3. To Isengard
Groaning, Pippin landed hard on the ground and heard Merry land nearby soon after. Pippin's arms were useless weights after clinging to the Orc's neck all day. He and his cousin lay still as they watched the Orcs stomp away, grumbling again about carrying prisoners with two working legs, leaving them alone in the deepening dusk. Pippin slowly sat up and looked off to the fading light in the west, where the dark of Fangorn Forest loomed. He remembered the warning of Lord Celeborn and shivered. Would the Orcs take them in there?
He felt a tug on his arms and turned to see Merry grab his hands, still bound together, and begin shaking them vigorously, so that his arms swung up and down. "What are you doing?"
"Your arms are numb, aren't they?"
"Well, this ought to get the blood moving again."
"Oh." Pippin allowed Merry to continue until he felt the prickle of returning circulation in his fingers. "Ooh, pin pricks." He shook off Merry's hands. "Now let me return the favor."
After a few minutes, both hobbits were feeling more fully limbed. Pippin was examining the knots on the ropes binding his wrists when Merry suddenly squeezed his arm hard. "That's quite enough now, Mer-"
"Shush, Pippin! Look!"
Pippin peered in the direction Merry was looking, but he saw nothing unusual. That is, he saw a bunch of smelly Orcs arguing, as they always seemed to do. Many of the creatures glanced over at them often. The two appeared unguarded, but they were not unnoticed. Even in the dark, the brutes would see every move. Pippin looked back at Merry. "Yes?"
"That one, over there. Look at what he's holding."
Pippin watched for a creature holding anything of interest. The grey Orcs seemed to blend in with the twilight and he could barely distinguish one from another. Many walked at all times with their weapons in hand, as if always ready for battle. More often, it seemed the battle was with another Orc. They brandished swords carelessly, threatening each other on a whim. Then Pippin saw something that struck him as vaguely familiar. He frowned as he tried to remember.
"If you don't say that's Gimli's axe, I'll shear the hair off my feet!"
"That's it, Merry! I couldn't place it without-" Pippin stopped suddenly and swallowed. "But if he's got Gimli's axe..." He looked at Merry with concern. "That doesn't bode well, does it?"
"No, Pip. It doesn't, not at all." Merry seemed deep in thought as he lowered his voice to a whisper. "He may have tried to rescue us, instead of going off to Mordor with the others."
Pippin wondered at Merry's words. "You think the whole Company would go off to Mordor, leaving Gimli alone to come after us? Boromir wanted to go-" Pippin's last sight of Boromir loomed before him suddenly, complete with arrows. "Oh."
"Whoever was left, that is," Merry said quietly. "Maybe Gimli had to go alone. Of course, seeing an Orc walk around with his axe..." Biting his lip, he looked pointedly at Pippin. "I've heard they take the weapons of those they've slain."
Pippin stared at his cousin, eyes wide with horror. "Merry! How can you say - can you not see any hope for them?" He added in a whisper, "Have we no friends left at all?"
"I don't know, Pip. It's hard here, among these beasts, to find such assurance."
Recalling the many times when Merry had raised him up out of despair, Pippin realized now was the moment to be strong for Merry, and he drew himself up. "Well, you must. Whether there is hope to be had or none at all, we must hold onto ours. It's the only way that we'll get out of this. That much I know."
Merry rewarded Pippin with a small smile. "We hope then. Whether it makes sense or no."
Pippin beamed. "That's my Merry." His smile faded as he looked out among the Orcs. "An Orc may have Gimli's axe, but Gimli may yet live."
"That he may." Merry's look grew distant. "He tried to rescue us, that's what he did. But not alone, I think. Legolas would not be parted from him." He looked back to Pippin with a solemn expression. "They must have trailed the army, but then something happened. Something went wrong."
Pippin nodded with a grimace, accepting Merry's attempt to create a new fate for their friends. "I can't imagine what would make Gimli give up his axe." Pippin's chest grew tight suddenly and his throat felt as if it had shut on him.
Suddenly, an Orc appeared in front of them then. "Quiet, you two! No talking. No tricks. Got it? We got ways of keeping you quiet that won't upset nobody." The threat in his gravelly voice was clear. The two hobbits looked back at their new guard with wide eyes and closed mouths.
When the Orc had stomped off far enough, Merry continued their conversation quietly, without looking at Pippin. "He would only give up his axe if he had no choice, Pip. If he were captured, for instance."
"Captured!" Pippin whispered, fighting the doubt creeping into his mind. "Right," he said tentatively, hearing Merry's words again on Orcs' habits with their victims' weapons.
His cousin frowned sternly. "Gimli lives, Pippin, remember? The rest have gone off to-" Merry looked up at the guard now paying them no mind and hushed his voice anyway. "- to complete their task." Merry sighed. "Gimli captured, I'd never have imagined it. Gimli is as tough as stone."
Pippin nodded, clamping his eyes and mind shut against more likely tales. Didn't he just tell Merry they must hope even when there was none? It was proving harder to do than to say. "If Legolas went with Gimli as you say, he must be a prisoner with him then!" Pippin frowned. "But Legolas is faster than anyone, Merry. How could he be captured? And by Orcs! Bilbo says they hate Elves so!" He thought for a moment, then raised his eyebrows hopefully at Merry. "Perhaps it's part of their plan, to get closer to us."
"I suppose." Merry's voice held no conviction, and Pippin's optimism faltered.
Pippin looked at his filthy feet. "I hate to think they've been captured because of us. Perhaps they haven't been captured! Perhaps-"
Merry gave Pippin a fierce look, his brow furrowed deeply as his face twisted in what Pippin thought might have been anger or despair. "An Orc is walking around with Gimli's axe! What better explanation can you give - what explanation do you prefer for why that Orc has his-?"
"Ai! Do I have to teach you the meaning of quiet? Hush now! If I have to go over there and leave this hunk of meat behind, it won't be here when I come back. Then you'll have to provide some meat for me!" With a threatening glare, the apparent guard returned to his seat and his meat.
Merry looked straight ahead and finished his thought quietly, the despair in his voice even more evident. "What better scene can you imagine that ends with an Orc walking away with Gimli's axe?" He took a deep breath and continued. "There was a battle, we can be sure of that, and we know they fought fiercely." Pride raised Merry's voice and he had to lower it to a whisper once more. "But with so many Orcs, even great warriors as they could not win such a fight." Merry sighed. After a moment of thought, he added, "I suppose the escape we were hoping for won't be coming from that direction now."
Pippin closed his eyes. He could not bear the thought of losing more friends. As it was, he could hardly think of Gandalf without being overcome with grief. He did not allow himself to think on Boromir. Additional losses would be more than he could endure. He believed in the tale they created because he needed it. He was able to feel a bit of relief then in the idea of Gimli and Legolas's capture, dreadful as it was. They were alive. That was enough.
It must be enough, for there was little else from which to draw comfort. Alive they were, but prisoners, as he and Merry were. They were likely injured, too, and the Orcs wouldn't treat them too kindly, he imagined. "Well, I suppose it's up to us, then." Pippin looked at Merry expectantly.
Merry's frown slowly turned into a bit of a smile. "Yes, I suppose you're right. We must work something out. We'll have to free them as well, naturally. Wouldn't do to escape and leave them captive."
"Oh, certainly. That wouldn't be polite at all." Pippin smiled back, but his smile, like Merry's, failed quickly. They had no weapons. Their hands were bound so tightly Pippin feared he would never again feel his fingers. And the Orcs assigned to them rarely left them alone. Even now, he felt the watchful eyes of their new guard upon them. Escape of any sort was going to be quite a trick.
"What're you doing over here?" Norgry stopped mid-stride as he found Fagrod standing guard over the halflings. "You're supposed to be on the others."
"Machlhug wanted to switch," Fagrod muttered. "Said he was bored. My guess is he was feeling a bit empty in the gut. Always he was asking why we couldn't make a meal out of the rats, seeing as how they're bite-size and all. I reckoned it better if he put some distance between him and them, so I told him I'd take his shift."
Norgry grunted. Not a bad move on Fagrod's part. "Well, maybe one shift. After that, I need you back on duty over the elf and the others. Those three'll try to escape given half a chance. Need someone I know is going to keep an eye out. Can't have no bumblings by this Mordor lot. I ain't losing them." Fagrod nodded. "And another thing. Keep a careful eye on Uglúk. He was right pleased when I told him about the elf but didn't want nothing to do with the man or the dwarf after that. He's got half a mind to leave those two to die and just keep the elf. Says mortals are too much trouble to keep alive, that the halflings are enough to worry about."
Fagrod interrupted, "What he have to say about the sport we had?"
Norgry gave a harsh laugh. "Oh, he was none too pleased until he realized he would be getting some sport of his own with the elf. See, I figured that's where his mind was headed anyway. I just made him think it was all his idea in the first place. After he got to thinking about the elf, he didn't think too much about the other two. Which is good for us, 'cause I think they'll get this lot to quit their complaining along the way. I'm sure tired of the whining! So I have no thoughts of killing them yet."
Suddenly, Norgry heard shouting and hollering, and he and Fagrod turned to a loud ruckus rising up on the forest side of the camp. Norgry groaned. "Not again. I can't take much more of this! I think it's time for some heads to roll." Fagrod smiled.
Quickly ordering Fagrod to stay with the halflings, Norgry took a few steps until the other prisoners were in sight. Still under guard, though one of the guards was looking curiously at the scuffle. He gave him a warning scowl, and the Orc settled himself down. Only then did Norgry make his way to the brawl.
By then there were Northerners, Mordor rats, and uruks battling it out with a fury. As he watched, Norgry realized two things: Mauhúr and his lads had shown up, having come through the Forest, and were looking to show they were Isengarders not to be messed with. And they were mainly showing Grishnákh, who seemed to think he could take on the entire lot single-handedly. His Mordor lads were making themselves scarce.
So be it, then. Somebody had to put Grishnákh in his place. If Mauhúr wanted to take that on, it was all his. Norgry was going to just sit back and watch the show.
The sounds of Orcs quarrelling and scuffling had grown to a steady din as dusk became night. For some unknown time, chaos had seemed to reign. The peak of the frenzy had been punctuated by the head of the miserable Orc they called Grishnákh rolling past the two hobbits before the madness had gradually subsided. Now, as horrid faces gathered round distant fires to recount their roles in the violence with glee, Pippin questioned his cousin with his eyes.
"It's a bit quieter than earlier. But they're still distracted. We ought to try moving around a bit, see if they notice," Merry said. "But we can't simply take off without thinking it through, right?" Pippin nodded in agreement, and they struggled to their feet.
"Ai!" one of their guards cried as soon as they had taken a few steps. So the Orcs were more observant than they appeared to be. "What are you doing?"
"Just stretching our legs. That's all."
The other Orc slapped the first on the arm. "Look! I gotta see this."
"What's gonna be better than seeing Grishnákh's head lopped off? Now that's a sight that'll bring a smile to my face for days to come. Ain't gonna get any better than that! 'Sides, we're on guard."
"Hey, after you seen that, you never can say what's gonna happen next. I ain't missing it - come on!"
"And what are we supposed to do? Carry these vermin on our backs?"
The other Orc's eyes lit up. "Nah, but we could bring them! Come, you two. You're with us. No tricks or I'll use this - and I'll enjoy it, see? So it won't take much for me to pull it out! Not a word now!" He put his knife away and grabbed Pippin; the other grabbed Merry and the hobbits were led by their guards into the crowd. As they neared the gathering, an odd change crawled over the group. First distant and then closer groups became subdued. Eventually, a confused tension smothered the raucous atmosphere of the entire crowd. The Orcs now chattered in taut, low voices. Pippin feared this calm more than the earlier clamor. Trying to pull himself closer to Merry, he watched the transformation with wide eyes, but he dared not speak.
Reaching the line where the Orcs pushed to have the best view, the hobbits were crushed amid a sea of grey legs, old leather, and crude metal weapons, surrounded by the smell of old meat, something akin to whiskey, and the general stink of Orc. Their guards clutched their necks in claw-like hands, keeping them close. Merry seemed to have the better vista, while Pippin was relegated to a view behind another Orc. But he would see something of what had the attention of all these creatures, so Pippin ignored his surroundings as best he could.
A shout came from across the camp. Movement rippled through the horde, followed by more scuffling and shouting. The commotion drew nearer. "Do you see anything, Merry?" His cousin only shook his head, so Pippin, also unable to see past the hulking bodies, resigned himself to waiting.
Merry was still as he watched the crowd. Then his eyes widened and he clutched at Pippin's arm as furtively as he could with his bound hands. "Pip! Look!"
Pippin anxiously angled his head from side to side, attempting to see what held Merry's attention. The Orcs' legs were in the way! And there were so many of them! For a moment, while he had no desire to be other than a hobbit, he might have appreciated being a rather tall hobbit, perhaps a few inches taller. As it was, they would have seen nothing at all if it weren't for one or two Orcs with torches in hand. Then - what was that? The crowd had parted to let someone pass. There, again, a bowed head, fair hair reflecting nearby torchlight. The pale head looked up and Pippin heard Merry gasp beside him. "Legolas," Pippin breathed.
As the elf drew nearer, Pippin could see a smaller figure marching ahead of him. He heard Merry's voice faintly through the din. "I don't know whether to be glad I was right or wish I'd been wrong." Pippin glanced up at their captors, but they had become completely engrossed in the parade of prisoners. Besides, they couldn't hear them talk, even if they had been paying attention, with the ruckus around them. "But it looks like they're captives indeed, just as we are. Only I don't know what they're planning for them now. They seem to be leading them somewhere."
Though Pippin's heart clenched to think to what fate his friends marched, he was elated to see them again. He was glad, too, to see them seemingly hale and whole. Pippin bent his head back and forth to keep his friends in sight. After a few moments, they neared enough that he began to lose sight of them among the crowd in front of him. Then an Orc shifted and the scene opened up before him.
Gimli was first in the line they were forced to march, strung with rope from one to the next and led by an Orc. Ropes bound the dwarf's hands, much like the hobbits, yet he walked straight and to his full height. Pippin was disconcerted to see him without his ever-present axe at his side. That Orc indeed had held Gimli's axe. 'Well, you don't have to shave your feet, at least, Merry,' Pippin thought. As he looked closer, he saw cuts and bruising on the dwarf's face he hadn't worn when Pippin had last seen him. Though it pained him to see the wounds, Pippin felt some of the pride Merry had proclaimed over Gimli's heroism in a battle he had only imagined; now it was all too real - Gimli clearly hadn't given up without a fight.
Behind him walked Legolas. Instead of ropes, his hands were bound in metal cuffs, attached to Gimli's ropes. They were taking no chances with an elf, Pippin supposed. Legolas also walked proud and tall, meeting the Orcs' jeers with a glare that flustered or angered many. Pippin was dismayed again, despite the elf's defiance, to see the evidence of the fight he had given. His face was bruised and scratched; his braided hair was tangled and matted with dirt, his tunic was in such shreds that Pippin could easily see the plentiful injuries done to Legolas's body, and he wished the beasts had spared the garment. It occurred to Pippin then, as the Orcs about Legolas threatened or cajoled him, that not all his injuries may have been received in the fight; the Orcs might have continued to punish him afterward. Might they have done so to Gimli, too? Pippin's heart tightened with new fear. He tore his eyes away, unable to look anymore.
To Pippin's dismay, another captive followed Legolas in the line. What was Strider doing here? Surely not rescuing them? Was Boromir with them as well, then, he wondered, clinging to hope beyond reason. They should have gone after Frodo and Sam. Did Frodo and Sam not go to Mordor after all? Were they on their way to Gondor instead? Or had their journey ended at the Anduin? Terror washed over Pippin at the thought.
"Strider's with them!" Merry suddenly whispered as if reading Pippin's mind.
Pippin was momentarily grieved when he saw no one followed Strider. He had quickly gathered up hope that he would see Boromir walking behind him, alive if not well. And just as quickly, he thought perhaps to see Frodo and Sam in binds trailing the man. When he did not, he was all the more confused. If his cousin and Sam were not with Strider, Legolas, and Gimli, where could they be? Did Strider leave Frodo and Sam alone to their fate? Pippin's hope began to crumble. He had not seen Frodo since his cousin had walked off along the shore of the Anduin, before the Orcs had attacked. So much could have happened since.
"What I can't figure," Merry continued, "is why the three of them would come after the two of us. How could Strider leave Frodo and Sam without a guide?"
Pippin looked at Merry with a dismal look on his face, his hope in pieces. His cousin was trying so very hard and all for him. He would say it and show his cousin he could be brave. "Merry, Frodo and Sam might have gone with them."
"And where would they be then?" Merry said fiercely.
Pippin backed away, shocked at his cousin's outburst. Perhaps his efforts were not for Pippin but for himself. "Or, maybe - maybe Strider and the others didn't have a choice but to leave them?"
Merry considered his words, calming quickly, and nodded. "Strider would have gone with Frodo and Sam. Legolas and Gimli gave chase after this army. They very well couldn't bring Frodo and Sam on such a trek. But Strider would never leave them..." Merry shook his head. "There's more to this tale than we know, cousin."
Yes, Pippin thought, so much more than we know. They knew nothing at all. No, that wasn't quite true. Pippin knew one thing, if he paid attention. Frodo lived. He knew this somehow. He would not question it. When he would forget to hope, he would remember this.
Pippin returned his gaze to the approaching captives. It was far more distressing than he expected to see Strider in captivity. The ropes that bound his hands seemed an insult to Pippin, but he was heartened to see the nobility shine in the Ranger's eyes despite the injuries he wore. The blood on Strider's leg was plentiful enough to be from a serious and recent wound that had bled long. As he watched the Ranger limp, Pippin realized that Merry had gotten the story of their chase and capture right. And Strider's wound was likely the cause of their fall. Pippin wondered then, what further injuries did he suffer? On the heels of that question came another that struck a new blow to his wavering hope: What harms did the others bear beneath their clothes? What if the pride and defiance they now displayed were for the sake of the Orcs who only wished to see them beaten? Pippin worried then at the true extent of their hurts. And throughout it all, he fretted over the possible whereabouts of his cousin and Sam.
Merry startled him by grabbing his arm and jerking his head toward his own guard. Merry's guard had released him to pump his fists in the air and add to the mayhem of cajoling the prisoners. Pippin's guard had taken a few steps forward in his enthusiasm. Merry's message was clear: they were unwatched. Merry peeked behind him and Pippin's eyes followed. There was land clear of Orcs behind them and trees further, darker against the night. Orcs beside them jeered and yelled, pounding on each other in their frenzy. Pippin looked back to where their friends walked battered and in bondage; as they grew closer, he longed for more sight of them. Merry had started edging backwards, however, and so Pippin reluctantly mimicked him, moving away from the crowd, and finally taking shield under a bush. After a moment, seeing they were still unnoticed, they turned and scurried a few more feet away, ducking behind a large boulder. Already, they were nearly to the edge of the camp.
Merry moved to continue, but Pippin clutched his sleeve in his bound hands. "Merry-"
"We must keep moving!"
"But they're almost to us!"
"That they are!" He stopped reluctantly. "And what do you suppose will happen when they lay eyes upon us?"
Pippin opened his mouth to answer but decided to rethink it. He came up with the same answer he originally intended, though. "They'll be happy to see us, I suppose. Would it not ease their minds to know we are all right?"
"And when they all turn to look at us, so will every Orc around us. I figure our guards weren't supposed to bring us up there. One of their bosses sees us and we'll be locked up good or worse." Pippin's mouth opened into a small o. Merry looked back to the spectacle they'd left behind with a frown. "We should not distract them anyway. To walk among these bloody Orcs as they are, they need all their strength."
Pippin didn't quite understand Merry's last words, but could not argue that their presence might bring unwanted attention. With one last glance, he saw their friends' feet trudge by, prodded by a large uruk and pulled by a somewhat smaller Orc. "Did they look all right, do you think?" Pippin looked to Merry, his need for reassurance showing far more than he wished.
Merry started to answer, but then stopped. He looked at his cousin sadly. "I don't know. I think - I think they've been beaten, Pip, from the look of them, but they're well enough to walk, and that is a good sign."
An ache was growing in Pippin's stomach that had nothing to do with hunger. "I would follow, if we could. We should know what this is about."
Merry was quiet for a moment, looking about them. "I'm worried about where all this is headed, too, but if we tarry too much longer, we'll lose this chance. We must leave now, Pip."
"But they've forgotten all about us, see. We just need to skirt around the edge of them."
"Pip, we leave now. Follow me." With that he turned and walked into the arms of an Orc.
"Ai! There you rats are! We didn't leave you here! See, Machlhug! They were thinking of walking off! Norgry would've had our heads!"
"Well, now we get to teach them a lesson about wandering, I'm thinking!"
"Forget about lessons and remember your orders!"
"Eh, we're right where you left us!" Pippin said in desperation. He was quite sure he wanted to avoid their lessons. "We've been here the whole time. You've just been distracted by whatever spectacle is happening over there."
"That spectacle is the call of the Master looking for his prisoners. And now it's your turn. You've been summoned." The Orc smiled with a frightening glee.
Pippin looked at Merry. The Master? That could only mean Saruman. Being summoned didn't sound much like fun.
"Get moving! This way!" The Orcs pointed in the same direction in which Gimli, Legolas, and Strider had been taken. It seemed they would see their friends soon enough. That could be good, Pippin thought, but the notion did not raise his hopes.
With a shove from an Orc, Pippin began trudging behind Merry towards a future master.
Merry squirmed under a sharply clawed paw as he was led to the treacherous wizard Saruman. If they hadn't tarried, they might have had their escape moments ago. Instead, they were to be brought before Saruman. This was the wizard whom their captors called Master, who held Isengard under his command, and the one who had betrayed them all. But what he was doing here, under the eaves of Fangorn Forest, leagues from his Tower? And what did he want with Pippin and him? What if Saruman asked for the Ring? Merry's heart froze at the thought. Of course he was after the Ring. Could he force them to reveal what they would hold secret? He was a wizard, after all.
As the Orc shoved Merry to his knees before Saruman and a crowd of curious Orcs, Merry saw that the wizard wore long white robes, and his staff glowed dimly in the torchlight surrounding them. His white beard, long and thin, ruffled in the evening breeze. Merry thought of Gandalf and his heart ached, but he felt at once that this wizard was nothing like Gandalf. Saruman's eyes glinted in a way Gandalf's never had, and Merry began to understand the meaning of corruption. Despite all he observed, there was something insubstantial about Saruman Merry could not explain. He had a suspicion that if he reached out to touch the being in front of him, he would feel nothing.
"Here are the halflings you asked for, Master. They have not been damaged, as you commanded. I apologize for the delay. They were wandering, sir."
"Yes, I see they are undamaged. That is good. These two are more important than you imagine. I will therefore stress that losing them would prove rather unhealthy." Saruman then gazed upon the hobbits intently. Merry looked at Pippin, trying to hide his worry. He tried not to fidget, but as the silence stretched on, he became more uncomfortable. Then suddenly, Saruman's eyes narrowed, and slowly he said only, "I see." He was silent for a moment more until he appeared to come to a decision. "You halflings presume much for your small stature. You should not meddle in affairs much greater than you. The world is much larger than the Shire." The condescension with which Saruman mentioned their homeland irked Merry. "You have only brought misery upon yourselves and your kin." Merry could see now a strange mixture of desire and disgust in his eyes. The wizard looked to the large Orc called Uglúk. "And these others you have found?"
"They're here, Master." Merry's stomach flipped as Uglúk motioned for an Orc to bring the other captives before Saruman. Only now did Merry see them, as the Orc grabbed Gimli by the neck and shoved him onto his knees, holding him in forced obeisance before Saruman. Legolas was shoved down with some struggle to his left, and Aragorn on his right. "See how they look upon the others, Master? My guess is these three were hunting for the halflings."
Merry glanced up at Saruman as he turned from the hobbits to examine his newest prisoners, and Merry shivered at the cold smile the wizard now wore. Turning back to his friends, he sucked in a breath as he laid eyes on them, a far closer look than he had gained through the legs of Orcs. He thought again of Boromir and knew he never rose from the wood where he was shot with arrows. That was all that would prevent him from being by their side now. Even as the thought threaded through his mind, he shut out thoughts of his cousin and Sam, loathe to consider that they too had been lost along the journey. He could not finish his thoughts and instead refocused on those friends he could see. Looking at them now, he could see that their injuries were more numerous and their weariness more evident than he'd expected, especially in Strider. Yet a shade of life returned to the Ranger's eyes as he laid eyes on Merry and his cousin. Gimli went so far as to offer a small smile that did not quite reach his eyes. Legolas wore an expression Merry could not decipher. It was almost as if he felt guilty. But for what could Legolas feel guilty when they were the reason for their friends' predicament? Merry felt his own shame spring up anew, knowing that they had suffered so much for them. And their suffering was likely not over.
"Saruman." Gimli was the one who named him, as if he only now discovered to whom the Orcs answered.
Saruman looked upon the dwarf with disdain, then to the elf, and his eyes turned hard and cold. "And what have we here?" He drew nearer though he kept a distance still between them. "Mm. A young elf, I see. How... amusing. Ah, you are of the forest of Mirkwood, are you not?" Legolas glared back silently. Merry wondered if he knew Legolas or if he was reading his mind. The thought terrified him. If he could read the mind of an elf, what chance did a hobbit have? "One of the Woodland Elves," Saruman chuckled, his voice thick with derision. "You are of no consequence, then."
Legolas finally bristled. "Better to be of no consequence than to be responsible for betraying all of Middle-earth."
Merry's heart leapt into his throat, not knowing how Saruman would take Legolas's impertinence. To his surprise, Saruman laughed deeply and slowly. "Yes, quite amusing. Your King Thranduil has dug himself into the ground in his stubbornness. I see that stubbornness runs in you as well." As Legolas stiffened, the wizard peered closer, as if to look deeper inside him. Saruman gasped then and let out a loud laugh. "My words hit the mark, I see, Thranduilion. Oh, but that the proud Thranduil would witness this moment, with his son in chains before me. This would be a moment to cherish."
With a laugh, Saruman turned from Legolas. "And so an elf travels with a dwarf. How you shame both your peoples. Neither Thranduil nor Dáin would relish this partnership. I imagine none that travels with you trusts you overmuch. Without doubt your greed will overcome you, and you would try to claim that which you propose to protect." Gimli managed to hold his tongue, but Merry began to feel indignant for him as he had for Legolas.
"An elf of Mirkwood, a dwarf of the Lonely Mountain, and a man." Merry strangled a small gasp as he realized the danger. What might Saruman do if he knew who Strider was? Strider was strong, but was he strong enough for a wizard? "Strange company kept," Saruman continued, "most of all if you indeed came in search of the two halflings. You can only be some of the company that set out from Rivendell. A fool's mission, now ended." Saruman looked narrowly at Aragorn. "Mm, and a Ranger as well." Merry stiffened. Did he so easily discern his mind? His hope that Strider would be able to forestall the wizard wavered. "Rangers are always concerning themselves with that which is not their concern." Saruman stared at Strider then. "What is your name?" he asked mildly.
The man hesitated not a moment. "Strider." Merry was relieved that he used so many names.
"Strider? No Man would name his son such." Merry saw the curiosity in Saruman's eyes grow, as did a twisted smile on his lips, and a shiver traveled down Merry's spine. He spoke in a pleasant tone that was almost... melodious. Merry was suddenly struck with an urge to offer whatever names he knew for the man, but something told him to keep his silence. "What did your father name you?"
Aragorn, son of Arathorn, stared back at Saruman with cold eyes. All was silent for a time. Soon Merry could sense the struggle between the two and grew afraid. As he willed the Ranger to have the strength to resist, he thought he saw Legolas's lips moving. Perhaps the elf prayed to the Valar for strength for Strider.
As if the words were ripped from his throat, Aragorn finally said, "My father named me Estel."
Merry breathed in relief, his own urge to offer information easing. Once again, the man's many names were to his advantage. He'd heard others refer to Strider by this name, but only at Rivendell. Perhaps he had a new name in every place he went. Merry hoped this was enough to deceive Saruman.
Saruman straightened, silently examining Aragorn. The five captives unknowingly held their breaths as the wizard narrowed his eyes. "The Dúnedain yet prefer to name their offspring in Elvish fashion. Hanging on to the past, I would say." His eyes continued to bore into Aragorn, as if still uncertain about his response. Merry thought desperately but in vain for a distraction. "Estel? Undoubtedly your father placed much hope in you. I suggest you abandon your hope, Dúnadan, for you fate now lies with me."
Suddenly, Saruman turned from the man. "Uglúk, you did well to keep these alive, despite your doubtless thirst for a kill. And for that, I will not withhold from you more of the sport you've already taken on these. But I command you now to arrive at Isengard with all prisoners alive." Saruman looked at the Orcs. "Do well to remember that mortals die easily. And these mortals shall be brought alive to Isengard or you shall have much to regret. Dwarves are sturdier than Men, but mortal all the same. Elves are difficult to kill, as I see you have not forgotten." Saruman paused to smile, and Merry began to despise the twisted expression. "Arrive as soon as you may, but do not go at a pace that would kill the mortal prisoners." With that, Saruman turned and walked toward the forest, blending into the darkness and fading from sight.
All looked about them disconcerted at the eerie departure. Then Uglúk announced, "You heard Saruman's orders! All captives are to arrive at Isengard alive. Spread the word. There will be no accidents!"
It was odd to find himself grateful to Saruman, and Merry wondered if he'd soon regret it. Saruman's orders and Uglúk's announcement made it sound like they hadn't planned to keep them all alive. Merry couldn't stand to think anymore on that possibility, so he returned to the three would-be rescuers. They had been abused already, but perhaps now they would be treated better. As it was, every injury on each of them was due to Pippin and him. They were the cause of every hurt they felt.
Large hands tore Merry from his contemplation and drove him back to their place in camp. On the way, the Orc leading him found those who had guarded them earlier, reminding them of their duty. "And don't lose them this time!" Merry thought wistfully of their lost chance of escape and wondered if there would be another.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.