West of the Moon

A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive

 

 

Following the Other Wizard: journey into healing
Continuing the adventure begun in "Another Way of Leaving".
Author: jodancingtree
Rating: G
Category: AU-General

 

Chapter 21:  The Green Country

When they got back to the main room, Lash and Yarga were playing Orks and Tarks by the fire, Yarga with a pile of captured pieces. Radagast was smoothing his wooden carving with a bit of obsidian ground to a fine edge.  He looked sharply at them when they came in, and Frodo knew the wizard had been afraid for him.

"There is a stew there, if you' re hungry," was all he said.

Frodo went at once to get his bowl, and Canohando gave a bark of laughter.  "One more day, runt, and you would have shared my meal!  But today I will share yours; that rat was just enough to whet my appetite."  He added something in his own tongue, and the other orcs looked at Frodo.  Lash gave him a gap-toothed grin of approval, but Yarga's eyes were hard.

The wizard pulled a rag from the pocket of his robe, rubbing his carving and turning it in his hands, using the obsidian delicately from time to time to smooth away a bit of roughness. 

"Tell us about the Shire, Donkey," he said suddenly.  "I have seen only the outlying woods, and our friends here have never seen anyplace like it at all."

Frodo was at a loss for words.  How to describe his homeland?  Camped out in an abandoned Orc fortress, the Shire seemed like a dream he had once had, impossibly remote and lovely.  But they were all staring at him, waiting for him to begin.

"It is so green," he faltered.  "Not in winter, of course; then there is snow, sometimes - the ponds freeze, and we have skating parties."  No, the orcs would not know what skating was.  He tried again.  "There are trees and gardens - some hobbits build houses of wood, but many still live in holes dug out of the hillsides, as our people have done as far back as we can remember.  You hardly see a hill that does not have its round door and a few little windows, with flowers all around.

"Brandy Hall, where I lived as a child, is carved into a great mound of a hill, tunnels and rooms enough for the whole clan, practically, and we always said it had a hundred windows, though I don't know if anyone ever really counted.  It looks to the west, and at sunset those windows catch the light like a hundred mirrors - and at night they glow with firelight; you can see them all the way across the River, coming home on the Ferry--"

He gulped and got up to get himself a mug of tea.  How long since he had thought of home?  He hadn't missed it until he began to speak of it.

"Tell about your family, Donkey."

He seated himself by the wizard, the hot mug comforting between his hands.  "My parents drowned when I was twelve," he said.  The old desolation rose in his heart and he hurried on.  "I lived with my aunts and uncles after that, and when I reached my tweens I went to live at Bag End with Bilbo - my cousin, but he was so much older than I, he was like another uncle.  And my friends were almost all cousins, too - Merry and Pippin and Fredegar -"

"All except your little gardener," Radagast put in.

Frodo smiled.  "Samwise.  He was the best friend of all, though I didn't realize that till later, when I needed him most."  He had a sudden thought and glanced at Canohando.  "Sam killed for me, or tried to.  He fought the Spider; he saved my life."

The big orc had seated himself close to Lash and Yarga, and he reached out and laid a hand on each of their shoulders.  "These are my cousins," he said.  "They saved my life."

Frodo doubted the orc understood what cousins were, but it didn't matter.  He had the idea. 

"It was your cousin Bilbo who traveled with Gandalf and the dwarves," Radagast said.

"Yes.  That was before I was born, of course, and I grew up hearing tales of his adventures, the Lonely Mountain and Mirkwood, the Dragon and the spiders."  No, he didn't want to think about the spiders.

 "He was always telling stories of his travels, but most hobbits didn't believe him.  They thought he was the most awful old liar!  Well, it really did sound unbelievable, sitting around the Ivy Bush with a flagon of ale, and Bilbo going on about trolls turning to stone, and him and the dwarves being carried through the air by Eagles!"  He laughed in remembrance.  Only he and Sam, he thought, had ever really believed Bilbo's tales.

"And when you got back home, did your old neighbors believe your stories?"

Frodo shrugged.  "I didn't tell many stories.  I wrote it all down, of course, because it ought to be remembered.  It was important!  But it wasn't anything I wanted to talk about down at the Green Dragon.  I didn't go there very often anyway."

"And they wouldn't have believed you, if you had tried to tell them," said the wizard.

"No, probably not.  The Shire isn't much interested in things so far away, Radagast.  They put up a nice memorial to the hobbits who were killed fighting the ruffians, and I suppose Pippin and Merry will be Captain Peregrin and Meriadoc the Magnificent to the end of their days.  As they should be!" he added quickly.  "But the whole War, the defeat of Sauron and the return of the King - that doesn't mean much to the Shire, so long as Elessar keeps the ruffians from coming back.  It's too far away, and hobbits are only little people, when all is said and done."

"Little people who fight the Spider of Cirith Ungol and escape," growled Canohando.  "Little people who bring down the hosts of Mordor and leave the land empty and Masterless."

"Not so little, eh, Canohando?  But they really are, you know.  Donkey has courage and tenacity, and his little Samwise has a great heart, but it was not these things that brought them victory."  He gave a last, loving polish to his piece of wood, and leaned over to hand it to Lash.

"It is a flute, like mine.  If you wish, I will teach you to call the birds with it, for Mordor will be full of birds in a few more years, unless I am much mistaken."

Lash examined the flute with delight, cradling it as if it were the most precious thing in all the world, the polished wood a strange contrast to his scarred, broken-clawed hands.  He held it to his mouth, blowing in a sharp blast, and it emitted a plaintive squawk.

Radagast laughed.  "I have heard a wood duck make a noise like that!  Be patient, Lash, and you will have many bird calls in your repertoire."

Canohando tossed a stone into the fire.  "You talk in riddles, old man," he said testily.  What brought the runt and his cousin to victory, then?"

"Remember the story I told you, Canohando.  The Dark One tried to twist the song of Eru, and Eru turned it back on him, to sweeter harmonies.  In all of Ea there is a tilt that favors life and loving kindness, for that is the nature of the One who made it.  He who fights against that is like a swimmer making his way upstream against a waterfall - soon or late, he will be swept away.  Donkey and his companions rode the current instead of fighting it, and that was their strength."

Canohando nodded, tapping his front teeth with his empty mug and then getting up to refill it. Lash sat caressing his flute, the conversation passing by him unnoticed.  But Yarga glowered under his brows at Radagast, and when he looked at Frodo there was murder in his eyes.


Chapter 22: I Will Not Let You Die

The rain stopped at last and they left the fortress gladly, like prisoners released. The sun came out and within a day the ground was dry again, but the old streambeds were filled to overflowing, running high and fast.

"Now we will see what has come up, of all we planted," Radagast told Lash as they walked. The orc nodded and blew into his flute, producing the wild cry of geese flying south for the winter. He made bird calls more than he talked, these days, and Radagast grinned.  Lash repeated the cry, and suddenly it was echoed from the sky, so high up they had to strain their eyes to see the flock passing far above, black against the clouds.

Lash was startled into a harsh laugh, looking up wide-eyed to watch the geese go over; then he put flute to lips again and followed them with a cacophony of honking that left Radagast and Frodo doubled over with mirth, and Canohando shaking his head as if he wondered what madness had overtaken the other orc. Yarga stalked in silence a little way ahead, ignoring them.

They retraced the route they had been following before the rains caught them, hoping to find some of the places where they had scattered seeds. As it turned out, these places were easy to spot; the month of downpour had sprouted their plantings and sped their growth, so they found many little patches of grass and herbs already nearly up to Frodo's knees. They gathered around these bits of hopeful green, none of them more than a few yards across, and clapped one another on the back and laughed aloud; even Yarga smiled and seemed pleased to see how their work had been rewarded.

The desire to see more and more lured them on, so when they stopped it was late in the day, the sun already low in the sky. The wizard set about making the supper fire, and Frodo took the pail and started to the stream to fill it.

The sunset had stained the water crimson and he gazed from blazing sky to glowing water in delight, awed at the beauty of what had been a blasted land, before its moon of storms. The stream was high, the rushing water drowning out any other sound, and he was just about to kneel and fill his pail when suddenly he was caught under the arms from behind, savage claws digging into his ribs, and flung bodily out into the middle of the flood.

He sank, water filling his mouth, and struggled up to gulp a breath of air before the roiling water dragged him under again. The attack had been made in silence, but the second time he surfaced he heard a voice, a roar of rage or grief, and he tried to look toward the shore to find the source of it, but the water pulled him down.

He was going to drown. Already he was tired, almost too tired to fight his way up to the air, and the stream battered him against its rocky bottom and held him under. His lungs ached from the effort of holding his breath, and he got his feet against the bottom and pushed with all his strength, but the water bowled him over and he was forced back down against the rocks before he could reach the surface. Then there was an awful pain in his head, a jerk of his neck, and he was yanked up from the streambed and hauled into the air, gasping and choking, held up by his hair.

"Breathe, runt! Breathe!"

He breathed, desperately, and Canohando shifted his grip to wrap an arm around his chest, dragging him toward the shore. They were a couple of feet away when suddenly they both went down together, and the orc thrust Frodo up and out of the water, hurling him against the streambank even as he himself went under.

Frodo clawed at the rocks and dirt, pulling himself out, gasping a shout for help even before he had his feet under him. Something flashed past him into the water, and then Radagast and Lash were both in the stream, holding to one another to keep from being knocked off their feet, and they dragged Canohando up from the bottom and out onto the shore, waterlogged and unconscious, bleeding from the temple.

Radagast rolled him onto his front and pumped the water out of him, and he breathed but did not waken. Lash and the wizard carried him back to the campfire, blazing merrily now, and Frodo staggered after them with the water pail. He hung it to heat and went to where they were stripping the orc of his wet garments and wrapping him in his blanket. He wrung out a rag and began sponging away the blood, but Radagast pushed him aside to examine the wound and pull up the orc's eyelids, staring into his eyes.

"What happened, Donkey?" he asked.

Frodo held Canohando's cold hand between his warm ones, feeling again the relentless grip on his hair, dragging him back from death. "Someone threw me in. I was drowning and he came in after me."

"Yarga threw you in. We were following, but we were not close enough. He was very quick." It was Lash, bringing his blanket to spread on top of Canohando's own. He squatted next to Frodo, his eyes on his comrade's face. Canohando's breath was shallow and his skin, normally the color of slate, was pale as ashes. "Can you save him, Healer?"

"Donkey, get some athelas from my bag and bring hot water. I will save him if I can, Lash. He hit his head on the rocks."

"Yarga has run away."

"As he did before, from the Dark Tower. Go after him, Lash. Bring him back."

Let him run, Frodo thought, but he said nothing.

"All the more danger when we do not know where he is," said Radagast, as if Frodo had spoken aloud. "He was driven by love as well as hate, you know."

"Love!"

The wizard was washing Canohando's face with a cloth dampened in the athelas water. He withdrew the orc's arms from under the blanket, one at a time, and rubbed them down with the sweet-scented tisane before he tucked the blankets snug around him again.

"Yarga loves Canohando, remember, though he would not put it to himself that way. Love is a thing he has never known, and he feels it as the desire to keep the other all for himself. He tolerates Lash, as being another orc and the one who saved his own life, but he hates you on many counts - you are no orc, you destroyed the Ring and Sauron's rule, and most of all because Canohando seeks your company. It is beyond Yarga's imagination that Canohando might love both you and himself."

The wizard smiled at Frodo's expression of disbelief. "Why else did he go into the flood for you, Donkey? Did you not know that orcs fear the water?"

"But Lash went in, with you -"

"To save Canohando. You have seen three acts of love today, Frodo, though one was sadly perverted and may yet have a tragic end."

Darkness had fallen and the night grew cold. Lash did not return, and Canohando shivered under his blankets.

"We must get him warm. Get some rocks, Donkey, and put them close by the fire - we will tuck them around him when they are heated."

Frodo did as he was bid and then brought his own blanket to add to Canohando's coverings. The orc shivered uncontrollably and Frodo ached with pity.

"Radagast, could I warm him -?"

"The love is not all on one side, eh, Donkey? Yes, crawl in by him and lend him your warmth. I will bring the stones when they are heated through."

Frodo lay down by Canohando and pulled the pile of blankets over them both. The orc stench was strong under the covers and he willed himself not to mind. His lungs were filled with air and not water this night, only because this orc had braved the flood for him, and he wrapped his arm around the chilly ribcage, feeling the slow thud of the orc's heart.

"You must not die," he whispered. "Canohando! I will not let you die!"

After a time he fell asleep, his cheek pillowed against the orc's scarred back. Radagast wrapped the heated rocks in a cloak and tucked them under the covers on the other side. He filled a bowl with hot water and cast some leaves of athelas into it, holding it where the orc would breathe the steam.

The sky was beginning to lighten when Lash returned, his knife unsheathed, pushing Yarga ahead of him. Yarga's eyes went straight to the mound of blankets, then sought the wizard, questioning.

"He still lives, Yarga. Come and sit by him. Lash, can you make tea for us? You have seen us make it often enough." The orc looked at him doubtfully. "Put away your knife; it will not be needed."

They sat in silence watching the dawn, drinking their tea. Canohando began to shiver again, and Radagast reached under the blankets, pulling out the rocks. "Put these around the fire to get hot," he told Lash. "Yarga, will you lend him your warmth, while the rocks are heating?"

The orc nodded dumbly and lay down with his back against Canohando's chest, and Radagast drew the blankets over him. There was a disturbance on the other side, and Frodo poked his head out.

"Is it morning? How is he, Radagast?"

Yarga jerked up, glaring at him, pulling off the blankets. "Lie down!" the wizard said sharply. "If you would have him live, do not let him take a chill!" Yarga subsided, pressing his back against Canohando, and Radagast tucked the covers around them again.

"Stay there a little longer, Donkey," he said. "We are re-heating the stones, and then you can come out and have breakfast."
 


Chapter 23:  Truce

There was an uneasy truce in Yarga's attitude to Frodo.  He never looked at  the hobbit directly, nor for that matter did Frodo look at him, but they watched each other.  Frodo was careful to stay out of his reach, preferably with the fire between them.

 Canohando remained insensible until the fourth night.  The other orcs were sleeping after staying by his side all day, observing Radagast closely as he cared for him.  At last the wizard had gone to take what rest he could, leaving Frodo to watch.  The fire burned down and Frodo sat talking softly to the orc, more to keep himself awake than anything.

 He wasn't really thinking about what he was saying, but all the time he caressed Canohando's hand, hardly noticing any more the scaly skin and thick, ragged nails.  He started when a hoarse voice grated, "So you are still alive, runt?  I got you out, then."  The orc pulled his hand free and struggled to rise, but he could not sit alone without falling and Frodo caught him and eased him back down on the blanket.

 "Wait, I'll get you some broth.  You've been without food for days - of course you're weak."

 "Weak!  I can go many days without eating, not like you, runt! I should break you in half for that, but - I'll have some of that broth first." 

 Frodo chuckled and knelt behind the orc, propping him up and steadying the mug in his hands.  Canohando drained it and motioned to lie down again.

 "Three days," Frodo said, guessing what he would ask. 

 "And Yarga?  The old man slew him?" The orc's voice was bleak.

 Of course he would expect that, not knowing Radagast as Frodo did.  "No, he sent Lash to bring him back.  They are asleep over there."  He indicated the far side of the fire.

 Canohando stared at the mounded blankets, then at Frodo.  "Are you mad, the two of you?" he whispered.  "Do you think you are safe now, because I saved you once?  You are not safe even from me!  And Yarga -"  He shut his eyes wearily.  "You play with death, Ninefingers. It will be the end of you."

 Frodo pulled the covers over him again before he spoke.  "If Radagast killed him - for how could I do it?  My sword against his bow? - if Radagast killed him, I say, though I have never seen him take a life, and I have traveled with him many leagues  - what would you do then?   Would you remain with us?"

 The orc looked away into the darkness.

 "Canohando - I could not have done other than I did, but - because I brought the Ring to the Fire, there remain only three orcs in Mordor.  I would not be the cause of more death!  Also I would see you cast off the yoke of Morgoth."

 Canohando pushed himself up on one elbow.  "You are mad. Get me another mug of that broth - I need my strength back."

Frodo was amazed at how quickly the orc recovered.  By morning he was sitting unaided, devouring hunks of meat as fast as Frodo could grill them over the fire.  By afternoon he was walking around the camp, Lash and Yarga shadowing his steps.  The morning after, he was eager to move on.  He brushed off Radagast's attempt to change his bandage.

 "I am well enough, old man.  Where do we journey now?"

 Radagast looked him over as if evaluating his endurance.  "I had thought to turn south. I have a desire to see how things go in the land of Nurn, and wet my feet in the Sea of Nurnen."

 "Are we leaving Mordor, then?" Frodo asked.

 "No, we are going to her breadbasket.  Sauron's hosts had to be fed, you know, and there were not hunters enough, nor prey, to feed them all.  The bulk of the food came from Nurn. But what came to that land when its Master was thrown down?"

 Frodo stayed close to Radagast as they set out, and Canohando walked behind them, between his comrades.  The orcs talked quietly in their own tongue, but gradually their voices grew louder and they fell further behind.

 "Keep going, Donkey," Radagast muttered.  "Let them sort it out." 

 The sun stood overhead when they stopped to rest and eat, and by then the orcs were nowhere to be seen.   Frodo and the wizard had finished their meal and sat smoking their pipes, lazy and contented in the sunshine, when Canohando stalked in.  He moved stiffly and he had a long cut down one arm, the blood already dry.

 "Is there food left, runt?  We did not hunt this day."

 "There is food."  Frodo laid aside his pipe and went to stir up the fire.  He  was still cooking when the others came in,  Lash supporting Yarga, who held a bloody rag to his side.  Yarga looked as if he had been beaten about the head, as well.

 Radagast started to go to him, but Canohando elbowed the wizard away.  "I will tend to him, old man.  Will you give me bandages and some of that herb you use?"

 Radagast gave him what he asked for and sat back.  Canohando knelt where Yarga had stretched himself out on the ground, talking quietly to him and washing, bandaging his wound.  He soaked another cloth in the athelas water and bound it around the smaller orc's head.  At last he brought him food and a mug of tea, before he went to get food for himself.  All the while Yarga watched him, the flat black eyes following Canohando's every motion with an intensity that disturbed Frodo. 

 They traveled no farther that day.  Yarga fell asleep and the other orcs sat by him, shading him with their bodies.  Lash blew softly into his flute, sounding like mountain songbirds.  Radagast made a fresh tisane of athelas and wrung out a rag in it, going to wash the blood from Canohando's arm.  The orc raised no objection.

 "Will you plant that herb in Mordor, old man?  It would be good to have it growing here."

 Radagast nodded.  "The climate is too dry for it in Gorgoroth, but it might grow in the mountains."

 "That does us no good.  The mountains are taken by Gondor."

 "There are other mountains, north and south of Mordor, not only toward Gondor.  Did orcs live there as well, before the War?"

 The orc shrugged.  "Perhaps.  I have not been there."

 "The northern mountains stretch far to the east, and I think that land is thinly settled.  You might find a home there, Canohando."

 "Perhaps," the orc said again.  The wizard rummaged in his bag and drew out a small earthenware jar with a wooden stopper.  He dug out a gob of some strong-smelling ointment, smearing it on Canohando's wound.

 "We will go there, after I have seen Nurn," he said. "Somewhere we will find a place for you three."  The next day they traveled on, and the orcs stayed with them this time.

 Winter in Mordor was pleasanter than Frodo had expected.  It rained sometimes, but without wind or thunder, just a steady flow of water out of a grey sky.  Most days were cool and dry, and sometimes they glimpsed the sun for a short while, before clouds covered it again.  At night it was cold and they were glad to huddle in blankets round their little fire while Radagast told them stories of the First Age.  Frodo was surprised how little the orcs knew; all the tales seemed unfamiliar to them, and they listened raptly.

 But even more than the stories, they responded to music.  The wizard got in the habit of playing his flute every night before they slept, and the orcs listened as if spell-bound; even Yarga's eyes lost their fire while the music lasted, and Lash tried inexpertly to join in with his own flute, weaving bird calls incongruously through every melody.  Sometimes Yarga beat a rhythm along with Radagast's song, slapping his hands sharply against his thighs, his eyes turned inward, lost in some world of his own.

 The rain came more frequently as they made their way south, and they forded many small streams, bordered with willows and reeds.  One afternoon they reached the top of a little rise to find ploughed land before them, tender seedlings of some crop just breaking through the soil.  While they stood staring at this hopeful landscape, they were challenged suddenly by a troop of short, stocky men who appeared so suddenly, it was as if they had risen out of the very earth.

 "Orcs!  Go back!  There is no place for you here!"   The men carried short swords and wore metal helmets, but otherwise they were without armor, dressed in loose shirts and baggy pants bound tight around their ankles, their feet bare.  Their demeanor was grim and determined, however, in spite of their motley appearance.

 "Go back!" the spokesman said again, stepping forward with his sword arm outstretched before him.

 Yarga had his bow already strung, but Canohando snatched it from his hands, looking at Radagast.  This is your affair, his look said plainly enough; it was your desire to come here.

 "We will not come into your land against your will," the wizard said mildly.  "Are you men of Nurn?" 

  "Men and women," was the answer, and Frodo looked more closely, realizing in surprise that the speaker and several of her followers were women.  Her voice was as deep as a man's, and in the baggy clothes they looked much alike.

 "We are the defenders of our land, and we suffer none to enter here.  The slavedrivers ran away when the ground moved, and we will not have them back again."

 Radagast nodded.  "That is your right, certainly.  The orcs are all gone, then, who used to be here?"

 "Gone."  She paused, then said as if unwillingly, "Some we killed.  Many.  But then the Sky Blue One came and told us we did evil, so those that remained we drove away into the Eastern Wasteland and let them go.  But evil or not, we will kill any orc who tries to enter here again!"

 Radagast was staring at her.  "The Sky Blue One?" he said.  "Of what manner was he?"

 The woman looked him up and down.  "Taller than you and fair of skin and hair, but still like, somehow.  He came to us the first summer after the ground moved, when we were still at war against the orc-kind and no one thought of planting the fields.  He was robed all in blue, like the sky, and he reminded us that no one would remain alive, if we did not grow food."

 "And is he still with you?"  The wizard's voice was eager, but the woman shook her head.

 "No.  He went after the orcs, away into the East."

 Radagast sighed.  "Ah, well, I hoped to have found one of my own Order, but I am too late.  For so he was, I deem.  We came together to these shores, the five Istari, but we remained in the West, Gandalf and I, and Saruman.  The Blue Wizards went to the East, and we heard no more of them.  I must seek for them one day, but now is not the time."  He stood for a moment staring at the ground as if in thought, then turned his attention back to the woman. "You people of Nurn, you live at peace now? And you grow food for yourselves, not for the Dark Lord's armies."

 The woman nodded.  "We are at peace among ourselves, and we patrol our borders, lest the orc-kind return."

 "That is good.  We will leave you and go another way."  He turned on his heel and started back the way they had come, Frodo and the orcs following him.  Frodo looked back once over his shoulder and saw the little patrol still watching them, swords out and ready in case they thought of returning.

 They made camp soon after, and ate and sat round the fire listening to Radagast's flute.  And then out of the darkness, back in the land of Nurn, they heard answering music:  drums, mostly, beating a complicated rhythm, and also a sort of musical wail, high and eerie in the night.

 Yarga had been lolling back on the ground, half-asleep, but he sat up at the sound of the drums and listened intently.  Soon his hands were beating an answering rhythm against his thighs, and Radagast stopped playing, the better to listen to the far-off drums and Yarga's reply to them.  When the music stopped at last, the orc lay back down with his arm across his eyes.  Canohando said something to him, but he turned his face away and did not answer.

 Lash slipped away during the night.  He was gone when they woke at dawn, and Canohando was beside himself.  "He has gone back to those snaga," he told Radagast in a voice tight with fear.  "He has gone back to them, and they will slay him."

 Radagast nodded.  "Stay here, you three.  I will go after him."  But he had no more than taken his staff when Lash bounded into camp, looking well pleased with himself.

 "Here!" he said to Yarga, thrusting something into his hands.  "Now you will play for us by the fire, along with the Healer."

 It was a drum, the wood intricately carved, the leather head so pale it was nearly white.  It had a leather strap on one side, apparently meant to be hooked to the belt when traveling.

 Yarga turned it in his hands, staring at it and then at Lash.  "How did you make them give it to you?"

 "I traded for it."  Lash glanced at Radagast, as if for approval.  "I killed no one, Healer!  I sat where we met them yesterday, and played bird songs till they came to see what bird there was that sang at night and had so many calls - I traded my flute for the drum."

 Frodo thought he heard regret for the lost flute in the orc's voice, but Lash was looking at Yarga.  "Play it," he urged.  "Let them hear, over there, what an orc can do with a drum."

 Yarga stood for a moment, running his hands over the carved wood, then he laughed aloud, almost the first sound of real pleasure Frodo had ever heard from him.  He sat down with the drum between his knees, bending to it as to a lover.

 It was unbelievable, what Yarga could do with a drum.  It sang under his hands; it cried and shouted and echoed through the morning air, and Canohando and Lash began to clap along with it, and Frodo found himself clapping too, and Radagast pulled out his flute and played in the background, letting Yarga take the lead while the flute followed wherever the drum led.  It was a wild music they made that morning, just over the border from Nurn, and before it was over Canohando and Lash and even Frodo were dancing in a wide ring around the musicians, till Frodo ran out of breath and went, laughing, to start the breakfast fire.

 "You made a good trade," Radagast told Lash while they ate, "and yet, I would that you still had your flute.  I have grown fond of hearing birds singing round our evening fire."

 "I hoped -"  Lash stared at the ground by the wizard's feet, sounding strangely shy.  "I hoped you might make me another one."

 Radagast smiled as if he were well pleased at the request. "I will do better than that, my friend.  I will teach you to make your own; then you need never be without music, and you can trade your flutes where you will, for what you need.  And since we cannot enter Nurn, perhaps we should turn now to the northern mountains and search out a new place for three orcs who cannot go back home."

 "There is somewhere else I would go first," said Canohando, and Radagast looked at him in question.

 "I would see what became of Lugburz."

 They stared at him in silence that felt heavier, the longer it lasted.

 "I would see it," he insisted, though no one had spoken.  "I know it is destroyed; it must be!  But I must see it for myself before I turn to find a new home."

 "If you must see it, then we will journey there," said the wizard. 

 Canohando nodded, satisfied, and Frodo bit his lip.  He would not refuse to go where Radagast led, but more than any place in Middle Earth he dreaded Barad-dur, the Lugburz of the orcs.  He had escaped being taken there once before, but now it seemed he would have to go.

 

Chapter 24:  Hope and Threat

Radagast seemed in no hurry to reach Barad-dur. They turned north from the border of Nurn, but angled far to the east, away from Sauron's old stronghold. The soil was still wet from the autumn storms, and they scattered seeds in sheltered hollows among the rocks.

They reached the spur of the Ered Lithui along the edge of Gorgoroth, and followed the line of hills toward the northeast. Every day Frodo expected Canohando to protest that this was taking them farther from Lugburz, not closer, but the big orc said nothing. Perhaps his knowledge of the country was at fault - but no, he had been a messenger; the northern part of Mordor, at least, must be well known to him.

The hills here were even more barren than the ones to the west where Gondor now ruled. They were steep-sided, and they had been stripped of their trees more than once: the first time when Sauron was building his fortress, then over and over again, as wood was needed for spear shafts and wagons and engines of war. The slopes were badly eroded; the streams, running high from the recent rains, yellow with silt.

Lash grew more agitated the deeper they penetrated into the hills, growling and muttering in his own harsh language each time they came to some deep-carved gully, the soil washed away until the underlying granite was exposed. One day he burst out, "Even the rain does no good here! Your seeds can't grow on bare rock, Healer."

They stood looking at a washout some twenty feet across that ran halfway down the hillside. Lash jumped down into it; the gully was nearly waist-deep on him.

Frodo sat down to rest, taking a drink from his water bottle. Radagast looked around at the stony landscape. "There is something we might try, but it would be heavy labor, far beyond what Donkey and I could do."

Lash looked up at them hopefully, and Canohando said, "We will do the work, old man, if you think it will mend these rifts in the land. They are like wounds; they make something hurt in my belly."

The wizard set them to gathering rocks and building a rough wall across the width of the gully. It took the better part of four days, and while the orcs built the wall, Frodo and Radagast searched out every sheltered spot they could find within a half-day's walk of their camp, planting seeds.

The last day it began to rain again, a cold downpour that turned the bare earth to sticky mud. They huddled together for warmth, their blankets over their heads, eating dried fruit and strips of dried meat from the wizard's sack, while he told them tales of Numenor, its days of glory and its fall, and the terrible wave that destroyed it at last.

"They couldn't have been much wetter than we are," Frodo said lightly, and sneezed. Radagast reached out to feel his forehead.

"Where is the nearest outpost from here, Canohando? Do you have any idea where we are?"

They could not see the orc's face in the shadows of their makeshift tent, but there was amusement in his voice. "I know where we are, old man, near enough. There is a fortress two or three days from here, down on the plain."

"Good," said Radagast. "We will seek some better cover from these rains than our wet blankets. In the spring we will go to Lugburz." And Frodo was silently thankful for the sneeze that had put off that dreadful prospect a little longer.

When the rain stopped at last, they dried their belongings as well as they could and made ready to leave. They stopped first to look at the gully they had been working on, and found that the rain had washed more soil down the slope, lodging it against the rock wall. Radagast clambered down and tossed seeds on the little ridge of dirt that rimmed the stones.

"With luck," he said as he climbed back up to join them, "the rocks will hold firm, and the soil will build up behind them to fill the rift. We will come back in a few years and see."

Canohando raised his brows. "I think you will be a long time in Mordor, old man," he said, and Radagast smiled benignly at him.

"Quite a long time, I should think," he said.

They reached Canohando's fortress late on the second day. It rained again, but they did not stop for it; it was warmer walking than sitting still. Frodo was sneezing frequently, carrying his handkerchief balled up in his hand to save the trouble of constantly fishing it out of his pocket. He didn't feel ill, really; only weary and headache-y, but Radagast lost no time in settling him before a fire and brewing a mixture of herbs for him to drink. Whatever was in it made him drowsy, and he lay down to sleep right where he was.

The orcs had been exploring the fort. "There's not much firewood," Lash said, bringing an armful and heaping it in a corner.

"There is a room below ground that seems dry," said Canohando. "It would take only a small fire warm it." He went to squat by Frodo, touching the hobbit's cheek. "He is fevered, old man."

"He took a chill," Radagast said. "Donkey, wake up; drink another mug of my tisane." But Frodo was hard to rouse, and when he sat up at last he put his hand to his chest as if it hurt him to breathe. The wizard coaxed the tea into him and let him lie down again.

"Is there a flow of fresh air in that room, Canohando?"

The orc shrugged. "Go and see, old man; I will stay with the runt. Lash, show him where it is."

Radagast went with Lash, wondering all the while where Yarga had gone. But when they returned, Yarga was leaning in the doorway watching Canohando. Frodo was still asleep and the big orc sat close by him, his back to the door. He was unaware of Yarga's presence, and he held Frodo's hand in his.

"Sleep till you are well, runtling, but not too long," he said softly. "It is a hard fight, and I need my shield-brother."

"That room has air enough," Radagast said briskly, as if he had not heard. "Get him up, Canohando; we will move down there where we can all keep warm." He did not look at Yarga, but he had not missed the stony expression on the orc's face.

Frodo could walk, but he seemed only half awake. When they came to the stairway he stumbled, and Canohando picked him up and carried him down to the lower chamber. They made him as comfortable as they could and got a little fire going, and Radagast prepared food for himself and the orcs, but Frodo would not eat. He slept restlessly, and as night fell his labored breathing seemed loud in the small room. Radagast sat down with his back against the wall and drew the hobbit up to lean against his chest, and Frodo seemed to breathe easier that way.

He woke in the middle of the night; he had slipped down to lie on the floor, and it was hard to breathe again. He moved to sit by Radagast, his head leaning against his shoulder, and the wizard stirred.

"Awake, Donkey? How do you feel?"

"I'm all right when I sit up."

"Sit, then. I'll mix up some medicine for you."

A vile-tasting concoction to drink, and a bowl of steaming athelas water to lean over. Gradually the tightness in his lungs eased and he began to feel drowsy again. Radagast settled him back against his shoulder. "Sleep, Donkey."

Frodo slept through most of the next day. He woke late in the afternoon feeling nearly himself again; he had a heavy cold, but that was all. He looked around in confusion. "Why is it so dark? Is it still night?"

Canohando sat beside him. "This is the lockhole, under the fortress. After all your journeys, you're back in an Orkish prison." The orc grinned at the dismay on Frodo's face. "You woke in good time for your torture, runt - the old man is teaching Lash to cook. How hungry are you?"

"Not hungry enough to eat a rat! Is Lash really cooking?" He looked over at the fire; Lash squatted there, stirring something. Radagast sat nearby, smoking his pipe while he supervised.

"I think you had better be very hungry, runt," said Canohando. "I am not certain that an orc can cook, whoever teaches him."

Yarga came through the doorway at that moment, carrying what looked like half a dozen dead rats by their tails. He glowered. "Is Lash still an orc?" he asked. His glance flicked over Canohando like a whip. "Are you, Ghul-rakk?"

Canohando stood up slowly, his eyes blazing. "You may be the meat, if I hear that name again. And I will help Lash cook it."

Frodo stared, his mouth fallen open; the atmosphere of good-natured raillery had changed in an instant to one of deadly menace. Lash put down his spoon with careful deliberation and rose. "His name is Canohando," he said. "He has earned it. And you and I, we never named him Ghul-rakk."

Yarga sneered. "Now I name him so. He eats no raw meat; he makes no kill." He spat on the floor by Canohando's feet. "Do you think you will turn into an elf, if you kiss the hairy feet of that halfling?"

Radagast moved to Frodo's side, pulling him to his feet and gripping his shoulder. Lash fingered the hilt of his knife. "I held you back from the pit, the day the ground twisted," he said. "Together we drew this one back from death."

There was warning in Canohando's voice. "I am no elf, Yarga. I have not forgotten how to kill."

"Kill the halfling, then, if you are still an orc," Yarga challenged.

Canohando turned to look at Frodo; he eyed him up and down for a long minute and the hobbit endured it, steeling himself to show no fear, though his heart was hammering in his throat. Finally Canohando stepped in front of him, shielding him from Yarga.

"No," he said. "You kill him, if you think you can - but you will have to get past me."

Lash came to stand by Canohando, pulling out his knife. He ran his thumb across the blade, then raised his eyes to Yarga. "There are three orcs left in Mordor, that is all," he said. "Must we slay one another till there are none?"

Yarga glared at them in silence, then threw his rats down before them. "Food for the orcs, if there are any here," he said. "I think there is only one orc left in Mordor." He snatched up blanket and drum from his sleeping place and went out into the narrow corridor. After a few minutes they heard the sound of his drum, a low throb that faded away as he passed out of hearing into the upper reaches of the fortress.


* Ghul-rakk: literally, milk-sucker. Soft; a useless weakling. Lash's remark implies that this might have been Canohando's Orkish name, which would explain why he accepted Radagast's Quenya name for himself, as much more complimentary!

 

Chapter 25. The Pit That Was Barad-dur

Yarga stayed away three days and then Canohando went to look for him. He wanted Lash to go with him, but Lash was beginning to carve his flute.

"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 nodded, shuddering. He 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, not 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.

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