A light breeze ruffled the waters of the lake and sighed in the branches of the trees along the shore, but the sound of the sighing was drowned out by the louder thunder of the Falls of Rauros. The midmorning sunlight was strong and warm, and the air was clear but for the mist which hung like a cloud over the Tindrock. Beyond that cloud of mist, the world seemed to drop away, and behind it was nothing but empty sky.
In spite of the warmth and brightness of the sun upon the lakeshore -- and the fact that they were almost ready to set off on their return to Gondor -- Boromir was concerned, though he strove to hide it from his men. He was more than eager to be on his way, for he was weary of inactivity and wished to be home, where he was needed so desperately. But he knew it would not be an easy journey to undertake. The North Stair would be treacherous, especially for those burdened with a litter and a wounded, helpless man. Visibility would decrease as they descended towards the warmer plains, and there would be no getting away from the spray of the Falls and the fog-like mist which clung to the cliff face. They might avoid the worst of it by traveling in the heat of the day, when the sun was at its zenith, but it would still be hard going.
But this was the way, and they would walk it, and the journey would be no easier for him fretting about it in advance. So Boromir shrugged his worries away, and schooled his face to hide his impatience. The Stair was, after all, a portage-way, designed to be traversed by men carrying burdens -- whether they be boats or wounded captains upon litters. The men had recently traveled the Stair to deliver the boats to the shelving shore, so they would be well aware of the condition of the path; they would take proper precautions.
Boromir sat waiting upon the litter where it lay at the edge of the lawn of Parth Galen, his legs stretched out before him; beside him was set the bundle containing the shards of his sword and the staff of wood he used for support. He watched as his men discussed amongst themselves how best to manage the task of carrying their captain down the Stair, and in spite of his resolve not to fret, he winced inwardly at the thought of being carried like a piece of baggage -- not only would it be damaging to his pride, but it would also undoubtedly be painful. He knew better than to think he was fully healed, no matter how much progress he had made in the week since his wounding. That day's painful, jostling journey to the shore upon this very litter was still fresh in his mind.
He looked up to see Linhir watching him, a knowing look in his eye.
"Your waiting will soon be at an end, Boromir," said Linhir. "Your journey home will not be without pain or struggle, but you will manage it well, I have no fear. As for the descent, it will hurt you, but your injuries are sufficiently healed that no lasting damage will come to you, I think. If you wish, I can give you something to reduce the pain."
"No!" answered Boromir emphatically. "I do not relish the thought of traversing the Stairs, as you seem to have noticed, but I have no need of your numbing herbs. I shall bear the discomfort so that I might be alert and prepared to give advice when it is needed, and to avail you of my leadership, though it be from a sick bed."
Linhir gave a shout of laughter.
"I would have it no other way, my friend! We look to such leadership in these times, though I will reserve judgement on the advice, if it counters my own concerning your health needs."
"Indeed," laughed Boromir. "I would have in no other way, my friend."
Grithnir approached and knelt, to be more at eye level with Boromir.
"Forgive the delay, my captain," he said with an understanding smile. "There were a few matters concerning the downward path that we wished to clarify before we leave; we are ready now."
"We had best be on our way, then," replied Boromir with a nod. "The journey is long enough for one on foot and lightly burdened, but it will be no easy task to bear me such a distance on the narrow and steep path. No doubt I weigh less than once I did, after eating little but Elvish bread for days on end -- but I am still weighty enough to give you all pause."
"We shall not feel the weight, with four of us to bear you," said Grithnir stoutly.
"It would save you some trouble and some pain if I might be allowed to walk at least as far as the mouth of the path to the Stair... " Boromir began.
"-- and would wear you out needlessly," finished Linhir firmly. "A worthy attempt, my captain, but I am still in charge of this matter at least, and you shall be content to be carried down at your ease. There will be time enough later for walking on your own feet, when you are stronger."
"Very well," sighed Boromir; but there was a twinkle in his eye. "I will rest, then, and enjoy the view from my litter. But have a care! I shall make note of every bump and jolt."
"We will not allow you to fall, my captain," assured Grithnir. "You are safe with us."
"I know it well, Grithnir," answered Boromir, as he lay back and settled himself upon the blanket-covered litter. "I am trusting in that, and I am well content."
Arthad and Dirhavel took the foot of the litter, and Grithnir and Linhir the head; lifting it up carefully and setting it to their shoulders, they started off down the sandy shingle. Henderch walked well ahead to act as scout. They came to the mouth of the path, marked by a standing stone that had once been a shaped statue, but was now worn and weathered. Turning aside from the lakeshore, they passed under the trees.
The path led them upwards at a gentle slope until they had drawn away from the lake, then onwards for a half mile or so along the ridge overlooking the channel of water which flowed from Nen Hithoel, past the Tindrock and over the Falls of Rauros. The lonely isle of the Tindrock cast a long shadow in the midmorning sun that darkened the path, and the air grew suddenly cooler; when they had passed beyond the shadow, the sun shone again, but it was veiled now in haze from Rauros and the coolness in the air remained. The sound of the waterfall was like thunder in their ears that never diminished or passed away. Now and then as the path drew near the edge of the bluff on their left, they caught a glimpse of the rushing water and felt the dampening spray of the Falls upon their faces and their clothing, and they knew they were drawing nigh the Stair.
At last it lay before them, broad steps leading steeply downward, then turning towards the Falls, hugging the scrub-studded rock face on one side, and open to the wind and the sky on the other. The broad steps descended inexorably, alternating at intervals with stretches of flatter stone and wide landings at each sharp switchback, until the path was lost in the mist. Only a narrow strip of tumbled stone lay between the edge of each stone step and the fall into nothingness.
"Set me down for a moment," said Boromir, and the men obeyed him. Linhir helped Boromir to his feet and Grithnir handed him the wooden staff which he had retrieved from the litter. Boromir leaned upon it as he contemplated the stairs before him.
"Let me walk down as far as the first landing," Boromir suggested after a moment of careful consideration. "It is not far, no more than two score steps. The passage here at the top is narrow and awkward for four men carrying a litter -- that is well enough for two carrying a boat, but we are wider than that, with men on either side, and me in between. The stair becomes broader after the first landing, and can be traversed with due caution -- though the men on the outside will have to step with care and keep an eye to the edge."
He looked inquiringly at Linhir, who smiled and nodded his acquiescence.
"It is reasonable," Linhir agreed. "I can allow that much -- but Grithnir will be at your side to support you, lest you find yourself in difficulty."
He eyed the staff in Boromir's hand for a moment, then stepping forward, held out his own stout stave of dark, polished wood.
"Take this in exchange for yours," Linhir said. "It is strongly made, of lebethron from the slopes of Mindolluin. It has been shod so that it will not easily slip -- you may trust your full weight to it, even upon wet stone. I will take your staff for my own use; it will be sufficient for my needs."
Boromir hesitated, but only for a moment.
"Thank you, Linhir," he said quietly as he passed his own staff to the healer and gratefully accepted the other in its place. "You honor me greatly with this gift -- it has been in your possession for as long as I can remember."
"Nay, Boromir," smiled Linhir. "You honor me by accepting it. May its virtue of finding and returning bring you safely once more to the White City in the shadow of Mindolluin, whence it came. Now wait a moment, while the others go ahead with the litter; then you may descend to the landing."
The descent was difficult, more difficult than he had expected; Boromir was thankful he had Grithnir's strong and steadying hand under his elbow and Linhir's staff to support him. He took each step carefully, looking down at his feet to be certain he placed them firmly -- it was an odd feeling to realize that he did not have complete control over his own limbs. Before he had descended a score of steps, Boromir knew for certain that Linhir had been right to be so firm with him; he would not have been able to venture the entire flight of stairs, even with aid, for his knees were shaking, and his wounds ached fiercely even after only a short distance. A choking sense of despair welled up in his heart as he wondered if he would ever regain his former strength, to walk unaided. His steps faltered, and his head drooped wearily.
"Do not lose hope, my captain!" murmured Grithnir in his ear, gripping his arm encouragingly. "Your strength will return in time."
"The sooner, the better!" said Boromir through gritted teeth; but he squared his shoulders and pressed on with renewed heart.
As they approached the landing, the stairway opened out and leveled off to become a wide flat area, the first of many such landings which provided resting places for the descent. A bench of stone was placed under the arching rock face, so that it did not interfere with passage up or down the stairs, yet provided a place to rest for those beginning their descent, or gathering their strength for the final ascent to the top. Boromir lowered himself slowly and gratefully onto the seat provided and heaved a quiet sigh of relief.
When the trembling in his limbs had subsided, he rose and faced his men.
"It is time for me to submit once more to being burdensome," he said with a rueful grin. "I shall bear it more willingly this time, I assure you!"
As he stepped forward towards the litter, Boromir looked out into the empty space beyond the edge of the path. The cliff face was veiled and the plains far below were obscured by mist from the Falls; a gust of wind blew spray like a fine rain into his face. He stood still for a moment, and let the breeze from below lift his hair, bringing with it a faint scent of new grass and flowers growing at the edge of marshy pools. Then it was gone in a swirl of damp fog and the smell of wet stone and damp leather.
But the wind quickened once more, and now the mist broke and blew away in tatters, so that the vale below was suddenly revealed, brightened by the sun marching above the mist. For a moment the air was clear and Boromir looked out to see the land of Anórien stretched out like a map before him -- the glittering ribbons of water that formed the mouths of the Entwash, the grass of the lowland plain undulating like a green ocean, and far beyond upon the southern horizon, the White Mountains of his home, capped with snow and shining in the morning sunlight.
Boromir caught his breath in wonder at the unexpected sight; he felt moved to tears even as his heart leaped suddenly light and hopeful. He had yearned to be home for so long, and now it seemed it would only take a few steps more and he would be there... he would be home at last...
The mist closed in once more, and the view was cut off, the glimpse of his homeland, gone.
Boromir swallowed hard as a keen sense of loss smote him; but it was quickly replaced by a wave of joy, for he knew that his land was not lost -- it was there below, waiting for him. It would be only a journey of a few short hours before he would stand once more upon the soil of Gondor.
Turning, he saw his men gathered behind him, watching in silent respect and understanding.
"Let us go," Boromir said gruffly. "I would be home again."
Note: The reference to lebethron comes from The Two Towers chapter "Journey to the Crossroads" in which Faramir gifts Frodo and Sam with staves made of the wood which are set with a virtue of finding and returning.