Chapter 3: Uglúk's Battle
Boromir squirmed in his bonds but only succeeded in worsening his discomfort. The ropes that lashed him to the wide trunk chafed his wounds, while the gnarled bark of the tree dug into his aching shoulders, arms and wrists. Aragorn sat beside him, bound to another curve of the great trunk, but the clamor of orc voices and ring of axes against ancient wood made speech difficult, and the two men felt isolated in spite of their nearness to each other.
With a despairing sigh, Boromir tilted his head back against the tree and wished he could close his eyes to sleep. Since the fall of this accursed darkness, tired as he was, he had found it oddly hard to sleep. He knew that it had much to do with the fear lurking in the back of his mind - the fear that he would not awaken, or worse, that in the unchanging darkness, he would not know whether he was awake or asleep, alive or dead. It was a childish fear, when the waking world greeted him with so much pain and ugliness, but still it haunted him. And still, perversely, he longed for the simple and restful act of closing his eyes to shut out reality.
He sighed again, squirmed again, and winced as the ropes cut into the arrow wound in his side.
As if summoned by the man's inaudible whisper of pain, Uglúk came striding past the tree and stopped briefly to taunt his prisoners. "Don't get too comfortable, boys!" he chortled. "As soon as it's dark, and Mauhúr's lads arrive, we'll be off."
Boromir grimaced at the orc, the closest he could come to a challenging glare with his eyes bandaged, and said, "Not if the Riders find you, first. They'll spit you on their lances and roast you over your own campfires, Uglúk."
Uglúk thought that supremely funny. "Let them come! I'm ready for the horse-breeders and their bright lances. Let them come, I say!"
He stomped off into the din, still laughing, leaving Boromir to wonder, yet again, what the orcs had planned for the Rohirrim. It chilled Boromir to think that the fair Sons of Eorl might die beneath the blades of these vile creatures, and it galled him to know that he must sit idly by while it happened. He ground his teeth in frustration at his own uselessness. Boromir of Gondor detested feeling useless. It made him angry, which made him restless, which only increased his desire to be up and doing.
Unable to sit in impotent silence any longer, he pitched his voice to carry over the roar of activity and called, "Strider?"
"What are they building?"
"A barricade. It is nearly the height of a man, already, and curves back into the trees to guard their flanks."
It took Boromir no more than a few seconds to grasp Uglúk's strategy. The orc captain would place his archers behind the high, wooden barricade and pick off the mounted soldiers at will, covering the rest of the band as they retreated into the forest. It was a simple and efficient plan, but something about it unsettled the man. Then it came to him.
"When did orcs learn to build?" he asked Aragorn. "I thought they knew nothing but how to kill and destroy."
"Is that not what they are doing? Felling trees, so they can shoot Riders?"
"Aye... but don't you find it strange? An orc planning strategy? I would expect Uglúk to simply flee into the forest, trusting that the Riders would not dare to follow. Yet he halts here to build his barricade, cover his retreat, harry the enemy..."
"He fights like a man," Aragorn said. "Like a soldier."
Neither of them spoke for a moment, then Aragorn added, darkly, "Another of Saruman's treacheries. Gandalf warned that Saruman bred these creatures for strength and endurance. It seems he gave them more than even Gandalf knew."
"And so the Rohirrim ride to their death, unawares. They hunt a rabble. They will meet an army."
On that bitter note, both men fell silent. They had nothing else to say, no comfort to offer each other, as they faced the death of their hopes, along with that of the Riders. Neither had spoken of it aloud, but each had privately hoped that the coming of the Rohirrim meant rescue. Now they feared that it meant only more suffering and loss to add to Saruman's account. More blood on the wizard's hands.
The orcs labored on, felling tree after tree to raise their barricade high. Uglúk strode among them, shouting orders and laying on the lash of his whip where the work did not move fast enough to suit him. Ever, the eyes of the orcs turned to the downs that marched away from the edge of the forest, hunting for the first galloping figures upon their grassy slopes. And every now and again, another one would grumble,
"What's Uglúk's game, I'd like to know? We should be deep in the cool, dark forest by now, where the cursed horse-boys can't find us, not waiting for a spear through the gullet! What's he playing at?"
Then Uglúk's would snarl, "Playing, am I? I'll show you how the Uruk-hai play, you ape! And when the horse-boys are all dead, you'll be thanking old Uglúk that you aren't legging it all the way home with them snapping at your heels! Now move your lazy carcass, before I flay it for you! Move!"
The orcs moved, the trees fell, and the barricade slowly rose about them. As the sun slipped down behind the mountains to the west, another group of orcs came marching into the hasty camp from the forest behind. They arrived in a babel of shouts, laughter and clashing swords, and they were welcomed with enthusiasm by Uglúk's band.
"Mauhúr!" Uglúk bellowed. "Where have you maggots been hiding? There's killing to be done!"
Mauhúr, a much smaller orc than Uglúk, with eyes that blinked rapidly and shied away from the dying light, met this sally with an ugly laugh. "Maggots, is it? Well, you'll be glad enough of us maggots, when you reach the mountains. Waited for sunset, we did. You'll not catch my lads cooking their heads under the nasty, bright sun, when there's a lovely forest handy to shade them."
With a growl of disgust for such weakness, Uglúk sent the mountain orcs off to help his Uruk-hai with the barricade, while he drew Mauhúr aside for a private chat.
The activity built to a fever pitch, fueled by the energy of the new arrivals and by the orcs' relief from the suns painful rays. But suddenly, in the midst of all the noise and bustle, an unnatural quiet gripped the host. No orc shouted, no axe bit, no leaf rustled. Fangorn, itself, seemed to hold its breath in anticipation.
In the eerie stillness, Boromir felt a deep drumming in the ground beneath him. Hooves.
"They come," Aragorn murmured, and as if his words had freed their voices, every orc began to howl at once.
"Ai!! The horse-boys! The whiteskins are upon us!"
"Archers to the barricade!" Uglúk bellowed, his voice rising powerfully above the din. "Snaga, you're on the right flank, Dúrbhak on the left! Look sharp now, lads!"
The orcs obeyed, dropping whatever they carried to snatch up their weapons and rush to the barricade. For all their noise, they seemed to understand what was expected of them, and Uglúk's orders came at them in a steady stream, calming panic, quieting their shouts, and filling them with fierce, determined rage.
"Keep your heads down, and hold your fire! Wait for it, boys, wait for it! Wait 'til they've cleared the downs, then give it to 'em! Steady, now..."
On the open plains, the Riders came in a swift-moving column, riding three abreast. They carried their lances upright, the hafts resting on their booted feet and the burnished points lifted to the sky. A handful of archers, riding along the column's flank, had their bows strung and ready, but no arrow at the string, for they were following the trail of a fleeing rabble and expected no attack. In the dying sunlight, with their mail flashing silver and their pale hair streaming from beneath their helms, they looked both fair and deadly.
As they drew near the northern edge of the downs and saw the looming shadow of Fangorn before them, their leader rose up in his stirrups to gaze along the orc trail. It curved through the sweet grass of Rohan, angling to meet the muddy shallows of the Entwash, where the river flowed down from the forest. Then it followed the eastern bank of the river under the eaves of the forest. The Rider settled back into his saddle and turned his head, proud beneath its shining, crested helm, to speak a single word to his second. At that word, seemingly without effort, the entire column swung to its right and followed the blackened swathe of grass toward the forest.
The sun had dropped behind the towering peaks to their left, and the first night shadows fell across the forest at mountains' feet. The sky above still glowed with evening light, but the fields were dim and the forest a threatening darkness ahead. Still the Riders galloped on, unconcerned so long as they had a clear trail to follow.
Éomer, Third Marshal of the Riddermark, had hunted orcs since he could sit a horse. He knew that they would not turn and fight mounted soldiers, unless they outnumbered the Riders three to one, or unless cornered and forced into battle. These orcs had no such numbers, and if they had reached the eaves of Fangorn, they had all its shadowed dales in which to hide. They would not fight. They would flee, and Éomer's duty would end when he had assured himself that their foul feet no longer trod the grasses of the Mark.
The éored swept up the eastern bank of the river, toward the first outlying trees. Éomer again rose in his stirrups to survey their trail, but he could see naught beneath the forest's branches. The orc trail stayed close beside the Entwash, plunging with it between the trees and into a kind of clinging darkness. The Rider frowned, as he resumed his seat. He did not fear the forest, though he treated it with due respect, but as he gazed at that impenetrable shadow, placed exactly where his Riders must go to find passage for their horses among the trees, he remembered the tales told him as a child and felt an unaccustomed chill upon his flesh.
Shaking off his unease, Éomer signaled the éored forward and guided his own mount into the thickening trees. As he passed beneath the first branches, the shadow loomed up before him. He was still riding straight toward it, when he realized, with a shock, that it was solid. A great wall of rough-hewn logs, flung across their path. With a cry of warning, he lifted his hand to halt the Riders, but his voice was drowned by an earsplitting storm of shrieks and howls from atop the wall. Arrows rained down among the horsemen, striking helmet, mail, flesh and beast. Horses screamed in pain, and men shouted in anger.
Éomer brought his own mount to a standstill, so quickly that it sat back on its hocks, then wheeled it to the right and spurred it into a full gallop. He rode along the face of a long barricade that blocked the trail beside the Entwash. The wall curved from the river on the left, to a thick stand of trees on the right, and it rose nearly as high as his head, mounted as he was upon a tall horse. Along its top, orcs crowded, firing their black arrows into the mass of horsemen.
Éomer swung around the milling column and turned his horse toward the open plains, calling to his men as he rode, "To me, Riders of Rohan! To me!" Beside him, Éothain blew his horn to signal the retreat.
Another barrage of arrows whistled and sang among them. Another man cried out in pain and pitched from his saddle. Another horse staggered, an arrow through its neck. But still, the disciplined Riders formed on their captain and swept past the deadly barricade in his wake. More fell, as mighty arrows, fired at close range, punched through their armor or found the openings in their helmets. An archer near the rear of the column fired an answering shot at the barricade, and an orc toppled back from his perch with an arrow through his eye, as the éored sped back toward the open downs, leaving their dead and dying behind them.
Boromir heard the screams of dying men and horses, and he bowed his head in grief. He could not block out the familiar sounds of battle, though he tried, and he waited in painful anticipation for the next attack. The Riders would attack again, he knew, for honor would force them to avenge the fall of their comrades, and duty would require them to destroy the invaders upon their borders. He had fought beside the Riders of Rohan too many times to doubt that they revered both honor and duty as greatly as any soldier of Gondor.
Twice the horsemen flung themselves at the barricade, and once attempted to surprise the orcs upon their right flank. The orcs repelled them easily, and their howls of joy as they hacked at the fallen Riders with their swords sent a thrill of horror through the listening Boromir. Finally, as night fell in earnest, the horsemen withdrew just out of range of Uglúk's archers and lit watch fires in a tight semi-circle before the barricade.
The orcs amused themselves by hurling a collection of crude missiles at the silent, waiting Riders, accompanied by taunts and insults. But this pastime grew stale when the Riders did not show themselves beyond the ring of flickering light, and the orcs lost interest in their foe. They had nearly abandoned their posts at the barricade and were beginning to grumble about Uglúk's leadership again, forgetting the slaughter and plunder he had just given them, when an outcry from one alert sentry sent them scrambling for their weapons again.
A moment later, Boromir heard the distinctive, vicious whine of arrows and another sound he could not identify - a kind of spitting and crackling that did not belong to archery.
"Someone among the Riders is thinking," Aragorn said. "They've kindled their arrows. They plan to fire the barricade."
"Will such green wood burn?"
"The bark will, at least."
As if to prove his point, a stray arrow flew over the barricade and buried its point in the tree where the two men sat. Boromir heard it strike and instinctively looked up. A piece of burning cloth drifted down onto his upturned face, and he shook it away with a curse. The smell of smoke filled the air, along with the rising shrieks of the furious orcs, but the two men paid no more attention to the battle. They were far too concerned about the flames that now licked the lower branches of their tree, eating swiftly up the old, curled, flaking bark toward the winter-dry leaves above.
"And here we were worried about Saruman," Aragorn remarked, wryly.
Boromir gave a hard laugh and flinched away from another falling cinder. "I thought that I was ready to die for my King, but it seems I was wrong. If it please Your Majesty, your Steward humbly requests that you get us out of this before we are roasted like a couple of prize pigs!"
"We offer our deepest regrets to our most worthy Steward, but We are afraid that our hands are tied..."
Boromir cursed again, as yet more fragments of flaming bark fell onto his leg and started his breeches smoldering. Aragorn gave a hiss of pain and began thrashing in his bonds, telling Boromir that he, too, was suffering from the burning rain. The fire, eating so hungrily up the length of the tree, now began to creep downward as well, moving closer to the seated men. Sweat and soot painted their faces, the air felt too thick to breathe, and the wood behind their backs grew increasingly warm.
Boromir was mustering his courage to speak, to face his coming death and lay his final oath of fealty before his King, when the sudden grating of Uglúk's laughter interrupted his thoughts.
"That's it, boys, time to go!"
Boromir smiled in relief, as the great orc strode up to the tree and severed his bonds with a single stroke of his knife. The orc caught his smile and chuckled again. "Didn't think I'd let Saruman's prize get cooked by a rabble of whiteskins, did you? We've had our fun with the horse-boys, and now it's Mauhúr's turn. He'll keep them off our backs, right enough, so it's back to work for the Uruk-hai. Move it, lads!" he hollered to a nearby group of orcs. "We'll be in the caves by this time tomorrow, then it's home! Home to Isengard!"
Rough hands grabbed Boromir, and he found himself tossed over yet another shoulder. Then, with a shout and cheer, the Uruk-hai loped off into the forest.
To be continued...