Gimli was not the only one exhausted from constant travel. Sam and Frodo had landed on the opposite shore far downriver from where they had last seen the company when they encountered a roaring waterfall. There was little hope of portage around the rocky falls with both their heavy gear and the boat to carry, so they abandoned the little rowboat and continued along the riverbank on foot, much to Samwise’s relief – and truth to be told, Frodo’s as well. Sam’s rowing skills had not visibly improved within the last day or so of rowing, and Frodo was a novice boater at best. Just getting the little craft through the rocky shallows had nearly worn him out.
The fact that the older hobbit still felt malevolent eyes watching his every move did not cheer Frodo’s weary soul, either. Frodo sensed the badlands were filled with malicious beings hidden behind the scrubby trees and under the rocks, hiding just behind the stone chimneys, all staring at him and awaiting the opportunity to steal his Ring. Ever since Gandalf had hurried him on to Rivendale, Frodo had sensed the burning eye of the Dark Lord upon him. The feeling was even worse after the wizard had died. Lady Galadriel’s mirror had only deepened the hobbit’s worst fears.
He could not fail in his quest, or else all that Frodo loved would be eradicated from the land. Yet how could a mere hobbit, whose strength was in literature instead of swordsmanship, succeed in this fool’s errand? Destroying the One Ring was suicide, Boromir in all his foaming madness had been right about that. But even if this mission took Frodo’s life, as it was very likely to do, it was better than sitting on his hands until Sauron and the Nagzül rode down upon Frodo’s childhood home of Bag End in the Shire.
The Ring bearer looked about the thinning trees. Surely it was merely his overactive imagination. Frodo scanned the surroundings more out of force of habit than from any specific fear of nearby danger, but he thought he saw something bigger than a crow move amongst the tree limbs, staring at the hobbit evilly. Frodo said nothing to Sam, but nudged his friend and nodded slightly up, subtly warning the younger hobbit that they were indeed being watched. Samwise clutched his dagger warily, his hand small and clumsy upon the oversize handle.
The creature in the tree froze as the pair of hobbits stopped in their tracks. “Come on, Sam,” Frodo said in an undertone. The air was far too quiet, and Frodo did not want to be the one to break the silence, lest all the demons that haunted his dreams come riding down upon him. He strode onward in what he hoped was an indifferent, casual manner, but his best friend was refusing to move.
“That’s Gollum in that tree, Mr. Frodo,” Sam whispered as the beast turned its glowing yellow eyes upon the hobbits. “Maybe Strider couldn’t keep up with that little scamp, but it ain’t never taken on Samwise Gamgee before.” Sam pulled his dagger out and tapped it against his hand.
“Well, if he continues to follow us we’ll have to put him to the test, then, Sam,” Frodo turned partially to his friend. “We go into Eymin Muil tomorrow, and that is a maze few can hope to navigate.”
Sam still refused to budge. “I don’t trust him, Mr. Frodo. Best if we get rid of him now, whilst we got him cornered, and that’s a fact.” The younger hobbit stared disgustedly into the branches overhead.
“There was a time when I would have agreed with you,” Frodo said quietly, his gaze following Samwise’s into the treetops. “But I’ve been thinking about what Gandalf told us in the mines. Who are we to judge whether a being deserves to live or die?”
“I suppose you’re right, Mr. Frodo,” Sam sighed. “But that doesn’t mean I have to agree with you.” Moving along, Samwise glared up into the treetop. As the hobbits staggered along their tired way, a tree branch rustled, and the soft sound of raspy breathing slipped away towards Eymin Muil.
* * *
At long last, The Uruk Hai conceded to the smaller orcs’ griping and stopped for the sunlight to pass, lying in wait under the trees. Falling to the ground and massaging his tried, bleeding feet as best he could with his bound wrists, Merry was not going to complain about the rest. Of course, this meant the goblins were now able to devote their full attentions to their favorite pastime: torturing their captives.
“We’ve gotten nothin’ but d@mn moldy bread for the past six d@mned days,” one of the Morian orcs carped. “Why can’t we just cut their legs off? The bloody little rats are just slowing us down anyway.” He poked at Merry with his scimitar. After what felt like an eternity of being prodded, whipped, kicked, and otherwise hit, Merry simply curled up into a ball and ignored his latest aggressor. His back was numb to any new pain; it was already crisscrossed with scars and bruises in various states of healing. Sooner or later this orc would get bored and find something else to vent its endless anger upon if he didn’t scream.
“Shut up, snaga,” the Uruk captain cuffed the Morian. “Saruman wants ’em whole and unharmed, then Ugluk and his Uruk Hai bring ’em whole and unharmed. If you want meat, go catch your own bloody meal, or steal it from the crows, if that ain’t too hard for the likes of a d@mn sissy carrion-eatin’ slave like you.” Merry risked looking up in time to see the Uruk draw his own knife. “Now go ahead and talk back. We Uruks have been runnin’ in the sunlight without meat for six days, too, and I’d love to have an excuse to gut you, pig.” It looked like it was going to come to blows yet again. Merry began to scoot surreptitiously away from the brawlers as the other orcs surrounded them, eager to get their own strikes into the fight.
“Idiots! The stupid little rats are gonna escape while you’re fighting. A merry troop of fools you’ll look like when you try to explain to Saruman that you were too busy paying attention to your bellies to watch over your captives!” Merry hadn’t been as sneaky as he had hoped. Auspiciously the orc who had taken him in hand was the one who usually carried Pippin, and had his fill of violence for one day, or at least enough that he would not try to kill the hobbit. “The lookouts say they’ve spotted a herd of straw-heads on their bloody horses. We’ve gotta start moving if you fools wanna keep your d@mned stomachs inside your d@mned hides and not carry them over your d@mned shoulders.” At this, the goblin threw Merry over one shoulder and picked up Pippin, who was moaning inaudibly in his fevered sleep, and threw him over his other shoulder.
“Bugger the flaming straw-heads. I’m tried of running,” the Morian who had instigated the fight sat down, his arms crossed petulantly. “We’ll be safe in the woods. The straw-heads don’t dare ride their horses in here.”
Ugluk, the captain of the Uruks, snorted evilly. “With all those fires your group built? Why don’t you just go yell out where we are, snaga? I’m not sure the stupid straw-heads have noticed us yet.” His fellow Uruk Hai snickered scornfully at this witticism, as various Morians began to draw their weapons threateningly.
“A lot of those fires are from the Mordor orcs, coward,” the smaller goblin spoke up. “You’d best learn not to confuse your betters with slaves.” This comment brought the third main group of orcs into the fracas, and the battle started all over again.
“Merry?” Pippin groaned. The poor young hobbit had been passing in and out of consciousness for the last three days. Merriadoc would not shake his cousin from that soothing fog if he could help it, as there was little hope left for the two smallest members of the fellowship. Pippin was the one who had the greatest plans for escape if he could shake off his poisoned fever, but Merry was ready to give up hope and could only wish to fall under the same happy delirium that saved Peregrine from the despair and pain of the journey.
“What is it, Pip?” Although he could never be sure that his younger cousin heard a word he said through his fevered dreams and nightmares, Merry decided to answer him this time, if only to distract himself briefly from the excruciating pain of his every joint and bone and the curses of the malodorous orcs.
“You know what they’re after, Merry. Maybe if we give it to them, they’ll let us alone.” The elder hobbit wriggled in the orc’s grasp to give his cousin a hard look. No fever could account for such a suicidal statement, even for someone as obviously thickheaded as Pippin. Fortunately the orc had been edging away from the ruckus, and was probably the only one who had heard Pippin’s insane utterance. Their transporter as well was staring at the fevered young hobbit, but rather than Merry’s look of absolute disgust, the giant goblin had a look of rapacious covetousness that could hardly be mistaken for any lesser greed.
“You’d best give it to old Grishank then, you little rats,” he growled.
“Why should we? Gollum,” Merry countered, playing upon his cousin’s gambit. At least, Merry hoped this was a gambit. “The other orcs would kill you if you tried to search us. And you know the precious will go to Saruman, not Grishank, if you let us be run all the way to Isengard.”
“You want a deal, snaga?” The black orc threw them roughly down into the forest leaves, drawing a scimitar that appeared much larger and sharper than Tasana’s to Merry’s frightened eyes. It wasn’t really dripping poison, he tried to reassure himself, but Merry did not want to think of what else might soon be dripping. “You little rats want a deal? I’ll give you a deal you won’t soon forget, you bloody little rats,” the formidable, agitated tormentor growled, brandishing his sword in the hobbits’ faces.
“Cut our legs free,” Pippin spoke up audaciously. “Then let us go, and we’ll give you it, gollum.”
“I’ll cut your legs, rat,” Grishank lifted his scimitar to do so, but the sound of hoof beats caused the goblin to start in surprise. He had brought his captives too far to the edge of the wood. The “straw-heads” his companions had cursed and made fun of were now riding down upon Grishank. The orc’s cry of mixed anger and fear was cut off into a gurgling scream as the pale-haired horseman drove the sharp steel point of his lance into his throat, summoning a mob of Uruk Hai from their unorganized camp further north into the fracas.
Merry, however, noticed very little of this, as he and Pippin were attempting to get deeper into the forest before they were trampled by horses and fighters. To his complete surprise, the younger hobbit, who had appeared to be suffering from a fever since shortly after the orcs had captured him, grabbed Merry’s arm and guided him through the tangle of legs, dropped blades, and dying bodies into the forest. “Pippin!” Merry tried to whisper, but Peregrine’s free wrists caught him off guard after the two had been tied up for so long. A whisper probably would not have been heard over the battle cries and screams of the dying, anyway. “How did you get free?”
Pippin said nothing, but drew a small knife from under his shirt. “I stole it from him while I was pretending to be sick,” he added after sawing at his cousin’s bonds, pointing his thumb toward the dead orc lying on the still-raging battlefield. “Actually I was sick, but I’m feeling much better now that I don’t have to smell Grishank’s hairy armpit.” A sly grin, tempered by the horrors he had experienced, flickered briefly over Peregrine’s face, and then the youngest member of the broken fellowship appeared as he ever had, happy-go-lucky and slightly clueless. From his cousin’s expression, Merry might expect the rest of the company to appear from the trees: Frodo worried to half to death over this latest prank, Samwise spouting his gaffer’s words of wisdom, Legolas and Gimli arguing merrily over the proper way to feed a pair of hobbits while Strider slipped them fruit from his pack with a rough smile, Chev’yahna fussing over their scrapes and bruises; Merry could even see Boromir and Gandalf for a minute in his mind’s eye, glad to see that they had not laid down their lives in vain. “Do you have any food Merry? I’m hungry.”
Shaking a developing tear from his face with a short nod, Merry passed him the crumpled remains of a loaf of lembas, still more or less wrapped in its leaf. After they ate, the two hobbits forged on, under the watchful unseen eyes of Fangorn Forest.