"I am glad when I am able to make bread," said Eleluleniel softly as she picked up a particularly puny stick.
Kurbag caught her wrist and removed the stick, dropping it with a dismissive gesture. Taking her hand between his own calloused palms, he chafed it lightly. "Makes your hands rough. I don't like it."
Very carefully she withdrew from his grasp. He didn't try to stop her; only watched as she bent to pick up the stick again. Eleluleniel kept her eyes for the task at hand, deliberately not looking at Kurbag. She felt, rather than saw, the characteristic cock of his head, the half-Uruk's thoughtful appraisal.
"We have enough firewood. What is it you're about, I wonder."
The remark was rhetorical, not even a real question, but she answered nonetheless: "I used what we had to keep the fire burning throughout the day. Bragdagash will be angry if it dies in the night." A patent untruth, obvious to both of them. There was still a sizeable pile beside the fire. There would be wood enough to last them two days, at this rate.
"Ah." One syllable, meaningless really, but Eleluleniel's heart sank. So she was not surprised to hear him say, "Wouldn't pin your hopes on it, Squeaker. She ain't gonna last long."
"I do not know what you are talking about," said Eleluleniel. She turned her back on him, stooping slightly to peer through pine boughs. Rather than seeing twigs, though, she saw Grushak's face, the dark glances he had been giving Maevyn, the telltale shift of his jaw. When she told Maevyn that they had best gather wood for the fire, it was actually an attempt to buy time and forestall the large Orc's plans, and to at least keep an eye on the girl.
But already she had failed. Maevyn was nowhere to be seen. She had never come back from her return to the campfire. And as Eleluleniel realized this, she suddenly heard a faint, startled cry from that direction.
She caught her breath, rose—and backed into Kurbag, who had stepped in close behind her. "…please…do not…" she heard herself say.
He was touching her cheek, brushing his thumb against her jaw as his hand slid under to cup her chin. The gentleness of the gesture was juxtaposed with the underlying prick of talons against her skin. She felt the heat of him against her back as he leaned in to smell her hair. "Little moon-elf…" he murmured over her.
She stood with her slim hands buried in green needles, and her body was stiff with quiet desperation.
"Did you hear the one about the Dunlander tart who would only take the cock sideways?"
"Yes, Mushog, you've only told it about ten times."
"Did I tell you about the rider of Rohan who'd only give it to his mare?"
"Yes, Mushog, we've all heard that one too."
"Oh. Then, have you heard this?" The large Uruk belched long and loud.
Nazluk looked bored. "Yes. Yes, I have."
Mushog scowled. "Well, fuck you."
The slender Orc's ear-tips flattened in thought. Then he shrugged. "Actually, that would have to be the dullest proposition you've made yet."
Rukshash choked abruptly at that, snorting beer out his nose. Mushog snarled and downed more drink.
There was a sudden scrabbling sound and a painful cry. Pointed ears perked up briefly around the fire before the handful of Orcs dismissed it. Nothing important. The man-brat had evidently just taken another 'fall.' It was her third in as many minutes. "Better watch your step, little one," Grushak said with an unpleasant laugh as he continued past her. He made an unsubtle movement to step on her hand, chuckling when she snatched it away barely in time.
Nazluk's nostrils flared at the smell of fresh blood. He glanced with faint interest at the girl, who was getting shakily to her feet, noticing her badly scraped knees and the torn palms of her hands.
Nazluk wasn't the only one who had picked up the scent. "Eh, Grushak. Do you plan on eating your food when you're through playing with it?" asked Rukshash as Grushak took a position at the fire.
Grushak grunted. "Quit eying what's mine, Rukshash. I don't believe in rushing. If you're hungry, there's plenty of meat."
"Skai," spat the old Orc, who preferred his meat raw and looked distastefully at the strips sizzling on the stone periphery of the fire, "that would require movement on my part." Returning his gaze to the tark child and switching to Westron: "Oi, girl! Fetch me some of the uncooked pork."
Grushak glanced across the fire at Grymawk, who was tucking into his beer and meat with a voraciousness that sat ill with his small body. "Do you have room for all of that?" he asked dryly.
Grymawk sucked grease from his fingers noisily. "It's my last supper, and I'm going to bloody well enjoy it."
"Keep stuffing your face at that rate and you're going to bloody well explode." Furtive steps to his left. The man-brat, bringing Rukshash's food. Grushak licked his lips. As she extended the pig shank to the other Orc his hand shot out, locking onto her arm.
Startled, she dropped the meat. Rukshash cursed as his supper landed on the ground. "Shit! Grushak, would you take your games elsewhere?" he exclaimed, picking up the meat and brushing away the worst of the grit and pine needles. "Some of us are looking to eat around here."
Grushak ignored him, smirking as he drew the girl roughly onto his knee. She was struggling and he caught hold of her hair, holding her head in a secured position. "Ah har. Now isn't this a sweet sight?" he purred. She bared her teeth at him in a snarl and he chuckled. "Cute as a Warg cub, and twice as helpless."
Actually as he said it he felt oddly uncomfortable. He wished she would stop grimacing at him in that manner—this close, she almost looked like a young Orcling. Orcs do not treat their spawn with special tenderness and Grushak did not cherish or revere the young of his species. However, eating or killing them was still a definite faux pas. Pulling her head back, he leaned forward and snuffed in deeply the exposed skin of her throat, unconsciously reassuring himself of her distinctly un-Orkish odor.
Maevyn strained against Grushak's grip. The heat from the fire beat hot against her back, the Orc's knee was hard, and his closeness disgusted and frightened her. Fear turned to frenzy when he wrenched her head back, and as he lowered his face to her throat she thought in terror of his fangs. The image flashed in her mind of Mama, Mama with her throat cut—
…the blood, the blood, it was bubbling out, it was so red it was black…
His other hand clasped both her wrists behind her back. As he snuffled her closely she felt his grasp relax, and with a frantic burst of strength she pulled her hand free and struck him. It was a flimsy, glancing gesture, all force lost in the wildness of it, but it brushed his unprepared left eye. Taken off guard, he jerked back in swearing surprise and Maevyn freed herself with an improbable wriggle. Grushak made a grab for her, but with a hand covering his smarting eye his judgment was off and he caught only air. Maevyn scrambled away between and past he and Rukshash, the mutilated older Orc too busy laughing to stop her.
"Scum-sucker! Stupid little bitch!" Grushak roared, stumbling to his feet as he rubbed his eye. Luckily, it was unharmed. Rather than relieved, he only felt angrier—the energy he might have spent on concern for his eye was all channeled as purest, sweetest homicidal rage.
Rukshash and Mushog were both in the throes of unabashedly uproarious merriment, and even Nazluk was smirking. "Oh dear, Grushak, what happened? Did that itty-bitty slip of a thing hurt you?"
Grushak whirled on him. "SHUT UP!" he yelled, spittle flying in his rage. "Where did she go? By my troth, I'll kill the little snot!" His yellow eyes dilated darkly as he glared into the burgeoning night beyond the glow of the campfire.
The others watched in amused anticipation.
She had to get away. There was nothing else for it. Somehow, she had to escape.
Foolish child. You speak madness.
Maevyn threw herself behind a large boulder, pressing her back against it as she tried to regain coherent thought.
Orc ears are keen and sharp. They can hear us speaking now…even if they cannot make out the sense of what we say…
But she wasn't talking. She was barely even allowing herself to breathe, listening fearfully into the dark. She could hear Grushak's angry bellowing, and frightened as it made her, at least it told her where he was, and that he wasn't here. Yet. Obviously she had to move, and soon, but wouldn't any movement on her part give away her position?
They see in the dark like cats…they move quickly. But most of all, their sense of smell is strong.
Smell she could do nothing about. But her eyes were adjusting to the dim light. She had scrambled her way out here, blinded by fear and the afterimage of the campfire, and now she began to perceive her surroundings. She could see the broad expanse of the sky, and behind her was the Orc camp, buried in trees, and before her a swathe of sparse ground, loose shifting gravel.
That was the direction in which home lay, she knew it. A ruined home and a ruined village. Home was lost to her now. And if she tried to run in that direction, she knew that the open space would be her death sentence. He would see her and run her down in a matter of minutes at best. But if she stayed here, with only the stone pressing into her back hiding her from sight, all he had to do was round the boulder, and….
It was a choice between being caught running like a frightened rabbit, or crouched in huddled despair like one resigned to death.
Unless she took the trees.
No! No, no! The trees were between her and Grushak, and taking the trees meant narrowing the distance between them rather than widening it! And if she moved, and if he picked her out with his keen Orc vision…but….
If she successfully made the trees, it might buy her some time. He would find her eventually, but at least she would survive a few seconds more, a few moments more. And her heart shrieked—angry, rebellious, savage—that every moment, every living instant was precious.
Incongruously at that moment she heard again the lightly sung words:
Demaerion came to the bright blue sea…
Maevyn shivered, and breathed deep, and chose. She leaned sidelong, flexing her toes anxiously as they bent under the brunt of her weight, then sprang up as silently and swiftly as she could, darting into the nearest pines.
The girl's pick was wiser than she could know. A bare minute later Grushak touched the place where she had crouched, still warm from her body, and snarled as he snuffed the air. An Orc's sense of smell is keen indeed, and the scent in Grushak's flaring nostrils was strong—the scent of green pine, spicy and sharp, magnified ten times man smell in pungency.
He cast his eyes around the silvery sylvan silhouettes of trees, growling annoyance. Three times he cursed the brat, and three times again the trees that obscured her from him, both in smell and sight. Glancing to either side briefly, his smoldering eyes caught sight of one of the smaller pine, a seedling, barely the girl's height, and his hand made a smooth overhand gesture. The curved blade on his back cleared its scabbard with a satisfying metallic snik. A subsequent hwooosh. And the little tree fell softly to the ground.
A blade's edge may close the distance between anger and pleasure. Grushak grinned fiercely, hungrily, in the dark.
The trees rose up like looming black monoliths around her, and yet the night was strangely clear. The starlight was bright. Maevyn looked up at the sky and sent a silent prayer to Eru. Please, Sir. Mama always taught me to ask nicely. Please don't let them kill me. I made a promise. Not before I've killed him first. I made a promise….
She maneuvered silently as possible through the black trees, and as she did she ran through the mantra over and over in her mind, but she had no way of knowing whether He was listening. Well, it was up to her then. If He wasn't going to help, she would have to help herself. She would have to keep herself alive.
Carefully she inched her way forward, not knowing quite what she was about. If she had some manner of weapon she might have a hope, but she had nothing but her fists, her feet, her teeth and her nails, and these would avail her precious little against the thick leathery hide of an Orc. The trees were her only form of defence, and she realized with a chill that they were Grushak's friends as much as they were hers, for they hid him from her as surely as they hid her from him.
If I had Demmi's knife—
Maevyn scowled. If if if. If wishes were fishes there'd be no room for water. And besides, look where the knife had got her. Taken by Orcs.
She froze stock still when she suddenly heard rustling footsteps to her far left. They weren't Grushak's, a smoother stride than his unique lumber, but nonetheless she couldn't afford to be caught by any of the band. If she were, there was no way she would escape alive. Crouching low, she peered through the dark boughs and was able to make out a tall form walking purposefully towards a break in the trees up ahead.
"Oi, who's that then?" came a brusque voice, startling her. There was another Orc up there that she couldn't see, and her heart hammered in her chest. That was the direction she had been heading a moment ago. If it hadn't been for her stopping to hide from the first Orc she would have stumbled right into the path of the second one. She shivered at the close call.
The first Orc stopped. "Hrahragh. Brought you a rabbit."
"Rabbit, huh? Live one?"
"Oh." Evident disappointment. "Pity."
Hrahragh made a noise of disgust and threw the limp corpse on the ground. A smaller figure scuttled into Maevyn's line of vision. One of the littler Orcs: she couldn't tell who in the dark. He retrieved the rabbit, stepping back a few paces and saying something, but what it was she couldn't understand. She waited a minute and when their talk didn't return to Westron, resolved that this was the best chance she would have to clear the area without them hearing her, while their attention was focused elsewhere.
Just then she heard a crackling sound. A rustle in the trees a ways away from her. "Where are you, you little snot?" Grushak's voice muttered ominously.
Maevyn's heartbeat, which had just been dropping to a more normal pace, sped up again. She clutched her hands to her chest as if that would somehow muffle the pounding and hunched lower. Her bent knee came in contact with something that prickled painfully through the material of her skirt and she bit her lower lip so hard to keep from crying out that she tasted blood.
"Come out, little bitch…I've got something for you…."
Slowly, gingerly, she reached down and her fingers explored what her knee had discovered. Maevyn had never seen a pinecone before, and so she didn't know what it was that lay under her hand, but she quickly ascertained that it was long, and vaguely ovular in shape, and prickly to the touch. She scooped it into her hand easily, and it was the size of a good throwing rock. Not the heaviness or the hardness, though, and she knew right away that it wouldn't avail her as a weapon. But that didn't mean she couldn't come up with a use for it. She remembered a time or two playing at hide-and-go-seek with her brother, how sometimes when Demmi was dangerously close she would use a stick or a small pebble and—
"When I catch you, maggot…gonna fuck you up proper…." the large Orc was growling.
Maevyn's hand tightened on the pinecone, and her eyes shifted in the direction from where she had heard Grushak. Dimly she saw his shouldering bulk framed through the trees, and her eyes narrowed dangerously for an instant before she gritted her teeth, shifted her gaze, drew her hand back and hurled the pinecone as far as she could. In the dark she couldn't see where it landed but she could the sharp pkk as it struck something solid. Grushak swung in the direction of the sound and he headed towards it and away from Maevyn. Steeling herself, she used the cover of the threatening promises he was snarling to rise into a cautious slouch and skulk away unheard.
"Big to-do by the fire, huh? I could hear it all the way from here," said Shrah'rar as he slit the dead animal's belly open with a skinny talon. Licking his lips, he peeled back soft pelt and sank his teeth noisily into the young coney.
Hrahragh shrugged nonchalantly. "Meat and beer aplenty. Spirits are high."
"Unh. What're you at killing rabbits for, anyway? We got enough food. 'Sides, it's a little late for that sort of thing, ain't it?" Blood dripping from his chin, Shrah'rar looked Hrahragh up and down in insolently, knowing that the Uruk couldn't see him proper in the dark.
"Bored." Hrahragh didn't elaborate. He didn't care to explain to Shrah'rar that he saw night as a challenge. In fact, Hrahragh made it a habit to wander some nights, following little trails by smell and feel, trying to compensate for an Uruk's natural visual shortcoming by navigating with his other senses.
For the most part nothing came of it, but this time he had been lucky. He had come on the droppings, fresh and exuding heat, and he had known the prey was close at hand. A chance break in the boughs overhead permitted enough starlight to pick out frail whiskers quivering as the rabbit sat up on its haunches, sniffing inquiringly of its surroundings. A single swift throw sufficed to dispatch it before it took alarm.
It was a kill he would have scorned by the light of day, but by night he considered it highly accomplished of himself. Even now, at the memory, his chest swelled once again with a pleasant suffusion of pride.
"Mother-fuckin'—stupid little cock-sucking—sha!"
Hrahragh and Shrah'rar both blinked at one another, recognizing Grushak's gutteral utterances. From the sound of it, he was in a most unholy temper. "Uh…is that so?" called Shrah'rar tentatively.
The accompanying cracking sounds amid the trees stopped. "Did you see her come this way?"
"Her? Who? Uh. D'you mean the tark child?"
Snarling: "No, the Witch of the Golden Wood!" Dark branches shook at the periphery of pines as the big Orc thrust his way through, directing such a vicious glare at Shrah'rar that the smaller Orc actually backed up a few paces. "You're supposed to be on Watch, dipshit!"
"And I have been! She didn't come this way, I swear it!" Shrah'rar protested.
Sensing he was to be challenged next, Hrahragh nodded in affirmation. "Not seen her. Or heard."
Grushak growled angrily but grunted acceptance of their word. "Fine then. But if you see the little maggot, don't kill her. She's mine." His coarse features were wrought with anger. Anger, conflicted with grudging approbation. He glanced at the pinecone he was holding in his hand, tossing it up and down briefly. "She's a resourceful thing, I'll give her that," he muttered as he turned back the way he had come.
Shrah'rar shook his head. "I think our old pal Grushak is starting to lose his touch," he said. "Given the slip by a little thing like—oi, Hrahragh, where are you going?"
But the Uruk had already melted away into the trees. Night was a challenge—and here was better game than rabbits….
When Grushak fell for her trick with the pinecone, Maevyn's mood elevated. Suddenly, she wasn't scared. She was careful with her movements but bolder in making them, never careless but almost carefree. She was clever and tricky and the Orc was so, so stupid. Let him try coming near her. She'd just outsmart him again, that's all!
This burst of confidence lasted for about two minutes.
And then she heard a low hoot come from somewhere nearby, and she flinched at the suddenness and proximity of the owl's call. And in that instant she remembered that she was alone in a scary and unfamiliar place, that she was miles from anyone who might help her and that there was at least one very angry Orc looking to pick his teeth with her bones. And suddenly she was very small and very frightened, and there were things out in the shadows, and they were watching her.
She bit her lip again but it was sore from last time so she stopped that pretty quickly. She had the hem of her skirt bunched up in her hands so that it wouldn't catch and tear on tattletale twigs, and she could feel her knuckles whitening in the dark.
The trees were closer together here, and there weren't so many places for the stars to break through. Her movements, already cautious, became smaller, and more hesitant, and fewer. She worked her way forward and sideways, weaving by inches, and every noise, every quiet rustle, the faintest whisper of wind, brought her to a paralyzed standstill. Every sound, she just knew, was Grushak come upon her. And where there wasn't a sound, there her mind began making up noises, darksome and twitchy, and her heart alternately sped and stopped with fearfulness.
And then there came a something that definitely wasn't in her head. A low, thick, throaty sound from somewhere up ahead, to her right. A rasping chuckle.
It might not be Grushak, but any Orc was bad. She braced herself to run, uncertain only of the direction in which to flee.
And then she heard the second something. A soft hurt sound, like a gasp or a sob.
She strained to hear it again. For a time she almost convinced herself that she had imagined it. And then another small cry, and she knew for certain she had heard that. It was faint as anything, muffled by the intervening trees perhaps, but up ahead somewhere. Where the Orc sound had come from.
She shivered. Something was wrong. Something was very very wrong. Leni was hurt—Leni, the only friend she had. Something bad was happening through the trees up ahead. Without Maevyn really making a conscious decision, her feet began walking. She moved slowly, helplessly, in the direction of the sound.
This is crazy. Maevyn, you are a crazy girl. What do you think you're doing? This is how you got caught in the first place. Haven't you learned your lesson yet?
I can't just not go. She's my friend.
Disbelief. So that's it. That's all. You're gonna die. You're gonna die—you know that, right? You know that, don't you?
Resignation. Wasn't ever gonna live forever, was I….
The thought of her own mortality brought her strange comfort in that moment, a painful but somehow soothing revelation, shiny and sharp. She guarded it close as she advanced, step by step.
And in that place through the trees, Maevyn saw what it was inevitable that she see.
In the dark, the Orc was grunting. The silhouette of his body repeatedly rose and fell, rose and fell with a terrible rhythm, and at first she couldn't make out what was going on. He was too engaged in what he was doing to see her, and so she took a few brave steps closer, and then she saw what he was doing, and to who.
Her mind stopped working at this point. She could see, but somehow she couldn't understand. Her mind couldn't encompass it fully. She could only absorb discrete and disjointed facts, like pieces of a puzzle, the sense of it scattered and unintelligible. The fact of Leni's arms fixed stiffly at her sides, like a dead person laid out for a viewing. Of the delicate material of her worn torn dress, shoved up and exposing her bare legs, spread wide by the imposition of Kurbag's body. Of Kurbag's nakedness below the waist, his breeches lying in a careless pile a few feet from where he was thudding at her. Of Leni's hair, pale and glimmering even in the gloom, tangled in pine needles and loam. Of her eyes, open but strangely unseeing, dirty tear tracks marring her smooth face, her lips pressed together and yet the sounds squeezing through them: high, short, painful cries jerked from somewhere so deep inside of her as to be unspeakable.
Maevyn saw. She registered everything. But for that first interminable period of staring she couldn't process what it was that she had stumbled upon.
And then she did. She gasped and took a pace back. Leni's eyes fluttered toward her, and they saw Maevyn, and they widened with horror and shock and terrible shame. Her hand lifted a few inches off the ground, shakily pleading. Maevyn backed further away, and Leni's eyes misted over with despair. The slim hand fell.
A voice behind Maevyn. "Girl." Her head whipped around. Hrahragh was standing not five yards behind, and he was holding one of his sharp knives. He faced her in the dark, saying blandly, "Don't move."
Her feet were stuck to the ground. She wasn't sure she could have moved if she'd wanted to. And maybe, maybe she didn't want to. She didn't know. She was too shaken to think properly.
"If you move," he said in a quiet tone, taking a step toward her, "I throw." Another step. "And you die."
She clutched nervously at the material of her skirt as she looked back at him. To move or not to move. Well, that's that, she thought. I can be caught and dead, or I can just be dead. Ridiculously: That's not so many choices. That's only two. I mean, what else could Demaerion possibly see here?
And the third choice suddenly presented itself, as another Orc appeared behind Hrahragh. "Man-brat, you are mine."
Hrahragh evidently hadn't realized that Grushak was behind him. His eyes flicked sideways, and Maevyn moved. She pelted to her left, thinking to dash through the trees there, when yet another Orc loomed up out of the black pines, blocking her path.
"What, did all the laughs move here or something?" asked Mushog crossly. "Oh, there she is. Oi, Grushak! found your tark…."
"What the FUCK!" bellowed Kurbag, stopping in mid-rut. Squeaker whimpered under the shifted distribution in weight as he raised himself up on one elbow, glaring at the others. As a rule Orcs are not overly particular about matters of privacy, but having the (to use the nasty Elvish) entire glamhoth descend on him in the middle of a pleasant screw was a bit much. "D'you lot mind? I'm kind of busy at the moment!"
Grushak ignored him. The man-brat was darting her eyes back and forth between he and Mushog and while her inferior human eyes couldn't see their faces proper, he could perceive the indecision writ upon her countenance clear as day. He laughed unpleasantly, knowing what was in her mind. She was trapped in a quandary of indecision, every shadow become for her an enemy waiting. Didn't dare make a break for any of the trees lest she run smack into another of his fellows. "Sure—run, tark," he taunted in Westron, swaggering a little as he stepped toward her. "Just try running again. It only makes it that much more entertaining."
Then she made a sidelong zigzag, throwing herself to the ground and scrambling under the low boughs of a particularly broad conifer.
Grushak gawked. "…shit!" he exclaimed as he stormed toward the tree.
"You told her to run, Grushak," Mushog pointed out, laughing. Ah yes. Everything seemed funnier with beer….
"I didn't tell her to go in there!" complained Grushak, prying branches out of his way. They were too thick and many for this to be very effectual, and their dense mass compromised his vision—he could hear the little brat scrabbling through the pine needles at the base but couldn't make her out. "Oi, sha pushdug! How the fuck am I supposed to get to her now?"
"The more pressing question, really, is how she is supposed to get out," remarked an evil voice from nearby. Nazluk, who had evidently followed Mushog from the campfire, was standing idle nearby, cleaning the dirt from under his talons with a sharp blade. He glanced up, a faint smile on his face. "Oh yes, she has a lot of options there. Pretty effectively cornered herself at the moment—tries to come out and it's a simple enough matter for one of us to grab her. Where can she turn? What direction does she have left to go?"
There was a thrashing sound from the interior of the pine and Grushak's pointed ears swiveled toward it immediately. The man-brat had reached the thicker base boughs at the trunk of the tree and was hauling herself upward. Drawing his sword, he began jabbing it through the branches, but unable to make out his quarry properly, his blade bit only bark—when it met anything solid at all. The brat was spry and she quickly clambered up beyond his reach. Cursing fiercely, knowing that it was a waste of time but needing some kind of outlet for his frustration, Grushak backed away and began to hack at the greenery.
Hrahragh, who had philosophically accepted losing his perfect bearings on the girl's shadowy profile and had stowed his knife away in his makeshift bandoleer, threw dark Nazluk a squinty look. "Were saying?" he asked. Which direction indeed….
Nazluk only responded with a noncommittal shrug, watching as Grushak butchered the tree.
Maevyn had climbed quite high—higher, in fact, then she had ever climbed in her life, and maybe even higher than poor dead Benard had ever done. But then again, neither she nor Benard nor anyone from the village had ever had the opportunity to climb such a tree as this. If it weren't for her great fear and for the pain from her smarting hands and knees and for the horror of what she had just witnessed, her heart would had sung out with the climbing of the great pine. Never had she experienced a tree more ideal for climbing! The branches lent themselves to her limbs with such ease, it seemed they grew for the sole purpose of providing her hands and feet with purchase—better even than a ladder, because a ladder would have done nothing to shield her from Grushak's wrath, and yet, huddling close to the dark, pungent, sticky nexus that was the tall pine's innermost trunk, somehow the tree preserved her from his reaching arms, and preserved her as well from his attempts to stab her with his sword.
The scimitar, with its broad, smoothly curving blade, was not suited to this mode of attack to begin with, and the interference of the branches turned its thrusts all sideways when he tried to put it to that use. But it was a hacking blade, made for broad, wide strokes, and when he began chopping away at the branches below her she shivered and clung fast to her perch and was glad she was out of reach. A sturdy tree it was, and strong, but still the tremors traveled up to where she was, and her stomach quivered in response. She climbed higher, climbed until she had reached a point about two thirds of the way up, the point at which the boughs began to feel less secure under her weight, and the point at which she was sure Grushak, if he thought to brave the tree himself, would not be able to hoist his mass.
And wondered what course of action, if any, was left to her….
The conifer was groaning. It was a tall tree, and its seasons were many, and the pain it bore beneath the wanton attack of the wrathful orch was great. Still, it would guard the little Child of Ilúvatar that had found refuge in its broad branches; guard her till its height was laid low.
Eleluleniel wanted to cover her ears to block out the sound of the tree's sorrowful resistance, but knew this would avail her not. And so she remained unheeded where Kurbag had left her, and she kept the material of her dress pulled tightly down about her legs, and she stared at the ground. Trying not to think of Maevyn in the tree. Trying not to hear the Orcs as they conversed near her. They had all, it seemed, with the exception of Shrah'rar, ventured thither to amuse themselves with the little girl's plight and to have a laugh at Grushak's expense.
She made herself small and inconspicuous as possible so that they might not have cause to turn their riotous attentions to her, and she wished that she might likewise hide herself from her memory of Maevyn's eyes when the girl had seen her and Kurbag, hide herself from the memory of the realization in them. Realization, and disgust.…
"D'you think she'll be up there all night?" wondered Pryszrim as he threw the dice again. Grymawk had brought them with him and a number of the Orcs were making a game of it, passing their time at a comfortable vantage point near the tree Grushak was glaring at.
"Three tokens she isn't," said Mushog.
"I'll wager four she is," Rukshash countered. "Grushak's a big bastard, and he's wrecked the lower branches he might have tried the climbing of. I'd like to see him mount that height ere the daystar rises."
"Oh, but Grushak's a stubborn bastard," pointed out Kurbag, who was resigned to the camp's impromptu shift in locale and had finally left off his sullen muttering about the inconsideration of others. "I suspect he'll think of something."
"Grushak's also an almightily pissed bastard at the moment," growled Grushak. "And if certain fellows don't leave off talking about Grushak as if he weren't there, he's liable to thump some heads together."
"Oooh, touchy," grinned Rukshash. He made a confidential gesture with his ruined hand. "Here, you might try setting fire to it. That's always a sure method. Works with dwarves, at any rate."
"Arrr, you rotten old Goblin. As if I hadn't thought of that." Grushak rolled his eyes.
"Grushak," said Nazluk, who was sitting by idly, "has brains. And he knows Bragdagash might have a problem with that."
"Really? How come?" asked Pryszrim in his usual simple fashion.
Nazluk bestowed a particularly sardonic look upon him. "Think, Pryszrim. Think very hard. And while you think, remember what we're up against on the morrow."
Pryszrim actually took a moment to consider. "…eagles?" he ventured at last.
"Yes, that's right. And I'd just as rather they didn't know we were headed their way, wouldn't you? And so lighting a pretty tree-tall beacon to attract their attention mayn't be the most practical course, now mayn't it?"
Pryszrim mouthed a silent O of comprehension.
Mushog scratched the back of his neck. "Here then. I have it. Grymawk can just shoot a few of his arrows up in there, and this will all be dealt with easy as—"
"I will most certainly not!" exclaimed Grymawk with an incredulous laugh that this was even mentioned as a possibility. "I am very much intent on reserving my arsenal for my little climb tomorrow, thank you very much. Good quarrels don't just grow on trees, you know!"
"But…but then, where do you get the wood to make them from?" asked Pryszrim, surprised. And received a look of disdain from the smaller Orc in response.
Thwack. There was a faint cry from up in the tree.
Eyes of varying hues, from orange to red to molten gold to, in one case, mismatched green and yellow, shifted in Grushak's direction. He looked at the second rock in his hand, glanced back at them thoughtfully. "Oi, lads. If you will insist on pitching in suggestions, why not turn your hands to pitching something else?" One fang glinted in a toothy grin. "The one to knock her out gets a clout on the shoulder and a pinch on the arse, courtesy of me."
"What an inviting prospect," said Nazluk dryly. He picked up a stone.
Maevyn sobbed as the Orcs launched their second volley, sobs that she fiercely defended to herself as sobs of anger and frustration, not pain or other weakness. For thus far, none of the rocks had hit her, being either deflected by the branches or passing harmlessly through on unbroken trajectories. Still, as a stone whistled narrowly by her ear, she knew it was only a matter of time before one struck home. And then, oh, she knew how that was going to hurt.
In desperation she shrieked, "YOU STOP THAT!" And felt, naturally, an utter fool. The Orcs were Orcs, not irritating playmates to stop their games at her demand. And of course only horrible laughter greeted her words, and she scowled fiercely. In the dark her hand found another mysterious prickly object such as the one she had thrown earlier, and with a quick snatch she jerked it free of the branch and hurled it down at them. A startled exclamation from somewhere below gratified her, and she grabbed for another one.
Kurbag shook his head in disbelief. "You weakling, it was only a pinecone."
"It hit my nose!" exclaimed Grymawk. "And I didn't even throw anything at her to begin with!" He really was quite indignant as he rubbed the offended body part. "Bitch!" Angered, he too grabbed up a rock and hurled it with the others. However, not having the aim with rocks that he had with archery and not taking any great care in his anger, he not only missed the girl, he missed the tree entirely. But only narrowly missed Bragdagash, who had just arrived on the scene.
Their illustrious leader and the largest Orc in the band dodged the projectile just in time, shooting a look of surprise at the much smaller culprit. "Just what is going on here, I'd like to know?" he demanded.
Once given to understand the situation, he shrugged. "Aye, fire's out of the question, but don't any of you lot have something you can cut the tree down with?" Silence. "Oi. You really are a silly bunch." He chuckled shortly, folding his arms across his chest. "I can understand wanting to draw out your playtime, but we have a tricky bit of business awaiting us tomorrow. Have your fun but get it done—you'll want the time to sleep before sun-up."
Eleluleniel wasn't relieved when Bragdagash showed up. The Orcs had stopped throwing stones, but she knew with dull certainty that this was only a prelude to something worse. Her thoughts were confirmed when she saw Bragdagash hand Grushak the hatchet; saw Grushak turn towards the tree….
She breathed in slow, out slow, trying to control her rising panic. Why do I pray for her to live? It is no kindness to wish she continue in this place. There is nothing before her but pain. Why am I so selfish? What is life, to hold it so dear?
The first stroke bit deep and she uttered a strangled gasp and brought a hand to her mouth in horror. Nazluk looked at her sharply but she paid him no heed, unable to look away from what was happening. All false philosophy and contrived logic flew out of Eleluleniel's head, and there was only the extremity of emotion, the magnitude of her potential despair. Save her, she thought madly, save her save her—
And the silent stars twinkled complacently overhead.
—don't leave me all alone—
Well. They had stopped chucking things at her at any rate, but Maevyn couldn't figure out whether that was a good thing or not. She knew that, with it being quieter down there and all, it must mean some new bad thing was going to happen.
And then there was a thudding sound below and a whole peculiar quiver ran through the tree.
She peered down through the branches. She couldn't see anything. She thought it might be that Grushak was chopping at the branches again. And then the strange tremor came through again, and she realized what it was he was about. He was cutting into the main trunk.
Gasping, she scrambled up a branch, then scrambled down a branch, then up a branch again, and then had to acknowledge that she couldn't go either up or down. Further up the branches became untrustworthy, and in any event, what good would going higher do her if the whole whopping tree fell over? But on the other hand, down below was Grushak and that wasn't a choice she could stand.
She moved up two more branches.
Her position, which had been less than great to begin with, was now grown exponentially more perilous. As the Orc chopped repeatedly into the thicker main trunk below, the more slender portion to which she clung trembled violently. The branches were sparser where she was now and when she looked away from where she was clinging she could see the dark night sky, and the Orcs many feet below…and Leni's face looking up at her, the features indistinct but the pallor of her face and throat unmistakable even from this height.
For a moment Maevyn saw it in her head again: saw Leni lying on the ground and Kurbag on top of her. She closed her eyes and silently screamed the image away: Get out, I need to think! Get out get out get out! She took a deep breath. Trying to banish the memory, she resolved to focus on the first thing she saw when she opened her eyes. Lifting her head she looked over and away, and saw the tree nearest hers.
Maevyn forced herself to stare at it and slowly she realized…it really wasn't so very far away. The trees grew together fairly thickly. Maybe she could—but that was just crazy. There were no branches near enough for her to jump to. Further down, though, where the branches were broader and extended further out, there was less distance between them and the branches of the other tree. She knew, she just knew, that if she threw the effort into it, she could clear the distance. But not if she tried jumping from here—these higher branches were too flimsy, and without strong purchase for her feet she wouldn't be able to push off hard enough. And if she didn't push off hard enough, if she botched this…she would fall to her death….
Ka-chunk, chunk, ka-chunk. The trunk was half cut through.
"Little bird, little bird, can you fly, little bird?"
"Hey sweetheart, come on down. We'll be gentle. We promise…."
"Oh dear, the poor thing, she's about to have such an accident…."
The Orcs taunted her from below: snarls and mock warnings and hooting laugher, like so many animals. Maevyn resolutely tuned them out. Steeling herself up, she climbed down three branches to the little niche where she had huddled originally, and then lowered herself another two. The perch itself was solid, but the tree was swaying precariously. The excitement of the Orcs was grown elevated and raucous. It would not be long now.
The situation was grim, the outlook hopeless, but the question in Maevyn's head was almost playful. Up or down—which would Demaerion pick?
She almost smiled. Why, sideways of course….
And then she launched herself into the air.
And, for a brief eternity, she flew.
Gaakh hosh-ishi bûb-ob fauthulûk. This translates as something like, "Let them all lie hidden in the guts of the pig." Or as Kurbag put it much more nicely, "Consign it to Pryszrim's belly, the lot of it."
Glamhoth. Sindarin term for an Orc band. Translates literally as "noisy horde." An apt description at the best of times, its extra appropriateness under the circumstances overcomes Kurbag's natural Orkish prejudice against Elvish.
Oi, sha pushdug! "Oi, gah dungfilth!"
So who else was having flashbacks to The Hobbit toward the end?
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.