16. Friends and Enemies
"You may hunt conies here again someday," he told them. "Will you slay them all, when that time comes, or leave enough to replenish themselves?"
Canohando snorted. "We are not such fools, old man, to destroy our own land! That was done for us by others."
They passed ruined forts along the road, and the orcs went into each one, but cautiously, their bows drawn, apparently remembering the surprise attack by the mountains. One day they came back carrying an extra bow they had found in the abandoned guardhouse. Canohando brought it to where Frodo lay on his back with his hands behind his head, tired from his day's labor, watching the sun go down.
"Get up, runt," he growled. "Let me see if this is the size for you."
Frodo had no wish for a bow, least of all one from an orkish armory, but he thought best not to argue. He stood and let the orc measure it against him.
"It will do. Tomorrow you come with me and learn to hunt."
"I have my work to do with Radagast," Frodo began, but to his dismay the wizard chuckled and said, "No, go and let him teach you. Lash and Yarga can help me, Donkey."
There were many days of teaching. Frodo had not shot a bow since he was a lad, and that one had been a toy carved by his father. Canohando grumbled as he stood behind him, pushing him into proper shooting position.
"How have you lived so long, runtling? Without the old man's magic bag, you would starve to death. How old are you?"
But when Frodo told him, he stared. "Is that all? You are a child, then! How did a child carry – that? The Power of the Lord of Mordor?"
Frodo laughed. "Among my own kind, I am not a child; I am not even young. We do not live so long as dwarves, or orcs either, it would seem. Do your kind live while Middle Earth endures, like the elves?"
"We live until we are slain." The orc chuckled grimly. "If there are no enemies at hand to perform the service, we slay one another. But I can remember when the Witch King came to Mordor. I was in the horde that marched with him to take Minas Morgul away from the Men of Gondor."
"A thousand years ago," Frodo marveled. "If no one kills you, I believe you will live till the unmaking of Arda, like the elves."
Canohando bared his teeth unpleasantly. "Orcs are not elves, little rat, and we have no love for them. I will live till I am slain, but already I have lived longer than you. Your kind is like summer lightning, one flash and you are gone. But you may live a little longer if you can shoot. Sight along your arm and put the arrow through that window."
The lessons were held in whichever old fort was handiest, and when he tired of teaching Frodo, Canohando hunted in earnest. Frodo would have sat outside in the sun, waiting for him, but the orc would not permit it.
"Follow me, runt. There's more to hunting than shooting straight. And if a stone rolls under my feet and throws me down there," he nodded to a deep hole in the interior of the fortress, around which they were prowling in search of something to kill, "then you can pull me out again. A fool hunts alone in a ruin like this."
And Frodo found himself oddly moved that the orc relied on him to come to his help.
As summer came in, the heat of Gorgoroth became unbearable for Frodo and Radagast, and they drew nearer to the mountains, working their way into the foothills where it was cooler. The orcs grew more nervous day by day, but when the wizard suggested that they return to the interior on their own, Canohando refused.
"Who will protect you, old man, if you meet another band of orcs? Most will not wait to find out if you are enemies! Even the Men of Gondor might slay you, before they see you are their own."
Frodo thought Lash and Yarga would have gone. The orcs held long discussions in their own language, at night while he and Radagast lay rolled in their blankets in the dark, supposedly asleep.
"Why don't they go?" he whispered.
"I'm not sure, Donkey. Canohando, I think, feels a debt to me that I healed his wound – the infection was very deep and might well have killed him in time. His reaction is strange, all the same – to find gratitude in an orc almost defies belief. And Lash and Yarga will not leave him, although they walk in fear of their lives. Their loyalty amazes me as much as his gratitude. I wonder…"
"Is it because they think they are the only ones left, of all the orcs in Mordor?
"That is part of it, certainly. The horror of seeing Sauron's realm destroyed, all in a moment – that might explain their loyalty to each other, but not why they remain with us. I think there is something else at work here, some unraveling of evil design…"
He was silent for a while, and Frodo nearly fell asleep. He was roused by the wizard's next words, startled into wakefulness. "I think they follow you, Donkey. You carried the Ring, and something of its aura still lingers on you. The imprint of the dark power you wrestled with and overcame – I think it draws them, and Canohando especially, because he is the most aware of the three."
Frodo shivered. "No, Radagast! I don't want to believe that – mark – is still on me! And I didn't overcome it; I was nearly destroyed by it!"
"Ah, Donkey, but you were not destroyed, that is precisely the point. You were overpowered for a moment, but as soon as the Ring went into the Fire, you returned to the fight. It has been a long struggle for you, but I think you can safely say, now, that you have won the battle. All that remains is a sort of scar, like the scars you bear on your body. And these orcs are fighting their own battle against what was done to their kind in the far past. I think they follow you for the hope you give them."
"What battle are they fighting? What does it have to do with me?"
The wizard shifted in the darkness, and Frodo felt hands on his shoulders. "Roll over, Donkey, and I'll rub your back. You have cast off the Shadow, never fear." The strong, supple fingers dug into his tight muscles, and he began to relax. "You know where orcs came from, elves tormented and twisted by an evil power in another age. Much of that evil was bound up in the Ring, and now it is destroyed. That alone will not unmake the orcs, I'm afraid, but for these three, it may be enough. Because of their shock and terror when Sauron fell, and their loneliness, with only each other to turn to – they made certain choices. To be loyal to one another, defend one another. To accept help from me and not try to kill us."
"Try to kill us?"
Radagast chuckled. "They would have found me hard to kill, Donkey, had they tried, and I would have protected you. Yarga was much surprised when his shot went wide – he is not accustomed to miss, and you were a big target for one who has been hunting rats."
"I should have known." Frodo stifled laughter against his arm. "So will they become elves again?"
"No. They were born orcs; there are generations of orcs between them and those poor, mangled elves. But they may become something new under the sun: orcs who by their own will have turned away from evil. You fought that battle when you carried the Ring, and for long afterward you fought the hold it had on you. I think Canohando begins to understand why he wants to be near you, and the others feel it without understanding. You blazed a trail for them."
Frodo was silent. It was as if he had been looking at a star reflected in a cup of water, and someone had directed his attention to the sky. He had thought it purely his own struggle, resisting the power of the Ring, and it humbled him to think he was a source of hope to these unlikely strivers against the Dark.
In the morning, Radagast spoke to the orcs.
"You are not easy at being so near the mountains, and I begin to think you are right. We are not safe here; yet the heat of Gorgoroth in summer is too much for anyone who is not an orc! I think we should find some place of concealment and stay hidden, until it cools enough to leave the hills."
"A cave," Frodo said. "If we could find a cave, and water nearby –"
“A cave may be a trap, if your enemy finds it when you are inside. Do you have rope in that bag of yours, old man?” Canohando asked.
Radagast reached into the bag lying by him on the ground, and pulled out a coil of rope, thin but strong looking, like the rope of Lothlorien. The orc took it gingerly, wrinkling his nose, and tugged a length of it between his hands, testing its strength.
“It stinks of elves, but it will do,” he growled at last. He motioned to Lash and Yarga, and they spread out, each taking hold of the rope. While Frodo watched, fascinated, they moved back and forth, passing the rope from hand to hand among them, weaving and knotting it with practiced skill. Inside a quarter of an hour they had fashioned a web longer than Frodo was tall, and wide enough that he could have wrapped it around himself two or three times.
“If you have more rope – and if we can find a tree somewhere in this wasteland – we can spend the daylight hours out of sight in hammocks,” said Canohando.
“I named you well,” Radagast said. “You have a quick mind.” He brought out more coils of rope. “Come, Donkey, while the orcs make our hammocks, we will fill our water bottles and make sure we have left no trace of our presence here. I begin to be as uneasy as they are.”
Another hammock was finished by the time they were satisfied that they had left no sign behind them. Radagast walked to the top of the hill and looked searchingly in all directions. Frodo followed him, but the orcs hung back, careful not to show themselves against the horizon.
“Not many trees,” the wizard observed, “And none large enough for our purpose. In one of the deep valleys where some watercourse still flows, we may find some. Down there,” he pointed.
They hiked all day through stunted bushes and patches of starved-looking weeds. Now and then they found a young tree, no thicker around than Frodo’s wrist, struggling for life in the dry soil.
“At least there are some trees,” he said. “Look how young they are – they must have all taken root since the Dark Lord fell.”
“There were trees once, but they were all cut down,” Lash said. “For engines of war, and to feed the furnaces, forging weapons. There were gangs of orcs, thousands of them, sent into the hills to cut trees, drag them back to Gorgoroth.” He ran his hand down the trunk of one of the saplings they had found. “I like the feel of it, wood that lives.”
Yarga snorted but Canohando nodded, his face thoughtful.
They moved on, into the shadow of a deep cleft between the hills. The ground became rougher, broken and rocky, and they came on a narrow stream rushing between high banks. They followed along it, climbing awkwardly over the rocks, and finally the land fell away before them and the stream dropped over a sharp ledge. When they looked down, they saw that the waterfall splashed into a pool a good forty feet below before the water ran away again in a narrow brook. And there were trees down there, a dozen or so, with dense, leafy crowns.
“They could not get at these,” Radagast said with satisfaction. “The drop-off was too sudden, and it’s so deep, maybe they didn’t even know these trees were here. Will these do for your hammocks, Canohando?”
The orcs were already looking for a way down into the little gorge. They picked their way among the boulders that littered the steep slope, and Frodo and the wizard followed. When they reached the bottom, the air was as cool and woodsy-scented as the Shire itself. After the parched desert of Gorgoroth, it felt like heaven.
Frodo threw himself down on the mossy ground and closed his eyes. "Now we've found this, you may never get me back to Mordor!"
Lash was stretched out on the rocks, his hands trailing in the water. His matted hair was dripping; he had put his head right into the pool to drink.
“This is Mordor,” he said, sitting up. “This is Mordor the way I remember it, wild and full of game for the killing. Back before the Uruk-hai came, and the Dark Lord with his wars and marching back and forth on stone roads, with a whip on your back and never enough to eat.”
“Did you live in the hills before Sauron returned?” the wizard asked.
“In the mountains, with trees all around and the streams full of fish.” Lash got up and waded into the water, following it downstream. As they watched, he bent and slid his arms into the stream, smoothly, without a splash, and straightened up with a fish squirming between his hands. “Get a fire going, Halfling! We will eat fish tonight!" He threw the fish out on the bank, and Canohando picked it up.
"We used to pull the fins off, like this," he said. He grabbed one of the side fins and twisted it till it came off in his hand. The gaping fish jerked and struggled, and Frodo turned away, sickened. Canohando looked from him to the fish still writhing in his hands. "It was a stupid game," he muttered, pulling out his knife. He killed the fish with one clean stroke.
"Here, runt," he said gruffly. "It's dead now – can you gut it? We'll catch enough for all of us, if you and the old man will cook."
Frodo took it from him and went to build a fire, and the orc waded in to join Lash and Yarga, moving slowly downstream catching fish after fish in their bare hands and throwing them out on the bank. Radagast walked along next to the water, gathering the fish and killing them quickly.
The following weeks were like a strange holiday. They hung the hammocks deep inside the treetops, as near one another as they could manage, so they could talk quietly back and forth. But most of the daylight hours they slept – Frodo found it surprisingly easy to sleep the day away; the leaf cover was so dense that it was dim among the branches, and it seemed as if all of them were tired, even the orcs, and glad of the enforced rest.
They climbed down at dusk to kindle a little fire and make a meal from the supplies in the wizard's sack.
"Leave the fish in peace," he told the orcs when they wanted to catch more. "There's little enough life in Mordor – you had your sport when we arrived; now let them live and multiply."
When they had eaten and it grew dark, they went exploring. They followed the stream for many miles, till it flowed into a river, and there they turned back.
"If we followed it far enough, I think we would come to the Sea of Nurnen. Have any of you been there?" Radagast asked the orcs.
They shook their heads. "We come from the Ephel Duath," said Canohando, "but we did not know one another in those days. There were many orc bands living in the mountains, fighting over hunting grounds, until the Witch King came and gathered us to fight the Men of Gondor. These hills are our home country, old man, but they are not safe for us anymore."
"You carried war to Gondor, and they have brought it back to you," the wizard said soberly, and the orc growled and walked away.
All summer they remained there, sleeping the days away in their hammocks, ranging across the hills at night. They found several more deep valleys where the trees had not been cut, and sometimes they surprised a rabbit feeding in the gray light before dawn, on their way back to their refuge. And then, when summer was over, a few nights before they planned to start back to Gorgoroth, they ran into a patrol from Ithilien.
For months they had seen no sign of anyone but themselves, and perhaps they had grown careless. However it was, Canohando himself walked right into a group of men standing in the shadow of a large rock, and the other orcs were close behind him. They had no time to draw bow before they were surrounded and disarmed.
"Is there no end to these vermin in Mordor?" a voice exclaimed in the darkness. "Every time I think we've cleaned out the last of them, we find another nest! Hi, you! are there more of your kind about?" There was a sound like a heavy blow.
A light blazed suddenly, and Frodo stepped forward, holding up the starglass like a torch. The men drew back, shielding their eyes, and the orcs, their hands already bound behind them, twisted their heads away, blinking.
"Good evening to you, Captain," Frodo said, looking from face to face for the leader of the patrol. There were twenty men, at the least. Radagast stepped into the light and stood behind him, his staff in his hand.
"Good evening? It may be, halfling, and then again it may not. Who are you, and by whose leave are you prowling these hills in the dark? This is the King's land now."
"Mordor!" Canohando said harshly, and spat. "This is Mordor. My land! Orcs' land!"
The man who had spoken turned and with casual brutality aimed a blow at the orc's throat, using the side of his hand. Canohando doubled over, choking, gagging, and would have fallen but for his captor who stood holding him by the arms. The other orcs struggled against the men who held them, snarling furiously.
"I am the King's friend," Frodo said firmly. He moved to stand by Canohando, his free hand on the orc's shoulder. "And these are my friends. The Shadow is defeated, Captain, and even an orc may be a friend."
The man glowered at him. "'King's friend' is easily said, small one, but you had best be able to prove it. That you are friend to orcs is easily seen, and may be your undoing. And who is the old man?"
"I am Radagast the Brown, and the King's friend is my friend also. As are these three orcs. I am of Gandalf's Order. Mithrandir," he added, seeing blank incomprehension on the man's face.
There were murmurs from the other men. "Mithrandir! Denethor had little love for him!"
"He was close in the counsels of the King, though."
"That was years ago. He's not been seen in Gondor since –"
"Not since he went over the Sea with Elrond, the father of your Queen. Nevertheless, I am of his Order, and this halfling is the King's friend indeed, and high in his favor. You would do well to treat him with honor."
The captain regarded Frodo curiously. "Very well, halfling. Who are you, that I should honor you?"
Frodo felt the blood rise to his face. "I am Frodo, the Ring-bearer," he said. He held out his maimed hand to the light, with its missing finger. "Frodo of the Nine Fingers. You need not honor me, but I ask that you release my friends."
"The Ring-bearer." The captain looked at him doubtfully. "You have nine fingers, but that is not proof. And I do not like your choice of friends! My mother was a healer in Minas Tirith, and she told stories… Tell me then, Ring-bearer, what gift did the Queen give to you? For my mother told me, but that was a thing not widely known."
"Queen Arwen gave me a jewel from around her own neck, to comfort me from evil memory." Frodo reached inside his shirt and drew out the white jewel on its chain. The captain dropped to one knee and took it in his fingers, turning it this way and that to catch the light, and there was awe in his face.
"Forgive my discourtesy, master," he said at last, rising to his feet. "You are the King's friend indeed, and no one could be higher in his favor. But I do not understand why you and your companion wander our hills in the darkness, and in such company." He looked balefully at the orcs.
Frodo turned to Canohando and pulled out his knife, cutting the ropes that bound the orc's wrists, unhooking his own water bottle from his belt and handing it to him. He glanced at Yarga and Lash, but Radagast was caring for them, and he turned back to the man.
"Will you have one of your men make a fire, Captain? A hot drink would go down well for all of us, I think, and then I will tell you why I travel in such company."
The patrol had no tea, to Frodo's disappointment, but they carried a powder that, when mixed with hot water, made a very palatable broth. He and Radagast sat down with the captain over mugs of the stuff and tried to explain why they were in Mordor. The man couldn't seem to see the point.
"To heal the land, you say? Why take the trouble? Mordor is a wasteland, has been for a thousand years and more. The Black Land, that's its name in the Common Speech – fit for nothing but spawning vermin." He jerked his head at the orcs, sitting close behind Frodo and the wizard. Frodo realized suddenly that they had not been given any of the broth, and he passed his own mug back to Canohando.
"You treat that monster as if it were human," the man grumbled.
Frodo looked him in the eye. "I was a prisoner of orcs," he said. "They stripped me, they beat me – but they also fed me. And Canohando is my friend." Canohando drank a few swallows from the mug, then passed it to Yarga. The captain watched him, then got up and fetched three more mugs, which he filled and gave to Frodo and the orcs.
He let them go at last, when he couldn't persuade them to return with him to Ithilien.
"I'll have to report this to my commander, that I found you here, and he'll report to the King. It will look very ill that I left you wandering in the wilderness instead of bringing you back in honor to visit him."
"Strider will understand – he was a wanderer himself for many years. Tell the King – and the Queen, too! – that Frodo travels with the Brown Wizard for his own healing, and the land's. They will be glad of that news, I think."
"Glad indeed," said Radagast with a smile. "Tell the King exactly that, Captain, and say further that the Ring-bearer carries healing with him, even as he found it for himself."
The captain looked puzzled at these messages, but promised to deliver them. He got up then and ordered his men, and they prepared to leave.
"You would do well to take your – friends – deeper into the interior," he warned them. "Gondor patrols these hills now, and will continue to do so. We will not let our defenses fail a second time! And Gondor is no friend to orcs."
Frodo bowed. "I thank you for your counsel, Captain, and for your hospitality. We will start back tomorrow, when we have slept. And I would ask you further, of your courtesy, to give my greeting to the Lord Faramir. He also was a friend to me, when my need was great."
They reached their refuge shortly after dawn and climbed wearily to their hammocks. Frodo was almost asleep when Canohando called to him. "Runt? Why did you not stay hidden, you and the old man? They did not know you were with us."
Frodo yawned. "You told us from the beginning, the men of Gondor kill any orcs they find. Would you have left Yarga and Lash, if you had not been caught yourself?"
"I would have shot from ambush, killed as many as I could. I would not have walked into the middle of them!"
"I am not an orc – and I am the King's friend. I would not shoot his men from ambush, even if I could."
"What if they had not believed you? They might have slain you along with us."
"They might. I did not think they would."
"And if they would kill us anyway, even though they spared you? Would you have killed to save us?"
Frodo was struck silent. For Sam he would kill, if he had to. But for the orcs? "I don't know," he said at last. "I'm glad it didn't come to that." It was long before he slept.
They made haste to leave the hills, traveling by day for greater speed.
"They may not be the only men patrolling here, and some might be outlaws who would not respect the King's name. We will be cautious, but we had best see where we are going," said Radagast.
He went ahead with Lash and Yarga, their bows strung and ready, but Canohando walked behind with Frodo.
"Does it seem strange to you, King's friend, to travel with orcs and flee from the Men of Gondor?"
Frodo grinned ruefully. "It is not the first time I have fled from a man of Gondor. I think the Ents would say they are a hasty people."
The orc frowned. "Ents? What do you know of Ents, runt? The old man said nothing of them, when he told your tale."
"They do not come into my tale. Two of my companions encountered Ents, when they escaped from orcs who were dragging them to Isengard. All I know of the tree herders is what they told me."
"Your companions also escaped from orcs? Were they of like kind to you?"
"Hobbits, yes. We are hobbits."
"And three – no, four, you had a companion in the Tower, hadn't you? Four of you little things, helpless as rabbits, escaped from battle-hardened orcs." He shook his head. "And the others went to the Ents, you say? And lived to tell of it!"
"Lived, and grew tall from drinking Ent-draughts. Almost as tall as you, Canohando, though not as muscular."
"And you – you survived the Witch King's knife and the Spider's bite, and stood in the Mountain's mouth when it vomited fire… You are hard to kill, runt. I wonder if I could do it."
Without warning he threw an arm around Frodo's neck, dragging the hobbit against himself. Almost in the same movement he whipped out a knife with a cruel, hooked blade, pressing it against Frodo's belly. Frodo hung half choked in the orc's grasp, stupefied by the suddenness of the attack, and a long minute crawled by.
"I could kill you, runt. I could gut you like a fish."
He dropped the hobbit, shoving him away so that he stumbled and nearly fell. Frodo caught his balance and stood for a moment, massaging his throat and taking deep, merciful gulps of air. Finally he swallowed a few times and straightened his clothes before he turned to face the orc.
"What is it about you, King's friend? I could slay you in a heartbeat, but – I do not wish to."
"Why should you wish to?" Frodo was shivering in reaction; he pulled his cloak about him, although the day was warm.
Canohando looked bewildered. "You are an enemy. It is your doing that Mordor is empty of orcs, and the King claims it for his own. Your companions went to the Ents and got food – I would not live a night in Fangorn, if I entered there! But you called me friend, though I doubt you would kill for me – and you saved my life from the Men of Gondor, without killing."
"I am slow to kill," Frodo admitted.
"Have you ever killed?"
Frodo nodded. There had been an orc, or maybe two, in Moria. He had not killed Smeagol! Smeagol had fallen, overcome by his lust for the Ring….
"I do not wish to kill," he said.
The orc reached out and touched his neck "You will have a bruise," he said, and sighed. "I do not wish to kill you, runtling – but I am glad to know I could."
They walked on in silence, catching up to Radagast and the others.
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.