30. The Gift
"So you are luck after all, Ninefingers," she said, setting roasted meat and fresh bread before him. "And I have a new son." She made a face, wrinkling up her nose, and Frodo grinned.
"Is he to your liking, Mistress?" he asked.
"So Lash is pleased with his beast-son, and Yargark also, I am content. It is a strange household, this, but I am happy in it." She flushed. "I thought you went, all three of you, to your deaths. Forgive my discourtesy to you, if you can."
"It is forgotten," Frodo said. "Has Yargark met his new brother yet?"
"Yargark woke up when I was building a den for Tor-mrog," Lash said from his end of the table. "He helped me cover it with wood and spread an old bearskin inside, and then he crawled in to sleep with his beast-brother. As I used to do also, with mine,' he added, tearing off a bite of bread.
"How did you come to have a bear cub when you were young?" Radagast asked. "Is it a common thing among orcs?"
Canohando laughed. "More common to kill the mother and make sport with the cub until it dies," he said, and Lash nodded.
"My mother was from one of the hill tribes; my father took her in a raid. She ran out, when he and his followers were throwing the cub from hand to hand, beating it with the blunt ends of their spears. She ran right in the midst of them and caught it in her arms, screaming that the spirit of Sticky Mouth would hunt them down, did they murder the cub. 'And your son also,' she shrieked at my father. 'And I do not care if she kills you, you devil, but I care for my child!' She brought the cub in and soothed his hurts and fed him, and he became my brother."
"What became of him at last?" Radagast asked.
"At last? I went to war, Healer. The Uruks came, calling us to march with the Witch King, to bring the Dark Lord back to Mordor, and I left my mountains. You saw what became of my country, the trees cut down and the land laid waste. There were no bears there when I returned."
There was silence, and Frodo remembered the barrenness of Mordor when first he saw it. Finally he said, "It is getting better, though. The bears may return someday."
"But not the orcs – Gondor will make sure of that," Lash said. "This is our home now, and it is good – the trees here have not been cut these thousand years or more. Only I would have my sons learn from Sticky Mouth, as I did. They are strong, the Mrog, but they protect their own; they do not slay them. My beast-brother defended me even from my father, sometimes, and often from other orcs. More than once he saved my life."
"He taught you to love," Radagast said quietly, and Lash looked away as if the word embarrassed him.
"I am for the sweat lodge this day," he said, standing up. "Will you come and try it, Healer, Light-bearer?"
A smile split Radagast's dark face. "Do you have a sweat lodge, Lash? I have not been in one in many years – of a certainty I will come!"
"You will come too, runt," Canohando told Frodo. "I think you will like it."
The orcs went off to prepare the lodge, and Frodo passed the time bouncing Frodo-the-orc on his knee, pretending it was a pony ride and enjoying the babe's crows of laughter, while Lokka went about her household tasks.
"Have you ever taken the sweat bath?" she asked after a while. When he shook his head, she smiled broadly, saying, "Well, don't worry, Ninefingers – I don't look out the window."
He puzzled over this remark but forbore to ask for an explanation; he would not risk provoking her resentment again. Then Radagast came to call him to their side of the house, and he gave little Frodo a last bounce and went. Canohando was waiting, and Frodo took one step into the room and backed out again, averting his head. The orc gave a shout of laughter and grabbed Frodo's wrist, hauling him in and shutting the door behind him.
"Never mind, runt, you don't have to look! Just get out of your clothes and come on – you wear your skin into a sweat lodge, and nothing more!"
"It's all right, lad," Radagast added, throwing his brown robe across his bed. "It is done this way all through the deep snow country. Hurry now; Lash has the stones hot for us already."
Frodo obeyed, shamed and unwilling, and for the first time since he left the Shire with Radagast he wished that he had stayed home. As soon as he was naked, Radagast pushed him outside into the snow, and they followed Canohando into the woods, the bitter cold biting at their skin.
The sweat lodge was a low wooden hut in a little clearing, a few minutes walk from the house. Inside it was nearly dark, to Frodo's relief, the only light coming through chinks in the log walls, and the air so hot it almost took his breath away. There was a split log floor, cut away in the middle to leave room for a firepit surrounded by large stones – it struck Frodo odd that this small hut had a floor, while the house had only beaten earth – and Radagast stretched himself full length next to the wall with a sigh of contentment.
"If I had known you had a sweat lodge, Lash, I had asked you to fire it up the first day we were here! It is the best thing in the snow country, I think."
"It is another thing I had from my mother," Lash said. He scooped a handful of water from a container that stood near the fire, sprinkling it on the hot stones so it sizzled. "We built our first one as soon as I grew strong enough to help – my father mocked her for it, but I loved the heat and I would not let him tear it down."
"You must have been a brave lad."
Lash laughed. "Brave, or foolish. He was not so bad, as orcs go. He slept a good part of the winter, like a bear, and did not bother us much. It was worse in summer, but then my beast brother was awake to protect us."
Frodo sat against the wall, his eyes closed, basking. He had not been aware how deep the cold had gotten into his bones until he came into this blessed oven, and he soaked up the dry heat blissfully. His nakedness no longer troubled him; it was irrelevant in the pleasure of being baked alive.
"We will have to carry the runt out, old man," Canohando murmured.
"Donkey? Are you all right?" The wizard's voice seemed to come from far off, and Frodo answered without opening his eyes.
"It's wonderful. I think I'll stay here till spring."
They laughed at him, and he smiled. Lash emptied a bucket of water over the rocks and a cloud of steam rolled up. Sweat poured off Frodo and he felt as if he were drifting away.
"Wake up, runt." Canohando was shaking him, and he opened his eyes. Lash and Radagast were gone; he was alone with the big orc. It had cooled a little in the hut, but it was still blissfully warm. And Canohando was staring at him, or rather at Arwen's jewel hanging against his chest. The orc reached out one finger to touch it, and Frodo waited for him to recoil – anything of Elvish make had always repelled the orcs. But Canohando stroked the jewel with his finger, then took it gently in his hand, running his thumb across the surface.
"Tell me again, runt, where you got this thing." There was something in the orc's voice that snapped Frodo to full wakefulness, an echo of his raw grief the first night, when he told them of Yarga's death.
"It was given me by Arwen Evenstar, the daughter of Elrond Half-Elven, the Queen of Gondor. She said it would comfort me when the memory of the Dark was heavy on me, and so it did."
"The memory of the Dark–" Canohando's voice was hoarse, and he bent his head to press the jewel against his forehead. "That memory is heavy on me, Ninefingers." He shivered as if with cold, although it was still very warm in the hut.
"We slew them every one, when Yarga died, and it was justice, for they came as destroyers. But when I remember him, dying in pain and gore, I could slay again, any who came within my reach. I could go through all the lands from here to that little Shire of yours, and carry death and fire, when I remember him."
He was holding the jewel to his head as if it were a poultice to draw poison from a wound, his matted hair brushing Frodo's chin. The chain pulled against the back of Frodo's neck and he reached up to unclasp it.
Quickly now, before he thought about it. It was years since dark memories had tormented him. He was healed now – surely he was healed! – and if not, he was closer to healing than Canohando. He got the clasp undone and lifted the chain free, leaned forward and fumbled under the orc's hair to fasten it around his neck.
"As Arwen gave to me, so I give it to you, Canohando. May it comfort you as it did me, and remind you of the runt who will ever be your friend."
The orc sat back on his heels, his hand holding the jewel against his breast, his eyes searching Frodo's face. "You – give me this? The jewel of the Queen of Gondor! Why?"
"To comfort you. To strengthen you, against the Dark. It is always there, you know; we battle it until we die. And orcs live longer than hobbits." He smiled. "You will need it longer than I, perhaps."
Canohando fingered the jewel, rubbing it against his lips, and already peace was creeping into his eyes. "If I meet with any men of Gondor, they will think I slew you and took it from you."
That thought had already occurred to Frodo. "I will write to the King and tell him that I gave it to you. And what other orc could wear such a thing, excepting only Lash? They will call you Elf-friend, Canohando," he added mischievously.
The orc guffawed and hit Frodo on the shoulder, nearly knocking him over. "I have been called worse things! Come, we have sweated here long enough. Now for the snow!"
He pulled Frodo up from where he sat and shoved him out the low doorway, catching up a birch branch that was stuck in the snow by the entrance. He slashed at Frodo's back and shoulders with the branch, and Frodo ran from him, laughing and throwing himself down in the snow to escape. It felt marvelous, cool and tingly after the heat, and he jumped up and darted back to grab a birch branch of his own from the dozen or so by the door of the hut, chasing Canohando down and beating him in his turn.
Radagast looked at him long, when he told the wizard what he had done, and Frodo flushed under his gaze.
"Did I do wrong, to give it to him?"
"You are the only one who can answer that, Frodo. But this I will say: that jewel will work on Canohando long after you are gone, and not for evil. Arwen Undomiel did not give it to you idly; it has a strong virtue."
Frodo nodded, satisfied. "Neither did I give it idly, Radagast."
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.