13. Treason Tow'red
"Yes," said Pippin. "It was the 1417 crop, that is last year's... no... the year before, of course, now; a good year."
"Most interesting," Aragorn muttered, and blew a whiff of smoke from his lips, watching it lift and dissipate into the air. "A small matter, but troublesome nevertheless. I shall have to mention it to Gandalf and see what he makes of it."
"Should Gandalf have not returned to meet us by now?" Gimli asked over the top of his cup. "It would seem to me he should wish to face this as soon as possible, yet time is wearing on and they have not yet returned."
"There is much to see to, and he approaches this meeting not lightly, Gimli."
"A good morning to everyone," Merry said, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he joined the group. "...although one wouldn't know it around here," he muttered. The mists had settled once more around them with the night's disappearance and rather than bring a cheerier mood to their surroundings, the sun merely illuminated the ruin and desolation with an eerie, pale yellow glow. The waters had begun to steam; the air was heavy and beginning to grow hot and humid, and they felt thirst cling to their throats and their clothing begin to stick to their backs.
The companions were sitting about the tumbled stones of the arch of Isengard, making a light breakfast from the stores of the guard house and their own bits of supplies as they watched for Gandalf to return with Theoden and his men. They had slept well for a few hours, but most of them had risen before dawn in uneasy anticipation of the day's events. As they tarried, their agitation became impatience, then boredom. Now they merely sat, and waited.
Merry stretched and yawned, then leaned over and snatched a bit of toast from Pippin's hand. He stood munching placidly, gazing out over at the tower that loomed in the mist before them. "There doesn't seem to be much activity on the far shore, does there?"
"A snake waiting for us to draw near before he strikes," Gimli grumbled.
"The water has sunk a little. There must be outlets somewhere from the caves underneath," Pippin said thoughfully, in between bites. "I think if Saruman looks out any of his windows, it must look an untidy, dreary mess." He shrugged and turned to rummage through his pack. "Apple, Legolas?" he called, and lobbed the piece of fruit high up to the elf who lounged upon the wall above their heads.
The water had now subsided somewhat, though here and there large gloomy pools remained, covered with scum and wreckage. The land between was a wilderness of slime and tumbled rock, pitted with blackened holes and dripping with the murky water from the Isen that had poured into the ground when the Ents broke the dams. Orthanc jutted from the center of the ruin like a crypt marker, looking altogether dismal and foreboding. Ever they glanced at the small, darkened windows, watching for movement or any signs of the sorcerer or the lackey who served him. There were none. The tower stood still and lifeless, though still they felt constantly the presence of silent menace, watching and waiting.
"And how do you suppose we'll even get close enough to Orthanc to talk with him, what with all the pits and water and loose slabs? No doubt Wormtongue needed the bath, but I am already rather refreshed myself this morning and am in no need of a dousing, especially in water as cold and as foul as that," Pippin wrinkled his nose.
"That is the reason we tarry, Master Took," Aragorn said. "It would have been too difficult to cross that desolation with the waters lapping at the higher ground. The Ents have done thorough work in cleansing Isengard."
Gimli stood and wiped the beads of sultry sweat from his face, then donned his helm. "Perhaps we could send our sure-footed Elf across first? He seems to have an uncanny knack for picking out trails."
A particularly juicy apple core sailed down through the air to strike the dwarf squarely between the shoulder blades.
"What do you think will happen, Aragorn?" Merry asked. "From all we've seen and heard, Saruman does not sound as if he is the type to surrender and beg forgiveness. What does Gandalf intend to do?"
"I know not, Merry. Gandalf seems to think it will do some good, however, and we must trust to his wisdom. No doubt we shall see a most interesting confrontation this morning, if nothing else. Saruman has much to answer for to those who wait now upon him at his door."
"Your curiosity shall soon be satisfied. There is Gandalf!" Legolas called from the wall, "Also Theoden and his men."
Across the waste they saw Riders picking their way to the south towards them. The elf leapt down to land lightly onto the path off to the side. He strode forward to retrieve his pack and his bow from their resting place against the stonework and he fastened his cloak about his shoulders. The others rose stiffly from their seats to gather their belongings and ready themselves to meet the Lord of the Mark once more.
They followed what was left of the road from the gates, going slowly, for the flag-stones were cracked and slimed. They joined with Gandalf and Theoden under the shadow of the dark rock of Orthanc.
"Well!" Gandalf greeted them. "Treebeard and I have had some interesting discussions and made a few plans. It is time. I trust we have all had some much-needed rest?" The wizard met Legolas's eyes, then nodded imperceptively. "We must get going again. I fear our task this morning is not the most pleasant I might have wished for, but it is necessary, if you all are up to facing it."
"We are," said Merry. "Now that I have slept and found some sustenance, I actually feel less ill-disposed towards Saruman than I did."
Gimli glowered. "I do not," the dwarf said in a deep, menacing voice. "I should like Saruman better when he is mouldering in the filth at the bottom of one of these dark pits at our feet. Then perhaps I would feel less ill- disposed, though I should have to think long and hard about it."
They came to the foot of Orthanc, and their eyes were drawn up the length of the immense, broad staircase which lead to the entrance, hewn of the same glistening black stone as the tower itself. The great door stood high above the ground; and over it was a shuttered window, opening upon a balcony hedged with iron bars.
Gandalf and Theoden dismounted at the foot of the stairs. "I will go up," Gandalf said quietly. "I have been to Orthanc, and I know my peril."
"As shall I," said the king. "I am old, and fear no peril. I wish to speak with the enemy who has done me so much wrong. Eomer shall go with me, if he is able, to see that my aged feet do not falter."
Eomer took a step forward to stand with his king, a grim look upon his face. He bore still his arm within a sling, but his other hand rested firmly upon the pommel of his sword.
"As you will, " said Gandalf. "Aragorn shall come with me. Let the others await us at the foot of the stairs. They will hear and see enough, if there is anything to hear or see."
"Nay!" Gimli turned to the wizard determinedly. "I wish for a closer view. I will not be left behind. I have waited long for this moment and shall not be satisfied watching it from a distance."
Gandalf frowned disapprovingly at the dwarf with his axe hefted a bit too handily over one shoulder, but he held his tongue as his eyes shifted to Legolas.
"I would go as well, Mithrandir," the elf said softly. He did not look at the wizard, but instead gazed intently at the black tower, and there was an odd tone in his speech. He glided forward to stand beside Gimli. The dwarf made to protest, but the elf put a gentle hand upon his arm and silenced him. There was a look of extraordinary purpose upon Legolas's face and his bearing suggested that he would brook no argument.
Gandalf regarded him pensively, and then nodded. "Very well. Come then. Be careful, and be not rash in your words or actions. We deal with a formidable enemy and I know not how he shall react to our host upon his doorstep. Beware his voice."
They stepped resolutely up the stairway to meet the Master of the Tower. Gandalf stood before the the door of Orthanc, his robes a splash of pure white against the hard, black stone, and without hesitation he beat upon it with his staff. It thudded with a hollow sound.
"Saruman!" he cried in a commanding voice. "Come forth!"
And they waited.
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