(More mistakes corrected 2014…Yes, I am updating, I hope before Yule).

Chapter 16: Of Herbs and Stewed Plots

Sam stood over the fallen man, the corpse that he had made. He thought he ought to feel remorse, if not regret; but none of those sensations came. Instead, if vibration of victory moved upward from his chest. Sam was small but mighty, and had felled his foe. There was nothing he had done that was not righteous and worthy of song.

'He's dead?' stammered, Pippin.

'Course he is – and you're welcome,' snapped Sam. What a stupid, silly hobbit his companion could be.

Strider continued to lean over the ruffian, lines of concern creasing his brow. 'Perhaps this man was evil, he said. 'And deserved death. But we might have pulled something from him about your friends.'

'Friend,' corrected Sam. 'What happens to Merry is below my care.'

Pippin's face fell at that and again, Sam saw weakness. He scowled. 'One less ruffian is a gift to the world.'

Strider gave Sam a strange stare, as if he had spoken out of turn, as if he were a mere child with a mind to match his height. Then he rose and looked back toward the trees. 'There is another man down— injured not dead,' said Strider. 'We must tend to him.'

'Was he with this one?' asked Pippin, motioning to the dead man.

'I do not think so,' said Strider. 'At least it seems it was the dead man that gave him his wounds. But if he dies, we will never know. Come.'

The hobbits followed Strider into the thicket where another big man lay on the ground groaning. An arrow shaft pierced his shoulder, and his tunic and surcoat were shiny with blood. Then the Ranger rose and knelt over by the wounded man. 'I will tend to your hurts, he said, for a price.'

'Name it,' gasped the man.

'You must tell us all you know, and aid us, if you can.'

'I will,' he gasped.

Strider sent each of the hobbits off Pippin in search of a spate of healing herbs and Sam to fetch water from the river. Before a minute had passed, a great cry rent the air and birds alighted from the trees. Sam guessed that Strider had just yanked out the shaft from the big man .

When they returned to the thicket, the wounded man was pale as death, his brow running with sweat. The arrow was gone. Strider set Pippin's plants upon the wound once he had stanched the bleeding and cleaned it some.

'Will he live?' asked Pippin.

'The shaft hit nothing vital and the herbs should keep it from going bad,' said Strider. 'Yes, I think he will live.'

'Tell me,' gasped the patient, 'the other man – is he?'

'Dead is dirt,' said Sam with some bluster.

'Good,' rasped the man breathlessly.

'Good for you, if he's the one that shot you,' said Sam. 'But how are we to know you are any better?'

'The other ruffian, he sought to take me, I think,' Pippin put in. 'Strider are we sure this one was not in league with the dead man?'

'Well Strider,' demanded Sam, 'is he a friend? If he is not, we've spent precious time aiding our enemies.'

'I am Grimbold son of Baldwin, little one, and not a foe,' said the big man in a soft voice. 'Not if you name yourself friends of Gondor.'

Sam narrowed his eyes as recognition hit him. 'Hold on! You were one of the ruffians in the Shire!' He drew out his dagger. 'You took them!' he shouted. 'Give my master back, or I'll spit you where you lie, Gondor or no!'

Strider set himself between Sam and his prey. 'Stand down, Samwise. We will hear his tail.' Strider stared back at his patient. 'Were you among the captors of the halflings? Speak quickly and speak true.'

'Yes,' said Grimbold, 'but for good cause.'

'Good cause,' spluttered Sam. 'How could giving my master to Isengard help your land?'

Strider looked down at the man with hard eyes. 'My companion does not ask a poor question. Saruman has turned to darkness. He harries the poor folk of Rohan and is no longer a friend of Gondor. Either you lie or there are many more twists to this plot.'

'It is a tangled knot, indeed!' said Grimbold.

'The dead man,' asked Strider, who was he, and what was he to you?'

'The dead man was called Broga, for what it is now worth,' said Grimbold. 'And my acquaintance with him was neither fast nor firm. I worked under secret pretense.'

'As did Broga, so it seems,' said Strider.

'Indeed,' said Grimbold. 'He was sent to slay me, our prime deed being done.'

'Delivering up the halflings to Isengard?' asked Strider. 'Do you deny that was your errand?'

'No,' said Grimbold. 'And yes. Those were the orders we received from Isengard; my true orders came from Minas Tirith.'

'Both orders,' said Strider, 'involved the capture of halflings, I deem.'

Grimbold closed his eyes, as if some memory pained him. 'Our goals are noble…though the means to that end have not been so. Boromir warned me that I would have to do ill to do good.'

'Who is this Boromir?' asked Sam. 'He's got a right crooked idea of nobility, I should say.'

'Boromir, son of Denethor, High Warden of the White Tower and heir apparent to the Stewardship of Gondor,' said Grimbold. 'Boromir is a warrior of great strength and renown. And do not mistake my words—Boromir is a honorable man. He would fight for his people to the end of his strength. All Gondor's hopes rest upon him; for the King shows no signs of returning.'

Sam caught a glint in the Ranger's eyes and he wondered if there was mockery in the man. To Sam's relief, the ranger showed no sign of brandishing his broken sword.

'Boromir is no doubt a grim and mighty warrior,' said Strider. 'Yet his father is grimmer still; and would have none but Isildur's heir calling himself King, so I have heard told.'

'You have heard true,' said Grimbold. 'Boromir is kingly, nevertheless, and many would have him so.'

'Why should a kingly man have you steal away halflings from their home?' asked Strider.

Grimbold lowered his voice, 'this was bigger than halflings.'

Sam felt the rage flash over his breast, and, for once, Pippin was there with him. Both hobbits now stared daggers at the fallen man. Grimbold, seeing the fierceness of their faces, turned his gaze to Strider, and said, 'Perhaps we should speak…alone?'

Strider shook his head. 'I would not betray the trust of these worthy halflings by exchanging stealthy words with he who stole their fellows. Continue your account; for I am not sure for now to trust you— or even whether I was right to let you live. This kidnapping was a fell deed.'

'One of the Shire-folk had…a treasure,' said Grimbold. 'A treasure that would save Minas Tirith in her darkest days.'

With the conversation turning in this dangerous directions, Sam reached under his tunic, clutching at the Ring, as if to shield it from harm. Pippin slid his gaze now to Sam, and it took all Sam self will not slap him. Pippin seeing the spark of malice, shifted his sight away. Sam crossed his arms about his middle as the big men spoke together.

'I know more of this treasure than you would guess, ' said Strider. 'And I will tell you, to attempt to use it in that way would be folly, even against the enemy.'

'Which enemy?' asked Grimbold.

'The only one that matters,' said Strider, casting his eyes to the East. 'Did your Lord not tell you the blackness that birthed this treasure?'

'I serve Boromir and my kingdom,' said Grimbold. 'If my lord should wish Gondor to have this thing, then I would give it him. My master is no fool.'

'I did not name him so,' said Strider. 'But a man alone and in dire need may do foolish deeds when bereft of the advice of others. To that end, a Council has been summoned at Rivendell to speak of these grave matters.'

'Boromir has heard of this Council,' said Grimbold. 'He had a mind to attend, though, he'd hoped to see me back ere he left. I've nothing to bring him but a nasty scar and tales of my failure. I would not come back to Minas Tirith empty-handed.'

'This—treasure, said Strider, 'does not belong to Gondor.'

'If it does not belong to Gondor,' then to where?' asked Grimbold. 'And if it does not belong to Boromir, then to whom? You? You are no King!'

'You mistake my intent,' said Strider. 'This treasure, it belongs to no one, and to claim it is to grasp ruin.'

'Then you and my Lord will quarrel,' said Grimbold, 'if you were of a stature to do so. Who are you? I have been given neither title nor name.'

'I am the man who healed you,' said the ranger, his voice hard. 'I am called Strider, among other names. That must suffice for now. Tell us, what do you know of this treasure, and how did you come to seek it in these parts; and under the banner of Isengard. Best start from the beginning.'

Dark rumours came into Gondor from the North and from the East as our foes pressed upon us. Then came other tales. Tales of a great weapon—a treasure…a Ring.'

'You were told of the – the Ring?' Pippin blurted out.

Strider and Sam shushed to little fool at once.

Grimbold chuckled, then lowered his voice. 'We learned of a ring I did not learn until later that it was likely the Ring. When news of the Black Riders reached us it seemed a good conclusion. But the Black Riders were not the only ones sniffing out for this thing. Saruman was seeking it, asking his many questions, sending out minions, and other secret snakes. He made no more pretense of being our friend, and began ravaging the lands with fire and sword. It was then that Boromir took it into his mind that Gondor might itself get hold this weapon. Gondor is the only power that has any hope of holding back the tide. He contrived that this thing then could be use it for the good of all—for what dark mischief might be done if it fell into fouler hands? And so I was dispatched north under guise of a mercenary. I was to set myself among the wicked men at Isengard. I did so, quickly gaining a reputation as a man of great cunning, skill in arms and dubious loyalty – a man who could be bought. Saruman sent me on some of his errands to test my loyalty – or at least my loyalty to his coin. Finally, I was sent with two other hirelings to the Shire on a special mission. We were told a troublesome Halfling named Merriadoc Brandybuck , had betrayed Saruman; that he had stolen something from the wizard. We were to capture this Halfling, along with his cousin, a Frodo Baggins. That was the story we were given by the wizard, and it seems likely that the Master of Buckland's son had indeed made some arrangement with Saruman for the betterment of the Shire, and that those arrangements had somehow turned sour. Saruman said nothing of the Ring, only that our two captives were to be brought back alive and unspoiled. But I, knowing the true desires of my wizardly paymaster, had a different plan in mind. I resolved to bring the captives not to Isengard, but beyond it, through the gap of Rohan and to Gondor with their powerful prize.'

'But you did bring them to Isengard didn't you?' snarled Sam.

'That was after the knots of this original plan had begun to fray,' said Grimbold. 'When we first took the halflings, we learned that the one had suffered torment at the hands of the other. So it seemed likely to me that some great thing had been at the core of their misunderstanding. I assumed that this was the Ring. I did not search them for it, lest I alert my companions to the true value of these captives. But as we continued our journey, I was thrown into doubt. I took note that the Black Riders would seem to approach, but then move toward another target – like hounds who have caught a better scent. The final proof came when the two had tried to escape.'

'They failed, I see,' said Strider.

'They did,' said Grimbold, 'and that is the point! The two halflings had managed to get themselves free, no mean feat, but in their effort to flee us, no secret weapon was brought to bear. I concluded then that neither halfling in our care now possessed the Ring. And so I was left with one choice.'

'To bring the two named captives to Isengard, as was your agreement,' supplied Strider, 'pretend ignorance of the Ring, then, whilst Saruman busied himself with the new prisoners, tear off to find the current ringbearer.'

'Yes,' said Grimbold. He eased himself up on his elbow, and set a level stare at Pippin and Sam. 'So tell me, which one of you is it?'

In the space of a breath, Strider had drawn his sword, and swiftly set its bright edge against Grimbold's neck. 'That is not a question for which you will receive answer.'

'Peace,' said Grimbold, now speaking more quickly than had been his wont. 'If the Ring was not with the first two halflings, the obvious place to look was with their former companions. And when I saw the riders sniffing about, and learned you lot were following behind, it was not a strange conclusion. I was merely curious to learn if I was right.'

'And I was curious, Grimbold, son of Baldwin, what you would have done if you had not been waylaid by your former accomplice.' Strider's voice was stern and implacable.

'He'd have taken us,' said Pippin.

Grimbold did not deny it. 'I'd hoped you would have come of your own will,' he said.

'After seeing you seize up their fellows?' asked Strider. 'You thought these two would come along willingly?'

'Alas I did not expect it,' said Grimbold. He turned his gaze back to Pippin and Sam. 'I'd not planned to harm you. I hoped to escort you back to Gondor— if you'd come willingly, or as hostages, if not. But you would've had been treated most honorably once you arrived. You would have been our worthy guests.'

'Guests?' spat Sam. 'By the Lord of all Ninnyhammers, where have I heard that before? We had the benefit of Merry's unique hospitality, and I've had all the welcome I could stomach for one lifetime, thank 'ee very much! And as for your promise not to harm us, what now of our companions? Are they still unspoilt?'

'I have already offered the two up as a decoy,' said Grimbold. 'It is too late to save them. And, even now, I would plead for you all to come to Gondor and fight our common foe. Would you have your friends' sacrifice be in vain?'

'It was a sacrifice made unwilling,' said Strider grimly. 'And not one I shall let be carried through if I have strength left to prevent. You, Grimbold of Gondor, shall help me, for, having thrust them into peril, you owe them this debt. Only then may you return, alone to your master and bid him to fly to Rivendell if he wishes to make firm allies and offer up counsel on the destiny of the Ring.'

'I shall help you,' said Grimbold wearily. 'Though I despair for my land.'

'Then let us weave our own plan, said Strider, lifting the blade from Grimbold's neck. 'The Halflings, where in Isengard are they likely held?'

'In the Tower of Orthanc, I deem,' said Grimbold. 'It is what I would do.'

'Do you know of any of the secret ways into Orthanc?'

'Orthanc is impregnable, so I've heard,' said Grimbold, 'but guile might get you into the ring of Isengard without undue trouble. Yet I would not bring these halflings into that place. There are no children near; and these two could not be mistaken for anything else but what they are.'

'Then what shall we do?' asked Pippin. 'We cannot go with you, but we cannot long linger here, not with these Black Riders about. Must we remain here, useless to our companions and a danger to ourselves?'

'I did not think that a solution, Master Peregrin, ' said Strider. 'Give me a moment. I must set my mind to this thing.' Strider went very silent, then said, 'we are near Fangorn Forest.'

'Is it safe?' asked Pippin.

'By no means,' said Strider. 'But it may be the safest spot in a land rife with peril.'

'Even the Black Riders are said to avoid it,' said Grimbold.

'Which is why it may be the only choice,' said Strider. 'Were that Gandalf were still in these lands to give us counsel!'

'Gandalf!' cried Pippin. 'What became of him, Strider? He properly disappeared at our hour of greatest need.'

'He was here,' said Strider. 'Held captive on the very roof of that grim tower some weeks ago.'

'Here?' asked Sam. 'How did you know? And why didn't you tell us?'

'Because until this day I did not know, for I set off from Rivendell ere Gandalf returned. These were the tidings that Elohir carried.'

'If Gandalf got back to Rivendell, that means he escaped!' said Pippin. 'Couldn't Frodo and Merry—?'

'His means of escape is quite closed to your fellows,' said Strider regretfully, 'unless they may summon the stewards of the sky. Elohir will return to Rivendell with this news; but, alas, it will likely be too late to help us in this matter.'

'I had thought the Grey Wizard had left on his own,' said Grimbold. 'Though, truth be told, the Steward had never trusted him.'

'To his despite!' said Strider. 'And, dear halflings, if you would have the short story, Gandalf did fly to Rivendell after his escape, but not before racing to the Shire to find sign of his beloved hobbits.'

'Wait!' said Pippin shutting his eyes to clear the fog from his mind. 'Strider, are you saying that Gandalf did not abandon Frodo after all?'

VVVV

'Halfling,' said Saruman with silky concern, 'why do you hesitate to help me? Can't you see that you grow precious short of friends?'

Frodo stared up from the laden plate into the iron eyes of his captor.

'I have friends,' replied Frodo. 'Friends and allies whom I can better trust.'

Saruman laughed. It was a deep rumbling sound, mirthless and horrible to hear. 'You are such strange folk. I, Saruman of many colors, head of the White Council, am not to be trusted. But the ragged gray wizard who left you twisting in the cold wind, his words are worth their weight in gold. What has Gandalf done to inspire such loyalty?'

Frodo did not answer. He felt an icy chill run through the room.

'He asked for your aid to save me,' said Frodo at last. 'So you say.'

'And here you are,' said Saruman with a sweep of white hands, 'Rescued from your cruel host! Will you not offer me thanks at the least?'

'I am no guest,' said Frodo. 'And where is Gandalf now? Did you harm him? I would hear these tales from his own lips.'

'Where is Gandalf now, you ask?' continued Saruman. 'Could you not guess? He is with his true allies— the elves. Long-lived and puissant they are! And when he learned to low longer carry the one Ring, all his cares for his half-friend scattered like sand in a storm. The mighty plot under the sparkling eaves of Rivendell, striving to find the Ring was lost.' Saruman leaned in and lowered his sonorous voice. 'Why should they spare a thought for an erstwhile ringbearer?'

'Perhaps they shouldn't,' blustered Frodo, hiding his despair.

Saruman raised his eyebrows and offered a serpentine smile. 'So you do admit, my small friend, that you no longer carry it?'

'I-?' Frodo had let himself grow careless. ' I don't know what you are speaking of,' he muttered lamely.

'Yes, you do,' the wizard said, his cruel eyes glinting in the candlelight. 'And I would have the name of he who bears it, and where he might be found.'

Frodo said nothing. He willed the image of gentle Samwise out of his mind, lest he accidentally betray him. Cold fear rippled down his spine.

'Your lost companions, I think,' Saruman said lightly. 'What say you to that?'

Frodo's breath stuck in his throat. Anger at the possibility mixed with a desperate fear for his friends.

Saruman stood. ' All will be pulled from you, by the by,' said Saruman. You'll give it willingly, or by less happy means, but you will tell me. Meanwhile, I will send out searchers to find this new bearer.'

The wizard stepped behind a tall plinth covered with a thick black cloth. Frodo had not taken note of it before, but now it was the center of his fearful gaze.

'I am not the only one seeking him, as you well know,' said Saruman. 'Behold! The other searcher!'

Saruman drew off the black cloth to reveal a glass Sphere. Deep and dark it was, but from its core rose a fiery radiance. Frodo felt the blood drain from him, his trembling frame shot through with unyielding terror. The flames in the sphere had coalesced into the hideous shape of an unblinking eye.

'Pray, Frodo Baggins, that I am the one who finds him first.'

VVVV

Scur wondered why the wizard had chosen to keep him near. He had not felt particularly skilled in the mission with Grimbold other than his uncommon manner with teched imp. His greatest consolation had been his reunion with his daughter, Clothild. She indeed had grown into womanhood, though she was nothing like whore that damned Broga had described. She lived in the stone house along the outer wall of Isengard with some of the other female camp followers and was much beloved by the other men, who had nothing but fine things to say of her to her father's face.

After some reminiscing, Scur had told Clothild of the imp he had meant to gift her, p'raps after the wizard was 'done' with it. Scur could give no clear answer on when that might be. He pushed down his misgivings. Surely Grimbold was mistaken when he claimed that both imps would be brought to ruin. Surely a wizard, renowned for such a learning and lore would not destroy something he taken such pains to procure. Scur could not even fathom why the wizard want such strange little creatures in the first place. It made little sense. But many things a wizard did would be mysterious and strange, he supposed. For example, those special orcs, the Uruk-hai. Why did Saruman like them so? These monsters Scur found rather hideous and their growing presence made Scur consider taking his daughter from the compound and hie away from this place.

Such thoughts through skittered through his mind when he received the summons from the wizard. Two of the uglier Uruks escorted Scur into a stone- clad chamber and closed the door behind.

'Do you know, my good mercenary, why I kept you in my service?' asked the wizard.

Scur shrugged. 'No, my lord.'

'Your way with the imp impressed me, and I thought there is a man whose skill I could use.'

'Thank you, My Lord,' he said, '… though truth be told, my mind's been turning to home.'

'Of course,' said Saruman, his voice laced with understanding. 'Osgiliath, did you say?'

Scur did not recall telling the wizard a word of his home. But, of course, wizards were canny by nature and could find out any secret thing. 'I've not been back for ages,' said Scur truthfully.

'You will find it much changed,' said the wizard.

'For the better, I am sure,' said Scur, though from the rumors he had heard, this was not likely the case. He was feeling suddenly and sharply uneasy. My Lord,' Scur asked, ' how is the noble imp?'

'Ah, that is at the very heart of what I wish to discuss with you,' said the wizard. 'It seemed your imp was much misused by the other one, and being a good keeper, I strive to learn what occurred ere you found the two.'

'T'was in my mind as well,' said Scur.

The wizards expression grew more stern. 'Did Grimbold make mention of the reason we had to bring the poor halflings into my care?'

Scur bit down hard on his tongue. 'I was told little, but…..,' Scur's voice trailed off.

'You feared I would be a hard host,' said Saruman, shaking his head. 'I am only so to halflings that hurt their kin, as you will see. For my part, I wanted nothing more than to keep the good imp safe and sound. He was caught up in affairs too big for him. Your good Frodo will not be harmed. Does that surprise you?'

As it turned out, it rather did. 'That is well,' said Scur shakily. 'As Grimbold would have had me think elsewise.'

'Faithless Grimbold!' exclaimed the wizard. 'He had his own designs on our small guests. It is only you that the good imp could depend on. May I depend on you as well? Will you help me to help Frodo the halfling?'

'If you mean to put him in my care, my daughter should love the imp,' said Scur.

'Yes, yes,' chuckled the wizard. 'An obedient pet for your little girl. That would be well and proper once this ugliness is done. But first, we have work to do. What say you? '

The wizard's voice was kind and melodious. Scur decided that words spoken so fair could not be ill. 'I will help,' said Scur, and felt at that moment that he meant it.

'To your great credit,' the wizard smiled, 'and rich reward.'

As if by magic, a passage opened behind the wizard. Saruman knocked his staff against the floor and its crystal tip lit up like a torch. 'Follow me.'

Scur followed the wizard into the inky darkness for what seemed a fair distance. The path went up and down and twisted until, at last, it opened out into a proper chamber. In the center of the room, the bad halfling was shackled to an oaken chair. He was dressed in rags, and by his panting, it was clear he had just endured some torment. A brazier was lit in the corner and a poker sat not an inch from the halfling's furry feet, which now trembled wildly. Scur though he caught the vague scent of burning flesh.

'Master Meriadoc and I have just been chatting about the unfortunate treatment of your imp, ' said Saruman as he grasped the halfling's chin and lifted it to his gaze. 'Haven't we?'

Scur saw that creature's eyes were filled with terror and tears. He almost felt sorry for it.

'Speak now, Halfling,' said Saruman gently. 'I have asked you a question. Haven't we just been speaking of your battered little companion?'

The halfling nodded briskly.

'And now, Scur, our bad little imp will tell you all he can of his two other lost fellows so that you may find them and bring them hence.' Saruman took up the poker and set it back into the brazier, which now hissed, spat and smoked. 'It would mean the world to your beloved halfling to be reunited with his friends.'

TBC