Several more days had passed when we again made camp late into the night. I was just thankful for the break in monotony of endless paddling downstream. I was able to have some conversation with Gimli and Legolas, but mostly it was too awkward to maintain while paddling. Then there was also the fear of being overheard.
Legolas steered our boat towards the riverbank, and I was pleased to see Aragorn and Boromir already getting out of their boats. At least we wouldn’t have to spend the night hunched over in our boats again. I’d spent many restless nights sleeping in strange places before, but never the bow of a boat.
I was already fantasizing about being able to stretch out and sleep when Legolas gave an extra burst of strength to drive our boat onto land. I hopped over the front of the boat, and as my feet landed in the murky shallows, I turned and helped pull the boat further out of the water.
Gimli and Legolas left me to tie off the boat as they unloaded only the essentials for the night. I started to follow after them, but out of the corner of my eye saw Boromir walk further down the riverbank alone.
His head was down and his shoulders were slumped forward as a man who was bearing the weight of the world. And I knew from the feelings radiating from him that he had to be numbered among the most conflicted men in this world.
I hesitated, but then followed after him, letting stones and twigs turn under my feet so he’d hear my approach. Still, I was a bare few feet from him before he marked my presence and turned.
“Oh, do you now deem my being acceptable enough to grace with your presence?” he sneered.
I took a half step back and raised my hands in surrender. “Whoa there. Don’t go attacking friends now,” I joked, trying to mask the stab of guilt that flashed through me. I had been avoiding him the past several nights. His emotions and thoughts were becoming more and more volatile, and it had simply been easier to avoid him rather than struggle to shut his thoughts out.
“You’ve been brooding so much the past several nights,” I continued, “that it seemed like a good idea to let you be.”
The anger fled from his face, replaced by misery as he ran a worn hand over his features, as though trying to wipe it all away. “Forgive me for snapping. I am quarreling with our leader and now throwing biting remarks at ladies.” As he spoke, his voice became low and graveled, matching the misery of his expression.
“Hey now. I think I’m offended,” I joked, hoping to lighten the mood. “I’m sure as hell no lady.”
He shot me a dirty look at my curse and I just grinned; though I didn’t think he understood most of my curse words, he still claimed it was no kind of language for women. Finally, he did give a half-smile at my innocent grin.
“Forgive me. I should not be quarreling with you. In truth, I do not blame you for avoiding me,” he lamented.
I shrugged. “I understand lashing out at friends when you’re stressed. There’s no need for apologies.” I laughed. “Hell, I’ve been known to lash out at people for no damn good reason. Well, other than it being the wrong time of the month.”
Boromir obviously understood my reference and squirmed uncomfortably.
“What I’m saying is I understand and don’t blame you. I bet Aragorn doesn’t blame you either,” I offered.
He bent down to pick up a twig, nervously breaking off pieces to toss in the river as he seemed to struggle with what to say.
As far as I knew, Legolas was the only member of the Fellowship that knew I could hear thoughts, and I preferred to keep it that way, so I made the effort to refrain from listening to Boromir as he struggled, but the sheer force of his emotions was making it difficult.
“I fear that I no longer know my own mind,” Boromir suddenly whispered.
I moved closer, leaning against a tree a few feet from him. I wanted to ensure he had space and didn’t feel trapped, but also be close enough that he could confide in me if he chose.
“We all have struggles in our minds that cause us to wonder at what’s going on,” I replied, folding my arms and forcing nonchalance. I just hoped he would buy the façade and feel comfortable unloading some of his burdens. I feared if I turned towards him and waited expectantly, he’d close off and keep it all locked inside.
“This is different,” he argued. “I find myself quarreling at every turn—even with myself. I act and speak in ways that when I have calmed, I find deplorable. I know not what has come over me. At times, I look at myself only to find I recognize not who I am.”
He gave a shuddering sigh and continued breaking the stick in his hands apart. But I kept silent and waited for him to speak.
“Nay, ’tis not truth that I know not what has come over me,” he continued in a low whisper. “Yet, I am ashamed by what has. It has breached my mind and stained my thoughts, and I am a lesser man for it.”
“You’re not a lesser man, Boromir. You are strong—a warrior.”
“I am weak. My mind made feebler every day,” he growled.
“You fight great battles in your mind. Battles others can’t even comprehend. The Ring tries to break you, but you haven’t broken.”
“How long until it does? I fear not long. Its whispers are nearly ever-present in my mind. I cannot escape it.” He gave a frustrated groan and flung the rest of the stick into the river. “I am weak,” he repeated.
“You’re not weak.”
“Then why have only I been affected?” he asked, desperation in his voice.
“I think it’s tried to reach into all of our minds.”
He glanced at me, skepticism clearly marking his face. “It has begun to affect Frodo; yet he carries the burden, it is expected. The other hobbits are innocents; it is unsurprising the Ring has not so affect them. I know not how it could nor would affect a neither dwarf nor elf, but it does not bring you or Aragorn to such ruin. What other explanation can there be but that I am weak?”
“You may not see Aragorn actually struggle with it, but I assure you, he does. And as for myself? Yes, I have,” I admitted. I’d spoken to no one of my shameful experience kneeling over Frodo, but I knew Boromir was one person who could wholly understand my weakness.
“You have?” he asked, sounding almost hopeful.
“Yes. In Lothlórien, I heard it speaking in my own mind, twisting my thoughts so expertly, I barely realized they weren’t my own.” I shook my head and said with self-incrimination, “I was kneeling beside Frodo’s sleeping body, ready to grab the Ring before I even realized it wasn’t my thoughts and saw what I was doing. How pathetic does that make me?”
His gaze softened at my harsh words. “Yet you stopped.”
“Still, you stopped, and have not since been so affected,” he pointed out, his own gloom returning.
“It offered to return me to my world. And I realized there was no way it could follow through on that. So what else could it offer me? I have no family or city to protect here, so it realized it had nothing more it could dangle before me and gave up on me.” I shook my head. “Even still, I stay away from Frodo if I can.”
Boromir continued brooding, so I stepped closer and placed a hand on his shoulder. “It continues to haunt you because you are a good man who loves his people and his city. But you’ve got to remember that it has to be destroyed. A weapon of magic like that will never answer to another. It will only ever have one master.”
He nodded. “When I have calmed, and the thoughts do not swirl so frantically about my mind, I know this. I know the weapon of the enemy must be destroyed. Yet, at other times, my mind tells me such a weapon could save my city. Is not saving the lives of so many worth any cost?”
I shook my head. “No. Because, for how long will you have saved them? What good is saving a few lives right now, when it ends in everyone dying anyway?”
“I know this,” he whispered. “I know this now, yet, will I know it later?”
More despair oozed from him, and I couldn’t keep his thoughts and feelings out any longer. Giving him a quick hug, I whispered, “Only you can answer that.”
I pulled away and left him where he was, trudging back towards the noise of the others. I felt exhausted. Trying so forcefully to keep thoughts and feelings that strong out of my mind left me drained. Though it had only affected my mind, even my body felt weak and tired.
Gimli offered me some lembas and water, which I gratefully accepted. But even after eating, I felt like lying down and sleeping for a week straight. I’d become spoiled in Lórien. The minds of the elves were easy to keep out, and even when I let their thoughts wash over me, they didn’t exhaust me the way human minds did. I was out of practice now. Even a few minutes with Boromir was too much.
“Tell me we won’t have to portage the boats again,” I groaned lowly. As sore as I suddenly felt, I very much doubted I’d be able to help as I had last time.
Glancing up across the fire, I caught Legolas’s worried stare as he watched me. No doubt wondering and worrying at what was wrong with me. I glanced at the sky and then to the woods. It was our turn again to take first watch. Nodding to Legolas, we both stood to take our duty.
For nearly twenty minutes, we were both silent. Lost in our own private thoughts. Then, Legolas broke the stillness.
“You had not told me the Ring spoke to you.”
Startled, I straightened from the tree I was leaning against and turned to face him. “You heard me speaking to Boromir? You were nearby, or were you following me?”
“Boromir has not been himself for some time. I feared for you,” he relied, unrepentant.
I sighed and forced myself to be calm. “I can take care of myself,” I calmly reminded him.
“Did the Ring speak to you?” he pressed.
“What did it say? What did it offer?”
“It said it could send me home. It told me to take the Ring, and it would send me home. And that’s when I knew it was the Ring in my mind. I’ve never had a home or thought of anywhere as home. So, I got the hell outta there and I try to stay away from it.”
“Do you yet wish to return to your former world?”
I stared at him, trying to formulate my answer.
“No.” I was startled by the answer that came out. There were times I still missed being in my old world for the simple fact that I knew that world and I knew my place in it. But as time passed, I found myself forgetting what my life had been like before. Part of me was terrified at the thought that a piece of me was slipping away, but the feeling lessened each day as I forgot more of my old world.
“I miss that in my old world I knew my place, but I can’t say I miss that world or want to return to it,” I continued. “I like this world. Home or not. Magic rings or not,” I laughed.
“Perhaps, if this darkness is abated one day, you can make your home in Mirkwood,” Legolas suggested, taking a step closer.
“Mirkwood?” I repeated in surprise. “What would your father think of you inviting some random human to come live in his kingdom?”
He closed the distance between us and lifted my left hand to press against his chest over his heart. “You are not a ‘random human,’ Elaina. You are a dear friend to me, and have come to mean more to me than any other living soul has.”
“Yeah, but come live in Mirkwood? I mean, still, wouldn’t your father be upset by that?” I repeated, confused by his offer.
“Elves do not interfere with the choices made by the hearts of other elves,” he earnestly answered.
I stepped back, letting my hand fall away from Legolas. “What are you saying?” My voice came out hushed. Almost afraid to give voice to the thoughts suddenly racing in my mind.
“I care for you. More than I have ever cared for another. You mean more to me than any other.”
“Stop! You can’t. That’s not possible. I’m mortal. You’re an elf,” I said in a rush.
He shook his head. “It is no matter to me. I have never felt as I do for you.”
Legolas continued expectantly looking at me.
“What do you want me to say?”
“Is it not possible that you could feel the same for me?” Legolas asked, some of the hopefulness leaving his face.
“How long have you felt this way?” I asked instead of trying to formulate my own answer.
“I cannot say for certain when the feeling came upon me, but it has been there for some time,” he admitted.
My heart lurched. It knew what it wanted to answer, but my head reminded me of all the reasons why it would never work or that I was being selfish. I knew what was going to happen in this world, but I didn’t know what would become of me. What if I died before the War of the Ring was over and it caused Legolas to fade? Or what if by merely giving in to my heart, I screwed up what was supposed to happen in this world anyway.
Or what if I wasn’t meant to do the whole settle down and marry thing. I’d tried once and it hadn’t worked. What if the problem was me? What would happen if I couldn’t take being married and screwed things up with him too?
Legolas wasn’t a human as my first husband had been. Elves only gave their hearts once.
“What if we’re wrong? What if we’re both making more of this than it really is? What if we ruin a good friendship?” I asked him.
He looked startled. “I do not understand. I know what I feel. The question is what do you feel?”
“This is too fast,” I said, talking in a rush again. “This is happening too fast. I was only just coming to understand why I was stupid for even considering staying with Haldir and ruining his life, and now you spring this on me. I need time. I need time to think about this.”
He nodded. “My apologies. I am aware I have brought this to you suddenly, but I cannot keep it in my heart any longer. I almost lost you to the marchwarden and I felt I had to tell you.” He stepped closer again and slowly reached for my hand, giving me plenty of time to pull away again. When I didn’t, he slowly lifted it and turned it over, pressing a gentle kiss to my palm. “If you need time to understand what your heart tells you, then you shall have it. It took me time to hear the words of my heart as well. However, I hear them now and had to give voice to them. I shall ever be your friend.”
I nodded and turned away, my hand slowly slipping from his grasp. I walked back towards camp, vaguely aware that our watch wasn’t over yet, but needing to escape Legolas’s hopeful eyes.
My head knew all the reasons this was crazy. But I was afraid if I didn’t make myself take the time to step away from Legolas, I knew just exactly what my heart would give voice to.
And what if he was wrong? What if I screwed this up and lost my closest friend. I missed sex, sure, but I didn’t know what I’d do if his friendship was yanked from my grasp. It had come to mean too much to me.
Everyone was silent the next day as we continued downstream.
The day had been alternately rainy and foggy, the dreary weather casting a further pall over my companions.
Finally, the fog lifted and the rain stopped. But our attention was no longer on the weather. The banks of the river were closer, funneling the water down an increasingly smaller river, making the water faster.
Soon, two great shapes loomed in the distance.
“Behold the Argonath, the Pillars of the Kings!” Aragorn called out. “We shall pass them soon. Keep the boats in line, and as far apart as you can! Hold the middle of the stream!”
Legolas began righting our course and aiming for the center of the current and then we both dug our paddles into the water, leaning our weight in to slow the boat and give the two boats ahead of us more space. Even Gimli awkwardly took up a paddle and helped to slow our course.
But as we passed through the gap, we all bowed our heads respectfully to the wardens of Númenor. Gimli exclaimed as he admired the great pillars. They were certainly impressive. Nothing I had seen in my own world could rival the beauty of their size and the sheer man-hours of work that had to have been necessary to complete them. And without the equipment and power tools available in my world.
“Isildor and Anárion,” I whispered in awe.
“You know the Númenórean lords of old, lass?” Gimli asked.
Smiling, I replied, “I’ve heard of them, but I never dreamed of actually seeing the Argonath. They were brothers, and ancestors to Aragorn.”
“Not many in this age have seen them,” he agreed.
We paddled down the lake that opened beyond the pillars, and continued until the water began to rush again and we could hear the thundering of Rauros becoming loud in our ears, though we made for land well short of the falls while we could still steer our boats from its hungry path.
Legolas landed our boat on a sandy stretch of riverbank beside the other two boats, but for once, I held my seat in the front, not moving to help pull it further to shore.
This was truly the fork in the road.
The Fellowship would here break, and Boromir would part with his life.
And what would be my plight?
The Fellowship would make camp, believing they would decide their next course of the journey. West to the relative safety of the borders of Gondor. Or East, into the heart of Mordor.
Yet, those would not be the choices made. Frodo and Sam would continue East of course. But the rest would make choices they had not known were on the table.
And one would perish.
Stepping out of the boat was taking one more step towards that fate.
“Elaina!” Legolas called, lightly touching my shoulder.
I looked up to see Gimli walking away and Legolas standing on the sand where he had pulled the boat further from the water.
“Are you unwell?” he queried, the backs of his fingers testing the warmth of my forehead.
I tried to smile at his worry, but could only manage a slight lift to one corner of my mouth.
“I’m fine.” I don’t know if the lie was for his benefit or my own. But the narrowing of his gaze told me it did not slip by his notice.
“What is wrong, Elaina? You look quite pale.”
This time I forced a wider smile, trying to convince us both that I was fine. “I’m a redhead. Pale is a perpetual state,” I joked.
“What is wrong?” he repeated.
I sighed and laid my paddle down in the boat, picking up my pack as I stood. “We have to decide which direction to go next. I’m just worried about the rest of our journey,” I answered in half-truths.
Standing in the boat, for the first time I found myself looking down at the elf. But he seemed unfazed by my advantage.
“Is there something coming?” he whispered.
I smiled sadly. “So many things. But you know I can’t tell you. It might change what happens. And I’m struggling enough to keep from changing things.”
He considered my words and then carefully asked, “Should I have any fear of harm coming to Frodo? Is Gollum still out there?”
I smiled, my heart warming at the knowledge that Legolas was still so committed to the Quest he’d sworn himself to. I could appreciate duty.
Glancing at the river, I answered, “Gollum’s still out there somewhere, but he’s not a problem. And Frodo will do what he must to complete his appointed task.”
He smiled at my assurances, and then raised his hand up to me. “Then have faith that all else shall turn out in the end.”
I nodded and took his offered hand, stepping over the side of the boat with his help. As we walked towards the others, I gratefully held onto Legolas’s hand, ignoring the fates we were treading towards.
The next morning broke bleak and heavy. Thick clouds hung in the air as smoke and fire billowed in the East. It was a fitting sight to accompany the ominous choice hanging as heavily in the air as the clouds.
Breakfast was served without ceremony and in silence.
I almost preferred the silence. I knew when it was broken, everything I had feared would begin.
“The day has come at last,” Aragorn said, his words sounding like the nail in the coffin to my ears. “The day of choice which we have long delayed. What shall now become of our Company that has traveled so far in fellowship? Shall we turn west with Boromir and go to the wars of Gondor; or turn east to the Fear and Shadow; or shall we break our fellowship and go this way and that as each may choose? Whatever we do must be done soon. We cannot long halt here. The enemy is on the eastern shore, we know; but I fear that the Orcs may already be on this side of the water.”
Only silence met Aragorn’s words, so he continued.
“Well, Frodo, I fear that the burden is laid upon you. You are the Bearer appointed by the Council. Your own way you alone can choose. In this matter I cannot advise you. I am not Gandalf,” Aragorn’s eyes briefly met mine, letting his grief show through, but thankfully, it no longer showed blame, “and though I have tried to bear his part, I do not know what design or hope he had for this hour, if indeed he had any. Most likely it seems that if he were here now the choice would still wait on you. Such is your fate.”
Frodo considered Aragorn’s words silently for a few moments, and then he glanced up at me, hope shinning in his eyes.
My voice came out hushed and choked as I forced my words. “It would be so easy to tell you what you should do and what path you should take, but that’s a choice you have to make. I can’t tell you what you should do. You have to decide for yourself.”
Disappointment filled his eyes and I caught snatches of his thoughts—his anger that I knew what was to come but wouldn’t share my knowledge.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, and stood, walking away to stand on the riverbank near the boats. I shouldn’t have stayed as long as I had. I wasn’t part of the Fellowship, and shouldn’t have stayed for even part of their discussion.
After a few moments had passed, Legolas came to stand beside me by the river.
“Thank you,” I told him, after several more minutes had silently passed.
“Whatever for?” he asked in surprise.
“For not saying anything or trying to come up with meaningless words that are supposed to comfort me. Just standing there in silence is more comforting than any words right now,” I admitted, turning and looking up at him.
He took my hand in his. “I understand that at times our hearts cannot hear any words, right, or wrong.”
For nearly another half-hour, we stood silently, simply watching the water pass by and waiting. All too soon, Aragorn called out from his place near the fire.
“You go,” I told Legolas, releasing his hand. “They want to further discuss what Frodo might choose.”
“You will not come discuss with us?”
“No. It’s nothing I don’t already know. Go.”
He nodded and joined the others sitting around the campfire.
I listened with half an ear, but continuing to let the water mesmerize me until Boromir finally returned to the campsite. I continued waiting until he had vaguely related Frodo vanishing and the others became concerned about where Frodo had gone. Soon, the others were frantically splitting up and running in various directions to search for Frodo.
“We shall all be scattered and lost,” Aragorn lamented. “Boromir! I do not know what part you have played in this mischief, but help now! Go after those two hobbits, and guard them at the least, even if you cannot find Frodo. Come back to this spot, if you find him, or any traces of him. I shall return soon.”
I stayed by the river as Aragorn and the others ran from sight. Turning, I pinpointed where Frodo’s thoughts were coming from as he watched the campsite and beach, using the Ring to stay hidden from the others.
“You’ll have to move quickly if you want to be gone before the others get back,” I told him.
He gasped, and then removed the ring, appearing closer to the riverbank than I’d pegged from the feel of his thoughts.
“How did you know I was there?” he uttered.
“I knew you would come back here,” I answered simply.
“Shall you try to stop me as well?” he asked, walking to stand between the boats and me, glancing speculatively at them.
“Then to come with me?” he asked suspiciously.
“No. I’m not as strong as others are. Not strong enough to accompany you where you’re going while you carry your burden.”
“Then, why are you here?”
“To say goodbye, I guess. And to wish you luck.” I paused. “You’re very brave, Frodo. Remember, things happen as they must.”
I nodded one last time to him, and turned towards the woods, sprinting in the direction I had seen Boromir go after the younger hobbits.
My hand automatically grazed across my right hip, searching for my gun and cursing when I remembered I didn’t have it any longer. Yet I had my sword, bow, and a quiver full of arrows. I gave an extra burst of speed as I listened for Boromir’s thoughts, readjusting my path when I finally caught their tenor.
As I closed the distance, I cursed myself when I heard the all too real sounds of battle. Swords clashed and the guttural cries of Orcs rang out.
A new burst of speed found me, driving me onward to reach Boromir in time.
Thoughts, plans, right and wrong, it all flew from my mind. There was only one simple truth: one of my comrades was in danger.
The Orcs were focused on Boromir as they surrounded him. I burst through the trees, taking advantage of their focus on Boromir to fire my bow and bring down several of them before they turned to face me. Slinging my bow across my back with its string across my chest, I drew my sword and worked my way across the clearing to stand at Boromir’s back. Merry and Pippin fought nearby, slashing with their own swords and even throwing rocks at Orcs further away.
“You should not have come,” Boromir grunted over his shoulder.
“You’re welcome,” I tossed back at him, blocking the sword of another Orc.
With two of us fighting, Boromir was finally able to stop long enough to bring the Horn of Gondor to his lips, letting its clear call ring out.
I scanned about us as we fought, looking for the Orc I knew would pierce Boromir with so many arrows, and finally, I spotted it standing on a crest a little ways off. As it strung a grisly black arrow on its bow, I threw my weight into shoving at Boromir’s shoulder. He skidded sideways, losing his balance, but keeping his feet.
Too late, I realized my miscalculation in pushing Boromir from the path of the arrow. In doing so, I had placed myself in the path of the black arrow. My height was my saving grace. Boromir was taller and a larger target, so instead of striking him squarely in the chest, the arrow sliced across my outstretched forearm.
At the burning pain across my arm, my legs suddenly felt weak, buckling as I struggled to regain my balance, driving my sword into the ground as I tried to push to my feet again.
“Lane!” Boromir cried, rushing to stand in front of me again.
“No!” I shouted, wishing I could convey all my thoughts in that one word. That the arrow that sliced across my arm had been meant for him and not me. That he was the one truly in danger.
But my breath escaped me in a pained rush as a black arrow slammed into his chest in the next moment.
I struggled to my feet, hoping to push him from the path of another arrow, but he was struck again before I could reach him.
The second arrow struck off-center, spinning him partially with its force. In the next moment, I grabbed at his shoulder, trying to steady us both. Our eyes met in pained recognition. We both knew the arrows that struck him were fatal.
“Protect the hobbits,” he wheezed his voice and breath coming out in a pained gasp.
I had failed to protect Boromir. After everything, I had tried to stop it and failed. I hadn’t considered whether it was right or wrong, just acted on the soldier’s instinct that wouldn’t let me stand by. Now, there was nothing more that I could do for him.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered to him.
Pushing away, I sprinted towards the hobbits as Boromir turned again towards the advancing Orcs. Merry and Pippin had stopped their onslaught against the Orcs, their horrified faces bearing witness to Boromir’s demise.
“Run!” I yelled at them as I closed the distance. I could hear Boromir’s sword ringing out behind me as well as the sickening thuds of yet more arrows striking him.
The hobbits remained motionless, too shocked to move. When I reached them, I slowed only long enough to shove at them, forcing them to turn and retreat.
I heard the thundering of heavy steps behind me, and turned to meet them and thereby give the hobbits the chance of escape, but as I whirled to face the Orcs, a sudden pain erupted across the back of my head, making light burst behind my eyes before everything suddenly went dark.
A/N: Well, that’s the end of book one!
The journey continues in book two.
If you have noticed, I changed the name of this story to reflect that the series will be called: Protect and Serve. Book one will be: To Protect, and book two will be: To Serve. Book three will be named: To Honor.
I have a bit of a habit in other stories I write of using song titles for my chapter titles when they fit. And I couldn’t help doing it here. Bitter the Parting, by John Doyle is a beautiful (and sad) song. If you’ve never heard it, give it a listen. The lyrics aren’t 100% fitting to this story, but it has such an awesome melody to it.
Thanks so much to everyone for reviewing this story. You are all so wonderful!
And as always, let me know what you think!