4. The paths divide
Legolas sprang away like a questing hound, eagerly following the orcs' clumsy passage through the woods. Gimli plodded behind him doggedly, setting himself a steady ground-covering pace. Behind them, Aragorn sought as easy a route as was possible for Boromir to follow, though he was barely a quarter of the way up the slopes before he had to lean heavily on Théodred's shoulder. By the time they neared the last steep rise before they crested the ravine wall, Aragorn and Théodred were all but carrying Boromir; he struggled on grimly, but his grey-white face and glazed eyes told eloquently of the agony he tried to conceal. All three were breathing strenuously by the time the rolling plains of the rocky downs fell away in front of them.
"A moment," breathed Boromir hoarsely, "just give me a moment…"
They let him slump against a rock. The exertion of the climb had pulled at the freshly-stitched wounds; his wadded bandages were soaked with sweat and blood. Aragorn searched in his pack for the shirt Legolas had left with him to tear into strips, while Théodred passed Boromir a flask of water. He received it gratefully, but could lift it only with one hand. His other arm felt heavy and useless, his shoulder and chest too painful to raise it to his lips. He drank in silence, struggling to regain his breath. The wind made him shiver. He had forgotten his back was near bare and turned to grope to pull up his cut tunic, belted again at his waist. Pain lanced white-hot through his shoulder and he swore liberally in a dull monotone, too exhausted to put inflection and temper into the colourful profanities. Théodred moved behind him to lift the embroidered tunic, now ruined by arrow, knife and blood, into place. He saw that the wound leaked a thin smear of scarlet down Boromir's pale back. Automatically, he brushed it away with his fingers, and felt the icy clamminess of the Gondorian's skin. It shocked him; Boromir felt like a dead man. Théodred drew back with an involuntary hiss.
"What is it? What's wrong?" Boromir half-turned, wincing with the effort.
"Nothing," Théodred tried to reassure him. "I was just thinking how I was going to have to explain to Amah that I helped ruin your clothes. Last time she walloped me."
Boromir's rising laugh turned to a low gargle of pain. "Don't," he breathed, "It hurts when I laugh! Anyway, that was years and years ago!"
Aragorn had found the elves' linen shirt and was tearing it into strips; he chewed and spat more athelas onto a wad of the cloth before approaching them, his hands full.
"Strip the old bandages away and we'll replace them."
Théodred did so, being as tender as he could; he sopped the caked cloths with water to make them peel away more easily. Boromir shook under his touch, gripping his sword hilt hard with his good hand so that his knuckles whitened under the strain. Aragorn probed the wounds with gentle fingers that aroused a sharp hiss at first from Boromir, before he screwed his eyes closed and held his breath. The Dunedan patted a compress of chewed leaf into place as lightly and carefully as he could. That this attention eased him was evident from Boromir's softly exhaled sigh. Aragorn worked quickly, his face very close to the wounds so that his warm breath played over them; Boromir's shoulders gradually relaxed under his ministrations. Théodred couldn't help but feel a pang of jealousy shoot through him - something that he did his best to immediately dismiss. Aragorn asked him to hold Boromir's arm raised while he wound the bandage about his chest. Doing so made the man flinch again, but he simply closed his eyes and rode the dulling pain.
"Can you fetch the other flask from my pack? The small one." Aragorn asked Théodred.
The rohir nodded and stepped away from them, his back turned. Aragorn's face was inches from Boromir's, close enough for them to lock eyes. Aragorn's hand crept to the back of Boromir's neck. He paused for a moment, seeking permission, without unlocking his gaze. Boromir closed his eyes once in acknowledgement, and Aragorn kissed him full on the mouth, not a lustful, lover's kiss, but one rich with love and goodwill. Boromir raised his good arm to grip Aragorn's shoulder in fellowship. As he broke from the lingering kiss, Aragorn paused to breathe steadily into Boromir's half-open mouth, his eyes closed in concentration as he exhaled each deep, warming breath.
They were locked so when Théodred turned and saw them, lips parted, mouth almost touching mouth. In surprise he dropped the scarred leather flask. Ducking his head to hide his face, he stooped hastily to retrieve it; when he stood they had parted, though they still gripped each other by shoulder and neck. Théodred heard Boromir sigh, as if something easier flowed through him, as he and Aragorn dropped their arms away from each other. Théodred's hand shook as he held out the flask; Aragorn's eyes were veiled as he took it in silence and handed it to Boromir.
"Only a little, it is strong," he said quietly.
Boromir put it to his lips tentatively. The strong liquor made him cough; it stung his raw throat, but sent a sense of warmth and strength through him instantly. Aragorn retrieved the flask before he took another draught.
"One is enough," he half-smiled, before he moved away to stow it back in his pack.
Théodred helped Boromir shrug his way back into his ruined surcoat; their eyes met. Théodred would have turned away, but Boromir caught his hand. He held his gaze, searching the rohir's face anxiously with bleak eyes. After a long moment Théodred answered the unspoken question with a slow nod - they were still as one.
Théodred helped Boromir to his feet. To his surprise the man stood easily, head up, eyes scanning the plain ahead. Gimli was half a mile away, a small dogged figure pounding the turf at a solid trot. Ahead was a glimmer of gold: Legolas's hair, caught by the sunlight that slipped unevenly between ragged clouds.
"We still have far to go," Theo said.
Boromir gave a brief smile, "Then we'd best be started,"
Aragorn shrugged on his pack and Boromir's shield. Théodred stooped to lift and move a heavy stone a pace or more in the direction they were taking, then placed two smaller stones in the original's hollow.
"You think your riders will follow you this far?" Aragorn asked.
Théodred looked up in surprise. "You know our stone marks?"
The Ranger nodded
"They will follow. My horse will have found his way back, and in any case, the Elves will tell them where I went."
"Elves?" asked Boromir with a frown, "What elves are those?"
"From Dwimordene… Lorien. Their captain, Haldir – he told me… no, he insisted, that I must ride for the East Wall, and refused to take 'no' for an answer. Even though I told him my place was at the Fords...."
"Haldir? You're sure?"
"I am sure! To be woken by a grey and silver ghost who introduces himself so politely… I'm not likely to ever forget him!"
'Or to stop thanking him,' Théodred added mentally to himself, sending up a benison to whomever had given the haughty elf his orders.
"Then… the Lady knows where we are?" said Boromir slowly, as he and Théodred they walked side by side. "And she knows what happen… what would have happened?"
Théodred nodded. "It was why this Haldir said it was so urgent for me to ride as hard as I could. He said my king and my… you – were in mortal danger, and that your quest, even the future of Middle-earth, hung in the balance. What that meant he refused to tell. He said you must be the one to explain…"
Boromir looked across at Aragorn, marching purposefully a few steps away, his eyes scanning the horizon. Aragorn returned the glance, expression neutral, though he must have overheard them.
"I must run ahead and catch Legolas, to see where our paths lie. I will be back. Move as quickly as you can, but don't go beyond your limits."
Then he was off after the elf like a hare pursued by coursers.
They trudged on, Boromir even finding the energy to break into a clumsy half-run, though it left him with no breath for talking. Théodred more than suspected that this was deliberate, because the Gondorian did not want to offer any further explanations of what had happened to him or to his companions. No matter, at present it would keep. Théodred jogged at his side, careful to have an arm ready to catch him should Boromir stumble.
The miles stretched long and hard ahead of them. The sun scudded between and behind the clouds as they followed its path westward, their lengthening shadows raggedly sprawling over the tough grass in their wake. Ahead they could see the three small figures of the elf, the dwarf and the ranger, and it was with worried eyes that Théodred realised that their pace far out-stretched what Boromir would ever be capable of. He glanced across; yet Boromir's head was up; he was breathing hard but he maintained a steady lope.
'He would not give in lightly', Théodred thought, 'and neither must I'.
Over the next few hours, Aragorn repeatedly ran back to check on their progress, which was becoming slower and slower. Théodred had insisted Boromir put an arm about his shoulder, but the jogging strained his torn muscles and now they only managed to stumble on at a fast walk. Although Boromir insisted he could keep going, eventually Aragorn joined Théodred; with their arms about his waist, they nearly carried Boromir for the last league or more. Gimli appeared at the top of the next rise, looking for them.
He watched the trio approach, 'this was not good, not good at all', he thought. He could see that Boromir was at the end of his strength, and the two men's loyalty was not doing them any good either. He stood his ground, waiting for them to arrive, taking a respite himself.
It was some minutes before they joined him by a group of shattered boulders atop the rise. They lowered Boromir to sit on the rocks; he slumped back, his head hanging, breathing raggedly. Aragorn straightened up. He scanned the distance, then the ground; the orcs had passed this way, but the tracks were steadily getting older. They were falling too far behind. Gimli might have read his thoughts: he looked from Boromir to Aragorn and back before speaking aloud.
"You have to make your choice, Aragorn - stay with Boromir, or leave him and come with us." The Dwarf made the statement flatly in a voice that brooked no argument. Aragorn refused to face him; he turned and stalked away a few paces, apparently searching the horizon. Boromir answered in his stead.
"Go with them… I can wait… the Riders will come. They will find me."
"No!" Both Théodred and Aragorn spoke in unison - then paused to stare at each other. Gimli shook his head.
"The Elf and I will go on. We can find the orcs and keep up with them. There will be some opportunity to free the hobbits before Isengard – Or we will make one!" he asserted.
Boromir struggled to sit up. "No. Two are not enough… not against that pack. The four of you should go. Four is few enough, but two alone will certainly do no good – you know that. Do not fail the little ones…"
He did not say 'as I did' but the phrase hung unspoken in the air. Aragorn remained silent. Boromir was right, he knew he was right, two would certainly fail, even four was no guarantee… but he could not just leave Boromir alone. That was impossible!
"I will stay with Boromir. You three, continue," said Théodred with a finality that said he had made his mind up. Boromir started to protest, but the rohir shook his head.
"Yes, you might stay for the Riders to come, but will they find you, or a corpse? If you hide, will you have the strength to crawl out and signal? They could easily ride by without seeing you."
"You've left stone marks. They will follow."
"Only if nothing disturbs the pointers. What if you sicken? If you take shelter and fall into a fever, you may not see them. No, you need me."
Aragorn stared at the horizon, his back to them. He turned slowly, his face set.
"The Prince is right. We cannot leave you alone, and the longer we delay the more hazard there is for Pippin and Merry. Frodo and Sam are beyond my reach to help, but their kinsmen I can aid - and I will."
He stooped to his pack and pulled out his ration of lembas, still wrapped tightly; this he gave to Théodred.
"This is elvish waybread. It will sustain you, though it is meant to be eaten sparingly." He handed over the last of the wilting leaves of athelas.
"If you can boil water without drawing attention to yourselves, scatter some of this in and let him drink it. If there's any left, wash the wounds with it. If you can't make fire - crush it and put the leaves inside the bandages."
Théodred took them with a nod of thanks. Aragorn laced his pack quickly. He picked up Boromir's shield and strode over to where he still sat, his back against the rocks.
"I will look for your coming in Edoras," he said softly, "or better still, we shall meet in Minas Tirith when the trumpets call you home, Lord of Gondor."
"Give me your hand, help me stand…" Boromir stretched out his hand. Aragorn took his arm and guided him to stand. They faced each other in silence, arms clasping each others forearms.
"We will meet again, my Captain… my King..." Boromir said finally. He would have made obeisance on his knee, but Aragorn would not let him sink down.
They clung to each other for the barest moment, holding each others eyes in silent acknowledgement, before Aragorn turned away. He seized up his pack and slung it around him.
"If we see the Riders we'll have them come for you. If we can, we will make for Edoras – after we rescue the Halflings." He did not add '…if we rescue the Halflings' but Théodred read it in his face.
"Good luck to you both" said Gimli gruffly. "I'll hope to see you again, and then you can offer me the hospitality of your halls, Master Horselord."
Théodred bowed in return. "It will be my honour, Master Dwarf; you will ever be welcome at my table"
"Then you'd best make it a good one!" Gimli strode swiftly over to Boromir.
"A short farewell eh? And hope for a reunion to sample some of this prince's beer." He shook Boromir's good hand warmly, then turned on his heel. In the distance Legolas appeared, hand raised to shield his eyes from the lowering sun. Aragorn raised an arm in a slow wave.
Aragorn turned to Théodred in passing, speaking quietly. "Keep him safe… his… land has need of him"
Théodred nodded; he put out his hand to clasp Aragorn's firmly in friendship and parting.
"We will return," he said. Aragorn nodded in silence – then turned and sprinted away, the dwarf pounding in his wake.
The two men watched them out of sight, lost in the bright glare of the setting sun. Théodred looked around them – they could shelter here for the night.
"In the morning… when I've rested… I will be much better after a few hours sleep. We can catch up," said Boromir.
Though they both knew that was a very optimistic thought.
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.