25. The Pit That Was Barad-dur
"Leave him to the dark and to his drum, Canohando," he said, not taking his eyes from the wood in his hands. "You cannot talk to him in this mood."
Frodo thought that was good advice, but Canohando paced up and down the room like a caged beast, and at last he caught up his bow and went out. He did not come back until late in the evening as they were settling down for sleep.
"Did you find him?" Radagast asked. The orc nodded, laying his bow and quiver carefully against the wall.
"I killed meat for him, but he would not eat. I will go again tomorrow."
"Be careful he does not take you for his meat," Lash said. He crossed the room to sit by the bigger orc, and Canohando shifted so that they were shoulder to shoulder, as if the touch comforted him. "Leave him to his drum," Lash said again.
But when they woke the next morning, Canohando was gone, and he did not return until they were eating supper. He sat with them and accepted the mug of tea Frodo gave him, but he would not eat.
"I have eaten already," he said, draining his mug and passing it back to be refilled.
"Whose kill?" Lash asked.
"Yarga's. He had eaten mine during the night." Canohando grimaced. "Raw," he added, scraping at his front teeth with his fingernail, as if to cleanse them.
Lash half-filled a bowl with stew and carried it to him. "Raw with Yarga, cooked with me," he said, as if it had been a challenge, and Canohando tipped back his head and gulped the food in one motion.
"Mark a board, runt," he said to Frodo. "We will be Orcs together, against these Tarks." He bared his teeth fiendishly at Lash, but the other orc only grinned, and though they played Orks and Tarks until Frodo was nodding in his place, struggling to keep his eyes open, Lash and the wizard took every game. The next morning Canohando was gone again.
Lash worked patiently on his flute, shaping the stick of cedar Radagast had given him and hollowing it. His face was peaceful, his hands deft and careful in spite of their rough appearance, and Frodo watched him covertly, feeling that his wager had paid off for this orc, at least. Radagast told them tales to pass the time, and in the evening he played for them on his own flute. Canohando was gone every day, hunting with Yarga, they supposed, but he came back at suppertime. And after a few nights, when Radagast began his music, they heard Yarga's drum somewhere out in the darkness, answering the flute and beating haunting rhythms around its clear notes.
Weeks passed, and Frodo was long over his cold. He sat near the fire one morning playing knucklebones by himself, listening to Radagast telling about the Gold and Silver Trees and watching Lash as he rubbed his completed flute to a smooth finish. He was startled by Canohando bounding into the room.
"Come out of this dark hole," the orc shouted. "It's spring!" They hastened after him up the stairs and out into the upper courtyard. The ground was dry, and they stood blinking in the sunlight. The cold, dank winter was over.
"It is spring indeed," said Radagast, and Frodo stretched and turned his face up to the sun, closing his eyes against its brightness and reveling in its warmth.
"Time to move on," said a voice behind him. He swung round to see Yarga standing in the gateway, half in the shadows. "Are we going to Lugburz, old man?"
Radagast nodded. "If you still wish to go there," he said. He looked at Canohando.
"Yes," the big orc said. "I wish it." Frodo pulled his cloak snug around himself, chilled as if someone had stepped on his grave.
They spent one more night in the fortress, Yarga sleeping with them in the underground room, and in the morning they set out. Canohando took the lead, as if he would countenance no more dawdling on this journey. He covered the ground at a pace that kept Frodo nearly trotting to keep up, and when they stopped for the night, the hobbit collapsed to the ground with no strength left to build a fire.
"Did you mean to wear him out?" Radagast asked the orc quietly. Lash was cooking their meal, and the wizard sat by the fire smoking. He had covered Frodo with his blanket before he sat down.
Canohando blinked, then went to squat by the hobbit. "No," he said. He rested his hand on the blanket-shrouded form; Frodo was sound asleep. "No; I forgot he is so small. Slow me down tomorrow, old man, if I go too fast."
The journey took them twelve days, traveling at a speed that Frodo could maintain without exhaustion. They did not slow down to search for planting spots or to look for signs of life; indeed, the land was so barren, it would have been of no use to look. The soil was hard as iron and the old streambeds they passed were dry; the winter rains had not fallen here. The last few days they waded through ashes, up to Frodo's knees in some places, ashes that caught the air as they walked, drifting up to sting their eyes and burn the backs of their throats. They veered away from the Mountain to avoid the worst of it, and that added several days to the trek.
Then suddenly they were there. Without warning the land gaped open at their feet, a plunging canyon that stretched from where they stood to a black cliff that broke the horizon far ahead – in all that space there was nothing, an aching void that Frodo thought must go down to the center of the earth.
He backed away from it, fearful as if something in the depths might reach up to drag him down. He wanted to turn and flee, but at the same time he wanted to look down into the pit, to know if there was anything, anything at all, to be seen. He lowered himself to the ground and crawled forward on his belly, feeling the edge with his fingers and peering over.
It was black, black as death and fathomless, and even now it reeked of ashes and brimstone. Frodo's mind reeled and a wave of nausea swept over him; he scuttled backward and lay on the ground trembling, grateful for the solid earth under his body. Not since Shelob's tunnel had he looked on anything that so horrified him, and yet it held a terrible fascination; he dug his fingers into the dirt to stop himself from creeping forward to look again.
"Come, Donkey, we will not camp near this thing." Radagast's voice broke through his fog, and he looked up and grasped the wizard's outstretched hand, scrambling to his feet. He followed Radagast, looking back over his shoulder for the orcs. Canohando and Yarga stood immobile next to the pit, staring into it, but Lash was a few yards from them, his hand shading his eyes, looking toward the mountains away to the north.
Radagast did not stop until they were half an hour's walk from Barad-dur. They made tea first, and as soon as he finished his, Frodo lit his pipe, soothed by the familiar ritual and aroma. The wizard brought out cooking pans; Frodo took them from him and started preparing the evening meal.
"I'll cook tonight, Donkey," said Radagast, but Frodo shook his head.
"It helps, doing something. Anything. Radagast, it's so – nothing!" He waved his hands, helpless to express what he was feeling. "All that awful power; it was enormous, it was overwhelming; I saw it, Radagast! Did you ever see the Morannon? It was terrifying; you felt it was hopeless to even struggle against such power and – there's nothing left. Just emptiness."
"The subjection of all life," the wizard said thoughtfully. "He cast it in Eru's face, his defiance, his rage, and – Eru cast it back."
Frodo shivered and set himself to cooking, although the last thing he felt he wanted was food.
It was near dark when the orcs found them. Lash came in first, blowing softly on his flute, a warbling of birdsong, sounding peaceful and sleepy. Canohando and Yarga returned together, silent and inward-looking. Frodo filled bowls and they ate; when they finished, Canohando drew a half-finished arrow from his quiver and sat in the firelight fletching it. Yarga sat in his sleeping place, honing his knife.
“Have you seen enough?” Radagast said into the silence.
He looked at Yarga as he spoke, but Yarga did not raise his head and finally Canohando said, “We have seen enough. We will leave at first light.”
“Good!” The wizard drew out his flute. He echoed Lash's birdsong of a little while before, quiet and plaintive, and water running over stones, and rain that fell soft on fertile land. Then the music changed, and it was darkness creeping over a sunlit steppe, darkness and threat, and the birdsong returned for half a measure only to be choked off by the marching of iron-shod feet. A theme of metal and stone grew to a discordant wail that made Frodo cover his ears, but the orcs listened avidly, as if the music gave voice to their hidden thoughts. The flute ended on a piercing note like a shriek, and there was silence so deep that they were aware of their own racing heartbeats. Then the sound of water returned, and the birdsong, and so it ended. Radagast put the flute away and they lay down to sleep.
Frodo woke in the cold hour before dawn, jolted awake by dreams of fire and blood. There was no sound but the breathing of his companions.
The empty canyon where Barad-dur had been was calling to him. He had held back yesterday, but now the craving to look once more into that black pit was overpowering. He got up and padded quietly around the camp, biting his fingernails, trying to fight the urge. They were all asleep, Yarga lying on his back with his arms thrown out to his sides. It was too dark to see his face, but something in his posture touched Frodo; the orc looked so vulnerable, asleep like that.
He had time to go back for one more look, if he hurried. He could be back in camp by dawn; there was moonlight enough for him to find the place. Warning prickled in his mind, but he ignored it. He had to see that chasm of nothingness one more time.
He retraced their steps of the day before, the ashes rising on the chill air to drift about him, making him cough. He stopped to take a drink from his water bottle and pushed on. The moon was sinking into the west.
And then he stood on the brink again, staring into the void. It was dark around him, but nothing like the darkness in that accursed hole, and he shivered with cold and horror, but did not turn away. The sky began to lighten and at last he looked up. Time to go.
He turned, and nearly stepped backward into the abyss. Yarga stood behind him, a black silhouette against the graying sky, half a dozen steps away. Frodo felt his blood turn to ice.
"I didn't hear you," he said, and took a step away from the pit.
"No," Yarga said, and smiled.
"I had to see it again." He was playing for time; surely Yarga was not alone? Radagast, at least, must be near at hand.
Yarga's smile widened; Frodo had never seen him so happy. "I left them sleeping, Ring-bearer. So you came back for another look, did you? I think you should see it closer, what you wrought in Mordor."
The orc advanced on him, and Frodo glanced back over his shoulder. The abyss yawned behind him, and he knew Yarga's speed too well to think he could feint and dart away.
"How many orcs lie rotting in that hole? I think I will send you to join them. I will hear you screaming all the way down." The orc's purple tongue snaked out of his mouth, licking his lips. "But I would not see you die," he said regretfully.
His breath was rank in Frodo's face. His knife hand came up slowly until the tip of the blade rested in the hollow of Frodo's throat.
"I would you had come to Lugburz, Ring-bearer. I would have made you shriek! And then I would have slit your throat, to stop your mouth…"
Frodo stood motionless, staring into the cold eyes, holding them. Now you must choose, Yarga. To slay or to leave alive. To break free from Morgoth's yoke or – not.
He could not hate the orc, even with the knife at his throat. Yarga's eyes were as black and empty as the void behind him, and all Frodo could feel was pity. Yarga might kill him, but Canohando and Lash would not have. They had broken the yoke; they were free.
Suddenly he was no longer afraid. He would die, or he would live a while longer, and he was at peace either way. He had fulfilled his purpose – twice over he had fulfilled it! – and Yarga could take nothing from him. He grieved for the orc, though, if he chose to slay.
Yarga glared into the hobbit's eyes and was confounded by their peace. Fury and confusion churned in his mind, the knife wobbled in his hand, and the point nicked Frodo's skin, drew blood. The peace in the blue eyes deepened. Yarga's hand dropped and the knife hung at his side.
"Go," he muttered.
Frodo's hand reached out as if by its own will and took Yarga by the arm, pulling him toward camp. "Come back," he said.
For a wonder, the orc followed him. They were halfway back when a cloud of ashes appeared ahead, Canohando and Lash, running, but Radagast was in the lead. Frodo thought in surprise that he had never before seen the wizard run. They surrounded him and Yarga, panting for breath, and the flying ashes blew around them, making Frodo sneeze.
Canohando caught Yarga by the shoulder, but the smaller orc twisted out of his grip and darted away. Canohando let him go and turned to Frodo.
“What passed between you and Yarga, runt?”
“He did not kill me.” As the words left his mouth, Frodo thought how foolish they sounded, but Canohando nodded.
"I had not thought to see you alive again. Why did you go back there alone?" He did not wait for an answer, but started back toward the pit himself, and the rest of them trailed after him, Radagast with his arm tight around Frodo's shoulders.
Yarga was not there. Canohando walked to the edge and stood looking down, and Frodo went to his side. "This is your doing, Ninefingers," the orc said. "The Dark Lord is thrown down, and three orcs are – I do not know what we are." He took Frodo's elbow and pulled him away from the brink. "This is where we leave you, old man,' he said to Radagast.
"Where will you go?"
Canohando looked to Lash, who had been casting about, examining their footprints on the ground. "I cannot tell if he came back here or not. I will have to track him from where he ran off," Lash said.
“We will follow Yarga,” Canohando said. "And then we will go into the eastern mountains and find us a new home.”
The orc took Frodo by the shoulders and stared into his face. His eyes were black, as they had always been, but not empty. Not like Yarga’s. “Will you find him?” Frodo asked.
“We will find him. He will be waiting for us.” Suddenly the orc’s arms closed around him, crushing him, a rough embrace. "Shield brother," he muttered. Then he shoved the hobbit away, and Frodo stumbled against Radagast. The orcs started back the way they had come, breaking into a trot. Canohando looked back once and raised his hand, and they were gone.
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.