7. The Bitter Cost of Strife
Chapter Written by Elfhild
Something lumpy and soft was tossed at Elfhild and it bounced off her shoulder, hitting the ground, but she paid little heed to it. How long she had sat there holding her sister's unmoving form she did not know, for her heart was filled with grief and despair and the reckoning of time mattered little. Though her head was bowed, she sensed several presences around her and heard their foul voices speak in a tongue strange and harsh. "Orcs," she thought, and she would have shuddered had her heart been able to summon forth fear from beneath the impenetrable depths of sorrow which filled it to the brink. Instead, she stroked her sister's tangled hair and looked down at her face; so pale it was in the dim, flickering light created by the flames which consumed their home. All Elfhild's limbs felt leaden, and save for the gentle movements of her hand, she sat there in solemn silence like a standing stone looming over one of the mounds of the fallen.
"Up! Up! On your feet! We don't have all night! Put on your rags and be quick about it," Elfhild heard a rough voice command. The words were spoken in Common Speech, but they were no more pleasant than the first language, and they were heavy with a snarling accent which grated upon the ears.
Stirring slowly as though coming out of a dragon-spell, Elfhild raised her head. Her eyes were bleary and stung from the salt of her tears, but she could see the dark forms of about six orcs against the steady blaze of her burning home. In front of her stood a big orc with strong and sinewy arms; tall as a man he was. Though she could not see his eyes, she could sense his hostile gaze, but at that moment, she cared little if she lived or died. The outline of his armor of boiled leather and mail was outlined in the light of the fire and in his hand was a spear, which he pointed menacingly at her. "Hwæt?" she murmured softly, her voice like that of a sleepwalker.
"You're coming with us, so don't try anything funny. You're our captive now! I, Barzkhûral, am in charge of this band. You'll do what I say. No more fighting, no more struggling. Understand?" The orc paused, looking down at Elfhild. At his words, her heart plunged deeper into the bitter mire of despair and her eyes filled with tears. She looked away from him, evading his burning gaze. "Get dressed," he repeated gruffly. "Your stuff is tied up in here."
He used his spear to push a small bundle towards Elfhild. She cast a glance to her side and recognized one of the sheets that had been upon her family's bed; so that was the soft object which had been thrown at her. The tears flowed freely down her cheeks now as her thoughts filled with memories. When she was little, her mother would sing her to sleep; even now did she hear the strains of the soft melodies in her mind. "We've a long march ahead of us; about five miles to the border," Barzkhûral continued, and Elfhild looked up at the brute. "After that, you'll have an even longer journey, so best you choose sturdy garments. But don't be too choosy now; make haste or I'll have the both of you march naked." His words were met by a few snickers and bawdy remarks from the other uruks.
It took a few moments for Elfhild to comprehend fully what the orc-chieftain had told her, for it had been a while since she had heard Common Speech, and never from the mouths of foul creatures such as these. "My - my sister is hurt," Elfhild said slowly, recalling the proper words. "She bleeds and moves not."
"Grishpilik!" he ordered, turning to a shorter orc at his side. "Wake the sick one and treat any wounds. If she's hurt too badly, kill her. We must get back to the army before the accursed horse-boys come back and bring some of their friends with them this time."
"Old Sharahoital must have got her real good, eh? Ai, I hope he cracked her skull, I do. Would have served the little filth right," retorted one of the orcs, snickering and hissing to himself in a low, malicious voice.
"If I had my way, I'd like to wake her up with my dagger," the one called Grishpilik snarled and spat on the ground.
"They killed our kin!" cried one of the orcs. "We should kill these two; let 'em join the older one."
"Make their deaths long and painful; strip 'em and let 'em feel the lash, then skin 'em alive with hot knives, good and slow!" another shouted.
With that, the band of raiders erupted into wrathful shouts and curses, for greatly had Athelthryth and her two daughters angered them, and they sought vengeance for their dead. Though the orcs were a cruel race and little mercy did they possess, they were not wholly incapable of sadness. They felt a kinship with favored members of their tribes and admired strong, savage warriors who had been in many battles and felled many an enemy. "Matum! Matum!" they cried in dreadful voices and shook their fists in the air. "Az maalfloku! Matum rûk-hai-u!"
Elfhild cringed and closed her eyes tightly. Great waves of trembling beset her body and she shivered and shook as she held her sister. She wondered what death would be like. Oft she had heard her family speak of kinsmen or friends who had fallen on the marches, and always had the slain been referred to as going to their fathers. Yet the legends of the Eorlingas were filled also with tales of the unquiet dead. Sometimes these were evil shades bound to the earth by curses, or the wraiths of kings who would fight once more in battle, slaying their enemies with fear itself and no weapon wrought of iron or steel. And then there were the wights, but Elfhild refused even to think of them in this hour of peril.
What would befall her when she died? When someone went to their fathers she had always imagined some vague place, a great hall perhaps, like those of the Mark, but far fairer. And in this hall she fancied that the heroes of song and legend would sit around the feasting table, passing around ornately carven drinking horns filled with the finest mead and telling the tales of their lives. Would she soon walk through the bejeweled doors of this hall, hand and hand with her sister, to meet their mother waiting for them and welcoming them with tender embraces and sweet kisses? Or would her shade linger, sorrowfully haunting the place where she had died, or mayhaps even traverse to and fro between Middengeard and infinite realms beyond the reckoning of Men?
"Silence!" bellowed Barzkhûral, his voice sudden and unexpected like a thunderclap on a clear day. Elfhild let out a squeak of surprise, but except for that frightened sound, all was deathly still. An uneasy silence had descended, and the night air was tense with passions which longed to escape the constraints which had been forced upon them. "No killing!" Barzkhûral bellowed again when he was sure of the attention of his lads. "There shan't be any of that, much as we'd like otherwise. Orders are orders, and we're not to spoil the captives. That won't fare well with the Higher Ups, and when they're not pleased, someone always pays. I don't know about you lads, but I know I don't want to have the flesh flailed off my back, not for these wenches anyway." Dismayed by the thought of punishment, the angry shouts and cries soon were replaced by mutterings of disappointment which trailed off into unintelligible yet vile sounding curses.
With a stifled cry of anger and a spit on the ground, Grishpilik suddenly lumbered over to where Elffled lay, her head resting upon her sister's lap. Suddenly he bent down and, in one swift motion, seized a handful of Elffled's shift, ripping her from Elfhild's arms and dragging the maiden roughly to her feet. She hung there limply, her arms dangling and her head lolling back and forth, her mind lost in dark oblivion. "Wake up, you wretched piece of horse dung!" the orc shrieked in her ear, but she heard him not.
The spell of sorrow which had dulled Elfhild's senses was broken and was replaced by fear, for in the hands of her enemies was the only one whom she had left. In her mind, she saw her mother die again; she saw her lying upon the straw-covered floor, bleeding and in agony, and this time in her anguished thoughts her sister lay beside her mother, her soft voice moaning in the throes of death. "La! Mín sweostor!" Elfhild screamed in her own tongue, forgetting in her panic to speak in Common Speech. "Na ætegiath mín sweostor!"
"Keep quiet!" the orc-chieftain bellowed angrily and shook his spear in Elfhild's face. She cringed away from him, whimpering and frightened, but her eyes never left her sister's motionless form.
Grishpilik forced the mouth of a flask between Elffled's parted lips and she came back to the world of the waking, coughing and sputtering on the burning liquid. She flailed her arms desperately, but a strong hand held her fast. Her head was throbbing and the sounds of cruel laughing and cheering seemed to pulsate and echo off the walls of her skull. She felt herself being set upon her feet and she stood there in a stupor, swaying back and forth as a hot glow filled her body. Splotches of black and red swam across her vision and she broke out in a sweat, moaning as a wave of sickness washed over her. Convulsions seized her stomach and her whole body lurched and shook as she emptied the contents of her belly upon the dry ground. Then her legs became weak and she collapsed upon the grass in another swoon, just narrowly missing the place where she had retched.
The orcs laughed all the louder and Grishpilik kicked Elffled fully on her rump, causing the maid to be knocked forward on the ground, but still she did not stir. The band erupted in raucous cheers and hoots. "Ná!" screamed Elfhild, almost mad with fear. "Héo is legerfæst! Na ætegiath mín sweostor!" She leaned forward, reaching for Elffled.
The orcs howled in their cruel mirth and Grishpilik lunged suddenly at Elfhild, wielding a dagger with a wicked looking jagged blade. Her eyes widened in horror and she screamed, falling backwards to the ground from where she sat. Trembling, she lay there on her back as the orc hovered over her, the point of his blade at her throat. "We paid a precious price for you and your wretched sister, filthy little paleskin wench," the orc hissed, his hideous voice low and dangerous, "much more than you are worth. If I had my way, I'd kill the both of you, but," his gaze went down to her breasts and then roved over her lean form, "mayhaps I'd have a little fun first." He howled in laughter, then bent down and blew his fetid breath in her face, licking his hideous lips with a long red tongue.
"Ho la there! What did I say? No spoiling of captives!" bellowed the commander. "Remember orders! They are to be brought back alive and unharmed if possible, or else all of us will suffer. There's a rumor going around that the bosses have me in mind for a promotion, and I don't want you louts to make them change their minds! We don't get paid for bringing in dead captives, and I've got a feeling that the Higher Ups won't be too overjoyed to hear about Sharahoital's running that older one through. It's the booty they want, captives and loot; they don't care about us any."
"Urkta! Urkta!" Grishpilik hissed and then straightened himself. Elfhild lay upon the ground, her eyes tightly closed and all her limbs quaking with utter terror. "A whole lot of trouble these wenches are and not worth it either, not for gold - or for promotions. They fight like the horse-boys and kill our kin, and yet we are not supposed to lay even a finger upon them?" He spat to the side. "The price set on these treasures is far too high and little payment we'll get for our woes!" The other orcs voiced their agreement, their speech like the snarls and growls of starving wolves fighting over a piece of meat which was rancid even for their tastes but still desirable because they wanted their bellies filled.
"Silence!" the chieftain demanded again. "Sharahoital, Azaluk and Karnnaakh were my kin as well. If I had my wishes, I'd tumble with the wenches and ride them 'til they bled like stuck hogs and couldn't stand anymore. Then I'd give 'em some draught and have a little sport with dagger and whip, and finally I'd kill them, all good and proper like, and hew their bodies to bits. But they aren't mine to do with as I would, so I can't have my way with 'em. Remember this, too: I, Barzkhûral, am in charge of this band. I'm only being nice to you maggots because of the fallen; otherwise I wouldn't be so damned lenient. What I say is law. I command! Obey me, or I'll have the lot of you whipped or worse, even if we are kin."
Grishpilik let out a resentful hiss, but Barzkhûral did not give him or the others a chance to protest further. "Now wake that filthy wench again, and put some salve on the back of her head. And you, the other wench, get your clothes on!" He lunged at Elfhild with his spear, but stopped far short of actually touching her with the steel point. The feigned attack had the desirable effect, though, for Elfhild screamed in fear and half-crawled, half-stumbled away from the chieftain. A few of the orcs snickered, but most remained quiet, losing interest in any sport save torture and killing. When she realized that the chieftain was only having a bit of cruel amusement and did not plan to kill her, Elfhild furtively crawled back to the bundle and, with trembling hands, untied the knot which loosely held the four corners of the sheet.
Grumbling and muttering under their breath, Grishpilik and another orc went over to Elffled and pulled her into a sitting position. More of the foul tasting draught was poured down her throat, and once again she was forced back into wakefulness, choking and coughing. Taking something out of a small box, Grishpilik yanked Elffled forward by her hair. She felt something hot and burning spread across the back of her head and then a long strip of material was wound about it several times, binding the wound. She whimpered in pain but was given no rest and was roughly pulled to her feet.
The dark world swayed to and fro precariously like a tree caught in the midst of a raging storm, and it seemed to Elffled that a million dwarves were smithying inside her skull. Her head hurt horribly and she could not understand why she was outside and not sleeping peacefully in her bed. The air was filled with the smell of burning; a large blaze stood in the midst of the garth. Her brow furrowed in confusion. The fire was where her home once had stood, but now no beams remained standing, just a pile of fallen timber which the flames steadily consumed. All around her monsters milled about, nightmarish forms which seemed like walking phantoms of dreams in her befuddled state. She felt frightened and helpless and looked around desperately for her mother or sister. "Módor? Elfhild?" she whispered into the darkness.
"Ho la! The little lady finally wakes! Enjoy your slumber, fair one?" sneered an evil voice. Elffled turned around and saw the looming shape of one of the orcs. She gasped and backed away, her head spinning in pain and confusion. "Well, I shall give you tidings of all that transpired while you were dreaming. I, Barzkhûral, command this band, and you and your sister are our captives. You're going to have a long journey ahead of you, so you best be getting ready. Wench! Wench!" he demanded, pointing to Elfhild. "Get your worthless pelt over here and bring that bag of rags, and be quick about it."
Obediently, Elfhild gathered up the ends of the sheet in her hand and moved to her sister's side, handing her the bundle. Worry was in her eyes and she studied her twin's face. "Are you hurt badly?" she whispered in her own tongue.
"My head... it hurts..." murmured Elffled in the same language, pointing absently in the air. "I--"
"No talking! Too much time has already been wasted. Get your clothes on, and let's get a move on -- NOW!" the orc-chieftain demanded. He began to bark out orders for the other orcs. "All right, you maggots! Gather up the loot and let's be leaving this place. I don't like this open country - feel too much like a walking target for some damned paleskin out here in the flat-lands. Ho! You over there!" he bellowed at a few of the orcs who had gotten into a quarrel over an iron knife carven with the design of a galloping horse. "Quit fighting and get over here! And you two--" he screamed at two of the orcs who were sitting down on the grass and biting off pieces of dried meat, "--quit stuffing your guts! This ain't a picnic!"
More orders were bellowed out until at last the band of orcs was under control and ready to march back towards the army of the Dark Land with their captives and stolen loot. Elfhild and Elffled, now clad in sturdy traveling clothes, stood in their midst. The two maidens were guarded by a wall of bristling spears and their hands were tied behind their backs. Elffled was given another draught of the burning liquor and the relentless drumming in her head was relieved somewhat. Her thoughts became clearer and she could remember the orcs charging into their house like a swarm of black bees, but she could remember little of anything else that happened that night. However, it hurt to think for too long and she quickly became frightened and disoriented. Yet no matter how addled her state was, she knew her mother was nowhere to be seen and their house had burnt to the ground. A sense of peace and calm filled her - the strange indifference that comes when one is struck by sudden tragedy - and she watched the world around her as though observing from afar. Naught felt real to her; it was all just a horrible dream or a tale which she was hearing and all would end well when the rest of the story was told.
Barzkhûral gave the order to march. Elfhild looked back at the place where her home had been, trying to recall what it looked like in better days. Her eyes welled up with tears. A whole life, a whole world, was shattered in one night. All that she had known had been destroyed. She felt like falling to the ground and lying there, never to rise again, but the sharp sting of a spear digging into her back encouraged her feet to move.
The raiders began to march, their heavy iron boots striking the dry, brittle grass. The two maidens were jostled along with the mass of stomping orcs, and if their steps became too slow, they would feel the prick of a spear point against their skin. Elfhild turned her head and furtively looked back, but all she could see was a dull glow from between the hulking forms of the orcs behind her. Then, with tear-filled eyes, she turned her head and looked into the darkness before her.
"Hwæt?" - "What?"
"La! Mín sweostor! Na ætegiath mín sweostor!" - Oh! My sister! Do not hurt my sister!"
"Héo is legerfæst!" - "She is sick!"
"Módor?" - "Mother?"
"Matum! Matum! Az maalfloku! Matum rûk-hai-u!" - "Death! Death! Kill the yellow-hairs! Death to the horse folk!"
Barzkhûral (Throat Ripper - barz=throat; rip=khûr; -al verb/noun suffix.)
Grishpilik (Blood Axe - grish=blood; pilik=axe.)
Sharahoital (Man Hunter - shara=man; hoital=hunter.)
Karnnaakh (Red Hand = karn=red; naakh=hand.)
Azaluk (Killer of All - az=kill; uk=all; -al noun/verb suffix.)
All Black Speech names and words are in the Land of Shadows dialect.
This story was greatly inspired by this line in "The Uruk-Hai" in The Two Towers: "'Not our orders!' said one of the earlier voices. 'We have come all the way from the Mines to kill, and avenge our folk. I wish to kill, and then go back north.'" This group of northern orcs came from the Mines of Moria and sought their revenge upon Merry and Pippin, for the two Hobbits were members of the Fellowship which had killed some of their people.
And yes, orcs do copulate and produce offspring, both with other orcs and with humans. "For the Orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Ilúvatar; and naught that had life of its own, nor the semblance of life, could ever Melkor make since his rebellion in the Ainulindalë before the Beginning: so say the wise." - Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor, The Silmarillion
And never forget Bolg son of Azog, both orcs. "Azog was the father of Bolg; see The Hobbit, 33." - Footnote in Appendix A, Durin's Folk, Return of the King