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The Fair

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The autumn had been mild, sinking into mists that hovered across fields and orchards each morning until the last of the harvest sun had burnt it off and folk could get on with their work. It had been a good harvest, a fat harvest, which had proved, thought Boromir, a blessing indeed for the winter that had followed was plunging the two kingdoms into an aching cold that had lasted for weeks. It hardly seemed that the daylight, however clear and blue the sky, brought any relief from frost that had turned the earth to iron.

They had celebrated the Yuletide with a will, although perhaps there had not been so free use of firewood for the bonfires, when no-one knew how long they must feed the braziers at home. The Lord Steward and his staff had been busy going from door to door in the city ensuring that no old soul had been forgotten and left to shiver and there had been ice to break in the water courses and sea-sand to spread on the roadways.

Messengers arrived daily from outlying settlements, patrols walking their mounts slowly over rutted roads and village head-men trudging through snow beside hairy ponies with icicles on their whiskers delivering reports, requests for assistance of all kinds. Even so, Boromir had been surprised when the word had come that the river Sirith was freezing over. Imrahil’s captains had reported some sea ice in the bay of Belfalas, but it was generally thought that the Sirith flowed too fast for it ever to become ice locked.

And so it does through the mountains, thought Boromir, but where Pelargir was being rebuilt, old bridges strengthened and new bridges, to serve new neighbourhoods, built across the meandering waterway that cut the city in two, the stream had been slowed and now there were some places where men might walk across the river and more, drive carts across without paying the bridge tolls.

The delegation of city officials that had arrived at the Lord Steward’s door that morning were determined, if they could, to make the best of the situation, despite the missed tolls, and with that in mind were come to ask the King whether Pelargir might hold a Frost Fair.

Aragorn had responded with a grave inclination of assent, whilst the Queen had had no such reserve and had clapped her hands, smiling broadly, so that Aragorn had finally let a grin spread across his face and crinkle the skin about his eyes.

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“Will you go, love?” Boromir murmured, his face half buried in his Captain’s neck. He could smell the sweat drying on Aragorn’s skin and leant further in to lick at the salt stain on his love’s throat. They were buried deep beneath blankets and coverlets of velvet and of fur, buried so deep against the cold gathering at the edges of the room that they could not see the fire in the grate, could only see the shadow of the flames flickering on the ceiling.

“We will all go,” Aragorn replied, his mouth twitching with laughter at the corners as Boromir set questing fingers tangling lightly in the damp hair on his belly. “Middle Earth has been scorched by fire for so long that it is only some elves that remember Frost Fairs. The Queen is lending her long memory to our visiting councilmen to help them organise one.”

“Then it will be a good one,” Boromir yawned and let himself relax completely against the length of Aragorn’s body, eyes closing as soft lips pressed gently on his hair.

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It was the Lord Steward who had seen the Queen sicken that first time. She had been up at dawn to bid farewell to the council party and walking back towards her rooms at Boromir’s side had faltered and then turned away from him, hastily pressing her sleeve to her mouth. He had steered her towards the gutter, wrapped an arm about her waist to steady her and caught up her hair as she retched. A warning look had sent the few stable staff about at that hour scurrying from his sight. When at last she caught her breath and straightened up, he had taken her handkerchief from her lax fingers, dipped it in the trough and would have laid it to her forehead but she took it and pressed it against her lips.

“Lady, will we go down to the Healers?” he asked softly and was surprised when Arwen shook her head and looked at him with a spark of mischief in her eyes.

“What do you think, my Lord? Did you sicken?”

Boromir felt his jaw tighten and a reluctant grin break out as she shook out her skirts and he offered the Queen his arm.

“Oh, I am sure that the King will have healers haunting me day and night if it prove to be a youngling and not simply an old oyster from supper and in truth,” she squeezed his arm and looked wryly at him, “I do not do well for the first few months.”

Arwen had been fortunate, or perhaps Aragorn had learnt by experience, for although the healers had confirmed what the lady had already known and were anxious to have her under their roof and immediate care, Aragorn had decreed that the Queen should decide how best to get through this time of trial, so they had to be content with visiting her daily and sending up teas and tinctures to soothe her rebellious stomach. Nevertheless all had agreed that the Frost Fair was too far to journey. The Prince Faramir and his lady would come to Minas Tirith to take the burden of ruling from her shoulders and although Aragorn knew that she would be sad to have missed the Frost Fair, he would not countenance her travelling overland for so many days to reach the city. “There will be another one,” she said confidently and then wondered privately, as she hung over her basin gasping for breath, how she had known that.

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The King and the Lord Steward had taken ship, a stout barge that could cope with the thin skin of sea ice, and had sailed down an Anduin that ran sluggishly to Pelargir, where they had transferred to small skiffs and from thence as they reached the limit of the thicker ice to sledges drawn by dogs that took them, their retinue and baggage, into the city. Although it was generally thought that air kept warmer close to the sea, Boromir felt the frost was if anything sharper around Pelargir. His skin stung in the faintest of breezes and he became immured to the sight of frozen breath in clouds about folk’s heads.
The Lord Steward spent his first hours closeted with the city’s engineers and touring whatever ramparts or new dock gates they wished to show him, whilst the King held an impromptu audience with the local worthies; however, echoes of merriment from outside sounded faintly in every room in the council chambers and after a hastily taken meal the King’s party had ventured out onto the frozen river and into the throng of people.

The Fair was busy through the day-time with groups clustered around puppet shows and ballad singers, whilst the stalls that sold gilded gingerbread and roasted apples and chestnuts were doing a roaring trade amongst Pelargir’s residents. There were strangers too and Boromir wondered how Arwen had set her network of informants busying to attract not only a troupe of acrobats from Harad, who worked a slack wire between two of the bridges, dancing back and forth, turning somersaults and playing leap-frog, as though on solid ground, but also a small group of elves who were surrounded by a wide-eyed crowd. A square of the ice had been railed off and fresh water poured across it so that a smooth skin formed and whilst harps played, a slender elf clad in white and silver, traced letters on the ice. Young couples and elderly lovers alike told their names to the elf who, with one push away from the wooden railings, would glide out onto the ice and carve their initials, entwined, into the glassy surface, swooping and gliding seemingly effortlessly. Then, when the tracings became too busy, the top surface would be skimmed off and a new one laid, which froze in minutes Boromir noted grimly. The Fair was bringing in trade and raising the spirits of Pelargir’s chilled residents, but he would as leif that the cold did not linger for many more weeks.

As the light faded, they had retreated to the council chambers where the dinner provided for the royal party might have been thought modest except that King and Steward had been warned to leave ‘a little room’ for the night-time fairings and it was when they came out into the Frost Fair at night that they saw that the river was transformed with avenues of lanterns. It seemed to Boromir that the humour of the fair was changed too. With most children safely tucked up in bed and the crowds swelled with young folk, apprentices and servants released from their day’s work, the noise seemed greater, the music blared louder and in the half-dark between the pools of light shed by lantern and torch, folk jostled against one another.

There was hot food a-plenty; a whole ox had been roasting all the day and was now portioned out onto hunks of bread according to the coins dropped into the greasy, smoke-stained, hands of its attendants. There was a thick soup of lentils and bacon, hot spiced ale with roasted crab-apples floating in it and a fiery spirit served in little cups carved out of ice, that was set alight before the patron’s eyes.

Aragorn had turned to him with an enquiring look when they had seen a young man, egged on by his friends, down the spirit in one, but Boromir had merely raised an eyebrow and the King had chuckled and allowed himself to be guided onwards by the councilman at his elbow. They were to be the honoured judges of the races held along a corridor roped off in the middle of the river and the King and his Steward spent a happy hour adjudicating as first, lads with keen skates and then others, floundering to the amusement of the crowd in felt-soled boots, raced down the course. Boromir had set a couple of his sergeants to keep a weather-eye on the quiet, sharp-eyed men who were patrolling the crowds with satchels over their shoulders and large, grim-faced servants at their backs, and who were almost certainly running a book on the results. He’d not stop folk wagering a few coins on the lads’ races, but would not have money change hands once the children’s sled race began. This featured half-a-dozen children, each with a sledge drawn by a single dog, who had to negotiate a course in and out of a line of painted poles and then to race to the finish line. The winner was a small girl with red curls and equally rosy cheeks, who had a huge brown-and-white dog with a ruff like a lion pulling her little blue sledge. They had not been the fastest to the first turn, but the dog had been willing and neat on his enormous feet and she had steered so close in to the poles that they had beaten the speedier competitors. The shy smile she gave the King as she received her prize caught unexpectedly at Boromir’s heart and he found himself hoping that Arwen’s babe would be a girl-child.

They had stayed for two nights in Pelargir, King and Steward busying themselves with official business during the mornings and venturing out into the Frost Fair after the noonday meal. Both men had purchased fairings, cheap toys in brightly painted colours for the little ones and Aragorn had found an elderly matron sitting with a basket at her feet and a felt cloth in knarled fingers, polishing a seashell, a delicate spiral of cream and rose.

“Arwen will cherish this,” he said. Boromir knew that he had looked at a fine baby’s shawl, fine enough to draw through a wedding ring, with a pattern of seashells at its border, but had put it aside as too soon.

“Aye, it’s a lovely thing,” he agreed, “but strong too, to withstand the power of the sea.” Aragorn had ducked his head and smiled then, but when coins were handed over and the shell, carefully wrapped, had been added to the patient guardsman’s bundles, his fingers brushed Boromir’s in passing who knew that he was understood.

They might have journeyed to Pelargir on the water, but the King was determined to return to Minas Tirith across land so that he could see how that part of the kingdom was faring. It would have been fraught with difficulty to travel their whole party across country and finally it had been determined that they would take no more than a couple of Northern Rangers from amongst a party who had arrived in Pelargir, they said, on instruction from the Queen, and travel by sledge as far as the river Erui where they would be able to pick up pack horses and walk in the last few leagues. Boromir thought that Aragorn was rather looking forward to walking the land again. For himself, he would as well have taken the dogs as far as Minas Tirith.

It was as they were loading the sledges the next morning, seeing to the harness traces, that Boromir thought he could scent a change in the air, a faint smell of seaweed that had not been noticeable before. Well, if there really was a break in the cold weather coming, it would be none too soon; a port city locked in ice would starve if a thaw did not come.

It seemed as though half of Pelargir had turned out to see the King’s departure, waving and cheering and although his Steward knew full well that Aragorn rarely felt himself deserving of such displays, both men also knew that it was in good part as a symbol of the peace, so hard won, that the King was greeted and so Aragorn did not try to avoid it this time, for all that they had slipped out of Minas Tirith unseen on many occasions.

The noise of the city soon fell away and the party made good time under clear, blue skies, the sledge runners making a whooshing sound through powdery snow lying over frozen ground. Each sledge had a team of six dogs and from the yellow-eyed stares they gave him, Boromir thought they had more wolf than dog in them, but they leant into the harness and after a couple of hours, he began to relax and enjoy the feel of the world slipping beneath his feet.

A good part of the weight on the sledge was taken up by fuel for fires and food for the dogs. They had a warm gruel in the morning and a dry meal, a lot like lembas, said Aragorn, grinning at Boromir’s grim expression at the memory, and frozen meat at night. There was not a breath of wind for several days, just the numbing cold, and so they pitched one small tent and bedded down, the four of them, lying on the other tents bundled up, to keep them from the frozen ground.

Much later, Boromir had been forced to admit that it had been a useful journey, for as they travelled across Lossarnach they had come across some small settlements that believed themselves forgotten and were barely clinging on in the bitter weather, with no-one who could be spared to carry the word that help was needed.

It was as they neared the Erui that they had found themselves in one such holding, where the good-man had been laid low with a leg broken on icy ground and Aragorn had determined to leave the Rangers there to aid the women and children until help could be sent from the city. Now, there was more urgency in their going. They would cross the Erui and travel on for two more days before picking up the pack ponies and a full escort and he could split that company, send some back to the holding.

Their dogs seemed to catch their mood, for they moved quicker, straining at the lines and the sledges whisked through the powder and finally, breasted the hill, which looked down on the Erui...or at least where the river normally ran, for the edges of the banks were hidden under a blanket of snow.

They approached where Aragorn thought the riverbank should be, slowly, and he stepped off his sledge and bent down to brush the snow aside. Beneath seemed frozen ground.

Standing, holding the lead dogs’ lines of both teams, Boromir watched silently as his Captain walked forward softly, bending to sweep away the snow and once he had found ice, knocking on it to hear the sound, whether it rang clear or sounded cracked somewhere.

The Erui was not wide at this point, but it ran deep. It was as Aragorn reached what proved to be the far bank that Boromir realised he had been holding his breath, heart thudding in his chest.

“Let my team come on,” Aragorn said and he whistled low to the dogs who ventured out onto the ice and then walked steadily towards him. They scrambled up the far bank, dragging the sledge and for the first time, Boromir saw the dog in them as they greeted Aragorn with wagging tails and excited yips and now his own team were becoming restless.

“Should I walk alongside them?” he called across to Aragorn.

“Walk with the sledge,” he replied, “in case it skews sideways. Try to follow our tracks.”

The ice did not crack. There was no groaning sound to warn them. Instead, as Boromir and his team were almost at the far bank, a great slab of ice tilted silently and Aragorn saw man, sledge and the panicking dogs, scrabbling with their nails as they were dragged backwards by the weight of the sledge, disappear beneath the dark waters and the ice righted itself to show a blank, white, shroud.
It was so cold that a crushing weight was about Boromir’s chest and his eyelids felt as though branded with fire, but still he was pulling himself down the traces and sawing at the lines with his knife. They must have reached the bottom, because he was come on what felt like the sledge and he slashed at the harness to release the dogs in a mass of flailing limbs.

Now it was as though the water was warm and he should open his eyes, let himself float free and Boromir opened his eyes into the grass-green eyes of a maiden, so close to him that he thought he must be mistaken, not in a river at all, and he went to speak and suddenly was choking on icy water, feeling himself propelled upwards until his head struck the underside of the ice, covering it in a sheen of blood. He was floating somehow, his face and palms pressed against the ice and above him, Aragorn was hacking at the slab, screaming his name, for all that his icy prison dulled the sound. Now he was moving forward towards a ragged edge but it was so warm, time to sleep, that he was momentarily bereft when the grass-green eyes of the little dragon on the Ring Barahir plunged through the water and grasped the collar of his shirt.

“I have you! Boromir!”

He could hear the pain in his Captain’s voice and because he could not bear that he opened his eyes.

“I cannot lose you again, love,” his Captain whispered.

The cold was still a weight on his chest, too heavy to speak, but he moved his hand, clasping the knife and Aragorn gently turned his head so that he could see the bedraggled team of dogs, some of them still in their ruined harness, slumped on the shore, licking at paws. One dog staggered to its feet and shook itself and the others began to stir.

“They trap air in their double coats,” Aragorn was half laughing at him, but Boromir could see the tears in his eyes and he was so tired, so cold, that sleep would be a blessing.

It was now that Aragorn began to tear at his clothing, stripping the sodden garments from his frame as he began to shiver, rubbing at his hands and feet, and all the while Aragorn was talking to him, coaxing and cajoling him to stay awake. Aragorn turned to unpack dry clothing from his sledge and when he turned back, three of the dogs had gathered at Boromir’s feet and were licking them, pawing at his mottled flesh. His lead dog was licking at the scrape on Boromir’s head, which was bleeding once again.

Aragorn dried him and wrapped him in what covers he could find. Finally he laced Boromir’s limp body into their tent, drew an edge up to shield his face and loaded him onto their remaining sledge. Night was coming on and they must find shelter, else he’d lose his man yet, but this was a land he’d roamed many a long year and there was a place he knew of.

They reached it after two hours, during which time Aragorn ran alongside the sledge, lungs burning in the freezing air, and changed his team with Boromir’s when they looked to be strong enough. It was a cave, dry at this time of the year and although there had been peace in the Two Kingdoms for close to ten years, the Rangers kept watch, ready for trouble from wherever it should come, so that Aragorn was not surprised to find a store of fuel and some other supplies hidden at the back.

Hastily, he dressed Boromir’s head and endeavoured to dress him in warm clothes, for Boromir was still chill to the touch and the shivering seemed to run deep through him so that Aragorn was fearful that his jawbone would break. He lit a good fire, laid his man next to it and set about making some hot tea, strong with ginger root and honey, but he could only get a few spoonfuls down Boromir, who was beginning to wander in his mind, talking of a green-eyed lady. There was a flagon of strong spirit in the stores. Aragorn knew that to try to feed Boromir that would be to press too hard perhaps on his straining heart, still it could be useful and so he poured some into his palm and used it to rub at Boromir’s skin, until he needs move them both further from the flames, lest he set them both alight.

Now Aragorn was conscious that he himself was bone weary and for the first time since he was a very young man, he wondered whether he had the strength to do this, to keep station all the night, stoking the fire and turning Boromir so that he could be warmed through. He would rest, for a moment.

Boromir seemed quieter now and Aragorn shed his own heavy coat and jerkin, shrugged-off his boots and hose and crawled under the hide cover to lay an arm across his love’s chest. It seemed to Aragorn as though a stuttering beat in Boromir’s chest met his own fluttering pulse in his wrist and he spread his fingers to cover as much of that breast as he could and closed his eyes, for a moment only.

It was as Aragorn half woke to the knowledge that the fire was dying, that he felt a movement beside his leg. Something was crawling under the oilcloth and some other creature was following it by his shoulder. He held his breath until a third creature wriggled with more force and less guile beneath the tent and he realised that the dogs were surrounding them. There was a breathy sigh and a dog sneezed over his bare ankles but he was warm, they were warm and for the first time that night Aragorn slept secure.

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It was some weeks later, when the Lord Steward was returned to full strength and the Queen had weathered the worst of her sickness that they sat in on a stone bench in her garden watching the first of the spring bulbs trying to poke through the softened earth. Boromir told her of the vision that he’d had, of the maiden in the river and of his enduring feeling that he had been dragged up from the depths by something other than his own feeble efforts.

“Ah,” said Arwen softly, “you never met Goldberry, did you?”

“Daughter of the River-Woman?” Boromir was puzzled. “Merry has told me of her, but she lived by the Withywindle.”

“Well,” said Arwen kindly, and Boromir thought then that her gaze was drawn out across the plain surrounding the city. She stroked her swelling stomach gently, “Where there is one daughter, my Lord Steward, there can be more.”
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