20. Lessons and Assignations
For the first two days they exchanged whispered conjectures about the fishing trap and Leni's message by the river. After that they did not mention them so much. The excitement had left Leni first: when Maevyn brought them up she would talk in turn but it would be wistfully, without the former optimism, and this in turn dampened Maevyn's own enthusiasm. It also made her resentful.
Sometimes Maevyn felt like she could talk with Leni and laugh with her. Other times it was like a black thing occupied her body and she could barely stand the sound of the other girl's voice. It was worse on those occasions when Kurbag had her, when Leni wouldn't even look Maevyn in the face afterward and Maevyn was filled with impotent rage. Then she would go watch Hrahragh with his daggers, or pester him or Mushog for more Orkish.
Mushog was not Maevyn's favorite Orc after the river incident, and he had proven unreliable as a teacher. Still, she kept using what he gave her and asked him for more. Mushog would grin as he supplied the answers to her questions: he was still the most forthcoming of her sources, even if half of what he told her was made up. It got so that she could tell when he was lying, or thought she could anyway, from the way his head would cock the littlest bit to the one side, or the way the corner of his mouth would curl back. That usually meant he was coming up with something nasty to tell her in place of the real meaning. Then she knew to avoid that word because it wasn't reliable. Sometimes he would slip one past her, though, or she would make a mistake of her own, and then the others would jeer at her and she would go away from them mortified.
Leni could not understand it. "Why?" she asked Maevyn finally, unable to restrain herself any longer. "Why do you look to him for instruction in this? He does not lead you right. You know this."
"Don't got no choice."
"No choice? How can you say that?"
"Because you won't tell me anything," Maevyn snapped at her. "You know when I'm saying stuff wrong, and you won't help me! He's the only one who'll tell me anything. How else am I gonna learn if I don't listen to him, huh?" Leni did not say anything. Maevyn looked at her challengingly but Leni had dropped her eyes to the dough that she was working beneath her hands, and her mouth was set in a thin line. Maevyn muttered to herself under her breath. For all that Leni was so soft-spoken she could be incredibly stubborn.
Why must she be so stubborn? the Elf girl wondered despairingly in her turn. I do not understand these Men. Not at all.
"THE FUCK YOU ARE!!" roared Bragdagash. Normally laid back and fairly easy-going as a chief, he had taken a hostile stance and his teeth were fully bared at his subordinate.
Pryszrim cowered. "But Braggy, I was just pointing out that we have three. What's the harm?"
"The harm is that I would kill you!"
The conversation at hand was of eagle eggs—more specifically, the fine breakfast that one of them might make. Pryszrim backed away cringingly. "No need to be testy about it. It was only in fun." Bragdagash was still growling at him: ducking his head quickly, the smaller Orc scuttled away like a whipped cur.
Prysrim might have been making a joke, but Bragdagash had been dealing with the consequences of his egg scheme for a while now. It was true that eagle eggs were highly prized in certain quarters up North, so long as they remained fertile and in one piece. He'd been doing his best to keep them that way: carrying them everywhere, turning them—shit! He even slept with them at night. And put up with constant jests about his parenting skills. Pryszrim's little joke, if joke it truly had been, was the last straw.
"Mmm, lad." The lead-in hung on the air, as if the speaker savored making Bragdagash wait. "It sounds like you're starting to lose your sense of humor." Bragdagash turned to bestow a particularly dark look upon Rukshash, although it did no good at that moment as the older Orc's eyes were closed. He was, at that moment, sprawled under a nearby tree, comfortably propped against its dark trunk. Unmindful of Bragdagash's death-glare, he only continued, "You know that once that happens you're really in trouble. Just a bit of advice."
"Keep it for yourself then," Bragdagash said. He paused, then, adjusting his stance, said gruffly, "Anyway, come over here. I need you."
Rukshash's good eye opened slowly. "That time again, eh Missus?"
Bragdagash snarled, but it was half-hearted. "Enough, old one. I'm not taking any lip from the others and I'll be damned if I take any from you."
Rukshash grinned and got to his feet. Rolling his bony shoulders to loosen them, he ambled over in Bragdagash's direction. The tall Uruk towered over the gaunt Orc with his powerful frame: Rukshash, un-intimidated, only clucked and gave the pack Bragdagash carried a playful pat as he walked by. "Let's bring them over by the fire, then."
Kurbag's Elf girl and Grushak's brat happened to be there at that moment. Squeaker had the good sense to vacate the premises, but Grushak's brat dilly-dallied in a sullen way, so Rukshash aimed a kick at her to hurry things along. Scowling, she moved a few yards off before promptly turning and crouching down in a rebellious fashion, watching them. Rukshash, having achieved his immediate purpose, ignored her. Settling himself down, he patted the warm earth in front of him.
Bragdagash set the eggs down one after another before the backdrop of weak orange flames. Dropping down into a squat, he rested his wrists on his knees, watching the old Orc set his ruined hand against each in turn and examine it intensely. Rukshash thrust his tongue into the pocket of his cheek. "Easier when it's dark," he said, but when Bragdagash asked him if he could tell or not he nodded. "Still good."
Bragdagash grunted. He had no idea how Rukshash was able to make anything out through the thick leathery shells or what it was he saw, but he trusted the other Orc not to take the piss out of him. Not when it counted anyway. Settling on his arse beside Rukshash, Bragdagash eyed the eggs in a brooding way.
Rukshash gave him a sidelong look. "You might just as easily set someone else to carrying them, you know."
"Skai. Like I can trust any of those lads," muttered Bragdagash. He was neither happy nor comfortable in his role of clutch mother but there was no one else with whom he felt safe entrusting his charges.
Rukshash glanced past him. "Who mentioned the lads?"
Bragdagash looked that way to see Maevyn watching them with her dark eyes. "The brat? Don't be daft. These things are worth a lot to the right people."
"Not her. The Elf bint." Bragdagash's brow furrowed. Rukshash shrugged. "Need gentle handling, don't they? It don't come much softer than that."
Bragdagash was skeptical. "Too soft. I don't just need a carrier, I need someone who can watch out for 'em too. What happens if the boys get rowdy?"
"Ah, but she's yours for that, I reckon. I know that one. You give her something helpless to watch out for and she'll fight for it, though it mayn't be with her fists."
"What else is there?" said Bragdagash. He said it in a way that suggested he didn't expect an answer, and Rukshash didn't offer one. Bragdagash settled back, studying the eggs. "Still, I suppose you're not usually a fool. I'll think about it."
"Bragdagash wants you to watch those eggs," announced Maevyn, flopping down next to Leni.
"Does he say so?"
"Nar. I heard him and Rukshash. Says he's thinking about it."
The Elf girl shrugged. "I suppose we shall find out soon enough."
"You've already gotta do everything, though. Carry, fetch, keep the fire going, make their food for them, do whatever they want. They're his stupid eggs."
"Well then. Perhaps I shall tell him I am already too busy."
That made Maevyn go quiet for a moment. "You're joking," she said at last.
Leni's shoulders shook with silent amusement. She had taken some of the dough they'd made with her when she left the fire and was forming it into little loaves to bake when they could get back to it.
Maevyn put her arms behind her head and watched her. "Buk snaga-kjani," she remarked at length.
"Very well, you do not have to eat it." As soon as Eleluleniel said it she frowned. She generally made a point of not acknowledging what Maevyn said when she spoke in that tongue, and had not meant to reply.
Sure enough: "Hah! I got it right!" Maevyn crowed.
"It is no great accomplishment," the Elf said quietly.
Maevyn only grinned, pleased to have tricked her. "You should just tell me everything you know. It'd be easier." Leni gave her a measured look but said nothing. "Fine, don't tell me anything then. I don't need you for that." Maevyn looked around, and her eyes lit up as she noticed Grymawk. He was shaping a fresh arrow shaft with his keen knife and seemed otherwise unemployed.
Eleluleniel's face was serious as she watched Maevyn leave. Nothing good can come of it, said her misgiving heart. And, I know, she thought in response. But what is there to do? She will not listen to me, and I will not be her teacher.
"Oh no, not you," Grymawk said when he saw Maevyn.
"I just wanted to know…"
"You just want to know. You ask too many questions. Why can't you bother someone else? Hold this." He pushed the peeled birch shaft into Maevyn's hand and stooped, pulling a dry shaft from the bundle of slender stalks at his feet. Grabbing the first shaft back from Maevyn he compared them both. "This lot didn't do so good," he muttered, dropping down in a squat to slip both back into the bundle.
Maevyn dropped down as well. "What's the word for arrow?"
"Bogi. Or lak, that's another." He wasn't looking at her, rummaging through his pack instead.
"Is there a difference between them?"
"Hah! There we go, I knew there was still a bit of gut left from before."
"Is there a difference?" she asked again. "Between bogi and lak, I mean. Do they really mean the same thing or are they two different kinds of bow?"
"Go away." Maevyn quieted but remained crouched there, bobbing a little on her heels. Grymawk turned, eyed her, and stretched out a skinny arm to prod her suddenly on the breastbone, toppling her backward with a squawk. "Bogi is a crossbow, that's what. Lak is a longbow: bogi is what I've got on my back. Now scarper."
Rubbing her rear resentfully, Maevyn did so. She didn't want to go back by Leni, though, and the Elf girl's I-told-you-so. Instead she wandered out to the edge of the little campsite, kicking at the dirt. If Mushog were here she would go to him, but he wasn't, and Grymawk wasn't in the mood to help. It galled her having to rely on them: it wasn't as if she was any happier seeking help from the Orcs than Leni was, after all.
But I still think it's better to know things, Maevyn thought. To know what they were saying, to know the way they thought. If only there was someone who would teach her, who would answer her questions and not tell her the wrong thing as a joke, or tell her to go away.
A sudden clout to the back of her head: "Here, what do you think you're about, eh? There's work enough for idle hands. Think you can do whatever you please?" Nazluk, who had come up suddenly behind Maevyn, aimed another smack at her as he passed her by. She ducked, scowling after him and rubbing her head, but her stomach rumbled at the sight of the dead rabbit hanging from his wire snare.
The food the Orcs had taken from her village was long consumed, and the meat from the eagle had gone tough and stringy before it, too, vanished down their gullets. Now their diet was what they were able to catch. Most of the Orcs were competent hunters, but a fistful of squirrels or doves or a rabbit or two did not go very far. Killer had first dibs, followed by the others, and there was rarely any left for Maevyn or Leni.
It was not unbearable. Leni did not like meat so much anyway and the Orcs ate more of it than Maevyn ever had in her old life. In her village animals were primarily kept for the produce of their bodies—milk and cheese and wool—or for ploughing and carrying in the case of the drought animals. Benard's family had kept pigs, which were slaughtered in the fall. Fall and winter were the seasons for cured pork and for the beef and mutton of older animals not likely to make it through the winter, or the young rams and the bull calves not kept for stud or steer. Meat in summertime was meat out of season and infrequent, to be parsed over several days in the family pottage.
Far from home, and following the overwhelming abundance of those first days, Maevyn and Leni relied on other sustenance, mainly the crude bread they made when they had a stable camp and time to spend grinding and baking. Pryszrim might steal a loaf here and there, but there were also the edible mushrooms that Leni identified and the little wild onions, so strong eaten raw, that became tender and good when eaten hot from the fire. Maevyn liked to put her hand up in front of her face and breathe on it to smell the onion afterward and see how Leni's nose would wrinkle in response. It was fun to rile her.
Less fun was the time with the berries: they had been tart, with an unexpected sweetness like nothing Maevyn had ever tasted before, and she had eaten nearly a bushful despite Leni's warning. She realized her folly later when her belly began to cramp and then when she made her first hurried forays into the trees. There was no keeping a thing like that secret from the Orcs and they found much amusement in Maevyn's predicament. "There she goes again!" they called, hoots of laughter following as Maevyn scurried away from the camp.
It was sort of funny, she admitted to herself later, and Leni, who had warned her after all, had as much reason to laugh as any of them. Instead she maintained a tactful silence, making Maevyn lie down and chew a piece of sour root while she rubbed the younger girl's back and cramped belly. Maevyn didn't know if the root did anything but the slow circular movement of Leni's hand was soothing.
Burnt bread and mushrooms, onions and berries, and other things too that Maevyn would never have thought palatable until Leni showed them to her. It was in some ways like Mother-Wisdom, like the kind of gathering that Mama and the other women of the village used to do on the village outskirts or in the woods.
"Did you always know how to do this?" Maevyn had asked the day before as Leni broke off a piece of fungus from a low tree trunk.
Leni shook her head. "We picked fruits and berries when they were in season. My family did not have an orchard but others did, and when the time came for picking all of the neighboring homes would come together to gather the fruit." While Maevyn imagined what it would be like to see many Elves in one place, Leni went on, "We did keep a garden in the back: trellises for climbing roses, and a few beds for flowers, and a kitchen garden for lettuces and carrots and other good food plants. My mother thought that cabbages were as lovely as roses because of their many folds. I liked going out into the garden with her. I used to love the garden…"
There was a shadow in her eyes. Stay away from gardens, thought Maevyn. Out loud she said, "But how did you learn which wild things were safe to pick if you didn't do it before?"
"I learned because I was hungry," Leni answered simply. She had shared very little of her initial time among the Orcs and Maevyn didn't want to know much more than Leni wanted to tell. Enough to understand that they were bad days and that the other girl had been very hungry, even starving. "Kurbag fed me sometimes, but sometimes he forgot, and when he did remember I could not always eat what he provided. He learned in time what I could stomach, and I began also to teach myself. I thought, 'Often my folk have had to go without. I can learn.' And I did learn, but it was hard. I had to be very careful."
They had been quiet for some minutes, continuing to forage, when Leni said suddenly, sharply, "Do not touch that!"
Maevyn's hand jerked back. "What? What'd I do?"
More calmly: "The plant you were about to pick. It stings."
Maevyn blinked at her. "'Course it does, it's a stinging nettle. You've never had them before?" Before Leni could stop her Maevyn reached forward, firmly took the nettle by the stalk and twisted it up. "See, if you brush against it it'll sting, but if you just go on and grab it it's not so bad. Then once we get it hot by the fire the stinging will go away and we can eat it."
"I would never have known," said Leni, looking like she didn't believe it. But there were other nettles growing nearby and with Maevyn to show how, Leni was soon picking them as easily as she had.
Eating the toasted greens later, the Elf girl had been surprised at how good they actually tasted. Maevyn, pleased to have known something that Leni didn't, tried to be cavalier. "My mama used to put them in a soup and it was good enough, but I liked to play with 'em more. They grow thick around privies. I used to pick 'em and whip Demi's arms with 'em." Seeing the look on Leni's face: "What? He would whip me back…"
"I think," Leni said carefully, "that my parents would not have accepted that kind of behavior."
"Nor did my mama neither," said Maevyn. "That's why she smacked us all the time." She said it matter-of-factly and could not understand why Leni only looked all the more horrified.
The brat and the Elf might get by on greens and roots and tree bark, but Orcs ate meat. Bread was for slaves, or for sports like Pryszrim, or for cases of direst necessity. They were a long way from that: the summer woods teamed with animal life and hunting was good enough that they didn't go to bed hungry. Still, the lads were grumbling. Quite aside from the question of flesh, they were getting restless, itching for a good fight, and Grushak and Bragdagash both knew that they would need an outlet for their energy soon, before it turned to squabbling.
"Snaga Orcs are whining again," Grushak told his chief. "Saying they're tired of squirrels."
"They're not the only ones," said Bragdagash. "I've been hankering for beef these past few days."
"Isn't there maybe something we can hit up out here? That last village was a while ago…"
"We're not in country I'm overly familiar with, but there are supposed to be Men in these parts. Here…" Bragdagash shrugged his muscular arms out of the pack he carried and held it in front of him. Squatting, he opened the pack and teased out a piece of folded leather nestled between two of the ovular shapes inside. Grushak hunkered down next to him, wisely refraining from any jokes about the chief's eggs, as Bragdagash unfolded the piece of leather. His yellow eyes followed Bragdagash's claw as the Uruk's black talons grazed the crude representations of trees.
Grushak had never asked Bragdagash about the map, about who the Uruk had robbed or killed to get it, and Bragdagash had never offered any details. The others didn't known about it and neither had Grushak until Bragdagash had taken him aside one day, produced it without ceremony, and together they had worked out where they were. He'd put it away afterward, again without comment, and Grushak had not questioned him or mentioned it to anyone else. He knew that Bragdagash had shown him the map in confidence and would know soon enough if he violated it.
Orcs rely in large part on instinct, on smell and sight, memory and word of mouth. Writing and other representation is the medium of Men and Elves. Dirty drawings produced by the fire, or obscenities, we-were-here scrawls cut into trees and naked stone, these are acceptable, but anything more complicated invokes suspicion and distrust. If others knew that Bragdagash took counsel from a scrap of leather, something outside of the sun and the stars and his own inner gut, it could undermine his authority.
That was a stupid attitude by Grushak's reckoning. How could reading a map be anything other than useful? Unless the map was wrong. Anyhow, it made sense enough to him. Like Bragdagash he had fought in the War, albeit under a different Master, and he remembered how heavily their mostly human officers had relied on maps and written correspondence. The Uruk-hai had had more to do with Man-business than other Orcs, and that was probably how Bragdagash first came to use them.
Grushak wondered if the map itself dated from that time, from back during the War. If so, how reliable was it? Mountains might not move, but farmland? Villages? This was only the second time he'd ever seen Bragdagash's map and the thought hadn't occurred to him before.
"We're here," the chief was saying, tapping a shaded area. "When we get past the trees in the next two days the land will slope here, and go to gully. When that happens we'll know we're heading in the right direction. Past that, if we follow the spine of the earth, it will take us to this—" He held his thumb against a roughly rectangular mark, then took it away.
Grushak gave it a due glance, then shifted his gaze to Bragdagash. "And you think they'll still be there?"
"Been five years."
Huh. There went Grushak's theory about a war-map. On the other hand, he felt more confident knowing that it was so recent. "It's good," he said. "When we get past the trees in…two days?" He pressed the tip of his forefinger flush against the map for a measurement, looking to Bragdagash for confirmation. Bragdagash nodded, and Grushak grunted and twisted the digit sideways, halving the distance he'd just indicated. "Then a day from there to the village, yeah?"
"'S'right," said Bragdagash.
Grushak grinned. "That's real good, Boss. Three days, we can get by on that. Time enough to think happy thoughts."
Bragdagash smirked a little as he folded up the map. "We'll give it till we reach the tree-line. Then I'll send one of the lads up ahead to reconnoiter. See to it everything is where it's supposed to be."
"What do you think," said Bragdagash, some minutes later as they started back, "of Kurbag's Elf holding onto these fucking eggs? Rukshash reckons she'd do for it."
"Huh." Grushak thought about it briefly. "I can see why he'd think so. Doesn't get much softer than that one." The chief started laughing: evidently Rukshash had said exactly the same thing. That made Grushak snort. "Hmph. Y'know, the other advantage is if you put the eggs with her you've also got Kurbag to discourage the others from getting too rowdy, and he's not liable to do nothing stupid neither."
"True enough. Well, I'd welcome the chance to fob 'em off and sooner rather than later. This next bit of action I want in on as well. I wasn't there for the fun last time and my sword is thirsty."
"Hard to spill guts while you're playing Mommy, eh Boss."
"Fuck you up your hairy arsehole, Grushak."
There was a smell of roast game when they got back to the camp. The hero of the evening was Pryszrim, who had limed six wood pigeons: these, together with the rabbit bagged by Nazluk and some more of Grymawk's squirrels, promised to make a decent meal. Two of the birds were already spitted and staked beside the fire, while the rest were being plucked by the Elf and the Brat. The two girls were having a hard go of it at that point, crowded as they were by the Orcs attracted by delicious smells.
Pryszrim was part of that eager knot, basking in the praise. Pushing his way through the others, Bragdagash looked at the birds and then at the Orc he had bellowed at earlier that day. "Really? You?" he asked. Pryszrim looked proud but wary as he nodded. "Not bad," said Bragdagash with real approval. "Not bad at all. Of course, I'll be expecting twice this number tomorrow night."
Pryszrim beamed, then as the words sank in his ears drooped and an aspect of horror came over him. "Wait, Braggy, wait, what?"
The others laughed. Shrah'rar smacked him on the back. "He's shitting you, Pryszrim."
"Oh." Pryszrim laughed belatedly as well, but he still looked worried.
Bragdagash chuckled and patted him on the head, a gesture that would have infuriated anyone else but went further toward making Pryszrim relax: the smaller Orc's back and shoulders loosened and he grinned like a dog. "All right then," said the chieftain, looking around. "Let's take it out of sniffing range, eh? There are matters we've got to speak on and that," referring to the roasting pigeons, "is bloody distracting."
Grushak did not immediately follow the others, holding back for a moment to address Maevyn, who was still pulling feathers. "Step it up Brat. We're all hungry and I don't anticipate this is gonna take long." She was bent over the bird and gave no acknowledgement that she had heard him. The big Orc frowned. "Hey," he said, and rapped her head with his heavy knuckles, causing her to exclaim and cover her head with her arms. "Glad I have your attention. Mind me or you'll receive worse."
She looked up at him then, eyes blazing, but he had already turned away. Gentle fingers settled on her arm and she turned to see Leni looking at her and shaking her head. Maevyn held back the many rude things she wanted to say at that moment and silently picked up the pigeon she had dropped. She amused herself by pretending it was Grushak, jerking feathers out with morbid satisfaction, and would have gutted it afterward with enthusiasm if she'd only had a knife. Instead it would have to wait for its disembowelment by one of the Orcs. She thought, not for the first time, of Demi's little knife, but she had not seen that since the time with the eagle. It might be that it still lay there in the stones at the base of the mountain…but she knew better. Grushak had it, certain as the blood in her veins.
"…keep going as we're going, veer a little to the northeast, and we'll come to a place where the earth drops away," Bragdagash was saying to his band on the other side of the clearing. "Once we get there I'll be detailing two of you to scout ahead."
"What'll we be looking for, Boss?" somebody asked.
"That's for me to know and you to find out when I'm ready to tell you. You want to ask again, go right ahead…"
"Oh no, that's quite all right," said Nazluk dryly and there was amused agreement. Bragdagash obviously wanted to play it close for now. Besides, it was heartening to know that they had a definite destination, even if their purpose, for the moment, was known only to the chief.
"Good then. Now that that's settled you lads might as well go back to leering at those meats. Except for you, Kurbag—I've got something I want you on."
"Yeah, Braggy's dick," said Mushog in an audible whisper, elbowing Kurbag in the side. Kurbag, not expecting it, rubbed the offended area and glared at him.
Bragdagash looked at the Uruk and gave him a dangerous smile. "Don't you know, Mushog? That's reserved for your big mouth."
They all laughed, Mushog as hard as any of them. "After dinner then, Boss?" he said with his usual cockiness. They dispersed, Mushog swaggering off to the warmth of the fire and the enticing smells that came from it. "Here little birds," he crooned, swooping down on the pigeons that remained to be gutted. "Your time has come." He picked up one of the carcasses, holding it by the neck almost delicately between thumb and forefinger. Smirking sidelong at Maevyn, he said, "Know the word for pigeon, Brat?"
"Zog," she said flatly.
"What a dirty look you're giving me, when I'm only trying to help. And you're wrong, by the way. Zog is bird. Plumub is pigeon." He drew the knife at his hip and laid the bird across the palm of his hand so that its head hung over the side. His encircling thumb pressed against the soft breast feathers.
She was suspicious but he sounded serious. "Plumub," she repeated.
"Aye. So what do you suppose pigeon guts would be?"
Maevyn stared, weirdly transfixed as he slit the lower belly open and started scooping out the innards. "Plumub-hosh?"
"Thaaaaaat's right. See? You're not so stupid after all."
"She is if she listens to you," said Shrah'rar, who was dressing another of the pigeons. "I've heard some of the lines you've been feeding her, that shara-foshan. Lat foshan kri sha-bagal mubushug…"
"So you teach her then."
Shrah'rar snorted. "What for? She's not my project."
"Hey Brat," said Mushog, leaning in close to Maevyn. "Here's one you should know. Shrah'rar ha far hombaur dagr'ob jashatob. That's easy enough to remember, isn't it? It even rhymes…"
"Oh, very funny," said Shrah'rar. "So funny I forgot to laugh. Here, Squeaker, pass me one of those spits." He dropped a handful of viscera on the burnt outer perimeter of the fire. It hissed and sizzled in the embers. The Elf girl handed him a pointed stick on which he neatly skewered the bird and staked it over the fire.
Mushog had noticed the expression on Leni's face. "You don't like my little lessons, do you?" he asked her with a slow smile. There was no safe answer as they both knew; the Elf said nothing. The Uruk's grin widened. "You needn't speak: I can see it well enough. You should be glad, you know. There are other lessons I could be teaching her." He put his hand on Maevyn's shoulder.
Maevyn jerked away from him. "Sod off!" she snapped.
"Come off it, lad, you know you don't like your meat that young," said Rukshash, who was sitting nearby.
"Soon enough," said Mushog in a cheerful way. "And you know the saying: when they're old enough to bleed they're old enough to breed…"
"I'd cut it off if you tried," Maevyn told him fiercely.
Mushog laughed. "Ooo-oooh, so tough you are!" He held up his hands in mock appeasement.
"Mushog, quit fucking around," said Grymawk, coming over to the fire. "You're holding up dinner, the way you carry on. Squeaker, you're to go by Bragdagash. He's calling for you."
"Aw!" said Mushog as she stood. "Don't go, we were having so much fun."
"What's he want her for, then?" asked Shrah'rar.
Grymawk shrugged. "Is it my business? No, it's not," he answered himself before anyone could say otherwise. He took the spot the Elf girl had just vacated, making himself comfortable.
Eleluleniel picked her way past the other Orcs. Seeing Bragdagash and Kurbag standing near one another, and remembering Maevyn's words of earlier, it was easy enough to guess at what was coming. Bragdagash held the pack in which he carried the eagle's eggs before him. As she approached, he held it out to her.
"Take this," he said and she did. Where he was able to use his hands to carry it, she had to use her arms, hugging it to her chest. Bragdagash looked down at her thoughtfully. It was plain to see that the pack was heavy for her, but nothing she couldn't handle. "Now set that down and look inside…you see those in there, Squeaker? You're looking after them from now on. Keep 'em warm, keep 'em from being jostled, keep 'em safe. Kurbag'll be trucking his own kit in the meantime, so do a good job and you enjoy a few weeks' lighter load. Any harm comes to them, though, and I'll see you get worse than a beating. Understand?" She nodded, carefully closing the pack up again, and Bragdagash looked at Kurbag. "Let's see about getting it cinched on her."
They had her stand for a few minutes while they tested and adjusted the straps on the pack, fitting them to her shoulders and back. Once Bragdagash decided that it was secure and made her take it off and put it on again a few times, he grunted. "That's a load off and no mistake. Now let's go eat. I'm starving."
"Still hungry, eh?" said Nazluk in a tone that came off, intentionally or not, as snide.
Grushak was watching Pryszrim with a brooding look on his face. Pryszrim had finished eating his prize, the plumpest of the pigeons he had caught, and was licking his fingers with messy enjoyment. Grushak was not so enthusiastic about pigeons: too much picking and dithering with fingers, and anyway, it took heavier fare than pigeons to make him full. "Let's hope we take a deer in the next day or so," he muttered, "or I may have to eat Grymawk."
Grymawk choked a little mid-swallow. "Now why say a thing like that?" he complained. "That's not at all funny."
"I thought it was," said Nazluk. "It amused me anyhow."
Annoyed, Grymawk opened his mouth but was interrupted by Bragdagash, who told him to go relieve Hrahragh from guard duty. "You've not taken it for a few nights now and he should get a bite before everything is gone, knowing how fast you lot bolt things down."
But Hrahragh, when he came, only smiled disinterestedly at the wood pigeons. Little wonder, for a pair of leverets swung from his hand. He laughed at the other Orcs' surprise. "By myself all day. I get bored." He had already skinned and gutted them before coming to the fire; now he spitted them and set them to roasting.
Grushak's stomach rumbled. He had to ask. "Here now, friend. Are you really eating both of those?"
Hrahragh turned his head to give Grushak an amused look. "What you have to trade?"
"Beer or my hand. Which will you take?"
Hrahragh laughed. "Thirsty more than horny just now. Drink is good."
Grushak grinned, pleased at the prospect of proper victuals. "Oi Brat! Bring us two drinking skins here."
Maevyn was under the trees with Leni, where she had joined the Elf after the Orcs began eating. No meat would be coming their way, after all, and both girls were interested in looking at the eagle eggs that Leni had been charged with. The Elf had taken them each out of the pack and had placed them in the nestling folds of the sleeping furs. Together they looked at them in the faint light available. No details were visible, only the dark ovoid shapes could be distinguished in the gloom.
Maevyn was subdued, remembering the eagles again, the eagle mother in the cave and the eagle she had killed. Putting her palm against the egg, she ran her hand over the leathery exterior. It felt like it had before, and like something else too. "When I touch it it makes me think of something," she said out loud, "but I don't know what." Leni didn't have a chance to say anything in response: just then they heard Grushak call out from the fire. Maevyn sighed gustily. "Hold on, I'll come back," she said as she got to her feet.
It took some stumbling and fumbling through Orkish belongings to find the skins. When she brought them to the fire Grushak was chuckling about something and didn't notice her at first. "There you are," he said when he did. He didn't sound cross. It was obvious that he was in a good mood at that moment. "Come on, give them here."
She did as he said but did not leave immediately, mesmerized by that wonderful smell. Little meat as she had eaten of late, the smell of the young hares crackling over the fire made her mouth water. Suddenly the burnt bread she had eaten earlier seemed wholly inadequate.
Mushog was also eying the spits with interest. "Oi, Rukshash, which are you more partial to? Rabbit or hare?"
"That's easy. Rabbit is generally more tender, but young hare? Mmm, that always tastes a treat."
Grushak snorted. "Eyes off, friends. Hrahragh and I already have an arrangement."
"…it's no fair…"
"You're a great bloody wanker, Grushak," came the general chorus.
This assessment did not seem to cause him any undue concern. The spits came off the flames and the hares came off the spits. As their fellows watched ruefully, the two Orcs tucked into their meals, Grushak with single-minded pleasure, paying little attention to anything else, while Hrahragh ate more slowly, pausing often to let his tongue wander over his lips and the juices that were running down his chin. He had had a long day and, while it didn't bother him to be alone for long periods, it was good to relax and enjoy his meal.
The others, already basically satisfied by their earlier repast and evidently resigned to the fact that they wouldn't be having any part of this new bounty, shifted their conversation to other matters. Maevyn continued to watch from the periphery, telling herself that she was just doing it for the Orkish. She ticked off words that she recognized in an automatic sort of way but she couldn't seem to make herself process larger sentence fragments. Running beneath the mechanical litany she was remembering how Mama would cut the rabbit up small and put it in the big pot over the fire, and she put all those herbs in too, and somehow that only made the rabbit smell even stronger so the whole house smelled like wild rabbit. How all day she'd stir in a little water, just from time to time, and sometimes she'd set Maevyn to doing it, which was one of the only chores Maevyn had really liked because she could lick the ladle when Mama wasn't watching…
Hrahragh, feeling himself under scrutiny, turned to see Grushak's brat a little distance away. She was watching with a dejected woebegone look on her face, an unguarded expression such as he was not accustomed to seeing from her. It made him think of the look a young wolf might give its pack leader, waiting for a go at the scraps. He grinned and elbowed Grushak.
Grushak looked at him, glanced back at the Brat and snorted. "Aw," he said sarcastically. "Puppy."
Hrahragh laughed outright at that, it was so closely akin to the image in his own mind. Knocked out of her reverie, the girl looked at them with an indignation that made it even funnier. She turned sharply on her heels. "Hoi. Girl," he called out to her and she turned back slowly to see him nodding at her. She hesitated, then approached him stiffly, all hooded eyes and aggressive stance. Hrahragh tore one of the forelegs from his hare and glanced briefly at Grushak, who shrugged. Hrahragh turned to Maevyn and smiled, holding out the offering.
Resentment didn't stand a chance against hunger. Attempting nonchalance, she sidled closer and took the proffered meat with her fingertips.
"Aa-owwwwww!" exclaimed Shrah'rar, who had watched the exchange. "What in fuck, Grushak…"
"Don't look at me," said Grushak. "I didn't give her anything. Ungrateful as that little bint is, it's Hrahragh's own affair what he does."
Mouth full of the savory meat, Maevyn was annoyed. What had Grushak ever done that she should be grateful for? Anyway, while she obviously hated all of the Orcs, Hrahragh was probably the one Orc, aside from maybe Grymawk, that she hated least. He was still watching her with his interested orange eyes: there was no word for "Thank you" in Orkish and she wouldn't have used it if there had been, but she searched for something to show that she appreciated the food. She knew there was a way to say that. It was full of…full of…"Shum bagal-dhomaj maush-ishi."
There was a pause as the interest in Hrahragh's eyes turned to incomprehension. Maevyn had just hit one of his own gaps in the language, at least as spoken by the others. "This word is not mine," he said at last, turning to Grushak. "What is this dhomaj?"
Grushak turned around slowly and stared at her. "What did you say?" Lifting her chin, Maevyn repeated herself. Grushak looked at the partially eaten food in his hands, examining it closely before looking at her again, eyes narrowed. "Care to try that in Common?"
"It tastes good," she said a little defiantly. She could tell now that she'd said something wrong, both from Grushak's reaction and from the sniggers around the fire, but without knowing what it was she wasn't about to let Grushak intimidate her.
"Enough of this shit," he muttered, getting to his feet. There was a loud guffaw from the other side of the fire and he bestowed a withering look on the one responsible. "Mushog, shut up. Your little games have ruined my appetite."
Snickering: "But after all, all she said was…" He trailed off as Grushak took a step toward him.
"I don't give a flying fuck," Grushak said deliberately. "You may think that was cute, but I don't. Shut up before I tear you a new arsehole."
Mushog didn't say anything. Grushak turned toward the Brat. There was this to be said for her: she wasn't trying to run. Of course, if she had it would only have been worse for her. Swallowing visibly, she tried to stand straight as Grushak stopped barely two feet away. Holding out the hare he'd been eating, he asked her conversationally, "What else did you want to tell me about this, hmm? That it tastes like runny dog turds, maybe? Or did you have something more creative in mind?"
"So what did I say, then?" she had the nerve to ask.
"Don't know, huh. Didn't no one never tell you to keep your mouth shut if you don't know what you're talking about?"
She was expecting the cuff but that didn't make her prepared for it. Nothing could prepare her for Grushak's heavy hand, which was like being hit upside the head with a sack of potatoes. Her hands flew up in front of her as she staggered back.
"Now stop that," he said, pulling her hands away and pushing them down against her sides. He looked down at her and grunted. "Foolish little tark. Been letting you take lessons from others long enough, I suppose. Stand up proper." She did so and he let go. Her right ear was a fiery red where he'd clouted her. "Now what was it you were trying to say again?"
"It tasted good," she mumbled. He clocked her again. "OW! What?!"
"I asked you a question, Brat. Try talking so I can hear you."
"It tasted good," she said more loudly, glaring at him.
Grushak could hear the titters come from behind him, and he couldn't repress a nasty grin of his own. "Better," he purred. "Now here is what you would say. Mir shigog. Tastes good. You understand that?"
When she didn't answer immediately he made as if to hit her again. "Yes!" she shouted. "I understand!"
"Then say it."
"Now say it again.
"Kunol maush!" she bawled out. She closed her eyes quick, thinking she was about to be hit again, but nothing happened. When she opened them again he was nodding thoughtfully.
"So he didn't just teach you shit," Grushak mused. "But that only makes it harder, doesn't it. Because I have to teach you all of it again, and this time you'll have to get it right. But you'll learn, won't you, Brat." She looked at him warily and he gave an unpleasant laugh. "Yeah. I think you'll find that you learn very quickly."
Buk snaga-kjani. "Bread is slave food."
I've heard some of the lines you've been feeding her, that shara-foshan. Lat foshan kri sha-bagal mubushug… "I've heard some of the lines you've been feeding her, that Man-brat. You're filling her head with shit…"
Shrah'rar ha far hombaur dagr'ob jashatob. "Shrah'rar eats spunk from the assholes of goats."
Shum bagal-dhomaj maush-ishi. "This meat is full of tapeworms" (literally, "shit-worms.")
Kunol maush. "Rabbit meat." Technically Maevyn would have been wrong here, except that Orkish doesn't distinguish between rabbits and hares. For that distinction that lads would (and do, in the earlier exchange between Mushog and Rukshash) use Westron.
This chapter benefited from suggestions by Virvatuli, beanie_platypus and pandemonium_213. My sincere thanks.
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.