I feel like my writing has changed quite a bit since last chapter. (Though I suppose this is what happens when so much time passes between updates.) I cannot say if these changes are for better or for worse. I will leave that up to you guys, as readers, to decide.
You're My Light in the Dark
I couldn't help but gape at Frodo in complete disbelief. "You can't be serious," I said, letting out an incredulous laugh. It must be a joke. There was no way he was going to send us away with Faramir. After all we've been through, how far we've come… how could he even suggest such a thing? Doesn't he realize that Sam and I will follow him to the end of the earth?
But Frodo seemed dead serious indeed. Not that he looked altogether happy with this decision he's come to, but it was apparent that he truly believed it to be the best course of action. Sam, meanwhile, held his face in his hands, his eyes going stony as he tried to ignore how Smeagol was watching the whole scene from the sidelines, grinning to himself wickedly. Not that Frodo noticed Gollum's wickedness – which was expected by now. He's failed to see Smeagol's faults for quite a while.
"Of course I'm serious," Frodo replied.
I don't think I've ever seen Frodo so devoid of hope. That must've been my fault, at least partly. I shouldn't have told him about my fears, shouldn't have admitted about being uncertain about things to come. The dampness of the caves was enough to chill me to the bone, but it was almost a welcomed feeling now compared to this new overwhelming sense of incredulity and dread.
"Why?" Sam asked, "Why are you saying this all of a sudden?"
"Because Faramir has made it a possibility. He's offered to take you both to Gondor with him and his men," was Frodo's response. It was said so matter-of-factly, as if he was reciting lines. And that's when I realized that he was just giving up. My anger flared. He was sending us away so he could go off to his death. At this realization I immediately blew up.
"Oh yeah? And what the hell are we supposed to do in Gondor, huh? Sit in a corner and twiddle our thumbs while you go off to your doom? You're insane if you think Sam and I are going to let you go off to Mordor alone with that—that—" Words failed me, and I was left pointing at the injured Gollum, who was watching the whole exchange looking very much like the cat who just caught the canary.
" 'That'? Hear that, precious, we're a 'that'," Gollum mocked. "Poor Smeagol is just trying to help. Stupid, mean hobbitses don't appreciate our help. We sees how it is. We knows when we're not wanted."
Frodo, much to our chagrin, took the bait and jumped in to reassure the little bastard. "Oh no, Smeagol, you've been such a help. We could never have gotten this far without you."
Gollum slapped on a hopeful look. "Master appreciates us?"
"Of course," Frodo said. Sam and I exchanged a glance. Only, it wasn't as subtle as we would've liked – both Gollum and Frodo caught it. "What?" Frodo demanded, frowning at us.
Before either of us could respond, Gollum piped up, "They is tricksy, tricksy hobbitses. And Smeagol knows their secrets. Tricksy hobbitses don't like Smeagol because we knows their secrets."
I should've known he'd try something like this. The fact that he was trying to have us argue amongst ourselves didn't surprise me all that much, but the way he said 'secrets' frightened and confused me a little. As if he was certain Frodo would believe his lies… "What are you talking about?" I couldn't help but ask.
Looking up at me from his seat on the cot, his eyes gleaming, he said, "Oh, you knows, precious. We've seen you and the fat one holding hands and whispering to each other when Master is not around. Always looking into each other's eyes, oh yes."
My mouth fell open of its own accord in disbelief. Of all the possible lies that were running through my head, one of infidelity was certainly not one of them. Frodo was glancing between the three of us – Sam, Gollum, and I – not able to fully come to grips with what Gollum had just said. Where I was confounded, Sam, on the other hand, was furious. "You little liar!" he yelled. His face turning bright red, he bounded over to Gollum, grabbed him by the neck and started shaking him about wildly.
"Sam!" Frodo cried, alarmed.
Gollum gurgled and clawed at Sam's hands, but to no avail. "How dare you say things like that!" Sam continued yelling. Frodo tried desperately to get Sam to stop. Nothing seemed to work; Sam had been pushed too far this time and was simply dead set on giving Gollum the beating that has been so long overdue. Frodo's anger and panic were obvious. It had been some time since I've seen him exert this much energy into anything. Gone was the slow, tired hobbit he's been as of late, replaced by agility in his limbs and determination in his eyes. There were multiple failed attempts at prying Sam off the small, wounded guide. Before I could add my efforts into the mix, something happened I was not expecting in the least. Frodo cocked an arm back and swung his fist out full force, rocking Sam's head to the side.
Well, that was certainly something that snapped Sam back to reality. Stunned, Sam released Gollum and clutched his face. Stinker fell back onto the cot with a thud, gasping and coughing harshly.
"Sam, enough!" Frodo said, breathing heavily from the exchange, a tone of weary finality settling into his voice. "Enough."
Gasping, Sam fell to his knees, blood gushing from his nose. Sam looked surprised and hurt. Only I couldn't tell if it was because Frodo actually struck him, or the fact that Frodo was now fretting over 'poor' Smeagol and completely ignoring anyone else in the room. When blood began to seep between his fingers, I ran over to Sam and moved his hands away from his face. It was clear that his nose was probably broken. "Damnit," I muttered softly. The reality of what had just happened, the obvious changes in events, hadn't quite hit me yet. I was numb. Not wanting to think about the consequences of these changes, I kept my panic at bay the only way I knew how. I threw myself into the current, and most important, task at hand: fixing Sam's nose. "Tilt your head back, Sam, or you're going to choke on the blood."
"Yeah, I know," he said thickly. The bridge of his nose was all distorted in shape and color. It was already starting to form a lovely bruise and was swelling up like a balloon. Not to mention the way it was split, jutting out to the left – the direction Frodo's fist had flown into it.
"We should get out of here," I murmured to him.
Sam agreed, meekly. "Pro'ly for the best."
I went and grabbed some of the extra bandages that were piled up in the corner of the room, the ones that had been for Smeagol's arrow wound, and handed one to Sam before stuffing the extras in the kangaroo pouch of my sweatshirt. Helping Sam up to his feet, I paid extra attention to be gentle and not jar him around too much.
"You sees that, precious?" Smeagol said hoarsely. "We told you! She loves the stupid, fat one! Poor Master—"
I tuned Smeagol and his ranting out. I was sick of listening to it. Instead I turned my attention to Frodo – and he looked torn. He was caught in the middle. On one hand, there was Smeagol – the trusted guide, so misunderstood and manipulated by the ring – and then on the other hand there was Sam and I – the two loyal people who want to follow him into hell. Indeed, we would have followed him to hell. Except, not only is he sending us away with Faramir, but the trusted guide is trying to form animosity between us. And guess what: the little bastard succeeded. Frodo hasn't said a word, hasn't asked any questions, but the look on his face, and in his eyes… there was a hint of uncertainty. I understand he has been through a lot carrying around that ring, but that uncertainty is something I cannot forgive. Why would he ever have reason to doubt Sam and me? Haven't we proved our loyalty and devotion? …Doesn't he know that I love him?
Still clutching at Sam, helping him stay upright, I turned toward Frodo and Smeagol (who was still ranting) and glared. I cut Smeagol off, saying, "It would be wise for you to never say a nasty word about us ever again. I never spoke up, never told anyone about what I know about you, because in the beginning I thought I would give you a chance. I know what you're capable of, though. I know what you've done. You're a horrible person, Smeagol. May the gods have mercy on your soul for what you've done – and what you still plan to do."
My peace said, I turned to leave, clutching at Sam's shirt as if it would give me strength if I held on tight enough. We hadn't even taken two steps before I heard Frodo call out softly, "Kate, wait!"
I paused but I did not turn around. I was afraid that if I did turn around to look at him, that I would lose all of my resolve to leave and not lash out at him or Gollum. So I stubbornly ducked my chin and said, "If you have anything to say to me, Frodo, do it later when our heads are clear and when we're alone. I have nothing more to say in front of Smeagol, and right now, with the way my emotions are, I will probably say something that I will regret."
Sam slipped an arm around my shoulders and squeezed. The gesture was wholly comforting and I appreciated it whole-heartedly. Good old Sam. Together we left that small room and made our way back down the wet, stone steps toward the cots we had abandoned hours earlier. None of Faramir's men paid us any mind as we passed, which suited us just fine. The last thing we needed was any more distractions. After all, Sam needed tending to.
Only after I got him to sit down on his cot did I realize just how much he was bleeding. In the short amount of time it took us to get back to the cots, he had already bled enough to soak clean through the bandage he had pressed to his face. I pulled another bandage out of my kangaroo pocket and handed it to him. As he switched the cloths I couldn't help but notice how the bruise had already darkened considerably… and just how off kilter his nose was. I turned, scanning the floor for my pack. Once having found it I pounced, desperately scouring through the pouches for the little Elven healing rock.
"I think the bleeding's beginning to slow," he commented.
"That's good," I found myself saying absentmindedly, still digging in the bag, "Since I'm going to have to straighten your nose. And I can't have you bleeding too much when I do that."
"What?" he said, sounding very surprised. "Frodo didn't hit me that hard… did he?"
Aw, poor Sam. I gave him an apologetic glance. "He got you pretty good, I'm afraid. I honestly didn't think he had it in him. Aha! There you are you little bugger." I pulled out the silver rock and went right back to Sam's side.
"Won't that gift Lady Galadriel gave you be able to fix it, though?" Seems he really doesn't like the sound of straightening it. Not that I blame him. It's not like I particularly want to do it either.
"It does have healing powers, but I'm not quite sure of the extent of them. The Elves are powerful, true, but I honestly don't think it's within this stone's capabilities to actually set bones on top of mending them. The last thing I want to do is try it out on you and have your nose fixed, yet permanently crooked."
Sam grimaced but conceded. "Right, well. If you put it like that."
Handing him another bandage, I added, "Now I need you to blow your nose before I start."
He complied, grimacing again, probably due to pain and disgust. "Kat, why does it seem like you're very familiar with this sort of injury?"
I couldn't help but smile sadly. "That's because I am familiar with it. I'm familiar with a lot of other injuries too – both minor and serious. Back before I came here to Middle Earth… back when I was a gymnast… my teammates and I came across all sorts of injuries during our training. We kind of had to learn the basics of first aid out of necessity. Because if we didn't learn, we would've had to visit the healer constantly. I'm just glad all you've got is a broken nose – I can help with that."
Kneeling down to sit directly in front of him, I gently placed my hands on either side of his nose. "This is going to hurt. You ready?"
"I suppose." I could hear the lie in his voice, but it was either now or never, so I pressed my hands together anyway.
His yells were loud enough to echo all the way down the hallway.
It was almost like being back home in the Shire, this was. Except they were not lounging about on grassy knolls, or even up high within the trees that boarder Farmer Maggot's crop. No, instead, Merry, Pippin, and Lauren were sitting atop the tall rock walls surrounding the giant wading pool that Isenguard had become. Leaning back, she sprawled herself out on the white rock beneath her, soaking up the sun's rays with pleasure. This was the life: Old Toby, hobbit brew, and real-live people food. She gave her full stomach a satisfied pat; for the first time in months, they had had a real meal. Turned out that Saruman's storeroom stored much more than just the pipe weed, ale, and apples. It also had crates upon crates of salted meats, crackers, and breads. The old geezer didn't have any cheese stored there, though, which was really a pity. Pippin had outright pouted over the lack of cheese.
"Beggars can't be choosers, Pip," was what Merry had said with a shrug.
It was a good point. They had been lucky enough to find the storeroom; they didn't really have the right to complain about the stores inside it. As it was, the salted meats made them feel like kings – after weeks of eating nothing but lembas bread and entwash, the protein was a welcome change.
"You know," Pippin piped up, plucking the pipe from his mouth, "I missed this. I missed this a lot."
He didn't have to specify what he meant by 'this'. They all knew exactly what he meant. The food, the drink, the smoke, lounging about in the sun on a beautiful day. It was comforting. For the moment, they could forget all about the unavoidable dangers and the wars.
"I feel nearly like a hobbit again," Merry agreed. Smoke swirling around him, Lauren couldn't help but think how he looked almost like the hobbit she used to hang out with at the Green Dragon. The key word there was 'almost'. In her heart she knew that they've changed far too much to truly go back to normal after this trip. She shook her head. Now was not the time to be thinking such depressing thoughts. Propping her arms behind her head like a pillow, she yawned lazily, trying to fall back into the Old Toby-induced lethargy that was starting to wear off.
Pippin cocked his head to the side. "Nearly hobbit? Too true. It's been far too long since we've had a normal six-meal day."
"I miss afternoon tea in particular."
Pippin groaned. "Oh, afternoon tea. First thing when we get back to the Shire, I'm going to beg your mother to make us her raspberry crumpets."
"Too right. Those really are delicious."
Lauren smiled, basking in the change in mood. "You know what I feel? I feel like we're lounging about after raiding Farmer Maggot's crops. My tummy is full, the sun is shining, and I've got my best mates with me. What more can a girl ask for?"
Merry and Pippin grinned at her. "It feels even better than raiding those crops, though," Merry commented, "We weren't chased by those damn dogs."
"Here, here!" Pippin called, raising his tankard and taking a swig of ale. He smacked his lips and sighed theatrically, making Lauren giggle. Gesturing to his ale he said, "Well, I for one feel like I'm back at the Green Dragon after a hard day's work."
"Only, you've never done a hard day's work," Merry cut in. They all laughed at that.
Off in the distance, splashing could be heard as hoofs stomped through the water. Pippin poked Lauren in the ribs excitedly. "Ow," she groaned. "Hell, Pip, cut it out."
"No, you have to see this!" he said with a grin. So she sat up, albeit reluctantly, and was able to see a mob of people traveling on horses, making their way toward Isenguard. Taking the distinct lead was a grand white horse, whose rider was clothed in a white so brilliant that it made her squint.
Lauren couldn't keep a smile off her face, either. "Gandalf," she said, breathing a sigh of relief. "They made it!"
Merry shot her an amused glance. "But you knew that already, didn't you?"
She shrugged. "My knowledge of the future has just about run out, I'm afraid." Merry's confusion was obvious, but any possible explanation was cut off by the arrival of the troops.
Gandalf, from his seat on Shadowfax, was eyeing the hobbits up on the wall with a keen gaze. That is, until he saw the food and drink, and he promptly rolled his eyes. Aragorn, on his own horse just behind Gandalf, was smiling widely as he finally set eyes upon the lost hobbits. "Well, well, look at you three," he said chuckling.
Merry, realizing that an explanation of the scene was in order, promptly stood up and gave a bow. "Welcome, my Lords, to Isenguard!"
Before he could even get another word in, Lauren piped up, "Or rather, what's left of Isenguard. The awesome Ents certainly did quite the number on it, as you can see."
Legolas nodded sagely as he surveyed the scene. "And what of the Wizard?"
"Hiding in his tower," Pippin replied nonchalantly with a wave of his hand. "As for us, we are sitting on the field of victory, enjoying a few well earned comforts."
As if to drive the point home, Merry leaned forward to blow a lungful of pipe weed in their direction. Lauren promptly smacked him in the leg, making him yelp. "Quit teasing them, will you?"
Merry set a glare on her. "Ow, woman! What in the hell was that for?"
She scrunched her face up at him. "I am perfectly entitled to hit you when you deserve it."
"You most certainly are not!" was Merry's shrill reply.
Aragorn, the most entertained of the group, couldn't help but laugh aloud at the pair's antics. They both started at the sound, and turned bright red at their friends' knowing smiles. The only friend that wasn't smiling was Gimli. Instead, he was giving Pippin a frown as the smug hobbit took a swig of ale.
Gimli then spluttered, completely indignant. "A merry chase you rascals led us on! And now we find you here drinking… and smoking!"
"And the salted pork is particularly good," Pippin said, wiggling his eyebrows at the irate dwarf. Except at this news the dwarf's annoyance dimmed a bit.
"Salted pork?" he echoed, a tinge of hope creeping into his deep voice.
As the three hobbits made promises to let Gimli and the rest feast to their heart's content as long as they were filled in on the details during the Fellowship's separation, Gandalf gave an exasperated sigh. "Hobbits," he muttered to himself. Aragorn, simply happy that the group was reunited once more, gave the wizard a sympathetic pat on the back.
"Now is not the time for feasts," Gandalf continued, looking around at them all sternly. Gimli, who had been the most excited about the prospect, at least had the decency to look sheepish. The hobbits just shrugged, not really feeling all that apologetic. In their opinions, any time was as good as any to stop and eat. Besides, they had been nice enough to share their food. If Gandalf didn't want the others to have any, it just left more for them. Reflecting on this last fact, the hobbits brightened up considerably.
With arrangements in place for the troops to take over the hobbits' task of watching the gate, Merry, Pippin, and Lauren joined the small group of leaders as they made their way into Isenguard. Lauren clutched at Gandalf's long robes, surprised that the wizard had insisted she ride with him. She was completely terrified of falling off the horse, however. Her fear was apparent, for Gimli laughed at her as he and Legolas came up beside them. "At least the water will break your fall if you fall off," he pointed out helpfully.
"Thank you, that makes me feel so much better," she said sarcastically.
He smiled broadly in return, and replied with just as much sarcasm. "At your service, milady." Legolas, as quiet as ever, merely shook his head in amusement at the exchange.
The flooding water made the trip to Orthanc longer than it rightfully should have been (at least in Lauren's opinion), but eventually they came upon the tower. "Young Master Gandalf," Treebeard said in that slow way of his as they approached, "I'm glad you've come. There are many things I can master, but there is a Wizard to manage here."
Gandalf glanced upward; way up at the top of the tower, where he knew Saruman was sitting, waiting, and hiding. His old friend was proud, and his hiding surprised Gandalf – he had been expecting a different reaction at their approach: mean words, at the very least, if not direct confrontation. This silence was most puzzling indeed. Perhaps Saruman's pride was wounded worse than he thought. Even the tower itself was damaged to an unexpected degree. Since the fellow wizard was deeply entrenched in Sauron's evil plans, Gandalf was hoping to get some information about the enemy from Saruman. By the looks of it, the wizard wasn't willing to speak, let alone betray the dark lord of Mordor. But perhaps the effort would not be in vain.
"Saruman. Come and speak with us, Saruman," Gandalf boomed. Everyone waited with bated breath. But after a moment passed, they all realized the wizard would not emerge. Gandalf was not willing to give up so easily, however. He promptly slid off Shadowfax and began banging on the doors to Orthanc with a renewed vigor. Poor Lauren, who was already skiddish up on the mighty horse as it was, gave a little yell of surprise as her only way for support was lost and she quite nearly fell off. Luckily, Aragorn hadn't been too far away and was able to reach out and steady her in time. She flashed him a thankful smile as she breathed a sigh of relief.
A small, grungy, almost pathetic blimp of a man opened the doors to Orthanc suddenly. So suddenly, that Gandalf took a small instinctive step backward. "Grima Wormtongue," Lauren heard King Theoden growl. She frowned, not able to place the name with the character, even though the name sounded familiar. Biting her lip in thought, she turned her gaze back over to the grungy man, trying to replay the movies in her mind's eye. Was there a character that looked anything remotely like him? His dark stringy hair, high cheek bones, and sullen eyes were simply unfamiliar to her. While the actors in the movies don't exactly look like their real counterparts, there was usually a general gist or familiarity that could help trigger her memory. But this time this 'Grima Wormtongue' character, or rather his part in the war's events, remained stubbornly elusive.
Lauren didn't come out of her musings until she heard Saruman's majestic voice speak down to them bitterly, "Why is it you feel the need to wake an old man from his slumber? Your deeds are accomplished enough already, are they not? The destruction has been wrought. Leave this old man in peace. Or will there be no peace between us ever again?"
He was so far up the tower she could not see him, though at those words Lauren could all but picture a weary and utterly defeated man. If he hadn't been the one to conjure up the orcs that had dragged and beaten her, Merry, and Pippin all over hell (or so it seemed like) she might have felt sorry for him. But considering the circumstances, she was able to keep her pity in check.
To her right, King Theoden was an image of rage. "Peace!" he bit out incredulously, as if the very idea disgusted him. "Oh, we shall have peace. We shall have peace when you answer for the burning of the Westfold and the children that lie dead there! We shall have peace when the lives of the soldiers whose bodies were hewn even as they lay dead against the gates of the Hornburg are avenged! Only when you hang from a gibbet for the sport of your own crows shall we have peace." His face had grown redder with each passing word, and by the end of his speech his voice had risen to the point where it made her ears ring.
The response from Saruman was immediate. "Gibbets and crows? Dotard! And what of you, Gandalf Greyhame? What is it you want? The keys to Orthanc, perhaps? Or the keys of Barad-dur itself along with the crowns of the seven kings and the rods of the five wizards!"
"I merely am offering you the chance to do the right thing," Gandalf said, with an expression that was not unkind. Instead of the temper Lauren was expecting, he displayed a patience that she had never really seen from him before. Especially not toward any of the hobbits. "Your treachery has already cost many lives. Thousands more are at risk. But you can save them, Saruman. You were deep in the enemy's council."
Saruman barked out a despicable laugh at that. "So you seek information from me."
"Would it not be better to turn things anew, perhaps?" Gandalf offered. He then opened his arms wide, gesturing to the ruin that surrounded them. "It would certainly give a new and positive light to your situation. Will you not come down?"
There was a moment's pause before any reply was made. And when it was, it reeked with malice. "I am not a fool. I do not trust you, Gandalf Greyhame."
"And the treacherous are ever distrustful," Gandalf said with a sigh, and then warned, "This is your last chance."
"Save your pity and your mercy. I have no use for it!" Saruman said. And with that, a giant ball of fire was suddenly shot downwards, engulfing the area around Gandalf in flame.
There were shouts all around. Lauren's heart was in her throat. She was just about to jump off Shadowfax, her fear of the height be damned, to follow the others who had darted forward to his aid. But before anyone could be of any use, the flames dissipated. Gandalf stood tall, eyes narrowed. His patience had worn thin, it seemed. Glancing upward, he thundered, "Saruman, your staff is broken!" A thunderclap was heard despite the sunny clear skies above them, and a small explosion could be seen from the very top of the tower. "Now go! I pray that this banishment from the order may be punishment enough for you."
Frantic shouts and pitiful cries were heard. But Lauren could feel no pity within her whatsoever. Gandalf had dealt the harshest punishment for his kind, no doubt, and yet there were no more tugs on her heart strings as there had been before. She could not help but wonder if her earlier emotions had been the effect of a magic spell. After all, Saruman was a wizard. She couldn't believe she hadn't realized the possibility of the spell before.
"Look at that!" Pippin shouted, pointing upwards. Lauren glanced up just in time to see something flying through the air over their heads and land in the water yards behind them.
Pippin immediately dashed after it.
"Oi!" Merry cried in protest, but he was already gone. The Took was a hobbit on a mission.
Meanwhile, Gandalf glanced around at the men grimly. "Send word to all our allies, and to every corner of Middle Earth that still stands free. The enemy continues to move against us. We need to know where Sauron will strike."
Eomer nodded his consent, moving to submit the order to his troops.
"Is it alright to leave him like this?" Aragorn asked the white wizard softly, gesturing toward the tower.
Gandalf frowned. "There is no more than can be done with Saruman. He will fester in his misery for quite some time, I imagine. Indeed, he is much more of a threat to himself than he is to anyone else at this point in time."
"And what about later? He will surely cause trouble then," Gimli muttered darkly under his breath. "We should just have his head and be done with it."
But Gandalf had already moved on, and therefore did not hear the dwarf's words. Instead, the wizard approached Pippin with an outstretched hand. "Give that here, lad," he ordered, sounding somewhat alarmed. Lauren eyed the dark yet glowing orb with distaste as Pippin handed it over as he was asked. The object, whatever it was, gave her the creeps. She was glad when Gandalf wrapped it up in his robes and effectively hid it from view.
Not at all caring for the serious atmosphere that had settled around them, she shook herself a bit and slapped a smile on her face. With another grim chapter of their journey behind them, it looked like it was up to her to lighten the mood a little. After all, contrary to what Gandalf wanted, not everything about this war had to be about doom and gloom. Especially now that a small battle had just been won. "Well, now that the old wizarding bastard's dealt with, where are we off to next?"
Lauren had honestly meant well by the question, even despite her rudeness. Which was why she was somehow still surprised when Gandalf reached over to smack her on the back of the head.