20. Fighting the Darkness
Radagast sat carving a stick of fragrant wood he had taken from his bag, hollowing and smoothing it with loving care. They talked a little of their travels, reminding each other of things that made them laugh in the remembering, and the deserted fortress seemed almost cosy with the rain outside and the bright fire within.
Frodo thought the orcs returned to the room to sleep. He never saw them come in and they were gone when he awoke, yet somehow he felt their presence even through his dreams. He supposed they had gone back to eating rats and snakes, but one night he left a pan of meat and onions, covered, next to the fire pit when he went to sleep. It was empty in the morning, and after that he left food for them every night.
He would not say he missed them, but he thought about them. "Will they leave us now, do you think?" he asked Radagast.
The wizard shook his head. "I doubt it. They are coming to grips with what they are, Donkey; it is no light matter to find they are the mangled offspring of their most hated enemies! I do not think they will simply leave us now; they will return to travel with us, as before, or they will come back in black hatred to slay us if they can."
That was Frodo's thought as well. "They cannot slay you, can they?"
Radagast laughed. "These little fellows? But they could you, Donkey – best stay close to me now, until we know how the wind blows."
A few mornings later he awoke to find Canohando sitting next to him, alone.
"It is time you hunted with me again, runt. You will forget what I taught you."
Frodo looked over at Radagast, still wrapped in sleep. He had not lost his fear of the big orc, and the wizard's words had confirmed it. "Breakfast first," he said, thankful to find an excuse for delay.
"And what will you cook, when the old one is not awake to give it to you out of his bag? I have eaten your food; today you shall eat mine. Get your bow."
He could waken Radagast with a word, spoken loudly. He met Canohando's eyes, dark with hidden meanings that he could not read. That is what he expects me to do. He is testing me, if I will trust myself to him.
He stood, picking up his bow and quiver. He had made a wager – he would not draw back from it. The orc put a hand between his shoulder blades and pushed him out into the dark passage that led to the interior of the fortress.
They hunted in silence, and Canohando was not content, this day, to let him shoot at windows or at torch brackets in the wall for practice. The first time he touched Frodo's arm and indicated a rat skulking in a shadowed corner, Frodo tried to refuse, but the orc glowered at him with such ferocity that he looked hastily away, taking aim and letting the arrow fly before he could think about what he was doing. He missed and the rat scurried to safety through a hole in the masonry. Canohando struck him in the shoulder with an open hand, hard enough to hurt,
It was a correction, he thought. Bilbo had done much the same, years ago, when he presented a sloppy translation of an Elvish poem for his perusal. The comparison made him choke back a laugh.
"Today you will eat what you shoot, runt, and nothing else. How hungry are you?"
If that was the choice –! "I have been famished enough to eat a rat," he said honestly, "but not today. I would rather go hungry."
Canohando looked amused. "How if I keep you from other food until you are hungry enough? But no, the old man would come searching for you, I think. Look then, runt – I have had no breakfast, and I am hungry enough to eat a rat, or more than one. You would not kill a tark to save my life, but will you kill a rat to feed my hunger?"
He had been right; it was a test. The orc knew no other measure of friendship but: would you kill for me?
"I will, if I can shoot straight enough," he said.
There were many missed shots, for the rats were quick and his heart was not in this sport. But at last there was one not quick enough, and his arrow pierced it through. It squeaked and struggled a moment and was still. Frodo shut his eyes, feeling sick, but Canohando clapped him on the back and went to pick it up.
"Good! You will not starve now, if ever you are separated from the old man and his sack. I have done you a good turn in that, at least." He was skinning the animal as he spoke, setting the arrow to one side. "We will cleanse that in the rain on our way back – bad luck to hunt with an arrow already bloody. Make a fire for me, runt. I have lost my taste for raw meat."
The orc offered Frodo some of the meat but, cooked or not, it was no sacrifice to refuse; even the smell turned his stomach. When Canohando finished eating he gathered the bones in the discarded pelt and stamped out the little fire.
"Come, it is not good to keep this in a place where we wish to live." He led Frodo through a maze of passages and narrow stairs until they came out at last on a wide ledge at the top of the tower, forty or fifty feet above the ground. Canohando flung the remains of the rat far out into the rain, then held up the arrow to be rinsed by the downpour. Water streamed from his hair and garments, and when the arrow was clean he handed it to Frodo and washed the blood off his hands.
The rain was not cold; it was even pleasant, running down Frodo's face and arms. He slid the arrow back in his quiver and combed his fingers through his hair, working the water all through it. Not quite as good as water hot in the tub, he reflected, but he did feel cleaner for this rainwater bath. Then he noticed Canohando watching him.
"Wash away the fear smell," the orc said softly. "Why did you come with me this morning, afraid as you were?"
Frodo's heart lurched and he froze into stillness.
"Is it a sport with you, runt, to challenge death? I smelled your fear with the King's men, as well, when you stepped inside their circle – you were not so sure they would not slay you! And you are afraid of me; even now you are afraid. Why did you not stay safe by the old man this morning?"
The orc could smell fear – could he smell a lie? Truth, then, to whatever end it led. "Radagast believes you are at war within yourself, against the Dark." He did not look at the orc, stared out instead over the rain-washed plateau, grey and deserted. "I have fought that battle, and it is ill to fight alone. I would have been destroyed by it, alone."
Canohando stepped behind him, gripping his shoulders with fingers like iron. "How if I threw you down from here?" he said in Frodo's ear. "What would happen?"
Frodo looked straight ahead. "I would die."
"You would die," the orc agreed. "And I – I would grieve. So, you stand with me in the battle, Ninefingers? You had better hope I win it!"
Frodo reached up without speaking and clasped the orc's hand. It was hard and rough, and the claw-like nails dug painfully into his skin as Canohando returned his grip.
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.