13. Sarn Gebir
On their ninth dawn after departing from Lothlorien, Gandalf announced a slight change in plans.
"For we must soon come to the rapids of Sarn Gebir, if I am not off in my reckoning. I have come this far down the Great River by boat only once, and that was many years ago. But as I recall, the rapids begin three days passage after the joining of the River Limlight with Anduin, if one takes the stream swiftly. We passed the mouth of the Limlight four afternoons ago yesterday, and our progress was slower at first. Thus, today we must be vigilant. Frodo, Pippin, take the prows, and keep your oars at the ready, but do not paddle. Boromir and I will steer enough to keep us aright, but we will let Anduin labor for us today. Keep watch for any changes in the water's surface, and for any stones or obstacles. You may be required to use your oars to keep us from running aground. Sam, keep a sharp look out on the western bank for low ground, well trodden...any place that might be a boat-landing. We must not only avoid the stony teeth of the rapids, but also find the northern entrance to the portage-way."
Frodo rode in Boromir's boat that day, with a pile of baggage in the middle.
"Do you know anything of these rapids, Boromir?"
"I have never been this far north on the River," he replied, "but the lore of Sarn Gebir is known to us. Mithrandir is right to use caution, for it is said that neither boat nor swimmer can survive in it. The stream is so turbulent that the water churns and appears as white with foam as a storm upon the sea. I understand that there are several cataracts within, a dozen feet or more in height, and anything made of wood—or of softer stuff--would be dashed to pieces." He snorted. "Mithrandir said it was long ago that he last was here... I marvel at his recall. We are lucky to have such a guide."
"Yes, we certainly are," Frodo muttered, as he kept one hand on the gunwale and the other on his oar. He thought again, as he did many times each day, of how close they had come to losing that guide, and of his own impulsive but decisive role in that turn of fortune. The sight of Gandalf's trembling fingers losing their grip on the stone and vanishing had not faded from his mind's eye; rather, it seemed to Frodo, the vision became ever clearer, and details he had missed in that momentary flash were only now revealed to him.
The hobbit looked back over his shoulder to the second boat. Gandalf's hood was thrown back and he was focused on the water ahead. To Frodo, he appeared composed and determined; he could read no apprehension there, nor did he expect to see it. But what struck the hobbit was how similarly the wizard's face had appeared in his premonition in Moria. Frodo could see his features as close as though he crouched upon the broken edge of the Bridge, and written there he saw fierce determination…but no fear. He saw it was inevitable…he faced what he couldn't avoid… And that look of determination? He knew the price of destroying the Balrog, and he accepted it.
The Ring-bearer's eyes dropped. Will I be able to accept the price I must pay? To face what seems inevitable, if the quest is to succeed…without fear…with determination? Then in crept a thread of resentment. But I didn't ask for this…I didn't want to be involved, I've just been swept into it by the currents of fate…If Bilbo had never been tricked into going along with that pack of Dwarves on their greedy treasure hunt by Gandalf, I wouldn't have to face darkness and death…or worse… If he hadn't meddled, I wouldn't even be here, risking everything… Slowly he turned back to watch the river, his eyes clouded with troubled thoughts.
Boromir frowned as he watched the play of emotion come and go on the Halfling's face. He carries such a great burden, the man thought. The Ring itself must whisper to him constantly, as it did... still does... to me, even at a distance… What doubt does it sow in him, I wonder? And how does he conquer the fear he must feel? To do the unthinkable, to risk a horrible death...or capture and torment… His small heart is steadier than this warrior's.The Captain thought back to his first impression of the Ring-bearer, when he met him at Lord Elrond's Council. He seemed but a child to me that day, as green as a youth of twenty summers. Yet, he had since discovered, little about Frodo Baggins save for the youthful appearance of his face suggested inexperience. He might not be skilled with blade or bow, but Boromir knew that Frodo had already faced down worse evils than many battle-hardened men of Gondor…perhaps than any of them. Indeed, this Halfling will prove to be far greater than this Captain of Gondor, if he succeeds…And he must succeed, for any to have hope for a light beyond these dark days…
Frodo stared into the shimmering glare of the stream. He rubbed his eyes; it was tiring to peer endlessly at something that appeared never to change, especially in this light that seemed bright and dull at the same time. He chided himself. It isn't Gandalf's fault that I'm here… I don't blame him…Indeed, I can't imagine what my life, or Bilbo's life, would have been without him…That wasn't me, thinking that. He sighed. It was tiring, as well, to be so alert to what was within; even his thoughts might not be his own.
A light rain began to fall, and the clouds hung low. The wind diminished and mists gathered in the river valley. As the day wore into afternoon, it became more difficult to see more than a dozen yards ahead. The stream flowed more swiftly, speeding them forward between hidden banks. The sound of the rushing water slowly grew. They only knew that the sun had fallen below the western horizon by the sudden chill in the damp air. The light faded, gathering in the grey mists, and the surface of the flowing water took on the sheen of hammered metal.
Gandalf was just about to call to Boromir for a halt, when Sam spoke sharply.
"There! That's it, Master Gandalf!"
The wizard plunged his oar into the stream and dragged it forward and out to slow the boat and steer it toward the western bank. He gazed where Sam pointed. The hobbit had found a low spot, to be sure, but hardly well trodden. There was no marker, nor any sign of a trail.
"I don't think so, Sam," the wizard said. "Of old, there was a pillar of stone marking the site…although such a thing could well have fallen into the river by now, or have toppled from age…" He twisted his oar back and outward, bringing them out to catch the current to catch the others, who were ten yards ahead. But at that moment, Frodo shouted.
"Hi, look out!" Frodo called as he simultaneously brought his oar up to keep the boat from crashing on the rocky shoal that had suddenly appeared out of the mist.
"I see it!" Boromir dug in and began to paddle backward.
"Rock, dead ahead!" Pippin cried, as he pointed excitedly.
"Yes," the wizard said calmly. "Come; help me now, Pippin…paddle hard, lad…"
The stone was the first warning of the approach of Sarn Gebir, and they could all now see the roiling change in the waters. They turned the boats as quickly as they could and began struggling back up the stream against the now stronger current.
"Head for Sam's low spot!" cried Gandalf. "Night is falling fast; we cannot go farther tonight!"
And as if in response to his words, the light seemed to falter and go out. The mist, which had reflected and caught the sun's final dim rays, now served to blanket them in darkness. Sam blinked, wondering if his eyesight was suddenly faulty, for he could no longer even pick out the place on the bank where he had thought he'd spied a landing place. Yet, Gandalf steered them unerringly, and Frodo guided Boromir, and in fifteen minutes both boats had made a landing on a sandy mound between thick beds of reeds.
Pippin jumped out and yanked the boat forward onto the strand, holding it while Sam and Gandalf climbed out. Frodo and Boromir arrived moments later.
"Boromir, will you take Pippin and explore a bit?" the wizard asked. "We should stay near the banks tonight, and start at first light, for we shall, I'm afraid, be forced to go upstream to find the portage entrance, and it will be hard going against this current."
Frodo and Sam began to shuttle the bags to a small clearing behind a screen of reeds four or five yards from the water's edge while the wizard stayed to secure their craft and oars, concealing them keel-side up in the rushes. Sam stepped atop a sandy bank, just a few feet high, to take a look, now that his eyes had adjusted.
"Mr. Frodo, I wonder still if this might not be the place." He squinted westward. A long, narrow pool lay before them; beyond the strip of stagnant water, a higher ridge rose. "I think the course of the river must have shifted eastward over the years. See, this pool might be a backwater remnant, now cut off from the main stream. And isn't that a path, slanting up that ridge yonder?"
Frodo dropped the final bag and stood beside him. "Certainly could be," he said. "Do you see which way Pip and Boromir went?"
He was about to call out to them when he felt a sudden hissing rush of air at his ear, then another. He grabbed Sam and pulled him down. "Arrows!" he whispered, pointing at the black shaft that was entangled in the reeds right in front of them.
Sam swallowed hard. "And Orc, at that!"
Far off, over the voice of the river, they could hear the shrill cries of Orcs. One dart after another flew over their heads. Behind them they heard a low grunt, then something rattled noisily through the thicket of dried reeds. The hobbits held their breath, and Frodo loosened Sting in its sheath. He glanced down; he could see the gleam of its blue fire. Close; but just how close? Are they already on this side of the River? His heart hammered as gathered himself into a crouch, ready to spring.
But it was the wizard who appeared, thrusting the reeds aside as he came. He was bent low to the ground. Three more Orc arrows sang, just missing the top of Gandalf's head. He ducked lower, and leaned upon his left hand for support. It was then that Frodo noticed the awkward way the wizard was holding his right arm, bent close against his body. The hobbit gasped. A black arrow had pierced his forearm; the shaft was snapped off a few inches from his sleeve. Gandalf dropped to one knee beside him.
"You're hurt!" Frodo cried.
"Hush!" the wizard hissed. "They can aim by the sound of your voice!" He glanced about. "Where are the others?"
"They were ahead of us..."
"And they're heading back!" Sam whispered as he pointed to their companions who hurried down the far slope to the west. As the clamor of harsh voices rose even higher on the far shore, Boromir and Pippin crept around the narrow pool and joined them. The Gondorian had assembled and strung the great bow of Lorien, and he held it at the ready, with an arrow knocked.
"Samwise was right after all. The portage way is here, Mithrandir!" Boromir said quietly. "It appears that the River's course shifted, leaving the old western bank high and dry. We found the pillar marking the northern entrance, and near it is a sheltered place where we can lie safely for the night. We returned as soon as we heard the voices of the enemy, and the telltale sound of their darts flying."
"But what happened?" Pippin whispered, as he reached out toward the wizard.
Gandalf pulled his arm away. "Be careful, Pippin. The point is razor-sharp...and very likely tainted."
The others stared in solemn silence at the wizard. "Come now!" he said, with what sounded to them like forced cheer. "I have no fear of Orc poison. Boromir, if you would be willing, I could use a hand...." He sniffed at the hobbits' gaping faces. "The rest of you: start moving our baggage to the portage-way. Pippin, show them where it is. On with you now, and keep your heads down!"
For the moment, their foes seemed content to shout and call harshly on the far shore; the rain of arrows ceased. The two men knelt beside one another in the clearing, and the Captain of Gondor took the wizard's arm in his hands. "What did happen?" he queried softly.
The wizard sighed. "A momentary lapse in caution on my part. The cloak of Lorien shielded me in the twilight, but an oar slipped from my grasp. When I reached down to retrieve it, I suppose my arm made a tempting enough target."
"And how did the dart come to be broken?"
"I did that myself," Gandalf said gruffly. "The arrow was nearly three feet in length. I could not move through the thicket without snagging it. If you would steady the shaft while I loosen the point..."
The man braced it carefully as the wizard worked at removing the arrowhead.
"There!" Gandalf tossed the point into the stagnant pool. His fingertips were red and oily black; he wiped them on the grass. He looked up and nodded.
Boromir grasped the shaft and withdrew it quickly, watching as the wizard's fingers twisted in a spasm, then slowly relaxed. "I'll find something to bind it…"
"Later," the wizard muttered. "Before the light fails entirely, we should take a look at what awaits us on the eastern side."
The man smirked. "Aragorn was right. You are a stubborn old fellow, aren't you? Lead on, then..."
The wind had risen, pouring down the river's valley from the northeast as they crept toward the rushing stream. The mists that had shrouded their eyes during the day were breaking apart, and the first stars peeked through.
"There is an evil chill in this air," Boromir whispered. "It brings to mind the deadly vapors of Morgul Vale…"
"Another fell Tower is north and east of here," Gandalf muttered softly.
"Of course... The Orcs of the Black Land do not use three-foot arrows. Our attackers must be from..."
Dread came upon Boromir as his voice trailed off. He thought back to the previous June when he and his brother had stood upon the bridge of Osgiliath as the Fell Riders stormed across, scattering all before their icy wind.
Then a voice came from the opposite shore: an evil, terrible shriek that rose into the darkness; and the Orcs harsh cries rose up to meet it.
"Úlairi…" Gandalf breathed.
A black shape moved with the swiftness of an eagle against the dark sky; but its wings were wider than any Eagle of the Mountains. The shadow circled twice, then seemed to veer westward, toward where the men crouched in the chest-high reeds.
Boromir stood, and though his heart was thundering in his chest, he raised the gift the Lady had given him. It is futile…I can see nothing but shade upon shadow… Then he felt the light touch of the wizard's hand upon his shoulder. At once, he was startled to find that his sight was as keen and clear as one of Elvenkind. He could see the winged beast's sinews standing out upon its outstretched neck where it joined to its thick shoulder. Yes! He took aim, and released. The arrow whizzed away, and a moment later a scream erupted. The shadow crumpled and plummeted earthward. Orcs clamored wildly, and a few ill-aimed arrows splashed into the stream. The Captain lowered his bow.
"That was a mighty shot, my friend," Gandalf said quietly, as he let his hand drop. "I have heard it said that the Steward is the most skilled archer in Gondor*; but you have bested him tonight."
Boromir exhaled deeply. "Was that…"
"We but slew its steed, then."
"'We'? You are the one wielding the bow, Captain."
Boromir stared at his companion before he let out a short laugh. "It is a pity you cannot come to Minas Tirith, Mithrandir. We could use you."
The wizard's returning smile was thin. "Alas, I am needed elsewhere."
Their foes' activity had apparently ceased for the night. They made their way around the pool and up the far slope, passing, as Boromir had described, a tall post of black stone. The faint traces of runes carved long ago could still be seen upon it, but in the darkness their meaning could not be discerned. They found the three hobbits waiting anxiously, Sam standing guard over Frodo, who sat with his head bowed as he rubbed his left shoulder, while Pippin paced back and forth. As they approached, Frodo raised his head.
"Gandalf, I felt...was that a…a Black Rider?"
The wizard went to his side. "Yes. It rode a steed of the air. I have not seen the like of it; an evil creature, some beast corrupted by the Dark Lord for the use of his chief servants. Boromir slew the thing. I think we will hear no more of the enemy tonight." He reached out and placed his left hand on the hobbit's shoulder. "Are you well, Frodo?"
The hobbit clutched his arm for a moment; but he looked sharply at Gandalf. "I'm not the one with an arrow wound." He shrugged the wizard off and stood. "Boromir, all four of us may have to hold him down, but might you have anything useful for wounds in that kit of yours?"
The man grinned. "No soldier of Gondor travels far without such supplies. Shall we tend him together, Frodo?"
Gandalf sniffed. "It is nothing…"
"We shall be the judges of that," Frodo said firmly. "Sit, and roll up your sleeve. Sam, Pip, if you wouldn't mind seeing to supper…"
"Such as it is," Pippin grumbled.
The hobbit and the man worked together to cleanse and bind the wizard's injured arm. The dart had passed clean through, between the bones of his forearm, in the thickest part of his muscle. The wound clearly showed signs of poison: the entry hole was black, and red streaks had already crawled to his elbow. But for the moment, Gandalf showed no sign of sickness.
"My thanks, friends," the wizard murmured once they had cleaned and bound it. He carefully tested his grip. "I will do my best to avoid the need for such services again in the future."
As he predicted, the rest of the night was peaceful. They heard no cry or shriek from across the Great River. Yet no one slept well, and they stood watch in pairs.
Dawn came, on their tenth day from Lothlorien. The eastern bank appeared empty of life: on the ground, afloat, or in the air. Boromir searched to no avail for any sign of the carcass of the flying beast he had slain. Then to the hobbit's amazement, the two men swung the lightweight craft of Lorien up and onto their shoulders. Their heads disappeared within the hollow of the boats' mid-portions and they grasped the gunwales in each hand to steady their burdens. The hobbits carried the oars and all their packs, and going before and after the men, they guided them to the portage trailhead.
The Sarn Gebir portage had once been well used and kept smooth and free of obstacles. But in those later days, Gondor sent few messengers so far north, and the men of Rohan used boats not at all. Elves, Rangers, or other occasional wanderers in the wild might use it at times; but no one had maintained it for many years. The travelers had to stop often to clear the path, and to allow the men to heave their burdens from their shoulders and rest for a few moments. The terrain soon became rougher: dense, thorny shrubs pressed in on what remained of the trail, and the soil grew thin and rocky. The way to the southern portage-stone was no greater than two miles, and was for the most part downhill, but what in other circumstances might have been an hour's stroll took them the better part of the day. The ever-present voice of the rapids roared dully to their left, drowning out the possibility for speech.
When they finally found the southern extent of the trail, even Boromir was grateful to lay his boat down for the last time. He braced his arm against his right side and stretched out on the ground with a groan. Gandalf's face was drawn, and he cradled his right arm upon his left as he sat down heavily and slumped against the bole of a tree. Frodo insisted on checking his injury. A puffy circle of fiery red extended out from the entry wound for several inches; and where on the evening before, the red streaks had been simple lines, now broad streaks of discoloration moved upward, to just above his elbow. The hobbit reached out, and before the wizard could avoid him, he touched the back of his hand to Gandalf's brow.
"You're feverish!" Frodo whispered. "I thought you said the Orc-poison would do you no harm!"
"No; I said I did not fear it. I did not say it would have no effect on me," Gandalf replied. He went on with a wan smile. "Do not worry. I am made of fairly sturdy stuff, and I've survived far worse than this. The fever will pass, soon enough."
"We should stop for a few days, at least. Your arm looks awful."
But Gandalf was already shaking his head. "We dare not, Frodo. The enemy on the far bank may not have been hunting for us, but now they know we are here. Certainly the Nazgûl will have felt the presence of your burden. We must go on without delay."
Frodo called Boromir over to render his opinion. The man leaned down and gazed worriedly "If...nay, when it festers, the purulence must be drained from it. But it is too soon for that." He could only suggest that they bathe the wound again, for they had no herbs or poultices to use upon it. "And as for whether to go on at once or stay, I agree with our worthy guide. If he is able, we should make haste at first light."
Frodo sighed and nodded, and returned to the task of tending the wizard's arm. "Remember, I grew up in Buckland," he said as he wrapped the wound again. "I can steer a boat as well as I can ride a pony. I will take the stern tomorrow. Sam can paddle in the prow, and you should rest."
To the hobbit's complete shock, Gandalf did not protest, but merely nodded wearily. "I would be grateful, Frodo," he said quietly. "Most grateful."
I have never known him to give in so easily, Frodo thought worriedly. That cannot be a good sign...
. . .
*A tip of the literary hat to Anglachel's Denethor, as portrayed in "Hands of the King"
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.