The birch trees shone like a forest of sun-scoured bones. The summer had been very dry, and already yellow leaves drifted from the branches. Two riders trotted on the western road, all mark of their passing swiftly covered by leaves.
Though his saddle and boots were finely crafted, the first man was clothed in plain wool and bore no sign of rank. Hair as yellow as corn fell in long plaits down his back. The second man was very tall, yet he rode with surprising ease and grace. He wore his black hair loose, after the fashion of Gondor, and his dark clothing was elegant and richly embroidered. An ivory horn with silver fittings hung by his right side.
They halted at a cairn of white stones. To the north of the road, the trees were parted in a straight line, as if their branches were held back by some unseen magic. The dark-haired man swung down from the saddle and led his horse between the trees. With the heel of his boot, he scraped aside the rotting leaves until he reached the paving stones buried under the loam.
The fair-haired rider murmured a few words to his horse then slid lightly to the ground. “From here I can guide you no farther, Lord Boromir. None of my people has taken this path in years, and rarely do travelers journey from the North. Yet may it lead you at last to the land that you seek.” He placed his right hand on his breast and bowed.
“Then I must find my own way, but I thank you for your help, Ragnvald, son of Aelric,” the other man said as he bowed in return, then he swiftly straightened up and stared into the trees. A wild and rising horn call echoed from the north.
“’Tis naught but an ilfete, my lord.”
“Ill fate? That seems an unlucky name.”
Ragnvald thought for a moment. "A swan, my lord, in the Common Speech. During the spring and fall, great flocks alight on the marshes of the Westfold, yet they do not tarry here. I deem that their home is far to the North.” The call came again, remote but clear. “Strange that one lingers so late in the summer.”
Still gazing into the distance, the man of Gondor nodded slowly. Then he shook himself and made a wry smile. “Let me answer its summons in kind.” He raised the horn and played the swan’s call--a deep, low note followed by a higher pitch. The two men laughed when from the woods came a faint reply.
The stirrup leathers creaked as the dark-haired man swung himself to the horse’s back. “Farewell.”
Ragnvald’s horse whinnied, shifting her weight uneasily; he gently stroked her neck. “May you ride to good fortune, my lord.”
Without a backward look, Lord Boromir set out on the road not taken. Ragnvald stared through the drifting veil of yellow leaves, until both path and rider were lost among the trees.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Author's Note: Ilfete is one of the Old English words for “swan.”
While some swans are mute, the whooper swan (called the trumpeter swan in North America) has a loud, ringing call.