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Chapter 1: Insomnia
The orc was restless. The old stone house imprisoned him; he felt an urge to push back against the walls before they fell in and crushed him. But even outside he felt trammeled: the forest was too small to hold him, and the mountains around his home, which had seemed bulwarks of protection when first he came here, had become prison walls that he must break out of, if he could.
The world itself is too small for me, Canohando thought morosely, tramping through the woods a day's journey from home. He was not hunting; he took no trouble to be silent, but up ahead some small creature sat in full sight without fleeing his approach. His eyes sharpened on it: a rabbit, a big one – this was no youngster too foolish to recognize danger.
What ails you, creature? Even as he watched, the rabbit moved sluggishly – towards him, not away. Its ears were back and it staggered. Slowly the orc fitted an arrow to his bow and drew a bead on it; the rabbit lurched toward him another step. He let fly and his arrow transfixed the animal; it fell and was still, pierced through the heart.
He did not pick it up. He nudged it with his booted foot, then sought about till he found a sturdy stick and painstakingly gouged out a shallow hole in the ground. He pushed the body into the hole and covered it, stamping down on the dirt. He spent half an hour finding rocks to pile on the small grave; then at last he turned toward home.
A small occurrence, if unpleasant. It happened sometimes that one of the wild things took some sickness; it was a precaution to kill such a creature before the disease could spread, to bury the carcass so no scavenger could feed on it and spread the evil. In his present mood, though, it struck Canohando as portentous.
There is some sickness of soul on me, he thought. What then? I will not slay myself and jump into a hole! He grimaced. An orc lived too close to death, all his life, to seek it willingly. I will have to leave, before the evil spreads.
The thought of leaving lifted some weight from his mind and he walked with a lighter step. Almost before he wondered where he would go, he knew, and he reached inside his tunic, his hand closing on the jewel that hung around his neck, the touch of it familiar and comforting.
I will seek the Elf-queen. He had never seen her – Arwen Evenstar, who ruled in Gondor with Elessar, the King. The jewel had come to the orc from the Ring-bearer, who had received it from the Queen's hand. Not a thing to be given away, but Frodo had seen Canohando's need, and given it to him. "Orcs live longer than hobbits – you will need it longer than I," he had said.
The orc wondered sometimes why the Queen had given the jewel to Ninefingers. To comfort him, so he said, but it had not seemed to Canohando that the hobbit needed comforting. Frodo's face rose before his mind, framed by tangled dark hair he was always brushing out of his eyes. Eyes the color of the sky, eyes that danced with merriment or softened with compassion; eyes that were sometimes dark with fear.
Frodo had feared the orc in the beginning, and with reason. Canohando had not been certain himself if he would follow the halfling out of the Dark, or rise up in rage and destroy him. It would have been so easy to destroy him! In part it had been Ninefingers' courage that stayed the orc's hand: Frodo's eyes gave him away, and the odor of fear, but his face was calm and he stood his ground, however his heart might have quaked in terror. Courage and compassion: Canohando had not encountered such a mixture in his thousand years of life. Compassion alone he would have despised as softness, but Frodo's courage gave it a core of steel, and Canohando's resistance had crumbled before it.
The orc smiled; the memory of Frodo warmed his heart whenever he thought of him. Ninefingers had come once to the mountains, with the old man whose servant he was – or perhaps the old man had been the servant; Canohando had never been able to work that out to his satisfaction. They had come, in any event, and the orcs had taken Frodo along when they hunted a bear. Afterward they had eaten the bear's heart together: according to the code of the mountains, that made them brothers. But Ninefingers had followed that ceremony by pulling out his knife and cutting his own hand so that it bled – he had invited Canohando and Lash to the brotherhood rite of his own people. Canohando still bore the scar on his palm, where he had mingled his blood with that of the halfling.
How like my runt, the orc thought now, that his pact of brotherhood would call on him to shed his own blood. And how like us, that we would make ours from the death of some other creature.
Canohando had been one of three orcs, survivors of Sauron's fall, when he first encountered Frodo and the old man. There were four orcs now, but one of the original three was dead in battle, slain because he had thrown his own body in the way to shield Canohando. That was why Canohando had needed comforting, why Ninefingers had given him the jewel. The memory of Yarga, dying in agony and a welter of blood –
Canohando pressed the jewel against his forehead. Something the old man had said gave him hope that Yarga was at peace now, somewhere, somehow. And Lash still lived, Lash and his two sons; they waited for him at home. Lash's wife had died years back; she had been a woman of Nurn, with a human's short lifespan. Lash had mourned her, but not the way Canohando still grieved for Yarga; Lash's sons had been comfort enough for him.
For years uncounted Arwen's jewel had brought Canohando peace, but no more. Since spring he had slept badly, waking in the night to walk outside under the stars, hungering for something he could put no name to. Hunting held no joy for him anymore, his food had no savor – even music had lost its power to lift his heart. He carried his drum from habit and for Yarga's sake – Yarga had given it to him – but for months he had not played it.
"I will seek the Elf-queen," he said aloud, and it was as if he had been lost on the steppe on a black night, and the moon had risen in glory to show him the way. So he had felt in his youth, sent out with blows and curses to carry a message across the wasteland, until he had learned to set his course by stars and sun from Barad-dur to the far-flung outposts and fortresses. He did not know where the Queen made her home, but it was in Gondor; he could find his way to Gondor. After that he would have to trust to luck. Lend me your luck again, runt, as you did when we killed the bear.
Without warning he was seized with a great longing to see Frodo again. He had gone back to Gorgoroth in the year Lash's wife died; that had reminded him that these mortal creatures had woefully short lives, and he had been afraid. He had sought long for Ninefingers and the old man, without finding them. But Gorgoroth had been greatly changed; the desert had become prairie, the trickles of water between the rocks were flowing streams now, bordered with willows and blackberry thickets. Restoring the land was the task Ninefingers and the old man had set themselves, and plainly it was finished. Perhaps they had gone home.
If he found the Elf-queen, could she tell him how to reach the Shire? And if he found the halfling's homeland, would Frodo be there?
Gondor first, and then the Shire. He broke into a trot; he would have to go home first; he could not leave without saying farewell.
Lash regarded him soberly from across the table. "Have you forgotten the Men of Ithilien? They will slay you for that thing around your neck, if for no other reason."
Canohando fingered the jewel on its chain. "You could take it off," Lash said.
"My runt hung it round my neck with his own hands. It will not be my hand that takes it off." He got up to throw more wood on the fire. "Do you think Ninefingers did not tell the King he gave me this? He would not break his promise."
"It is not the King who patrols the border, and it is many winters since the Ring-bearer left us," Lash said. "There may be a new King in Gondor by now."
"Perhaps. But the Queen is Elven; she will not have died. I must go, Lash! I cannot bide here longer; I am as restless as a treed cat! If the Men of Gondor slay me, there will still be three orcs in Mordor."
Lash sighed. "Will you return, if you live?"
Canohando stared into the fire. After a moment he sat down on the bench, shoulder to shoulder with the other orc. "I do not think I will return, Lash. If I live, I will go farther than Gondor. I would like to see the Shire."
"The Shire." Lash shook his head. "Do you think to find Ninefingers still living there? The Brown One never came back to bring us news of him."
"Who can say? I do not know how long hobbits live. I will see his country, at least, if I can find it. Perhaps the Queen can tell me where it lies, if I come alive into her presence."
Not even to Lash would he admit how he yearned to find Frodo still living in the Shire, the blue eyes lighting up with welcome. It is a fool's hope, he warned himself silently. It has been too long; he is surely dead by now. But he could not stop himself from hoping.
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