14. Riders of the Mark
"One, two. Counter! Aye, that's it! Three, four, good! Watch your feet. Keep them moving. Remember, tread lightly."
Panting with exertion, Hallas tried to follow Boromir's rapid instructions. The sounds of his gasped breath mingled with the noise of wood on wood.
"Ow!" Boromir grunted. Following a particular unusual riposte, Hallas's practice sword had slipped through his defenses and struck his forearm. He rubbed the sore flesh, seeing a bruise already form. Inexperienced recruits were the most dangerous to train; they always did the unexpected. "That's enough for now."
"I'm sorry!" Hallas said, dropping his sword. "I didn't mean to hit you."
"I would hope you did," Boromir said with a smile. "That is the entire purpose of a sword. Just mind this lesson and I will consider a bruise a small price to pay: even if you believe you know what your opponent is going to do, you should always be prepared for the unforeseen. You did well."
Pink rose to the boy's cheeks and Hallas beamed with the praise.
"At the next smithy we find," Boromir continued, "we must see about getting you a real sword. I believe you are ready."
"Really?" Hallas said. He was bobbing with delight. "Then will you also teach me how to kill orcs?"
Boromir laughed. "All in good time, son. All in good time."
It was not long ago that the boy had wanted to adopt baby orcs and raise them like pets. But Boromir's warnings about the viciousness of orcs had not gone unheeded. Neither had some of the stories the boy demanded he tell.
"You are still a long way away from killing anything. Let us start by acquainting you with the feel of a real blade in your hand, all right?"
"Can't I try with yours?"
"My blade is not fit for you," Boromir said. "Your arms are shorter than mine, and you do not yet have the strength of a grown man."
Secretly, he was rather proud of his young pupil, who had made remarkable progress in wielding his wooden sword. The boy had taken to handling the weapon like a natural-born swordsman; he was a joy to teach. Not even two full months had passed since Boromir rescued Hallas out of the river, yet he could barely recall the days spent alone. He had never realized how lonely he had been with but a dog and a horse to keep him company until he found the orphaned boy and took him under his wing. With his youthful zeal, never-relenting questions and keen interest in learning new things, Hallas provided a much-needed diversion from Boromir's own glum thoughts. And though he did not want to admit it, Boromir was especially glad to have found someone to whom he could pass on his extensive skill with a blade. Hallas had proven an eager pupil, as eager to learn how to handle a sword as Merry or Pippin.
"Erandír?" Hallas broke in on his thoughts.
Boromir realized he had been staring off in the distance, seeing the past, for several long minutes. He shook himself.
"We better pack up," he said, grabbing his shirt and pulling it over his head. "There are some hours of daylight left. We can still get a few miles beneath our feet."
"Aye." Hallas collected the makeshift practice swords in one hand, hoisted his small pack upon his shoulders with the other and was ready to go on. The days had grown long and hot, the nights short and warm as spring was about to give way to summer; the travelers wore linen undershirts and breeches, and not much else. Boromir's wool cloak and rain cape were stuffed deep inside Barangol's saddlebags, no longer needed.
Each day brought more sunshine, and the open spaces among the trees were bright green with new growth, dotted with white and yellow daisies, red poppies and purple violets. The forest was alive with birdsong and chicks called for their parents among fresh shoots. Barangol enjoyed the new grasses while Híril had a grand time chasing buzzing bees or squeaking rodents hither and yon, her antics often eliciting a laugh from her masters. They made easy progress in the dry weather, although Boromir paused each afternoon for an hour or so. He used that time to instruct his pupil further in sword fighting. One day he tried to give the boy an archery-lesson, but he quickly learned that Hallas was his better with bow and arrow and Boromir had nothing to teach him.
"My father often took me hunting," the boy explained after he struck the target three times in a row, "when I was still very little."
Thus Boromir confined his lessons to swordsmanship and war tactics, or told the boy old battle tales. Hallas took it all in with an enthusiasm that brought his younger brother to Boromir's mind, in earlier days when Faramir was allowed free run of the libraries of Minas Tirith and absorbed the history of Gondor as if the fate of the world depended upon it.
Despite the abundance of life, people were scarce in the thickly forested vales between the hills of the Pinnath Gelin and the White Mountains. Sometimes, a week or more would pass without them seeing another living soul. Occasionally they came upon a small farm or trapper's house, and villages were even scarcer. The people they did meet were a suspicious lot, not welcoming to strangers. Thus, even when a hamlet was nearby, Boromir and Hallas rarely stayed for longer than a brief visit to buy supplies, and camped beneath the stars.
The people who lived in the vales were generally small of stature with wide faces and it was obvious that the blood of the Púkelmen ran still in their veins. Gondor's cities were many weeks' riding away and the hillfolk kept to themselves. They were farmers or huntsmen and indifferent to Gondor's politics. Yet, when a pair of wargs had strayed far from their usual haunts in the Misty Mountains and was terrorizing a small farming community, the local men had been glad for the addition of Boromir's sword to their arrows and knifes. He had killed one of the beasts single-handedly, leaving the villagers awestruck. Little children hid behind their mothers' skirts, much to Boromir's chagrin, while Hallas strutted around filled with pride about his master. He told everyone who would listen about Boromir's many mighty deeds, embellishing his tales until they took on epic proportions and Boromir ordered him to silence.
"What can we give you in return?" the village chieftain, an elderly man with white whiskers and deep-set eyes, had asked while the last ashes of the incinerated warg corpses drifted away in the wind. "We wish to repay you for your help."
"A horse," Boromir answered, not needing long to think. "For my fanciful friend."
"'Tis a fair price," the chieftain said. He took them to the stables where Hallas chose a pale dun animal. Though not quite large enough to be called a horse, the pony was sturdy and strong, and reminded Boromir of Sam's faithful Bill.
"You've made a good choice," the headman agreed. "My own daughter likes to ride him sometimes. He should not give you much trouble."
More weeks passed. With both Boromir and Hallas riding their own mount, they made even better progress and it was not long before they reached the Gondorian border.
Boromir halted Barangol when the horse crested a hill. Far below, a silver ribbon glistened among the trees. It meandered from north to south in an erratic course, always seeking the lowest land. To their left, the river faded into the murky distance, and on the right it disappeared among the hills it sprang from.
"That's a big river," Hallas said. "Is that the Anduin?"
"The Anduin?" Boromir chuckled. "I should hope not. No, this is the Isen."
He dismounted and drew some lines in the dirt. "See? This is the Isen River. It is the western border of Gondor. We are here." He marked the ground with an X. "The sea is to the south. If you follow the river with your eyes as far as you can see and look closely, you can just make out its waters. The Anduin is far to the east, about here." He drew another line in the dirt.
"Show me where my house is," Hallas said. "And Minas Tirith? I would like to see the White Tower some day."
Boromir made two new marks and pointed with the tip of his knife. "This is Erech. And Minas Tirith is here, near the Anduin, on the eastern edge of the Ered Nimrais."
Hallas studied the makeshift map for a moment. "Oh," he said, not able to hide his disappointment. "That looks far away."
Boromir laughed. "It is. It would take many months to travel to Minas Tirith. Perhaps some day you will visit. But for now, I am taking us further west, out of Gondor."
"Will you tell me again about the Tower?"
"Ah, the Tower of Ecthelion."
Boromir turned away from the river and stared off into the distance, gazing east the way they had come as though he might see the walls of Minas Tirith if he looked hard enough.
"The Tower is a thing of beauty that rivals the Elven cities of myth. It glows red in the dawn, when the first rays of the sun strike it and the city at its foot is still cloaked in night. It is white in the glare of a summer's day, so white it can pain the eye, sparkling as brightly as those peaks you see to the north. And at night... At night the Tower burns with silver beneath the moonlight. Aye, the White Tower of Minas Tirith, how I wish to lay eyes on it again!"
"Then why aren't we going there?"
Boromir shook himself out of his memories. "Maybe some day," he said curtly. "For now, we should get down this hill and find a place to cross the Isen."
The river was wide and deep, and they were forced to follow it north for many leagues, looking for a place Boromir deemed safe enough to cross with a boy and a pony in his party. They rode on until they came upon the Adorn, a large side river that added a substantial amount of water to the Isen's flow. Boromir had no choice; he would have to ford the Adorn first. Once he did, he would have left Gondor and entered Rohan, a realm he would have preferred to bypass altogether.
But perhaps, relieved of the inflow of its tributary, the Isen would prove less of an obstacle.
They spent the night on the southern bank of the river Adorn. His last night in Gondor; tomorrow he would leave his homeland behind once again -- and this time perhaps for good. Boromir was awake for most of the night.
Still more days passed and they had yet to find a way to get to the west of the Isen. Meltwater from the mountains kept the river swollen, even at the height of summer, and the banks were steep and dangerous, the stream swift and deep.
Boromir watched their continued travel north with growing unease. Soon they would approach the Fords of the Isen, at the Gap of Rohan. It would be a simple matter to cross the river at the fords and head west through the Gap; however, the Rohirrim would have set a guard. He did not desire to meet the horselords. Someone might recognize him for Gondor's former Captain-General; though his visits had been more rare than he had liked, he had stayed in Edoras often enough that it was a just concern.
But while Boromir looked ahead with trepidation, danger came from behind. A company of riders appeared in the south-east, following along the feet of the White Mountains. Boromir noticed them too late to find shelter before they were detected. He and Hallas were traveling across the open plains of the Mark; the nearest hiding place was a copse of trees they might have tried to make a run for if their horses had not been weary from long days of travel. Boromir did not want to risk being caught while appearing to flee. The Rohirrim were bound to experience the occasional attack from Dunlendings still; they would likely fly arrows first, and ask questions later. And none could shoot from the saddle like the horsemasters.
He brought Barangol to a halt and turned his horse to await the riders. He would have to chance meeting them, and hope for the best.
Hallas inched his pony close to Boromir. "Who are they?" he asked. There was a slight tremor in his voice.
Boromir couldn't fault the boy. An éored bearing down at full speed was a frightening sight indeed. They left a great dust cloud to drift gently in the wake of their passing.
"There is no need to worry," he told Hallas. "They are the Rohirrim. They have ever been friends to Gondor. Their king, Éomer, has fought side by side with King Elessar."
His initial fears eased, the boy sat up straighter on his pony, and an interested glint appeared in his eyes.
When the riders came closer, and he could make out individual horses and riders, Boromir realized that his initial tally was wrong. The group was more likely half an éored, sixty men. Still, it was a force to be reckoned with. The riders' pikes stood tall, their banners of the white horse on green flapped proudly, and the sun glinted off of shining armor.
They watched as the mass of horses and riders came to a stop in a flurry of dust. Their captain urged his horse forward and took off his helmet. Boromir was relieved to find he did not know the man whose golden hair fluttered in the wind.
"In the name of Éomer King, state your name and your business in Rohan."
"My master is Erandír," Hallas said before Boromir could reply. In the face of Boromir's reassurances about the Rohirrim friendship to Gondor, he seemed to have lost all fear of the powerful riders. "And I am Hallas. My master's business is his own."
Boromir was not sure whether to laugh or cuff the boy's head in annoyance. By the look on the captain's face, the rider was equally in doubt, taken aback by the child's forwardness.
"We are travelers from Gondor," Boromir said. "We seek passage across the Isen."
"From Gondor?" the captain said. "'Tis a strange path you have chosen to travel. Most travelers use the Great West Road nowadays. The roads are safe while the wilds are not."
"My master has nothing to fear," Hallas piped up. "He has fought in the war and slain many orcs. He killed a warg all by himself a little while back."
"Be still!" Boromir snapped. This time, he would have boxed the boy's ears if he had still been within arm's reach. But his pony had stepped sideways.
"The lad's exaggerating," he said with a shrug. "Though I did fight for the White City when it was besieged."
"Then you are a friend of Rohan's," the captain said. He gestured at his men to lower their guard. "I am Wulfwine of the Westmarch. We are on our way to the fords to bring relief to the troops guarding it. You are welcome to ride with us."
They shared the riders' fire and supper near the fords that evening. Hallas was beside himself with joy at being in the company of such mighty soldiers. Much to everyone's amusement, he demonstrated his new sword skills and he never stopped asking questions of anyone who was willing to answer them. He wanted to know about their weapons, their horses, the emblem on their banners, and was most eager to hear about Éomer King and the battles of the war.
After supper, Boromir soon lost sight of him altogether.
"He's not your son, is he?" Wulfwine asked Boromir over a cup of ale from the garrison's stocks.
"No," Boromir answered. "He's an orphan." He explained how he found Hallas.
"I took him along. I could not leave him. And he seems quite happy as my 'squire'."
"That he does," Wulfwine agreed. "So. Where are you headed, Master Erandír, if you don't mind my asking?"
Boromir lifted a hand and gave a vague wave toward the land on the opposite bank of the Isen. "West. I do not know yet where my path will take me."
They were silent for a while. Then Boromir gathered his courage. "What news can you give me of Minas Tirith?" he said. "I left not long after King Elessar was crowned and much must have happened in the city since." The desire to hear of his home had been on his mind since he first detected the riders and he was not sure it was wise to broach the subject. It might lead to questions he was not willing to answer. However, the need to know had outgrown his concern.
"Aye, I would imagine. I fear I cannot tell you much, though." Wulfwine paused to collect his thoughts. "'Twas with the funeral escort for Théoden King that I left Gondor. And that is all but a year past. I would like to visit your city again in better times. I suspect that I will, too, with the new kinship bonds between our king and your steward."
It took Boromir a moment to digest the words. "What?"
"Oh, you are bereft of tidings indeed!" Wulfwine exclaimed. "I believe I can give you some news after all. Aye, this spring the Steward of Gondor wedded the Lady Éowyn, sister to Éomer King. And," Wulfwine grinned, "it is whispered that one of the finest ladies of Gondor has captured the heart of Éomer. The women of Edoras expect another wedding soon."
Boromir was speechless. Before he left, Faramir had mentioned something about a white lady from Rohan who stayed in the Houses of Healing but truth be told, at the time he had been too occupied with his own woes to pay his brother much mind. He did recall the Lady Éowyn from his visits to the Golden Hall; a pale, aloof woman of cool beauty, with a hint of sorrow buried beneath her grave demeanor. And now she was his kinswoman. Sadness for all the important events he had missed warred with happiness at the joyful news. He longed to know more but did not dare ask. He could not stop the slow smile breaking on his face, though.
"Those are good tidings! I thank you for your news. I will travel with a lighter heart, to know that things are well in Gondor."
"I suppose it cannot be easy to leave your land behind," Wulfwine said. He gazed into the fire for a moment. "I would have no desire to depart the golden plains of the Westmarch for such an uncertain journey as yours. But if you must, you best stay on the road," he changed the subject. "As I said, the roads are safe, but many evils live in the wilds still. Not all vermin of Isengard have been accounted for. And the Dunlanders still dislike us as much as ever."
"Hence the many riders here at the fords," Boromir understood.
"Aye," Wulfwine confirmed.
Hallas returned to their fire and forestalled any further soldier talk. He stood swaying on his legs a little. Boromir narrowed his eyes and sniffed. "Have they been feeding you ale?"
"Aye." Hallas giggled. "And they taught me a song about the war. Listen, Erandír!"
"Raise a jug for the wizard gray
all praise to his long sight,
and the dwarf with the axe whose fierce attacks
beat back the orcish horde.
Here now dear, bring another beer..."
Wulfwine laughed. "The lads learned that song in Gondor," he said. "I did not know they sing it still. But you've got the words wrong, boy. This is how it goes."
The captain began to sing the words in a surprisingly melodious baritone.
"Drink when day is done to the Steward's son,
the Captain-General bold,
To defend the small he gave his all,
and his deeds will long be told."
The words hit Boromir like an arrow to the chest. He felt the blood leave his face, and all of a sudden found it hard to draw breath. Wulfwine sang on.
"For the valiant Pip we'll take a sip
of the ale that's Gondor's pride,
Then drink to the fame of Merry's name,
When he stood--"
"Excuse me," Boromir croaked, interrupting the Rohirrim captain mid-verse. He could feel Wulfwine's startled gaze on his back as he stumbled away from the fire.
The song was mistaken. It was wrong! He did not deserve to be mentioned in such a song of heroes. What would people sing about him if they knew the truth?
Hallas tugged on his sleeve. "Are you all right, Erandír?"
Boromir took deep breaths, trying to get his emotions under control.
"Yes," he barked hoarsely. "I am fine. Now, get yourself some sleep and forget that nonsense they taught you. We haven taken up enough of the Rohirrim hospitality, we leave at first light."
Author's note: I'm indebted to Lyllyn who let me borrow (and mangle!) her wonderful Drinking Song To The Fellowship.
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.