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Doomed to Live: 7. The Falling Leaves of Lórien
Aragorn almost stumbled into the large Orc in front of him as he stopped on the crest of the hill when the company was called to a halt. All around him Orcs and Uruk-hai plopped to the ground in small groups, laughing and joking in their cruel tongue. Aragorn stood still for some moments, rooted to the spot, still trapped in that trance-like state that had allowed him to keep up with his captors while preventing him from recalling much of the gruelling march later. His mind still had to register that he was no longer forced to walk, no longer had to focus his eyes upon the uneven ground beneath his feet so as to avoid missteps that could easily prove disastrous, and no longer had to force his thoughts away from the fierce pain in his shoulder and the dull ache in his head that had grown worse as the hours had worn on.
A slight tremor ran through his aching body, but as he stood shivering in the chill of the evening, the fog that had entrapped his mind seemed to float away on the breeze caressing the barren hilltops, and he finally managed to shake himself free from his stupor. Once awareness returned, his quivering legs threatened to buckle beneath him on their own account, and he dropped to his knees while he could still control how he landed and let his weary body sag against a boulder at his side.
Though the vile draught the Orcs had given him but a few hours ago still burned fiercely within his stomach, Aragorn felt all but spent yet too exhausted for the moment to worry overmuch about this testimony to his poor condition. He eased his throbbing head against the boulder, but the coolness of the stone brought little relief. A flare of pain shot from his shoulder down his back and arm as his bound hands caught on a hidden protrusion of the rock and the incautious movement jarred the shattered bones in his shoulder without warning, reducing his world to one of sheer pain and agony.
He knew not how long he knelt there, shivering with pain and cold upon the barren ground, while he could do little more than draw one gasping breath after another and hope for the pain to abate. Minutes stretched into hours of raw agony that was slow to fade. Incoherent fragments of thoughts and memories flitted through his tired mind, too swift for him to get a hold on one to cling to so as not to drown in the raging sea of his own misery.
For a few heartbeats he embraced the idea of simply remaining upon the ground once his captors were about to leave and hope that Uglúk's earlier threat, or promise, had not been an empty one. But then instincts honed by years of toil and hardship took over, and he braced himself against these treacherous thoughts. There was too much at stake, and he could not abandon Merry and Pippin to their fate at the mercy of Saruman and his Orcs. You failed to prevent their captivity in the first place, after all, he sighed, and a pang of guilt surged through him. Not for the first time the memories of his failings that very morning returned to haunt him, and the nagging little voice that was his conscience whispered: had you but been fast enough to answer Boromir's summons ... had you but kept the Fellowship together ... had you but been less distracted by Boromir's wounds ...
Ai, these thoughts lead nowhere, he berated himself and barely withstood the urge to shake his head to rid himself of the taunting voice within. I have not yet reached the end of my endurance, and neither the end of my wits! he reminded himself with grim determination. Yet the longing for rest and relief from the pain remained as he gingerly lifted his head and forced his attention back to his captors and the surroundings so that he might learn what he could about any possible way to escape.
Careful, so as to avoid another inconsiderate move and not alert his guards to his silent inquiry, he glanced about. The snow-tipped peaks of a distant range of mountains glittered pale in the moonlight, many leagues to the south. Gondor! he sighed wistfully, but could not quite suppress a sad smile as, unbidden, his thoughts wandered back to those days when he had lived beneath the White Tower of Ecthelion, had even called Gondor his home, and not only to quell further enquiries by curious minds as to his ancestry.
Not without effort of will Aragorn drew his eyes away from the south, for he could ill afford to become overpowered by the deep longing that filled him at the sight of the mountains and the thought of the White City where he hoped his long years of wandering and disguise might come to an end. Trying to focus on the path they would most likely tread instead, he turned his eyes to the west and north, taking in the land that lay stretched out beneath the looming cliff upon which they rested. It was veiled by a thick impenetrable mist, cast in a ghostly light by the sinking sickle of the moon. He wondered if rescue lay hidden beneath the white shroud when the distraught neigh of a single horse was carried up the mountains, drifting lazily upon the wind. Shivers ran down Aragorn's spine as the lone whinny broke off, leaving the soft whisper of the wind the only comforting sound among the ruckus of the Orcs, and he knew with frightening certainty that there was no succour to be found upon the plain below.
He drew in a shuddering breath, fighting down the sinking feeling of despair that threatened to take a hold of him. The mere thought of what measures Saruman might take to gain whatever information he sought, filled Aragorn with dread.
Yet an inconspicuous glance in the Hobbits' direction told him that they were hardly fit for a flight. Merry had still not woken and Aragorn himself had not the strength to bear him, impaired as he was by his own injury. Pippin might be fit to walk on his own legs, but without any food Aragorn doubted that the Hobbit would be able to keep up a run for more than a short length of time. And they would have to cover quite a distance to reach some amount of safety, maybe even as far as the Entwash, given the feeling of emptiness that clung to the plains below. But first, they would have to break free from the Orcs or, better, slip away unnoticed ...
Raised voices of Orcs, and of Uglúk in particular, interrupted Aragorn's futile exploration of their slim chances of escape a short while later. Curious about the cause of their debate yet eager to hide that curiosity, he let himself sag back against the boulder and closed his eyes, expertly maintaining the image of a man wallowing in his own misery as he crouched there, bound and bleeding upon the stony ground, while he strained his ears and listened closely to what had caused Uglúk's latest outburst.
"The scouts have come back at last," an Orc reported.
"Well, what did you discover?" Uglúk demanded.
"Only a single horseman," one of the scouts answered, then added with a barking laugh, "but he won't get far. They squeal like pigs when shot!"
"Did you make sure you killed him?"
"He fell off his horse and did not rise, but if we'd bothered to check, we wouldn't be back already."
"You fools! The horse-boys are as tough as the meat of their mounts! If he's still alive he'll raise the alarm. The cursed horsebreeders might not hear of us by morning, but not long after. Now we'll have to leg it double quick."
Aragorn cautiously re-opened his eyes. With hope, however slim, renewed he regarded Uglúk who hovered over Pippin and whispered something into the Hobbit's ear.
A knife appeared in the Uruk-hai's fist, and Aragorn could do nothing but watch and wonder whether he could reach the Hobbit quickly enough to protect him from the impending attack. When Uglúk merely cut the coarse ropes around the Hobbit's legs and ankles, however, it took Aragorn no small amount of self-control to not give away the sudden feeling of relief.
Like Aragorn before, the Hobbit was treated with the Orc-draught since his legs refused to support his weight at first, and Aragorn winced in sympathy. When Pippin remained standing at last and even flashed the Ranger a brief but determined glance, Aragorn returned that look with a hint of a smile.
A scream cut short his brief respite from worry, and Aragorn let the sound guide his eyes to make out its cause in the darkness. Merry was writhing in Uglúk's grasp while another Orc smeared the stinking medicine onto the Hobbit's head-wound, which only served to increase Merry's protest, much to the watching Orcs' delight. But once Uglúk forced his flask between the Hobbit's teeth and forced him to swallow the vile liquid, they quickly lost their interest as Merry's defiance returned with his strength and he stood as the bonds about his legs were removed.
So glad was Aragorn to see Merry standing under his own power that he failed to notice Uglúk's close regard. A wicked grin crept over the Orcs' ugly face when the Ranger returned his gaze, and Aragorn could not quite suppress a shiver. Eyeing the Uruk-hai captain warily, he hoped that the need for speed would overcome the Orcs' desire for sport and he would be spared any further ordeal. Yet it seemed as if his wish would not be granted; Uglúk rose and approached. "You are by far too curious, Whiteskin!" he growled, "On your feet!"
Without taking his eyes off the menacing creature in front of him, Aragorn struggled to comply. Carefully he gathered his legs beneath him and staggered to his feet with the awkward grace of a new-born foal, swaying precariously as he did so.
Aragorn was not quite sure whether it was rage or merely disappointment that briefly flickered over Uglúk's face. Yet he could not confirm his fleeting suspicion, for the Orc captain turned around and bellowed, "Krúpak, Ushrogh, Breshnik! Guard the tark! No fooling around with him, unless he causes trouble!"
While his minions hurried to follow his command, Uglúk again fixed cold threatening eyes upon the bound Ranger. But Aragorn merely returned that look, allowing a hint of weariness to show through the carefully schooled facade he maintained so as to provoke neither Uglúk nor his newly assigned guards and give them a cause to vent their twisted delight in violence upon him.
Only when one of Aragorn's guards stepped between his captain and his charge did Uglúk turn away and disappeared among the crowd. A few moments later his voice rang over the camp again as he ordered his band to get moving.
With relief Aragorn stepped upon the soft grass of Rohan. Midnight was still about an hour away and he feared that they would not rest before dawn, yet hoped that the march over the grassy plain would be less exhausting than the arduous trek through the mountains. He still could feel the bruises left by the iron grip of one of his guards upon his arm, and not without chagrin he had to admit that the quick reflexes of that guard had saved him from a painful and most certainly fatal plunge down the cliff.
Now that he was no longer forced to pay close attention to where he placed his feet, Aragorn risked a quick glance over his shoulder, hoping that he might spot the Hobbits. But before he could make out their small figures among the massive shapes of the Uruk-hai, the Orc in front of him started to move again, so he fell into step behind him, for he was not too eager to give his guards a reason to use their whips upon his back.
It took Aragorn quite some time to adjust his movements both to the quickened pace the Orcs with their long, loping strides had set and to the hindrance his bound arms and his injury proved for running. He had hardly found his own rhythm, which would neither cost him too much strength nor aggravate the sword cut more than was unavoidable, and was just about to let the monotony of his strides lure his mind away from the cruel reality of the nightly march, when a sudden commotion drew his attention back to his noisome company. Angry shouts rose from the darkness behind, and from the corner of his eye he could see several dark shapes darting off from the main group and disappearing into the night.
"That's none of your business! Get moving!" a coarse voice behind him hissed, followed by the crack of a whip and an angry sting as its leather thong bit into his cheek, leaving a trail of sticky wetness in its wake, just beneath his eye.
Aragorn's brief flash of hope that one of the Hobbits had managed to escape was quickly quenched by yet another crack of a whip, a stifled cry and Uglúk's angry shouts, and before long the band of Orcs was running again at great speed.
The night grew on, midnight came and went, and the stars above were heading westward, but Aragorn hardly noticed their passing. Sweat stood upon his forehead, strands of hair clung to his face, but he could feel the night grow cold as dawn approached.
The tension among the Orcs seemed to wax with the growing light, and as the rising sun cast her first pale rays over the rim of the mountains they had long left behind, the smaller Orcs made their discontent heard. Yet Uglúk did not announce a break, much to Aragorn's dismay, but used his whip to restore the deteriorating discipline among his band. So the glorious sunrise passed behind their backs unnoticed as they were forced to hurry on.
But even the whips of Uglúk and his lieutenants could not keep up the speed they had kept while darkness had lasted. The northern Orcs in particular did not relish the sweet caress of the sun that already spoke of early spring and had gradually slowed the pace of the entire company. Their decrease in speed was hardly enough to allow Aragorn to recover from the nightly exertion, but it was at least sufficient for him to notice the change at all. Now that he was no longer as hard pressed as before, he felt quite confident that he might persevere without a break for a few more hours.
While the slackened pace had lifted his spirits, it also allowed Aragorn to focus on less mundane matters than to simply stay upon his feet, and he idly wondered how the Hobbits with their much shorter legs fared, now that they were, most likely, forced to run as well. Surely, they would not face the same threat as he did, should their strength falter - it seemed, after all, as if the Orcs had orders to deliver the Hobbits more or less alive - but the Orcs would not volunteer to carry them. With the fear about the Hobbits' welfare the nagging feeling of failure returned, but this time he managed to quell the taunting voices, and vowed with renewed determination that he would see to an end of the Hobbits' torment.
So he let not only his mind wander in search for a means of escape, but his eyes as well, though he could hardly catch a glimpse of the surrounding lands above the heads of his guards. But vast and empty grassland was all he could discern. Though he knew about the futility of his attempt to make out tracks or traces of more friendly folk that might inhabit these plains, the continued absence of any such hints only increased his already palpable frustration.
About noon he had given up any hope for escape while they were on their way, for they stood no chance to outrun these creatures, and other than to disappear from plain sight, there was no place to hide for miles to come. With the rising intensity of the sun, his thoughts had started to run in circles, one futile idea chasing another, while hope for a respite, however brief, was shattered again and again by the cracks of Uglúk's whip.
As the sun started her descent towards the west, every memory of the strengthening if burning effect of the orc-draught had vanished, and Aragorn knew no longer what forces kept him running. Sweat burned in his eyes and trickled down his back, though he was certain that there was more than mere sweat that was plastering his torn shirt against his skin. His lungs hurt with every gasping breath he took, as did his shoulder. He had long abandoned any attempt to figure out a plan for flight, or even to keep track of the passing landscape, for the task of setting one foot in front of the other was taxing enough.
When dusk came the smaller Orcs recovered their vigour, the threats of Uglúk and his lieutenants that had kept them running became less and less, and the company again picked up in speed as the sun disappeared beneath the horizon. Aragorn knew that he could not stay upon his feet much longer. Marching, running without break and worse, without water, for more than twenty hours was taking its toll. His throat was parched and every gasping breath he took threatened to end in a fit of coughing that could easily throw him off balance.
The night was dark, for the moon was shrouded by thick clouds, and still the Orcs kept running. Even the flicker of a thought about the Hobbits' plight was no longer sufficient to break through Aragorn's misery. He stumbled more and more often, for the terrain had changed. Though the land was still flat, stones and small rocks littered the ground, almost imperceptible signs of the downs that rose but a few miles away to the north.
Aragorn barely managed to keep his balance as his foot caught again on one of the hidden obstacles. Not for the first time his faltering steps were met with a biting pain as his guard's whip curled around his body, and, like before, the sting at least served to jerk him back to awareness, if only briefly. He knew that he would not last much longer, at least not without a brief respite. But Uglúk drove his company on and on without mercy.
Aragorn had lost all sense of time, he was only aware of the darkness that surrounded them still. His arms and back stung, for his guard had used his whip more and more often as Aragorn's strength waned. He was no longer running but stumbling at best, hardly able to lift his feet, and when the ground rushed up to meet him, he could but twist to his side instinctively so as to protect his injured shoulder.
The impact was jarring nonetheless, and he knew that any attempt to struggle back to his feet was futile. He felt the whip descend onto his back with increasing ferocity, but instead of bringing him back to awareness, it only served to summon the comforting blackness more quickly. He no longer felt its stinging pain, and the angry voices surrounding him were drowned in the rushing in his ears as consciousness fled.
To be continued ...
A/N: There are, again, some passages that belong to Tolkien; the page numbers refer to the Harper Collins paperback edition from 1999:
"'The scouts have come back at last,' said an Orc close at hand.
'Well, what did you discover?' growled the voice of Uglúk.
'Only a single horseman, and he made off westwards. All's clear now.'
'Now, I daresay. But how long? You fools! You should have shot him. He'll raise the alarm. The cursed horsebreeders will hear of us by morning. Now we'll have to leg it double quick.'" (TTT, The Uruk-hai, p. 51)
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