Chapter 9: Song for the Dead
Life assumed a new rhythm for Boromir after that ghastly feast. The Orcs took a fancy to their princely captive and called nightly for him to join their revels. Uglúk indulged them often enough that Boromir grew almost accustomed to these tests of his patience and humility. He sang his soldier's songs, he endured the taunting of the Orcs, he withstood their occasional blows, and he grew to understand what they expected of him.
A show of resistance, a flash of haughtiness, followed by reluctant submission; it was a simple pattern, once he found it. So long as he neither fought too hard nor capitulated too easily, the Orcs did him no lasting harm and sent him back to his meager bed with a chorus of half-affectionate jeers and blows. Their greatest pleasure came from watching Boromir kneel before them to lap food from a bowl on the floor. They offered him porridge, dried horse flesh and iron-hard bread that crumbled into dust in his mouth, but no man-flesh. And though his gorge rose at the indignity of it, as much as at the grim fare, he forced himself to eat, while the Orcs screamed and stamped and threw refuse at him in an excess of mirth.
Humility came hard to Boromir, but where he could not bow to the might of his captors, he could bow to necessity. He lived by Uglúk's sufferance. The moment that Uglúk decided his interests were better served by feeding Boromir to his troops than by keeping him chained in a cave, Boromir would meet an ignominious end in the bellies of the Uruk-hai. And the more loudly those troops clamored for a princely meal, the more inclined Uglúk might be to give it them. So Boromir swallowed his pride, swallowed his lumpy porridge, and gave the Orcs what they wanted.
In the quiet of the inner cave, while the Uruks slept off their drink or labored in Saruman's tunnels, Boromir rested, pondered his fate and dreamed of home. This part of his life remained much the same, but it took on a new importance to him, a new comfort, when contrasted to the base torments of his time in the great cavern.
Uglúk applauded his good sense in surrendering to the Orcs' demand and eating what was given him, but he did not force Boromir to repeat the performance in the privacy of the inner cave. Quite the contrary, he treated the Man with a more pronounced respect than before and left off baiting him with hints of conquest or threats of a gruesome death. Boromir gathered, from comments casually dropped, that Uglúk was striking as fine a balance as Boromir himself in dealing with his troops – giving them enough of their pet Princeling's company to keep them happy, without allowing them to grow bored or to harm him with their rough play. Boromir was grateful for his care but confused by his own gratitude, and troubled by thoughts of what new horrors the Orcs might concoct should watching him lap up his food like a beast grow commonplace.
Of the other captives, he learned little. The men returned to the cavern only once, and on that night Boromir was not called upon to perform for the Orcs. Éofal sang for them, while Boromir lay in his fetid prison and let the young man's voice – now no more than a ragged and strained remnant of itself – conjure visions in his head of Rohan's plains, of horses running free beneath the sky, and of water dancing in the moonlight. His throat ached as if he had himself sung the night through, but it was tears that choked him, not a tune. And he was both sorry and glad when the young Rider at last fell quiet.
The Rohirrim returned to their labors in the southern tunnels with the Orcs' waking, and Boromir heard no more of them. Only Borlas remained, and the boy had grown so quiet in the last weeks that Boromir was often struck by the fear that he had died, alone in his pen, and gone into the stewpot without ceremony. Then a cough or a childish cry of distress would reach his ears, and he would know that Borlas lived. For the present.
Boromir tried often to bring his fellow captives to Uglúk's notice, but the wily Orc would have none of it. When Boromir spoke of them, he turned the subject, made mention of how tasty Man-flesh was and how he looked forward to his next such meal, or stomped out of the cave, tossing a curse at Boromir as he went. The Orcish tongue had few subtleties in it, but it boasted more ways to curse, threaten or revile than any language of Man or Elf, and Boromir had by this time learned most of them. While he made no progress in his plan to soften Uglúk toward his other prisoners, he did expand his vocabulary in colorful ways.
It had been more than a week, by Boromir's count, since the Riders' last appearance in the cavern when he tried yet again to bring them to Uglúk's notice. Boromir had spent a particularly grueling few hours in the main cavern the night before, then collapsed on his pallet to sink into fitful slumber, tormented by the pain in his leg and evil dreams. Now he sat with his back to the wall, his head propped wearily against rough stone, and listened to the Orc mutter under his breath as he tended the stubborn wound.
Uglúk took it as a personal affront that the gash in the Man's leg refused to heal, though he had predicted as much himself. He slapped a poultice over it more roughly than usual, and he laughed harshly when Boromir flinched. But his amusement did not last, and he was soon growling to himself again in his own tongue.
"'Tis the kneeling opens it," Boromir commented, when Uglúk paused for breath. "Each time I bend my knee, it tears the wound afresh."
The Orc snorted. "A prince's knees are not made to bend, eh?"
"You see how I bend them," Boromir snapped, unable to keep the bitterness from his words, "and how I debase myself at your command."
"The lads must have their fun."
"A commander who must bribe his troops with entertainments and addle their wits with drink to keep them in line is no true leader."
Uglúk paused, his clawed hand poised above Boromir's leg as though undecided whether to bandage or rend it, then he chuckled and gave the Man a playful slap to the face that rocked his head to one side and started his ears ringing. "Mind your tongue, little soldier, or I'll tear it out and make a snack of it."
Boromir was now certain that such threats held no real danger for him, but he felt his innards twist with a familiar revulsion at the picture this conjured in his head. "Have a care, Uglúk. If you take my tongue, you will have to bring Éofal to sing in my place and lose his strong back in the southern caves."
"Éofal?" the Orc asked, curious. "Who is this Éofal?"
"The youth with the voice of a woodland Elf."
"Pah!" Uglúk spat noisily and growled, "The name is as milky and mewling as the whiteskin who wears it. It sours my mouth."
Boromir controlled the urge to smile at his outburst. He had caught Uglúk unawares, betrayed him into showing an interest in his prisoners, and they both knew it. Keeping his voice mild, with no hint of triumph in it, Boromir said, "I have heard him singing for your lads, as he did around our campfires of a night, and wondered how it is the mighty Uruk-hai prefer my caterwauling to his melodies."
"He yowls like a scalded cat. I'd have cooked him long ago and spared us his screeching, but he has no more meat on him than an old boot."
"He reminds me of my brother," Boromir mused, improvising madly as he went, "more scholar than soldier, but with an arm that could skewer an oak with his lance. Of a proud family, an ancient bloodline among his people, full of wisdom and music and tales of far lands."
"Now he is a slave," Uglúk retorted, "and the Uruk-hai will sweat the tales out of him."
"Éofal, son of Éodred. Rider of Westfold." Boromir spoke the words quietly, but both Man and Orc felt the force of the challenge in them.
"I say he is a slave," Uglúk snarled, leaping to his feet with the scrape of stiff leather and the rasp of metal, "and Orc fodder!" Bending close to Boromir, so that his foul breath burned the Man's face, he hissed, "Give him what name you will, Princeling, but it is the name Uglúk gives him that will stick! Slave!"
With that, the Orc strode out of the cave, leaving Boromir alone, with his leg unbandaged and his mind in turmoil.
*** *** ***
Aragorn reined in at the top of the hill and gazed down the long, folded valley below, eyes narrowed against the dying light. Rain had fallen steadily through the day's ride, and only now, as the wind freshened and blew streamers of cloud away to the south, did the last rays of sunlight touch the empty land about them. That same wind lifted a long, spiraled column of smoke from the trees at the valley's foot, nearly a league distant, and carried it south toward the Gap of Rohan.
Aragorn watched the smoke in silence, wondering what it presaged. Beside him, Legolas leapt from Arod's back and trod lightly to the very lip of the hill, where the rain-soaked earth threatened to give way. Lifting a hand to shield his eyes from the glare to the west, he peered intently into the thickening shadows.
"'Tis a campfire, I deem," Faramir said, from where he sat his horse to Aragorn's left. "Or mayhap a herdsman's cot."
Aragorn nodded absently, his gaze still fixed on the distant smoke. "This uncertain light plays tricks on my eyes. What see you, Legolas?"
"Flame through the trees," the Elf answered, "and horses. A mounted company."
"The Rohirrim!" Faramir exclaimed.
"Or a band of brigands," Aragorn cautioned, "camped in this wild place where they need not conceal their presence."
"Nay, Aragorn, look!" Legolas turned to the King, his face alight with joy, and flung out an arm to point at the valley's foot. "A standard lifts on the wind!"
"I have not your long eyes, Master Elf. What standard?"
"There, at the edge of the trees. Grass green and white! The running horse of Rohan!"
A smile lit Aragorn's face, full of relief and a weary, ragged hope. "Éomer King has not failed us."
"Gimli would not allow it," Legolas retorted. He turned and crossed to where Arod stood, leaping easily to the beast's high back. "Come, my king, let us make haste."
* * *
It was nearly midnight when the King's Company rode at last from the valley and reached the perimeter of the horsemen's camp. The light of their torches had alerted the Rohirrim to their coming, and a pair of sentries stood forth to bar their way, swords drawn and silver helms glinting in the firelight. More men watched from beside the enormous fire at the center of the camp.
Roheryn stepped tiredly up to the nearest guard and halted, his proud head drooping. The man looked from the exhausted horse to the grim-faced rider on his back and snapped to attention.
"I charge you, in the name of Éomer King, halt and be recognized!"
Aragorn smiled mirthlessly. "I am Aragorn Elessar, King of Gondor and Arnor, who rides with Faramir, Prince of Ithilien and Legolas of Henneth Annûn in haste to find Gimli, Glóin's son of Aglarond."
Both sentries bowed before the duly recognized King, then the speaker straightened and said, "The Dwarf is here, my Lord Elessar. You will find him in the Marshal's tent."
"Who commands your company?"
"'Tis Elfhelm, my lord."
"We would speak with him at once."
"Aragorn!" Gimli strode through the gathered Riders, shouldering their taller forms aside so he could reach the King. "Aragorn, by all that's holy! How came you here so swiftly? Has the Elf sprouted wings, that he flew all the way to Rivendell and back?"
Legolas sprang down from Arod's back and stepped forward to greet his friend, smiling at the sight of him in spite of his troubled heart. "Aye, Gimli. Did you not know that the Elves of Mirkwood can fly at need?" He dropped to one knee and embraced the Dwarf warmly.
"You come in good time, Master Elf," Gimli said, as they moved apart. "I am right glad to see you, and Aragorn. Ah, Aragorn, we have sorely missed your sharp eyes and huntsman's skill."
"They are at your service, Master Dwarf." Aragorn dismounted and handed his reins to Bergil, who hovered at Faramir's shoulder. Then he nodded graciously to the Rider who stood at Gimli's side. "Marshal Elfhelm. I must beg your hospitality for my company. We have no tents to pitch, but we need fodder for our horses and a patch of ground on which to spread our cloaks, for we have ridden far and are sorely in need of rest."
"You shall have all that and more, King Elessar. You are most welcome!"
* * *
Elfhelm's tent was neither so large nor so comfortably appointed as the one Aragorn had abandoned on the road south, but it had a large brazier for warmth and enough stools for the King, Queen and Lady Éowyn. Legolas sat cross-legged on a fur rug, with Gimli beside him, and Faramir stood at his lady's back. Elfhelm had rolled back a rug to expose the ground beneath and used his dagger's point to scratch a map in the dirt.
"The Steward's party was attacked here," he drew a circle in the dirt with his dagger, "some mile to the north and east of this camp. We have searched all the ground from that point east, to this high ridge," he drew a line running parallel to the mountains' feet, "but have found no trace of the Orcs' passage save some trampled thorn bushes and a piece of discarded leather that looks to have come from a horse's tack. They must have taken the horses with the men, for no beasts were found, dead or alive, and we had hoped to track them by their hoofprints. But alas, the rains have destroyed all sign of horse, Orc or Man."
"You are certain of the place of ambush?" Aragorn asked.
"Aye. There can be no doubt that the Steward and his escort made camp there among the trees, picketing their horses nearby. They had leisure enough to light fires, prepare a meal, and spread their bedrolls upon the ground. All of their gear that had no value to the plundering Orcs remains, scattered and broken, trampled into the mud by their foul feet, but still there for us to find."
"There were no bodies?" Éowyn asked, her voice low and intent. "No dead to bury?"
Elfhelm threw her a somber glance and answered, "Nay, lady."
Éowyn bowed her head. She, like all those gathered in the tent, knew that the absence of dead did not mean that all the Riders had survived the Orcs' attack, or that any of them yet lived. It only confirmed what they all had feared, that the Orc band had come west in search of more than plunder.
"You have kept Boromir's camp undisturbed, have you not?" Aragorn said into the grim silence.
The Marshal nodded, eager to turn the subject and be back on familiar ground. "Aye, lord. It is ringed about with lances, and we have held the éored to the south of it. The Dwarves are camped here," he stabbed at the ground with his dagger once more, "hard by the ridge."
Gimli leaned forward to peer at the map. "That ridge is bare stone, but for a few hardy brambles and an overgrown gully, cut by a stream that flows down from the mountains' feet. We have combed it for some telltale mark of orcish boots or horses' hooves but found naught. At daybreak, I mean to take the Dwarves farther east, up the slopes of the mountains. If the Orcs have left no trail to guide us, we must find the door ourselves."
Aragorn stared long at the map, considering, then he sat back and let his gaze scan their faces. "Gimli's plan may well be our best hope, but I would ask that he wait one day more. At first light, Legolas and I will search Boromir's camp. The eyes of Rangers and Elves may find what others could not. But if, as Elfhelm states, all trace of the Orcs' trail is lost, then we must rely on the craft of the Dwarves to find a way beneath the mountains."
A long silence met his words, broken at last when Arwen said, "'Tis the path we all knew we must tread in the end."
"A dark path," Elfhelm said, "a bitter path, and one that leads to death."
At that, Aragorn smiled. "I have traveled such paths before and fear not death or darkness." He looked to Legolas and Gimli, the smile lingering in his eyes. "Are you, my companions of old, with me in this?"
Legolas nodded. "As in all things, my king."
"Just you try to hold me back!" Gimli exclaimed. "It is the Dwarves who will lead the way!"
"And you will have the Men of Gondor and Ithilien at your back, Master Gimli," Faramir interjected. "Mayhap the hardy Dwarves of Aglarond will be glad of our bright swords, when they beard the beasts in their den."
"We will, indeed, Prince Faramir. This is no contest of strength between Men and Dwarves, but a dire quest with an uncertain end, and I, for one, am thankful for every sword, axe, bow and knife that will brave it with me."
Aragorn rose abruptly to his feet, quieting the banter of his companions. "That is well, but not every Man and Dwarf may go with us, though all were willing. And some there are among us," he shot a speaking glance at Arwen and Éowyn, "who must needs bow to their king's command and stay behind. We will talk of this again tomorrow, when I have seen Boromir's camp and studied the lay of the land. Until then, we must all take our rest and prepare for the day to come."
Legolas waited only to be sure that Aragorn had no more commands or thoughts to share with him, then he slipped out of the tent while the Men were sorting out their sleeping quarters. He strode through the camp, skirting the great fire that burned at its center, throwing sparks up at the stars, to the edge of the clearing. At his feet the ground fell away into a deep gully filled with the gurgle of a running stream. Above him loomed the Misty Mountains, a huge, ominous shadow, blotting out the sky to the east and breathing cold down upon the creatures huddled at their feet.
He tilted back his head and closed his eyes, inhaling the scent of wet grass and burning wood. The night was cold but clean, and lovely in its loneliness. Legolas felt a curious sense of peace, though he knew that peril and cruel disappointment likely awaited him with the dawn. He had no illusions that he and Aragorn could find clues to Boromir's fate in the weeks-old, rain-washed tatters of the camp. Nor did he think it likely that they would find a way into the Orcs' tunnels without much labor and luck. In days such as these, with Men growing stronger and the foul beasts of the Shadow all dead, fled or in hiding, the Orcs would not dare to leave their doors unbarred, and Aragorn had no Gandalf with him to open orcish locks.
It would be a hard day, Legolas deemed. It would bring much pain to all those who loved Boromir and who had looked with hope on Aragorn's coming. But for all his dire predictions, the Elf could not but hope, himself. He could not but believe that together he, Gimli and Aragorn would find their lost friend and bring him safely from his dark prison.
"Thinking of the last time we ventured beneath those dour peaks, were you?"
Legolas smiled down at the Dwarf. He had listened to Gimli's noisy progress through the camp for some minutes, waiting for him to approach, glad of his company and his gruff, familiar voice beside him in the lonely night. "Nay, Gimli. I was thinking of another chase, when we pursued the Uruk-hai across all the leagues of Rohan to save our friends."
Gimli gave a grunt of humorless laughter. "Neither memory is of much comfort tonight."
Legolas turned his gaze once more to the velvet canopy above, where stars glittered like gems from between the ragged trails of cloud. "Take comfort in the light of Ëarendil and the music the stars weave as they dance."
"Boromir likes the stars."
"He hears their song. So too might you, if you would but listen."
"Elvish nonsense." There was no conviction in his taunt, and Legolas smiled to hear it.
"Do the stones of the mountain's root sing to you, Gimli, as you labor in your carven halls?"
"Aye. Deep and rich is their song, like the voice of the very earth itself." He shot Legolas a sideways glance and added, slyly, "You too might hear it. If you would but listen."
Legolas chuckled, dropping a hand to rest on Gimli's shoulder. "Dwarvish fancies, I warrant you. The air in your deep tunnels grows thin, and your wits wander."
They fell into a companionable silence, each letting his thoughts turn toward the Misty Mountains and the task that faced them on the morrow, until Gimli's voice startled Legolas out of a deep reverie.
"I am glad you are here, Master Elf. Loath as I am to admit it, I do not relish that dark road."
"Nor do any of us."
"I made a vow, to Boromir and to myself, that I would bring him home to Minas Tirith, and I mean to keep it. But I know not how." He shook his head, eyes dwelling sadly on the great shadow before them. "I know not how."
*** *** ***
Uglúk did not return to the inner cave all that day. Boromir heard him bellowing orders at Borlas until the boy whimpered in fear, but soon after, he left the main cavern and disappeared into the bowels of the mountain. Left uncovered, the poultice on Boromir's leg dried and crumbled away, and the wound began to throb afresh. Boromir had neither food nor water, the pain in his leg kept him from rest, and the nagging fear that he had blundered in his handling of Uglúk filled the lonely hours with doubt.
The venom in the Orc's parting words had both surprised and unsettled Boromir. He had come to know Uglúk well in these past weeks, come to rely on his intelligence and believe that he could predict his choices. But now he feared that he had pushed Uglúk too far and done his fellows more harm than good in bringing them forcibly under the Orc Chieftain's eye. He could not know this for certain until he read the Orc's mood a second time, after his rage had cooled, but Uglúk gave him no such opportunity.
He could do naught but wait, and wait he did, until the tramping of iron-shod feet and the raucous cries of Orcs told him that the long day was ending at last. They came as they always did, chanting and shouting, hurling jests and insults at one another. Boromir strained his ears for some sound that would betray the Riders' presence among them, and was both frustrated and relieved to hear none. Then he heard the sickening sound of a body striking the floor, and clearly beneath the clamor of the Orcs, a boy's voice cry out in horror.
His stomach felt suddenly hollow, and his throat constricted painfully. There could be no mistaking it, now that he let himself hear: the note of excitement in the Orcs' voices, the eagerness with which they poured into the cavern, laughing and howling with glee. They were preparing a feast. Another Rider had fallen.
Boromir's gorge rose at the thought, and a chill sweat broke out all over his body. They would come for him, he knew, when the pot bubbled and the wine flowed. Uglúk would come for him and thrust him into the middle of that drunken, slavering mob, and then they would force him to share their vile fare. Or they would try.
"Smartly now, lads," Uglúk called, his voice carrying easily over the din, "put the flasks over there and stoke up the fire! Ghasha, fetch water."
Feet trampled about the cavern, weapons clattered as Orcs shed their harness, and glass clinked against stone to the accompaniment of sloshing sounds. Boromir guessed that they had brought some of the best from Saruman's private cellars to wash down their meal. Uglúk continued to shout commands, while Borlas sobbed quietly in his lonely pen, just outside the curtain. Boromir lay on his filthy, rumpled cloak, breathing deeply, struggling to quiet his racing pulse and prepare himself for the battle of wills to come.
"Here now, gently, lads!" Uglúk roared. "He's special, that one."
Boromir stiffened, his head lifting from the floor and his blind eyes turning instinctively toward the doorway. An icy finger of dread trailed down his back.
"A man of learning! A spinner of tales and a singer of songs!"
"Gah!" Dúrbhak spat. "I hope he tastes sweeter than he sings."
"Show some respect, you maggot," Uglúk chided, his voice mocking, edged with cruel laughter. "That is Master Éofal, Rider of Westfold, not some nameless beast you're butchering."
Boromir did not hear Dúrbhak's answer. The pounding of his own blood in his ears drowned out all else, and bile rose, thick and sour, in his throat. "What have I done?" He gasped. "Sweet Valar, what have I done?"
He let his head drop forward and pressed his forehead into the rough, cold stone. He was shaking, his body wracked with sobs he could not utter, and the breath tore at his lungs. A dreadful, animal cry of pain forced its way past his clenched teeth. His ruined eyes shed no tears, but in his heart, where he knew that he had brought this doom upon a trusting companion, he wept scalding tears of grief and shame.
Uglúk came for him, just as Boromir had known he would. An uncounted time later, he heard the slap of Uglúk's hand against the leather curtain, and the Orc chieftain strode into the chamber. He halted, towering over Boromir's huddled form, and laughed scornfully.
"Time to play, little soldier."
Boromir gave no sign that he heard.
Uglúk uttered another sour laugh and knocked the pin that anchored Boromir's tether from the wall with a few swift strokes of his hammer. Then he grabbed his prisoner by his bound arms and hauled him to his feet. Catching the tether just where it passed through Boromir's collar, he wrapped it twice about his fist. The bite of iron and rope about his throat held the wounded Man upright, as Uglúk marched him toward the main cavern.
Uglúk thrust Boromir roughly through the curtain. Stinking hide struck Boromir in the face. He staggered and would have fallen, but a horny hand caught and steadied him. Then Uglúk had him by the tether again, dragging him forward to his wonted place before the fire.
Boromir stumbled after his tormentor, awash in pain, sickness and horror. His mind refused to accept the evidence of ears and nose. His body refused to obey his commands. The stench of cooking meat filled the cavern, choking him. His innards roiled, his gorge rose, and each step sent jagged shards of agony through his leg and body. In such a state, he hardly noticed when Uglúk let go his tether and stepped away, leaving him to face the mob of jeering, shrieking Orcs alone.
"A song!" Snaga shouted. "Give us a song!"
It was the usual pattern, the familiar ritual, and for a precarious moment, Boromir teetered on the brink of giving in, of giving them what they wanted and playing the humbled princeling for them yet again. But even as he opened his mouth to sing, a wave of black fury rose in him, strangling his voice before it passed his lips.
"Sing, little soldier," Uglúk growled, his voice full of gloating, sneering laughter, "sing for your supper!"
Boromir felt no fear in him, only horror at what his meddling had done and a cold determination never to dance to Uglúk's piping again, though it cost him his life. Something of his thoughts must have shown in his face, for when he turned to Uglúk, he heard the chieftain's hissing intake of breath, even through the shouting and howling of the other Orcs. Uglúk hesitated for the space of a heartbeat, then he stepped forward, boots crunching ominously on stone.
"Sing!" he snarled, and now there was no laughter in him.
Boromir held his defiant, challenging pose for one moment more, then he turned very slowly back to face his audience and opened his mouth. The words came to him unbidden, forming on his lips as the remembered sound of his brother's voice filled his head. They were beautiful words, charged with power and emotion, and in that lightless, hopeless place, they seemed to him the very music of the stars he loved.
"A Elbereth Gilthoniel,
A shattering howl of rage cut through his song, and an iron hand struck him full in the face. The blow sent Boromir flying. He landed on his back in a heap of refuse, smashing several empty wine flasks as he fell. His ears rang and his mouth filled with blood, and somewhere in the distance, he heard Borlas screaming. More blood ran from the wound in his leg, torn open yet again by the fall, and from the places where shards of glass dug into his back and shoulders. The cavern echoed with curses, shrieks, and the clash of weapons hastily drawn, as Orcs milled about in a frenzy of rage.
Uglúk roared an order in his own tongue, then lashed out at Boromir, striking him in the face again. Boromir gasped but did not cry out.
"How dare you?!" Uglúk howled. "How dare you speak those words in front of me? Me, Uglúk, Captain of the Fighting Uruk-hai!"
A booted foot smashed into Boromir's side, and he doubled up in pain, his body shying away from the blow though his mind told him to be still. Uglúk lashed out again, hissing, "I'll tear your guts out with my bare hands and hang you up by them for the crows to peck at!"
Boromir fought to control his reaction, biting down on his bloodied lip to smother his cry and clutching at the rubble beneath him. His hand closed about a large, curved piece of glass so tightly that its edges cut into his fingers and his grip grew slippery with blood.
"I'll teach you to spit Elvish in my face, you worm," Uglúk snarled, as he fastened a hand in Boromir's shirt and hauled him away from the ground. Without waiting for Boromir to find his feet, the Orc began dragging him bodily through the cavern. "Filthy little rat! Elvish dog!"
Overcome by his own fury, he lifted Boromir in both hands and flung him away. Boromir struck metal and wood – a fence or wall of some kind – and his flying body crashed through it. He fell to the ground, feeling wood snap and splinter beneath him, then small hands clutched at his clothing and Borlas' voice cried, "My lord! Oh, my lord, do not leave me, I pray you!"
Uglúk's hand fastened in Boromir's shirt once more, hauling him away from the shattered wall of the pen. Boromir tried to find some words of reassurance for the terrified boy, but he had none to give. Still fighting to gain his feet, to leave the cavern with some vestige of dignity, Boromir clutched at the shard of glass in his right hand and gritted his teeth against the tearing agony in his leg. The sound of Borlas' weeping followed him through the curtain and into the smaller cave.
They were back in his private prison cell, and still Uglúk had not noticed the awkward, makeshift blade in Boromir's hand. It was too small for a weapon, with no blunt edge to grasp, but Boromir clung fiercely to it as if to the hilt of a sword, some corner of his mind daring to hope that he would find a time and place to use it.
"Don't get too comfortable," Uglúk snapped, as he tossed Boromir down on his cloak. "And don't think I'm going to forget this."
Boromir fell hard on his wounded leg and rolled sharply onto his back, stifling a cry of pain. Uglúk stooped over him, his breath hot on Boromir's face.
"I've let you off easy. Treated you well. And this is how you thank me?"
"You killed that boy!"
"He was mine to kill!" A clawed hand fastened under Boromir's chin, pushing it up and choking off his breath. "You forgot that, didn't you, my Lord Steward?"
The Orc's grip eased just enough for Boromir to speak, and he gasped out, "How could I? You have never let me forget what I am."
"A Prince? A lord of Men? Pah!" Uglúk spat in Boromir's face, then jerked his hand contemptuously away, letting the Man's head crack against the stone floor. Suddenly, talons raked across Boromir's shoulder, catching at his shirt and the chain that hung around his neck. "I'll have this off of you, too! Princely airs and Elvish trinkets!"
"Nay!" Boromir cried in protest.
Uglúk wrenched at the chain, growling in mingled pain and fury at its touch, until it snapped. Then he flung it away. Boromir heard the gem strike wood on the far side of the cave. Uglúk snatched up the pin that anchored Boromir's tether to the wall and began pounding it into the stone.
At the familiar sound of metal on metal, heralding another endless time of imprisonment and humiliation, a howl of pure rage burst from Boromir. Without thought for his own peril in that moment, he rolled sharply onto his side and threw his body backward, snapping the rope taut and tearing the pin from the wall. Uglúk snarled a curse and grabbed the rope. Boromir tried to scramble away, to gain his feet, but his wounded leg failed him. He rose to one knee, then Uglúk gave the rope a vicious tug, and Boromir found himself sprawled on the floor with the Orc's boot planted on his shoulder and his bruised cheek ground into the stone floor.
"Curse you for a coward, Uglúk," he panted, as his jailor knotted one fist in his tether and hauled him bodily over to the wall. "You slaughtered that boy out of fear!"
"I'd do the same for you and gladly," Uglúk spat, "but that would ruin all my fun. I want you to die by inches, howling like the cur you are."
"I am Boromir, son of Denethor, Steward of Gondor and Prince of Anórien," Boromir said through clenched teeth. "Put a sword in my hand, and I will prove it on your twitching corpse!"
"You are a piece of filthy, stinking man-flesh, blind and weak and worthless!" Uglúk wielded his hammer once again, driving the pin into the wall in three mighty strokes.
"Blind and weak I may be, but I spitted Lugdush on his own knife easily enough."
Uglúk's hand shot out to fasten in Boromir's hair, wrenching his head back. His voice was an evil hiss in the darkness, heavy with malice and the promise of vengeance. "I haven't forgotten." Then, with a final blow and a snarled curse, the Orc was gone, stamping away to join his fellows at the feast.
Boromir lay where Uglúk had left him, breathing hard and fighting to subdue his futile rage. He could not free himself with threats nor save his comrades with cursing. Chains bound him, rope tethered him, and a small army of Orcs waited for him on the other side of the hide curtain. Naught had changed for the Steward of Gondor, and yet, everything had changed. For Boromir held in his hand a weapon of sorts, and he nursed in his heart a furious resolve to be free this night or to die. To find his way back to open sky and the world of Men, or to sink into the never-ending blackness where shame, pain and sorrow could not find him. He did not have Aragorn's Star to guide him now, but Boromir had dwelt in darkness long enough to know that he could do without light.
He would find a way.
*** *** ***
"Here, Legolas, do you see? And here." Aragorn crouched low, his face only a hand span from the ground, his eyes intent on the fragments of glass embedded in the dirt. "And the grass is scorched, as well."
"There are such pieces all about the camp," Elfhelm said. "Broken bottles, I deem, though I know not why the Steward should carry wine bottles in his saddlebags."
"He did not," Legolas said, absently, as he studied the pattern of glass and scorch marks upon the ground. "Boromir drinks sparingly and is too skilled a campaigner to weigh himself down with bottles. This is passing strange, Aragorn. These bottles were not dropped or crushed, but burst asunder by some great force."
"Aragorn!" The King turned at the call to see his lieutenant, Arahael, hurrying toward him. The grey-clad Ranger held something cradled in his palm, which he held out to Aragorn as he rose to his feet. "What make you of this?"
Aragorn looked down at the piece of thick, greenish glass in Arahael's hand, frowning. "From the vineyards of Lossarnach, by the look of it. Only the river sands of the Anduin produce glass of that color."
"Aye, but this did not hold wine, my lord."
Aragorn threw him a sharp glance and took the shard from his hand to study it more closely. As he turned it before his eyes, he saw a sheen of oily color upon it and caught traces of an acrid, strangely familiar scent.
"I found it in the brambles, yonder," Arahael explained, "lodged among the branches, protected from much of the rain."
Aragorn held it carefully by the edges, so as not to wipe the traces of liquid from it, and breathed deeply of the smell. It caught at the back of his throat, making him cough and his eyes burn. "I know this stink. The dungeons of Isengard were rank with it."
"Isengard!" Legolas stepped swiftly forward and bent his head to bring it closer to the piece of glass. One breath, and he recoiled sharply, a grimace of disgust upon his face. "Aye. 'Tis the Wizard's sorcery, indeed."
"Saruman is dead," Gimli insisted, thumping the haft of his axe upon the ground to underscore his words. "His staff was broken, his power spent, and his fortress destroyed by the Ents."
"Yet Orthanc remains," Elfhelm cautioned.
"Its dungeons flooded and its doors guarded by the Onodrim of Fangorn," Aragorn said. "No creature may enter the tower without Fangorn's leave, and who is left to wield Saruman's power, should he find it?"
"'Twas Orcs that attacked Fedranth," Legolas assured him. "I saw their marks upon his body myself. I doubt not that Boromir was waylaid by Orcs, or that they have taken him into the mountains."
"Nor do I, Legolas, but how do Orcs come by such weapons?"
"Call you this a weapon?" Elfhelm asked. "I see only a piece of broken glass."
"The stuff this bottle held can burst into flame on the instant," Legolas said, grimly. "I watched it set Ents to burning like torches and smelled it in their smoking wounds. I know not what to call it, but I know that it is foul and dangerous."
"And the Wizard made it, you say?"
"Then might not the Wizard's Orcs know how to wield it?"
Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli all turned to gaze at the Rider in silence, their faces betraying their dismay. It was Arahael who spoke first, breaking the spell that held them.
"Did not all Saruman's creatures perish in the flood?"
Aragorn swallowed once to clear the tightness from his throat and rasped out, "Nay. Not all."
"Uglúk," Gimli growled.
"What is Uglúk?" Arahael asked.
"Captain of the Uruk-hai, a cursed Orc, and the canniest of that breed ever to foul the air of Middle-earth!" In a sudden burst of fruitless rage, Gimli hurled his axe to the ground and raised a fist to shake it at the silent peaks gazing down at him. "A plague take you, Boromir! How many times must we pull you out of the same trap? I should have tied you to a chair, kept you prisoner in Aglarond 'til Aragorn returned! I should have… I should have hidden your sword!"
Legolas clasped his shoulder in mute understanding, and the anger drained from Gimli as swiftly as it had come. His arm fell, and he opened and closed his fist helplessly against his mailed thigh.
"Take up your axe, Gimli, for you will need it," Aragorn chided softly.
The Dwarf gave an apologetic grunt and bent to retrieve his weapon from the grass.
Aragorn swept the ring of pale, tense faces turned to his and said, "It seems likely that Boromir was taken by the Uruk-hai. We know that some of their number escaped, under Uglúk's command, and that he among all the Orcs of Middle-earth has the wit to use Saruman's weapons against us. But still we do not know how he came to possess them."
"There must be an unguarded way into Orthanc," Arahael said.
"Or Saruman kept his stores elsewhere," Aragorn amended. "The mountains about the Wizard's Vale are riddled with tunnels and caves. Could they not have housed more than Orcs?"
"Treebeard sealed up many such caves to keep the Orcs from returning to Isengard," Gimli said. "We Dwarves helped him find them."
Aragorn regarded him thoughtfully, a smile tilting his lips that had nothing of mirth in it. "Sealed them from without, not from within. If Uglúk knew of the Wizard's stores, he might easily have found and plundered them in the years since the fall of Isengard. We have been fools, my friends. Fools to think that a band of Uruk-hai would retreat tamely into exile, leaving behind a Wizard's hoard."
Elfhelm paled. "Will they attack Rohan, my lord?"
"I doubt they have the numbers, but I will not play hazard with the lives of your people. We must take counsel with Treebeard and find a way to burn out that nest of vermin once and for all."
"Aragorn?" The King looked quickly to Legolas, caught by the hopeful note in his voice. "Might not those tunnels give us our door into the Orcs' realm? Gimli knows where they are, and Fangorn has the skill to open them…"
Aragorn caught him by the arm, cutting off his words, and whirled on the Rider. "Marshal Elfhelm, take your éored and ride south with all speed to Orthanc! Tell Treebeard that King Elessar begs this service of him, that he will find and open the passages into the mountains. Gimli, my friend…"
"Nay, Aragorn, you need not even ask. I and such of my Dwarves as can sit a horse will go south with the Rohirrim."
"Legolas, Faramir and I will remain here with the Men of Ithilien and Gondor. We will continue the search for the western door. Send word by your swiftest courier if you gain entrance to the tunnels, and I shall do the same. If you hear not from me by the third day after you reach Isengard, do not wait for me, but lead your troops into the caves."
Gimli grasped Aragorn's forearm in a soldier's salute and growled, "We will meet again in Uglúk's lair. Do not doubt it."
"Go swiftly, my friend, and good fortune go with you."
"And with you, my king." Gimli turned bright, fierce eyes on Legolas and growled, "Farewell, Master Elf. Do not forget what I have taught you of close fighting."
Legolas smiled. "I will not. Farewell, Gimli."
Then Dwarf and Rider were gone, hastening away to summon their troops. Legolas watched them go until they had passed out of the range of even his keen sight.
"Come, Legolas," Aragorn said at last. "We have much ground to cover and fewer men with which to do it."
With a slight sigh that Aragorn graciously forbore to notice, Legolas shouldered his bow and turned to follow his king into the trees.
*** *** ***
His leg would no longer move at his command. He could not bend it save by digging his heel into the floor and shifting his body forward, forcing his knee upward, while waves of agony coursed through him like poison in his blood. He had to repeat the process three times ere he was able to guide the manacle chain beneath his heel and over his foot, but at last he managed it. With his left leg through, he quickly pulled the right through as well and collapsed back on the floor, shaking and breathless with pain.
The Orcs were still carousing, their voices carrying loudly from the main cavern, sounding angry, restless, and oddly melancholy to Boromir's ears. He heard snatches of tales, all hearkening back to the glorious days of war and pillage under the standard of the White Hand. Voices rose in bursts of rage or bitterness, as the Orcs compared their life as soldiers of Orthanc to their squalid existence as exiles beneath the mountains.
Boromir listened to their complaints, a humorless smile upon his lips, and pushed himself away from the floor. He had fitted the glass shard into one of his manacles, so he would not lose it while he struggled to pull his feet through the chain. Now he worked it free again, his fingers slipping on its smooth, hard surface.
The awkward blade had no dull edge to grasp, no place where he might hold it without cutting himself. Tearing a strip from his cloak, he bound it about his hand, then he turned the shard around until he found a firm purchase on it and began sawing at his rope tether. He had no very clear idea of what he would do, once he gained his freedom, but he had vowed that he would not spend another day tied like a beast in Uglúk's den, and Boromir of Gondor never broke a vow.
Uglúk was shouting for more wine, trying to jolly his lads out of their ill humor with promises of strong drink and bloody victories to come. Boromir clutched his blade the tighter and dug it all the harder into the thick, greasy rope, when he heard Uglúk describe the plunder and feasting that awaited the Uruk-hai within the pitiful fortresses of Men. They would burn out the horselords, he assured the drunken troops, sack their villages, eat their young, and set the able-bodied to labor at the rebuilding of Isengard. For the Wizard's Vale would be theirs once more, and the Tree Demons banished into the old forest or destroyed with axes and fire.
With a final cut of his blade, the rope parted and Boromir was free at last. He thrust the glass shard back into the manacle about his wrist, then he grasped the ring still sunk in the wall and hauled himself to his feet. At his first step, his wounded leg collapsed beneath him, pitching him to the floor and wrenching a gasp of pain from him. He bit down hard on his tongue to stifle the sound and lay rigidly still, straining his ears for some sign that the Orcs had heard him.
They were quieting at last, falling into a stupor of drink and cooling anger. Uglúk still moved among them, but his voice had dropped from a shattering bellow to a rumble, and Boromir could catch few of his words. The din was still loud enough to mask his furtive noises, however, so after a few tense minutes, he ventured to move again.
This time, he did not attempt to stand. He needed a staff to support his weight and a weapon with which to defend himself, and he hoped to find those things in the heaps of plunder Uglúk kept at the back of the cave. Shifting awkwardly onto his hands and one knee, Boromir half crawled, half dragged himself around the cold fire pit in the center of the floor to the stacked arsenal.
He knew this cave as well as he knew his own chambers in the Tower of Guard. He had never been free to explore it, but he had listened to Uglúk prowl its confines often enough, and he remembered where every crate, barrel and rusted piece of armor was stored. He approached cautiously, testing the air before him to avoid spitting himself on a spear in his haste, and finally felt rough metal under his hands.
They were orcish weapons he found first, clumsy and heavy-bladed, too large for Men to wield. Shifting to his left, he encountered a stack of bows, their strings rotted, and bundles of arrows now warped and useless. Still farther were helms, breastplates, vambraces and greaves thrown into a heap together, leather and iron and silver, all battered and dented by the blows that had crippled or slain their wearers. And finally, propped against the wall with their butts buried amongst the piled armor, he found lances.
He guided one free of the pile and set its steel-shod foot firmly against the stone floor. Then, clutching it in both hands, he used it to lever himself to his feet. The lance held his weight, though it was slender and light, meant for throwing, not for use as a crutch, and Boromir risked a step with its support. The familiar agony of torn muscles and flesh washed through him, but his own strength and the lance sufficed to keep him upright. He could walk, if not very quickly, and now all that remained was to arm himself.
Boromir limped slowly along the wall, stopping to investigate the contents of the pile every few steps. He knew, in those practical parts of his mind that he chose to ignore for the present, that he could not wield a sword while chained at the wrists with a lance in one hand. Even without the lance, he would be badly hampered by the chains, which gave him only a small range of movement. But the soldier in him felt naked without a sword at his side.
Boromir's knee struck an object protruding from the pile, and he halted yet again, sliding one hand down the shaft of the spear to bring his free hand closer to the barrier in his path. The Orcs in the outer cavern had fallen quiet, no sound but snores carrying through the hide curtain, so the sudden crunch of booted feet on stone seemed hideously loud in his ears. He froze in shock for the space of a breath, then he snatched at the weapon under his hand, not caring what it might be, as the curtain whipped aside and Uglúk strode into the chamber.
The Orc halted just inside the door, as stunned as Boromir by this unexpected meeting. Boromir whirled to face him, leaning heavily on the lance when his leg buckled beneath him, and lifted his unknown weapon. Uglúk started toward him at a full charge, a hissed curse on his lips. Boromir leveled the weapon – an orcish dagger, by the feel of it – to point at his onrushing enemy, but Uglúk swept it aside with one blow of his hand, knocking it from Boromir's hand. Another blow snapped the spear just below Boromir's fist, and he began to fall.
Iron fingers closed about his throat, choking off his breath and lifting his feet from the floor. Boromir struggled in the Orc's grip, fighting the killing grip, while Uglúk shook him like a child's toy. Boromir lifted both hands to claw at his massive arms, only then realizing that he still held the business end of the lance in one hand. The blade struck Uglúk in the side of the head, bringing another curse from him and causing him to tighten his grip still more fiercely.
"Chief?" The call, only dimly heard by Boromir through the rushing of blood in his ears, came from just outside the curtain. "Did you call for something?"
Boromir could feel strength and awareness slipping away from him. He knew that he was dying, that Uglúk would squeeze the life out of him in another moment, but when he heard the Orc's voice snarling a curse at his curious lieutenant, a last, desperate fury took him. He clutched the spear in both hands and, aiming directly for Uglúk's voice, drove it forward with all his waning strength.
The curse turned to a gurgling sigh. Blood gushed hot and foul over Boromir's hands. The fingers round his neck went slack, and he sucked in a grateful breath, just as Uglúk, Captain of the Fighting Uruk-hai, tumbled to the ground, dead. Helpless in his grasp, Boromir fell with him.
To be continued…
*** *** ***
Author's Note: Before you all threaten me with gruesome death for leaving you with this cliff-hanger, let me say that I am working on Chapter 10 as we speak!! I know it's a dreadful place to stop, but it was the only artistic breaking point in a chapter that would otherwise have run much too long and been very unwieldy. So I apologize, but I promise that the wait will not be long. Honestly.
Okay, now you can threaten me with gruesome death… -- Chevy