Author: hell-whim PM
In the desert I saw a creature, naked, bestial AU, Companion to Sympathy. --ON SEMI-PERMANENT HIATUSRated: Fiction T - English - Angst/Drama - Meriadoc B. & Aragorn - Chapters: 2 - Words: 9,304 - Reviews: 5 - Favs: 2 - Updated: 06-21-04 - Published: 04-18-04 - id: 1825693
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Summary: Companion piece to "Sympathy".
Disclaimer: I do not own the characters; they are the property of JRR Tolkien. Most of this belongs to the Professor, but some bits belong to New Line Cinema. No copyright infringement was intended.
Author's Note: I must admit that I'm really excited about this story! Originally, I was going to leave "Sympathy" as a stand alone, but this was just begging to be written. Don't worry about being confused; I want you to be. But don't give up on this right away! It'll be ten chapters long, and at the end of it all, you will understand. The chapter titles are from a poem by Stephen Crane. I've never written a story like this, and I've never read a story written in this style before. Please, read and review, and I promise I'll return the favor!
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Part 1: In the desert
It did not really matter in the end how they got there or when they arrived; it only mattered that they were there at all.
They stood silently upon a crumbled stone battlement. Before them lay a wide brown field, burnt and seemingly devoid of all life. Thousands of planting rows, like little hills, fanned out around one wide, beaten-down road. Great pits, carved deep and randomly into the land surrounding the great tower, belched out enormous columns of black smog. Hundreds of thousands that they did not want to count had been buried or thrown in there as the work became too much or the heat became too oppressive.
It was deadly silent and empty now. A gentle spring breeze blew down from the mountains, chilling the ones standing upon the battlements and stirring up great clouds of dust. The whirlwinds blocked, for a time, the view of what little was left of the great forest of Fangorn.
Of those standing upon the highest part of the battlement, there were two Men, two Elves, a Dwarf, and a Wizard. They were silent, and their faces were solemn. They were scarred and broken from many years of savage war, and now, in the end, they were wearied in body and in mind. They surveyed the land they had liberated, and all knew that they had been too late.
The beautiful ancient forest, once more than sixty-six leagues across, was reduced to a few blistered glades, perhaps only twenty leagues at the widest point. Charred, broken stumps, a tribute to the bittersweet memories of a desolate past, stood at random on the hazy horizon like ancient vagrants, frozen in a moment of passive reverence and helplessness. The River Isen, once beautifully clear and sapphire, had slowed to a trickle of viscous black sludge. It crawled past the cruel rocks on the bank, still flowing steadily south into the welcoming sea.
"What happened?" one of the men asked in stunned astonishment. He was tall and proud, and his once golden hair had faded a little with passage of long, pain-filled years. It was greyer now than it had been when these things began, and his eyes were softer and yet less forgiving. He was a king, but he wore no crown. Nor would he ever again, or so he had said.
No one answered his question, for they knew that he did not ask to be answered. Yet the words hung heavily in the air, latching onto the swirls of dust and ash twisting about them. There they stood in the sky, mocking the small, sad group.
"Berior did not lie," the Wizard sighed, leaning tiredly upon his staff. "Saruman was cruel to the last."
There had been no small stones to begin the avalanche for the Ents. When they were finally roused, they had been ill-prepared and their attack too minimal and too late. With relish, the fallen Wizard had unleashed his worst army upon the menial offensive. The Ents had been burned, hacked, and ripped apart in the ensuing slaughter. In the end, they were driven before the flaming arrows of the Orcs, fleeing back into the depths of the forest. Those that had fallen upon the path were left unwillingly by their fellows to be seized by the Uruk-hai.
Saruman believed the wailing of the dying Ents was the perfect way to keep his prisoners under control, and he was correct. It took many, many lament-filled days for the Ents to finally die, and then Saruman bid his hordes to leave the carcasses to rot where they had fallen. Pieces of the ghastly skeletons still lay beside the old road to Orthanc, horrific images of a holocaustic evil.
"What have the slaves told you?" one Elf asked. He was the younger of the two, and, arguably, the less jaded. His icy blue eyes carried a shade of their own, a shade different than that of his kin. Those who cared to look close enough recognized this shade as futility.
"The ones we found in the pits were hostile to the last and would not trust us for some time," the second man answered his friend. This one was different than the other. His hair was dark, but he carried many more scars. His grey eyes smoldered in their sockets, unlike the defeated blue of the older man. He still carried the treasures and heirlooms of his house and line, bearing the ring of Barahir and the Evenstar with pride and deep-seated remembrance. "When we had subdued them, they spoke to us in brief of the death of Saruman."
As they looked about them, they knew that there had obviously once been order to Saruman's madness. After extending the circular walls of Isengard over fifty miles by the pains of thousands of slaves, he sectioned off almost a quarter of the land for the cultivation of more trees. After two short and often dry years of growing, these trees were felled and carted away to the blazing furnaces. The beauty and gentle elegance of the ancient and powerful trees was consumed by insatiable fire, corrupted and desecrated for the use of making weapons.
"Would they tell you anything of the Hobbits?" the Dwarf leaned lightly upon his axe. The weapon, battered and pitted though it was, had survived the bitter war with its tenacious wielder. Many an Orc had fallen under its biting edge, and many more were yet to be felled.
"Only little bits and pieces," the Wizard replied. "A few managed to get out a sentence or two, more could speak only simple words, but all sang."
The light was fading, but the outlines of evil-looking machines of war standing derelict and unused on the grassless plains could be seen. Some teetered upon the edge of vast, yawning caverns that had once served as forges and 'breeding grounds' for the Orc-hosts. The filth of Orcs and their foul weapons smothered the grounds of Isengard. Sinister columns of choking black smoke still wafted lazily across the barren land, encircling their maker's tower like a cloud of lazy bees to a forbidden hive.
Orthanc, never a beautiful sight, stood proud as a menacing force. It was a finger of hell and succeeded in corrupting all that it could lay claim to. The soaring parapets and turrets glittered like obsidian and new-wrought black steel. The buttresses of the terrifying walls were razor-sharp and hooked in fatal points at the ends. Sometimes, when Saruman had desired entertainment, he would hang prisoners by their bound wrists from these hooks to die and leave their dead corpses as a gruesome example to his cruelty.
The glitter of Saruman's tower could be seen rising from an ominous and fetid mist at the very edge of its walls, some fifteen or sixteen leagues walking south from the doors of Orthanc. A great deal of the mountainous land that Saruman had acquired was unused, save for the deposit of refuse and much there was of this. The empty plains on either side of Isengard were devoted to the production of food for the Orcs and fuel for their fires. While the foolish Uruks would have been content to simply let all of Middle-Earth burn to blackened cinders, Saruman knew that he would need to eventually replenish his ever-shrinking supply of fire-fodder.
This goal, of course, had become the main labor for the thousands of slaves Saruman acquired with each new raid and invasion. Some came from Rohan, some from Gondor, but most were of Eriador. The stout and sturdy Men and Hobbits were the mainstay, while Elves and what Dwarves could be found South of the Iron Hills were sent straight to Barad-dûr. Saruman was ever anxious to placate his dearest employer, and he knew that Sauron loved nothing better than torturing the now helpless Eldar.
"Sang?" the older Elf asked, incredulous. "Whatever did they sing for, Mithrandir?"
"I do not know," the Wizard said quietly. An unsettling silence fell over the group as they continued to stare out across the landscape. The wearied soldiers had rounded up what slaves that would or could be found. These liberated souls huddled together in tight clumps of two or three and cowered away in terror when any would approach them. "But we need not be so hopeless. What news have you, Aragorn?"
The Ranger looked up suddenly at his friend. His eyes betrayed his morose thoughts and weakened demeanor.
"There are still pockets of escaped slaves on the edges of the old forest," Aragorn nodded to the northeast. "Perhaps we will find our answers in them."
When the silence fell again, it did not break for many hours. Only when the failing sun had painted the desolate land crimson did any member of the company move. At this, it was only the older Man. He was called away by a page, and he quickly departed from the crumbled wall.
Aragorn's thoughts centered on the little forest. It had been in those very pockets that the Alliance of the Three Kindreds had discovered the last of the once numerous Ents. There were perhaps twelve or thirteen, battered and disheartened, that held angry vigilance deep at the roots of the mountains. When the approaching army had made its intention clear, the Ents had been only too willing to break the dam on the River Isen, after a failed attempt many years previous. They had flooded the entire valley, and that was when the Alliance had made its attack.
A beautiful darkness blanketed them now, and slowly they began to see small fires, kindled here and there, springing up on wide plain before them. The night was total, and it swallowed up the light of the stars. Below in the valley, a few mournful voices started to sing.
"What do they sing?" the Dwarf asked suddenly, leaning forward to catch the words.
"It is a song of slavery," the younger elf cocked his head slightly and hummed what he heard. With a sigh, he cast an indifferent glance to their other companions. "Come, Gimli. I tire of this view."
The two friends passed down from the rampart, slowly and in silence.
"Thranduil," said Aragorn softly. The Elven-King looked to his son's friend. "Let us make ready a company to march to the forest at dawn, please. We shall go to rescue the insurgents."
"I'll gather the best of our men," he nodded in return and left. The Wizard and the King stood alone now, surveying the damage.
"So much has been lost," Aragorn murmured. "Can it ever be returned as it was?"
Gandalf looked in surprise at the Ranger.
"Of course not," he said. "What answer did you expect, my friend?"
"A little bit of hope wasn't too much to ask, was it?"
Aragorn's tone was biting and angry. Gandalf sighed and looked down.
"I, too, wish that things had been different. I wish Berior had been lying. I wish… I wish that Éomer's men had managed to kill all of the Uruk-hai before they could make off with Merry and Pippin. I wish…"
Tears had come to the Istari's eyes, and Aragorn softened.
"We cannot blame the Rohirrim for our own folly," he replied.
It would be contested greatly in the coming years, but many held Rohan and its people at fault for the fall of Middle-Earth. The Rohirrim had laid waste to the Uruk-hai that took Merry and Pippin hostage at Amon Hen. But they were too late. A small company of fifteen Uruks had left the others behind, taking with them Merry and Pippin.
"So much in this went wrong," Gandalf mused. "I were that I could change it."
"None can," Aragorn replied. "We must only learn to accept that which we cannot change. Now is the time for rebuilding and healing."
Gandalf thought to reply to this, but he held his tongue. The darkness of the years pressed upon him, and the lateness of his petition grieved him. He had achieved his ends, though. The downfall of Sauron had come, and Middle-Earth was free again.
Many and great had been the pains of the people of Middle-Earth. Gandalf knew what Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli had suffered when he fled from Minas Tirith. He knew that the Valar had been swayed too late and that help should have come much, much sooner, but he could not change that.
They had laid siege to the great fortress of Barad-dûr, and with the help of the Valar, the Alliance had succeeded. The walls of Mordor were torn asunder, and once more Narsil, though under the guise of Andúril, cut the One Ring from the hand of its Master. There the Heir of Isildur had bent low and, taking up the Ring, claimed Middle-Earth for itself, free and without overlord.
An escort of many Elves, Men, and Dwarves had followed the Dúnadan to Mount Doom the next day. They would risk no mistake this time. But all went as it should have; the Ring was cast back into the depths of the fiery mountain, and Barad-dûr fell, its foundations ripped to shreds.
Then, at the behest of the Three Hunters, Gandalf suffered the gathered army to turn Westward and march to Isengard to discover what had become of the last members of the Fellowship. He wished now that he had never agreed to that journey.
It took many long and grueling weeks to reach Isengard. Winter in a deserted Rohan was hostile and unforgiving. Many had been lost upon the long march, but through the determination of their leaders, the men had pressed onward. Quiet and sullen as a funeral procession they had passed through the haunted villages of skeletons, with men and beast alike lying still in silent sleep of death. The soldiers would not stay a moment more than necessary in these hallowed places, electing instead to march into the night, away from the angry memories of a failure-riddled exodus.
After many days, the company came upon the husk of Helms Deep, and from there turned northward beside a wide dirt path that none could be suffered to step upon. The mournful voices of the people of Rohan rose in lamentation upon this march, and they wept at the memories of horrors endured long ago on that trail. Their fury and bloodlust swelled to almost inconceivable magnitude on that last leg of the journey.
In two days' time, the armies of the Alliance had left behind that Trail of Tears, and entered into the first of the lands occupied by Saruman. It was with unexpected and simple success that the Westfold was taken, and its small Orc-guard annihilated. The columns pressed onward, sweeping through the upper fingers of the White Mountains and slaughtering all in their path. In this way, the legions of Men, Elves, and Dwarves were able to surround Isengard on its Southern, Eastern, and Western sides in little more than a fortnight.
The main company, led by the triumphant Three Hunters, forded the empty Isen riverbed with little difficulty, choosing to march North by following the river. An odd sight they looked to Saruman, who sat high in his tower and watched the progress of a small army winding its way along the bed of a dry river. He would not live to see the outcome of the Last War.
The first wave came swiftly upon the walls and broke its defenders by a flurry of arrows and catapult fire. The Orcs retaliated with massive missiles of their own, loading their catapults and trebuchets with boulders and flaming bales of hay. Sometimes, when the hordes were feeling particularly macabre, they would load the shooters with slaves, some living and some dead. In this way, many of the soldiers learned of the fate of their loved ones.
After many long days of fierce hammering, the huge battering rams were brought forth, and the hordes of Isengard retreated into the next circle of walls. The enemy had but a few short hours to refresh themselves, and then the Alliance attacked again. In one night, they had shattered the doors of the outer four circles.
It seemed, after fifteen straight days of battle, that the Alliance was winning. But they remembered little of the malice of Saruman of old, being then long sundered from his company.
Thousands were slaughtered in little more than four hours. A horde of Goblins and Orcs, numbering perhaps a hundred thousand, swept in from the unguarded southwest, swamping the minimal forces near the Ered Nimrais. They continued northward, taking the main host by surprise.
In only one night, all hope had been lost. The Alliance was miserable, scattered, and leaderless. The hosts of the Valar had returned West and there were none, it seemed, that could provide the survivors with assistance.
As dawn broke on the last day of Spring, a strange and much unlooked-for hope was kindled. The hordes of Mordor and Isengard were assailed from all sides, it seemed, as the slaves began to revolt. Saruman was slaughtered along with his servants, and the slaves attacked the Orcs, taking them by surprise. The hearts of the Alliance were lightened by this odd luck, and they quickly destroyed the fleeing Orcs.
Isengard had been taken, and the Shadow as thrown down. It should have been a joyous day.
A deep, blackened night had fallen when Legolas returned. He had left Gimli below to tend to his fellow Dwarves and stood slightly apart from his comrades. The Wizard noted the icy air that seemed to curtain those upon the rampart at the Elven-prince's return.
Torches sprang suddenly to life all around the wide fields below them. Slowly, they trickled in from far off, congregating into one colossal mass that formed along the muddy road. The column of flame marched determinedly out towards the far wall, seeking for the main gate. A single voice raised in song, and a few others hummed in harmony. As the company swelled in number, more voices joined in.
"A funeral procession?" Aragorn asked, directing the question to Legolas. The elf cocked his head, trying to catch more of the sound. The beautiful music rose and drifted to them on the wind, and Legolas smiled. Gandalf drew his cloak closer about his body.
"I do not know," the elf said. "It is not a dirge that they sing. It is a hymn of peace."
His eyes drifted close in contentment.
Each member of the now enormous company carried a burning torch in their hand. One little figure led them proudly through the gates of Isengard, followed by two small groups of people carrying what looked like cots. The slaves trudged through the thick sludge caking the ground.
"Where are they going?"
"To the river."
Another long silence greeted this statement, and the previously warm spring air turned an unfathomable cold. Legolas and Gandalf had turned to watch the slaves' progress to the river, but Aragorn stared stonily forward to the glittering tower in the distance.
Unnoticed, time trickled away until, at last, the slaves returned slowly from the river banks, stealing through the huge gate in groups of two or three. They had set alight what they had been carrying and placed those little burning cots adrift upon the river. There was no song, for none seemed to have the strength left for singing.
"Well, I shall take my leave of you once more," said Legolas with deep exhaustion. "Tomorrow, I shall set out in search of our dear friends. I desire now more than ever to know what has become of them."
This was met with a nod from Gandalf, but only a wintry glance from Aragorn. Ignoring this, Legolas clasped his hands behind his back and started carefully down to the small gathering of tents against the wall.
And so, the Wizard and the King were left alone again. Aragorn seemed inclined to keep the silence, as was his wont these days. Mithrandir, however, was never one to encourage habits, especially those he considered ruinous.
"Do you think we will find them?" he asked quietly, meaning the hobbits. A pink lining had come to the clouds in the East, threatening rain and a new day. Long hours had drained away in their observance of the riverside ritual.
"I do not know," Aragorn replied. "But even the wisest cannot see all ends."
The King turned to smile at his friend, but seeing the eyes devoid of mirth, rested his hand upon his sword hilt and scowled at the mountains. Gandalf leaned heavily upon his staff, sighing and looking all of his over-three thousand years.
"None of this would have happened if the Fellowship had not broken," he sighed. Aragorn glanced slowly at him, surprised by this naïveté.
"No, Gandalf," he said coldly, "this would not have happened if you had not fallen in Moria."
The astounded Wizard could make no reply to this, so he turned swiftly, in anger, and made his way down the wall. Behind him he left the once-and-future King to contemplate the sunrise.
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Author's Note 2: Well? What did you think? Puddin' loves reviews, and she'll make sure to reply to them! (Why am I talking in third person?) Anyway, if you have any questions, please ask, and I'll answer them at the end of the next chapter. Also, if those of you who don't have ff.net accounts would like me to e-mail you when I update, be certain to tell me (and, obviously, leave an e-mail address), and I'll send out the notices for the next chapters.