The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 38: Murderer They Called Me

The evening sun slanted in through the high mullioned windows of Orthanc and lit up the confusion of papers, bones, dried bats’ wings, stuffed owls and jars of embalmed toads that littered Saruman’s study table. The fallen Maia himself sat staring sightlessly at the burnt-out candles and the empty decanter, the very one from which he had poured wine for Gandalf that fateful day so long ago…..

But he had possessed the Seeing Stone then…..

With all the considerable force still in his arm Saruman brought his fist down on the ink-stained table and hissed;
‘Fool! What a fool I was! I should have snared the Grey Crow, persuaded him of my good intentions and got him to bring his witless halfling here! But with the Stone I thought I was stronger than I was…..’

He stopped, as if suddenly tired. His white robes were sullied by soot and water, and through the dirty glass clouds of smoke could be seen drifting across the sky from the burnt-out caverns of Isengard. The sound of the destruction of his mines and factories had died away, however, and so had the voices of Gandalf and his rabble of illiterate warriors and beggars after they had stood outside his tower gloating over him…

A swishing noise interrupted Saruman’s thoughts and he looked round in annoyance. It was a tiny half-starved orc mopping the floor. All around were papers strewn and empty boxes and broken glasses, but this wretched creature, his great eyes fixed and staring, still worked on, mindlessly fulfilling those menial tasks he had been bred to perform. Saruman screamed at it;
‘Get out of here, maggot!’ As the orc started and turned to scurry away, Saruman had a thought and shouted after it;
‘Bring me the Worm…..’ and as the orc vanished down the long hallway he added;
‘At least I have one slave left to torment…..’

Saruman got to his feet and walked into the great Black Observatory, built in evil mockery of the Great Observatory of the Elves at Rivendell. On its smooth black pavement ran lines of power and in the middle rose the dais where once had sat the Palantír.

In spite of himself Saruman was smote by grief and rage; he had lost the Seeing Stone, and with it his power. It did not occur to him that he had not been strong enough to control the Stone. It had controlled him in the end, tempting him to rebel against his master Sauron. All he knew was that it was gone, and with it his dominion over all things, men and orcs and Middle Earth itself. He knew Sauron would destroy him for his infidelity when he had done with Gondor, but Saruman did not care; all he wanted was to regain some measure of the power he had lost…..

He heard a noise and turned; in the doorway stood Grima Wormtongue. His black clothes were wet and torn and his face marked by a red weal where he had been struck by his master. He clutched a yellowed lace handkerchief to his cut mouth and his watery grey eyes glared at Saruman, rimmed with red and full of hate.

‘Do not leave my presence again, Worm!’ shouted Saruman. Grima made a face and snapped;
‘Don’t tell me what to do, you bragging fool! You have no power any more…..’

But his words trailed off as Saruman rose slowly to his feet, his eyes, black and glittering, fixed upon him. The wizard spoke, but now in a calm, reassuring voice..
‘Do not be so resentful, Grima. All is not lost, if you are truly loyal to me…’
‘You struck me!’ shrieked Wormtongue. Saruman paused then went on as if he had not been interrupted.
‘Indeed, in my anger at your disgraceful treatment by those horse-robbers the Rohan I took out my frustration on you, for which I beg your forgiveness, Grima. I know how you were humiliated at the court of Théoden in Edoras…’

Wormtongue’s face twitched and the corners of his mouth turned down. Tears filled his eyes at the thought of Edoras…and Eowyn.

‘Their ungrateful cruelty to you after you nursed their mad king through his illness bears hard on my conscience, as it was I who sent you to Théoden’s aid….’

By now tears were coursing down Wormtongue’s face. Saruman put a comforting hand on his shoulder.
But all is not lost, Grima, even though you carelessly tossed away the Stone of Seeing….’
‘My pardon, Lord Saruman….’ wept Grima.
‘I was carried away by anger….I did not mean….’
‘Peace!’ said Saruman in the same soft soothing voice. ‘I forgive you, even though you have brought me to ruin….’
‘I am so sorry..’ sobbed Grima. ‘I will do anything to set it right…..’
‘Anything?’ repeated Saruman mildly. ‘Then go out and see what those walking logs are doing…..’

Grima emerged cautiously onto the balcony of Orthanc and peered over the rail. To his surprise he saw the land had begun to dry out. The waters had receded leaving a wide muddy plain scattered with the wreckage of Saruman’s factories. The river had returned to his course and what was more, there were no sign of the Ents…

Wormtongue ran a hand across his eyes in disbelief; where was Treebeard and his brothers? And where were the rampaging Huorns? He narrowed his bloodshot eyes; it was as he thought; the Ents had gone….

For Ents, like Elves, make poor jailers, and had returned to their home of Fangorn. Treebeard could not breach the tower of Orthanc, nor could he force Saruman to come forth. Not believing the wizard to be any further threat, and not able to stand guard forever, Treebeard and the Ents had retreated from Isengard…..

‘Wood and Water, Stock and Stone…….’ Said Elmfoot to Ashwing as they strode back across the bare upland that separated the Wizard’s Vale from the great forest of Fangorn.
‘ you think it is safe to leave such a sorcerer, even locked up?’
‘..we cannot guard him for ever’ replied Ashwing ‘and anyway, young master Gandalf says he has no power left…’
‘Hoom!’ Said Elmfoot. ‘I am not so sure about that…..’

‘Gone?’ said Saruman in astonishment. ‘You mean the walking trees have….walked away?’
‘Yes, yes!’ said Grima, overjoyed to be the one to bring the good tidings to his master. ‘Not a branch is left. Look!’

And Saruman arose and went slowly out onto the balcony where he had been berated by Gandalf and he looked around and indeed Grima was telling the truth; not a single Ent was still within the broken walls of Isengard. The drying land was as bare of tree and branch as it had been before the flood…..

When Líofa left to seek the Black Company at the muster of Rohan Aralt stayed with the Ents in the ruins of Isengard. His task was done; he had returned Callanach to his people and had cared for Líofa till he was well enough to travel to Edoras. Now as the Ents began to return to Fangorn Aralt decided to return to Lothlórien. He had been away from the Golden Wood long enough, and knew it was hard pressed by enemies and had need of his healing powers. For a brief moment he had been tempted to follow Callanach and Líofa, and join the Galadhrim who had fought at Helm’s Deep. But he had vowed once to renounce war, and although sad to part from the little harpist and his Ranger friend, Aralt at last set out for Lothlórien under a sky darkening for war….

Aralt’s path lay through the dim groves of Fangorn, although even to an Elf, especially one used to the golden and silver Mallorns of Lórien, Fangorn was a dark and oppressive place. So Aralt made his way along its eaves, by a road built by Saruman’s workers, delaying entering the tangled wood as long as possible. And so it was on the evening of the third day after setting out from the ruins of Isengard Aralt saw two ragged travellers limping along the stone roadway in front of him.

The Elf looked up in surprise; this land was empty now Saruman’s Uruk-hai were destroyed, nor did men dwell here. Although still clad in his bright leaf mail, deep blue cloak and with his long curving Elven sword at his side Aralt easily overtook the two stragglers and hailed them in a friendly manner.

Drawing closer he was moved to pity by their appearance; one was an old man in a patched and dusty cloak of coarse brown wool. His long lank grey hair was matted and hung down over his face partly concealing two black, glittering eyes. Aralt, in the manner of elves, sought to look into his eyes to read what manner of man he was, but could not. He noticed however that the old man leaned on a curiously carved staff and that his hands were not weatherbeaten but long and white and fine. He bowed and said;
‘Peace, friends. I had not looked to meet anyone on this road. Whither are you bound?’

At that the old man raised his hands as if in supplication and cried;
‘Do not hurt us! We were bound as slaves to Saruman but have been freed by Gandalf and the powers that dwell in the Forest of Fangorn…’

As the old man spoke his voice changed from a self-pitying whine to a steady, wheedling tone.
‘We are journeying back to our homes….we yearn to see again our people and our lands. Do not hinder us, lord….’
Aralt nodded in sympathy. He gestured to the old man’s companion, a ragged, skeletal figure shambling along in his wake.
‘And who is this?’
‘Once he was my servant’ said the voice, not so cracked and hoarse now ‘but now we are equal in misery, a misery forced on us by that accursed Saruman….’

The old man rolled the name as if it was an incantation, and his wizened black-clad attendant echoed it;

The strange tone of their voices struck Aralt and he looked back involuntarily towards the distant black spike of Orthanc. Something distracted his Elvish senses and before he could regain them and turn back to the ragged pair the attendant had cast off his torn cloak and snatched out of his belt a long black dagger and springing forward with inhuman strength and speed he plunged the knife into Aralt’s heart.

The black blade, wrought with all the wizard’s cunning and power, pierced the golden Elvish mail and Aralt, with hardly a gasp, sank onto his knees then with a look of reproach and dismay at Grima he fell on his face on the dusty orc-built roadway and lay without moving. Aralt, Galadriel’s healer and counsellor, was dead.

At once Saruman gave a long wail of triumph. It echoed over the barren land, but there was no-one to hear it except the wizard himself and his servant. Stepping up to the dead Elf he turned him over with the tip of his mud-stained boot and sneered at the white, still face;
‘Now taste the bitterness of death, Galadhrim! Taste defeat, as I have tasted it! And this is only the start, I will work to ruin what you and the leaders of Men fight to save. Good work, Worm!’

The last words were addressed to Grima, standing unmoving with the black knife still in his hand. He shook from head to foot and a cold sweat beaded on his forehead. His gaze was fixed upon the Elf’s face; so fair it seemed, so gentle even in death. He looked down at the bright blood on the steel and was full of revulsion; he could not remember why he had drawn the dagger, or how he had come to kill an Elf…

‘What have you made me do?’ he asked Saruman, who promptly ceased his exultation and turned a look of fury on his servant;
‘Made you do?’ he asked in a voice whose calmness belied its anger. ‘I made you do this?’ He laughed, a sound like cracking bones ‘You fool! You did this without my aid. Murderer…..’
‘No!’ shouted Wormtongue. He looked again at Aralt. Long ago, beyond memory he had thought, Grima had been of a line of Númenor, even of Westernesse. To harm an Elf was something he had never dreamed of, even in the service of Saruman. He looked at the wizard in horror and said;
‘I never slew anything before this hour….’

At this Saruman laughed again, the sound echoing in Wormtongue’s brain.
‘Fool!’ shouted the Wizard. ‘How many of those illiterate peasants in Rohan did you send to their deaths by your scheming? Never killed anything? You are a murderer…..’

Grima dropped the knife and put his hands over his ears but he could not shut out the sound, a buzzing as of a swarm of great flies, because it was inside his head. After what seemed like years he let his hands fall and reluctantly looked at Saruman. The wizard was gazing at him with a gentle smile on his face.
‘Do not sorrow for what is done’ he said in a voice like that of a parent comforting a child, and placing an arm across Grima’s hunched shoulders he went on;
‘You were not to blame; the Elf was at fault, he enraged you. No-one will ever know what you did, except me…’ he picked up the knife and handed it back to Grima.
‘Follow me, Grima, and do what I say and I will take care of you. Your secret will be safe with me….’