This was not a good place for a pair of hobbits, either, Merry would have added. He and Pippin had charged toward Boromir’s side when they had heard the horn of Gondor, but two poorly trained, inexperienced hobbits could not succor the wounded swordsman very much. The orc archer standing atop a low rolling hill had continued to fire unchallenged at the tall man despite the hobbits’ best efforts to cut a path toward him.
Boromir fell as arrow after arrow found its mark, but then staggered back to his feet, his breathing raspy and his right arm dangling uselessly at his side as he cut away the orcs in his path, his own blood mixing with that of the dead upon his broken armor. Boromir fought with his back against the lone tree in the center of the glen as the orcs tried their steel against his. Merry heard his kinsman shout in horror as poisoned orc metal proved stronger than Boromir’s notched blade, and the broadsword shattered as if made of glass. A third shaft struck the warrior in the shoulder, and Merry could no longer tell his own screams from those of the dying.
The last thing he remembered was being picked up as callously as a sack of potatoes, the gigantic orcs casually swatting away his sword and throwing him over a stinking, heavily armored shoulder. Since then he and Pippin had had their hands tied and been forced to run with the horde until they were completely exhausted. Their captors drove them on with whips, curses, and swords. When Merry was sure that he was going to fall down and never get up again, the goblins forced a foul tasting, fiery brew down his throat and redoubled their tortuous prodding.
At least he had been able to keep an eye on Pippin. The orcs were whipping Merry’s younger cousin on just as hard, but Pippin’s indomitable spirit had allowed him to keep his eyes and ears open. The goblins had not separated the two hobbits, letting them compare notes and plan escape in their precious little downtime. Merry dreamt desperately of running away when he had enough of his wits left about him to think of more than putting one foot in front of the other, but Pippin listened to the orcs’ grumblings in an effort to find a means of flight.
And because the orcs came from different lands, they had to use the Common Tongue to communicate with each other, allowing Pippin to understand the most pertinent conversations. The northern goblins of the mountains could not understand the harsh speech of the southern orcs of the Black Tower, and the orcs of Mordor and Moria did not speak the guttural tongue of the Uruk Hai, whom Pippin had never heard of before his capture. All of the orcs argued loudly and bitterly with one another, not caring how much one luckless little prisoner heard of their arguments.
The information Pippin heard was at once heartening and depressing. The orcs had been ordered to leave their captives in one piece, with all their gear. Sauron was obviously planning to torture them worse than in any way the orcs could dream up. Not all the orcs agreed that they should take the hobbits to Mordor, surprisingly.
The Uruk Hai, the largest group of orcs, both physically and in numbers, wanted to bring the prisoners to Isengard. Because they were the biggest, nastiest, and most brutal, the Uruk Hai generally got what they wanted. This time was no exception, although they had had to slaughter four or five dissenters who protested the trip to the tower of Isengard too thoroughly.
“But isn’t Isengard where the wizards live?” Merry asked Pippin furtively after his cousin filled him in.
“That’s what I thought,” the younger hobbit nodded. “But they’re not likely to set us free, are they?” They were interrupted by a growl from one of the big Uruk Hai orcs who snapped a whip at them.
“You little rats think you’re so smart, don’t ya?” he sent the hobbits running with another crack of his whip. “We’ll see how smart you are when we get to Isengard,” he snickered evilly, knocking Pippin over with the handle of his whip. “Too bad we can’t gut ya now, while your juices are still fresh, but Saruman’ll know what to do with smart little rats.”
As Merry hurriedly helped his cousin to his feet, he noticed the clasp on Pippin elf woven cloak was missing. Just another sign of abuse they were suffering on this forced march, yet something about the lost leaf-shaped pin piqued Merry’s curiosity. He resolved to ask Pippin about it the next time they stopped.
* * *
The pin itself lay dropped, trampled, and forgotten at the edge of the path hacked out by the orcs. Strider, true to his Dunedain heritage had easily followed the trail of trampled underbrush and scarred trees through the forests and grassy fields, but even the destructive orcs eluded his careful observations on stony ground.
The Wargs had left the company after a sixth hunter had run out with a warning. Valenska, who spoke a heavily accented Common Tongue, had said something about the “white one” in the “High Walls” turning against her “Sekras.” She had been adamant that no one should go east of pack territory, or any further south along this route. The little black she-Warg and the older hunters had headed back for Mithilira’s den immediately. Gaundalan had remained with the group, but ranged off for longer and longer hunting trips. After no sign of him for two days, Aragorn assumed the little brown wolf had finally left them for good. Strider hoped the Warg returned home safely. Gaundalan had been helpful and loyal to Tasana and her unusual pack mates.
More every day, however, Aragorn missed Parcha’kahnsta, Roliran, and the other trackers who were big enough to carry the group along their route. The company had gotten precious little sleep with the Wargs, drowsing as they rode, and had even less downtime while on their feet. Eventually, the three hunters would have to take a break and set up a rudimentary camp; otherwise the Dunedain, elf, and dwarf would be absolutely useless to Pippin and Merry, collapsing as they ran.
“Any sign of them, Strider?” Gimli asked, switching his hefty battleaxe to his other shoulder. Aragorn hated to give up the chase, but he had been running on pure guesswork as to the orcs’ path for the past three days. There was little hope of finding a clue in the stone, but perhaps eyes less heavy from sleepless nights would see more clearly and a mind not dulled from travailing journeys would find pieces to the puzzle more easily. At least the dwarf would stop comparing the ranger unfavorably with orc slave- drivers underneath his frequent gasps for breath.
“Not yet, Gimli,” Aragorn replied. “Have you or Legolas had any luck?” The elf shook his head, vaulting atop another rock in an effort to spot a dust cloud on the horizon or some other sign of life, but the archer’s eagle eyes were continuing to fail him. “If we don’t find anything by tonight, we may have to stop and rest,” Strider yawned generously.
“Bah. Resting won’t help us find Merry and Pippin,” Gimli said stoically, but he too was barely holding back a yawn, blinking heavily and leaning upon his axe.
“Neither will falling flat on our faces with exhaustion.” Legolas jumped down from his perch, landing nimbly. “Strider’s right. I don’t like it any more than you do, Gimli, but we can’t take on a legion of orcs without some sleep.”
“I’m good for a few days yet,” the dwarf grumbled, but he did not continue the argument.
As Gimli went kicking a small stone by the edge of a flatter area of bedrock, Aragorn’s thoughts turned to two other missing members of the company. The Dunedain had threatened Boromir with death once, but Strider had no qualms about leaving the wounded man with his sister. Strider was beginning to see something of himself in the younger man, and realized that it was because of these similarities that Aragorn had been so jealous around Tasana. Both he and Boromir were powerful, strong willed men who were falling in love with the woman who called herself Chev’yahna.
Aragorn was just now getting to know his half-sister, just beginning to forge the bonds that should have been well developed twenty years ago. After missing nearly three decades of her life because of not knowing of his sibling’s existence, the constant togetherness of this journey had made Strider painfully aware of those family bonds, or moreover, the lack thereof. In an attempt to strengthen their relationship, Aragorn had pulled her too close, denying Tasana a chance to fall for Boromir more gradually. Through his fears of losing his long-lost sister so soon after finding her, Strider had forced an unnecessary clash between Tasana’s loyalties as a sister and as a lover.
She had sided with Boromir, and it would take a much greater fool than the ranger felt himself to be for causing the conflict and forcing her hand not to appreciate Tasana’s support. Perhaps, Aragorn consoled himself; such adversity to their relationship would insure that Boromir will stay true to the green-eyed healer. Green. A flash of the color of his sister’s eyes shook the Dunedain out of his reverie. “Gimli, stop kicking that stone a minute.” The tall ranger stooped to pick up the rock in question and wiped some of the grit from it to reveal a leaf-shaped clasp with emerald-colored inlay. “Not idly do the leaves of Lothlorien fall. This is from Merry or Pippin’s cloak,” he announced to his friends.
“Well, at least we’re still on the right trail,” Legolas nodded. “I just hope those two are still alive.”
“We’ll get to the edge of these rocks and then break camp,” Aragorn said. “We now know for sure that the hobbits are with the main body of orcs. The Plains of Rohan are within a day’s march from here, and the goblins will be easy to track in the long grass.”
“Let’s get moving then, Strider,” Gimli said eagerly. Although the dwarf was genuinely glad to find some evidence of his missing comrades, Gimli truly hoped his friends read his elation at stopping the march as relief for another sign of Pippin and Merry.
One who watched the dwarf was not so fooled. Quieting the eager brown young wolf at its side with a single gesture, the unseen cloaked figure turned and rode away from the hunting trio.
* * *