Chapter 7: An Ill Wind
It was raining again. Water dripped from leaf and twig to patter on the thick peat moss that covered the ground and soak slowly through blanket and cloak. The hollow, set in a wooded hillside above the road, offered little protection from the rain, but it was cozier than the thicket that sheltered the ponies, and Pippin knew he should feel grateful for what comforts he had. But the blood of the Old Took, which sang so valiantly in his veins through the hours of riding beneath a warm, autumn sun, had sunk to low ebb in the cold, damp, thoroughly miserable night, and Pippin was finding it difficult to remember that he had embarked upon this adventure willingly. He wanted nothing so much as to wake up and find himself in his own bedroom, with the smell of mulled wine and the crackle of a good fire filling the room.
Yet another raindrop struck him in the face, and he rolled over with an exasperated sigh, pushing himself up on his elbows to stare around the little hollow. He could see nothing in the darkness. Moon and stars were hidden behind the clouds, and dawn was yet hours away. The only light in all the world, it seemed, was the orange glow of smoldering Longbottom Leaf in Merry's pipe.
Kicking his legs free of his damp, clinging blanket, Pippin got to his feet and pulled his cloak more closely about him. He crossed the hollow to where Merry sat at its lip, smoking, staring down at the faint, wet glimmer of the road barely visible between the trees. Pippin sat down beside him and drew his knees up to his chest, wrapping his arms about them for warmth. Neither hobbit spoke for some minutes.
"The storm will blow over by morning," Merry murmured into the long silence.
Pippin shivered. "You said the same thing last night."
"The wind is stiffening."
"And blowing the clouds east – the same way we are headed," Pippin reminded him, sourly. "By the time we reach the Misty Mountains, the rain will have turned to snow. What's happened to our lovely, mild autumn?"
Merry gave him a half smile, lit by the glow of his pipe as he drew on it. "Go back to sleep, Pip."
"What about you?"
"Not just yet."
Pippin did not need to ask why Merry had abandoned his bed to hold vigil in the rain. Poor old Merry was looking downright haggard, what with the nightmares that disturbed his sleep and the worry that hounded him when awake. At this rate, he would not make it to Gondor. He would fret himself to a wraith before they crossed the Greyflood.
"I say, Merry," he blurted out, suddenly, "are you quite sure we're going in the right direction?"
Merry shot him a wry glance. "Minas Tirith is east. Even you should remember that much."
"Yes, but why Minas Tirith? Don't get me wrong," he added, hurriedly, "I would love to see the White City again. But how do you know where we should be going, when you can't remember the dream?"
"Boromir is in Minas Tirith," Merry answered, his voice flat with the effort of holding in his strained emotions. "I must find Boromir."
Pippin shifted uncomfortably. He had not spoken directly of their errand since the night Merry appeared on his doorstep and announced that he was going to Gondor. At the time, though Pippin had asked a few obligatory questions, he had not worried overmuch about the reasons. He was bored with the quiet life of the Shire and perfectly willing to plunge into a new adventure at his kinsman's bidding. Now, with the rain dampening his enthusiasm and Merry's anxiety filling him with uneasiness, Pippin was not nearly so sure that he had made the right choice.
Taking his courage in his hands, Pippin turned to meet Merry's gaze squarely. "Why must you find Boromir?" he asked.
"Because he needs my help."
Pippin swallowed nervously. "What kind of help?"
"I don't know."
"How do you know?"
"I can't explain it, Pip. I can only tell you that all is not well with Boromir."
"But surely…" Pippin broke off, knowing that it was useless to argue with Merry about this. His stubborn, valiant, loyal Brandybuck cousin would run headlong into a dragon's mouth, if he saw Boromir go in ahead of him, and no warning from Pippin could stop him. With a shrug and a smothered yawn, he said, "I suppose there's nothing for it but to go to Minas Tirith and see for ourselves."
Merry smiled wearily at him. "You think I've run mad, don't you? That I'm dragging you all the way to Gondor on a fool's errand?"
"Not a fool's errand, precisely, but a doomed one. I believe you when you say that Boromir is in trouble, and I understand why you want to find him. But the way I see it, we'll likely arrive too late for the battle, with weapons too small to do any good, only to find that Boromir has won it without us. A very resourceful fellow, Boromir."
"He is that."
"So what good will a pair of tired, wet, hungry hobbits do him? He'll give us a blistering scold for tramping half across Middle-earth on our own, then send us off to kick our heels while he gets back to work."
"I hope you're right, Pip. By all the Valar, I hope you're right!"
"It's all very well for you," Pippin grumbled, in an attempt to hide the surge of pity and sorrow in him at Merry's desolate cry. "You've never been afraid of Boromir's scolds. They frighten me to death."
Merry gave a sob of laughter. "I've noticed how you cower before him in abject terror."
Pippin tried to picture himself cringing away from Boromir in fear and chuckled at the absurd image. "I wish he were here, now," he blurted out. "We could talk him into giving us his blanket, not to mention half his supper, and we'd be a good deal more comfortable."
Merry said nothing, but Pippin felt the depression and worry wrap about him more closely still, like a damp shroud.
"I'm sorry, Merry. That was a stupid thing to say."
"No. I was thinking much the same thing." He knocked the embers from his pipe on a gnarled root, then methodically crushed them into the wet ground beneath his thumb. When he had finished, he tucked the pipe into his pocket and climbed stiffly to his feet. "Let's try if we can sleep for a few hours."
"Huh. Little chance of that, with this cursed rain." As he followed Merry back into the shadows of the hollow and climbed beneath his blanket again, Pippin looked up at the wet leaves hanging above his head, just waiting their chance to shower water down upon him. "Go on, then!" he called to the brooding rain clouds. "Go water the mountains, and leave a couple of wet, miserable hobbits in peace!"
"It's only rain, Pip," Merry said, sleepily.
"Only rain…" Pippin twisted onto his side, pulling the blanket up to cover his face, still muttering, "Only rain, he says," under his breath. Within minutes, the hollow was silent but for the snoring of hobbits.
*** *** ***
"Rain." Gimli scowled at the roiling mass of clouds piled up to the west. "'Twill be a wet night, by the looks of it."
Elfhelm turned to follow his gaze, and a frown darkened his face. "This is an ill turn, Master Dwarf."
"The Men of Rohan do not melt in the rain, I trust!"
"'Tis not the dampness of our blankets that troubles me, but what this storm means for our search."
"Eh?" Gimli turned sharply to look at the Rider, whose mount paced steadily along beside his own.
"The rain that falls upon our heads falls also upon rock, leaf and earth. If we find not some sign of the Orc attack before yon great-bellied clouds fetch up against the mountains and empty themselves upon the hills below, we never will find it. All trace of the Steward will be lost."
"Then we had best make haste."
Elfhelm nodded toward a thin fan of smoke rising from behind the nearest hill and spreading quickly on the wind. "There lies the village we seek."
Gimli flailed his short legs until his heels struck the horse's flanks and set the beast trotting briskly toward the narrow mouth of the valley ahead. Elfhelm spurred after him, and the rest of their party followed as they might. The horsemen kept their places in the ordered company, while the marching Dwarves, with their picks upon their shoulders and their axes in their belts, stumped doggedly along in their wake, confident that they would catch up to their mounted comrades once they halted to make camp.
The rough-hewn hills rose steeply on either side, and a twisted stream led them into the valley, its bed choked with stones. The village huddled between those toothed hills hardly deserved the name. It was a mean hamlet, no more than a handful of poor stone and turf dwellings, with wooden lean-tos propped against their sides and skinny fowl pecking at the gravel in their yards. One building stood apart from the rest, hard by the stream. It was a sturdy wooden structure, with a stone chimney and a well-swept yard. The great doors, standing wide open, and the collection of tools ranged in orderly rows behind it proclaimed it to be a smithy. The smoke they had seen rose from its chimney.
Gimli shot the Rider a speaking glance and turned his mount toward the smithy. Together, he and Elfhelm splashed through the shallow stream and rode into the yard. A dog bounded out of the smithy, barking lustily at them, and a moment later, a man followed him.
The man was huge and squat, nearly as broad as he was tall, and of a seemingly uniform color of brown. He squinted up at the mounted strangers, face schooled into blank stupidity, and said nothing. The dog yelped and tried to leap at them, only to back down from the threat of the great horses.
Elfhelm nodded a solemn greeting to the man. "Good day to you. Are you the smith?"
"Ar," the man said, giving no hint as to whether this was an affirmative or a negative answer.
The Rider swung himself easily from the saddle and looped the reins about his arm. "I am Elfhelm, Marshal of the Riddermark, here at the behest of Éomer King."
The smith's eyes narrowed. He grunted a wordless reply.
"And this is my comrade-in-arms, Gimli of Aglarond."
The man regarded him for a long moment, then opined, "Dwarf."
"Aye, I am that," Gimli growled.
"On a horse."
"And on this horse I will stay, my good fellow. I mean no discourtesy, but I have not the long legs of yon Rider and cannot be forever hopping up and down from this great, tall beast on a whim."
The smith looked as though he were about to smile but controlled the urge. Nodding to the Dwarf pleasantly, he looked again to the Rider. "What do horse-breeders in these parts?"
"I am come on urgent business," Elfhelm said. "I search for others of my kind, Men of Rohan, who may have passed through your village some days past."
"Aye. Six of them, led by a man who wears a black cloth over his eyes." The smith pursed his lips thoughtfully but said nothing. "He rides a grey warhorse, larger than most, and carries a young boy before him as guide. Have you seen such a man?"
Gimli nudged his mount forward a step. "He was here? You have seen him?"
"Ar. Big man, bearded, in fine clothes and chain mail. Fair spoken. Carried a long sword."
"That is he! It must be he! Gave he a name?"
"Called himself Boromir, as I recall."
Gimli pounded his fist on the saddle horn in triumph and bellowed, "Well do you recall, my good fellow! And welcome is this news!"
"When was this, Master Smith?" Elfhelm asked, his voice urgent.
The smith scratched his head, eyes narrowed in thought. "More than a se'ennight past. Nearer a fortnight. Came from the south, they did, looking to buy provender. Stayed an hour or twain, then rode on."
"Which way were they headed?" Gimli demanded.
The man pointed northward. "Yonder."
Elfhelm looked up at the Dwarf, frowning. "Nearly a fortnight? He could not have gone far beyond this place ere he was waylaid."
The smith's manner turned abruptly from cautiously helpful to truculent. "Waylaid, is it? And grand horsemen come a-looking, with fair speech on their tongues and spears in their hands?" He planted his ham-like hands at his waist and glared darkly at Elfhelm. "Your fine lord left this place in health. If he's run afoul of trouble, 'twas none of our doing."
"Nay, my good man, I did not think it!" Elfhelm cried. "We have no quarrel with you and do not doubt your honesty! We seek naught but word of our lost comrades."
"We're honest folk, though we be Dunlendings and no more than dirt beneath the hooves of your horses!"
"I say, fellow," Gimli interjected, drawing the smith's eye and halting his flow of bitter words, "is there another village, another settlement of any sort, north of here? Some place where our friends might have found shelter?"
The smith considered this query at length, turning it this way and that, searching for some hint of threat or insult in it. At last, he shook his head. "Lies a village to the west, nearer the Road, and a shepherd's cot in the hills to the east. North lies only barren rock, hunting wolves, and winter's cold."
"And yet the company rode north, you say."
"Then so must we," Elfhelm said, as he reached for his stirrup. Before he had fitted his toe into it, he hesitated and turned again to the smith. "One question more, Master Smith. Have you heard aught of orc raids hereabouts?"
The man's face darkened again, and his eyes grew hard. He spat noisily into the dirt. "Come down from the mountains by night, they do, in packs. Slaughtering. Burning. Thieving cattle and food."
"Even so far from the mountains as this?"
"And farther. Hulged's Vale, nigh to The Gap, has lost men and children, they say. Snatched from their pastures. Even from their beds. I myself have lost blades, kettles, hammers…"
"You have told no one of these raids?"
"Who do we tell, horse-breeder?" he demanded, his voice thick with scorn, "Yon king in his golden hall? Would he foul his bright spears in aid of such as we?"
Elfhelm opened his mouth to deliver a hot rejoinder, but Gimli caught his eye and silenced him. The blood hatred between Dunland and Rohan could not be done away with by the fall of Sauron or the coming of a king to Gondor. Dunlendings still resented and feared the Rohirrim, while the Horse Lords still looked down from their high saddles in contempt and distrust upon the hill-folk. Too many generations of bloodshed lay between them. Only Gimli's presence and the long years of trust between the Men of Dunland and the Dwarves of the Misty Mountains allowed Elfhelm to glean any help from these taciturn, suspicious, guarded people.
Gimli bent a knowing eye on the smith and said, reasonably, "There are Dwarves in the White Mountains again, my friend, and more coming with each passing season. The Old Ones, the Ents, dwell in Isengard. The Kings of Gondor and Rohan look to make safe all the lands of Men, now that the Shadow has fallen. There are many soldiers of many races who would foul their spears – or their swords, axes, arrows and branches – in the aid of Dunland, should you ask it of them."
The smith grunted sourly. "We Dunlendings look to our own."
"You may soon have help, whether you look for it or not. Boromir's mischance has turned all the eyes of the South upon you, for he is beloved of the King and of untold value to all our peoples. We are only the first of many who will come, seeking him, seeking the Orcs who took him, seeking vengeance for aught he may have suffered."
"Who is this fine lord, then?"
"Boromir, son of Denethor, Steward of Gondor and Prince of Anórien."
The man's brows rose fractionally, and something akin to wonder showed in his eyes. "It was he, in truth?"
"We have heard tell of Gondor's steward and his mighty deeds. 'Tis said that he escaped from the dungeons of the White Wizard, and that the very trees of the Forest awoke at his command to bring Isengard to ruin."
Gimli smiled. "A fanciful version of the tale, but true enough, on the whole. Boromir and King Elessar did indeed escape the dungeons of Isengard, with the help of many folk, including the Ents of Fangorn." His smile widened into a grin. "And one Dwarf."
Amazement and avid curiosity suffused the smith's dour face. "You fought in the battle for Isengard?"
"I did. As did Marshal Elfhelm and all of these Riders."
"My éored rode upon the gates from beneath the sheltering branches of Fangorn's trees," Elfhelm said, his eyes glinting with amusement at the smith's reaction. "We watched, as the Ents tore Saruman's walls asunder like dry bread and cast them into the dust."
"The trees came at the Steward's command," the smith breathed.
"Nay," Gimli amended, "they came at the request of Treebeard, their shepherd, and because they sought vengeance on Saruman."
"I would hear the tale." The smith stepped back, gesturing toward the building behind him, and said, eagerly, "The true tale, as you know it, Master Dwarf. If you and this Rider will accept the hospitality of my house, you might tell it me in comfort."
"I regret that we cannot."
"I have ale and a fat haunch, freshly roasted…"
"Indeed, my good fellow, I would give much to sit at your table and ply you with tales, but our errand is most urgent. We must pick up Boromir's trail ere the rains come."
"If your steward was taken by Orcs, you will not find him."
Gimli's face darkened, and he growled, "I will not abandon my friend to the mercy of the Orcs, though all I find of him is his broken body. I will find him, and I will bring him home to Gondor. I have sworn it, and no pack of filthy Orcs will make an oath-breaker of Gimli, Glóin's son!"
The smith shrugged. Pointing to the north, where the valley opened into a rough pasture, he said, "They followed the stream, bearing east and climbing toward the vale. That is the last I saw of them."
"My thanks, good fellow. If the fates are with us, you will see us again. If not…"
The smith grunted and waved a farewell, turning back to his forge with no backward glance at the strange visitors in his yard. Gimli, who had pondered the wisdom of offering the smith some recompense for his trouble, did not call him back. Clearly the man looked for nothing from them, and most likely would take offense if Gimli tried to press coins upon him.
Elfhelm swung himself into the saddle and spurred toward the stream. Gimli followed, a bit clumsily, as his limited riding skill did not allow for tight turns and quick starts. Fortunately, his mount knew his own business and needed little guidance from the Dwarf perched so precariously on his back. They splashed across the stream and met the éored waiting patiently on its far bank.
"We ride north," Elfhelm said to his standard-bearer.
The standard dipped in silent command. With the swift precision for which the Rohirrim were justly renowned, the entire body of horsemen broke into a canter and swept through the valley, carrying Gimli at their head and drawing the other Dwarves behind them. As they rode along the verge of the pasture, Gimli cast an uneasy glance to the West and saw the storm clouds looming even closer than before. He sighed and turned his eyes away.
"The rain will reach us by nightfall," he muttered.
Elfhelm spared the clouds a single glance. "Aye."
"And Boromir's trail will be lost. What hope have we of finding him in the hours that remain to us?"
Elfhelm answered him with another question, asking, shortly, "Of what worth are the oaths of Dwarves?"
Gimli snarled a wordless retort and kicked his horse's sides, urging him at the next tumbled slope with a ferocity born of rage and frustration. "Let the rain fall!" he bellowed back at the Rider. "Let the sky open and the earth beneath her drown! I will not be foresworn!"
*** *** ***
Time meant little in the eternal blackness beneath the Misty Mountains, and for Boromir, it ceased to exist all together. He lay in a fevered dream, lost even to the harsh reality of his own captivity, while poisons burned in his blood and his spirit fought to free itself from the bonds of bone and flesh. Gladly would he have fled the prison of his own body; gladly would he have shaken off the suffering and despair that dwelt within that tortured frame, but that some part of him clung stubbornly to life and steadfastly denied him his release.
He knew naught of his comrades' fate in that uncharted time. He did not hear the jeering of the Orcs, as they drove their captives deep into the tunnels with whips and curses. Nor did he hear Borlas weeping when the Orcs dragged the lifeless corpse of a Rider into the cavern and threw it down by the fire – the first of the Rohirrim to fall from exhaustion and die beneath an orc blade, ready for the great iron kettle to receive him. The laughter and carousing at the feast that followed did not reach him, though he awoke long enough to hear a Man's voice lifted in a song of mourning for the amusement of the Orcs. The lament touched some chord in his memory, even in his befogged state, and Boromir struggled back to awareness to listen to the plaintive tune. Then, the song done, he sank back into oblivion, his own agony and that of the singer dissolving into the great sea of pain that forever lapped at his shivering flesh.
In his other brief moments of wakefulness, he often felt an Orc's clawed hands upon him and heard a familiar voice snarling orders that he did not understand. Food was forced upon him, and water, though most often it was the burning liquor that he had come to associate with orcish medicine. Once it was another voice that spoke to him from the darkness. A child's voice.
"Please, my lord, I beg you! You must eat!"
Boromir did not want to eat, though he could not remember why the thought of food filled him with such horror. He twisted his head away from the touch of wood against his lips, muttering a protest, and felt a thick, cold liquid spill down his chin.
"'Tis porridge," the child assured him, in a voice ragged with tears. "And there is bread, water, meat…"
Boromir's stomach heaved, and he rolled onto his side, pulling those parts of his body that still answered to his commands into a huddled, protective knot.
The child's pleading faded into the roar of blood in his ears, until he could no longer hear it. Then the dream took him again, and the world fell away into nothingness.
When he awoke to silence, he knew that something had changed. His body ached in every joint and sinew, his head pounded as if with the beating of Dwarf hammers, his mouth was sour and dry, and his leg burned with the pain of torn muscle and corrupted flesh. And yet, something had most definitely changed.
For one thing, he was keenly aware of his surroundings and remembered well where he was. For another, he could hear no sounds in the cave beyond his own rasping breath and the distant whisper of water against stone – no hint as to what might have awakened him. This told him that he had thrown off the tatters of his dream by his own choice, not at the bidding of his Orc captors. Still further, he did not feel the urge to tumble back into sleep, much though he relished the idea of escaping his current troubles in unconsciousness. His thoughts were oddly clear, considering his physical state, and he knew the quiet tickling of curiosity in the back of his mind. He lay, unmoving, for many minutes, absorbing the fragments of reality that came his way and doing his best to assemble them into a coherent whole.
He wore his chains still. The iron collar about his neck had rubbed gashes in his throat that hurt with the dull ache of old wounds. His head rested on a bundle of fabric that held a whole medley of odors within its folds. It was homespun of some sort – rough against his face – and must once have belonged to a herdsman. Boromir could still smell the sheep. A blanket of sorts covered him, shielding his fevered body from the chill of the cave. It was not until he moved and brushed his chin against its edge that he felt the fur trim on it and realized that it was his own cloak.
This troubled him. He could not understand why Uglúk, who so clearly wanted him dead, should doctor his hurts, nurse him through his illness, and give him his own purloined cloak as a blanket. Were it any other than an Orc treating him thus, he would have called it mercy. But Orcs knew no more about mercy than they did about honor or fealty or friendship. Uglúk must have some dire and subtle plot in hand, some means of making Boromir suffer for the amusement of his troops that was too ghastly for his human mind to grasp, making the Orc's actions baffling to him.
Whatever awaited him, Boromir could do naught but meet it with what dignity remained to him. He had neither the strength nor the weapons to resist his captors, and in his current state, he would be hard put to it to stay awake through whatever hideous torture Uglúk planned for him. The demands of sensing and sorting the details of his surroundings had already set his head to throbbing and his heart to fluttering oddly in his breast. He wanted nothing more than to sleep, and if someone would only come and offer him a drink of water to wash the foulness from his mouth, sleep he would.
He turned his face into the rough pillow and tried to ease his body into a more comfortable position. The stones dug painfully into his flesh and made his fevered skin burn, but shifting to another place on the floor did nothing to relieve the pain. His right arm, pinned beneath his weight and pulled behind him by the shackles he wore, had gone numb while he slept. He twisted farther onto his stomach, trying to relieve the pressure on that arm, and felt something brush his forehead. Water slopped against his face.
Boromir abruptly lifted his head, ignoring the stab of pain the movement caused. He could now smell fresh water, and as the droplets ran down his face to dampen his cracked lips, he could taste it. His throat closed up tight with longing, and forgetting his pride in thirst, he brought his mouth down to touch the edge of the object that rested on the floor.
It was a wooden bowl. Boromir recognized the weight and texture of it. When he leaned against the rim, it tipped onto its curved side, spilling water down his chin and onto the floor, allowing him to capture a mouthful of the precious liquid. Correcting the angle of his head, so as to waste as little of the water as possible, he tilted the bowl again and drank greedily from it. Only when the bowl was too nearly empty to yield its contents and the shards of pain in his head too brutal to be withstood any longer did he finally sink back onto his makeshift pillow.
He knew that he had just behaved as Uglúk wanted, lapping water from the floor like a beast, but he could not find it in him to care at this moment. Later, perhaps, his pride would prick him and he would remember this small humiliation with shame. But for now, he was too grateful for the easing of his thirst to worry overmuch about his wounded dignity.
He would do battle with the Orc chieftain again. He would thwart him at another turn. He would play the proud soldier another day. For the present, he would sleep.
*** *** ***
From her vantage point high in the tower, Gil followed the rider's progress across the Pelennor with a mixture of curiosity and concern. He rode swiftly, the horse beneath him galloping on the packed dirt of the road with all the speed it could muster, its gait heavy with weariness. The great beast had ridden many leagues without respite – so much was plain even to Gil's unschooled eye – and she wondered what errand could be so urgent that a Man of Rohan would drive his beloved horse so close to the limits of its strength.
That they came from Rohan Gil was certain, though she could not make out the leaping horse upon the man's tunic from such a distance. She had seen more than one messenger from Éomer King ride up to the gates of the White City, and she had learned to recognize them from their bearing, their skill as riders, and the magnificence of their mounts.
Gil had spent many a lonely hour at this window, gazing north and west, waiting for the glint of sunlight on steel that would herald the return of her lord. In those hours of fruitless watching, she had become wise in the ways of all the many peoples who filled the streets of Minas Tirith. She could tell a man of Belfalas from a man of Ringló Vale by the difference in his stride – as if he had sand or short grass beneath his feet, instead of the rock and scree of a high pasture – and the way he wore his weapons strapped to his back. She knew every group of laborers from the docks, what time they left off hanging about the Harlond to invade the taverns of the lower city, how many of them went home drunk each night and how many sober. Always a keen observer, Gil had honed that skill to a fine degree in her boredom and frustration.
In truth, she had little else to fill her time. Boromir had been gone for close on a month, and Gil was beginning to regret her choice not to go with him. If a day alone in the Citadel had been difficult for her, a month was intolerable. Between Lord Taleris' open hostility, Prince Imrahil's cautious distance, and her own sense of uselessness, she found her livery chafing and her days wearisome.
A fortnight after Boromir's departure, she had gone to Ioreth and begged to be allowed to resume her duties in the Houses of Healing. Ioreth had laughed outright, until she realized that Gil was in earnest, then she had scolded her and sent her packing back to the Citadel, her ears burning. That door, it seemed, was closed to Gil forever. She was an educated woman, now. Lifted too far above her old station to dream of soiling her hands at such labor again. That her new station was a burden to her did not matter in the eyes of her adoptive mother.
The Chamberlain and other squires agreed with Ioreth. They looked askance at her, when she asked for work to keep her hands busy. The squires envied her her freedom, not understanding that a woman in boy's clothing, alone among peers who were not true peers at all, had no use for freedom. The Chamberlain shuddered at the thought of a squire – and not just any squire, but the Steward's personal, hand-picked squire – doing menial labor meant for servants. The idea did not suit his notions of propriety and seriously upset his ordered world. He had made a place for Gil in that world, though she in herself represented a violation of order, and he expected her to stay in it.
The sight of that Rider spurring his exhausted mount toward the city drove all thought of boredom from Gil's mind and filled her with an unwonted excitement. Boromir was in Rohan, and a messenger from that land must needs bring news of him. She dared not hope that it was news of his return the Rider carried, but any word, however brief, would be a solace to her.
When the Rider, his mount being led off to the stables by a groom, passed into the shadow of the Seventh gate, Gil climbed down from the embrasure at last and allowed herself to shed some of her decorum. She hurried from the chamber, pausing to lock it behind her, and bounded down the stairs. As she approached the first floor of the Tower, she slowed her headlong pace, straightened her garments, and schooled her features into their usual wooden impassivity.
She could hear the clatter of booted feet on the flagstones and knew that the Rider was already inside the Citadel. A guardsman spoke.
"The Prince is in council and may not be disturbed."
"My errand cannot be delayed," the newcomer said, in accents much like the Lady Éowyn's.
"His deputy will receive you. Come this way, I pray you."
Gil clenched her teeth to hold back a protest and withdrew a few steps up the curve of the stairway so the two men would not see her. She had no right to interfere. Prince Imrahil had given Taleris leave to resume his duties as deputy to the Crown, in a bid to allay the old Lord's suspicions and win his confidence, so the guardsman did no more than his duty in taking the Rider to Taleris. The Prince, who was as much the skilled campaigner as Boromir and a good deal subtler in his methods, had affected shock and dismay at his kinsman's orders, reversed them without hesitation, and secretly set a veritable army of pages, servants and secretaries to track every scrap of parchment that fell into Taleris' hands.
Since that time, no whisper of trouble had reached the Prince or his trusted lieutenants. Taleris had not set a foot wrong. But Gil was in no mood for shadowed plots or trickery this day. She wanted to know what the Rider carried in his message pouch, and she wanted to know now.
When the guardsman had returned to his post and a page had led the Rider away to another part of the Tower, Gil ventured down the last few steps to the first floor. She hesitated in the middle of the corridor, her face hard with nervousness and her hands tugging unconsciously at the hem of her surcote. Finally, she pried her feet up from the floor and moved toward the open door of Lord Taleris' office.
He sat behind his cluttered desk, elbows propped on its top, a roll of parchment in his hands. He did not hear Gil approach, so intent was he on what he read, and Gil had a moment to study his face. What she saw there made her throat go dry. Lord Taleris was afraid.
She tapped a knuckle lightly on the door, and his head snapped up violently. Dark, furious eyes fixed on her. His mouth twisted into a grimace of disgust.
"Out!" he snarled. "Out!"
"I beg your pardon, my lord, but I saw the Rider and hoped…"
"Get out of my sight, you filthy beggar's by-blow, or I will have you whipped from the city at the tail of a cart!"
Gil knew that he would not dare touch her, but the raw hatred in his eyes struck her a physical blow, and she quailed before it. She took a step back, her mouth hanging open, her eyes on the parchment in his hands. With a hiss of rage, he dropped the letter and snatched up a heavy silver inkwell, drawing back his hand to throw it. Gil turned and ran.
She did not think about where she was going, just ran as fast as her legs would carry her, until she came to a halt in an upper corridor. Her entire body was shaking in reaction, the breath sobbing in her lungs. Leaning her forehead against the cold stone of the wall, she closed her eyes and fought to regain her composure.
The soft voice jerked her upright in surprise and set her heart pounding afresh.
"Are you ill?"
She looked at the young page in bemusement. "Nay." Straightening her shoulders and lifting her chin, she frowned down at him and asked, "What do you here?"
He gave her a surprised look and gestured toward the door beside him. "I wait upon the Prince."
Only then did Gil recognize the corridor in which she stood and the door that faced her. She had run to Lord Elfstone's study, to the room where she and Boromir always came when they had a problem to unravel. And Imrahil was here before her. Hope flashed through her, and she stepped toward the door, her hand coming up to knock.
"Is he alone?"
"Nay. Men from Anfalas and Ethir Anduin are with him."
The war. Gil's hand fell to her side again, and she turned away, her shoulders slumping fractionally. Of course, she could not interrupt the Prince's war council with a complaint that Taleris would not let her read a letter.
"He left orders that none disturb them," the page added, diffidently.
She nodded, thinking to herself that Taleris could not keep the letter a secret for long. Too many knew of its arrival, including Gil, and he must eventually give it into Imrahil's hands. Gil would simply have to swallow her impatience and wait. She made as if to leave, but then thought better of it and turned back to the page.
"How long has my lord Prince been in council?"
"Since before the trumpets blew at midday. Two hours, at the least."
"And you have not moved in all that time." The page shrugged and grinned shyly at her. "Fine lords often forget that their young pages need to eat. Get you to the lower halls and your luncheon. I will wait upon the Prince in your place."
The boy's eyes widened. "But…"
"Off with you. He will not be angry, I give you my word."
"Go," she growled, with mock ferocity.
The page gave a startled laugh, then ducked his head and sprinted off down the hallway, relieved to be free of his tedious duties for a time. Gil stepped up to his place by the wall, drew her heels together, straightened her back, and waited.
When Prince Imrahil came out of the room more than an hour later, a pair of lesser lords on his heels, he looked surprised to find Gil standing stiffly in attendance beside the door. He halted and fixed a questioning gaze on her. Gil bowed to him and to the other noblemen.
"My lord Prince," she said in her most wooden tones, "I beg leave to speak with you."
Imrahil considered this request for a moment, then waved the other lords off and opened the door for Gil to pass through it ahead of him. The Prince could never seem to decide whether she was a lady or a squire, to be treated with deference or brisk authority. Today, he settled for slightly avuncular courtesy.
"Have you taken up a page's duties now, Gil?" he asked, shutting the door.
Gil instantly dropped her formal manner and turned dark, anxious eyes on the Prince. "A Rider has come from Rohan. He gave a letter to Lord Taleris."
Imrahil's gaze turned wary. "That is as it should be."
"I know it. I do not question your wisdom in this or in anything, my lord. 'Tis only…"
"Out with it, girl."
She ignored the note of irritation in his voice and said, anxiously, "I fear some ill news! The Rider drove his horse nearly to foundering in his haste to reach the city, and he spoke to the guard of an urgent message. When I approached Lord Taleris…"
Imrahil shot her a swift, searching look that brought a flush of chagrin to her cheeks.
"I wanted only to ask him for news of my lord Boromir. I meant no disrespect."
"And did he give you news?"
Her flush deepened and her mouth tightened into a frown. "Nay. He threatened to whip me at the cart's tail if I troubled him further."
"You were rash to approach him, and there was no need. Lord Taleris will bring me what news he deems important."
Gil drew herself up to her full, stiff, dignified height and said, flatly, "Of course, my lord Prince. I beg your pardon."
He eyed her for a moment, no hint of his thoughts in his face, then said, "This messenger rode in haste, you say."
"Aye, lord. Great haste."
"Mayhap there is trouble in Rohan." Gil said naught and stared rigidly in front of her. "Mayhap I should see the letter for myself."
Turning abruptly on his heel, he strode to the door, snapping, "Come, Gil."
They found Taleris still seated at his desk, still holding the letter in his hands, staring past it without seeing the words on the page. He started up at the sound of Imrahil's crisp steps, almost leaping from his chair.
"My Prince!" he exclaimed, as though the words had been jerked forcibly out of him.
"Taleris." Imrahil crossed to the desk and planted himself opposite the other man. He did not signal for Taleris to resume his seat. "What news from Éomer King?"
Taleris' eyes flicked to Gil, where she stood just inside the doorway, and the murderous rage in them was palpable. "The girl ran to you?" he demanded, fists clenching. "No doubt with tales of my treachery and double-dealing?"
Imrahil's brows rose. "There is a letter, is there not? Carried by messenger from Rohan?"
"Then I see on treachery or double-dealing, on either side. What says our most noble friend?"
"Naught that warranted intruding upon your council, my lord."
Imrahil accepted this without a blink and asked, mildly, "And what of our wandering Steward?"
Taleris' forced chuckle grated upon Gil's nerves and sent a prickle of alarm over her scalp. "Wandering, indeed. He has taken himself off to Dunland, on what errand none but he can guess, and taken a party of Rohirrim with him. I cannot but wonder that he has gone so far afield at such a time, with the King away and the Haradrim massing upon our borders."
"Ah." Imrahil smiled wistfully at Taleris. "My kinsman was ever impatient of restraint."
"And careless of Gondor's weal."
Imrahil's face fell suddenly still, a film of ice forming in his grey eyes even as they gazed straight into Taleris'. When he spoke, his voice was dangerously soft. "So you have whispered to me time and again, old friend, but always behind your hand, afraid that others might hear." His voice hardened. "Always without proof. Have you proof now of his neglect, that you speak of it so openly, or is this naught but another baseless accusation?"
Nettled, Taleris snatched up the roll of parchment and brandished it under Imrahil's nose. "Is this not proof enough of his carelessness, if not outright neglect?"
"How can I say, when I have not seen it?" Taleris froze, and the Prince held out his hand. "Give it me, and I will judge for myself."
Taleris licked his lips nervously, eyeing the Prince as though he were a wild beast about to pounce on its prey. Very slowly, he laid the parchment across Imrahil's open palm. As he pulled his own hand away, he began to mutter in a rapid, blustering way, "You gave orders that you were not to be disturbed, and dire though the news is, there is naught that you could do in the hour lost to mend matters."
But Imrahil paid him no heed. He stood with the scroll in his hands, his eyes flying over the penned lines and growing wider with every moment, a look of dawning horror suffusing his face.
"The war on our borders must come first," Taleris went on, "left as we are to fight without King or Steward…"
"My lord?" Gil ventured, her low voice breaking into Taleris' excuses and drawing Imrahil's gaze to her. "What news of lord Boromir?"
She saw a flash of something that might have been pity in his eyes, then he ground out, "Boromir is lost. Taken by Orcs, they fear, and all his escort with him."
In that instant, Gil felt her body turned to stone. Her feet were rooted to the floor, no longer connected to her mind and will, her hands frozen at her sides and her face a bloodless, inhuman mask that would crumple into ruin at a touch. She opened her mouth to speak, but no sound issued from it.
The pity in Imrahil's eyes deepened, then he looked away, averting his eyes from her wounded face. "Éomer has sent Riders into Dunland to search for him, together with a party of Dwarves. And Legolas rides for the King."
"The King dallies in the land of the Halflings," Taleris said. "Even the Elf cannot find him in time…"
"You cur!!" Gil howled, tearing herself out of her horrified trance and whirling on Taleris. "You filthy, treacherous cur!"
"Gil!" Imrahil called, sharply, but she did not hear.
"You did this to him! You murdered him!" Her slight frame began to vibrate with the force of her rage, and her hands knotted into fists as she railed, "I know what you are and what you have done! I hear every lying whisper you utter, every calumny on my lord's honor, and I promise you, I swear by spotless name of Boromir of Gondor that I will make you pay!"
"The wretch has run mad!" Taleris snarled, his face flushing hotly.
"I will not rest until I see your traitorous head on the flagstones at my feet! You are a coward! Coward! Assassin!" She took a step toward him and her hands came up, threateningly. "Filthy, lying, sneaking bas…"
Imrahil caught her by the arm and spun her around, delivering a ringing slap to her cheek that jolted her out of her screaming frenzy and shocked her into stillness. "Enough! Be still!" he snapped.
Taleris stepped abruptly around his table and headed for the door, bellowing, "Guard! Guard!"
"You, too, will be still, my lord," Imrahil said, coldly, halting the other man in his tracks.
"I will have that creature punished! Whipped raw and cast from the city!"
"Silence!" Still gripping Gil's arm in iron fingers, Imrahil flicked his free hand at Taleris and motioned him back to his place at the desk. Taleris obeyed, stiffly, his head tilted arrogantly and his mouth hard with suppressed fury. "You will not speak, unless it be to answer my questions. Do you understand?"
Taleris opened his mouth to protest, but a glance from Imrahil forestalled him. Planting his feet wide and clasping his hands behind his back, he nodded once, curtly. Then he glared at Gil as though he could flay her with his eyes.
"Did you think to keep word of Boromir's loss from me?" Imrahil demanded.
"I did not."
"Why then did you not send word at once?"
"There was naught to be done. What purpose could it serve to delay a war council for a private tragedy?" The Prince's eyes narrowed, and Taleris broke off. After a moment of charged silence, he sighed and let some of the stiffness drain from his posture. "There was another reason, I grant you. I wanted time to consider what this turn of events might mean for Gondor. What… good might be drawn from it."
Gil bared her teeth in a snarl and would have taken a step toward Taleris had Imrahil's fingers not bitten into her arm in warning.
Taleris shot a veiled glance at Imrahil, trying to read his expression, then continued, "Not all of Gondor will mourn the Steward's loss."
"You will not. So much is clear."
"Nay." Taleris swallowed nervously. "I will not. And there was a time when you felt as I do, my Prince."
"I was wrong," Imrahil murmured, then again, furiously, "I was wrong!"
Their eyes locked, and it seemed as though they wrestled with each other, each striving to bend the other to his will. Finally, Taleris dropped his gaze. He waited in silence for some sign from Imrahil.
The Prince stirred and let go Gil's arm. Twisting the letter between his hands in an unconscious show of disquiet, he said, "If I find that you have had aught to do with Boromir's disappearance…"
Taleris' eyes widened. "I have not! I swear it!"
"That will suffice, for the present."
"He lies!" Gil cried, alarmed at Imrahil's tame acceptance of the traitor's words. "Remember what lord Boromir…"
"Gil!" he said, warningly, then to Taleris he added, "I have no reason to doubt your word, but if I find that you have lied to me, I will show you no mercy. Do you understand?"
Taleris nodded. Imrahil turned for the door, pulling Gil with him, but she hung back, protesting, "My lord Prince!"
"Enough, girl. Hold your tongue." He forced her roughly out the door and toward the Tower stairs, then he stopped to confront her squarely. "You do me and your lord no service to fly at Taleris like a madwoman. Trust me, Gil. Leave Taleris to me."
"He has done the Steward some violence. I am certain of it."
"Be as certain as you like, but leave him to me. An you cannot, I will have no choice but to punish you. I can overlook such behavior once, when the provocation is great, but not a second time."
Gil turned a wooden, emotionless face on the Prince that could ill conceal the turmoil beneath. "As you will, my lord."
His lips tightened for a moment then relaxed into sadness, and he said, gruffly, "Do not despair of Boromir. I will not, until they bring back his lifeless body as proof that he is gone."
Tears thickened Gil's throat, making speech impossible, but she nodded agreement.
He jerked his head toward the stairs. "Get you gone. I will summon you if I hear aught else."
Gil did not wait for a second urging, but turned and fled up the stairs toward Boromir's chambers. The familiar rooms were peaceful and warm in the afternoon sunlight, a quiet haven where Gil could surround herself with the presence of her lord, even in his absence, but they seemed suddenly cold and desolate. Every object that reminded her of Boromir served only to deepen her pain at the thought that she might never see him in this chamber again. How long would his presence linger here? What peace or solace would she find, then, with Boromir gone and his protection stripped from her forever?
She stood in the middle of the room, a small and broken figure, clutching her arms about her body as if she could smother the agony of loss in her embrace. Tears would not come. Gil had long since forgotten how to weep, if in truth she had ever learned, and desperately as she wanted to ease the pressure in her breast with tears she could not.
Slowly, she sank to her knees upon the thick carpet – the carpet that had muffled his booted tread and helped to dull the memory of tramping Orc-feet – and closed her eyes. She tried to summon an image of Boromir riding Fedranth through the gates of the city, with Lord Elfstone beside him and Master Legolas close behind, an image of his homecoming. But all she could see was Boromir's body lying broken on the rocks, with an Orc blade in his back. The image of his death.
*** *** ***
"The flesh is sound and the wound dry." Uglúk poked experimentally at the ugly slash in Boromir's leg, making the Man jump nearly a handspan from the floor. Then he bent close to sniff at it, his hot breath pouring over Boromir's skin. "The smell of corruption is gone."
Boromir, roused from a fitful sleep by the arrival of his orcish healer, then mangled by those iron-hard hands until his head spun and his body shivered in reaction, was in no mood to express gratitude. He let his head fall back against the rough pillow and grunted, sourly, "How can you tell in this reeking pit?"
Uglúk snorted in disgust. "You bleat about the stink, but you made yourself right at home, for all that. Had a drink and a bit of a rest, eh? All very cozy."
The thought of his imprisonment in an Orc den as cozy was so ridiculous to Boromir that he could not help laughing at it. Uglúk, his own sense of humor coming to the fore, chuckled with him. But in the next instant, he pinched the meat of Boromir's thigh, just below the wound, between two enormous claws and squeezed until the nails nearly broke the skin. A tremor of pain shook Boromir, and he bit down hard on the inside of his cheek to hold back a cry.
"You have some of my best work in you – not that you'll thank me for it."
"Should I?" Boromir choked out.
"You might show old Uglúk a bit of gratitude for saving your miserable life. Twice."
"Three times," Boromir amended. "You carried me out of the dungeons and saved me from drowning."
The Orc chuckled again. "That's not how the Dunlanders tell it, my lord Steward."
Boromir felt shock grip him in a crushing fist, his mind going utterly blank and his innards freezing with dread. Then, in the next breath, he rolled onto his back and levered himself stiffly up onto his elbows. His head swam sickeningly, unused as he was to moving at all, much less to supporting his own weight and holding his head upright. He was still frightfully weak – much more so than he had thought – and only the lash of his pride kept him from collapsing ignominiously back onto his filthy, lumpy pillow. He took a careful breath, fighting to swallow his unruly stomach, and licked his suddenly dry lips.
"What did you call me?" he rasped out.
"Did you think I wouldn't puzzle it out?" Uglúk retorted, caustic humor in his voice. "Took me a while, I admit. I've heard the tales often enough, but all that rot about you calling the Tree Demons out of the forest to crush the Wizard and carry you off in triumph threw me off the scent. If that whelp of yours hadn't squeaked…"
"Borlas?" Boromir struggled to sit up, but he could not get his hands under him properly. Uglúk's hand fastened in the front of his shirt and, with a casual tug, he pulled the smaller Man upright. Boromir let his head fall forward, his hair trailing over his filthy, sweat-dampened face, and breathed hard to calm the roiling sickness in him.
When he could speak without gasping, Boromir demanded, harshly, "Did you harm the boy?"
"I do what I like with my slaves," the Orc growled. "There's no Wizard to order us about anymore. Nor no Steward, either," he added, significantly.
"He is naught but a child."
Uglúk smacked his lips obscenely. "I like 'em small and tender."
Boromir ducked his head again, fighting for calm and control, while the Orc busied himself dressing and bandaging the wound. The pain of it helped to clear Boromir's head and bring his thoughts into focus. He realized, all too well, that he could do naught to disabuse Uglúk of the belief that he was Steward of Gondor – true as it was – nor to protect Borlas.
Uglúk tied a bandage tightly about Boromir's leg and sat back on his haunches, grunting in satisfaction. With a palpable effort, Boromir straightened his shoulders and lifted his head, pulling pride and dignity about him like a fine cloak. The Star of the Dúnedain lay against his breast, warmed by his body, lending him courage.
"What will you do now, Uglúk?" he asked. "Now that you know you have the Steward of Gondor chained to your wall?"
Uglúk chuckled. "Always the good little soldier."
Boromir refused to react to this condescending form of address. He kept his face calm and said, evenly, "Will you try to ransom me? Or is killing me all the reward you seek?"
"Is that all you can talk about?" the Orc demanded. "Your death?"
Boromir scowled at him. "What do you expect, when I lie here, hour after hour, picturing my body stewing in your pot, awaiting a sword through my throat?"
"Not the throat. That's too quick for an Orc-killer like you."
Boromir shut his mouth with a snap, swallowed, and said, "My point exactly."
Uglúk sighed. Boromir did not ever remember hearing an Orc sigh before, or not in quite that way. He sounded genuinely discouraged. "I didn't save your life so I could listen to you whine."
"Why did you?" he asked, real curiosity warring with the distrust and loathing in him.
"I told you. I like you, little soldier."
"Enough to let me go?" Boromir ventured.
Uglúk gave a great roar of laughter and smacked Boromir on the shoulder, sending him sprawling on the floor. Still laughing, Uglúk grabbed him by the arms, hoisted him up, and dragged him across the floor. Boromir found himself, gasping from pain and the suddenness of the change, sitting upright against the wall. Then Uglúk sat down on the floor beside him, with a clatter of weaponry against stone and the scrape of thick leather. The Orc was close enough that Boromir could feel his warmth on his thinly-clad body.
"You make me laugh," Uglúk pointed out, needlessly, "and you're not a sniveling coward. You're not like the other whiteskins I've met."
"You probably ate them before you got to know them properly."
Something about the bland tone of the Orc's voice struck Boromir as funny. He refused to laugh aloud and betray himself to Uglúk, but he could not hide the smile that twitched at his lips. "In truth, I must admit that you are not like the other Orcs I have met," he said, soberly.
"You killed them before they could get a word out," Uglúk retorted.
"Doubtless I did."
With a lightning change in mood, Uglúk growled, harshly, "Don't get any fancy ideas, tark! It's still the stewpot for you!"
"I thought we were not going to talk about that," Boromir said.
"Gah!" Uglúk spat on the floor. "Go all noble and haughty on me, like you were some kind of cursed princeling…"
"Eh?" Surprise and palpable interest banished the Orc's sour temper and made him lean closer to his prisoner. "What's that?"
"I am a Prince. Did the Dunlendings not tell you that part of the tale?"
"Prince of what?" Uglúk asked.
The Orc pondered this for a moment, then stated, "The mountains to the South."
"There are no Orc burrows under those peaks."
"That is but one of many beauties they boast."
Uglúk gave another crack of laughter. "One night, when the Tree Demons are napping, we'll leg it across the grasslands and move into those pretty mountains of yours."
"You will find the Dwarves there before you."
"Dwarves, eh?" He grunted something in orcish, then said, "The lads will enjoy killing Dwarves for a change."
If Boromir had doubted for a moment that no Orc band could make it alive across the Gap of Rohan or past the garrison at Helm's Deep, he would have felt some remorse at having unleashed Uglúk upon Gimli and the Dwarves of Aglarond. But there seemed little danger that the Uruk-hai would ever attempt such a raid, much less succeed in it. Uglúk was baiting him for his own amusement.
Was that truly why Uglúk had kept him alive? Boromir wondered. Was he so eager for amusing company that he would save the life of a mere Man – and one who had killed one of his Uruks, defied him and escaped his vengeance – so that he could sit and talk with him? The idea was, on the face of it, preposterous. But here he was, sitting at Boromir's side, talking of princedoms, when he might have been honing his weapons for another raid into Dunland or spilling Boromir's entrails on the floor of the cavern.
Abruptly, Boromir decided to put his theory to the test, to see just how long Uglúk would remain with him and how much he would say. "How many of my men are left?" he asked.
"What's that to you? Playing the Lord Steward again, are you?"
"They are my… lads," Boromir answered, "and my concern, just as your Uruks are yours."
"Four Men and the brat," Uglúk growled.
Four only. Another had died, then, while he was insensible. Swallowing to clear the roughness from his throat, he asked, "Where are they now?"
"Working. Earning their bread."
"Building barricades to keep out the mountain orcs?"
"I've got better work for them. Work I can't trust to my own lads, down in the Wizard's caves." Uglúk settled more comfortably onto the floor, as he unconsciously settled into the conversation. "They're stout fellows, the lot of them, but they've got grabbing fingers and an eye for shiny things. There are tasks better suited to slaves than to greedy soldiers."
"You do not want them stealing your plunder," Boromir observed, dryly.
"Plunder!" Uglúk's scorn was magnificent. "I have all the plunder I need, right here. Swag from the Wizard's caves, from prisoners, from the maggots who lugged it out of Moria." Heaving himself to his feet, Uglúk strode to one side of the cave. A moment later, Boromir heard the clang and slither of metal sliding on metal, then a few large objects rang against the floor. "Blades and gear enough for an army of Uruks! Leather, iron, bronze, steel. There's even a few pieces of Moria Silver in here."
He crossed to another spot and slammed something made of wood against the stone wall – the lid of a chest, to judge by his next words. "Pretty, shiny stones. Trinkets. Coin. Wizard's toys and Men's treasures. Swag to warm the heart of any Orc – or set him to gutting his fellows for a handful. And what use is it?"
"Trade," Boromir answered, promptly. "Men value these things. They will trade weapons and tools for your shiny trinkets."
"Men don't trade with Orcs. They kill them." Uglúk uttered a grating laugh. "And for good reason. We kill them. I'd kill that long-eyed king of yours in a trice, and stick his royal head on a spear for crows to peck at. Don't think I wouldn't."
"Even if he made a treaty with you?"
The Orc laughed again, more sourly still. "I don't want a treaty. I want tarks to work in my tunnels and fill my belly. And who knows? Maybe I'll get all the Man-flesh I can eat, soon enough. Old Uglúk is no fool. He has ways of getting what he wants."
"You cannot hope to fight the armies of Men with your small band of Uruks, however warlike they may be. Aragorn would slaughter you all in the first battle and burn your corpses before your own gates."
"Or maybe your little king would die on my spear and your armies burn in Uglúk's fire!"
Boromir almost laughed, then he had a flash of memory: blasts of heat and noise in the night, fire singing his flesh, men screaming and falling around him. Uglúk's fire, he wondered, or Saruman's? The pits of Isengard had reeked of smoke and fumes, while Merry's tales of the battle included gouts of liquid fire that leapt into the sky and set Ents burning like living torches.
His thoughts must have shown in his face, for Uglúk strode to yet another part of the cave and slapped his hand down on some solid object. Boromir frowned, hunting for an image or memory that would account for the vaguely familiar, thick yet faintly hollow sound made by the Orc's blow.
"I told you I keep the secrets of the Wizard's Vale."
"What is it?" Boromir asked, curious in spite of himself.
"Black powder. Saruman made it by the barrel full and hid it away in the caves above the Vale. Safe from Orcs and the like," Uglúk finished, with a hoarse chuckle.
"I have never heard of this black powder."
"It burns at the touch of flame – burns hot and fast. Put it in a flask or barrel and it will burst outward in a rush of white-hot flame. Use enough of it, and you could blow the top off of Redhorn."
"This is what Saruman used in his caverns to power the great engines?"
"That and the fire liquid. It looks like water, but it burns even hotter than the powder. I have seen him pour that into the maw of a machine and make it spit fire into the sky." He chuckled yet again. "I found a cave stuffed full of it. Tried to use it the way we do the powder, in a flask, to make throwing fire. But one of those cursed fools drank it. I made the rest sit there and watch him die, to teach them not to mess with the Wizard's magic, but you can't be sure with that lot. Maybe they understand; maybe not. So I put the casks back and sealed the cave again."
"Dúrbhak used the throwing fire when he attacked my company."
"Aye. Cut you down without a fight, it did."
"It could not save Saruman from the wrath of those he had betrayed."
Uglúk snorted. "The old buzzard valued his hide more than victory. Packed up and ran off, he did, leaving Isengard to the Tree Demons and the Uruk-hai to rot. Could have paid you all out, if he'd come to old Uglúk and asked for my help! I have his army, his weapons, even enough of his magic blasting powder to bring down the walls of your White City!" He spat noisily onto the floor, then crossed to where Boromir sat and hunkered down beside him. Dropping his voice to rasping whisper that Boromir supposed was meant to be conspiratorial, he added, "It could still happen. I don't tell the lads – they're happy so long as they have food and drink enough and plenty to gripe about – but all this, the weapons and the powder, I keep against the Wizard's return."
Boromir weighed his words, hearing the thread of hope running through them and the wistful note in the Orc's harsh voice. Unlike his "lads", Boromir realized, Uglúk was not content with his life beneath the Misty Mountains. He craved more than the routine business of provisioning his troops and defending his borders. He craved the bloodlust of battle and the clash of armies – as did any true soldier.
For the briefest of moments, Boromir hesitated to dash his hopes. He thought of this creature of wit and intelligence – Orc though he might be – trapped in these foul tunnels, surrounded by the ever-growing, ever-strengthening world of Men, and he knew a certain sympathy for his plight. Then the moment past, burned away in the pain from his wounded leg and shackled wrists, and he said, "Saruman is dead."
Uglúk abruptly sat back on his heels. "Dead? How dead? Who would dare to slay a Wizard?"
"He died at the hand of his own servant, Wormtongue."
The Orc pondered this in silence for what felt to Boromir like an eternity. Then he growled, harshly, "Tell me the whole tale."
So Boromir told him, precisely as Merry had told it to him by letter four years ago: how Saruman had fled to the Shire and there sought to enslave the Halflings; how the four travelers had returned to rally their kindred and drive the Wizard's evil from their lands; and how Wormtongue had cut down his master in a final, desperate burst of rage, as they turned their steps away from Hobbiton and the Shire. Throughout, Uglúk growled and muttered and cursed, but did not interrupt his tale. When he was done, the Orc favored him with a last, explosive curse, then he seemed to throw off his anger with his lingering hopes and mustered a sour laugh.
"So the Uruk-hai must fend for themselves, as usual. Gah!" He spat eloquently. "Wizards! Curse the lot of them!" He scratched himself noisily and added, "Perhaps we'll march on the White City without the Wizard to lead us and bring down your pretty walls in ruin."
"Do you have enough of Saruman's black powder to do it, think you?"
"Well, now," Uglúk's voice turned cagey, "I've never seen those walls, so I don't rightly know. What would you say, Steward? Could I bring them down?"
"I have not seen them in many years, either," Boromir said.
This struck Uglúk as exquisitely funny, and he favored Boromir with another bruising buffet to the shoulder. "Aye, but you remember. And who would know better than the Captain who has defended them so many times?"
"True." Boromir considered his question carefully, intent on quashing any ambition Uglúk might have of laying siege to Minas Tirith but knowing that any obvious exaggeration of the city's strength would be detected by the Orc and taken as an admission of weakness. "I know naught of your blasting powder's strength, but the armies of Sauron could not breach the walls. They assayed it with flame, iron and foul sorcery, to no avail."
"They broke the gates."
"Aye, but new gates the Dwarves wrought, of mithril and steel, that no power in Middle-earth might break."
The Orc grunted thoughtfully.
"Do you, in truth, hope to sack the White City?" Boromir asked.
"And if I do, what concern is it of yours, whiteskin? You'll be orc-food by then."
"Tell me, Chieftain of the Uruk-hai, do you ever go to the upper slopes of the mountains and look down upon the Wizard's Vale, upon what the Ents have made of your home, and remember what it once was?"
Uglúk uttered a low, warning growl.
"Minas Tirith is my home, her people my kin. My flesh may go down the gullet of an Orc, my bones may lie forgotten upon the refuse pile in yon cavern, but still I will remember my home and weep for the soaring white walls and graceful towers that I will never see again. I will weep for the memory of her wide streets, her laughing children, her ringing trumpets and snapping banners, for the cries of seabirds upon the wind, for the lapping of the Great River against the pilings of the Harlond, for…"
"Gah!" snarled Uglúk, leaping to his feet. "Shut it, you miserable rat! I'll have no more of your maudlin babble!"
Boromir took a deep, steadying breath to calm his racing heart and quell the sudden desire to weep in earnest. He had begun talking of Minas Tirith to draw out the Orc on his plans, but even as the first words came to his lips, he felt his love and longing for his lost city well up in him and spill out of his mouth in words over which he had no control. He did not know why his memories of home had angered the Orc so greatly, and in that moment, he didn't care. The wrenching loss he felt at the certainty that he would never walk the streets of his home again drove all other thoughts from his mind and filled him with aching sorrow.
"Sentiment is weakness," Uglúk hissed, "and we Orcs have no such weakness! You whiteskins may rule Middle-earth for an Age, but you are weak. Weak! You will fail in the end. And when you have all gone to feed Uruk soldiers, we will pour out of our filthy holes and sweep over your lands! We don't need Wizards to lead us! We don't need the Red Eye! All we need is our own strength and a stout blade to hack through the puny necks of Men! Think on that while I spill your guts on the floor, Steward of Gondor. Weep for your whole, miserable, useless race!"
Then he turned on his heel and stalked out of the cave.
Boromir sat in silence for many minutes, letting Uglúk's final words wash over him without really penetrating his exhausted and overburdened mind. But slowly, as his own sense of loss and loneliness faded to a dull pain in the pit of his stomach, he turned his thoughts to the puzzle of Uglúk.
He had learned a great deal in the last hour, though not the things he had set out to learn. He still did not know what labor Uglúk had set for the Rohirrim or how he might aid them. He did not know how long he had to live, himself. And for all the various plans of attack Uglúk had tossed out, Boromir did not know which, if any, were genuine threats to his king and people. But he did have an inkling, however fantastic, of why the Orc chieftain had chosen to keep him alive, and he had gained a glimpse into Uglúk's nature that gave him much to ponder in his hours alone.
That Uglúk might be lonely, bored and frustrated, that he might remember his days as Saruman's captain with fondness and wish for a return to the glory and ambition of that time, was a new and intriguing thought to a Man who had been raised on the certainty that Orcs were mere beasts. Cruel, stupid and wholly evil. Boromir did not doubt Uglúk's cruelty or the vileness of his heart, but he was most definitely not stupid, and with his intelligence came a subtlety of thought, a complexity of motive and desire, that defied everything Boromir had ever believed about the race of Orcs.
He caught himself wondering if Uglúk might have the skill at strategy and warfare to pull off a raid on the White Mountains or a concerted attack on Rohan. That he might march on Gondor was absurd, if only because he could not reach it without first crossing either Rohan or Ithilien. But some smaller foe – the Men of Dunland, the Dwarves of Aglarond, mayhap even the Rohirrim themselves – might suffer greatly at the hands of the Uruk-hai before Aragorn could bring the armies of Gondor to their defense. Just a day ago, he would have laughed this idea to scorn, but now he admitted to doubt. And to fear.
Boromir was hungry and thirsty, weak with exhaustion, faintly sick from sitting upright for so long, and sore in every part of his body. He longed for a tankard of ale and a trencher full of roasted meat, such as he had enjoyed at Gimli's table, but he knew that he would find only lumpy porridge and a hunk of stale bread on the floor beside his mean pallet. Mayhap, when he woke again in another few hours, he would be hungry enough to choke down the porridge, but not now. Now, weariness and the desire to escape his tangled thoughts in sleep overpowered even his growling stomach.
He pushed himself stiffly away from the wall and attempted to shift his weight to one side. All he managed was to jar his injured leg and send himself pitching, limp and reeling from the pain, onto his right side. He lay on the floor, pressing his forehead into the cold stone to anchor himself in the shifting darkness, until his body would once more answer to his commands. Then he used his right leg and shoulder to push himself farther from the wall.
He found his pillow and crumpled cloak entirely by accident, and barely in time for him to curl up on them before his limbs ceased to function at all. He could not spread the cloak over himself, so he rolled onto it, using its thick wool to shield him somewhat from the cold of the stone beneath him. Then he dragged his pillow into place with his teeth and settled his head onto it gratefully. For the present, he did not even mind the stink of sheep, so tired was he. His thoughts were still churning uselessly at the problem of Uglúk and his own imminent death, when he sank into blessed unconsciousness.
To be continued…