10. More than Rations
At midday they came across a brook where water bubbled over smooth black stones. Here they made a peremptory halt, Nazluk pushing the Elf down roughly onto the mossy bank. "Move and I'll gut you." She shrank from his raised hand. Satisfied that she wasn't going to budge, he knelt beside the brook and set about filling his and Kurbag's empty drinking skins.
Kurbag, for his part, got down on his belly and put his mouth to the cold clear water. It was good to drink as much as he wanted. After his thirst had been appeased he splashed more against his face and throat and stood, wiping at it with the back of one hand.
When he turned around the Elf girl was keeping very still. Probably to avoid antagonizing Nazluk, and very sensible of her too. Walking in front as he had, Kurbag had grown tired of listening to the tedious stream of Nazluk's abuse. He picked up one of the skins the other Orc had filled, holding it out to her, and she took it with a quiet word of thanks. Kurbag shrugged noncommittally. Orcs aren't much for politeness and he wasn't used to this constant please-and-thank-you business. Then:
"You are Kurbag?" she asked suddenly, quickly, like she'd been gearing herself up for it. Seeing how he stared at her, she faltered, "It is only…I heard him call you that."
He glanced at Nazluk and was rewarded by the sight of the other Orc's back gone stiff and still. "Yeah."
"Oh. Oh good. I did not know if…I mean…"
She stopped short and Kurbag, bemused, watched as the fingers of her slender hands twined anxiously in her lap. "If what?" he prompted.
"…if you had names." It was not a lie, though it was not wholly true. She had vague memories of the long animosity between the Dwarves and the Orcs of Hithaeglir. The Orc leaders had had names, she was sure of it, though she could not remember what they were. Nevhithien would have remembered. Nevhithien always knew such things.
"Of course we have names," said Kurbag. "What would we call each other if we didn't?"
"I can think of a few things," muttered Nazluk darkly.
Kurbag ignored him, studying the Elf. "What's yours then?"
She had been preparing herself for this question. She had been readying herself ever since he untied her hands. He had given her water and had untied her when she asked him, and in her mind she had built on this. He is open to persuasion. He is not wholly cruel. If she talked with him, if she got him to talk with her, perhaps she could convince him to set her free. And so when he asked for her name she gave it.
Kurbag cocked his head. "…huh," he said at last. And thought, Long fucking name.
"Skai," said Nazluk with contempt, "will you waste time with foolish chatter? I'd just as rather be moving again if that's your plan." He said it to Kurbag but he glared at Eleluleniel. Kurbag might buy this pathetic act, but Nazluk was no fool. Don't think I don't know what you're up to, you snaga twat…
"Not before I take a leak," said Kurbag. He looked down at the Elf. He had already forgotten her name. "You gotta piss?" She cringed but nodded and he took her arm. "Come on then," he said, pulling her up and after him into the trees.
She was actually feeling pain from restraining herself; nonetheless she was reluctant to go with him anywhere and her feet dragged as she followed. The Orc did not even notice, pulling her along until he came to a likely tree. "Stand there," he said, pushing her to one side. As he unfastened his breeches she shut her eyes tightly, and when he started she wanted to cover her ears. It seemed to take a long time.
Kurbag shook himself dry afterwards and did up his laces. The Elf girl was just standing there, stiff as a post. "Come on then, I thought you had to go. Never miss the chance to piss." He grinned a little at the way it rhymed in Westron.
"I…we need privacy for that," she said faintly as she opened her eyes.
"Privacy." There was a blank expression on his face. She gathered up her courage. "Please do not look at me, during. I will be quick. I promise."
He stared at her, and she felt her face grow hot. Then he folded his arms across his chest and leaned his shoulder against the tree, lifting his eyes deliberately to the leaves overhead. It was a small concession, but it was clearly all he was going to give her. Biting her lower lip, she crouched down carefully.
Privacy? The fuck? Kurbag was thinking. What is that, Elf logic? He was only inches from her. He could hear her, he could smell her, why should averting his eyes make a difference? Lowering them again, he could not see anything for the way she held her dress over her knees. The image was compelling, though: her pale hair, and her slender shoulders, and the gentle curve of her back. She looked small at that moment, vulnerable and fey. As she finished she raised her own eyes to find him looking down at her. She blanched and quickly pulled her dress down around her ankles again.
"Done?" he asked, though it was obvious she was. He caught her shoulder. "Then come on before we get bitched at."
Of course Nazluk bitched anyway. "What took you so long?" he demanded as they rejoined him. "Bloody fuck. From the time you were taking I was starting to think you must be balling her again."
He might as well have hit her from the reaction he got: her face went completely white. Kurbag only snorted. "Come off it, Nazluk, eh? I thought you said you wanted to get moving." He rubbed his forehead with a sigh. "Oh, and you can take the lead for a while. All that jawing of yours is giving me a headache."
"Fine by me," Nazluk muttered, casting his eyes upward. It was more than time for Kurbag to take up the rear, and at least now Nazluk wouldn't have to stare at the Elf girl's stupid back for a while. But as they walked he heard fragments of low exchange behind him from time to time: Kurbag's rougher, deeper register, followed by the hesitant soft girl-voice of the Elf. It set his teeth on edge.
Fucking Golug. Fucking half-Uruk bastard. I don't like it: she should be dead. There's something funny about it, something queer about her.
I don't like it.
Eleluleniel did not know why she was still alive. The only explanation she could come up with was that she was being protected in some way: that some unknown agency had intervened on her behalf. She had called on Elbereth in her terror. Maybe Elbereth had answered. Yet, if the Valar had aided her, why had they allowed her to be hurt, and why did she remain with the ones who had hurt her?
She did not know what to think. She only knew that she was alive and that she was in a dangerous position. Her captors were Orcs, violent and unpredictable. Nazluk seemed especially vicious, ruled entirely by malice, but Kurbag had violated her. The thought of ingratiating herself with him was appalling, but he was clearly the more reasonable of the two and she did not know what else to do. Maybe if she kept talking to him she could establish a rapport with him, appeal to his better nature. It might be madness to think of Orcs having a better nature, but she had to try.
Asking his name and sharing hers had been the right instinct. It made Kurbag talkative. As they walked he asked her questions and she did her best to answer. If the situation had been otherwise, if the one asking had been anybody else, she would have been tempted to laugh at them. Instead she had to respond seriously to questions like, "Why don't you wear green? I thought all Elves wear green," and whether it was true they talked to animals.
"I talk to our horses sometimes," she said, not understanding. Many were the hours she had spent in Tálagor's stall or with Níthir, Nevhithien's mare. "I bring them an apple or a carrot."
"What do they say?" asked Kurbag. It took her a moment to realize he was serious.
Kurbag's knowledge of her kind was culled from what he'd heard from others, a lifetime of smutty jokes and cautionary tales, envy and superstition. It was occasionally leavened by accounts of real tangles with Elves, but these were often even less reliable, full of boasting and exaggeration. Because of this his ideas were fragmented and contradictory, and he had sense enough to know that at least a few of them were false.
Well, there's another down, he thought as she dispelled old notions of green-clad Elves exchanging conversation with large-eyed woodland creatures. If anything he was relieved. Creepy image, that.
Another creepy thing he'd heard: Elves lived forever…and this, she said, was true. "Now how is that possible?" asked Kurbag skeptically. "You'd be overrunning the place by now—and anyway, I know our lot has offed a shitload of yours."
Her slender back hunched forward a little. "We are immortal, yes, but not invulnerable. We do not die of natural causes, but we can be hurt." As she said it she looked back at him over one shoulder, a searching look on her face.
Kurbag was still busy thinking about Elven immortality. "I don't buy it," he said. "A really long time, maybe. But forever is a long way off. How can you know your folk live forever when forever hasn't come?"
"You know what I've heard about Elves?" asked Nazluk without changing his pace.
"What's that?" asked Kurbag.
Kurbag guffawed at this, and Nazluk laughed also: harsh unkind laughter. He did not turn his head, but Eleluleniel knew the cruel look in his eyes as surely as if he had. She did not let hersef flinch: instead she looked back at Kurbag again. Ask it, the words came into her head. Ask him now. "Does it please you to hurt others?"
He was still laughing at little at Nazluk's joke and didn't really hear what she said. "Mm?"
"You asked about my kind. It is what I have heard about yours. Do…do you like hurting others? Do you take pleasure in killing?"
He looked at her, head canting to one side. His tongue played over his teeth. It wasn't something he had thought about before, and he answered without guilt or guile. "Sure, I like it well enough. It's something that I'm good at."
Kurbag's casual honesty was as horrifying as the sense of what he said. "Good at?"
"Well yeah. I have to be, don't I? Kill to eat, kill to win. It's kill or be killed in this world. Nothing your lot don't already know."
Stricken, she faced forward again, staring at Nazluk's back. "My kind takes no pleasure in killing," she said softly.
"No?" Kurbag was surprised. "Maybe they're doing it wrong."
Eleluleniel's fingers moved over the dark mark on her hand as if it would protect her.
"I mean, you need to do it to survive. Better to be good at it, to enjoy it. Otherwise you'll just hold back, and that can get you dead."
This was a philosophy like none she had ever encountered before, and it both frightened and bewildered her. She caught at the one thing that made sense. "Then you…you kill in order to protect yourself?"
He shrugged. "Or if I'm pissed off."
She could think of nothing to say to this. At that moment she had some sense of the chasm that gaped between his sensibilities and hers. She wondered in dismay how she could ever hope to bridge that.
Kurbag waited for the Elf to say something more. On an unconscious level he liked it when she spoke, liked the sound of her voice. When she didn't, though, he wasn't bothered by her silence. Just looking at her was nice too. His eyes idled comfortably on her slender frame.
Just then Nazluk stopped up ahead. "Hah," he said with sudden intensity.
"What?" Nazluk held up his hand sharply and Kurbag shut up, pushing past the Elf to stand behind the other Orc instead. Listening, he heard gravelly voices, faint but unmistakable to his keen ears.
"You hear them?"
He asked it in Orkish and Kurbag responded in kind. "Yeah. But they're not our band."
"They're coming this way. I'd say about…two minutes." Nazluk's eyes narrowed in thought. "Give me the sack." They'd divvied up much of the swag they'd taken the previous day, but what they hadn't yet was in the sack Kurbag carried, along with the salt pork and beef. Kurbag passed it to him and Nazluk quickly slung it over his shoulder and trekked off into the undergrowth.
He was gone just long enough to get Kurbag nervous. When he returned his hands were empty and he gave the half-Uruk a quick nod as he took up a position next to him. Behind them the Elf was keeping very still, either infected by their tension or because she too had heard the approaching band. Nazluk ignored her, saying to Kurbag in a low voice, "Just keep your head, yes? This doesn't have to be a problem," as the other Orcs came into view.
The foremost Uruk, laughing at something one of his fellows had said, didn't see them at first. When he did he made a startled exclamation. In short order Kurbag and Nazluk found themselves hemmed in, five Uruk-hai behind and on either side, while the rest of the band faced them front on. Kurbag looked around with hooded eyes, his stance mildly defensive. Nazluk, meanwhile, was noticing that the band consisted entirely of Uruk-hai, with no regular Orcs to speak of. Shit, he thought, though he tried not to betray his misgivings.
A large Uruk carrying a battleaxe stepped forward. From his authoritative manner and the deference of the others, it was clear he was their leader. "Well now, this is unexpected. A little out of your way, lads?"
"Maybe a little," said Nazluk. "We were separated from our band."
The Uruk didn't look at him. His eyes were fixed on Kurbag. "Yeah," said Kurbag warily.
Outwardly Nazluk didn't respond to the snub. Inwardly, he bristled. Bastard, he thought. Damn Uruk bastard… but he forgot his anger at what the Uruk said next.
"You wouldn't happen to be Bragdagash's strays, would you?"
Kurbag's shoulders straightened. "Bragdagash? You've seen Bragdagash?"
The Uruk nodded and gestured to the others in his party. "Dushgar. This lot are under me. You Molurtz or Kurbag?"
"Kurbag," he said, relaxing more, "and Nazluk. Molurtz didn't make it."
"Your chief thought the same of you." Dushgar grinned, exposing jagged yellow teeth. "Hear you boys had a problem with some Elves."
"More like they had a problem with us." Kurbag felt like he could afford a joke at this point, even if it wasn't very clever. "We didn't know they were there."
"And what's that then?" Dushgar nodded in the direction of the Elf girl.
Kurbag started to open his mouth. "Rations," Nazluk interjected sharply.
Dushgar actually laughed at this. "Rations, eh?" He walked toward them.
Eleluleniel shrank a little as the large Orc approached. His eyes were on her, red and dark and shining as blood welled from a freshly pricked finger. He didn't seem to have pupils. She wanted to back away but was too keenly aware of the other Orcs behind her. Instead she moved closer to Kurbag, fixing her gaze on his heels so she wouldn't see those amused red eyes looking down at her.
"More than rations from the smell of it," Dushgar said with a low chuckle, which was echoed by several of the Orcs in his party.
"Yes, well," said Nazluk, tired of the small talk. "Where was it you saw Bragdagash again?"
"You know, I don't believe I said," said Dushgar, nonchalantly running his thumb along the edge of his battleaxe. "Want to find him, do you?" He addressed the question to Kurbag, who maintained a silence that could have been construed as stoicism. Actually, he was extremely discomfited. Dushgar was in his personal space, as was the axe. "You know, I don't entirely understand how this happened, your getting separated and all. A few little arrows flying out of the dark and you all fled with your tails between your legs, is that it? At least that's how it seemed when it was described. But maybe I'm being harsh. What do you think, Yargul?" he asked, stepping back toward his fellows.
The Uruk at Dushgar's right flank looked like he was enjoying himself. "I dunno, chief. Sounded pretty gutless to me."
"Chickenhearted, in my opinion," said the one on his left. "Running from a few pissant Elves? They're not so tough."
"You would have handled it differently, of course." The corner of Nazluk's mouth twisted as if he had bitten into something sour.
"Damn straight! We waylaid a bunch of them yesterday after leaving your lot. Easy as taking a shit! Next time they see Orcs they'll know better than to try anything, right chief?"
"Now now, let's not be too full of ourselves. After all, it looks like these fellows have had a few adventures in the meantime, eh? I'm wondering where they got the girl, and what else they might have picked up. You lads wouldn't object if we had a look at those packs you're carrying, would you?" asked Dushgar lazily.
Of course they wouldn't, and even if they had, what good would it have done? They watched while their packs were upended and the other band pawed over the stuff on the ground. As the shining treasures from the Elven household were confiscated, Kurbag tried to look on the bright side, thinking of the sack Nazluk had hidden. At least we still have that, he thought to himself, just as a faint breeze moved through the trees where they stood, carrying on it the faint smell of salt pork. Kurbag stiffened. Maybe he was just imagining things….
"Uftar, why don't you go see what that is?"
The lefthand Uruk grinned and trotted off in the direction that Nazluk had taken the sack. Fuck, thought Kurbag, and looked at Nazluk, who was standing with his arms folded tight across his chest, his wide thin lips pressed together. He glanced behind himself at the Elf and was actually startled by her proximity. He hadn't realized she'd come so close.
Uftar returned carrying the sack. He brought it straight to Dushgar, who opened it and looked within. "Well now. You were busy, weren't you."
He didn't seem annoyed at the attempted duplicity, just pleased at the discovery of more loot. Since there was nothing else to lose at this point, Kurbag decided to prevail on Dushgar's evident good humor. "How about our band then?"
"Just follow our trail back a ways, perhaps a day's journey. You should come to a deep gully with long overhanging tree roots on the other side. They were camped there—we met them in the morning hours. As for where they went after that, I have no idea." He closed the bag, shifting his attention to the other Orcs in his band. "All right you ugly bastards, fall in. We'll push on a little further."
"Hey chief," spoke up one of the Uruk-hai behind Kurbag, "what about her? She's not a bad little piece." He extended a clawed hand toward the Elf girl's shoulder.
"Don't be greedy, Bugrim. As generous as these lads have been with us, the least we can do is leave them their 'rations.' Besides, you'll only end up fighting over her."
"Aw…" Bugrim did not seem convinced but fell in with the other Uruk-hai anyway.
Dushgar himself lingered, hefting the sack with a genial smirk. "Well, this was a profitable encounter. Maybe we'll run into each other again some time. Say hello to Bragdagash for me, eh?" He laughed and turned away. Neither Kurbag nor Nazluk said anything as he fell in with the hindermost of his company, sack slung jauntily over one shoulder. They stood among the scattered remnants of their packs and watched the band of Uruk-hai until they were lost amid the trees.
"Those muscle-headed Uruk fuckstains."
Kurbag nodded agreement, watching as the fire cast twisting shadows through the dangling tree roots. They had come many miles since their run-in with the other band, and were camped in the gulley Dushgar had described to them. They had gotten that out of the encounter if nothing else: a sense at last of where they were going and a definite plan of action for getting there. Finding the remnants of their own band's fire and building one of their own was some small consolation for other frustrations.
Nazluk had had some creative things to say about Dushgar and his Uruk-hai once they were out of earshot, and he was still griping about it. Nazluk did that, dwelled on things, picked over them like a dog worrying a bone. Of course losing their spoils bothered Kurbag as well. Going to all that effort just for somebody else to reap the benefits was galling, and he said as much.
"Gah." Nazluk was a few years older than Kurbag and was used to sudden changes in fortune. He scowled into the heart of the fire. "It's their contempt that I can't stand," he said bitterly. "Their contempt and their bloody cock-certainty."
Kurbag gave him a look of disbelief. "How's that? Losing all that shiny stuff didn't mean anything to you? It certainly meant something to me."
Nazluk lifted his gaze to Kurbag, measuring him for a long moment. Then he put a hand to his left shoulder, sliding his claws under the ragged sleeve of his tunic and hiking it up. Kurbag's eyes, confused at first, widened as gold and silver flashed in the firelight and tiny jewels glittered. Nazluk let him have a good look. Before hiding their sack earlier he had taken the opportunity of grabbing the bracelets within and shoving them up his arm, as many as would go. It had not been easy. Nazluk's arms were wiry and lean—he would not have been able to do it otherwise—but forcing the rigid bands over the muscle of his upper arm had been painful. They dug into his flesh, his mottled gray skin bulging between and on either side of the beautiful Elven bracelets.
"Son of a bitch!" breathed Kurbag.
Sitting beside him, Eleluleniel looked at her mother's jewelry on the Orc's arm, then looked away.
"Those look tight, though. How are you gonna get 'em off?"
"You don't think they're pretty?" asked Nazluk dryly.
"On an ugly bastard like you?"
Both Orcs laughed but Nazluk was the first to stop, wincing as he tugged at one of the bracelets. "It's going to be difficult. I've had them on a while."
"You're lucky if you don't lose your arm. Let me see." He got up and came around the fire. Nazluk stiffened a little as the half-Uruk squatted next to him; Kurbag attributed this to the pain in his shoulder. "Oi! And you're always calling me a fool. Look at what you've done to yourself!" The constricted flesh was bruised and swollen. Orkish blood is hot by nature, but Nazluk's skin felt hotter than it should have under Kurbag's fingers. "Don't you snaga Orcs usually carry oil with you?"
"In my pack," said Nazluk sharply. "Just give it to me and I'll take care of it."
"You can try." Kurbag handed the pack to him with a skeptical expression. "Looks like a two-hander to me."
He was right, though it pained Nazluk to admit it. He was able to take his tunic off and smear the oil on his shoulder with no problem, but working one-handed with slick fingers did not make for a good grip. After a minute he let Kurbag take over. Kurbag had several advantages over him. He had a second hand available, for one thing, and he could afford to be rougher since it wasn't his shoulder. Nazluk hissed as Kurbag manipulated the outermost circlet of braided gold, twisting it around his shoulder like he was trying to unscrew something.
"Garn, Nazluk. You might have said something earlier and spared us this. There, I think it's loosening."
"The bracelet or my arm?" asked Nazluk through gritted teeth. He swore as Kurbag gave a jerk that popped it slickly over Nazluk's bicep.
"That's one," said Kurbag.
"Wonderful. He can count." Kurbag ignored Nazluk's sarcastic commentary, removing each bright band in a similar fashion. To Nazluk it seemed to take forever, but it was actually just a few minutes before eight Elven bracelets lay beside the fire.
"Well, that's the last of them," said Kurbag, rubbing his shoulder. "You're going to be stiff tomorrow, though."
It was tempting to remain like that, to let Kurbag continue kneading his hurt shoulder. "Tell me something I don't know," Nazluk muttered, pulling away. "You're keeping watch tonight, yes?"
"I said I would, didn't I."
"Hmm." Nazluk turned his gaze on the Elf sitting across the fire from them. "If you fuck her again keep it down. I haven't slept properly for two days." He said it in Westron—deliberately, so she would understand—and was rewarded with the sickening fear that flooded her face. Bloody abject terror, nothing willing about it. Last night, he thought, must have been some kind of fluke. This time she'd be dead come morning.
The other Orc had gone to sleep, or seemed to have done so, lying on his pallet with his back to the fire. Kurbag was sitting, turning one of her mother's bracelets over in his fingers. She recognized the piece. It was the plainest of the bracelets Nazluk had preserved, a simple band of silver, unadorned save for the circling inscription. He ran his thumb along the bright outer curve. "Is this just supposed to be pretty, or does it say something?"
"Le annon vîr 'lân, ar hen annal enni." He looked at her, waiting. "It says, 'I give you bright treasure, for you give such to me.'"
"You can read all that from over there, huh?"
Eleluleniel was silent. She could not see the inscription from where she was sitting. She knew the words by heart. Her father had given it to her mother when she was born.
Kurbag put the bracelet over his fingers, up to the barrier of his knuckles, as if he meant to put it on. He took it off again and stood, coming around the fire.
His gait was relaxed; nonetheless her limbs tightened. "Where is it you are going, you and Nazluk?" she asked, trying to cover her fear.
"We're looking to rejoin our band. That lot we met earlier gave us directions. Told us how to find them."
She hadn't known what was said during the encounter, which had made it all the more frightening. The common wisdom was that Orcs were as belligerent with each other as they were violent toward other races, and Kurbag and Nazluk's tension throughout had only lent credence to this. When nothing more sinister than robbery ensued she was relieved. The other Orcs had been large, and there had been many of them, and she had felt their eyes on her. As small as her chances of survival were, they would have been less than nothing if the other band had taken her.
That knowledge was not comforting at the moment. Kurbag was standing over her now. He hadn't made any move to touch her, though, so she kept speaking. "Your band? You have been separated? Is that why you were on our land? Was it because you were lost?" He sat down beside her, watching her. She felt the panic rising up inside and tried to quell it. If she kept speaking to him, if he spoke to her in turn, nothing would happen…
"Why are you talking so fast?"
His eyes were intent on her. If she lied he would see. "I am afraid," she whispered.
"I know. I can smell you."
She trembled. She could not help it. "Please do not hurt me." He raised a hand toward her and she jerked away, eyes wide. "No!"
He thought only to touch her hair, but her sudden movement triggered predatory reflexes. Quicker than she could evade him he caught her arm and pulled her toward him. She started to scream; he put his hand over her mouth but she continued to struggle, making sounds behind his hand like a frightened animal. "Stop that," he said. "I'm not hurting you." His words had no effect. Small as she was, the terror in her slender body was tremendous. It felt like she would beat herself to pieces in his arms. He pushed her down onto the ground, pinning her with his upper body. "You're not helping yourself. Do you want me to gag you? I'll bind your hands again if I must."
She stilled gradually, though he didn't know if the sense of what he said had penetrated or if she was simply exhausted. In the red glare of the firelight her eyes were creased with misery. Fresh tear tracks streaked her face. Kurbag waited another moment before taking his hand from her mouth. She was crying. "Please, please do not hurt me…"
He huffed, getting off of her. "Skai…" Sitting again, he looked down at her, bemused. "I wasn't even horny." She continued to cry. The side of his hand was moist from her tears. He brought it to his mouth and sucked absently, tasting saline and dust.
Hithaeglir is the Sindarin name for the Misty Mountains. Azog and Bolg were two notable Orc leaders from that region. Another is Golfimbul, who wins hands down for Worst Named Orc Ever and lent his name to the game of golf after his decapitation by a Hobbit.
I'm not making this up, you know.
You can thank my love of Darkwing Duck for the "Elves bounce" remark, though in the original it was vampires.
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.