10. A Cornered Beast
"It is a blight upon the land and a very travesty to behold. What evil has Saruman wrought within this black place?" Theoden's voice was hushed and filled with disgust, and all around him his men were silent. "I guess now that we have not seen but the least of his dark deeds, though we thought them to be monstrous indeed." No one answered him.
It was a sad country now, forsaken and dismal. Once it had been a sheltered valley, pleasant and fertile and fed by the strong river Isen, beautiful and flourishing with growing things. At one time the vale was a haven for wanderers lost, and its master a lord of wisdom and knowledge whose sage advice was sought by scholars and kings. Grievous now it was to see Nan Curunir ravaged by the works of the very being who had once made it great. Orthanc had been a tower of marvellous shape, gleaming black, its walls straight and as smooth as obsidian.
Now it jutted at the center of the vale like a rotting tooth. As he had fallen to the arts and subtle devices of the Dark Lord, so had he shaped the place to reflect his disdain for all not of his own creation, striking down what he could not control or could not twist to his own needs, fashioning in the end little more than a child's model or a slave's flattery of the Dark Tower itself. It seemed at once loathsome and to be pitied to those who now suffered to pass through this foul projection of Saruman's mind, through Isengard.
The air above was heavy with fog and rank with smoke and steam, the sun nothing more than a sickly shimmering orb clinging tenuously to the sky. They rode some miles through tangled brush and the stumps of slaughtered trees, choking upon the foul mist and tasting the corruption that smothered the earth beneath the walls of the fortress.
The highway widened as they came nearer to Orthanc, becoming a broad street paved with great flat stones, squared and laid with skill; no blade of grass was seen in any joint. Indeed, there was no life to be seen anywhere but for the clumps of weeds among the pits and thorn bushes which thrived upon the ravaged land and could not be killed.
A tall blackened pillar loomed up before them. Set high upon it was a great stone, carved and painted in the likeness of a long White Hand. As Arod passed by the monolith he shied and danced to one side, tossing his head and whickering nervously. Gimli clung tightly to Legolas from his customary place behind the elf, cursing Arod beneath his breath, and he listened to his friend murmur to the horse, urging him forward.
Arod obeyed and fell back once more into line with the rest of the company, but Gimli noticed that Legolas did not himself look up at the black pillar as they passed. Indeed, the elf had kept his eyes strictly ahead of him, glancing neither to the right nor the left since they entered the foul valley. His back was rigid and his words to Arod had been the first he had uttered since they had left the eaves of the strange woods earlier that day and crossed the Ford. Gimli was uncertain as to whether the elf was lost in thought over his first glimpse of the Ents in the forest, or whether he was still troubled by the misgivings which clouded his mind back at the Hornburg. He caught Legolas casting anxious looks over his shoulder at him every so often and the elf seemed as taught as his bowstring, so Gimli assumed the latter to be the case. He found it disquieting. The dwarf sighed and gripped Legolas's arm affectionately, wishing he could know the elf's thoughts.
Gimli could not resist peering at the White Hand towering over them in the mist, though his gorge rose in his throat at the sight. So marked were the Uruk-hai, the spawn of Saruman who had slain Boromir and taken their young companions. So marked were those who slew the brave men of Rohan as they defended their homes and their families.
Though they had all but defeated it, the White Hand mocked them still, and they passed by the pillar with bitter hearts.
It was late in the day by the time they finally arrived at the great archway and came to the gate of Orthanc, Saruman's refuge, the one last dark hole in which he had to hide.
To the astonishment of all, the gate lay hurled and twisted upon the ground.
The king and his company sat upon their horses and stared in wonder at the ruined fortress. Deep pools of brackish water surrounded the tower and all about, stone was cracked and splintered and foundations rent from the earth. Pale water lapped about the wreckage. Saruman's bastion of strength had been torn asunder and all but destroyed by some force beyond their reckoning.
And there, as the Lord of the Mark and his company sat silently amazed at the edge of the ruin, they became aware suddenly of two small figures perched upon the rubble in front of what appeared to have once been a guard house. They drew nearer and they saw that one seemed to be asleep amongst a litter of bottles and bowls and platters. The other was leaning against a broken rock with crossed legs and arms behind his head, and from his mouth there streamed long wisps of thin, blue smoke.
Before the king could speak, the small smoke-breathing figure became suddenly aware of them and sprang to his feet.
"Welcome, my lords, to Isengard!" he said. "We are the the door wardens, Meriadoc, son of Saradoc is my name; and my companion, who, alas! is overcome with WEARINESS" -- here he gave the other a dig with his foot -- "is Peregrin, son of Paladin, of the house of Took."
Gimli's thunderous shout should have shaken Saruman from his black musings in his chambers, had that wizard's mind not been occupied with more pressing matters and had the walls of Orthanc been not quite so thick. As it was, the dwarf's voice nearly deafened the sharp ears of the elf who sat not a hand's width before him on the horse. Legolas winced, but laughed at Gimli's words.
"Pippin! Merry! You woolly-footed and wool-pated truants!" the dwarf boomed. "Two hundred leagues through fen and forest, battle and death to rescue you and here we find you feasting and idling -- and smoking!"
A smile lit Merry's face and Pippin, roused by the sound of the dwarf's indignant roar, leapt up with a happy cry and scrambled down from the wreckage to meet them. Legolas dismounted and lent a hand to Gimli, then the elf turned to sweep the hobbit into a warm embrace. "Well met, Master Took. I had nearly lost hope that we would ever find you again."
"Hammer and tongs! I am so torn between rage and joy, that if I do not burst, it will be a marvel!" Gimli growled, and ruffled Merry's hair affectionately. His brow furrowed. "I would swear you have grown, if that were possible for a hobbit your age."
The Riders laughed. "It cannot be doubted that we witness the meeting of dear friends," said Theoden. "So these are the lost ones of your company, Gandalf?"
They spent much time before the ruined entrance to Orthanc, trading tales and acquainting the men of Rohan with the habits and manner of the Halfling people for the very first time. Before the very doors of Saruman's dark stronghold there gathered members of all the free peoples of Middle-earth that day, and their hearts were glad.
But the front doorstep of evil was no place to tarry, and Gandalf was anxious to see to the task at hand. "Where is Treebeard, Merry? Did he leave me no message, or has plate and bottle driven it from your mind?" asked Gandalf.
"Away on the north side," said Merry. "He and the other Ents are still busy at their work." A noise of rock shifting and the rumbling like that of an avalanche echoed off in the distance. The men looked with new interest upon the broken remnants that lay about them and the sturdy stonework of the arch that lay now at their feet in small bits, crumbled like stale bread.
"Still inside. He has not left, nor could he. Aside from all that water, Treebeard has posted Ents to watch the doors, though you might not be able to see them. There is Quickbeam there, and to his left another tall, grey Ent. Can you make them out? Well, they are there, nonetheless, and I do not think Saruman would venture out his door if the Dark Lord himself came knocking."
"My dear hobbit, you would do well to use a bit more caution and less impudence. You speak of matters far beyond your comprehension and I will assume that plunder of wine and ale you have before you is exceptionally strong stuff, and your slow wits not merely an unfortunate Brandybuck family trait."
Pippin looked up at the old wizard curiously and piped up. "What is there to fear, Gandalf? Surely Saruman can do little holed up in his tower like this! Treebeard has seen to that. What will he do? Will he shoot at us, or pour fire out the windows; or can he put a spell on us from a distance?"
"The latter is more likely, Peregrin Took, but there is no knowing what he might do, or may choose to try. Have a care! A wild beast cornered is not safe to approach and Saruman has powers you do not guess."
Gandalf then took Theoden and his men to make the circuit of the walls of Isengard to find Treebeard and a fitting place to camp for the night, but Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas remained behind with the hobbits, reluctant to break up the Fellowship now that it had been reunited. Leaving Hasufel and Arod to stray in search of grass, they retired to what was left of Saruman's guard house to find food and drink.
The small house consisted of a chamber with other doors at the far end leading to the sleeping quarters, and a hearth and chimney were nestled in a corner to one side. The hobbits had lit a fire to cheer the room, and the two took it upon themselves to act as hosts, swiftly ransacking the store-rooms to return laden with dishes, bowls, cups, knives and foods of various sorts. Aragorn and the others set to the meal, and being the courteous hosts they were, the hobbits felt it to be their duty to join in the repast, though they had eaten just before the company had arrived.
Being much sated and content to settle themselves until Gandalf and the others returned, the companions moved outside to be beneath the sky, to rest and talk and watch the sun set behind the mountains.
The hobbits told them of their captivity with the orcs, and answered their questions about the Ents, and Aragorn told them the tale of Helm's Deep and the destruction of Saruman's army, to which Merry and Pippin lifted a toast with cups of beer. The sun was gone now and though the mists had lifted, the air grew chill. Weariness that had been staved off by activity now weighed upon Gimli and he dozed where he sat, half-listening to the conversation. Aragorn and the hobbits smoked and spoke quietly for a while, and Legolas lay still, looking up to the sky and singing softly to himself.
The elf's voice weaved its way through Gimli's light dreaming, lulling him further into sleep. It was said that the Firstborn had learned to sing before they had learned the art of speech. Gimli had never appreciated elvish song, and even now, when Legolas took it upon himself to sing to the trees and the grass and the sky and the bird sitting on the rock over the next hill for hours on end as they travelled, Gimli had to refrain from throwing himself off Arod's back and stuffing his cloak in his ears. He suspected the elf did it to simply irritate him.
But in the twilight, in the space between wakefulness and sleep, when the world slowed and dream and reality became one, his lover's voice soared and seemed to carry with it a depth of understanding and profound beauty that quite took the dwarf's breath away. Though he would never have admitted it, he loved to listen to Legolas sing beneath the stars.
Tonight, however, the song changed. There was a note of despondency in Legolas's voice which disturbed Gimli and vexed his mind, preventing him from dropping off to sleep. As he listened, the elf's distress became almost tangible; his singing seemed not to be of serenity and contemplation, but a challenge to some unseen threat. Legolas ceased abruptly and rose to his feet. Gimli roused himself and watched his companion glide like a ghost silently away from the others. Aragorn observed the elf as well from beneath the cowl drawn low over his eyes and he shifted as if he would stand, but Gimi shook his head and signalled that he would go after him.
He found him back at the guard house, sitting before the fire in the hearth. The dwarf made no noise when he came through the door, yet Legolas stirred and without turning his head, he whispered, "Tomorrow shall be a long day for all of us, Gimli. You should sleep while you may."
"And how is it you expect me to relax with you moping about as you are?" Gimli cast his cloak over the back of a wooden chair in the corner and Legolas listened to the dwarf's heavy tread pacing the floor. It stopped, and the elf felt a firm, loving grip on his shoulders. He sighed and placed a hand upon Gimli's and stared into the flames.
"There is something wrong about you, Legolas," the dwarf bent and murmured deeply at his ear. "You have not been right since the siege, and I worry. You have always been the one among us untouched by fear and uncertainty and now you are almost incapacitated by such dark thoughts. This is more than passing concern for my safety. Something troubles you and yet you will not speak of it. Trust me, please. Tell me."
"There is nothing to tell, Gimli." Legolas motioned dismissively. "There is a shadow upon my mind and though I try, I cannot be rid of it."
"Tell me of it."
"I cannot. It is merely a feeling. A senseless vision that will not leave me in peace. Gimli, please, I am weary. Do not pursue this."
The dwarf touched the black hair, placing a comforting hand upon the elf's head. "Tell me," he insisted. "What do you see, Legolas Greenleaf?"
The elf shook his head, and then sighed. He gave in and closed his eyes.
He saw warm red blood... blood... seeping... flowing... Gimli's life draining from his cooling body... dying, dead. The dwarf's face... pale and grey... laid out before the elf's feet. Open eyes staring at nothing at all. No breath, no heartbeat, as still as stone.
The Endless stream carried away the memory of him, and all that he was to those who loved him was vanished and forgotten. All was darkness and there was nothing to see, to grasp.
*A mortal's inevitable fate,* a low and melodious voice whispered. *A mortal's doom. He will not leave this place... there is no hope. Failure... darkness... pain without end... horror beyond reason.... There is no hope for any of you. You shall fail and he will die, as they all will, one by one, and nothing will remain. Nothing... an eternal hollow emptiness which devours stars and is by no light graced. This is your doom. There is no hope....*
The voice pounded in his ears mercilessly, endlessly filling his mind with its dripping words. He had heard it before. It was akin to the whispers which had taunted them as they had journeyed with Frodo and held out against the Ring's taint, but this was a subtler voice and much nearer. He had heard it since he had been touched by the white fire, but he had been able to shut it out, refusing to listen, dismissing it as fancy born of exhaustion and anxiety. Now the voice sensed his guard was down and it drowned him unmercifully in its sickeningly dulcet tone. He could not resist it. The cold void opened up, yawning wide before Legolas, and then in a rush it enveloped him. Emptiness around him, and horrible emptiness within.
The elf shuddered and tore his gaze from the fire, a wordless cry upon his lips. He leapt to his feet, a madness in his bright eyes and he tried to flee from the room. Gimli caught him, but the elf forcibly wrenched himself away. His face was proud and terrible in the firelight, desperate beyond reason. Gimli shouted his name and snatched for him and Legolas stumbled backward, tripping over the chair behind him to land sprawled upon the floor in a tangle of broken wood and folds of the dwarf's cloak. He lay huddled there, shaking, his fair face buried in his arms. "U-estel! Pan i-duath... u-estel...."
Gimli was beside himself. Completely unnerved by the elf's sudden hysteria, he stood for a moment paralyzed and confused.
Then he approached Legolas slowly and knelt by him, putting gentle hands upon him and prising the elf's arms from his head. Gimli looked upon him and his face contorted with white-hot rage.
"It is still with you," he whispered harshly, realizing. "His poison lies within you still!"
Legolas could not hear him. A low moan escaped him and he tried once more to rise and bolt from the guard house, but Gimli fought against Legolas's strength, heightened then by the fear thrilling through his veins, and it was only with great difficulty that the dwarf held the struggling elf fast.
"I should have seen it! I should have known and I should have kept you from this place! I knew better than to disregard the intuition of an elf, but I was a fool and paid no heed. The threat loomed over your head and not mine at all!"
Legolas thrashed and struck him in the chest, and Gimli's breath was driven painfully from his lungs. Winded, he twisted and gripped Legolas's wrists with punishing force, pinning him roughly to the floor in desperation, knowing somehow, certainly, if he loosened his hold on him and let him go that Legolas would destroy himself.
There was a scraping noise at the door and Aragorn burst through it, sword raised, seeking a foe. The elf's screams had brought him running, and the hobbits were close behind. His eyes settled upon Gimli and Legolas, then he hurled himself to the floor by the dwarf's side to help. Aragorn bent over the distraught elf who fought still to break Gimli's hold and the Ranger placed strong hands upon him, speaking Legolas's name.
Legolas immediately ceased to struggle. His breathing was rapid and his heart was beating so hard they could see his pulse leap at his throat. His green eyes were open and staring, but he was not seeing his companions.
Pippin and Merry stood stricken. Aragorn's expression was somewhat wild. He searched Legolas's face anxiously, then he shouted to Merry, "Go! Find Gandalf!" Merry nodded, and he and Pippin sprang for the door. Aragorn looked questioningly at Gimli.
"Saruman!" the dwarf spat fiercely. "Saruman...."
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.