12. The Hand-Off
Even the beech tree wasn't safe anymore.
The hiding place beneath was grown from a shallow scrabbled-out hollow in the earth to a vast cavern, darksome and dank. The beech roots were bigger as well: they were like the fat coils of an enormous serpent, twining ominously through the cavern around her, heaping and contorting and spilling over themselves. None of them touched her, but she was wary of them anyway. Once they had been solid and serviceable, a shelter and a support, holding up the sod above her head. They had afforded her some security. Now they were transformed. Loathsome and exposed they were, like snakes, or entrails…and she didn't know which was worse. They glistened in a strange, slick way; glimmered like the dappling light on the underside of a bridge over water. It gave them almost the illusion of movement, quivering and sliding.
"There's nowhere you can run," she heard him say. She whirled around, but there was nothing there, and his voice came again, seemingly from everywhere, echoing through the cavern and in her own head. "Nowhere to hide." Pleasant. Conversational. "All you can do is die."
She closed her eyes and yelled as loud as she could, "LEAVE ME ALONE!"
A disquieting chuckle. Then silence.
And then, from somewhere close by, the sound of sobbing. And it wasn't Demmi.
"No! I don't want to see that!" Maevyn whispered hoarsely. She turned and ran, but it was like running through mud. She fought the air, felt the suck of it at her limbs. There was dirt falling on the back of her neck. Her feet staggered and she was coughing, struggling to keep her brittle senses together. There was the taste of dust in her mouth. She fell to her knees, landing awkwardly on the palms of her hands. Her fingers dug into the dirt and she stared at them, fascinated by the little mounds they formed, tucked in the crumbling earth.
That sobbing again. And now it was coming from directly in front of her. Her eyes lifted in spite of themselves, and she saw what she saw. And then what she saw changed. Because suddenly it wasn't Leni anymore, and it wasn't the Orc. And she was elsewhere, and she wasn't seeing what had been in front of her, but instead the dark interior of a house…and Mama laying near the back…and her dress ripped…and her legs wide…and the blood…and the blood—
She shook her head frantically to get the screaming out: she wanted it to stop, wanted to tell whoever it was to stop it, and then she realized it was her. There was a crushed, tight feeling throughout her body. Part of it was fear, and part of it, she became dimly aware, was the tight grip of the muscular arm that crushed her against Grushak's powerful frame. The long scream ended as his knife greeted her eye. She could see the tip increments away, so close to her pupil that she wasn't able to focus on it and it was become an undecipherable blur. And as if from somewhere far away, her captor's voice came: "See something you didn't want to, little one? I can do something about that. I can make it go away. I can make it all go away..."
The world of her dream disappeared, and Maevyn shuddered as she was summoned up out of the bowels of one nightmare into another. Mama, she thought, but the memory was leaving her…it was already gone, and she was left with nothing but a dull relief to have forgotten…what? Blinking, unable to see, she passed a shaking hand over her eyes and something caught her hand in a cruel grip that made her cry out.
"Please. Oh please mind her fingers!"
A growl. "What? She's got ten of them." But her hand was released as Grushak transferred his grip to her shoulder, hauled her roughly upwards. "On your feet, brat."
If it weren't for his grip on her she would have fallen over. When he let her go she nearly did fall, stumbling forward into slender arms that caught her and steadied her. Maevyn clung to Leni helplessly, dawn-blind and bewildered, as she heard the Elf say, "I will take care of her. Please. Please, just a few moments…"
"You've got five. Five minutes to get her wakeful and fed." A grim laugh: "And if she's not ready by then, I'll do my part to see she is." His footsteps crackled as he departed.
"Cruel. He is cruel," Leni whispered, trembling. She continued to hold Maevyn, a kind of desperation in her embrace.
Maevyn shivered. Her throat felt tight and uncomfortable. Swallowing, she became very aware of Leni's arms around her, the warmth of her willowy body. It should have been comforting. Instead, Maevyn was stricken by a nausea born of unbidden and unwelcome associations. At the same time, she remembered Leni's words of the night before and how she herself had hugged the older girl in response, trying to comfort her. It's not her fault, Maevyn thought distantly, and so she did not pull away, but neither did she contribute anything to the embrace.
The morning that followed came at her in fleeting moments of awareness. Eating something she couldn't taste and didn't recognize. Taking her relief in the place Leni had shown her yesterday, while the Elf girl stood watch again. Except this time, an Orc lingered with Leni as well until Maevyn had emerged. It seemed that some Orc or another always managed to be nearby that morning. The smaller Orcs, like they'd been given instructions: told to guard. Slitted eyes and pointed ears were always on her. There was no subtlety to it: they sat or stood nearby or followed forthrightly, sometimes looking attentive, sometimes bored. They were watching her, and why that was she didn't know.
The bigger ones not so much: a curious look now and again between raucous conversation, packing up the rank leftovers of several nights' dining, bundling sleeping pallets into tight bedrolls to hoist upon powerful shoulders. Bragdagash, who had looked at her so speculatively the night before, barely looked her way that morning and Grushak, after his rough wakening of her, seemed intent on ignoring Maevyn. His yellow eyes, even when turned in her direction, slid over her as if she weren't there.
The moment they actually broke camp and departed the clearing came and went without her realizing it—strange, when so much had happened there in such a brief span of time. At some point she simply found herself trudging rough and stony ground amid monsters that snarled at one another over her head in a dull barrage of argument and banter. Leni walked next to her, talking to her continuously in a low, urgent voice, saying things to which Maevyn listened occasionally, only to realize that they meant nothing, or so little as to be the same as nothing. The older girl was bent under the packs she carried, and this started to bother Maevyn—after a while she realized it was because she herself carried nothing.
"You have all the load," she said then out loud.
Leni bit her lip. "I think…" she said carefully, "…I think they do not want you carrying anything." Maevyn stared at her. "I think…they have something that they want your arms for."
Maevyn continued to stare for a minute. Then her gaze dropped, and she watched the ground passing step by step underfoot instead, and she thought about what Leni had just said to her. Something they want my arms for….
"I don't see why it has to be so bright out. It would be better if we did this at night. The sun is making me itchy. I hate traveling during the day. Why couldn't we be doing this at night? Why do we have to do it at all? I hate this—I hate everything. Oh, my head is killing me—how much did I have to drink last night, anyway? My stomach hurts…I think I'm going to be sick…"
Nazluk stalked on ahead, teeth gritted in response to the griping behind him, when it cut off. He hardly dared hope at first, but as the ensuing quiet approached the duration of a minute his jaw began to relax….
"Why is it always me, anyway?" Grymawk, having caught his breath, demanded loudly of the universe. "It's always me! I hate my life. I wish I was dead. I wish I was never spawned. I wish—"
Nazluk turned suddenly, using every extra inch to tower over Grymawk. "How would you like me to make your wish come true, hmmm?"
Grymawk looked up at him and snorted, elbowing past the taller Orc in truculent fashion. "Oh shut up, Nazluk. You're the last thing to frighten me right now."
Nazluk stood stock-still, locked in the pose of menace he had assumed, every fiber straining to gut the little vermin. But the others would be on him if he did that. Grymawk was the designated eagle fodder for this day's outing, after all, and if Nazluk were to kill Grymawk, well, he didn't much fancy the notion of replacing him.
"You're right, you know," said Kurbag. He winked as he also passed Nazluk, who, suspicious, fell in behind him anyway. "I hear the birds in these parts are vicious."
"Of course I'm right," said Grymawk. "…How vicious?"
Kurbag shrugged. "Just ask Rukshash. He can tell you all about it."
Rukshash nodded. "They go for yer balls," he said in a sepulchral tone.
"Bollocks, lad! You know what those are, don't you?"
"They're located about midways, aren't they?" remarked Kurbag.
Rukshash nodded again. "Good place to aim." Hawking suddenly, he spat a globule of mucus and saliva. His aim was good despite the single eye: Grymawk jumped out of the way just in time. The older Orc smiled mildly at his intended target.
"I'd've thought they would try for something higher," Mushog commented up ahead. "Bein' as how they fly and all."
"Ah, but like as not if they dive at you they want summat to bring back for their trouble. Head'll just pop off if they go for that. Waist-height they have the, wotchercallit, 'center of gravity' working for 'em. Bear away a body easy-like." His smile widened in a gash of black rot.
Nazluk laughed softly as Grymawk winced. Evidently these scenarios were all too vivid.
"Hmm." Mushog was mulling over what Rukshash had just said. "No. No, if I were an eagle I'd go for the back. Element of surprise, and the spine is a prime weak spot. Attack from behind, and snap—"
At this point their archer bolted. Dropping his pack, he shot into the undergrowth. Kurbag, who had obviously been waiting for a move of this sort, bounded after and snatched him up easily. "Crazy! You're all crazy! I'm not doing it!" yelled Grymawk, struggling under Kurbag's arm as the others roared with laughter.
"Now come, friend, who can say what's certain in this world?" said Nazluk innocently. "Spine, head, testicles—I'm sure it just depends on the eagle."
At this point Grymawk saw fit to inform Nazluk of several interesting and hitherto unsuspected details about his parentage and family life.
The fun came to an end when Bragdagash bore down on them from the front of the band like murder on two legs. Though his face was dark with rage his words were low and clipped: "Are you lot suicidal or are you just stupid? We are getting into a dangerous piece of terrain here. Now you will all shut the fuck up if you know what's good for you. Kurbag, put the runt down. Get your arse to the front of the line, Grymawk."
He did not have to say it twice. Grymawk hit the ground scuttling and Bragdagash followed close behind. When he'd stopped to chew them out the rest of the group had also ground to a halt, Kurbag's Squeaker and the tark child ending up roughly toward the middle: as the Uruk chieftain stormed by he grabbed the smaller girl by the neck of her blouse, pulling her to the front as well. The Elf made an odd noise in the back of her throat and subsided, staring silently after.
When the march began again it was without a word. Conversation among the Orcs was replaced with the occasional glance exchanged or quick grins flashing. They were not cowed, for the scolding was already forgotten. Rather they were tense, and eager. There was a shared sense that action was close at hand.
Maevyn explored the raw skin on her neck gingerly, with tentative fingers. It felt stinging moist and warm where the fabric had jerked against her. He didn't have to do that so hard. What was that for?
At least she hadn't woken up hurting the way she'd been hurting last night. She'd become aware of that gradually as they kept up their walking. Leni had been right about the Orc medicine: her body still ached but the worst of it seemed simply to have melted away with sleep. What hurt was left was manageable. She consoled herself with this as she walked, but was angry that she should be grateful for simple relief.
They got to where they were going late that morning, when the sun was still mounting overhead and the last of the increasingly scrubby pinetrees were coming to an end. Bragdagash, who was walking just in front of Maevyn, made a sharp gesture for them all to stop, and so Maevyn did. As she did so she lifted her eyes and looked past the Orc to where the rough ground they had been traveling – yellow dusty soil treacherous with shifting rocks – became the jagged flank of a mountain that loomed forbodingly before them.
There was a sudden loud scream from above. Maevyn's head jerked in the direction of the noise and she stared in shock at the huge something that had launched itself out of the mountain. It was broad and black from the underside, and it had two enormous wings. It was an eagle. But that was impossible. Wheeling twice over the little band of travelers, it was the largest living thing she had ever seen, a creature out of legend and time. It screamed its primal scream again and she ducked instinctively, covering her ears with her hands. Then, slowly uncovering her ears, she lifted her eyes in time to see it sweep back into the hidden fissure from which it had emerged.
"Well," said one of them from behind her. And laughed. "Glad I'm not for that."
Which was when Maevyn came to find out what it was they had been keeping her alive for. She was to go up, Bragadagash told her then, with Grymawk. She was to follow Grymawk's instructions in everything. Together, they were to climb up to the eagle's nest and take what eggs were there, and carry these down, and all—this was very important—without breaking a single one. Do it, he told her, and they would let her live. Do it, and they would let her go free.
It was the stupidest, most patently insincere offer Maevyn had ever heard, and she had heard adults tell some real whoppers in her lifetime. The Orcs behind her weren't even bothering to hide their sniggers, but she didn't listen to them: her attention was focused on Bragdagash. "You're lying," she said flatly. His eyes narrowed and she went on, "You are a lying liar, and I'm not doing it. I don't listen to people who lie to me."
He looked at her and smiled like he was trying to put her at ease. His face was not made for it and the results were altogether hideous. "I'm not sure you know your situation," he told her. "You would do best to do as I say. You don't have much of a choice in the matter, you know."
"Oh, I have lots of choices," she said, glaring back at him. "There are all kinds of things I could do instead of listening to you."
She just continued to glare. She figured she would think of something. If she had learned anything last night, it was that she could think on her feet.
The smile went away. "No, you would much rather do as I'm telling you. You see, you've made my friend Grushak very angry, and he doesn't like you much. In fact, he doesn't even want you doing this—not really. He'd much rather kill you." He looked past her with meaningful intent.
Maevyn did not turn her head. She would not look at Grushak. She knew that he was there without having to do that. She could feel his eyes burning into the back of her skull. "So? He's gonna kill me anyway," she said.
Grushak rumbled ominously behind her. "And when would you prefer I do that? Now, or later?"
She folded her arms across her chest. She was pushing it, and she didn't care. They wanted her to obey. Leni told her to obey because Leni obeyed—but look at what happened to her. Maevyn had had enough of obedience.
Bragdagash, frowning, took a step back, and Maevyn sensed Grushak's approach. She clamped her folded arms more tightly against her chest, hands gripping her elbows. She never even felt him touch her: in a split second he had spun her around and she found herself facing his midriff. The movement was so sudden it set little motes of light to dancing in her vision. She drew a ragged breath. Her heart was pounding in her ears.
"Later? Or right now?"
I don't want to die, she thought. And pressed her lips together the harder.
Someone coughed. "Perhaps we should all slow down a little. After all, I'm sure there is still some room for persuasion, hmm? Don't you think so? Squeaker?"
Nazluk stood with his arms wrapped around the Elf, enjoying himself immensely. Both Grushak and the man-brat looked at him in some surprise: Grushak's eyes went squinty first, clearly wondering what Nazluk was about, but the tark's eyes remained wide and unknowing. Nazluk could feel the Elf stiff and unresisting in his arms, as confused as any of them. Well now. That wouldn't do. He brought up a hand to caress her face, allowing his talons to stray perilously near her eyes, and she flinched.
"Hey," Kurbag objected.
Nazluk spared him a sly look, speaking in Orkish: "Relax, Kurbag. I'm not going to hurt your pet." Much, he thought.
Aloud again, in Westron: "I'm not going to have to, am I? These two are fond of one other. You are, aren't you, girl? Don't you like her?" He breathed deeply, deliberately, of the Elf girl's hair—inwardly nauseated, outwardly evincing every sign of pleasure. "I can see why. She's pretty, isn't she? Pretty, and nice, and you like her, don't you?" His hand dropped casually to brush one small breast. "Gentle. Soft. You wouldn't want to see her damaged, I'm sure." Finding her nipple through the sheer fabric, he pinched it hard and made the Elven bitch squeal good.
"Nazluk," Kurbag growled dangerously, but was forestalled by a warning grunt from Bragdagash, who could tell that Nazluk was on the right track. The man-brat seemed fascinated by what he was saying.
"It's not so difficult, is it? Just a mountain. You do what you're told, and she isn't hurt, yes? You're sharp enough—I'm sure you can understand what I'm saying. And you like her, right?" He gave the Elf's breast a twist and she cried out again in pain: he pulled her closer in response. "Sma ambal karanzol-han…sweet little moon-elf," he purred, relishing her fear and Kurbag's frustration.
"Maevyn…" whispered the Elf in a quavering voice.
There was a brief hush. "I want my knife," the little tark said of a sudden. "I want my knife," she repeated, turning to Grushak.
"What knife?" he asked, glowering.
"You took it from me. Give it back. Now."
"And what if I don't have it?"
"You have it," she said stubbornly. "I know you do."
He rolled his eyes at her. "Will you make the climb, or what?"
"I'm not doing anything until I have my knife back!" she yelled, face turning red, hands balled up in fists at her sides.
"Oi. Do you have this knife she's howling about?" muttered Bragdagash.
"Been using it to clean under my nails," Grushak grumbled, removing one of the packs on his shoulder. "Size it is, that's about all it's good for."
"Hey, don't give her a knife," Grymawk protested. "It's gonna be all I can do to watch for eagles without having to watch for her into the bargain."
The girl scowled at him, declaring with brutal honesty, "I won't touch you if I can help it. I could care less about you, you nasty stupid thing."
"Oh." He shrugged. "All right then."
"Give me my knife," she demanded again of Grushak, who had lifted the flap of his pack and was fumbling around inside.
"WOULD YOU SHUT UP!" he roared in her face. The girl closed her eyes against the blast. Opening her eyes she stared back at him again but didn't say anything more. He gave her a close look, waiting to see if she would open her mouth, then went back to searching. After a few seconds he grunted, pulling his fist out of the pack, and looked at the girl again. Opening his hand, he revealed the weapon, which appeared truly diminutive resting on his leathery palm. She snatched for it and he caught her wrist, holding it a moment while he continued to study her face. Her lip was curled, her eyes narrowed and watchful. Turning her hand over he placed the knife in it, hilt first.
"Well," said Bragdagash dryly. "Now that that's settled…."
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.