VIIThe rope was thick and sharp with rough twine that bit Sam's hands as he pulled himself up towards the Oliphaunt's battle harness, yard by painful yard. He'd made it no more than an oak's height from the ground when the horns blew once more and the men with long poles began to shout and thrust against the thick belly of the beast to get it to rise.
Sam wrapped his wrists and ankles tight about the rope as he was pitched from side to side and slammed into the stone-like hide of the Oliphaunt's flank, bruising his face and rattling his head until the creature finally found its legs. Sam panted over the rapid beating of his heart as the ground fell away below in a swirl of dust. He hung there some moments, trying not to look down, when he felt a hard tug on the rope from above.
A guard had come to the pointed edge of the platform to begin the retrieval of the landing ropes. He tugged and Sam held on as the rope dragged him over the hide, scraping at his elven cloak. The guard spat out a foreign curse, yanking with all his strength. He could not fathom why the rope failed to yield. The guard's hoisting was growing more urgent and Sam knew he could not force his arms to hold on much longer.
Sam kicked out with his feet until he could brace himself on the hide and then gave a swing out to the right, then left, then right again, connecting with the bamboo base of the structure. By blind luck Sam managed to get his leg hooked around a portion of the frame. The rope man was still tugging more frantically, as it appeared the very coils had come alive. Hanging sideways with one hand still wrapped in the rope, Sam whispered a plea to the good gentle earth below and let go.
The torchlight and dust swirls swam in Sam's vision as he hung all backwards from his right leg, his head rushing with blood. His foot was secure, but his hands could grasp nothing but slippery hair and coarse hide. It was an unfortunate predicament that would soon grow worse as his Gondorian helmet came loose from his head and fell off into the darkness below with a clang. Sam stilled his scrambling and forced himself to think. If you ain't got a hold with your hands, Sam, try your feet.
Sam took a breath and twisted himself so his left leg came free from where it had been pinned behind his trapped leg. Feeling about with his toes, Sam managed to slip his foot and calf into the folds of hide that lay under the bamboo rigging. Wishing he'd spent more summers hanging by his knees from tree branches, Sam grunted, curling himself up until he could grasp a loose strand of wide reed-like grass that bound the bamboo trunks together and pulled himself up and into the shadows of the under-rigging.
Sore and choked with dust, Sam gathered his strength where he sat, his rump upon the bamboo beam, feet dangling, and gave his situation some thought. Above he could hear the men moving about, opening and closing the long flaps that sheltered the Chieftain's tent. The flooring lay just over Sam's head. It was made of tough hides drawn taut between the main bamboo shafts in a crisscross pattern. Sam thought if he waited for the men to settle in he might have a chance at climbing the rest of the way up and slipping through a seam without bumping into anyone. He hoped the Chieftain slept alone.
As the noises of the men grew quieter, Sam became aware of another sound. It was low and steady and when he leaned towards the Oliphaunt's side, he could hear the thump of the beast's massive heart. Fascinated, Sam pressed his ear close until the very hairs of the animal pricked his cheek. Below the thump of the heart was the deep whoosh and flow of the beast's lungs, big as the mill-wheel back home and twice as powerful. Outside, the flap of the animal's great ears fanned the air, stirring cooling currents through the framework where Sam sat.
"Aye, you're a fine creature, indeed, " Sam said fondly, giving the beast a pat. "'Tis a shame you've got yourself tied up with this lot. If I had a handsome plot back home I'd see to it that you'd come home with me."
Sam spoke these words to ease his mind, but the mention of home only stirred the sick fear in him that he would never see the gardens of the Shire again.
"This is no time for fanciful thoughts, now," he told himself. "You're a soldier at war, Samwise. A hobbit-at-arms who's got no business herding Oliphaunts or the like. It's your business to keep your sword and your head sharp."
He said this all under his breath, but it did not go unheard. A long shadow passed below the rigging and Sam jumped, rising to his feet within the framework and placing a hand on the hilt of Sting. To his amazement, a huge eyeless mouth appeared, snaking up through the bamboo and rising before him where it exhaled a blast of grass-scented air. Lor' help me, Sam thought, as the beast he'd been so ready to adopt gave Samwise Gamgee a good sniffing.
The snout huffed over Sam's surcoat and trousers. The fleshy lip of this two-nostriled snake reached out like two thumbs to pat his chain mail, belt and cloak.
"Shoo!" hissed Sam as the snout tickled the curly hair on his head. "Be gone! That's just hobbit you're nosing. Nothing to get bothered with. I mean you no harm. Be gone!"
The snout blew out another blast of air that rattled the hides above Sam's head and near knocked him off his perch. Sam gave a grunt and the snout came right up to face him, nose to nose. The dark pair of holes drew in the air around Sam's face, making him feel as if he were about to be sucked down a drain-hole.
"Now that's quite enough," he said and pushed the snout gently away only to have it return the playful push, straight in the chest, near knocking Sam off his footing. He had to do something fast to draw off the snout's curiosity before he got toppled right out to the ground. Or worse, picked up! Feeling about his trousers and pockets, Sam found a bit of sticky eagle down still clinging to his cuff. He plucked it and when the snout made another inhaling pass, tossed the fluff right in.
The reaction was swift. The snout pulled out faster than Sam could see, with a rattle of the bamboo. Sam heard a huge whoosh building somewhere deep within the beast and wrapped his wrists in the loose reeds to hang on. The shudder that shook the whole harness in its moorings was not half as bad as the blast of sound that accompanied the Oliphaunt's sneeze. Sam's ears rang from it as he wriggled himself loose and began to climb. If any of the men had been sleeping in the tent above, they weren't any longer, but maybe in the confusion an invisible hobbit might be able to crawl up and in unseen.
Sam opened a parting in the hides and pushed his head through for a look. He'd come up in a heavily draped corner of the Chieftain's tent. The men had rushed out of the space at the sneeze to shout and point spears at the Oliphaunt's driver who made wild gestures with his arms and pointed at the head of the animal which had now gone back to grazing. All this Sam saw through the open tent flaps as he pulled himself up through the floor and found a safe spot behind the drapery to sit and wait the men out.
A guard came back to his post at the inside of the flaps while the tallest one, the Chieftain Legolas had named Zut-Ak, pushed his way back in and sat himself upon the fur-covered throne, closing his eyes. The throne he rested on resembled a short fur-covered couch with a crude stool for putting up one's feet to sleep in a half-seated position. It did not look terribly comfortable to Sam when he eyed the wrapped animal bone construction. There were furs from many animals sewn together by hide strips and bound to the frame with dried sinew. Skulls of large unnamed beasts hung swinging from the ceiling framework, and spears and shields of the Harad clan were cast about the floor along with weaponry bearing the White Tree. Some of the coveted arms were tied up in positions of honor; other items such as winged helmets and polished breast plates rolled about upon the floor, forgotten. These were a scavenging people and they took what they wished from their fallen foes—for what purpose, besides personal adornment, Sam could not tell.
One item that clearly held distinction in the clutter of the tent was the enormous pointed black helm and long heavy sword that hung over the Chieftain's throne. From the sheer size and lack of distinctive markings, Sam could only guess these items had once adorned the Lord of the Nazgul, the Witch-King. It was told to Sam in Rivendell that no man could kill this monster of darkness, but it seemed someone had. It seemed as if this Chieftain had, but then the legend would have been false.
You should have seen Merry, Sam, Pippin had said. He felled a wraith!
Sam looked up at the sheer mass of that sword and shook his head. Not a chance. Not without half of Buckland with him, and most likely not even then. Sam hoped he would one day learn the real story from the Master Meriadoc himself, but first he had to steal another ring.
In the red light seeping through the tent folds from outside torches, Sam could just catch the glint of the silver ring that hung about Zut-Ak's neck. Some time had passed since Sam first crawled up, and although the dark-skinned man did not snore, he had not moved since reclining upon the throne. Sam looked to the guard at the flap, but his white eyes were watching only the movements outside. No one expected an intruder to be within.
Slipping silently from his hiding place, Sam stepped cautiously across the floor towards the throne, hoping the Oliphaunt would stand reasonably still so he wouldn't stumble on a rolling gauntlet or two. The beast did not start or sneeze, and soon Sam found himself climbing up the side of the bone-chair, near the Chieftain's neck. The Witch-King's silver ring looked much as the Ruling Ring had, unmarked to the common eye and beautiful to behold. Zut-Ak wore it under his drooped chin upon a strap of hide, folded to slide through the ring's centre. This posed a problem for Sam; there would be no simple way to slip it off. The hide needed to be cut and it would take a good slice or two from Sting to achieve this, all without waking the Chief.
Sam looked about for a solution. Behind him, hanging from the wall, was a long Gondorian arrow with a sharp steel arrow on the end. This was a much smaller blade than Sting and could perhaps do the job with less movement and fuss. Sam lifted the arrow from its loop of rope, and after holding it a moment or two, it vanished in his hidden hands. Once again, Sam found it impossible to do close work without the aid of his fingers in the visible world. So with great caution, he took off one of the dwarvish rings and dropped it in his pocket. A pale vision of himself returned, so Sam kept one eye on the door and another on the hide as he pulled it back slowly to slip the arrow under the cord and began to saw.
The cutting was slow but steady, and Sam held his breath as much as he could while he worked, pausing to gasp silently and to wipe his sweating brow. Sam was moving the arrow for the final cut when his worst fear came to light, the Oliphaunt stirred, shifting its weight from one back leg to the other, knocking Sam off balance and taking the arrow shaft with him, tightening the hide and choking the Chieftain right out of his light sleep.
Sam scrambled to his feet and drew Sting as Zut-Ak rose to his feet, his hands at his own throat, puzzled to see an arrow and shaft had joined his neckwear while he slumbered. He called to his guard who came running. The Chieftain shouted, pointing and Sam was soon spotted, though he was little more than a shadow.
In his panic Sam did the first thing he could think of, and that was to leap up and tug with all his might on the Chieftain's hide strap. The leather snapped back and the Chief spun about, knocking Sam and Sting into the drapery and crashing the stolen metalwork to the floor as the tent hides tore and fell. Sam and the Chief fell as well, becoming all tangled up in the tent flaps and ropes. To his astonishment, Sam realized he still held Sting in his right hand and Zut-Ak's torn leather in his left, with the ring still attached. Sam cut it free with a slice if his blade and did the most obvious thing: he put the large silver ring on his finger.
The torch-lit world upon the back of an Oliphaunt ceased to exist. In its stead were images of horror, of vast burning halls and twisted forms of men and women with hollow eyes crawling about on their hands and knees in terror. They were blackened and bloody, burning as fire filled their throats and smoke blinded their eyes. But Sam did not just see these things; he smelled them, heard them gurgling in their melting flesh; he felt their skin crisp and peel, hundreds of them falling over white stones down into black pits that opened up before them, falling--all falling--into death and darkness. And then the vision changed to one of a high vista, looking down upon the length of the falls that blanketed the Window on the West. The horsemen of the Riddermark were leaping from its height and down into the pool, drowning in a wild dark madness as if death itself were on their heels. There was blackness and the last vision Sam saw was of Pippin, running ahead along the path that lead to the secret cave where Gandalf had held his council. "Hurry! Hurry!" he shouted. "We must hide!"
Leap! A voice spoke and the terror-visions faded. Get on your feet and leap!
But Sam could not; he was writhing upon the bamboo floor where he had crumpled, fighting to pull off this horrid ring that had sucked him right out of the will to breathe. He screamed as the Harad men grabbed him and pulled him up; he screamed as they held the torch to his face, burning his cheek, trying to see something that wasn't there. Their cries of fear and anger rose and fell with the echoing screams of the burning people and Pippin's frightened pleas. Sam did not know if his flesh was still upon his bones or not for it had all been burned away by the terrible fire. A screech seared the wind. The dark hands that held Sam, dropped him and the men cried out, falling into the folds of the tent to hide. Sam hit the flooring hard and jarred loose the ring from his finger where it rolled away, shimmering.
The floor rattled as the Oliphaunt started and began to lumber into a run, throwing everything out of order, though the burning had stopped. Sam tasted blood on his teeth as he raised his head to look above him. The white fangs of a fellbeast filled his vision as an arm of blackness reached down from the saddle to catch the rolling silver.
Catch it, Samwise! Catch it now!
Sam dove forward and his fist closed about the cold metal. The wraith above him screeched and Sam could bear that loathsome sound no more. He grabbed Sting from where it had fallen and got to his feet, running until there was no further to run--over the side of the platform, over the rump and tail of the fleeing beast he ran until air was all that was holding him up.
There was a flash of blue flame as Sam fell, and then all went white.