3. Of Flight And Fading Hope
They were running again, and this time it was far worse. Nothing makes a man's stomach crawl like being forced to wend slowly, ever so slowly, across exposed open spaces while danger approaches swiftly from behind. They urged the horses as fast as they dared, but the land was now a wild beautiful broken place of thistles and gorse, stone ridges, sharp drops carved by swift icy streams, and loose slate-gravel slopes innocently clothed in the last vegetation of the year. Every hasty step risked a broken leg, and that would spell death for certain.
As if that were not bad enough, whatever was on their trail was not deterred by sunlight. Resting was no longer an option. They'd already ridden all through the previous day; as misty night rolled into hazy cold morn and onward, the horses were stumbling with weariness and their riders were not much better. Boromir, who had never been able to master the art of sleeping in the saddle, caught himself dozing off as the sun rolled down towards evening.
He cursed and shook himself awake, but he needn't have worried. Eomer, who usually had no trouble catching a nap on long dull rides, was too unnerved to close his eyes -- not because of their pursuit, oddly, but because the uneven terrain was beginning to give way to forest. As branches closed over their heads with increasing frequency, Boromir blearily noticed that his comrade was peering about with ill-concealed...unease?
No, he realized with a start. He is afraid.
"Is there something you have not told me of this land? Some terrifying legend, some dark rumor?" he asked as evening shadows streamed across their path. The woods were a blessing, for there the stones underfoot gave way to leafy loam and they were making far better time. However, Eomer looked drawn and pale, and he rode hunched as if he wanted to duck between his shoulders and vanish.
"Dark rumor...? Not of this land, no." The Rider bit his lip, glancing overhead as if he expected the trees to bend down and devour them whole. "It is simply that...I have never set foot in a roadless forest before."
Boromir was too tired to be tactful -- he laughed, though briefly. "We are fleeing for our lives from some unknown evil most likely set upon our trail by those accursed goblins, and you fear the trees?! This is a strange thing indeed! Did you tumble from a high branch when you were very small?"
Eomer cast him a sour look. "You would not scoff had you been raised in the Mark. We are well acquainted with two ancient forests: Fangorn to the high west and the Goldenwood beyond that. No man who enters either ever returns."
"Ah. Is that all...? Unless we are more lost than any men in the history of questing, I can assure you that this is neither Fangorn nor Lothlorien. I am rather certain I would have noticed had we accidentally crossed the mountains--"
"I am no child, do not patronize me!" Eomer snarled angrily. Almost instantly, however, his expression shifted to mortification. "Forgive me. I know you were merely trying to lighten the mood. I...perhaps we should just ride."
Boromir was taken aback but not angered. "Perhaps that is best," he said neutrally. "Surely we will reach open ground again beyond the next ridge."
They did not. The woods continued, much to Eomer's discomfort; the footing improved, but the ground was rising. Starlight and moonlight eased their way in the night, but by the next morning both men and animals were drawn with exhaustion. They'd eaten dry rations in the saddle and risked quick breaks to allow the horses a few unbridled mouthfuls of grass, but they could risk no more than that. The howls were drawing inexorably closer. They'd gained a fair lead among the trees, but now the horses were flagging and there was no end in sight--
And then there was. Just as the sun broke over the mountains, they topped the rise they'd been steadily climbing for hours...and, below, a wide valley rolled away to the north, offering a welcoming patchwork of forest and clearing.
Even better, a silvery river sprang from the rumpled valleys at the head of the lowlands and wended away west. There, it met another such stream and vanished over the horizon. From their high angle, it looked very much like...
"I told you we would know the Bruinen when we saw it!" Eomer exultantly cuffed Boromir on the arm. "An easy downhill course, a morning's gallop to the riverbank, and who knows? We may yet survive to be used for target practice by the guardians of Imladris!"
Boromir spared him a worn ghost of a smile. "They need not waste arrows on us -- we would save them the trouble and drop dead at their feet. Gallop? Ah! I remember galloping, long ago when I was a younger man. Hup, Smokey m'lady. Let us see what we have left--"
Firefoot's ears suddenly pinned back. He bunched his hindquarters and pivoted sharply, almost pulling Eomer's arms from their sockets. Without hesitation, Boromir wheeled his mare and recklessly leaned out to entangle his fist in the stallion's bridle. He was nearly yanked from his saddle, but he clamped his knees tight and braced his broad shoulders and held fast.
Thus, both he and Eomer witnessed what had goaded the grey charger into battle-readiness...
A shift in the wind suddenly burned their senses with a foul rotting stench. At the base of the rise, along the very path they had forged less than an hour before, underbrush shook and branches snapped...and then an ugly head lifted to scent the trail with a broad snout. It had powerful wide haunches and sharp black eyes and a mouthful of jagged fangs.
It was not alone. Other monstrous shapes were emerging from the shadows on either side. And then, with a horrible wet snuffling snort audible even far above, it stared straight up at them.
Somehow Eomer found enough strength of arm and will to drag Firefoot back, to turn him -- the stallion was sick of running, he wanted to attack! However, those beasts were not wolves, and they were easily more than half the size of a horse. One look was enough to convince both men that their only chance lay in seeking a more defensible position. The knife-edged ridge was an excellent vantage point, but it offered scant purchase for fighting hooves. One slip and it would be all over.
Behind them the pack burst into full cry, a gleeful cacophony which froze the guts with terror...but the horses were already away, down the sparsely-wooded slope. Faster and faster -- by the time they leveled out at the bottom they were galloping harder than they had for days, long ground-eating strides born of desperation and lent wings by the downslope charge.
Leaves flew underfoot; trees flashed past, clearings flickered sunlight and were gone. Grey stallion and bay mare snorted hard with each stride as they used their last reserves, striving to...what? Reach the river? Boromir could not think through the haze of exhaustion, and he knew Eomer was no better. They were trying to reach the river...why?
Clarity struck, and his stomach clenched. Because they'd been trying to reach the river all along. Because it was their destination. It was where they had to be, to find Imladris...but Imladris wasn't on the river. Nothing was. From their brief vantage point on the ridge above they had seen no civilization, not even a farm, as far as the eye could roam. The river was merely the final clue in the puzzle of dream and song. It was no safe haven. There was no one there to help them, nowhere to hide, no choice but to stand and fight on the bank of the Bruinen despite leaden arms and blurring eyes...
The baying behind them grew suddenly louder -- the pack must have cleared the ridge -- and then just as suddenly went silent. This was far worse, for now they could not discern where the beasts were. Still behind them? Or circling to the sides...?
Sun flashed on metal as both men reached the same conclusion and drew their weapons: Boromir with his heavy longsword and Eomer with Guthwine, his lighter Rohirric blade. Spear and shield would not avail them now. Everything felt distant and unreal, for the young forest around them was beautiful in the first light of the day. Birds twittered in the distance, but not here. Here the only sound was the drumming of hooves on leaf-drifted earth, and the harsh rhythmic blowing snorts of exhausted steeds fighting for breath...
They did not reach the river. After all that, after everything, they failed.
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.