Mother of Isengard
5. Down From The Mountain
By the time they reached the slavers’ camp the chilly morning sky was lightening behind the mountains, although the western slopes would remain in shadow for much of the day.
Steeped in grief and loss Rinn neither knew nor cared how far they had walked. As heedless of the steep, broken path shifting beneath her shackled feet as she had been of her ripening bruises and swelling cheek, she could think of nothing but Lavan’s crumpled body abandoned behind them. So worthless that he could be killed for a moment’s sport, he had been beyond value to her. A loyal and loving friend, from clumsy puppy to fearless sheepdog. The relentless ache in her head had compounded her misery, a wave of sickness washing over her with each lurching step of her frozen feet. Time and again she had thought just to lie down at the wayside. Let them kill her if they wished, she would at least be free. But she had needed only to lift her head to see the shadowy figure of the man they called Eldred, swaggering in front of her, to feel again the hard iron in her heart.
“I will see his death,” she whispered to herself, “I will live to send him from the world.”
“What-ho, Breron!” the fleshy man sat by the low burning fire looked up as the band emerged from the morning mist, yawned and scratched himself, “You’ve made good time.”
“Aye, not bad,” the bearded man looked around proprietarily around the camp. Two cloak-shrouded humps lay close to the fire, while a couple of small sturdy ponies were tethered nearby. “No trouble here, then?”
“Naw,” the other replied, climbing ponderously to his feet, “they’ve been quiet as mice.” He cocked a thumb at the small group of slaves, huddled under some meagre blankets, white-faced and dark-eyed. A couple of young women, a meagre-faced man and a handful of scrawny children. “Looks like you had some though,” he grinned, nodding at Eldred’s swollen face.
The woman stumbling behind was in even worse shape. Tall and strong-limbed, she nevertheless staggered weakly, blood encrusting her face above the filthy blanket she clutched about herself.
Breron scowled, “It could have been handled better.” He motioned to Jarn to put the woman with the others. “Fortunately she’ll have time to heal a bit before Arnac sees her.”
The fat man turned his attention to the nearest pile of blankets at his feet, “Hey, Dener!”, he gave them a none too gentle kick, and was rewarded with a muffled complaint. “Breron’s back. Get up, it’s your turn to make breakfast.”
Rinn sagged to the ground, and laid her pounding skull on her knees. Body and mind exhausted with sorrow and cold, she paid no heed when the man fastened her to the others by the rope about her neck. Only when he nudged her shoulder with a leathern bottle did she raise her head, accepting the water wordlessly.
After a time the throbbing eased a little and she looked about her. The other slaves muttered uneasily as she passed her disfigured gaze over them, one of the women flickering her fingers involuntarily against ill-luck. The oldest boy stared at her with naked curiosity but when she tried a smile, he sneered and spat in her direction. She turned away silently with long-practiced disinterest, and looked listlessly at the rest of the camp. Her captors numbered half a dozen all told, clustered eagerly about the fire, talking and joking as the smell of porridge filled the air. To her right two small ponies cropped the rough forage, their warm breath whitening in the cold air. She watched their contented grazing for a time, the soft sound of tearing grass at once soothing in its familiarity, and agonising in its evocation of all she had lost. She drew the sorrow about her like a cloak against the hard world, barely noticing when one of the slavers thrust a hunk of bread into her slack hands.
“Eat,” he commanded, his accent thick, “and rest while you can, we move out in an hour or two.”
She felt no hunger, but numbly began to pick off dry morsels and chew them habitually, knowing she would need strength to face what was to come. Her gaze wandered among her captors, marking easily the blond hair of her enemy, and she felt her sorrow begin the slow distillation to hate. Finishing her bread, she wrapped her blanket tightly about her, turned her back to the other slaves, and lay down on the cold, hard ground to snatch what sleep she could.
* * *
“Hurry it up!” Breron cracked his whip threateningly amongst the trudging slaves, cursing them for their slowness. Three days on the move and they were still in the foothills of these wretched mountains. They needed to make the Old South Road by the week’s end or Arnac would dock his pay. His temper was growing fouler by the hour and even the purchase of a couple of fine girls earlier in the day had done little to sweeten it. Most of the acquisitions were a pretty poor lot but a couple were strong enough to make good field hands, and some of the females might make passable house slaves. As for the rest, well there were customers in Isengard who weren’t too fussy.
“Eldred!” he bellowed at the young man dawdling beside the women, “Stop idling and get them moving! We’ve to be at Carbeck Wood by sundown, and any laggard will get more than just a taste of my whip.”
Eldred smirked at the girl beside him, “Don’t mind him, he’s all bark and no bite.”
“I’ll show you bite,” Breron’s voice was low, threatening and suddenly at Eldred’s shoulder, “if you don’t get the pace picked up! And don’t bother eyeing up any of these wenches,” he waved his whip handle towards the girls, “they’re a privilege you haven’t earned.”
He stalked off to the head of the column leaving the younger man seething in his wake.
“Goat-monger,” Eldred muttered sullenly to himself before turning his attention back to the slaves. “Come on you lot,” he snapped, “get moving.” He pushed angrily at the girl he had been dallying with, causing her to stumble. Jerking on her rope she pulled the man behind her off balance, he lurched forward with a cry and within seconds half the troop were sprawled in the dirt.
“You useless herd of lice-ridden filth!” Eldred cursed the slaves as he cast a hasty eye towards Breron’s back. “Get to your feet, lazy scum!” He pulled fiercely at the yoke of the nearest peasant, resentment turning to rage at their pathetic whining. “Stand up, I said!” he snarled, dragging a girl up by the hair and kicking viciously at the nearest body. Ribs impacted satisfyingly against his boot as the slave scrambled to his feet. He moved to aim a kick at the next filthy wool-swathed creature, and found himself looking down into the scarred face of the sheep woman. His anger flared hot at the naked defiance in her mismatched eyes.
“Get up, you miserable waste of breath!” he snarled, disgusted by her.
She rose obediently to her feet but her heavy stare was laden with insolence and rebellion. She muttered under her breath at him, the savage gibberish of the hill-folk, and her mouth twisted in her ravaged face. Her right eye betrayed her, the flicker of intention narrowing it just as she lunged. He flung back as she sprang at him, her bound hands raking for his face, her face contorted with hate as she spat at him. Knocking her outstretched arms aside with one blow, he snatched at the rope about her neck, hauling on it while she choked and thrashed. When he released her, she sank to her knees gasping.
“I said,” he hissed, hammering her sideways with a fist, “to get up.” Stupid, dull heifer. Rage and repugnance seethed in him as he hit her again, then dragged her to her feet where she stood swaying and cowed.
He looked around at the rest of the sheep, watching large-eyed. “Get bloody moving,” he commanded, “unless you want some of the same.”
Everything about this land was unfamiliar. The air was heavy and thick, the ground flat and the sky far away. Behind, the mountain that had been her home diminished every day, and she felt naked without it at her back. The birds and animals of the forest were new to her, even the trees themselves were strange. Rinn shivered as she looked at them, looming about the camp, thickset and gnarled, their naked branches obscene against the moonlit sky. She curled deeper into her blanket, but could find neither comfort from the cold, nor respite from the misery surrounding her. Her neck and wrists stung in the chill air, raked raw by her rough bonds, while her feet and ankles burned with the touch of icy iron. Close by a child whimpered for its mother and someone else groaned in pain, while from beside the fire the grunts of a man were underpinned by the stifled sobs of a young woman.
The Westron Eldred was on watch, seated resentfully at the fire, poking at it angrily, his rancour palpable. As the muffled sounds of his neighbour increased their tempo, the blond man threw off his blanket disgustedly and rose to his feet. With a muttered curse he made his way to the edge of the camp where he pissed loudly into the carpet of leaves.
As he finished he walked idly over to the slaves. Rinn, alert to his every step, marked his approach, readying her wrath should he falter. He stopped with a start as he realised she was watching him, and his face twisted into a sneer as he aimed a kick. The accompanying words were unintelligible to her, but the disgust in them was familiar enough.
Loosing her pain into anger, she hissed her hate at him, goading him to approach. He drew back his foot to deal her another, but a noise from beside the fire distracted him. Spitting contempt at her, he returned to his companions.
Rinn’s bound hands clenched in useless frustration and her eyes burned with the bitterness in her heart. She ground her fists into the dry litter of the forest floor in an attempt to stem the gall that choked in her throat.
“Are you hurt?” the soft, faintly gravely voice of a woman came out of the darkness behind her.
Rinn snatched about in surprise to see one of the newcomers who had joined them that morning.
“I’m Meg,” the woman crept closer, careful not to wake her bond-fellows. She was older, past child-bearing, but her dark-eyed beauty was only faded not spent. Her clothes were similar, fine and well tended, but having seen better days. She nodded in the direction of the fire, “Has he injured you?”
Rinn glared at her suspiciously, “Why do you care?”
The woman shrugged in her warm cloak, “I don’t particularly,” she settled down nearby, “but I like to talk before I sleep, and you’re the only one who’s awake.”
“Yes,” Rinn’s reply was acidly curt, “he has injured me.”
“You angered him.” It was a statement.
“I wished to kill him,” Rinn growled.
“Because of a kick or two? Don’t be such a fool.”
“No,” Rinn’s voice was filled with darkness, “because he killed my dogs.”
“Ah,” Meg softened a little, “So you did not come willingly?”
“Willingly?” Rinn was incredulous, “Why would anyone ever come willingly?”
“It might be better than staying where they were.”
Rinn stared in disbelief, “This,” she gestured about her, “This is better?” She lifted her bound hands, “This?”
“Better than starving, better than being a slave in a household where one is hated,” it was Meg’s turn to be bitter.
“You were a slave before?”
“I have been a slave all my life,” the reply was serene, “I was born into it, and no doubt I shall die the same way.”
Rinn raised her head defiantly, “I was free born. I did not come willingly.”
“So I see,” Meg’s mouth quirked at the corners, “and yet, here you are. More a slave than I’ll ever be.”
Rinn’s right eye flashed while her left slid beneath its murky shadow in mute support.
“There’s an art to being slave,” Meg shifted her position to become more comfortable, “and if you can master it, you can have comfort, wealth, power…and even love.”
Rinn looked at her doubtfully, “Did you have those things?”
“I did,” the woman smiled slightly.
Rinn gave a sniff of derision, “You don’t have them now.”
“That is true,” a touch of sadness frayed the composure.
“How did you come to lose them?”
“That, my friend,” the woman yawned, “is a story for another night.”
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.