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30. The Weight of a Promise
The next day Malawen rode behind Erenu unbound with her hands clasped loosely around his waist, and Canohando ran beside them, still tethered. When they stopped at evening, Erenu led them over to a little stream.
"Soak your feet, Greyskin. I do not know how you run with them in such condition."
Malawen looked down at Canohando's feet and gave a cry of distress, but the Orc stepped into the stream and immediately knelt to put his face in the water, drinking as if he meant to drain it dry. He lifted his head long enough to breathe and drank again, over and over until they marveled at his capacity. When he had finished at last he stretched out full-length on his back with only his face thrust up above the water.
"I have been so parched, I felt some days that I must leave my bleached bones in a heap beside the road." He ducked under to fill his mouth with water and shot a fountain between his teeth into the air. Malawen burst out laughing and even Erenu smiled, an Orc in a playful mood was so incongruous.
"I would not have left you thirsty, had I known," the Elf said. "Forgive me. But now you must come out, before Itaril hears of this. I believe we could trust to your given word, but I am certain the leaders would not, and I must bind you."
Canohando rolled onto his front and pushed up on his knees, rising from the streambed in a cascade of water. "Thank you, friend."
But at that word Erenu's face closed. "I am friend to no Orc," he said shortly. "Only I would not mistreat a prisoner, of whatever kind." All the same, when he bound Canohando to a tree, he untied the cord at his wrists and wrapped the ropes around his body only, leaving his arms free.
"The guards are watching you, and I will fasten your arms before I sleep. For now, exercise them and try to bring down the swelling in your hands."
He brought them bread and a wineskin, and a small container made of bark which he gave to Malawen. "Rub that into his feet, if you want. It should help."
They ate, and she massaged his bruised and blistered feet with the ointment. "There is one of them at least who merits the title of Fair Folk, for all he will not accept the name of friend," said Canohando.
"Only one, though. We still should escape if we can," she answered.
He stared at her in amazement. "Elfling, I gave my promise; you heard me! To go with them to Rivendell, to accept whatever judgment Celeborn decrees."
"A promise given under threat of death! How much is that worth? And Celeborn's judgment may be death as well, for you or for us both."
He nodded gravely. "It may. And a promise is worth exactly what you want it to be. For me it is everything."
"Even your life? And mine also?" Her eyes were so wide and dark, he felt he might fall in and drown. He hesitated.
"It was my promise," he said at last. "I did not ask you first. Yet you agreed to it, when you came down from the tree."
She did not answer and he sighed.
"My runt took up his burden expecting it to kill him, if he could even carry it where he must go. So little he was, smaller than you, Elfling, and yet so great of heart. He thought he threw away his life, and even so he went. But he lived many years after that, and came to Mordor and set me free.
"The Queen and her brothers were all the Elves I knew, and I thought the whole race was like them. Now I know better, and I hope Celeborn is like the Lady, and not like Itaril! But she placed her confidence in me. I would not like to shame her memory, that she was a fool to trust me."
Malawen had been standing with her back to him, resistant, but now she came and sat beside him.
"It is Itaril who is the fool, that he does not trust you. And you believe in me, or you would not have given your word." She took his hands and rubbed them, working out the stiffness in his fingers. "I should have done this before. No, Celeborn is not like Itaril. I will keep your promise."
They had been following a serpentine route among the hills, but as the days passed it grew steeper and more narrow. The cavalcade slowed to a walk, single file, and Canohando was forced to the edge of the road. In some places the drop-off was sharp and many feet deep, and Malawen paled and clung tighter around Erenu's waist, calling out cautions to Canohando, but the Orc laughed.
"These little hills are nothing; wait till we come to the true mountains. There, look ahead, Elfling! See how the light flashes off the snowfields? This is like my home country." He was sure-footed as a goat on the rocky verge, and he tipped his head back to gaze on the heights that began to rise around them, exultation in his face. "I am glad to see mountains again, whatever comes after," he said in a softer tone, and Erenu glanced at him with pity before he looked ahead once more, his lips set in a hard line.
When they came to the pass, it was below the snow-line, but still they could see for miles back the way they had come, and also the road ahead. They camped just beyond the ridge, and when Erenu tied Canohando for the night the Orc pointed to a tree that stood a little apart.
"Put me there, First-born, where I can see the sun leaping up the sky and staining the snow like blood, come morning. Have you ever hunted Sticky Mouth in the mountains?"
"Hunted – what?"
"A bear. Do you not have names of honor for your game? Ill luck to call them by the common words; they take offense and hide! Or do Elves not hunt?"
Erenu smiled, remembering some mornings of white fog at home, crouching with drawn bow by a trail hardly to be seen even with Elven sight, waiting for a stag to pass. "We hunt," he said. "I have not gone after bear, though. That would take a large party."
"You will call it an Orkish lie, if I tell you I have killed a bear with two companions, and one of them a halfling," said Canohando.
The Elf knotted the rope a last time and straightened up. He stood for a moment considering Canohando, the heavy brows, the black eyes deep as a well but just now full of humor. "No," he said. "I will not call it a lie, if you tell me it is so. You might be capable of anything, Greyskin, good or bad."
The smile disappeared from the Orc's face. "That is a true word," he said.
Malawen grew more quiet as they descended from the heights. The road picked its way through a rocky gorge, bordering a stream that widened to a river as it went downhill. The water churned over little cataracts, pinched between steep banks, and half-formed rainbows hung over the rapids. Canohando had broken through Erenu's reserve with his talk of hunting, and he and the Elf traded stories of the chase, the Orc pressing close in so they could hear each other above the rush of water. But Malawen had nothing to say, only sometimes she stretched out a hand to touch Canohando as if for reassurance.
"One more day to Rivendell, unless we meet some setback," Erenu said when he brought them food one evening. As soon as he turned away Malawen collapsed on the ground as if her legs would not hold her up.
"Only one day?" All the color had left her face, and she licked her lips.
Canohando held out his arms. Erenu had lashed him to the tree as usual, but he rarely bothered to bind the Orc's hands anymore, only if Itaril or Galuir happened to be watching. "Come here, little one. It has not been such a terrible journey, has it? But in truth, my feet will glad to see it end. I wish I had had my boots on when they captured us."
"How can you be so calm? Another day, two at the most, and they will bring us before Celeborn. Do Orcs have no fear?" She leaned back against him, pulling his arms around her, and he rested his chin on her head. It was a moment before he answered.
"I wonder," he said at length. "I have been terribly afraid sometimes, but now I fear mostly for your sake, Elfling. Do not let it push you into Darkness, whatever chance in Rivendell. Promise me."
She twisted in his arms, burying her face against him so her voice was muffled.
"I am already in the dark. You do not know me, Canohando."
For the hundreth time he berated himself for being taken by surprise on the border of Mirkwood. Would that I had stayed in hiding and shot the Elf dead where he sat! But no, that was the old way, the way of Orcs. The Elf had been at rest, unaware of any danger. Yet he was an enemy, for all that. Are they so different from my own race, these Elves who fall upon the innocent to bind us and drag us away? But Orcs would have slain us by now. He sighed.
"Have you still got the Jewel?" he asked softly.
She nodded and he kissed the top of her head. "Wear it, when you are safe, when they will not take it from you."
"No! I will give it back to you, and you shall wear it! Celeborn will not condemn you; he cannot, he must not –"
"Hush, Elfling, hush." He held her close, stroking her long hair and letting ringlets of it curl around his fingers. "He is a wise lord, you said, and kinsman to the Lady. We will not despair quite yet. But I would have you wear the Jewel however the tale ends, for it will help you hold back the Dark."
And as he encouraged her, his own hope revived. When he had come to Gondor seeking the Lady, he had been sure of death. Instead he had found a King to reverence and a Queen to love. And now he had found his heart's comfort in this little one who nonetheless was not a child, this Elf-girl of tenderness and rage and deep woundedness, who somehow gave light to the darkest day.
I go to Rivendell as the Lady commanded me, even though I go as prisoner, he thought. She would not have sent us to destruction.
Morning came veiled in fog that did not lift even as the sun came up; rather, the sunlight turned the mist opaque and golden, so they could see only a few yards in any direction. They went cautiously, half feeling their way, with the river murmuring in their ears out of sight. The path was narrow and they were spread out single-file once more. An hour or so after they started, the column came to a sudden halt, but Erenu and his captives, near the middle of the line, could not see what caused the delay.
They had been standing motionless for some time when Galuir came pushing his way back from the front, and behind him came a man with skin as brown as tree bark, clad in a long robe of the same color. The Elves drew away from him, but Canohando gave a shout and threw himself forward, pulled up short by the rope that anchored him to Erenu's horse.
"Brown One! Old man! You are not dead, at least – but you are far from the mountains where I saw you last."
"So it is you, Canohando! I thought it must be, when I heard there was an Orc coming toward Rivendell with a party of Elves. But why are you fettered?" The wizard looked round at Galuir, questioning.
"This is the one you spoke of?" said the Elf. "He is bound because we are loath to trust any Orc, Wizard of Rhosgobel, and only the presence of his Elven companion saved him from death. To find him in such company seemed a thing that Celeborn should inquire into."
Malawen had slid down from the horse and stood with her arms locked around Canohando's waist. Her expression said plainly that she would fight any attempt to separate her from the Orc.
The wizard glanced down at her, looking very much pleased. "So you have found your yokefellow at last. Well, Galuir, now you know what Orc you have taken in your net. He is a person of consequence, for I know of only three of his kind ever to throw off Morgoth's bondage. Will you not cut the cords and let him enter the valley untrammeled?"
The Elf looked troubled. "If I held command here, I would have done it before now. The Orc has proved his trustiness to my mind, but Itaril is Captain of this company."
"And he is not convinced," said Radagast. "Very well; we are too near the goal to waste time trying to persuade him. But I will not see the Ringbearer's sworn brother dragged behind a horse into Rivendell. Unfasten that rope, and I myself will lead him."
Erenu did not wait for Galuir's order; without hesitation he untied the rope and handed the end to Radagast. The wizard looped up the excess length and smiled at Malawen.
"You at any rate have eyes to see clear, daughter of the Golden Wood. Come, walk on his other side, and we will be a guard of honor for this long-suffering Orc."
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