Chapter 6: Far Under the Misty Mountains Cold
The clutch of iron hands jolted him from his dark dream and back to a darker reality. He felt talons dig into his flesh, sending shards of pain through him, then he landed on stone with enough force to drive the breath from his body. All about him was horror and despair – the chill of stone, the stench of stale smoke, the foul reek and harsh voices of Orcs – a waking nightmare from which only death could free him, he feared. And yet, Boromir was not completely alone. For even as an Orc stamped on his shoulder, pressing him flat and crushing his face into the ground, he felt the tug of a light chain about his neck and the sting of sharp facets cutting into his breast.
They had not taken the star from him. Boromir could not fathom why the Orcs had left it hanging about his neck on its slender, silver chain, but he was comforted by the knowledge that this most precious of tokens was still with him: the Star of the Dúnedain, Aragorn's parting gift to him, and quite likely the last star that would ever shed its light upon Boromir of Gondor. Drawing strength from the fragment of light resting against his heart, and the memories of his king that clung to it, he banished dread and despair to concentrate on his surroundings.
All about him was noise and bustle – heavy feet tramping, objects shifting, harsh voices calling to one another – and through it all the crunch and grate of stone. Stone everywhere. It's cold touch against his skin sent a frisson of horror through him, and the sound of horned Orc feet against it filled him with churning sickness. But worse even than the breath of stone upon him was the familiar voice that echoed gleefully from the walls of the cavern to batter his ears.
"Horseboys!" the voice bellowed. "Six of them, and all well-fleshed by the look of it! Well done, lads."
"This one's dead," another Orc growled.
"He's fresh enough, Chief," Dúrbhak said. "A bit gamy, is all."
The Chief laughed. "I like my Man-flesh a bit gamy."
Boromir fought to swallow his rising gorge and to keep his mind clear. Some part of him had known who waited for him at the end of his road, and he could not now let shock or fear overwhelm him. The presence of one Orc, more or less, could not alter his fate, even this Orc. If escape were possible, Boromir would escape, bringing his men with him. If escape were not possible, what did it matter whether it was Uglúk who feasted upon his flesh or some other Orc?
"Toss the meat over by the fire while we take care of this lot," Uglúk commanded. "How many horses?"
"For six riders?"
"Bolted? Bolted?" Uglúk spat out a curse in his own language and kicked something hard enough to make it yelp. Boromir hoped it was Dúrbhak and not one of the bound Riders. "I ought to skin you for this, you brainless maggot!"
"But Chief, we got plenty," Dúrbhak protested. "It'll go off before we can eat it all!"
"You won't eat much when you're roasting on a Whiteskin's spear! Those beasts the horse-boys ride are cursed clever. They'll go straight back to their masters, and the next thing you know, we'll have the Whiteskins hunting us from Isengard to Moria! You didn't think of that when you snatched a whole troop of 'em, did you?"
Dúrbhak muttered something Boromir did not catch, and Uglúk spat into the fire, making the flames hiss. "Nothing to be done now," he growled. "Snaga! Leg it down to the south gate and tell the lads to keep an eye out for riders. They're to stay out of sight, keep to the high rocks, and be ready to shut the gate if the horse-boys stick their noses across the river. And mind you, there's to be no raiding without my orders. No fun and games with the Dunlanders!"
"Got it, Chief."
Uglúk turned his attention back to the prisoners, and Boromir could hear him stamping about just a few feet away. He paused in his inspection and grunted a few words in the Orc tongue. A body shifted, grating on loose gravel, and a soft whimper reached Boromir's ears. Boromir stiffened, digging his nails into his palms to control a surge of anger, as an Orc gave a guttural laugh.
"This one's too small to eat," Uglúk said, "and not much good as a slave."
Dúrbhak smacked his lips greedily. "It looks right tasty to me, Chief. A nice, tender little snack."
There was the sound of heavy fabric tearing, then another, louder whimper and more orcish laughter.
Uglúk chuckled. "Very nice. Very tender. I grabbed a little rat like you, once before, but he got away. I always wondered what he would have tasted like."
"I'm not a r-rat," Borlas gasped, his voice trembling with fear and determination. "I'm a s-soldier of Gondor, and I'm not afraid of you!"
"Gondor, is it? You're a long way from home, little rat."
"I go where my lord commands! I serve the St…"
Boromir gave a sudden, tremendous heave against the ropes that bound him. He did not succeed in freeing himself, but he managed to twist onto his side and grab Borlas' arm with his bound hands. The boy broke off in the middle of his impassioned speech and gave an audible gasp. Boromir felt him begin to pull his arm away, to turn in his direction, and he tightened his grip for a moment in warning. Borlas fell still.
Boots crunched stone hard by Boromir's head, then hot, foul breath struck him in the face from so close that Boromir could smell it even through the sack. He gagged and fought back the unwelcome flood of memory that came with the familiar stench of Orc.
"Well, well. What have we here, lads? Another soldier of Gondor? This one looks big enough to hold a sword, at any rate."
"He carried a blade big enough for an Orc," Dúrbhak said, his voice wary, "and something else. Something Elvish, by the smell of it."
Uglúk backed off a little, allowing Boromir to breathe without choking, and snapped his fingers at his lieutenant. "Let's have it."
"It's still on him."
"You left swag on a prisoner?"
"Brrr. I'll not touch it! Nor none of my lads! It's Elvish sorcery, I tell you. Stinks of it!"
"Fool! Where is it?"
"There. Around his neck."
A clawed hand grabbed Boromir's shoulder and forced him half onto his back, pinning his hands beneath him. Then the claws raked at the neck of his shirt, parting the fabric easily. He forced himself to breathe slowly, through clenched teeth, to control his revulsion at the Orc's touch upon his bare skin. Uglúk's hands were surprisingly deft, as they hooked the chain over one talon and lifted the gem from his clothing.
The Orc chieftain uttered a low hiss of disgust and jerked his hand away. The star fell to rest on the linen of Boromir's shirt.
Boromir heard a slurping noise that sounded very much as if Uglúk were sucking on his fingers. Then the Orc recovered his composure, spat noisily onto the stone by Boromir's head, and growled, "What's a Whiteskin doing with Elvish trinkets around his neck?"
Uglúk's hand pawed at the chain again but suddenly halted its movement. The reeking breath drew closer as the Orc bent over his prisoner, then the enormous hand grabbed a fistful of Boromir's shirt and tore it away from his left shoulder.
There came another hiss, and fingers slid over Boromir's skin, skimming his shoulder to touch the puckered scar left by an Orc arrow. After a charged moment, Uglúk ripped his shirt farther to expose the second scar low on his side, and again, those cruel, oddly gentle fingers brushed the ugly mark.
"I know these wounds."
The fabric tore suddenly away from Boromir's face. He sucked in a grateful breath but instantly began to cough and retch as the midden reek of the Orc den caught at the back of his throat. He was still struggling to control the heaving of his stomach and the spasms in his throat, when Uglúk's hand fastened on his neck, forcing his head up and to one side. The Orc's stinking breath burned his face, making him choke afresh, and a voice so filled with hatred that it almost blistered his skin poured over him.
"I know this soldier."
Boromir could not speak for the tightness in his throat and the hand clamped beneath his jaw. He could only clench his teeth and wait for the killing blow he knew was coming. If he were lucky, Uglúk would break his neck with one squeeze. If not, he would likely be disemboweled on a dull sword and left to die in bloody agony. Either way, he was Orc food.
Once again, he felt Uglúk's claws on his flesh, sliding up his cheek to catch at the lower edge of the cloth covering his eyes. With a single tug, Uglúk tore away the bandage. Boromir felt air moving against his eyelids.
"Isn't that just lovely?" The sneering voice was at once a caress and a curse. "My little soldier is back to play with Uglúk. I knew it would happen. I knew I'd get my chance."
The soft, plaintive call from behind Boromir shattered the seething tension that gripped Man and Orc. Uglúk let go of Boromir and surged to his feet, growling, "This one's mine! Get the others collared and penned. The whelp, too. We'll find a use for him."
"My lord?" Borlas called again, voice thick with tears.
Boromir took a ragged breath, fighting against the heaving sickness that gripped him at the feel of that thick, foul air in his throat. "Keep quiet, Borlas," he rasped out, "and keep your head down."
"Are they… are they going to eat us?"
The boy's low sob of fear was almost lost in the chaos of Orcs and prisoners. Boromir heard the tearing of fabric as hoods were removed, the cries and curses of men confronted by the leering faces of their captors, and the clang of hammers against iron. He could not construct a clear picture of what was happening, but a small voice in the back of his head told him that he was better off that way.
The noise was taking on a more ordered note as the Orcs fell to their tasks, and Boromir was bracing himself to face Uglúk again, as he surely would when the Orc chieftain had the leisure to enjoy killing him, when he heard Éothain calling to him above the din.
Boromir tried to shift his position to face the Rider but only succeeded in crushing his wounded leg into the floor. Dropping his head to rest against cold stone, he muttered a curse.
"My lord, what would you have us do?"
He cursed again – a curse aimed at his men for looking to him for guidance at such a time and at himself for failing to give it to them – then raised his head and answered, grimly, "What you must to stay alive."
"Shut it, you!" an Orc growled, and a horned foot slammed into Boromir's midriff. He vaguely heard Éothain shouting a protest, then the solid crunch of a massive fist against bone and flesh. The Rider fell silent.
The Orc who had kicked him grabbed Boromir by the arm and dragged him over to the fire. There, the bandage was ripped from his wound and a hot poultice bound over it. Another Orc forced the neck of a flask between his teeth and poured a draught of burning liquor down his throat. He gagged on the foul stuff but swallowed it willingly, remembering that this drink was part of the orcish cure that had saved his life on the plains of Rohan. If Uglúk saw fit to heal his hurts, for whatever inscrutable reason, Boromir would take his medicine and gladly.
Uglúk strode about the cavern, shouting orders and urging his lads on with an assortment of praise, curses and blows, but he did not entirely forget about Boromir. The work well underway, he halted by the fire to examine his most valued prisoner. Oddly enough, he seemed glad that the Man had suffered no more than one slash to the leg.
Delivering an affectionate slap to Boromir's cheek that nearly shattered his jaw, Uglúk said, "I want irons on this one. Hands behind him, and a stout collar so I can keep track of him." With another casually bruising pat, he added, "Lucky for you that you're blind, soldier-boy. It'll save you a trip to the lower tunnels and a deal of sweat."
Boromir was given no time to find an answer to this. Uglúk plowed back into the chaos of the cavern, while Boromir's jailors set about following their chief's orders. They caught him in brutal hands and shoved him flat on his face to cut the ropes that bound his wrists. Then, with an Orc leaning all its weight on his shoulders and another pinning his left arm to the ground, a third thrust his right hand through a band of cold iron. A hammer struck the iron a ringing blow, and the metal bent reluctantly about his wrist. Two more such blows brought the ends of the iron band tightly together. Then there came the rattle of heavy chain, his right arm was jerked across his body to lie at the small of his back, and his left hand was similarly confined.
When the Orcs let him go, Boromir pulled experimentally at his shackles. He was rewarded with the bite of rough metal in his flesh and an ugly laugh from one of his jailors.
"Go on, then, soldier-boy. Give it another try."
He wasn't sure that he recognized the Orc's voice, though he thought it might be Ghasha. It had the same evil, sneering note to its voice that hinted at unnamed and unimaginable cruelties. The Orc prodded him in the side with a sharp nail, then grabbed the length of chain now stretched across his back and hauled on it. Boromir clenched his teeth against a cry of pain, as his arms were pulled upward, straining nerve and muscle, threatening to tear them from his shoulders. The shackles cut into his hands viciously, and he felt a runnel of warm blood trickle along his forearm.
"Leave off!" another Orc snarled. "He belongs to the Chief!"
"Gah!" His tormentor spat noisily. "Meat's meat, I say. Why should the Chief have the biggest piece all for himself?"
"Leave it, Ghasha!"
From the sound of it, the second Orc followed up his order with a blow. Ghasha dropped the chain and turned on his fellow with a hiss of rage.
"One beating not enough for you, maggot?" the second Orc jeered. "Keep your filthy hands off the Chief's toys, or you'll get more than a singed hide!"
"What's Uglúk want with the Whiteskin, anyway?"
"That's not for us to know, but I wager it'll be sweet. The Chief's been waiting a long time to pay this one out. Since the war. Since he," the Orc dropped his voice to a rasping murmur, "killed an Uruk."
Ghasha grunted sourly. "Lots of Whiteskins killed Uruks in the war, with their bright swords and sharp lances, curse them!"
"Not like this. I was there, Ghasha. I saw it." He nudged Boromir with a blunt toe and hissed, his voice gloating, "This blind tark pulled Lugdush's knife from his belt and spitted him on it, neat as you please, in front of the lot of us. Poor old Lugdush was dead before he hit the ground, and Uglúk couldn't gut the filthy Whiteskin like he wanted, because he had orders. Prisoners had to be delivered alive."
"So he's going to do it now, is he?" Ghasha sucked his teeth noisily and asked, "Reckon he'll let us watch?"
"Only if you keep your paws to yourself. Let's get a collar on him, double-quick. The Chief doesn't like to be kept waiting."
Ghasha muttered steadily as he obeyed, but obey he did. Apparently, the chance to watch his commander eviscerate a captive was treat enough to keep him in line. While the unnamed Orc sat on Boromir to keep him quiet, Ghasha sorted through a slithering, clanging pile of metal to find yet another iron band. This one was big enough to circle Boromir's neck, and they hammered it into place with a few powerful strokes, while the Man held his breath and tried not to envision what that hammer would do to his head or neck should a blow fall awry.
The collar in place and no damage done to their captive, the Orcs then pushed the end of a rope through the iron band and knotted it securely. Ghasha pulled a metal pot from the fire, its bottom scraping loudly on the stone floor, and scooped a handful of something from it to smear on the knot. Boromir smelled rancid grease.
Satisfied with his labors, the unnamed Orc sent Ghasha off to help with the other prisoners and called to Uglúk.
"The tark's ready, Chief!"
Uglúk left off haranguing the Orcs who were dividing the plunder and crossed to the fire. He stooped over Boromir and caught the rope tied to his collar, just below the knot. With frightening ease, he pulled the tall Man to his feet. Boromir could not stifle a gasp of pain as his weight fell on his wounded leg, and he sagged weakly in the Orc's clutches, but Uglúk held him ruthlessly upright. He had to find his balance or choke to death on the metal band across his throat. As certain as he was that an agonizing death awaited him, Boromir could not surrender quite so easily, and he mustered his strength to pull his feet under him again.
"Good little soldier," Uglúk rumbled, approvingly. "Come with me, soldier, and I'll show you to your billet."
Fortunately for Boromir, they had no more than a handful of steps to go before they reached a rough hide curtain and a smaller chamber beyond it. He was only half conscious, his mind swimming into blessed darkness and his breeches soaked with fresh blood by the time Uglúk slackened his hold and let him slide to the ground again. Through the haze of pain and weakness, he felt a tug on his rope tether, then heard the hammer striking yet again.
Uglúk's foul breath caressed his cheek, and the laughing growl sounded in his ears. "Sleep while you can, my lord. When I've seen the lads well fed and settled, I'll be back for a chat."
Boromir made no answer and did not move. The chill stone against his face had revived him enough that he was no longer in danger of swooning, but every nerve in his body ached with pain and weariness. As he lay, listening to Uglúk's footsteps headed for the doorway, the treacherous whisper of despair within him urged him to sleep. To forgetfulness. To surrender.
The curtain fell into place behind Uglúk, and Boromir was alone. Still he did not move, but simply lay upon the ground and let his senses explore this new prison.
He was in a much smaller cavern – more of a cave, really – with no fire pit in it. Only the hide curtain separated him from the main cavern, so this must be no more than an embrasure or antechamber, given over to Uglúk's private use. It stank like a midden, with the equally unpleasant odors of rotting food and badly-cured skins to thicken the reek. But when Boromir forcibly shut those smells from his awareness and concentrated on what lay behind them, he caught a whiff of the mustiness found in neglected storerooms and a sharp, bitter smell that he did not recognize. It reminded him of hot pitch but was less acrid and a good deal more subtle.
He felt the occasional brush of moving air, not enough to thin the dreadful stench, but enough to cool the sweat on his face and, as the general chill of the room soaked into him, make him shiver. There must be another opening in the walls of this chamber, a tunnel that led away from the Orc den. If he strained his ears, he could just hear the distant gurgle of running water. A stream. Certainly it made sense. Even Orcs needed water – for drinking, if not for washing – and the Misty Mountains were riddled with underground streams formed from melting snow. The soft, seductive noise made Boromir's throat tighten with longing.
With a muttered curse, he thrust aside all thoughts of streams leaping beneath the open sky, of Anduin the Great flowing past the shores of his home through the smiling woods of Ithilien, and pushed himself up to prop his back against the wall. His world now was stone – stone and flame and iron – and he could not afford to look beyond this world.
The manacles on his wrists were linked with more than a foot of chain, almost enough to allow his hands to fall comfortably at his sides. They had been made, he deemed, for larger creatures than himself. For Orcs, most likely. It would not be difficult to pull his legs through the chain and bring his hands to the front, or it would not be were his legs uninjured. He could feel the grate of metal in his wound and knew that any movement would only tear the hole in his leg bigger, but he was determined not to waste this opportunity.
Clamping his teeth together against any betraying noise, he began to squirm through the tight loop of his own arms and the iron chain. He got the chain beneath him easily enough and brought it forward until it rested behind his knees. Then he pulled his right knee up to his breast and worked his foot free of the chain. There remained only his left leg.
It took him three tries, and in the end, he had to duck his head and sink his teeth into his bent right knee to stifle the cries that rose in his throat. The wound was burning, blood pulsing from beneath the bandage to soak his clothing and drip onto the stone beneath him, when he finally slipped the chain over his heel and off his foot. Then he could not bring himself to stand, but only sit with his head back, shaking, until the agony in his leg slowly faded to its usual dull roar.
His hands were still not steady when he reached to find the knot in his tether. He pulled it round to the front of the collar and worked at it with his fingers, but whatever foul-smelling stuff the Orc had smeared on it had effectively sealed it. He tore at it until his nails were bloody to no avail.
Abandoning that hope, he followed the rope with his hands until he found the other end of it. This proved to be tied through an iron ring sunk in the wall of the cave. This knot, too, was sealed.
Boromir abandoned the attempt to work the knot free and tugged absently on the rope, while mulling over his various options. It seemed that he had only one – to pull the bolt from the wall and thus free himself, though what he hoped to accomplish alone against a swarm of Orcs he could not begin to guess. He trusted to his soldier's luck and general's ingenuity. A plan would come to him at the proper time. For now, he needed to concentrate on gaining his freedom.
Awkwardly for the pain in his leg, he turned to face the wall and braced his feet on the rough stone to either side of the iron ring. The burn of metal in his wound only served to remind him that he had nothing to gain by half-measures. Either he fought his way free now, at whatever cost, or he died at Uglúk's hands. Wrapping the rope about his right hand, he locked his fingers around it and threw his weight backward. At the same moment, he forced his legs to straighten until every muscle in his body was straining against the bite of that metal spike in the stone.
The blood sang in his ears and sweat stood out on his face. The rope stretched, creaking in protest. The unyielding surface of the wall dug into his bare feet until they, too, bled. But the bolt held.
When he had to breathe or burst his lungs, Boromir collapsed onto the floor and let the rope fall slack. He lay gasping for air and waiting for the trembling to leave his limbs, then he heaved himself upright and attacked the bolt again. Again, it withstood him.
By the fourth failed try, Boromir knew that he was beaten. He could barely force his hands to close around the rope, and his left leg was a deadweight dragging at his body. His skin was torn and bloodied at every point where rock, iron or rope touched it. And he was as much a prisoner as before.
With a ragged groan of defeat, the soldier of Gondor let his tether slide from nerveless fingers and toppled over to lie on the ground. He had just enough presence of mind to remember that he must not be found with his hands in front of his body, lest Uglúk decide that he needed more secure bonds, but he doubted that he had the strength to work his injured leg back through the loop of chain. He did it, but just barely, and the wave of dizziness that claimed him with the pain drove all awareness from him. Huddled in an Orc's den, shackled and leashed and fouled with his own blood, Boromir slipped once more into a fevered dream.
*** *** ***
He awoke to the touch of clawed hands on his body. They were turning him, pulling his wounded leg straight, and though he groaned under their rough treatment he did not resist them. He was too weak and disoriented either to struggle against his captor or to swallow the sounds of his own torment. His skin was slick with sweat in spite of the chill in the cave, and he shivered with revulsion at the feel of those brutal hands on his overly sensitive flesh.
The Orc growled in his throat, apparently talking to himself, then remarked in the common tongue, "The wound is blackening."
It was Uglúk, Boromir realized vaguely. He lifted his head with some effort and muttered, "Metal. Spreading poison."
Once again, the Orc proved the deftness of his touch in the way he parted the torn flesh and slipped a single wicked talon into the slash. Boromir shuddered, his entire body jolting in reaction, but Uglúk pinned his leg firmly in place. The claw worked deeper into his leg, sending hot blood coursing from the wound, until it scraped on metal.
Uglúk muttered in orcish again, then said, "I'll have that out."
"Why?" Boromir asked faintly. "You're going to kill me anyway,"
"Can't have you going off in a fever. That would spoil the fun."
"And the meat," he mumbled, the words slurring drunkenly together.
"You'll end up in the lads' bellies, right enough, but only when I'm done with you. Now hold your tongue and keep still."
Uglúk performed the delicate task of removing the shard from Boromir's leg by the simple expedient of reaching in and grabbing it, his fearsome claws acting like pincers to catch and hold the slippery metal. The surgery was ungentle and extremely painful but mercifully brief, and Boromir was still clinging stubbornly to consciousness when the Orc sat back on his haunches and grunted in satisfaction.
"Looks like a piece of that pretty metalwork the horse-boys use on their tack."
Boromir did not answer but lay shivering against the unforgiving stone of the cave floor. He had a laughable impulse to ask Uglúk for a blanket but managed to squelch it. Uglúk might choose to prolong his life, but he would hardly wish to make him comfortable.
The Orc busied himself over Boromir's wound. He poured a burning liquid into the slash – orcish liquor from the smell of it – then packed it with a soft substance that, miraculously, eased the pain. A cloth bound tightly over the dressing held it all in place and staunched the bleeding.
By the time Uglúk had finished, Boromir was limp with relief and breathing almost normally. He still felt sick and shaken, alternately chilled and flushed with fever, but Uglúk's efficient remedies were having their effect already. When the Orc lifted his head and tilted a flask to his lips, Boromir twisted away and muttered, "Water. Please."
"Drink it!" Uglúk snapped. Then, as Boromir obediently swallowed the foul stuff, he added more genially, "You'll follow orders, like a good little soldier."
As the searing liquor poured its warmth down into his belly, lending him a fleeting strength, Boromir struggled to push himself up on his elbows. Uglúk obligingly pulled him the rest of the way up and propped him against the wall. He rested his aching head on the stone behind him, stretched his wounded leg out in front of him, and gratefully eased the stiffness from his shoulders.
Uglúk eyed him for a moment, then remarked, "Been busy, have you?" One claw traced a line up the bloody sole of his foot, and the Orc chuckled when Boromir flinched. Boromir instinctively balled his hands into fists to hide the cuts on them.
"Did you expect me to sit quietly and wait to die?"
Uglúk settled onto the floor, with the clank of weaponry and the scrape of stiff leather, then scratched himself noisily. "I expect you to batter yourself to bits against your chains. You're a fool, but a brave fool… for a Whiteskin."
"I will escape, Uglúk."
"You will try."
"I did it before."
"There are no squeaking rats to save you, this time, soldier-boy, and no longshanks." His rumbling voice took on a decidedly curious note when he said, "Tell me something. Did the longshanks make it out of Isengard?"
Boromir felt the weight of the star gem against his breast and smiled to himself. "The longshanks, as you call him, is King of Gondor."
"Gah!" Uglúk spat eloquently. "I knew that one was dangerous. The eyes of a cursed Elf he has!"
"Númenórean," Boromir corrected, softly, "of the line of ancient kings. He is King Aragorn Elessar."
Uglúk snorted contemptuously. "I've heard of your pretty king, with his pretty name, even down here in the bowels of the earth. And what of you? What pretty name do you go by?"
Boromir smiled humorlessly. "Little Soldier."
This time, the Orc's snort was one of amusement. "I like you. By the White Hand, I do. You're not a crawling, stinking coward, like most of the Men we snatch, and you talk like a high-born tark." Boromir felt Uglúk's claw slide into the torn collar of his shirt and catch the chain that lay against his neck. Uglúk lifted the gem delicately by its chain. "No simple soldier ever wore such a trinket, unless he filched it from a king's corpse."
"I did not steal it. It was a gift from my liege lord."
"Númenórean," Boromir said again, and he braced himself to feel that wicked hand snap the chain. To his surprise, Uglúk merely let the gem drop.
"You thought I would pinch it, didn't you? I won't. I've no use for Elvish baubles and no place to trade it for usable goods. You can keep your shiny stone, so long as you play nicely and behave yourself for old Uglúk."
Mingled hope and horror clenched at Boromir's innards, and he bowed his head to hide his reaction from his captor. He could not but rejoice to think that he might keep the Star with him through his last and darkest days, but he did not want to consider what Uglúk would ask of him in return.
"So you matter to this long-legged, long-eyed king of Men," the Orc mused. "He gives you a city's ransom to hang round your neck and a fancy title to set men bowing and scraping. My lord. Will he send an army to save you, do you think?"
"Nay. He will not."
"Clever longshanks. Only a fool would send puny Whiteskins beneath the mountains to fight the Uruk-hai."
Uglúk spoke the truth, and Boromir knew it. Aragorn was not coming for him, because Aragorn would not waste men's lives in a hopeless quest, and as King, he could not sacrifice himself. As ever, Gondor's hold on her king was stronger than that of his friend. "He is no fool."
"Will he ransom you, then?"
"With what? What do the Uruk-hai need from Gondor's King?"
"A fair question. We Uruks look to no one, since the White Hand fell, and ask for nothing. We take what we need." He laughed harshly. "It is the Uruks who could help your pretty king, if he thought to ask."
Boromir wondered, briefly, if his fever had so addled his brains that he was imagining all of this. None of it made sense, beyond the harsh fact of his imprisonment, and he had no reference point from which to plot his course. "How help him?"
"We keep the secrets of the Wizard's Vale. I, Uglúk, captain of the Fighting Uruk-hai, have weapons your tark armies would pay out a fortune to own. But as you say, what can the King of Men offer me in return? Nothing." Uglúk spat on the floor, then reached forward to poke Boromir in the midriff with one finger. "I have all I need right here."
Ill and exhausted, too baffled to be truly frightened, Boromir asked, simply, "What do you mean to do with me, Uglúk?"
"Kill you, when it suits me."
"And the others? My men?"
"Men are good for only one thing. Meat. But they have strong backs and they'll work, with a taste of the whip to keep them in line, until we need them."
"You keep the Rohirrim as slaves?" Boromir demanded, appalled to think of those proud people laboring in the tunnels of the Misty Mountains under the lashes of these foul creatures.
"We've never taken horse-boys before. I have big plans for this lot. What with their horses, there's enough meat to feed us for a good many months, and those Men are hardier than most. I'll put 'em to good use before I hand 'em over to the lads for supper."
"What sort of use?" the Man asked, his voice hollow with dread.
"Stonework. Building fortifications. We've a cozy little bolt-hole, here at the butt end of the mountains – cozy enough that every maggot from here to the Mines wants to squeeze us out. The only way to hold them off is to block the tunnels as fast as they dig new ones. Not let them get a clear run at us. I've a fair number of mountain Orcs under my command – good lads, even if they do faint in the sunlight – and they do most of the stonework, but they can't manage it alone. I send them slaves for the dirty work, and I even make the Uruks take a turn. Fair's fair. You don't lug rock, you don't eat."
"Why kill the prisoners, if they are of use to you?"
Uglúk gave a rather nasty laugh. "Men break. A few weeks in the tunnels, and they're no good for anything but the stew pot. They're even too tough to eat raw, the way we like 'em best, but they taste plenty sweet. Did you know that Man-flesh is the sweetest meat there is?" he asked, smacking his lips. Boromir felt the blood drain from his face and knew that he had turned a sickly shade of green when Uglúk laughed again. "Maybe, if you behave yourself, I'll give you a taste."
"I'll starve and gladly."
"You'll do as you're told." The Orc heaved himself to his feet and nudged something across the stone floor toward Boromir. "You'll eat what you're given and no fuss, or I'll know how to deal with you! Get that into you."
"What is it?"
"A nice hunk of dried meat and some of the pap you Whiteskins make from stewed grains. You see? We know how to look after our guests."
"Meat?" Boromir's stomach lurched again, and he turned his face away from the spot where he knew the food lay. "I'll eat no meat you offer me, Orc."
Uglúk guffawed loudly enough to make Boromir wince. "You think I'd waste good Man's-flesh on the likes of you? It's horse-meat."
This did little to reassure Boromir, who felt his face pale even more at the thought of his faithful Fedranth butchered, sliced and dried over a sullen fire.
"Eat it, or I'll cram it down your gullet myself."
"Free my hands," Boromir countered.
Uglúk found this suggestion exquisitely funny. "You don't need your hands. You'll lap it up like the cur you are!"
In some corner of his mind, Boromir knew that this small indignity was meaningless and that Uglúk would doubtless come up with much worse to inflict upon him, but he had not yet surrendered himself to the ugly reality of captivity and was not ready to debase himself for the Orc's enjoyment, even in so small a thing. He clenched his teeth together and turned his head away from Uglúk with deliberate insolence.
"Gah! Fool! I'll cut off your ears!"
"Then I will be spared the sound of your voice."
An enormous hand lashed out, grabbing him below the jaw and tightening its hold dangerously. Boromir fought to breath around the suffocating grip, while the blood pounded in his ears and his thoughts reeled into darkness. He knew a fleeting hope that Uglúk would misjudge his own strength and break his neck.
As abruptly as it had come, the pressure on his throat eased, and Boromir opened his mouth to pull in a gasping breath. In the same instant, Uglúk thrust a chunk of dried meat between his teeth, making him choke afresh. He had no choice but to chew and swallow, especially with the Orc's massive hand still clamped warningly on his throat. The meat tasted rather musty and had clearly been smoked over a dung fire, but it was definitely horse, not some fouler flesh. Boromir did not hesitate to eat it, now that he knew what it was. When Uglúk tilted a rough wooden bowl of porridge to his lips, he swallowed that as well.
Satisfied that his resistance had spared him the humiliation of lapping his food from the floor, Boromir let his body relax back against the wall and ignored the hand on his throat.
Uglúk gave him a final, admonitory squeeze, and rose to tower over him. "You think you're mighty clever, don't you, little soldier? Maybe you are." He chuckled. "Aye. Maybe you are. But don't push your luck too far. I like your company, but that won't stop me from gutting, skinning and boning you the next time you squeak too loudly. With a very dull blade."
"I await your pleasure," Boromir murmured.
With another bark of laughter, Uglúk strode out of the chamber, leaving Boromir alone with the darkness and his own grim thoughts.
*** *** ***
"Marshal! Marshal Elfhelm!"
A fist hammered on the door, bringing Elfhelm up out of his seat. Legolas and Gimli exchanged a look across the table, and Gimli lowered his tankard as both turned to watch the Marshal cross to the door. Elfhelm reached it in a few strides and flung it open. The man on the other side had his hand up to knock again, and he started at the suddenness with which his commander appeared.
"What's amiss, Halfa? Why do you disturb our meal?"
Gimli gave a snort of amusement. "Fancy that! Horses in lands of the Riddermark."
"Nay, Master Dwarf," Halfa protested, "they are not ours. Or rather, they are, but they are not!"
As an officer in Elfhelm's éored, which patrolled the lands of the Westfold and came often to Helm's Deep, Halfa was well acquainted with Gimli and stood in no awe of him or his Elvish companion. His flustered demeanor sprang from whatever trouble had brought him running to the Hornburg to burst in upon his commander at supper, not from the august company in which he found himself.
"Two horses galloped up the Deeping Coomb, as though the armies of Mordor ran on their heels. They are before the wall and will let none approach."
Elfhelm frowned. "Horses of Rohan?"
"Wear they saddles or tack?"
"Halters only, and trailing tethers. Come, sir, and see for yourself."
"I will come." He turned to offer his guests and apology, but Legolas and Gimli were already on their feet and moving to join him.
Together, they descended the narrow stairway to the main hall of the fortress, where those of the éored not on duty took their ease. The Riders glanced up as their commander strode through the hall, but he gestured for them to keep their places. Outside, dusk had thickened into night, but the waxing moon and brilliant stars frosted the stones of the Hornburg with silver light. All along the Deeping Wall, torches burned, while more torches lined the causeway and dike below. Elfhelm took a torch from its iron stanchion by the door and led the way down the narrow causeway.
Legolas stayed courteously behind the Man, though his eyes needed no torch to see the stones beneath his feet or the beasts on the grass below. He watched as one of a handful of Riders who circled the animals tried to approach. The larger horse reared up on its hind legs and struck out at the man in fury with its front hooves. The man staggered back, and the horse flung up its head, eyes rolling so that they flashed in the torchlight. It neighed loudly, danced away from the nearest Rider, and tossed back its head again. Legolas saw the stain of sweat upon its grey flanks and foam dripping from its mouth.
"They have run hard," he said in Elfhelm's ear. "The smaller is near to collapse."
"That great, grey beast looks familiar," Gimli rumbled. "Is it not…"
"Fedranth! 'Tis Fedranth!" With a terrible cry, Legolas sprang away from Gimli's side and down the causeway at a run, his feet flying. Neither Man nor Dwarf tried to match his pace on the steep ramp, but Gimli followed as quickly as his shorter legs could manage.
When still twice the height of a Man above the ground, Legolas leapt over the side of the causeway to land, lightly, on the grass. The Riders threw him startled glances as he strode between them and directly up to the dancing, snorting horses. One of the Men called a warning that the Elf ignored.
One hand out, palm open, Legolas approached Fedranth. The lordly beast was trembling in exhaustion and fear, his sides heaving, his eyes glazed and half-mad, blood showing black on his nose where the rope halter had torn the skin. As Legolas approached, he sidled away, jerking his head to avoid the reaching hand. Legolas began speaking to him in his own tongue, voice low and soothing, while his hand never wavered. The horse feinted with his front hooves, threatening to rear and strike again, but the Elf's musical words forestalled him.
Elfhelm and Gimli reached the ring of watching Riders and hung back, so as not to further enrage the horse and endanger Legolas. As Fedranth feinted and subsided yet again, Elfhelm bent down to murmur in Gimli's ear,
"You know this mighty creature?"
"'Tis Fedranth. Boromir's mount."
Elfhelm sucked in his breath in a hiss of alarm but said nothing more. Legolas had now drawn close enough to touch the horse, and any interruption might end in bloodshed.
Slowly, wearily, the great horse let his head droop until his lips touched the Elf's palm. Legolas stepped up beside him and ran his free hand over Fedranth's sweat-streaked neck, hesitating when his fingers found a bloody furrow in the sleek hair. He leaned closer to sing softly in the horse's ear words none other could hear or understand. Fedranth whickered and nudged Legolas with his head.
While Elfhelm, Gimli and the Men of Rohan waited in suspense, nerves stretched agonizingly, Legolas stroked and soothed the frightened animal. He, too, was consumed with urgency, but he reined it in and bent all his energies to calming the horse. It seemed an eternity before he finally lifted his head and called over his shoulder,
Elfhelm and Gimli approached first, while the other Riders trailed cautiously behind them. The second horse took its lead from Fedranth, and when the Steward's lordly mount suffered guiding hands upon him, so too did his smaller companion. The Riders caught the other horse by his halter and began to sooth him.
Elfhelm hovered at Legolas' shoulder, eyes grim and face lined with worry. "Is it indeed the Lord Boromir's horse?"
"Aye." Legolas ran his fingers down the length of the gash in Fedranth's neck. "Brave Fedranth," he murmured in one grey velvet ear. "Faithful friend. Where is your lord, brave Fedranth? What has befallen him?"
The suggestion of a familiar stench made the Elf grimace in disgust. He brought his face close to the wound and inhaled deeply. "Yrch!"
"What is it?" the Rider asked.
"There is poison in this wound. It stinks of Orcs!"
"Orcs? No Orc has set foot upon the fields of Rohan since the fall of Saruman!"
"Here is something more for you, Master Elf!" Gimli called.
Legolas moved swiftly along Fedranth's side to where Gimli stood near his rump. There, in the flickering light of Elfhelm's torch, he saw five deep, wicked gouges in the smooth hide, as if an enormous hand had reached to grab the beast as it fled and caught only a fistful of blood and hair. The Elf spread his fingers wide and tried to measure the span of the claws that had made those wounds. It was half again as large as his hand.
"A wolf, mayhap?" Gimli suggested.
"Nay. 'Tis too big."
"The wargs of the mountains have paws of that size."
"But not that shape. It was a hand made these marks, Gimli, not a paw."
"Do not say it," the Dwarf growled, fiercely.
"Can you not smell it? The carrion reek?"
"Do not say it!"
Legolas bowed his head for a moment, one hand still resting on Fedranth's rump beside the fearsome wounds. When he lifted his head again and turned to meet Gimli's eyes, his own had turned dark and hollow with pain. "Boromir was attacked by Orcs. That much is clear. What may have befallen him and his escort, we cannot know until we find them."
Gimli glowered at him, his powerful hands opening and closing helplessly as they sought for a weapon with which to meet this staggering blow. "Find them. Aye, we will find them!"
"Where was Lord Boromir headed when he left Helm's Deep?" Elfhelm asked.
"The Fords of Isen," Legolas answered. "He meant to ride north, into Dunland." His control slipped, and he cried out furiously, "Aiee! Curse me for a fool! I should never have let him cross the borders of Rohan alone!"
"Nay, Legolas," Gimli said, brusquely, "you are not to blame. You are not the Steward's nursemaid."
The Elf gave a strangled laugh at the sound of that name with which Boromir had taunted him so often. "Oh, that I were! I would have shut him in the Hornburg to keep him safe against Aragorn's return!"
"Aragorn. Ye gods, how are we to tell Aragorn of this?"
"I will tell him." Turning abruptly on his heel, Legolas started for the causeway, drawing Gimli, Elfhelm and a handful of Riders along in his wake. "I ride within the hour."
"Ride to where?" Elfhelm demanded. "How can you hope to find the King in all the vastness of Eriador? 'Tis madness to try!"
"He is in Imladris, or was at last report. I will make for Imladris by the shortest road, and if I do not find him there, I will follow where e'er he has gone."
Gimli, laboring hard to match the Elf's swift pace, growled, "Have no fear, Man of Rohan. There is no creature in Middle-earth can escape the keen eyes of yonder Elf. If Aragorn yet lives, Legolas will find him."
They reached the doors and Legolas flung them open. "Send word to Éomer King. Imrahil must be warned." He faltered, breaking stride, and turned his pain-darkened eyes on Gimli. "I would have you with me on this most desperate of errands, Master Dwarf, but I fear that Arod cannot carry us both so far."
"I know it." Gimli cleared his throat noisily and looked away from his friend's face to gain command of his own. "If I thought the beast could bear my weight, I would lash myself to his back before I let you ride without me, but I'll do naught to hinder you."
Legolas held out his hand, and Gimli grasped it firmly in a soldier's salute. "I will march with the first company of searchers to go north," Gimli assured him, gruffly. "You may depend on the Dwarves of Aglarond to do their utmost."
The Elf nodded his thanks, then murmured, "Good fortune go with you, Gimli, son of Glóin."
"And with you, Legolas of Ithilien."
Giving his friend's arm a final squeeze, Legolas turned and raced through the hall, headed for the stables in the Deep and the faithful mount that would carry him north to Imladris. To Aragorn.
To be continued…