7. What the Heart Knows
It was not yet morning when they found their quarry.
It was not twelve or thirteen that they faced. Sixteen Orcs occupied the clearing: big Uruk-hai, bred for endurance and power and day. But it was not day now, and the vile Yrch slept. They lay in loose units around a fire that was own twin to the wasteful affair of the day before. A few embers still glowed in the sooty circle, which was girded by large stones. Dried remnants of last night's meal curled and smoldered on the stones, flesh of some unknown creature. A noxious stench rose from the place: the rank stink of the Orcs themselves, and the smoky char of their fire, and the now faint but still sickening smell of burning flesh.
After a moment's reconnaissance Túchir drew them back to a point further from the camp, where they could discuss what they had seen and what to do next. "It is important that we act quickly. They will begin to awaken soon, and they number twice our party."
"Yet we cannot act in haste," said Fírhador. "There are other considerations."
"Did you see her there, Fírhador? I did not." Túchir's voice was rough. Though sympathetic, he was not one to encourage false hope.
Fírhador's eyes flashed dangerously and he might have said something unfortunate if Culas hadn't chosen that moment to speak up. "It may be there are others we do not see by the fire. I do not have either of your years or experience…" he looked between the two older Elves, "…but it seems unlikely to me that all of the Yrch would sleep so without appointing a guard."
The others in their party looked uncomfortable; Esgalon, the youngest and most boastful, actually cast a nervous glance over his shoulder. Túchir, in comparison, raised an eyebrow at Culas before nodding acknowledgement. Fírhador felt a rush of gratitude to the scout: Túchir might question their judgment but he also had to know that Culas, thirsty for vengeance, would not desire unnecessary delay.
Ten minutes later Fírhador was crouched in a patch of undergrowth, scanning the camp of sleeping Uruk-hai.
There were those Elves who had never seen Orcs of any kind, much less the pet monsters of the White Hand. Ordinary Orcs are an appalling sight: twisted, their bodies often stooped and bent, with unharmonious proportions. The Uruk-hai, it was said, were the product of ordinary Orcs bred with Men to produce a hybrid race: Man-tall, with an inhuman strength. They were more like human beings in appearance, which made them more disconcerting than ordinary Orcs in some ways…for, if it weren't for the bestial ruin of their faces, the feral quality of their tangled hair and claws and sharp, sharp teeth, the Uruk-hai might have been mistaken for tall, powerfully built Men.
Fírhador had slain Uruk-hai in the War of the Ring fifteen years before. Someone else might have become distracted by their ugliness, absorbed and consumed in the horror of their existence. Instead, Fírhador's eyes moved impatiently over the hideous creatures, scanning for the pale hair, the slight slender body. Looking in vain. There was no sign of Eleluleniel.
Culas slipped down beside him a moment later. He knelt at Fírhador's side, close as a lover, his fingers moving on the older Elf's thigh in a quick patois. He was using scout-speak, a terse but practical and soundless mode of communication delivered in touch and finger signals. Scouts were generally limited in their thought-sending: most were young and nearly all were unmarried. Greater strength and finesse came with years and the marital bond. In the meantime, a young scout like Culas relied on scout-speak as the more dependable form of communication. …was one guard far side of camp…
Fírhador's own scout-speak was rusty and halting. He turned his face to Culas and mouthed one word. Was?
…dead…lasion killed it…
It was fortunate at that moment that Elves did not swear lightly. Fírhador had begun to realize that the only way for him to learn his daughter's whereabouts or if she was…that the only way for him to learn of her fate would be to speak with one of the beasts in some way. A lone guard, separated from its fellows: if there had been some way to disarm it, take it alive without rousing the others—
The thought of such a lost opportunity filled Fírhador with anger. ...had to kill…not just detain…i ask you… His fingers jerked in stilted fury over Culas' forearm before falling still, fury replaced with resignation and renewed resolve. There were still sixteen Orcs left. Culas continued to watch him in silence; carefully he signed: …you see her…anyone see…
…have not seen her no one has…i am sorry…but… There was a strange look in Culas' eyes. …something i saw i should say…i do not…
He stiffened suddenly and gave Fírhador's thigh an urgent squeeze. One of the Orcs was stirring. They became very still.
It turned onto its side and for a few seconds Fírhador dared to hope that it was only moving in its sleep, but then it grunted and got up on one elbow. The muscles of its shoulders and back rolled sinuously beneath the filthy material of its tunic as it rose to its feet. And then it turned toward them. Fírhador tensed and had to restrain himself from crouching lower. Hidden in the undergrowth as they were, garbed in woodland colors, they should not be readily visible to the Orc…but any movement, any sound at this point, could easily betray them.
It cannot see us, he told himself, even as it ambled in their direction. It cannot…He gritted his teeth as it stopped some yards to their right, relaxing only the barest of fractions when he realized that it was about to relieve itself.
It stood, feet planted apart, at a slight angle to their position and as it stood it swayed slightly. Perhaps it labored under the after-effects of some heavy drought of the night before; this certainly seemed likely from the time it was taking. From where they crouched Fírhador could make out the heavy jaw line, the side of a broad cruel mouth parted in a grimace of pleasure, revealing sharp yellow teeth. Its urine was acrid and very strong. He wrinkled his nose at the pungent odor.
Suddenly the Uruk's nostrils flared as well. It paused and looked over one shoulder, its line of sight only a few feet over their heads.
Fírhador could feel the faintest tremble in Culas' hand—whether in fear or eagerness he could not tell. Carefully he moved his fingers on the younger Elf's wrist: …stay still…
There was a doubtful look in the creature's tawny eyes. It finished its business and turned toward them, still lacing up its breeches.
It can smell us. It can—oh Valar, I do not want to kill it but we cannot let it rouse the others… he thought desperately.
"WHAT THE FUCK—" came a roar from the trees on the other side of camp. It broke off in a gurgle. The Orc's head jerked in that direction, but Fírhador and Culas had no relief at the distraction. A second guard…and it had been able to alert the others before it was dispatched.
In that instant, Fírhador acted quickly. He knew that the whole camp would be on its feet in a matter of seconds, and then the rain of Elven arrows would begin. I need one of them alive! Leaping up out of his hiding place he threw an arm around the Orc's thick neck and smashed his fist against the base of its skull. He jumped back to avoid the body as it crumpled to the forest floor.
"Oi, nalt hombaurri, they're fucking on us, move!"
He recognized the second voice: it was the one that had assaulted Thalawen and Nevhithien, the large Orc with the battleaxe. And then he saw the red-eyed brute among its bewildered shield mates, kicking them into action as the first arrows began to fly.
He is the leader.
An arrow struck the Uruk in the shoulder: it gave a bellow that was more rage than pain and angrily broke off the feathered shaft. By now the other Orcs were on their feet, roaring challenges to the trees around them. They could not see their foe, only the flying death the Elves were dealing. Something whistled past Fírhador's ear: an Uruk screamed and fell, followed by another. Another lifted its own crossbow, taking aim, but before it could fire an Elven arrow lodged in its throat. It went down in a spray of black blood.
They cannot stay there. They have to move before they are massacred, thought Fírhador. Rather than falling back into the trees he had dropped down on one knee, studying the Orcs coldly. Túchir had instructed his archers to keep moving between shots: create the illusion that there were more of them than there actually were. Fírhador reached back over his shoulder, but it was the grip of his backsword that his hand closed on. He will tell them to disperse: he can do nothing else…
Fírhador might not understand the words, but their meaning was obvious. The knot of Orcs broke and scattered for the trees. An Uruk ran in his direction with pounding footfalls of its iron-shod boots: it did not see him due to the chaos and the camouflaging effect of his clothing. He waited until it was almost on him before plunging up, drawing his weapon in a hiss of steel and disemboweling the beast mid-run. The Orc immediately behind it came to a stop, bringing its own sword forward with a startled snarl. Sidestepping with a whirl, he severed its hand in a single swing: as the Orc stared for a stunned moment at its gushing wrist Fírhador continued the movement, cleaving its neck with his second arc.
He dropped again to one knee. The world spun around him but he would not let himself succumb to dizziness, forcing himself to focus. He watched as two more Orcs fell, one with an arrow in its chest, the other with a shaft protruding from between its shoulder-blades. They were the last in the clearing: the rest had disappeared into the trees, where they would be dispatched by his fellow Elves.
How many of the Orcs were still alive? Five? Six? He did not care. There was only one that mattered to Fírhador.
He is the leader. If any of them know where she is, then he will…
He rose, throwing his body into a sprint. He had to find the red-eyed Orc before anyone else did.
Curse those Golug bastards! They've turned me into a bloody pincushion!
Dushgar's fingers were clenched over the broken end of the arrow protruding from his left shoulder. The wound oozed sluggishly. It wasn't as bad as it might've been: he wouldn't be bleeding to death any time soon. The one in his back was a problem, though. He couldn't reach it to snap the shaft: when he tried the pain nearly made him black out. Couldn't afford to do that with the thin-skins running around, now could he? So it would have to wait until he was clear of this mess.
Even as he thought it he gave a grim chuckle. He knew there'd be no getting clear of this.
There came a sudden cry from the trees to his left and he knew they'd gotten another of his lads. Uftar maybe? Nar, Uftar had fallen by the fire. Gorthaur's balls, it had all gone to shit so quickly, so very quickly. He was the only one left. Not for much longer, though. "Fuck me if I don't take one of them with me," he muttered to himself.
That was when the third arrow struck him. It thudded into his back not two inches from the other, and a bare hair's breadth from his spine. He bellowed, his body describing an arc of agony. Then some serpentine coil of hatred enabled him to turn immediately in the direction it had come from, to charge the one who had shot him. The Elf was standing between two trees, struggling to fit another arrow to its bow: Dushgar was already on it, knocking the puny weapon aside and knocking the Elf down too with his massive fist.
Elves are infamous for their composure, for their dignity and grace. This Elf was evincing none of those qualities, staring up at him in wide-eyed terror and scrabbling backward on the ground.
"Oh no you don't." Raising his foot, he stomped down on the Elf's ribcage, putting all of his considerable weight into it. A crunching sound beneath his boot; a high shrill scream. No way the other pushdug scum hadn't heard that. He didn't have much longer, so he needed to make this count. He grabbed the Elf by the collar of its leafy-green tunic, thrusting it up into the air. The act sent a flare of white pain through his shoulder and back. "Now how many ways can I hurt you…"
"Put him down."
Dushgar reoriented on the newcomer with a snarl: an older Elf with the mien of a warrior and with a blade such as a warrior carries. Not that bow-and-arrow shit. There was also something oddly familiar about him, but Dushgar never had been able to tell one Elf from another, they all looked the same to him. He sneered. "Oh I'll put him down all right!" With a violent sidelong motion he slammed the stripling into a tree before turning again to face his challenger—
—only to find those pale eyes not three feet away, the tip of that shiny sword at his throat.
Never take your eyes off an Elf.
Hand gripping spasmodically at his wounded shoulder, he hissed down the length of the curving blade. "You pointy-eared fuck. I'll rip your head off. I'll use your skull for a piss-pot—"
The pressure behind the sharp point increased. He felt it drawing blood. Had he lacked any sense of self-preservation he would have said fuck it, would have launched himself forward on the blade to get the fellow holding it, take him along on that last trip into the dark. "—of course, I'm always open to negotiation…" he said in a gargled voice and took a step back, hands up and open at his sides. Life, even to an Orc, is sweeter in its final moments. It also occurred to him that the Elf might easily have killed him by now, and to wonder why it hadn't. He got his answer in a moment, but if anything it only confused matters more.
"Where is she?" demanded the Elf, taking a step forward so that its blade remained at his throat.
"My daughter, Orc."
Dushgar was genuinely bewildered. "Your wha'? What are you—wait a minute." His eyes narrowed. "I remember you! You're the one who was gonna be the hero!" The memory returned to him of the dark-haired bint beneath the horse, of how every time he tried to nail her someone would get in his way, and that last someone had been this crazy bastard.
If you want her you will have to go through me.
Forgetting the danger of the situation for a moment, Dushgar grinned at the Elf. "Haw. Forget your sword that day, friend? Got a point to prove now?"
"Do not toy with me, Orc. Tell me where she is!"
Looking into the Elf's steely eyes, Dushgar felt a cold chill run through his body: the jittery feeling you get in the presence of madness. Ah, he knew what was going on now. The daughter had probably died that day and this fellow had lost it. Elves did that sort of thing—he'd heard all kinds of crazy stories about Elven obsession and madness and bloody revenge. But if the Elf really was insane then his judgment was off, and that meant that he, Dushgar, still had a chance. "Now now," he said in his best approximation of a soothing manner, "let's try to discuss this calmly, eh?"
"Answer my question, Orc!"
"Oh, I want to, believe me, I really do. Your daughter, yes. I even see the resemblance." Dushgar's hands were still up and open at his sides. The sword hadn't left his throat for a minute but the Elf's eyes were fixed solidly upon his own. Counting on the Elf to be too fixated on him to notice, Dushgar began to lift his right hand, increment by furtive increment.
"Where is she?"
The pressure of the sword against his skin relented by the smallest of fractions. Now or never. "When last I saw her she was under a big fucking horse. Hey Elf! tell your daughter she's supposed to ride the horse, not the other way around!" He made his move, grabbing the blade.
He could feel it as it sliced into his palm. He was expecting that, counting on his thick leather gauntlet to protect him from the worst of it, thinking he could stand the pain if he could yank the weapon from the startled warrior's grasp…but he had never gripped Elven steel before. The keen edge slid through leather and flesh like a knife through butter, gliding over the bones in his hand. An icy fire licked up his wrist. He fell to his knees, doubled over his ruined sword-hand. "Oh shit. Oh shit oh shit oh shit…"
"Spawn of Morgoth! You are dying and you would fight me in this condition?" Dushgar uttered a volley of profanities that were, perhaps, not as impressive as they might have been under other circumstances, for he was rocking helplessly at the same time, whimpering in pain. It hurt worse than the arrows. The Elf kept talking craziness over his head. "Orc, listen to me. You will die, but I can show you mercy. I can make your death quick if you tell me where she is. Not my Nevhithien. Not the elleth under the horse, she is safe from you forever. But my second youngest, my songbird, my heart's joy…listen to me!" The Elf grabbed him by the shoulders. "Do you understand?"
Roaring, Dushgar pushed him away. "Gerroff! You crazy Golug shite, get off of me!" He tried to get to his feet again but his injuries had taken their toll and, in his weakened state, Dushgar lost his balance. Agony ripped through him as his full weight, falling upon the shafts of the two unbroken arrows, drove them into and through his upper body.
In the wake of agony came a kind of calm. He lifted his head and stared at the arrow tips emerging from his chest. Head dropping back again, he swore up at the green canopy of leaves overhead. What a way to die. What a stupid, shitty way to die.
The Elf's head interrupted his view. There was at least something to comfort Dushgar in all this: the warrior did not look like much now. The cold imperious manner was gone, displaced by something terrified and frantic as the Elf grabbed him again. "Listen to me!" he cried. "She is only a child and she sings like the daughter of Thingol! She has hair like silver, and my mother's eyes, and she stands no taller than my shoulder! You must have seen her! Tell me while you still draw breath! Tell me you have seen her!"
He could feel his body shutting down, could feel the world going away. It was a strange feeling and yet, even out of it as he was, he made the connection. Hair like silver…and the same pale blue eyes. "Oh yeah," Dushgar muttered slowly. "I remember that one. But she wasn't singing…"
"PLEASE! Tell me! You must tell me what you have done with her! Tell me where she is!"
And the malevolence that had been with Dushgar at the hour of his birth was with him also at the end. He closed his eyes in a kind of horrible amusement, for it hurt too much to laugh. Opening them again he grinned up at the Elf, putting all of his teeth into it as he said the one word. "Rations…"
It was the last thing that the creature said.
Fírhador was still kneeling over the body, staring down at it, when strong arms caught his shoulders and pulled him back. He did not know how long the others had been there, but there was no question Túchir had heard that final damning word. He held Fírhador for a moment's stiff embrace. Fírhador suffered himself to be held, but he was shaking his head when Túchir let him go.
When he returned to the Orc he had downed at the start of battle, Culas was standing over it. Fírhador knew at once it was no good. A blow to the head such as he had used was a risky move at best. The Orc was not dead but foam flecked its lips; it jerked spasmodically on its back, and there was an absence of any intelligence in its eyes. Culas had only been waiting for Fírhador to see; when the older Elf, sickened, turned away, he knelt down and dispatched it.
They dug a large grave and they delved it deep: deep enough to bury all of the Orcs, bury their sight and their stench. Only fire could scour them from the earth, Fírhador thought but did not say. Elves do not burn their fallen foe. He dug as deeply as the others and, after the last noisome corpse had been laid within, he was the first to start shoveling earth back into place.
He would accept no condolences for his daughter. He would not believe what the Orc had said. "I would have found her. We would have found her body," was all he would say, and he shook his head in a continuous disavowal.
The others said nothing. Even Túchir did not invoke the obvious: her remains dragged away after the butchery, short work for the scavengers. The sundering of her body, her lovely bones, strewn and scattered in the night. They did not have to say these things: Fírhador was capable of thinking them, logically. He could make himself examine the concept in whole and in its discrete parts. But it did not work. He could not make it fit.
Of course she is not dead, he thought. Yet what am I to tell them? What can I tell Thalawen?
Esgalon, the young Elf whom the Orc leader had tormented, was in a bad way. They had given him what treatment they could provide themselves but he would still need the help of a skilled healer. Túchir decided they should start back at once. A litter was assembled and Fírhador was the first to take his turn at carrying the injured ellon. Seeing how Esgalon rode with white face and clenched jaw put him in mind of Nevhithien: she had blushed and protested when she was obliged to ride in the litter, and she had borne the pain with similarly suspect stoicism.
Thinking of Nevhithien, he wondered what he was going to tell her. She had bidden him farewell with such fierce confidence on his departure. I know that you will find her, Father.
They traveled until they could no longer clearly see the way before them; they slept not far from the Orkish camp they had found on the previous day, and rose early to continue their travel, passing the remains of the Orcs' fire not long after. The charred smell was less oppressive, and the smell of the Orcs themselves was disappearing as well.
Fírhador moved more slowly than the others, his mind half in another world. He had slept during the night but his dreams had betrayed him. Now, awake, fragments of those half-remembered dreams kept coming to his mind, and doubt assailed him for the first time. The Orc had spoken with evil intent, he knew, but evil is not always false. His heart insisted that his daughter lived yet his mind knew the ill sense of this: how could his heart run so contrary to all rules of logic? The Orc had addressed him as if he was mad, and other Elves thought his judgment impaired. Was he foolish not to consider the possibility that he was wrong…?
"I would walk with you, Fírhador, if you will let me share your footsteps."
Fírhador blinked, looking at Culas. He had thought himself hindermost in their party and had not realized Culas also lagged behind. Belatedly he nodded. "Forgive me, friend, my thoughts were elsewhere. You have no need to ask."
Culas nodded and fell in step beside him. Though neither spoke further, Fírhador found that his mind did not easily resume the paths it had been pursuing. Instead he glanced from time to time at Culas. He had thought the other Elf was avoiding him after the battle: they had exchanged no words since then and Culas seemed to make a point of not looking at him. He believes what the others do, Fírhador had thought, but now the scout had made a point of seeking him out, to what purpose he did not yet know.
They came to the place where the tracks of his daughter's captors met with those of the Uruk band. Here Culas broke his silence. "This is where they met," he said. "But there is nothing to signify that they continued together."
Fírhador stopped walking. "What are you saying?"
Culas turned to him. "I saw one of the Orcs who took your daughter, Fírhador. It was brief and from a distance, but I saw it. It did not look like the creatures we killed."
Fírhador listened as Culas went on to describe a rawboned physique, shorter stature, mottled gray skin like the underside of a stone. "It was no Uruk you saw but a goblin Orc."
"And I did not see it among the Orcs we slew."
"That was why you sought to delay yesterday's attack. You were looking for it."
"I looked but I did not see it. I wanted to tell you when the fighting began. After, I hoped that I might discover it among the bodies, but I had no fortune there either. That was when I thought that it might not have been traveling in their company to begin with."
Slowly: "Then, if that Orc was not with the others…"
"…it may be both your daughter's captors live."
"And my daughter with them," said Fírhador. Culas said nothing. "Did you speak of this to Túchir?"
"I did." Culas began walking again.
"He told me not to speak of it. He said that the glimpse I had of the Orc was too fleeting, that it mattered little in any case. That your daughter is certainly dead, whether the Orcs who killed her were Uruk-hai or not. That it would be wrong if I encouraged you to think otherwise."
"And what do you think?" asked Fírhador.
"I do not think your daughter lives." Culas paused as if leaving him space to protest, but he said nothing. "I thought it unlikely after I saw what was done to Alhael, but I prayed that I was wrong. I could not bear to think my friend had died for nothing. Yesterday, however, I had the chance to see what Orcs really are. I do not think any child of the Eldar can hope to survive more than a day in their company…and it has been four days since your daughter was taken. I believe the Uruk leader spoke true when it said what it did."
"As does Túchir—yet you have gone against his instructions."
Culas nodded. "It would have been wrong for me to keep this from you. I think your daughter does not live, but I believe her killers do. That is something you are entitled to know."
Fírhador was silent. "Thank you," he said at last. Though it hurt that Culas believed Eleluleniel dead, he could only be grateful for what the scout had imparted. He had to frown, though, thinking of Túchir. That the other Elf should have thought to keep this from him! "I can no longer expect any support. Túchir is influential among our peers. If I ask for assistance in my searching he will say I recruit for a foolish cause. If even you think my belief is wrong, I cannot hope for help from others."
"I would not say that." Culas gave him a steady look. "These Yrch have robbed us both. I will not rest until I see them pay with their lives."
Fírhador took a breath and let it out again, relieved to know that he still had one ally. "It would seem, then, that our hunt is not yet over."
The discussion that followed was dispassionate and to the point. They spoke of practicalities: of rest before returning to the search, of the supplies that they would need. Horses, they agreed, were the only possible option. They could no longer hope to accomplish anything scanning for a trail on foot: it had already been four days. Rather, they would need to make broad sweeps of terrain and look to see what they could find in that fashion.
All the while they made their plans, Fírhador thought of Thalawen. She had not wanted him to leave before. How would she react when she found out his search was not over, that he returned only to set out again? Each time the thought came to him he pushed it away. It is for Eleluleniel. It is for her daughter also. She will understand.
Bagal, Golug-hai! "Shit, Elves!"
…nalt hombaurri…! "…up assholes…!"
Pro'shat, pro'shat! A contraction of pros jashat: literally, "cut out." Basically, "split up" but with a more violent connotation.
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.