Tasana’s arms were sore, stiff, and exhausted by the end of their first day on the river. She was shaking convulsively as they dragged their boat out onto the shore for the night. Gimli wasn’t looking much better. He flashed Pippin a dirty look as Boromir’s boat came in behind them. The youngest of the hobbits had not done much rowing. Although Merry had tried to help, it looked as if most of the extra work had fallen on Boromir. Aragorn had the worst situation, however.
Although both Gimli and Tasana were inexperienced rowers, they picked up the technique of slicing through the water fairly quickly, and both had enough upper body strength to keep the boat moving through the forested Great River. Sam and Frodo were too afraid of falling out of the boat to row very much. Neither one could swim. In rougher water, the hobbits ended up panicking and accidentally backstroking, even turning their vessel upstream once, which did little to help Sam’s seasickness.
Aragorn had been rowing before, but after hauling his canoe out of that mess, the Dunedain was at least as exhausted as the novice rowers. Both he and Tasana gladly accepted half a loaf of the elven journey bread each from Pippin as they set up camp.
“We’ll be safe for a few days yet,” Strider told the group. “But Haldir warned me that orcs patrol the eastern shore further to the south.”
“I fear I must go west, back to Minas Tirth. Sauron will not hold off his attack on Gondor forever.” Boromir’s brown eyes held a distant, gloomy light in them as he looked toward the southwest, where his country awaited him.
Strider nodded sadly. “I would go with you if I could, Boromir, but the quest for the destruction of the One Ring will not wait, either, and I am the last one who knows the way to Mordor.” Tasana felt the stares of the two men she loved most upon the back of her head, each looking for the opposite answer to the same unspoken question. Gimli, Legolas, Merry, and Pippin were pondering similar inquiries in their own minds.
To go home to Gondor, with her liege lord and lover to prepare the Wargs for the ultimate orc raid, or to slink into the heart of the Dark Lord’s kingdom with her brother, Tasana questioned herself. Her loyalties technically lay with Lord Boromir, the wolves, and Gondor. She had made no promises to stay with the Ring; yet Tasana knew it was not yet finished with her destiny, as surely as she knew her pack.
“We needn’t worry about splitting up until we get closer to our goal. The path from here to Minas Tirth is as yet the same as the road to the Black Tower. Who knows what may affect our final choice before the routes divide?” she said aloud. It didn’t fully settle the inner queries, but it was enough to make Strider and Boromir back off their silent arguments for a little while.
The group traveled along the river for nearly a week, drifting as often as paddling now. Tasana and Gimli had overcome their initial muscle aches to become reasonably decent rowers, but Aragorn by himself could not keep up with all three members of Legolas’s crew stroking in time. Besides, no one was too eager to leave the trees of the Golden Wood and their reminder of fleeting days of peace and comfort behind. As the forests along the river thinned, and the disappeared by the fourth day, Gimli sank into a saddened, reflective mood.
“I came prepared to take on any evil that came my way, but I never counted on the seductiveness of beauty along the road. No matter how far I travel, I leave my heart in Lothlorien.” He sighed, bittersweet memories threatening to overwhelm his rough, stoic exterior. “I wish I could stay here, but I must see this quest through.” He risked a brief look back toward the disappearing ragged tree line, and then paddled as hard as he could in a foiled attempt to hide his face from his friends.
“Whoa, slow down, Gimli,” Tasana laid a friendly, sympathetic hand on the dwarf’s blocky shoulder. “You’ll kill my poor brother with so quick a pace.” She understood that he probably didn’t want direct comfort just yet from her own vague feelings of coming loss.
“At least you left it willingly so there will be no mar in your memory of the Golden Wood,” Legolas added soothingly from behind the woods-woman. At this the dwarf’s composure broke and tears welled to his eyes.
“I will return. Upon Gloin my father’s beard I swear I shall return!” Gimli called out tearfully. Despite his initial distrust of the elves, Gimli had been closer to the people of Lothlorien than any of the others in the company. He still kept his gift from Galadriel in a velvet pouch next to his heart.
“I’m sure you will, Gimli.” Tasana smiled and patted him on the shoulder before picking up the stroke. Boromir and Merry were paddling as hard as they could, passing the other little craft as Tasana and Legolas comforted their friend.
“And I suppose you think you have yourself a sea-worthy crew, aye, Legolas?” Boromir shouted playfully. “Or has the dwarf lost his sea legs?”
“You’d best grab an oar, young Pippin,” Gimli growled in mock rage. “Else you and that land-lubing braggart will be left far behind in our wake! Full speed ahead, my sea wolves!” Tasana laughed aloud as the two boats raced neck and neck down the river, and she could hear Pippin shouting encouragement as they passed Aragorn’s boat in the lead.
Her crew had three rowers to Boromir’s two, and all were about equally rested, but Boromir’s long, powerful strokes kept pace with Gimli’s shorter, more frequent dips of the paddle. Legolas’s precise steering would gain them momentary headway, but then Merry would tilt the front of his watercraft into a faster rivulet.
Strider was left far behind the other two rowboats. “Save your strength!” he shouted to Boromir as they passed him by. “Tomorrow we must haul these around a waterfall.”
“At the rate you’re going, perhaps,” Boromir called back. “But don’t worry, Aragorn, we’ll wait for you there.”
Frodo grabbed a paddle as Boromir ranged out of shouting distance, stroking more frantically as the gap widened. “What’s the matter, Baggins?” The ranger asked him as Strider attempted to compensate for the hobbit’s jerky strokes. Sam was turning a delicate shade of green again.
“We can’t afford to be separated. I saw him again last night.” The Dunedain stuck his paddle deeper into the water, a grim look in his eyes as the frightened hobbit continued. “I heard him in Lothlorien as well. Even with the elven guard, he’s been following us. I doubt we’ll be able to throw him off our trail.”
Aragorn nodded gravely. “Boromir mentioned hearing him in the forest as well.” He looked as if he would have liked to add a few choice curses to that statement.
Whoever it was following them, Sam hoped for its sake that the tall, dark Dunedain didn’t catch it. The ranger obviously despised the follower deeply. Despite his nausea, Sam could no longer contain his curiosity. “Who’s following us, Strider?”
“Gollum,” Aragorn said sourly with a growl that answered Sam’s questions unasked. The others had gotten far ahead, but were now forced to slow in order to navigate treacherous shoals and jagged rocks near the surface of the water.
These were but a hint of the dangers further downstream the river itself would pose. Between Frodo and Aragorn, the third boat began to close the gap. “We’ll go at a faster pace tomorrow.” Strider assured his companions. “I’d like to get my hands on that little tramp, but he’s too quick as of yet. Until that fine day, we must be content with simply eluding him. I fear Gollum may yet pull a legion of orcs down upon our heads if we don’t keep moving.”
Aragorn stared pensively at the dry, lifeless plain to the east of the river between strokes. Another sign of the Dark Lord’s destructiveness. To the west were great rock chimneys where abundant flocks of birds of all species whistled and crowed as their forms filled the air. Small trees and wildflowers grew prodigiously, and further south one could almost make out a glimpse of the vast sea of prairie grasses that made up the vibrant green Plains of Rohan, where nomadic riders maintained huge herds of the finest, fastest horses. The richly exuberant life of the western shore contrasted sharply with the arid, rocky, and totally barren badlands to the east.
No birds flew here. Deep gouges scoured the dusty ground where wind and rain controlled the dead sands and ashes of long forgotten battles. The few plants were spare and sickly, looking as if something in the soil had poisoned their roots.
Aragorn could not say what evils had taken place there that had kept the land from regrowing some one thousand and five hundred years after the defeat of Sauron, but the nebulous rumors he had heard along his journeys were enough to make his hands quiver as a chill ran up the ranger’s spine. “Boromir!” Aragorn shouted ahead to the middle rowboat. “We will reach the waterfall by this evening, after all.”
“Thanks to my dear Lord Boromir’s sorry attempt to prove his manhood,” Tasana laughed, winking at her beloved to show no hard feelings.
“You only won because Merry and I let you, Chev’yahna,” the steward’s son retorted playfully.
“Save your breath! You’ll need it to keep up with us.” Gimli raised a triumphant fist over his head.
“Indeed. We’ll go around the waterfall tonight and catch up on sleep once we get back to the river,” Strider said more seriously.
“So does this mean you won’t get us up before dawn for once?” Tasana asked her brother wryly. Although they hadn’t rowed for speed very much up until Boromir and Gimli’s spontaneous race, Aragorn kept them in the river from the false light of predawn until late after sunset.
“We will sleep in the boats. The current will carry us further that way.” He easily responded.
“Unless it carries us into a rock.” Gimli grumbled. They paddled with renewed focus, knowing the amount of sleep the group got as a whole depended upon how speedily they got the watercraft around the waterfall. The river currents sped along swiftly and powerfully as the water was squeezed into a narrower, rocky channel.
The fellowship landed on the top of a precipice, slinging backpacks onto their shoulders and raising the small boats over the brush. Aragorn and Boromir carried one between them and Tasana and Legolas hauled another. Gimli and Pippin struggled with the last, requiring Sam’s aid just to pick the canoe up. Although the little craft were extremely light for their size, the combination of necessary luggage and unwieldy vessel was difficult to carry over rough terrain.
The group traveled down a rocky slope with a steep incline and treacherous footing, all the more dangerous for the occasional overgrown trail that lulled one into a false sense of safety with an easier path, to enter the low knolls of the rocky badlands. The land around the river had slowly become hillier, with jutting rock formations on both shores.
It lightened Tasana’s spirits, if not the cumbersome weight of the boat, to hear the birds chirping as they settled atop these cliffs for the night. As she and Legolas finally set the boat down, Tasana thought she saw the last rays of sunlight catch a pair of broad wings floating high above them. “What’s that, Legolas?” she asked the far-sighted elf as they dropped their packs back into the boat.
“An eagle, I believe,” the archer replied after shading his eyes a moment. “It’s awfully far from the mountains, though.” Most of the gigantic eagles of the north never strayed far beyond the Misty Mountains west of Mirkwood. To see one this far south was an extreme rarity. Often such sightings were considered omens, and not necessarily lucky ones.
“I wonder what it portends,” Tasana mused aloud. Her father was very superstitious, but Tasana had not yet seen convincing proof either way for the existence of messages between gods and the common man. Maybe wizards and priests could communicate with the forces outside the normal plain, but even the power of the Wargish seeresses came from within and not from any deity.
Tasana tried to leave legends and myths to those who required them, but the myths seemed to require her. Perchance the eagle meant nothing; perhaps it did not. Gandalf’s death and the emotional whirlwind following it in Lothlorien had taught Tasana to stick to her sword and leave magic and prophecy to others.
That is, she thought as the other two boats came up the hill with Boromir in the rear, causing her seer sense to flash momentarily, I would, if only I were not the only group member left with the ability to see flashes of the future.
Surely Galadriel was wrong about Boromir. And yet Mithilira’s nose was never wrong, and the Warg had noticed the aura of something iniquitous about Tasana’s liege-lord as well. Perhaps the elf had caused these flashes of treachery. Yet Galadriel had proved herself to be a friend and a worthy one at that. Besides, how would the elven sorceress have been able to affect him from Rivendale, and why would she bother to do so?
“Nothing good, I expect.” Legolas answered, breaking her reverie. The archer wordlessly took over from the struggling hobbits. Tasana grabbed the other end of the boat from Gimli, watching the raptor make a final wheel before heading southwest with the sun toward the Plains of Rohan.
“I don’t know about that, Legolas,” she replied, ignoring Gimli’s protests. “Didn’t Gandalf work with eagles before?”
“Accordin’ to Mr. Bilbo’s stories he did.” Sam said, referring to the misadventures of Frodo’s famous traveling uncle.
“It’s too bad Gandalf isn’t with us any longer. I wouldn’t mind seeing those eagles up close,” Pippin stared bemusedly after the bird disappearing over the horizon. “We have traveled by boat, by wolf-back, and with a horse. Flying’s about the only thing we haven’t tried yet.” Perhaps it was a trick of the light upon Tasana’s tired eyes, but as Pippin spoke, she swore she could make out the silhouette of a battered blue-hatted figure astride the great raptor’s back.
“I’m not sure I’d like that sorta ride,” Sam shook his head, making a sign against the evil eye at the bird of prey’s retreating shadow.
“Why not, Sam?” Peregrine shaded his eyes as he looked into the sunset, a mischievous smile on his face. “You’d be able to see the whole Shire from up there.”
“I know, Pip, but I’d also be able to see how far down the ground is, and no mistake about that,” said Sam as the others got ready to cast off.
Despite the dangers of hidden rocks under the water and orcs and other enemies along the shore, the company slept easily in their boats until late in the night, taking shifts of one person per boat for three hours each to watch for Gollum and direct the boat around shoals.
Boromir let Pippin and Merry rest another few minutes after his watch was officially over at midnight, paddling up to the side of Aragorn’s boat to stare at the uneasily sleeping form of Frodo. Sam, groggily taking over the watch from the bearer of the Ring, found Boromir’s brooding expression too dark for the moonless night. Wrapping his camouflage elven cloak more tightly around him, the hobbit hunkered down in the boat, avoiding Boromir’s gaze. That expression could not insure any good intentions concerning the Ring.
Samwise had heard and seen too much to want the Ring himself, but the simple hobbit knew of Boromir’s desire to use the One Ring in the name of Gondor. Sam had sworn to protect his best friend when Gandalf had caught him foolishly eavesdropping on the wizard’s conversation with Frodo, and Sam was not one to go back on his word (even when given under the implied threat of being turned into a frog or something else unnatural); but Samwise Gamgee wasn’t sure he could be of much help if Frodo was facing off against the strongest member of their group. If only Chev’yahna or Strider could heal this strange madness Boromir suffered from!
Frodo shivered and groaned in his sleep, and Boromir let his boat drift behind theirs, biting his nails as if the human expected someone to denounce his nefarious plans at any moment. Sam noticed that Legolas was twirling an arrow through his fingers, his bow in the other hand until Boromir woke Merry up for the next watch.
Perhaps they were all just edgy, and Sam was ascribing his own suspicions to the others; and maybe Boromir was not to be trusted at all. All was quiet amongst the sleeping boats once more, yet even when Aragorn replaced Sam on watch at three, the hobbit could not shake the eerie feeling that he had just witnessed the calm before the storm.