The deft touch of cruelly clawed fingers, the grate of orcish voices, the occasional burst of harsh laughter or curses – these things were now as familiar to Boromir, as much a part of his world, as the call of silver trumpets from the walls of the White City had once been. And in their own way, they imposed the same kind of order on his life, for Uglúk was a soldier and he lived by a soldier's routines. His world, the world in which Boromir of Gondor now dwelt, was as disciplined as any army camp.
As he slowly regained his strength and health, Boromir became increasingly aware of the rhythm of life in the orc den. He had no sunrise or sunset to mark the passage of a day, but he had the tramping of iron-shod feet in the tunnel as the Uruk-hai returned to their meal from their various duties, and he had Uglúk's visits to him, with food and medicine, at surprisingly regular intervals. The quiet hours when most of the Orcs were away he thought of as days, while the bouts of drinking and raucous laughter or fighting in the main cavern were the Orcs' evening revels. When they were done, they slept long and heavily. Uglúk often resorted to blows and curses to rouse them, kicking them so hard that Boromir could hear the impact of his heavy boots in their ribs even through the hide curtain.
Of the Riders he gleaned scant knowledge. They were gone all through the day, laboring in the tunnels, and most evenings did not return with their captors to the main cavern. When they did, the Orcs amused themselves with taunting and abusing them, often calling for a song then pelting the singer with refuse both actual and verbal. By listening to the voices he heard, Boromir learned that Éothain and his young kinsman, Éofal, still lived, along with two others whose voices he could not identify. Borlas was with them, he knew, for he could pick the boy's childish tones out of the loudest of orcish squabbles, but more than that he could not tell.
For himself, Boromir remained alone in the inner cave hour after cold, empty hour. Uglúk was his only company, and on those days when the Orc chieftain did not come to sit with him, Boromir felt strangely bereft. Whether because he had surrendered himself to the certainty of death, or because the loneliness of his existence began to tell on him, Boromir found his restraint crumbling.
He continued to trade insults with Uglúk, to fight his control and refuse to eat from the floor, even when light-headed with hunger, so long as the Orc remained with him. But once the preliminary sparring was done, he could sit for hours together, talking to the other creature of the world outside. They spoke of the Ring War and Boromir's role in it, of Saruman, of Gondor, of life beneath the Misty Mountains. Uglúk was, so far as Boromir could ascertain, as forthcoming as his prisoner. He said nothing of his plans for the future, choosing to taunt Boromir with possibilities and vague threats, but he spoke freely of past and present.
Boromir learned that the Rohirrim were currently working in one of Saruman's old storage caverns, sorting goods. Uglúk had found a huge cavern full of wine – barrels, jars, demijohns and skins of the stuff, of every description and vintage – all stored by the Wizard for his own enjoyment. The Men were laboring to move the bulk of this valuable plunder to a more secure location, known only to Uglúk and his trusted lieutenant, Dúrbhak, where it would be safe from the depredations of his soldiers. Always the canny commander, Uglúk planned to ration it out carefully, allowing the Uruk-hai just enough fine liquor to keep them docile without dulling their wits.
When Boromir asked after the Men by name, Uglúk shrugged him off with a grunt and a laugh, retorting that a slave was a slave, their names no concern of his. He never referred to Borlas by his name, either, though Boromir had used it often enough to be sure that Uglúk knew it, and Boromir caught himself wondering whether this was the crafty Orc's way of shutting pity or mercy out of his heart. Boromir, Steward of Gondor, had a name, and Boromir warranted personal care from his captor. The slaves laboring in the caverns were nameless fodder, as was 'the whelp' who spent his days tethered in the main cavern, awaiting his turn in the pot.
If Boromir could force Uglúk to think of them as individuals, with names and lives outside these grim tunnels, could he bring the Orc to recognize that they had worth beyond their value as food? Could he forestall their deaths, if only for a time? He pondered this question, even as he sat and talked with Uglúk of home by the hour.
Man and Orc both felt the irony inherent in this situation, and both knew that the other was holding back key facts about his people to protect them. But their enjoyment of the time spent talking to an equal was as evident as their caution. And slowly, insensibly, Boromir began to feel grateful to Uglúk, for his company and his forbearance in sparing Boromir the treatment meted out to his fellow prisoners.
When alone with his hunger, his misery and his bodily pain, Boromir's gratitude faltered. He remembered that he and his companions were naught but meat for Uglúk's pot, and that all the race of Men was threatened by this wily, ambitious, bloodthirsty creature. He turned his mind to escape but with no success. Then he fell into despair and lay cursing his own helplessness.
The process was ever the same. It began with the staunch determination to find a chink in Uglúk's armour and a way out of his stone and iron prison. And it ended with Boromir lying huddled on the filthy remains of his cloak, struggling to form images in his head of the beloved faces he had once known, clutching at them desperately for guidance, though he dared not cry out to them, while his heart wept within him and defeat gibbered at him from the darkness.
Faramir, Aragorn, Merry, Gil – these were the souls most closely bound to his, the voices that lit his world and warmed his chilled heart. Gil was the easiest to conjure up, for he had never seen her face and could picture it as he would, using her familiar dry, flat voice and light step as a frame on which to build her beauty – an entirely illusory beauty, but one that still touched him. Faramir, too, he could bring easily to life, though his brother's face often drifted from childhood to youth, from youth to manhood, until the features blurred and Boromir could not tell which Faramir it was he gazed upon.
Merry and Aragorn were the most difficult. He remembered them with an aching clarity, and their presence within him kept them ever alive in his mind, even when he could not draw their faces in sharp detail. He longed to reach out to them, to cry out his pain and despair and know that Merry's fiercely loyal, loving heart would hear him or that Aragorn, in his wisdom, would understand the depth of his despair and lend him the strength to withstand it. But he dared not touch them in such a way, lest his terrible need summon them to their doom. Or to failure and despair.
The Star of the Dúnedain hung about his neck, sometimes light and cool against his flesh, sometimes a great, burning weight. When the longing for the sound of his friends' voices was too agonizing for him to bear, he would roll onto his stomach, so the sharp gem dug into the skin of his breast, and he would wrap his thoughts about it as if it were Aragorn's hand and it could lead him from these dark tunnels. Then he would repeat the names of those he most loved, like a conjurer's spell, pouring his need of them into the stone, into the King's token that he wore as a sign of his dying hope, so that it would not touch that deep, sheltered place where Aragorn dwelt within him. He would lean on Aragorn; he would not call him. Though he died with Aragorn's name upon his lips, he would not call him.
*** *** ***
The pounding of hooves brought Aragorn to his feet and out of the tent, his cup of wine forgotten on the ground. It was well past midnight, dark and chill, with the premature bite of winter on the wind. The sentries patrolling the edge of the camp and the men huddled close to the many small fires all wore their heaviest war cloaks swathed about their bodies, nearly concealing silver mail and polished swords. The largest fire burned just outside Aragorn's tent, casting its dancing, orange glow over the faces of the Dúnedain who stood guard at its entrance. Above their heads, the standard of King Elessar billowed and snapped upon the wind, its gems flickering eerily in the moving light.
Aragorn pulled his cloak about him as he stepped outside. The hoof beats came from the north, growing steadily louder, heralding the swift approach of a lone horseman. He did not go to meet the rider, but stood between the sentries, waiting. The very stones beneath his feet vibrated with the impact of the horse's hooves as it clattered to a halt, sliding on the loose scree, and the sentry called a challenge.
"I ride in search of King Elessar, on urgent business!" Aragorn stiffened at the sound of that familiar voice, and he stepped forward into the firelight. "I am Legolas of Henneth Annûn, and I charge you in the King's name, give me leave to pass!"
The sentry spoke and the hoof beats started again, threading a path through scattered tents and fires. A moment later, Arod trotted up to the fire and came to an abrupt stop. Legolas leapt nimbly from his back and gave the animal a caress upon the nose as he strode past, but his eyes never shifted from Aragorn's face.
The King stepped forward to meet him, clasping both his arms in welcome, then pulling him into a swift embrace.
"Legolas! Well met, my friend! But what brings you to me in such haste?"
Legolas stepped back, throwing his face into shadows that hid his expression from Aragorn. "Ill news, my lord. I have ridden with all speed from Rohan in search of you and dared not hope to find you so far south of Imladris. In truth, I thought you still in that realm and would have continued north had I not stumbled across your trail at the ford of Glanduin."
"We departed Rivendell a score of days ago." He felt Legolas stiffen and caught a wary glance from the corners of his eyes. "Come into my tent and rest yourself. You are tired and Arod is nearly spent. Come."
Legolas suffered himself to be thrust into the tent, where he found Arwen waiting for him with a goblet of mulled wine and a seat pulled close to the brazier. He accepted both with a courteous bow, but when Aragorn ducked through the opening a moment later, he sprang to his feet.
"Sit, I pray you," the King said, "and tell me what's amiss."
Legolas hesitated for a bare moment, his eyes glancing from Arwen to Aragorn, his face drawn and weary in a way Aragorn had never seen it before. Then he said, bluntly, "Boromir is lost."
The words struck Aragorn a physical blow, drawing a hiss of pain from him and draining the blood from his face. He instinctively looked to Arwen, seeing the same dreadful certainty in her face that he felt knotting his own innards. They both had known it, though neither had dared to voice that knowledge, since the night Aragorn had first awakened in Rivendell, sweating and terrified, from his nightmare.
It was Arwen who found her voice first. "What mean you by lost?" she asked, as she moved in close to Aragorn's side.
"We know not where he is. The Rohirrim search for him, even now, but we fear he was taken by Orcs."
"Orcs?" It seemed that the clinging horror of Aragorn's dream was upon him again, turning the world dark about him and cleaving his tongue to the roof of his mouth, so he could not ask the hundred questions that crowded into his mind. He reached for Arwen's hand, gripping it tightly for reassurance, and managed to choke out, "Orcs? How can this be?"
"He rode into Dunland with an escort of Rohirrim," Legolas said, his face full of pity and his eyes reflecting Aragorn's helpless agony back at him. "None returned save two horses, spent and terrified, with the marks of orcish claws upon them. Fedranth was one." Aragorn flinched, and Legolas broke off, one hand lifting toward him in concern, but the King gestured for him to go on.
"Éomer King will have sent search parties long since, and Gimli purposed to ride with them. I set out from Helm's Deep the night we learned of Boromir's loss, deeming it best to bring you word by the swiftest messenger, so this is all I know." His throat worked painfully for a moment, then he murmured, roughly, "I am sorry, Aragorn."
"Boromir." Very slowly and dazedly, as though his mind had no knowledge of what his body did, Aragorn sank onto his stool. His gaze fixed on the glowing brazier, but he saw nothing of its light. His mind was filled with the remembered images of a terrible march across the plains of Rohan, under the whips and blades of the Uruk-hai… Of Boromir lying draped over an Orc's shoulder, blood dripping from his savaged face… Of Gondor's proudest son pinned to the ground beneath Uglúk's boot as the Orc wielded his lash…
A great shudder went through him, and he buried his face in his hands to mask his reaction from the eyes of the Elves. "Boromir."
Voices outside the tent brought Aragorn's head up with a snap. He recoiled visibly from the threatened intrusion, but a moment later, he was on his feet, his own agony pushed to the back of his mind so that me might face the new arrivals with some vestige of calm.
Faramir ducked through the opening, Éowyn hard on his heels, and took a few swift steps toward the group beside the brazier. His eyes fell on Legolas, and his expression of alert curiosity changed to one of surprise.
"Legolas!" he exclaimed. "What means this? Why are you here?"
"I come from Rohan with a message for the King. And for you."
Faramir's face hardened with sudden understanding. "It has come, then," he said, his gaze turning instinctively to Aragorn, "the disaster that drove us from Imladris in such haste. Tell me, my king, I pray you. Do not keep it from me."
"I could not, if I would," Aragorn answered, his voice rough with strain. "This pain is as much yours as mine, and we must bear it together."
Understanding congealed into dread, and Faramir swayed on his feet. "My brother." His wife took an anxious step toward him, and Legolas put out a hand to catch and steady him, but Faramir ignored them both. "Sweet Valar, 'tis Boromir!"
"Sit you down, Faramir," Aragorn urged.
"It could be naught else." He spoke in measured tones, but his rapid breathing and the mounting flush in his cheeks warned Aragorn that his control would not long hold. "Had Boromir still ruled Gondor, whether in peace or war, you would not fear for her safety or ride so recklessly to her aid. It must be Boromir. I have feared it all this while. Feared and wondered and blamed myself for lacking the courage to ask… What has happened to my brother?"
"We do not know for certain, but we fear he is taken by Orcs."
"Orcs?" Faramir stared at the Elf in blank bewilderment. "Orcs? What madness is this? How came my brother to run afoul of Orcs, when he should be sitting in the Steward's chair, ruling Gondor from the safety of the Citadel? How came you to fail him so grievously, Legolas?"
"Legolas was not set as a guard upon Boromir," Aragorn reminded him, "but stayed in Gondor of his own choice, out of friendship."
The Elf looked grim as he countered, "I did fail him. I failed you all. And yet I know not how I might have prevented this mischance. I deemed the danger behind us, in Gondor, not to the west from whence we looked for your return, and so I guarded the wrong approach, shielded him from the wrong blow."
"Danger in Gondor?" Aragorn demanded, sharply. "From whom? Taleris?"
"We suspect as much but have no proof." The Elf threw him a harassed look. "I know not how much Boromir has told you in his letters, or even which of them has reached you by now. 'Tis too involved a tale be told in pieces."
"Then mayhap you should tell it all!" Aragorn sat down and motioned brusquely for the others to find seats as well. Only Éowyn did not avail herself of his offer. She remained standing, close at Faramir's back, as still and cold as a column of white marble. Aragorn vouchsafed her a brief, frowning glance and saw that her face had lost all color, all life, and her eyes burned strangely within it. A chill went down his back, as he looked at her and remembered the shieldmaiden of Rohan who had ridden to her own death in bitterness and despair.
Legolas launched into his tale without preamble, and Aragorn listened in growing amazement and frustration. Much of what Legolas told them he already knew, but much of it – the worst of it – had not yet come to his ear. At the mention of assassins, he lurched to his feet and began to pace the confines of the tent, impatience boiling within him. When Legolas explained Boromir's departure as a ruse to make Taleris think he was fleeing these assassins, he halted and uttered a snort of disgust but did not interrupt. He did not resume his pacing but stood with his eyes fixed on Legolas' face until the Elf had finished.
A long silence met the end of the tale. Then Aragorn asked, his voice harsh with strain, "Has the war begun?"
"I know not, my king," Legolas answered. "The last we heard from Prince Imrahil, the Haradrim were quiet, but if word of Boromir's disappearance should reach them…"
"They will deem Gondor weakened and attack."
"We reckoned this to be their plan from the first – to rob Gondor's armies of her beloved Captain and throw her rulers into turmoil."
Faramir cut in, forestalling Aragorn's response. "But if Boromir has fallen prey to Orcs, then it cannot be the work of the Haradrim. Orcs do not make alliances with Men." His hands clenched briefly, betraying his pent up anger, and he snapped, "And all of this brings us no closer to learning my brother's fate!"
"Peace, Faramir," Aragorn said.
Faramir sprang to his feet, his usual deference replaced by a seething urgency that fired his eyes and hardened his features until he looked quite shockingly like his father. "Tell me, my king, I pray you! What is it your dreams have told you that Legolas cannot? You have knowledge that surpasses his, I know it!"
"Nay, Faramir…" Aragorn felt suddenly immensely weary, as many sleepless nights and haunted days came to rest upon his shoulders.
"You must, or you would not have ridden for Gondor as if the hounds of Sauron snapped at your heels!"
"I have told you all – all for which I can find words."
"All for which you can find words?" It seemed, for a brief moment, as though Faramir might forget to whom he spoke all together and turn his helpless rage upon the King. But reason did not desert him, even in this extremity, and he remembered in time that Aragorn was no more to blame for Boromir's mischance than was Legolas. They were merely the messengers of disaster. He held himself in check with an effort and turned abruptly away from Aragorn's gaze, his head bowed. "I beg your pardon, my lord."
"I forget myself."
"You mourn your brother's loss, and for that, I cannot blame you. This is a pain we share," Aragorn reminded him softly, his voice heavy with grief.
"Aragorn?" At the sound of Legolas' voice, he turned reluctantly away from Faramir to meet the Elf's frowning, intent gaze. "What dreams are these of which you speak? Upon what errand did you leave Imladris so much sooner than purposed and by such a road?"
Aragorn sighed wearily and sank down onto his stool again. He bowed his head, shielding his face from the worried eyes fixed on him and giving himself a modicum of privacy in which to collect his thoughts. Then, he lifted his head to meet Legolas' eyes and said, "A score of nights ago, as I lay asleep in Imladris, a fell dream came to me. When I awoke, I remembered nothing of it save darkness and suffocating fear. I knew then that all was not well in Gondor."
"And so you rode south?"
Aragorn nodded. "We came by the shortest road, traveling with all the speed I could muster, but it was not enough. I felt it, always, the fear gibbering at my shoulder, urging me on and cursing at the least delay. I consulted the palantír, but my mind was in turmoil and I could not bend it to my will. The seeing stones make no allowances for mortal weakness. At last, nearly a week from Rivendell, I found calm and strength enough to wield it."
Legolas' face lit with hope. "What did you see?"
"Darkness. That was when I knew."
"Knew what? Aragorn, you will not tell me that Boromir is dead!"
"Nay, he is not. Boromir lives, but he is in grave peril. I cannot find him with the palantír nor reach him in my nightmares, but I feel it gnawing at my vitals, awake or asleep, the certainty that he... suffers."
Legolas regarded him sorrowfully for a moment, then murmured, "You know that Boromir lives and that he calls to you, if only in your dreams. Can you not take some comfort in this?"
"Comfort in his suffering?" Aragorn demanded, harshly. Then he sighed and threw the Elf a look of apology.
Éowyn suddenly stirred, drawing all eyes to her for the first time. She stood very erect, her face blank and brittle with pain, her cheeks bloodless.
"My lord," she said, stiffly, "I know little of such matters and so may speak arrant foolishness, but if the lord Boromir calls to you, as Legolas terms it, can you not follow that call? Can you not let him guide you?"
"Nay, Lady, there is no cord stretched between us that I can simply follow to where Boromir waits. He is with me, 'tis true, but his presence is no more substantial than a candle flame. The smallest and most fragile of lights within me. It is…" He hesitated, unsure how to describe this thing that bound him to Boromir so completely, and yet so fleetingly, to someone who had never felt its like. "…an awareness, a small flicker of warmth that reminds me of the greater warmth that is my friend, my brother…"
Again, he broke off, the words escaping him as the pain of loss clutched at his heart afresh and wrenched a low cry from him. Arwen's hands tightened on his shoulders, and her voice sounded softly in his ear.
"He lives," she insisted. "He lives, and he will endure 'til you come for him. Has Boromir not proven himself the very hardiest of Men? Did he not come alive from the clutches of the Uruk-hai, the pits of Isengard and the torments of the White Hand?"
"He was not then alone," Aragorn said, very quietly.
"Nor is he alone, now. That small light, that fragile flame, burns in him as it does in you. It was born in the fires of Orthanc, when you faced the certainty of death together, and nothing short of death can extinguish it. Do not despair of him, Estel."
"Nay, I will not. But if my dreams are indeed touching his, if this roiling darkness and pain are truly all he knows, then he is mad or dying or in utter despair, and there is naught that I can do to help him this time."
Faramir answered him, his voice at once harsh and soothing, his words striking Aragorn like a dash of cold water in the face. "You can find him. Are you not the most skilled hunter in all Middle-earth? Who better to track these foul Orcs and reclaim those they have taken than Strider, Chief of the Dúnedain, Ranger of the North? Find him, my king. Then will there be time enough to mend his hurts."
"Aye." Aragorn stared hard at him for another moment, then shook himself, physically throwing off the clinging shroud that mired his thoughts and weighted his limbs. "Aye, Faramir, you are right. The Dúnadan will find him."
He turned again to watch the ripples of heat rise from the glowing brazier, speaking as much to himself as to his companions, his words coming ever more quickly as his mind began to grapple with the realities of a forced march through hard country. "I cannot split our company again. It would leave the slower party too lightly defended. We must keep together, but we will lighten our load and take only that which is vital to our purpose. One tent only, for the women, and what foodstuffs cannot be found on our road. The men will carry their own arms and gear. I'll not have the packhorses weighted down with extra tack or weaponry. We must reach the Gap of Rohan within a fortnight."
"We may not have to go so far," Legolas said, bringing him up short.
He considered this, his eyes fastened on the coals as if he could see their road illuminated in the fire. "Ah. 'Tis Dunland we must search, not Rohan. But where? Where in all that vast emptiness did they waylay him?"
"This Gimli hoped to learn."
"Then our first task is to find Gimli and the Rohirrim."
"Riders were taken also?" Éowyn asked.
Aragorn glanced up at her and mentally flinched at the searing anguish in her gaze. "All his escort was lost. Five men."
Éowyn dropped her eyes, affording Aragorn some relief from their touch, and said, "My brother will not rest until he has found and freed them. Mayhap he has already brought Boromir safely to Edoras."
Faramir took her hand but kept his eyes averted from her face. His own face had aged dreadfully in the space of a few minutes, and though he had regained his usual grave, rational manner, Aragorn could sense the effort it cost him to maintain it. "We dare not hope it, my love. Aragorn would know, if Boromir were safe."
Éowyn looked from her husband to the King, and when Aragorn nodded fractionally, she spun abruptly on her heel and strode to the tent opening.
"Where are you going?" Faramir asked.
She spoke without turning. "To prepare for the morrow. We cannot carry all that we have with us on such a hunt. When do we set out, my lord?"
"Dawn," Aragorn said.
She nodded once, then she ducked out of the tent.
Aragorn glanced at Arwen, a question in his eyes, and she squeezed his hand in understanding.
"I will help Lady Éowyn with her packing," she said, then she followed swiftly and silently in the other woman's wake.
Faramir stared at the tent flap for a moment and mused, "I forget, at times, how much she values my brother. They rode to war together, and fought their way out of the shadows on the same battlefield." He sighed and dropped his eyes. A brief shudder of pain went through him. "Tell me again, my king, that there is hope? That Boromir lives?"
"Then he will wait for me. He will not fail me."
Choosing to ignore the hint of desperation in his words, Aragorn answered firmly, "Nay, he will not. Come, Faramir, Legolas, let us make our plans. We have much to do ere morning, if we are to ride with the new light."
*** *** ***
So settled was he in the pattern of life in the Orc den, the change, when it came, struck Boromir a stunning blow. He sensed it first when the Uruk soldiers returned to the cavern for their usual meal. They were bellowing and laughing, their great voices nearly making the stone beneath him tremble, and from the cracking of their whips, he gathered that the Riders were with them. They herded their captives into the pen – an enclosure near the opening to Uglúk's cave that Boromir had never been free to investigate – then tossed something heavy onto the floor with a raucous shout of triumph and chorus of guffaws.
Borlas uttered a stricken cry, and Boromir suddenly understood. Another Rider had died. The Orcs were preparing for a feast.
Trapped as he was, Boromir could do naught but listen to the macabre celebration go forward. He had sat through many an evening of the Orcs' revelry, but never before knowing that the bones they gnawed had belonged to a comrade of his, a brother in arms. When one of the Uruks began throwing things into the pen, taunting the prisoners, Boromir felt his gorge rise at the thought of what those missiles were and how they must wound the surviving Riders.
The meal was served, the wine poured. The Orcs fell to with a will, while the Men filled Boromir's ears with low, sickened, tortured sounds that formed no words and yet carried more meaning to him than any speech. He could hear Borlas sobbing just outside the cave, and he was wracked with shame that he could do naught to ease the boy's suffering. Then one of the Orcs called for a song.
A chorus of agreement met this demand, and several of the Orcs began to shout for "the little one." For a moment, Boromir assumed that they meant Borlas, but then he heard the singer's voice and knew that he would at least be spared the horror of listening to the Orcs abuse the child. It was not Borlas they wanted.
Éofal, Éothain's young kinsman, had often favored the company with a song of an evening as they rode through Dunland. He had a pure, lilting voice that would do an Elf proud, and he loved poetry and lore above even the bow and lance. It was Éofal's voice that Boromir now heard, thick with unshed tears and rough from disuse, raised in a lament for his fallen comrade. And as he listened, Boromir felt a thrill of recognition go down his back. Éofal had sung this lament before. Boromir had heard it, though he had only the dimmest memory of it – a memory shrouded in pain, fever and forgetfulness.
A rude shout interrupted the Rider's song and Boromir's brooding. The Orcs did not like the song and called for another, but Éofal remained stubbornly silent. From the sounds filtering through the curtain, Boromir gathered that the mood among Uglúk's lads was turning ugly, and he wondered whether their chief would allow them to slay the singer and add him to the pot, or if he would step in before it went that far.
"What's this, lads?" Uglúk bellowed, suddenly, his great voice easily rising above the din. "You don't fancy the entertainment?"
"Skin it!" one Orc growled. "Cut it's tongue out and skin it!"
"Let us have some real fun!" another shouted.
"I'll bet it squeals a pretty tune with a knife to its throat!"
"Now, now," Uglúk chided, "let's not waste the meat. If you're tired of playing with this one, pick another."
"Give us the little rat, there," Dúrbhak suggested.
"Gah! What do we want with that scrawny thing?" Ghasha snarled. "Give us the princeling!"
A roar of agreement met this sally, Ghasha's voice rising into a whine above it, demanding, "Fair's fair! Why do you get all the fun, Chief? He's ours, too. We caught him!"
"All the swag's to be shared out evenly, eh, Chief?" Snaga interjected in his hissing, fawning voice. "The princeling is swag, same as this lot."
"And you'll get your share, when it's his turn in the pot," Uglúk retorted.
"We want our share now!" Ghasha howled, while his confederates stamped and hooted and shouted their encouragement. "Bring him out! Let us hear him squeak!"
Uglúk stamped over to the archway, and Boromir heard his claws fasten in the stiff leather curtain. "Is that what you boys want?" he called. "A prince to play with?"
The answering noise was so loud that Boromir could hear no single word in it, only a wave of foul voices crashing over him, bearing him down to his doom. Uglúk laughed and flung back the curtain. In a moment, he stood over Boromir, the stink of the main cavern clinging to him and catching in the prisoner's throat as he bent low to growl,
"Humor them, little soldier, and you'll get no more than a few bruises. They're good lads, if you give 'em a bit of fun."
Boromir made no answer, only swallowed the bile that rose in his throat and waited for Uglúk's next move. The Orc crossed to the other side of the cave and began rooting among the weaponry piled there. A few minutes later, he crossed to Boromir again and began pounding on the metal ring in the wall, striking it from above and then below with some metal tool that rang painfully against it. Finally, Boromir heard the pin fall heavily to the floor, and he knew that he was free.
Uglúk twisted a fist in his shirt and dragged him to his feet. Boromir staggered, trying to catch his balance, and fell heavily against the Orc, his legs too weak to hold him upright. Uglúk steadied him for a moment, something nearly kind in his touch, then he abruptly shoved Boromir forward until his face slapped against the foul leather of the curtain.
"In you go, my fine lord!"
Boromir fell through the opening, his injured leg collapsing beneath him and sending shards of pain through his body. He landed among a thicket of Orc legs, iron-shod feet shuffling and crunching about him in an ominous manner. But to his surprise, they did not lash out at him. They waited for Uglúk to follow him into the main cavern, and they fell back as their chieftain approached.
"On your feet, Prince," Uglúk roared, much to the delight of his troops.
"My lord," a small voice whimpered, just by Boromir's head. "My lord Steward…"
"Peace, Borlas," he muttered to the boy. Then Uglúk's hands fastened on him again and he found himself on his feet, being hauled through a mob of hooting, snarling, taunting Orcs toward a fire that reeked of dung and cooking meat. The heat of it on his chill body was welcome, but the smell nearly choked him, mingled as it was with the stench of Orcs and their unimaginable filth. He gasped for breath, sagging in Uglúk's clutches, his stomach heaving.
"Here's your prince, lads! Here's your great lord of Men!" Uglúk thrust him into an open space before the fire and let go his iron grip. "What do you think of him, eh?"
Boromir fought to keep his feet, to breathe in the sickening reek of the fire without retching, to ignore the pain of torn and half-healed muscles, to keep his head up and his shoulder straight under the eyes of his men and his enemies alike. He was Boromir, son of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, Prince of Anórien, and he would not cower before such creatures.
The litany had its effect, and even as the Uruk-hai shouted their chorus of insults, he drew himself up to stand proudly before them.
"Is that what they call a prince?" an Orc shrieked from the back of the cavern. "Looks like a blind beggar to me!"
"Gah! What a stink! Prince of the dungheap, he is!"
"Here, have a bit of this!" A handful of something soft and foul struck Boromir in the side of the head. "It smells better than you do, my lord prince!"
Boromir did not flinch under blows or insults. He remained still and outwardly calm, as the rain of missiles thickened and the cries of the Orcs grew more heated, while his thoughts raced. Uglúk had counseled him to humor his lads, but in what? How far would their antics go? Were blows and taunts enough to satisfy them? Or would they demand some more graphic humiliation?
"A song!" Dúrbhak howled, drowning out his fellows' noise. "Give us a song fit for a prince of Men!"
The others took up his cry, and soon the cavern rang with it. Boromir was taken aback at this demand. He had an ill voice and a worse ear for music, and he could think of few tasks more repellant than serenading a mob of drunken Orcs, but he did not doubt that they would force him to do it. And all things considered, perhaps a song was not such a high price to pay for keeping a whole skin.
He recoiled from a particularly heavy blow to the side, then kicked away the broken cooking pot that had struck him. The Orcs seemed to like this casual gesture in the face of their abuse and shrieked with laughter.
"Sing, Prince!" Uglúk snarled.
Boromir hesitated for a moment, his mind a complete blank, then opened his mouth and began to sing the only thing he could remember – a drinking song he had learned as a junior officer of the Guard. The words were simple and bawdy, just the thing for a company of off-duty soldiers, and they elicited delighted howls from the Orcs. He finished the song to loud applause and a fresh hail of food scraps. He began another, even rowdier song, offering up silent thanks to the rough soldiery who had taken the Steward's young son under their wings so many years ago, to educate him in life and the ways of women. Their teaching stood him in good stead now.
By the end of his third song, his voice was raw and his body weak with exhaustion. The throb of agony in his wounded leg threatened to pitch him into unconsciousness, and hunger made him too lightheaded to stand firmly in place. As he forced the last note from his thickened, aching throat, he staggered and slipped to one side. His left leg he could not bend, so drawn and painful was the wound, so he landed awkwardly on his right knee.
"My lord!" Borlas called, his shrill voice cutting through the din of the Orcs and bringing Boromir's head up sharply.
"My lord!" the Orcs jeered. "Quick, a pillow for his lordship!"
"A cushion for his princely arse!"
"A feast for his princely belly!"
"A feast! A feast! Throw him in the pot and give us a feast!"
"We must pay him for his song!" Dúrbhak called, gleefully. "What does a blind beggar earn for his song in the White City?"
As he spoke, the Orc darted forward and grabbed the rope tether that still hung from Boromir's collar. He gave it a fierce tug, jerking Boromir forward and forcing him to land squarely on both knees. He felt a dreadful tearing in his leg, and blood oozed hotly from the wound. Agony pounded through him with every beat of his laboring heart, dragging a gasp from him that set the Orcs howling again.
"What shall we give him, lads?"
"His own dungheap to rule!"
"A taste of the lash!"
"No, lads, let's give him a good meal! Put some meat on his bones for later!"
A sudden cold dread filled Boromir, and he turned toward the sound of Uglúk's approach, his face full of a horror he could not mask. The Orc chieftain loomed over him, chuckling and calling out to his troops, "What say you? Do we pay the singer with meat?"
Boromir barely heard the screams and shouts of glee that answered him. His ears were trained on the soft clunks and scrapes that told him Uglúk was serving up a meal fit for a prince or a blind beggar. His stomach heaved, and he hunched forward, hiding his face from the glaring, gloating eyes of his captors.
A wooden bowl struck the stone beside him. Liquid sloshed gently in it. Uglúk stood in front of him, breathing heat and foulness over his skin, his leather armor rasping evilly in Boromir's ears.
"Eat, my lord Steward."
Through clenched teeth, without lifting his head, Boromir hissed, "I will not!"
"You'll offend my lads."
"I will not!"
Uglúk's hand shot out with the speed of a striking snake and fastened on the back of Boromir's neck. "I say you will, little soldier."
Boromir fought him blindly, desperately, throwing all his strength against the pressure of that terrible hand, but Uglúk was inexorable. He forced Boromir's head down and down, while Boromir tried to twist his body out from under the Orc's grip or reach the bowl with his knee to knock it away. Uglúk only laughed, while his troops cheered, Borlas sobbed and Boromir felt the blackness creeping into his mind again, tempting him toward oblivion.
"Eat, whiteskin!" Uglúk growled. "Enjoy the hospitality of the Uruk-hai! Be grateful for your meat!"
Boromir felt the light breath of steam on his face and wrenched his head furiously to one side. The bowl slopped, spilling hot broth and stewed meat against his face, and he uttered a low, agonized cry of disgust.
"Eat or drown!"
Boromir had just enough time to suck in a quick breath before Uglúk plunged his face into the bowl. He could no longer hear the Orcs or Borlas; his ears were full of the rush of his own blood and the screams of protest he could not utter aloud. He could not break free and he would not breathe. His lungs labored to expand, his heart staggered in his breast, and his limbs twitched in a futile, weakening bid for freedom. Then, at last, the blackness claimed him and he sank into blessed unconsciousness.
He came back to himself to find the quiet of Uglúk's cave around him. His cheek lay on cold stone, bouts of shuddering gripped his limbs and his chest ached with the memory of his struggles to breathe. For a moment, he doubted that this was real. He doubted that he lived at all and feared that his mind had retreated into madness on its way to death. But then he felt Uglúk's hands on his leg, felt a burn of pain go through him at the Orc's touch, and knew that he had not died. He had simply returned to the familiar paths of his nightmare.
Uglúk grunted and grumbled as he worked, and Boromir picked out enough phrases in the common tongue to gather that he was annoyed at the fresh damage done to his prisoner's wound. "A right mess," he muttered, then launched into a series of orcish curses. "It will never knit properly now. Fool of a whiteskin. Cursed tark. All you had to do was sing a song or two… take a bit of name-calling…"
"Eat a bit of man-flesh," Boromir rasped out, his throat raw and aching.
"Hah. Finally awake, eh?" Uglúk spat on the floor and tightened the bandage with a jerk. "Stubborn fool."
"I will never eat the flesh of Men," Boromir whispered. "I will die first."
"Then you're a stupid, arrogant tark and you deserve what you get. The lads were only playing."
"I will die first," he repeated, doggedly.
Uglúk gave a snort of disgust and rose to his feet. A moment later, Boromir heard a wooden bowl smack down on the floor beside his head. "Eat, or you will die, and through no fault of the Uruk-hai."
Boromir turned his head away from the offered bowl, rolling onto his stomach and grinding his injured leg into the harsh stone as he did so. Uglúk spat again and growled, with real anger in his voice, "It's only porridge! But go on, turn your nose up at it, my lord Steward." With that, he stomped out of the cave.
Boromir lay very still, until he heard Uglúk's footsteps move far into the cavern and knew that he was alone. Then he twisted onto his side, hunting for the bowl. He brushed it with his jaw and lifted his head, poised above it, to inhale the scent. It smelled of musty grain and faintly rancid water, with a familiar acrid stench that called to mind the many meals burnt to the bottom of this same ancient, rusted, filthy pot. In another life, the odor wafting against his face would have made Boromir turn away in disgust, but now he smiled.
It was porridge.
*** *** ***
The sky had barely begun to lighten above the mountains' peaks, when Aragorn stepped to the head of the assembled company and took Roheryn's reins from his lieutenant. The men waited in two distinct groups – the Dúnedain to his left; the Men of Minas Tirith and Ithilien to his right, and with them the few members of his Court who had elected to take the rougher road home. Arwen waited with the Grey Company, beneath the jeweled standard that she had wrought with her own hands. Beside her stood a slim youth in the livery of Ithilien whom Aragorn did not recognize until he saw the horse he led.
"What is this?" he asked, stepping hastily toward the two figures.
The youth doffed his helm to show the pale, determined face of Éowyn, White Lady of Rohan. She met the King's troubled gaze squarely and said, "I will ride the faster in this garb, and fight the better, should it come to battle." She smiled faintly, the first sign of warmth Aragorn had seen in her since Legolas' arrival, and added, "There are several among my lord's escort who will travel lighter for having lent me their extra gear."
Only then did Aragorn notice that she wore a long sword at her side and carried a shield upon her back. He raised his brows at Arwen, but his lady wife only returned his look and settled her bow more comfortably upon her shoulder. Aragorn nodded once, in acceptance, and turned away to be met by Faramir and Legolas hurrying toward him.
"We can ride at your command, Aragorn," Legolas informed him. "The Company is ready."
"That is well."
"Elessar," Faramir said, drawing his attention, "there is one of the Guard who would speak with you."
"Can it not wait until we make camp tonight?"
"Nay, I think not."
Faramir turned to wave forward a young man who waited a few paces behind him. The guardsman stepped forward and saluted crisply. He was little more than a boy, not yet worthy to be called a man, but he wore his mail and sword with ease and bore himself well. And his face was distinctly familiar to Aragorn, though he could not put a name to the boy.
"This is Bergil, son of Beregond, cadet of the Third Company," Faramir said.
That explained the familiarity of his face. In another time and place, Aragorn might have greeted the son of Beregond with warmth and kind words, but on this morning, he had no patience for such niceties. Nodding brusquely, he asked, "What business has a cadet of the Third Company with us? Speak, Bergil, for we are in haste."
"I beg your pardon, my lord," Bergil said, his voice firm though his eyes were wide and anxious. "I would not delay our errand for a dragon's hoard, but I must ask…" His eyes shifted to Legolas, and his voice shook slightly, despite his best efforts to the contrary. "Do you know aught of the Steward's escort, Master Legolas? Was his page, Borlas, with him?"
"Borlas!" the Elf cried in sudden dismay.
"He is my brother."
"Aiee! I had forgot it. In all our troubles, I had forgot the boy."
"He rode often with Prince Boromir. He loved his lord well and would not willingly be separated from him."
"I know it. And I rue it."
"Then it is as I feared, and he is lost?"
"He is lost." Legolas gazed sorrowfully at the youth, who was struggling manfully to keep his emotions in check under the eyes of all these great ones. "I grieve with you, Bergil. He is naught but a child, yet he has the heart of a warrior full grown, and he is my friend."
"I, too, am grieved," Aragorn said, clasping Bergil's arm in sympathy.
Bergil drew himself up to his full height, pulling his youthful dignity about him like a war cloak, and lifted his chin proudly. "My lord King, give me leave to ride in the van with your Dúnedain."
"We all ride to the same battle," Aragorn reminded him. "You will arrive soon enough, whether you ride with the Dúnedain or your own company."
"For Borlas' sake, lord, let me be first upon the field and first into the fray. Let me go with you into the dark burrows of the Orcs to find my brother – to free him or to avenge him. Let me do him this much honor, I pray you!"
Aragorn regarded him thoughtfully for a moment, turning over his request, and found that he did not have it in him to refuse. Little though he needed an unseasoned boy at his side when he ventured beneath the Misty Mountains, he could not deny Bergil's right to strike a blow for his brother and he understood his need for vengeance all too well.
Clasping Bergil's arm again, briefly, he said, "You and I will draw swords together, Bergil, son of Beregond. Whether the battle is joined in the hills of Dunland or the dens of the Orcs, whether it is for rescue or for vengeance, we will fight together. More I cannot promise you, for I know not what awaits us at the end of our road."
Bergil bowed, a flush mantling his cheeks, and said fervently, "I thank you, my lord!"
"Ride with me, Bergil," Faramir offered, gravely. "If you will deign to wear the white of Ithilien, instead of the black and silver of the Tower Guard, I will number you among my escort and undertake to bring you first into the field. For your father's sake, and your own, I would have you ride with me."
Bergil shot him a fierce, exultant look. "I would be honored, my prince."
"'Tis well," Aragorn said. "But make haste, for I will not tarry in this place. Every moment of delay is another moment that those we love must suffer. Make haste!"
The youth, torn between grief and elation, saluted them all and hurried away to find his horse.
Under a sky of pearl grey, the King's Company rode from the valley that had been its camp, issuing through the narrow pass and pouring down into the next folded valley. King Elessar led them beneath his jeweled banner, with Legolas on the one hand and Faramir on the other, and all the company took their mood from their lord. It was a grim cavalcade that hurried south – silent, with no voice lifted in laughter or song to lighten their hearts – into the gathering storm.
To be continued…