There was a grey stretch when morning was sometimes forgiving and let him have a quiet minute to watch the sun slip up to oily once blue skies. It was a grey stretch of absence and even the work had gone silent. The groans of ancient trees had gone silent. Mills churning water and fire were still. The creatures that may have once been elegant and graceful and elvish but were now distorted, mindless remnants of something lost, were quiet. A shadow of what once was, a whisper of memories no longer remembered.
He knew the old stories because the wind had told them to him as he fled Rohan. Tangled them in his hair, whipped them across his face, and left him aching, knowing, and raw. He wondered if this was how Gandalf felt, knowing. If this was how the elves felt and why they were running. Running so they wouldn't have to know anymore.
The grey sky darkened as the days moved forward. It was night though the sun had risen. Shone through the barely there line between corrupted earth and polluted heavens. He remembered the clear blue of the morning, watery milk with flecks of gold. He remembered the stars and the moon though the no-longer-white wizard sneered when he spoke of them.
The elves were leaving. Men were dying. Orcs were breeding. The hour was late. The shadow was spreading and he was sinking. Sinking and watching as the ever eternal sun was swallowed whole.
Shadows, shadows, whispers, of a nameless fear.
Sometimes, when he slept, he dreamt. He dreamt that he could see fire. Fire and rock and an unbearable weight tugging on his neck, scorching his chest, pulling him down till he was crawling on rock with bloody fingers.
His master, the no-longer-white wizard, had laughed and said that a dream from him was nothing. Was empty of meaning, devoid of content. There was no reason why a man such as he would have dreams that meant something. He was no Faramir, no Aragorn, no Eomer.
'Perhaps it's a memory,' he had offered. Saruman had raised an eyebrow, skeletal fingers arching a perfect, musing arch.
'What a novel idea. When have you ever suffered something like that?'
He hadn't answered. Bowed out a 'of course, my lord' and thought to himself that it meant nothing. That it wasn't important just as he, himself, wasn't important, just as the cloud spreading black over once blue skies wasn't important, was something not to think about, to avoid. A plague. A truly white wizard had once called him a snake, a worm, filth and he now thought that those had been kindnesses. The no-longer-white wizard calls him much worse.
When he had been a boy he had a dream that the Simbelmyne would die. The Evermind wouldn't be there forever. Would cease to bloom like the White Tree of Gondor, the descendant of the great Galathilion, had ceased to bloom. His mother had laughed, kindly, her hair had been golden and he had envied her for it. She wondered aloud where she had gotten such a serious boy, swept him up in her arms and said that so long as the skies were blue and the sun rose golden the Evermind would bloom.
But the skies were black now and the sun was red and where was his mother? She was dead. Dead and wrong.
That night he dreamt of Theoden-King being consumed in flame, of Eowyn slipping into darkness her pale beauty gone, of Eomer watching with growing shadows on a broken face. He then dreamt of a mountain and of fire and a feeling burying itself into his stomach, a fear that even if he got there – would he be able to do it?
He woke knowing he wouldn't.
He woke knowing he would fail.
'I am not a man who puts much store in dreams. I am not a man who believed in prophesies unless they come true, or are old, or were sung by the elves, or will serve as something to hold onto.
Eomer had found me by my desk once. When we were still speaking and Theoden-King was still strong. Saruman was white, then, Gandalf was grey, and Sauron was still vanquished. Eomer placed a thin volume in front of me, blue elvish silk, strong Gondorian leather, smelled of shire weed. I hadn't known about the shire then.
I asked – What is this? He answered – A book of fables. Could-be's, would-be's, should-be's. What do you make of it?
I brushed it off then. - Hear say. Nothing more. Rumours, whispers.
It's a thin volume with thin pages, worn, loved, read, and reread – hidden in my robes. I thumb pages in the quiet of twilight the same as Eomer had thumbed them. I read of rings and elves and battles and suddenly find myself wishing that I had held his hand, pressed the book into it and said to him – memorize this, Eomer-eventual-King. Memorize this for it will serve you more than a sword, serve you more than I ever will.'
At night he layed still on cold floors and heard the Wizard speaking to Sauron. He heard them making plans though he didn't know how Saruman was doing it. Gandalf had the palantir and Aragorn had been more right than he could ever imagine. He hadn't known whom he was throwing it towards, whose head he wanted to see bashed against black stone so blood ran thick and dark and immaculate. He wished that it had been Saruman and that his aim had been more true.
At night he laid still on cold floors and remembered because dreaming had become too much. He remembered Eomer as he forced him to flee. He remembered Theoden's eyes as they slowly clouded over, a thick haze of barely-there remembrance. He remembered his mother as she lay dying of something they couldn't afford to cure. He remembered Eomer and his silk bound book, his love of the unknown, his need to be as noble as the blood in his body would let him. And Eowyn. He didn't remember Eowyn. If he remembered Eowyn he would break. Instead, he remembered the pale milk-blue of the morning, the strong gaze of the noon sun. The pure white of the Evermind.
Once, an age ago, there had been learned men who studied in the darkness of Orthanc. They had been the great minds of Gondor when Gondor had still been great. They would walk, careful dusty steps, up to the pinnacle to stare at ageless stars and marvel at their beauty, their terrific beauty and come to understand how things like war and death and blood exist. Because you cannot have one terrific beauty without one terrific horror. And even in the horror there is beauty.
But this was when there were three great towers of Gondor, instead of two terrible towers of Mordor. He had long stopped considering Isengard separate from Mordor, no matter how much his master wished for autonomy. His ability for agency, free action, smooth thought, was gone. He was more a prisoner than Grima though he would never know it.
Orthanc itself was carved from a single block of stone. Smoothed down and moulded into a shape that was impressive, that instilled awe. It was a dark stone, a black stone that arrested your gaze, forced you to admire, to fear, to understand everything that was Orthanc, that was Isengard. Or had. Till the living stone of the walls of Isengard had collapsed, had broken and taken down with it everything he had once thought invincible, had once thought if not right then necessary. He didn't consider himself a bad man, merely a desperate one.
He had forgotten what food tasted like. Only had a dim memory of water. Instead of eating like a man he was fed crumbs on the floor like a dog, stooped low and gathering what he could with fingers thin and shaking. His robes hung loose, his eyes were sunken, his face disappearing itself from the world.
Saruman had said it wasn't worth it to feed a worm but he kept him on the edge of consciousness so he would have something to beat when the mood took him. Grima thought that Saruman would do self harm if he wasn't there to take the blows. And a once great man shouldn't do that to himself, no matter how far he had fallen, how hard he had landed. He told himself he was making himself useful in some manner. He was sure of it. He just wished he would be fed properly.
There were stories, he recalls. Stories from when he was a boy about trees that walk and take strides that cover meters as if they were nothing. As if they were after thoughts along the way to a great big thought. His father had gruffly told him to stay away from the forest. You can't trust what lies beyond the veils of moss and leaves. Elves live in forests and men can't trust elves let alone creatures that are as foreign as these forest shepherds. But he had wanted to see them, he had tried to see them. Once running away, stealing his father's horse, in order to stand within a whispered sigh of the darkness of Fangorn. He had felt a cold breath exhale from the trees, ancient, breathing of times long past, from ages before Man.
And now. Now he stares out at them, watches them as they watch him annoyed with their seeming impassiveness. The leader, Treebeard, had looked at him hard one day and the gaze had reminded him of Gandalf's gaze when he had offered Saruman a chance. Saruman, yes, but not he, Grima. A worm wasn't worth a thought let alone an offer.
'hroom, hroom, young master Grima, you do not have to remain there,' it was gruff when he said it and Grima was reminded of his father only to quickly forget. He tried not to think about his father when he could. 'Don't be too hasty in your choices. You might make a mistake. There are those inclined to mercy...' His voice, hoarse and rough, trailed off. His eyes were on the horizon and watching. Carefully as they watched the door of Orthanc, as they watched the broken walls of Isengard.
'I know where there are grain supplies. I know where there are riders who will help them. I know where they can find more horses, more guards, more men, something like hope. Maybe. Though I was never one to deliver it.' A quick speech given in haste with a whisper. Treebeard seemed not to have heard.
'I wonder, hroom, sometimes what will happen at the end. Then I am reminded that it matters not but what happens now. Two little hobbits reminded me. hroom. I wonder who will remind you.'
He went silent. Mouth agape, fishlike, a new adjective to add to the grand and creative collection already associated with him. All were animalistic and he thinks that he perhaps fits them. He is too cold to be fully human, too distant, too calculating.
'Do you know, master Grima, what the sound is of a tree dying?'
He didn't. Shook his head, mute. Mind all the while wondering what the world of men was doing, how the world of men was faring. Were they dead? Were they alive? He felt he had to know.
'Ah – hoom, It is when you call their names and they do not answer. It is when you sing to them and they do not sing back. It is silence.' Treebeard moved so Grima could see him, the moss and the lichen and the vines. The leaves dead and alive, the notches where animals hid. 'Do you know silence, master Grima?'
'Have you heard from Gandalf? Do you know what is happening in Gondor?'
'I think you don't know. Hroom, when stride is long, and breath is deep, and keen the mountain-air, Come back to me! Come back to me, and say my land is fair!'
'I don't follow.'
'Hoom – hoom, you should spend a week breathing in mountain air. Westward brought and eastward carried. You then will understand.'
He pulled away from the creature, back into the shadows of stone that is strong and hard and bare as bone. And silent. Treebeard spoke of the silence of death. Grima found that he lived the silence of life.
Sometimes, at night, orcs would appear. The ones who had survived the march of the ents, the fury of the forest, of nature defiled and seeking revenge. He would huddle in darkened corners, hiding in shadows that had once served him so well. If he was quiet, they sometimes forgot he was there . If they remembered his existence -
He didn't think about it when they remembered. Instead he would close his eyes and remember poems and stories and things that were harmless and beautiful and more than he deserved.
Sometimes he remembered Eomer. Sometimes he remembered watching him ride. Sometimes he remembered that he had appreciated the fire that was in the Eorling's blood. Sometimes he remembered the amusement he had felt when he realized Eomer thought he wanted Eowyn. Sometimes he remembered her cold distance, her glacial beauty. She was too much like him for there to be any desire. She was too frozen, too arctic, too cold in her anger and her thoughts.
Sometimes he remembered Eomer's eyes that were blue, but a very there blue and when moved they were so blue it hurt. Sometimes he remembered that he was of Rohan born. Sometimes he remembered that his mother had fair blonde hair, pale green-blue eyes, that his father had it as well. Sometimes he remembered that he was a horse-man, that he was of the same blood that ran through Eomer and the people who were dying. Sometimes he remembered that his sister had died two years ago when the wild men had attacked. Sometimes he remembered that he hadn't felt anything but now was beginning to understand what Treebeard had meant.
And sometimes, when he was lucky, he remembered to forget.