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Doomed to Live: 11. Interrogations I
Legolas stood on his toes, gently freeing the shreds of an elven cloak from the brambles near the river's edge, reverently and careful so as not to further damage the torn cloth. A leaf-shaped brooch glittered in the cool sunshine, and, for a moment, Gimli's eyes were drawn towards it, away from the stains of dried blood that covered the fine elven cloth.
Unable to bear the sight any longer, Gimli averted his eyes, scanned the area around them instead. At first glance, the grass-covered plain revealed nothing, not a single sign of the battle that had been fought. But though he did not see the signs at first, he smelled them as a gust of wind swept across the land: the smell of decay and death met his nostrils and churned his stomach. He swallowed bile.
"Legolas!" he called, unwilling to face the inevitable alone. "Can you smell that?"
"Of course, I can," the Elf replied. "Smells like dead Orcs to me." Legolas turned around and raised his head, nose held high as if he were tasting the wind. "This area has seen no rain for several days, the weather has been sunny but not too warm. I would guess they lie here for about two days," Legolas went on as if guessing the time of an Orc's demise by its smell alone were the most natural thing to do.
Gimli hid his astonishment behind a raised eyebrow. "Are you sure that there are only dead Orcs around?"
"Nay, I am not. Whether alive or dead, their stench is strong enough to block out the smell of every other creature," Legolas replied. "We should take a look, though I would not expect to find other corpses than those of Orcs."
"You would not expect to find them, or would you not hope to find them?"
"Both," came the simple reply as Legolas picked up the torn cloak and followed Gimli away from the river.
They had to walk for a while ere they found them: the bloated corpses of three dead Orcs. A flock of large birds, crebain by the look of them, took flight as they approached, shrieking angrily at the intruders. Gimli cleared his throat. He fought the urge to close his eyes and let Legolas examine their discovery. Yet he had his honour to keep: he would not leave that dreadful business to the Elf alone. If the mutilated corpses of their friends were near, they would discover them together and arrange such a funeral as would befit their memory.
Fortunately, they found no mutilated corpses, safe those of the three Orcs. They found a few discarded weapons and other gear, and a frighteningly large stain of dried blood upon the ground. It was no Orc-blood. Yet, like five days ago at Parth Galen, they found neither the weapons nor the bodies of their friends. The only sign that they had been here at all was a bloodied elven cloak and the traces of recent battle.
"This must have been Aragorn's work," Gimli spoke at length, pointing at the stinking carcasses.
Legolas nodded. "Yes," he murmured, almost as if talking to himself. "There are no horse-tracks around. And had the Riders of Rohan slain those Orcs, they would have burnt the corpses, along with the others."
South of Fangorn, February 29, 3019 (mid-morning)
Though Aragorn had anticipated the blow all along, when the arrow hit home with enough strength to pitch him face first into the dirt, he was caught by surprise. There was a moment of confusion while he fell, and of denial, as if his mind refused to accept that his mad dash had come to a sudden and painful end.
For a moment, he lay there, stunned, before orc-voices too near for comfort urged him to move on. Shaking dust out of his hair, he pushed himself up on his uninjured hand and knee and scrambled to his feet without grace yet with grim determination. He tried to ignore the bright hot pain that flared up in his leg as soon as he took the first tentative step but failed. His hand shot down to clutch at the wound on its own accord, as if that would stem the pain, and so he went on, half limping, half hopping, the Orcs hard on his heels.
The longer you keep them busy, the better the Hobbits' chances for escape, he firmly told himself. He knew only too well that his desperate flight from the Orcs was utterly in vain. Already he could hear their taunts and jeers, and there was still no sign of the riders he had heard before dawn.
"Oi, look at the tark!"
"He hops mighty fast."
"Yeah, but not fast enough."
"Looks like we'll get some sport at last!"
"Shall I shoot his other leg from beneath him as well? Then we can see how fast he can crawl."
"No, you won't, brainless fool."
Aragorn tensed. He knew that voice too well: Borsúk.
"You heard what Uglúk said: the prisoners are to be caught alive!"
Another arrow whizzed past his ear, and Aragorn jerked aside, gritting his teeth as his leg protested at the sudden move. The Orcs behind him cheered. Anger flickered briefly in his chest but was dispelled quickly by an arrow that brushed his arm and rent his shirt.
"Quit your mindless games!" Borsúk bellowed. "The horseboys won't be waiting for you to be done with him. Get the tark and quickly!"
So the game was over; the hunt had begun in earnest. The Orcs fell silent. Only their heavy footfall and the creaking of their ill-fitting armour gave them away as they closed in upon him. But Aragorn would not give up. Not yet. He had vowed to save the Hobbits, by life or death. The time to fulfil that oath had come.
Steeling himself for the inevitable, Aragorn moved his left hand away from the dark shaft protruding from his thigh, inconspicuously wiping blood off his palm. He could almost feel the nearest Orc now, smell its putrid breath. And then there was the minute change in the pattern of its running feet ...
With a shout Aragorn sprang to the side, drawing Andúril from its sheath with his left hand. The Orc shot past him, thrown off balance. Aragorn brought down his blade. The Orc hit the ground, dead and Aragorn fell on top of him, pain raging in his wounded leg, yet without time to recover: more Orcs kept coming.
He rolled aside. An axe came down where his head had just been. He lashed out blindly with his sword, pleased when his blade met flesh. Another blow. He blocked it, by chance rather than skill. A well-aimed kick, a distracted foe. Within a blink that Orc, too, fell to his sword.
That victory at least earned him a short respite. Cautious now of the flashing blade of what had seemed an easy prey, the Orcs hesitated for just a moment. Aragorn eyed them warily from his vulnerable position on the ground where he lay propped up on one dead opponent, panting. The Orcs moved in around him.
Drawing his uninjured leg beneath him, he sat up slowly, swinging Andúril in a wide circle to keep his foes at bay. He felt movement behind him and turned, his sword flashing bright in the morning sun as he brought it up like a shield. An Orc sprang back, averting its eyes.
"Disarm the tark! We don't have all day," Borsúk bellowed from behind the ranks of Orcs.
Aragorn pushed himself up, sword raised before him. He let momentum carry him forward and stabbed at his nearest foe. The Orc had not anticipated his sudden move, and brought up its blade just in time to deflect the blow, throwing Aragorn off balance.
What had brought him down in the end, he could not recall, but the next instant he lay pinned beneath a pile of stinking Orcs. He only knew that his wounded leg had failed him yet again, that several Orcs had rushed towards him and that a heavy weight had slammed into him. Now he found it hard to breathe beneath huge hands holding him down, claws digging into his neck. His right arm was trapped beneath him, but his left hand still had a firm grip upon his sword, though the Orcs clawed at his hand and arm, trying to disarm him.
Gritting his teeth, he bucked against the weight upon his back, tried to unbalance the creature that held him down. A string of foul curses answered his struggle and the grip upon his neck tightened. But the Orc on his back shifted his weight and Aragorn seized his chance. He managed to get a leg beneath him, pushed himself up on his knee and rolled aside just as an elbow slammed down to where his wounded shoulder had been only a heartbeat before. A howl of pain and more curses erupted from somewhere to his left, and he brought up Andúril in a wide, slashing arc, trying to use the Orc's brief moment of distraction to his advantage.
But a vice-like grip around his wrist seized his sword-arm mid-swing. With a snarl, he tried to wrench free his trapped arm, but another hand joined the first and the pressure upon his wrist and forearm increased. Already his grasp upon the sword-hilt weakened. In a last, desperate attempt he shot up and sank his teeth into one of the hands that held his arm. The Orc howled in anger; all he heard, before a blow jerked his head backwards, leaving his senses reeling. Not yet fully recovered, Aragorn could not offer much resistance as the Orcs gave his arm another violent twist, and before long, his hold on Andúril's hilt faltered.
Cheers rose around him as his blade fell to the ground with a clang, and faster than his mind could grasp, the Orcs wrenched his arm upon his back and he found himself on the ground once more, face pressed into the dirt. Stunned, he had to endure numerous Orc-hands that were all over him, tearing at his clothing and searching for hidden weapons. His belt they simply cut and pulled from beneath him, his cloak, too, they tried to rip off, and for a moment he feared to choke, until the elven-cloth tore, easing the pressure upon his throat. Aragorn drew in a shaky breath.
"Bind him! Quickly!" Borsúk ordered.
They pulled his right arm from the make-shift sling, leaving him gasping with pain. While he still fought the sudden bout of dizziness that assailed him, the Orcs lashed coarse rope about his wrists, binding his hands once more behind his back. From the edge of his vision he beheld Borsúk as he picked up Andúril and sheathed it, not even bothering to wipe the blood of its blade. A sudden rage surged through Aragorn at the sight yet not strong enough to block out the exhaustion and pain. The Orcs had little trouble hauling him to his knees.
A hand tightened in his hair and jerked his head upward: Borsúk stood before him, a malicious gleam in his eyes. Aragorn had no choice but to face him as he knelt there, chest heaving, while around him his capturers revelled in their victory. Another Orc stepped behind him, pushed its knee into Aragorn's back and fastened a hand around his neck, tightening its grip until the claw-like nails drew blood. Aragorn tried to ease his weight off his wounded leg, but even the slight shift did not go unnoticed. Suspicious now, the Orcs feared more trouble and would not take chances. Hands clamped about Aragorn's ankles, leaving no more room for movement: he was trapped.
He let his head drop in defeat and allowed exhaustion to take hold of him once Borsúk released his grasp. Though the odds had been against him from the start, defeat stung almost as badly as his wounds. And the Orcs gave him no respite. Borsúk's claws dug into his jaw.
"Look at me, tark!" Borsúk all but spat into his face.
Forced into submission, Aragorn tried to meet Borsúk's gaze evenly, tried to maintain a calm facade, though his world was spinning and his vision swam. To admit defeat was bad enough; he would not let Borsúk see the extent of it.
Yet his obvious defiance earned him nothing but a sneer from Borsúk. "You can't fool me, tark. Soon enough you'll be begging for your life! Or for me to end it."
As if to stress his words, Borsúk strengthened his grasp until Aragorn was sure that his claws broke skin.
"But old Borsúk might spare you further pain for the moment," Borsúk went on. "I'll put in a good word for you with Uglúk and the White Hand, if you tell me were the little maggots are."
"Eating away your brain."
Borsúk's reply came promptly in the form of a backhanded blow, strong enough to split Aragorn's lip and make his eyes water. He tasted blood.
"I think I didn't make myself clear, tark!" Borsúk growled. At least the benevolent facade was gone, something Aragorn noted not without satisfaction. "If you help us to find the short ones, we'll leave you alone, at least for now. If not, you'll regret it."
Aragorn spat out a mouthful of blood before looking up to meet Borsúk's blazing eyes. "Do you honestly think I would betray them, even if I knew where they were?"
"I've seen many a man's resolve crumble," Borsúk replied. He leaned in a little closer so that Aragorn could smell his fetid breath. "I'll give you one last chance ..."
Aragorn sighed. There was no way he would betray the Hobbits. Yet there also was no way he would escape Borsúk's clutches. Keep them occupied, flashed through his mind. He swallowed once to harden his resolve and said, "You know my answer."
"Fool!" Borsúk spat. "You'll talk soon enough. But if you want to suffer first ..."
With those words Borsúk released Aragorn's jaw and stepped back. A shiver ran down Aragorn's spine, but he tried to ignore it. Through sweat-soaked strands of hair that clung to his brow he watched Borsúk, followed his every movement with his eyes, though deep inside he knew that there was no way to steel himself for the ordeal he would have to face. But he could not help himself and tensed as Borsúk nodded once at someone behind his back.
Yet nothing happened. The Orcs maintained their hold on him, their grip neither lessening nor strengthening, and Borsúk watched him, his face slowly twisting into a grin as Aragorn's tension rose.
The first blow came as a surprise. Aragorn had been so focused on Borsúk that he had failed to notice the approach of another Orc to his left, until its foot met his midsection. The kick was well-measured, strong enough that he would have doubled over had he not been held so firmly, yet not intended to cause serious harm.
Aragorn drew in a shaky breath, warily watching his tormentor.
"Still unwilling to talk?" Borsúk asked.
Aragorn slowly turned his head. "You know my answer," he hissed through clenched teeth.
"As you wish."
The second kick did not surprise him, though it was no less painful than the first. A third one followed ere he could recover, then a fourth. Aragorn quickly lost count of the kicks and blows that were aimed at his stomach, his ribs and his chest. His breath came in short gasps and his vision began to blur, yet Borsúk did not bother to repeat his question; nor did he bother to interrupt the barrage of blows.
"You can end this, tark." After what seemed an eternity, Borsúk's voice pierced the haze of pain. "Anytime you choose."
"No." Aragorn's answer was little more than a croak. At least it earned him a brief respite. Panting, he raised his eyes to look at Borsúk, who stood before him, hands resting on Andúril's hilt. Aragorn swallowed the taste of bile and blood. "Death shall come to anyone who touches that blade!"
Borsúk just gave a sneer by way of an answer. "Shut up, tark! Unless you wish to answer my question."
Aragorn drew in a shuddering breath. "Never!"
"We've barely begun." Again, Borsúk nodded at someone behind Aragorn.
He had anticipated yet another barrage of blows, but it did not come. Instead, a crippling pain flared up in his shoulder as one of the huge Uruk-hai clamped its hand about it, grinding bone against shattered bone. Aragorn could not withhold a gasp, and the Orcs around him cheered.
"Where are they!" Borsúk's voice seemed to come from very far away, while Aragorn fought hard not to cry at the ever increasing pain in his shoulder.
Aragorn closed his eyes and clenched his teeth. How much longer would he be able to endure the torment? He tried to focus on something within him, some part of his being that did not hurt. But even breathing was sheer agony, and the grip upon his shoulder tightened.
In a desperate attempt, he tried to throw himself sideward. Yet neither the grip upon his neck nor that upon his shoulder lessened enough for him to escape the pain.
"You've but to talk and they'll release you," Borsúk sneered.
"You might as well save their strength," Aragorn gasped.
Borsúk stepped closer. Aragorn watched his movements warily. But Borsúk did not seem to be in a particular hurry. Almost leisurely, he approached, using Andúril as if it were a walking-stick. He walked past the Orc who had delivered the beating until Aragorn could no longer follow him with his eyes. Nonetheless, Aragorn felt Borsúk's gaze upon him, studying him appraisingly as if he were some prized possession. Aragorn dropped his head, at least as far as he was able, and tried to regain his breath and his composure, in spite of the crushing grip on his wounded shoulder.
But the lull did not last long. Aragorn felt movement to his left and tensed in anticipation of another assault to his aching ribs and stomach. Borsúk took the place of his tormentor, fastening his hand once again in Aragorn's hair, forcing his head around.
Aragorn grimaced in disgust as Borsúk's foul breath met his nose. Yet that soon proved to be the least of his worries as Borsúk reached for the arrow that still stuck in his thigh, twisting it ever so slightly, a vicious grin contorting his face.
Aragorn could not help but gasp.
"The arrow has to come out, tark," Borsúk said, "one way or the other." He flicked a finger against the dark shaft. The other Orcs laughed at Aragorn's hiss. "It's your choice how painful it'll be."
Another flick of Borsúk's fingers. Aragorn bit his lip to stifle a moan. "Tell me what I want to know and I'll tell my lads to be gentle," Borsúk went on. "Remain quiet," he gripped the arrow firmly, "and you'll regret it!"
Aragorn's cry almost drowned out Borsúk's last remark as Borsúk pushed the arrow deeper into the wound in emphasis of his words. With pain dispelling reason, Aragorn tried to wrench his wounded leg free from the Orcs' grasp, but already he lacked the strength to pose a real threat, and the Orcs merely laughed the louder at his weak attempt to escape his torment.
"You still have a fair chance." Aragorn could feel Borsúk's breath hot against his ear. A hand tightened about his ankle, and Borsúk sat back. Through eyelids that seemed too heavy to hold open, Aragorn saw Borsúk nod. The hand about his neck tightened, then his left leg was pulled aside and held firmly, stretched out at an awkward angle.
Without warning, Borsúk pushed, and Aragorn moaned. For a moment, his world darkened and his whole body shook. A brief flash of hope shot through his mind that he might swoon as a result of Borsúk's treatment. But ever so slowly, the pain ebbed away, the jeers and laughter of the Orcs reached his awareness, and he slowly open his eyes to the sickening sight of a bloodied arrow-head sticking from his thigh.
"Your last chance, tark!" Aragorn hissed sharply as the arrow-shaft moved. Borsúk had renewed his grip upon it. There was no time to prepare for the splitting pain as Borsúk pulled the arrow backwards. Aragorn cried out. His leg was on fire, felt as if ripped asunder, and like from the depth of the sea Borsúk's voice reached his ears. "Talk, and this will end!"
"No!" Aragorn ground out. A quick reply to convince not only the other but also himself that he would not betray the Hobbits, no matter the cost.
"As you wish!"
Thrice, Borsúk asked. Thrice, he pulled. Thrice, Aragorn screamed. Then at last, the arrow came free. Aragorn knew not how long he knelt there, awkwardly on one leg, held firmly in place, while all he could do was draw gasping breath after gasping breath. At long last, awareness won over pain, Orc-voices again reached his ears, and he felt the warmth of his own blood pouring from the wound and soaking his breeches. The ordeal could not have lasted long. The riders had not yet arrived and the Orcs did not seem in a particular hurry.
"You're trying my patience, tark!" Borsúk spat into his face. Aragorn briefly wondered when the Orc had taken hold of his hair again, a habit he found rather annoying, for Borsúk stank. All off a sudden, the Orc released him, only to rise to his full height in a single move that seemed strangely elegant for such a bulky creature. Aragorn would have shaken his head at the strange fragments of thought that flittered through his mind, but he lacked both the strength and the will to do so, and still an Orc held him tightly by his neck.
A ray of bright sunlight pierced his eyes as the sun broke through the scattered clouds. Only then did Aragorn notice that Borsúk had stepped away from him, but not far. Some steps to his left, he paced to and fro, like some caged beast.
"Uglúk will be here soon," Borsúk growled. "And he won't be so gentle!" The huge Orc resumed his pacing, and some detached part of Aragorn's mind told him that Borsúk's impatience was real enough, bordering on panic. A brief sense of victory flooded through him, but then Borsúk stepped closer again.
"Answer!" he shouted, making Aragorn flinch. "Where are the Halflings."
Aragorn took a deep breath and set his jaw, though that did not help him. There was movement to his left and then there was pain; bright, red pain that consumed the world around him, Orcs and Riders, grass and plain. Only pain remained, and he was trapped within it, until the ending of the world, as it seemed.
"Borsúk! Quit toying with the tark and search for the Halflings!"
"Give me some more time and he'll tell me where they went."
"Fool! I know his like. It takes more than a couple of blows to loosen their tongue."
"My lads gave him more to swallow than 'a couple of blows'." Gleeful laughter pierced the fog of pain that engulfed Aragorn. "We made sure he won't make a run for it again."
"You did what?" The voices gradually became louder. Uglúk and Borsúk approached.
"Didn't you hear him scream?"
"You're a thrice cursed fool, Borsúk!" Fingers prodded and poked at Aragorn's leg, sparking new flares of agony in his thigh. "He's bleeding like a pig and he'll slow us down. If he can walk at all."
"But he won't cause anymore trouble."
"No trouble? You can haul his stinking carcass to Isengard on your own and see how much trouble that is, Borsúk."
The fingers resumed their prodding. Aragorn moaned. From the thigh-wound they descended downward, examining the rest of his leg that lay awkwardly stretched aside. Aragorn could not withhold a scream, could not escape the merciless touch as Uglúk's fingers found the source of his agony, less than a hand's breadth above his ankle, where Borsúk's iron-shod foot had crushed bone.
Aragorn drew a shuddering breath as the hands released his leg.
"Bind his wounds and be on your way, I'll not have him leave a blood-trail for the horseboys to follow."
"Why is it never Uglúk when it comes to doing the work," Borsúk's muttered under his breath.
"What? I've to clean up the mess you've left us! Hadn't you come up with that useless tark, we'd be well on our way already. That's his doing," Uglúk hissed and heaved a kick into Aragorn's stomach. "Brought us nothing but trouble. I should've killed him back then."
Aragorn risked a cautious glance at the two Uruk-hai standing next to him. At once, Uglúk dropped to a crouch, turning Aragorn's head around by his hair. "I still could kill you," he hissed. "But that'd be the easy way out. You'll pay for all the trouble you've caused us. Just wait till we reach Isengard."
A shiver ran down Aragorn's spine at Uglúk's words, but he did not, he could not fight it. He had done all within his power to draw the Orcs away from the Hobbits. But now all his determination and strength drained from his body along with his blood that poured from the arrow wound. Even though he knew that this might be his only chance of escape, he could fight no more. The pain raging in his leg and the bone-deep exhaustion were more than he could bear. Wearily, he closed his eyes, willing blessed oblivion to free him from his misery.
Yet neither unconsciousness nor sleep did claim him. Instead Borsúk and two of his minions came to obey Uglúk's command and bind his wounds. At least Borsúk did not resume his interrogation, did not promise relief from raging agony as a reward for the answer he wished to hear. For as Aragorn lay there, forced to endure the rough treatment of his hurts, Borsúk's promise seemed more than tempting, and he felt a moment of uncertainty as to the answer he would have given only to end his helpless agony.
At long last, the torment was over. Borsúk dropped to one knee beside him and yanked at the ropes around his wrists. They would not budge, but Aragorn was too exhausted to care. A low groan was all he could utter as one of Borsúk's Orc-soldiers heaved him upon his shoulder, jarring his bruised rib-cage and jostling his wounded leg. While the Orc broke into a loping run, he idly wondered whether his desperate fight had been but an act of foolish bravery or whether his sacrifice truly bought the Hobbits the time they needed to escape. But he did not know the answer. Maybe he would never know it, for already the Orcs splashed through the icy Entwash, away from the approaching riders, away from the site of a battle that might have been Aragorn's last.
They had managed to retrace Aragorn's steps as far as the river, which had not been a difficult task, since the Ranger had not tried to conceal his footsteps. Along the Entwash they found the obvious signs of a small party of Orcs that had crossed the stream, heading West. Yet neither Aragorn's foot-prints were among them nor the foot-prints of a Hobbit, and already the sun stood high in the southern sky.
"They would have had to carry the Hobbits, unless they wished for them to drown," Gimli said.
"Yet Aragorn should have been able to cross the river on his own."
"If he were able," Gimli replied. "After all, he was forced to fight another battle."
Legolas nodded. "And he did not win it. Else he would be here. Or he would have joined the Riders." Legolas sighed. "I fear for him, Gimli. If I read those signs aright, he freed himself only to be caught again later. He is not dead. Since he is not here either, he must be among the Orcs that crossed the river, bound for Isengard."
"Then we should get back on that stubborn horse and follow them at once."
"And the Hobbits?" Legolas' smile was tinged with sadness. "We have yet to find so much as a blade of grass bent by their passing. Would you leave them to their fate?"
"But whither did they go?" Gimli sighed, torn by friendship and loyalty.
"They met someone they did not expect," a deep voice behind them spoke. Caught completely unawares, Legolas and Gimli turned as one and froze as they saw a tall figure standing on top of the river bank, towering above them. The stranger was clad in grey rags and beneath them white robes shone brightly in the mid-day sun. But they could not see his face, for he was hooded. Gimli felt Legolas tense beside him and reached for his axe.
To be continued ...
A/N: Thanks Amanda, for the fabulous beta-job! Another thank you goes to Lyllyn for help with the medical questions.
There are again some passages I borrowed from Tolkien:
- "Death shall come to any man that draws Elendil's sword save Elendil's heir." TTT, The King of the Golden Hall.
- "They could not see his face: he was hooded, and above the hood he wore a wide-brimmed hat, so that all his features were over-shadowed, except for the end of his nose and his grey beard."[...] "Well, they climbed up here the day before yesterday; and they met someone that they did not expect." TTT, The White Rider.
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