Chapter 1: Hunting Orcs

"Because it's still not safe and secure. There's still orcs about. And Pip and I are still soldiers with Rohan and Gondor. And we are still on duty. That's why." Merry was explaining to Sam why he and Pippin were busy riding ahead of the company rather than remaining with the main group.

"Well I just wish you two would be given a little time off," Sam complained as he road his pony near the front of the traveling party. "Mister Frodo is worried about you two goin' off all the time, that's all."

"He's acting more like my father than my cousin!" Merry sounded exasperated as he reached back to retrieve his short bow. "Look, Sam, we are not out there by ourselves. We are with the Knights of Gondor, plus some of the Dunedain. And Lord Elrond's sons also hunt orc with us. There is nothing to fear, Sam, but lots of work to do. I'm off now. I'm supposed to be with the forward troupes. See you later!" And with that Merry loosely notched an arrow into the bowstring and spurred his pony into a gallop, leaving Sam alone with his thoughts.

Aragorn had been crowned King of Gondor and Arnor. He had married Arwen Undomiel, and the two had established their kingdom. It was now time to escort their guests of honor to the borders, securing their safety as best they could from the still-resistant scattered bands of orcs who until recently had taken orders from Isengard. Arwen, Imrahil, Eomer, Faramir and Eowyn had elected to stay on in Edoras while Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, along with a good number of the King's Guard and the Dunedain accompanied the hobbits and elves on to Isengard. There Gimli and Legolas took their leave, visiting the treasures of the Glittering Caves and the depths of Fangorn Forest. Aragorn vowed to remain with the company until they reached the Gap of Rohan, the outer limits of the ancient realm of Gondor.

Sam could see ample evidence of recent skirmishes between the Men of Rohan and the orcs and Uruk-hai fleeing from the ruins of Isengard. He and the other hobbits were traveling North along the old King's Highway, also known as the Greenway Road near Bree. Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin were returning to the Shire by way of Lothlorien and Rivendale, escorting Celeborn, Galadriel, and Lord Elrond to their respective homelands. Gandalf was accompanying them, riding upon his great horse, Shadowfax. How long Gandalf would stay with the group was uncertain, but they welcomed the wizard's company for as long as he wished to remain with them.

Earthen mounds with shields and spears of Rohan marked burial places for Men of the Mark slain during battle. Piles of burnt ashes, bones and dirt indicated the places where mass pyres were erected to incinerate the bodies of the orcs.

"Mister Frodo," Sam quietly spoke as they rode next to each other in the line of horses and ponies, "don't those markings look familiar?" Sam pointed to a few isolated shields located near scattered orc bodies littering the side of the roadway. Most shields were emblazoned with the familiar white hand symbol of Sauruman. But a few were painted black with a single red eye in the middle.

"Yes, Sam," Frodo said. "Those are from orcs in the service of Mordor. The poor wretches must be scattered far and wide after their defeat. They are a long way from where we last saw them." Frodo turned introspective. "I wonder where the orcs call home? All of them can not possibly be from Mordor."

"Well, Mister Bilbo said there were quite a few in the Misty Mountains," Sam replied. "And we ran into that lot in Moria. And I recollect overhearin' somethin' at the Council of Elrond about Mirkwood comin' under attack by some orcs."

"That's right, Sam," Frodo nodded in agreement. "Bilbo also said there were orcs in the Battle of Five Armies out at the Lonely Mountain near Dale. Why, there must be just as many orc communities are there are villages of Men. I do not see the point in hunting down these orcs though."

"Why, whatever do you mean, sir?" Sam was incredulous. "Only good orc's a dead one, I say, beggin' your pardon."

Frodo remained silent, deep in thought, looking at the carnage lining the road. Sam let the question drop, seeing as how his master was clearly thinking about something important. "Best not disturb him when the melancholy strikes," he reasoned.

No one else in the company paid much attention to their surroundings. The Elves were deep in conversation with Gandalf. Occasionally Frodo could overhear them talking about Lord Cirdan and ship-building. But he was not interested in such matters. His mind was completely distracted by the sight of the small burial mounds, the faint smell of burned flesh, and the sight of arrows protruding from bodies lying along the side of the road. His keen hearing also caught the sound of metal clashing upon metal and faint cries arising from the trees ahead. Sometimes his reverie was interrupted by a horseman galloping past, off on some mission. Other times he could overhear Aragorn talking to the Captain of the King's Guard, discussing how the hunt was progressing.

The company occasionally passed by make-shift huts and tents populated with members of the Rohirrim. The temporary buildings were for the healers and soldiers assigned burial details. Merry told Sam they would eventually become future sites for new homesteads of Men displaced during the War. But for now they were filled with the wounded and the horse soldiers.

As the day's ride wore into mid-afternoon, Sam began to doze off in the saddle. He had eaten a large lunch, and Bill's steady gate soothed him into a near-slumber. Frodo couldn't resist nudging his chestnut pony on over to Shadowfax. Frodo tugged on the wizard's shimmering robe to get his attention.

"Frodo," Gandalf looked down in surprise, "what is it?"

Frodo pulled the wizard aside from the Elves in order to converse with him privately. "Gandalf? Is it really necessary for the King's Men to continue to hunt the orcs?"

"Of course it is, Frodo," Gandalf quietly answered Frodo's somewhat disturbing question. "Don't you know that your very presence here is a temptation to them for revenge? You are the reason for their defeat. The head of the Ringbearer must command a pretty price amongst the armies of a defeated enemy."

Frodo hadn't considered that possibility. "But the war is over. They are defeated. They have no leader. Wouldn't the orcs try to make their way back to the places from whence they came, just as we are?"

"Perhaps some are doing just that," Gandalf said to humor the hobbit. "Perhaps some have given up and are going home, wherever home is. But we cannot take that chance. The King has issued orders to hunt down and kill any orcs found within the borders of his realm. And he is especially careful of protecting you."

Frodo's mouth thinned into a sad grimace. He said nothing to the wizard, but reigned his pony back until he had rejoined Sam.

Sam had awoken to find Frodo coming back to his side. "Any problems, sir?"

"No, Sam. Nothing," Frodo replied as their two ponies settled back into a comfortable walking gate "I just had a question for Gandalf."

That answer satisfied Sam for the moment, but he noticed that Frodo was lost in introspective thought for the rest of the day. When the evening meal came and the company settled into camp for the night, Frodo remained silent and pensive. He noticed Pippin standing guard at the edge of the firelight, short sword at the ready.