Chapter 4: Alliances
A long spiral of smoke rose into the pale sky, marking the place where the dead lay. To the small, weary band of hunters, it seemed an ill omen, and it burdened their hearts even before they knew what it portended. Now, as they picked their way through the ghastly refuse of the battlefield, they were filled with cold despair.
The Riders had already sorted the dead and were laboring to raise a mound of stones, dirt and green turf over their fallen comrades. Behind the smoldering remains of the barricade, a pile of orcs lay, awaiting the flames that would consume them. The slain horses, too, would be burned, but out on the downs, where their smoke would not mingle with the foul reek of the orcs, and where they could be given due honors.
Merry trailed dutifully after Legolas and Gimli, but his eyes strayed ever toward the tall, fair, hard-eyed Men intent upon their grievous task. They reminded him of Boromir and Aragorn, with their long limbs and stern faces, and he found that he could not look away from them for long. He wanted to hear their leader speak again, to savor the accent of the South in his deep voice, to catch the echoes of his friends in the man's words and gestures. It was the only connection he had to the captives and, slender as it was, it gave him comfort among the horrors of this place.
Legolas bounded lightly onto the barricade and paused atop a steeply canted log. Merry hesitated for a moment, then scrambled up beside the elf. His eyes swept the killing ground on the other side, where the Riders had finally trapped the last remnants of the orc band and slaughtered them, and he shuddered at the sight.
The clearing was a fresh wound upon the forest, gouged by the axes of the orcs as they built their barricade. Only one tree of any size still remained in the rough circle, but it had been burned to a twisted, blackened husk that still smoked fitfully. Of the orcs themselves, all that remained was a gruesome heap of bodies and battered weaponry.
Merry glanced up at Legolas, wondering what thoughts revolved behind his smooth, impassive face. The elf gazed steadily at the piled orcs, with no outward sign of emotion, then he turned and called down to Gimli,
"We must search among the dead, you and I. 'Tis no job for the halflings."
"Aye," the dwarf growled.
He strode off toward the end of the barricade, not having the height or the balance to climb it, but Pippin opted to scramble over it with Merry. The two hobbits climbed down into the clearing together and wandered aimlessly about, picking up bits and pieces of junk dropped by the orcs. They watched the dwarf and elf with sad eyes, wishing they had the strength or the stomach to help them in their gruesome task, and saying little. This did not seem the place for idle conversation, with so much death in the air.
The soft thud of hooves announced the arrival of a Rider. Merry turned to see Éomer canter around the end of the barricade and into the clearing. His horse came to a stop beside the burned-out tree, and he swung gracefully from the saddle. Legolas and Gimli straightened up and turned to meet him, as he strode over to them.
"Have you found ought of your captives?"
Legolas shook his head. "Nay, only orcs."
"That is all you will find. We would not throw Men in with this carrion, even strangers or enemies. I tell you, there are no Men here."
"They were here," Legolas insisted, "of that we are sure. But some of the orcs must have escaped into the forest with them."
"'Tis likely. They had many hours of darkness in which to flee, and we found only these few still holding the barricade, when we took it."
Gimli nudged the nearest corpse with his toe and said, "These are not the same orcs we fought at Amon Hen. They are more like to the orcs of Moria."
"Aye. The mountains are infested with such as these." Éomer gestured vaguely toward the west. "The Misty Mountains end there, in Nan Curunír, where lies Isengard. And the great spurs of rock that flank the valley are riddled with the burrows of mountain orcs. Some say the wizard who dwells there guards our borders, holding back the hoard. Others say the orcs come at his bidding." Éomer's face hardened, and his grey eyes burned with anger. "Whatever the truth of it, their numbers grow daily, and their fear wanes. Now they come, even unto the plains of Rohan, bringing war and death."
"Make no mistake," Gimli growled, "'tis Saruman who bids them come. The orcs who took our companions were bred in the pits of Isengard and marched at the wizard's command. Saruman is not your ally, Éomer of the Mark."
"I know it." The words were simple, but they carried a wealth of bitterness and rage within them.
Legolas turned back to the pile of dead and the question of his friends' fate. "If only these remained to fight, then the larger orcs must have fled to the west, with Aragorn and Boromir."
Éomer's head came up sharply, and he fixed keen eyes on Legolas's face. "Boromir? What Boromir is this you seek?"
"Boromir of Gondor, the son of Denethor. Is he known to you?"
"Alas!" The man looked stricken, and his eyes turned toward the darkness of the forest in despair. "Alas, Master Elf, you bring evil tidings! Had we known the son of Denethor was a prisoner, we would have died to the last man to free him!"
Merry moved up closer to the tall, fair stranger, eyeing him with new interest. "Are you a friend of his?"
"I am not so fortunate as to call him friend, but I do know him. And I have fought beside him."
Merry squared his shoulders, proudly. "So have I."
Éomer turned to face him fully, curiosity gleaming in his eyes as he looked down at the halfling. "You fought beside the Captain of Gondor? You must be deemed a great warrior, among your kind."
"Well... I don't know that you could call any of my kind warriors... but I have killed an orc or two with my small sword. And Boromir taught me how to use it."
"And do you count him a friend?"
"Yes." Merry felt tears pricking his eyes, but he ordered them away and met Éomer's gaze straightly. "Yes, I do, and I will follow him even into the dungeons of Isengard. I owe him my life, you see."
Éomer went down on one knee to bring his eyes on a level with Merry's. His face, so proud and stern, was full of kindness, and his smile was warm, if more than a little sad. "I wish you a swift journey and good fortune in your quest, small warrior."
"We could use another sword, when we storm the walls," Pippin remarked sagely.
Éomer accepted his words in all seriousness. "I would that I could lend you my sword and those of all my éored, but men such as I are bound by duty before all else, and my duty calls me to my King. He must be told of what has transpired here and warned of Saruman's treachery."
"Perhaps your king will help us?"
The Man said nothing, and the tightening of his face warned the hobbits that they had strayed into dangerous territory. Pippin hesitated, then swiftly turned the subject.
"I don't much like the look of these woods. I wager there are worse things in there than orcs."
"Older things, certainly," Legolas murmured, as he gazed at the surrounding forest with wondering eyes.
Éomer rose to his feet again and turned toward his horse. "If you heed my counsel, you will not venture into Fangorn. It has an evil name."
"But not an evil feel," Legolas answered. "And it matters not, for where the orcs have gone, there we must go as well. You know not the urgency of our errand, Man of Rohan."
The man shrugged as if to say that he had expected nothing else from his new acquaintances. He swung himself into the saddle again. "They will make for the west and the slopes of the Misty Mountains, but that knowledge will not help you, if you lose yourselves in the trackless shadows of Fangorn. Should you think better of your folly and return alive from the forest, then come you to Meduseld and the hall of Théoden King. I charge you, on your honor, to present yourselves before the Lord of the Mark and ask his leave to travel his lands."
"You have our word, upon our honor."
"Farewell, then." He wheeled his great horse and paused to look again at Merry, a smile lingering on his face. "Good hunting." Then he sprang away and left the four travelers alone with the dead.
Midday found the four hunters deep in the forest. They followed the Entwash, keeping to the eastern bank, where Legolas's sharp eyes could spot the prints of orc boots in the mud. The hunters moved in a dim, grey twilight. All about them was a growing sense of watchfulness, almost of anger, that breathed upon their necks as they went.
Legolas kept them moving as quickly as the smothering warmth and strangely thin air of the forest would allow. The urgency of the hunt was upon them again, and every hour that passed only increased their resolve, while it drained their strength. The hobbits were staggering with weariness, and the dwarf had fallen into a grim silence, when Legolas suddenly called out,
"Look! The sun has found her way down to greet us!"
The others lifted their heads and stared at a bright shaft of sunlight that pierced the forest canopy, ahead and to the west of their trail. Merry felt his spirits lift at the sight.
"Let's go that way," he urged. "I'd like to feel the sun on my face again!"
"And I would like to breathe freely, without all these trees watching me," Pippin said.
The elf and dwarf made no argument, and the company left the river to plunge into the deep twilight of the forest. It took them some time to reach their goal, but finally, they stepped from the shadows and into the warm, clear sunlight of early afternoon. They found themselves at the foot of a steep hill that thrust up into the open air. The trees crowded thickly about its base, as if jostling for elbow room and a chance to reach their stiff branches into the light, but the slopes of the hill were bare and stony, clad only in a few hardy weeds and grasses.
A rough stair climbed the sheer rock wall before them, leading to a ledge that offered a wide view above the forest canopy and a shaded place to rest weary feet. The travelers paid no mind to the shabby loneliness of the hill, or the straggling thistles that clung to its sides. They saw only the open sky and the promise of a respite from their hunt. With smiles on their lined and shadowed faces, they climbed the uneven steps to the ledge. There, they flung down their packs and cast themselves to the ground, staring up at the sky as though they had never seen it before.
Merry had eaten a sparse meal of lembas and water, and was dropping off to sleep in a patch of sunlight, when Legolas gave a hiss of warning that jerked him roughly awake. He scrambled to his feet and ran to the edge of the shelf where Legolas stood, peering into the shadows beneath the trees. He had an arrow already fitted to his bowstring.
"What is it, Master Elf?" Gimli asked.
Legolas nodded toward the trees at the very foot of the hill. "There, moving toward us. Do you see?"
At that moment, a figure stepped out of the trees and halted at the bottom of the stair. It was a man, bent with age, clothed in grey rags and leaning heavily upon a staff, his face hidden beneath a deep hood and the brim of his hat. When he lifted his head to gaze up at them, Merry saw only the end of his nose and his long, grey beard. No one moved or spoke, as though the ragged stranger held them under some kind of spell, and Legolas's bow hung limp at his side.
"Well met, my friends," the man said, in a voice both soft and strong. "I wish to speak to you. Will you come down, or shall I come up?" Without waiting for an answer, he began to climb.
Gimli made a great effort to shake off the spell as the man moved, and he strode forward to the stair's top, his axe in his hand. "Halt, stranger! Come no closer, or feel the stroke of my blade!"
"Is this how you greet an old man, who seeks only conversation?" The man paused, gazing up at the dwarf with eyes that gleamed from the shadow of his hood. "Put up your weapon, my good Dwarf. You will not need it."
Gimli stumbled back from the stair, his face a mask of surprise and confusion. His axe slipped from his hand to clatter on the stone at his feet. The four hunters stared, aghast, as the old man suddenly leapt up the last few steps and sprang onto the ledge, his arms open wide in a gesture of welcome. With a shrug, he threw off his shabby cloak and stood before them, garbed all in shining white, his head bare and his face revealed in the clear light that seemed to pour from him. His eyes laughed at them from beneath familiar, jutting brows.
"I say again, well met!"
"Aiee!" Legolas gave a great shout and shot an arrow high into the air. It vanished in a flash of flame. " Mithrandir! Mithrandir!"
Merry heard the name and understood, but he could not move. His feet were rooted to the ground and his limbs were numb with shock. He gazed at the blazing, laughing creature that had risen from the dead before his very eyes, and tears of joy began to slide down his cheeks, but still he could not move. Then the keen eyes turned to him, and a smile crinkled their corners.
"My dear Merry."
Those words freed him. His body was his own again, and without stopping to think what he was about, Merry dropped his sword, flung himself at the wizard, and wrapped his arms around his waist. "Gandalf!" he cried, "Gandalf, Gandalf! You've come back to us!"
*** *** ***
Gandalf sat with his head bowed, listening to Gimli tell of their hunt across the fields of Rohan, his face shadowed by the wide brim of his hat. As the dwarf finished his tale, the wizard lifted his eyes to gaze at this small remnant of the Fellowship, and his face was drawn with grief. He did not speak for some moments after Gimli fell silent, but the others only waited, trusting that he would have some wisdom for them. Some guidance.
Finally, Gandalf sighed and said, "Alas that this evil should befall us. Isildur's Heir is a weapon we can ill afford to lose, and it pains my heart to think of such valiant Men in the hands of the Enemy."
Gimli gripped the haft of his axe and growled, "They are not yet lost to us! We have vowed to free them, and free them we will, though we hunt the length and breadth of Middle-earth to do it!"
"Your hunt is over, my good dwarf. Even now, the orcs draw near to the mountains and the safety of their caves. They will reach Isengard. You cannot prevent it."
"But we cannot abandon our friends, either!" Merry protested.
"To be sure. But if you would help them, you must find another way - a way that holds out some hope of success."
Legolas stirred restlessly, his eyes searching the drab canopy of the forest as if hoping to spy the movement of orcs beneath it. "What way do you see, that we do not, Gandalf?" He turned his eyes to Gandalf's face, and they were dark with despair, their elvish light dimmed. "For even without hope, we must go on."
The wizard pursed his lips thoughtfully, while his eyes twinkled from beneath his jutting brows. "We will go on, Legolas, to the very walls of Isengard! But not alone! Not alone."
"Who will go with us?" Pippin asked. "The Riders?"
"If we can persuade Théoden King of his peril, yes. But the Rohirrim are only a small part of Saruman's problem. He has forgotten another neighbor - a much older, wiser and more powerful neighbor than any race of Men - and if I read the whispers of the trees aright, he will soon find himself beset upon all sides."
"You speak in riddles," Legolas chided, smiling.
Gandalf laughed. "The answer to those riddles is all around you, Master Elf. Saruman has awakened the ancient power that slumbered upon his doorstep. He has stirred the wrath of Fangorn himself."
"The forest?" Pippin asked.
"The name of Fangorn belongs to more than what you see around you, Pippin. Fangorn is the shepherd of the trees and the guardian of this forest. He the oldest of the Ents."
Legolas stared at him in amazement. "Ents! The Onodrim yet live in Middle-earth? This is a day of wonders, indeed!"
"In more ways than you know. Fangorn is slow to anger and slower still to act, but Saruman's latest treachery has started that anger simmering. Soon, it will boil over and run like a tide about the feet of Orthanc. Then woe to Saruman, master of orc, axe and fire!"
Bounding to his feet, all semblance of age or weariness gone, Gandalf threw his arms wide to embrace them all and cried, "Our time is now, my friends! The Enemy is reaching out his hand to claim Saruman's prize, even as we speak, and we cannot wait upon wise counsels. We must stir the wrath of Ents and Men, gird them for war, and storm the walls of Isengard together!"
Gimli brandished his axe, shaking it at the heavens and roared, "To Isengard!"
The others leapt up and echoed his cry, "To Isengard!"
"But first, to the Ents," Gandalf said, his eyes twinkling. "Come."
Sheathing their weapons, the last remnant of the Fellowship pulled their elven cloaks about them and followed Gandalf down into the shadows of Fangorn.
*** *** ***
Aragorn stood with his back to a roughhewn wall of stone, facing the chamber's only door. To either side of the door, torches burned in iron brackets, their oily smoke billowing up to the ceiling where it clung like a living shadow, roiling with every movement that stirred the thick air. The Ranger wore nothing but a piece of coarse cloth wrapped about his loins, but in the smothering heat of the caverns, sweat ran freely down his naked body. The wound in his left thigh throbbed and burned with an insistent pain, protesting the pressure of his weight on the damaged leg, and dark blood oozed from beneath fresh scabs. The pain of it was terrible, but it gave Aragorn a focus in this eerie, airless, fire-lit nightmare. It kept his head clear and reminded him just how real, and how deadly, his plight was.
Since coming out of the dark caves at the feet of the Misty Mountains into the vale of Isengard, Aragorn had lost all sense of reality. The vale, once so green and gracious, was now a barren wasteland, riddled with pits and fires, dominated by the cruel spike of Orthanc at its center. Smoke, steam and flights of black birds writhed together to stain the sky, while the harsh cries of orcs mingled with the shriek of tortured metal and the croaking of the birds. No fair thing now lived within the ring of Isengard, and Aragorn wept inwardly at the sight of its desecration.
Into the bowels of the earth the orcs had brought their captives, through caverns that seemed to pulse with flame and heat, along tunnels hacked from the rock and lined with guttering torches, past foundries, armories, furnaces, refuse pits and dank holes that breathed corruption. Aragorn saw creatures and contraptions beyond his imagination - slave gangs whipped by orc overseers to speed their labors, machines that groaned and shrieked and belched a foul reek into the thick air of the caverns - and everywhere was the smell of burning.
When they came at last to this chamber, to his cell, he felt a moment of relief that the heavy wooden door would close between him and the horrors of Saruman's realm. Then they had taken Boromir away, and for the first time since their capture, Aragorn found himself alone.
For all his years as a Ranger and wanderer, Aragorn had never felt such a terrible sense of isolation. He was a brave enough man to admit his fear, and he was a wise enough man to see that his growing friendship with the soldier of Gondor had laid him open to that fear. He was not afraid for himself, though he knew that suffering such as he had never known before awaited him. He was afraid for his friend, and for the pressure Saruman would bring to bear on the newly-minted bond of affection between them. Standing there in his cell, chained to the wall at wrist and ankle, fettered and helpless, he knew loneliness and a gnawing dread that tortured him as no physical pain could.
There was nothing for him to do but wait. He leaned his aching body against the wall, eased the weight off his wounded leg, and let his head droop between his shoulders. To the casual observer, he would appear beaten, cowed, broken in spirit. But in truth, he was gathering his strength, seeking deep within himself for the will to defy both Saruman and his dark master. All the misery he had endured on the march, all the insults, abuse and privation, were only the precursor to this, and he must be ready.
The orcs finally came, their heavy boots crunching on the raw stone of the tunnel, their torches throwing heat and shadow across his prison walls. Aragorn did not lift his head to acknowledge them. He simply waited, unmoving, for some sign of what they intended. A large bundle hit the floor with a muffled thud. It spilled open to reveal his clothing and gear, every piece torn, stripped and slashed in the thoroughness of their search. Aragorn glanced at the mess, reading Saruman's frustration and fury in each knife cut.
"Aragorn, son of Arathorn."
The voice seemed to fill the chamber with its deep, soft, melodious tones, and it brought Aragorn's head up with a jerk. He found himself staring into eyes as dark and bottomless as the voice - eyes that pierced him with their brilliance, spread the balm of compassion upon his wounds, and awed him with their wisdom.
"Long have I looked for your coming, Heir of Gondor. Long have I waited for the King to take counsel of Saruman the Wise."
The shining figure in the doorway took a step toward the prisoner, away from the orc guards that flanked him, and as he moved, the ruddy torchlight slid over his garments, making them shimmer into a myriad colors. He held a staff in one hand, its finial a replica of the four spires of Orthanc, and on one finger of that hand, he wore a ring. Aragorn stared at that pale, slender hand, remembering Gandalf's tale to the Council of Elrond - how Saruman had forged a ring of power for himself, in imitation of the Elven smiths of old. The memory of Gandalf, his friend and guide, dispelled the magic of the wizard's voice and cleared his thoughts. He again met the compelling gaze, but with no trace of wavering in his own.
"I am not yet King, Saruman, and you are not my counselor."
"Such is the folly of Men." When Aragorn made no answer, Saruman smiled coldly. "And through such folly has the Dark Lord risen again, to threaten all Middle-earth with his Shadow."
Aragorn could not argue with him, deep as were his own feelings of guilt and failure over the choices of his kind. He might inherit Isildur's throne, but he also must inherit the consequences of his folly, and until he had atoned for the one, he could not claim the other. This was the conflict that defined his life, summed up in a single statement by the traitor Saruman.
"I offer you now the chance to undo the evils of your forebears and claim what is yours, free from taint or doubt," Saruman urged, his voice soft as velvet and thrumming with power. "I offer you an end to wandering, exile, war and shadow. Look into your heart, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and admit that I offer you your deepest desire."
Aragorn did not need to look into his heart. He knew that Saruman spoke the truth, but he also knew that the truth concealed a lie. "What is the price of my desire?"
"Alliance." Again, Aragorn said nothing, and his silence seemed to inspire the wizard with new eloquence. "Join with me. Carry your banner at the head of my armies, that all the peoples of the West may know their King is come, and I will lead you to victory over the Shadow. I can do it, Aragorn. I can set you upon the throne of Gondor, and I can drive Sauron from the shores of Middle-earth forever!"
"If I give you the Ring."
Saruman's eyes blazed. "The Ring. The weapon of the Enemy. What better way to defeat him, than with his own weapon used against him?"
The sound of those familiar words and the fierce passion in the wizard's eyes sent a shiver down Aragorn's spine. He felt as though he looked into Boromir's face at the moment that he tried to take the Ring from Frodo, and this glimpse into the torment of lust the Ring could inflict appalled him. Still, he kept his horror to himself and spoke calmly.
"I do not have the Ring."
"You know where it can be found - where Gandalf has hidden it."
"To reveal that would be to betray a friend."
"For the greater good of all Middle-earth!"
Aragorn stirred uncomfortably in his chains, sickened by Saruman's words, yet fascinated in spite of himself. "So now you would betray Sauron, as you betrayed the White Council before him."
"If evil perishes, what matter the means used? Would you have me surrender the Ring to him, out of loyalty?"
"You do not have the Ring to surrender or keep."
"I have you, and Sauron prizes you only slightly less than the Ring of Power. He knows that my servants have taken you. Soon, very soon, the Nâzgul will come for you. Then Gondor will be deprived of her King, of the symbol of her ancient glory, and she will fall into despair."
"What, then, are your promises worth? Of what use to me is an alliance with Saruman, when I am fated to die in Sauron's dungeons?"
Saruman smiled, as though pitying the Man's lack of faith in him. "The Nâzgul come for an Heir, and I will give them one. Let them take their Heir and be gone, while we hasten to find the Ring. By the time Sauron realizes that he has a Steward instead of a King, we will hold victory in our grasp!"
His words echoed into silence. Aragorn gazed steadily at him, reading the lust, greed and dawning triumph in his face, only thinly veiled behind his veneer of reasoned calm. Saruman clearly thought that his prisoner was weighing his offer, tempted by it, and Aragorn let him smile, let him revel in his success.
Finally, the Ranger spoke, his voice soft and dangerous in the quiet. "So you would have me betray two friends."
"The son of Denethor is no friend to you. He is an arrogant, proud, ambitious man, who will never bend his knee in allegiance to any king."
Hanging there in his fetters, naked and filthy, listening to the voice of Saruman seduce him with its honeyed tones, Aragorn smiled. In his mind, he heard again his friend's words, spoken in a murmur from the darkness, calling him King and swearing to send him home to Gondor, to his throne and his people, as a final gift from their fallen Captain. He saw again the sorrow and regret in Boromir's face, the soul-deep pain that his own weakness had wrought in him, when he broke his vow and betrayed the Fellowship. And Aragorn knew that Saruman had misjudged them both.
"I will not give you the Ring, Saruman, and I will not break faith with my friends. There will be no alliance."
To be continued...