19. Chapter Nineteen
Marly could not bear it. “Stop, luv,” she begged her husband. “Let us all rest a moment.” The stout woman was puffing, but the perspiration that ran down her face had more to do with fear than exertion.
“No,” gasped the hobbit. “Peter, keep going. We have -”
“We have plenty o’ time,” the man interrupted him soothingly. “The ransom note said one hour after full darkness – we’ve a good half an hour yet. Frodo, let me help you. Let me try to lessen the pain if I can.”
Frodo shook his head but Peter ignored him, easing them both down upon a plank bench outside a closed tailor’s shop. When the note had been found Frodo had declared he would walk if Peter would not carry him. Never for a moment had the hobbit even considered asking the lad’s parents to spare him, to sacrifice their son for him. The knowledge that the fate of the world hung about his throat on a silver chain was an agony to him, but at that moment the fate of the world was a remote, unconnected thing, while the knowledge that a small, kind-hearted boy who had defended him was in danger because of him was real and immediate. Many wicked things had been done in the name of the evil he bore; he would not permit this one. If he had to drag himself on his belly to the gardens near the town square, he would, and no one would stop him.
Despite Frodo’s insistence the boy’s father had sat in his chair for a long time, trying to think of another way, his hands opening and closing impotently on the ransom note. He finally concluded sadly that he knew not what else he could do but accede to Frodo’s demand. Such a thing as this was outside his ability to understand, and Frodo, for all his small size, seemed much wiser than he when it came to dealing with such matters. Tears had begun to stream from his eyes as he lifted the tendril of dark, unruly hair from the paper and tucked it carefully into the breast pocket of his tunic. Then he had wiped his eyes and risen, and written a note to his elder son. Rich should be back soon but there was not time to wait for him. And Peter did not want to face him; the boy was just old enough to think himself able to handle adult affairs. His father did not want him to be present when they left with Frodo, not least because he was shamed that he could think of no other alternative than to give in to Brion’s captors demands. Both he and their mother could endure this better if one of their children was safe.
Frodo had held out his arms and Peter had picked him up, Marly weeping but silent at his side. The man had been as gentle as he possibly could be, but picking up the hobbit then walking with him had opened the floodgates of pain that had been mercifully dammed. The hobbit’s leg continued to drain foul-smelling yellowish liquid, staining the bandages. Peter pointed out the sights of their little town as they walked; the blacksmith’s forge, the stables, an alehouse that boasted an excellent brew. He did not think the hobbit was paying much attention, but the sound of his own voice comforted him, and perhaps distracted Frodo from a little of his misery.
Peter winced as the hobbit’s small hands tightened on his arms with unexpected strength, bracing his back against the rough outer wall of the shop. He shifted the hobbit in his lap, urging Frodo to lean back against his wife so that he could examine the leg. Marly wrapped her arms around him and pillowed his head on her breast. She had always comforted her children so, and her husband too in times of great grief, as when he had given up his dream of being a healer. She knew that Frodo was an adult among his own folk, but the mother in her would never believe that a dear one was too old to be babied. Stroking the dark curls, she could not help but think of how much he reminded her of Brion. Terror kindled anew in her heart for her child in the hands of a kidnapper.
Shuddering, Frodo complied, and for a moment seemed actually to relax just a little. Then he abruptly wrenched his eyes open. “We must not be late! My leg is fine. Peter, please. What is the hour?” Frodo stared about him, obviously confused. “We must go at once, or we will be late.”
Trying to soothe Frodo with soft shushing noises the man’s rough-skinned but gentle hands continued to unwrap the linens, peeling them back from the swollen, discolored leg. Frodo made a small, involuntary sound and stiffened against Marly’s body. Her arms tightened around him and she cooed quiet reassurances, as if he were one of her own.
Peter collected the soiled bandages and set them aside. He hesitated momentarily, thinking of the cost of linen, then balled them tightly and added them to a pile of rubbish that spilled from an alley. After a moment, he nudged them under the pile with a foot. It was almost too dark to see, but his skilled fingers told him that the swelling was greater than before, and just by holding his hand above the injured limb he could feel the increased heat coming from the infection. Helplessly, he looked at his wife over Frodo’s head. Her arms tightened around the hobbit at the fear she saw there.
Peter pulled out a roll of fresh linen from his pocket and commenced re-wrapping the leg. Frodo did not resist, forcing himself to remain so still that his entire body quivered with the effort of it. When the bandaging was done, the man offered him a drink from his water skin and the hobbit accepted gratefully.
“Thank you,” Frodo whispered, wiping his mouth with the sleeve of Brion’s borrowed nightshirt. “Now may we go on?”
Wordlessly, Peter slid an arm under the hobbit’s knees and the other around his shoulders. Frodo grit his teeth together as the man lifted him as carefully as he could. Marly moved in front of them and pulled the edges of her husband’s cloak over the small form. Her gentle hands lingered on the clasp, then reached up to softly touch Peter’s cheek but there was no real comfort for any of them.
Farther away and several streets over, two tall forms sought the dictated exchange-place by another route, delayed slightly by a wrong turning caused by the narrow, ill-lit streets. Legolas’ fine nostrils flared distastefully as he examined the slimy cobblestones that paved the larger intersection. “Foul oppressive place,” he muttered under his breath, earning him a soft, strained laugh from his companion.
“The towns of Men do not appeal to you?” Aragorn teased.
“This one does not. There is nothing green and growing here. Other than slime on the paving-stones.”
“Such is the reason that Men construct gardens, my friend.”
The Elf shook his head, luminous eyes reflecting the light of emerging stars. “Such places are artificial, Aragorn, and no true gardens. The trees and grasses are crowded together, as if Men begrudge them the space to grow. They are dark and close and shadowed and cannot raise their song to the sky.”
“That is surely the reason the boy’s kidnapper chose such a place. Darkness and concealing branches and shrubbery. There will be no watching eyes as those good people are forced to trade Frodo for their son.” Aragorn hesitated at another intersection, growling something to himself about “rabbit warrens.” Then he made up his mind and the two moved swiftly and silently towards the rendezvous place.
Rich and the two young hobbits were following a faster route, ducking through alleys in a path that would have thoroughly confused someone not born in the little town. They clambered over a short picket fence and dropped on the other side, breathing heavily. Pippin stifled a yelp when his blistered feet landed in a puddle, then swished them in the cool mud.
Merry leaned against the fence, gathering his breath for a moment. “I’m sorry, Pip. The boots weren’t such a good idea, were they?”
“I don’t think we could pass for human children anyway, Merry,” Pippin replied. “It was a good effort, though.” He gave his cousin’s arm an encouraging squeeze and Merry nodded dismally. So far they had been fortunate. People worked hard and retired early in this little town, and no Big Folk had witnessed their furtive progress.
Rich sucked in a breath of cool air and let it out noisily. “Come on, then,” he whispered, and the hobbits did, silently, limping slightly.
* * * * *
Not so far from the root cellar where a wizard searched for a Ring-bearer using powers outside of mortal understanding, another rejoiced in the falling night. The commander of the guard stood outside the cell that contained the focus of years of hatred. Revenge would not bring back his own lost loved ones, but the pain that Denethor would soon bear for the loss of his son and heir was a balm to a dead and bitter heart.
The commander had dismissed all of his men, including the guardsman scheduled for the watch upon the prisoner, proclaiming that he would take the night watch alone this night. The man had been reluctant to leave, more than a little afraid, distrustful of his superior’s dark, fey mood. He had offered to stay and share the duty, but the commander had dismissed him abruptly, then followed him out as the man left for the evening, marking that he had indeed departed.
Boromir rose when the commander entered the holding area, wary and apprehensive. Yet the man did nothing but stand and stare at him, hands behind his back. “Did you wish to speak to me?” Boromir asked.
The man straightened and his cold grey eyes glittered. “Your father bereaved me of all that I cared about. Now I shall do the same for him.” Cold trepidation woke in Boromir’s breast and he backed slowly and carefully from the bars, his mind cataloging what in the small cell could be used for defense or attack. If he could reach a bench in time, it would make a passable shield. A blanket might be used as a whip. The chamber pot might be thrown. But there was little else in this stark, bare room.
“It was said even so many years ago that you were the favored son,” the commander said quietly. “That Denethor loved you above all else, even above your brother Faramir. I…” the man stopped and swallowed convulsively. “I cannot say which of my sons I treasured most; they were all so different in their looks and minds and hearts. But each one I loved, and when they died, one by one, I followed them into the grave. If there is truly justice in the world, your father’s heart will break as mine did, though it be only once and not five times over.”
The commander’s eyes met the soldier of Gondor’s and the glittering fey look in them increased, the oil lamps set high on the wall lending his eyes a metallic sheen, unnatural and inhuman. He shifted slightly and Boromir’s heart caught in his throat as he glimpsed the crossbow the man held loosely behind his body, a bolt already loaded and resting in the cradle. Gandalf, thought Boromir desperately, help! Help!
The watch that the wizard had set over the incarcerated member of the Company alerted Gandalf at the sudden agitation then flaring of the life-spark that was Boromir. Gandalf was aware of it immediately, brought his full attention to bear upon it. He stood quickly and narrowly avoided bashing his head on the beam again. Staff in hand, the wizard was out of the root cellar and running towards the guardhouse, robes billowing behind him at a pace that few would have credited him for.
Boromir fetched up against the bench, his cautious retreat ended by the solid wood. As he moved back, the commander moved forward, until his hand rested on the cell’s lock. A clicking noise and the door swung open. Boromir held himself very still. “What is this trickery?” he asked, in as even a tone as he could manage. “What do you do?”
The commander smiled dangerously at him, moving away from the door. “You are escaping, Lord Boromir.”
“No,” Boromir replied carefully. “I am not.”
The commander moved the crossbow from behind him and leveled it at his captive’s heart. “Yes, you are. Ignobly escaping legal incarceration. Come out, my lord. A bolt in your heart will be difficult to explain if you are supposed to be fleeing.”
Rage sparked in Boromir’s heart. “Do not speak of ignoble acts. You held a position of command in the White Tower. You swore to uphold the highest standards of honor. You cannot do this thing.”
To Boromir’s surprise, the commander did not grow angry but only laughed, or perhaps choked. “My honor is buried beside my wife and sons in the cemetery of Minas Tirith. Come out, you who were once my lord, or I will shoot you where you stand. Then I will simply claim that I came upon you just as you had picked the lock and opened the door.”
Given no choice and deciding that each moment that he could buy was precious, Boromir edged out of the cell. He kept his back to the wall as he edged along it, out of the cell area and into the front of the guardhouse. The commander followed, the crossbow trembling in his hand. “I gave your sword and shield to your companions,” the man said in that cool, disinterested voice. “As well as the fabled Horn of Gondor. I have seen it but from a distance until now. Perhaps they will return it to your father with your body.”
The man steadied his hold on the crossbow and Boromir readied himself for a desperate, futile lunge. He knew he could not possibly outspeed the bolt. He would never know if the Quest succeeded or the final fates of his now dear companions. If Minas Tirith weathered the storm. The dawn of a new age or the destruction of the very world, he would never know.
The commander whirled as a bearded, cloaked fury flew in the door, a force unguessed smashing it back on its hinges so hard that the iron gave, sending the seasoned oak crashing to the floor. The fury raised a glowing staff and leveled it at the armed man.
The commander reacted without thinking, long years of training under the stern discipline of the Steward dictating his actions without conscious thought. He refocused on this new threat and his finger tightened on the trigger. Then a hard body crashed into him, throwing off his killing aim.
The bolt went wild, missing the intruder’s throat by inches. Instead it struck the oil lamp to Gandalf’s left, shattering it. Glass sprayed the floor. The burning wick fell, igniting the sheet of oil that streamed down the wall and puddled on the wooden floor. It caught the oak door and within but seconds, floor and door and building were aflame.
“Gandalf!” shouted Boromir, rolling himself off the commander. Crushed by the soldier’s weight, the man was gasping on the floor, half-conscious, the spent bow fallen from nerveless fingers. Boromir reared back and for good measure, awarded him a hard blow to the chin. The man’s head snapped back and he went limp, oblivious.
Strong bony fingers dug into Boromir’s arm. “We must get out!” the wizard bellowed in his ear. The flames had already spread to the watch’s desk, to the stacks of papers piled upon it. Fire crackled, roaring with a voice of its own, and thick smoke billowed in the upper air of the room. Choking on the smoke, Boromir lurched to his feet, gaining his balance against the wizard’s shoulder. Pain erupted suddenly on his arm and he used his other hand to hastily beat out a small flame feasting on his sleeve. Anger and temptation warred within him but for a moment, then he knelt and lifted the unconscious commander and threw him over his shoulder.
Tongues of flame licked about him, snatching hungrily at his clothing, but it seemed to Boromir that they ignored the flowing robes of the wizard. Gandalf walked unmolested through the flames and they parted to let him pass. Boromir did not question but pressed himself against the wizard’s back, his burden heavy on his shoulder. Coughing and stumbling, he followed the wizard from the inferno.