He is wandering alone.
Why is all the Company so trusting of this place? Legolas I can understand. And the younger Halflings. They have never been out of their own land before, and to them Elves seem not dangerous, but wondrous. Sam in particular -- sturdy, pragmatic Sam -- surprisingly seems the most enchanted by them, and by the disturbing eldritch loveliness of this strange place.
But Gimli? A Dwarf among Elves? Has he forgotten how he was treated when we first arrived? Yet now even he seems at ease, and does not even take his axe when he goes with Legolas to -- wherever they go. (And since when were those two ever friends? Has the world gone mad?)
And Aragorn? I have come to honor his wisdom over this journey, as we have fought and traveled together. I had begun to believe that his claim to the throne of Gondor may indeed be worthy of my support. But now, he seems almost as alien to me as the inhabitants of this wood. He is the only Man I have ever met who does not seem to harbor, if not fear, then a healthy wariness of the Elves and their haunts. I wonder what he is thinking. He is our leader since Gandalf fell; he should be making the rest of us stay together, or at the very least keeping track of the Ring-bearer.
Ah, the Ring-bearer. There he walks now, slowly, hands burrowed into the pockets of his brown coat, gazing about him as if he is merely admiring the golden beauty of the smooth-boled trees and the dancing sunlight. Every so often, he stoops to gently touch and examine one of the tiny yellow star-shaped flowers that dot the grass. Or he pauses to stare up at what can be seen of the sky through the gaps in the trees, the light caressing his upturned face. One would never guess the power that he carries just above his heart.
That he dares to be alone is a wonder. I have seen how evil is drawn to this one as a lodestone draws iron. He should look like one who is hunted, yet he does not. He seems tranquil, thoughtful, with no other purpose for his wandering but to seek peace, a respite from cares that must seem overwhelming to so small a person.
It seems that I alone of the Company remember the purpose of my presence on this journey. For even supposing that all the Elves are true -- which I do not suppose for a moment -- what of Orcs? They invaded the wood the very first night we arrived. What of the unknown creature that has eluded all capture?
And so I follow. Mayhap I do not match Aragorn in the skills of stalking and of reading the marks of the land, but I can trail a Halfling.
Frodo hesitates mid-step, his head coming up to stare off to his right, as if he has heard something. Startled, I follow his gaze, to a stand of shrubs. Nothing seems to be happening there, but perhaps he has caught a rustle, as of leaves disturbed by a breeze or some creature. I watch it for a few moments, tensing, judging the distance and loosening my sword, in preparation to defend the Ring-bearer if something should leap out from the covering foliage to attack him.
Long moments pass. I glance back toward Frodo, and start. He is gone.
I am gazing wildly about, wondering how on earth he was able to leave my sight, when I hear his voice, beside me.
I cannot help it; my limbs jerk in surprise, and I whirl about. The Ring-bearer is standing there, not two feet away, his handsome little face tilted upwards to watch me with a not-quite-perfectly-straight expression, eyebrows arched and arms folded. I had not heard so much as a leaf stirring at his approach.
I force myself to relax, my breath gusting in relief and chagrin. "Frodo. I was -- "
"Following me?" he supplies, and now he does smile. He seems more amused than angry.
I have to smile as well, ruefully. "How long were you aware of me?"
He shrugs. "Oh, a little while."
"I thought I was silent."
"You were, for the most part. But -- no offense -- your size puts you at a slight disadvantage, as does all that gear of war that you carry. And those." He nods down toward my boots. "Also, hobbits have quick ears."
"Very quick," I admit. "I have stalked and killed many beasts in the mountains and forests near my home. I was not aware that Halflings -- hobbits -- had hearing as excellent as that of a deer or a fox."
"We don't, not usually. It's just -- " Frodo falters, suddenly looking troubled. His gaze darts away. "You might think it queer, or hard to believe, but -- well, since my shoulder was wounded, I hear better, and I see better in the dark than I did before."
"Ah," I say. "I had not heard that the blades of the Nazgûl had such an effect."
"I do not know. Perhaps they don't. Perhaps it is -- " He stops, and clutches his arms to his body as if he has felt a chill, though the air here is unnaturally warm for winter.
It is not hard to guess where his thought has gone. "The Ring?" I venture softly, and realize suddenly that I would like a sight of it again. I had seen it only at the council, and then only briefly. Yet the memory of that small, perfect circle of gleaming gold, flickering in this Halfling's hand, has burned itself like a brand onto my mind's eye.
After a moment, Frodo nods shortly, but says nothing.
"But surely it is good to have one's senses sharpened? Why does it seem to disturb you so?"
Frodo begins to walk again, slowly. I do so as well, shortening my pace to match his. He does not look at me as he speaks. "I'm not sure. I think perhaps because it seems wrong to draw any sort of benefit from something so evil. Because it makes me wonder what else it has done to me, or may do. Because, well, it means that a small part of me isn't quite -- isn't quite a normal hobbit any more. And being normal -- being able to go home and live as I did before -- that is all I want, Boromir. To be not the Ring-bearer, not a hero or adventurer, but simply Frodo Baggins of the Shire." Suddenly he gives a small, mirthless chuckle. "And I don't know why I am saying all this. It is probably much more of an answer than perhaps you wanted. Forgive me."
I am surprised, and unaccountably gratified, at his confiding in me so. For we have not grown particularly close over the course of our quest. It has always been Aragorn, or Gandalf, or his fellow Halflings, that Frodo turned to for comfort or conversation; in fact, until now he has seemed reserved towards me, even slightly wary, for reasons I cannot fathom, and perhaps neither can he.
Frodo has always been something of a mystery to me. The other Halflings are as open as children. The moment they feel something, it shows on their faces; the moment they think something, it is out of their mouths. But with Frodo, though emotions come and go on his countenance as they do on the others', always I have sensed more beneath, things he keeps carefully hidden even from his kin and his servant. Was he always like that, or has the responsibility of the Ring changed him?
"Nay, Frodo, there is naught to forgive," I say at last, gently. "What use is a friend, if not to unburden oneself to? And I would indeed be your friend, if you will but let me."
He turns a little as he walks, to peer upwards at me. "Is that why you followed me?"
I shrug. "Partly, perhaps. Mostly, my thought was to protect you."
"I appreciate your concern, but why? The borders here are well guarded, so Aragorn says."
"Yes, but still it goes against a soldier's grain to trust entirely to other soldiers unknown to him, be they Elves or no. You may remember the skulking creature that was reported, and was never caught."
Frodo sighs, looking back down at the ground before him. "I haven't forgotten that." A pause, as he seems to decide how much more to tell me. "I am rather unusually solitary, for a hobbit, as you may have noticed. Don't get me wrong -- I am grateful beyond words for the companionship I have had on the road -- but I lived alone for many years, and have gotten used to it. It is a hard habit to break. When the chance came to escape for a little while, I took it."
"I understand your wish to be alone, Frodo, but it is not wise. We have come too far, and your quest is too important, for you to risk yourself without need."
He looks so resigned, so forlorn and vulnerable, that I must quell an urge to kneel down and embrace him, as I used to do to my younger brother when he needed comforting as a child. Though they are similar in many ways, Frodo is not Faramir. I have no wish to risk this fragile new accord between us with an ill-considered gesture. I must go carefully if I am to gain his trust.
Unsure what to say, I am silent as we walk on. I lift my head to gaze about at the wood, thinking that Faramir would find it a fascinating place. Though he bears the same caution towards the Elves as do all in Minas Tirith, still he has always sought out tales of them and their deeds. The thought strikes me that Frodo would most likely enjoy meeting Faramir. If only his road would lead through Minas Tirith...
I glance back down at Frodo. His hand has come up toward his chest as he walks, and he is clutching a handful of his shirt in his small fist, staring unseeingly ahead of him, as if he is not aware of what he is doing. My heart leaps into my throat when I realize that he is holding the Ring.
So close, I think. What is it like, to hold it? To wear it? Frodo has done both, I know. I long to ask, yet I dare not. My steps slow. My mouth has gone dry. I cannot seem to look away.
And Frodo seems to take notice of the change in my mood. He halts, his eyes looking up, up, and meeting mine. For a long moment we stare at each other.
With a convulsive jerk, Frodo lets go of his shirt. I see him swallow and go pale.
"I -- I think I'll go back to the pavilion," he says, a tremor in his voice betraying his effort to remain calm.
"Are you well, Frodo?" I ask with concern. "Would you like -- "
"I'll be fine. Thank you, Boromir."
He turns, and walks quickly back the way we came, disappearing into the trees. I long to follow, yet will myself to stay where I am. Something tells me that he would not welcome my company at this moment.
The wood is beautiful, there is no denying that, but all I can see is Frodo's eyes in that last instant before he turned away. For they concealed nothing then. Fear, misery, shame, and a bravery that takes my breath -- all of it, shining naked before me like an unsheathed blade.
What justice is there in this world, if such a being must bear this burden? And for what? For a doomed quest that will succeed only in destroying a pure and innocent soul? What were Gandalf -- Valar rest him -- and Elrond thinking?
No, I think, unaware that I have clenched my fist, until I feel the ache of it in my sinews. It does not have to be this way.
Soon, we must leave this land. After we are away from these bewitching trees, we will have to choose our path. Knowing Aragorn, he will leave the decision to the Ring-bearer. And once we approach the point where there is no turning back -- when we face the River, and he can at last see the darkening of the sky in the east, surely Frodo will realize the folly, the futility, of going there. I will speak to him then.
Slowly, I start walking again, back to the others. All is not yet lost.