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There were thorn bushes in the Morgai; Frodo remembered those! He had forgotten how big they were, ferocious-looking monsters with foot-long thorns. He gave them a wide berth, but Radagast examined them carefully, feeling the leaves and flexing the branches.
"They may not be things of beauty, Donkey, but they are healthy. There must have been some moisture for them to get so big."
They passed through the Morgai and came out on Gorgoroth plain. "I want to see the worst we have to deal with; then we can go back and work where it is not so bad," the wizard said. Frodo nodded. Even Gorgoroth wasn't too bad, in his opinion.
Not the way he remembered it; anything would be better than that! The sky was clear and high, the spring sunshine warm on his back. If the land was barren, it looked clean, at least. Now and then they found a narrow stream feeling its way among the rocks, and along the line of moisture the thorn bushes were taking root. Not big like the ones in the Morgai, but green and hopeful looking.
They were following the old road south, staying well away from the Mountain and the blackened pit which had been Barad-dur. There were water holes at intervals, and at longer intervals, ruined towers which had been outposts of the Dark Lord's realm. They approached the first one they came to cautiously, going up to it under cover of night. It was utterly deserted, a few rusted bits of armor lying in the courtyard and nothing more. The stone walls were tumbling down.
"A good place for snakes," said Radagast, "so we will leave it for them. More wholesome inhabitants than lived here before, and less dangerous." After that they avoided the abandoned outposts and camped on the road. At first they were watchful, remembering Faramir's warnings, but the land seemed empty.
"I think Faramir can stop sending patrols now," Frodo remarked when they had been there a month, and Radagast nodded. The paved road ran arrow-straight through a landscape of baked yellow dirt and grey rocks. There was more movement above than on the earth, puffs of cloud drifting across the sky.
They followed the road, but they didn't stay on it. The water holes were fed by little streams coming down from the heights – the Ephel Duath, Mountains of Shadow, loomed to the west, looking nearly black at this distance. They followed each spring as they came to it, looking for life – the thorn bushes were what they mostly found, but sometimes there were other plants along the watercourse, spiny, starved looking things, but alive. And Frodo nearly stepped on a toad one day, its mottled, warty skin blending with the yellow soil. He startled himself as badly as the toad, and Radagast laughed at them both. Radagast brought out the seeds that Goldberry had given him, for plants with a healing virtue for ruined soil. They planted them in any spot that seemed damp enough to bring them to life.
"Give it a few years, Donkey, and we'll come by here again, see what's growing then. When these plants come up, they'll prepare the ground for other things."
"What things? How will they get here, where nothing has grown in a thousand years?"
Radagast chuckled. "Not that long, Frodo. We're a long way from Barad-dur. Sauron's hand was not so heavy here, not until the last few years. I think there are still seeds in the ground which will sprout, when they have a little shade to keep them moist. And other seeds will drift in, on the wind, on the feet of birds. There will be green things here again, where now is rock and barren dirt."
Then one morning they found life they had not expected or wanted to find. Radagast was following one of the little springs, a hundred yards away from their sleeping place, and Frodo was frying ham over a small fire for their breakfast. There was a sudden harsh voice behind him, and he dropped the fork and spun around, still crouched over, feeling for his sword.
Three orcs, the small kind, not much more than a head taller than he was himself, but barrel-chested and heavily muscled. They surrounded him and his little fire with drawn bows, three arrows pointed at his heart. He let his hand fall away from Sting's hilt. A sword was no use against archers – he'd have an arrow in his heart before he got it out of the scabbard. He wondered how far off Radagast was, hoped he was out of sight. Wondered why the orcs were standing around him with nocked arrows, why they hadn't already slain him.
His thoughts seemed strangely slowed and dulled, and then Radagast's voice cut through his fear like a brisk wind.
"Hungry, lads? We have food enough to share. Sit down, make yourselves comfortable. Is that ham about done, Donkey?"
He sounded the same as always, cheerful, unexcited, as if there were nothing out of place in a party of orcs, armed and hostile, showing up for breakfast. Frodo ran his tongue over his dry lips and tried to match the calm of the wizard's voice.
"Yes, it's done."
"Very well, give the first serving to our guests and put some more on to cook. I'll see what other food we have."
Our guests. Just a few more wild things to feed – birds, wolves, bears – now it was orcs. Frodo cut the ham in three portions and piled them on his own wooden trencher. He stood up slowly, expecting any moment to hear a bowstring twang and feel an arrow smash into his chest, and carried it over to the largest of the orcs.
To his surprise, the creature jerked its head at the smallest of the three, motioning it to take the food. The big one continued to cover Frodo with his arrow while the others wolfed down their meat. When they finished, they nocked their arrows again and the leader ate the portion they had left for him.
Frodo backed away and squatted by the fire, put another piece of ham in the pan, trying to ignore the arrows, trying to understand the behavior of these orcs. They had shared the meat, none of them trying to snatch it from the others. More, they had covered each other, protected each other from danger. His lips twitched involuntarily at the idea that he was any danger to these three, but apparently they thought so.
The glove is quite on the other hand, lads, he told them silently.
His experience of orcs was not wide, but he'd seen enough of them on the Quest. More than enough, and he'd never seen any that behaved like this. They acted like – friends. He wouldn't have said orcs were capable of friendship.
Radagast came up with his cloak bundled around something, and one of the orcs trained an arrow on him. He chuckled and set the bundle on the ground, opening it to reveal a heap of round, crusty loaves of bread.
"Help yourselves, lads. You can put those bows aside, you know. We never kill anyone before breakfast."
Frodo felt a rather hysterical laughter rising in him, and bit down hard on his lip. The second piece of ham was done, and he cut it up and carried it to the orcs as before. Radagast put another piece in the pan and picked up the fork, ready to turn it over.
"You'd best get us some water, Donkey." He looked at the largest of the orcs. "You can go to the spring with him, if that makes you feel safer."
Frodo picked up the little water pail. The orc leader glared at him. "Take off the sword," it growled. The wizard nodded.
"Yes, of course. That's what's making them so jumpy. Just unfasten the belt and let it drop, Donkey."
Frodo obeyed, hating to do it. To let Sting fall to the ground like that – he had never treated it so. Forged by the Eldar in ages past, given to him by Bilbo when he set out on the Quest – the sword was his greatest treasure, along with Arwen's jewel, which hung at his throat, hidden beneath his shirt. But he would not disobey Radagast, and he could see the sense in the command. He let belt and sword fall to the ground, and the orc relaxed a little, lowered his bow, though he still held the arrow nocked and ready.
"Go, and do not try to run! I am following you."
He walked to the spring, returned to camp and hung the pail over the fire, shadowed by the orc at every step. Radagast had set a portion of ham aside for him. The wizard sat placidly eating his own meal, the smaller orcs watching him warily while they tore at pieces of bread. They had put down their their bows in order to eat, but their free hands held unpleasant-looking hooked knives. The leader said something sharp to them in their own language, and one of them shrugged and tucked the bread inside his leather tunic, picking up his bow and aiming at Frodo again.
"Sit. There, by your master. Eat." The big orc glowered at Frodo, and he took his breakfast and went to sit by Radagast.
"We have not come to do you harm," the wizard said, looking up at the leader. "You'd better sit down and eat, and we will talk things over, you and I."
The orc grunted, going over to help himself to bread, a loaf in each hand. "What did you come for, old man? Men still come from Gondor, hunting orcs, but they come in force. Not an old man and a–" he looked at Frodo and shook his head, as if he couldn't think what to call him. He stood before them tense and suspicious, ready to defend himself from any attack, tearing at the bread with blackened teeth.
"I am a healer, for wild things and for the land. This halfling is my friend and companion. We do not come from Gondor."
"A healer, eh? For wild things. Is an orc a wild thing?"
Frodo bit off a great chunk of bread to stop himself from laughing. He knew these orcs might turn on them at any second, but the wizard's relaxed composure was heartening, and the orc's question struck him as hilarious. I hope I never see anything wilder, he thought.
"Are you in need of a healer?" said Radagast.
The orc said something in his own tongue to the other two, and they came and stood on either side of Frodo and the wizard, arrows at the ready. The leader crammed the last piece of bread in his mouth and unfastened his dirty leather tunic, peeling it back from his right shoulder and turning around. There was a suppurating wound above his shoulder blade, as if an arrowhead had been torn out of it and infection had set in.
"Do you heal orcs, old man?"
Radagast got up and came over to him, examining the wound, running his hands over the grey, warty skin around it.
"How long since you got this?"
"A moon ago. Maybe more. Do you heal orcs?" he asked again.
"I heal any creature that needs my help," Radagast said quietly. "Donkey, get my packet of herbs, and look in my sack for some bandages." He drew the orc over near the fire. "Sit down so I can work on you. What is your name?"
The orc snarled, but he sat. "You heal wild things, you said. Do they tell you their names?"
Radagast was tossing herbs into the water that hung steaming over the fire, and folding a length of bandage into a poultice. He smiled. "Sometimes they do, if they can speak. Otherwise I give them a name of my own choosing. Shall I give you a name?"
The orc made a harsh, guttural noise that sounded, unbelievably, like laughter. "What would you name me, old man?"
The wizard soaked his poultice in the fragrant herb broth, lifted it out with a peeled stick and laid it, steaming, on one of the empty trenchers. "Let it cool a bit," he said. "What would I name you?" He sat back on his heels, considering. "I know very little of the Orkish dialects," he said apologetically. "But Quenya might be more suitable, considering…"
The orc growled, lowering his brows, but Radagast took no notice. "Canohando, I will call you. 'Wise Commander'. You showed good judgment, waiting to see if we were enemies. Many would have killed without finding out."
"It was good for you, old man, and for your slave."
Radagast eased the orc's tunic down around his waist, revealing a mass of healed scars all over his back, what looked like old burns. He held the poultice against the wound, and Canohando shuddered, but made no sound.
"He is not my slave. He is my companion, and I doubt you will meet anyone else of like stature, in your lifetime."
The orc swung his head around to stare at Frodo, sitting on the ground feeding the fire with dry thorn canes. One archer still guarded him; the other was watching Radagast as though he feared some treachery.
"His stature is small enough, if that is what you mean."
"That is not what I mean. Donkey, come here."
Frodo came to stand by them, and Radagast reached out and pulled his shirt open, exposing his left shoulder. "How did you come by that scar?"
A chill ran down Frodo's spine, but he answered steadily, "The Witch King's knife."
The orcs started violently and the smaller ones took a step back, but Canohando leaned forward, staring into Frodo's face as if he wanted to pry into his mind.
Radagast took Frodo's hand, held it up so the orcs could see. "Where is your finger, Donkey?"
He swallowed hard before he spoke. This is when they will slay me. "It fell into the Mountain, with the Ring."
There was a furious roar behind him, and an arrow sailed past his head. He felt frozen in the moment, unable to move, watching it fall to the ground many yards away, waiting for the next one, which would not miss. His muscles tensed, anticipating the impact, the slam of an iron point into his back. Canohando shouted a command, and the other orcs snarled in protest but obeyed, throwing their bows down on the ground.
"Explain!" he demanded.
Radagast made a long story of it, with heavy emphasis on the corrupting nature of the Ring. The way he told it, it was inevitable that Frodo would have claimed the thing; the only wonder was that he had resisted right to the very Crack of Doom. The way he told it, it was Frodo's own mercy, his mercy for Gollum, that saved him in the end.
The orcs followed the tale with frightening intensity. At the mention of Shelob, Canohando stiffened. When he heard that Frodo had been bitten by the Spider and captured by orcs of the high pass, he silenced Radagast with a gesture and jerked Frodo to the ground beside him, yanking his shirt roughly away from his neck. He fingered the old scar, his claws sharp against the hobbit's skin, his hands hot as if he burned with fever.
"Orcs saved you that time," he growled.
"Yes." Frodo had never thought of it that way, but it was true. It was the orcs who had known he was not dead, when Sam had been blinded by grief. Apart from Shagrat's patrol, he would have been left for dead in the pass, until Shelob returned… Of course, what the orcs were saving him for – that might be better left unsaid, with this one gripping his shoulder like a vise.
The orcs laughed uproariously at the idea of the hobbits trying to keep up on a forced march, and Canohando spat disgustedly.
"Stupid Uruks, not to see you were no orcs! Bone between their ears. You wouldn't have got by me, if I'd been there!" And Frodo could believe it. There was nothing stupid about this orc.
The tale wound to its end, and there was silence. At last Canohando spoke, and his voice was heavy. Wrath, or something else?
"Mordor was full of orcs. Full. All races, all kindreds. Thousands." He stood up, shaking off Radagast, who was still holding the compress to his wound. He looked off in the distance, turning around to stare in all directions, then glared down at Frodo.
"All gone now, all dead. I ought to kill you, little rat! Because of you –" Frodo met his gaze without flinching, and the orc looked away. "Only us left now, three of us. We met another, westward by the mountains, a moon ago. He followed behind us, unseen, and put an arrow in my back." He nodded to the smaller of his companions. "Yarga killed him. So – I will not kill you. I am sick of death, and the healer makes a good poultice."
He sat down, his head between his knees, and Radagast returned to working on his back, pressing on the sides of the wound and wiping it clean. "There's another compress soaking there, Donkey – lift it out to cool, and get me some dry bandages, there's a good lad."
He bound the fresh compress over the wound, and helped the orc pull his garment back over the bandages. "How is it that you travel together, you three – and Yarga kills to protect you?"
The orc exhaled noisily. "I was a messenger, sent out from Lugburz. The Mountain belched fire and the earth twisted under my feet.The road broke open and there was fire everywhere, and fumes that burned my breath." He shivered at the memory. "I ran, not seeing, not knowing, and pain ran with me. I fainted, and when I came to myself again, I was in one of the small outposts, and these two were putting wet cloths on my skin." He looked at the other orcs, and his eyes kindled. "They are my right hand and my left. Yarga. Lash. I would kill for them."
Like the Fellowship, Frodo thought. Like Sam and me. I would kill, even now, to save Sam.
Yarga spoke for the first time. "We were stationed in one of the forts along the road, and when the Mountain roared, the earth opened and the fort –" He shook his head as if he still didn't believe it. "There was a hole in the ground, huge, gaping open, and the fort tipped to one side and just – slid into it, orcs, weapons, everything. They were screaming… We were coming in the gate from outside and I fell, I was sliding into the pit, and Lash grabbed my arm and dragged me back, and we ran."
"Until you came to the outpost," Radagast said.
Yarga nodded. "It was deserted; I don't know where they all went. We ran a long way. And a day later he came, out of his head, burned… He fell down senseless right in front of us."
"I thought he was dead," said Lash. "Everyone was gone, it was just Yarga and me, and this one comes along and dies at our feet.Then I saw he was breathing, so we cared for him. Three is better than two."
"What do you do now? How do you live?"
Canohando shrugged. "We go from one outpost to another, hunting. Not near the Mountain; not by Lugburz. The earth is burned black there, and around the Mountain is grey ash up to my hips."
"And what do you hunt?"
"Rats. Snakes. There are enough to keep us fed. And other orcs, to not be so alone, but those we do not find. Only corpses, sometimes, near the western border. The Men of Gondor…"
"Only one orc we found alive," Yarga said, "and him I killed."
Radagast put away his packet of herbs, and Frodo went to the spring for more water. The orcs made no protest, and he boiled the water and made tea. He carried the first mug to Canohando, and the orc glowered at him.
"What is this?"
"Give it to me, Donkey," said the wizard. He swallowed it down, showing his pleasure in the drink. Finally he said, "It warms the heart and brightens the spirits. Also it aids healing."
The orc looked over at Frodo, who was warming his hands in the steam of his own mug, between sips. Radagast passed his mug to the orc, and Frodo got up and refilled it. Canohando drank slowly, watching their faces. Finally he handed the empty mug back to Frodo and jerked his head toward the other orcs. Frodo filled the mugs once more and carried them to Lash and Yarga.
"That shoulder will need tending for many days," said Radagast. "You are welcome to travel with us until it is healed."
"Where are you going, old man? What are you doing in Mordor?"
"I told you I am a healer. The very earth needs a healer here."
"In past years, before the Dark Lord returned, there was good hunting in Mordor." It was Lash, his voice filled with regret. "Not just rats and snakes, those days. Conies, foxes. There were fish in the streams, and in the mountains there were bears. All gone now."
"What keeps you here, in this ruined land?" asked Radagast.
Lash looked surprised at the question. "Mordor is our home. Where would we go?"
"To the West are the Men of Gondor," Canohando said heatedly. "South is Harad – we would find no welcome there…"
His voice died away, and Radagast said softly, "You would find no welcome anywhere, even among your own kind."
Canohando stood up and went to Lash, pulling open his tunic and turning him to face the wizard. The orc's bare chest was scarred all over, a crisscross of white lines on the rough grey skin. "His back is the same, and so is Yarga's. So was mine, before the fire. Big orcs beat small orcs. Now the whips are all burned up, and we do not seek to find them again."
"So Mordor is your land, and you do not wish to leave. Will you help to heal it?"
That was how it happened, and even years later it was a wonder to Frodo when he remembered it. The orcs stayed with him and Radagast, and every day the wizard poulticed and pressed the infected wound, until the infection subsided and it healed to just another scar on the horribly scarred back.The orcs hunted as they went along, rats and snakes as they had said, and even offered to share their meat.
Radagast refused the rats, courteously, but the day Yarga brought in a slender red snake, he accepted a share, to Frodo's horror.
"Now, Donkey, would you have them think us ungrateful? This, at least, of everything they have offered us, I know how to cook so we can eat it! Wait and see."
The orcs ate theirs raw, as they ate most things, but they gathered around the fire to watch the wizard at his cooking, and they willingly tasted the meat when it was done. Frodo choked his piece down by sheer willpower, trying not to show his disgust, but the orcs smacked their lips and came back for more, sitting around the fire as the evening darkened and the stars came out, and it reminded Frodo of nothing so much as long-ago camping trips with his cousins, in the far-off Shire.
Then he looked across the campfire and saw Yarga staring at him, his eyes like black holes in his face, picking his teeth with his knife.
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