"Come on," said Shrah'rar. "One more time."
"Nuh-uh," said Maevyn.
"You're just afraid you're going to lose again."
She made a face, shaking her head.
"Do it or I'll cut your nose off." The girl only gave him a sidelong look. It was clear that she didn't believe him, and with good cause. If Grushak came back to find his little snaga mutilated without any decent reason for it, who was to say he wouldn't visit something similar on Shrah'rar? "Your ear, then," Shrah'rar said. "You've GOT two of them."
She folded her arms across her chest and stared at him, effectively calling his bluff. It did not matter how poorly or how well she played, she knew. Shrah'rar was not interested in playing fair, and Maevyn was not interested in playing a cheater.
Mushog was drinking by the campfire, trying to tamp down the headache that he had given himself the night before. With as sore a head as he had, he was no good for a rematch with Shrah'rar, not even if he'd been in the mood for one, which he most certainly was not. "Will you both keep it down," he growled, rubbing his temples.
"I don't know why you're afraid to play me," Shrah'rar said to Maevyn in a wheedling tone. "I've been awake for a day and night, and it's getting into another day now. You've had some sleep at least. That evens the odds a bit, wouldn't you say? Makes you a better match for me. Come on, you might even win this time. You won't know if you don't try…" He trailed off suddenly, ears perking visibly. Beside the fire, Mushog lifted his head, scowling at an undefined point in the trees.
Maevyn, who could hear nothing, looked from Shrah'rar to Mushog, and then to Leni, who was turning one of the eggs. Though she did not look up as they had, she too had stopped what she was doing and become quite still, staring into the ash and glowing embers of the fire. Those pointy Elf ears of hers—whatever the two Orcs had heard, it was clear that Leni could hear it as well. Maevyn scowled. She hated being the only one not to know…except that wasn't true, because she did know, really. What else could it be?
And in a few minutes she could hear them herself as they pounded into camp: the big Orcs, Bragdagash and Grushak and Hrahragh, and Kurbag, and the smaller Orcs running behind them. She stiffened at the sight of dried blood on their arms and clothing, and even on their faces. There were flecks of white foam at the corners of their mouths from the running they had done, with one notable exception. Grymawk had not been running but was riding on Hrahragh's back. If anything, he looked more tired than the rest of them: his head had dropped forward so that his chin rested on Hrahragh's broad shoulder, and his eyes were closed. Beneath Hrahragh's arm, Maevyn could see crude bandages wrapped around the goblin's left thigh.
She had little time to wonder what had happened: Bragdagash was giving orders. "Up. Off yer arses, we're legging it!" he said, and Maevyn realized that none of them had taken off the packs that they were wearing. Instead they were grabbing up anything that they had left behind the day before.
Mushog had risen to his feet, the headache still in his eyes but pushed away for now. "Vrapog?" he questioned, moving toward Bragdagash.
"Nar bur mabas," Bragdagash answered shortly, "bajug gajirm shapit…"
"Hurry up, Brat," Grushak ordered her. "We're breaking camp now."
Eleluleniel was already slipping the eggs into their pack and slipping her arms through the straps of it. She quickly joined Maevyn in rolling up their bed furs. "What's going on?" Maevyn whispered to her. Eleluleniel shook her head: whether this meant that she did not know or that she did not want to say, Maevyn could not tell.
"Shapit, shapit!" Bragdagash barked. Maevyn was pleased to note that it wasn't her and Leni he was shouting at to go faster but Shrah'rar and Mushog.
She did not revel in this for long as a hard hand closed on her shoulder. "Fucking move, Brat," Grushak growled. "This is not a game." He shoved her front-first against a tree, wrenching one of her arms behind her back and forcing a strap taut over it. Maevyn coughed, tasting blood in her mouth. She had accidentally bitten her inner cheek as Grushak manhandled her. Coughing again, she turned her head and spat blood out on the ground. Grushak took no notice: as he finished cinching the last item onto her on her body he put his hands on her again and turned her around roughly. "Now come on and don't fall," he said, giving her arm a pull. "We are going on a little run…"
Maevyn experienced a sense of shock as Grushak hauled her forward. Only moments before there had been packs and sleeping mats and all kinds of things on the ground. Now there was nothing to be seen: everything had been loaded up onto someone's back or was being held in their arms. The fire and the trampled grass was all there was to show of their presence, and Nazluk was kicking out the fire now, scuffing dirt over it and using the heel of his boot to knock aside the heavy stones that she and Leni had used for cooking. It was an odd thing to do, Maevyn thought, what with the flattened grass and the hard beaten soil from where ten pairs of Orkish boots had tramped. Hiding the fire certainly wouldn't hide the fact that they had been there.
Grushak still had his hand clamped on her arm. He pulled her alongside him as he rejoined the others. Panting a little from the rough treatment, Maevyn looked around her. She caught sight of Leni through the press of bodies: Kurbag's arm was locked around her and he was looking down at her with an expression of extreme irritation. Maevyn wondered if he had seen the bruises on Leni's throat, the same bruises that Maevyn had seen when she woke up that morning.
"Right," Bragdagash addressed them, "let's move out!" He thrust his fist in the air, punctuated the words with a bellow that the rest of them took up as they all began thudding out of camp.
"We're adding this to your lessons, Brat," Grushak hissed, dropping her with a noise of disgust. "You'll learn to keep up quickly enough after I've laid into you a bit." He'd managed to keep her running for the first ten minutes, but after that he had stopped and simply scooped her up, packs and all, running with her clamped in his strong arms.
It was almost as bad as that time when he had carried her on his back, when every running footfall had jolted through her body and she had come perilously close to dislocating her shoulders, and her poor wrists, rubbed raw with the rope that bound them, had taken so long to heal afterward. Even now they showed the ill-effects of that day with circling scars, pink and smooth and shiny.
Being carried in Grushak's arms was excruciating in a whole different way: the packs bound on her and wedged between her and him make her feel like she had been bundled into a satchel of rocks, and in Grushak's hard hot arms she was like an unwilling passenger freighted in a bouncing, shaking oven. When he dumped her at the end of the run it was just that one final jolt going through her. She lay gasping on the ground like a fish out of water.
"Maevyn! Are you all right?"
"I…think so," said Maevyn, sitting up slowly, all in a dazed heap. "Where are we now?"
Leni, standing over with her slender fingers knotted behind the straps of her pack, looked up at the sky. "North, North-West of where we were. We were running for over an hour."
"Did you get carried too?"
Leni shook her head.
"She's stronger than you are, Brat," said Grushak, still hovering nearby, with an ugly laugh. "Now get up, and get shed of those packs. You've rested long enough."
Maevyn reddened in anger and embarrassment. She bent her head low as she stood up so that her dark hair fell over her eyes, trying to hide the shame in her face. Had slender pretty Leni really run all that way, while Maevyn had to be jounced along like so much baggage?
"Come, let us do as he says," said Leni, taking Maevyn lightly by the elbow. "You have not had to run so far before," she whispered near Maevyn's ear as she helped the younger girl shed the myriad items strapped on her small body. "I saw you when we started out. You did very well. You do not think, before I came to be among these Yrch, that I could run so hard or for so long, do you?"
Maevyn shrugged, made a face, but felt a little better anyhow. Leni had a way of doing that, of knowing the right thing to say. The younger girl stood up straight, looking around as her embarrassment faded, only to be replaced with curiosity about their new surroundings, and with questions about what had happened earlier. "Leni…why were we running anyway?" she asked, looking around at the Orcs. "Why did we have to leave so quickly? Were we being chased?"
Had the people from the village rallied and pursued their attackers? But there was no aspect of alarm about Bragdagash's band. Uruk and regular Orc alike, they were talking unconcernedly, even cheerfully as they removed the various articles bound on their bodies. Several of the Orcs who were party to the raid were opening the sacks with which they had returned, showing their take to Shrah'rar and Mushog. Shrah'rar was examining, with evident admiration, a bright dagger that Grymawk looked over with proprietary pride between grimaces of pain. Whatever had happened to him, it did not seem to be life-threatening – he was sitting by and answering Shrah'rar's questions calmly enough while Rukshash re-bandaged his leg.
"This is the way it usually happens," said Leni, shrugging. "Bragdagash does not like to remain in the same camp after a raid. He likes to move quickly in case there is some kind of pursuit, especially if we were camping at all close to the place that was raided. But he and the others would not be so calm if they truly believed that we were followed. This time, at least, it seems as if they were only being careful."
"'This time'?" Maevyn asked. Then did that mean they had been chased before?
"Owww. Hey Grushak, tell your brat to come over here, I can't get this knot out!" Pryszrim whined.
"Tell her yourself, runt, I'm busy."
"Hey Brat, come over here, I can't – ""
"I'm coming, I'm coming," said Maevyn, rolling her eyes as she went over to Pryszrim. She often found herself put to use this way, set to tugging loose the tight knots they had made with her own smaller fingers.
Eleluleniel, left to her own devices, carefully took off the pack that contained the eagle eggs. Drawing back the flap she lifted one out, examining it carefully. It did not appear to be damaged in any way by its recent journey. She examined the other two in turn, satisfying herself that they also were all right. As she put them away again, one by one, into the pack, she became aware of a shadow cast on the ground where she was kneeling. Blinking, she looked at the two dark forms towering over her. Bragdagash and Kurbag were standing there, watching what she did.
"Look all right then?" Bragdagash questioned her. She nodded wordlessly. "Fine, that's fine. You continue keeping them like that and we should do nicely. Rukshash!" he called out, raising his eyes and walking over to the older Orc.
"Hoi." Kurbag was still standing, looking down at her with his head cocked slightly. Nothing unusual there. This time, however, there was no air of ominous intent about him, only a kind of high eagerness. "Come up then, I've brought you something."
He stepped back, motioning her away. Standing up and hugging the pack of eggs to her chest, Eleluleniel drew in a breath and let it out again as she followed him. Looking back over her shoulder, she saw that the others were starting to set up camp. Bragdagash had had them stop in a shallow coombe: a place where the earth folded gently on itself and the long grass waved. Trees lined the long furrow in the earth, providing ample shade for the snaga Orcs, and the cleft sloped up toward a band of dark trees rimming the skyline, evidently the outskirts of a vast forest. Beyond the trees was endless blue sky, and against that, a white range of mountains.
They were white: white as snow. Perhaps there was snow on these mountains, despite the warmth of summer. Eleluleniel had heard of such things, for all that her old life was spent where the earth lay flat and where the trees were tall: places where there was snow the long year round, in summer as in deepest winter. Wondering what mountains these were, and where she was, and how far she was from home, she stared at them and tried to visualize the maps of soft calfskin from which she had once been taught her geography.
"Here…" Kurbag had stopped and lowered the sack that he was carrying slung over his strong shoulder. Squatting down with his back to her, he opened it and drew out a number of smaller sacks: the usual grain and beaten flour that he would bring back after a raid. And then he took out something else.
Eleluleniel said nothing as he stood and turned, unfurling the dress of woven gray-brown fabric. Standing with the heavy pack cradled against her chest, she stared at the dress Kurbag held out to her. In her mind's eye arms emerged from the short sleeves; she saw the ghostly outline of a woman's throat behind the dark hemmed collar. Mercifully, she could not imagine the woman's face.
"I told you I would bring you a new dress, didn't I," said Kurbag, sounding pleased with himself. "Go on then. Put it on."
Maevyn stared at Leni when the Elf girl came back wearing, not her usual tattered clothing, but a clean garment of dark homespun. The Elf girl looked away, her eyes not meeting Maevyn's. When they did there was such a look in them that Maevyn had to turn away from it. Wearing a dead woman's dress…
"It's not like it's so different," she said awkwardly later, trying to comfort Leni as Leni had so often comforted her. "When you think about it, I mean. What they feed us. Everything they give us." The slaughtered animals: meat taken from the same village from which the dress had come. The furs on which they slept. There was precious little on which they subsisted that had not ultimately been stolen or killed for. "It's not like you're the one who took it," Maevyn insisted.
But Eleluleniel thought—she could not help thinking—that a woman had died so that Kurbag could bring her this garment. A woman who might have lived if the Orc hadn't taken it into his head that Squeaker needed a new dress.
"And I cannot know how old she was," she said quietly as they attended to the wrapped meat that the raiders had brought back, unpacking and repacking again. "If she was a woman or if she was only a girl like me, or the color of her hair, or what manner of things she cared about, or who it was she loved. In my mind she has no face. I do not even know her name…"
"We know she had bigger bosoms than you anyhow," said Maevyn frankly. "See how it's pooching out at the front?" Leni's face went a little pink, and she smoothed the front of the garment down self-consciously. "I think if we refasten it that will help," said Maevyn. She stepped behind the Elf and stared for a flustered moment at the metal clasps before walking back around to stare again at Leni's front. Dubiously: "Or maybe you'll just have to grow into it."
"That might take a while," said Leni, looking down with wry humor at the outline of her small breasts behind the dull-colored material. At least her face no longer showed that weary heartsick expression, and when she looked up again she smiled a little at Maevyn, who felt a little thrill of accomplishment.
"Look at the sky," said Maevyn a short while later, pointing.
It was blue and it went on forever. High scudding clouds moved far above them. It wasn't so often that Maevyn and Leni found themselves free to linger under open sky, and they stopped what they were doing for a moment and turned together to look at the horizon. A few birds flew blackly against the sky and the white mountains, and Maevyn made a low murmur of appreciation. "It's pretty here," she said.
"It is," said Leni.
Maevyn looked at her and saw the smile at the corner of Leni's mouth as the Elf girl stood there, the dress hanging loosely on her body. It might have looked nice enough on the woman who wore it before, but it really was all wrong for Leni: her skin was too pale for it, and it didn't really fit her right. Still, it was certainly better than the old grubby dress it had replaced. Maevyn hated Kurbag but she thought that it was just as well he had brought Leni this new dress, even if they didn't know its provenance.
She looked forward again, toward the horizon. "Those mountains are pretty too. I've never seen anything like them before. See how they look sort of pointy?" This met with a quiet sound of agreement from Leni, and Maevyn went on, "I think they're taller than the mountains we were in before. With the eagles, remember?" She looked thoughtful. "Wonder if that's where we're going next."
"I expect that we will know soon enough," said Leni.
Much later, when it was getting on to evening and they had a bit of a fire going, Rukshash took the bandages off Grymawk's leg. Exhaling gustily, he shook his head. "Ointment and bandages aren't enough for this," he declared of the bite on Grymawk's thigh. "This needs stitching…"
"Bloody fuck," the goblin muttered, though he sounded resigned. He had suspected as much.
The older Orc grinned and clapped his hand between Grymawk's legs, causing the goblin to utter a sharp oath. "Be glad of it, lad. Much higher and that bitch would have had your dick off!" Rukshash gave him a playful squeeze, laughing raucously at the half-hearted smack Grymawk gave him in return.
"Boil water?" asked Hrahragh. He had been watching how Rukshash ministered to their damaged comrade, orange eyes alight with interest. Coming from southern lands, he was curious to see how his northern cousins went about the matter of tending Grymawk's wound.
"Two skins for the boiling should be enough," Rukshash agreed. "You'll find a little kettle in my pack. Put the brat on it: I'm going to want your hands for Grymawk." Hrahragh did not have to be told twice and he strode off at once to press the Man-brat into service.
She complained, of course, but complied easily enough. It helped that she too was curious. Filling Rukshash's battered old soup kettle and placing it in the glowing embers of the fire, Maevyn crouched down to watch the proceedings.
They had removed Grymawk's breeches but his tunic hung low enough to cover his privates. This was fortunate, because any concern about modesty was clearly the last thing on Grymawk's mind. He was sitting stiffly, his arms fixed tightly at his sides beneath Hrahragh's firm broad hands. The Uruk was kneeling behind him while Rukshash puttered around in front, poking and prodding at the open wound. As he picked bits of grit from beneath the ragged flap of skin with his filthy dark claws Maevyn was wincing almost as much as Grymawk, but she could not stop looking. Indeed, she was so transfixed that Rukshash had to tell her, quite irritably, to go and check the water and see whether it had come to a boil.
"That looks plenty hot," said Rukshash, giving the steaming water a brief glance when she had rejoined them. "Wait just a tick, I'll tell you when."
"When what?" Maevyn asked.
"When to pour. Come on, girl, you're sharp enough. Keep up." He had taken a thick strip of leather and, extending it between his hands, brought it to Grymawk's mouth. Grymawk's eyes were tightly shut, but his mouth popped open, prompt and pathetic as a little bird's, allowing Rukshash to fit the leather strap between his teeth.
"But it'll burn him!" protested Maevyn.
"That's why we're waiting first," agreed Rukshash. "We want it plenty hot, just not enough to blister."
Well…if we're going to let it cool down first, she thought…
But then, less than a minute later: "All right. Now."
She stared at Rukshash in dismay. "But it's still too hot—I, I don't want—" Sighing with loud exasperation, Rukshash took the kettle from her hands and, without ceremony, poured about a third of the contents over Grymawk's wound. Sickened, Maevyn turned her head away, but she could still hear the awful sound that Grymawk made through his crude gag. I didn't want to hurt him, she thought wretchedly.
"That's one. Here's two now." Rukshash sloshed more of the hot water over Grymawk's thigh, then set the kettle aside. "How you doing, lad," he asked, though of course he had no response. Grymawk was breathing quickly, shallowly. He had fought in Hrahragh's grip but had subsided now. His eyes were were still tightly shut, so he did not see the needle that Rukshash produced. Perhaps there was another reason for that: perhaps he had seen Rukshash threading it earlier. It was made of bone and threaded with the same kind of gut Grymawk used for his arrows, and it looked blunt. Had it been any thicker, Maevyn thought that it might have done for a knitting needle, though of course it was much shorter.
Maevyn stared at what followed, unable to look away, while Rukshash methodically stitched up the goblin's wound. Grymawk did not struggle again but his teeth ground down horribly all the while on the strip of leather in his mouth. The noise coming from behind his teeth kept on going, and it did not stop until Rukshash finished with his suture and had tied off the end. With a meaningless murmur Rukshash knelt back and wiped the bone needle on his own trousers.
At some point Grymawk's tunic had ridden up; either that or Rukshash had pushed it aside while he was working, exposing Grymawk's genitals. They were not those of a child but those of an adult male Orc. Yet at that moment they seemed as innocuous and vulnerable as a baby's. Somehow seeing the goblin's privates then did not disgust Maevyn; it just made her feel so much worse for him. The stitches on his gray thigh were livid and puckered, and when Rukshash upended the last of the hot water over them Grymawk could do no better than groan. At least, Maevyn reckoned faintly, it could not have been as hot as it was before. She hoped, at this point, he wasn't feeling much of anything.
"There now," said Rukshash, with almost obscene good cheer after he had dried Grymawk's leg and wrapped another bandage around it. "Dose you with some beer and you're good to go. Somebody get this lad a skin of Orc draught, eh?" he said, looking up at the faces looking down at them. Several of the other Orcs had wandered over to watch Rukshash at his surgery. Nazluk was one of them. He nodded his head curtly and vanished as Rukshash turned to Maevyn.
If she had been thinking properly she would have wondered why he had spoken to the others instead of telling her to get the beer for Grymawk. As it was, she was wholly unprepared when Rukshash struck her. He did it with his mutilated hand, contemptuously, hitting her across the face with a cracking sound. The girl whimpered and cowered back. Rukshash's hand was not so heavy as Grushak's, but it was hard and bony and she had not been expecting the attack.
"Don't ever do that again. When I say pour, you do it. Tender-hearted little fool, was that supposed to be tarkish mercy? Think Grymawk would have thanked you when his leg swelled up with the puss and the bad blood welling under it?"
Warm wetness on her upper lip. Was he going to hit her again? He was glaring at her like he wanted to. Blood was coming out of Maevyn's nose but all she felt was shame, and fear of Rukshash hitting her. She shook her head quickly.
"Too bleeding right. Think Bragdagash would have thanked you for costing us our only archer? No, he wouldn't've neither. Use your head or don't use it as you may, but when a time comes for you to act, you do it! Understand?" She nodded at once and he continued to glare at her. "It's a short enough life you'll lead if you don't. I haven't lived this long by sitting back and letting the world happen to me. What! Do you want to be like that fool Mushog, without the sense of two fleas?"
"Here now, I can do without your insults, sharku," snapped Mushog. He was another one of the watchers.
"Nonetheless it's true. Or how is your hand doing today?"
"That joke is on your head, old bastard, not mine. Look at this. Fine as ever it was!" He closed and reclosed his fist without a sign of pain. The swelling did seem to have gone down.
"And it would be healing even faster if you'd only listened to me," continued Rukshash, unperturbed by the demonstration. "Well, you'll listen to me next time, won't you."
His attention no longer on her, Maevyn wiped her hand beneath her nose, snuffling miserably. Hrahragh was still close by. He shook his head at her. "Here, foolish girl," he said, handing her a rag, and she covered her nose with it. It was not wise to bleed so openly in the company of Orcs.
Meanwhile Hrahragh settled some of Grymawk's packs behind the goblin's back, allowing him to sit semi-upright. Grymawk was ignoring them both, sucking on the skin of Orc draught that Nazluk had given him. His brow, still deeply furrowed with pain, began to smooth a little as he drank. When he lowered the skin he opened his eyes, blinked tiredly at Maevyn. "Hey Bait," he said at last. "Fun stuff, eh?"
Maevyn stared at him, wondering why she hadn't just done what Rukshash told her to do. Why she should have cared whether it hurt Grymawk or not. Certainly she had had her share of bruises on his account. Often enough she had smarted beneath Grushak's hand in the past few days because of the ill lessons she'd received, and those had been from Grymawk as well as from Mushog. Certainly she had no cause to like Grymawk.
Perhaps it was because they had killed an eagle together. Perhaps it was because he still called her "Bait" sometimes, as he did now. But he was an Orc, and his wound had come from a village raid. Killing people…people, like her people…
She wanted to ask him just how he had come to be bitten, and by what, or by whom. Not even as an accusation. Just – just to know. Instead she watched silently as Grymawk closed his eyes again and tilted back his head once more to drink.
Nar bur mabas, bajug gajirm shapit… Very loosely: "No men follow but we're making tracks quickly." OH GOD MY ORKISH SUCKS.
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.