Their shift started at dusk, replacing another crew that had spent the daylight hours emptying out what remained in the outlying storehouses and packing it up for the departing troops. Groblug had kept them working double-time to get the last of the supplies ready, right up until the soldiers marched away. He hadn’t even given her time to put her bedroll in the hut; it still hung on the side of one of the carts they were loading.
It never got very dark in Isengard at night anymore; even at midnight, the low clouds cast back a muddy orange reflection of the glare from the forges and foundries. In the murky light, Lu could see more than she ever wished to of Saruman’s army. The Orcs and the warg riders were followed by troop after troop of Dunlendings and half-orcs. The Men looked grimly determined but the Orcs laughed and shouted obscenities about the Rohirrim and jostled each other as they marched. Perhaps by their standards, she thought, they were being offered a rare treat.
The slaves on the crew watched the departure of the troops with growing horror. Somehow, there hadn’t seemed to be so many when they were milling around collecting their gear. Dairuin’s expression was bleak, and beyond him, she could see the tears on Folcred’s face glint in the torchlight. Bran put a steadying hand on Folcred’s shoulder as the younger man wept for the coming destruction of Rohan.
As the troops filed past, Groblug roared encouragement and shook his sword in the air. “Stick it to those pushdug horseboys! Give it to ‘em good!” he shouted, then noticing them standing idle behind him, turned and snarled, “What are you maggots waiting for? Everything left in the outbuildings goes into the storerooms in the Tower. Sharkey’s orders, and he wants it done yesterday. Move!”
Dairuin gave his mother a questioning look and she shrugged. They’d been able to talk a bit earlier in the evening when they were allowed to stop for a drink of water. Dairuin had been quick to come to the only conclusion that was left. As soon as the guards’ attention slipped, he said, they should throw themselves down the nearest airshaft. They couldn’t allow themselves to be used as Saruman intended, and there was no other way out of it.
She was only a little distressed at how easily she accepted his plan. She had been trying to dissuade him from it for years now, but any fool could see he had the right of it this time. There had never really been any chance that waiting would improve their situation, but she’d clung to the teachings of her childhood and fought her son’s self-destructive tendencies for too many years to stop easily. Now, though, even she could see that there was no reason to put him off any longer and great need of haste. What she had become over the years shamed her ancestors so thoroughly that suicide could hardly make things any worse. She was a creature of Isengard. She had nothing in common with the High Men of Númenor any longer. If there was still a way for her to oppose the darkness, it would have nothing noble about it.
But ever since they had reached their decision, the guards had kept them too busy to get anywhere near one of the airshafts. Even while the troops marched out, Groblug had been keeping half an eye on the two of them. She was almost certain that Saruman still believed she was under the spell of his voice, but he would not risk losing them just short of his goal. If the rush to prepare the troops for battle had been only a little less, the two of them would probably have been locked safely away in the tower.
As the crew emptied the nearest storehouse, Lu wondered how long it was going to take for Groblug to get distracted. The storehouse they were clearing out held food, and the crates of dried fruit and barrels of brined meat were driving Lu mad with hunger. She could see the other slaves on the crew struggling just as hard to convince themselves that they were not affected by the smell of so much rich food they were not allowed to eat. There was little left of the winter stores at this time of year anyway, and most of that had gone with the soldiers. The slaves had had nothing for days but chaffy brown bread and what was optimistically called cabbage soup.
Folcred leaned in close as he passed them with a crate and whispered to Dairuin, “Drop the box. Go on, Orcboy, convince me there‘s some good reason for you to exist.”
Dairuin’s expression grew even more closed than usual, but Folcred had been needling him for years now, and Dairuin had heard it all so many times that he only got a little grimmer around the mouth. Bran sometimes claimed that Folcred didn’t even mean the insults anymore, but the habit was too strong to break. Lu had never been able to decide if she believed that, but it hardly mattered now.
If Groblug hadn’t been among the guards, she thought Dairuin might even have done what Folcred suggested. The Orcs weren’t very fond of fruit, and most would leave the other slaves to snatch the spilled food out of the dirt and hide it away while they amused themselves with punishing the one who’d dropped the box. It had become something of a tradition. The Orcs knew what was going on, but they lost nothing they really coveted, and got an excuse to beat one of the slaves. The slaves got the food, and they all carefully set aside a share of their pickings for the one who took the beating.
Groblug would have none of it, though. Drop anything on his watch and it was picked up, dusted off and repacked before he attended to torturing the slave who had dropped it. A broken box would not distract Groblug long enough for either of them to reach the nearest airshaft, and it wouldn’t gain the others any food. Once or twice, Lu caught the other Orc guard stroking the handle of his whip and looking wistfully at them. An occasional slash to hurry them along was a scant pleasure compared to the punishment for breaking open a box.
They had only loaded a few boxes when a commotion began down near the gate. Lu looked down the road, but they were too far away to see or hear anything clearly. The orcs on the wall seemed very alarmed about something, but she couldn’t make out what they were shouting. Groblug, who had been staring in that direction also, caught a glimpse of them watching and gave out a few cuts with his whip. Lu dodged out of his way, but he managed to connect with Dairuin once. Lu brushed her hand over her son’s arm comfortingly as they picked up more boxes. Groblug turned back towards the gates, where a little stir of activity had begun.
She was still inside the storehouse when she heard Groblug let out one of the coarsest oaths she’d ever heard. Hurrying out, she saw him gaping in the direction of the gate, the slaves standing disregarded and staring alongside him.
At that distance, she didn’t see anything happening at first. Then suddenly chunks of rock began falling away from the gates and the surrounding walls. The gates were disintegrating. There was no other way to describe it; the solid stone was crumbling like dirt. In only a few minutes, the gate and much of the wall around it had fallen into ruins, and cracks were appearing in the part of the wall nearest the storehouse.
Next to her, Lu heard Bran repeating some phrase over and over in a language she didn’t understand. She followed the direction of his gaze and wondered if he was swearing or praying. If he saw the same thing she did, either one would have been completely reasonable. It looked almost as if trees were climbing through the ruins of the gate. A figure in white dashed towards Orthanc just ahead of them - could that really be Saruman? It was hard to imagine him hitching up his robes and racing across Isengard, but who else here ever wore white?
The boss of the crew just down the road from them yelped and fled. His crew dropped their loads and ran also. Seeing that, Groblug snarled at Lu and the others, “You stay right where you are till I say you can move! You’re not going anywhere while I‘m in charge.”
But while he was turned towards the slaves, the other overseer bolted. Groblug started after him, yelling, “Get back here, you pile of warg spew!“
The other orc only made it a few yards before the wall collapsed in front of him and one of the tree-creatures strode through the gap. It spotted the fleeing orc and pounced on him, crushing him underfoot. The slaves all stood frozen in shock as Groblug drew his sword. He took a swing at the creature, but it was like chopping at a mature tree. The sword only bit a tiny way into the tree-creature. It seemed more annoyed than pained by the attack, and wrenched the sword from Groblug’s hand. He started to run, but stumbled and fell on the loose stones and the creature was on him in one long step. It caught his feet as he tried to scramble over the pile of rubble and swung him so his head lay on the ground. Then it stepped on the orc’s head with one of its long feet and yanked up on his legs. Groblug’s head came off with a sharp crack. Just like killing a chicken, thought Lu numbly.
The creature then turned to the slaves. He murmured to himself at great length as he walked around the group with a peculiar, almost jointless gait. In spite of herself, Lu couldn‘t help wondering how he managed to move so swiftly without bending at the knee. There were others of his kind inside the wall now, dealing with the fleeing Orcs as this one had. He was one of the taller ones, with smooth, silver-grey bark...no, skin. The sky was clearing now and between the light of the moon and the torches, she could see that his eyes were a light, clear color like spring leaves, shrewd and ancient. The look in them was a little like Saruman‘s, and if she hadn’t been so afraid of what he might do to Dairuin, she would have spent a long time just trying to fix the image of those eyes in her mind. There was a power in them that she’d never seen except when it was fallen to evil.
He stopped in front of them again and said, “The Men may go. The Ents have no quarrel with those whom Saruman has held captive. But this,” he said, fixing his gaze on Dairuin, “we will not release. Saruman has compounded an ancient evil by mixing Orcs with other races, and that we cannot allow.”
His long arm shot out and all Lu could think of was Dairuin’s head being torn off just like the others. She threw herself in front of Dairuin, screaming, “No! He isn’t an Orc. He’s my son. Leave him alone.” She glared at the creature and pressed back against Dairuin, who was standing rigid and perfectly still behind her. She couldn’t read the Ent’s expression. The skin or bark of his face didn’t seem to be flexible enough to allow much expression, but something about his movements or posture made Lu feel that there was a good deal of pity in his gaze.
The Ent looked Dairuin over suspiciously. “He has Man blood, perhaps, but he looks and stinks of Orc. Their axes have done grievous harm in my homeland, and I will not allow any of them to go free.”
“Ma, don’t,” whispered Dairuin. “You have a chance to get away. Take it!” He tried to push Lu to one side. She’d thought his usual expression was bleak, but now she realized her mistake. He said to her as he looked up at the Ent, “He’s right. I’m not an Orc, but I’m not a Man either. It’s better this way.”
“That’s not true,” said Bran suddenly. “He is a Man. I’ve been here for nearly twenty years and I’ve seen enough of both to know the difference. Maybe he’s the ugliest one I’ve ever met, but he’s a Man.”
Murmurs ran through the group, and Lu thought they sounded almost like agreement. Bran stared pointedly at Folcred, and she held her breath. If anyone would encourage the Ent to mayhem, it would be Folcred.
Folcred glared back at Bran but said angrily, “He’s right. I hope every orc in Middle-earth dies in agony for what they did to my parents, but he’s no Orc.”
The Ent hmmed and hoomed at that but said nothing. He slowly stretched out one hand toward Dairuin. Dairuin closed his eyes and shuddered, but made no move to escape. Something in the tree creature’s expression sent a burst of hope through Lu and she didn’t try to stop him as he put one long finger under Dairuin’s chin and turned her son’s face toward the torchlight. When a moment passed and his head still hadn’t been ripped off, Dairuin opened his eyes and looked up at his captor. The two of them studied each other for what seemed to Lu like eternity before the Ent said, “Perhaps I am being hasty, but war often requires haste. All of you are free to go.”
Lu let out a long, shaky breath and threw her arms around her son, who was still too stunned to react. “Did you hear that, Dairuin? We’re free! Let’s go.”
He shook his head and pointed to the others, who were already relieving the dead orcs of their gear. “We’ll need food and knives and anything else we can get.”
Lu gasped. “My needles!” She grabbed the bag that held all her possessions off the side of the wagon and checked the side seam carefully. They were still there: a neat row of needles of the finest quality, stolen from the sewing room over the last dozen years. She’d known there was no hope of escape, but she had carefully collected and hidden them away anyhow. It had been something to hold onto that in case she ever did get away, she would have the needles she needed to set up as a seamstress. She had sometimes worried about her own sanity for doing so, but now she was glad she had. She quickly filled the bag with food and swung it over her shoulder.
The Ent was looking around anxiously. There were many other Ents inside what was left of the outer walls now, pulling apart buildings and any Orcs they happened to find. He reached into a pouch that hung over his shoulder and pulled out a handful of clay tiles embossed with what looked like a beech leaf and gave one to each of them. “You must go now, and quickly. Do not leave the road until you are well away from the Wizard’s Vale, and keep these tokens where they can be seen at all times. Go in a group and keep this one,” he gestured towards Dairuin, “in the center. If any question you, say that Beechbone gave you leave to go.”
“Thank you, “ said Dairuin, in a voice that shook only a little. “Please, sir, there are other slaves here. They’re all locked in at this time of night, and I doubt the guards will let them out. Would you please send someone over to the dens to help them? They’re mostly women, you know, the mothers....“
“I will go myself. Farewell!“ The Ent bent forward slightly in what might be their version of a nod or a bow and strode away. Bran watched him go for a moment, then shook himself and said, “Let’s get out of here.”
With Dairuin in the center of the group, they set off. They passed several Ents on their way out, but as soon as they showed their tiles, the Ents went back to demolishing Isengard and let them pass. All the Orcs they saw had been torn to pieces, but Lu could see another little group of Men hurrying ahead of them through the gate. She thought one of them was Wulfstan, but the only thing that mattered now was for her own group to escape.
As they passed through the wrecked gates themselves, they stopped in astonishment. On either side of the road was a thick forest. None of them had been outside the walls since last autumn, but there had been no forest then. Folcred stared at the trees in shock. “These weren’t here four months ago. Not even a sapling.”
Bran gave him a little push to get him moving. “Worry about that later.”
Dairuin nodded urgently and whispered, “Those trees, they’re watching us. Let’s go.”
Lu moved a little closer to Dairuin and slipped her hand into his as they hurried down what was now a dark forest path. They hadn’t gone very far when there was a loud whump behind them and the ground shook. The unnatural forest swayed and groaned. Whirling back to look, she could see an orange light flickering through the ruins of the gate tunnel. Enraged cries echoed until they were submerged in a roar that reminded Lu of a storm coming in off the ocean. Without a word, the whole party turned and fled.
As they ran down the road, Lu realized that Dairuin hadn’t just been imagining that the forest was aware and had an interest in them. There was no wind that night, but the woods creaked and clattered as if a gale passed through it. The road ahead was nearly blocked with the shadowy forms of trees. As the group approached, the trees leaned out over the bit of path that remained, their branches groping down toward the refugees.
Bran, who was in the lead, held up his token and the tree shapes straightened with a groan of twisting wood and drew back from the road. She glanced back over her shoulder once, and saw some of the trees slowly turning to follow their progress. She didn’t look back again.
By the time they reached the crossroad, they were out of the forest and walking under the fading stars. One of the roads led to the Fords of the Isen and then into the heart of Rohan, and the other led to Dunland. Knowing they had to make a choice there, they stopped and built a small fire. While they feasted on bacon, bread and dried fruit, they traded what they’d looted from Isengard so that everyone would have the necessities for a few days at least.
“Which way are you headed?” Lu asked Bran. She suspected he was in much the same situation that she was, and had no one who would rejoice to have him back after twenty years as a slave.
He shrugged and glanced at Folcred. “I thought Rohan would be as good a place as any. They’ll need all the hands they can get.”
Folcred nodded and said, “We would appreciate your help. If you come with me, I’ll put in a good word for you.”
Bran nodded in return and said, “What about you two?”
Nothing Folcred could say to his countrymen would make Dairuin welcome in Rohan. Before the young man could steel himself to make the offer, she shrugged and said, “Dunland for now, I suppose. These supplies won’t last long, and Tirga can probably get a good deal for us there. After that, who knows? No matter which side wins this war, they won’t want Dairuin and me around.”
“There’s wilderness north and west of Dunland, isn’t there?” asked Dairuin cheerfully. “After we get some supplies, we could settle there and build a little house where there’s nobody to bother us.”
Bran looked hard at Dairuin, apparently trying to decide whether the half-orc really didn’t understand how dismal his prospects would be in the wilderness, or if he knew and spoke so lightly only to put a good face on it. After a moment, Bran sighed and squeezed Dairuin’s shoulder. “That’s the way, youngster. Go and enjoy your freedom.”
At mid-morning, those who were going to Rohan gathered up their things and bid the rest farewell. For the first time since Lu had met him, she could truly believe that Folcred was only sixteen. He was almost running as he started down the road to Rohan, but then remembered he wasn’t alone and waited for Bran. Bran turned back and waved, then hurried to catch up to Folcred.
The rest of the group looked at each other uncertainly after they had gone. None of them had any welcome awaiting them in Dunland, but neither would any other land be happy to see them. Without ever talking about it, they took the road to Dunland, moving slowly to give the slaves freed from the dens a chance to catch up. Lu hadn’t seen Tirga in more than a year, and Kuy had a sister among the breeders.
That evening, the party camped beside the Dunland road. They lingered there through the next day and night, but no others came up the road behind them. Finally, everyone got too nervous to stay there any longer. That section of the road was too close to the mountains and their orc colonies and no one wanted to risk being captured now that they were finally free of Isengard. The next morning, the group set out again.
On the western slope of the Misty Mountains, the land did not drop away as sharply as it did to the east, where the Anduin had carved its valley. The plateau of Dunland was considerably higher than Isengard, and the road climbed steadily all morning to reach it.
At noon, they stopped to eat at the western edge of the plateau. Dairuin went to gather firewood, and as he returned to camp, he froze, looking back in the direction of Isengard. His mouth moved, but no sound came out. The others sprang to their feet, reaching for what weapons they had, and Lu ran to his side. “What’s wrong?”
He pointed back in the direction of Isengard and croaked, “Look.”
Lu turned. Through the gap between two peaks, she could see down into the Wizard’s Vale. A few wisps of fog still clung to the base of the mountains, but it had cleared enough for her to see that Isengard had become a lake. Only Orthanc and a couple of guard towers rose above the water.
Behind her, Kuy howled in anguish. There would be no others following them out of Isengard. Tirga, Lu’s daughter, Kuy’s sister, all of them had drowned. Why hadn’t Beechbone freed them? He had said he would, but then left them all to drown. The image filled her head of the long, dark chambers with floodwater roaring in through the narrow airshafts, and the doors, as always, locked from the outside for the night. She wanted to scream or cry or smash something, but if she did, she didn’t think she could ever stop.
She looked down at the lake of Isengard one last time, then turned away and tried to force the picture of Tirga’s last moments out of her mind. Had she learned nothing at all from Isengard? Justice always passed Saruman’s slaves by; they suffered whether they had done anything to deserve it or not.
They hadn’t deserved punishment, but by the standards of her childhood, she had. Good and honorable people did not let themselves be used for evil, no matter the cost to themselves or their families. Only luck had saved her from bringing ruin to Pinnath Gelin, but would it have been any better to deny her son? In the old stories, she thought the answer would have been yes, but that had never been an answer she could live with. Her choice might be no easier to endure, but it was made past unmaking.
Not that they were likely to have long to repent the answer she had chosen. Without Tirga’s aid in Dunland....She shook herself and noticed Dairuin watching her anxiously. She forced her face into a calm expression that she knew didn’t fool him in the slightest and said softly, “There’s nothing we can do for them now. We had better get going. We have a long walk ahead of us.”
At some point in the future, I plan to continue on with another story about Lu and Dairuin and their lives in the north. In fact, this was only intended as a short prologue to what I thought would be the main part of the story, but it kinda got away from me.
Unfortunately, that story begins with a section that is going to be very tricky to write. Thanks to corporate restructuring, I need to spend most of my free time on résumés and cover letters right now. Once the job situation is resolved, I will be getting back to these two.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.