2. The Plains of Rohan
Merry started up, awakened suddenly from a troubled sleep. As he stared about him in confusion, he thought he heard the wild music of a horn, but it was only the dying echoes of a dream in his ears. Slowly, he lay back down in the grass and pulled his cloak more tightly about him.
It was the very blackest hour of the morning, long after the moon had set, when the first promise of dawn had not yet touched the eastern sky. Low clouds muffled the stars, and the fields of Rohan lay in heavy darkness. Merry curled up in the meager warmth of his elven cloak and stared at the sky that he knew hung somewhere above his head, even if he could not see it.
For a tantalizing and painful moment, the cold breeze seemed to carry the haunting echo of the horn again. He strained to catch it, but it turned to the rustle of tall grasses. Nothing more.
The figure beside him stirred, and Pippin's voice came to him in a low whisper. "You awake then, Merry?" When Merry did not answer, he rolled over and propped himself up on one elbow to gaze at his friend. "Can't sleep?"
"I can sleep all right," Merry muttered, "but I'd rather not."
"I heard you call out in your dream." Again, he got no answer. "I had the same one."
Merry shivered and closed his eyes, but that proved to be a mistake. When he traded the black of night for the privacy of his own mind, he saw the images that had haunted him for nearly two days, that had sparked the vivid horror of his dream, playing out behind his eyelids. He saw orcs everywhere, swarming through the trees, boiling up from the very rocks, teeth bared, eyes blazing, swords hacking at anything that moved. He saw Boromir standing straight and tall, a living shield between the hobbits and the seething mass of the enemy, his sword claiming another orc with every mighty stroke. But still they came, and came, until even such a sword, in the hand of such a warrior, could not stem the tide. And Boromir lifted his horn to summon help, blowing it until the sound echoed back from the peak of Amon Hen and made the orcs quail before him.
Merry saw again how the orcs faltered, giving the three defenders time to retreat into the trees, Boromir keeping the hobbits behind him and sheltered by his fearsome presence. But no help came, and the attackers found new courage. Boromir slew them as they came, ceaselessly, tirelessly, until the moment the first arrow struck him and Merry saw the impossible happen. He saw Boromir falter. The man kept his feet, but his sword dropped and he staggered, as his blood ran bright and hot from the wound. Merry gripped his sword, ready to throw himself into the fray, but a look from Boromir stopped him.
He remembered it now with such clarity that it struck like an arrow in his own breast. The look of defeat in the face of a soldier. Boromir's eyes met his for that dreadful moment, and then he called, in a voice as powerful and compelling as the horn's,
"Run! Run while you can!"
Merry shook his head, refusing to obey, but Boromir was no longer watching and did not see it. He had flung himself back into the battle, his sword flying once again, and as he fought he shouted, "Take Pippin and run!"
So he ran. He grabbed Pip by the arm, dragging him bodily from the glade, and ran as if all The Nine were at his heels. As he turned his back on the clearing, he heard the vicious whine of another arrow, heard the sickening thud of it striking home, heard the orc chieftain's snarl of triumph, but he dared not turn around to look. If he turned, he would lose the will to run, and Boromir had told him to run. So he ran.
"We shouldn't have run," Pippin whispered, softly, as if he had watched Merry's memories with him.
"What else could we do?"
"Stay and fight. It's not like we've never fought orcs. Why did you make me run, Merry?"
Merry shivered again, with fear and horror at what he had done. Pippin was right. They should have stayed, even if it meant capture or death. That was the knowledge that had tormented Merry since the moment he had returned to the clearing, with Legolas and Gimli, to find Boromir gone. Perhaps he would have died. But perhaps he could have pierced just one foot to slow a charge, knocked just one arm aside to prevent a blow, killed just one orc to thin their ranks, and allowed Boromir to stand until Aragorn came. For Merry was utterly sure that the two men together could have held off any army.
Instead, he had run away and taken Pippin with him, and Boromir had fallen. When Aragorn came, he too had to face the enemy alone. Now both men were gone, and in the depths of his sorrow, Meriadoc Brandybuck blamed himself for their loss.
"I'm sorry, Pip," he whispered, tears thick in his voice. "I'm sorry."
Pippin said nothing for a moment, and Merry felt the tears begin to slide down his cheeks. Then Pip chirped, in his drollest tone, "Ah, we'd only have gotten ourselves skewered, anyway. Likely we still will, if we ever catch those fellows."
Merry couldn't help laughing. Pip made it impossible not to laugh, no matter how miserable Merry thought he was. "No fear of that," he retorted. "We'll never catch them, with you slowing us down."
Pippin gave a derisive snort. "I may not have great, long legs like an elf, but I'm still faster than you."
"Faster to the table, maybe."
Merry had little stomach for such jokes, and the banter sounded forced to his ears, but he welcomed it as a sign that all was right between them. Secure in this knowledge, Merry settled back on the grass to wait out the night. He would not risk sleep again, for he could not bear another dream, but he would rest and watch the east for some hint of coming day.
In spite of himself, he dropped off to sleep, and it seemed only moments later that Legolas shook him awake.
"Dawn approaches," the elf said, in his firm, quiet way, "and we must resume the hunt. Come, Merry."
Pippin sat up and yawned, knuckling his eyes. "What's for breakfast?"
"The same thing you had for supper," Legolas answered.
Pippin groaned. "Lembas, water, and sore feet."
"Aye." Legolas offered him a hand up, then turned to Gimli and added, more seriously, "My heart misgives me. The orcs have not rested and may, even now, be drawing near to Fangorn."
"Then we're too late," the dwarf growled, a challenge in his eyes, "but still we must try."
"We must." Legolas turned to gaze at the two small, cold, miserable hobbits, his brow creased in a slight frown. "There is little chance we can outrun them, so we must find the means to out-maneuver them."
"What do you propose? That we storm the very walls of Isengard?"
"Only if we have no choice. I know little of Saruman, and without Mithrandir to advise us, I am loath to grasp that serpent by the tail. But this I do know. Aragorn, son of Arathorn, must not fall into the hands of the Enemy. If he comes to Orthanc, we must find the means to free him, even if it means we storm the walls."
Merry watched this exchange in glum silence, until he heard Legolas's final words. Then the hobbit could not contain himself, and he piped in, "What of Boromir?"
Legolas glanced at him, surprised by the edge in his voice. "What of him? He, too, is in the hands of the orcs. We will find him when we find Aragorn."
"You talk as though Saruman is a danger to Aragorn..."
"Aye, that he is," Gimli assured the hobbit.
"But what will he do to Boromir?"
Legolas gazed down at Merry with such understanding in his face that Merry felt sure the elf could see straight through to the shame and sorrow in his heart. "I know not. It were best we rescue them both, before we find out."
Pippin tossed away an empty mallorn leaf and dusted the last crumbs of lembas from his fingers. "What are we waiting for?" he demanded, with his usual impertinence.
Legolas smiled, as he turned to lead them back to the orc trail. "Only for the halflings to finish their breakfast. Come."
And so the four companions set out again on their hunt.
*** *** ***
Aragorn felt a surge of relief, when he heard Uglúk call for the band to halt. The sun was near its zenith, and they had traveled, almost without pause, since dusk the night before. His entire body hurt from the jolting strides of the orc who carried him, the wound in his thigh burned fiercely, and his cracked ribs sent pain stabbing through him with every breath. But worst of all was the aching cold in his arms. It crept up from his bound wrists to fill his shoulders with needle-sharp pains, and down into his hands to turn his fingers chill and dead. Uglúk had not allowed his hands to be untied, except for the few short minutes it took him to choke down a meal, since his capture. In that time, the blood had ceased to flow through his cramped, tortured limbs, and they had become a cold weight of useless flesh against his back.
Lugdush staggered to a halt and heaved Aragorn down from his shoulder, with no thought to how he landed. The man's weight came down on his wounded leg, and with a gasp of pain, he crumpled to the trampled, blackened grass. He made no attempt to sit up, but simply lay where he fell, savoring the feel of the unmoving ground beneath him and banishing from his mind all thought of bodily distress.
He opened his eyes, when he heard the heavy footsteps of another orc approaching. This one held the end of a rope tether in one fist, with Boromir walking at the end of it. As the orc reached Aragorn, he turned and gathered up the slack in the rope, forcing Boromir to stop when his fist closed on the loop about the man's throat. The orc gave the rope a vicious twist, held it tight for a moment, then flung Boromir back a step or two with a muttered curse.
"Sit down, soldier boy," the orc spat. "Better rest while you can, because I won't carry your filthy carcass any farther today!"
Boromir, who had not shown any reaction to the orc's rough treatment, allowed his legs to collapse and dropped down to sit in the grass near Aragorn's head. He did not move or speak, even when the orc vented a bit more of his spleen by giving him a solid kick to the ribs, just sat with his head down and his elbows resting on his knees. Aragorn could not tell whether he was waiting for something, shielding his face and thoughts from the eyes of the guards, or merely too exhausted to move. He seemed completely still and withdrawn, into some place where neither his captors nor his fellow prisoner could reach him.
Aragorn had watched his friend through the long, grueling march from Emyn Muil. Boromir had covered most of the distance on his own legs, though the orcs had been forced to carry him through short stretches, when his strength failed and Uglúk would not halt. Oddly enough, Uglúk had not seen fit to bind his hands. Aragorn had been quick to realize that the orcs thought of their prisoner as helpless, and that Boromir, as he regained some of his strength through Uglúk's rough and ready medicines, did his utmost to encourage that view.
Aragorn had no doubt that some of his visible weakness was real enough. He had suffered terrible wounds, only recently stanched and bandaged, and he had taken a massive blow to the head that had knocked him senseless for many long hours. The sight of his face, once so proud and fair, made Aragorn flinch, and the knowledge of what that wicked blade had done to him made the Ranger want to weep.
Boromir had not spoken of it. He had not, by so much as a word or gesture, made reference to the mess of crushed bone and flesh that had once been his right cheekbone and eye, to the deep bruise that blackened the entire right side of his face to the jaw line, or to the strip of bloodied cloth that covered both his eyes. Aragorn did not know exactly what that bandage concealed, but he had seen the backhanded slash that had felled the warrior, and he knew that nothing short of a miracle could salvage anything from the wreckage left by Lurtz's blade.
Aragorn might look upon the damage done to his friend with sorrow and pity. He might wonder what thoughts passed through Boromir's mind as he sat, so quietly, upon the plains of Rohan. He might question how deep the pain of those injuries went and how greatly Boromir suffered because of them. But so long as those thoughts and that pain stayed shut up behind the other man's impassive face, Aragorn knew that he dared not approach them. He could only watch and wait, and hope that Boromir, who had shown him much of what was in his heart of late, would trust him that little bit farther.
The Ranger was still trying to decide just how beaten and cowed his friend really was, and how much of it was a ruse to keep his freedom, when his thoughts were interrupted by the return of Lugdush at the head of a troop of noisy orcs.
"I'm telling you, lads!" Lugdush shouted, gleefully, to his cronies, "the longshanks will move fast enough, if we give him good reason!"
The guards posted to watch the prisoners eyed Lugdush doubtfully, but he was the trusted lieutenant of Uglúk, and they dared not interfere with his fun. He snatched a spear from the nearest guard and leered at Aragorn.
"On your feet!"
Aragorn eyed the wicked point of the weapon and wondered how far Uglúk would let this go, before he intervened. Slowly, his body protesting every movement, the Ranger twisted onto his right side to get his uninjured leg beneath him, and tried to sit up. Lugdush laughed aloud, then fastened a hand in his hair and dragged him upright. Aragorn sat unsteadily on his folded right leg, his left leg stretched awkwardly before him on the grass, fighting the sudden vertigo that gripped him.
The orcs jeered and clapped, stomping their iron-shod feet in delight. Lugdush, encouraged by their raucous shouts, began lunging and feinting with the spear, bringing it ever closer to the bound and defenseless Ranger.
"I said, on your feet, whiteskin!"
Aragorn tensed himself for the first touch of the blade and managed not to cry out, as it pierced clothing and flesh to send blood trickling down his side. Lugdush leered at him, feinted with the spear again, then thrust it viciously forward. Aragorn could not help himself. He flinched away from the sharp point and earned himself a gash along his ribs, as the spear slid between his bound arms and his back. His recoil and the fresh blood that painted his skin, visible through the rents in his clothing, brought more howls of laughter from the watching orcs.
With the spear pinned against his back, jutting out to either side of him, Aragorn swayed and started to fall. The point of the spear stuck in the earth, halting his sideways movement and pitching him face down onto the grass. Lugdush and Snaga rushed forward, to a chorus of shouts from their fellows, and grabbed either end of the spear. Bearing his weight on the wooden shaft, the orcs dragged Aragorn to his feet.
Pain lanced up his arms, from wrists to shoulders. He lurched forward, trying to relieve the pressure on tortured limbs, only to bring all his weight down on his injured leg. Pain blossomed into howling agony, his muscles turned to water, and he crumpled with a tearing cry.
For a sickening moment, Aragorn's mind swam into blackness, and he teetered on the brink of unconsciousness. But then a new sound reached him, rising above the frenzied howls of the orcs, a sound that dragged him back to awareness, in spite of his longing for oblivion, and forced his eyes to open. It was Boromir, shouting in rage and defiance. Lifting his head, Aragorn blinked away the encroaching mists in time to see Boromir lunge at Lugdush, striking the orc in the chest with his shoulder.
"Stop!" Aragorn shouted. "Boromir, stop!"
No one heeded him - neither man nor orc - and the cheers of the spectators drowned his protests. Lugdush roared his fury and made to grab the smaller man in his enormous arms, but Boromir did not give him time to close his grip. With a soldier's reflexes, he ducked beneath one flailing arm and spun away, having found and snatched Lugdush's wicked dagger from his belt.
Boromir stopped only a few paces from the orc, holding the knife expertly in his right hand, poised and ready. In spite of the ragged, filthy state of his clothes, the caked and blackened blood on his face, and the livid bandage bound across his eyes, he looked exactly what he was - a warrior, as fierce and proud and fell as any hero out of legend.
"If you lay hands on him again, you'll die," Boromir snarled.
The orc cursed and spat. "I'll snap your legs like twigs and drag you by the heels to Isengard, soldier-boy!"
The words were barely out of his mouth when he leapt at Boromir. His speed was astonishing, and Aragorn did not have time to cry a warning, before the orc crashed into the man and bore them both to the ground in a struggling, flailing heap. A cheer went up from the watching hoard, but it choked off in disbelief, when Lugdush abruptly rolled away from Boromir, a knife hilt protruding from his chest. The orcs let out a collective howl of rage, and they rushed in on Boromir in a stamping, snarling mob that completely hid him from Aragorn's sight.
The Ranger struggled to pull himself upright, but with his leg a deadweight beneath him, his arms numbed to uselessness, and the spear impeding his movements, he could do no more than crane his neck to peer through the thicket of orc legs.
Another, louder roar announced the arrival of Uglúk. He came charging into the fray, swinging his whip and cursing anyone who stepped into range. The lesser orcs quickly fell back, giving him room, until he stood glaring down at a squirming tangle of bodies at his feet. Aragorn could now see that two orcs had Boromir pinned to the ground and were trying to restrain him, while the man, with a strength born of rage, threatened to break free at any moment.
Uglúk strode up to them, kicking aside the errant thrashing leg, and brought his whip whistling down across all three bodies indiscriminately. The vicious crack brought silence and stillness.
"Let him up!" Uglúk growled.
The orcs scrambled quickly away, as wary of their captain's whip as of the prisoner. Boromir promptly rolled onto his side to push himself upright with his good arm, but Uglúk struck out again with his whip. The lash cut across Boromir's shoulders, and while his layers of clothing and mail protected him, the force of the blow knocked him flat. He lay face down on the churned earth and bruised grass, breathing heavily, content now to wait.
The orc captain stomped one enormous, booted foot down on Boromir's wounded shoulder, effectively pinning him to the ground, and leaned over to hiss, "You're not too bright, are you, little soldier? I let you keep your hands free, out of the goodness of my heart, so you won't run face-first into every rock and tree, and how do you pay me back? By sticking one of my lads."
Stepping back to give himself room, Uglúk swung the whip again. The lash flicked over Boromir's face and laid his cheek open to the bone. A gasp of pain escaped the man's lips, and he clapped a hand over the wicked, dripping cut. Uglúk gave a sour laugh.
"That's just a taste of what I've got waiting for you. Bring them alive, he says, but nothing about keeping them in one piece. Oh, no. And I'll make a good little soldier out of you, if I have to leave pieces of you from here to Isengard!" Bending even lower and dropping his voice to an evil hiss, he added, "Sooner or later, the White Hand will be done with you, and then you're mine. Understand? Of course you don't, you weak, foolish whiteskin, but you'll learn. You'll learn the price of killing an Uruk-hai."
Turning to the nearest orc, Uglúk bellowed, "Tie him! And make it hurt!"
The orc obeyed, dragging Boromir's arms behind his back and binding his wrists, being none too gentle about it, while another made short work of tying his ankles. By the time they had finished, the man had gone limp and still. Uglúk eyed him suspiciously, then grabbed a fistful of his cloak and dragged him over to where Aragorn lay. Tossing Boromir down with a contemptuous gesture, he fixed his flat, cruel gaze on the Ranger.
He bent to slide the spear shaft from beneath Aragorn's arms, then he reversed it to bring the point close to the man's blazing eyes. "Am I going to have trouble from you, too?" he demanded.
When Aragorn refused to answer, merely gazing up at Uglúk in silence, the orc used the spearhead to lift his chin, then pressed the blade against his throat. Blood trickled from beneath the edge, but still Aragorn betrayed no emotion.
"I'll be watching you two. And I'll be waiting for a chance to pay you out. Don't think a few lashes makes up for Lugdush, and don't think I believe it was all the soldier's idea." Uglúk's eyes narrowed shrewdly. "You're trouble. I can smell it. That one may do your killing, but you're trouble, right enough."
He gave Aragorn another moment to answer, then flashed his yellowed tusks in a horrific smile and growled, "Too smart, by half. And eyes like a cursed elf." He spat eloquently into the dirt, then stumped away, shouting to the guards, "No food for them! Keep them tied until their hands fall off! And if they twitch, stomp 'em!"
Aragorn maintained his impassive silence, until Uglúk had vanished into the milling crowd of orcs and only the guards remained to watch him. Then he cautiously rolled over to face Boromir's motionless form and whispered, urgently,
"Have you taken leave of your senses?" Boromir did not move, but Aragorn sensed that he was listening. "You might have been killed, for one act of foolish bravery."
When Boromir answered, his voice was low and hard with suppressed anger. "You should have run, when you had the chance."
"You did not kill that orc to allow me to escape." It was not a question, but a statement of blank disbelief.
"Perhaps. In part." Boromir hesitated, his face grim beneath its mask of blood and bruises, then repeated, "You should have run."
"I cannot run. I cannot even walk. And I will not leave you here."
Boromir said nothing, but his bitterness hung palpably in the air between them.
"There will be another time," Aragorn urged, softly, "and if there is not, then we will face death as we did life, with honor."
"I have no honor."
"You are wrong. Your crime is long since forgiven, Boromir. How can I make you see that?"
"I do not ask forgiveness, only the chance to mend some small part of what I have broken."
"Must you die to do it?"
"I have no wish to die. This is not about death, or even honor. It is..." He broke off, and Aragorn could see him struggling to find the words that would make plain his heart. When he finally spoke, his voice was but a rough whisper that Aragorn had to strain to catch. "All my life, I have watched my father rule Gondor from the Steward's chair, while the throne stands empty behind him. All my life, I have longed for nothing more than to serve my land, my city, my people in whatever way is given to me. But always... always the throne stands empty, as a reminder that I and my father and my brother are not enough. We struggle, fight and die so that other lands may live in innocence of the great Shadow, and still, we are not worthy to rule as kings.
"I know that my birth is not high enough to raise me to that throne. I know it. But it is my blood only, not my heart, that falls short. If love for a people makes a king, then Gondor has a king."
"She has a great champion, whether or not he wears a crown," Aragorn murmured.
"No more. I am finished. But even now, I can strike a blow for my people. I can send them the champion they need, send them a king! By blood, by right, and by worth, you are Gondor's King, Aragorn."
Aragorn gazed at him in wonder, moved by the utter conviction in his voice. "I did not think to hear you say those words."
"You are Gondor's King, and you belong at the head of her armies, not screaming your life out in the dungeons of Isengard."
Aragorn lay in silence, absorbing Boromir's words and pondering the gift he had been given. It was not the offer of a life to buy his freedom that touched him, for honor and the orcs would not allow such a bargain, but the greater gift of respect and acceptance. Not until Boromir spoke, calling him King, did Aragorn realize how he had longed for the other man's esteem. Now he had it, but the despair that hung on Boromir's words made the triumph bitter.
"We will ride to the White City together," Aragorn said, firmly, "and together, we will lead our armies against the Enemy."
"They are your armies, now."
"If I am to rule in Gondor, I will need my Steward beside me."
"Denethor is Steward of Gondor, and Faramir after him. I will never sit in my father's chair."
"Then I will have no Steward."
Boromir turned toward Aragorn, an arrested look on his face, and opened his mouth to speak, but Aragorn forestalled him.
"A king must have those he trusts to support him, and I will trust no one else to sit at my right hand or head my councils. I swear to you, Boromir, by the blood of Isildur and Elendil that flows in my veins, by the love I bear my people, there will be only one Steward in Gondor, so long as I am King. I will have you as my Steward, or I will have none."
Now it was Boromir's turn to fall into stunned silence. He lay with his face turned up to the sky, so that Aragorn could not read the expression on his bloodied features, and only his rapid breathing betrayed how greatly Aragorn's words had moved him. Finally, in a harsh voice that could not conceal his true emotions from the Ranger, he muttered,
"You may regret this day's work."
"Aye. I regret that I didn't run, when I had the chance."
Boromir smiled and opened his mouth to speak, but a sudden ruckus among the orcs distracted them both and caused Aragorn to twist around, hunting for the source of the disturbance. Several orcs were running for the southern edge of the camp, while others scrambled to their feet and snatched up their weapons. A shout arose from the outlying sentries, and Aragorn picked out the words, "Whiteskins! The horse-boys have spotted us!"
Uglúk's great voice rose above the rest, bellowing, "Steady now, there's only two of them, lads! Wait 'til they taste the arrows of the fighting Uruk-hai!"
A hail of arrows flew at the approaching horsemen. One toppled from the saddle, bringing a raucous cheer from the orcs, but the other wheeled his mount and galloped swiftly away to the south. The orcs shot a mass of useless arrows after him, until Uglúk stayed them with another stentorian bellow.
"Hold your fire, curse you! He's gotten away! We're for it now, if we can't reach the forest before the horsebreeders catch us! On your feet!" He waded among the milling, howling throng, kicking any who still sat on the grass and striking about him with his whip. "Up, you sluggards, if you value your skins!"
For all the chaos and shouting, the orcs moved with frantic speed. They scrambled to their feet, slung weapons, shouldered packs, and followed the first scouts away from the camp at a dead run. Iron hands grabbed the two prisoners and hoisted them unceremoniously over the nearest orc shoulder. Then the entire mass of orcs was away and running in a ragged line toward the distant, looming shadow of the forest. They kept their heads down and their mighty legs pumping in an endless, tireless, brutal rhythm that ate up the leagues beneath their feet. Uglúk came last, his whip biting the heels of the hindmost and his voice carrying to the front of the pack.
"Move it, you rabble! Run! Run, or die!"