Chapter 6: Night over Isengard
War had come to Nan Curunír. In the blackest hour of a moonless, starless night, the Riders of Rohan had crossed the Fords of Isen and fallen upon the great gates of Isengard. It was an act of desperation. No force of Men could hope to break the gates. Yet the Rohirrim had come, and they threw themselves against the sheer rampart of the walls with a grim determination that scorned defeat.
From his high window in the tower of Orthanc, Saruman watched them come and laughed. They looked pitiful from this height, their lances waving like blades of grass in a high wind, their crested helms bobbing as they rode. In the ruddy light from the fire pits, the silver helms appeared stained with blood - sweet promise of victory to come for the White Hand.
As he watched, smiling, a troop of horsemen galloped out of the trees and into range of the archers on the walls. A storm of arrows met their sally. The Riders, fearless even under such an assault, stood in their saddles and calmly picked off orc after orc with their own arrows, while the defenders behind the rampart scrambled to fill the gaps left by the dead. Then a raucous howl sounded from the gateway tunnel, and the Uruk-hai flooded out to join the fray.
Mounted as they were, the Rohirrim still could not stand against the superior numbers and ferocity of the orcs. They fell back slowly, drawing the orc warriors after them, fighting as they retreated. The orcs, intent only on slaughter and plunder, followed their prey beneath the shadowing boughs of the trees.
Trees? Saruman abruptly leaned out of the window embrasure to stare at the battle below. A frown deepened the lines in his face. Trees? There were no trees close to the southern wall. He had felled them long ago and lined the road with graceful iron pillars, in their stead. Only scrub and brambles and the stubborn refugee greenery of the plains grew before the gates of Isengard. So how could the Riders be attacking from the trees?
Saruman heard screams of fury and panic drifting up from the distant wood. He cursed softly, as he saw a lone pair of orcs come stumbling from the wood, their weapons lost, their mouths open in a long howl of terror. They gained the tunnel, and a few moments later, Saruman saw them pelting along the wide causeway that led from the gate to the door of Orthanc. Behind them, the screams continued, as the Riders approached the walls again. This time, the trees came with them, and even as he turned away from the window to pace his high chamber, Saruman heard the rumbling crash of stone falling.
Saruman cursed again and pounded his staff against the floor to vent his frustration, as he paced. A small, chill, unacknowledged breath of fear touched his neck. How could he have forgotten? And yet, how could he have predicted that the sleeping Fangorn would awaken? What sorcery could have stirred the sleepy, pulp-brained shepherd of the trees to such vengeful rage, and who had forged this impossible alliance between the ancient Onodrim and the upstart Men of Rohan?
Axes and fire. Saruman ceased his restless prowling and turned again to gaze from the window, his eyes alight with cunning. The ancient scourge of trees would prove the bane of Fangorn and his Onodrim, and the White Hand would have its victory, still. He must reorganize the defenses and send the order out to all captains - axes and fire. Then he would have a word with that miserable spawn of Númenor in the dungeons - that would-be king - and find out what he knew of this strange attack.
*** *** ***
In the brooding, flickering light of Isengard's blasted plain, two small figures flitted from shadow to shadow. They moved cautiously, down the tumbled slope from the eastern wall toward the nearest entrance to the caverns, shrouded in cloaks of muted grey that hid them from all but the sharpest eyes. Behind them, the looming wall was pocked with windows and doorways by the hundreds. Along its top, orcs patrolled ceaselessly. And always before them was the sharp spire of Orthanc, dark and terrible.
They were alone in a hostile land, surrounded by foes, intent on a desperate and foolhardy mission. And they were afraid. With every step he took, Merry grew more and more afraid, but he forced his legs to bear him up and carry him farther into that choked, barren vale, closer to the gaping maw that waited to swallow them.
He was sweating with fear beneath his elven cloak, and as they ducked into the lee of an iron pillar to avoid a passing orc band, he heard Pippin's teeth chattering. The younger hobbit shot him a wide-eyed glance, his face strained and pale in the ghastly light of the fire pits. Merry could not muster the courage for a smile, but he nodded to show that he was ready, gripped his sword tightly beneath his cloak, and slipped from their hiding place.
As great as was his fear, it never occurred to Merry to turn back. He and Pippin had convinced Gandalf that two hobbits could do what the combined forces of Men, Ents and the Fellowship could not - sneak into Saruman's dungeons and find their captive friends, before Saruman perceived his danger and fled, taking his prisoners with him. Not until Treebeard himself, chief of the Ents, added his voice to theirs did Gandalf relent.
Now that he saw what lay inside the ring of Isengard, Merry felt even more sure that he and Pippin were the captives' best hope of rescue. A band of warriors would have to fight for every inch of ground, always knowing that they might never find the right dungeon in that endless, orc-infested hive. The two hobbits, silent on their bare feet, cloaked in elven shadows, small and easily overlooked, might slip through countless caves and tunnels unseen and find the captives, while the main rescue party came more slowly behind them, following the path they marked.
His heart was hammering against his ribs, as Merry scurried the last few steps to edge of the cavern's yawning mouth. To his right, a long ramp led up out of the depths, supported by iron chains set into pilings at the lip of the hole. The pilings cast deep shadows, hiding the two hobbits from the eyes of the countless orcs that poured up the ramp.
Merry listened to their raucous shouts, laughter and clashing weapons. They marched in expectation of an easy victory, headed for the battle at the gate, and Merry was oddly reassured by their confidence. He knew that, so long as Saruman and his armies believed the battle won, they had time. Saruman would stay safely in his citadel, and Treebeard would hold back the waters of the Isen behind their dams. When the tide of battle turned and Saruman knew himself doomed, then the real attack would come. The orcs would panic and fly into the mass of Huorns that waited outside the walls, Treebeard would let loose his flood to block Saruman's escape, and anyone caught in the caverns would die. Anyone.
The last of the orcs were marching away, their torches flickering along the road to the south. Nothing moved on the ramp. Merry leaned cautiously forward, into the red glow from the pit, and peered over the edge. Heat struck him a blow in the face, making his eyes water, and the stench of burning clogged his nostrils. He pulled his head back and turned streaming eyes on Pippin.
"We've gone and put our foot in it now, haven't we, Pip?" he whispered.
Pippin nodded grimly. "Good and proper."
"Come on, then."
The hobbits drew their swords, pulled their hoods more closely about their faces, and rose to their feet. The only way down was the ramp. It hung above a vast, reeking hell of pulsing flame, scorched rock and black tunnel mouths. Chains, ropes and pulleys dangled over noisome pits. Ominous clanking and shrieking issued from dark holes they could not see, along with the harsh voices of orcs. As they crept down the ramp, trying to hide themselves from hostile eyes while looking as though they belonged in this nightmare, Merry felt as if the very rock of the caverns was breathing malice upon his neck.
They reached the bottom of the ramp and slipped into the dark opening of a tunnel. Pausing only long enough for Pippin to scratch an arrow on the wall with his sword, down low where only a hobbit would think to look for it, they started off along the rough passageway.
The tunnel pointed west, toward the tower of Orthanc, and sloped gently downward. Guttering torches lined the walls, but their uneven light did as much to conceal the intruders as expose them. The hobbits stayed close to the walls, in heavy shadow, where even the sharp eyes of orcs could not find them, and they passed like wisps of smoke in the heavy air.
* * *
Merry pressed back against the wall, his eyes clenched tightly shut, breathing hard in panic. Beside him, he could hear Pippin sobbing. His hand fumbled for Pip's, and the two hobbits clung fiercely to each other.
Voices reached them, too low to hear the words spoken, but loud enough for them to discern Saruman's smooth tones and Strider's rough, mumbled response. There was a moment of silence, then a tearing cry that brought a whimper up in Merry's throat. He felt Pippin step away from the wall and tug on his hand, then they were running, stumbling back up the passage to escape the dreadful sounds.
They ran until they reached the last side-turning in the tunnel, where Pippin had scratched a neat arrow on the wall to mark their route. There they halted, unwilling to go on but afraid to go back, and stood staring at each other helplessly.
"We'll never get him out," Pippin said, in a haunted whisper, "with all those orcs and... What was Saruman doing to him?"
Merry shook his head, seeing again the tortured agony in Strider's face when the wizard touched him. He had caught only a glimpse of the room - of the Man chained naked to the wall, his body marked with blood and dirt, of the orcs standing guard with their enormous swords and the tall figure robed in shimmering white - but the horror of it was burned forever into his memory.
"How do we get him out?" Pippin demanded.
"We don't. We bring Gandalf and let him deal with Saruman."
Pippin started down the eastbound branch of the tunnel, his body taut with urgency. "They must be close by now. If we go back to the stair and..."
"Wait!" Merry caught Pippin's arm to stop him from bolting. "We have to find Boromir!"
Pip shot him a wild, panicked look, and Merry saw that his face was streaked bright with tears. "But Strider..."
"The others are following, as fast as they can. We can't help them by going back now, and we can't..." He swallowed the tears in his throat and snapped, more sharply than he had intended, "We can't run off and leave our job half done."
"You're right." Pippin dashed the tears from his eyes with his forearm and gave a defiant nod. "We said we'd find them both, and we will. Boromir must be close by, in one of these other cells..."
Shrugging off Merry's hand, Pippin drew his sword and knelt in front of the mark he had made on the wall. He worked at the stone for a moment, with the point of his sword. When he stood up again, Merry saw that he had scratched a rune next to the arrow.
"Gandalf will see that and know we found Aragorn."
"Good thinking, Pip." He nodded toward the only unexplored branch of the tunnel and said, "Let's try this one."
"After you, Cousin Brandybuck."
Merry squeezed his arm in mute gratitude, then led the way into the new tunnel. They did not have to go far. Five minutes and two right turns later, Merry poked his head around a corner to find the hulking form of an orc blocking their way. The monstrous creature had his back to a wooden door, his eyes fixed dully on the opposite wall, and a long, saw-edged sword hanging at his belt. He looked groggy with boredom, but not so far gone that he wouldn't notice two hobbits strolling down the passage.
Merry whisked himself out of sight as silently as he had come and drew Pippin out of earshot of the orc.
"That has to be Boromir's cell," he whispered. "It's the only guard we've seen."
"Lovely. Let's clear out of here, then, and find Gandalf."
Merry shook his head, his jaw set stubbornly. "I'm going in there."
"Right," Pippin hissed, caustically, "you'll just walk up and ask the orc, nice as you please, to open the door for you." When Merry said nothing, only glared at him, Pippin's mouth dropped open in shock and he demanded, "What are you going to do!?"
"Kill the orc." He flashed Pippin a humorless grin and whispered, "You said it yourself, Pip. It's not like we've never fought orcs, before."
"You don't think someone will notice a dead orc in the hallway?"
"Saruman, for one!"
Merry felt his face harden with determination. He knew that Pippin was right, and they ought to leave at once to fetch the rescue party, but he could not bring himself to walk away without seeing what lay behind that door. As much as he loved Strider, and as desperately as he wanted to free him, the truth was that Merry had come to this foul place for only one reason - to find Boromir. He owed the soldier of Gondor his life, owed him a debt of friendship and gratitude that could never be fully paid, and through the long hunt across the plains of Rohan, he had sworn to himself that he would never again leave Boromir to fight alone.
"I'm going in there, Pip, and you can help me, or not. Make up your mind."
"I didn't say I wasn't going to help," Pippin muttered.
"Right. Here's what we'll do."
A few minutes later, the guard was startled out his sullen boredom by the patter of running feet. He jerked upright and looked around guiltily, as though afraid to be caught napping, but the feet did not belong to his commander. They belonged to a small creature in bare feet and a dark cloak, who came running full tilt around the corner and bolted past him. He frowned at it in confusion, dimly aware that the creature did not belong here, but as it made no threatening move toward him and no attempt to disturb the prisoner he guarded, he was unsure what to do with it.
Stepping away from the wall, he called after it, "You there! Halt!"
The creature glanced over its shoulder at him, stumbled as it ran, and uttered a high-pitched squeal of fear. The orc grinned and drew his sword, advancing on his terrified prey. Suddenly, pain lanced through his leg, and he halted in surprise and outrage.
Merry slid his blade into the exposed back of the orc's knee, driving it in until it hit bone. The orc screamed and cursed, twisting around to find its attacker, but Merry was already dancing away, his sword free and smoking with dark, foul blood. The orc staggered as it turned, the wounded leg folding beneath it. As it dropped to its knees, Merry gathered himself and leapt onto its broad back. At the same moment, Pippin bounded to his feet and charged into the fray. He threw all of his weight behind his sword and drove the point up under the orc's chin, even as Merry's blade bit into the side of its throat.
The orc gave one gurgle of protest, then pitched to the floor with a tremendous clatter of armor and weaponry. The hobbits picked themselves up off the bloody floor, staring in disbelief at what they had done, their faces pale and their mouths hanging open in shock. The orc did not even twitch.
Merry was the first to recover his wits. Wiping his blade and his hands on the orc's tunic, he climbed over the creature's sprawled legs to reach the door it had guarded. A great iron bar secured the door. Merry heaved on it, struggling to lift it free of its brackets, but he could not budge it until Pippin joined him. Just as they had killed the orc together, they now hefted the bar together, tilting one end slowly upward until its own weight dragged it free of the brackets and sent it to the floor with a resounding crash that vibrated in the stone beneath their feet.
Merry exchanged a nervous glance with Pippin, and both pricked their ears for any sound of approaching trouble, but the dungeon was once more eerily quiet. Pausing to settle his sword more securely in his hand, Merry grasped the door handle, pulled it open, and peered cautiously inside.
The cell was small and bare, lit by a single torch that threw creeping shadows across the walls. A set of empty chains hung opposite the door, and in a far corner was a pile of fabric, leather and mail. But Merry paid no mind to these details, for lying huddled in the middle of the floor was a Man.
With a wordless cry, Merry flung the door wide and ran into the chamber. He dropped to his knees beside the motionless figure and, casting away his sword, bent over to peer at the man's shadowed face. Another cry rose in the hobbit's throat - a cry of recognition, agony and grief.
"Boromir?" His hand shook, as he brushed the hair back from the man's face. "It's Merry. We've come to get you out of here. Can you hear me? Please..." his hands closed into helpless fists, and his voice trembled, "please..."
The man stirred, and Merry felt hope leap high in his breast. Boromir turned his head slightly, and in the torchlight that touched his face, Merry saw his lips moving in soundless speech. The hobbit's throat closed up tight and his eyes stung with tears. He put out a hand to support Boromir's head, as the man stirred again and muttered a single word, then pulled it quickly back, afraid that he might hurt him.
"What have they done?" Merry whispered, horrified, as he watched blood spill from Boromir's lips to paint his face with crimson and darken the stones beneath his head. The man gave him no answer. His brief moment of awareness draining away with the blood from his mouth, he fell still.
Pippin's soft voice came from just behind Merry's shoulder. "We must find Gandalf. He'll know what to do."
Merry twisted around to gaze up at him, his eyes half blinded by tears. "Yes. Hurry, Pip! Go!"
"What?" Pippin backed away from his pleading gaze, alarm plain in his face. "No! Me?!"
"You can find him. I know you can. Go back the way we came, toward the big cavern, and..."
"You're coming with me!" Pippin hissed in burgeoning panic.
"I can't." Merry's face contorted with pain, and fresh tears spilled from his eyes. "I promised."
"Promised who? What are you on about? Merry, this is madness!"
"No. You were right the first time, when you said we shouldn't have run. We should have stayed with him and fought, no matter what, and it's my fault we didn't." He swallowed audibly and whispered, "I ran away once. I won't do it again. I can't."
"This isn't the same. We're going to find help..."
"That's what we did by the river, and look what happened."
Pippin stared helplessly at the still, broken body of the man who had protected them so ferociously, saved them so selflessly, and Merry saw the beginnings of acceptance in his eyes. But being Pippin, he had to offer one more protest. "What if I don't find the others in time? What if the flood comes? Or Saruman?"
Merry shrugged uncomfortably. He did not want to think about the likelihood that his small, stubborn act of loyalty would cost him his life, but he found it even more unbearable to think of Boromir dying alone in this wretched cell. After all that he had endured, to die alone and abandoned was one indignity, one hurt too many. And it was one hurt that Merry could spare him.
Squaring his small shoulders, Merry said, firmly, "I promised that I'd never again leave him to fight alone, and I won't. Whatever comes, I'll be here to... to guard his back."
Pippin nodded solemnly, and Merry felt a wave of gratitude for his cousin's understanding. Trust Pippin to pelt him with arguments and distractions, knowing full well that he would do just as Merry asked, in his own good time.
"Please hurry, Pip."
"I'll try, Merry, but..."
Both hobbits were thinking of the hours they had spent wandering through the caverns, looking for this very room, while the battle raged above. Time might be running short. Even now, the mighty walls of Isengard might be crumbling beneath the hands of the Ents. Even now, Treebeard might be pouring the hoarded waters of the Isen into the vale to trap Saruman the tree-killer in his lofty tower. They had no way of knowing how much time, if any, remained to get their friends and themselves safely out of the caverns.
A sudden fear gripped Merry that he would never see Pippin again, and he scrambled to his feet to embrace his young cousin. Pippin clung to him for a moment, then pushed away and wiped his eyes on his sleeve. In the wavering light, he looked pale and frightened, too young and too fragile for the burden of hope he carried.
"When Boromir wakes up, you tell him how we killed the orc. He'll get a laugh out of that."
Pippin moved to the door but paused in the opening, reluctant to leave. "And don't forget the part where I pretended to trip, then stuck my sword through its neck."
"I won't," Merry answered, solemnly.
"I'll bet Boromir couldn't have done it any neater, himself."
Pippin hesitated for another moment, then lifting his hand in farewell, ducked his head and slipped out the door. It creaked slowly closed behind him, leaving Merry alone in the miserable little cell with the unknowing Boromir. Merry knelt beside him once more and gazed sadly down at his friend.
For a long time, he did not move or speak. He did not know what to say in the face of so much suffering, and he felt useless. Then, perversely, he thought of Pippin's parting words, and a smile touched his lips. How Boromir would have laughed to see the two hobbits tackle that hideous great orc! No, Merry amended to himself, he would not have laughed. He would have thrust them out of the way and slain the orc himself. Then he would have called them a cursed nuisance and glared at them, thinking they couldn't see through the scowl to the affection and worry beneath it.
"You really should have seen us kill that orc," Merry murmured to the unconscious man. His gaze fell on the livid bandage that covered Boromir's eyes, and his own filled with fresh tears. "You would have been proud of us."
Retrieving his sword from where he'd dropped it, he began sawing at the ropes that bound Boromir's wrists. Tears flowed steadily down his cheeks and splashed on his sleeves as he worked, but he ignored them. Words came unbidden to his lips, words that would mean nothing to Boromir but that unburdened Merry's heart in his loneliness and made him feel as though he were doing some small thing for his friend by reminding him that he was not alone.
He talked as he worked to make the injured man more comfortable, talked in a low, steady tone that belied the tearstains on his face and the tremor in his hands. He told Boromir about the hunt across the fields of Rohan, about Treebeard and the Entmoot, and about the alliance of Men and Ents that had marched to war against Saruman. He described the way Quickbeam had torn a hole in the eastern wall, as easily as a hobbit might tear a loaf of bread, to let the remnants of the Fellowship into Isengard, and how the Riders at the gates had willingly drawn the wrath of the wizard and the arrows of the orcs down upon their heads to open a way for the rescue.
While he talked, he cut Boromir's bonds and chafed his hands to bring life back into his cold fingers. He sorted through the pile of rent and slashed clothing in the corner to find Boromir's elven cloak and the remains of his brocade tunic. The tunic he slid beneath the man's head, and the cloak he used to cover his shivering body. Then he knelt once more beside his friend and, using a piece of Boromir's shirt as a rag and water from the skin at his own belt to dampen it, began to clean away the blood and filth that masked his face.
Through all his clumsy, but gentle ministrations, Boromir remained unmoving, uncaring, and seemingly unaware of the hobbit's efforts on his behalf. For Merry, the attempt at comfort was enough, whether his friend knew of it or not. It hurt his loyal heart to see Boromir treated with such disdain - stripped and bound and cast, broken, upon the floor - and he strove to return to him some dignity, even if he could not ease his pain.
In the back of Merry's mind was an old memory of Brandy Hall, and the nurse who had seen him through every illness and injury of childhood. She was one of his father's multitude of relatives - a distant aunt or aging cousin - and her voice was like the grate of sand on metal, but Merry had listened for it, treasured it, and still remembered it when so much of that time had been forgotten. The voice of comfort. And now, in the murky hell of Saruman's dungeon, Merry heard the voice again and caught himself sliding into the same soothing cadences as he talked.
The time crept by, uncounted and unmarked, except by Merry's idle conversation. Only once did Boromir give any sign of waking. The hobbit was sponging the blood stains from his face and trying to decide whether or not he had the courage to remove the bandage and clean beneath it, when Boromir suddenly twisted away from Merry's touch, muttering something under his breath. Merry's hand stilled. He leaned eagerly forward.
"Boromir? Are you awake?" He laid the cloth against the man's forehead, just above the bandage and asked, pleadingly, "Can you feel that?"
Boromir gave a soft choke of pain, and dark blood spilled from his mouth.
"Hush," Merry urged. "Be still."
"Aragorn isn't here. But don't worry about him." He carefully wiped the blood from Boromir's mouth, ignoring the tears that once more streamed down his own cheeks. "Pippin knows where to find him, and he'll take Gandalf there. We'll free him, too, I promise." The words stuck in his throat, but he could think of nothing else that might calm his friend, so he forced them out and tried not to think about how difficult that promise might be to keep.
Boromir stirred again, restless with pain or distress - Merry could not tell which - and his lips moved, forming the Ranger's name. More blood ran down his chin, looking black in the torchlight. Merry wiped it away, in a gesture as kind-hearted as it was fruitless.
"Don't worry about him," Merry repeated. "Don't worry about anything." But he was speaking to himself again.
Boromir slid quietly back into his twilight world, once more beyond the reach of voice or touch, and Merry went back to waiting. He no longer had the will to speak. Sorrow closed his throat, and tears flooded his eyes. The terrible waiting was draining his courage, weighing him down, filling him with despair. He had promised to stay, and stay he would, but he could do no more than that. His presence here was as useless to the soldier of Gondor as was his sword in a fight. He had failed to help Boromir at Parth Galen, only to follow him here, through peril, battle and fire, and fail again. If only Pippin would come! If only Gandalf would save them!
A murmur of voices sounded in the hallway, jerking Merry out of his gloom and sending him to his feet. For a wild moment, hope flared in his breast, and he took a hasty step toward the door. Then he heard, unmistakably, the harsh, growling voice of an orc and the tramp of heavy feet on stone. Hope turned to cold fear, and Merry halted in the middle of the floor, too terrified to move or think.
"Gah! Someone has been here before us!" the growling voice said. "Weapons at the ready, lads!"
There was a loud scraping of metal on metal, as the "lads" drew their swords and daggers. In answer, Merry drew his own weapon and placed himself between Boromir and the door, his feet planted wide and both hands gripping the sword hilt. The door was flung open, and three orcs came charging into the room.
They were enormous creatures, more than twice Merry's height, big enough to dwarf even Boromir or Strider. The leader carried a sword that was easily as big as Merry, and he held it with a casual ease that was terrifying in itself. He leapt through the doorway, landing well inside the room in a fighting stance, then he paused and scanned the shadows for a lurking enemy. His eyes came to rest on Merry, and he grinned to show his yellowing tusks.
"See here, Snaga! I've found a rat with a pin! Did you use that pin to stick the maggot out there, little rat?"
Merry pulled himself up to his full height, which still barely reached the orc's belt, and tried to match the creature's fierce snarl. "I did. And I'll do the same for you, if you don't leave at once!"
The orc laughed. "It's a brave little rat, anyway. Stop your squeaking and step aside, before I..."
Merry did not give the orc a chance to finish his threat. Gathering his courage for a final, desperate attack, he lunged at the creature with his pitifully small sword, aiming for his belly. The orc looked startled, but even taken by surprise, he moved with blinding speed. His huge blade struck Merry's aside, causing him to stumble, then he snatched the hobbit up by the scruff of the neck and shook him painfully.
"Drop the sticker, or I'll wring your neck."
Merry obediently dropped his sword. He could barely breathe and certainly could not resist the orc's massive strength.
"That's a good little rat. Now behave yourself, and you may get out of Isengard alive. Give me trouble, and I'll give you a gullet full of iron. Or leave you to drown." Turning to one of his lieutenants, the orc said, "Hang onto this one, Dúrbhak. He may come in handy, when we meet the horse-boys." He tossed Merry effortlessly to the other orc and added, with a warning snarl, "But if he squeaks, throttle him."
The third orc was bending over Boromir's still form, and he twisted around to call to his captain, "This isn't the one we want, Uglúk!"
The captain strolled over to where the Man lay and nudged him with one foot. "That's the one. Get him up, Snaga."
"You said it was the other one that mattered. The longshanks."
"To Saruman, maybe, but all we need is a hostage to get us past the horsebreeders, and this one will do as well as the other. Besides," Uglúk grinned wolfishly, "I have a score to settle with Soldier-boy."
Snaga looked churlish, but Uglúk seemed highly pleased with himself. He sent Snaga into the corridor with orders to get the lads formed up, then he scooped Boromir up and tossed him over his shoulder. The weight of a full-grown Man seemed to mean nothing to the orc. He was still grinning and swinging his massive sword, as he turned to head out the door with his burden. Dúrbhak followed with Merry clutched tightly to his chest.
In the tunnel, Merry saw more than a dozen orcs waiting, all of them of the same great stature and strength as Uglúk. They stood in a double file, like trained soldiers, waiting for the command to march. Uglúk stood at the head of the line and spoke to them in a voice that rang with authority.
"This is it, lads! We head straight for the north end of the vale and take the big tunnel under the walls. Make for the mountains. Stick with me, and you'll be fine. Wander off, lag behind, and you'll be floating back to barracks. The lower caverns are flooded, and it's coming up fast, so we have to leg it quick. When we get outside the walls, leave the talking to me." He patted Boromir with evident satisfaction. "I've got our safe passage right here. Now, move out!"
Orcs could run at a terrifying pace. Jolting along in Dúrbhak's arms, Merry could only marvel at the speed with which they moved, for such huge and seemingly clumsy creatures. He understood now, as he had not before, how they had so easily outstripped the four light-footed hunters in their race across the plains. And in this desperate flight through the caverns, they needed every bit of that ferocious speed.
The flood was close behind them. Treebeard had opened the dam and let the Isen into Nan Curunír, and the waters rose inexorably. In places where the path dipped low, the orcs were wading through filthy, murky water that gurgled above their knees, and Merry often felt its foul touch on his bare toes. He made no attempt to break free of Dúrbhak's hold or to give an alarm. He knew that his only prayer of getting out before the flood took him was to let the orcs carry him. And he saw no creature whose company he would prefer to Uglúk's.
They threaded their way through the caverns to the north, rising steadily above the level of the flood. Hundreds of orcs were running in the same direction, but Uglúk cleared the path before them with ease. No denizen of Isengard would stand before the anger or the sword of Saruman's most feared captain.
Finally, they charged into the mouth of a tunnel that climbed steeply upward. The orcs, sensing escape, picked up even more speed, and they were panting for breath as they burst out from beneath the walls, into a woodland glade. Uglúk came to a sudden halt. His eyes raked the clearing, and Merry heard him growl a warning to Snaga. The other orcs crowded up behind him, muttering in confusion and discontent. The mountains were before them, rising into the cold night, and the safety of the orc burrows beneath their peaks beckoned. Why would Uglúk not let them run?
Merry knew. He knew even better than Uglúk, for he knew what lay behind the thick, ominous mists that cloaked the wood. Uglúk sensed it, though he did not have a name for it, and he knew that no wood should stand on this steep, rocky hillside. He continued to peer suspiciously about him, trying to pierce the mist with his keen eyes.
For the first time since Uglúk had plucked him from his feet, Merry spoke. "Don't go into the trees," he squeaked, fear sharpening his voice. "They will not let you pass!"
"Shut it, little rat."
"Do you see the mists? It means deadly peril!"
"I fear no tree," the orc snarled, and he fingered his sword blade.
"They aren't trees!" Panic was rising in Merry at the realization that Uglúk would carry his captives into the forest of Huorns. The Huorns would not know Man or Hobbit from orc, and they would all be lost in the terrible mists. "They hate orcs, and they care nothing for hostages!"
"I said, shut it!" Turning to his soldiers, Uglúk barked, "These trees shouldn't be here, lads, but that's no matter to us! The mountains are that way, and that's where we're going! Anyone who's got an axe, get it ready. The rest of you, look lively and keep your wits about you!"
"No!" Merry began to squirm and fight in earnest, shouting at the top of his lungs, "No! Please!! Don't take us in there!" And then, in desperation, he screamed, "Help!! Help!! We're over here! Help!!"
Hoom, hah. Hoorah hoom. The trumpet call came from far off in the trees, and though the trumpeter was hidden by mists and darkness, Merry recognized the great, deep voice, and he felt a sudden, wild joy flood him.
"Treebeard!" he screamed, then he bit down on Dúrbhak's hand when the orc tried to silence him. The orc tasted foul and had skin like badly cured leather. "Over here! We're here!!"
"Muzzle that little rat, or kill it!" Uglúk hissed in fury. But none of the orcs had attention to spare for the thrashing, screaming hobbit. All eyes were fixed on the mists and the direction from which the ringing voice shook the very stones. Uglúk uttered a low curse and dropped his sword. With a heave of his massive shoulder, he tossed Boromir's body to the ground, then he stooped and lifted the man to lean brokenly against his chest, supported by one of the orc's huge arms. With his free hand, he drew his dagger and used the blade to lift Boromir's chin, forcing the man's head back into the hollow of his shoulder.
The Ent strode into the clearing, seeming to take shape from the very mists of the sinister wood, and the orcs drew away from him in fear. Only Uglúk stood his ground, and as Treebeard's great, deep, green-glowing eyes studied him, he pressed the tip of his dagger to Boromir's throat and broke into a fearsome smile.
"I am Uglúk, captain of the Fighting Uruk-hai. Stay back, tree demon, or I slay the Man."
"Hoom hom, what have we here? Orcs, is it?" Treebeard made a deep burárum of disgust, and turned to gaze thoughtfully at Merry. "I thought I heard your voice, Merry."
"They found us in the dungeons and took us as hostages. Please, Treebeard, don't let them take us into the forest! The Huorns will..."
"Peace." Treebeard cut him off with a single, rumbling word. When Merry fell silent, he turned to the orc and said, "You cannot leave this glade alive, orc. Surrender the Man and the Hobbit, and return to your master in Isengard. Perhaps he will deal gently with you. I will not."
Uglúk stared pointedly around the clearing. "I have a dozen stout lads, with axes and swords. Where is your army, that you dare to threaten me?"
"All around you. Look upon the trees you have maimed and slaughtered, and look upon my army. The hobbit speaks the truth. You will not pass through these woods alive."
Uglúk stirred uneasily and gazed at the shrouded wall of trees that surrounded him. He had sensed something wrong about the wood since stepping into it, and now he could not find it in him to doubt Treebeard's words. He felt death breathing on his neck.
"They are trees," he insisted. "I have felled countless such."
"I doubt it not. That is why you will die among them tonight."
The orc licked his lips nervously. "They look to you? If you... if you gave us leave to pass, we could do so unscathed?"
"If I gave you leave, but I will not."
"Not even for the life of this little rat, here, that you seem so fond of?" He nodded toward Merry.
"Hm hoom." Treebeard eyed the orc for a moment, obviously considering his words. "The life of the hobbit for safe passage to the mountains."
"No!" Merry blurted out. "I'm going with Boromir! If they take him, they take me, too!"
Treebeard turned his bottomless eyes on Merry, and the hobbit thought he saw laughter in their flickering depths. "It seems I have no voice in the matter. The hobbit chooses for us all."
"And if..." Uglúk hesitated, reluctant to say the words but knowing he must. "...if I give you the Man, as well?"
"Hoom, now. That is another matter. Another matter, all together." Now it was the Ent's turn to ponder his options and face an unpalatable choice. His gaze moved from orc, to man, to hobbit, and he rumbled with discontent. Finally, he lifted his solemn eyes to Uglúk's face again and said, "It is agreed. Surrender your captives and your axes, and no Ent or Huorn will harm you this night."
"How can an Uruk-hai trust the word of a tree demon?"
Treebeard gave a dangerous Hoom hom and seemed to loom suddenly taller in the darkness. "I, Fangorn, chief of the Ents, Shepherd of the trees, oldest of all living things who walk the face of Middle-earth will not bandy insults with a... burárum... a foul orc. I give my word, I keep my word, and woe to any creature who breaks faith with me."
Uglúk stared at him, fear plain in every line of his body, but he would not admit that fear. With a curt nod, he snapped an order at his troops to throw down their axes. The heavy weapons clattered to the ground at Treebeard's feet. Then he ordered Dúrbhak to release Merry.
The orc dropped him as though he were a live coal, and Merry scurried across the clearing to the protection of Treebeard's branch-like arms. He pressed himself close to the Ent's body and turned to stare, his throat tight with fear, at the orcs.
"Now the Man," Treebeard said.
"When I see a clear path before me."
In answer, Treebeard lifted his hands to his mouth and trumpeted an echoing call into the trees. Merry did not see the Huorns move. They were too thickly cloaked in mists and night shadows. But he heard them rustle as if in a high wind, and he saw the mists swirl and billow with their passing. Slowly, very slowly, a dim path became visible. It ran north, a narrow avenue between the trees, aimed straight for the root of the mountain and safety for the orcs.
Uglúk stared and stared, hunting for the trap he feared, but he saw only the dark path, the flanking trees, and the cold, wreathing mists. With a curt nod of acceptance, he lowered his dagger to hang at his side.
"For this night, only. If you or your ilk set foot again in the wizard's vale, you will meet the fate you have been spared this night."
Uglúk nodded again. His clasp on Boromir loosened, and the man slumped to the grass at his feet. Then, to Merry's surprise, the orc gave Treebeard a crisp salute, before he led his column of soldiers into the trees. The darkness swirled in behind them, and Uglúk was gone.
*** *** ***
Merry sat beside the huddled figure on the ground, much as he had sat in the dungeon of Isengard, still, watchful and silently weeping. He did not move, except to hold the stained rag to the injured man's lips when blood spilled from his mouth. And he ignored the tears that streamed down his filthy cheeks.
Through the dark hours in Saruman's stronghold, Merry had foolishly thought that the rescue of his friends would end the pain of waiting. He had prayed for Gandalf and the others to come, to bear the prisoners away to safety, and to put an end to the horror. It had not occurred to him, in his innocence of war, that the horror had only begun, and the rescue was merely the first step on a long and agonizing road. He was learning his mistake.
Treebeard had set them down in this lonely place, well back from the ongoing battle, then vanished once more into the chaos of Ents, Men, horses and orcs that tossed and screamed about the walls of Orthanc. How many minutes or hours had passed since, Merry could not tell. Time crawled, when he had nothing to mark its passage but his own labored heartbeat and the broken, pain-edged mutterings of his companion.
Boromir stirred again, coughed slightly, and whispered a familiar name through a mouthful of blood. "Aragorn..."
It was the only word he had uttered all night that Merry recognized, and he repeated it often in his dark dream. The hobbit devoutly wished the Ranger were here to calm Boromir, but he did not know where Aragorn was, and he had only Treebeard's bluff assurance that he had come alive from the dungeons. Merry could not produce Aragorn, nor could he ease the pain that visibly gripped the injured man or treat his dreadful wounds. The only thing he could do was to offer a small bit of comfort in the lonely night.
As he had countless times already, Merry bent close to Boromir and said, "Aragorn is safe." He wiped away another runnel of blood, murmuring, "Don't worry, he's here. He's safe, I promise."
So intent was he on his task, Merry did not see the small figure come hurtling toward him. He was bending over Boromir, talking to him in a soft voice, when something plowed into him and knocked him sideways. The next moment, he found himself sprawled on the grass, staring up into Pippin's grinning face.
"Merry! Merry, old thing! I've been looking everywhere for you!"
"Pippin!" Merry struggled up to cast himself into his cousin's embrace, both of them weeping unashamedly. "It's true, then! You made it!"
"We all did, though I don't mind telling you, I had my doubts. If Éomer hadn't carried me the last bit, I'd have had to swim for it!" The light drained from his face, and he added, more soberly, "When we found the cell empty, I thought..."
"So did I." Merry grinned ruefully. "But let's not talk about that, now."
"Here." Pippin reached under his cloak and pulled out a familiar object, which he thrust into Merry's hands. "I found it on the floor and I thought you might need it again. I hoped, anyway."
"Thank you, Pip." Merry clutched the bright sword to his breast with both hands, gratitude and relief welling up in him. He had not realized how much a part of him the sword had become, until he thought it lost forever. "Thank you."
At that moment, Gandalf came striding over to them in Pippin's wake and dropped to one knee beside Boromir. He cast Merry a glance from beneath his brows and a swift smile.
"Well met, Master Brandybuck. And very well done."
Merry felt himself blushing and was grateful that the darkness hid it. "How is Strider?" he asked, softly.
"He'll recover, in time. His injuries were more of the mind than the body, I'm afraid, which means that he'll be long in healing. But his body will mend."
"And... and Boromir?"
Gandalf turned hooded, weary eyes on the man in front of him. "Help me, now, Master Brandybuck, and we shall see."
At Gandalf's instructions, Merry lifted Boromir's shoulders and forced him to turn onto his back. The hobbit tried to ignore the visible tremors of pain ripping through his friend's body and the soft, agonized sounds that rose in his throat with the blood, but the tears were painting his face again, by the time the wizard murmured to him to be still. Merry crouched beside Boromir, supporting his head, while Gandalf laid one hand on the injured man's forehead and the other on his breast. A waiting quiet filled the night, and Merry dared not look at Gandalf's face to read the truth of what he feared.
Finally, the wizard breathed a long sigh and lifted eyes dimmed by exhaustion and sorrow to meet Merry's gaze. "Saruman has grown great in evil, greater even than I knew."
"To use valiant men so for his own twisted ends. To shatter one for the torment of the other. To inflict suffering for the sheer joy of seeing pain in another creature's face. It is the very foulest corruption of spirit."
"There must be something you can do," Merry pleaded.
"There is always something I can do," he answered, with his usual acerbity. "Do not be afraid, Merry. I see no mortal wound. A bit of Treebeard's healing draught, a cloak to keep him warm..."
"Hold his head. We'll get some of this into him. The ents swear it will cause a trunk, hacked nearly through by orc axes, to grow anew."
As he spoke, Gandalf uncorked a small, wooden flask and poured clear liquid from it into Boromir's mouth. The man choked on it, sending most of the liquid down his chin, but he swallowed enough of it to satisfy the wizard. Then, with surprisingly deft and gentle hands, Gandalf settled his head back on the litter and brushed light fingertips over the livid bandage that covered his eyes.
"Rest, now, son of Gondor. Think no more of swords or battles or dungeons. Rest and heal."
Merry bowed his head to conceal his fresh tears from the wizard.
To his surprise, Gandalf made no move to leave, now that his immediate task was done. He crouched in front of Merry, with Boromir lying between them, and put a gentle hand on the hobbit's shoulder.
"What is it, Merry?"
"I was thinking."
"About Boromir and Strider and... and what they did to Boromir." He swallowed to clear the tightness from his throat, then rasped out, "They wanted Strider. Did you know that? I heard the orcs talking about it. Saruman wanted Strider, so he took them both and tortured Boromir while Strider watched. And the others - Legolas and Gimli - they wept for Strider as we ran. They searched the forest for him, fought the orcs for him, brought the Riders and the Ents, all of it, for Strider.
"But when the orcs came, it was Boromir who fought for us. When the bridge in Moria collapsed, he picked us up and jumped across the gap. When the avalanche buried us..."
"Merry, none of us doubts Boromir's bravery. We all value him, and we all wish we could undo what has been done."
"Maybe. But to all of you, he's simply Aragorn's steward, Denethor's son, Gondor's soldier - always second to someone or something." Merry lifted streaming, furious eyes to Gandalf's face. "Not to me, Gandalf. He may not be a king, but he's the greatest man I know, and my friend, and he's not second to anyone."
"I know you feel that way, and I honor you for it." Merry did not answer, but lowered his eyes again to mask his pain. Gandalf clasped his shoulder, warmly. "You have the heart of a hero, Master Brandybuck."
"I'm not a hero," he muttered, wiping his nose on his sleeve, "I'm just a hobbit. And we hobbits stick by our friends."
"Just a hobbit." Gandalf chuckled softly. "Just a hobbit. Bless you, my dear Merry. I wish the same could be said for all of us."
Giving the hobbit's shoulder a final squeeze, he rose to his feet and shrugged off his long cloak. Then he spread it over Boromir. "There is a battle to win this night, and a cornered serpent who needs his fangs drawn. I must go. But the Rohirrim are gathering their wounded to be taken back to Edoras, and you must go with them. Stay with Boromir and Strider, see them well cared for, and if all goes well, we will meet again in the Golden Hall of Théoden King."
Merry rose stiffly to his feet and embraced Pippin again, bidding him farewell. Then he watched the tall wizard and the small hobbit stride away together. Back to war. With a soul-deep sigh of weariness, Merry sank down on the grass and pulled himself into a protective huddle against the cold. His eyes strayed to the east and the high ridge of that marked the end of the Misty Mountains. The sky above it was pale, brightening visibly as he watched, and Merry felt his heart lighten at the sight.
Morning had come, at last, to Isengard.
To be continued...