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Doomed to Live: 8. Cold Comfort
Yells, shouts and the overwhelming stench of sweating Orcs penetrated Merry's dream - for a dream it must be, or rather a nightmare. He dimly recalled being forced to run for a night and a day and another night, only to be picked up and carried now and then, whenever his strength had failed entirely. Then, without warning, he fell, and there was pain and the taste of damp grass and earth in his mouth, small stones digging into his arm and knee, and Merry knew for sure that he was no longer dreaming. Yet neither whip-crack nor Orc urged him to rise. The reason for their sudden stop he could not discern, for all he could see was dark trampled grass beneath him and the thick legs of Orcs around him with feet shod in crude-fashioned boots that stomped impatiently.
This was no Orc-voice. Merry looked around, yet he could see nothing but Orcs in the darkness. Ahead, where the shouts were loudest, torchlight flickered in the cold night-air and most Orcs peered intently in that direction, their hideous features contorted by the dancing shadows. The bulky figure of Uglúk pushed its way through the crowd, lashing left and right with his whip whenever the others did not give way quick enough. Merry sensed an opportunity. With the Orcs around him either too distracted by whatever had caused the commotion or too eager to rest their tired legs, none payed their prisoner much heed. Shaking off the last cobwebs of dark and evil dreams, Merry scrambled to his feet, as quickly as his bound hands and wobbly legs allowed, and scurried off after Uglúk.
Yet his intention did not go unnoticed. Shouts rose behind him, clawed hands grabbed at him, and dark shapes closed in on him so as to bar his way. But Merry was a Hobbit and quick on his feet, darting hither and thither, a small shadow flitting through the throng of Orcs. But he could not evade them forever. The thong of a whip curled around his legs, and for the second time that night he tasted dirt.
"Strider! Wake up! They'll kill you!"
Wide awake in spite of his fall, Merry would have shot to his feet when his mind choose to recognise the voice at last, but an Orc had him pinned. Pippin! Merry struggled, hard, against the hand that held him down, but other than eliciting raucous laughter from the Orcs who stood nearby, his struggle was in vain.
Another of Pippin's heart-wrenching cries pierced the night-air. Merry was close to despair, unable as he was to come to his cousin's aid, and found himself short of begging to be released. Just then the Orc holding him down grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and jerked him to his feet.
From his new position Merry could make out the source of the flickering light: a single torch, stuck in the ground near the center of a tight circle formed by jeering and hooting Orcs. But he still could not see Pippin. Merry tried to peek around the huge creature in front of him but found his shoulder held in a vice-like grip that did not allow for much movement. Merry's impatience grew. He craned his neck to catch a glimpse of his guard yet was met with nothing but an evil sneer in reward. Again he turned his attention to the center of the small circle. This time he found his sight unblocked, and his breath caught in his throat. Next to the torch was Pippin, huddled protectively over the prone figure of Strider, sheltering the unconscious Man from the angry lashes of Uglúk's whip while trying to shake him awake.
But Pippin's attempts to rouse the Ranger were of no avail. Even as two Uruk-hai stepped forward at a flick of Uglúk's hand and pried the screaming and kicking Hobbit away from his charge, Aragorn did not so much as twitch. To Merry's growing horror, the two Orcs roughly shoved Pippin towards their leader, and Uglúk closed one of those huge clawed hands around Pippin's throat. Without effort he lifted the struggling Hobbit off the ground with one hand, while shaking out his whip with the other. "Now that was a stupid thing to do!" Uglúk snarled, "Cute, but stupid. The tark's fate is none of your business. You cause nothing but trouble, rat! I'll teach you a lesson." With those words, Uglúk tossed Pippin away from him and raised his whip.
"Pippin! No!" Merry called, but the hooting and clapping of the Orcs drowned out his desperate shout. Twice the cruel leather thong cracked ere Merry managed to break free from his guards' grasp and throw himself between Pippin and the whip. Pippin lay on the ground, stunned, his bound hands raised in defence. Tears had left wet tracks in the dirt that covered his face, but there was still a hint of defiance left in his eyes.
A shadow fell over Merry as Uglúk stepped closer. Turning away from Pippin, Merry found the menacing creature towering above him, much too close for comfort. "You're as much of a nuisance as the other one!" Uglúk growled. "Seems you've had too much time for rest. But I won't forget. Payment is only put off."
Merry knew not whether to feel dread or relief at Uglúk's words. He did not dare imagine what 'payment' Uglúk had in store for them, but if Pippin would be spared any further lashes for now, he would not complain.
Uglúk straightened and let his glare sweep over his minions. "Finish the tark, we're leaving!"
Merry froze. Entrapped in a state of shock he looked to Pippin, who was at the verge of tears yet already climbing to his feet, the recent punishment forgotten. Before Pippin could give Uglúk further reason to use his whip, a smaller Orc stepped out of the circle of onlookers and growled, "We've done nothing but run since the night before. Give us a break! The tark could use one as well. Then he'll be fit for some sport later on. That's more fun than a quick kill."
The suggestion was met with affirmative shouts from every direction, but Uglúk would have none of that. "Silence!" he bellowed and lashed out at the smaller Orc. His minions cowed before him, discontent clearly written on their hideous faces, but none dared to oppose Uglúk openly. "Silence, you rabble!" Uglúk repeated, slowly turning around, subduing each of the surrounding Orcs with his menacing glare. A vicious grin contorted his features as he in turn regarded his subordinates, the cowering Hobbits and the unconscious Ranger. Revealing a mouthful of yellow jagged teeth in a wicked mockery of a grin, Uglúk turned to Merry.
"You!" the Orc-captain sneered, pointing a clawed finger at Merry, and Merry could not help but flinch under the penetrating gaze. "If you manage to get the tark back on his feet, he'll live. And no tricks!"
Merry tried hard not to cower before Uglúk's menacing presence, while fighting to get his frantically racing thoughts under control. Still wondering about Uglúk's sudden decision to spare the Ranger's life, an idea flashed through Merry's mind. Before his sudden burst of courage vanished, he said, attempting to sound as innocent and honest as he could, "If I am to help him, I'll need my hands free ..."
Uglúk gave a barking laugh in reply. "Nice try! You're a smart one, ain't ya? But old Uglúk won't fall for that." With a pat on the cheek that left the Hobbit reeling, Uglúk shoved Merry in Aragorn's direction.
Merry hardly managed to maintain his balance and came to a halt just a step short of stumbling into the prone figure on the ground. With a sigh he dropped his gaze and let his eyes sweep over Aragorn. His heart sank. Aragorn lay unmoving, his head turned to one side, his face pale beneath dirt and sweat and blood, and his eyes tightly shut. But what worried Merry the most was the stain that spread from Aragorn's right shoulder down to the middle of his back, glistening dark and wet in the flickering torch-light. Merry went to his knees, trembling hands tentatively reaching for the Ranger, searching for a sign that the Man was still alive.
A soft moan reached Merry's ears as he brushed away some sweat-soaked strands of dark hair so as to get a better look on the source of all the blood that covered Aragorn's face. Encouraged by the reaction, however weak, he bent down and whispered, "Strider, can you hear me?"
Another inarticulate groan was all he received by way of an answer, but Merry would not give up yet. "Strider, you must be on your feet in a little while ... or they'll kill you!"
A cough shook Aragorn's body and he grimaced with pain. "... let ... me," was all Merry could understand of the mumbled reply. Hesitantly, he reached for Aragorn's injured shoulder, but ere his fingers could even touch the blood-stained cloak, Aragorn's eyes flew open. "Merry!" the Ranger's voice was raspy, but more intelligible than before, the grey eyes alert. "Are you well?"
Merry sat back on his heels, astonished and somewhat irritated at Aragorn's response. He had to swallow twice to find his voice. "Strider!" he hissed. "I can't believe it. You ask me if I am well?"
Aragorn closed his eyes again, but a hardly discernible twitch of the corner of his mouth gave away his silent amusement at the Hobbit's sudden outburst. Merry sighed, his irritation forgotten, and said, "I am well, as well as the circumstances permit. It is you I am worried about."
"I must admit that I have felt better ..." Aragorn murmured.
Merry gave a snort in reply, then became serious. "You are bleeding, and badly by the look of it."
"I feared as much," Aragorn sighed, then fell silent as if lost in thought. Finally he said, "Could you take a look at the wound and tell me what you see? It is most likely not a pretty sight, but I cannot assess the extent of the damage by feel alone."
Merry nodded by way of an answer, not caring whether Aragorn could see him or not, and shuffled closer to the prone Ranger. Again he reached for Aragorn's shoulder, but the result was what he feared. Unresponsive as his fingers were due to the tight bonds, his attempt to brush aside Aragorn's cloak ended in his useless hands clumsily tearing at the fabric. His eyes stung with helpless tears as Aragorn barely managed to bite back a cry of pain, his face contorted into a mask of agony. Merry glared at his bound hands as if his eyes alone could undo the coarse rope. The apology he was about to utter died in his throat as frustration turned into anger. Throwing caution to the wind, he turned to Uglúk and yelled, "I cannot help him like this!" raising his bound hands accusingly.
Uglúk stepped closer. "I said, no tricks!" he sneered.
"This is no trick! How am I to help him without the use of my hands?"
Uglúk hesitated for a moment, then let his yellow eyes sweep over the assembled Orcs who regarded the scene closely, always eager for some entertainment. His eyes came to rest on Pippin and an evil grin split his face. He pulled the younger Hobbit close with one hand while drawing a knife with the other only to press it against the Hobbit's throat. "I won't take any chances. One wrong move and this one suffers."
Merry swallowed hard, then looked up to meet Pippin's eyes. Pippin seemed pale yet tried hard to appear brave and even flashed Merry a timid smile. Merry gave a short nod in reply, a silent acknowledgement of Pippin's willingness to play Uglúk's game as well as a promise to do what he could for Strider. Then he stretched out his hands to an approaching Orc who severed the bonds with a jagged knife.
But Merry had not anticipated the pain that the sudden release brought forth. He doubled over as the blood rushed back into his aching fingers. A cheer went through the crowd of Orcs, a cheer that Merry hardly noticed. "Breathe!" a quiet voice to his left whispered. "Embrace the pain and let it flow through you. It will be easier to endure and vanish as quickly as it came." Aragorn watched him from the corner of his eyes, and his soothing voice had the desired effect. Merry drew a steadying breath, then straightened his back and wiped away the tears that had somehow sprung to his eyes. He flexed his fingers to test their strength and set to work.
His jaw set, Merry peeled away the layers of blood-stained and torn cloth as gently as he could, marvelling all the while that Aragorn managed to remain still. The dirty rag the Orcs had used as a makeshift bandage stuck to the wound, and Merry could not force himself to simply rip it off. He closed his eyes in frustration and forced his roiling emotions to calm. "I need water," he said at last, trying to sound as composed as he could, "and bandages."
The cheer running through the crowd did not surprise him but that one of Uglúk's lieutenants approached almost immediately did. The creature bowed in a ridiculously exaggerated gesture and dropped a water-skin and a small wooden box in front of Merry. "That'll have to do. You'd better hurry, we won't wait for the entire night!"
Merry accepted the proffered items with a submissive nod, then examined the wooden box. He closed the lid almost as soon as he had opened it, for the pervasive stench immediately gave away its contents. With a sigh he set it aside. He had no intention to use the vile Orc-medicine on a friend. Then he opened the water-skin, sniffed at its contents, then took a sip of the water to judge its quality. Its smell was stale but the taste fresh enough so he poured some of it onto the crude bandage, trying to ignore the subtle stiffening of Aragorn's shoulders.
The bandage would not come off without effort. In the end Merry managed to remove it without Aragorn crying out loud in pain, though he knew that the Ranger suffered. Once revealed, the source of Aragorn's agony did not look as repulsive as Merry had feared. The Man's entire shoulder, from the joint to the neck down to the shoulder-blade, was caked with blood and the gruesome details of the wound were not discernible in the dim light. So Merry picked up the torch, ignoring the minute movement of the knife that touched Pippin's throat, and stuck it into the ground where it would shed more light onto Aragorn's injury.
"What do you see?"
"Blood. Let me see ... there is blood ... and some more blood ... and the remains of that Orc-medicine."
"Tear off a piece of my cloak. Then use some of the water and clean away the blood ... Then describe the wound to me."
"But that'll hurt!"
"Just try to make it quick. I will be able to bear the pain."
Merry nodded, again not sure whether Aragorn could see it, and obediently followed the Rangers instructions as best and as gentle as he could, ignoring the occasional hiss and the quickening of the other's breathing.
"It looks rather ugly to me ..." Merry said at length.
"Would you care to elaborate?" If there was a hint of annoyance in Aragorn's voice, it was not discernible, for his reply was barely more than a croak.
Merry ignored his question but picked up the water-skin instead. Helping the Ranger to drink was an awkward endeavour, for Merry had neither the strength nor the intention to move him. Once he had managed to manoeuvre Aragorn's head and the water-skin into the right positions, the Ranger swallowed the cool liquid greedily and Merry was relieved to see some colour return to his face.
"Do you want some more?" Merry asked as he tilted the skin upright so as to let Aragorn catch his breath.
"No, not now," Aragorn replied, "maybe later, if there is enough water left. You will need most of it to clean the wound."
"But I have just cleaned it!"
"You have wiped away some blood and cleaned the vicinity. In order to really clean the wound itself and to prevent infection, you will have to rinse it thoroughly," Aragorn said sternly, but then continued in a softer tone. "First tell me what the wound looks like. Is it still bleeding?"
"Yes, it is. But not much." Merry tentatively reached for the wound and gently probed the darkened spots that spread from what seemed the deepest part of the cut towards the neck and shoulder joint. He jerked back his hand as Aragorn winced at his probing touch. "There are dark marks here, here and here." Merry cautiously brushed his fingers against the other's skin to indicate the position of the marks.
"Bruises, most likely, unless they feel hot to the touch."
"No, they don't, but they are almost black."
"That is nothing unusual. What about the wound? How deep is it? Can you see whether it is clean?"
Merry swallowed ere he wiped away some blood that had oozed from the cut so as to get a better look. "It is quite deep, but not a clean cut."
"That was to be expected. The Orcs' blade was not too sharp, or I would have bled to death some time ago."
Merry grimaced at Aragorn's rather emotionless assessment of his situation but then focused back on the task at hand. He bent low over the Ranger's body and continued his examination. Nausea churned his stomach and tightened his throat as he discovered something white among the raw flesh, and he had to swallow twice ere he could speak. "There ... is something white ... seems to be shards of bone ..."
Merry swallowed again, then carefully brushed his fingers over the afflicted part. "Here ..."
Merry tried to take a closer look but had to turn aside as his stomach threatened to betray him. His vision blurred. The Orcs were delighted at his obvious distress, but their laughter was drowned out by a sudden ringing in his ears. "Merry! Put your head down! And breathe!"
Somehow Aragorn's voice managed to penetrate the haze of dizziness and nausea, and Merry followed his command without thinking. Slowly his vision cleared and the tightening of his throat vanished. "Take a sip of water, that will help," came the gentle instruction and Merry did not hesitate to comply.
"I am sorry, but ..."
"There is no need to apologise, Merry. I should not have asked this of you."
"And who else would you have asked?" Tears stung in Merry's eyes as shame and helplessness threatened to overwhelm him. He had always deemed himself strong, but in situations like this, he would gladly relinquish responsibility to someone more knowledgeable, more experienced in handling such matters. Yet there was no other to help him. Pippin, though brave, was not an option and Strider was in no condition to help himself. If Boromir were here, he would know what to do. But the memory of Boromir, driven to his knees by crude orc-arrows, opened an abyss of despair as deep and dark as the chasm of Khazad-dûm. It would have swallowed Merry whole had not Pippin's voice suddenly pierced his misery.
The cry was cut off as Uglúk pressed the knife closer to Pippin's throat and bellowed, "Now get going! I won't wait for all eternity!"
Merry glared at Uglúk both for the needless reminder and for the harsh treatment of his cousin. Then he turned back to Aragorn, took a deep breath and resumed his task. "There are two large shards and a couple of smaller ones," he said to Aragorn, though his voice threatened to falter.
"You need not continue, Merry, if you do not feel up to the task."
"I feel better already and Uglúk is getting impatient. What shall I do now?"
"The collar-bone is broken, but there is not much that can be done about it now. If the bleeding is as light as you say, it should be no more trouble than the broken bone. Just rinse the cut with plenty of water, then apply some of that orc-medicine to it. If you could cover it with a reasonably clean piece of cloth, I would be grateful."
Merry nodded and reached for the water-skin, but stopped in his movements as Aragorn spoke again, "Just one more thing, Merry. The treatment will hurt ... I might not manage to remain still all the time ... I might even swoon. But please do as I told you!" Aragorn met his eyes squarely so as to emphasise his words, though his head was still tilted awkwardly to one side. "Do not use all of the water. Should I swoon, a few splashes should be enough to rouse me."
His jaw firmly set, Merry set to work. More than once he wished he could close his eyes and block his ears, though Aragorn fought hard to neither move away from his ministrations nor scream. The Orcs jeered and hooted in delight, and Uglúk grinned, content that his minions were thoroughly entertained during their rest and did not feel compelled to quarrel among themselves.
Before long, Merry was finished and ripped off a large piece of cloth from his undershirt to bandage Aragorn's shoulder. The rest of the water he held out for the Ranger to drink, and Aragorn swallowed eagerly. "What about your other wounds?" he asked at length.
"Nothing more but scratches," came the weak reply, but Aragorn did not protest as Merry brushed away strands of hair and examined the cut on his cheek. Merry was just about to test his luck and turned to Uglúk to demand more water, when a hissed command stopped him.
"What?" Merry whispered, returning his attention to Aragorn.
"I thank you for your help, but now you must listen to me!" Aragorn said. "I know not whether an opportunity will present itself, but should you see the slightest chance to flee, then do it! Take Pippin and make southwards. At the feet of the White Mountains the Rohirrim dwell, they will help you and protect you."
"But what about you?"
"Worry not, I will accompany you if I can, but they will guard me closer than Pippin or you. Neither of you must reach Isengard! Do you understand?"
Merry felt despair rise again at Aragorn's urgent words, but he nodded nonetheless if not really convincingly.
"Merry, I do not disregard your courage, but you do not know what awaits us at Isengard and neither should you. Believe me when I say that I would rather face Saruman and his dungeons alone ..."
Aragorn's words were cut short by the crack of a whip and Uglúk's bellow, "Enough of this chatter! Bind the rat and get the tark back to his feet! We are leaving."
Merry caught one last pleading look from Aragorn before rough hands dragged him away and the Orc-camp exploded in a flurry of activity. His hands were bound again. Orders were shouted and he again was surrounded by Orcs. Pippin and Strider were no longer in sight.
To be continued ...
A/N: Thanks to Lyllyn for patiently answering my questions concerning medical issues as well as catching the odd typo, and to Amanda for the beta-reading. You have both been a great help! Another special thank goes to Marigold for choosing this story as her "Pick of the Week".
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