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110 Days

by Lineawen

Chapter 9

It was late on a day in mid-September when Boromir finally came upon the road that would take him to Tharbad and across the River Greyflood. It could hardly be called a road, it was so overgrown; little more than a flat place at the top of a crumbling causeway winding through the swampy flatlands that sloped down to the river. From the top of the causeway he could see the river glinting and the remains of a bridge. What was left of the town was visible as mounds and some tumbled stones on both sides of the river. In ancient days, Tharbad had been a thriving town, but it had suffered in the wars between Sauron and the Elves in the Second Age, and after vast flooding and the Great Plague that devastated Gondor and Eriador, the town was totally abandoned. It was now nothing but a deserted wilderness, wholly ruinous.

It was an altogether dreary place. The wind whistled through the mounds and the ruins with a mournful wail and caught at Boromir's cloak and whipped it behind him as he followed the decaying road to the ford. The world seemed strangely silent; the moaning of the wind and the sigh of the water over the stoney river bed were the only sounds that came to his ears. He could hear no sounds of birds or insects or the rustling of animals in the undergrowth on the riverbank. The oppressive silence made Boromir feel like he was being watched; even Surefoot was acting skittish and shied at every loud moan of the wind.

Boromir dismounted at the water's edge to have a good look at the ford. The river here was shallow and wide. The water flowed over a series of broken steps of stone, somewhat flat, but extremely slippery. The ruins of the old bridge made the ford all the more treacherous. He judged the water to be about knee-deep, flowing slowly in some places, but with an obvious current in other places, particularly near the fallen remains of the bridge. It would be tricky, but passable if he was careful.

Surefoot pulled back suddenly, as if startled, and the reins fell from Boromir's hand. "Whoa there, Surefoot," he said, catching up the reins and placing his hand on Surefoot's neck. The horse shook himself, then stood calmly. Boromir looked around cautiously. He still had that strange feeling of being watched, or of some impending disaster that was coming but was as yet unseen. He looked off to the western horizon but no storm darkened the sky. He looked back down the road from whence he came; even if someone were coming up the road he would not know it until they were upon him. The road wound through the mounds and ruins in such a way that it could only be seen for a short distance. He shrugged the feeling away.

He went about tightening the straps of his bags that were tied to the saddle. Though Surefoot had so far lived up to his name, he did not feel he should trust him with a rider on his back in the midst of the treacherous stream. He had therefore decided to lead Surefoot across the river. He adjusted the straps on his swordbelt and his shield that was slung over his back. He considered loading up the horse with his weapons to make it easier to cross the river without a dousing, but he was used to the weight, and decided against it. He felt uncomfortable not having sword and shield at hand, especially in this strange place.

He had one last look at his maps. The road continued in a northwesterly direction. He was uncertain now whether it would be better to follow the road, no matter how faint, or to follow the Greyflood and the Hoarwell Rivers back towards the northeast. The advantage of the road would be that his traveling would be easier and he might finally meet some local inhabitants who could give him some guidance. That road would take him to the old kingdom of Arnor; if he cut east from there, he would come to the mountains in the north where he was guessing Rivendell to be. On the other hand, it would be faster to go northeast along the river and follow it back towards the mountains, assuming he didn't get lost or cut off by any more unmapped rivers.

He folded the maps again and slipped them into their pouch. I'll decide after the crossing, he said to himself, tucking the pouch into a bag on his saddle. He would get as far away as he could from the ruined city and then camp for the night. He would choose his road in the morning. He patted Surefoot's neck and spoke quietly into the horse's ear. Taking the reins in his hand, he stepped into the water.

As he had expected, the water was soon up to his knees. The river pushed against his legs and tugged at the hem of his leather jerkin. It was difficult to keep his balance on the slippery stone, but he managed it by placing each foot carefully before taking another step. Surefoot followed his lead, stepping gingerly.

At midstream, his foot slipped on a smooth shelf of slimy rock, but he caught himself before falling. Behind him, Surefoot stumbled slightly, then balked, pulling at the reins. Boromir turned to the horse, reaching out with one hand to grasp the bridle, while pulling back on the reins with the other in an attempt to steady him. As Surefoot stepped towards him, Boromir's foot slipped again and he lost his balance. He let go of the reins and threw out his arm to compensate, but the weight of his shield overbalanced him and he went down on his back with a loud splash. As he floundered, trying to get his feet under him, he was pushed downstream by the force of the water. His shield rang loudly against a protruding rock. The ringing sound startled Surefoot, who was already skittish from the splashing and thrashing of Boromir. Rearing up with a wild neigh, he turned and dashed back through the water towards the riverbank.

Boromir was carried by the river only a few more yards before he managed to get to his feet. He stood dripping and coughing, wiping the water from his eyes. He checked himself over quickly; sword and shield still in place, horn on its baldric. Pushing the hair back from his face, he looked around for Surefoot. He made a sharp hiss of annoyance when he saw that the horse had made it back to the riverbank and even now was trotting up the causeway to the road. Boromir gave a shout, calling him back. Surefoot stopped, turned towards Boromir and tossed his head. He was just starting back down the slope towards the river when from behind him on the road came the sound of horses' hooves. The drumming noise was loud in the stillness. Boromir, stepping forward to go after Surefoot, stopped short in the middle of the stream and looked up towards the road. Suddenly, from around the bend came a group of hooded riders on black horses, riding hard, their black cloaks billowing out behind them.

There were nine of them.