Another member of the group was facing a restless night. Frodo pretended to sleep as watchman paced by his sleeping bag once more, but he didn’t need Chev’yahna’s seer-sense to the man was plotting something more than an amorous affair. Boromir probably wasn’t the only one, either. The Ring was too much of a temptation. One by one the others would fall prey to its spell, shattering their hearts and minds in their desire to possess it. Even Lady Galadriel, the wise queen of Lothlorien, had had an intense desire to use the Ring’s power. Not all the members of the fellowship would be pure enough of heart to resist the temptation as the elven lady had.
Frodo had volunteered to take up the burden, even though he had known better than anyone else how strong the temptation was, how deadly the dangers that went with it. The hobbit had kept the Ring hidden by himself after his uncle Bilbo and Gandalf had entrusted it to him. Perhaps it would be best for all involved if Frodo finished this quest by himself as well. Free of the temptations and burdens they could not understand, much less bear, Boromir and Chev’yahna could return to Gondor in time to assemble a defense against the Dark Lord, Aragorn could claim his destiny as king, and Pippin and Merry could go back home to the Shire to keep the youngsters out of trouble; maybe they could even get back to the high jinks they had had as boys. Frodo smiled despite himself. Who would have thought that there would come a day when he would wish his foolhardy younger cousins were making mischief?
Gimli had seemed so dejected at leaving Lothlorien. With Frodo and the Ring left to their own fate, the dwarf and Legolas would be able to return to the Golden Wood or their own homes as they chose. And Sam… Well, Frodo might be able to trust Sam. His best friend was honest, Frodo reminisced, and loyal to a fault. Samwise would probably try to tag along at any rate, once he found out what the elder hobbit was planning. Sam’s optimistic outlook would certainly ease the burden of the Ring, but there was no sense in exposing two people to the temptations and liabilities of the Ring when Frodo could handle it by himself. As soon as he got the chance, Frodo decided resolutely, he would slip quietly away from the others and find his own way into Mordor.
* * *
An hour later Boromir had awakened Merry and gone back to his sleeping bag. Despite her earlier suggestive claims to endless stamina, Tasana had fallen asleep, curled up under the blankets, her hair strewn about her face. Boromir lied down next to the sleeping healer and she snuggled into his warm presence without waking. Boromir pulled her face even with his, kissing her softly. No, he decided, stroking a stray raven curl back from her face as she readjusted her position in her sleep to nuzzle in his warmth, it wouldn’t be worth disturbing her innocent angelic countenance, even to make love to her. Putting his arms around Tasana, Boromir slept more soundly than he had since the Black Tower had first disturbed his dreams. The next morning he was reluctant to leave the bed with their mingled scents.
There had been no further sign of orcs that night; the goblins had abandoned their camps during Boromir’s watch and disappeared into the forest. An even more cryptic mystery concerning the orcs than to where they could have possibly disappeared to was hinted at by Legolas’s collection in his quiver. The Mirkwood elf often collected arrows, broken and whole, to repair and add to his supply. “Those weren’t normal orc arrows.” The archer fingered a pair of points in his lap, one from last night and the other from Moria. “Look, the shaft’s much thicker than everything I’ve ever seen used with anything but a Bardstown longbow. And you see how the point’s wider on the new one?”
The elf handed the arrows to Tasana, who nodded silently, then passed them to her brother. Boromir, who knew next to nothing about fletching, had to assume the elven archer knew what he was talking about. The steward’s heir passed up the proffered arrows, knowing they would mean little to him. Aragorn shrugged, and handed the points to the dwarf instead. Gimli gave them a perfunctory glance, tested a point against his axe, and then tossed them back to Legolas, who caught the projectiles with an automatic grace.
“Then what was it shooting at us last night?” Gimli asked with disbelieving snort at the arrows.
“Orcs, certainly. But they weren’t like any I’ve ever fought before in the South Woods. Did you notice the white marks they wore on their faces?” Tasana asked.
“I was busy noticing their arrows,” Gimli responded sarcastically, giving the healer a light cuff on her injured arm. “Some of us could have done a better job to follow my example.”
“Hand shaped, almost.” Legolas answered Tasana softly in turn. “A different breed, perhaps?”
“A bigger, nastier breed of orcs,” Gimli nodded solemnly. “Just what we needed.”
“Let’s get moving, then,” Aragorn shook his head and rose from where he had been crouching in the small huddle to wake the hobbits and start repacking the boats. “We’ll have to drag the boats through the forest today and we’ll need every hand available. As soon as we get past the rapids, we’ll row to the island of kings, Amon Hen. I can hardly wait to see this land of my ancestors.” Aragorn added quietly to his sister.
“It’s hardly on the way to Minas Tirth, but the men of Gondor do not quickly desert their companions. If you must insist upon continuing toward Mount Doom, Aragorn, I will accompany that far, at least. You will need every sword available there, as the woods are orc infested.” Boromir warned. Aragorn nodded, his face grimly set. “Please, Tasana, at least you will surely return home with me? `Tis not right, that you should have to face Mordor.” The steward’s son kissed her gently, but she turned her face away.
“It’s a difficult choice, Boromir. Do not rush me into a hasty decision, milord.” Tasana returned to formality, knowing she would regret her choice either way, but not recognizing any way to answer without abandoning one of the men she loved to possible death, she could only wait and agonize over whether she would be more useful in Minas Tirth or at the Ring Bearer’s side.
“I guess we’ll separate at Amon Hen, then.” There was a subtle hint of irony in Frodo’s voice. The hobbit had come to a decision; one Tasana didn’t like the smell of.
“Yes, I suppose we will.” She said quietly, brooding over their possible paths and the words of a sorceress.
The portage path was extremely rocky and hilly, overgrown with weeds. Boromir and Strider were the only two able to manhandle their watercraft over the worst places in the old, unused trail. Tasana insisted upon carrying her brother’s pack as he helped maneuver the boats through the woods. Determined to make good upon his claims of dwarven strength, Gimli hoisted Boromir’s pack next to his own. Legolas took the trailblazing spot, attempting to tame the worst of the underbrush as the men hauled first one, then another, and then finally the final boat through the hilly lands toward the end of Sarn Gebir.
By the time they reached the old rocky landing point downstream, the group was thoroughly exhausted. It had been their second grueling day of portage, and if anything, this was worse than the first. “I don’t think I could walk another step,” Boromir said, collapsing next to the last boat. “But I’m sure our doughty dwarf would be able to accompany you the rest of the way to Mordor tonight, Strider. Isn’t that right, Master Gimli?” He languidly reached over to grab his pack from where Gimli had halfheartedly thrown it at the steward’s son; it had landed a few feet short.
“Stow it, Boromir.” The dwarf replied with a groan, too tired to make a comeback as he fell heavily against a tree.
“Best get on your feet then, gentlemen, if we’re going to make it to the Black Tower and back by tomorrow.” Legolas smiled, rubbing a scratch from the whipping young branches of a thorn tree on his sore left arm as he relaxed against an outcropping.
“Fine, we’ll camp here then,” Aragorn gave in. “Let’s keep two on watch tonight. There’s no point in moving about at night with so many orcs around, anyway.” Pippin and Strider took first watch.
Tasana wasn’t quite ready to let her brother know how far her relationship with Boromir had progressed. Although the fact that they had slept together last night was probably common knowledge around the camp, given Legolas’s sharp eyes and loose tongue, it was still a step further than Tasana was yet willing to go to freely admit this to Aragorn. Besides, she still hadn’t made up her mind which way to go from Amon Hen, and she couldn’t allow either man undue influence until she made her decision. She kissed Boromir and Strider goodnight, and then bedded down beneath one of the scrubby pines as the men shared a mystified look. Boromir’s inquiring expression and Aragorn’s helpless shrug decried the fickleness of a woman in love more thoroughly than any words.
The company spent a final day in the boats, rowing ever closer to Amon Hen. By early afternoon the forests had reclaimed the rocky shores as thoroughly as they had in Lothlorien, but these were not the ever-golden boughs of the elven wood. While still a long way north of Gondor, these trees extended in patchwork patterns of copses and clearings skirting the Plains of Rohan all the way to Tasana’s beloved South Woods, prime hunting grounds as far as the eye could see. While Mithilira had accompanied the healer through the territories of other smaller wolf packs during the gypsy season, the Warg lady had been eager to return to her own lands in time for the spring pups. The wolves would still be in range to help the fellowship now, even if the Wargs had lost their winter wanderlust.
As the boats turned a bend in the river, Tasana became aware of a pair of figures that dwarfed the nearby trees. Two gigantic statues of men with a matching pair of swords in their left hands and a crown upon each armored helm, the figures held their free hands out as if to warn the tiny boats away. “Long have I desired to look upon the faces of my ancestors,” Aragorn murmured, gently breaking the group’s awed silence. “No friends of Elessar need fear under the shadows of Isildur and his father Elendil, the Kings of Gondor of old.” He sat proudly in his boat; Tasana imagined her brother couldn’t look more regal in robes of state on a throne. Boromir bowed his head as the shadows of the great statues touched the prow of his boat, silently saluting these heroes of Minas Tirth’s direst hour. Sam and the younger two hobbits gaped in awe.
Tasana ducked her head, but before the group could be thoroughly humbled, a small, wry voice came from the middle of Legolas’s boat. “Yeah, tall, gray eyed, stubborn as a boulder… You’re a chip right off the old block, Aragorn.” She had pricked the ranger’s royal bubble, but he simply leaned into his stroke and smiled good-naturedly.
“We have yet to divide into groups. Let’s stop by Amon Hen to divvy up the luggage and finalize our courses.” Strider peered toward the wooded isle jutting into the river. “I’d very much like to stand atop the lookout tower there before making any final decisions.”
Tasana shook her short black tresses at her brother as she helped Legolas and Gimli bring their boat to shore. “You act like a country boy at his first market day. What’s so interesting about this orc-infested place?” she asked in a harsh whisper, grabbing his shoulder.
“It’s the northern border of Gondor.” Aragorn responded. “Or so it was, back when our ancestors were ruling.” He shrugged her off, but put his arm around her shoulder, pointing out a high, crumbling watchtower on the hill. “They say no man nor beast has stood there since the fall of Isildur.”
“There’s probably a reason for that,” Chev’yahna said cynically. “I’ve yet to meet an orc archer as good as Legolas, but they’re fairly proficient.” He nodded soberly as she drew him away from the rest of the group. “Not that I’m unhappy to be back on pack territory, Aragorn, but I’m only half wolf. You’re Isildur’s heir, the alpha’s pup; you’re the one they’re going to put a collar on.”
“A collar?” He snorted, gathering faggots of wood for a fire. Even while attending to his sister’s concerns, Strider automatically looked after the group’s needs.
Tasana appreciated his selflessness at a subliminal level; but she was fed up with her brother’s unflagging sense of responsibility right now. Knocking the wood from his hands, she flared, “You think you’ll be able to return to the forest whenever you wish when you are king? You think you’ll be able to return at all? I was lucky enough to be a vol, half-cur and entirely unwanted in court, without royal blood to get in my way.”
“Without royal blood perhaps, little sister. But you have imperial blood, and that has bred truer than in most. Did you not know that our mother was the direct descendant of the Númenor Empire?” Aragorn took her chin in one hand, bringing her glowering face to his. “If you are a vol,” the Dunedain paused at the unfamiliar Wargish word for wanderer. “Then it is no shame to be such. And as Lady Galadriel said, so long as you are my sister, you are welcomed in court or the forest as you will.”
“Many claim to be descendants of Numenor,” Tasana murmured, lowering her eyes. She could not meet his face when his gray irises held that calculating look, at once expectant and at the same time beyond all hope of encouragement. She feared she would fail whatever test those eyes would give her; feared it not so much for not being able to measure up to that high standard on a personal level, but because her failure would destroy her brother’s last hope. Raised apart, she had never had anything to give him. It was the very least she could do to allow Aragorn to cling to that as yet unvoiced hope by not failing his test, even if the only way to do so was to avoid taking it.
“Aye, but not all can claim a firstborn line to Tar-Miriel herself.” Aragorn kissed her cheek, and she gave him a reluctant half-smile.
“Miriel, eh?” Tasana gave an uncaring shrug. “The one who abandoned the throne? There’s a wonderful role model for your kingship.”
The tall man chuckled, a ray of sunlight passing briefly over his dark and sober features. “Perhaps so. Miriel was not stubborn enough to handle the responsibility of ruling. It gives me hope that not all women in my family are mules.”
She butted him playfully, breaking his grip on her chin. “Better a mule than a mouse who must leave the haystack every time the farmer comes for his share of the crop. And better a Warg than either, for she needs not the farmer and the city at all.”
“Aye, but even the wolf must hunt for its family. With power comes responsibility. I accepted that a long time ago,” Strider said more seriously. “You’d best accept that as well. If we don’t come back from Mordor, you’re my heir, Tasana.”
“You’ll come back,” she said fiercely, gripping his arm. “You have to come back.”
“We’ve been extremely lucky so far, Tasana. But you must return to Minas Tirth. The worst is yet to come.” He could not coddle her. Surely the children of Gondor knew the dangers of Mordor, probably knew them more thoroughly than any Dunedain clan. Tasana had been born and raised to fight the Black Tower, and she held few illusions of the improbability of returning from Mount Doom alive. Aragorn knew he would have to dispel any remaining fancies his sister held, and for a moment the reality of his own mortality almost overwhelmed him. Not until he stood with his sister in this land of his ancestors, cut off from the rest of his friends by a small patch of forest that suddenly seemed intolerably thick and overgrown, had Strider faced the reality that he probably would die on this quest, ending the last direct father-to-son lineage to Isildur.
Or so his death would have, if he hadn’t discovered Tasana. Certainly, she was a woman and had only an indirect relationship to the old ruling house of Gondor, but given time and experience, Chev’yahna would make a just monarch, sympathetic to the needs of her people. She was impetuous and stubborn, and perhaps too emotional for her own good, but with age would come serenity and judgment.
Besides, Strider knew Boromir would remain loyal to her, come what may. For a moment Aragorn saw her as he imagined, a proud young queen, beloved by her people. And very beautiful as well, Strider noted. Boromir would have quite a time fighting off fellow suitors. If this queen was to be his legacy, Aragorn expected he could die leaving a much worse impression on his world.
“So I’ll come with you.” These thoughts had flashed through Aragorn’s mind in a matter of seconds, but Tasana had caught the emotions his face briefly betrayed. Proud and stubborn as a mule, and more empathetic than any mother Strider had ever known. Whatever happened to them, Aragorn doubted these things would ever change in his sister.
“I doubt Boromir would appreciate that,” he chided her gently with a small, tearful half-smile. “Besides, someone’s got to keep him out of trouble.”
“We’ll bring him along, then. Someone’s got to keep you out of trouble as well.” Tasana gave him a playful push to stop him from seeing the tears in her own eyes. “In any case, even Boromir admits there is very little we can do for Gondor until the Ring is neutralized.”
Strider gave up the argument, knowing he would get no other answer from his sister right now. “Why don’t you go hunt something, Chev’yahna? You’re too nervous to be much of a help around camp. We could all use a hot meal for once, anyway.”
“You’re avoiding the subject, Aragorn. How does a ranger become a king?” she asked, her voice breaking in anger, sorrow, and frustration.
“How did a merchant’s daughter become a woods-woman?” He asked her in turn, an odd light in his eyes. If only we knew the answers to those, Tasana. And more importantly, how does she become a queen? “Now go get some meat, Tasana; venison would be good, if you can find any deer.” The Dunedain tossed his sister a quiver, waving her off. Both would have questions to ponder over dinner.
* * *
After he returned to camp, Aragorn told the others: “Tomorrow we’ll separate. I’m no wizard and I can’t make your choices for you. It will ultimately be up to each of you individually on whether you ought to go to Gondor or Mordor.” Frodo said he wished to go for a walk to think things through, and Aragorn let the hobbit with a gentle warning not to stray too far from camp.
Frodo wandered aimlessly, his thoughts more upon the Ring than the path in front of him. He made his way up to a high stone platform in this fashion, gripping the chain about his neck firmly with one hand. Facing southeast toward the tower of Mount Doom in contemplation of the next step of his task, Frodo never noticed the tawny-haired form behind him. “It’s not safe to walk the forest alone, Frodo,” the tall, unexpected being said, sending the hobbit jumping two feet into the air.
“What news, Boromir?” Frodo asked, attempting to shake off his initial fear. Despite this, the Ring Bearer’s suspicions rose with every step the man took toward him.
“Chev’yahna’s returned with a roe buck in tow. It’s cooking now, whenever you’re ready for dinner.” Boromir gathered up another couple of sticks into the sizable bundle he held under one arm. He gestured openly with the last of these branches. “You look like you could use some friendly advice, Baggins. Do you want to talk about it? You know I’ll always be willing to help you with this.”
“Indeed.” The hobbit said with a soft, biting tone. “Your words would ring true were it not for the warning in my heart.”
“Warning? I’m just a friend trying to help you.” The steward’s son affected indignant surprise.
“It is a warning against delaying any further. A warning against the path that seems easiest. And, though I hate to admit it, it is above all else a warning not to trust you.” Frodo stood as tall as he could, one hand on the Ring and the other upon his blade; the inheritance of his uncle’s adventures.
“What witch has corrupted your mind? I seek only to ease your burden.” Boromir took a step toward the hobbit, his free hand opened toward the Ring Bearer beseechingly.
“It will only be lightened when this has been cast into the burning pits of Mordor,” the hobbit said tightly, clutching the Ring to his throat.
“Why must you be made to suffer so much over such a thing, Frodo? Such a little thing…” A long hidden malady glazed the prince’s eyes. “Give it to me, Frodo. Perhaps it corrupts the weak-hearted, but my will is strong enough to fight corruption. I do not desire it for a dark lord’s power, simply to protect my people. For in the right hands it could be a great strength for our side. And only the strongest, most ruthless survive and triumph. I am willing to use that strength, even if you and Strider are too afraid, hiding until Sauron’s armies ride down atop you. Why don’t you let the boldest use it? If you and the Dunedain are too womanish to use a powerful weapon when it falls into your lap, why don’t you let a real man lead you?” In the distance the wolves howled a warning, an ominous chorus to Boromir’s raving delusions of grandeur. Frodo had backed as far away from him as possible, but he could not keep from the madman forever.
“And they tell us to throw it away!” Boromir continued. “If we had a chance of destroying the Ring I would have a different opinion. But is sending it with one small halfling into our enemy’s greatest stronghold where he has every chance of reclaiming it really the best plan the council of the wise could come up with? You’re afraid, Frodo. I cannot blame you.” Boromir, easily twice Frodo’s height and weight, all pure muscle, loomed over the small hobbit. “Simply let me attempt my plans, will you?”
“The council entrusted the Ring to me,” Frodo choked out.
“You can blame it on me,” Boromir said more gently. “You can say I was too strong and overpowered you. For I am much too strong for you, halfling!” Dropping the bundle of firewood, the big man lunged at Frodo. “The Ring came to you by chance. It could have been mine. Should have been mine. Give me the Ring!” Boromir growled as Frodo dodged him behind a rock. Not wishing to face the onslaught any longer, Frodo slipped the One Ring onto his finger and disappeared utterly from view.
Boromir stood in shock. Then he heard the crunch of the previous autumn’s leaves going down the hill of Amon Hen. “I see your mind now, you treacherous halfling, you little thief!” he cried out, drawing his sword. “You’d take the Ring back to Sauron and betray us all to your master!”
Boromir started to run after the invisible Ring Bearer, but then he tripped over one of the scattered sticks and fell flat on his face. The blow to his head was finally enough to clear Boromir’s deranged senses. “What have I done?” he whispered, not bothering to get up off the ground. “Frodo! Come back, Frodo! A madness possessed me, but it has passed. I beg of you, please come back!”
Frodo, meanwhile, was running away as fast as his bare furry feet could carry him. Boromir was hardly his only concern. After this standoff Frodo knew he could tarry no longer, but he knew not where to go. He ran through the forest, his vision blurred by tears and the strange properties of the Ring. His only immediately rational thought was to avoid the campground. Boromir would return there soon with the news that Frodo had fled from him. The Ring Bearer doubled back along his path, flying up to the very top of Amon Hen where at ill ease upon the stone dais of the ancient kings of old.
Once again, the hobbit was seeing a vision of the terrors of Mordor under the influence of the Ring and his frightened wits. And this time Sam was not there to shake him out of the dream. Frodo felt the burning eye of Sauron upon him, and thought he heard Nagzül sniffing out the Ring just behind the terrified hobbit. The eye seemed to demand its Ring from Frodo. “No! I defy you!” he heard himself shouting, even while some twisted part within Frodo that he had never before been aware of wanted to run to the Eye of Sorrow, run to its master. This latter part of him was slowly taking control as his courage weakened under the continued glare of the fiery eye.
Take off the Ring, you fool! a voice told him. It had no external source that Frodo recognized; yet the wise council sounded far too much like Gandalf to have come up from inside the hobbit’s torn subconscious. It sounded like the most reasonable advice he had heard all day, despite the fact that Frodo could not decide if he was hearing ghosts, going mad, or both. He slipped the Ring off and counted solely upon his race’s natural ability to hide until he got back in range of the camp. The hobbit heard the voices of his friends calling for him, spreading out among the trees. Steeling himself, Frodo put the Ring on and waited for the last of the group to leave the area.
Boromir had indeed told the others about Frodo’s disappearance, through not the reasons behind it yet. Aragorn had been distrustfully scowling at the steward’s son, guessing silently at the truth. Tasana had looked strangely relieved. The others seemed too agitated by Frodo’s flight to divine his motives yet. They had left Sam’s warm cuisine untouched, the younger hobbits calling and running for Frodo, heedless of the dangers of the forest, the rest of the company not far behind.
Samwise and Aragorn had been searching together when Frodo’s old friend figured out the Ring Bearer’s scheme. Not even stopping to warn Strider in his rush to get back to the boats, Sam was just in time to see one of the vessels push off from shore without any apparent passengers or propulsion. “Mister Frodo! Wait for me!” Sam shouted. He waded hip-deep into the swiftly moving water and attempted to dog paddle out to the boat.
“Go back, Sam. Samwise… you can’t even swim!” Frodo’s agitated voice came from the empty boat. Paddling over to the place where Sam floundered in the undertow, Frodo grabbed his hand and hauled his bedraggled friend into the boat. Then he took off the Ring, appearing suddenly out of thin air with a long-suffering sigh. “I could have been well on my way to Mordor now if it weren’t for your blasted interference, Sam,” Frodo said, paddling to shore.
“And leave poor liddle ol’ Sam behind? That’d be awful cruel, Mister Frodo.” The younger hobbit shook himself, attempting to wring out his elven cloak.
Frodo couldn’t help but smile at his friend, but nevertheless he tried to keep a serious face. He could not take Sam, no matter how much Samwise wanted to go. No matter how much Frodo wanted to take the younger hobbit with him. “I have to be cruel in order to be kind. I don’t want anyone else to have to suffer through this.” The expression sounded empty to even Frodo’s ears. Yet he had convinced himself of the truth of these words what seemed like a decade ago; was it only two nights before that he had decided to go to Mordor alone?
“I’m not lettin’ you go without me, Mister Frodo, and that’s a fact. That’d be just cruel hard. I promised Gandalf I’d stay with you and I’m gonna keep that promise.” Pippin and Merry had not made such pledges of loyalty, although they too would probably have joined Frodo as well, had they known. It had been Merry who had gotten the three young hobbits under Frodo’s window that fateful night. Merriadoc and Peregrine, the old scamps, had been able escape Gandalf’s attention, of course, but Samwise was too slow and had been lifted bodily through the window and thrown to the floor, where he whimpered out all he had heard under questioning and stammered out a promise to help Frodo through his quest. Not that Sam regretted that promise. He would have followed his best friend in any case.
“I suppose there’s no changing your mind then?” Frodo sighed as his friend nodded determinedly. “Grab your pack, then, and let’s go.” They left the fellowship behind, never really noticing the horn blasts or wolf howls rising in the distance. “You know, Sam… I’m really glad you came along.” Frodo added after a moment, smiling as they paddled toward an uncertain future. “It’s nice to have a friend with me.”
* * *