Thunder startled them out of sleep one early dawn, and Lash sprang up with a shout. "Hurry! I have not heard thunder like that since before the Dark Lord's War – if it rains now as it used to, we will not be dry again until the next moon! We must find shelter."
They caught up their few belongings and hurried. A mile before they stopped for the night they had passed one of the ruined fortresses, and they made for it now, the thunder rumbling on all sides like boulders rolling together. The skies opened just before they reached the gate and dumped a flood of cold water on their heads, and they ran in, bumping into each other in their haste, soaked and laughing.
Laughing, even the orcs. Frodo remembered orc laughter when he was prisoner in the Tower room; then it had been terrifying, cruel – the unholy glee of armored warriors tormenting something little and naked. But this was only the joy of being alive, of outrunning the storm and being caught by the rain at last, drenched but unharmed. He looked from one to another of them, thinking they were not so ugly after all, or maybe he was just getting used to them. Then he met Yarga's eyes, and the orc's laughter stopped abruptly and his eyes were cold as stones.
The fortress had yet one room with an unbroken roof, and they took refuge there. They found a supply of wood next to what had been the guardroom, and they kindled a fire and huddled around it to get dry, shivering, but in high spirits still.
"I thought it never rained in Mordor," Frodo said, trying to wring the water out of his cloak.
"Storms in the autumn," said Lash. "Or there used to be, before the War. The Moon of Storms, we called it. A little rain in the winter, but not the wind and thunder. Dry the rest of the year."
Radagast had set the water pail out in the rain to fill, and now he hung it over the fire to heat. "You know the weather, Lash."
"A hunter must know the weather. The animals do."
"You were a hunter? Before the War?"
Lash snorted. "Before and during – orcs like meat! Hunter and tracker, but there was little to hunt, towards the end."
"And Canohando was messenger." Radagast spoke carelessly, pulling mugs out of his sack and making tea. "What did you do, Yarga?"
Yarga smiled horribly and looked at Frodo. "Torturer, in Lugburz. You would have come to me, Ring-bearer, if your slave had not rescued you."
Frodo's mind reeled and he struggled not to let it show in his face. Then Radagast was beside him, gripping his shoulder, pressing a steaming mug of tea into his hands, and he steadied.
"How did you happen to be in the outpost with Lash, at the end?" Radagast asked, his voice as calm as ever.
"I ran away." The orc snarled, glaring, even at the other orcs. "I killed a prisoner before he spoke – I ran to save my life."
"You killed him – why? By accident?"
Yarga bared his teeth. "He screamed too loud. He hurt my ears and I slit his throat." He met Frodo's eyes, his smile malevolent. "Perhaps I would have slit your throat, Ring-bearer. Then the Ring would never have reached the Mountain."
Lash leaned toward the fire, refilling his mug. "And then it would not be raining. I would rather have the rain."
Yarga turned on him, fury in his face, and Canohando thrust himself between them. He said nothing, looking from one to the other, and after a long moment Yarga's eyes fell. He let Radagast hand him his tea mug and sat down, nursing the drink sullenly. The wizard called Frodo to him with a jerk of his head, and handed him pans and meat and parched grain. Frodo put his mind to his cooking and tried not to think about the bloodlust he had seen in Yarga's eyes.
The storm lasted all day. As night drew down, the wind died away and the only sound was the rain itself, beating heavily on the flags of the courtyard outside. Frodo stood in the open doorway watching the light fade, drops of water splashing up from the pavement, landing on his bare feet.
He had come here of his own will. He had not counted on meeting his past in such a graphic way, of course. Or what would have been his past, if not for Sam. How ironic, of half a million orcs in Mordor, that one of the three who remained should be Yarga, who would have been his torturer! His executioner, probably. Yarga might still be his executioner.
Faramir had warned him.
Radagast sat by the fire, whittling on a stick of firewood. "Come here, Donkey. Let us challenge our hosts to a game of draughts."
Canohando grunted in amusement. "When did we become your hosts, old man?"
"When we entered Mordor, I suppose," Radagast said. He had cut a collection of wooden circles from the stick he'd been toying with, and now he took half of them and put them in the cooking pan, set it over the fire. "This is your land, after all. I must admit I had not thought of it that way – it was Sauron's realm, and I had forgot the land had other inhabitants with better claim to it than he. Lash has reminded me."
Lash looked up at hearing his name. He was sitting cross-legged against the wall, his head sunk on his chest as if he dozed.
"Never mind, Lash. Go back to sleep," Canohando said, and the smaller orc closed his eyes again. "Explain yourself, old man."
Radagast was stirring the wooden pieces in the pan, letting them darken but not stick to the metal. "Lash knows Mordor. He knows the land and the weather, the creatures who should be living here – he is glad to see the rain. He will be glad to see the animals return, if they do."
"He will be glad," Canohando agreed. "And then he will kill them."
Radagast laughed. "He will kill enough to feed himself, certainly. But he will leave enough alive so he can eat next year, and the year after that." He pulled the pan off the fire and dumped out his bits of wood. They were many shades darker than the ones that had not been heated.
"Mark a board for us, Donkey, here on the floor. Do you know this game, Canohando?"
Frodo had pulled a half-burned stick from the fire and was marking a board on the stone floor. Draughts, Radagast called it. We call it Kings in the Shire – I don't think I'd want to invite Canohando to a game of Kings! He blackened every other square and sat back as the orc examined his handiwork.
"Draughts, eh? Oh, yes, I know this game. Orcs and Tarks*, we call it!"
"Very well, come and play. You and Frodo against Yarga and me, since Lash is sleeping."
Canohando gave him a sharp look at this division of teams, but made no objection and said something in his own tongue to Yarga, sitting in a corner fletching an arrow. The four of them settled on opposite sides of Frodo's gameboard and Canohando scooped up the blackened pieces.
"Now you're an orc, runt," he said. He looked under his brows at Yarga. "And you're a tark." He grinned at the other orc, and Yarga growled low in his throat.
"We are white and you are black," Radagast said quietly. "You cannot make a tark of Yarga, or even of me."
"I cannot make you white either, old man – your skin is darker than mine! Call it black and white then – Yarga is no tark, not even in jest." A look passed between the orcs, as if Canohando would make amends, and Yarga unclenched his fists and looked down at the board.
They played until the fire burned low. Yarga wanted to rearrange the teams, after the first round, but Radagast would not have it so. "I need you to help me," he said. "You both must have played long bouts of this in your off hours during the War; you're far more skillful than Donkey or I. There'll be no game at all if you're both on the same side."
"But we are, old man," Canohando said softly, and he was not talking about the game. "Don't deceive yourself. Yarga and I are both on the same side."
*tark – Orkish slang for a man of Gondor (LOTR Book 4)
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.