2. Part Two
I dare not look beyond tomorrow.
I say winter is passing, but I have little heed of time. Perhaps it is only beginning-- the chill in the air certainly speaks so. The stiff, frosted grass pierces my bare fingers as I bend to the ground, gathering hewn wood pieces into my arms. Hefting the firewood closer to my chest I push swiftly to my feet-- the load is not so heavy as once before, and I am eager to leave the fields.
They began slaughtering the pigs today.
I think I understood their screams.
The grounds I tread on the path back to the house of Lorgan are barren, of hues grey and sickly green. I would tear up the earth just to see soil, rich and dark and alive-- but my limbs are no longer mine to command, and faithfully they trudge onward to the halls of their master. A pale wind cuts through me briefly, lifting the worn leather garment from my skin, and I shiver. A stench is lifted with the wind, and I wonder if it is my own.
Lorgan's house looms nearer, walls of dark wood and stone pillars. I approach it from the back, down the steep stairs which lead to the cellar halls-- no slave would dare the front doors. I stand in the doorway in a moment: the cold at my back and the home of those who hate me before me-- and I speak not only of the Easterlings. To the people of Dor-lómin I am the last of the house of their lords-- and yet here I toil among them, wordless and defeated, offering no hope.
Their contempt is the only thing that will break through the despair veiling their eyes.
A familiar sweat breaks out on my body as I step woodenly through the door. The thick, charred scent of smoke invades my nostrils as the walls close around me, and the metal collar grates against my neck as I swallow. I do not linger in these death-halls, passing to the great, twisting staircase in the centre. The stone jars my knees as I ascend, yet I breathe easier with each level I pass, until at last I reach the topmost-- the chambers of Lorgan.
There is a wolf-pelt rug inside the door of his bed chamber, the thick fur gleaming, silver-grey. Sometimes I stand here and stare at it until I am dizzy with desire, desire for softness and comfort and warmth.
I am not allowed to set foot on it, lest any filth take rest there.
I step over it. Lorgan's bed chamber is wide and opulent, but the air is dank for there are no windows. There is a brass bathtub to the far left of the room-- a fine piece of work, and so I doubt it is of his hand. To the right is the fireplace, and that is what I tend. The bed takes up the majority of the room, a large wooden frame piled with hides and skins. The wall behind the bed is hung with Lorgan's trophies, plunder from the houses of Dor-lÓmin. Cracked golden crests, dust-coated amulets of amber and onyx-- I wonder if some are not from the home of my father. There are other things he hangs there as well; scalps and bones I will name-- I do not look at the others.
I walk toward the fireplace, and find the room is not empty as I thought-- hoped. For Lorgan is on errand, to where I do not know, yet his wife remains, and it is she who glowers at me from the bed.
"Filthy creature," she curses me. "I smelled you coming up the stairs."
So it is as I guessed, and that stench is me.
She was lying on her stomach, her supper tray before her, but now she sits up to glare at me properly. A woman of sharp tongue and quick hands, she is a source of fear to the slaves little less than her husband-- to some she is more fearsome, for there are none who can twist the mind of Lorgan as she does. She is not tall, yet her sinewy limbs stand in stance so haughty you do not notice it. Her hair is a shroud of long, untidy curls, her black eyes narrow and keen in her tan face.
She looks at me the same as she does the piece of meat on her platter.
"It has been cold in here an hour already. I will tell Lorgan of how slow you are when he returns," her teeth grind as she threatens me. She continues to watch me as I cross the room, snapping to my back, "Haste, slave! You do not obey at your leisure. Build a fire quickly and I shall consider not using you to fuel the next one."
I crouch before the fireplace, handling the wood into it as noiselessly as possible. I feel her eyes boring into me and fight the urge to turn my head-- for her gaze does not stay on my face. I kindle the fire with flint and steel, and the red-gold flames begin to lick over the wood. I take a moment longer than necessary to adjust the logs-- so warm is that fire to my hands, so warm they begin to to itch. I try not to show my pleasure at being in front of the fire-- for that, surely she would have me beaten.
"Get up," she orders from the bed, and she is reclined once more to eat her supper. "Fill the bath with hot water-- quickly, beast, quickly! If it is cold when you are finished you will sleep out of doors until spring."
For a moment there is a twinge of repugnance in my gut, that she can so easily fill me with fear.
Then it is gone and I hasten to obey my mistress.
There are exactly fifty-one steps in the centre staircase. The first time I came up carrying hot water I could not count past twelve-- I had forgotten, and I feared I was moving too slowly. Six times now I have come down and gone back up carrying water, and the numbers have returned to me. There are fifty-one steps.
I am at number forty-five and my legs tremble. But it is my last climb-- the tub will be filled and she will dismiss me.
I burned my hand. At least it is not cold anymore.
I have reached the chamber-floor. Carefully I sidestep the wolf-rug-- drops of the boiled water spill over the side of the pitcher, scalding my fingers, but I make no sound, hurrying to the bath. I add the water, and the tub is now filled and steaming. She stands in front of the bed, clad in a sleeveless shift of coarse brown, arms folded and hard eyes watching me always.
I am finished now, but the dread twisting inside me has not receded. I bow to her, backing away-- if I just reach the door without looking into her eyes, I will be free . . .
"Stay," her command cuts coldly through my thoughts when our gazes lock. "And shut the door."
I am breathing . . . I am still breathing . . .
The door is heavy-- there is no way to shut it without a slam that sends the wall-hangings shaking. Today I shake with them. Her eyes are black, black and unblinking-- her lips are thick, curled back in disgust as her gaze runs down me.
"You smell like the pig sty, boy. You are repulsive. You will take a bath."
I look into her face, looking desperately for some small sign of kindness or pity. There is nothing in her eyes but blackness. I fight to keep my jaw still.
Her hand flies, strikes me across the face. My cheek stings, hot, but my head did not move. "Do you think I am your servant?" she cries. "Undress!"
The leather jerkin granted to me is laced up the front, and I wonder at the sudden clumsiness of my fingers, that I am not able to untie it. She is watching me, impatience flaring her nostrils. Frantically I pull at the thin rawhide lacings-- but the knot is only tightened further. In a surge of frustration I grasp it and yank-- and the rawhide tears.
Her eyes flicker.
I swallow, but it is only relief that flows through me as I part the jerkin, easing it off my shoulders. I hold it, uncertainly, until she takes it from my hand and throws it to the floor. I wet my lips, scuffing the toe of one foot against the heel of the other to dislodge my boot. My skin feels damp from the steam, droplets pearling on the back of my neck. My breath is quick and hard in my chest.
My boots are off and only my breeches are left. Her eyes stare straight into mine, dark and pitiless, and she smiles. She smiles-- I have never seen her smile before-- I have never felt so dirty and helpless and afraid before.
"Take them off and get in," she bites out.
I unfasten the belt latch and the air is suddenly cold on my legs as my breeches fall to the floor. I clamber swiftly into the tub, sloshing water up against the brass sides.
Hot-- hot-- burning--
I gasp aloud for breath as the heat invades my skin, steam slinking up my neck, clouding my nostrils. I am wedged awkwardly into the tub, my legs drawn up, my back pressed against the smooth, searing brass. Tears leak from the corners of my eyes as I watch my skin flush in the heat, the water lapping at my sides.
So long since I have been warm . . .
So long since I have been clean . . .
She picks up the pitcher, dunking it into the tub beside me and then lifting it above my head. I flinch, for she still smiles-- then she pours, and the water courses over my scalp, down my back. I gasp again, in pain this time as the hot water stabs into the whip-welts on my shoulders. I clench my teeth so hard I am dizzy, and she pours again, soaking my hair.
"There," she says, satisfaction evident in her voice. "Now we may call you Strawhead again, and not Mudlocks."
I blink drops of water from my eyes, fixing them on the smirk curving her mouth. Her hand flicks and a bar of soap hits me in the throat, sliding down my chest. "Wash yourself," she commands, arrogantly.
A slow breath hisses between my teeth. I retrieve the soap, fumble the slippery bar with both hands until I press it to my arm and begin to scrub. It burns, acidic, and I wonder in alarm what the soap is supposed to be used for-- it obviously is not meant for human flesh. I scrub harder, thinking to rub the pain away-- or at least to make the skin numb. Suds swirl across my skin, dripping down from my wrist and shoulder.
She kneels on the floor now, next to the bath, and her fingers are curled tightly over the rim. Her eyes are riveted to the soap-- she follows it, up my arm, across my chest, over my abdomen. I feel her breath against my shoulder, hot and swift. I drop the soap and splash water onto myself, rinsing away the suds, and I watch her fingers uncurl, one by one, from the rim of the basin.
I splash water in my face, push my hair back against my head, and I can stand it no more. My chin jerks and I stare wildly at her face, too near, too near-- but she does not return my gaze. Fingers press against my chest, cold against my hot skin, and panic spins my head as a low, throaty moan passes through her lips. Her hand inches downward, caressing me, clawing down my stomach, and I know I am going mad . . .
"Touch me and I'll kill you," I whisper.
She jerks, abruptly, shock throwing her eyes wide as they dart to my face-- but she can be no more shocked than I am. My pulse rages, my heart beating violently against my breast as I return her stare. Why did I say it? How could I say it? A lowly slave, I have no power, I have no worth, she is my mistress, I could not do it . . .
Instinct . . .
I could do it, I know, as I look at her, so near-- I remember the lightness of the wood load, the ease with which I tore the rawhide. I am a boy no longer-- there is strength in my limbs, and so thin and frail her neck looks now . . . It would take but one of my hands to encase her throat, and I would crush it long before she could scream. I can imagine the look on her face, the fear, the horror at knowing she is dead, that I killed her, that she can torment me no longer . . .
Wisdom . . .
I stand, climbing past her, out of the tub to drip on the wooden floor. Shivering in the damp air, I yank my clothes on, stumbling for the door. I do not look back-- I say no more-- I do not even pause to put on my boots. I leave the room, and she makes no call to my back.
She cannot tell her husband . . . She cannot tell him she intended to bed his slave.
My hair hangs slick against my neck, the moisture on my body seeping through my clothes as my weakened legs plunge down the staircase. Fifty-one, fifty, forty-nine, forty-eight, forty-seven . . . My legs give out and I drop to the stone step on which I stand, sucking deep, deep breaths into my lungs. My eyes drop shut. I lean against the cool wall.
There is a scraping noise below me, and fright surges life into me so that my eyes fly open. But it is only Haldad-- Lorgan's hound. His feet grate against the stone as he scrambles up the stairs, tail wagging tentatively as he ventures toward me, nose extended.
I dare not reach out to him, for surely I would strike the animal dead.
My eyes close again, seeking the memories which have faded to grey, to shadow. Annael, what is this torture you have taught me? Instinct I should follow . . . then I shall be satisfied, and avenged . . .
But before unconsciousness masks my mind, there is a whisper, an image, a flicker of colour. It is the reward of wisdom, that I had forgotten.
Freedom . . .
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.