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Doomed to Live: 9. The Flight
"Wicked man won't get us, gollum, gollum," the slick, slimy creature hissed, writhing like a thing possessed in Aragorn's grasp. But he could not restrain it. Whether it was the creature's nauseating stench or its unrelenting resistance, Aragorn could not tell, but his hands had lost all of their usual strength. Though he tried with all his might to maintain his hold upon the slippery thing, he could but watch as Gollum squirmed inch by inch out of his weakened grasp until, with a final pull and a wriggle, the wretch came free. Snarling, Gollum lunged at Aragorn. Sharp teeth sank into his shoulder and he felt a cry build in his throat at the sudden pain, yet only a strangled moan came forth. He reached for Gollum to free himself from the decrepit creature, but found himself unable to move, as if he were restrained by invisible bonds that would neither break nor budge.
Panic gripped him, a helpless fear at being trapped. But then something wet brushed against his face, and his eyes opened on their own accord. Gollum was gone and so was the nightmare, though it left his heart racing in its wake. Aragorn took a long breath, the chill night-air chasing away the last remnants of the dream though the pain in his shoulder still lingered.
He glanced about. It was night and pitch-dark, and he found himself lying on the ground, dampness seeping into his clothes, wet grass brushing against his cheek and nose. For the briefest of moments he wondered how he came to be sleeping unprotected against the chill of a winter night, and he shifted ever so slightly in a vain attempt to move to a more comfortable and less exposed position. Yet he found the minute movement hampered by tight bonds about his wrists and legs, and unwelcome memories came rushing back at him: memories of the reason for the throbbing pain in his shoulder and for the dull ache in his legs, back and head, testament to utmost exhaustion.
Aragorn released a shuddering breath and let his head drop back to the ground. At least the cool, wet grass helped to soothe the persisting ache between his temples, and he lay there for a long while, unmoving, reflecting upon the events of the previous two days. He knew it had not been within his power to avoid or end their predicament, but it rankled him nonetheless that the simple act of remaining upon his feet had required all his strength and attention, and that he would have failed to keep up with the Orcs' gruelling speed ere noon had the second day of their enforced march been as strenuous as the first one. But their pace had slackened; they had even stopped once, before dawn, and had been given food, disgusting though it was. Much to Aragorn's surprise, Uglúk had even insisted that he be given the Orc-draught whenever he had so much as stumbled. That, and Merry's treatment the night before, had allowed him to persevere, though it had been a close call. As soon as Uglúk had called for his minions to set up camp for the night, just outside Fangorn forest, Aragorn had literally collapsed where he stood and had managed to stay awake barely long enough to reassure the worried Hobbits that he would be fine come morning. Though for the moment, with the night's icy chill permeating his bones and his nerves still wrought up from the after-effects of a nightmare, he was no longer so sure.
Aragorn shivered as a cold breeze swept over their campsite, and he tried to draw up his knees as far as he could to preserve a little warmth. His cloak was trapped between his arms and back, useless against the damp chill of the night, and he clenched his teeth to keep them from clattering. His meandering thoughts returned to his nightmare and to Gollum, and he idly wondered about Gollum's presence in that dream. The wretched creature had haunted his dreams more than once - not surprising, given the gruesome fifty-day march he had undertaken the year before to deliver Gollum into the safekeeping of the Wood-elves. But he was rarely plagued by nightmares when he was as exhausted as he had been this night. He could not quite shake off the feeling that there was more to the dream than just overwrought senses. Something felt wrong, even now that he was no longer trapped in the twilight world of the nightmare. But he could not yet determine what it was.
He again raised his head to better scan his surroundings. The night was as dark as a tomb. The sky was shrouded by thick clouds that blocked the light of both moon and stars, and the Orcs had set no watch-fires. Bereft of sight Aragorn strained his other senses to discover what had unsettled him so that such a nightmare had penetrated his almost death-like sleep.
The first thing he noticed was the fresh and fragrant smell of the night air. It smelled of dew, of wet grass and damp earth rather than of Orc. The beasts' nauseating stench was not really gone but less intense than he had expected. So there were no Orc-guards close and hope rose in Aragorn's heart, dispelling the last remnants of sleep. But other than that, something else did not feel right. And then he heard it: a faint murmur, then a hiss, then silence again. Again, there was a sound, and this time he recognised it as the voice of an Orc. Yet no Orc answered but someone with a higher and clearer voice. The noise he made sent shivers down Aragorn's spine, and he no longer wondered about his nightmare. Gollum, gollum, someone hissed. The voice had been Pippin's, of that he was sure, but he could not fathom why Pippin would act that way.
Determined to discover the reason for Pippin's strange behaviour, Aragorn set his jaw, drew his bound legs beneath him and began to crawl towards the source of the noise. It was a tedious endeavour, inching forward with legs and arms tightly bound, ever careful not to jar his injured shoulder while avoiding to give away his approach by the faintest sound. But Aragorn would not have survived the long years in the Wild if not for his ability to move stealthily, no matter how dire the circumstances. Painfully slowly he approached his goal, until he was close enough to catch a glimpse of furry feet and the figure of a crook-legged Mordor-orc looming above them.
"Have you got it - either of you?" Aragorn heard the Orc snarl.
The Orc had yet to notice Aragorn's presence, focused as he was on his business with the Hobbits. What his intentions were Aragorn could only guess, but he would not wait to find out for sure; already the Hobbit lying closest to him tried to squirm away from the Orc's prodding and probing fingers.
"I doubt Uglúk would approve of this," Aragorn said, his voice rough from sleep and exhaustion but loud enough to carry far through the silence of the night.
His words had the desired effect. The crook-legged Orc froze in his movements, only to turn with a snarl a heart-beat later. He was upon Aragorn in a flash, a hideously curved knife clenched in his fist. "That's none of your business, tark!" he hissed, and Aragorn found himself eye to eye with the Orc as a clawed hand grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and lifted him off the ground without effort. Putrid breath assaulted his senses, and jagged steel, colder than the night-air, kissed his throat.
"Tarks!" The Orc dropped to one knee and pulled Aragorn closer. "What is it with you that you always have to meddle, always have to stick your pale noses into affairs that are none of your business. Tarks! Ever so fearless. Ever so brave!" The Orc all but spat those last words, pulling Aragorn to an almost sitting position. "Until your sorry carcasses fall into our hands, that is. Then it's just begging and whining and screaming ... no more pride ... no more dignity!"
Aragorn's head was knocked backwards as the Orc tossed him back down without warning. He could not brace himself in time and hit the ground hard. Colours danced before his eyes, and as if from a great distant, the Orc's voice hissed, "We'll wait and see what'll become of your pathetic bravery once you are brought before the Great Eye!"
Aragorn knew not what happened next. Flashes of colour turned into lightning then into streams of molten flame surrounded by darkness blacker than a starless night. Cold dread gripped him, a naked fear he had never experienced before. It clenched his innards and sent shivers down his spine that he could neither suppress nor hide. Then his vision cleared, though his senses still reeled from the blow and whatever he had just seen.
"Grishnákh! Get your dirty hands off the prisoners!" a voice yelled out of the darkness, startling Aragorn. "I told you before, they are not to be spoilt, searched or plundered!"
"The Halflings maybe, but not the tark!" Grishnákh spat back, hauling Aragorn up by his collar again and renewing the pressure of the knife against his throat.
Aragorn tried to draw a steadying breath - not an easy task with Grishnákh's fist almost choking him. He kept his eyes fixed on the Orc in a feeble attempt to hide just how unsettled he was, for he could not yet fathom what he had just experienced. But the Orc looming above him, the knife that bit into the skin below his jaw and the enraged Uruk-hai captain that stood behind him left little time to ponder whether he had merely suffered from the after-effects of a blow to the head or if the foresight of his bloodline had revealed a grim outlook of what fate held in store for him.
Whatever the case he could not dwell upon it, could ill afford the distraction. He stood little chance against Grishnákh should the Orc seek retribution for his interference, and he was unsure whether Uglúk would risk another fight among his Orcs for the extra prisoner's sake. But then Uglúk had allowed Merry to tend to him the night before, had allowed him to eat and had forced Orc-draught down his throat ever so often. He seemed quite determined to deliver this prisoner alive as well.
"The tark will be brought before the White Hand for judgement. If he suffers so much as a scratch, you will carry his stinking carcass all the way to Isengard," Uglúk bellowed, his huge figure towering above Aragorn in the dark.
"You wanted to kill him yourself not so long ago," Grishnákh hissed. "How come you pity him all of a sudden? Or has that underling of yours managed to sway your decision?"
"My reasons are not to be questioned!" Uglúk replied. "Least of all by some filthy Mordor-maggot."
Grishnákh shot to his feet, dropping Aragorn in the process. Aragorn groaned as he hit the ground again. Though better prepared than the first time, the impact jarred his aching bones nonetheless, and he fought hard to maintain his focus upon the quarrelling Orcs around him.
"What's your business here anyway?" Uglúk demanded.
"Just making sure the tark and those maggots don't fancy any stupid ideas ... with none of your precious Uruk-hai around as guards." Grishnákh snarled.
"The prisoners are spent," Uglúk said, and heaved a heavy-shod boot in Aragorn's ribs by way of demonstration. Aragorn curled in upon himself reflexively, trying in vain to stifle a moan. "I'd rather have my lads rested for the last leg of our trip than tiring them out watching the prisoners sleep."
"This one doesn't look spent to me," Grishnákh shot back. He dropped to his knees and resumed his iron grip about Aragorn's throat. "Just look at his eyes! I've seen more of them tarks than any of your precious Uruk-hai ever will. You can see it in their eyes whether they are spent or not. And believe me, this one still has a trick or two up his sleeve. I caught him crawling around in the dark."
Aragorn was hard pressed not to snort at Grishnákh's rather inventive account of events. But further interference on his part would be more than futile and earn him nothing but more bruised ribs, so he held his tongue.
"If it is as you say, then I thank you for catching him in time," Uglúk replied, the tone of his voice cold as the night. "I'll send some of my lads to watch over the prisoners and leave you to your rest. We still have a long way ahead of us."
Aragorn released a silent breath as Grishnákh let go of his throat, stood and stalked off into the darkness with one last, killing glare at Uglúk.
"Lugdush!" Uglúk called into the night.
In answer to Uglúk's summons a second Uruk-hai appeared at his shoulder a short time later, and Uglúk continued in a voice almost too soft for Aragorn to hear. "See to it that the prisoners are guarded at all times. Make sure they don't make a run for it. And keep the Mordor maggots away from them! Especially Grishnákh, that old fool."
Lugdush disappeared, but Uglúk remained, regarding Aragorn closely with eyes that seemed to glow with a sick yellow light. "Grishnákh is right. You are more resilient than one of the Horse-boys, even more resilient than the tarks I've known. Maybe Borsúk was right after all, and there is something special about you," Uglúk said, almost to himself. Then he straightened and turned around, watching Lugdush approach with three fellow Uruk-hai in tow. "The White Hand will know," Uglúk murmured with a last glance at Aragorn, then strode off into the night, leaving the task of instructing the guards to his lieutenant.
Aragorn tried to relax, but that proved to be a futile task even though both Uglúk and Grishnákh were gone and their new guards had seated themselves some ways away, posing no immediate threat. The encounter with Grishnákh had left him wide awake; he was shivering in earnest now, and though he had hoped that the cold would eventually dull the pain of his wounds, it only served to cramp already tense muscles. He closed his eyes and tried to focus on something, anything that would distract him from his misery. He almost wished they were moving again; that at least would help to warm his chilled bones. But Uglúk had not seemed to be in a particular hurry. So all Aragorn could do was bide his time and hope for sleep to eventually claim him.
At long last, his thoughts started to drift. Arwen's face appeared before his mind's eye, and he lost himself in the memory of her fathomless gaze.
No nightmare penetrated his dreams, but he woke nonetheless in the cool hour before dawn. At first he thought that the icy chill had deprived him of the meagre comfort of sleep, but then he felt a distant tremor, a faint trembling of the earth and remembered dreaming of horses. Pressing one ear to the ground, he listened closer. At long last he heard it: a faint rumbling, a distant thunder like the sound of many hooves eating away the vast miles of the Riddermark. Hope rose in his heart; help was near, at last.
There would be no more sleep for him that night. Aragorn lay on his side, unmoving, though he longed more than anything to roll onto his back to relieve his aching hip and arm and rid himself of the kinks in his neck. Yet he knew he would regret it. Not only would the dull ache of his injuries flare to new life, his bound arms would grow completely numb if he were to lie upon them, and, worst of all, he would attract the attention of the three Orc-guards, who sat a short distance behind the sleeping Hobbits and talked quietly among themselves. So he tried to draw upon the patience that life among the Elves in the House of Elrond and long years of hunting the Enemy had taught him.
Darkness faded, but the rumbling of approaching horses grew ever louder, now that he knew what to listen for. Aragorn glanced cautiously about. The Orcs seemed oblivious to the threat, yet it was but a matter of time until they, too, would notice. Aragorn did not like the thought of what might happen then. Most likely Uglúk would hasten their departure. Once they entered the forest, they were safe from the horsemen, for the Rohirrim rarely ventured there. Should Uglúk decide to stay, then battle was certain, and Aragorn dreaded the very thought. Bound and helpless as he and the Hobbits were, it was most likely that they would be caught between the hammer and the anvil, or rather beneath the horses' hooves.
Aragorn grew ever more restless. He chafed to act. But with the Orc-guards close and alert, there was little he could do to precipitate their freedom, at least nothing that would allow him and the Hobbits to escape and remain alive.
If only the guards would leave or fall asleep! The majority of the Orcs lay quite some distance away, and watchers stood in a rough circle around their camp. Were he free of his bonds and rid of his guards, it would not be an impossible task to slip through the ring of watchers. Hidden by the long, green grass of Rohan, they would be almost invisible in the grey light of early dawn. Then they would follow the Entwash and meet with the approaching riders. If riders they were and not just unsuspecting herdfolk. Aragorn sighed. He could not be sure. The distant tremor that stirred the ground spoke of great urgency, of a determination to reach some goal. But he had seen Rohirric herdfolk handle their herds often enough to know that they could be as resolute as an éored riding out for battle.
Alas, neither his bonds nor his guards were gone, and he could not lose himself to idle speculation. Yet he would neither wait for the Orcs to break camp nor for battle to find them. They could find shelter with the Rohirrim, no matter whether they met with herdfolk or Riders. But they had to get away from these Orcs! Already dawn was near, and soon Uglúk would order their departure.
Mayhap he could outwit their guards in some way. Just as Aragorn turned his thoughts upon the matter, the guards fell silent, but other Orc-voices could be heard. A cautious glance revealed Uglúk and one of his lieutenants, standing at the edge of the camp, staring in turns at the lands through which they had come and at the dark forest that lay yet before them. So the Rohirrim had been noticed. Shouts rose among the Orcs; one by one they sprang to their feet, crowding around Uglúk for guidance. Even the watchers left their posts to gaze to the South-east, and then, at long last, their guards rose as well and went to join their comrades.
Aragorn could hardly wait for the Orcs to get out of earshot, then hissed, "Merry! Pippin! Wake up!"
The Hobbit lying closest stirred first, but Aragorn had to call twice more before he received an answer.
"Strider, what's wrong?" Merry asked sleepily, then gave, much to Aragorn's astonishment, a hearty yawn as if he had spent the night in a comfortable bed, not upon the cold and damp grass on Rohan's border.
"We must flee! Now!"
Merry sat up, regarding Aragorn with a blank look as if wondering whether the Ranger had taken complete leave of his senses. Shaking his head as he came to the conclusion that Aragorn had obviously meant what he said, he held up his bound hands accusingly. "Good idea, but how do you think we shall do that?"
"We must get rid of those bonds, and quickly! The Orcs are occupied elsewhere, Riders are approaching. We have not the time for discussion!"
"Riders?" Merry looked around, confused. "Where?"
"They are still beyond our range of sight, but the ground speaks of their approach. They are about ten leagues away, I would guess, but advancing fast. The Orcs know they are coming. We must get away. Now!"
"There's nothing I'd rather do ..."
"Do you have something sharp on you, a belt-buckle, a brooch, anything that might serve to undo our bonds?"
"Let me see ..."
"Merry! We do not have the time for jests."
"Confound it, Strider!" Merry hissed back. "If I had a clue about how to get rid of these things, I would have said so. I hoped you had a knife hidden somewhere, you being the Ranger and all that ... "
"I had one, but the Orcs must have taken it away while I was unconscious," Aragorn sighed. "I'm sorry-"
"No need to apologise," Merry's face had turned serious again, "I know what's in store for us."
Aragorn sighed, "No, Merry, you have no idea. And you should be grateful for that."
Aragorn tried in vain to suppress a shudder. An uneasy silence fell between them as Aragorn fought down thoughts about the threat of Saruman and his Uruk-hai so as to better focus on the predicament at hand. But time was running short. No elaborate plan would help them now. "Without tools, our fingers will have to do, though I fear mine are of little use at the moment."
"That's at least worth a try. I can't reach my knots, but maybe I have more luck with yours," Merry said. He rolled onto his stomach and inched over to where Aragorn lay.
Before long, Aragorn felt cool fingers brush against his wrists, then a tug at the ropes binding his hands. There was more tugging, its ferocity increased and he had to grit his teeth to keep quiet. But the ropes would not come loose. He rolled onto his stomach so as to give Merry better access, but to no avail. Aragorn's hope fell as Merry withdrew his hands, muttering curses under his breath.
"Maybe you and Pippin can crawl away regardless of your bonds ..."
"Merry! Strider! What are you up to?" Pippin suddenly piped up around a yawn.
"Trying to get rid of those ropes!" Merry answered tersely, attacking Aragorn's bonds with renewed ferocity.
"Oh, that should be no problem," Pippin said. "I have a knife."
"Pippin!" Merry groaned. "Why didn't you tell us about it? Where did you get it?"
Aragorn chuckled softly at Merry's barrage of questions. "Peace, my friends. We will have plenty of time to discuss our failings and the origins of that knife once we are safe. Now, Master Took, if you would?"
With much deliberation, Pippin sat up, then shook his bound arms before him until a small knife fell upon the ground at his feet.
Aragorn felt both the urge to laugh and groan at Pippin's sleep-befuddled efforts, but suppressed both and cast an anxious glance over his shoulder instead, making sure their captors were still safely occupied. By the time he returned his attention to his Hobbit companions, Pippin had managed to pick up the knife and held it out before him so that Merry could sever the bonds about his wrists.
Aragorn sighed as first Merry, then Pippin hissed sharply when blood rushed back into their newly freed limbs. There was nothing within his power to ease that moment of agony for either of the Hobbits, and seeing them bite their lips and hold their breaths only reminded him that he would be next. He did not relish the thought of having to move at all, but already Merry set the knife against the rope around his wrists.
"Strider?" Merry asked, and, feeling the Hobbit's hand tighten upon his forearm, Aragorn murmured, "I am ready," before apprehension of the ordeal could delay him.
Fortunately Merry had the presence of mind to hold down his injured arm, for Aragorn knew not whether he would have had the strength to keep it still as pain and dizziness threatened to overwhelm him. Darkness clouded the edge of his vision and stars danced before his eyes as blood rushed back into his hands and fingers and spasms wracked the cramped muscles in his arms.
"Strider?" Pippin's tentative voice broke through his misery, and Aragorn cautiously turned his head to meet Pippin's concerned gaze.
"I shall be fine, Master Took, worry not," he murmured, then drew in a deep breath and rolled over onto his back. For a moment he feared to faint, or to cry out, as searing pain shot up his arms, numbed his entire right side and robbed his breath, and as his world tilted and began to spin. He did not notice that Merry severed the bonds about his legs, and he could not tell how long he lay there, trapped in his agony. As he opened his eyes at length, he met two pale faces, drawn and dirty from their ordeal, regarding him with open worry.
"Are you all right, Strider?" Pippin asked, studying Aragorn's face anxiously while hugging himself tightly against the morning chill.
"Yes, Pippin. I will be fine. There is no need to worry," Aragorn replied, carefully flexing his right forearm and his fingers to assess the extent of damage the Orc-sword and the tight bonds had wrought.
"But you are in pain," Pippin insisted, and one look into the Hobbit's face was enough for Aragorn to know that Pippin would not be fooled by lame excuses.
"Yes, I am. And I would be worried were it otherwise," he said. "Having my arms pulled back eased the pressure on the broken bone a bit, and I have to accustom myself to the change. But I feel much improved already," he added, though his words did not sound convincing even to his own ears.
"Do you want me to look at your shoulder again?" Merry asked.
Aragorn shook his head. "No, Merry, we have no time for that." With a grimace he sat up, clutching his arm tightly to his chest. Another spike of pain surged through him and another bout of vertigo gripped him, and he closed his eyes, annoyed at how weakened that wound had left him. The sound of ripping cloth reached his ears, and before long he found his arm secured in a sling. "Thank you, Merry," he whispered, as the Hobbit gave the knot at the back of his neck one final tug.
Aragorn drew a deep breath, set his jaw and shoved all thoughts about pain and discomfort firmly to the back of his mind. He could not allow his injury to distract him anymore. One quick glance around revealed all he had to know. The entire Orc-horde had gathered near the south-eastern fringe of the knoll on which they had spent the night. Their attention was still fixed upon their approaching foes, though Aragorn doubted they would continue to stare to the south-east much longer, for dawn was coming, and by the way Uglúk had earlier stared at the forest, he seemed to be expecting something or someone to come from there. Already wisps of clouds to the east were painted blood-red as the sun crept up to the horizon. The time to act had come!
"We do not have much time, so listen closely," he said to the Hobbits who knelt expectantly before him. "Head west from here, then make for the river. The banks are steep and will hide you from sight; the water will conceal your tracks. Stay low, draw your cloaks around you and use the hoods. The elven cloth will help you to hide in plain sight. Wait until the battle is over or the Orcs are gone. Then either hail the Rohirrim, if there are any, or follow the river to the south. There you should meet with friendly folk who will see to your safety. Do not enter the forest, unless there is no other choice..."
"You are not coming with us?" Merry asked, and Aragorn did not fail to notice that Pippin moved unconsciously closer to his cousin.
"No, I will not. I will retrieve my weapons and head south from here, follow the river and join the Riders ere they attack."
"I mean no offence, Strider, but I doubt you are fit for a fight," Merry stated, arms folded before his chest.
Aragorn smiled at the indignant posture of the young Hobbit. "I do not mean to fight. But knowing the number of one's foes and the weapons they have at hand can be crucial in a battle." He paused for a moment, pondering whether the Hobbits should hear the drawbacks of his plan as well. But chances were that they would have to find their own way back to safety, though he hated to admit it.
"There is more that you should now," Aragorn added at length. "There is a small chance that those approaching riders are not warriors but normal herdfolk. If that should turn out to be so, I mean to warn them off and ask them to send for aid. The Orcs will come looking for us, once they find us gone, and they will find a track to follow that will not lead in your direction." The way Merry swallowed and Pippin's eyes widened at his words were proof enough that the Hobbits understood the gravity of their situation. "You must stick to our plan, no matter what you may see or hear!"
"Why don't you just come with us?" Pippin asked in a meek voice.
Aragorn sighed. He had expected the question, after all. "The fringes of the forest offer better protection, but it lies upwind and the Orcs have an excellent sense of smell. They can smell fresh blood over quite some distance even if the wind is as light as it is today. If we part ways, I have a chance of drawing the Orcs away from you rather than the other way round."
"But what if they catch you?"
Pippin's worry was so obvious that Aragorn laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Better they catch me alone than all three of us. And if they do, they will face a formidable foe."
"As formidable as you were when they caught you?" Merry threw in.
Aragorn had to swallow hard to not let anger come in the way of reason. "I was taken by surprise then. That will not happen a second time," he answered, more testily than he would have liked.
"I am sorry," Merry sighed, shoulders sagging. "I guess you know what you're doing."
"Not always," Aragorn replied with a crooked grin, which seemed to ease the gloomy mood for a moment. A wan smile softened Merry's dirt-streaked face and Pippin wiped his dripping nose and leaking eyes with a resolute swipe of his sleeve.
But as quickly as the cheerfulness had come, it vanished, and Aragorn saw only sad understanding in Merry's eyes. "Time to say goodbye, isn't it?" the Hobbit asked at length.
Aragorn nodded, ignoring the queer tone that had entered the Hobbit's voice. "Yes, we must hurry. But we will meet again." Aragorn held Merry's gaze for a while and clasped the Hobbit's shoulder.
As he turned to Pippin, the younger Hobbit all but flung himself at Aragorn's neck. "Careful now, Master Took," Aragorn chided softly as he returned the embrace. Pippin stepped away only reluctantly, unobtrusively wiping his eyes. "Go now," Aragorn said, just as the sun rose like a fiery ball, casting the plains of Rohan in a clear, blood-red light.
With one last glance the Hobbits turned away from him, pulled their hoods above their heads and quickly vanished in the long grass of the Riddermark.
With a deep breath and a silent prayer for the Hobbits' safety, Aragorn turned around. Already the Orcs were cursing the bright sunlight, and he knew he was running out of time. While he had lain awake he had spotted Borsúk who had carried Andúril throughout the day. The place were he had rested lay only a relatively short distance away and nowhere near the current gathering of Orcs.
He drew up his hood and rose to his hand and knees, cursing under his breath as another bout of dizziness assailed him and the ground swayed dangerously beneath him. Ignoring the rushing of blood in his ears, he forced muscles, stiffened from two days of marching and a night's rest into cooperation and carefully picked his way through the Orcs' camp to Borsúk's abandoned resting place.
He had covered about half the distance when he froze in his tracks. The indistinct mound before him gave a loud snorting sound and turned around. Aragorn cursed himself for having failed to notice the sleeping Orc. But beneath the threadbare, patched up blanket and with the hideous assembly of clothes and armoury that the Orc wore, Aragorn was not really surprised that he had mistaken the creature for a pile of packs and gear in the slanted light of the rising sun.
He allowed himself to relax as the Orc's breathing evened out again and continued his way towards his goal, closely scrutinising the scattered belongings of the Orcs as he crawled along on hands and knees. His heart beat faster. There, between the Orcs' packs, lay Andúril, its elven sheath glittering in the morning sun as if the Valar had lit a beacon. Hope leapt up in Aragorn's heart like a bright flame, banishing all thought of weariness and pain. Swiftly he picked up the sword and the belt attached to it, rose to his feet and stole away from the Orc camp as silently as a whisper of the wind.
He scrambled down the steep banks of the Entwash only a short while later, but already his heart hammered loudly in his chest and sweat stood upon his brow. The joy for his newfound freedom was not sufficient to ease all hurts. He could not afford to linger long in this hiding place, but neither could he afford to rush his flight, for his strength would not last long. So he knelt down by the river's edge, splashed water upon his face, rinsed the rope burns that marred his wrists and quenched his thirst with the icy liquid. With some effort he managed to fasten his belt, and immediately felt more confident with the familiar weight of the sword at his hip. In his belt-pouch he found a waver of lembas, which he quickly washed down with some more water.
Revived by the cold water and the elvish waybread, he left his hiding place and made off south-east, heading towards the morning sun and ever following the swift-flowing Entwash. For the most part he walked in the water, slipping on slick, well-rounded rocks, his feet growing numb from the icy stream. But he made swift progress in spite of the slippery ground, for he did not take care to conceal his tracks. On the contrary, he made sure to leave footprints upon the soft soil of the water's edge every so often and did not hesitate to reach for the undergrowth to steady himself when he lost his footing. Whenever the river bank dropped low enough to catch a glimpse of the Orcs assembled on the slope of the knoll, he looked back, noting with satisfaction the growing distance and the fact that they still seemed oblivious to the absence of their captives.
But he had known all along that their disappearance would not go unnoticed forever, so the outraged yell did not catch him by surprise though he flinched with the knowledge that battle was upon him. A familiar flash of excitement mingled with apprehension surged through him as he left the cover of the river bank, fought his way through the brambles that grew along the stream and broke into a run as soon as he stepped upon the open plain. His plan seemed to work, the yells behind him grew louder as soon as the Orcs had caught sight of him. If only his strength would last until he reached the riders.
Running with one arm strapped to his chest was an awkward endeavour, even with the rush of battle coursing through his veins, but he must not falter. The Hobbits' safety depended on how much time he would buy them, and the thought lent him strength, helped him to block out pain and exhaustion for now. But the Orcs were gaining on him. Their yells grew louder, and before long an arrow skidded to a stop in the long grass beside him. He picked up speed, though he knew not how long he could maintain it. For now it kept him out of the range of the Orcs' arrows. If only the Riders would arrive, Aragorn thought between glances over his shoulder and up ahead, but the morning sun, still low in the sky, blinded him, obscuring what lay ahead.
He heard another arrow drop to the ground behind him, and he tensed in anticipation of that final blow between his shoulder blades, of that last flare of pain, but nothing happened. Maybe he could outrun the Orcs after all? Another glance over his shoulder revealed that that was but wishful thinking. The Orcs' lack of aim was not caused by the distance but rather by the light of the sun blinding them more than it did Aragorn. At least they were still on his heels, they had neither abandoned him to search for the Hobbits instead nor caught up with him yet. Relief washed over him but was shattered by a sharp blow to the thigh that tore his left leg from beneath him.
To be continued ...
A/N: Thanks, AmandaK, for beta-reading and catching all those phrases I obviously fell in love with and repeated over and over again.
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