The half-Uruk took the rough terrain, grumbling to himself as he did. From time to time his brisk pace and the treacherous gravel underfoot combined to spill him painfully on his hands and knees, but his tough frame was able to take the punishment. Bird twitter filled the air, and rays of sunlight cut through the green boughs overhead. Motes of dust danced in their columnar pathways, merrily oblivious to the large Orc's irritation.
Kurbag was unusual among Orcs of both races in one respect—he had a strong capacity for aesthetic appreciation. For example, he recognized that the glimmering late afternoon, with its color schematics of green and gold, was beautiful. Ordinarily, he would even have found it pleasant to look upon. However, at the moment he didn't really care about admiring it. There were other things that he would much prefer to be doing with his time, and he could think of one in particular that didn't involve tree gazing. Still, though flitting images of blue eyes and smooth pale limbs might beg to ply their dreamy influence, he kept his attention on the task at hand, casting a glance up through the verdant greenery overhead whenever there chanced to be a break in cover.
A squirrel began chattering somewhere. Kurbag gritted his teeth. He had only just left behind another squirrel that had followed him for some distance, scolding this tall intruder for daring trespass on its woodsy domain. Kurbag wondered if this wasn't the same squirrel. If it was, the little bastard had been following him for nearly half a mile now.
Abruptly, the half-Uruk stooped and picked up a large rock, tossing it up and down in his hand. "Hel-lo-oh….Where are you, little friend?" he called softly, his thin lips widening in a sinister smile. "Come out, come out, wherever you are…."
The words were greeted by silence. However, it was not the silence typically greeting such an interruption—rather, it was the deafening silence of everything within hearing distance holding its breath. It was silence of a kind that Kurbag had learned to recognize and treat as the ominous sign it was. He quickly dropped to his belly—
—and not only saw but felt the tremendous shadow pass over him. Looking up, he had a bare split second to register dark wingtips before the patch of blue was once again placidly vacant.
A good twenty feet overhead, and no evidence it had noticed him. Nonetheless, his brain continued hammering out panicked obscenities. Kurbag exhaled slowly. Forcing himself to rise, he knocked pine needles from his arms and continued walking.
The next time the big shadow passed he was watching. He also saw what it left in its wake. Actually, he was lucky he wasn't hit by it, as a bucket's worth of guano spattered the forest floor for the length of several yards ahead of him.
Kurbag's comment was accurate, if not particularly original.
"Aw, I don't know what you're talking about."
"Fuck that, y'little pervert, I saw you slip it behind yer back!"
"I'd like to see you prove it, old One-Ear."
"Don' think I'll take that shit off've you! Hand it over or I'll—"
Grushak hovered grudgingly at the edges of wakefulness. With his keen senses of hearing and smell, he could come to an instant alert in the event of danger or threat. Without immediate confrontation, though, he was reluctant to leave off his sluggardly dozing.
Then someone fell against him heavily, and that changed.
"Oi!" Grushak bellowed, surging to his feet, "gerroff, you!"
Shrah'rar yelped as he tumbled away. Grushak towered over him, teeth bared angrily. "I didn't mean to, he pushed me!" the small Orc exclaimed. His eyes widened and he ducked, narrowly avoiding Grushak's fist.
The swipe had been a cursory one. Grushak swung around to see the target of Shrah'rar's accusation. Rukshash swayed a little on his feet, betraying his intoxication, his good eye a slit of rage. "Out've my way, Grushak," he said in a slurred snarl. "He's b'n cheatin' me this entire game, and if he won' give it to me in silver I'll take it out've his hide. You tell 'im, Pryszrim…you tell 'im what the little goiter owes me."
"Um, well, I, uh…"
"Feh! You're useless," Rukshash dismissed the stammering Pryszrim with disgust. "I ain' lived this long to put up with yer crap, you miserable goatsuck," he growled, turning on Shrah'rar in a threatening manner.
Shrah'rar darted behind Grushak. The larger Orc grunted and kicked him away but put up a hand to forestall Rukshash. Though ugly of temper as any of them, he had long realized that sometimes conciliation was in the best interest of the band. "Hold, friend. Why break a sweat over it? He's not worth the effort."
Shrah'rar heaved a shameless sigh of relief.
Grushak smirked. "Easier to wait and slit his throat while he's sleeping."
"Yes, easier to—Hah! Hah! Hah! Oh, you are so funny, Grushak! Yes, very funny!" Shrah'rar laughed weakly.
Rukshash's upper lip was still curled, and Grushak wondered if he would have to turn Shrah'rar upside down and shake loose any items on his person to satisfy the older Orc. The prospect wasn't uninviting. Fortunately, or not so fortunately, Rukshash finally muttered something incomprehensible and sat down again, taking up his drinking skin again and swigging sullenly.
Blows avoided for the moment, Grushak yawned and stretched. He squinted up through the branches of the tree they were under, noting the late afternoon hour. Unable to sleep any longer, he glanced at the overturned dice board and dismissed it, not being of a mood for abstraction. Scratching one shoulder, he happened to notice Squeaker's companion beside the fire. The man-brat's eyes were fixed on him. Grushak pretended to ignore her, sauntering the circumference of trees and looking up at the sky as though marking the progression of the sun's slow circuit overhead. He could feel her stare boring into his back.
Yes, watch me, little rabbit. Let's draw this out, shall we? He touched the scratch on the back of his hand and smiled grimly.
"He's awake," muttered Maevyn.
Maevyn clearly wasn't listening. She crouched, hunched over, at the Elf girl's side, watching the big Orc talking with the others. Strands of dark hair fell over her eyes, but she seemed unaware of them.
"Do not attract his attention," said Eleluleniel quietly.
Maevyn made an odd sound in the back of her throat. Fresh scabbing cracked as she rubbed the rawness of her wrists against her knees. She watched Grushak as he resolved the other Orcs' quarrel and crossed to the other side of camp.
The Elf sighed. "The bread is finished," she said, resigned to the fact that Maevyn was paying her no heed. So long as the girl didn't try anything impulsive, she supposed there was nothing more she could do. Eleluleniel had quickly discovered that her new friend had a stubborn streak. Too many cautions, too many imperatives and Maevyn might do something foolish out of pure childish rebellion. These men, thought Eleluleniel despairingly. It is as Father said, they have the lives of moths—already brief, fluttering ever nigh the flickering flame.
The sound of stirring in the underbrush many yards behind broke into her reverie. She cocked her head briefly to decipher what she was hearing, then went on with drawing the little loaves out of the chamber of heated stones. Kurbag's heavy tread was readily recognizable to her. Maevyn, with her weaker human ears, did not hear the half-Uruk's approach until he was closer. Breaking her fixed gaze at Grushak, she looked over her shoulder. Her eyes widened. Eleluleniel continued with the task at hand. Mentally she prepared herself for Kurbag to stop, but he passed them by, heading straight for where Bragdagash was sitting, leaning in to speak with him.
Well, of course. He would want to make his report before anything else. She relaxed a little.
"Who's that?" asked Maevyn, sidling nearer her. "I saw him last night."
"That is Kurbag. I believe Bragdagash sent him to do something earlier. He must have just returned."
Maevyn studied the large Orc. He was tall, with dark gray skin that almost verged on bluish—a flint-colored complexion. He wore his black hair in a long ponytail like Hraghragh's but, unlike Hraghragh, was fully clad in ashen gray and black leathers, with plates of rusty metal crudely appended here and there in a half-hearted attempt at armor. Kurbag was gesturing to an object of some sort that he held in his hand, which Bragdagash took from him in a somewhat delicate manner and peered at with obvious satisfaction. He looked up, nodding and saying something in a pleased rumble. Kurbag, looking smug, scratched the side of his neck as he turned and headed over to join Grushak.
"I wonder what that was about," said Maevyn.
"I think he was doing some scouting on Bragdagash's orders," said Eleluleniel. "What, I do not know."
"Kurbag. You didn't mention his name earlier, with the others." Maevyn cocked her head. "He's the one you talked about yesterday. You said he's the one who wanted to keep you."
"Oh. Yes." Eleluleniel went very quiet. "I would rather not speak of that right now, Maevyn." Avoiding Maevyn's eye, she proffered a little loaf of the bread. "Here. Eat this."
The girl took the little loaf, looking at Eleluleniel curiously. The ploy with the bread was an obvious one but, probably remembering how the Elf had snapped at her before when she asked too many questions, Maevyn did not try to ask any now. As she was about to bite into the bread, though, a clawed hand snatched it out of hers.
"Bread!" Pryszrim crowed, and stuffed it into his mouth. His left cheek bulged obnoxiously as his eyes glazed over in evident bliss. Maevyn gave him a surprised and resentful look. The Orc ignored it, saying in a stuffy voice through his mouthful, "Garrummore, Squeaker?" Eleluleniel sighed and offered him four of the loaves, which he snatched in characteristically thankless Orkish fashion, making off for the shelter of the trees.
"I hate him," muttered Maevyn.
Eleluleniel was surprised. Pryszrim was no prize, and she didn't expect Maevyn to like any of the Orcs, but he wasn't the worst of the lot by any means.
Maevyn, without being asked, expanded: "He practically drowned me yesterday." Suddenly she squirmed, glancing around uncomfortably. "Leni," she whispered, "I can't hold it anymore."
"I have to pee."
The Elf blinked. "Oh." Understanding Maevyn's dilemma—and amazed that she had managed to abstain for so long! certainly she had realized the girl was strongwilled, but this was proof extraordinary!—Eleluleniel looked in the direction of the Orcs. For herself, she had been in their company long enough that old dismay and embarrassment had long given way to numbed necessity. Eventually Maevyn would have to reach that point on her own, but far be it from the older girl to force her early. She turned and inclined her head gracefully in the direction of the pine trees beyond their bedding of the night before. "I will take you to those trees over there. They will not bother you if they see me go with you." They know I will not let you do anything foolish.
Maevyn gave her a grateful look. She got rather awkwardly to her feet, and Eleluleniel, likewise rising, was irritated with herself that she hadn't asked Maevyn whether she had needed to go before. Many years of experience as an older sister should have made that second nature. Guilty half-memories of similar occasions with her little sister, when Veisiliel had been even littler than Maevyn, prompted her to reach for the younger girl's hand to lead her.
Maevyn pulled away, annoyed. "What are you doing that for? I'm not a child!"
Eleluleniel, unable to repress a smile at this, turned her face away so that Maevyn wouldn't see. "Come you," she said, walking to the edge of the pines, far enough from where they were sleeping that there would be no problem. "I will stand guard."
"As long as you don't watch," Maevyn grumbled, pushing into the deciduous skirts of piney green tree boughs.
Still smiling, Eleluleniel turned her back on Maevyn…and saw Nazluk watching her from across camp. Her smile faded, and she looked back at him timidly for a few brief seconds before dropping her gaze. Studying the needle-strewn forest floor, she wondered what it was that he was thinking.
Nazluk, as it so happened, was irritated. He snorted. "Did you see that?"
"Damned Elf accompanying Grushak's bint." His upper lip curled unpleasantly.
Grymawk looked at where Squeaker was standing near the trees, where the little tark brat was doing her business. He looked back at Nazluk and shrugged. "So?"
Nazluk rolled his mismatched eyes. Sometimes he thought he was surrounded by fools. Didn't anyone else recognize the danger represented by the Elven bitch? The very fact that they tolerated her among them showed how far they had been compromised. She could hold them back on their push North while Kurbag made his little considerations for her. Seeing that she had water, weak Elves being quicker to thirst than proper Orcs. Wasting his time and attentions on her. Nazluk did not understand the half-Uruk's preoccupation with her. Was it a question of novelty? She had been a novelty of sorts, yes, but three months was a long time for any novelty. Surely she would be of better use eaten than holding them back.
The fact that the Elf had been of little tangible inconvenience to them thus far was no matter to Nazluk. It was the principle of the thing. And her merest action, her slightest movement, the movement of her eyelids as she blinked, the flickering pulse of her throat with her breathing—these aggravated him to no end. That his fixation on the Elf was every bit as obsessive as he accused Kurbag of being did not trouble Nazluk. Orcs are not known for temperance. Where Nazluk loathed, he loathed immoderately.
Certain factors, however, constrained the full expression of his resentment, and so he cast for another outlet for his frustrations. A roar of laughter caught his attention. He cast his baleful stare in the direction of Grushak and Kurbag, narrowing his eyes. Grushak was the culprit, still guffawing loudly, while Kurbag smirked in evident amusement of his own. Nazluk glared, resentful of their good humor.
It was Shrah'rar, though, who actually asked out loud what Nazluk was silently wondering. "Oi, you big fuckers. What the fuck are you laughing about?
Kurbag grinned at him. "Oi yourself, little fucker. We're laughing because your buddy Grymawk is fucked!"
"Eh?" Grymawk, interrupted twice in as many minutes, looked up from his fletching again. "How do I come into this?"
"I've already spoken to Braggy. Ask him, why don't you?" The half-Uruk chuckled. "My suggestion to you is, eat up tonight, 'cause you're not gonna be wanting any breakfast on the morrow!"
Grymawk looked pained. "No! It involves climbing, doesn't it? I hate climbing!"
"And just what has our favorite half-Uruk been up to, anyway?" Nazluk queried dryly.
"Why, as it so happens, I sent him on a little expedition," Bragdagash said, joining in. "You were right, Grymawk. Wing folk in the mountains. Isn't that so, Kurbag?" He held up a curiously white and glistening rock, turning it this way and that. "Eagle scat. Freshly shat, too." Suddenly, without warning, he tossed the rock in Grymawk's direction. "Catch!"
Grymawk, acting reflexively, dropped the bolt he was holding to catch the rock. There was a moist chunk sound as it made contact with his hands. He swore and dropped the rock, breaking the quarrel in the process, while the others laughed.
"There now," said Bragdagash, teeth bared in a grin. "You've got the best nose for this sort of thing, Tracker. Tell us what you think, eh?"
Irritated at the loss of a good quarrel and wrinkling his nose, Grymawk sniffed the revolting stuff on his hands distastefully. He blinked and examined it with new interest. Hesitantly he licked his lips, then flicked out his tongue to sample briefly. Contrary to revulsion or even further merriment at this action, the laughter died down as the others waited in semi-seriousness on his judgment. Even Hraghragh, who had been holding back to enjoy the last of the sun before its setting, drew near with curiosity. Grymawk sucked in his cheeks, turning his eyes upward in thought. Then he smiled slowly. "Female. Just brooded…."
"Eggs," breathed Pryszrim unnecessarily.
"Yeah. That's right," said Bragdagash, looking around his band of Orcs and Uruk-hai with lazy satisfaction. "And what do you suppose fertile eagles' eggs are fetching up North, my lads?"
"Oh aye, we'll be drownin' in tokens," said old Rukshash sourly from his beer skin. "But who's gonna be shimmyin' his sorry ass up to get them, I'm wonderin'?"
Grymawk's face fell as the others eyed him. "Oh no."
"Oh yes!" Kurbag clapped him on the back, nearly knocking the small Orc over. "Don't worry there, Grymawk, we'll watch your back."
"Sure. You'll have first dibs on the liver as well," said Bragdagash. "That'll cure what ails you. They say an eagle's vigor lies not in his heart but in his liver."
"Foe to the feather folk!"
"Braver of the high sharp rocky places!"
The mocking cries were going up among all of the bigger Orcs, while Grymawk himself stood, a diminutive and rather forlorn figure in their midst. "I'm so honored," he muttered sardonically, looking as though he was going to be sick.
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.