41. Crossing the Great Road
Chapter Written by Angmar
The humpbacked orb of a waxing gibbous moon cast down its beams upon the road, bathing the darkened countryside in shades of deep blue and silver. Crouching at the edge of the woods, the boys listened for the sound of enemies. A wide stretch of open land lay between them and the Great West Road. Beyond the highway to the west was another span of cleared ground, dotted here and there by small brakes of trees. During the days of Gondor's affluence, the land along both sides of the road had been kept clear so that brigands would have few places to lie in wait to ambush travelers, but now brush and small trees had begun to take root. Tightly clutching the hands of both his brothers, Fritha looked through the trees at the Great West Road lying before them and waited fretfully for Fródwine to order them across.
Bringing his forefinger to his lips, Fródwine whispered as his eyes roamed up and down the road, "Brothers, as quiet as a barrow. It seems for a change that we might be in luck. We have come at last to the Great West Road!" he pronounced expansively, the pride of what he considered his singular accomplishment reflecting in his voice. "As soon as we leave the cover of these woods, we make our way over the cleared ground and then across the road. Let us make a run for it and have it behind us! Hold tightly onto our hands, Fritha!" Fródwine broke into a run, leading his brothers out of the trees.
"You are going too fast for me!" Fritha puffed as his short legs struggled to match his brothers' quicker speed. They slowed down to accommodate him and were halfway through the cleared field when Fródwine suddenly halted.
"Stop!" came Fródwine's grated whisper. "There is something coming up the road, heading north!"
Floating upon the clear evening air came the grunting cadence of orcs and the sound of the marching of many feet. The pale, flickering light of torches bobbed up and down as the host moved towards them. The boys were caught in the open with no protection from the eyes of the enemy's troops, and there was no time to run back to the trees for shelter. Fródwine's gaze fell upon the stream which they had been following, and, tracing the path of the water with his eyes, he saw the culvert which he had noticed earlier. A broad clay pipe ran under the road, its opening a circle of black against the darkness.
Fritha's small fingers interlaced with those of his brothers, and he squeezed their hands tightly, his fingernails digging painfully into their palms. "They are coming to get us, Fródwine!" he whimpered, a wild look in his blue eyes. He had a sudden urge to suck his thumb.
"Down the steam bank, brothers!" Fródwine whispered urgently. He turned so quickly that Fritha was spun to the side, dislodging Frumgár's grip from his. Fródwine plunged down the steep descent, his little brother stumbling along behind him. Fritha could barely keep his feet under him as they slid, slipped and plunged to the edge of the water. Behind them they heard a grunt and heavy thud as Frumgár's feet shot out from beneath him. Taking a nasty tumble, he slid on his backside, not stopping until he had almost reached the edge of the water.
"We will hide in the culvert until the column has passed." Fródwine's eyebrows puckered in consternation as he looked at the water. "Unless we want to slog around in soaked clothes, we are going to have to take them off."
"I am going to get cold!" Fritha wailed, shuddering as he thought of wading into the dark water.
"Fródwine, I do not know about this," Frumgár protested, gingerly rubbing his sore bottom. "We do not even know how deep the water is! Is there not some other way?"
"There is no other way, Frumgár, unless we want to wait here and let the orcs catch us. Anyway, I do not think that the water will be too deep, but it might be over Fritha's head. We do not want any more unpleasant surprises, so let me check the depth." Pulling off his shoes and clothing, Fródwine waded out into the chilly stream and found that the water came above his waist. "So I was correct," he muttered as he turned towards the bank. "Frumgár, you will be in charge of keeping our belongings dry while I carry Fritha." He turned to his little brother. "Now, Fritha, take off your shoes and roll up the legs of your breeches. I am taking you for another piggy-back ride!"
"I do not like this, Fródwine!" Fritha was on the verge of tears.
"I suppose we could always leave you." Fródwine started wading out into the water again.
"No, no! Wait for me!"
Standing on the bank, Fritha crawled onto his brother's back, his teeth chattering with fear. As he looked down, he was mesmerized by the dark water and the swift current, and the undulating reflection of the moon. With his little brother perched on his back, Fródwine eased forward into the deeper water. Frumgár, the pack raised above his head, gingerly tested the water with his foot and found that it was chilly, but not unbearable. With a resigned groan, he waded out into the water.
As they stayed in the shadows of the bank, the boys kept their gaze directed to the long line of approaching soldiers. Slowly the torches grew brighter as the orcs drew closer. Had the enemies seen them? Just as the boys' heads ducked under the entrance of the dark tunnel, the column bore down upon the bridge. The brothers scarcely breathed as they listened to the staccato pounding of iron-shod boots tramping over their heads.
Crossing the culvert, the sergeant, commander of a hundred, moved to the edge of the road and watched as the rest of his men marched across the culvert. Then when the last man had crossed to the other side, the officer gave the command to halt.
"What are they doing? What are they doing, Fródwine?" Frumgár craned his neck as he whispered anxiously. "Do you think they are going to camp here for the rest of the night?"
"I hope not. Perhaps their sojourn will be brief, and they will soon be on their way. I can hear them lumbering about up on the bank..." Fródwine paused to listen. "Probably their officers will send a work detail down to the stream to fill their waterskins before they move out. Keep your voices low, for there is an echo in here, and they might hear us. Quickly, now, Frumgár, follow me to the opposite end of the culvert. Our position will not be so easy to spy there."
The lower end of the clay tile was open, and the water flowed through it into a large pool at the base of the tile. The upstream end, though, had been partially blocked by a jam of logs, brush and sticks which had washed there during the recent storms. The flow of the current rushed in through the narrow channel and rolled and rippled through the pipe until it cascaded down a small waterfall at the end. In any other situation, the noise of the splashing would have been cheering, but in the dark, cold tunnel, it had an ominous ring. Fródwine did not like the place in the least. Should the orcs discover the boys, the barricade at the upper end would effectively cage them in a trap.
Five of the brutes had left the main group and were making their way to the small pool which lay at the end of the tile. Strong-bodied and swaggering, they were headed to the northern fields of war, certain that the conflict would be won long before they ever got there. Overly confident, they were not quite so alert as they normally would have been. Letting down their guard, they rough-housed and cuffed each other about the heads and shoulders. A sudden snarl from one of them warned his fellow that his playful shove had been a little too enthusiastic. After a few muttered threats and a vague promise that if hands were not kept to themselves, they would be broken, the orcs set about fetching water.
Once at the stream, the orcs knelt down and filled their water flasks. One of them, still mumbling to himself, squatted at the edge of the small pool and held his container under the flow, the water bubbling and gurgling as it rushed into the waterskin. The moonlight played over his helm and mail and cast him into a metal statue in profile. Fródwine tried to compress his body and make it appear smaller, for he was certain that the creature had sighted through the tunnel and spotted him. He determined that if the monster had seen him, that he would just stare back, showing the creature no fear in his eyes. A coarse remark from his comrades distracted the orc, and he turned his head away to look at them and laugh.
After some ribald laughter, snorts and grunts, the orc rejoined his fellows. Then he and one of his comrades walked a short distance down the stream. There, amidst much guffawing, they hauled out their apparatuses, and in a contest of marksmanship, they sent arcing sprays into the rippling waters, aiming for small sticks and twigs that floated on the current.
"The Dark Lord's evil spreads," Fródwine remarked dryly.
After the orcs had finished their business at the stream and returned to the top of the bank, the boys thanked their good fortune that they had escaped peril so easily. Not without discomfort, though - the long time in the cool waters was misery for the two elder brothers. They felt chilled to the bone, their skin covered with goose bumps. Peering out from their vantage-point under the bridge, the boys could see the orange glow of bonfires reflected upon the broad stream. While the brothers had to continue their miserable sojourn in their watery hiding place, the orcs were comfortable, dry and partaking of their provisions high above them on the bank.
"Sounds as though they are having a party up there. With all that racket, they could never hear us if we climb up upon the bank," Frumgár muttered as he shivered beside his brother.
"Their hearing is better than you think," Fródwine replied as he turned to Frumgár. "We are very lucky. If they had been looking for us, make no mistake, brother; they would have found us!"
"A random patrol, then, and not sent out by the slaver?" Frumgár asked.
Fródwine nodded. "Fortunately for us."
Fritha had been quiet for so long that Frumgár had become worried about him. "Fritha, you have been very brave throughout this journey," he encouraged the little boy as he reached over and placed his hand on his brother's arm.
"Do you really think so?" came the small, shivery sleepy voice of Fritha, who had almost fallen asleep with his head resting against Fródwine's shoulder.
"Aye, I certainly do. Boys far older than you would have quailed at a lot less. Mother would be proud of you. I know I am." Frumgár gave his arm a comforting squeeze.
A sudden sharp whisper from Fródwine disrupted the two boys' conversation. "Listen! Over there in the camp! There seems to be some sort of disturbance. The orcs are probably quarreling. Oft times I wonder if they are capable of ever sitting down and discussing any subject without coming to blows!" His muscles stiff and aching after having carried Fritha for so long, he moved his back, shoulders, arms and legs, readjusting the little boy's weight to a more comfortable position.
"All the ones I have seen would much rather fight than talk," came Frumgár's muffled reply. "They are a contentious lot, but it makes no matter to me about what they speak, just so long as it is not of us."
Sounds of cursing and snarling began to filter down from the camp to the watery sanctuary beneath the bridge. The uproar intensified for some minutes, but then after a while all went silent, save for some low mutters and grunts. Then the voices grew louder again, intermingling with angry, short bursts of harsh, guttural growls and hisses. Understanding only a few words of the Dark Tongue, the boys assumed that a severe fight had broken out in the orc camp. There was one long, piercing howl of rage and insult, and then the sounds of scuffling, blows landing on flesh, and heavy thuds, as though bodies had been knocked to the ground. Several stern authoritarian voices rose above all the others, and the boys wondered if those belonged to the officers who were in the process of breaking up the scuffle.
Fródwine and Frumgár looked at each other when a fresh onslaught of sound struck their ears. Some creature yipped and yapped, while another howled. Others joined them, and soon a pandemonium of growls, barks, snarls, groans, shrieks, wails and howls rose up in the night air. As the cacophony grew louder, the three brothers felt the hair at the nape of their necks rise, and Fritha clapped his hands over his ears. The eerie din reminded them of the wolves in the hungry moon of winter, when the packs raced across the snow-covered landscape and dragged down the old, weak and helpless among the herds of deer.
Finally, the tumult quieted down to only a faint murmuring of voices. Then the boys heard the sound of jeering and guffaws, which gradually led up to a loud chanting and the clapping of many hands. The brothers could hear the swish of a lash rising and falling and the anguished scream of the orc who was being whipped. Together, Fródwine and Frumgár counted the slow, regular rhythm as each stripe landed upon the struggling recipient's body. By the time the whipping was completed, the brothers had tallied fifty lashes.
"I wonder if they killed the bastard," Fródwine asked indifferently, as though the matter concerned him no more than swatting a fly.
"If they did not, the monster will probably be in so much pain that he wishes that they had," Frumgár returned dryly.
"If they have - to quote an old expression - it is no hide off our backs."
After the commotion had died down, the sound was replaced by the sharp orders of officers calling the orcs to attention. A desultory attempt was made to snuff out the campfires, but the job was poorly done, and the charring logs sent their plumes of smoke into the night air. The soldiers shuffled into ranks and the company was formed up. The orcs' rest time had come to a halt. The boys listened to the heavy tramping footsteps as the orcs turned back onto the roadway. Soon the sound grew steadily fainter and then finally faded altogether as the orcs marched away.
The boys waited under the tile nearly a half an hour after the orcs had gone before Fródwine concluded that it would be safe for them to venture onto the bank. While the two older boys were stiff and chilled by the cold water and exposure, young Fritha had been spared much of their misery, for only his bare legs had gotten wet. Climbing up the bank on aching, cramping and rigid muscles, the boys struggled to the top, and Fródwine set Fritha down on the ground.
"Not the best place to spend half the night," Frumgár muttered ruefully.
"I wager that we will see worse before we are back home again, but for now, my lads, we have the warmth of a fire before us! I will race you, Frumgár!" With a soft chuckle, Fródwine loped away from his brothers to the sounds of Fritha's call of "Wait for me!"
"What took you so long? I thought perhaps the two of you had gotten lost," Fródwine smirked as the two younger boys caught up with him at the campfire. He had that insufferably infuriating expression on his face again, the one he always assumed when he was proud of himself.
Frumgár tossed down the canvas sack upon the ground. Rummaging in the pouch until he had found an old tattered rag, Frumgár knelt and rubbed Fritha's legs and feet until they were warm and dry. "Now, Fritha, dress yourself in dry clothing while I tend to drying myself. Our brother over there appears to be in no hurry to do much of anything." Frumgár shot a disapproving glare at his older brother, who reclined comfortably by the fire.
"Just enjoying the victory of outfoxing the orcs. That does not happen very often. Now while you are pawing through the food pouch, get something for you and Fritha to eat. After I leave luxuriating by this pleasant fire, I am going to get dressed and look about this camp. You never know what a good scavenger can turn up." Fródwine stretched his long, lanky body with all the muscular grace of a lean cat and stood to his feet. After putting on his clothes, the youth eased into the darkness and was swallowed up by the shadows.
The two younger boys made a meager meal from some dried fruit, and then Fritha, who was exhausted, put his head on Frumgár's lap and fell into a deep sleep. The minutes ticked by, and still Fródwine did not return. Frumgár kept his eyes fixed on the spot where their brother had disappeared. Becoming more alarmed with each passing moment, he nervously tapped his fingers on the ground to a tune that was often played at festive gatherings in the Mark. The moon by that time had sunk low into the western sky and Frumgár could barely hold his eyes open.
"Sleeping, brother?" came a smirking voice behind Frumgár, who sat bolt upright with a jerk, disturbing Fritha on his lap. The little boy sat up and looked around uncomprehendingly.
"Fródwine, I - I did not expect you to come from that direction," Frumgár mumbled sleepily, angry with the unreasonable anger that comes when a person is awakened suddenly, mutters some gibberish and feels foolish about it afterwards.
"Slipped up on you, did I, brother?" Fródwine chuckled in that mocking way of his. "Do not feel so bad about it. When I was scouting about the camp, I found something, something very interesting."
Frumgár was wide awake now and stood up to face his brother. "What is it?"
"This," he hissed in a long whisper as he held up a military knapsack. "One of the devils must have been distracted by the commotion and walked off, completely forgetting his possessions. His misfortune is our good fortune."
"Let me see!" Frumgár demanded as he stepped closer and reached for the bag.
"Not so fast, little brother!" Fródwine slapped away Frumgár's hand. "This is not for little boys!"
"All right, what is it?" Frumgár rubbed his stinging hand, frowning at his brother.
"First this," he exclaimed as he drew out a leather wrapper from the sack. "Some kind of bread! We will eat a little better now."
"Fródwine!" his younger brother gasped. "Food? You found food?"
"Aye, and more too." Fródwine was close to dancing as he took out a small metal box. "A tinderbox, brother! We can build fires!"
"Fródwine, I - I do not know what to say. This is wonderful good fortune!"
"But there is more, much more, little brother!" Fródwine's voice had taken on an unfamiliar timbre that did not seem at all like his own.
"What is it?" Frumgár whispered.
"Do not be in such a hurry to see my surprises! You must wait for good things," Fródwine laughed as Fritha looked at him in confusion.
"If you are punishing me because I reached for the knapsack, you do not have to worry. I do not want any part of it!" Frumgár spoke as calmly and quietly as he could, for Fródwine's mood had alarmed him.
"This, brother, this!" Fródwine held up a dagger. With an exultant yell, he raised the dagger above his head, marveling as the firelight glittered upon the steel.
"Very impressive, brother." Frumgár folded his arms across his chest and met his brother's fierce gaze with one of bland indifference. "Now are you going to stand there all night, admiring your find?" Fródwine's strange mood was alarming Fritha, and Frumgár moved closer to his little brother.
"No, of course not," Fródwine laughed as he slipped the dagger into its sheath. "Now you are going to pack this orc trove with our gear in the sack. We will fill the orc's pack with rocks of equal weight to what we are taking. If he returns, maybe he will just shoulder the pack and never suspect a thing until he is miles up the road. Now we are going to put as much distance between us and this place as we can before dawn."
"Fródwine, the food will certainly alleviate the pangs in our gnawing stomachs. You had a good idea to look around to see if they had left anything." Frumgár kept his voice soft and calm. He had been concerned at the resurgence of the wild streak which lay just submerged beneath the outer layer of his brother's personality.
"Ah, little brother," Fródwine put his arm around Frumgár's shoulder in a friendly gesture, "I have not shown you all of the treasures. The dagger, of course, was the best, but there is another excellent thing which I found."
"What is it?" Frumgár asked curiously.
"Look inside the pack," Fródwine whispered conspiratorially. "It is not for Fritha. If you are a good boy, little brother, I might share some with you, but you must be very good."
"What is it?" Something about Fródwine's manner made Frumgár suspicious.
"Reach in the pack and take out the flask. Just one sniff of it and you will know."
"Orc draught!" Frumgár exclaimed as he took the stopper from the container.
"That is right, my lad. Strong enough to knock over a mule! I will be the sole keeper of this!" A proud grin lit up Fródwine's face.
"Are you really going to drink that stuff?" Frumgár made an ugly face. "I have heard it is horrible."
"I will save it for a special occasion, my lad," Fródwine chuckled, a gleam in his eye. "Now let us be going!"
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.