odd_buttons: (strange days)
[personal profile] odd_buttons
Every Separate Dying Ember
Summary: "The ride to Edoras was familiar to Boromir; he had made the trip many times, though never for such a disagreeable purpose as this."
Rating: Slash, Boromir/Eomer, PG-older teen
Notes: Nestra gave support during my search for a title. Edgar Allan Poe supplied it. Every Separate Dying Ember was a Mithril Award Finalist in 2005.






The ride to Edoras was familiar to Boromir; he had made the trip many times, though never for such a disagreeable purpose as this. As he crossed into the Fenmarch clouds piled thick one upon the other until they towered, ash-gray and lit deep within by sullen flashes of sheet lightening. Vorondil, his new esquire, shrank deep into his hooded cloak. Boromir waited until fat drops pattered down, dark spots in the road dust on his horse. He did not consider himself a superstitious man, but an old Rohirrim cant struck him: deceit rides storms across the plain / and makes herald the thundering rain. And though Boromir knew the mounting storm was nothing but cooling wind and moisture from the sea striking the mountains, he rode with a heavy heart as thunder grumbled over the green hills of Rohan.

Rain fell hard but the squall did not last, and despite his drowned appearance he was heartily greeted as he neared Edoras. Boromir, Captain of the White City, was known and loved by the sons of Eorl, the farmers and craftsmen and herders. He replied to each hail with a wave, a half-bow from his saddle, and once he performed a sketchy obedience when he passed a lady in her coach, one of the elderly royal cousins whose name escaped him. When she perused him frankly the dignity of her slow nod, grave face, and perfectly straight back made him love her like he loved her countrymen: passionate people wearing their honest hearts uncovered for all to see.

The sun returned in earnest making his cloak steam and the golden roof of Meduseld blaze bright enough to bring tears, and out of the painful light Éomer came down the hill to meet him as he rode up to the hall, his back as straight as his old aunt and his face most particularly loved.

"Hail, son of Gondor," said Éomer as they drew close. Boromir replied, "Westu Éomer hál." Delight in the meeting shone from them both as they clasped arms, their manner joyful even as they made their greetings.

"Who is your fine companion?" asked Éomer. "I confess I expected Mablung at your side."

Boromir made formal introductions. Vorondil was a young clerk from a long line of clerks, but one who had strange romantic notions of a warrior's life. He had prevailed upon his influential relations to urge Boromir's acceptance of him as esquire that he might learn firsthand all he wished of the warrior's life. It was a change of vocation Boromir could appreciate, but he was unhappy with the young man: even after three months Vorondil showed no skill with weapons, horses, or the rigors of life in the field and was, in fact, inept in everything but cooking. Boromir mentioned none of this to Éomer, however. "Faramir stole Mablung away for the patrols in Ithilien," he told Éomer. "Though Mablung wanted to go. His family lived there, before."

"Welcome to the Riddermark, Vorondil," said Éomer, and Vorondil bowed gravely. "No word came of your visit," continued Éomer as their horses walked side by side and Vorondil fell in behind. "If not for the swift ride of the border patrol messenger, no one would have welcomed you properly."

"Must all my visits be official? I came as a friend."

"Would that I could spare time for pleasure," he said, "but I ride out tomorrow for the Westfold." He lowered his voice and continued, "Raiders have grown bold; they now come from the west and steal our black horses since there are so few left to take from the east. On the recommendation of the king's counselors Théodred left three days ago for the far side of the Eastfold, bringing fresh troops, and so I am taking my éored west."

"That is grievous news, though it does not surprise me. The Enemy has grown bolder in all his dealings of late," said Boromir. "My father has foreseen this."

"Perhaps this visit is official after all?" Éomer cast a side-glance at Boromir.

"Is anything we do pure?" Boromir smiled at him. "No. I am here unofficially, yet before I even step into the Hall I learn something valuable to bring back to my Lord about Mordor's raids on your horses." He looked ahead. "I for one never believed the rumors."

"Which rumors? That we sell horses to Mordor?" Éomer's mouth thinned, and then he turned aside and spat. "I have heard them, and I correct those who labor on under the misconception. No matter who he might be."

"I doubt it not," said Boromir, "and it grieves me to give voice to such a vile falsehood. Rohan would never pay tribute to the Enemy: not horses, not a single blade of grass."

Though he seemed mollified by Boromir's reply the perfect delight of their meeting did not return. "Perhaps you should ride with me tomorrow and see for yourself how our nomads fare. There are strange doings in the Westfold, and none of them rumor."

"I would desire nothing better."

"We will speak of it with my éored at the feast tonight," and he spurred his horse to a pace too quick to continue the conversation.

*

Meduseld was built of wood that creaked and groaned with the falling damp, its walls draped with tapestries that stirred in the breeze of any who passed them; it was a hall that warmly lived and breathed in a way stone could not. The grandeur of his own marble halls in Minas Tirith roused love high and keen in Boromir's breast, but here the delight was closer to his heart; and though the courtesy was no less than what he knew in Gondor the toasts were robust, the appreciation more vocal. Boromir rued the slight constraint between him and Éomer caused by his unthinking mention of that base rumor; still he enjoyed himself with an ease he rarely experienced in his father's court.

Éomer's riders spoke eagerly of a ride to the west, and the spirited talk blunted the edge of Éomer's spoiled mood so he was nearly the usual affectionate companion to Boromir. Orcs had been seen hewing trees or taking horses: vile orcs larger than any encountered before; uruks they were called, and disturbingly indifferent to the sun. "They are orcs, yes, but they are like evil men, too: bold and strong. They hewed Éam when he was down, and bit his throat. We had to strike off their limbs or heads before they would stop their attack," said a young rider. A wide red scar crossed his face that described the slash of a sword neatly healed but obviously recent.

Éomer leaned close and spoke so only Boromir could hear, "Gríma says they are from Mordor, but I think they are from the Misty Mountains, or even closer; they seem to be spawn from an evil union between men and orcs, surely a feat of magic worthy of a wizard."

"You suspect the wizard at Isengard?"

Éomer nodded. "I do, though there is no evidence, and the king will not act without it."

"It seems unlikely," replied Boromir. "Saruman is a wizard, indeed, from a high order that has always been dedicated to fighting the Enemy. He has been a warden of Isengard for many years in that very cause."

"Warden? More like master," Éomer said with less care to surrounding listeners. "Have you seen Isengard? No? It is a fortress ready for war, but war when, and with whom? The enemy? Mordor must come through Gondor and the Mark first. And the white wizard is no friend to the Mark, no matter what the counselors might tell Théoden King."

Boromir began to ask how Saruman had been unfriendly to the Mark, but the heralds trumpeted, and those in the Hall stood to acknowledge Théoden, King of the Mark. Boromir raised his cup to drink the king's health, as did everyone present, and it seemed to him Théoden needed his kingdom entire to drink his health. "Seek out Théoden King," his father had commanded him, "and judge him eye-to-eye. Read him, and report to me if it is true that he has dwindled into dotage so soon." Dotage, perhaps, though Boromir suspected some wasting illness bowed the tall king and whitened his hair. He leaned heavily on a cane with one hand; the other gripped the obliging shoulder of a pale, crooked man as he lowered himself painfully into his chair.

All sat; the conversations built once more, but subdued, sedate. Leaning close Boromir asked, "Who is that helping the king?" Éomer muttered, "His favorite counselor, Gríma: Gríma Wormtongue we call him." He drained his cup and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, disinclined to speak further, while others at the table resumed their discussion about encounters with orcs, the ways of orcs, and the best methods for killing orcs; the subject enticed Éomer from his gloom and kindled Boromir's interest as well -- he was well-versed in the ways killing orcs, and he valued the insights of mounted warriors and the strategies of a large cavalry. The topic engaged them throughout the feast until Théoden King addressed the hall, a brief speech of welcome for the son of Denethor that scarcely carried beyond the head table.

Boromir stood and bowed. "I thank you, my lord, for your courteous welcome and unequaled hospitality. With your blessing I look forward with joy to patrolling your western lands with Éomer and his éored tomorrow."

Théoden frowned; his blue eyes vacant he turned to Gríma standing at his right hand. "A patrol in the Westfold?"

Gríma uttered soft words close to the king's ear. Théoden nodded, his hands clenched bone-white on the top of his cane.

"My lord does not give permission for such a patrol," said Gríma. "There is no need to waste time and men on the protected west when the enemy harries our eastern borders."

Éomer stood next to Boromir and, ignoring Gríma, addressed his words to Théoden. "The days are darkening, and danger comes from all sides now. We must know what we face, my lord. Let me take my éored and scout the western vales."

"And leave Edoras less than perfectly defended?" asked Gríma. "You would disrespect your king so? No. There will be no patrol."

Boromir saw Éomer's face darken. "I have nothing to say to you, Gríma Wormtongue." Silence struck the hall for a long moment, and Boromir could hear Gríma breathe wetly, his mouth working. "My oath of service is to the king, not his counselors. I take commands only from Théoden King."

A low susurration dashed round the room. Théoden aimed a confused frown at Gríma, and anger sparked a gleam in his eyes. "The king orders deployment of the éoreds," he said. "Not the counselors."

"I beg your pardon, my lord," said Gríma, bowing low. "I speak with too much care for your people, and enthusiasm in your service." He stooped close to Théoden's ear once more, his reptilian gaze on Éomer even as he spoke; and the king listened and nodded his head. Théoden struggled to his feet with Gríma's help. He addressed his nephew directly, his voice querulous, "Ride where you will, Éomer, but hear me. While Théodred meets the true threat to the east, leave your éored here where it belongs, protecting the people of Edoras."

"But my lord --!" cried Éomer, but the king held out his palm, a warding gesture demanding silence, and shuffled slowly out of the room, Gríma at his side. Chairs and benches scraped loudly as people belatedly rose to honor their king's withdrawal, their calls disjointed and uncertain as they hallowed him too late, his retreating back melding quickly with the shadows until he was gone.

Éomer's men protested as soon as they were confident the king and his counselor could not hear. "I will go with you," said one, and the rest followed with avowals of support. Boromir saw Éomer glance round the hall full of courtiers and fellow éored leaders, wealthy landowners and master craftsmen. "My king has spoken, and I obey the commands from my king," said Éomer, and he lifted his cup. "To Théoden King!" Boromir noticed not all joined in the toast, though he could not be sure if they protested Éomer's rashness, or Gríma's.

Éomer settled his men quietly, speaking to them in small groups to thank them for their unwavering loyalty and assure them he had every confidence in the king's actions, but when he retired to his rooms with Boromir for a private conversation he expressed his doubts.

"I feel dirty," he said. He sat on the couch and stared into the glowing hearth, a goblet of red wine in his hand. His cloak he had discarded carelessly on a chair, and he picked at the throat of his formal shirt now. "To have to say the things I said to my éored: near lies they were, and I can hardly wash the taste from my mouth." He took a long draught. "Never has Théoden stumbled so badly. No one has more love for his king, but he fails before my very eyes."

Boromir sat next to him. "He has aged shockingly."

"Aged, aye, and grown far too dependent on his counselors."

"He seems especially reliant on Gríma."

"Wormtongue," said Éomer bitterly. He pulled again at the ties holding his shirt closed but anger and not a little wine made his fingers clumsy, and his frustration became obvious and threatened to tear the fine cloth.

"You do your clothes no favors," said Boromir. He stilled Éomer's hand. "The king gave you permission to ride where you will. I will go with you, with or without your éored." He lifted Éomer's chin with a sure touch and loosened the ties; Éomer sighed and let his head fall to rest on the back of the couch. "We will see the way of things in your land."

"I know the way of things in my land," said Éomer. His eyes closed. "And how could I not when even friends bring evil rumors on their lips?" He raised his hand to halt Boromir's protest, saying, "Stay, friend, stay. Though I bear it ungracefully, still I must know how far the lies have spread." He lowered his hand, and Boromir resumed his task. "I know rumors are merely a symptom of the evil harrying our borders. Théodred knows, Éowyn knows, the éoreds know. But our king? The man who has been a father to me? He remains blind, and I think it is Wormtongue who keeps him in the dark."

"What does Théodred think?" Boromir finished with the last tie and began unbuckling Éomer's leather armor at the shoulder.

"He thinks Gríma is a fool, but he does not suspect him of treachery."

"But you do."

"Théodred is dedicated to the protection of his people, but it is hard to see what goes on in the hall when one is riding endless patrols." The first buckles undone Boromir nudged aside Éomer's arm to unfasten those along his ribs. Éomer's eyes opened lazily. "He will be disappointed to have missed you."

"It will be a merry meeting if he should return from the border before we ride," said Boromir as he slipped free the last buckle, "but I have no burning need to see Théodred just now. Lean forward." Éomer obliged, first setting down his glass. Together they removed his armor, letting the embossed breastplate slide to the floor unheeded, and Boromir urged him to settle back. Éomer said nothing when Boromir pushed the fine white shirt aside until it gaped, baring him from throat to navel, his skin golden in the firelight. The scent of linen, leather, and ale rose from him. Sitting close, Boromir drew closer still.

They had done this before. The last time had been long enough ago for Boromir to curb his ardor and judge the welcome of his advances now, especially after the awkward start of their visit. Restraint was a feat well within his capabilities, though not pleasant -- he had never been abstemious by choice in any of his behaviors -- but it proved to be unnecessary: Éomer welcomed him. Éomer welcomed him, and Boromir indulged his hands and his mouth, feeling oddly gentle.

"We leave ere the sun," Éomer said at last, when gentleness had given way to fervor and both had shed their clothes.

"There is yet time," he retorted.

*

Boromir dreamed of his brother, Faramir. They walked together along a rustic road furrowed by farm-carts and covered with autumn leaves. Sunlight made colored lanterns of every leaf, as thick above as below, so the road under the leaning trees was a multicolored tunnel, disheveled and serene. A sudden lick of wind disturbed the litter at his feet before him and brushed a gelid fear shuddering in Boromir's limbs. Something waits for us, he said, peering ahead as he loosened his sword.

It is a king's task, not a steward's; let it lie, said Faramir.

What is it?

I cannot tell you, brother
, said Faramir, and though his words angered Boromir, Boromir felt the weight of parting come between them. Although we must both take this same road to its very end, each must make his own way. Boromir saw he wore the hard-worked green and brown leathers of Ithilien as he walked on.

Wait! Must you go now?

Faramir returned and clasped him on the shoulder. Think well of me, should I return, he said, and though his hand was warm, his face was gray-tinged with weariness, and Boromir's heart labored, burdened with a leaden grief.

He woke to Éomer's servant, Léofa, shaking his shoulder and saying, "Wake up, m'lord. The horses await. My lord Éomer begs you to make haste."

"Thank you," he muttered thickly, imbued with a lingering sadness from the dream.

"I took the liberty of bringing your clothes here, m'lord," said Léofa. He hesitated. "Should I send for your esquire?"

He realized he was alone in Éomer's bed. "No. Tell him to gather our gear and make ready to ride."

Léofa nodded. "Very good." He gestured to the side table. "There is hot tea and such should you want it. We will break fast for true in the saddle." The young man had served Éomer for years, and, as the occasion arose, Boromir as well; Boromir had come to appreciate his discretion. The dream and its sadness left him as the prospect of the ride and the smell of brewing tea filled him with optimism. He flung back the covers. "Thank you, Léofa."

"My pleasure, m'lord." He bowed and left.

Dressed against the pre-dawn chill and fortified by tea Boromir found Vorondil standing by the open door of Edoras' great stables. "Is it true? The éored does not ride?"

"It is true." Boromir passed him and entered. Vorondil stepped quickly to follow.

"I had heard some talk after the feast." He had not attended; Boromir had set him to arranging suitable quarters knowing full well he would not use them. His tone injured Vorondil continued, "As it was, Léofa cast me from bed in the middle of the night to pack for a five days' journey. I had depended on the pack animals of the éored and the victualing master to deal with food. Had you come to your room, my lord -- had I known -- I would have gathered your things last night before retiring."

"Éomer and I spoke long into the night about today's ride," said Boromir. "Did you manage? Are we set?"

"Yes, of course," Vorondil bobbed his head, "and the excellent grooms have prepared our mounts."

"Thank you, Vorondil," Boromir said and strode quickly to join Éomer standing with several of his men, forcing the conversation to end.

Éomer would not allow his éored to risk the king's wrath, but he did consent to ride with some of his most loyal and stubborn friends. All had encountered the brutal uruk raids or had close kin who had suffered in those raids. Boromir recognized a handful of faces, including the scarred young man from the feast, Elfhelm, and Háma. There was little to say; each rider was a blooded warrior and most had been to the furthest reaches of the Westfold, but before they mounted Éomer said, "We stand here ready to ride, and we know what we must do. 'Where now the horse and the rider?'" The men around him straightened at the natural command in his voice, and Boromir was not immune as Éomer paced in front of them splendid in his embossed armor and gleaming helm. "We ride wherever our enemies threaten our people. We ride to meet them as we always have done, and we ride whether we go in the company of our king and countrymen, or ride alone."

None cheered, but each went to his horse and swung into the saddle eager for the fast pace Éomer set for them, and before long the rising sun shone bright on the golden roof of Meduseld as it sank below the horizon behind them.

*

They found a body when the red sun made their shadows long. Léofa spied carrion birds descending to the northeast, and Éomer directed them to investigate, galloping to race the blindness of night. The birds lifted in a dark flutter as they approached; it was a young man with thick red braids, his face ruined. "He was a herder," said Éomer, crouching at the dead man's side, "from the east. Look here." He grunted with effort and held up a short black dart wet with blood. Vorondil blanched and turned away.

Boromir bent and examined it. "Orc," he said, "from the Morgal-vale."

"Look at the stains. It killed him slowly." Éomer stood. "Léofa, your eyes are keenest; scout his trail before we lose the sun. See where he came from, and where his mount ran to."

Boromir heard respectful murmurs and an unfamiliar word, eadig, and looked to Éomer, who said, "He wears a talisman of the eadig hleo. His family attends to the most important horses in all the Riddermark: the Mearas. Their home range is along the northernmost border, but they have moved south and east in the past few years."

"A long way to travel with such a wound," Boromir looked to the north, "whichever border he came from."

Léofa returned. "His back trail leads east and north. I could find no sign of horse; he walked."

"A very long way," said Éomer. He put himself apart from the others and faced the setting sun for long moments. Boromir knew he was considering what to do, and he suspected Éomer examined the sky to hide his face from observation as he thought; Boromir did the same with his own men when confronted by a difficult choice. Boromir watched Léofa and the others tend the young herder's body, straightening his braids and clothes, laying him on his cloak. Vorondil stood behind them with his hands clenched and his face sallow.

Éomer turned and said, "Ready him for burial." He took from the body the talisman, a small beaded bag hung on leather around the neck, before they wrapped the body in the cloak and bound it tightly with rope. Three riders cut the turf and dug with their inadequate camp shovels, throwing the dirt wide, quickly making a shallow grave into which the body was tenderly laid. Éomer tamped down the last of the turves over the slight mound, a tiny scar on the rolling plains under the brightening stars.

When all was done, and a cold standing supper had been eaten, Éomer said, "Follow Elfhelm to the Westfold as planned. I will ride east to find what trouble sent one of the eadig on a doomed journey."

"Not alone," said Boromir.

A pale flash was Éomer's smile in the falling dark. "No. Not alone."

*

Boromir awoke dew-covered and ravenous. Léofa squatted by a new fire tending a pot, and Éomer sat nearby holding a steaming cup. Vorondil was nowhere to be seen. Boromir rose from the ground and passed his hand over his unshaven cheek, feeling squalid but rested and happy to be outside. He accepted a cup from Léofa as he settled next to Éomer; he sipped. It was tea brewed strong and sweetened, and he grimaced. He preferred plain tea, and brewing tea to his taste was one task his esquire could perform well. "Where is Vorondil?" he asked.

"He looks for firewood, m'lord, to cook your breakfast," said Léofa, and Éomer ducked his head to hide a grin. Léofa continued, "It seems he is unhappy with the fuel we use here on the plains."

"He said he'd do without before drinking tea heated over a fire built on shit," said Éomer. "Where did you find him? He's as pretty and soft as a clerk."

"Balls," muttered Boromir sourly. "He is a clerk."

Éomer laughed outright. "Then I wish you all the luck with him," he said, to which Boromir mumbled another curse; he wanted his tea, but it seemed Éomer had no mercy for him. "Peevish in the mornings, old man? You sound as bad as you look."

Boromir thought of King Théoden bent over his cane and, rather than answer, attended to his cup with a neutral sound.

"Maybe the grass of Rohan is too hard for a civilized bed? Come now," said Éomer in the face of Boromir's continued silence. "The sun calls us to the day, and you are still frowsy and out-of-sorts. Here, fetch close while you drink your tea; I'll comb straight your hair, and we can leave soon as your man returns from his hopeless search."

Boromir put his back to Éomer and let him loosen the leather thong holding his hair in a simple queue. "Your comb?" Éomer murmured, and Boromir fumbled it from his breast pocket and laid it on Éomer's waiting palm. The comb stroked through his hair, catching sometimes, but then gliding freely. Éomer arranged it Rohan-style, gathering together half and methodically plaiting it, his touch certain. Boromir bowed his head while Éomer tied off the end. Each tug prickled all Boromir's skin, rousing him completely from the fog of sleep. Friends might do this for one another, but Boromir was reminded of another morning, when he and Éomer had ridden through Lossarnach on their way to the sea: the brisk sun and absolute privacy had led to rough antics that warmed him pleasantly as he thought of them now. That morning had ended with Boromir's hair arranged Rohan-style, too.

Vorondil returned empty-handed and red-faced, and Éomer, quiet after attending to Boromir, did not taunt master or servant which caused Boromir to wonder; with his hair neatly done by the clever Léofa, his eyes bright and face pink in the morning air Éomer held every moral advantage, and Boromir expected to be further ribbed, and rightly so. But Éomer remained silent, sometimes rising in his stirrups to gaze ahead, and the lack of words between them felt like a kindness.

*

The day grew, and riding knee-to-knee the young lords resumed their conversation about orc raids they had begun at the feast. Their men spoke as well, a quiet intercourse held well behind as they allowed the distance to open between them; their speech was indistinct, though the tone was sometimes sharp, and Boromir suspected Léofa took advantage of Vorondil. Perhaps, he hoped, derision from a peer might teach the young clerk where he had lost patience.

Éomer remained circumspect in his speech, but it was evident his frustration had only grown. Both men had known the dangers from the East all their lives, but this apparent betrayal from Saruman fully occupied Éomer; Boromir, however, remained doubtful. He had never met the keeper of Isengard, though he had met Mithrandir on many occasions, and wizards had always been welcomed in Gondor. That one could betray the long fight against the Shadow was beyond Boromir's reckoning, and he offered alternative possibilities for these new raids on Rohan's far-flung herders in the Westfold: the forces of Mordor had grown; bold strikes were increasing in Ithilien; orcs were seen farther afield than ever before.

"A stronger Mordor or a divided front," said Éomer. "It is an evil future to face in either case."

"My lord, a rider," called Léofa. He pointed to the north. A lone rider stood dark against the sky on a far hill, and then turned and vanished.

Éomer urged them to close their formation in a fast trot. He turned to his servant and asked, "Did he give a signal?"

"No, m'lord. None that I saw."

"A signal?" asked Vorondil.

"Tending the summer pastures is lonely work. The herdsmen are eager for visitors, and they communicate with colored flags or smoky fires across the hills. A rider who runs is an enemy, or fears enemies." Éomer freed his helm from its buckle on the saddlebag and donned it even as his knees tightened, sending his mount into an easy canter the others followed instantly. "I fear for the herders; and I fear more for their horses."

"Then let us go to them," said Boromir.

"Loose your swords and ride!" cried Éomer. "Ride on!" He leaned forward; his horse leapt ahead and the others tossed their heads and stretched out to chase him until the beating of hooves was thunder in the grass. Boromir exalted in the wind on his face, the heave of his horse under him. He glanced at his companion and recognized the same joy on his shining face.

*

They caught the lone rider later than Boromir expected. As they pursued sometimes they saw the horse flow up a verdant swell of grass and disappear on the other side like a ship riding the waves of the sea, but the distant figure remained small until Éomer commanded Léofa to raise up Éomer's own royal standard on the end of a spear and hail loudly, "What news, oh Rider? What news?" his voice a startling bellow. Only then did the rider halt on the crest of another hill and wait, erect and dark, until the riders found themselves at the bottom of the relevant hill looking up at a girl on a tall, gray stallion.

She said little, speaking the language of Rohan thickly accented and with a mild lisp that made her difficult to understand. Her name was Mégen, she said, the daughter of Ansund, and before their appearance frightened her, she was hunting for the trail of her brother. He had gone off to Edoras to report the raid with its terrible losses, but his horse had come back without him. As she talked she led them nearly two leagues to her family's encampment and her father's tent where he lay in a delirium of wound-fever. The family received Éomer gladly, remembering well the deeds of his father all round the Eastfold, and when introduced they bowed courteously at Boromir. The girl and many of her kin had the same red braids as the dead man; and when he produced the talisman there was an outcry of recognition quickly damped to tears when Éomer lowered his eyes and shook his head.

Mégen settled by her father's side and stroked his hand gently, but her brow was heavy with fury and sorrow as she described the raid that earned him an orc-arrow. "They came at night," she said. "The horses screamed. When we came with torches and swords the orcs laughed at us. We chased them far across the plain. We killed some of them, but we took back only one of our horses: my mare, Gledeag. And they laughed."

Éomer laid his hand on her shoulder. Mégen turned her head to press his arm with her cheek, and closed her eyes. "They said Go on, keep your nag," she whispered. "That is how they taunted us. We led her to the corral, but it was too late. Too late."

The woman tending Ansund said, "They used evil magic, and put a hex on the horses so that they didn't know their own masters."

Mégen interrupted. "It wasn't a hex! You can go to the herb-woman, and she can lift a hex, but this was no hex, m'lord -- they did something unnatural, something evil to our dear horses. We called them; we came close enough to touch them and try to bring them back, but they would not suffer a hand on them; we could take only mine, and she fought us. Her eyes smoldered, and smoke came from her nostrils, and she did not know me." The tears that had stood high in her eyes spilled at last, and she repeated softly, "She did not know me."

"She has become like a demon -- all the horses they took have become demons, with flames in their heads," said the woman. "I do not think they are alive, though what dreadful thing keeps them moving if they are dead, I do not know."

Vorondil stirred as if to speak, but Boromir silenced him with a look.

"I will find who did this," vowed Éomer, "and they will pay."

Boromir ached, knowing his friend burned as a leader burns when people for whom he is responsible are harmed. He knew well the humiliation of failure for not having foreseen the danger, for not having been there to stand between attacker and innocent with a naked sword; it was a lonely rage. Boromir burned, too, though these were not his people; he burned with impotent fury for the wounded father, the dead son buried leagues away in the lonely plain, the horses cursed, killed, or taken. Yet these were not his people; he knew no words from a man of Gondor would suffice here in this tent full of grief, and so he stood by, silent, following when Éomer withdrew after a respectful bow to the family.

Outside, in the rising wind, Éomer called for Léofa, who had tended their mounts; he led them to the corral where the horses stood together, shifting restlessly in the dark.

"They do not rest," said Éomer.

"The herders have some beast tied over there," said Léofa, and he gestured to a point in the deepening night. His voice sank to a fearful whisper. " They say the orcs ruined a mare; they say it has been turned into a sceadugenga."

"I do not understand that word, sceadugenga," said Vorondil; Léofa shrugged helplessly and replied, "A shadow, a monster: an undead thing that wreaks violence."

"Or mere superstition," said Éomer. "You could as well speak of Púkel-men or Holbytlan."

Léofa frowned, his usually candid and friendly manner overcome by his deep and, as he saw it, justified conviction. "That mare is real, not some fey Halfling from story or song," he muttered, but ceased at Éomer's forbidding glare.

Boromir peered into the dark and saw two points of reddish glow. "Whatever it is, let us go see this thing." Léofa brought a shielded lantern and opened one side so a wan beam of light went before them. They met a sentry, another herder with red hair who stopped them and warned them to remain well back from the creature; it would lunge, he said, and stretch out its neck to bite. As the light passed over it, Boromir saw the shiny black flank of a horse crossed with many ropes. It heaved with a serpentine quickness, and a hideous skeletal horse head struck out at them, roaring. Flames blazed in the holes where eyes and nostrils should be, and the teeth slavered and champed. Vorondil emitted a high-pitched noise and fell over; the others stepped back with muffled oaths. They all heard the panicked tattoo of hooves as honest horses corralled nearby started and ran.

"Preserve us," said Léofa, his sword drawn as they retreated to the tent, Vorondil accepting Boromir's help to stand. "It is as they say: sceadugenga."

"No," said Vorondil, "it is not a monster or demon, but a horse that has been harmed beyond rescue. As with a broken leg, it would be a mercy to kill it."

Éomer and Léofa turned to him, and even in the guttering light of the lantern their disdain was easy to see. "There is little cause for a clerk cooped up within the stone walls of Mundburg to know much about horses and their care," said Éomer.

"No, yet there is enormous cause to know about devices of the enemy," said Vorondil. "Gondor has suffered from them for many a long year back into a time before the Rohirrim ever galloped the green plains of Rohan -- "

"You stand on those green plains now," said Éomer, "because Eorl chose to ride to Gondor's aid."

Vorondil bowed. "I beg your indulgence, my lord. What I know about Rohan isn't as important as what I know about the weapons of the enemy, for I have studied them, and I know what has happened to the horses they took." Boromir was glad Vorondil showed his mettle, though he found the time and manner awkward beyond all good manners.

"What is it, then?" asked Éomer.

"Flame and shadow from the beast's very head? That would be the work of the Witch-king of Agmar, long steeped in the dark arts. He warps honest living things, be they simple plants, humble animals, or sturdy men, for he aspires to emulate the greatest evil known --"

"Sauron," said Éomer.

"-- no, not Sauron. He follows the vile footsteps of Morgoth, Sauron's master."

Neither Rider seemed willing to believe him, nor did the mention of Morgoth engender recognition or reaction, but dread surprise made Boromir pass his hand over the cold damp that broke across the back on his neck. He was a son of the ruling steward, and though he liked it less than learning the skills of battle he had had a most thorough education. "It is true," said Boromir. "The wars of elves and men stretch back through the Dark Years, when they faced evils greater than we can imagine. Morgoth was the greatest of them all."

"What does this do for my people? How does it save my horses?" said Éomer. He adjusted his sword belt, shifting his sword to a back sheath for riding. "I do not know what evil in the past gave rise to the evil we face today, but face it I must."

"You mean to ride now?" asked Vorondil. "It is soon night."

Éomer turned away rather than respond, Léofa one step behind him. Boromir brushed past Vorondil, feeling both angry and appalled. He paused, looked at his esquire, and said, "You have a strange bravery, to bait a knight of Rohan yet shrink from a chase in the dark."

"Do I hesitate to ride to certain defeat? Yes," he replied. "The witch-king of Agamar cannot be killed by any living man."

"Then stay," said Boromir, and followed Éomer. He heard Vorondil's light step behind him. Without turning he said, "There will be no more impertinence or I will knock you from the saddle and leave you to rot."

"I -- yes, m'lord."

They left camp making less noise than the rising wind in the grass. Éomer meant to track the orcs and, if they remained within the Rohan, kill them; if they were gone, he would seek out Théodred and his éored. His face streaked but dry one of Mégen's cousins with the same red hair led them; and all were grim. Riding through the blank night into the teeth of a squall contributed to a sense of isolation; the stars were covered, and Boromir saw little but the white tail of Éomer's mount flicking ahead of him. Éomer started them briskly, but before midnight the wind stopped blowing, and he let the horses walk; they had ridden hard during the day, and the horses were nearly spent. Boromir hooked his leg over the horn, crossed his arms, and dozed in the saddle, a trick Éomer had taught him on their first acquaintance. He nodded, waking often, until the eastern sky paled.

Boromir rubbed his face and drew abreast with Éomer's. The sky was high and gray, threatening more rain. The others were strung out in a line in the tall, green grass: the red-haired cousin and Léofa both slept soundly, swaying easily with the movement of their horses; Vorondil was haggard and awake. Éomer looked unchanged from the night before: grim, alert. He said only, "They are gone." He nodded ahead at the faint line of broken grass that led away east to a line of brown hills on the horizon. The orcs had traveled with no regard to secrecy, and there was no doubt that they were well on their way to Mordor with three of the best horses in all the land.

"Éomer. You are not alone in this." Boromir raised his hand in entreaty. "Don't suffer so; there is no need. Gondor is with you." Éomer met his gaze. "I am with you."

Éomer nodded and bowed his head, silent as they traveled into the rising sun and the end of Rohan's green fields.

*

They found Théodred before sunset. He welcomed them at first heartily, and then after their reports with sober restraint. For two days they consulted together over maps and the reports of swift-riding scouts, and the conclusion remained the same: the orcs had successfully carried off their prize beyond the reach of the Riddermark. Vorondil, humbled from Boromir's rebuke and frowsy from another long sleepless night in the saddle following Boromir as he joined the patrols, again offered with weary determination his observation that rescue was moot: the horses could not be cured, only destroyed as a resource of the enemy.

"There is also the issue of mercy," said Éomer. "If there is no hope, then we should not leave them to suffer."

"Should?" said Théodred. "You speak as if you have a choice when there is none. To follow the orcs is certain death."

"Not certain," said Éomer, glowering.

"We do not know where they crossed the river," said Théodred. "Would you track through the Brown Lands and the Dead Marshes to find them, only to be ambushed in some narrow place? You are needed here, in the Mark."

"And you, cousin," said Éomer, "are needed at Meduseld so you can see how your blind obedience encourages a viper in the very heart of the Golden Hall."

"So you have said. I can hardly countenance it: Grimà has served Rohan all his life."

They faced each other over the table, equal in all ways except for the simple fact that Éomer was right, and Théodred was wrong. His last encounter with Faramir came to Boromir as he watched the cousins argue; Faramir had disagreed with their father's wish that one of them should go to Rohan and confirm or deny the rumor that Rohan paid tribute to Mordor in horses. It is not possible that any Rider would willingly give up his horse to agents of the enemy, no matter Théoden's state of mind, claimed Faramir. It is an insult even to entertain these scurrilous tales, let alone repeat them. Boromir had agreed, but he also thought it within his duty as a son to do as his father asked.

Their small gathering dispersed quickly after that; no more scouts were expected, the conversation had grown stilted, and Boromir wondered if the cousins would come to blows if allowed to continue. Éomer and Théodred were as brothers: if they behaved like Boromir and his own brother behaved, they very well could come suddenly to violence only to forgive each other at the first bruise or spot of blood between them, and Boromir told Éomer so when they had retired to a small, private tent shortly after.

"Aye. True enough," he agreed. "Théodred and I have marked each other often enough and just as quickly found ourselves drinking enough ale to regret whatever it was we fought about in the first place."

"Ever does ale mend a fight."

"When it is not the cause."

Boromir made an indeterminate sound of agreement as he dropped heavily onto a pallet heaped high with furs. Éomer shed his cloak, weapons, and boots while Boromir, groaning a little, leaned over and tugged at his boots. Éomer knelt in front of him and pulled them off, first the left, then the right; and Boromir looked down at the yellow hair and its braids, untidy now with loose strands all over, yellow, like the sun, like his countrymen. Bright and undimmed and honest.

"I am sorry, my friend, for ever having listened to the rumor about the Riddermark's relationship with the enemy," he said quietly. Boromir reflected that Faramir had refused this trip entirely, saying he would not insult Gondor's ally so, spying on them, even at the behest of Denethor: a subdued defiance that he saw now was no defiance at all -- merely a quiet surety. Aloud he continued, "You will never hear it from my lips again, and should I encounter it, I vow I will defend Rohan's honor as my own."

Éomer looked up, his dark eyes deep in the light of a single lantern and a brazier glowing redly for warmth. "I thank you, brother; your promise eases my heart. If only Théodred would see reason, I would consider this a successful trip despite our losses."

"Oh, were it that easy. None are quite so stubborn as those who love you best." Boromir sighed as Éomer's nimble fingers dispensed with his boots and loosened the bindings holding close his breeches to his ankles. "Faramir," he said, and then stared at the red embers on the brazier; he thought of Mégen's dead mare, and of his frustration with Faramir over a dream he had refused to share, though Boromir knew it troubled him greatly. Boromir had wanted nothing more than to help by sharing the burden, yet Faramir would not tell him, and it angered him, a little.

"Faramir what?"

"Brothers, more like," said Boromir with a small shake of his head. "There is nothing like near-kin to drive a man to desperate measures."

Éomer rested his hands, one on each of Boromir's thighs. "And there is nothing like a friend to drive a man back to sanity through distraction."

Boromir leaned forward, as welcoming as Éomer had been the first night in Edoras. Éomer's palms trailed hot up his thighs; his unshaven jaw rasped Boromir's lips; and his hands and mouth in passion were as bold and honest as his friendship under an open sky. Boromir, for his part, loved both aspects of his friend, and he partook of the passion offered tonight with joy.

*

When they returned to the herders' camp three days later, Boromir held to his promise that Éomer was not alone, and he stood with him as they killed the ensorcelled mare.

The girl Mégen demanded to be present, and since her father was still bed-ridden and her brother lay dead in an unmarked grave, none felt able to gainsay her wishes. The intermittent storms that swept the grasslands blew ragged at last, and under gray clouds showing blue at their southern ends Éomer and Boromir drew back their bows. Foamed with sweat the horse strained her ropes, and the girl tried to hold back soft, hiccupping sobs; Boromir had not until now thought of the horse as Mégen's own mare, Gledeag. He puzzled the meaning of the name even as his bowstring creaked near his right ear, his thoughts nothing but gadfly distraction. The girl had spoken her mare's name with as much love and grief as her brother's. Were she a mother, she would protect her own children as fiercely.

Éomer murmured, "Let us end it now."

Gledeag took three arrows before she fell to her knees and died, the hellish light dulling to hollow black. Quicker on his bow than Éomer, Boromir served the last.

*

Golden light bright from the roof of Meduseld welcomed Éomer and those with him to Edoras, but it was the only welcome to be had. Éowyn met them in the stables, furious to have missed riding out; she had been visiting their father's kin that lived in Underharrow, a deadly boring place, she vowed, worse than Dunharrow, which at least had the Paths of the Dead to worry about, and she would have given teeth to have gone with her brother . . . Her youthful outrage continued in a passionate stream, and he would have enjoyed her spunk, but Boromir saw only Mégen in his mind's eye: her wet, ashen face as she watched her beloved mare crumple and die; her back unyielding when she stepped to the body and looked down upon it.

Elfhelm found them before they went to see the king. He and the others had returned from their fruitless circuit of the Westfold two days before only to face the rough side of Théoden King's royal displeasure. The king did not spare his nephew now, not even in front of the heir to the steward of Gondor. Once Théoden shuffled out of the hall, Éomer gathered his men and led them to a tavern in the lower city; he gave the keeper gold to be sure all mugs were always filled and no man went hungry. Still, their collective gloom cast a pall on the brilliant day, and so they lined the trestle seats of the dark tavern to indulge their dark mood, and to drink.

Boromir watched Vorondil and Léofa at the next table. They seemed to have formed some accord between them: they spoke together over their cups as equals, and Boromir detected none of the subtle derision or jibing from before. Sitting in companionable silence with Éomer, Boromir nudged him and nodded to their servants, amusement welling up, welcomed: the past week weighed on him. Éomer glanced over his shoulder, and then turned back and grunted. "Again with the ghost stories. I could ask for no better man at my side, but he has odd ideas about old wives' tales."

"I could easily ask for a better man," remarked Boromir wryly, "and it seems they've found some common cause."

"Demons, ghosts, halflings." Éomer shook his head. "You must steal back your other man, Mablung."

"There is no stealing men back from Faramir." Boromir emptied his cup and signaled for another. "He needs the best to spy out Ithilien, and they all come to love him."

"Your men esteem you; there is no better loved captain in all the west than Boromir."

Boromir smiled at that. "There is no need to stroke my ego. My place in your bed tonight is assured."

"Who says it is your ego I want to stroke?" A smile parted this beard, his teeth bright against ruddy lips. "My reasons deal more with how I have you, not where."

They laughed, and happier faces turned to them as their rising mood lifted up the hearts of those around them. The door opened, and a blade of light scythed through the room, making people grimace. Théodred stood in the doorway, filling it with a tall, black shadow before he stepped wholly in and closed the door, joining Boromir and Éomer at their table.

There were many hails and greetings before he settled with his own brimming pint and they could speak at last, three equals taking their ease, though Théodred was not one to smooth a conversation. "Licking your pride, cousin," he said, "or drowning your woe?"

"Show some pity," said Boromir. "Your father remains master of the public reprimand. Everyone here was wounded by him -- cut deep. The ale is purely medicinal."

"The times he took me down, and in a full hall, too," said Éomer.

"No more than me, though I was spared today." Théodred applied himself to his drink, and then said, "You sound just like him with your éored."

"It's a family trait, I think," Boromir observed.

"Certainly Éowyn seems to have learned that particular skill," said Théodred sourly. "She gave me a dressing-down upon my return this morning, casting judgment on the condition of my horses, worse than the knottiest old stable master."

"Old before her time," complained Éomer. "Hmm. She was just peeved to have missed a chance to ride out."

"She couldn't have ridden out with you. Not with orc parties crossing over the river at will."

"Do not coddle her, Théodred; you will come to rue it, I promise you," said Éomer. "She's gotten deadly with a blade." Théodred made more noise about the inherent danger of patrols, the toll taken on the inexperienced younger riders; the inadvisability of taking along a woman, but Éomer interrupted him: "She's mostly peeved because she missed riding out with you, I am sure."

"Oh ho! That sounds intriguing," said Boromir, and Théodred colored. "So, can it be she likes her men tall and gray-eyed, then? You do have much of Lossarnach about you; you could be mistaken for a man of Gondor, with that dark hair." Éomer caught his eye and grinned. "Maybe she might be inclined toward a true man of Gondor. Faramir would be more than willing; and there may even be a possibility for a hopeless case like me --"

"Oh, bugger off," Théodred shoved Boromir's shoulder while Éomer's laughter rang out.

"It's more than the sharp side of her tongue he wants, isn't it?" said Boromir, but lower; as soon as the words left him he knew they skated the bounds between presumption and friendship.

"Now, now," said Éomer, but he still smiled. "That is my sister you're making free with."

"Forgive me: I am not making free with her," said Boromir, and the tone of their intercourse gently sobered, "nor would I want to, not when there are battles still to be fought. Though in all seriousness I must warn you: Faramir has an uncommon eye for the pretty ones, and Éowyn is very lovely indeed."

Éomer acknowledged his apology by inclining his head. "She still has a sharp tongue. Uncle will soon have competition."

Théodred shrugged, a nonchalant movement that Boromir perceived was calculated. "Father has taken his measure out of my hide many times before, and I survived. I could endure whatever Éowyn might serve out." There were smiles all round, but they faded; it seemed no energy remained to take advantage of the overt innuendo. Boromir did not think even Théodred expected him to -- he was sure Théodred knew his true inclinations, as well as his cousin's, in that direction -- and frankly, all he could see in his mind's eye was the distressing scene from his first night at the hall: Théoden King, leaning heavily on the crooked Grimà, his white hair extinguishing as he retreated into the shadows.

"Grimà was with him today," said Théodred. He traced the rim of his cup with a wet finger, making it moan. He glanced up, his expression momentarily lost and very, very young. "His hand never left Father's shoulder."

"But it is true," said Léofa loudly from the next table, obviously deep into his ale, "the Holbytan can vanish in the air and speak to the very birds."

Vorondil scowled, equally drunk, and rebutted: "I remain open to the possibility that a race of people could mimic the birds; don't we do just that, carving our duck-calls from wood, pretending to be friendly, luring them in when we hunt? But actual speech? And vanishing! If they are more than a fairy-tale, then they are merely people, I am sure, and subject to the same forces as are we all."

"My grandsire traveled much is his youth, and he saw one; he saw one, far to the north where once our people lived, before, before the great battle, uh, before Eorl --" and at that several Riders within earshot shouted out praise for Eorl the Young gladly with raised cups, and everyone was obliged to drink, "before he . . . and .. ." Léofa trailed off, unable to follow his train of thought.

Vorondil remained steady, however, and he shook his head sagely. "They are nothing but a very old pipe-dream, my dear Léofa."

*

Boromir dreamed on the last night of his journey home. All the east had darkened, and there was a rumble as of thunder; but it was a deeper sound that betrayed itself as the movement of the unquiet earth under Mordor, churning. A freshening breeze touched him, and he turned into it to face the west. The sky was pale there, silver, as if the sun had given up her golden strength for a star's sheen. A far voice cried out to him:

Seek for the Sword that was broken:
In Imladris it dwells;
There shall be counsels taken
Stronger than Morgul-spells.
There shall be shown a token
That Doom is near at hand,
For Isildur's Bane shall waken,
And the Halfling forth shall stand.


Boromir strained to understand the words over the sweet singing of the wind. A gray cloak as fine as spiders' webs fluttered from his shoulders; in his left hand was a dwarf's axe; in his right was a sword bright as flame. He felt these were gifts, tokens of alliances made far and wide, and he knew he could take them to Minas Tirith, take them to his father and so save Gondor. Another voice, softer and nearer said, And it would seem like wisdom but for the warning of my heart.

Boromir looked all round but found none who could have spoken; a leaf stirred as if a bird had taken flight, but he was alone as he stood with his hands full, and when he looked down at his feet he saw three black arrows.



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