23. Change of Direction
Canohando remained insensible until the fourth night. The other orcs were sleeping after staying by his side all day, observing Radagast closely as he cared for him. At last the wizard had gone to take what rest he could, leaving Frodo to sit watch. The fire burned down and Frodo sat talking softly to the orc, more to keep himself awake than anything.
He wasn't really thinking about what he was saying, but all the time he caressed Canohando's hand, hardly noticing any more the scaly skin and thick, ragged nails. He started when a hoarse voice grated, "So you are still alive, runt? I got you out, then." The orc pulled his hand free and struggled to rise, but he could not sit alone without falling and Frodo caught him and eased him back down on the blanket.
"Wait, I'll get you some broth. You've been without food for days – of course you're weak."
"Weak! I can go many days without eating, not like you, runt! I should break you in half for that, but – I'll have some of that broth first."
Frodo chuckled and knelt behind the orc, propping him up and steadying the mug in his hands. Canohando drained it and motioned to lie down again.
"Three days," Frodo said, guessing what he would ask.
"And Yarga? The old man slew him?" The orc's voice was bleak.
Of course he would expect that, not knowing Radagast as Frodo did. "No, he sent Lash to bring him back. They are asleep over there." He indicated the far side of the fire.
Canohando stared at the mounded blankets, then at Frodo. "Are you mad, the two of you?" he whispered. "Do you think you are safe now, because I saved you once? You are not safe even from me! And Yarga –" He shut his eyes wearily. "You play with death, Ninefingers. It will be the end of you."
Frodo pulled the covers over him again before he spoke. "If Radagast killed him – for how could I do it? My sword against his bow? – if Radagast killed him, I say, though I have never seen him take a life, and I have traveled with him many leagues – what would you do then? Would you remain with us?"
The orc looked away into the darkness.
"Canohando – I could not have done other than I did, but – because I brought the Ring to the Fire, there remain only three orcs in Mordor. I would not be the cause of more death! Also I would see you cast off the yoke of Morgoth."
Canohando pushed himself up on one elbow. "You are mad. Get me another mug of that broth – I need my strength back."
Frodo was amazed at how quickly the orc recovered. By morning he was sitting unaided, devouring hunks of meat as fast as Frodo could grill them over the fire. By afternoon he was walking around the camp, Lash and Yarga shadowing his steps. The morning after, he was eager to move on. He brushed off Radagast's attempt to change his bandage.
"I am well enough, old man. Where do we journey now?"
Radagast looked him over as if evaluating his endurance. "I had thought to turn south. I have a desire to see how things go in the land of Nurn, and wet my feet in the Sea of Nurnen."
"Are we leaving Mordor, then?" Frodo asked.
"No, we are going to her breadbasket. Sauron's hosts had to be fed, you know, and there were not hunters enough, nor prey, to feed them all. The bulk of the food came from Nurn. But what became of that land when its Master was thrown down?"
Frodo stayed close to Radagast as they set out, and Canohando walked behind them, between his comrades. The orcs talked quietly in their own tongue, but gradually their voices grew louder and they fell further behind.
"Keep going, Donkey," Radagast muttered. "Let them sort it out."
The sun stood overhead when they stopped to rest and eat, and by then the orcs were nowhere to be seen. Frodo and the wizard had finished their meal and sat smoking their pipes, lazy and contented in the sunshine, when Canohando stalked in. He moved stiffly and he had a long cut down one arm, the blood already dry.
"Is there food left, runt? We did not hunt this day."
"There is food." Frodo laid aside his pipe and went to stir up the fire. He was still cooking when the others came in, Lash supporting Yarga, who held a bloody rag to his side. Yarga looked as if he had been beaten about the head, as well.
Radagast started to go to him, but Canohando elbowed the wizard away. "I will tend to him, old man. Will you give me bandages and some of that herb you use?"
Radagast gave him what he asked for and sat back. Canohando knelt where Yarga had stretched himself out on the ground, talking quietly to him and washing, bandaging his wound. He soaked another cloth in the athelas water and bound it around the smaller orc's head. At last he brought him food and a mug of tea, before he went to get food for himself. All the while Yarga watched him, the flat black eyes following Canohando's every motion with an intensity that disturbed Frodo.
They traveled no farther that day. Yarga fell asleep and the other orcs sat by him, shading him with their bodies. Lash blew softly into his flute, sounding like mountain songbirds. Radagast made a fresh tisane of athelas and wrung out a rag in it, going to wash the blood from Canohando's arm. The orc raised no objection.
"Will you plant that herb in Mordor, old man? It would be good to have it growing here."
Radagast nodded. "The climate is too dry for it in Gorgoroth, but it might grow in the mountains."
"That does us no good. The mountains are taken by Gondor."
"There are other mountains, north and south of Mordor, not only toward Gondor. Did orcs live there as well, before the War?"
The orc shrugged. "Perhaps. I have not been there."
"The northern mountains stretch far to the east, and I think that land is thinly settled. You might find a home there, Canohando."
"Perhaps," the orc said again. The wizard rummaged in his bag and brought forth a small earthenware jar with a wooden stopper. He dug out a gob of some strong-smelling ointment, smearing it on Canohando's wound.
"We will go there, after I have seen Nurn," he said. "Somewhere we will find a place for you three." The next day they traveled on, and the orcs stayed with them this time.
Winter in Mordor was pleasanter than Frodo had expected. It rained sometimes, but without wind or thunder, just a steady flow of water out of a grey sky. Most days were cool and dry, and sometimes they glimpsed the sun for a short while, before clouds covered it again. At night it was cold and they were glad to huddle in blankets round their little fire while Radagast told them stories of the First Age. Frodo was surprised how little the orcs knew; all the tales seemed unfamiliar to them, and they listened raptly.
But even more than the stories, they responded to music. The wizard got in the habit of playing his flute every night before they slept, and the orcs listened as if spell-bound; even Yarga's eyes lost their fire while the music lasted, and Lash tried inexpertly to join in with his own flute, weaving bird calls incongruously through every melody. Sometimes Yarga beat a rhythm along with Radagast's song, slapping his hands sharply against his thighs, his eyes turned inward, lost in some world of his own.
The rain came more frequently as they made their way south, and they forded many small streams, bordered with willows and reeds. One afternoon they reached the top of a little rise to find ploughed land before them, tender seedlings of some crop just breaking through the soil. While they stood staring at this hopeful landscape, they were challenged suddenly by a troop of short, stocky men who appeared so suddenly, it was as if they had risen out of the very earth.
"Orcs! Go back! There is no place for you here!" The men carried short swords and wore metal helmets, but otherwise they were without armor, dressed in loose shirts and baggy pants bound tight around their ankles, their feet bare. Their demeanor was grim and determined, however, in spite of their motley appearance.
"Go back!" the spokesman said again, stepping forward with his sword arm outstretched before him.
Yarga had his bow already strung, but Canohando snatched it from his hands, looking at Radagast. This is your affair, his look said plainly enough; it was your desire to come here.
"We will not come into your land against your will," the wizard said mildly. "Are you men of Nurn?"
"Men and women," was the answer, and Frodo looked more closely, realizing in surprise that the speaker and several of her followers were women. Her voice was as deep as a man's, and in the baggy clothes they looked much alike.
"We are the defenders of our land, and we suffer none to enter here. The slavedrivers ran away when the ground moved, and we will not have them back again."
Radagast nodded. "That is your right, certainly. The orcs are all gone, then, who used to be here?"
"Gone." She paused, then said as if unwillingly, "Some we killed. Many. But then the Sky Blue One came and told us we did evil, so those that remained we drove away into the Eastern Wasteland and let them go. But evil or not, we will kill any orc who tries to enter here again!"
Radagast was staring at her. "The Sky Blue One?" he said. "Of what manner was he?"
The woman looked him up and down. "Taller than you and fair of skin and hair, but still like, somehow. He came to us the first summer after the ground moved, when we were still at war against the orc-kind and no one thought of planting the fields. He was robed all in blue, like the sky, and he reminded us that no one would remain alive, if we did not grow food."
"And is he still with you?" The wizard's voice was eager, but the woman shook her head.
"No. He went after the orcs, away into the East."
Radagast sighed. "Ah, well, I hoped to have found one of my own Order, but I am too late. For so he was, I deem. We came together to these shores, the five Istari, but we remained in the West, Gandalf and I, and Saruman. The Blue Wizards went to the East, and we heard no more of them. I must seek for them one day, but now is not the time." He stood for a moment staring at the ground as if in thought, then turned his attention back to the woman. "You people of Nurn, you live at peace now? And you grow food for yourselves, not for the Dark Lord's armies."
The woman nodded. "We are at peace among ourselves, and we patrol our borders, lest the orc-kind return."
"That is good. We will leave you and go another way." He turned on his heel and started back the way they had come, Frodo and the orcs following him. Frodo looked back once over his shoulder and saw the little patrol still watching them, swords out and ready in case they thought of returning.
They made camp soon after, and ate and sat around the fire listening to Radagast's flute. And then out of the darkness, back in the land of Nurn, they heard answering music: drums, mostly, beating a complicated rhythm, and also a sort of musical wail, high and eerie in the night.
Yarga had been lolling back on the ground, half-asleep, but he sat up at the sound of the drums and listened intently. Soon his hands were beating an answering rhythm against his thighs, and Radagast stopped playing, the better to listen to the far-off drums and Yarga's reply to them. When the music stopped at last, the orc lay back down with his arm across his eyes. Canohando said something to him, but he turned his face away and did not answer.
Lash slipped away during the night. He was gone when they woke at dawn, and Canohando was beside himself. "He has gone back to those snaga," he told Radagast in a voice tight with fear. "He has gone back to them, and they will slay him."
Radagast nodded. "Stay here, you three. I will go after him." But he had no more than taken his staff when Lash bounded into camp, looking well pleased with himself.
"Here!" he said to Yarga, thrusting something into his hands. "Now you will play for us by the fire, along with the Healer."
It was a drum, the wood intricately carved, the leather head so pale it was nearly white. It had a leather strap on one side, apparently meant to be hooked to the belt when traveling.
Yarga turned it in his hands, staring at it and then at Lash. "How did you make them give it to you?"
"I traded for it." Lash glanced at Radagast, as if for approval. "I killed no one, Healer! I sat where we met them yesterday, and played bird songs till they came to see what bird there was that sang at night and had so many calls – I traded my flute for the drum."
Frodo thought he heard regret for the lost flute in the orc's voice, but Lash was looking at Yarga. "Play it," he urged. "Let them hear, over there, what an orc can do with a drum."
Yarga stood for a moment, running his hands over the carved wood, and then he laughed aloud, almost the first sound of real pleasure Frodo had ever heard from him. He sat down with the drum between his knees, bending to it as to a lover.
It was unbelievable, what Yarga could do with a drum. It sang under his hands; it cried and shouted and echoed through the morning air, and Canohando and Lash began to clap along with it, and Frodo found himself clapping too, and Radagast pulled out his flute and played in the background, letting Yarga take the lead while the flute followed wherever the drum led. It was a wild music they made that morning, just over the border from Nurn, and before it was over Canohando and Lash and even Frodo were dancing in a wide ring around the musicians, till Frodo ran out of breath and went, laughing, to start the breakfast fire.
"You made a good trade," Radagast told Lash while they ate, "and yet, I would that you still had your flute. I have grown fond of hearing birds singing round our evening fire."
"I hoped –" Lash stared at the ground by the wizard's feet, sounding strangely shy. "I hoped you might make me another one."
Radagast smiled as if he were well pleased at the request. "I will do better than that, my friend. I will teach you to make your own; then you need never be without music, and you can trade your flutes where you will, for what you need. And since we cannot enter Nurn, perhaps we should turn now to the northern mountains and search out a new place for three orcs who cannot go back home."
"There is somewhere else I would go first," said Canohando, and Radagast looked at him in question.
"I would see what became of Lugburz."
They stared at him in silence that felt heavier, the longer it lasted.
"I would see it," he insisted, though no one had spoken. "I know it is destroyed; it must be! But I must see it for myself before I turn to find a new home."
"If you must see it, then we will journey there," said the wizard.
Canohando nodded, satisfied, and Frodo bit his lip. He would not refuse to go where Radagast led, but more than any place in Middle Earth he dreaded Barad-dur, the Lugburz of the orcs. He had escaped being taken there once before, but now it seemed he would have to go.
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.