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40. The Road Diverges
The light was failing by the time they reached the farmstead, and the place was deserted. The bodies that had lain scattered on the ground had been removed, and the fires had burned out. Even the woodshed was reduced to coals, sending up thin tendrils of smoke that wavered in the twilight.
The man's labored breathing was harsh in the quiet, and he stumbled. Canohando swung his whip so it coiled around the prisoner's waist and pulled taut, yanking the man up short, preventing him from falling. The ruffian stood still, groaning and hugging himself around the middle.
"Do you have any more tricks up your sleeve, manling, or shall I give you a drink of water?"
"No more tricks." His voice was barely audible.
The Orc unfastened the water bottle from his belt and pulled the stopper. "Here." He upended it in the fellow's mouth. The man drank greedily, but Canohando did not let him have much. He took a drink himself before he put the bottle away. Then he took the ruffian by the arm, dragging him along as he cast about looking for some sign of which way the hobbits had gone.
"I cannot track in this light," he said at last, disgustedly. "It seems I will have to bear your company a while longer. All right, run!"
The prisoner turned a white, pleading face toward him. "No, please! I can't go any farther. Let me sit down, just a few minutes..."
Canohando dragged him across the farmyard to where the house had been. "A child and its mother burned in that," he said. His voice was low, but so ferocious that the man tried to cringe away. "You came to take what you wanted, you and your pretty commander, and it was nothing to you, who suffered for it. Be thankful you are still alive to run!"
He shoved the man in front of him and laid on the whip once more. The ruffian shuffled forward, and the Orc drove him back out to the road.
Canohando could have run all night, even with his broken rib; he had endured worse as a foot soldier in the Witch King's horde. But the man went slower and slower, however vigorously the Orc plied the whip, and finally Canohando furled it up and resigned himself to walking, only giving his prisoner a mild prod in the back when he seemed inclined to stop moving altogether. At last, just as they were coming up to a crossroad, the man slumped and collapsed, prostrate on the ground.
Canohando took out his water bottle once more and dashed its contents on the still face, but there was no response. "You would have made a poor warrior," he muttered, bending to hoist the unconscious body across his shoulders. Brandywine Bridge loomed out of the darkness ahead, and he ran toward it.
The Orc had been thinking hard ever since his encounter with Itaril. He had no way of knowing which way Sariadoc and his hobbits had gone, but he was not much afraid for them: they had Radagast, and the Brown One would protect them, if there were more ruffians loose in the Shire.
The greater danger is Itaril's army of Men, he thought, and wondered uneasily if another army of Elves was already on its way from Mirkwood. He would unite his forces as soon as he could, before the King's Men knew what he was about. The important thing was to warn Eldarion that rebellion was brewing in the North, and he thought the quickest way was to get word to the garrison he had passed coming into the Shire.
His footsteps sounded hollow on the wooden planking of the Bridge. His prisoner squirmed and moaned, and he took a firmer grip. Never fear, manling, I will hand you over to your own kind very soon. Whether you will like the welcome they give you is your own affair.
At last he came to a halt before the iron gate and took a deep breath.
"Darak!" he roared. "Captain of the Guard, come out!"
Doors at the base of both towers flew open, and soldiers poured forth, surrounding him with bared swords. He met the eyes of the man nearest him and nodded greeting.
"Wide awake, I see. Where is your captain?"
"Here I am." The man in the winged helmet strode forward, and the guards made way for him. "Well, Canohando of Mordor, what have you brought us this night? Who have you got there?"
"A traitor and an informant, both in one. Lock him up, and I will tell you his tale in brief. You can question him further when he wakes."
Darak took a moment to look into the ruffian's face, but the man was still in a swoon. "Take him in custody," he ordered curtly, and two soldiers came to lower him from the Orc's shoulders. "What's the matter with him?"
Canohando frowned. "He is a fool, chiefly. Greedy, also, I should think, and faithless."
The captain gave a bark of laughter. "I don't doubt it for a minute, but why were you carrying him? Does he need a physician?"
"A glob of ointment for his back, perhaps. He should be all right when he has rested, but guard him well. He is full of guile."
Darak glanced at a soldier who stood beside him, second in command, seemingly. "See to it, Relinac. A double guard, and send for the medic. I'll be in my office. Come with me," he added to Canohando.
The office was one level up, with windows that overlooked both sides of the gate. It was lit by lanterns hung from the four walls and a tall candelabrum on a wide table; papers were strewn about as if Darak had been interrupted at his work, even so late in the evening. A wooden goblet, half full, stood at hand, and an earthenware jug beside it. Darak took another goblet from a wall cabinet and filled it before he topped off his own.
"Wine from Lebennin," he said. I toast our second meeting, Sir Orc. I would have sent for you, if you had not come back. I have had an answer from Gondor."
The Orc eased himself into one of the leather-covered chairs by the table. Now that he was no longer running, his injured side hurt. "And?" he said. He took a cautious sip from the goblet.
"The King sent orders, but he did not return the letter. Let me see that scroll again, of your courtesy."
Canohando handed it over, and Darak unrolled it with care. "I think you had better hear the Queen's own words, as she wrote them," he said, and began to read.
"The Orc who bears this is Canohando of Mordor, known as the Queen's Shadow, sworn brother to Frodo Baggins, the Ringbearer. You may recognize him by the scar in the palm of his left hand, and my Evenstar Jewel which he wears about his neck. His courage, his faithfulness, and his skill in warfare are known to me. Therefore I give him free entrance to the Shire, to come and go at his own will. And further I name him Guardian of the Shire, under the King alone, to whom he has vowed fealty. Let those entrusted with the protection of the Halflings' Country look to Canohando as their Commander, and let my Son the King, Eldarion of Gondor, confirm this word of his Lady Mother, given in Lothlorien as the golden leaves are falling.
(signed) Arwen Undomiel, Queen"
Canohando set his goblet down on the table as gingerly as if he feared the wood might shatter.
"I would like to see the scar Her Grace spoke of," said Darak, and the Orc held out his hand.
"It is from the bloodletting when I became brother to Ninefingers." Canohando's voice was gruff and he cleared his throat. "What did Eldarion say to the Lady's letter?"
Darak held the Orc's hand up to the light, examining the scar that cut across his palm. At length he reached into a pouch at his belt.
"The King sent you this," he said. He brought out a ring of dull gold, heavy and ancient-looking, the band incised with runes too rubbed with age to be easily deciphered. It was set with an opaque black gem that winked in the candlelight as if a star gleamed deep within.
"It is an official's ring from the old kingdom of Arnor; there are but few of them still in existence. It is the seal of your commission." He dropped it in Canohando's open palm and stood at attention, his hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword. "I am the ranking officer of this garrison. At the King's order, I place myself and my men under your authority, Commander."
Canohando was closeted for better than an hour with Darak, dictating a letter to be sent hotfoot to the King, detailing what he had learned of Itaril's plotting.
"At first light, send your riders -- not a single man; better a squad of four, and let each one carry a copy of that message. It is a long way to Minas Tirith, and we must be certain the message reaches Eldarion. And send warning to the other Northern garrisons as well."
"You killed the leader, you said --" Darak sounded doubtful; plainly he had not expected the Orc to be so prompt in taking up his new command.
"I did, but he was not alone; he boasted of others, in Mirkwood and closer at hand, who would join him. It may be the treachery will die with him, but we would be fools to count on it. And if the King's forces are seen to be at the ready, all the more chance that it will come to nothing.
"Send the messengers, and we will take further counsel tomorrow. There are Men coming to the Ford of Baranduin; do you know the place?"
Darak thought a moment. "South of here, I expect. The only good ford is at Sarn, a day's ride down the Greenway."
"Let us see if we can cut them off before they reach it. You have horses? Good. As large a force as you can muster, Captain, and I will join you before dawn. I am going back to the halflings' great house for the rest of the night."
He clapped Darak on the shoulder and strode down the stairs and out of the fort. The soldier at the outer door let him pass, but did not offer any salute; apparently the Orc's new rank was not yet common knowledge.
He broke into a trot before he reached the Bridge, anxious to get back to Malawen.
We will not be wanderers over the face of Middle Earth, melethril. The Lady has given us a homeland, and a task to do. Only I do not understand why she did not tell me, back in Lothlorien...
He had no more than reached the wide place in the road where the outbuildings of the Hall began, when there was a shrill cry from beside the River, and something hurtled toward him out of the darkness. He dodged to one side, whipping out his knife and then in the same motion dropping it in the Road. Malawen threw herself into his arms, forcing him to bend his knees to keep his balance, breathing in shallow puffs to counter the stabbing pain in his side.
"My love, my love, I thought you lost -- the Wizard returned an hour ago by himself, to say they had found Itaril dead in a sea of blood, but no sign of you!" She was weeping on his neck, holding on as if she would strangle him. "I thought you had started back wounded, and bled to death along the way!"
He carried her to where a wooden bench stood against a wall, and sat down with a gasp. She pulled away.
"You are wounded! Where is it, melethron; let me see! Is it bad?"
He drew her close. "Hush, Elfling, hush. No, it's nothing; I have cared for it already, and later you shall have a look and see if you can bandage it better. Only let me rest here a moment. I have something to tell you."
She stretched up to kiss him. "And I have something to tell you, as well. The Wizard is right -- I realized, when I thought I had lost you." Her hands moved lightly over his face, from his ridged brow down his cheeks, her fingertips meeting to caress his lips. "I will sail with you, melethron. We will go to Valinor, and never, never be lost to one another."
He sat as if turned to stone, of two minds whether he would erupt in bitter laughter, or throw back his head and howl.
"I will go with you, love!" she insisted. "We will be together, always together, and I do not care anymore what anyone else thinks, so long as I have you. Melethron, say you are pleased!"
"Yes, I am pleased." He shifted her off his knees and stood up wearily. "You say the old man is back? Come lead me to him, Elfling, for here is a tangle I cannot unravel without help."
Radagast was alone in the library. He looked up quickly as they came in, Malawen with her arm protectively around the Orc's waist, although he was walking firmly enough.
"We are going with you to Valinor," she said at once, and Radagast broke into a broad smile.
"A blessing on you, lass! It was my greatest wish, that you would come around!" He turned joyously to Canohando, but the Orc sank down on the floor with his back against the paneled wall, staring at the flames that tipped the candles on the table. Radagast became grave, waiting.
"You knew what the Queen intended for me," Canohando said.
"Ah. Darak has had word from Gondor." Radagast brought out his pipe and began filling it. "Yes, I knew," he admitted. "Celeborn told me."
"Why did you not tell me? And why, in the name of Mordor, did he offer me passage to Valinor?"
"Celeborn does nothing in the name of Mordor." The wizard lit his pipe, puffing vigorously to make it draw, before he continued. "Arwen was intent upon giving you a place and a purpose, after she was gone. But Celeborn -- and I am of one mind with him in this -- believes that your rightful home is in the West, with the others of the First-born who heed the Call, now at the end. So it comes about that you have two roads from which to choose."
The Orc pushed himself to his feet and began pacing around the room. "I was not bred to make choices, old man. See now, if I stay, I have refused the Call, in despite of the Powers. If I go, I refuse the task my Lady put before me, and I am sworn to obey her. I would have done better to remain in my mountains!"
"You are forgetting me, love," said Malawen.
He took two steps and knelt before her where she sat, wrapping his arms around her and burying his face in her lap.
"You are free to do as you will, Haltacala,"* said Radagast gently. "You do no evil, if you stay behind to guard the Shire, and neither are you forsworn if you sail with us. Arwen could not know that you would be given passage, and she would not have held you back, if she had known. I would have you come with us to Valinor, but either road is honorable."
"We would be safe in the West, melethron," whispered Malawen. "We would have no fear, neither we nor our children..."
Canohando lifted his head. "Would we be permitted children there, Elfling? But who then will guard my brother's land? The halflings are mortal; they cannot go to Valinor."
"The King defends the Shire," said Radagast.
"Yet halflings were slain only a night ago, and the danger is not past." Canohando sat back on his heels. "Where are the Elves who would have joined Itaril? The leader is dead, but in truth he was a poor master. Someone stronger may rise to take his place."
"Eldarion will not stand by while a rival power is established in the North," said Radagast.
"While he lives, he will not. While the Kingdom endures, the halflings may be safe -- though enemies slipped in this time! But you know, old man, and so do I, what becomes of kingdoms. A thousand years, if they are fortunate -- then Gondor will decline, and who will defend the Shire? Will the Valar hold it against us, if we do not sail? Gladly would I dwell in their presence, but..."
"There is more in your mind than that," Radagast said softly.
Canohando cradled Malawen's hand in his, tracing with his forefinger the delicate lines that marked her palm. "Did you know that Lash was half-human?" he asked the wizard.
"Not until you told us, no."
"Even his sons - their mother was full human, and Lash half, but they were all Orc. So will my younglings be. If we have children in Valinor -- if the Holy Ones permit -- they will be greyskins like me. What welcome will they find among the Elves?
"Since I saw Lash mated, I have wanted sons, but not such Orcs as I was, or my companions of old. If my younglings guard the Shire with me, turning their fierceness to protect the halflings, they may learn to be like Ninefingers: great-hearted and faithful. What would they become in Valinor, old man? There is no work for us there, no need of courage, but of hatred and derision there would be abundance. There are more Elves like Itaril, I deem, than there are like Celeborn. But will the Holy Ones forgive us, if we spurn their call?"
The wizard cleared his throat.
"I think you misread the Elves, Canohando; there are not so many like Itaril. But yes, the Valar will forgive. And even if they did not, there is One more holy still, at Whose word Manwe himself falls silent. Will He take it amiss, if you put aside your own great desire in order to defend the innocent, and raise up children to break Morgoth's curse? Eru is above all knowing, so high and holy is His throne, yet I do not read Him so. Rather I think His blessing will be upon you, and upon your children. Fitly did I call you 'Wise', on that day when you surprised us in Gorgoroth! I spoke more truly than I knew."
*Haltacala: "Leaps for the Light". A nickname Radagast gave to Canohando in Rivendell.
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