Words: c. 4900
Genre: Gen. Character interaction. Friendship. Drama.
Characters: Aragorn, Halbarad, Boromir and Faramir
Summary: Twenty years ago, Aragorn and a close companion struggled side by side through the snow, desperate to save a life. Now, on Caradhras, Boromir is the one who works at his side. As they fight to forge a path together, past, present and future come together in the falling of the snow.
Note: Written for the September Teitho challenge, on the theme of Weather, where it placed joint first.
They toiled in silence, because no words were needed. A glance was all it took, and sometimes not even that, for they knew each other well. Sometimes Aragorn worked in front, taking upon himself the harder job, while Halbarad worked behind him, scooping away the snow that Aragorn had parted. Then, one or other of them would give the unspoken signal that they were to swap positions, and Halbarad would shoulder his way to the front, and Aragorn would take the small, tiny respite that came from being half a pace behind.
There was nothing around them that was not white. Snow covered Halbarad's hood and cloak, and flakes fell like dust from the naked trees above them. Even through his gloves, Aragorn had long since ceased to feel his fingers. His arms moved as a spade might move, doing the job, but no longer feeling like part of him. Warming up again would hurt, he knew, but it was nothing that a Ranger had not experienced a hundred times before.
A raven croaked hoarsely above them, black against the leaden sky. Halbarad paused, but not to look up at it. His shoulders were heaving with the effort of their long labour, and his head sagged for a moment, a strand of dark hair slithering free from his whitened hood.
It was time. They swapped positions again, and Aragorn caught a glimpse of Halbarad's grey-etched face as they did so. Even his eyebrows were encrusted with snow, his skin no longer warm enough to melt the flakes upon touch. His eyes were troubled. Aragorn knew what troubled him, of course. He felt it too.
Fighting his own weariness, Aragorn parted the snow. Behind him, Halbarad took the loosened snow and preventing it from sliding down into the gap that Aragorn had created. Slowly, painfully, they progressed by inches; by slow, painful feet. Aragorn's hand hit resistance, and he saw that it was a long branch of bramble, its thorns snagging his gloves. He did not need to look at Halbarad to communicate his thought, or receive his kinsman's reply.
I think we are close now.
Yes. So let us work on.
They swapped, but this time they swapped back sooner. Halbarad was almost spent, and stumbled even when there was nothing beneath his feet to stumble on, just the endless snow. Aragorn was little better. He spared just enough energy to grip Halbarad's shoulder with a hand that no longer felt like his own. Halbarad gave the slightest of nods. His fingertips closed on a fold of Aragorn's cloak, then let him go.
They found more tendrils of bramble, and soon the snow grew dark with loosened soil and fragments of dead leaf. Above them, the trees bent down and slowly shed their white burden, letting it fall like dust. The snow was darker to Aragorn's right, and he changed direction slightly, and Halbarad changed with him, anticipating his move and reacting to it, as he so often did.
Almost there, Aragorn thought, and Halbarad was so close behind him that for a moment, their gloved hands touched, Halbarad scooping away the snow before Aragorn had finished breaking it. Yes, said those ceaselessly working hands, but what will we find when we get there?
The young lad had done exactly as his elders had trained him to do. His tracks showed that he had toiled on through the blizzard until he could toil no more. Then he had gone to ground, heading for a tree-lined bank that offered some protection from the north wind, and digging himself in. Aragorn remembered receiving the same instructions himself, first from Elladan and Elrohir, and then again from the older Dúnedain, who had been slow to accept that he had known his trade. Leave clear signals, he had been told, and leave many of them, for the snow would take most. The need to survive outweighed the usual need for caution. If the wolves were going to find you, they would find you, but if you left signals, perhaps your kinsmen would find you first.
But what will we find? Aragorn thought.
The brambles were thick now, their thorns clutching at Aragorn's sleeves. He saw a smear of red on the snow, but had no idea if it had come from Halbarad or from scratches on his own unfeeling arms. Close beside him, he could hear the sound of Halbarad's rapid breathing, harsh with exertion. They glanced at each other, their eyes sharing the same thought, and the same hope. Nature had not put these brambles here, and shaped them into this dense barrier. This was the work of a Man.
It was time for swords, but Aragorn could not trust his numb hands to hold a heavy weapon, and Halbarad, too, rejected his sword, and instead drew a dagger from his belt. Side by side, they fought with the last of their strength, hacking at the branches, dragging away the tangled, thorny mess, and keeping the snow from falling through the growing gap.
Before they were more than half way through, they saw the boy, curled into a tight ball even in unconsciousness, wrapped in his nest of thorns and stones and tree roots. It was several minutes more before they learnt that he still lived, and many more before they could let themselves rest, but by then they were smiling even through their extreme exhaustion, and Halbarad even laughed aloud, as he sank down on his knees with the air of someone who never planned to rise again.
Aragorn sank down beside him, and pressed his frozen face into both numb hands. When he lowered them, he, too, was laughing.
They toiled in silence at first. Ever since Rivendell, Aragorn realised now, they had been silent with each other. Aragorn had talked long with Gandalf, debating their course late into the night, after the others were asleep. He had talked to Frodo and the other hobbits, and to Legolas and Gimli. At times, Boromir had spoken up before the group at large, and he had spent some time talking to the younger hobbits, Pippin most of all. But since the Council of Elrond, Aragorn and Boromir had seldom exchanged a direct word with each other, and had never been entirely alone together.
"Then let us force a path thither, you and I," Aragorn had said, as if they were boon companions: two people who could be counted to act as one.
They worked side by side now, but there was a gap between them, and they made two furrows through the snow, not one. Boromir was pushing himself hard, trying to move faster than Aragorn. His shoulders were broad, but the snow came higher on him than it did on Aragorn, and Aragorn knew from experience what a difference those few inches could make. He could hear Boromir panting, grunting sometimes with the effort of gouging a path through the snow. Aragorn was panting, too, his breath steaming in front of his face like morning mist.
"We should…" he began, then stopped as his foot hit something hard beneath the snow, and he had to fight not to fall over. His hand came down on the surface of the snow, fingers splayed.
"What?" Boromir said it with a harsh inhale. It sounded almost like a shout.
"Go slower," Aragorn said. "A delay of but minutes will make little difference."
Boromir turned away from him, but if he checked his pace, it was only by a fraction. He wants to do this better than me. It was a half-sorrowing realisation. Boromir had urged the fellowship to bring kindling, but thanks to the severity of the blizzard, it had availed them nothing. Then he had suggested carving a path back down the mountainside, following their earlier trail. Aragorn had seen the wisdom in it at once. Perhaps Boromir had intended to go alone, but Aragorn had turned it into something they would do together. Then let us force a path thither, you and I...
Boromir stumbled then, and now it was his turn to lurch forward into the snow. Aragorn reached out to steady him, but the gap between them was too great. His hand fell short. Boromir righted himself without aid, and raked his hand through his snow-damp hair. His skin was pale in the grey light, but his eyes were sharp and glittering.
Aragorn wondered if he should say something, but did not. The snow grew deeper, and his muscles were burning from his labouring. He thought of the hobbits as they had been when he had left them: freezing and brave and miserable beneath the cliff. If he could not cut a path for them through the snow, they would die.
No, he corrected himself, if they could not cut a path through the snow, Aragorn and Boromir together.
He moved closer to Boromir, matching his pace. The two of them had been walking out of step, and at times they were half undoing each other's work: Aragorn loosening snow that blew across Boromir's path, or Boromir excavating snow that slid down and made Aragorn's job harder.
We should… He opened his mouth to say it, but then Legolas ran past them, tripping lightly across the snow, and waving back at them as he did so. Boromir gazed after him until he had disappeared round the corner, and there was something in his expression that gave Aragorn pause. It was marvelling, yes, but there was something darker there, something even resentful.
Until he had come to Rivendell, Boromir had never seen an elf before, Aragorn remembered. Aragorn was so accustomed to elves that at times he forgot that to the men of Gondor, his own people, they were a thing of strange, unchancy stories. To reach Rivendell, Boromir had endured a long and perilous journey, staking everything on a desperate last roll of the dice. Now he was on a journey even stranger still, with an elf, a dwarf, four hobbits and a wizard, when his entire life had been spent with Men. No, not just with Men, but in command of men: beloved son, esteemed captain and lord of armies; Gandalf had told Aragorn that much. But even in Gandalf, Boromir had no friend or familiar face, for Boromir, unlike his brother, had paid Gandalf but scant attention during his visits to Minas Tirith.
Then let us force a path thither, you and I...
Aragorn had said it so brightly, so easily, as if Boromir were Halbarad or another such companion. But to Boromir, perhaps, it had seemed more like a command. For weeks, they had danced so cautiously around each other. It was understood that Aragorn was going to Gondor. It was understood that Boromir, who fervently loved Gondor, welcomed the aid that Aragorn could bring to his beleaguered city, but the words they had exchanged at the Council of Elrond had not yet been addressed. And so, perhaps without realising it, they had avoided speaking directly to each other. They had never been alone together. They had never worked side by side.
"Boromir…" He had to say it. No, he could not. He had erred in this, he realised; erred for many weeks, ever since Rivendell. He could not change his bloodline, and he would not change the destiny that lay upon him. If he came to Gondor, it would be under his true name, and if the war with Sauron was won, he would claim his birthright. One day, perhaps soon, he would have the right to give commands to Boromir, and he would not shy from doing so. But this was not that day. The war was not yet won, and this was not Gondor. They were but two members of a fellowship of nine, and if the fellowship could not work together, then what hope had the free people of Middle Earth?
Boromir made no reply. The snow was almost as high as his armpits now, and when he parted it, it piled up higher than his head. His breathing was harsh and audible, and his face was flushed and damp with sweat. They rounded the bend, and the world grew darker, overshadowed by the looming cliff.
"We should rest for a moment," Aragorn suggested, himself struggling for breath.
"No." Boromir shook his head sharply. "We would cool down too much and too quickly. We need to keep moving." And then, although Aragorn had said nothing to disagree, he said again, much as he had said before, "I am no stranger to journeys in high places," but this time the words were broken up by his attempt to keep moving, to keep breathing, to keep struggling through the snow.
Neither am I, Aragorn thought, remembering past journeys, often alone, but sometimes with followers or companions or kinsmen, both in Gondor and in the north.
But he said nothing, and he kept moving.
They were side by side when the snowdrift claimed them.
The last of the snow clouds parted before night fall, and the sunset was glorious, making the mountains shine like burnished gold. It reminded Aragorn of the mountains of Gondor, which had gleamed like that the day he had crossed the border, riding down from Rohan on a swift but weary horse.
He said as much to Halbarad. They were still light-hearted from the relief of finding the boy alive, and still exhausted from the effort of finding him. Such emotions often loosened the tongue, and led to things being said that might at other times have remained unspoken. Halbarad said nothing at first, merely stood and watched the sunset. The snow was crisp now, and no longer dangerous. The boy had been claimed by his father and the rest of the search party, and Aragorn and Halbarad had resumed their journey alone.
"I would like to see the mountains of Gondor one day," Halbarad said quietly.
"I hope you will," said Aragorn.
Their footsteps crunched together in the snow. Movement flashed on a distant peak, as a great mass of snow broke free and surged down the mountain in a cloud of white. Men had been killed, at times, on the White Mountains of Gondor. Snow was beautiful, but it was dangerous, too, as were all the high places of the world.
"I think I will," Halbarad said, "but not for long."
There was a shadow in his voice. Aragorn looked at him sharply, but Halbarad's face revealed nothing. Have you seen something…? Aragorn was not the only one of his people with foresight, but he himself had seen nothing concerning Halbarad's fate. He did not ask, though. If Aragorn should one day ride south and become king, chances were that Halbarad would indeed stay but a little time in Gondor. Gondor already had a steward, but Arnor had none. If the two kingdoms were united into one, her king would need a trusted friend and kinsman to be his voice in the north.
Perhaps Halbarad, too, had been thinking in that vein, for some minutes later, he asked suddenly, "What was he like, the Steward of Gondor?"
Aragorn smiled at the memory, but only for a moment, because the manner of his parting had been difficult. He had not said a proper goodbye, and he feared that Ecthelion had seen his departure as a betrayal. "Ecthelion was…"
"No, not Ecthelion." Halbarad shook his head. News from Gondor still reached the north, although few but Aragorn knew the routes it travelled. Ecthelion had been dead these ten years past. His son, Denethor, now ruled in Minas Tirith.
"A stern man," Aragorn said, "and I hear he had become sterner still. Wise in lore, and devoted to the good of Gondor. We were… not close; you already know this, I think. He was jealous of me, and perhaps with good cause. That is one of the reasons that I left, after all. Men obey him and respect him, and many admire him and some fear him, but he does not have the gift of making men love him. He is not a gentle man, and not a warm man, but the world grows ever more dark. In the war that is to come, it may be that Gondor needs his steel and his cold, hard stone."
Halbarad turned to face him, so that the western sunset fell on his face, flooding it with burning warmth. "Aragorn, how will such a man…?"
The words trailed away, but Aragorn knew what Halbarad had been going to say. How would such a man as Denethor respond to the coming of the king? Denethor loved Gondor, and he, in common with his forefathers for nearly a thousand years, had never claimed the title of king. But even a good steward was but a man. Even kings were but men, and men had always been capable of being ruled by emotion. Even if Gondor acclaimed Aragorn as king, would Denethor yield to him? Would he bend the knee? Would he take up the white rod again, as servant this time, not as master? Could he bear to stand in halls that had once been his own, and hear another issue commands?
Aragorn gazed at those far white mountains, and remembered those other mountains so far away to the south. When he dared to dream of his happy ending, he saw Arwen at his side, and Halbarad at his right hand, the steward that he would choose, if he had the choice.
But kings, like Rangers, are often unable to have their choice. Denethor came from a bloodline almost as ancient as Aragorn's. His forefathers had been stewards to ancient kings, long before they had been ruling stewards in their own right. If Aragorn became king, Denethor and his heirs would serve as his steward. If Aragorn dismissed him, or if Denethor refused to serve, it would plant a seed of dissension that could grow in time into a war that would tear the kingdom apart.
"How will such a man accept me for what I am?" Aragorn said quietly. "I do not know, Halbarad. I do not know."
And although they were no longer labouring together in the snow, they were still able at times to communicate just with a look and a glance, and through long years of knowing each other's mind.
I wish it could be you, he thought, and Halbarad gave the faintest of nods, as if to say, I know. But it cannot.
Aragorn floundered, struggling for breath. His strength was failing. As fast as he could dig through the snow, fresh mounds of it fell down from above. His face was covered. He could not breathe. He clawed at the snow in front of his mouth, and managed to clear a sufficient hole to snatch a lungful of air. A lump of snow came with it, melting on his tongue.
Boromir! he thought. Boromir was shorter than him by an inch or two, and an inch could make a difference between life and death.
Boromir was a wild, flailing mass beside him, invisible except for his effect on the snow. Aragorn reached for him, his hand burrowing through the snow. He caught hold of something: a shoulder, perhaps. It was so hard to think rationally when you could barely breathe; when you could not see; when there was nothing in the world but snow and cold. It was hard not to be a child again, afraid of the dark. Instinct was to flail desperately; to rage against the white death that was trying to claim him.
Aragorn forced himself to slow down. He stood still. He stopped fighting, and concentrated solely on drawing a few strong breaths through the scant hole that still remained to him. His breathing melted the snow further. Moisture trickled down, damp on his face.
Boromir! he thought, but speaking was an impossibility. Boromir! Calm yourself! But Boromir was not Halbarad, and Aragorn could not communicate with him just by touch. Boromir would recoil, child-like, if Aragorn said anything that sounded like a command, and do the exact opposite. Let us force a path thither… Boromir had started off at once, before Aragorn had even finished speaking, and had tried all along to go faster than him, as if trying to prove to the world that it was thanks to his own idea, and not Aragorn's, that he was trying this thing.
But Aragorn could not give up. He could not stand by while a companion overwhelmed in the snow, even if he had to hurt Boromir's pride to save him. He struggled forward, but then Boromir stopped struggling. Beneath Aragorn's hand, Boromir's shoulder heaved as he sucked in a breath, and then he moved slowly forward, inch by controlled inch.
Of course, Aragorn thought, knowing that he had wronged Boromir yet again. Boromir was no child, although, like anybody, he could at times be motivated by pride. He was, as he himself had said, no stranger to journeying in cold places. He had come to his own realisation, without Aragorn's help. He had stilled his own instinctive panic, and saved himself.
Aragorn pulled slightly on Boromir's shoulder, suggesting that they moved back a little, but Boromir was already doing so. Inch by inch they retreated, moving backwards, hands raised to repel the dislodged snow that kept falling down from above. They halted in the shadow of the cliff, fighting for every breath.
"We cannot go on," Boromir said, "but we must."
"We must," Aragorn agreed, but that in itself was a battle of an entirely different kind, because if they opened up a path down the mountain, ahead lay Moria.
"The drift is high," Boromir said. There was snow on his eyebrows, peppering them with white, making him look suddenly remarkably like his grandfather, and also like Halbarad had looked once, on a mountainside far to the north. "But if we forge a path through it together…" His eyes looked everywhere but at Aragorn.
"Indeed," Aragorn agreed. He took a deep breath, scraped away the cooling sweat from his brow, and sighed again. "Ready?"
"Ready," Boromir said, and this time they moved forward with their eyes open, knowing what lay ahead. It was not like it had once been with Halbarad, or with Elladan and Elrohir. Aragorn and Boromir did not know each other, and did not know how each other thought. They talked often, when they had the breath to do so. "Can you…?" and "I need help. I cannot hold it." "Towards me," Aragorn said. "It is easier here." When Aragorn almost fell, Boromir hauled him up. "Careful!" Aragorn shouted, "it's falling!" and Boromir said, "Got it. Got it…"
And it was not enough. The snow was too deep, and with every slow inch that they gained, it became even deeper.
"There is no way through." Boromir's voice was muffled by the snow. Only the top of his head was visible. "We must return to the others and tell them so." And so, once again, Aragorn had to revise his opinion of Boromir. He had thought him the sort of man who would refuse to admit defeat, and would continue onwards, driven by pride, until death itself overtook him. But a man such as that could not have survived this long. Boromir and his brother had defended the bridge in Osgiliath, but in the end, they had swum to safety, leaving the opposite shore in the hands of the enemy, rather than stand there in pride, fighting a battle that would gain nothing but their deaths.
"Yes," he began to say, but then Legolas was there, brightly informing them that the drift was little wider than a castle wall, and they had already burrowed more than two thirds of the way through it.
Boromir laughed with the sheer relief of it. "Come, then, Aragorn, let us carve our way through, and see if the elf speaks truly. For I, for one, am weary of this snow, and wish to look upon green lands again."
Aragorn smiled, and took up his place beside the son of Denethor.
This was not Gondor. They had many leagues to go before they reached Gondor, and when they did so, Aragorn would have to decide how he would deal with Boromir, and Boromir, for his part, would have to decide how to deal with the man who had come to claim the throne. Boromir was not petty, and although he was proud, Aragorn now knew that he was not foolishly so. He sincerely wanted what was best for Gondor, and he knew that the arrival of Isildur's heir with the sword of Elendil would rally the hard-pressed armies of Gondor, and cast fear into the hearts of his enemies. While war raged, they could, perhaps, work well together. And afterwards…? One day, perhaps decades away, it could be that Boromir was Aragorn's steward.
Could they work well together? He did not know, but he hoped so.
Side by side, they dug through the snow together, and together they broke free, and found themselves on the far side, standing in snow that barely came up to their knees.
Boromir sank to the ground, slumping forward onto his hands, then raised his head, and laughed aloud. Aragorn slumped down, and sagged backwards, cushioned by the snow.
Yes, he thought, as he returned Boromir's laugh with a smile of his own. I think we could.
Winter came early that year in Minas Tirith. As snow fell on the courtyard below them, Aragorn and Faramir stood side by side on a balcony, watching the snowflakes circle and fall.
"Snow always makes me think of Boromir," Faramir said, when they had been silent for a very long time, neither of them feeling the need to speak, or feeling, either, the lack of words. "I often think of Boromir, of course, but… He loved the cold. He used to go for long walks on the mountains in the winter, staying out for nights on end. That all stopped when he became the Captain of the White Tower, of course. But he still used to go out whenever he could, snatching odd moments here and there."
Once, not so many years ago, Aragorn would have said little in reply. Faramir had never appeared to blame him for Boromir's death, but Aragorn had felt the shadow of it lying between them, even so. But the years had changed things. They were close enough now that they could stand awhile in comfortable silence, and they were also close enough to speak about things that had once had to go unsaid.
"I, too, remember him in the snow," Aragorn said. "You have heard about the snow on Caradhras. It was the first time we were alone together. It was the first time I thought I was beginning to know him. It was the first time we worked together side by side." He closed his eyes in memory. It had not been the last time, of course, but there had been few more. Between the two of them, Caradhras had been the beginning of a story, but it was a story had never been allowed to unfold.
"If only he had lived…!" Faramir said.
If only he had lived… Aragorn thought, but his thoughts were already moving on. The memory of Halbarad, too, often lived in the snow. He remembered working alongside him, understanding each other's intentions without the need to talk. He remembered how Halbarad had gazed at the snow-covered mountains, and said that although he would see the mountains of Gondor, he would not see them for long.
Halbarad was gone. Boromir was gone. One was an old, dear friend, who should have shared in Aragorn's victory and stood at Aragorn's right hand in the north. One was a man who might have been a comrade and might have been a rival, but had died before he had been forced to decide. Had things turned out differently, Boromir, not Faramir, could be standing here at Aragorn's side. What sort of a steward would Boromir have been, had he consented to accept the white rod from Aragorn's hand? What would Annúminas be like, if Halbarad ruled there in Aragorn's name?
If only he had lived...
But he did not.
"But he did not," Faramir murmured, echoing Aragorn's thought, as Halbarad had done at times; as Boromir might one day have been able to do so.
No, thought Aragorn, but I have you, and I trust you as much as I once trusted Halbarad. Could he have trusted Boromir so? Maybe so, and maybe not, but perhaps it was better not to wonder. For Faramir was his steward, his right hand in Gondor, and was worthy of that honour in every possible way. Gondor had a much-loved steward, and Aragorn, who had lost one old, true friend, had gained a new one.
He did not say it, though, because he did not need to. After all these years, Faramir understood it without words.