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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 24. Black Gate-Bound
Pain. Sam felt a whimper stick in the back of his throat as he groggily roused from a stupor. His head throbbed, and he felt nauseated as he struggled to remember what had happened. Orcs! Heavens help me, there were orcs! In a flash of clarity, it all came back to him--the marsh, and the mere; the orcs in the fog, and running... running, then turning to fight because Frodo.... Where's Mr. Frodo? That got his eyes open despite the pain, and Sam blinked away blurred vision. The darkish mass that hung before him resolved itself. An orc leered at him, looming over him, and Sam gasped.
"Gar, so the rat's awake," the goblin spat. Then, raising his voice, he called, "Hey lads! He's awake!"
A chorus of harsh laughter rang out, along with jeering insults, of a nature and crudity to make Sam blush despite the horrible circumstances. A ring of dirty, orcish faces appeared, crowding at the edges of his vision as they pressed in, lured by the prospect of fresh prey.
"This dropped Dráshnig?"
"He ain't more than a mouthful!"
"Rat's got a pretty bauble, though!" Claws snatched at Sam's cloak, curling around the leaf-clasp of Lórien, and shook him like a cat would a mouse.
"Drop him!" At that sharp command, the orcs fell back a bit, muttering, and Sam winced as he was let fall back to the ground ungently. Craning his neck, the hobbit saw a somewhat larger orc step into the ring of onlookers. And as he gazed flatly at his followers, Sam felt a shiver run down his spine. It seems like there's orcs, and then there's orcs, he thought fearfully, watching as the other goblins drew back before that angry, menacing stare. And while they were cringing, Sam tried to see a bit more of his surroundings. From the muck and slime, they were still in the marshes, but the fog seemed less thick here. And where is Mr. Frodo? I hope he got away! For as far as Sam could see, he stood a good chance of getting caught in the middle of an orcish fray and stabbed.
"We followed you into the horse-boys' land and out again empty-handed, Grishnákh! We stayed with you when those other crawling vermin abandoned in the blasted rock hills, afraid to come home in your company. And our folk caught the worst of it back by the river. It weren't Uglúk's boys as got ripped apart by that cursed tark warrior, it was us! I say we've earned a bit of a reward," snarled one of the orcs, getting some grunts and mutters of agreement. Sam shivered.
Above him, the orc-captain growled, "Our orders are to take halfling prisoners alive and unspoiled. Or have you forgotten what the Nazgûl said?" Grishnákh eyed the rebellious lot of them, who became suddenly much more subdued. With a grunt, he continued, "That's more the spirit, lads. Remember that if the Nazgûl isn't pleased, it'll not be me shrieking while he pulls bones out one by one. Hear?"
A ragged and grudging chorus of "aye" came back, and the orc--Grishnákh?--turned his attention to Sam, who swallowed hard and did his best to look him in the face, scowling as fiercely as he could. Apparently, though, the Gaffer's favorite frown was not particularly impressive to an orc, for the goblin simply laughed evilly. "So, my rat has still some spirit in him, eh? We'll see to that. For the Great Eye wants a word with you, little halfling," Grishnákh grinned malevolently, as he leaned close to whisper in Sam's ear. "A private word, about something you stole from Him." Bless me if I've ever wanted to see Strider or Gandalf more than right now! Sam thought, clenching his teeth and holding his breath against the reek of the other as he tried vainly to put even a little distance between himself and the orc.
"Get him up! You, take the other but keep your claws to yourself," Grishnákh ordered then. The other? Sam froze, feeling his heart sink, and the queasy feeling grew worse. But an orc grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and, muttering, picked him up like a newborn kit, carrying him along with no regard to Sam's aching head, or his strangled noises, as he choked against the claws that scraped throat. The orc found a place in the forming line that suited him and then fairly dropped Sam. The hobbit groaned, feeling his teeth rattle in his head. For a moment, his vision blurred again, and he blinked furiously. He might have spent some moments wishing that he could raise his bound hands to his face to help clear his sight, but the fear was overwhelming as he craned his neck up at his captors. The other... where is the other? Frodo? Lumpish, deformed figures the orcs seemed, in their armor and with their slinking posture, gathered all about him so that he could hardly see a thing otherwise. Where was Frodo? Where--
And then, in a shattering instant, he saw an orc lope into place with a small, grey-cloaked, mud-bespattered figure slung limply over his shoulder. Speech failed Sam--his mind simply refused to put words to the keening horror that filled him, and he felt himself struck dumb. And then there was no time for words, for Grishnákh shouted orders and the whole troop began to move, sweeping Sam helplessly along.
How long they ran, Sam would never know, and he didn't much care. His skull had pounded in time to his own stumbling strides, jarred with each step, and a few times, he had actually collided with one of the orcs. Usually, that had earned him a shove and a curse, and the line had kept moving. Through ankle-deep muck and slime they had run, with Sam struggling to pull free of the clinging earth. Sometimes, sunk in his own misery, Sam did not notice the reeds or the bushes, and leaves would snap across his face, leaving stinging cuts. Sometimes, the orcs, reaching a mere, would simply trample through it. Once, when Sam had begun to flounder in a pool, which had been deeper than expected, an orc had grabbed an arm and dragged him, spitting water all the way and gasping for air, through the murky, churned water. Nothing slowed them--it had seemed that the orcs would never tire, and would simply continue running so long as they were shielded from the sun's rays!
But at long last, yells came back down the line, and the company slowed, then stopped. Sam collapsed to his knees, then curled onto his side, chest heaving, head throbbing, and there was a peculiar, foul taste in his mouth. Likely that swamp water, he thought. What on earth was in it? Never mind, I don't want to know! And where is Frodo? Bestirring himself to open his eyes, Sam blearily glanced about, vainly searching for him, but it seemed that the orcs wanted to keep the two hobbits apart. What happens now? Sam wondered, twitching feebly against the ropes that bound his hands behind his back. His legs felt like jelly after that run, and (ominously) he did not think he could stomach the thought of food. Not that the orcs looked like feeding him any time soon. They were all sitting upon the ground, or lying down, resting. Some sharpened weapons, and there were muttered conversations here and there; an occasional growl and spate of curses and raised voices marked the point when orcish tempers took hold and ended a talk.
Some little distance up the ranks, a knot of orcs stood muttering in their own harsh tongue, and a few emphatic gestures seemed to tell of a heated and serious discussion. I wonder, would it be too much to hope that they'd just kill themselves? Start a big fight and do all my job for me? For it was unquestionably his job to find a way out of this for the Ring-bearer. Unfortunately, nothing came to him, and Sam spared a moment to wish he had Boromir's or Aragorn's advice on how to plan an escape. That neither Boromir nor Aragorn would have found escape a likely possibility, were their positions reversed, did not occur to him. His mind had fixed on one idea, and refused to leave it: Frodo must not be brought to Mordor in the company of orcs. For that matter, the orcs must never know what a prize they had, and Sam only hoped that the orders about spoiling would be scrupulously observed. For what if, as the orcs pawed Frodo, they should come across the Ring? Surely one of these fell creatures would never resist the lure, orders or not.
And what are you going to do about that, Sam Gamgee? he asked himself, desperately seeking an answer. What if that fit comes over him again, and he gives himself away? Or rather, if the Ring gives him away? Whichever, it doesn't much matter, he'll be just as dead. And I can't bear that! But what to do?
Just then, a sharp cry caught his attention, rising to a pitiful, sobbing scream as the circle of orcs laughed harshly. Sam felt his heart hammer in his breast at the noise. "And now th'other one's up as well. Ha! A nice brace of rats, they are!" one of the orcs proclaimed loudly, getting laughter, and a few growled complaints from some of his more weary fellows. The jeering orc leaned down, his bulk obscuring his hands, but shortly thereafter, there came more cries, and Sam gritted his teeth as he sat up.
"Hi there! You leave him alone!" he shouted hoarsely. Heads turned towards him, and eyes luminous with ill-intention fastened on him. All or nothing, Sam, he told himself, lifting his chin defiantly. "That's right, you heard me! Don't you touch him!"
"The rat squeaks too much," one of the orcs said after a moment, and grinned toothily. "Can't you lot keep your squeaker quiet?" he demanded of those sitting or lying about Sam.
"Then keep yours from squalling, Urdúk! Some of us want a bit of sleep around here. Not like we didn't cross the stinking mountains, too, you know," one of the orcs from nearby retorted.
Nevertheless, though, he turned to Sam with a scowl, and with a suddenness that stunned the hobbit, struck and cuffed Sam viciously across the face, knocking him back to the ground with casual irritation. "And you keep quiet or else I'll take it out of your hide, rat."
"And if you lay a hand on him without my knowledge, I'll take it out of your hide with interest," snarled Grishnákh's voice just then, and the orcs seemed to freeze for a moment. The orc captain glared about at all and sundry, then continued. "Remember that we deliver these lads in speaking condition to the Master of the Gates. I don't want any accidents on the way. And as for you," Grishnákh's head swiveled towards Sam, who had not moved since being struck, "don't worry, there's a lot of things that can be done that'll leave you able to talk that you won't much like. By the time you see the Black Gate, you'll know a few of them." Having delivered that threat, Grishnákh stalked onward, leaving Sam with a knot of dread in his stomach.
Frodo lay panting on his side, dazed and not quite able to grasp what was happening about him. He was aware of harsh voices, and one in particular, and his face hurt dully where once claws had grasped and shaken him. But it seemed that he could not quite piece it all together. Or else he did not want to. Or else.... Frodo shivered at the thought of that 'else.' Once Sam had stabbed that orc, Frodo had found himself dashing for cover, his legs moving of their own accord, it had seemed, for he had been wandering still in a valley of desire... desire to disappear. The Ring had filled his mind, seeming wreathed in flame, taunting, tempting, promising salvation if only he would put it on... put the Ring on....
He could not recall at what point he had stopped and torn the chain from round his neck, panting, knowing that he had only a few minutes, perhaps, left to him ere the orcs found him. He knew not what power had put the idea in his head, but he had pulled out a knife and a bandage that were near the top of his pack and flung himself down under what cover the nearest bush could offer. For he had known that he could not outrun the orcs, and now that they had found his trail, he would not be able to escape. And if he could not escape, then they would surely search him, or else some 'accident' would happen, as it had at the Prancing Pony. And that would be the end. Fear had driven him, and he would never know how he had managed the task so quickly, with so little hesitation, but he had even had time to try to run a bit further, for all the good that had done.
So now, as he lay there on the ground, he whimpered to himself, and his left arm seemed to throb and burn, as if the fires of Mt. Doom writhed in his veins. An agony of heat to complement the earlier agony of ice, and he might have laughed that it was always his left arm, but at the moment, he could scarcely manage the demands of consciousness. He had awakened screaming ere ever the orcs had touched him, and now that he had managed to swallow his cries, he was not certain that he would ever be able to bring himself to open his mouth again.
A Elbereth, it burns! It burns! Frodo was shaking now, lips peeling back from his teeth as he fought to hold his sobs in. The orcs were laughing now, he thought, or perhaps they were arguing; he could not tell, could not make himself pick out the words, as if in losing his own tongue, he had lost all power of speaking and understanding. There are just the words in my head... and my memory of other times. But that is fading... Elbereth, it is fading so swiftly! Frodo groaned, unable to help himself, and an orc kicked him in the stomach. Frodo curled up instantly into a ball, and for once was grateful to the foul, rotting slime, for that at least felt cool. But it makes the heat of it seem worse!
As he sank further from the waking world, visions formed aimlessly in his mind, hazy memories of Rivendell and the Shire pierced by sudden flashes of clarity: the curl of smoke wafting up from Gandalf's pipe; Boromir's fingers wandering the length of the horn of Gondor in a familiar, worried caress; the glint of sun off of Legolas' hair; trees in autumn; Galadriel's eyes; Aragorn's moon-backed silhouette as the Ranger stood watch; water. The water stayed with him, and those brief memories seemed adrift in it without rhyme or reason. Frodo struggled against the tide, drowning, as a hissing voice cackled, "Alive without breath, as cold as death... alive without breath, as cold as death...." Over and over the words repeated, but the heat in the center of his body would not abate, was weighing him down, driving him mad with pain.
"Alive without breath...." —Pippin's face was milk-pale on Weathertop—
"As cold as death...." —two lovers twined about each other on a hilltop in Lórien, and one of them cried out with a mortal breath—
"Never thirsty, ever drinking..."—an elven boat floated down a gleaming river—
"All in mail...." —the broken bridge dwindled above him as the darkness of the chasm swallowed the fires Khazad-dûm—
"Never clinking...." —a shiver ran up the haft of the ax, and then the tree seemed to shriek as it swept downwards—
Stop! Stop! Stop! I never saw any of it—these are not even my memories! Stop, or I shall go mad! A fish breached the surface of Anduin and in its last agony spit out a golden trinket that slipped down through the waters to nestle in the mud, and wait. Stop!
"Mr. Frodo, sir? Oh please, listen to me, just listen to me a moment, and open your eyes!" Frodo blinked, gasping, and Sam's worried, dirt-streaked and bruised face stared back at him.
"Sam!" Frodo croaked hoarsely, his voice barely a whisper. To his horror, he could feel tears stinging his eyes, threatening to slip down his cheeks.
"Don't worry, Mr. Frodo, it was naught but a nightmare. Here now, I'd offer a shoulder, but I don't know as we can move that much. Just lie still a moment, and try to keep quiet. I'll talk a bit, but those nasty brutes are quick with a slap or worse if we're not careful," Sam murmured. "Do you know where you are, Mr. Frodo?"
"I... I don't remember. There were orcs in the marshes," Frodo replied weakly after a few moments, and closed his eyes again. His left arm felt leaden—molten, even, throbbing painfully, but the fires seemed contained for the moment. They did not lick outward to consume him and his mind, but only smoldered now. Almost, he could feel relief that it was merely his arm that pained him so.
"Aye, there were. I'd hoped you'd got away!" Sam's voice sounded so chagrined, so close to tears that Frodo made himself open his eyes again. The other's expression spoke eloquently of dashed hopes and self-accusation for the failure.
"No... no, Sam, do not blame yourself. I just wasn't fast enough," Frodo sighed in response, and left it at that.
"Well, at least they've got us together now. The first day, or night, rather, I suppose, they kept us separate. But don't you worry, I'll stay with you, Mr. Frodo. We'll make it." To where? Frodo felt like asking bitterly, but swallowed the urge. What point in scorning what little comfort Sam had to offer, even if they both knew that it was a vain hope? "The good thing is, that this here orc troop seems like it's a small one. I think they lost some after Parth Galen."
"Parth Galen? These are the same orcs?"
"Seems like it, from what I've heard. A part of that group, at any rate, though they must've left the others behind, and they seem to've been running from their own for awhile. Went over the Emyn Muil like us, but they must've found another way. Fellow named Grishnákh seems to be in charge, and he's a mean one, even for an orc, or so I fancy," Sam said, voice sinking to an even lower whisper. "And there's the bad news—this lot got their orders from a Nazgûl. They're supposed to take halflings to the master of the gates, whatever that means."
"Morannon," Frodo murmured faintly, feeling cold sweat spring up instantly.
"I'll try my best, Mr. Frodo, but I'm not very good at planning things like this," Sam sighed, and Frodo was tempted to laugh. Planning things like this... planning an escape? The notion was absurd, and Frodo felt a certain admiration for Sam's stalwart attempts to bolster his spirits, but....
But! As Frodo stared, speechless, at Sam, he realized something: Sam was not jeseting. He was in deadly earnest—he believed that it could be done. That it had to be done (which Frodo certainly did not dispute) and that he could do it. Hobbits really are amazing creatures. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you at a pinch, he thought, marveling.But no, he realized, as murky recollection surrendered a sudden bit of clarity to him, that was Gandalf who said that. And perhaps the old wizard had been correct. Well... it cannot hurt to let him keep that illusion, after all, Frodo decided. Poor Sam!
"All right my rats, up we go and off we get!" An orc loomed up and grabbed each of the hobbits by the collar, dragging them to their feet. "Run, or else you'll only wish we'd skinned you alive!" They were shoved forward, and Frodo gasped as he stumbled against Sam, jarring his left arm. "Move it!" Move! Move! he ordered his legs, and haltingly, staggeringly, he began to run, and the fire began to spread again.
Sam was worried. He had every right to be, but he was worried. Something was wrong with Frodo, that seemed plain. The Ring had been wearing him down since Moria and before, most likely, but it had seemed a slow decline, one that Frodo had been able to manage, to control somewhat. But now he seems like he's sleep-walking, Sam thought fearfully. Frodo staggered along at his side, eyes wide and staring and glazed, heedless, it seemed of his surroundings, and Sam knew that he was in pain. The scratches and exhaustion, stench and fear aside, Frodo was in agony. And Sam had no least idea how to help him. It's not injury as far as I can see, he thought, furiously searching his memory, cataloguing each bump and scrape and hardship they had endured. And much though I don't want to say it, these orcs have been uncommonly careful round us. I guess I would be, too, if I had to answer to a Nazgûl. I've never seen him like this, though, not since Weathertop and I—
Weathertop. Wordless insight struck so hard that Sam tripped and pitched forward with an oomf! as he hit the ground. With a snarl, a nearby orc reached down and grabbed him by the hair, dragging him as he scrambled for his footing. He had only barely regained it, however, when—oh glory and trumpets!—a halt was finally called. Panting painfully, Sam sank down to the ground again, head bowed as he let the blood rush to his face. Beside him, Frodo lay collapsed and shivering fit to break. And as he gasped for breath, Sam could hear little moans catching in the back of the other's throat. Sam shook his head sharply, trying to clear it, and frowned as he gazed down at Frodo. Weathertop. Not since Weathertop, he thought, feeling a chill work its way into his heart. But there's no Nazgûl here, and surely Lord Elrond cured him. He was healed! They took the splinter out.
Perplexed, caught between ignorance and bone-deep certainty that what ailed Frodo must surely be similar to the injury done him at Weathertop, Sam chewed on his lip, frowning down at his friend. And so he did not see the orcish fist until it connected with his ear, and Sam gasped as he tasted blood. "The master wants a word with you, he does, but Grishnákh said you'd be learning a few things on this little trip, my dears," sneered an orc, and there was much laughter and agreement as the orcs crowded round. Sam dazedly got to his knees, eyes watering, and he watched as an orc advanced with a drawn knife. Frodo! For Frodo still lay exactly as he had, seemingly unaware of his surroundings. Setting the point against Frodo's collar, the orc began to cut slowly through the fabric, but after a moment, he frowned and paused.
"Gar, now, what's this? What do you know, lads! I ain't seen a hide worth more than this one's!" Sam closed his eyes, as the murmur of orcish interest grew louder, climaxing in a series of gasps and muttered orcish exclamations.
"And what do you think you're doing?" came a voice.
"Taking it off of him. What's it look like, you clod-brained mule?"
"Grishnákh said no spoiling!"
"Ain't spoiling if it's company property. Heh, we can turn it over in Lúgburz. Eh? Keep it right safe 'til then."
"Oh, I'm sure you will! I wouldn't trust you with a sack of dung, Rakûsh!"
"You were the one reaching for that bit of elvish jewelry!" It looked as though a fight would begin on the spot, and Sam held his breath. But just then, Grishnákh intervened.
"Enough! Rakûsh, bring them with you."
"Why?" Rakûsh snarled resentfully, clearly displeased to have his 'fun' spoiled. Grishnákh stared at him flatly for a moment, and then, with a suddenness that shocked Sam, struck. Dark blood sprayed, and Rakûsh staggered back, clutching at his throat. He collapsed back into the crowd, which parted to let him fall, and after but a few moments, lay still.
"Urdúk, bring the halflings with you and follow me. The rest of you, rest now, for you'll not get any tomorrow." Urdúk, growling but apparently cowed by that demonstration, stepped forward and caught Frodo and Sam up, one under each arm, and stomped after his captain. Muttering, the other orcs began to settle down. Grishnákh led them a ways away from the other orcs, though not so far that he could not keep an eye and an ear on them, and then indicated that Urdúk should set them down. "Tie their legs. I don't want them getting it into their heads to run. For you'd not get far, my dear halflings, but tomorrow brings another long run," Grishnákh added, grinning in such a way that Sam felt rather ill.
And while Urdúk began tying Sam up, Grishnákh set about getting the mail shirt off of Frodo. Sam held his breath, uncertain what he was going to do once Grishnákh discovered the Ring on its chain, but he knew he would have to do something. I may not live to regret it, but I have to try! Sam hissed as Urdúk pulled the bonds painfully tight, but otherwise, his attention remained focused on Grishnákh, who had untied Frodo's hands and was working the mail off with rough haste. Frodo moaned a little, and began to twitch, seeming to begin to come out of his stupor. Here it comes. Sam held his breath, tensing for he knew not what action, waiting for that gasp that would tell of the discovery....
But it never happened. There was no gasp, no sudden immobility. Grishnákh simply slung the mithril shirt over his shoulder along with Frodo's cloak, and, after patting the hobbit down with ruthless efficiency, moved away to begin lighting a fire while Urdúk came around to redo Frodo's bindings. As the orc knelt behind him and began to wrap rope about Frodo's wrists, Sam had a clear view of his friend, and shock rippled through him. Frodo's pale chest heaved still from their painfully swift journey, but his neck was bare. There was no chain, no ring, nothing. Only a few bruises here and there, and a bloodied bandage tied off tightly about his left upper arm.
The Ring had disappeared!
"Alive without breath, as cold as death...." etc., from "Riddles in the Dark" in "The Hobbit."
" Hobbits really are amazing creatures. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you at a pinch." FOTR, p. 61, "The Shadow of the Past."
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