Aragorn stumbled as the Orc prodded him up the stone stairs, his wounded leg buckling. Petty though it was at this point, he resented that he would be unable to hide his limp from Saruman. And he would see the wizard soon. They had arrived at Isengard.
They had only needed another day's march to arrive at the Tower. But to Aragorn it had seemed an age had passed, and he knew Legolas and Gimli must feel the same. While the elf had clearly suffered the worst in the last day, Aragorn's own injuries as well as the lack of nourishment were draining him of his strength. A part of him was relieved to arrive at Saruman's stronghold, if only for an end to the march - a misguided hope, he knew. Saruman was sure to have new untold horrors awaiting them.
Climbing the Tower Orthanc took longer than he expected. In the gloom relieved only by reflected torchlight, he pushed himself up winding stairs, listening to those who followed. The uneven shuffling of Legolas disturbed him, but the elf could not yet put weight on his broken foot and had been forced to accept Gimli's shoulder as a crutch. The weary hobbits panted behind them as they climbed the steep steps. He hoped for their sake it was not much longer to their destination.
Finally, the five prisoners arrived at a large circular hall, many levels above the ground. The stairs continued beyond the landing, circling the walls of the room and ascending to unseen spaces. Small, deep slits of windows high above them, following the rise of the stairs, allowed a hint of the dawn to creep into the room. The shining black stone that had greeted them at the doors met them here as well. Sharp ridges had been cut into the stone, deepening the sense of strength and solidity of the walls. The air hung heavy and stale, oppressive as the walls surrounding them.
As the Orcs shoved them into the center of the dim empty room, Aragorn lost his balance and sprawled to the floor, the others soon landing around him. They lay there silently as the Orcs filed out of the room without a word, leaving them alone together for the first time since the hobbits' capture.
Aragorn hesitantly looked about him. He heard nothing but the breathing and rustling of his companions and the clink of Legolas's chains. Any shouts or other noises were faint and far off. It appeared there was indeed no one but them nearby. He scrambled up to his knees and looked to the others for signs of their well being. Each showed the same astonishment at being left unguarded as they pulled themselves awkwardly off the floor, warily looking to the doorway through which they had come and into the many archways that lined the room, opening to murky unknowns.
But signs of well being were hard to come by. They were all quite a sight, especially the three of them who had hunted the Orcs. The man was painfully aware of how they must appear to the hobbits and he was glad for the meager light. Gaunt from days without food or water, their elven cloaks long gone to the amusement of their captors, their remaining clothes hung from their bodies, now too large and in shreds. The many bruises on Legolas's face showed brighter through his pallor. Gimli seemed less solid and formidable, his small stature more apparent. Aragorn could only imagine how he appeared, but he was certain he was unsightly. They were bruised, bound, and starved. Not a proud moment for a Ranger.
Thankfully, the hobbits had fared somewhat better. Their clothes were intact though filthy, which gave hope to Aragorn they had not been ill-treated. And they appeared to have been fed, not having a wasted look about them. They were not unchanged, however. Merry wore a sterner expression than Aragorn had ever beheld on a hobbit, as he sat protectively close to his cousin. The younger hobbit seemed daunted by the space. He looked up with wide eyes into the gloom where the far-off ceiling was engulfed in blackness.
Pippin looked to his cousin and then to Aragorn. "So, this is Isengard then?" he said with more timidity than his usual manner.
"Yes, Pippin, we are at Isengard, in the Tower of Orthanc," Aragorn said quietly, listening for a sudden approach of footsteps of any kind. He saw the weariness in the hobbit, the dirt on his clothes and face, the tears in his breeches, and swallowed the bitter taste of his failure.
Legolas took in his surroundings silently while Gimli turned to the hobbits. "Quickly, Merry, how do you fare? How are your legs, Pippin?"
"Well enough," Merry answered firmly. "We have few injuries to speak of. Mostly, we're just tired."
"And hungry!" Pippin added, looking dismayed at the thought of his stomach. With a glance to the vacant doorway behind him, as they heard heavy steps climbing other stairs to other rooms, he added in a hush, "But please, Gimli, don't you fret about us! You and Strider and Legolas have fared far worse than we have, and it is all due to us." Anguish washed over his face. "Please, you must forgive us!" As Pippin continued, his voice began to waver. "We never meant for this to happen! You should be watching after Sam and Frodo, and who knows where they-"
"Pippin!" Aragorn said in a harsh whisper, looking at the dimly lit entrance as Pippin had. The steps had faded, but they could not know who approached. "Do not mention those names! Ever!" His heart beat wildly at the thought that Saruman might have heard them. "Forgive me, but you must always be wary here. You know not who listens."
"For that matter," Gimli rushed to add with his own glance to the door, "while you do not often use any name for him but Strider, you must remember to never use his true one. Things would go much worse for him, I fear." Aragorn simply inclined his head, ambivalent over Gimli's words. It was clear the hobbits already felt at fault for all that had gone awry. He did not wish to place further burden on them.
"Sorry, uh, Strider," Pippin continued. "It's just - I know you tried to save us. How long you must have run! And now, you've been captured and abused, all on our account." He paused to calm himself. "I want to thank you all on behalf of my cousin and I, and I'm so very sorry you got captured with us." Pippin finished his speech in a small voice and looked down at the floor shamefully, tears glistening in his eyes.
"Sorry! Thank you!" Gimli sputtered and grumbled for a moment. He paused as they heard far off shouting that quickly died away. "Had we freed you, all that followed would have been fair price. But you remain captive. You hobbits should not have to endure such trials as these." Filled with the same regret and disappointment he heard in Gimli's voice, Aragorn could add nothing to the dwarf's words.
Merry looked at Gimli with an unreadable expression as stern as it ever had been. "And yet, it is because of us that you are here."
"I assure you," Aragorn said before Gimli could answer, frowning as he looked not to Merry or Gimli but to the still empty doorway. For what did Saruman wait? He turned to Merry, despising the rasp to which his voice had been reduced. "And I know Legolas and Gimli will agree, we would submit to every trial again for the chance to free you. We would never leave you to the torment of Orcs."
Merry's eyes bore into Aragorn. Maintaining his grave composure, he asked, "We knew you would not. But tell us, then, please, what of - the others? Why is Boromir not with you? Did he go with our cousins? Where did they go?" By the end of his questioning, Merry's resolve faltered, and his need for news of his friends' well being showed clearly.
Aragorn was taken aback, not realizing all the hobbits had missed. And now, they had so little time, there was none left for gentleness. "Your cousins have - gone on, continued. That is all I will say of them. Boromir..." There was no other way to tell them. "Boromir is dead. He died on the shores of the Anduin in the attack by the Orcs. After we set his body to ride the river, we turned in pursuit of you."
The hobbits were still. Then they looked to each other, some silent communication passing between them. Pippin remained quiet and withdrawn, but Merry nodded. "We feared a story such as that when we failed to see him. We hoped, but..." He trailed off, then seemed to refocus on Aragorn. "And how do you fare, Strider? You look weary."
Merry's quiet tone stilled Aragorn, and his quick reassurances died on his lips. "I am well enough, Merry," he finally said softly.
Merry passed his glance over each of the others, then returned to Aragorn, his stern expression back in place. "No, you are not well enough, Strider. None of you are. You are stiff with bruises and injury. And now that we are here, I fear for you." Merry's candid statement left Aragorn without retort. Then faint shouts began to float up to them, breaking the silence. They stiffened as they heard the ruckus grow louder and leaned into each other unconsciously. With the approaching steps, Merry lost his new severity, and he was suddenly the young hobbit again. "What is to become of us, Strider?"
Aragorn's stomach clenched in dread as he contemplated what Saruman might have in mind for the hobbits. He was uncertain whether it was wise to hope the wizard spared their lives. In this tower, life might be the cruelest sentence. The thought of the hobbits tortured and abused grieved him deeply. "I do not know," Aragorn said quietly. "We must wait to learn what fate lies ahead for us."
Watching Strider speak with Merry, the depths of the man's weariness surprised Pippin nearly as much as Strider's failure to hide it from them. Pippin had not thought to ever see the end of his endurance, nor to be the cause of it.
They were all at their limits. Even Legolas, though he sat quietly, revealed his pain through his stiff posture. And now here they were, in Saruman's Tower. Surrounded by this black stone, without light or air, was there hope for escape any longer? His pointless attempt two days previous had gotten him only a lash on the legs. Legolas's attempt - more hopeful or more desperate? - had earned the elf far worse. Pippin found it hard to expect another opportunity.
What was clear to him was their need to think swiftly, if Merry and he were to do anything to help their friends. For once Saruman learned that the hobbits did not have the Ring, he would likely see no reason to keep them alive. The thought twisted Pippin's stomach with fear, but he knew it for the truth. He wondered what Saruman would do to them then. Would he kill them right off? Would he give them to the Orcs to play with until they died of their torment? Would he put them under his spell till they finally revealed the secrets they held? Each possibility chilled Pippin more than the last.
Saruman had proved secrets were no great obstacle for him. He had but to ask and the answers poured from one's mouth, it seemed. Pippin shivered. Aragorn - no, Strider - barely kept his secret from the wizard; what chance did he, a mere hobbit, have? What would he tell Saruman in the end?
His heart racing, Pippin turned to the doorway as he listened to a clamor of footsteps approach. As much as he feared seeing who or what would pass through the entrance, he could not tear his eyes from the opening. Suddenly, Pippin noticed the dimness giving way to light as fires burned in sconces not lit before.
As Saruman's figure filled the doorway, dressed in white robes, staff in hand, he seemed larger than he had standing before the forest in the night. Then, there had been something soft about him. Pippin had thought of Gandalf then, and how this was someone Gandalf had once held in high esteem. This wizard before them now looked hard and cold and brought no thoughts of Gandalf. Pippin suppressed a shudder as Orcs following Saruman into the room surrounded them, pulling them to their knees. "Kneel before your Master!" The wizard wore a grin that failed to reach his eyes. The smug expression annoyed Pippin, but when Saruman's eyes landed upon him, Pippin felt nothing but fear.
Saruman strode across the room and took a seat on his throne, as Pippin could not help but call the elaborately carven chair in a recess opposite the entrance. "Welcome to Isengard." He smirked as he looked upon each of them in turn as they knelt in a rough half-circle before him. "So, this is the rag-tag company who decided they knew what was best for all of Middle-earth." He scrutinized them carefully. "There were more of you at the start," he said slowly. "Yes, I know much about you. And Uglúk has related to me your attempts to thwart his task. Perhaps your losses and consequences suffered have taught you the foolishness of this errand. If not, you shall soon learn." He turned to Pippin and the hobbit's stomach flipped. "Some losses are unfortunate. But of others, I must know more. This need not be an unpleasant visit," Saruman continued, his voice softer than before. "Simply provide me with the whereabouts of the other halflings, and you shall be spared."
Gimli let out a boisterous laugh, startling Pippin. "You truly think us fools. There is no such thing as mercy in this Tower. We would sooner take our chances with the Orcs!"
Saruman scowled. "Well, then," he said after a long moment glaring at Gimli, "if you prefer to do so, you shall. Fagrod! Take the dwarf below! Do what you please."
Pippin's mouth dropped open in time with his stomach. He heard Merry gasp quietly beside him, and even Legolas's eyes widened as he watched Orcs take Gimli away.
Saruman's eye returned to his prisoners as the dwarf was dragged out of the room, leaving a few Orcs standing against the walls. When his glance fell upon Pippin once again, the hobbit's chest tightened and breathing was suddenly more difficult. He tried hard to think of anything but what he knew Saruman would want to learn and filled his mind with visions of the Shire, his family, the Green Dragon, a pint of ale and - He stopped suddenly as he realized he was only sharpening his ache for home without cause. Saruman had moved on to Merry, then to Strider, and Legolas.
The wizard's gaze lingered on Legolas. Saruman cocked an eyebrow but did not lose his smug expression. "I must say, my Orcs certainly did their best to find the limit of an elf's endurance." Legolas fixed his defiance back onto his face, staring straight ahead at nothing as he knelt before the wizard.
Saruman chuckled, his voice full of condescension. "What would your father say, Thranduilion, to your present plight? I deem he would be rather disappointed. Though your choice to travel with a dwarf might prove more disturbing. I will give you an opportunity, however, to make yourself useful. You need only give me the location of the other two halflings who began the journey with you." Pippin's stomach lurched. He did not know if Legolas would be able to withstand Saruman's questioning. The elf looked ready to fall over.
Slowly, Legolas turned to Saruman in his chair - bold, stern, unyielding. His denial needed no words.
Saruman's gaze grew hard, then wandered back to Aragorn, then finally to Pippin and Merry. His silence worried Pippin more than anything he had said yet. He looked once more at Aragorn and Merry, then back to Legolas. Saruman rose then, smiling, and Pippin's fear grew once more. "Elfling that you are, you believe you can withstand any torment to keep your silence. And likely you would. For yourself." He strode closer to them. "But there are many forms of pain, young one." His voice dropped to nearly a whisper. "What would you do for the sake of others?" Pippin's blood ran cold, though he knew not Saruman's intentions. He only knew they were not good.
The wizard turned then to Pippin and Merry. "Halflings. Long has it been since I have seen any." He then returned to Legolas. "They are far afield, are they not? It must seem such a pity to you, to involve them in such matters that are far higher, far larger than they are." Pippin felt uneasy with the wistfulness in Saruman's voice and shifted his aching knees. "More of a pity would it be for them to suffer torment." The eyes of the elf were riveted to the wizard as he went on. "Undoubtedly, they believe themselves strong and brave. Such naiveté and innocence need not be destroyed."
Saruman was silent for some moments before he said suddenly, "You will choose - this halfling or the man." Pippin was at once alarmed and relieved that he had singled out Merry. "Choose one of them. The other shall be... interrogated. If you choose neither, both shall be questioned."
Pippin pressed his fist into his mouth to stifle a gasp as Legolas's expression faltered and his eyes grew wide. Beyond him, Aragorn closed his eyes in what seemed to be resignation.
Legolas said nothing, but Pippin could see the tension in his face over the decision handed to him. The hobbit's mind reeled with the thought of choosing to condemn one friend to save the other, yet not making the decision meant both would suffer. Pippin ached for Legolas. He wanted to say something, but his mouth was sealed shut. He glanced over at Merry and found a furious look on his face. But his cousin remained as silent as Aragorn. It seemed even the heir to Gondor's throne would not cross Saruman. Were they going to let this happen?
"So! I ask you once more: give me the location of the other halflings, and these two shall remain unharmed."
Legolas swallowed hard, his face revealing hints of the indecision within. Finally, he sighed heavily and regained some of the strength Pippin had thought he'd lost. "Both hobbits and Men are stouter than you measure them, Saruman," Legolas said, anger lacing his voice. "They shall surprise you." Pippin suppressed a shiver and closed his eyes. Was there no hope at all?
Saruman laughed loudly, banging his staff on the stone floor. "Just the foolish response I would expect from any who agreed to such a journey as yours." He bent closer to him. "You would rather both your friends suffer? Such selfishness. But then you are an elf. Elves will always choose their own pride, regardless of the consequences to others. Men are much more practical." He tipped his head to Aragorn. "His kind expect all others to accept self-sacrifice as easily as they do." Saruman smiled cruelly. "I pray you have no illusions of this Ranger's loyalty to you. If it were convenient and practical, he would betray you in a heartbeat." Aragorn watched Saruman closely but silently. "He would let you rot in the bowels of Mordor before offering the position of the sun."
Pippin had enough. Such slander against a friend was unbearable, against one so loyal and noble was intolerable. Yet not one of them uttered a sound! Legolas was forced into an impossible position, and Aragorn had not said one word to sway Saruman from it. Pippin could remain silent no longer.
"Aragorn would never do such a thing!"
As soon as Pippin spoke, he knew he'd said something wrong. He wasn't sure what or why, but the look of horror on Aragorn's face told him that he should have kept his peace. Merry turned to him, his expression full of regret.
And if there was any doubt, the scrutiny Saruman now gave him was terrifying. He took a step toward Pippin, who strove to maintain his gaze with the wizard. "Is that so?" Pippin was confused but refused to look away. The smile that blossomed on Saruman's face chilled him, and Pippin wondered at the import of his words. All he had said was - Pippin gasped as realization came over him. He wanted to sink into the floor and finally looked down at the hard stone, unable to meet anyone's eyes.
He saw Saruman's feet walk over to Aragorn. Aragorn. He never called him Aragorn! Pippin squeezed his eyes shut and longed to take back his words.
Slowly, calmly, in a voice that hinted at a terrible future, Saruman said, "There is only one Aragorn in all of Middle-earth." Pippin looked up now, seeing Aragorn - no, Strider - looking at a wall with great interest. He looked away before Strider could look at him with the reproach he deserved. "Could it be that I have in my grasp the only heir of Isildur? The heir to the throne of Gondor?" Strider said nothing, and Pippin supposed there was nothing he could say. Saruman wouldn't believe a denial. Regardless, Pippin was not about to say another word. Ever again.
Merry elbowed him hard and Pippin stifled a gasp. "How could you?" he mouthed with a frown. He said no more, but Pippin didn't need to hear a word. He just shook his head and shrugged. There was no explanation he could offer.
Strider had turned to face Saruman now, obviously choosing not to deny Saruman's words. They locked gazes for what seemed an age, then Saruman began to laugh. Slowly at first, then loudly, stomping his staff. The revelation rather pleased him - which meant bad things for them. And it was all Pippin's fault. He gave up his attempts to hold in his regret and let his tears flow openly. Merry knelt beside him, silent.
Pippin jumped when Saruman turned back to him with a smile. "I must thank you, halfling." He turned to the Orcs lining the room, alert - or perhaps wary - for a call from their master. "Machlhug, Norgry, Uglúk! Machlhug, bring this halfling to where I take my meals and give him something to eat. Norgry, take the elf down below. He is not in the mood to talk... yet. See that his mood changes. Return him - and the dwarf - to me by nightfall. Alive. They are not to die until I give the word. Make sure the others know this. If either of them dies, it will be your head. Uglúk, you have served me well. Take this other halfling. He has spirit, but he is a small creature and will likely die far too soon to give any of you sport. I give him now to you as a servant. He may prove useful for you down below; use him where you need some assistance. As with the others, he is not to die, remember that. I will yet need to speak with him. Go with Norgry and be sure that all goes as I have said. Machlhug, take the man with you and the halfling. He must remain alive as well. That means he must eat, I suspect." He looked about him. "That is all! Now go!"
What he intended to do with Strider now, Pippin had no notion. If there were any way that he could make it up to Strider, he would find it, he swore.
The smile Saruman wore brought up the bile in Pippin's stomach as he watched Orcs take away his friends. He mourned for Legolas already as he was dragged to his feet and forced to limp away. He turned to speak to Merry, but was overwhelmed by the despair he found there, and simply watched him disappear into the gloom.
And then he was alone. Nearby was Strider, a friend lost to him by his betrayal. And there was Saruman, who held them all prisoner, here in this tower of stone, leagues from the Shire. But their presence only accentuated Pippin's sudden and overwhelming loneliness. He was crushed, suffocated by his isolation.
Pippin took a deep breath, dispelling a bit of the gloom that had settled around him. He was alone in Orthanc, for who knew how long, but he was not ready to surrender. He would do what he could for the moment. He owed Strider that much.
Merry tripped over his feet as Uglúk shoved him out of the hall and into the dark stairwell. He looked back to see his cousin escorted away with Strider to who knew where. Would he see either of them again? A knot of dread settled into his stomach. Who could say what was to become of any of them now?
Uglúk barked at him. "Move! Forget about the others! You're going down to the Pits now."
This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen. They were to escort Fr- his cousin to ... that place, to rid everyone of ...that thing. That thing was the whole reason for this! And now they were trapped in a tower of stone by a mad wizard who just had Pippin and Strider dragged off somewhere, while sending him and Legolas and Gimli into a pit of Orcs. He peered ahead of him to see how Legolas was managing to walk with his bad leg as they descended into the darkness. Norgry had hold of Legolas's arm, as much dragging him as leading him. Though he knew Elves healed quickly, Merry was still amazed that Legolas was able to totter along with a broken foot and an arrow wound, when not much more than a day had passed. It looked painful, nevertheless, and Merry didn't think he would be able to walk much longer. He quickened his pace down the stairs till he reached the elf. "Lean on me, Legolas. I'm not as tall as Gimli, but I should do."
"What are you talking for? No talking!"
"He can't walk!" Merry shocked himself with his defiance before the massive Orc, but a greater surprise came when Legolas shifted over and put his hand on Merry's shoulder without protest.
Norgry looked at Uglúk but shrugged his shoulders. "I ain't carrying him!"
Uglúk grunted. "Saruman did me no favors, giving me this one. What I need a servant for? I just gotta pound a rat out there and he does what I need doing. I can't even beat this one up." With those words, Merry felt even smaller than was usual among such big creatures. Once again he found himself reluctantly grateful for Saruman's orders.
"Well," Norgry said, "If you don't want him, I'll take him. It'll be all right having someone to do my bidding."
Uglúk looked at Merry, thinking for a moment. "Yeh, all right. He's your lackey now. But no complaints later when he needs more looking after than he's worth. Remember, Saruman said these two are to stay alive. The dwarf, too. Tell that rabble down there to be careful or it's your head!"
And on they walked, shuffling slowly down each step. The stairs were steep for Merry, and it was awkward to time his step with Legolas. There was more light than when they had arrived, though, now that dawn had come, making their passage that small bit easier. Eventually, they reached the ground level where they had entered the tower. Merry looked longingly at the entrance, but Uglúk pushed him on. "Forget about the outside. It's down to the Pits now!" He and Norgry laughed maniacally. As they continued down the stairs, it grew darker and hotter and strange noises grew louder. Was this his home now? Was this where he would die? Is this what Frodo and Sam would encounter in Mordor? It certainly was close enough to a Tower of Doom for him.
When Aragorn had set out with his two companions on their ambitious trek in pursuit of the Orcs, he had not been overly concerned for their own welfare. His worry had been for the hobbits. There was the possibility that the Orcs would not bother trying to keep them alive. And he did not know what sort of reception Saruman would give them. But he had held onto his hope, his faith in the hobbits, and in the wisdom of Gandalf, and that had spurred his feet onward.
After their own capture, he had persisted in his hope. For the hobbits still lived, and there were yet possibilities for escape and rescue. But his notion of escape into the Forest had failed miserably. Perhaps if he had tried to escape with Legolas, the two of them might have been successful. He would never know; he could only be certain that once again, his decision had cost them greatly.
Now they were prisoners of Saruman in the Tower of Orthanc. Legolas and Gimli were below with the Orcs, enduring Aragorn knew not what suffering. Merry might be spared that, but he knew better than to look for such assurance. His steadfast, even defiant hope in the face of the worst odds was beginning to fail him, here in this black Tower, where they had landed due to his poor judgment.
Certainly, Pippin's loose tongue did not help. That Saruman knew his true identity was regrettable and could not bode well. But he did not resent the hobbit for his blunder. He would never have revealed such knowledge purposefully. The shame and guilt were clear on Pippin's face.
They now sat in a small, sparsely furnished room, torchlight flickering in a sconce beside them. Pippin picked at food laid before him where he sat across from Aragorn at a wooden table. That the hobbit was not eating with fervor was perhaps the greatest sign of impending doom. Aragorn suspected feelings of guilt had robbed him of his hunger, though he might simply be too nervous to eat. But eat he must. "Come, Pippin, eat. I do not think they have poisoned it, as they intend for us to live. And it is not spoiled. You may as well eat."
Pippin looked at him apologetically. "I'm - sorry. I just - I don't seem to have an appetite."
"Now, Pippin. That does not sound like a hobbit to me. You have not eaten properly in days. You are free to eat all of this food." He looked at Pippin pointedly. "And there is nothing you can do about Merry at the moment, nor Legolas or Gimli. You ought to eat your share."
Pippin looked at Aragorn, then at his plate. "Why aren't you eating, then?"
Aragorn looked at his plate, where much of the bread and fruit still lay. "I have not eaten solid food in six days, save some lembas while we chased the Orc army. After so long, the stomach becomes accustomed to being empty. If I ate more right now, I would become ill. I shall eat again in a bit, and then later, if they give it to me. In a day or two, my stomach will recover."
Pippin looked at him with a curious frown. "Sick from eating? After not eating in six days? Nonsense! I should think you would want to eat all you see! Are you trying to save more food for me?"
"No, I am certainly not. That is the way it is, at least for Men."
"Why, that sounds just mad to me, eh, Strider." Pippin looked down and grew quiet, once more pushing his food around.
Aragorn saw the change in his mood and understood. "What is done cannot be undone, Pippin."
"But what's been done should never have been done!" he cried passionately.
Aragorn looked down at his own food. He could not deny the truth of Pippin's words. If only Saruman did not know his true name, all might have gone better for them.
Or would they? Without the distraction of Pippin's revelation, Saruman undoubtedly would have pried into his mind without mercy in search of desired information. He very well may have learned who his prisoner was then, and Aragorn was quite sure he would not be as gracious as when Pippin offered the information.
"In truth, you may have done me a kindness." There was small chance these words would help Pippin, but he could show the hobbit that he had forgiven him. Forgiving himself was a matter Aragorn would have to attend to himself. "We will never know how it might have gone, but I believe Saruman would have learned the truth of my ancestry eventually. And his anger over learning what I had kept from him would have been great. I know not how he would have punished me, but you may have saved me from some terrible treatment."
He looked up when he heard a footstep beyond the doorway to the alcove, soon filled by the wizard's figure. Aragorn's heart leapt when, for only a moment, he thought he looked upon Gandalf. Reality quickly assured him his friend had not returned.
Saruman walked into the room with two Orcs behind him. His face betrayed nothing as he gestured to one of them. The Orc obeyed his master and walked over to Pippin and grabbed his fists. Aragorn tensed as he saw the knife in the creature's hand. Pippin saw it as well and his eyes widened. Before either could act, the Orc used his knife, slicing through the ropes binding Pippin's hands. He let Pippin's hands drop, the ropes falling away. As Pippin simply stared at his hands, Aragorn quickly took in the raw skin at the wrists.
"Fagrod, show the halfling where he is to put the crockery. Teach him to make himself useful." Saruman looked at Aragorn. "Bring the man, Machlhug, and follow me."
As Fagrod ushered Pippin from the room with the dishes, Pippin watched Aragorn with wide eyes filled with guilt, despite his earlier words. The hobbit's eyes fell on Aragorn's bloody leg as he was forced to limp over to Saruman. Pippin's eyes then lit up in a way that would normally worry Aragorn, and he wondered if that concern was still well founded.
"Saruman," Pippin cried out. He bit his lip as he waited for Saruman to turn to him, looking suddenly undecided about his words as the stern face neared. "Em, I just-" he took a deep breath and continued. "I thought you wanted to keep Strider alive?" As he waited for a response, Aragorn's concern grew, and he hoped Pippin was not trying to make up for previous transgressions.
Saruman looked sharply at Pippin. His eyes flicked to Aragorn. "And what makes you think I have changed my mind?"
"Well, perhaps you're not so familiar with mortal hurts. But the Orcs never tended to his wound and it's been too long now. It's surely festering, and that can kill a mortal, even a man like Strider."
Saruman narrowed his eyes, then looked at Aragorn expectantly. Aragorn relaxed a small measure. Pippin had not said anything devastating this time. He considered briefly what answer to give but soon realized an honest one would suffice. "He speaks the truth. The wound is infected, and I have few days left before it turns fatal. If it has not done so yet, the infection will spread to the rest of my body. That will kill me."
"And yet you failed to mention this yourself. It could not be so serious if you had not seen the need to bring it to my attention."
"I would have and soon. Until now, other ...matters seemed more pressing."
Saruman stared at Aragorn for a long moment. He looked at his leg, then back at Pippin. Pippin looked back at Aragorn with an apology in his face. "What should you require?" said the wizard.
Aragorn hid his surprise at the wizard's seeming compliance. "Boiled water and a clean rag, but I will need it three to four times throughout the day, until at least tomorrow."
Saruman frowned. Aragorn could only wonder what were his thoughts. Then Saruman turned back to Pippin, who stood silently, dishes in hand, beside the Orc that awaited orders. "Very well. You shall be charged with this duty. Fagrod will show you where you may boil the water. You, halfling, must carry it here yourself and tend to his wound. There is no one to help you." He nodded to the Orc, who pushed Pippin through the door.
Saruman turned once more to Aragorn and looked upon him for a long moment. "The heir of Isildur, destined for the throne of Gondor. Your destiny has changed, Dúnadan. You shall see. And you shall understand. The line of Kings is ended. Take this time to contemplate what will follow. What will be your part in the new order of the world? Will you cling to the past, or will you try to make life bearable for your people?" With those thoughts, Saruman left, the Orc ushering Aragorn behind him.
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.