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Chapter 4. The Breaking of the Storm
The horn-call lent speed to the armed hobbits racing for the Forest Gate. They dismounted, to gather in an ever-growing crowd about the Master and his son.
'We don't know that the orcs have taken Peregrin,' Saradoc said reasonably.
'We can't take the chance!' Merry shouted in a panic. At his father's dumbfounded look, he took hold of himself, and his next words were pleading. 'You don't understand...' he half sobbed. 'These orcs have no fearsome master who's commanded them to keep him safe even a little while.' He looked about the grim faces surrounding him. 'To them he's naught but fine sport and fresh meat!' The listeners' eyes began to reflect his own horror.
Merry continued brokenly, 'And if he screams or begs, they'll just kill him slower, for their own pleasure...' He shook his head in despair. '...but he won't beg... he won't...'
Fat old Merimac stepped forward to lay a hand on his shoulder. 'Then we'll just have to rescue him quicker, lad, won't we?' He had donned a black hood to ride against the ruffians more times than even his brother the Master knew. Merimac was a hobbit of action, and he could see action was needed now, and quickly.
He gave his nephew a shake. 'Come, lad,' he said urgently to Merry. 'How do we fight them? How do these monsters fight?'
Merry took a steadying breath and lifted his eyes to his uncle's. 'They like to attack from ambush.'
'So tell us what to do, you know them better than we do.'
Merry nodded suddenly. 'Right,' he said, and looked around at the throng. 'We split into five parts. One part rides down the path...' he met his father's eyes questioningly. 'They're bait...'
Saradoc nodded. 'Aye,' he said, 'Can't catch a fish without it.'
Merry took strength from his father's nod. '...and two parts ride either side of the path, about fifty paces to the side and fifty back from the last hobbits in the column.'
'Go on,' Merimac encouraged.
'The orcs will have heard the horn-call. They'll be lying in wait ten or maybe fifteen paces from the path some ways into the Forest; just after our lads pass them they'll rise to take them from the sides and behind.'
'And that's when we give them their surprise!' his uncle said almost gleefully, rubbing his hands together. 'Just like old times!' He turned away to shout, 'All right! Call off numbers! By fives!'
The time-honoured method for forming sports teams worked just as quickly to create battle formations.
The hobbits formed quickly into a long double column and marched down the path into the wood. They had decided it would be safer for the decoys to march rather than ride; it would make them less of a target and they could drop quickly under cover when the black feathered arrows started to fly. After passing under the shadow of the trees, some of the column started to break off and move to either side, hobbits on ponyback and on foot. Soon only a portion of the marchers were left on the path, but any orc scouts at the edge of the Forest would not have seen the division of force.
The Forest was full of unleashed lightnings, trembling with unspoken thunder, fury hanging in the very air they breathed. Yet somehow fear of the trees did not trouble the hobbits, and they marched along, one in their grim purpose, waiting for the screams and arrows that would signal the start of the battle.
'Go, Duram, ride!' Pippin shouted even as the orcs dragged him from the saddle. He had hope until he saw the black feathered arrows find their mark. Somehow the forester hung on to his pony which never faltered in its desperate race away from Fear and Death.
He saw the foul creatures clinging to Sock's mane and bridle, trying to bring the pony down. Maddened with fear and rage, the pony plunged and shook off half the orcs that held him, reared to bring his sharp hoofs down upon the rest. Breaking free with a furious kick of his heels, he fled. Several black feathered arrows followed him, but a crashing tree limb deflected the shots and the pony was safely away.
Laughing orcs poked and prodded Pippin; before he could get to his sword it was slapped away and fists and feet landed with devastating accuracy until he lay unresisting on the damp forest floor. He was only half aware of his hands being jerked behind him, tied together with cruelly tight bonds, his head jerked up by the hair to slip a noose about his neck.
Jeering orcs kicked him until he moaned, then lifted him to his feet, slapping him until he showed he understood he was to walk where he was led. He stumbled along blindly. Orcs laughed whenever he fell upon his unprotected face, and he'd be hauled back to his feet, slapped on the back, and made to walk again. All the while his captors chattered and growled cheerily back and forth at each other.
He'd thought orcs avoided daylight, but of course in the thick Forest they didn't have to worry much about the Sun making their heads weak. These orcs seemed strong and jolly enough.
Unlike the orcs who had captured him earlier, these shared a common tongue, and so there was no need for them to communicate in a language that Pippin might be able to understand as well. It didn't matter; he had a pretty good idea what they were talking about.
He didn't know how far they walked. The stumbling and shoving made it difficult to judge the distance. They brought him to a little clearing where trees had been recently felled to make a sort of encampment. Several orcs started building up a fire in the firepit, and he was shoved down, his lead rope tied to a nearby tree while his ankles were securely bound by a leering orc.
He must show no fear, no awareness of pain. If he could just hold out long enough, they might be frustrated enough to kill him quickly.
An orc, slightly larger than the others, crouched before him to gabble in his face. When he made no sign of hearing, the creature dealt him a heavy slap and gabbled again. Pippin shook his head, and satisfied, the chieftain orc smiled and laughed heartily, making a comment aside that set half the orcs in the clearing to laughing.
'I could use a good joke, myself,' Pippin muttered to himself. The orc grinned, pulling out its knife, cleaning the grime from its filthy nails while staring into Pippin's eyes. Suddenly one claw lashed out to grasp the hobbit's ear, while the other claw waved the knife lazily beside his head. Pippin forced himself not to follow the knife, but to stare straight ahead, not moving, not reacting, just enduring.
Grinning more widely, the orc brought the knife closer to Pippin's ear, only to be interrupted by the call of a silver horn. The orc chieftain jerked erect, slid its knife into its sheath, and called out harshly. All the orcs melted away in the direction of the horn call, save the one tending the fire.
This one laid the wood carefully, arranging every piece just so until the resulting fire met its satisfaction. Though it burned merrily now, Pippin could see it had been skillfully laid to burn down to even coals, a fine roasting fire.
This task done, the orc guard came over to entertain its unwilling guest until the party could properly begin.
The orc pointed to the spit above the fire, to Pippin and back to the spit again in horrid pantomime. Pippin did not allow himself to show shock or any other emotion. In truth, he had suspected as much. These orcs were under no orders from a master, compelling them to deliver hostages alive and unspoilt.
Disappointed by its captive's lack of response, the orc pulled out a sharp blade, licked it, drew it along Pippin's arm to make a long slice. It gathered up the blood that welled from the wound on a dirty finger, brought it to its mouth, and smacked its lips.
'Didn't your mother ever teach you not to play with your food?' Pippin muttered. He had only two wishes: one, that this would be over sooner than later, and the second, that Diamond would never learn any of the details.
The orc grinned evilly, then put the blade to the hobbit's throat. Pippin sat stoically as the blade tickled his neck from ear to ear.
Disgruntled by the lack of response, the orc turned away, then suddenly turned back to bury a fist in the hobbit's midriff. Pippin doubled over, expecting to see the orc draw back a blade dripping with his blood, but the creature had switched the blade to its other hand and it drew back only an empty fist.
Restored to good humour by this bit of playfulness, the orc went back to the fire, took out a whetting stone, and slowly and pleasurably sharpened his blade.
Far off, Pippin heard screams and harsh yells erupt. His host's head jerked upright, it gave an evil grin, looked at Pippin, put its knife away and rubbed its hands together. As the orc got up to check on the fire, Pippin could see that it had burned down nicely to coals. The orc evidently thought so, too, for it pulled out its knife again and returned to the hobbit.
Crouching before him, it repeated the tickling game, but Pippin wasn't playing. He stared straight ahead, willing this to be over. Tiring of the game, the orc started to turn away, suddenly whirling back to seize the hobbit's hair and draw his head back, aiming the knife with deadly intent.
At that moment there was a crack above them, and a heavy tree limb fell atop the orc, crushing its skull and knocking it flat.
When the yells erupted and arrows started to fly, the hobbits were ready, dropping in the path to present less of a target for the orcs... and for their own archers, now closing in behind the ambushing orcs. There was a confusion of screams, yells, blades clashing, tree limbs crashing.
When the fight was over, all the orcs lay dead, even the few that had started to flee the battle, only to be felled by hobbit arrows or falling limbs. The hobbits stared in wonder at the carnage about them. Not a hobbit had been touched by falling branch, but that could not be said of the orcs.
The sulfurous smell was dissipating, the hidden lightnings spent, the thunder silenced. The Forest stood as quiet as the hobbits, all breathing together. 'That's done, then,' Merry said softly. There was the soft sound of swords being wiped clean and sheathed, bows unstrung, pikes laid down. Ropes were tied about the carcases of the dead orcs, and ponies dragged them in long lines down the path to the meadow, where the hobbits threw them on a great pile for burning.
Several hobbits had been wounded, but astonishingly, there were no dead, and the wounds were slight. Somehow the orc arrows had been deflected by tree branches that had swayed without wind. The hobbits who fought sword-to-sword with their foul opponents had fought with grim determination, not the soft and easy mark the orcs had expected from spying out this fat, rich, and sleepy land.
A planning session was taking place. 'As long as the Forest's in this good mood, we can search as much as we like, I think,' Merry was saying. 'When we find their camp, for sure we'll find...' his voice trailed off. He was none too easy about what they might find. He straightened his shoulders. 'Ah, well,' he sighed. 'We have to make sure.'
Saradoc sent back to the Hall for maps of the Old Forest, for all the good they would do. Shifting paths and watercourses made any map a questionable tool at best. Still, it was a starting place.
Pippin sat, stunned by the sudden demise of his host. He could still hear confused sounds of battle; he wondered who would be the victors, and whether he might soon have company in his misery. He'd rather not.
Though he was tied hand and foot, he thought he might be able to bring his arms around in front of him, and with a great deal of trouble he finally succeeded. He raised his hands to try to loosen the noose about his neck, but they had been tied so tightly that he merely fumbled with limp fingers, unable even to feel the rope. He had to cut the bindings about his wrists, restore the circulation, before he could do anything more.
He inched along towards the dead orc on his belly; he could see the knife still clutched in its stiffening claw. He came to the end of his tether a frustrating foot or two short. Closing his eyes, he rested his forehead on the ground. The trees whispered to him in soft leaf rustlings and he felt sudden sleepiness steal over him. Reaction, he figured. He'd come to the end of his endurance. He'd just close his eyes for a minute, try to regather his strength.
When he awakened, he thought he'd try one more time; perhaps he could hold his breath long enough as the noose tightened to free his hands, then pull the noose away from his throat again before he strangled. He was surprised at how much give there was left in the rope; he thought he'd pulled as hard as he dared before, but now he was able to get his wrists to the knife. By dint of concentration and much patient sawing, the tight bonds finally fell away. Now he must endure the agonies of returning circulation, but he welcomed the sensation as another step on the road to freedom.
Finally he could move his fingers enough to pry loose the rope about his neck, then it was a relatively simple matter to wrest the knife from the dead orc's claw and cut the bonds around his ankles. This was progress.
He could hear a trickle of water nearby, which grew in his mind to become another kind of torment, until he could no longer lie but had to crawl in search of the sound. He soaked his raw wrists in the icy spring, then brought handfuls of lifegiving water to his mouth.
He fancied the trees were whispering to each other, and to him; surely his overwrought brain was fevered, but he found a fallen orc helmet, filled it with water, staggered to the firepit, repeated the motion until the coals were saturated. He stirred the ashes with a stick for good measure; the fire was out. The sense of relief in the Forest was probably just a reflection of his feelings on escaping becoming the main attraction at an orc feast.
Exhausted, he staggered against a conveniently placed tree, slid down, came to rest with his back against a cradling trunk. He'd just close his eyes for a few minutes, then he really needed to be on his way before those other orcs came back...
Pippin's pony Socks fled in mindless panic until he heard no sound of his pursuers. A grove of trees rose suddenly before him, planted so closely together that he would not be able to squeeze through. He stopped, sides heaving, indecisive.
Turning to one side, the pony saw a shaft of sunlight piercing the forest canopy. Drawn by the light, he meandered into a little clearing that for a wonder was filled with lush green grass. A little spring bubbled in the middle. Unthinking, the pony dipped his head to drink, then pulled a delicious mouthful of green. Relaxing, his breathing coming easier, forgetting the peril behind him, he grazed.
His head jerked up at the sound of distant screams and shouts, but the clamour of battle soon died away and he went back to grazing. When he was satisfied, he had a glorious roll in the long grass, standing to shake himself in delight. The leaves rustled above him, whispering. He stood a long moment listening, then turned to slowly amble back the way he had come.
When Pippin awoke, he thought he was still dreaming. Socks stood before him, head down, nuzzling for a treat. Somehow he managed to haul himself up into the saddle, using a convenient stump for help. He turned loose the reins, trusting the pony to find the way home.
The trees swayed and whispered as they rode along, making sweet music. Branches rubbed together with a soothing sound. Pippin wondered how he could have ever found the noise of the trees ominous.
He was aware that Socks had stopped, and looked up to see something bright ahead. Socks took a step or two closer, and Pippin could make out his sword, of a wonder tangled in hanging vines. He merely had to reach out a hand to take it. It was probably just a fancy of his fevered brain, but he muttered, 'Thank ye kindly,' aloud, and the leaves rustled in reply.
The first squares in the grid they laid out on the map had been searched, and now a new search was being set up. The pile of orcs had been soaked with oil and set ablaze, sending much smoke into the golden sky of late afternoon.
Saradoc said, 'D'you think we dare continue the search? The Sun will soon be seeking her bed... The Forest is always more awake at night.'
His brother said thoughtfully, 'I know, but I think as long as we cut no living wood we'll be safe. The Forest is calm, calmer than I've ever felt it before. Haven't you noticed?'
Saradoc answered, 'I was afraid it might be wishful thinking. The Hall has been at odds with the Forest for so long...' His eyes went to his son, sitting on Jewel, waiting for the next search to start, staring at the path leading into the Forest. Abruptly he said, 'We'll search all night if we have to.'
'Right,' Merimac answered. 'I've sent to the Hall for lanterns. I don't think the Forest would care for torches, but it mightn't mind lanterns too much.' He turned to the map, put a finger down on the grid and was about to speak when a shout came from the waiting Merry.
The hobbits looked up to see him kicking Jewel into a gallop across the hollow to the start of the Forest path, where a wavering figure upon a smoke coloured pony could be seen emerging from under the trees.
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