Although there was still no sign of the enemy, the travellers grew uneasy, expecting at any moment to be suddenly exposed to attack. At Aragorn's bidding, the Company now paddled for long spells, and the banks went swiftly by. But they saw little of the country, for they now journeyed mostly by night and twilight, resting by day, and lying as hidden as the land allowed.
The country on either side of the River began to change rapidly, the banks rising, growing stony. Soon they were passing through a hilly, rocky land, and on both shores there were steep slopes buried in deep brakes of thorn and sloe, tangled with brambles and creepers. Behind the tangles of thorn stood low crumbling cliffs, and chimneys of grey weathered stone dark with ivy; and beyond these again there rose high ridges crowned with wind-writhen firs. They were drawing near to the grey hill-country of the Emyn Muil, the southern march of Wilderland.
The eighth night of their journey came. It was silent and windless; the grey east wind that had plagued them had passed away. The thin crescent of the Moon had fallen early into the pale sunset, but the sky was clear above, and though far away in the South there were great ranges of cloud that caught the light of the sunset faintly, in the West stars glinted bright.
"Come!" said Aragorn. "We will venture one more journey by night. We have reached a part of the River that I do not know well, for I have never journeyed by water between here and the Rapids of Sarn Gebir. The name Sarn Gebir means 'stone spikes,' and it is a true name; that part of the River is impassable to boats. Once we reach the Rapids, we will have to carry our boats by portage-way; but if I am right in my reckoning, the Rapids are still many miles ahead. Even so, we are coming to dangerous places even before we reach the Rapids, where we may meet rocks and stony eyots in the stream. We must keep a sharp watch and not try to paddle swiftly."
Sam in the leading boat was given the task of watchman. He lay forward, peering into the gloom. The night grew dark, but the stars above were strangely bright, and there was a glimmer on the face of the River. It was close on midnight, and they had been drifting for some while, hardly using the paddles, when suddenly Sam cried out. Only a few yards ahead dark shapes loomed up in the stream and they heard the swirl of racing water. There was a swift current which swung left, towards the eastern shore where the channel was clear. As they were swept aside the travellers could see, now very close, the pale foam of the River lashing against sharp rocks that were thrust out far into the stream like a ridge of teeth. The boats were all huddled together.
"Hoy there, Aragorn!" shouted Boromir, as his boat bumped into the leader. "You are out of your reckoning! The Rapids must be close at hand."
He pushed against Aragorn's boat with his paddle to put some distance between them, but the action only served to bring his boat more directly into the current that was sweeping them towards the rocks.
"This is madness!" Boromir cried. "We cannot dare the Rapids by night! But no boat can live in Sarn Gebir, be it night or day!"
"Back, back!" cried Aragorn. "Turn! Turn if you can!" He drove his paddle into the water, trying to hold the boat and bring it round.
With great effort they checked the boats and slowly brought them about. At first they made little headway against the current, and all the time they were carried nearer and nearer to the eastern bank, which loomed up in the night, dark and ominous.
"All together, paddle!" shouted Boromir. "Paddle! Or we shall be driven onto the shoals!" Even as he spoke, he felt the keel beneath him grate upon stone.
At that moment there was a twang of bowstrings; several arrows whistled over their heads, and some fell among them. One smote Frodo between the shoulders and he lurched forward with a cry; but the arrow fell back, foiled by his hidden coat of mail. Another passed through Aragorn's hood, while a third struck solidly with a loud thump and stuck in the side of Boromir's boat, close by Merry's hand. Boromir thought he could glimpse black figures running to and fro upon the eastern shore. They seemed very near.
"Orcs!" cried Gimli and Legolas in unison.
Boromir's heart sank as he struggled to turn his boat, for the River seemed set on taking them right into the arms of the enemy.
"Paddle!" he shouted again.
They all leaned forward, straining at the paddles. Every moment they expected to feel the bite of black-feathered arrows. Many whined overhead or struck the water nearby; but there were no more hits.
Strange, thought Boromir, even as he labored to bring his boat about. It is dark, but not too dark for the night-eyes of Orcs; we must offer the fiends quite a mark in this star-glimmer! Yet they are missing us. Perhaps Celeborn spoke truly, and these grey Elven cloaks make us a difficult target for unfriendly eyes.
Stroke by stroke they labored on. In the darkness it was difficult to tell if they were indeed moving at all; but slowly the swirl of the water grew less, and the shadow of the eastern bank faded back into the night. They reached the middle of the stream at last and drove their boats back some distance above the jutting rocks. Then, half turning, they thrust them with all their strength towards the western shore. Under the shadow of bushes leaning out over the water they halted and drew breath.
Legolas laid down his paddle, and taking up his great bow, he sprang ashore, and climbed a few paces up the bank. Stringing the bow and fitting an arrow, he turned, peering back over the River into the darkness. Across the water there were shrill cries, but nothing could be seen.
A sudden dread fell on the Company; a dark shape came out of the blackness in the South, and sped towards them, blotting out all light as it approached. It was like a cloud, yet not a cloud, for it moved far too swiftly. Soon it appeared as a great winged creature, blacker than the pits in the night. Fierce voices rose up to greet it from across the River.
Boromir felt a cold thrill of fear; suddenly he was back at the Ford at Tharbad, facing nine Black Riders across the water. The rushing of the waters of Sarn Gebir in the distance only served to strengthen the memory. He bowed his head, fighting to throw off his fear. He heard Pippin whimpering next to him, but he could do nothing, for he could not move. In Aragorn's boat, he heard Frodo moan softly.
Suddenly the great bow of Lorien sang. Above them the winged shape swerved; there was a harsh croaking sceam, as it fell out of the air, and vanished down into the gloom of the eastern shore. There was a tumult of many voices far away, cursing and wailing in the darkness.
They waited in silence, crouched in their boats, for what seemed hours, until the cries of the Orcs faded into the distance. After a while, Aragorn led the boats back upstream. They felt their way along the water's edge for some distance, until they found a small shallow bay. They made no camp and no fire; instead they lay huddled in the boats, and waited. The night passed silently; no voice or call was heard again across the water.
"Praised be the bow of Galadriel, and the hand and eye of Legolas!" breathed Gimli, when it became clear that they had escaped the enemy once again. "That was a mighty shot in the dark, my friend!"
"But who can say what it hit?" said Legolas.
No one would say what they thought; they only knew they were glad that the shadow had come no nearer.
"Our enemies seem to have been dismayed," said Aragorn cautiously. "But we cannot tell what they will do next. This night we must all remain sleepless. Have your weapons close to hand."
The weather began to change; the air grew warm and very still under the great moist clouds that had floated up from the South and the distant seas. The rushing of the River over the rocks of the rapids seemed to grow louder and closer in the heavy air. The twigs of the trees above them began to drip.
When the day came the mood of the world about them had become soft and sad. Slowly the dawn grew to a pale light, diffused and shadowless. There was mist on the River, and white fog swathed the shore; the far bank could not be seen.
The Company was glad for the fog, for it hid them from the eyes of the enemy. They drew the boats up out of the water, and made camp as best they could against the steep bank, and discussed what they should do next.
"The fog may hide us," remarked Aragorn, "but it also makes it hard to find the path that will take us beyond the Rapids. And we must find that path, if we are to pass Sarn Gebir and come to the Emyn Muil."
"I do not see why we should pass the Rapids or follow the River any further," said Boromir. "If the Emyn Muil lie before us, then we can abandon these cockle-boats, and strike westwards and southwards, until we come to the Entwash and cross into my own land."
"We can, if we are making for Minas Tirith," said Aragorn, "but that is not yet agreed. And such a course may be more perilous than it sounds. The vale of Entwash is flat and fenny, and fog is a deadly peril there for those on foot and laden. I would not abandon our boats until we must. The River is at least a path that cannot be missed."
"Nor can we be missed by the Enemy when we travel upon it," objected Boromir. "We are defenseless against their arrows in the open water. And even if you pass the Gates of Argonath and come unmolested to the Tindrock, what will you do then? Leap down the Falls and land in the marshes?"
"No, of course not!" answered Aragorn. "We will bear our boats by the ancient way to Rauros-foot, and there take to the water again. Do you not know, Boromir, or do you choose to forget the North Stair, and the high seat upon Amon Hen, that were made in the days of the great kings? I, at least, have a mind to stand in that high place again, before I decide my further course. There, maybe, we shall see some sign that will guide us."
"I do not forget them," replied Boromir shortly. "I know of the high seat and the North Stair; but I see no need to continue on that road. Why keep to the River and the boats? We cannot pass down the River unseen beyond the foot of the Falls. Do you not know, Aragorn, or do you choose to forget, that the Enemy holds the eastern bank? And if you do not yet know your course, will the Seat of Seeing give you counsel?"
But Aragorn would not give way. Boromir held out long against this choice of their road; but when it became plain that Frodo would follow Aragorn, wherever he went, he gave in.
"It is not the way of the Men of Minas Tirith to desert their friends at need," Boromir said proudly, but with a touch of sadness, for he felt strangely alone. "You will need me and my strength, if ever you are to reach the Tindrock and the landing at Parth Galen. That far I will go, but no further. There I shall turn to my home, alone if my help has not earned the reward of any companionship."
Boromir turned away without waiting for a response. He did not want to look upon anyone's face, for fear of what he might see there.