Hauling yet another heavy load of wood, Merry trudged into the innermost cavern, dodging the taller Orcs, goblins, and uruks busy making ready for war. He disliked coming to this cave, though he'd been forced to do so more and more as the Orcs needed more fuel for their fires. Despite his reluctance, he had tried - and failed - to reach his friends' shadowy prison since he had made his terrible discovery. Sneaking close, he had been quickly noticed and, unable to explain away his movements, had paid for them with a brief beating. Abandoning his goal, his helplessness had burned in his empty belly, and now he took to averting his eyes and keeping himself distracted until he quit the cave. Once on his way, he would resume his investigations of pathways and tunnels, fostering plans of escape. He could not bear the sight of Legolas and Gimli, but he would not leave them to their death.
Dumping the wood beside an oven, Merry stretched his tired arms. He would have to look for food soon. He hadn't eaten since Pippin had last snuck him the fruit and bread, when he had taken it to be morning. If they wanted him to keep moving, they had better feed him!
Heading back to the pile of wood brought in from the forest, Merry stole a glance across the cave where a large, dark tunnel led away somewhere, directly opposite the entrance through which Merry entered. The mouth of the forbidding passage was large and smoothly carved, as if done with care. Yet not one creature here paid the archway any heed. Much as he dreaded it, he remained certain he had to investigate that tunnel. He had managed to get across the cavern once by toting materials that gave all the impression he was on an errand. None had questioned him until he had reached the other side, and there his journey had nearly ended in another beating.
"Oi!" Merry looked up, ready to defend his actions, but Uglúk had called Norgry over instead. "Get all the weapons gathered up. Or get one of the maggot-goblins to do that for you. But make sure every lad's got a weapon of some sort. Deal out what armor we got too. You take care of that yourself, as there ain't enough for every soldier. You got all that?"
"Right, got it. Any idea where we heading to?"
"We go where Saruman tells us to go! Now get on with it!"
Merry realized he knew more than the Orcs around him of Saruman's plans to march to Edoras. He likely knew more regarding the location and significance of the city as well; his time in Rivendell's libraries had not been ill spent after all. Pippin had got it all right, like a good hobbit. It looked like Saruman might take Strider with him to Edoras, maybe to use as a trick against the King of Rohan - or against Sauron? Merry shook his head. Pippin hadn't been clear on everything, except one thing: Rohan needed warning. But Merry had yet to come up with a plan for escape, much less one that would bring them to Edoras in time to give the people ample time to prepare.
Norgry stomped off with his orders and without a thought for Merry. Never the best at minding Merry, now Norgry was laden with enough to allow Merry to wander freely.
"Eh, halfling!" Or so he thought. Merry's heart sunk as the call destroyed his plans. "Any wood left?"
"Oh, eh, yes, there's some left. Maybe a couple of trips worth."
Norgry nodded. "Bring it out then. These lads gotta finish what they started."
Merry nodded, but Norgry was already on his way, giving his next order. Merry stood there for a moment watching Norgry stomp away. Orcs were running about, the pace picking up again as everyone got their new orders. He wasted no time.
Picking up a small hammer, what looked like tongs, and other tools he had no name for lying beside the woodpile, Merry left the cavern and turned into the corridor that ran along the outside of it. He re-entered the cavern at the opposite end, but all were too busy to take note. Barely glancing behind him, he slipped into the dark tunnel, the blackness swallowing him immediately.
He broke into a run, tools in one hand, his other hand running along the stone wall. He could barely see, but the wall of the tunnel told him the passageway curved to the right.
It grew darker until he could not see his hand before him. But then he noticed something else more remarkable. The air. It was cooler. Not a pleasant breezy day in the Shire, but cool enough to tell there was something different about this passage. But he had been gone too long. He'd have to return to the cavern.
When he reached the opening to the passage, he peered at the scene from the protective shadows. No one had noticed a hobbit walking into the tunnel; would they notice him coming from it? He'd have to risk it.
Walking casually, tools in hand, he entered the cavern and turned right sharply, so that it looked as if he had come from his left. He skirted the edge of the cavern, traveling slowly in a large circle. Too late he realized he approached the recess he had tried to avoid. Without hesitating, he walked steadily on so as not to attract attention. He was in an area in which he had no true reason to be and he cared not for another beating.
"Eh! You! I need your help!" Merry froze, again on the defensive. Turning to the voice, he saw a large uruk waving to a smaller Orc some yards ahead of him. "Norgry's gone nuts and I can't do all this alone, no matter what he thinks."
"I gotta-" the Orc began his protest.
"Don't give me excuses!" he barked, as Merry prayed the shadows would shield him. "Just leave it there! It'll be there when you get back. Nobody's gonna do your work for you. Come on!" The uruk demanded, and the Orc gave in.
"If Norgry says one word to me," he said, dropping his load and stomping to the uruk, "I'm coming to find you!"
Both creatures gone on other duties, Merry crept a few steps forward into the dim light.
He slapped his hand over his mouth and pulled himself behind a narrow stretch of wall. On the other side of the wall, Gimli lay on the floor in a heap. The Orc had been carrying Gimli! What for? To where? It didn't matter. Was he alive? That did matter.
Merry peeked around the wall. Orcs carried weapons and distributed armor, coming and going quickly. "Gimli!" Merry whispered from his hiding spot. "Gimli! Can you hear me?" He kept one eye on the bustling crowd and another on Gimli, praying for movement. After a few more calls, the dwarf stirred with a groan. Not allowing himself to enjoy his relief, he called out, "Gimli, come, you must get up." He looked about. The wall he stood behind separated the main space from smaller niches just behind them. He ran to the opposite end of the wall, closer to Gimli, and called to his friend again. "Over here, Gimli, can you crawl over here?"
Gimli began to look about, likely confused by the moving voice. Finally, his eyes landed on Merry and he stared. "Merry?" he said after a long moment, his voice a mere croak. He said nothing more but cocked his head to the side, as if trying to work out the strange scene. "Or Pippin?" he asked again, then muttered to himself something about madness.
"Yes, Gimli, it's me, it's Merry. I'm really here. And you're really going to get up and, well, at least crawl over here. I know you can do that. Dwarves are the sturdiest of creatures, aren't they? So, show me it is so!"
Gimli looked about him, looked at the shackles on his wrists, then looked about him again. Seeming then to make a decision, he began to crawl towards Merry, his pace excruciatingly slow, shackles scraping on stone.
"Come on, Gimli! That's it, just a few more!" As soon as the dwarf was in reach, Merry grabbed his shoulder and dragged him behind the wall. Peering around the corner one last time, he sagged against the wall in relief.
"What is happening?" Gimli looked confused and disoriented as he put the question to Merry. Through the darkness, Merry could see that Gimli's face was smeared with blood and grit and dust, one eye was swollen and purple, and his lip was split. With such evidence of what he had suffered these last few days, Merry knew he might not think straight.
"Don't worry, Gimli. I'm going to get you out of here. Do you think you can follow me?"
Slowly, Gimli reached out and gripped Merry's arm. Staring, squeezing weakly, he eventually seemed to satisfy himself that Merry was indeed real. The dwarf sat back with his eyes closed for a long minute. Taking a deep breath, he seemed to gather his strength and his faculties and leaned forward. "You mean to say you have managed to find a way out?"
"I may have. It's certainly worth a try. And you're just the one I need to help me. Come, how do you feel?"
Gimli gave a hoarse laugh. "How do I feel? You rouse me from a stupor on the ground, urge me to my knees, only to demand I crawl towards your voice - a voice I had given up any hope of hearing again - then you tell me we might escape." Gimli gave a rasp Merry interpreted as a chuckle. "If these shackles were still chained to the wall, they could not keep me!" He nodded then, and Merry saw a glimmer of the proud dwarf he'd known. "Lead the way, Master Merry!"
Saruman approached the halfling, who once again doted on the man. He had his suspicions regarding the gravity of the wound the man carried. He hoped they would prove well founded, as the man was too important to his plans to allow him die now. "Halfling, tell me, what is the progress on the Dúnadan's wound?"
The halfling rose as soon as he spied him. Gratified that the little creature was finally learning some manners, Saruman hid his approval. "Eh, the progress is, em, well enough, Mr. Saruman. The infection has gone down. It's not quite so red and angry now, well on its way to being healed, in fact."
Saruman turned to the man. "Stand, Dúnadan!" When the Ranger rose to his feet more slowly than he would have him, the wizard turned expectantly to the halfling. As the halfling moved to offer the man a balancing hand, Saruman considered the aid the halfling had provided him. Without the halfling, the man would not have received such care unless he had been able to provide it himself. Mayhap he would have died as he claimed without such tending, if he spoke the truth regarding his wound.
Saruman looked at the Dúnadan. "Walk to me," he ordered, frowning as the man reluctantly took a few steps, heavily favoring his good leg. His limp was less pronounced than yesterday, though it lingered. Saruman suspected that if need be, the man could find himself without any limp. He must confirm how much the leg truly pained him. When the Dúnadan reached him, Saruman swiftly swung out his staff and struck the injury.
The man howled and fell over, crashing into the wall and sliding to the floor. He glared at Saruman. "Do you yet believe," he said between panting breaths, "I try to deceive you with this injury? Are you now satisfied that I am truly injured?"
"Hm. That will have to do, I suppose." He turned to the halfling. "You are to prepare the Dúnadan for travel. He will be riding, so if there is anything you must do for his wound, do that now. We leave in a matter of hours."
"Hours? So soon?" Saruman smiled to see the halfling so obviously alarmed. He wondered what plans for escape this one had been dreaming.
"Yes." Saruman thought again of the usefulness the halfling had shown. He might continue to be of service, in addition to improving the wizard's stature in the eyes of others. "And you should prepare for travel as well. You will accompany us." Saruman took a moment to enjoy the look of shock on the halfling's face before leaving to continue his own preparations.
"Uglúk, make certain that all the Orcs are armed before they set out. You are my assurance that they will be prepared to move out. You must start out tonight to reach Edoras within four days."
"Yes, Master. It will be done."
"You will halt your march ten miles outside of the city. Stand ready for my order to attack."
Seeing the halfling pass through the hall with a pot of water, Saruman called him over. "You will help Uglúk to prepare for the journey. Help him gather supplies." The halfling gave him a wide-eyed stare but said nothing. "Do you understand? Answer me!"
The halfling nodded blankly. "After I finish with Strider, I will help Uglúk prepare. I understand."
Saruman narrowed his eyes. "What more must you do for him?"
"I am washing his wound with more hot water. The more often I do that, the faster it heals. Though, I'm not at all certain he's ready for riding," the halfling said uncertainly.
"Get him on his feet and walking. He will soon become accustomed to moving about. See that he is ready when the time comes to leave."
"He would heal faster with some food and water," the halfling said in a small voice.
Saruman frowned. Was the halfling attempting to create more delays? "Then give him some! But you best be ready when I come for you."
Hours later, Saruman returned to the main hall. Approaching the Dúnadan, who yet sat in a corner of the alcove in which he had left him, he asked, "Where is the halfling?"
The man looked at him blankly for a long moment. "I know not. I have not seen him in some time."
"Rise! You best be ready to ride." Not waiting to see if the man obeyed, Saruman turned from him to the pedestal on which sat the Seeing Stone. Grabbing the Stone from its bed and slipping it into a sack, he turned to the man, who now stood looking not at him but at the bag he carried. He was pleased to see the fear that peeked from behind the stoic expression. "Come," he commanded. "There is no need to wait any longer. We leave Isengard now."
Merry offered the dwarf a faint smile as he sagged against the wall that separated them from the cavern of Orcs. The expression felt strange on his face. Motioning for Gimli to remain where he was, he edged to the corner of the wall. A few Orcs argued on one side. Others carted off yet more weapons. Some finished off the arms they had begun to forge. "It'll be a close thing, Gimli, but either we make a run for it, or we saunter our way over, hoping to not draw any notice. Either way has a risk." He looked back at the scene. "I suggest we walk to the tunnel. It seems dangerous, but I don't think anyone will take notice. They are all quite frantic right now. And the darkness here will help cover us."
"I will follow your lead as best I can, Merry. Do as you think we should." Gimli sounded tired, and Merry had his first doubts that the dwarf could follow him. Perhaps Merry should have tried to get food first, but he would not risk losing this opportunity.
Merry stepped out, saw that the Orcs had yet to notice his absence, then leaned back. "After five paces, follow me. Slowly, as if you're just going about your business. Don't look at them. Just keep going."
"Slowly is doubtless all I can manage. And if someone sees us?"
"Leave that to me. Let's go." Merry didn't know what he'd do if someone saw them, but he didn't want Gimli worrying about anything but moving.
Gimli nodded and Merry turned from him. He stepped out with a deep breath and walked confidently towards the tunnel, still holding the tools he'd pilfered. Grunts and shouts echoed from the cavern, mixed with clangs and bangs of iron as weapons piled up. Sweat dripped from his brow, likely due to more than simply the heat that pulsed around him. Upon reaching the tunnel, darkness enveloped him, and only then did he turn to see Gimli's progress. The dwarf was only halfway across, lumbering across the open space. Stiff with aches and pains from the last two days of torture, he needed rest - and much more Merry could not give him - not yet.
Finally, Gimli gained the tunnel and Merry pulled him farther into the passageway and its protective darkness. They caught their breath while Merry trained his ear on the ruckus beyond, listening for pursuing Orcs. After a minute, Merry gestured into the dark and continued, putting an arm around Gimli for support.
He did not speak until he reached the point where he had been earlier, where he could no longer see. "What do you think, Gimli? Wouldn't you say there's something different about the air here? It feels cooler, doesn't it?" He knew Gimli best of all of them would understand the implications in the change of air. He hoped to hear the answer he desired from the dwarf.
"A moment, please, Merry." Gimli panted for a few minutes and Merry regretted pushing him so hard. Finally, Gimli spoke. "You ask me about the air here, if it is cooler. You think that means there is something different here." He paused, and Merry wondered if he was already tired out. Did Gimli give Merry's question back to him because he needed time to collect his breath and his wits? Or did Gimli already know he would disappoint Merry with his answer? "The heat is less intense, but that could simply be that we are farther from the ovens now. There is more than that, though. The air is - well, I would not say fresh, but less stale, certainly. You may have found something, Merry!" Gimli clapped him on the back, even as he leaned against the wall in exhaustion.
Merry's heart leapt and he squeezed Gimli's arm. With half a smile Gimli couldn't see, he added thoughtfully, "Gandalf always said when in doubt, follow your nose."
"You understand that whatever path we find out of here will involve climbing of some sort. How are hobbits at climbing?"
The thought of climbing out of the Tower made Merry's belly quiver, for a different reason than it had the last few days. "Quite good. At least, with climbing trees. Climbing rock may be something different altogether." Merry tried thinking back to any time he had climbed rocks, but there was nothing of this sort of rock in the Shire. He truly couldn't say if he could climb it or not.
"Aye. And for that we will need tools. What have you got there?"
"I just grabbed these so I wouldn't be walking empty handed." Merry held up tools Gimli couldn't see. "I've got a hammer. And tongs, I think. And whatever these are."
Gimli groped and took each item in turn, identified them by touch, and set them aside. After receiving the last, he said, "These will not help us much, though I think I can make these tongs into a tool of some sort. But a hammer can always be put to use. Not a bad pick, Merry."
"Good. Now, there are other supplies to think of, so I need to go back to the cavern. I've been gone too long already. I'll have to make my return as unnoticeable as any hobbit can be." Merry was already listing supplies in his head and wondering where he might find them.
"They have likely noticed my absence by now."
"Perhaps. It was rather chaotic before we entered the passage. But I must be sure not to be seen anywhere they might be searching for you. They'll surely blame me. That would be ...bad." Merry shuddered at the thought of Uglúk's punishment.
"You must not get yourself into trouble. Not now!"
"Yes. Now you must stay well back here in the dark. None of them use this passage, so you'll be safe. Don't you dare come near the light, Gimli!"
"The light hardly enters the cavern entrance, Merry. From the edge of darkness there, I can see that you are safe, at least."
Merry began to protest, then gave up with his first drawn breath. He knew Gimli would follow him, needing to reassure himself of Merry's safety and freedom, so to speak.
"And while you are dodging Orcs, you must also answer the question of how to collect Legolas."
Merry frowned. That would prove a tricky one, to say the least. "Right."
Their approach to the tunnel's entrance differed from their exit in one important respect: they could not hear the Orcs. They crept slower and quieter, uncertain of what they would encounter. Approaching the entrance, clinging to the shadows, they found that the chaos they'd left behind had been transformed into order. Saruman himself stood among them, dispensing instructions to hundreds of Orcs that stood about him. It was quiet, far too quiet. There was no possibility they might enter the cave without being noticed. They slunk back into the darkness.
"Gimli, I'll be seen if I go back."
"I agree." Merry heard the regret in his voice.
"This may be the only chance we get."
"I must again agree." With a deep sigh, the dwarf continued. "You cannot chance it. We will have to make do with what tools we have, no supplies..." Gimli sighed heavily again. "And we will have to - we cannot - Legolas must stay behind."
"And Pippin," Merry said quietly and squeezed his eyes shut.
Gimli groped for him in the dark and patted his shoulder, the strain in his voice growing. "It is no use anyway, lad. Legolas hangs in chains just as I had. Without tools, we could not break that steel, save if we walked up to an Orc and asked for his aid."
Merry knew the twist in Gimli's gut, for his own twisted the same. He was going to leave Pippin behind! His heart tearing in two, he grasped Gimli's arm. "We must leave them all behind," and Merry could barely get the words out. "But we will come back for them somehow, won't we, Gimli?"
"Of course we will! Yes, of course," Gimli said, and Merry knew he forced the cheer in his voice.
"They'll know that, won't they? That we'll come back for them?" He had to believe Pippin would know. Perhaps he had even meant for this to happen when he delivered his message earlier. Or maybe he had thought he'd be going with Merry. But Pippin had to know that Merry would not abandon him. He had to know that this was the only escape they could manage and that they would return for the others.
Gimli was silent as Merry looked back towards the cavern. "They must," the dwarf said roughly. And with that, Gimli turned towards the darkness. "Let us find from where this supposed fresh air comes."
Running one hand along the wall to guide him, Merry thought again of Pippin and remembered his presents. "I wish I had an apple or some bread to give you. Or at least water. You need water, Gimli!"
"Fortune has favored us in that respect. Well, she has not abandoned us entirely, I shall say. For when you found me, the Orcs were returning me to my chains, having just given me my ration of water. I am not so thirsty as I might be at the moment." Gimli laid his hand on Merry's shoulder, as guide and support, and thus they traveled.
They moved for some time through the passageway. Merry stopped often to allow Gimli to rest. The dwarf shuffled along, the shackles on his wrist clanking together on occasion. Hoping to ease Gimli's mind a bit, Merry told Gimli all he knew of Pippin and Strider. But the news of the revelation of Strider's true name and Saruman's plans to exploit the discovery may have brought Gimli more despair. Nevertheless, Gimli's pace gradually increased, and all the while the air cooled to nearly bearable. Merry thought perhaps there were fewer fires where they headed. He dared not hope for freedom at the end of the tunnel. But without realizing it, Merry and Gimli sped up.
The tunnel ended suddenly and Merry felt they stood in a large open space. As their eyes adjusted - for some reason, the darkness was not so thick here - they could see the space was similar to the one they had left behind. Only, no Orcs roamed here, and no fires blazed. It was silent and vacant and nearly cool. Merry almost shouted as he felt the fresher air. Could it be? He entered the cavern at once, no longer hindered by absolute darkness. A cool draft swept by his face, and he breathed deeply, truly smiling for the first time in what felt like an age.
"It looks abandoned," Merry said, a bit confused nevertheless by how this had come about.
Gimli took a few steps forward, looking about in the dimness. "They must have decided they did not need to use this furnace anymore. It was used once. Look at the fire pits." Gimli walked silently about one of the forges and Merry waited when he disappeared behind one for some time. When he returned, Gimli's eyes glowed with suppressed excitement and Merry followed him as he walked over to the hearth. He sniffed deeply, then grinned. "It is fresh, Merry!"
"Yes," Merry said hesitantly, "if you speak of the air, the air here is fresher. We've already noted that. But what are you thinking?" Merry suspected there was some other reason for Gimli's relief.
"My dear hobbit," Gimli said with pride. "You have done it! You have found our escape - do you not see?" He frowned as if only now realizing that Merry might not have caught on.
"Eh, no, Gimli. I don't see. I see a cool hearth with fresh air, as you've pointed out, and a big empty room. Maybe one of these branching tunnels leads out, but - you already know how to get out, don't you?"
"Master Merry, think! We have a forge," Gimli said, gesturing excitedly. "What must every forge - or any fire - have?"
Merry looked at him, perplexed. They were trying to escape the Tower of Orthanc and Gimli wanted to play a guessing game? "Wood, Gimli," Merry said flatly, "fire needs wood to burn. Now where's our escape?"
Gimli simply continued to grin at him. "And when that wood burns, what happens?"
Merry rolled his eyes, but knew there was no stopping the dwarf now. "The room will get warm." Seeing that Gimli yet waited for an answer, he continued. "The wood will burn -"
"Yes, yes," Gimli interrupted him impatiently, "and what happens when wood burns?"
"Eh, it makes fire... and... smoke..." Merry's eyes went wide. "Smoke!" He looked up suddenly at the deep furnace. The stone above it continued unbroken into the darkness above. "It must have a chimney, a vent that goes all the way to the surface!"
"Yes!" Gimli clapped Merry's shoulder soundly. "Now, all we have to do," his smile faded a bit as he looked up, "is climb the vent. I hope you are as good at climbing as you have said. We now have to accomplish this escape with naught but our hands and what meager tools we have."
"Hands and feet, remember."
Gimli looked at Merry's hobbit-sized feet and smiled. "Well, may your Brandybuck heritage serve you well. I hope what we propose is even possible. If the vent has been carved well and made smooth, there will be little for us to grasp. It is my hope that the hammer and tongs will aid us."
Merry looked at him. "Well, then we should have no trouble at all. How well do you think Orcs make vents?"
Gimli laughed heartily then held his waist. "Oh, it has been too long since I have had cause to laugh. You are right, of course, we will likely have no trouble at all. All right, Merry, climb up into the fire pit. I will be right behind you."
Merry crawled into the pit, an odd feeling despite the coolness of the charred wood and ashes. Above, there was indeed a chimney for the smoke. But how would they reach it?
Gimli followed Merry and pointed ahead. "Not the chimney, Merry. We will use the vent." Merry could barely make out anything before him. The dark seemed never-ending. "That is the vent, ahead of you. It is the source of ventilation for the forge. They would bring air in through here with a bellows to increase the heat of the forge. Ahead is the vent that must lead to the surface. This is our way out, Merry."
"But shouldn't it go up?"
"I expect after a short time it does." Gimli prodded Merry into the vent and the hobbit plodded along. Small as they were, they were able to walk nearly upright in the confined space. But it was pitch black and so they crept along using hands and feet to guide their way.
Eventually, the channel began to curve upwards. Still afraid to hope, Merry dared not mention that the darkness was abating as well. But after a few feet of steep crawling, Gimli gasped. "Look, Merry!"
Above them, within a field of utter black, Merry saw a window of deep midnight blue, a seeming eternity away. As the end to their journey would be, he realized, understanding then the endeavor they had before them. He took a deep breath. They were truly going to leave this nightmare. Merry thought of those they left behind and prayed they had the strength to last until their return. His thoughts lingered on his cousin, and he hoped Pippin would feel Merry's strength with him.
"Wait a moment," Gimli said then. Taking out the tongs he had pocketed, he wrenched them apart, creating two pieces of metal. "Now we have two footholds, if I can manage to get them into the rock with the hammer." With the makeshift climbing tools, they began their ascent. The tongs proved helpful often enough. But as Merry had predicted, the vent was roughly hewn and there were crevices aplenty to aid their climb. Merry proved as good at climbing as he'd claimed and they made their way to the surface.
After hours that seemed days, arms and legs aching, hands and feet bloody, Merry felt a breeze of pure clean air blow through his hair. A more glorious feeling he could not remember. Then he saw it - a starlit sky fading in the pale blue of early dawn. They had reached the surface.
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.