25. Final Gathering
For Lady Branwyn, SugarAnnie, Tiggerskate, and Ignoble Bard for their birthdays.
Reference is made here to a drabble-and-a-half to be found in "Wherever the Prompt may Lead" and to the stories "The First Snowfall of the Season" and "Honor Avenged," as well as to the original character Gilfileg first introduced in "The King's Commission."
The next morning Boromir awoke feeling particularly content, although his right shoulder was rather sore. Apparently, he realized, one uses different muscles throwing snowballs from those used when wielding a sword. But it was the healthy ache of exertion, and he found he reveled in it. The sky outside his window had a crystalline clarity to it when he peered past the heavy draperies, all clouds driven away during the night. The snow sparkled like diamonds under the light of the rising Sun as Anor peered over the mountain peaks, indicating that it was, if possible, even colder outside the Last Homely House than it had been the day before. More snow had fallen the previous evening, and he saw no signs of the great snow battle that had occurred yesterday. Indeed, the snow appeared virgin, untrammeled by the feet of anyone. Then he heard laughter and singing, and the Elf Legolas, who was to be part of the company, came gaily from the direction of the stables, clad as if it were early autumn rather than winter and wearing but light leather boots upon his feet, leaving no footprints behind him as he approached the doors to the wing in which he was housed, and Boromir felt his scalp prickle at this reminder that Elves were of a different nature than were Men.
He headed toward the dining room, but stopped when he heard the murmur of Hobbit voices not far inside the main doors of the place. Merry, Sam, and Pippin stood there, again dressed to go outside. "You think it will work, Sam?" Pippin was saying.
The gardener nodded. "I'm as certain as wind through willows," he said, his expression particularly determined. "We daren't call him to open his windows, for he'll guess for certain what we're up to, but he'll never suspect there's anythin' up if Strider taps at them. And you heard Mr. Glorfindel tellin' Gandalf that the word's come as Strider's nearly here from the Ford already. Considerin' the hard time Mr. Frodo give him comin' out of Bree, I'm thinkin' as he'll see fit to help us lure Frodo out."
Boromir joined the three Hobbits. "What is this? Do you intend to betray Master Baggins, then?"
"Oh, yes," Merry said, more than a hint of relish in his voice. "Considering all the years he's waited for us at the first snowfall of the season to pelt us with snowballs, we've decided that the second day this year is our turn to take revenge. And we shall enjoy it, thoroughly!" He looked up in challenge to catch the Man's eye. "Are you with us, Boromir?"
How could the warrior pass up such an opportunity?
Pippin accompanied him back to his room to fetch his cloak and gloves, chattering steadily. "Frodo's been getting us all the first snowfall of the season for as long as I can remember, and both Merry and Sam say the same. So, today we intend to get our own back on him. After all, he likes Strider now, and trusts him implicitly. So we're going to wait until Strider approaches the door with our plan, and hopefully he'll agree to go along with it. After all, he has good reason to know just how devious Frodo can be."
"And what reason would he have to wish to aid you in your campaign?"
Pippin shrugged wryly. "Well, it was just after we accepted his offer to lead us to Rivendell. Now, Frodo trusted Strider almost straight away, you see, although Sam thought him the most likely villain he'd ever seen, and neither Merry nor I was quite certain just what to think of him. It was obvious he wasn't used to traveling with Hobbits. Now we know that he'd known Bilbo here for years, but we had no way of knowing that then. But he kept forgetting to shorten his stride, and would get out of sight—often, and it was annoying Frodo no end. And then he was disrespectful toward Frodo's mushrooms."
Boromir was uncertain what this meant. "How is one disrespectful toward mushrooms?" he asked as they approached his door.
"Believe me, when it's a Baggins involved, it's far too easy. Now, my cousin is the most generous and gentle soul imaginable—unless you are disrespectful toward others, or his favorite dishes. And being a Baggins, Frodo's favorite dishes include mushrooms—mushrooms and squab. I'll warn you now, never, never be disrespectful of his mushrooms or you will live to regret it. Strider learned, our second day out of Bree."
"But why would anyone even wish to eat the things?" Boromir asked, appalled at the idea.
Pippin was obviously surprised anyone would think to ask such a question. "Why? Don't you like mushrooms?"
Boromir shuddered with distaste. "Of course not! Dreadful things!"
The young Hobbit was shaking his head. "Best not say that around Frodo, not if you're wise. Most Hobbits adore mushrooms, but Frodo—well, Frodo almost worships them. I used to think it was that first Bilbo and then Sam spoiled him, but I learned that actually Bilbo is just as bad about them as Frodo himself. They used to carefully divide them to make certain that they each got just as much as the other. And Sam's just decided it's not worth his peace of mind to do anything but to make an extra share for Frodo anytime he cooks them. So, while we were traveling and Sam happened upon a stand of good pearl mushrooms, he shared them out equally for all of us, with a small extra serving for Frodo for after he was done with his time on first watch. Only Strider, not understanding about Frodo and his mushrooms, ate them. And he learned better. Oh, I think that Strider will cooperate this morning."
"What makes you certain that Frodo will still be in his room?"
"His shoulder started aching last night, so Master Elrond brought him a hot water bottle wrapped in a thin blanket to help ease the pain, and told him to sleep in extra today. And I suspect he gave Frodo some chamomile tea to help him sleep. Besides, Frodo might be always the first one up after the first real snowfall of the season, but he likes to stay warmly in his bed after that. So I doubt that he'll be up until well after second breakfast today. Is this your room? How is it different from ours, I wonder?"
Pippin quickly satisfied his curiosity while Boromir fetched his things, and on the way back commented at length on the differences he'd noticed between various people's quarters throughout Rivendell, or at least those few private rooms he'd seen so far.
The others were impatiently awaiting their return, and Sam led the way out of the doors and down the path to where Boromir had awaited the return of the scouts before. A few Elves filtered silently through the surrounding trees, and then all was quiet for some minutes. At last the soft crunch of snow under booted feet and horses' hoofs could be heard, along with murmured conversation in what Boromir believed to be Adûnaic. Aragorn and one of his Rangers approached, each leading a horse laden with gear. The other Man was, if Boromir was not mistaken, the one named Hardorn, who in spite of the discussion he was carrying out with his Chieftain was still instantly aware of the party awaiting their arrival, as was Aragorn himself. Both went silent, focusing their attention now on Boromir and the Hobbits, Hardorn warily, and Aragorn with courtesy.
"You are here to greet me?" Aragorn asked. "I must admit I am flattered." His expression grew more serious. "And where is Frodo?"
"That's what we came out to ask you about," began Merry. "He's still in bed, or we hope he is." Noting the concern growing in the Man's eyes, he hastened to add, "Oh, but it's nothing serious—just he overtired himself yesterday, and his shoulder was aching some last evening, so Master Elrond gave him some willow bark and then some chamomile tea and suggested perhaps he might sleep in some this morning while he can. But he's been rather restless the last few days with you gone, and we thought he might appreciate it if you were to go right to his window and tap on it—wake him up to a pleasant surprise, if you will."
Sam nodded, continuing the request. "Oh, yes, it would brighten his day a good deal, knowin' as you're back."
But something in the repressed energy to be noted in Pippin warned the Dúnadan that something was up. "And just what is it that you're not telling me?" he asked, his expression shrewd.
Merry rolled his eyes as he turned in his cousin's direction, and Sam was shaking his head, his lips slightly compressed. Pippin gave the other two an apologetic shrug before he turned to explain. "It's like this, Strider. Every year at the first true snowfall of the season Frodo greets us by pelting us with snowballs, and he did just that yesterday morning. Now we wish to get him back. He wouldn't open his window for us, as he'd know that we'd only be repaying him for yesterday's barrage. But, for you, you know…." He widened his eyes pleadingly, and Boromir could see both of the northerners' eyes brightening with humor.
Hardorn gave a slight laugh. "So, they'd have you set him up for them?"
Aragorn nodded in return to his kinsman's question. "Apparently. And certainly I have some grievances of my own to settle with the younger Master Baggins regarding his actions toward me shortly after we left Bree." As the other Man started to straighten the taller Man held up his hand placatingly, saying, "I will not say that he was without provocation, but I do suspect that he went further than was necessary to let me know that in his eyes I had trespassed against him. It was a mere matter of me not realizing some of his personal preferences, is all. And you could not say that I'd not been warned. After all, Bilbo had advised me on numerous occasions that when Frodo has felt his dignity has been trampled upon he has been known to be most ingenious in repaying those who have offended against him. And what I did is likely to be seen as a grave offense indeed by most Hobbits."
His companion appeared intrigued. "I must hear more," he murmured.
Aragorn smiled, and there was an almost feral expression of satisfaction to it. "Perhaps later we shall have leisure to discuss it in depth. But I am of a temper to aid and abet these three. Or," he added consideringly as he glanced pointedly at Boromir, "is it four I'd be helping to vengeance?"
The Gondorian gave a slight bow. "Oh, it is indeed four, I deem, who are willing to take part in this further attack on Frodo for his actions yesterday. I have learned that he indeed can be devious."
Aragorn's smile widened. "Devious? Oh, no question. Well, gentlemen, I am of a mood to forward your mischief. Let me but give over my goods to those who've come to the door to greet us and let them know I shall join them shortly, and I shall be at your disposal. You'd best go in, Hardorn, and perhaps you can have the bath readied for us. I suspect we shall all five appreciate a good soak in warm water as much as you shall before we are through."
Some half a mark later Boromir, still laughing and panting with exertion, accompanied the Chieftain of the Northern Dúnedain into the bathing chambers, shaking snow out of his hair. "Now, that was definitely worthwhile," he smiled, "seeing the expression on the Halfling's face when our snowballs found him."
Aragorn agreed, "Indeed! It is nice to know that he can be taken unawares. Although I shall see to it that my chambers are warded against his entrance. I have no desire to have to undo mischief for the rest of the day." He had surrendered his snow-spattered cloak just inside the doors to the Lady Arwen, whose brows had risen with interest as she considered its state, although she'd spoken not a word.
But Boromir had noted the lingering touch between Elf maiden and northern Man. "Your heart is caught by the Lady Arwen, then?" he asked as he shrugged out of the heavy shirt he'd donned that morning.
Aragorn and Hardorn's eyes both turned on him with consideration, and Aragorn's expression had become deliberately blank. "If I am drawn to her," he said, "then I am in good company. Elladan and Elrohir have told me that the majority of the heirs to Isildur have been so drawn over the last Age of the Sun."
Why he said the next Boromir could not later explain. "And I note that Master Frodo, also, is drawn to her."
Aragorn gave a sad smile. "He is one whose own heart sees clearly, and is drawn ever to that which is worthy of worship, or so Bilbo has assured me. But he has already dismissed his own attraction, knowing as he does that nothing can come of it."
"As you cannot do as easily?"
"And who says that doing so has been easy for Frodo?" There was compassion in the Man's tone as Aragorn finished unlacing his own shirt. "He may be apt to creative vengeance for deliberate slights, yet he is perhaps the most honorable individual I have met in recent memory." He slipped the shirt over his head and threw it into a nearby hamper.
Boromir froze, his attention caught by an old scar on Aragorn's lower torso. "That was a mighty wound," he commented.
The northerner looked down with dismissal. "It was at the time, I must admit. But that was half my lifetime ago. It is long healed."
Hardorn gave a snort. "It almost cost us our Chieftain," he noted. "Or have you forgotten that? Had not one of the sons of Elrond been searching for you to bring you news of my father's death, it is likely you would not still be with us."
Boromir noted, "The maidens of your people must nearly swoon to see it."
Aragorn sighed as he stepped out of his trousers. "And when have they had much occasion to see it? I am not particularly given to displaying my scars to women." He threw the garment after the shirt, drew off his small clothes and slipped into the great stone bath, sighing with relief as the warmth of the water surrounded him. "I am only glad that the Hobbits prefer the copper baths in their wing. I have been advised that Pippin tends to be rather an enthusiastic bather, and I have no interest in constantly evading splashes of water in my face." He sat upon the submerged bench and leaned back against the rim, his head back and his eyes closed.
As Boromir and Hardorn joined him, Boromir asked, "Then there is no woman of your people who swoons for you? Or does your wife keep them away?"
Aragorn sighed, squinting at the son of Denethor. "I have had the doom laid upon me that I may not marry until Sauron has been defeated."
Boromir paused, considering the other Man with concern. "Then, if you were to die in battle, there is no other to follow after you? My father would be appalled!"
"Do you have a wife or betrothed awaiting you?" demanded Aragorn. "Or had you intended to leave that duty to your brother? Surely your duty to your own people demands an heir of you as much as of me."
"And when have I had time or energy to woo a wife when my people are constantly under threat from Mordor?" Boromir's felt the anger growing in him.
Hardorn was stiffening, but subsided as his Chieftain laid his hand on his shoulder. Aragorn returned his attention to the southerner. "And so it has been here as well. Orcs and trolls are our most common enemies; but although the Witch-king does not dwell there any longer, still Angmar ever threatens our lands from the north, while lawless Men wander out of the ruins of Rhudaur and Dunland to trouble us from the south. Matters stand much as they did a thousand years ago when we sent those we could spare to fight at the side of the last Kings of Gondor, and when Eärnur came to the aid of my ancestors Arvedui and Aranarth. Always we have had to defend ourselves from enemies from both north and south, while Gondor is beset from south and east. I must be ever going from one threat to another, or strengthening our alliances with other peoples, or seeking out intelligence on the new dangers our great Enemy sets in motion, leaving me but little time to spend in considering dynastic matters. We are not so different, you and I."
He sighed, and allowed himself to slide down off the bench until he was totally underwater, rubbing at his dark hair before he emerged and pushed himself back onto the bench once more, wiping the water out of his face and the wet hair back from his eyes. Again he considered Boromir for a few moments before he continued, "True, I am the heir of Isildur through his youngest son Valandil, father to son over many generations. But that does not mean that there are no others who are descended from Isildur, for many of my forebears had younger brothers or sisters, or both. Almost all of the Northern Dúnedain carry a degree of royal blood, in fact, as we have heavily intermarried. Mostly our people dwell in the Angle, but we have a few scattered villages the width of Eriador, even on the Firth of Lhûn, where we have fishermen and two trading ships. My last errand was to review the forces that guard our northern border. He who leads them is second to me as Heir, being but three generations from the line of Kings, while Halbarad, Halladan, and Hardorn are five generations removed from the line. Halbarad is now my Steward here in the North, as he will serve Gilfileg if I am lost in our quest with the Fellowship and the last battles with Sauron and the forces of Mordor. If I am lost, then, it shall be here in what was once proud Arnor as it has been in Gondor for much of the last age, that those who lead the final, perhaps futile battles against the Shadow will be the descendants of younger sons and daughters of our once great Kings.
"But there shall be no heir to my body until and unless Sauron is defeated utterly—that is the doom that has been laid upon me."
Boromir considered the eyes of this one he'd thought of as the Pretender, and found them remarkably calm—calm and patient. A kinship in spirit he sensed there with his younger brother, and he found himself hoping that this one and Faramir might one day come to know and honor one another.