Eomer's high-strung handful, the mare had been a placid well of strength throughout the long nights of goblin pursuit. To see her eyes rolling white and her ears flicking now...
It boded ill, and Eomer was not blind. "This land is no fit place to outrun pursuit," he observed tersely. He was checking Firefoot's girth, wishing now that he had not allowed the stallion to drink so deep.
"Then we move as quickly as we can." With a pat on Smokechaser's quivering shoulder, Boromir urged her into the foot-deep rivulet and turned downstream -- westwards. "And we move now."
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.