24. Hope and Threat
They reached the spur of the Ered Lithui along the edge of Gorgoroth, and followed the line of hills toward the northeast. Every day Frodo expected Canohando to protest that this was taking them farther from Lugburz, not closer, but the big orc said nothing. Perhaps his knowledge of the country was at fault – but no, he had been a messenger; the northern part of Mordor, at least, must be well known to him.
The hills here were even more barren than the ones to the west where Gondor now ruled. They were steep-sided, and they had been stripped of their trees more than once: the first time when Sauron was building his fortress, then over and over again, as wood was needed for spear shafts and wagons and engines of war. The slopes were badly eroded; the streams, running high from the recent rains, yellow with silt.
Lash grew more agitated the deeper they penetrated into the hills, growling and muttering in his own harsh language each time they came to some deep-carved gully, the soil washed away until the underlying granite was exposed. One day he burst out, "Even the rain does no good here! Your seeds can't grow on bare rock, Healer."
They stood looking at a washout some twenty feet across that ran halfway down the hillside. Lash jumped down into it; the gully was nearly waist-deep on him.
Frodo sat down to rest, taking a drink from his water bottle. Radagast looked around at the stony landscape. "There is something we might try, but it would be heavy labor, far beyond what Donkey and I could do."
Lash looked up at them hopefully, and Canohando said, "We will do the work, old man, if you think it will mend these rifts in the land. They are like wounds; they make something hurt in my belly."
The wizard set them to gathering rocks and building a rough wall across the width of the gully. It took the better part of four days, and while the orcs built the wall, Frodo and Radagast searched out every sheltered spot they could find within a half-day's walk of their camp, planting seeds.
The last day it began to rain again, a cold downpour that turned the bare earth to sticky mud. They huddled together for warmth, their blankets over their heads, eating dried fruit and strips of dried meat from the wizard's sack, while he told them tales of Numenor, its days of glory and its fall, and the terrible wave that destroyed it at last.
"They couldn't have been much wetter than we are," Frodo said lightly, and sneezed. Radagast reached out to feel his forehead.
"Where is the nearest outpost from here, Canohando? Do you have any idea where we are?"
They could not see the orc's face in the shadows of their makeshift tent, but there was amusement in his voice. "I know where we are, old man, near enough. There is a fortress two or three days from here, down on the plain."
"Good," said Radagast. "We will seek some better cover from these rains than our wet blankets. In the spring we will go to Lugburz." And Frodo was silently thankful for the sneeze that had put off that dreadful prospect a little longer.
When the storm ended at last, they dried their belongings as well as they could and made ready to leave. They stopped first to look at the gully they had been working on, and found that the rain had washed more soil down the slope, lodging it against the rock wall. Radagast clambered down and tossed seeds on the little ridge of dirt that rimmed the stones.
"With luck," he said as he climbed back up to join them, "the rocks will hold firm, and the soil will build up behind them to fill the rift. We will come back in a few years and see."
Canohando raised his brows. "I think you will be a long time in Mordor, old man," he said, and Radagast smiled benignly at him.
"Quite a long time, I should think," he said.
They reached Canohando's fortress late on the second day. It rained again, but they did not stop for it; it was warmer walking than sitting still. Frodo was sneezing frequently, carrying his handkerchief balled up in his hand to save the trouble of constantly fishing it out of his pocket. He didn't feel ill, really; only weary and headache-y, but Radagast lost no time in settling him before a fire and brewing a mixture of herbs for him to drink. Whatever was in it made him drowsy, and he lay down to sleep right where he was.
The orcs had been exploring the fort. "There's not much firewood," Lash said, bringing an armful and heaping it in a corner.
"There is a room below ground that seems dry," said Canohando. "It would take only a small fire warm it." He went to squat by Frodo, touching the hobbit's cheek. "He is fevered, old man."
"He took a chill," Radagast said. "Donkey, wake up; drink another mug of my tisane." But Frodo was hard to rouse, and when he sat up at last he put his hand to his chest as if it hurt him to breathe. The wizard coaxed the tea into him and let him lie down again.
"Is there a flow of fresh air in that room, Canohando?"
The orc shrugged. "Go and see, old man; I will stay with the runt. Lash, show him where it is."
Radagast went with Lash, wondering all the while where Yarga had gone. But when they returned, Yarga was leaning in the doorway watching Canohando. Frodo was still asleep and the big orc sat close by him, his back to the door. He was unaware of Yarga's presence, and he held Frodo's hand in his.
"Sleep till you are well, runtling, but not too long," he said softly. "It is a hard fight, and I need my shield-brother."
"That room has air enough," Radagast said briskly, as if he had not heard. "Get him up, Canohando; we will move down there where we can all keep warm." He did not look at Yarga, but he had not missed the stony expression on the orc's face.
Frodo could walk, but he seemed only half awake. When they came to the stairway he stumbled, and Canohando picked him up and carried him down to the lower chamber. They made him as comfortable as they could and got a little fire going, and Radagast prepared food for himself and the orcs, but Frodo would not eat. He slept restlessly, and as night fell his labored breathing was loud in the small room. Radagast sat down with his back against the wall and drew the hobbit up to lean against his chest, and Frodo seemed to breathe easier that way.
He woke in the middle of the night; he had slipped down to lie on the floor, and it was hard to breathe again. He moved to sit by Radagast, his head leaning against his shoulder, and the wizard stirred.
"Awake, Donkey? How do you feel?"
"I'm all right when I sit up."
"Sit, then. I'll mix up some medicine for you."
A vile-tasting concoction to drink, and a bowl of steaming athelas water to lean over. Gradually the tightness in his lungs eased and he began to feel drowsy again. Radagast settled him back against his shoulder. "Sleep, Donkey."
Frodo slept through most of the next day. He woke late in the afternoon feeling nearly himself again; he had a heavy cold, but that was all. He looked around in confusion. "Why is it so dark? Is it still night?"
Canohando sat beside him. "This is the lockhole, under the fortress. After all your journeys, you're back in an Orkish prison." The orc grinned at the dismay on Frodo's face. "You woke in good time for your torture, runt – the old man is teaching Lash to cook. How hungry are you?"
"Not hungry enough to eat a rat! Is Lash really cooking?" He looked over at the fire; Lash squatted there, stirring something. Radagast sat nearby, smoking his pipe while he supervised.
"I think you had better be very hungry," said Canohando. "I am not certain that an orc can cook, whoever teaches him."
Yarga came through the doorway at that moment, carrying what looked like half a dozen dead rats by their tails. He glowered. "Is Lash still an orc?" he asked. His glance flicked over Canohando like a whip. "Are you, Ghul-rakk?"
Canohando stood up slowly, his eyes blazing. "You may be the meat, if I hear that name again. And I will help Lash cook it."
Frodo stared, his mouth fallen open; the atmosphere of good-natured raillery had changed in an instant to one of deadly menace. Lash put down his spoon with careful deliberation and rose. "His name is Canohando," he said. "He has earned it. And you and I, we never named him Ghul-rakk."
Yarga sneered. "Now I name him so. He eats no raw meat; he makes no kill." He spat on the floor by Canohando's feet. "Do you think you will turn into an elf, if you kiss the hairy feet of that halfling?"
Radagast moved to Frodo's side, pulling him to his feet. Lash fingered the hilt of his knife. "I held you back from the pit, the day the ground twisted," he said. "Together we drew this one back from death."
There was warning in Canohando's voice. "I am no elf, Yarga. I have not forgotten how to kill."
"Kill the halfling, then, if you are still an orc," Yarga challenged.
Canohando turned to look at Frodo; he eyed him up and down for a long minute and the hobbit endured it, steeling himself to show no fear, though his heart was hammering in his throat. Finally Canohando stepped in front of him, shielding him from Yarga.
"No," he said. "You kill him, if you think you can – but you will have to get past me."
Lash came to stand by Canohando, pulling out his knife. He ran his thumb across the blade, then raised his eyes to Yarga. "There are three orcs left in Mordor, that is all," he said. "Must we slay one another until there are none?"
Yarga glared at them in silence, then threw his rats down before them. "Food for the orcs, if there are any here," he said. "I think there is only one orc left in Mordor." He snatched up blanket and drum from his sleeping place and went out into the narrow corridor. After a few minutes they heard the sound of his drum, a low throb that faded away as he passed out of hearing into the upper reaches of the fortress.
* Ghul-rakk: literally, milk-sucker. Soft; a useless weakling. Lash's remark implies that this might have been Canohando's Orkish name, which would explain why he accepted Radagast's Quenya name for himself, as much more complimentary!
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