Gimli attempted to break his fall with his shackled hands as he crashed beside Legolas onto the stone floor. The dusk of evening had changed the room, closing the walls in, lowering the ceiling, and leaving the archways to the gloom. Torches burning on the walls enabled Gimli to see the darkened niche where Saruman had sat at their first meeting hours before. The dwarf scrambled up onto shaky legs; he'd rather return to the Pits than appear before Saruman unable to stand under his own power.
He welcomed, though, the respite from the torment he'd endured for what had seemed days, but he doubted his relief would outlast this visit to Saruman. The Orc behind him shoved him once more, sprawling Gimli to the floor. "On your knees before your Master!" Grabbing Gimli by the hair, he hauled the dwarf to his knees. Beside him, Legolas was likewise drawn up. To Gimli's surprise, the elf did not struggle overmuch.
As much as he ached, Gimli guessed that Legolas's pain was greater. Given their orders to keep the prisoners alive, the Orcs would not be as harsh with a mortal dwarf as with a hardy and enduring elf. Taking in Legolas's bruised face, split lip, and the many wounds visible through tears in his tunic, Gimli put his hope in the speedy healing of Elves. Legolas strove to maintain a determined and stoic façade as he settled himself onto his knees, but Gimli could see his weariness and pain. He wondered if Legolas could see the same in him.
Gimli looked about him and wondered if Aragorn and the hobbits were hidden away in one of the dark recesses that ringed the room. He refused to think of any other fates for them. In truth, he dreamed that Merry and Pippin had been set free and walked away from the Tower. Would that he could follow! Ah, but these were dreams - and his reality was a nightmare.
The Orcs gathered near Saruman, who emerged from an alcove looking oddly surprised, Gimli thought. The wizard questioned the Orcs, with only a glance to his prisoners, and then it was Gimli's turn to be surprised when he began to inquire on the status of the smithies, the forges, the arsenal, and something about molding and new issues. Gimli took advantage of their distraction and turned to Legolas. "How fare you, Legolas?" He winced at the heavy concern in his gravelly voice.
A frown creased Legolas's brow as he scrutinized the dwarf, confirming that Gimli indeed looked as badly as he felt. "I would ask the same of you," he said in a voice rougher than was fit for any elf. "Clearly, they now seek the limit to your endurance. Do you feel you have any grave wounds?"
Gimli bit off a cynical chuckle. "What would it matter? Grave wounds or no, a grave is where we will find ourselves." He sighed, one eye on Saruman. "Forgive me my despair. From the concern on your face, I fear my appearance matches yours, for you look as though the Orcs had more than their share of sport with you. I ask you again - how do you fare?"
Legolas looked away. "As you say, what does it matter?" he said lightly.
His friend's response left Gimli wanting. He had sought to master his despondency with the endless reserve of hope the elf seemed to hold, regardless of what they faced. Mayhap they were truly lost. Disheartened, Gimli sighed again. "We do not fare well, my friend."
"No, we do not fare well."
Falling into silence, Gimli was now able to hear Saruman. "Uglúk, tell me of the halfling. Is he obedient?"
The mention of a hobbit grabbed Gimli's attention. "Oh, eh, he's all right, sir. Does whatever I tell him to, he does. Norgry's keeping an eye on him now, but he ain't caused no trouble." Gimli ached for whichever hobbit had been sent down as a slave for this Orc, but he had to admit it might also keep the hobbit alive. His fantasy of the hobbits' freedom fractured, his own nightmare encroaching upon his dream.
Saruman turned from Uglúk and approached Gimli and Legolas, white robes and staff bright against the black behind him. He looked down upon them with contempt in his eyes and in the curl of his mouth. Despite his weariness and many aches, Gimli felt his ire boil at the sight of the wizard. His thoughts went to Gandalf and to how much they had lost. The Quest itself might be lost already.
"My Orcs have provided you both with a sound lesson in obedience, I see. Have you learned aught in your time with them, I wonder? Or do I waste my time with you?"
Gimli stared back at Saruman with hate. "I learned nothing I did not know before descending to your Pits. But it has made clear that your betrayal of your Order is great."
"Do dwarves have no mind for survival?" Saruman growled and lunged forward to backhand Gimli. The wizard's strength surprised Gimli as he landed hard on the floor. "I would release you for nothing more than the whereabouts of the halfling. Do you give up your life for the sake of a halfling?" Saruman's voice softened, taking on the timber Gimli recalled from their meeting on the plains, when the wizard had drawn their names from them. "You must accept that your task and this ill-fated Quest are ended; war is now upon us. Attend to salvaging what is dear to you. The Lonely Mountain is far, but not out of Sauron's reach. You might return to your people and prepare them for a war that will soon catch them unawares. Or do you sacrifice your people as well - for a halfling? Think carefully, dwarf, on whom you would save. Your choice decides many a fate."
Climbing back to his knees, Gimli was silent as he fought the despair borne of the wizard's power-laden words. He knew not to hearken to Saruman's words, but his heart fell prey to his power and failed to ignore the doom the questions hailed. Struggling to divert his thoughts from the two hobbits for whose sake they suffered, his contemplation made its way to his kin leagues away in their mountain home. If they failed in their efforts, if this war did come, what would become of them? To what sort of home might he return? Would his family survive? If they lost the war, Sauron - not Saruman, as Gimli guessed he aimed to - would rule over Middle-earth. Would survival and slavery then be desirable over death and freedom?
"If war would come," a quiet yet fierce voice beside him said, "our people will fight. If they lose and die, they shall escape the rule of Sauron. And yet they may win the war, and so our suffering is not in vain." With words so close to his own thoughts, Gimli wondered if Legolas had withheld from him some elven power to know his mind.
"So the answer is that pain and torture teach you nothing. Loss of dear ones means nothing. You sacrifice them for your pride. You are a shame to your races." Saruman stalked away, only stopping to speak quietly with an Orc. Then to another he said, "Uglúk, you know your orders. Continue with the preparations. Our time runs short. And take these two. Get them out of my sight."
Gimli's dream crumbled to worthless debris as Legolas and he were dragged from the chamber. He tried not to think to where - and what - they were returning. But his feelings would not be subdued, and despair filled the spaces where his dream had been.
"I suppose this is no fun for you, having to follow me, minding me like this. Did you do something wrong that you ended up with this duty?" Pippin asked, his eyes wide and innocent looking.
"Do something wrong? Nah, not lately, at least," Fagrod said with a chuckle. "I'm just following orders."
Hiding his smile, Pippin turned back to the pot of water he had set to boil in the plain room that served as pantry and kitchen of sorts for Saruman. It was much darker down here one floor below the main hall. The only light was the fire in the corner that heated his water and cast deep shadows on the face of his minder, whom Norgry had called Fagrod. If he kept him talking but did not look at him, Pippin found he could almost forget he was an Orc.
Wooden crates and baskets were stacked up on all sides of the room, and Pippin thought he could smell food among the dust and Orc-stench. He longed to rummage through the containers, but as of yet, he was given food only when Saruman remembered. If Saruman learned of his pillaging, he might lose this precious bit of freedom, and so Pippin restrained himself.
"Oh, I thought you were one of those who gave orders around here." The hobbit was mildly surprised to find an Orc nearly as easy to manipulate as some of his aunts and uncles, with whom he had almost mastered getting out of trouble as well as getting what he wanted. Yawning widely, he had a vague sense that midnight had passed hours ago. But Pippin had been determined to bring a pot of truly hot water to Strider, and so he pushed himself to make another trip to the storeroom. Besides, there were tasks he had yet to do. "So, I suppose you have to sit with me and watch water boil. It is boring, though. I know! I could tell you the history of my family. We go back generations."
"You're making me more bored with every word. What are you going on about?"
"Our family history. You know, my mother's parents, brothers, and sisters, and their parents, and their parents. And then, on my father's side, we do it all over again. We can take all night into morning if we wanted. It's just a way to pass the time."
Fagrod scowled, and Pippin worried that he might have overplayed his hand. "What are you trying for? You planning some trick?" He stood and leaned into Pippin's face.
"Trick? What trick could I play?" Pippin answered, putting as much shock and amusement as he could muster into his voice. "I'm only trying to help you pass the time. It's rather boring sitting here with nothing to do. You likely have plenty of other more important things you could be doing and instead you have to follow me back to Saruman's big room up there, up those stairs, and down the hall. I could find my way back by myself, but I understand you've got to follow me. Those are your orders, after all. So I just thought we could pass the time somehow."
"Yeah, Norgry handed out duties like it was mealtime and they was your supper. And right now, this is my duty." Fagrod's eyes narrowed at Pippin. "You planning to sneak off somewhere? Is that it?"
"You think I'm going to sneak off somewhere? Try to escape?" Pippin truly laughed then, ignoring the pang of fear in his heart at the absurdity of escape. "Where am I to go off to? Orcs are everywhere, and I don't even know how to get anywhere but back to where I came from. Besides, my friend needs this water to live. There's nowhere else for me to go."
"That's right. Nowhere else for you to go. And if you happen to find some place to wander, you'll be looking at the sharp end of this here." He grinned fiercely as he displayed his knife, and Pippin wondered what made him think he could forget this creature reveled in mayhem and violence.
Suppressing a shiver, Pippin instead shrugged his shoulders, carefully assuming a nonchalant expression. "I understand, I'm your duty, and you have to do what your boss tells you. If that's following around one little hobbit, well, I can try to make it less boring, like I explained. We can start with my family. I have my parents, Paladin and Eglantine, and three sisters, Pearl, Pimpernel, and Pervinca. Yes, three sisters to boss me around. It was not always fun growing up in the Smials. But let's see..." He could see the Orc's baffled expression begin to turn over to impatience. "Well... if you're not interested, perhaps this isn't such a great idea." He paused, trying to judge whether to push Fagrod further. "But see, there's such an interesting history to my family! My father Paladin's father's name was Adalgrim. Try walking around with that name. Even as an Orc! Oh, dear, if he ever knew I said that. No offense, but he wouldn't take kindly. Anyway, his father's name was Hildigrim, who was married to Rosa Baggins, which makes me related to-" Just when he realized what he was about to say, the Orc held his hands up in front of him.
"Wait just a bit there. I don't know what's all this talk of names, but I do know I've heard enough! And I don't just do what the higher-ups say, if it's a waste of time. Anyways, Norgry's not my boss." Fagrod looked at him for a moment. "I do have better things to do than listen to you natter on," he muttered. "I might have a chore or two to do while your water boils, but if I hear you working any tricks, I'll have no trouble teaching you a lesson, you hear?" He leaned close to Pippin and the knife that suddenly appeared in his hand told the hobbit he meant what he said, while the smile on his face reminded Pippin he would enjoy making good on the threat.
Despite the weapon and the Orc-breath, Pippin fought down the smile that threatened to break over his face. "There'll be no trouble. You can be sure. All I want is to get this back to my friend. But you're more than welcome to stay. My family tree is one of the most interesting - and longest - in all the Shire." He grinned then, the grin that had bent the will of many a Took.
Fagrod grunted and looked upon Pippin as if he'd never laid eyes on such as him before. "Up those stairs. Nowhere else!" he said before heading out the door of the small room and down a staircase hidden in the dark behind the one they'd descended.
Pippin grinned again. So nice of the Orc to offer just the directions he needed as a parting gift. Now he would not waste time puzzling out his downward path. He only need wait a bit, then follow the trail of the Orc. He learned long ago, when someone suspects you of sneaking about, they never expect you will follow in their footsteps.
Deciding to risk some pillaging with a quick investigation into the crates, Pippin was rewarded for his cleverness. He had indeed been sitting among a grand store of food! Apparently Saruman's own supply, there was fruit and cheese and bread and cured meat... he reluctantly ended his explorations as he was wasting precious moments. Grabbing a couple of bright red apples and some bread - while not freshly made, hardly the crusts they had recently dined on - and stuffed the treasures into his pockets. As quiet as a hobbit could be, he crept to the stone stairwell. Heat radiated from below, fire painting the walls a garish yellow. He knew not what he'd find, but Merry must be among his discoveries. Pippin was quite sure the Orcs wouldn't remember to feed his cousin, and he was just as sure of Merry's concern for him, though Pippin had far more reason to worry for Merry among the Orcs. If luck were truly with them and Merry had learned anything of Legolas and Gimli that might help free them, he could bring the news to Strider.
The rough-hewn stairs were dark and dank, the air hot and filled with strange smells and sounds he tried not to think on overmuch. He made as much haste as he could, knowing his time was short. All he aimed to find was another pantry, or kitchen, or whatever passed for such, directly below. He had yet to decide what to do once he found it. But he supposed there was as good a chance as any to find Merry in a kitchen.
Creeping down a short dark hall, he heard what sounded like a great fire burning somewhere behind him. The orange glow against the wall and the sweltering heat that made him work for his next breath told him it was near. He brought his attention back to his search and peered around the corner into a dark space. Here he found more than he'd dared to hope.
Merry trudged into a bare room larger than the pantry above with a load of wood. He looked tired and was quite filthy. Pippin's heart broke to see him doing such drudgery. Knowing he would soon be missed, he made a noise he hoped Merry remembered.
Merry's head shot up but he looked toward the doorway through which he'd come. Pippin's heart sunk to see an Orc follow Merry into the room.
"What was that noise?" the beast said, as he unloaded his burden of tools.
"Noise?" Merry asked innocently as he piled some of his wood on the hearth. "You mean that insect sound? You haven't heard it before? You must be accustomed to it. Insects love this heat. There are likely swarms of them down here."
"There ain't no bugs down here! It's too hot."
"Well, this one must like it."
The Orc said nothing as he walked out of the room. Merry's head whipped around. "Pip?"
"Right here, cuz!" Pippin stuck his head around the corner with a grin, holding up the two apples. "Look what I brought!"
Merry's eyes grew wide. "Apples! Bless you, Pip!" He looked behind him one more time, then ran over to Pippin, hugging him fiercely. "Are you all right? Have you eaten? How is Saruman treating you?"
Pippin shook his head at the predictable barrage of questions. "I don't have much time, Merry. I'm fine, really. Saruman fed me and Strider. Now I'm boiling water to tend to that nasty wound on his leg. And that's where I should be now. I can't stay." He looked Merry over. "Are you doing all right?" he asked quietly.
Merry looked at him for a moment before answering. "I'm all right, Pip. Not much in the way of food, but they're not mistreating me, otherwise. I suppose they think I'm so little, it would be too easy to kill me."
"Well, don't you dissuade them from that way of thinking. Any sight of Legolas or Gimli?"
Merry only shook his head. "Sorry, they've kept me busy, but I have managed to roam a bit. I'll find them. I promise."
Pippin took in Merry's somber tone and realized his cousin had little hope for good news upon finding them. From what Pippin had seen earlier when the two were brought before Saruman, Merry was likely right. He decided not to enlighten Merry on what he'd witnessed and shoved thoughts of his friends to the back of his mind. "Here, some bread, too, nearly fresh. It's from Saruman's own stock. I must go. If they find I've been wandering, they'll never leave me alone again. And I've got to keep an eye on Strider."
Merry nodded. "Take care, Pip. We'll get out of this mess somehow."
"Of course we will, Merry." Pippin wished he could have put more conviction into his words. "I'll come down again if I can with more food."
Merry nodded again. Pippin wondered at his quiet manner, but he was out of time. He started to say good-bye, but changed his mind and scampered up the stairs to his pot of boiling water.
At first, there was only unending black. Soon a pale light flickered within those depths that grew quickly into flames licking hotly at his senses. Suddenly, he was no longer in Orthanc but amid the fire. And he was not alone.
A faint whisper passed through his thoughts then that sent shivers down Aragorn's spine; the voice grew stronger in his mind until the Ranger heard Black Speech brimming with contempt. Aragorn knew then who spoke, and shock washed over him, chilling his blood and leaving him open to the darkness that threatened to overwhelm him entirely. The Dark Lord laughed and whispered his name. Aragorn tried to steel himself against the pull into Shadow, but he was already weary and soon his strength waned. He could feel Sauron watching him, looking into and through him. Sauron was inside him then, and the sensation of Sauron's gaze along his veins, under his skin, and into his being sickened and terrified him. He sought in vain to escape the hold, and Sauron's amusement intertwined with his invasion.
"Aragorn, son of Arathorn," he hissed, the words filling Aragorn's mind, "spawn of Isildur. Weak was your ancestor, and weak are you. Through you shall I have my vengeance."
Aragorn fought belatedly to gather his strength and banish Sauron from his spirit, but it was as if he struggled in quicksand. He found himself engulfed further by the flames, covered further by the filth of Sauron's touch. He thought perhaps he whimpered, but he could hear naught but the sound of Sauron's voice and the flames that burned but would not consume him.
Suddenly, he was flying backwards through the air. There was a dark wall in front of him that tilted, his back hit something hard, and then he fell, crashing into another hard surface. As the impact reverberated through his body, he stared at images before his eyes that made no sense, listening to gasps he did not recognize as his own. Eventually light and dark coalesced into Saruman and the shadows of the room.
"So, Dúnadan," Saruman said, his voice conveying more than words, its power demanding more than Aragorn's attention. "Where is your pride now? Where is your arrogance? Your honor? Do you see now that we must do what circumstances call upon us to do? You have felt the touch of Sauron, have you not? I heard his whisperings before you entered the doorway of the Stone. He is rather interested in you, but he desires Gondor more, I think. I ask you what you value more - your precious honor or a free Gondor? If you hope to salvage something of your lands, you will see the wisdom of my plans and ride for me. Fight for me, and fight for Gondor! It is plain you have no other recourse. Gondor has no other hope!"
The wizard stepped forward, leaning over Aragorn as he yet worked to catch his breath. He struggled to grasp the meaning of Saruman's words, catching snippets but not the whole of what he said. Sauron, yes, he wanted him, and Gondor too. Sauron would wage war against Gondor, and soon. And Saruman now wished to stop the Dark Lord? Salvage your lands, he had said. Fight for me, he had said. Fight for Saruman? No, he had said fight for Gondor... yes, he would always fight for Gondor, with his dying breath...
"Gondor...," he panted, trying to still his trembling limbs.
Saruman smiled. "Gondor. Perhaps you are not as feeble minded as your ancestors, after all. Yes, we will ride to Gondor."
Aragorn looked at Saruman with confusion. Ride with him to Gondor? No, he must be confused. Yes, he was confused. He closed his eyes. He was so weary. He could not recall such overwhelming weariness.
Eventually, he heard the wizard retreat and order Orcs to drag him to another room, where they left him to sort out the world again.
But all he could think on was his exhaustion. How did Saruman drain him so? A memory flitted across his mind, but it would not stay put and escaped him. He dared not sleep, for his dreams were often worse than the visions Saruman gave him. Or were they visions of another sort? As his mind cleared, he felt the niggling of knowledge clamoring for attention. But his fatigue was too great and he unwillingly slipped into uneasy dreams.
Pippin made his way through the dark corridor to the hall where Aragorn was kept - no, he would never call him that again. Strider he would be, as he should have been. Setting aside the feelings that arose with those thoughts, Pippin focused on not jostling the pot. He managed to keep more water in the vessel today than yesterday, and it was still hot as he'd hoped. He knew his way around a bit now, even more than his minder Fagrod realized. Even so, Pippin reminded himself to keep his eyes open for new paths. Merry was roaming to learn his way about below. He would do the same so as not to let his cousin down. He would learn his way well enough to walk in utter darkness if need be, as well as find every nook and alcove in which he might hide or that might lead up and out of this prison. Fortune might still look upon them. After all, he managed to return from his visit to Merry without encountering Fagrod. And he would try his luck again later.
He stopped to take a breath on a landing and listened: the same random shouting from below, but silence above. He hated that silence.
Saruman had busied Pippin throughout the previous day doing menial and mindless chores. He was often bored and always hungry, but he knew better than to complain. Merry's weary face was reminder enough that Pippin likely fared the best of all of them. Even Strider fared poorly under Saruman's constant attention. The wizard had used his strange power on Strider again that previous evening, and he hadn't been quite the same since. After witnessing Strider's strength and valor in battle against all sorts of foes, to see what followed Saruman's sorcery disquieted Pippin. Strider seemed to age a year's worth and was left wearier than Pippin had ever seen the Ranger. Confused and distracted, Strider needed some time to return to his usual demeanor. Pippin preferred to deny that Strider was an ordinary man with weaknesses. Saruman, it seemed, could make those weaknesses painfully clear.
Pippin set down the pot in a corner of the alcove in which he found the man. Strider, or the shadow that appeared to be him, crouched as far into a corner as he could manage, his head on his knees and covered by arms that shook as he tugged anxiously at his hair. He looked as if he would melt into the walls if he could. To Pippin's dismay, it seemed Saruman had returned and used his power on him once more.
"Strider, it's Pippin." The hobbit heard a small gasp. Jerking in surprise, Strider slowly raised his head, but otherwise did not acknowledge Pippin. Now utterly still, he seemed to wait for something. "It's Pippin. I've come with the water. It's time to tend to your leg." The man simply stared ahead as Pippin pulled the pot over to him. Then Pippin made a decision. The hobbit had seen what Strider did to his leg several times already; perhaps he no longer needed the Ranger's guidance. While he tended to him, Strider might come back to his surroundings.
He gently pulled Strider's leg down, and the man stared at his leg without reaction. Pippin dipped a rag in the hot water and slowly squeezed it over the wound. Strider flinched and stared at Pippin.
"Pippin?" he whispered harshly.
"Yes, Strider, it's me."
"What are you doing here?"
The hope that had begun to grow wilted. "I'm here to clean your wound. Like we did earlier."
Strider shook his head. "You should not be here. I know not how you are here, but you must leave. He will see you!"
"Don't worry, Strider. Saruman knows I do this. He said I could yesterday. He put me in charge, in fact."
"You must not let him see you," Strider continued as if Pippin had not spoken, his voice a mere rasp. "He will never release you. Your entire life will be fire. If he grabs hold of you... he never lets go." Strider's whispers sent a chill skipping down Pippin's back. The man still wavered between the nightmare world of Saruman's making and the real nightmare. But something was different. His despair was more acute, his mind was as confused as ever, and he was more afraid than Pippin had yet seen him.
Torn, Pippin decided to continue his ministrations, in the hope that they might draw him back. After dipping the rag in water once more, he left it on the wound, while he felt the skin surrounding the injury. It was cooler than yesterday, to his relief. Strider had been uncertain they had caught the infection in time.
For good measure, he checked Strider's forehead. He was sweating, but not clammy. "Strider." With no response, Pippin struggled with what to do next. What would Strider do, if Pippin needed him? He would not leave him drifting in some nightmare. The young hobbit swallowed hard. This was no time for fear or indecision; he would do what he must. He patted the man's cheek softly. "Come now, Strider. The fire's gone. It's just you and me." He grabbed Strider's chin and held his gaze. "Where are we, Strider? Tell me."
Strider's blank stare slowly focused on Pippin. He searched Pippin's face as if searching for truth and meaning or long-held secrets.
"I'll give you a hint," Pippin continued, struggling to maintain his light tone. "We're not in the Shire. I can tell you that." Pippin sighed. "I don't know that we'll ever be back in the Shire, to roll down its hills in the green grass that smells like summer, or stuff our faces full of new strawberries, or - or - I'm not helping, am I?"
"You are, Pippin, very much so," Strider whispered. His expression shifted then from one of confusion to one holding such deep grief that Pippin's courage nearly abandoned him. Strider leaned forward to rest his forehead on Pippin's. "Thank you." After a moment, Pippin pulled his arms around Strider into a fierce hug. Knowing Strider needed him renewed his courage.
"It was worse than before, wasn't it?" Each time Strider suffered this, he lingered longer in his confusion, as if he were losing the strength to find his way back on his own. "Where did you go this time?"
Strider sighed heavily. "To Sauron." Pippin's stomach lurched at the name. "Into his mind, at least. To where Sauron could ...see me... know me..." His voice faded into the misery of his memories. "The fire was black," he whispered. "I thought it would consume me."
Pippin swallowed, daunted by the revelation. "How can Saruman do such a thing? How dare he do such a thing!"
Strider looked at him and gathered his strength with a deep breath. As his eyes cleared further, he gave Pippin a measuring look, then seemed to decide something. "I did not know at first. I believed Saruman had found some new sorcery and would use it to cause me to go mad. For a time, I hoped the infection in my leg was causing my madness...I would rather this was a madness. But then I remembered a rhyme from long ago."
The man was quiet for a few moments and Pippin waited uncomfortably. But his gaze soon drifted and took on the glaze of distraction. As he had not told him nearly enough, Pippin prodded him to continue. "A rhyme?"
Strider's gaze snapped back to Pippin and his thoughts soon followed. "Eh, yes. It was then that I understood. It is not madness. It is the Stone."
Pippin wondered if they were not the same. Was this not madness to talk of the stone causing the visions? Was it already too late for Strider? And what was this talk of a rhyme? "What does this rhyme say?"
Strider looked at him with surprise. "The rhyme? Well, it has been told me as such:
Tall ships and tall kings
Three times three,
What brought they from the foundered land
Over the flowing sea?
Seven stars and seven stones
And one white tree."
Pippin waited. When nothing more was forthcoming from the Ranger, he asked, "That's all? From that you worked out how Saruman was giving you visions through a stone?"
Strider gave him a half-smile. "It was enough to remind me of old lore that few remember. The Dúnedain have long memories." He looked to the Stone on the pedestal. "Though I have never before set eyes on one, I believe this is a palantír, a Seeing Stone, one of the seven stones in the rhyme. Once, the seven of them were scattered throughout Middle-earth, used by the Kings to communicate over long distances or watch events they would like to influence." Strider paused to catch his breath, as if winded from exertion. "I imagine Saruman uses this to watch Rohan. But somehow the Stone became linked to Sauron, for I know it was he who looked upon me earlier and he holds another like this one. Perhaps the wizard meant at first to watch the Dark Lord, but clearly Sauron dominated him. Now, Saruman has another use for the Stone." Strider put his head on his knees and was silent.
"Are - are you sure that this stone of Saruman's is one of those Seeing Stones, as you called it? The Great Kings lived a very long time ago. Surely the stones would not have survived?"
"I am certain now. It may explain my great fatigue when Saruman is finished with me. Or that may be Saruman's own will upon me. What I do know of the Stone is this: Using the Stone requires great power and strength of will. Even more important, the palantír cannot lie. Perhaps one might pass on a falsehood by distorting the truth, withholding some but not the whole of it." Strider looked at Pippin then with a terrible look in his eyes. "It would mean all that I have seen is true." Strider's voice became flat and his gaze lost some of its focus as he continued. "Rohan, in ruins. All those dead, gone..."
Pippin did not care for the tone lacing Strider's words. He could understand the anger, even the bitterness. He understood all too well the despair. But there was something else as well. Pippin could only explain it as a lack of something, and he saw the loss most in the Ranger's grey eyes where something he was accustomed to seeing was missing. Pippin turned to look at the Stone, a round black rock, that Strider believed was the cause of his suffering. Whatever curiosity had remained regarding the Stone shriveled as he considered its power.
When the man sighed heavily, Pippin turned his gaze from the Seeing Stone to find Strider watching him intensely. "I do not think Saruman would ever force you to touch the palantír, Pippin. Nevertheless, do not go near it. It has power, and it is bound to Sauron. It is best to keep your distance." Pippin nodded. If the palantír could make Strider fear it, he would not test it.
"You're here now, Strider, not anywhere Sauron can see you. You're safe - well, what passes for safe, for now." Pippin watched Strider carefully.
The man shut his eyes but opened them again as if to banish what he saw before him. Fear flit across Strider's face, chilling Pippin more than had the name of the Dark Lord, but the man soon hid the emotion behind his usual stern countenance. "I know I must keep him from my mind. I will use all the strength I can muster to resist him. I swear to you, Pippin, I will not betray your cousin to Sauron as long as I have the strength." He left unsaid what would follow once his strength left him. After some quiet moments, he took a deep breath and whispered, "Tell me more about the Shire."
Pippin nodded, reassured a bit. "Yes, let us stay in the real world. As poor as it is, it is better than the mind of Sauron." And so Pippin related to him adventures with Merry and tales of mischief with Frodo, of getting caught by Farmer Maggot, of nights at the Green Dragon, and even of days spent reaping crops. He spoke of the Shire as simple and perfect as it was. And his own heart ached for it.
Finally, he asked, "How's your leg, Strider?"
"Better, which is more than I had hoped for yesterday. I may just live." He closed his eyes for a moment. "Well, I will say at least, this injury will not kill me."
Pippin could only nod. He couldn't bear to hear Strider speak of his death so matter-of-factly. The man was falling into despair, and Pippin was close behind him.
"Come now, Strider. We must finish tending to this." He freshened the rag with more hot water and began to cleanse the wound, searching for infection. As Strider sat back and watched his work, Pippin realized the Ranger trusted him to care for the wound by himself. He looked up at Strider with some surprise. "I suppose I'm becoming a regular healer now, aren't I? Wouldn't Merry and Fro - my cousins be surprised." At the mention of the lost hobbit, Pippin's voice dropped to a whisper.
"I am certain they would be quite proud of you." Strider's confidence raised his spirits a bit. "Tell me, what of the others? Have you seen Merry? Any word of Legolas or Gimli?" Pippin's hesitation betrayed him. "Tell me, Pippin, no matter what ills have come to pass. It cannot be helped and it is surely no fault of yours."
Pippin closed his eyes for a moment. He delayed his answer by refreshing the rag, then said in a whisper, "Hours ago, what was yesterday now, I suppose, I saw Legolas and Gimli. I had just arrived at the entrance to the hall. I'm sure Saruman forgot about me for the moment. It was quite dark, so I snuck into one of the dark alcoves nearby. He had ordered Legolas and Gimli be returned, to see if they would tell him where our cousins are. They wouldn't, of course. Strange, though. Saruman seemed to have no interest in them then, and said they were at the mercy of the Orcs. But I heard him tell the Orcs Uglúk and Norgry that they weren't to die yet. They were to teach them another lesson, as he called it, make them want to give him the information, but not kill them, because of the knowledge they had. Saruman said he would decide when they would die." Pippin breathed deeply, steadying himself. "That's the last I saw of them," he said in a faint whisper. He shook his head then to dispel his gloom. "I did manage to find Merry, quite far down below here, where fires always seem to be burning." He looked behind him, though there was no one to overhear them. "I snuck down while I waited for your water to boil. I was quite lucky, actually. Below the pantry I use, there is a similar room, and Merry just happened to walk in just as I rounded the corner!" He smiled with pride. "I brought him a bit of food and told him not to worry about us. But he hadn't seen anything of Legolas or Gimli. He's giving it all his effort, though, making a point to wander, to see what he might find."
"Good for Merry. He is a wise one, your cousin, and very brave. Was he treated all right, do you think? Had they hurt him at all?"
"He seemed - all right, I suppose. I saw him a bit before he knew I was there. He looked tired then. And quite dirty. So I suppose they are working him enough. But as soon as he heard my signal, he lit right up. So he's not too badly off."
"Signal? What is your signal?"
"Oh, just the sound of a certain cricket that we always heard around Brandy Hall. It's so commonplace, no one ever suspects that it's not just a cricket. And I do it quite well, if I say so myself, so even the Orc thought it was a bug."
"Orc? What Orc?"
"The Orc that followed Merry into the pantry, or kitchen-room of some sort. But he was easily convinced and left. So Merry and I were able to talk for a bit."
Strider nodded. "Wise of you, Pippin, to use such a ruse. But you must be careful. It would not go well for either of you, but especially Merry, if you were caught. And Merry needs to maintain his meager freedom if he is to find our friends." He looked pointedly at Pippin. "If the time is not past, time certainly runs short if we hope to rescue them."
"Time runs short for all of us," Pippin said, and Strider looked at him oddly.
"Thanks to you, my dear hobbit, I have some strength left in me, I assure you. My leg has begun to heal. I will not die yet," he said with a wry smile.
Pippin nodded, for he could not speak. He was sure Strider spoke those words for him, that he would not lose faith. Pippin knew there was little time for Strider.
Saruman sauntered to the balcony, considering Sauron's words after he had finished with the man. They had been few and his demands were clear. There was little room for Saruman to work his own will within Sauron's and not reveal his own plans. But he had danced this ballad with the Ring-maker for sometime, and he was confident he would not falter. He knew how to suppress himself while meeting through the palantír, and Sauron would not know his mind regarding Gondor, because he knew the Dark Lord's weaknesses. He saw little else when his greatest desires were before him. The wizard knew he would crave possession of the descendant of the man who stole the Ring from him. Forgotten would be plans of armies and Rohan and Gondor. Thus, Saruman had made it clear whom he held within his Tower, under his control. He was sure Sauron would need to see him for himself.
He had seen him. And indeed he wanted him.
Saruman was to bring Aragorn to Sauron, to deliver him to a regiment even now making its way across the plains of Rohan. Saruman had agreed, despite his own plans for the man. Expecting his orders to be followed without question, even Sauron would not predict all that Saruman would do. And Saruman had ways of turning events to his advantage. Even a contingent of Sauron's army could play into his plans, Orcs not being known for their loyalty.
With the King of Rohan and the heir of Isildur at his command, even the Steward of Gondor would pause before rejecting Saruman's conditions. The wizard could barely contain his glee. Through this man, Saruman would command an army so vast it could stand up against the armies of Mordor. But first, he would strip this pathetic man of his arrogance. He was nearly there. With every visit to the palantír, the man weakened, his confusion grew, and he became more malleable. He already considered Saruman's plans. He would begin to see the wisdom of acting for his people regardless of the means, and then the Dúnadan would be his.