There was nothing to do but run.
Run screaming until his throat burned; run deaf from the howls of ten thousand orcs and Uruk-hai and trolls, and the earth-shaking screech of the defeated spirit of Sauron; run senseless as the dominating force that had guided his actions shattered into a thousand splinters then hissed out of existence. It was only his instinct to run that saved him as the ground broke away before the Black Gate and countless numbers were swallowed whole. Those that had died this way, going into the cold empty void with their Lord, did not know the suffering caused by His absence. Those who remained were in a hell of their own: formidable warriors became as helpless as blinded witless animals, and the white-faces made quick work of them. A river of black blood poured into the chasm that had opened before the gate, as the Westerners sought to extinguish the dark flame of orc-life once and for all.
Rakhan had run, fleeing his enemies for the first time in his life. Half-senseless, he knew nothing of direction or goal as he shoved others aside and clawed his way up the mountains. The screeching of Sauron penetrated every ounce of his being, but unlike the full bloods he ran away from the fiery lights exploding off Barad-Dur. Rakhan pounded north, running away from the horror of defeat even though he couldn't escape the violent sundering of his consciousness. For the first time since he had escaped the pit of his birth, Rakhan was a masterless creature, and it was terrifying for the senseless Uruk-hai warrior.
He first came into something like awareness slogging through the Dead Marshes. Not even an Uruk-hai would cross the Marshes, a haunted place of agonized spirits whose only desire was to pull the living down into the frigid, corpse-filled water. Rakhan woke from the nightmare of defeat to find himself splashing the foul water at his parched lips, face to face with a long-dead man wearing a dome-shaped golden helmet. His pale yellow hair floated around his face, grasping like a weed. His eyes were hollow, void, empty, but as Rakhan grappled with his almost infantile senses a slow, fey light began to burn in the dead man's gaze.
Rakhan leaped away, gasping in terror. It was a new feeling for the Uruk: Saruman had not bred soldiers to feel fear or pain. What use did slaves have for those emotions, which served to warn the body of danger? Now, free of Saruman and the Dark Lord's overriding consciousness, Rakhan felt the fear like a bucket of frigid Anduin water poured down his back. Wild with sudden, unfamiliar fear, Rakhan stumbled backwards, catching himself just before he fell into another death-filled pool. His instinct was to run again, to put as much distance as he could between himself and the rising ghouls of the marsh. But as Rakhan's wild pale green eyes swept the land he understood—his first clear thought—that to run blindly would ensure his death. For the first time in Rakhan's short life he understood that he didn't want to die; all that was promised to him on death was the sucking of his soul into the nothingness of the void.
And so he would have to pick his way carefully through the marsh. There was land enough, Rakhan saw that clearly now. Faint strings of land wove through the water, hedged in by yellowing sedge grasses. It was slow going, leaving plenty of time for Rakhan to think of the lost battle. He knew without doubt that Sauron was vanquished. Saruman was a little less clear. Rakhan could sense the stirrings of his former master's consciousness, but it was somehow greatly reduced, like the faint sound of wind in a far-off tree. There would be no going back to Saruman, no comfort of his master's guidance, even though Rakhan had never known a life where he wasn't bound to serve another being's will.
As odd as it was to be so alone, Rakhan realized it was a good thing, if he could avoid enemies. If the frenzy of defeat and terror and mindlessness meant anything, then there would be no fellow Uruk-hai to link with anyway. There was certainly no safety in numbers. Rakhan had paid enough attention to know who Elessar was. The King of Gondor had returned and whatever numbers of Rakhan's kind that remained, whoever had survived the shrieking emptiness of Sauron's fall, would now surely be hunted to death. It would be safer, Rakhan thought, to disappear entirely, to find some hidden place where he could endure the catastrophy alone. Rakhan had been fortunate enough not to discard his weapons in the frenzy. He could hunt, he could find water; he could live on. He needed to more than that, he thought.
He followed the Anduin, sleeping little, staying as hidden as possible. On his third day of travel Rakhan spotted a brigade of men, from Gondor by their armor and standards, heading south to Minas Tirith for their triumph. Rakhan hurried through the forests of Amun Hen, the thundering of Rauros in his ears. Here Rakhan took his time, hunting deer and saving his strength. Soon the Gap of Rohan would unfold before him, and Rakhan planned to run it all the way, day and night without rest or food. The whip of his master would not lick his heels or his heart, but the strength and discipline that Saruman had bred into him was Rakhan's to keep.
Fortunately the horse-boys were nowhere in sight. Likely they were celebrating in Gondor. Rakhan ran until his body ached and his lungs were ready to explode, but he crossed the sea of grass and rock. He had never considered pain before; now it overwhelmed him. How easy it would be to quit, when it didn't mean instant death! Yet if he fell under the pale glaring sun, men would soon enough find him. After the first full day and night, it took every bit of strength Rakhan had to keep going. But soon enough, the forbidden forest of Fangorn rose before him, a shimmering haven of green darkness and silence.
No one—orc or man or elf—entered Fangorn forest, and if there was anywhere in Middle Earth where a defeated and masterless Uruk-hai could live free and alone, Rakhan determined that Fangorn was it. He had heard rumors from some of the other groups of Helm's Deep survivors, Uruks like Rakhan who had joined Sauron after Saruman's imprisonment at the frighteningly destroyed Isengard; but nothing certain, as none of the Uruk-hai who had retreated through the trees had returned. There had been talk among his people of a dark evil in the woods, but surely whatever lurked in the cool green shadow had less of a reason to kill Rakhan than Aragorn Elessar and his minions. Shuddering with exhaustion and pain, Rakhan ran into the forest and fell to his knees by a cold, gurgling stream. Whatever harm the forest meant him would have to be faced now; Rakhan couldn't go on. Helpless, Rakhan lay down on the mossy floor and passed into a dreamless sleep.
The next morning Rakhan realized that he would hardly live alone. For a long while he lay on his back staring up at the thick canopy of leaves, watching brilliantly colored birds flitter through the trees. The creatures of the forest were wary of him, much more than they would be of a man, but the longer Rakhan lay still the closer they came as they went about their business. Squirrels and rabbits strayed closer, seeking nuts and edible plants. Two brightly colored foxes, a mother and her kit, slinked to the stream and drank, their green eyes bright on the prostrate Uruk-hai. Rakhan didn't understand what he was feeling. The urge to kill had been his overriding emotion before, surpressing anything else he might have felt. He would have seen other creatures as nothing more than a source of food. The only amusement they would have provided him would have been in their death, in the manner of it, if it was slow and he could watch the terror and the spark of life as if vanished, if he could put a torture of iron to its flesh for his pitiful pleasure. But now Rakhan found himself idly watching, noting the playfulness of the kit as it trotted behind its mother, and the mother's scolding concern as she hurried the baby back into the curious vale of trees, hanging mosses, vines, and ferns. Rakhan listened to the varied calls of the birds, finding that when he closed his eyes he could distinguish the notes better, he could determine where the strangely intriguing melodies came from. From somewhere deeper in the forest there was a low moaning, almost a humming sound, made by no creature Rakhan could identify. Curiosity drove him back to his feet. His sword was at his side and his bow and quiver—the obscenely powerful bow of Saruman's invention with its massive black arrows—were on his back, but Rakhan felt no compulsion to hunt yet. He wandered deeper into Fangorn as if under a charm or spell, not understanding that he was, for the first time, experiencing life freed from the dark magic that had utterly dominated him.
As night fell Rakhan made his bed in the gulch left behind by a fallen tree, but he could hardly sleep. He was faintly hungry, having had only some of the dried venison from a kill near Amon Hen, but he was too amazed by the world around him to sleep. His sharp Uruk eyes watched boldly patterned spiders pick their way along the upturned roots of the fallen tree. Bats had taken over for the birds, thousands of tiny Nazgul on their winged steeds, swooping down on centipedes and singing crickets. And the moaning, the humming, was loud enough to vibrate the deliciously cool ground he lay in. It was some living thing, Rakhan decided, but he didn't know where the source was coming from. At once it was close, but also far far away, and once it seemed to be right above him. Rakhan wasn't frightened of this. His brief experience with fear had been an immediate, imminent threat; also, it was a man's curse to be afraid of the unknown. Rakhan didn't know it, but it was his own energy that kept him safe; he meant the forest no harm and it knew, and the strange life of Fangorn Forest reported this in low whispers and slow, deep song throughout the night. Rakhan studied his own breath as it lulled into the rhythm of the life around him. He was a part of the forest that night, and though it was all entrancingly new and exciting, somehow it felt perfectly right of Rakhan.
By day he plunged deeper still, exploring, tasting. Fangorn allowed him a deer every other day, generous even for his tall, greedy, thickly muscled body. If he had killed in pleasure, the forest would have let Rakhan starve, it would have smothered him and stamped him out. But Rakhan had enough to do for pleasure; he wasn't in the fiery pits of Isengard fighting over scraps of plunder and drilling endlessly. All of life, as it turned out, was full of beauty; even the decay of life melted into life's rhythms. Rakhan kept moving. If he lay idle he could fill with rage that Saruman and Sauron had denied him the experience of life, and Rakhan noticed that when he went hot with anger he saw nothing of the forest. It even seemed to retreat from him, to grow cold and forbidding. So he kept moving. He left the world behind him and roamed through the gullys and narrow warbling rivers and jumped over mossy logs, existing only in the moment, determined to ignore his old life until he forgot it entirely.
On the seventh day, as Eowyn and Faramir spoke of love and pain in the Houses of Healing, Rakhan came upon a wounded doe lying in a fern-filled gulch. She had fallen from the heights and snapped her leg in a muddy pit, and Rakhan slid down the hill to have a closer look.
The doe thrashed wildly, but her broken foreleg kept her from getting a purchase on the treacherous ground. Rakhan pulled a long knife from his hip on instinct, and he brandished it before her to signify his intentions. Overhead the forest gave a low, menacing groan, and the Uruk-hai tightened his hand on the knife.
But then a sudden motion from atop the gulch caught his sharp eyes. He looked up and saw, to his amazement, a young fawn, almost newborn, pacing back and forth in agitation. Terror kept the baby from starting down the steep slope; hunger, and some emotion Rakhan could feel but not name, kept the youngling from abandoning the doe. He fell back on his haunches and gazed at the doe, unsure now of what to do. Her eyes were wide in panic, a luminous shade of brown that reminded him of sunlight on tree bark. Yet it wasn't just panic for herself. Rakhan was stunned to see her turning her head again and again to her baby on the hill.
He had killed perhaps a thousand deer in the seven years of his life, most for sport. He knew what they looked like in death, what they tasted like, how their bodies felt under his cold knife. What he had never seen was a mother with her fawn; he had never even known, let alone noticed, that there was some bond between them other than the greed of a sucking baby to its food source.
Rakhan climbed back up the hill, and found a suitable stick, which he used his knife to whittle into two smooth, straight pieces about as long as the doe's foreleg. He unfastened and removed his heavy black cuirass and tore one of the long, hanging ends of his black tunic. Rakhan was no healer but he had seen limbs bound up in Isengard, after battles when Saruman wished to keep what soldiers he could alive. Those who were too badly off were butchered for the troops' meat, of course, and so Rakhan had enough knowledge of what was treatable. The bone had not broken the skin, nor did it jut out at a far angle. Excited as a child, the Uruk-hai hurried back down into the vale.
Again, the poor creature took a terror of him. Rakhan had no fear of her sharp hooves; his bronze-grey skin was tough and marred with scars and slashes from seven years of warfare. But he couldn't brace and wrap the foreleg if she would not lie still, and for a moment he thought to strike her in the head with his thick fist.
Then he thought: I have trained the wargs for their small, fierce orc riders. I have called wolves and spoken to them with my mind, and set them against the children of men. And so Rakhan cleared his mind in the same way, yet he filled his heart with the thrilling desire to heal rather than to harm. He sought out the doe's white-rimmed eyes and let the thought flood his essence: I am here to help, I can fix you, I can bring you to your baby and lay you down in a quiet place. I will see that you have food and water. I will care for you until you are strong again.
And he released the thought.
For a moment there was no sign that she had heard him. Then, slowly, uncertain, the doe relaxed and accepted the Uruk-hai. Rakhan reached his hand out tentatively, stroking the animal's strong, sweat-dampened neck. He knew no gentle songs to sing, and so he murmured softly: senseless, meaningless noises meant to soothe and distract the doe as he set and bound her leg. Once finished he lifted the doe easily in his arms and brought her up the hill. The baby, innocent of his violent race, followed him joyfully, causing a peculiar warm sensation in the Uruk-hai's chest.
He found a thicket where good plants grew in abundance, and he lay the doe down. The baby at once lay beside her and began to nurse. Rakhan felt himself lighten, as if some unseen force was pulling him up. He smiled to himself, unbound his helmet from the light pack on his back where his bow and quiver were kept, and sought out a stream. Living things needed water.
Rakhan found a closeby place to sleep that night, and every day he went to check on the doe and bring her water. He cut bark from newly fallen branches and gathered sweet flowers from the forest floor, making sure she had enough to eat. At night when he lay himself in a hole or nestled in a low hanging branch, he felt himself full of the most delicious and odd feeling of satisfaction. He was stunned to realize that this felt far better than the short, meaningless pleasure he had once taken from torturing and killing helpless things. He was also stunned to find that the feeling was not unfamiliar, when he considered it. It was as if some long dormant part of himself had blinked awake, and though his soul was still dark, a small, bright light flickered in the blackness.
The deer was admirably strong. Only twenty days had passed before she rose to her feet, gazed at Rakhan with a profound gratitude, and then led her baby off into the deep forest, returning to her free life.
Her absence, astonishingly, hurt his chest. Rakhan had grown accustomed to tending to her, talking to her, stroking her smooth warm body. He had enjoyed the baby greatly. Now they were gone. But the pleasure of knowing he had saved her, and the fawn, remained, lighting up his days as he roamed the forest. When he needed to hunt again, he bowed his head, because he had come to understand that life had value.
Rakhan spent his days in endless, directionless exploration. When he thought on his past life now, he felt only pain and bleary darkness, and so he tried to forget it entirely. Fangorn Forest had accepted him, and Rakhan lost all sense of time and memory in its ancient world.
Until one day, bathing in a tributary of the Entwash, he saw the tracks.
Rakhan jumped out of the cool running water, his powerful body dripping, his thick, long black hair sodden like a wet wool cloak. He left his clothes, armor, and weapons on the roughly-cut bank and dropped down beside the tracks, his heart pounding in his throat. He traced the distorted half-moon shape with his finger, and felt the warm earth. The tracks were fresh, disappearing into the ferns. A horse had come this way, this morning maybe.
Rakhan, crushed by memory of the world, returned to the bank and pulled his clothes and gear on. He glanced sharply around, searching for mounted warriors. They couldn't be hunting me, he thought. But who else kept horses, save men and elves? Both were his enemy. The wild horses wouldn't live in the forest, but on the plain, so there was little doubt that even if his enemies hadn't come for him per se, they would give him a fight when they found him. Rakhan regretted abandoning his helmet in the doe's thicket, but it had been stamped with Sauron's eye over a half-scrubbed white palm, signs that Rakhan never wanted to see again.
He wasn't under attack, but he had to know where the man was and why he had come. Rakhan figured he would probably have to kill the man, or the elf. This was not Lorien or Rivendell, and Rakhan had killed enough elves at Helm's Deep. It was regrettable, but Rakhan couldn't allow himself to be discovered. He realized that he had been granted a life, but it would be one spent always on guard. His blood and race cursed Rakhan to exist in a perpetual state of war.
The land began to rise again. There were hills under the ancient forest, sometimes gentle, sometimes roughly exposed chunks of limestone. Rakhan had found caves days before, tiny caves full of the musty smell of some beast or another who called them home. For days Rakhan had smelled the pungent scent of wolves in the wind, and he had hoped to see some, he'd hoped to find a pack of wolves to make his companions in Fangorn. That would have to be put off until the man was dealt with.
Fool of a man, Rakhan thought as the land got higher. The horse had taken an obvious trail over a rocky path, winding around thick trees up the crest of a hill. The tracks were so fresh that Rakhan dropped to his belly as he reached the top, creeping forward in battle-trained silence. But when he reached the crest and peered down into a fern drenched valley dotted with shade loving purple violets, he gasped in astonishment.
It was not a man at all, but a golden-haired maiden of Rohan, kneeling behind a small dark boy with long black braids. She was helping him fit an arrow to a roughly hewed bow. Her hair was braided and wound around her head, showing off her proud, chiseled features. She was stunningly beautiful, full of a noble grace that made Rakhan's heart pound violently. He did not know it, but his own mother looked much like this maiden; Rakhan's straight, strong nose and high sharp cheekbones, and the well-defined bow of his lips that had won him nothing but taunts from his fellows, came from that long dead Rohirric woman.
But it wasn't beauty alone that arrested the runaway warrior.
The child that the beauty cuddled and smiled for and instructed was, somehow, a young Uruk-hai.